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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.

"Again?"

"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.

Chapter Text

When I woke, the curtains were drawn, and I was in agony. I'd had my clothes stripped off - when the fuck did that happen - and the feeling of the sheets against my skin was like unfinished timber. I felt as though I were getting splinters in my ribs when I breathed.

Nothing compared to my head. It felt split apart and fractured. One side throbbed and then the other throbbed harder. The pain made the whole world tilt from side to side and time move in stuttering, agonising leaps. Some minutes seemed to drag on for hours, and some hours passed in the blink of an eye.

The Master had been asleep by my side. The bed was large enough that we did not touch. I would have been grateful, except that when he moved, the bed moved also. When I first vomited, it was wrenched from me suddenly and without warning. It got all over the bed.

I had been dehydrated before. I had been sunburnt before. Andonia was a hot place, with very little water. Our sun was worse than the Lestran sun, by far.

No one in Andonia was ever dull enough not to respect it and understand the damage it could do. We stayed inside and we kept to our shelters.

During the time I spent sick in my new Master's bed, I could not think but for the pain. Afterward, it was all I could do not to think about it. I thought, thought and thought again, but I could do nothing but come to the same conclusion.

I was wrong about the Master. He was kind - he had to be. Nothing but kindness could get a lord up in the middle of the night to change his own bedsheets. Nothing but kindness could get water-soaked cloths gently placed upon a sick slave's skin. Nothing but kindness could get a bleary-eyed Quentin summoned in the middle of the night to deliver what I assumed to be potions for the pain.

I'm sure I said things I shouldn't have said. I could recall telling him to be quiet. Sound was painful to my ears. Such a thing should have gotten me a beating, and yet I got away with it. Nothing but kindness could possibly explain this behaviour.

When I woke next, I begged for forgiveness and cried. He touched me on the cheek, and I shrieked with pain. He did not touch me again. I could only explain that as more kindness.

He fed me simple broths, brought to me by his own hand. He removed my chamber pot. Whether he emptied it himself or simply removed it from the room for another servant to manage, I did not know.

I woke him multiple times in the night for the next two days - either by shivering with chills, moaning with pain or by drowning us both in sweat. He did not complain. He simply fixed whatever problem I had and lay back down beside me.

He did not place even a single finger upon my person, except to apply Quentin's balm, which was so thick that he managed to do it and barely touch me. He smeared the balm in place in a thick paste and it covered my skin like a protective layer. He left it there to sink into my skin, and to inevitably end up all over the bedsheets, which he changed himself. He applied the balm religiously every morning and night, while I blushed and tried my hardest not to squirm.

The Master was calm, distant, and methodical. He did not even once touch me in an untoward manner. I had the distinct impression that my Master, who was a lord, had somehow done this before, and I could not imagine how or why. Tending the sick was never a lord’s job.

It was strange enough that he was doing it for me to keep me in his bed, but he had prior experience. Quentin did not train him. Quentin checked on me and asked the Master whether he was getting things done, but the Master already knew what needed doing. Quentin did not seem surprised, but I was. I couldn’t fathom it, and I did not have the bravery to ask about it.

If I earned a punishment in this state, it would kill me. I was certain of it. The Master had told Quentin that he could be lenient, but one of the things I had learned in my short tenure as a slave was that Master's lie.

My lower body had been spared the worst of the sun by the trousers I had worn, but they were worn low on my hips and they ended at my calves. I was no longer a pale, somewhat pretty Andonian. I was red everywhere, even on my buttocks. I must have assumed an odd position, perhaps trying to shield my chest, for it to have reached me there. The thin linen shirt I had been given seemed to have provided no protection at all. My whole chest was an angry red. My back felt worse than anywhere else looked.

I came out in blisters. Quentin changed his creams. The new cream was better. My skin began to peel off in layers.

The Master barely spoke to me and I barely had the strength or the courage to say anything other than "Thank you, Master."

And through all this, I couldn't get a read on him. It was as if he had no feelings at all.

Quentin didn't seem to have the same problem I did. He and the Master seemed casual around one another, perhaps even friendly. Quentin relaxed about me after he became certain that the Master was taking proper care of me.

"Was he pink when you first saw him?" Quentin asked on the beginning of my third day.

"Yes," Master Throren said. "I've only seen one of his kind before, and at a distance. I know they are fair haired and fair skinned. I've not got any idea how much, though."

It seemed ridiculous to me that a man might buy a slave without knowing the colour of his skin. I hadn't been eating enough, apparently, so both my Master and Quentin were watching me eat a bowl of bone broth. It was seasoned with something, and utterly delicious.

I put my spoon down and gingerly reached to my collar. It was the only thing I had been wearing that was thick enough to block the sun - and I had discovered that directly underneath it was the only place that I did not hurt. Above and below it, however, was another story entirely. I winced as I tugged it further up my neck, revealing a band of white, unburned skin underneath.

My Master's eyes were trained upon my neck, staring intently. I still couldn't figure out what he was feeling or thinking, but I'd gotten the knack of knowing how much he was feeling it, whatever it was. This was a 'very much' look. Whatever he felt about this, he felt it intensely.

I left my collar alone. I'd been taught early on that fiddling with the collar would result in beatings. Good slaves respect their collars, my father had said to me once.

I wrenched my thoughts away from my father, his slaves, and collars. That was not a road to go down when I was slightly nauseous and trying to eat more.

Besides, I was rather fond of this collar. It was vastly preferable to my first one.

"You're very eager to please, aren't you?" Quentin said fondly. "I've never seen skin like that before."

My Master was completely silent. I felt resigned to never knowing if he was pleased or displeased.

"Where were you trained, Kath?" Quentin asked.

I shook my head. "I wasn't given any formal sort of training, sir," I said. It was so much easier to talk to him. It was so much easier to speak with Quentin in the room. He radiated protective instincts. He would help me if I said something wrong.

"And you've not had any other Masters?" Quentin pressed again.

"Only traders, sir."

"Where did you get your manners from?" Quentin asked.

I thought for a while. What should I tell them? The truth? Part of the truth? "My father kept slaves, sir. I knew what was expected of them. And I've been traveling with traders for months. Some of it is common sense, some of it you figure out through trial and error."

"Trial and error? That sounds tricky. Some of these slave traders have very quick tempers," Quentin said.

"I'd rather learn quickly from a man with a quick temper than learn too slowly and still be making mistakes, sir," I said.

"How long did you travel for?"

Now that was a difficult question. "I'm not certain, sir. The seasons here don't ... nothing makes sense to me here. I was on a ship for a while, but we were left in the hold, and I don't know how long the journey was. I wasn't encouraged to ask questions or keep the date."

My Master got up and left the room at this. He left the door open, and I heard him rifling through papers.

"Four months," he called back to us eventually.

Quentin must have seen the confusion on my face, as he supplied an answer. "Your record contains all the information on you. It would contain the date you were first collared, and all the men who've owned you."

"This is in Andonian, I think. It’s our letters, but other words. They've made a note next to it, translating. What does Dunmer mean?" The Master asked me.

I floundered. "It was the season I was collared, Master, but I don't know how to explain it," I said. "It's a season, but I've had people explain your seasons here and they don't make sense to me, Master. I've never had a winter, I've never seen snow, I've no idea what an Autumn is for. I know I must seem ... mad, or stupid, to you, but I've tried explaining Dunmer to others and it just hasn't worked. I don't want to get myself into trouble because I'm not smart enough to explain it, Master."

"Try," the Master insisted.

"Leave it alone," Quentin said. "He's frightened, Throren. Let him tell you some other time. Give it a month, a week even. He's known you three days, and those three days have been agony. Give him some time to trust you."

The Master left it alone.

On the fourth day, I vomited again. I didn't dare confess to anyone, not even myself, that it wasn't because I was sick. It was because I was terrified of what awaited me that night.

What awaited me that night, however, was Quentin telling me he'd spoken to my master. He felt his estimate of four days was off, and they'd agreed to give me four more days. The Master wordlessly fell asleep beside me while I wept silent tears of relief.

On the fifth day, I felt much better. I was still bright red and peeling, but I was in agony from itchiness, not agony from agony, so at least things had changed. I was headache and dehydration free. My skin only hurt when I moved, or if it was touched.

I was still on strict bed rest, however. I was not to leave the Master's bed under any circumstance. I also had not been provided with any form of clothing, so when two girls came in with fresh sheets, I was a little disconcerted.

They were not. They were positively gleeful.

They hopped onto the bed with me, even as I pulled the blanket up to my chest. "Oh, my goodness," one said.

"I can't believe it's true!" said the other.

"Are you really Andonian?" said the first.

I nodded. "I'm ... Kath," I offered.

"I'm Kayla," said the first. She had red hair and seemed incapable of doing anything but smiling. She was not collared.

"I'm Leanna," said the other. She had black hair and freckles, and Kayla's sunny disposition made her seem smaller by comparison. She did have a collar.

"You would not believe the rumours," said Kayla. "We've been hearing everything, and when you hear everything you have to know that half of it's not true."

"But some of it is true!" Leanna gushed. "Look at him, he's tiny!"

I blushed. It probably didn't matter. The burns kept me red anyway.

Finally, someone got to the heart of the matter, and it was Kayla. She looked at me with imploring eyes. "Is it true he's got a horse's cock?" she asked.

I didn't know what to say. She mistook my silence for an answer. Her mouth formed a perfect shocked circle.

"It is true," Leanna breathed.

"No!" I said, too quickly. "I mean, miss, I don't know. I haven't seen it, miss."

"Oh, no you don't. No misses for me, no ma'ams, and definitely no madams," Kayla said quickly. It sounded rehearsed. She said it often, and I instantly warmed to her. "Now, how have you not seen it? Lord Throren brings a slave into his bed then sequesters him away for days and what? If you think I don't know what goes on between a man, his horse cock and his bed slave, you've got another thing coming."

"And I'll bet it's the horse cock," Leanna finished. They both burst into giggles.

"Quentin - I mean, mister Quentin - I don't know his title, he forbade my Master from touching me," I said.

Leanna nodded knowingly. "Of course, he did. The last kind of cock you need is a horse cock."

"You're so tiny!" Kayla said. "I don't understand it at all. He's always so polite. Who'd have thought he was a sadist in bed?"

"Wow, rude," Leanna said. "Maybe he's not, maybe he's not going to use the horse cock."

"You seem very convinced he has a horse cock," I worried. "I know he's ... much bigger than me, but - "

"Oh no," Leanna interrupted. "That's not it at all."

Kayla proceeded to set me straight. "We know he's big, everyone can see that. But that's not the rumour. The rumour is that he has a horse cock. I mean, not a cock from an actual horse, but one the size of a horse. One so big that it explains all the other rumours."

"What other rumours?" I asked. My voice was a pitiful squeak.

"Well, no one ever sees him naked, not even you, apparently - " Leanna said.

"He doesn't bathe in the creek, even in summer - "

"He had a valet slave last year, but he never dressed him - "

"What the fuck, right, doesn't even get naked in front of the slave whose job is to dress him - "

"And the whores in the city won't say a word about it, which means he's paying them extra to keep quiet - "

"And he's had bed slaves before, but they never last a week, and they shut right up about it too - "

"And then he takes you into his bed, and you're gorgeous, and - "

"He doesn't even let you see it," Kayla finished.

I didn't know what to say. They must have seen the terror on my face, though.

"Oh, sweetie, I am so sorry," Leanna said. "That was not right of us at all, was it? You mustn't fret. He's never been anything but kind to everyone."

"Well, except Lord Severin, and Dune," Kayla said.

Leanna scoffed. "As if Dune counts!"

"Who is Dune?" I asked.

"Never you mind, honey," Leanna said quickly - much too quickly. "The important thing is that Throren is good and kind and fair. And he's fair to everyone, even Dune, and he'll be fair to you in bed, I'm sure."

"But you don't know. You don't know anyone that's ever been in his bed," I said.

Leanna grimaced. "You'll be okay, hun, you'll be just fine. Besides, Quentin is an absolute darling and he'll not allow you to be mistreated."

Kayla sighed happily. "Quentin, right?" she said.

All three of us nodded in appreciation.

"Still, I'd hand over Quentin for Lord Yulie any day," Kayla said.

"Ooh. Give me some of that dark and stormy," Leanna said.

"Who is Lord Yulie?" I asked.

They both looked very surprised at the question.

"I'm sorry," I said reflexively.

"How can you not know who's house you're in?" Kayla asked.

I shrugged. "We... I ... my Master doesn't really ... talk," I said lamely.

"Oh my god," Leanna said. "Finally, someone who gets it! How hard is it to say more than two words? All you get from him is the same three words, yes, no, thanks, and that's it. Gives me the shits, it really does."

Kayla shook her head. "Nah, not even close. Throren's not a talker, sure, but he knows everyone's name. Scared me half out of my boots the first time he spoke my name. Everyone else is all 'you there's and 'hey girl's and he's just, 'Kayla'. 'Kayla, Kayla, Kayla'. Tell you what, I might just forgive him his horse cock."

"He's been very kind to me," I said.

"I cannot imagine how much he'd have to butter you up to get into your pants," Leanna said, and they both went into giggles again.

"A whole cow!" Kayla wheezed. "You'd need an entire cow's worth of butter!"

Leanna shook her head as if to clear it of giggles. "All right, all right, jokes are over. The point is, you're going to be all right. He's kind, he's very kind."

Kayla nodded sagely. "Besides, you don't buy an Andonian to fuck," she said.

"You don't?" I asked incredulously.

Leanna looked just as confused as I was. "Why else do you buy them?" she asked.

"You buy them to look at. I - come on - look at that!" Kayla said, pointing at me incredibly rudely. "Throren's not an idiot. He surely knows he'd break you in half. He'll be wanting to watch, I guarantee it, or ... Or maybe you're not for him! Maybe you're a gift for Yulie!"

"Oh, that would be the life," Leanna said. "Can you imagine?"

"Um, yes," Kayla said, rolling her eyes. I felt like I was missing something important. "Now there's a beautiful man, if I've ever seen one, and so sweet."

"Yesterday he told me I had the temperament of a saint," Leanna said happily.

"You didn't tell me you saw him yesterday!"

"Only for a moment. Dune was pulling some shit about something or other, Yulie needed someone else to make his bed."

"Who is Dune?" I asked again.

Kayla and Leanna shared a look loaded with so many shared emotions and understandings that it was hard to decipher it all. None of it was good.

"Dune is ..." Kayla began, then trailed off. For once she seemed out of words.

"The bane of my existence," Leanna said.

"Oh, that's a good one. Sounds about right. Bane of our existence," Kayla agreed.

"Okay, but ... who?"

Leanna grimaced. "He's Yulie's bed slave," she said, and she said it sarcastically.

"Har-har," Kayla said dryly. "Good one."

Leanna looked at me with the sad, patient eyes of a girl who had recently been told that she had the temperament of a saint. "Dune is Yulie's ... who knows. He came here as a bed slave, and since then he's been disobeying his way into hell."

"See, the thing is, Yulie's the sweetest thing ever," Kayla said mournfully. "He's kind and he's patient and he's loyal and he's the most beautiful man you'll ever see in your life. So, Dune ... he's like ... he's rotten. Yulie could be half the man he is, and I'd be grateful to have him."

"But Dune isn't. He's rude, and he's mean, and he's all ... he's got shifty eyes, you know, he's always up to something."

I'd seen this in slaves and servants before. Someone was always the least favourite. Someone was always put down so that others could be raised up. I'd been the brunt of it more than once while I was travelling.

"What sort of stuff does Dune do wrong?" I asked. I expected not to get any clear answers. I was wrong.

"Well, just last month he ran away," Kayla started.

"He's been caught stealing more than once."

"There was that thing with the sheepskin."

"He talks back all the time."

"Not anymore, now he won't even speak to anyone."

"He doesn't sleep in Yulie's bed anymore, I don't know why though, but it's a transgression all on its own, really."

"And he hates everything - horses, food, work - "

"How can he hate food?" I asked.

In the days that I had been here, I had eaten nothing that was not utterly delicious. This place fed sick slaves like Kings.

Neither Leanna nor Kayla could answer it for me, their expressions blank and clueless while they looked at each other, each hoping the other would answer the question.

"And your Master just hates him. Nothing gets Throren angry, except when someone disrespects Yulie, and Dune just won't stop doing it," Leanna said.

"It's Yulie's fault, really," Kayla said.

"He should have gotten rid of him ages ago. He just isn't Summer Hill material," Leanna said.

"Still, there's no questioning Yulie. He gets what he wants, and if he wants Dune, then hell if there's anything to be done for it," Kayla sighed. "Yulie doesn't give up. Yulie never gives up."

"Dune isn't even pretty, though," Leanna said, looking at me. "Now you're a pretty bed slave. If Dune looked like you, maybe I'd understand it."

Kayla laughed at my blush. I was surprised she could even see it, given how red my skin was to begin with. "Oh, come on, don't be shy. You're the prettiest thing for miles around, no question."

"I don't see it," I said quietly, thinking about my peeling skin.

"Then I'll make you," Kayla said suddenly. She leapt off the bed and went for the Master's drawers, pulling out a hand mirror that I doubted he had ever used. It must have been standard stock in the rooms here.

She returned to the bed and held it to my face. "Go on, then, tell me what's not pretty," she said.

I gingerly took the mirror from her, looking at my reflection.

My father had been a strong, handsome man. He was lean and strong-jawed. Before I had come here and seen the size of the Lestrat people, I had thought my father was tall. I did not think I looked like my father - but to these people I probably did.

My people were white-skinned and golden-haired, and I was that, but my jaw was weak, and my eyes were too open. "I'm not pretty, I'm just different to what you're used to," I said.

Kayla snorted. She pointed at my cheek. "Cheekbones high as a house," she said.

I felt my brow furrow. I looked back at my face. "And that's pretty?" I asked. I thought it made me look gaunt. Mother always said so.

Don't think about Mother.

"You've got the finest little eyebrows I've ever seen on a boy," Leanna said.

"Plucked, surely," Kayla said.

They hadn't been. Not for this sale. I'd been plucked before sale before, but I'd only ever ended up sold to another trader.

"And your ears, they're upturned like an elf," Leanna said.

I turned my head to the side. My ears seemed perfectly round to me.

"Men have killed for less than your clavicle," Kayla said.

"I'd kill for your clavicle," Leanna said.

"What's a clavicle?" I asked.

Leanna pointed rather rudely at the place my collarbones met. I self-consciously adjusted the sheet I held in place around my body.

"And your neck," Leanna said. "Did someone stretch it? It's unnatural."

"Not fair at all," Kayla said.

I stared at my reflection. These girls were crazy, but it wasn't such a surprise, not really. I had always known what I would be bought for.

"How much did he pay for you?" Leanna asked.

"I don't know," I said. It had probably been written on the bill of sale that he'd shown me. I couldn't remember seeing any numbers.

"You must be worth a fortune," Kayla said. "This far out, we just don't see your kind."

Leanna took the mirror out of my hand. "Don't worry about it. You're plenty pretty enough. Throren will feed you and rest you and be fair to you, and he'll not tire of your face for a while. When he does get bored of you, he'll give you to Quentin, and Quentin will find you another Master that will be good to you too. That's what happens to all of Lord Throren's slaves. He'll keep you a little while, tire, then Quentin will send you to someone better."

I nodded. The lump had formed again in my throat. "I... Thank you," I said.

"We should probably change the sheets, and get back to work," Kayla said, pouting.

I drew the sheet up over myself and vacated the bed. "I should help," I said.

"You're fine," Leanna insisted.

It took barely moments before the job was done. I crept back into the fresh sheets. They felt like sandpaper on my burns.

Kayla hoisted the old sheets into her arms. Leanna put the mirror away. "You're going to be okay," Leanna said, and left.

 

 

 

When the Master returned that night, he noticed the fresh sheets. He didn't say anything, but he looked at me until I felt that I had to say something.

"Some servants came to change the sheets, Master," I said.

He did not look satisfied. "That's a Tuesday job," he said.

I looked at the floor. "I don't know what day it is, Master," I said.

"Not Tuesday," he supplied unhelpfully. "Who was it?"

"They told me their names were Kayla and Leanna, Master," I said, hoping dearly that I wasn't ratting someone out.

The Master nodded. "Leanna is a good girl," he said eventually. "Kayla's alright, but she's got more cheek than she ought to."

I had noticed. I resolved to try extra hard not to show this man any cheek.

The Master moved to his usual spot by the window, and he stared for a while, as I was beginning to understand was his default position. "Quentin wants you out of bed," he said eventually.

I didn't know what to do with this. Quentin didn't want me in this bed in the first place. "Do you want me out of your bed, Master?" I asked.

His jaw clenched. It had been the wrong thing to say. "I do not," he said. He didn't sound angry. He never sounded angry.

"I'll not leave it unless you order me to, Master," I said.

His jaw unclenched. "Good," he said, then kept staring out the window. After several tense, silent minutes, he sighed. "Quentin doesn't want you out of my bed. He wants you off bed rest," he said.

Oh. The Master seemed to want me to say something, and I didn't know what. "I'll do as you tell me to, Master," I said.

He didn't look back at me. "There are some rules," he said.

"Yes, Master," I said. Thank fuck. I could use some direction.

"I am a guest in this house. Summer Hill belongs to Lord Yulie. You will treat him, his servants, and his guests with respect."

He cast a glance at me. I'd misread the situation. I'd expected a list of rules. Apparently, he wanted confirmation after each rule.

"I will be respectful, especially to Lord Yulie, Master," I said.

Throren nodded. "You are banned outright from leaving the grounds," he continued.

"Of course, Master." What an absurd thing to say. Where would I go? What would I do outside the grounds? Did he think that I planned to run away?

The idea made no sense. I was foreign and exotic. Everything, from my small stature, to the shape of my bones, to the colour of my hair, gave me away. I could never hope to run. I was too recognisable.

"In fact, you are banned from going anywhere without a roof over your head," he said.

I sucked in a breath. "I ... yes, Master."

He looked back at me. "You disagree?" he asked.

"No, Master," I said quickly. "I would never."

He said nothing at all, just stared at me. He stared and stared until I felt like I was nothing under his gaze. It made me want to hold myself in my own arms and break. He kept staring and gave no inclination that he would ever stop.

Was I supposed to say something? "I'm sorry, Master," I tried, but he continued to stare at me. "I didn't mean anything by it, Master." Still not what he wanted to hear. Fuck. I gave in to the urge and wrapped my arms around my middle.

The silence became so thick, I could hear my heartbeat through it.

He turned his body from the window and walked to me, stopping short just a few feet from where I sat, cross-legged and hugging myself on the bed, with only a sheet to cover my naked body. Still he said nothing.

"I don't know what you want me to say, Master," I said.

He grunted. "I want you to say: 'For how long'," he said.

"For how long, Master?" I said.

"Not forever," he said. "Do you think I'm an evil man?"

Fuck. This was not good. Not good at all. "No, Master, I'm sorry," I said. "I never-"

"For someone who doesn't think I'm evil, you seem to think I'd give a rather evil order. Never let you outside again, is that what you thought?"

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sorry."

"I forgive you," he said, and I jumped with surprise. "You can think what you like. I'll not presume to shape your thoughts. Next time you think something evil of me, check with me first. I'll not punish you for checking."

We were both silent for some time.

"You are off bed rest, but you're not to work," the Master said. "You can go where you please, busy yourself, familiarize yourself with the grounds, but you will do no labour."

"Yes, Master," I said.

The Master slowly became extremely tense. I'd never seen anything like it. He became tense in a controlled, measured way. He had expected to become tense, he prepared himself for it, and then he allowed it to happen. "You will someday meet a slave called Dune," he said.

Suddenly I could read him. Fury. Scarcely checked fury, from his clenching fingers to his folded arms, his too-straight back, his too-clenched jaw.

"You are completely forbidden to so much as speak to Dune," the Master said. He wasn't looking at me. I didn't want him to. I worried if I met his eyes, that his gaze might burn me.

"Yes, Master," I said.

"You'll give him a wide berth. You will not touch him, you will not let him touch you, and if he attempts to interact with you, you are to come directly to me so that I may deal with him."

"Yes, Master," I said.

He was still furious, and he was also unsatisfied. "Repeat it back to me. I want to know you understand."

I cleared my throat. "I will not speak to Dune, I will avoid him, I won't let him near me, and if he tries, I will go straight to you, Master."

He relaxed minutely. "He would be a bad influence on you," the Master said.

More silence.

Eventually the Master left. He did not close the door. I hadn't been told to leave the bed yet, and my stomach was all in knots, so I just lay back down and let myself breathe heavily until I felt better.

By the time I was breathing normally again, the Master had returned, carrying with him a tray with dinner and - finally - clothes. The bundle was too small for them to have been for him. He placed them on the dresser and carried the tray to me.

For the first time, we ate together, right there on the bed. It was stew and bread, but it was spiced richly, fresh, and delicious.

"I know I am not perfect," he said eventually. "I am told that I am cold."

Cold. Hah. That didn't come close. He was worse than cold. He was blank, or he was furious.

I didn't say this. "You've been kind to me, Master," is what I said. It was true, at least. He'd acted kindly. Whether he could feel it or not remained to be seen.

He didn't respond. I worried he could sense my half-truth. Whatever he knew, or didn't know, and whatever he felt or didn't feel, he didn't act upon it. After dinner, he lay down beside me and stared at the ceiling for hours, while I pretended to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

Throren woke me up by throwing my new clothes on me. It hurt my sensitive skin rather badly. "Up," he said, then he left the room.

I rushed to dress myself. It hurt my skin. I'd been given a pair of trousers that was too big and too long, but I managed to roll the legs up several times and yank the drawstring tight enough that they would do. The shirt was pleasantly soft. I'd been given a simple pair of laced slippers with leather soles. They wouldn't do for any sort of outdoor work, but I'd been banned from the outdoors, so I didn't see any issue with them.

The Master furrowed his brow at the sight of my rolled-up trousers, but he said nothing about them.

"Come with me," he told me, and set off outside. He locked the door behind us.

We walked through the terrace and back to the hall we had passed on that first day. Breakfast was on the tables, and it looked mouth-watering. Throren stopped at a table, picked up a small loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, and we left the hall. Plenty of people looked - everyone tended to look at me - but no one commented to us.

Throren took me through a labyrinth of winding passages until we reached a shady atrium. It was paved with slate, with pots full of flowers in the open air. Half the space was roofed, and we stayed under the roof. Throren led me to a bench and sat on it. He stared at the bench until I sat on it with him.

No one was there with us, and I made the presumption that he had come here for precisely that reason.

He carved some slices in the cheese with his belt knife and handed them to me, then halved the bread and gave me that. We ate in silence. I stared at the plants in the pots. It was a very pretty space.

"I thought you might like some air," Throren said tonelessly.

"Thank you, Master," I said. "You were right." This man was going to kill me. I needed him to just pick a personality already. Be blank, be furious, be kind, but just be consistent about it.

He said nothing.

"This place is beautiful," I offered.

He nodded but said nothing.

"Do you like it here, Master?" I asked.

It took a while for him to answer. "This is my home," he said, as if that answered my question.

I toyed with the idea of shutting up, but I'd never learn if I didn't ask questions. "I thought you said you were a guest here, Master," I said.

"Summer Hill is Yulie's house," Throren said. "Yulie is generous. He allows me to stay."

I had so many questions. What was Throren doing here, if it wasn't his house? Did he have some sort of a job here? But ... he was a lord, and lords didn't have jobs. Sometimes they had obligations - was he obliged to be here? Did he want to be somewhere else? Would we be leaving?

I had too many questions to ask, so I decided not to ask until I could make some sort of priority system.

"Tell me about your homeland," the Master said.

"It is nothing like this, Master," I said, looking around to spot differences. They were everywhere. "We use more wood when building, less stone. I don't recognize any of the plants in those pots. The plants where I am from don't sprout leaves like this, they're thinner, never so ... lush and soft."

The Master said nothing, but he was looking at the plants in the pots, so I thought perhaps I'd found something we could talk about. Bolstered, I went on.

"We have different seasons, and nothing that resembles a winter, like your people have. I've never seen a true winter before. We don't have soil like you do, and it takes years to work the land to make it fertile. Most of us prefer to import grain from the east. We don't keep animals the same way, either. We can't feed them, they can't graze."

"How do you keep yourselves from burning in the sun?" the Master asked.

"Layers of clothing, Master. And we sleep later and rise earlier. We rest at midday. Most outdoors work is done during twilight."

"Perhaps it would be wise for you to keep to that strategy," Throren said. "Tell me more."

"Water is a much more precious resource, and is never wasted," I told him. I didn't tell him that Father would have beat us both bloody for the time he had splashed me down in that alleyway. Father would have let me get away with murder with only a disappointed look, but wasting water? Never. I'd never dared. "Rain is scarce, and we collect it from our rooftops. People don't have any more than one or two children every few decades. It's important to pace yourself, make sure you have the water and feed stocked before you create more mouths."

The Master said nothing, so I kept going.

"The dialect is the same, but the accent is different, and many names are different. We name things in old Andon, but we speak the same as you. Names always have a meaning."

"What does Kath mean?" the Master asked.

"It's a shortening, Master," I said. "I think one of the traders must have chosen it. They never called me by it. It is better, though. I will do best if I assimilate to your people and your pronunciations."

"It isn't your real name," he said. If it was possible for him to become blanker, he did.

"No, Master. It is better."

"What is your real name?" he asked. I couldn't tell how he felt.

"It is ae'Quartthtra," I said, pronouncing it properly, even with the click of the tongue at the end. The ae was hushed and slurred, the quart harsh with a near silent r in the middle and followed by a th. It ended with a tra, meant to be pronounced as an exhale. "I do not expect, nor do I ask, that you make any attempt to learn my language, Master."

"Is it offensive to pronounce a thing incorrectly?" he asked.

"Not to me, Master."

"Is that why you tolerate Kath?"

"I prefer Kath. It's pronounceable, it is simple, it does not make me want to correct anyone, and best of all, it isn't 'you there', or 'whore'," I said.

Oops. Cheek. He didn't like cheek.

"I'm sorry, Master," I said.

I expected admonishment. Instead, I got: "If someone here calls you a whore, you send them straight to me. When you see them next, they'll likely have something to show for it."

Well. Maybe he did like cheek?

"What does your name mean?" he asked.

I took a deep breath. "A wild one," I said. "It's old Andon for a feral alpaca - a local beast. I don't think you have them here."

"That doesn't seem very nice," the Master said. "Did your parents ... not like you very much?"

I had the feeling that he was feeling something intensely, but once again I had no idea what that might be.

"I was very well loved," I said. The Master receded back into his shell. "Alpacas are very tame beasts. A feral one is a myth, something absurd. My people love the absurd. Most of our stories and songs are about strange things and mystical places."

"Tell me one of your stories."

So, I told him the only one I could think of at the time.

 

"Two men went to the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, and only one King

Two men fought at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men tended their wounds at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, and only one King

Two men built two camps at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men destroyed two camps at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, and only one King

Two men fought at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men built one camp at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, one camp, and only one King

Two men built one house at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men fought at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, one house, and only one King

Two men licked their wounds at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men burned their house at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, no house, and only one King

Two men built a camp at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men built a home at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, one home, and only one King

Two men fought at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men tended one other's wounds at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, one home, and only one King

Two men fought at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men talked at the river ae'Tarennaha

Two men, one home, and always two Kings."

 

The master was silent for some time, staring at the pots.

"I think I might be starting to like you," he said eventually and completely without feeling. Then he rose. "Come along."

I followed. He took me back through the terrace. We went down a hall and into a large room. It was mostly occupied by servants at work. One woman was weaving, another spinning, two men were mending. The hearth was full, and it looked like the group around it had been telling stories. A hush fell as we entered. Several slaves took a knee. Some servants bowed.

The Master went to an open door at the end of the room and went through it. Inside was an office. A middle-aged man sat at a table in the middle of the room with papers piled around him. His eyes were kind and his hair was grey at the sides, but from the set of his mouth, I immediately knew that I did not want to cross him.

"Lord Throren, what a pleasure," the man said, rising with unexpected grace. "This would be Kath, then?"

"Secturn," Throren said in greeting. "Kath, this is the steward of Summer Hill. He oversees all matters of house. When you are not required to serve me, you may serve him."

"Yes, Master," I said. I ducked my head to Secturn, momentarily looking intently at the floor, then back up again.

Secturn smiled gently. "Is there anything I ought to know, before we get started?" he asked. His voice was soft, inquisitive, and exuded calmness.

"He's not to be working," Throren said. "Quentin tells me he has been burned too severely. He must not be touched, and he must not be punished. If you take issue with him, return him to my rooms for me to deal with him. Today I would only like him to be shown around and taught the rules."

Secturn nodded. "Leave him with me, and I'll sort him out," he said.

Throren clenched his jaw before he nodded. "You will behave," he told me, then left.

Secturn walked around the table and looked at me. "Left in the sun, I heard," he said, disapproving.

"Yes, sir," I said.

"Well, no doubt you'll be wanting better clothes," he said, looking me up and down.

"I'll wear what I'm told to, sir," I said.

Secturn smiled widely. "Oh, manners," he said. "Do you have any idea how much it pleases me to hear some manners?"

"I don't know, sir," I said.

He sighed and looked me in the eye. "I've spent last night with a spoiled rotten brat, and this morning with a different spoiled rotten brat. You keep this up, you might just become my favourite. Now, follow me, keep up, and listen carefully as I'll be talking quickly," he said, and went out the door.

I followed him. "Yes, sir," I said.

He locked the door behind him. "No ruckus will occur while I'm gone," he called to the room, and a small chorus of "Yes, sir," echoed him.

"That was the servants hall," Secturn said as we left the crowded hall and turned immediately to the right. "You'll always have a place there, and some work will be found for you, if you're fit and your Master permits it. I am Secturn Ausger, I am steward here. Do your people have stewards?"

"No, sir, but we don't tend to have houses this large. I'm sure there are lots of vocations here I'm unaware of," I said.

"I was worried of that," Secturn said, but he passed me a reassuring smile. "You are foreign here. We shall have to make allowances while you learn our ways. As steward, it is my job to run this house. I am in charge of supplies, servants, and slaves. Not you, specifically, as you don't belong to the house, you belong to Lord Throren, but while you and Lord Throren live in this house, you both need to follow the house's rules - that is to say, my rules. Has Lord Throren spoken to you of our customs, regarding slaves?"

"My Master hasn't, but I've been told a few things by Traders, sir."

"Down that hall, to the left, you'll find the well," Secturn said. "Lord Throren might send you occasionally to get water. It isn't your job, normally, but you'll need knowing. Now, what have these Traders told you?"

"I understand it's important to use the correct titles, sir," I said, having been taught that lesson rather harshly. "My people don't use titles at all, so I have to pay close attention to it. Am I using the right title with you, sir?"

"You are," Secturn said. "How do your people not use titles?"

"We overenunciate," I said. "The length that you draw out a name is the respect paid. Speaking at all is spending water, and the time it takes to speak communicates a person's value to you."

"I'm not sure I follow," Secturn said.

"In Andonia, I would call you ae'Seck'Turrn A'usGer," I said, then clicked my tongue twice at the end of his name. It took me easily three times as long to do it as it would have to say his name properly. "You would just call me ae'Quartthtra, if you wished to be kind. Likely you would call me ae more often than anything else, or only snap your fingers in my direction."

"What does ae mean?" Secturn asked.

"It doesn't translate well, sir. It is used before nouns to differentiate between simple things and respected things. ae'Quartthtra is a person, Quartthtra is just a beast."

"And the ... thing ... you did with your tongue?" Secturn asked.

"Approval, sir," I said. "No clicks is for strangers or enemies, one is for acquaintances, two is for anything more."

"I am more than an acquaintance?" Secturn asked, perplexed.

"You have considerably more of my approval than the average acquaintance, sir. You've been kind and patient, and you've given me the impression that you want to help me do better. I want to do better. You're not an acquaintance, you are an ally," I said, then promptly reined myself in. "I apologise. I'm often too forward. Sir."

"I did ask," Secturn said, frowning. "But, if anything, this just proves the point. You're a long way from home. You'll need teaching on how we do things here. That being said, I am definitely an ally, and I'm glad you can see that."

"I would like to learn anything you would be willing to teach me, sir," I said.

"Your Master is always called Master. Anything less is an insult to his position. Those with titles have their titles, and everyone else is a sir or madam, even freed men. Never call anyone Master but your Master. It raises them up to his status and is one of the most disloyal things you could do to him," Secturn said.

"Yes, sir," I said, grateful for an explanation. Learning by being smacked when one did the wrong thing tended to leave gaps in one's understanding. I knew what to call people, but until then, I hadn't known that there was a chance I could insult the Master by mistake.

"What else do you know about us?"

"There is overlap in some customs. Andonians are also - uh - reprimanded for touching their Master's property," I said, blushing.

"I should think that would be the case everywhere," Secturn said.

I bit my lip. "By that, I meant me, sir. I'm not allowed to touch me."

Secturn frowned. "That's ... unusual?" he asked quizzically.

"I've only heard of it in Andonia and Lestrat, sir," I said. "None of our neighbours had that rule, and Seblar - I ported there first - they didn't. I was told that I should by the Traders there. They seemed to think it would calm me down."

Secturn looked incredibly confused. "That's obscene," he said. "That is filthy. You mustn't touch what isn't yours."

"I understand, sir," I said, trying to be reassuring.

"Did you do it? I should hate to think you've developed any ... poor habits," Secturn said.

"No, sir, I didn't. I wasn't in any mood for it, at the time, and now that I'm here, I should prefer to be obedient."

"Not in any mood? Ah, yes. You'd have been freshly collared. I imagine you were more interested in your neck than your cock," Secturn said gently.

"Yes, sir," I said. He had no idea how right he was, and I had no intention of telling him.

"And you understand that rule is not just limited to touch, correct?" Secturn said. "You are not allowed completion without your Master's permission."

"Yes, sir. This is standard in Andonia, also. My pleasure belongs to my Master, and he'll not have it unless he wants it," I said. The words left me feeling a little bit numb.

"Anything else?" Secturn asked.

"I understand it's terribly impolite for a bed slave to leave their Master's bed, sir, but I need some help with that one," I said nervously. "I'm not sure what the rules are, and I'm out of bed right now."

Secturn frowned. "Impolite is the wrong word," he said uneasily. "Insulting, perhaps? It's difficult to explain. It would be cruel to force you to stay abed for the rest of your life. People need to walk. In any case, no Master worth their salt would punish you for it at this stage. As you get used to the routine, you will learn whether you are supposed to be in bed or not. You do not leave it in the night, you do not leave it at all if he has told you to go there."

"Yes, sir," I said, resigning myself to having to follow a vague, uncertain rule. The openness of it bothered me. At any point, I might not be where I was supposed to be, and I had no way of knowing.

"Anything else?" Secturn said.

"Not that I can think of, sir," I said.

"Is it normal, in Andonia, for slaves to touch each other?" Secturn asked.

I frowned. "Not ... normal, no sir. It would depend on the Master. It certainly was never done without permission."

"It is not done here at all," Secturn said. "Can you imagine why?" He gave me a piercing stare. This was a test.

"It would be the height of insubordination to touch another Master's property, sir," I said, guessing wildly. In Andonia, we had an entirely different reason, but no one had ever seemed to know what I was talking about when I talked about bonding here.

"Ah, and you're quick, too," Secturn said, smiling warmly at me. "You're going to do so well here."

"I'll try, sir," I said.

"That's all it takes. Just a tiny bit of effort, and you'll do well," Secturn said, reassuring. "Now, here we are. Kitchens." He opened a pair of huge doors and stalked inside, to a flurry of action.

A huge table sat in the middle of the room, and four more smaller tables sat in a corner. Workbenches were all around the sides of the room, a giant hearth lived on the farthest wall, and a huge oven sat in a corner.

"Rohan!" Secturn called to the room. A man stood from where he was bending over the oven and came to us. He was a squat, wide, redheaded man with a great big beard.

"Maysel," Rohan snapped, and a girl - Maysel, presumably - went to watch the oven in his stead.

Rohan gave a smile the moment he saw me. "Up and about, are we?" he said, half to me, half to Secturn. Rohan looked unusually happy to meet me.

"Kath, this is Rohan," Secturn said. "He's responsible for feeding all of us."

"Hello, sir," I said. This was the man that made the utterly delicious everything that I'd eaten since coming here. Having eaten the food he made, I already heavily respected him, even though we had only just met.

"Hello, little one," Rohan said. "Let's have a look at you, shall we?"

Rohan came into my space a bit too close for comfort and looked me over. He huffed angrily.

"Someone decided you ought to be starved, did they?" he said, rage consuming him. It was oddly refreshing. No one had been angry on my behalf for some time.

Rohan promptly turned his back on us and went back to the oven.

Secturn put a hand on my shoulder. He did not notice my flinch from his touch. "Don't let him frighten you," he said. "He's a softie."

Rohan stopped next to the oven, picked up something bready from a rack, and stalked back. He held out the thing to me, and I opened my hands for it tentatively. It was still hot.

"You're not leaving my kitchen until you've eaten that," Rohan growled.

I bit into it carefully, then nearly choked in surprise.

"ae'Aberda!" I swore, my mouth full.

It was bread, and of course I'd had bread before, but this was so light and fluffy and sweet... Little crystals of something were all over my lips, and as I poked my tongue out to swipe them up, they were even sweeter than the bread. I turned the little roll over in my hands, looking at it from every angle, completely mystified. The bottom of it looked like it would be crunchy, while the top had been so light. What was this thing?

When I finally managed to remember I was a slave, and not supposed to forget that I was here to serve my betters, I tore my eyes away from the roll and looked back at Rohan.

He didn't look angry anymore. He had a self-satisfied grin on, and it encompassed his entire face.

"And that, I believe, is how to make friends with the cook," Secturn said.

I swallowed what was in my mouth. "Thank you, sir," I said. "This is ... I don't know any words for what this is."

Rohan laughed. Secturn smiled. "That's high praise, coming from an educated slave," Secturn said.

"Educated, are you?" Rohan asked.

I nodded slowly and took another bite.

"He's fairly wordy," Secturn said.

"Well, little one, if you get even the tiniest bit thinner, I'll be having words with your Master. I reckon I could take him," Rohan said.

Secturn chuckled. I refrained from laughing. It would surely be rude to laugh, no matter how ridiculous the suggestion that anyone could possibly take on my Master.

"You're permitted to come here and eat your fill of the pottage at mealtimes," Secturn said.

"At any time," Rohan corrected. "Any time for this one, anyway."

Secturn nodded curtly. "As you like. He's permitted here whenever his Master does not have need of him, then."

Rohan pushed us towards one of the small tables in the corner. "Go finish your sugar bun. And if I see you make your Master happy, you'll get them often," he said.

Secturn frowned. "It might be best to leave rewards to Lord Throren," he said sternly.

"Like Throren would know how to be gentle," Rohan said sternly, shaking his head. "We don't keep him because he's gentle. We keep him because he breaks tables over people and scares everyone into doing whatever Lord Yulie says. But, gentle or not, it doesn't matter. We're a family here, and if I have to go over his head to keep him happy, I'll do it."

"He ... breaks tables?" I asked, forgetting my place in fear and surprise. Throren had never seemed violent before.

"Never you mind that," Secturn snapped. "Honestly, Rohan, have some tact."

Rohan looked sufficiently chastised.

"I do not stand for abuse here, Kath," Secturn said sternly. "I am also Master to the slaves of this house, of which there are many. I am the foremost authority on how to keep slaves, and should anyone, even Lord Throren, disagree with me on that matter, it will become an issue. Lord Yulie will not tolerate cruelty to slaves."

"Lord Yulie could do with more cruelty, not less, if you ask me," Rohan said.

"Our Lord Yulie," Secturn began, grave, slow and formal, "is a kind-hearted soul who cannot abide pain or suffering in any creature. He is even soft on the horses."

"He walked here, remember? Walked, rather than let that girl of his walk or make the horse ride double," Rohan said. He took on the look of a man remembering something truly special. "I'll never forget it. There he was, dusty and filthy, and there she was, on his horse instead of him. And there was Throren, too. Terrified me when I first saw him, on that monster of a horse he's got. Can't tell you how much better I felt about him once I saw how he just did whatever Yulie told him to."

Girl? Lord Yulie had a girl, too?

And Throren obeyed Lord Yulie? Like a servant?

"He walked back when he bought Dune, too," Secturn said. "He is an uncommonly kind man. We all deserve so very much less. In any case, this is his house, and he will not tolerate Lord Throren behaving cruelly, even to a slave."

But how long would we even be here? This wasn't Lord Throren's house. Why was he here in the first place?

"I'd give my left nut to marry my daughter to Yulie," Rohan said.

"Wouldn't we all," Secturn said dryly. "If only such men were as plentiful as daughters. In any case, we had best be going. Kath needs to see the rest of the house."

I had finished my sweet bun and finished licking my fingers of every last slightly sticky trace of it.

"Take him to see Quentin. Quentin won't like how thin he is. He'll back me up on the sweet buns," Rohan said.

"He's been seen, and Quentin agrees with you on food. For what it is worth, in our conversations, Lord Throren has also mentioned he isn't pleased. He seems to think Kath has been treated neglectfully. That at least implies he intends to rectify the problem," Secturn said.

Rohan nodded, satisfied. "Good," he said.

Secturn left the kitchen, and I followed, throwing a "Thank you, sir," over my shoulder to Rohan.

Secturn took me on a private tour of Summer Hill, which I soon learned was not so much a house as it was a sprawl of interconnected buildings. Arches, terraces, and cloth shades covered well-trafficked paths between the different rooms, each seeming to have been built at different periods, for different purposes. The kitchen and the dining hall had been one huge building. The next place we went was up a path, shaded by a combination of poles holding canvas between them, and fruiting trees.

"This is the actual hill of Summer Hill," Secturn said, as we began to ascend a slope. "Rather small, isn't it?"

It took only a minute to climb the stepped path and come to the largest building I had seen yet. It had three stories, while none of the other buildings in Summer Hill had any more than one.

"This is Yulie's sanctum," Secturn said. "Our Lord Yulie lives here. He entertains on the ground floor, keeps his library on the second, and lives on the top floor. Lord Throren spends a lot of time here. Now, listen carefully, because I know Lord Throren isn't one for talking, and this is probably the closest you'll ever get to a history lesson.

"Lord Yulie's father was a younger son of two. He and his wife died, leaving Lord Yulie an orphan. Lord Yulie's uncle - Summer Hill's previous Lord - didn't want to take him in. He was not the most loving of men, and already had three sons of his own. Lord Yulie was taken in by Lord Drextrer, your Master's father. Lord Yulie and Lord Throren were raised together. They are brothers in all but name. Lord Throren is loyal to Lord Yulie, just like we all are. Possibly more, as he has known him longest.

"Roughly ten years past, there was a plague. Summer Hill, the town, and neighbouring towns were all affected, but Summer Hill took the worst of it. We lost the entire noble household, except Lord Yulie, who was safe in Lord Drextrer's care. It was nearing winter, supplies were short, most of us were still sick. Many were dead. Yulie - stupid, blessed Yulie - he came straight away. He should have waited out the winter where he was safe and fed. He should have left us to die, then come in and cleaned up. Instead, he showed up with Throren. He took the survivors into this house, so that we could share warmth and have fewer hearths to feed. We were out of food, and he fed us with his own ingenuity and perseverance. He and Throren both shared everything they brought with them. Clothes, money, food, company, time, even labour.

"Lord Throren was his enforcer. People who are starving, sick, and grieving - they fight, you see. Lord Throren would just stand between them. I have, to this day, never seen a lord take that sort of treatment from anyone, let alone the common people. He is an absolute wall when he wants to be. He is completely immovable, seems to feel no pain, and he is patient.

"He was a force to behold, but he is also kind. Lord Throren is not afraid of work, you see. He tended the hearths and chopped wood himself. He learned to care for the wounded. Lord Yulie does not keep people by his side that do not deserve him, and Lord Throren is deserving of Lord Yulie. He has his faults - he is cold, much too cold, and can be remarkably quick to anger. With any luck, you will melt his coldness, like Lord Yulie has, and you will never fail him enough to become deserving of his anger."

Secturn looked fondly between me and Yulie's Sanctum as he talked. He had told this story many times, likely to every servant who ever came here.

I rejoiced in the idea that Lord Throren's coldness could be melted.

I took another look around, at Summer Hill. Nothing was in disrepair, everything looked thriving. No one had liked that I was thin, and everyone seemed happy and fed. Any plague was well and truly past.

It would have taken my people longer to recover - if at all - from a sickness like that. I wondered why it was so good here. Was the land simply that much more fertile? Or did this Lord Yulie have something to do with the quick recovery?

Maybe even Lord Throren?

"May I ask a question, sir?"

"I encourage questions," Secturn said.

"Why is my Master here, sir? This is Lord Yulie's land, isn't it?"

Secturn smiled, but there was no mirth to it. "Lord Throren has the misfortune of being the youngest of twelve sons," he said.

I nearly fell over. Twelve? Twelve? My people simply did not do that. That number was insane.

"He will never inherit anything," Secturn said. "He has the name, and the title, but there are so many Drextrers, it does not mean much. Lord Throren is better off here. He does not particularly get along with his father, but he gets along well with our Lord Yulie. Lord Yulie does not abandon his friends, and Lord Throren was his friend at a time when he had no family of his own. As to why Throren, and none of the other Drextrers? That I do not know. There were one or two others in their age range, and Lord Drextrer has many, many bastards. They would have been more fit companions for a ward, but Lord Yulie chose Throren. There are many who would tell you he did it for Throren's size, and that would be smart, but Lord Yulie is never smart. He is ingenuous. Picking a childhood friend just because they are the biggest? It's not quite smart enough for Lord Yulie. No, I would guess that our Lord Yulie chose Throren for some far greater reason. I cannot grasp it, but it is surely there. If you ever learn it, I'd kill to know it."

Secturn watched me take this in. He watched me studiously as I struggled to comprehend my Master's grand purpose in this house. I was as stumped as he was.

"Where are you from, Kath?" Secturn asked kindly, softly, and completely unexpectedly.

"Andonia, sir," I said, confused. Surely, he knew? My people had a certain look to them, as did his. We'd even talked about it.

Secturn shook his head. He looked fondly back to Yulie's Sanctum, then back to me. He put his hands on my shoulders, firm, but kind. It hurt so much that I flinched, but he wouldn't let go. "Where are you from?" he asked, even kinder this time.

I don't know what I told him. My brain often turned to mush when I spoke of this. It often turned to mince when I simply thought of it too much. I know I told him of the fire, and the mercenary. I don't know what else I told him. Something between the pain of his hands on me, and the pain of the subject made me cry.

When I was done, he looked sad.

"Everything will be all right," he said softly. "It will hurt for a long time, this past you carry, but Summer Hill is not a place of pain. You will grieve here, then you will be content here. We do not ask for much. Come, I'll show you the rest."

At this, he started off the path, to go around Yulie's Sanctum, but he had left the roof. I had been a bit uneasy about the dappled light the cloth shade let through, but going outside it was another story entirely.

"Sir?" I called. I kept my feet planted where they were.

My skin still hurt - Secturn sure hadn't made that better - and my Master had made it very clear that I wasn't to go back into the sun.

Secturn turned and frowned. "Come along, Kath," he said, stern this time.

"Master told me I wasn't to leave a roof, sir," I said quickly. I wondered which would be worse, punishment for disobeying the steward, or punishment for disobeying my Master. I knew which man's fist frightened me more, so I swayed toward obeying my Master. Secturn had seemed patient and understanding, so I hoped he wouldn't mind.

"Told you not to - oh," Secturn said. He came back to stand in front of me. "Because you were left in the sun?" he asked.

I nodded. "Yes, sir," I said.

Secturn frowned. "Well, you mustn't disobey an order from him, then. We shall walk in the shade."

I exhaled in relief and followed Secturn back down the path.

We took what was definitely the long way around Yulie's Sanctum. Secturn showed me the laundry, where Leanna was washing. She smiled brightly but she but did not interrupt Secturn. He showed me the infirmary, instructed me that Quentin lived there and if I desperately needed him, I should wait for him there.

Secturn only pointed out the stables, as there was no way to get to them with a roof overhead. The sight of the building filled me with longing, but I turned away obediently. I would likely never ride a horse again.

Unless ... Lord Yulie had apparently let not one, but two people ride his horse while he walked. Maybe ... No. It was not a smart thing to do, to even think about it. Hope was not wise.

We went through the guest quarters, a huge, sprawling heap of little rooms with their own gardens. Then we went further, through the servant quarters, which was more of a dorm with many rooms. At the end of the servant quarters, there was a large room, covered in beds. Secturn told me it was the slave quarters, and I could hardly believe it. I'd been under the impression that only bed slaves got to sleep in beds.

We went back out into the servant's quarters and through a side door. We followed another roofed path and wound up behind Yulie's Sanctum, where a small, simple house stood. Inside was a large but rudimentary kitchen. "This is our last stop. This is the guard's kitchen."

Secturn opened a window and pointed out of it. I went to his side, following his direction. He pointed at a final, large building, right next to another gate out of the wall. Between us and it was an orchard.

"That is the barracks," Secturn said. "Avoid it. We make their food here, but that is it. They do their own laundry. Under no circumstance should a Lord's bed slave like yourself be talking to the common folk, let alone the soldiers."

"Yes, sir," I said.

"They don't come into the kitchen, though," Secturn added. "You can come here, if you wind up working the kitchens, but there's no good reason why you would ever need anything here. You eat from the house kitchen, just like your Master."

"Yes, sir," I said. "Are they dangerous? The soldiers?"

Secturn shrugged. "They're soldiers," he said. "The veterans are loyal to Lord Yulie and would never touch a hair on your head. But soldiers move, they have their own orders. Sometimes we have fresh recruits. Many of these men have never seen the sort of wealth needed to afford a slave like you. I urge you not to tempt them."

"Yes, sir," I said. "I won't have much need to be down this end of the house, anyway, sir."

Secturn smiled. "There is only one more thing," he said. He was smiling gently and patiently, but the flexing of his fingers betrayed his frustration. "Has your Master said anything about Dune?"

"Yes, sir. I've been told not to speak to him or let him near me, and if he tries, I should run straight to my Master. It sounded rather ... important, I think."

Secturn nodded. "You ought to know, Dune has the same orders regarding you, and has had those orders repeated to him on a daily basis since you arrived. If he comes anywhere near you, he will be at fault, and you will be taken at your word."

"Is he likely to hurt me?" I asked. "Is that why?"

"Is that why, sir," Secturn chided. "But no, that's not likely. He's violent, sure, but usually only toward Lord Yulie."

"I thought everyone loved Lord Yulie, sir," I said.

"Everyone but Dune loves Lord Yulie," Secturn said angrily. "He's ... there's something very wrong with that boy. Lord Yulie is good to him, and he is not good back. There is absolutely nothing good you could possibly learn from Dune. Your Master's orders are perfectly in order."

"I would never question my Master's orders, sir," I said quietly.

"Good," Secturn said. "I'd just keep out of it. There's no reason the two of you should interact at all."

"Yes, sir," I said. I pushed my burning curiosity down as hard as I could. I'd doubtlessly learn more about Dune as the days went on, and curious slaves were not particularly good ones.

"Time to go, I think," Secturn said. "You've probably been on your feet too long, anyway."

Secturn took me on the lengthy walk back around Yulie's Sanctum, to the servant's hall where my Master had left us. He introduced me to another slave named Lissal. She was graceful and lithe, sweet and quiet. She had long brown hair and full, painted lips. "As you are not to be working today, you might as well be making friends with the right people. Lissal belongs to Lord Hector - he's here learning to govern, a sort of apprenticeship. Lissal is a good girl, and you'd do well to learn from her."

Lissal brought me to the hearth and gave me thread and needle to hem my pants. She spoke in 'Master' talk. She said 'Master' this and 'Master' that. She never spoke an opinion unless she was speaking an opinion her Master had told her.

As I sat next to her and watched another slave's spinning wheel whir, I realised that if I stayed with Lissal, I would lose my soul.

Chapter Text

I returned to the Master's quarters feeling properly exhausted after an afternoon doing nothing but sitting. Lissal had made me thoroughly depressed, and I supposed that was the point. I longed for the embarrassing conversation I'd had with Kayla and Leanna.

Secturn had given me a key to the Master's rooms. As steward, he kept copies. He warned me sternly not to lose the key.

The Master had not returned, so I went to the bedroom and took off my trousers. I put my legs under the covers, threaded my needle, and started to hem the trousers to my height. I hummed as I worked and became so entranced that I did not notice the Master return.

"I thought I told you not to work," he said, and I nearly jumped out of my still-red skin.

He could not be light-footed. A man his size had no business being stealthy. It wasn't fair. I had assumed that he wouldn't be able to surprise me. I despaired over the loss of that tiny security.

I looked down at the garment, thread and needle. "I didn't think of it as work," I said. "I'm sorry, Master."

"You must be awfully bored. Bed rest, no work, nothing to do. If you would like to keep your hands busy, you may mend." He sat on the bed. "Do your people whittle?"

"Some do, Master," I said. "It wasn't a craft in my family. We usually knit."

"Perhaps that is what you should do, until Quentin allows you more."

"I was taught a different way," I said. "I don't think your people use the same tools as mine, Master."

"Perhaps something could be made for you," he said.

"It might be for the best for me to learn your way, Master," I said. "I am here now, and I think I ought to adapt."

The Master gave me a look. What it meant? I had no idea. "I didn't buy an Andonian because I wanted more of the same," he said. "How is your knitting different to ours?"

"I don't know, Master. Yours uses two needles, mine uses one hook. I don't know enough about your method to know any other differences."

"Do men usually knit, where you are from?" he asked.

I frowned. "Do they not, here?" I asked. Whoops. I forgot the title.

"Usually the women do, the men don't. Men carve. Some men play the lute. Some men do nothing but drink."

The Master did not mention my misstep. Perhaps he had not noticed. Perhaps he had and didn't care. Perhaps he was planning to have me whipped. I could not tell.

I pricked myself with the needle and sucked on my finger. "My people rarely drink, Master," I said. "Dunmer is a season of idleness - whole weeks with nothing to do, and it comes twice a year. No planting, no growing, too much heat to stay active. If men did nothing, they would die of boredom every dunmer."

Maysel - was it Maysel? - arrived and brought with her our dinner. The Master seemed to have been expecting her. She set the table for us and bowed by the door.

"Thank you, Maysel," the Master said as she left.

I was reminded of what Kayla had said. 'He knows everyone's name. Everyone else is all 'you there's and 'hey girl's and he's just, 'Kayla. Kayla, Kayla, Kayla. Tell you what, I might just forgive him his horse cock.'

The Master had me sit at the table with him. I hadn't sat at a dinner table like an equal in months, and I did not know how to phrase my gratitude.

"Tell me another story," he said.

I told him the story of ae'withErat, the fire-man, and his brush with death in the water-world with ae'EnErHar by his side.

The Master brushed my hand with his while we were eating and I yelped, half with pain, half with fright. I lost my appetite and he sent me to bed early.

 

 

 

The next day, the Master did not breakfast with me, he simply left early in the morning. I locked the door behind me and went to the hall with the other servants.

I asked Lissal if she could knit. She could, and I learned that these people had it all wrong.

There were too many needles and no grip, and they held their yarn wrong and it was too slow, and the entire process frustrated me. I went to undo a row and the thing fell apart on me. Lissal told me that was supposed to happen. I told her that was ridiculous.

Lissal told me I was being too impatient. I told her she was right.

I asked Secturn if it would be inappropriate for me to take a walk, and he told me it was all right, and that I ought to learn the place and build up my strength.

I walked for most of the morning.

When I was exhausted, I returned to the hall and went straight back to Secturn. I asked him if he could source a tool for me, and that the Master had been interested. When I described the hook that I used to knit with he looked at me blankly until he shook his head. "It would need to be made specially for you," he said. "And for that, you'd best ask your Master."

I toyed with the idea of asking my Master to have me a hook specially made, and I wondered if that was what we were, if I could ask him for things or if I couldn't.

Secturn told me I had too much energy and I should go to the laundry and see if they could use it up. The laundry was full of girls. Two of those girls were Leanna and Kayla.

I was ambushed.

"I need an update on the horse cock situation," Kayla demanded.

I laughed for what felt like the first time in months. "I still don't know anything," I said.

The entire room oozed disappointment.

I was introduced to Sethie, the only boy in the room, who Kayla insisted ought to be my best friend, and Riga, who Leanna insisted. I asked Leanna if she'd be my best friend and we all laughed.

I learned that Secturn's choice of Lissal as my friend was 'cruel and unusual punishment' and that Secturn had probably made that choice because Lissal was the only other bed slave in Summer Hill, except Dune of course, and Dune obviously didn't count.

We folded linens and talked for hours about nothing.

When I returned to the Master's chambers, he was already there. He sat in his armchair, staring at the empty hearth.

I knelt before him.

He frowned at me.

I stayed on my knees. "Master, may I please have permission to do some light work in the laundry?"

"Yes," he said.

 

 

 

My eighth day arrived. I wanted to catch a look at the Master while he was dressing, but I realised that he was incredibly sneaky about it. He dressed without me catching sight of what awaited me that night.

He didn't seem to notice or care that I'd been looking, and he left me alone in the room without even saying good morning.

I dressed and went straight to the laundry. I was set in front of a tub and told to wash until I went mad from monotony, so I did.

The three girls and Sethie talked and talked. I smiled and listened, but I didn't have the heart to talk today. As happy as I was to be there, that night I would be in the bed I had been in for over a week, doing something I'd never done before, with a man three times my size with a horse's cock.

Leanna was kind. She patted my hand every few minutes all day. It hurt, but I needed the comfort. She kept telling me everything would be all right.

I was rather proud of myself for not crying.

I was summoned to Secturn's office at lunch.

"Have I done something wrong, sir?" I asked.

"I wasn't aware you were allowed to be working," he said.

"Master gave me permission to do light work in the laundry last night. I'm sorry sir, I should have told you," I said.

Secturn nodded. "I like a certain level of autonomy in my servants," he said. "I'm glad you've found something you can do. That means I don't have to waste my time giving you direction."

I breathed a sigh of relief. "It seems like there's plenty of work there, sir," I said.

"Sooner or later, something always needs to be washed," Secturn said. "So, you've been cleared for work, then? I imagine it's only a matter of time before we all find out the big surprise."

"The big surprise, sir?" I asked. Surely Secturn wasn't eagerly awaiting news of whether or not it was a horse cock? Big surprise wasn't a euphemism, was it?

It was in terribly poor taste, if it was.

"Surely, you guessed? I guessed. Half the grounds have guessed. I think the town might even have guessed."

"I'm sorry, sir, but I don't think I've guessed anything."

Secturn regarded me coolly for a moment. "Surely, you're a gift," he said. "Surely you were bought for Yulie."

I felt a lump in my throat as I thought about it.

Yulie. I'd never met him. Secturn had called him ingenious and kind, but it hardly mattered what a free man said about a potential Master.

What had Leanna and Kayla said? Dark and stormy. Wonderful and handsome.

The phrase 'The most beautiful man you'll ever see in your life' popped into my memory.

Kayla was free, but Leanna wasn't. If Leanna thought Yulie was such a great man, then being a gift for him wouldn't be so bad at all, would it?

But if I was a gift for Yulie, then why was I in Throren's bed? And what about Dune?

Rohan had said Yulie had a girl, too. What about her?

Yulie's bed seemed rather crowded.

"You look confused," Secturn said, suddenly wary. "Sit down."

I sat in one of the spare chairs at his table and stared at my hands. Was I a gift for Yulie? Did I want to be? Dune didn't want to be.

"Tell me what you're thinking, boy," Secturn said.

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, grasping at straws. Finally, I said, "If I'm to be for Lord Yulie, then I've been getting some very mixed signals."

"You think Throren bought you for himself?" Secturn said. "That's just not feasible. Throren knows what he is. He's not stupid."

I stared at my hands.

"Kath, I need you to be honest with me now," Secturn said. "I run this house for Lord Yulie, and I run it based on the idea that we care for our own. If you think there is a chance that Throren intends to ... to bed you then I need to know."

I didn't know what to say. That had been my impression. "I don't understand. What is wrong with a Master bedding his slave?" I asked. My voice sounded timid and frail to my own ears.

Secturn was furious. "Are you mad?!" he yelled, and I flinched.

He stood, stalked to the door, and slammed it shut.

"I'll not have it in my house," Secturn hissed. He sat down beside me at the table. "He's too big for you, Kath. He's too big and you're a sweet boy with good manners who deserves better than being split down the fucking middle!"

I didn't know what to say, except that I was terrified, and Secturn knew it already.

"What exactly has made you think you're for Throren, not Yulie?" Secturn said. "What are these mixed signals?"

"I ... I've been sleeping in his bed, sir," I said. "Surely if I was for another man, I'd have slept somewhere else, anywhere, even the floor."

Secturn had made a fist with his hand and was glaring at it. "He has an antechamber in his rooms," Secturn said. "There is a whole other bedroom in there."

I didn't know what to say.

"W-When mister Quentin saw me, he seemed to think I was for Thro- Master Throren. He offered to take me in the infirmary, but Master refused. He said he wouldn't cast me from his bed. He - he took care of me himself rather than put me out."

"I was under the impression that Quentin was caring for you," Secturn said.

"He was - he did see me, but the Master did all of the work. He was very kind to me," I said. "Is it ... is it really this bad? Is he ... has he ever torn someone in half before?"

Secturn took several deep, steadying breaths. "That's only a euphemism, Kath. That does not actually happen. It's nothing so neat, simple and quick as that, but no, he has not done that before. He's a quiet man and he is usually gentle, unless someone threatens Yulie. If that happens, you'd best hope you're not in the same room, because Throren can and will pick up a table and swing it."

Secturn looked at me and covered my hand with his. It hurt, and I flinched. Secturn went on regardless. "Throren isn't a man who should be getting himself a tiny slave. Throren isn't a man who should have a virgin. Yes, I've seen your record - nothing but traders. Traders want money from slaves, not sex. Throren is not a man who wants virgins. Throren is a man who wants seasoned whores, whores that are a hell of a lot bigger than you. I've even helped him procure these whores. I know what he ought to have, and it isn't you."

Maybe Throren had tired of Secturn's choices for him. I had certainly tired of Lissal. I knew better than to say this aloud.

Secturn released my hand. "I'll speak with him," he said. "I'll not have that sort of abuse in my House. Yulie will not allow that sort of abuse in his house. When we've sorted all this out, you'll be alright. You'll go to Yulie, because that's a damn good match, and then we can all finally be rid of Dune. You wait outside, go sit with Lissal."

I sat with Lissal and waited, feeling my soul ebb out into the stonework beneath me.

 

 

 

It was an hour before Secturn returned. He came to me with a set mouth and folded arms. I followed him into his study.

"Throren doesn't think he's doing anything wrong and Yulie was furious at me for even suggesting it," Secturn said. "I ... look, I hate it as much as you do - well, no, that's a poor choice of words. I hate this probably a great deal less than you do. But until Throren sees that it's going to be nothing but pain for you, there's no convincing him, and Yulie refuses to believe Throren capable of hurting anyone."

Secturn sat, grim in his chair, looking like he wanted desperately to hit something. "Run along home now," he said. "Your Master wants to speak to you."

So, I left and went to the Master's chambers. He was waiting for me in his armchair, and I was terrified. Who knew what Secturn had said, who knew what sort of mood he had put the Master into? I certainly didn't know. I knelt at his feet and waited.

He looked at me in the same way he usually looked at the hearth. Blank. Cold. Nothing.

Eventually, he spoke. "Did you ask Secturn to intervene for you?" His voice was level. He didn't sound angry. He didn't even sound curious. He sounded like nothing at all.

"No, Master. He summoned me and I only answered his questions."

Throren nodded slowly. He looked at the hearth again. I waited on my knees and wrung my hands together. It hurt - the burns still stung, even on my hands, which had healed much faster than the rest of my body.

Eventually, the Master spoke again. "What I do with my slave is my own business," he said.

"Yes, Master," I said.

He didn't look back at me. When he gave the order, he gave it to the hearth. "Strip. Lie on your back in the middle of the bed with your legs apart."

I rose, trembling, and took off my shirt on the way. The Master was still on the armchair. I folded my shirt and placed it on the nightstand by the side I usually slept on, then took off my trousers and put them down too.

I lay on my back in the middle of the bed and spread my legs, putting my feet down and my knees up.

The Master seemed content to stay in his armchair, so I simply lay there and tried really hard to keep breathing.

Eventually, he moved. He didn't come straight to me. He moved about in the sitting room. I heard water sloshing from one container to another.

When he came in, he was carrying a small water bucket and a washcloth. He set the bucket down by the nightstand on his usual side and rested the cloth on the side of it.

He went to the dresser and pulled out a notched candle, which he placed in a holder and lit, then he brought that to the nightstand.

He pulled a large glass jar filled with what I assumed was oil from the drawer of the nightstand and I was relieved to see it. With it was better than without, I'd been assured.

He knelt on the bed, and it dipped heavily with his weight. I stared at the ceiling and held my breath.

He sat cross legged between my legs. He had not undressed. He placed the jar of oil in between the crease of his thigh and calf. He rolled up his sleeves.

Then he looked at me for a very, very long time.

I eventually managed to wrangle a hold on my breathing. In, out, in, out. Those days I had spent naked before he had brought me clothes seemed so very far away now.

He hadn't looked at me then, not like this. He'd looked only to apply that balm. Now he looked.

I wondered if I was pretty. I must be, surely. Men didn't look like that unless they were looking at something pretty.

When he touched me, it was slowly, with two fingers, on my inner thigh. By some miracle, I kept myself from flinching.

It was gentle. His huge hand could break me, but instead he caressed my thigh. His eyes were as blank as ever.

I wondered if I was supposed to respond. Did he want me to get hard? Did he want me to make noises, did he want me to beg? Did he want me to flinch? Did he want me to touch him? If I knew what he wanted, would I even be able to do it?

His fingers moved down, not up, as I'd expected. He trailed them gently down my thigh until he reached my knee. There, he pressed.

I let my knee fall back toward the bed, away from his press. It spread me further open, laid out before him like a harlot.

He followed my knee with his fingers. Slowly, he placed his whole hand on my knee. It was warm - too warm. And huge. He left his hand there and put his other hand on my other knee.

It wasn't fair. He shouldn't be allowed to have two hands. One was scary enough, but two?

That hand moved down, down my calf, and it burned.

My inner thighs had escaped the sun. Practically nothing else had. I couldn't stop tensing, couldn't help flinching.

He left my calf, and I was thankful. Instead, he went to my stomach, and placed his hand there.

I started to cry. "Sorry," I said.

He lifted his hand from my stomach. He returned his attention to my inner thigh, one of the only places I had that wasn't still pink.

I managed to stop crying. I didn't know if I should wipe my face or not. He wanted to look, right?

He sat, blank and motionless except for his hand on my thigh. It traced soft, slow circles on one of the only places I didn't hurt to be touched, and I started to calm down.

He gently plucked the jar of oil out from where it had been snug against his leg. He tossed it down on the bed beside me, then uncurled his legs and placed himself over me, holding himself up so that we didn't touch at all.

I held my breath.

"Kath," he said, in his usual monotone.

"Yes, Master," I said. It sounded like a whimper.

"At some point, I don't know when, you made a decision," he said. His voice wasn't loud, but neither was it a bedroom hush. It wasn't angry, it wasn't pleased. It was nothing and I had begun to realise that nothing was so much worse.

"You decided to go through with this," the Master continued, and I couldn't look at him. I couldn't breathe but for the terror of his lack of tone.

"You decided you would lie on my bed and spread your legs, and you decided that you wouldn't tell me this," he said.

It was not fast. It was slow and determined, methodical, like the practiced skinning of an animal. He took my shoulder in his hand and squeezed. I yelped in pain as he handled the burn. Then he rubbed his thumb, not hard, but not soft either, and I screamed.

He released me. He leaned back, he got off the bed. He put the oil away, he pinched the candle out, and he picked up the water bucket. I cried.

He stopped at the door. "I would like for you to rethink your decisions," he said. "You have four days."

I cried myself to sleep.

My father came to me in my dreams. "No slaves until you can train a dog," he snapped at me, and I woke up on the floor, hyperventilating. I climbed quickly back into the bed, remembering that I wasn't supposed to be out of it at night. I hoped that I hadn't woken the Master, but I had no such luck.

His eyes were closed, but I knew what he sounded like when he was asleep, and this was not it. He knew that I'd left the bed, and he chose not to speak to me about it.

When I closed my eyes, I saw my father, and I couldn't stop seeing him. I knew that I had to leave my father behind. There was no room for him in this new life of mine.

I saw him in the corner of my eye, whenever I looked from the bed. It was insane, I knew that it was. I would probably never see another Andonian again, but I saw my father anyway. He wouldn't leave me. He never did, when I was afraid. My father never left anyone alone if they were afraid.

Especially not the slaves.

Father would have sat with a scared slave, stroked its hair, and told it precisely what the problem was and how the slave could fix it. He would have talked for hours until it was all over.

He never would have let a slave stew in their discomfort, the way I was stewing now.

My Master was not my father. I shuddered to think of what my Master would do to me when he chose to acknowledge that I'd left the bed. I shuddered to think of what would happen to me if anyone ever learned that my father had been a slave trainer.

But mostly, I shuddered to think of my decisions.

Chapter Text

The Master withdrew from me. I had thought he'd been toneless and emotionless, but I had seemingly only scratched the surface of the true depths of his emptiness.

Leanna told me 'you look really pale, hun,' and I could hardly hear her. I washed in silence. Kayla kept up a bustle of conversation and I thought my trauma was going unnoticed.

Secturn commanded me into his office. He talked but I could barely hear him. I was too busy trying to breathe. He walked out, and I followed him blindly. We ended up in a small room lined with beds - the infirmary, I remembered numbly.

Quentin sat and pulled me bodily onto a bed, so softly and gently that it didn't even hurt my skin. Sweet, good Quentin. Kind Quentin.

He sat next to me and talked to Secturn rather pushily about the weather. Secturn eventually started talking back. They conversed and I stared at my still-pink hands.

My decisions. It was all I could think, over and over. My decisions.

"What do you think, Kath? Do you think it will snow soon, or late this year?" Quentin asked.

"I hope soon," I said. My voice sounded strange - small and wrong. "I've never seen snow."

"We always hope it won't," Quentin said. "It's so cold, and it takes the fields longer to recover from the frost. It means you have to plant later in Spring, you lose growing time."

"Oh," I said meekly.

Secturn was shaking his head. "Who is this?" he asked. "Where is Throren? This isn't like him, not like him at all."

Quentin patted me tenderly on the shoulder. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "Some things seem exactly the same as usual for Throren. He came to me this morning, you know - seemed to think your burns were still a problem, Kath. He was a bit miffed, actually. That's very typical of Throren. He doesn't like people to be in pain."

Who was he talking about? My Master? Surely not.

"Really?" Secturn asked. "He didn't seem to mind that time he beat the shit out of Lord Severin."

"Lord Severin had it coming. He insulted Yulie. Do you know, Yulie has never once come to me for a remedy?"

Secturn seemed surprised at this. "He's been here for ten years," he said. "Ten years, and nothing?"

"If Yulie has a headache, I hear about it from Throren," Quentin said. "And I get harassed by Throren until I get Yulie a remedy."

Maybe Throren wanted Yulie. Maybe that was the reason I couldn't get anything right.

"Did he touch you last night?" Quentin asked.

I burst into tears.

Quentin - lovely, kind Quentin - opened his arms and held me so gently that the burns didn't even hurt from it.

"I can't ... I can't read him," I confessed.

"Did he touch you?" Quentin asked again, as though that was the problem. I'd just told him the problem.

"He ... tried. He stopped when ... when-when ... I ... the burns."

Quentin sighed. "See, there he is. There's our Throren. Won't touch you because he'll hurt you."

I shook my head. "I can't ... he's just ... he's so blank, I can't ... I don't know what he wants."

Secturn nodded very slowly. "He's a bit of a numbskull, isn't he? He's done a real number on you."

"Perhaps it's time to introduce you to Yulie," Quentin said. "If there's anyone that can help you understand your Master, he'll be it."

 

 

 

Lord Yulie. I'd never heard him spoken of with anything but praise. Kind, good, loyal. Our benevolent host. Beautiful. Ingenious.

Imagine my surprise to learn that he was a sociopath.

They're not the most common thing, but they're around, if one knows how to spot them. They are the people that stand out, the people that aren't quite normal. Their social graces are sometimes off, they sometimes get obsessive. They're either too smart or too stupid. Sometimes they're both, but they're never in the middle.

I could tell - I could read people, usually. Yulie was so good at faking that I was certain Secturn and Quentin didn't know. Yulie had learned to hide what he was.

All this, I could tell before we were even introduced.

Yulie was the most beautiful man that I had ever seen. He was perfect. He had a perfect jaw and a perfect nose. He had perfect deep blue eyes and perfect posture. He had perfect dark chestnut brown hair, and perfect long, elegant fingers.

Throren would look ridiculous next to this man. Throren, my giant of a Master, with his too-huge shoulders and his mayhem of black hair.

"All right, then," Yulie said. He was toneless, just like Throren, but I could still read him. Yulie was floundering. His steward and his doctor had come to him with his childhood friend's slave in tow. He knew that there was something wrong with this situation, but he did not know exactly what it was.

Yulie did not get up from his place. We had come to see him in his library, and that only confirmed my suspicions. Only an exceedingly obsessive man would collect so many books in a private collection. Only an exceedingly obsessive man would be sitting at a table, reading an incredibly old book with print far too small to be comfortable to read, without so much as leaning over it or holding it upright.

Yulie sat bolt upright in a hard-backed chair - he couldn't relax, even in his own private space. Instead he sat rigidly, with his back several inches from the backrest, and he stared down Secturn and Quentin as though they were the ones who weren't quite right.

"My lord," Quentin said. "We were hoping you might be able to talk some sense into Kath, here."

Yulie and I seemed to be the only ones who could see how ridiculous this situation was. They wanted him to comfort and advise me on my problems dealing with another human being. Hah.

I wondered how Dune was doing.

Yulie put on a smile. It was fake. Quentin smiled back. His was not fake.

"Oh, I doubt that very much," said Yulie. "Andonians are famed for their love of the absurd. He doesn't want any sense, that one." His voice was off - too jovial. Not quite right.

"Still," Secturn said.

"We had hoped you might be able to help. Throren's being a bit difficult. You know what he is like. Kath is finding it tough to adjust," Quentin said.

Yulie put on the smile of a diplomat, and it was as though he were taking someone else's smile and slapping it onto his own face. Secturn and Quentin fell for it, and I was stunned. "Throren will do that, occasionally," Yulie said. "Leave it to me, I'll sort it out."

He smiled at them until they left me alone with him. Yulie pulled out a chair from the table, smiling kindly, but it wasn't a real smile. I sat in the chair and I looked at my hands, tense in my lap. Yulie wasn't necessarily a bad man. He just wasn't quite right.

Yulie looked me over, and I wondered whether Dune was okay.

"It's been a long time since someone looked at me with that look," Yulie said. He dropped the smile that wasn't his.

He closed the gigantic book, looking like it was the very last thing he wanted to do. It became clearly apparent to me that if he could choose between speaking to me and reading his book, he would choose the book.

It was titled Alternative Systems of Law and Punishment. It looked like an extremely unpleasant thing to read.

"I'm sorry, my lord," I said.

"I'm not offended," he said. "One cannot fool everyone. Still, it's been ten years since I last failed. What gave me away?"

I swallowed. I didn't know. "Maybe ... maybe if I hadn't met you here," I said. "I might not have noticed."

Yulie looked around. "I don't see it. Explain."

"There's more books here than you could ever hope to read," I said. "And not a comfortable place to sit and read them in sight."

Yulie nodded. "I shall take that into consideration," he said. "But before I do, you should know that I have read every book in this room."

I looked around again. Surely not.

"Except that shelf," Yulie said, pointing to a half-full shelf by the door. "That's my to-do list."

"You must be very intelligent, my lord," I said. "Or very bored."

Yulie smiled. His actual smile was barely a turn of one lip, but it was real, and it was twenty times what I could get from Throren.

"If you didn't guess, I'd be taking this opportunity to reassure you. Your Master is my best friend, I'd say, and I'd tell you all the times he's shown loyalty and kindness and utter stupidity in the name of friendship. But now you've guessed, and you'll think anything I tell is rather hollow, won't you?"

I wondered if my Master could see through Yulie's diplomat smile.

I shrugged. "I ... maybe," I said. It wasn't Yulie that was hollow. It was Throren. "I ... I don't think they know what the problem is, really. I think they think that he's cruel to me."

Yulie's calculating eyes met mine. "I think that I might be the expert on Throren, which is a bit sad, really," he said. "But as the expert on Throren, I simply refuse to believe that he'd be cruel. It is a properly ridiculous idea. Throren does not know the meaning of the word."

I didn't know what to say. I said nothing.

"He is an absolute brute, though," Yulie went on.

I frowned. He wasn't cruel, but he was a brute? That made no sense.

"He's often cruel without intending to be," Yulie said. "I imagine something happened. You came here with my doctor. Did Throren hurt you?"

I couldn't help but shiver. "It's a Master's right to hurt his slave," I said. It felt like the right thing to say.

Yulie laughed at me, and I flinched. "You need to snap out of it," he said, and I flinched again. "You might not know it, and that's probably the entire problem, but Throren and I are both men that know an uncomfortable amount about what fear looks like. You're in a panic. If I can tell, Throren can definitely tell, and he'll like it even less than I do."

I swallowed carefully around the lump in my throat. If my Master didn't like the look of fear, then I had been showing him a look he didn't like since the moment he had bought me.

Yulie put his head to the side, and it reminded me in an absurd way of how my father's dogs would twist their heads to the side when working out a problem.

"You need to snap out of it," Yulie said again, harsher this time. "You're not wrong, but there's never only one angle. Of course, it's his right to hurt you. It's also my right, as sovereign of Summer Hill, to beat him bloody if he disobeys my rules."

Yulie paused, giving me just the right amount of time to let that sink in. Would he protect me? Was that something that a lord would do, over the treatment of a slave?

"Have you met Kayla?" Yulie asked in a completely new tone. He sounded like he was being kind and gentle now. I had the sense that the conversation hadn't changed, but the whole world seemed to lurch with the inconsistency of it.

"Yes, my lord," I said.

"Does Kayla strike you as someone who would tolerate whatever it is that you are so terrified of?" Yulie asked me.

"It wouldn't be her decision, my lord," I said, confused.

"Answer the question," Yulie said.

"N - no, my lord," I said, stammering. "She's very kind."

"And Quentin? Would he?" Yulie asked.

"No, my lord," I said.

"Secturn?"

"No, my lord," I said.

"He's a bit set in his ways, and he's very quick to give up. But he still wouldn't tolerate whatever it is you're afraid of," Yulie said. "What about Garnth?"

"I don't know a Garnth, my lord," I said.

"How incredibly sad for you, you must rectify that immediately," Yulie said, but offered me no more information about Garnth. "Now tell me, because I am completely lost, why exactly would I keep any of these people around, if I did not share their opinions?"

I was not sure what to make of this. Those people were his staff. "It isn't the staff's job to speak their opinions to you, my lord," I said.

Yulie cackled at me, finding something humorous that I truly did not understand. "Snap out of it," he said again. "You are making excuses to rationalise your fear. Stop it immediately."

I lowered my head, completely terrified. This man was insane.

"Did you truly just try to tell me that Kayla - Kayla - might be capable of keeping her mouth shut and her opinions to herself?" Yulie said, still cackling.

When he put it that way, it was a little amusing. I hadn't been aware that I could be amused and terrified at the same time.

"I was a ward," Yulie went on. "All of my family is dead. As such, I have the incredible luxury of being able to choose my household. I chose all those people, and Throren, too. If you think I'm not running with a theme, I urge you to rethink your paranoias."

It was only ever so slightly different to what my Master had said to me.

Rethink your decisions.

"What exactly has you so terrified?" Yulie asked.

There were too many things to say. My Master was bigger than me physically. There would be strength behind his punishment. There was a rumour that he had a horse cock. He had manhandled my shoulder rather painfully the night before. But, most of all ... he was so, so cold. How was I ever to predict him?

"He's cold," I said, sounding exactly as timid as I felt.

"He's cold," Yulie repeated tonelessly. "And I suppose you're just full of warmth and affection?"

Yulie leaned in over the table, coming closer to me. His perfect blue eyes were bright and mirthful, but his face was calculating and hard.

"He's cold," Yulie breathed. "So you presume he's something to be afraid of. How incredibly intolerant of you."

Yulie leaned back, but his back did not hit his chair. His eyes were cold again.

His words hit me hard, right in my heart. Was that what I had done? I was a slave. Surely, I had a right to be afraid? Surely, I had a right to be intolerant of a Master who was cold?

Surely ...

I would not have been nearly so afraid had it been anyone else. If it had been Quentin to have bought me, I would have been so grateful. I would have been relieved and happy to serve him. I'd have been pleased and safe in Summer Hill. I'd have been wary of Throren, amused by the horse cock rumour, and I'd have adored Lord Yulie, just like everyone else.

Instead, I'd been bought by Throren, who was too big, with a rumoured horse cock, and an incredibly blank face.

Had I been intolerant of him because he was different?

Rethink your decisions.

"I propose a different theory," Yulie said, carrying on regardless of my horror. "I theorise that Throren is the most guarded person I've ever met. He doesn't speak, he doesn't touch. He's the most withdrawn person I know. You? You see right through me. You take one look at me and you tell me I'm intelligent and bored, and you're right. You're the most extended person I know. You come in here and you're already rifling around in my brain."

"I don't mean ... I can't just not see you, my lord," I said, still reeling from what I had just realised.

"I theorise that you're incompatible," Yulie said. "You and Throren are in complete opposition, and there's no way you can possibly work together."

That just wasn't helpful at all.

"Seeing as how I can't understand it, that probably means you're a great match," Yulie said. "That is how things generally go. If it seems mad to me, everyone else tends to think it's romantic."

That ... actually was helpful. "What does he think?" I asked. "I ... I can't tell what he thinks."

Yulie studied me like a particularly poorly worded book. "You can't tell what he thinks?" he asked.

"No, my lord," I said.

"You can't tell what he thinks?" Yulie repeated.

"No, my lord," I said. I didn't know if I could voice the problem. It wasn't just that I didn't know what he thought - it was as if he didn't. It was as if he didn't think anything at all. It was as if he was just a shell, with no one inside of it.

"Your people fell out of fashion as slaves some time ago," Yulie said. "Do you know why?"

"No, my lord."

Yulie leaned forward and lowered his voice, as if telling me a secret. "The theory is that it has to do with the drought. Your people figured out how to talk without speaking, because opening the mouth parches you, it wastes water," Yulie said.

He was right, of course. We were always careful with water. We were free with our speech when water was plentiful, but when it wasn't, we were careful. We shortened words, or we didn't speak at all.

Yulie knew about Andonia. I looked around the room, at the sheer number of books. Was there anything Yulie did not know about?

"How do you talk without speaking?" Yulie went on. "The theory is that you don't talk without speaking at all. The theory is that you can listen without the other person having to speak. Your people fell out of fashion because Andonians are mind readers."

I sucked in my breath, shocked. "I ... I am not a mind reader, my lord," I said.

Yulie was not convinced. "You're the first person to see through me in ten years," he said tonelessly. "People don't like it when their slaves can see through them. It defeats the concept. Slavery is about control."

Well ... of course it was about control, but I couldn't read minds. That was ... ridiculous. I didn't say that aloud, of course.

Yulie didn't need me to. He'd already figured me out, and he had done it better than I could have done it myself. "You can come in here and know immediately that I'm intelligent and bored. You can make friends with all the servants, no trouble at all. You can get Secturn and Quentin on-side and trying to rescue you without any issues. But Throren? You can't read his mind."

I was silent, working it through in my mind. What if he was right? What if I was ... different?

It didn't matter. "If I could read minds, and I can't, then the only mind that I ought to read is my Master's. And he's completely blank to me."

"You're in luck," Yulie told me. "He's not blank to me."

"What has he told you?" I asked.

"Nothing," Yulie said. "He's never had to tell me anything, that's the reason I keep him around. I know him well enough to know what this is all about."

"What is this all about? My lord?" I asked.

"As with most things, it's about his cunt of a father," Yulie said.

I hadn't been expecting the language and it startled me. Yulie had been so perfect. He'd been intelligent and postured and ever so refined. What sort of man could drive someone like Yulie to poor language?

I looked at the books. A man with this many books knew too many words to ever need foul language. If Yulie swore, he swore to prove a point.

Yulie shrugged when I looked back to him. "He kept slaves. Girls. He liked to rape them, liked to hear them scream. Throren's greatest wish is to not be his father. You're everything he wouldn't approve of. You're educated and intelligent. You're a boy. Throren has been letting you get away with not servicing him. Father would definitely disapprove of that."

Yulie looked me up and down, then went on, as though he had a list in his head that had simply manifested there at a moment's notice. "You're little. Throren always liked little things. He likes what they look like in his hands. He's especially fond of those little alyssums in the south atrium. His father hated this. Throren would have been so good with a huge broadsword, but all he ever wanted was a knife.

"He hates slaves, because of his what his father did to them. No one was ever nice to him as a child, though, so when people are polite and respectful ... well, you can imagine.

"He hates my slave, but he can't get me to get rid of him, so he just hates slaves even more now.

"He has a complex relationship with sex, and I'm sure you can figure out why. He can't stand causing anyone pain, but that's all he can do.

"All of this compounds with you, a little bed slave, and you seem surprised you can't read his mind. You're the last person he'd ever let in."

Yulie finally stopped listing Throren's reasons for keeping me at a distance, and I finally understood exactly what I was dealing with. Yulie was not simply different.

Yulie was absurd.

He also wasn't finished. "And as for you? You come here telling me you don't know what he thinks. You can't read his mind. And all I can think to tell you is to suck it up, because neither can anyone else, but we're all doing just fine."

I'd expected platitudes when I'd been led to this room. Instead I'd gotten a rant from a man who was probably not quite right in the head. I hadn't expected to get any help.

But help I'd gotten.

Yulie was right. My fear had created a panic. I was so afraid of my Master that I hadn't stopped to think about it logically. I was so afraid of his cold demeanour that I couldn't see anything else.

I had not thought to consider any of my past experiences with him when I dealt with him.

My eyes drifted downward, to my hands in my lap. Yulie seemed to sense that he'd hit a nerve. He promptly dropped his eyes to the hefty tome on the table in front of him, opened it to precisely the page he was looking for on his first try, and ignored me while I had an incredibly startling realisation.

My Master had cared for me with his own hand when I had been sick. He had sourced potions for my pain. He had ordered me not to work, he had ordered me out of the sun - and he had corrected me about it when I had thought that he meant permanently. The very next day, he had brought me to that atrium to give me fresh air. He had not touched me in any way untoward, and when I had gone to his bed, he had tried to start gently with me. I had been too burned to be able to take a gentle touch, and my decision not to tell him that had earned me a painful reprimand.

I had been his for eight days at that point, and that was the closest thing to a punishment that I had received. It was also the closest thing to callous behaviour that I had received. My Master had taken every opportunity to do right by me. He fed me well, he had obeyed Quentin's every order regarding my health. He had agreed not to fuck me while I was sick without a moment's hesitation.

It did not escape my notice that the amount of time he had given me to rethink my decisions was four days. That was the same amount of time that Quentin had given me. Four days when he first saw me, then four more when he realised that he hadn't given me enough, and now, my Master had given me another four.

When I had seen Quentin, he had told me that my Master had been miffed that my burns were still a problem.

This was clearly not a man to be judged by his coldness or his words, few as they were. This was a man to be judged by his actions.

"Thank you," I said.

Yulie seemed surprised. "You come here for help, I tell you to suck it up, and you say thank you?" he said.

"You're right, my lord," I said. "I can't figure him out, and he scares me. But if I don't learn to trust him, if I don't snap out of it, I'll never get anywhere."

Yulie glared at me. "That isn't even remotely close to what I meant," he said. "What I meant was that there is no hope for you two."

I smiled. "I'll take comfort in that being what you think, my lord. That must mean it's romantic," I said.

He smirked. "Finally, someone who gets it," he said. "Go on, then, piss off. I have three more books to finish today."

 

 

 

That night, I lay next to the Master. He hadn't said a single word to me all day.

"I'm sorry," I said.

He rolled over and showed me his back.

Rethink your decisions.

'You decided you wouldn't tell me this,' he had said, right before he had grabbed my shoulder and handled it. What he had done would not have hurt had I not been burned. I hadn't told him that my skin still hurt, and as a result, I had let him put himself into a position where he was bound to hurt me.

He clearly didn't like this, if he wanted me to rethink the decisions that had led to it.

What would he have done if I had told him that it still hurt to be touched?

The memory popped into my head, suddenly and quickly. I remembered getting on my knees in front of him and asking to be allowed to work in the laundry. Straight away, without even questioning me, my Master had said yes.

If I had asked him to wait until the burns were gone completely, would he have done the same thing?

I fell asleep feeling as though I had made a terrible mistake.

The next morning, I forced my face into a smile and went to the laundry, where I consumed myself in work.

I wasn't allowed to help with hanging things out in the sun to dry, but I could wash things and fold things, and that was decent enough work. I could hardly wrap my head around the amount of water that we wasted, and I became nicknamed by Riga as their resident water-demon.

Water-demon. How absurd.

I liked it very much.

The laundry had a bunch of clothes in it that had been tossed aside, either beyond repair, or too much work to bother. My people did not waste things, and the Master once told me that he didn't buy an Andonian for more of the same. Secturn had said that he valued autonomy, so I took the clothes back to the Master's quarters.

All of them were repairable, but some were so damaged it would be too visible, even for the servants and slaves to wear. I separated the clothes into piles of those I'd fix, and those I would salvage.

Leanna came to check on me and told me all about how these things all ought to be thrown away. That was how the Master walked in on us. We were having a very heated argument about wastefulness while sitting cross-legged on the floor. I had a needle in my mouth.

Leanna seemed legitimately chastised. She went from cross-legged to on her knees with her hands in her lap, facing the Master, and I quickly imitated her.

"Leanna, Kath," the Master said. It was the first time he had spoken to me since he had told me to rethink my decisions. He walked to the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

Leanna returned to my side. "How do you know when he's pissed at you?" she asked. "I can never tell."

I shook my head mournfully. "If only there was a way," I said.

"What are you going to do?" Leanna asked in an extra-hushed voice. "I thought if there was anyone that might soften his edges, it'd be you, but he's as ... two-wordy as ever."

I shrugged. It wasn't if I hadn't been thinking about it. It was all I'd been able to think about for days.

Rethink my decisions.

Rethink my paranoias.

"Absolutely nothing," I said, and gave Leanna a smile. "I'm going to do absolutely nothing. If he wants something, I'm not going to guess. He has to tell me. All I'm going to do is focus really hard on the few things he has told me."

"What has he told you?" Leanna asked.

Rethink my decisions.

I shrugged. "He once told me he didn't buy an Andonian because he wanted more of the same," I said. "He's listened to some of my stories, he's asked about home, so, if that's all I've got to go on, I'll do Andonian things. I'll be your resident water-demon. I'll bitch and moan about wastefulness. If he doesn't like it, he can tell me."

The door opened right as I finished speaking. Leanna didn't see it.

"You're braver than I am. I saw what he did to Lord Severin," she said.

Throren had reappeared, and he had heard what she had said.

I remembered Yulie telling me to 'snap out of it,' and I grit my teeth and willed myself not to be afraid, but it wasn't a lack of fear that I felt. Instead, I felt an honestly absurd surge of bravery. I thought about Lord Severin, a man I'd never met. Secturn had said that Throren had picked up a table and swung it.

That same man stood in front of me now, huge, tall, and blank. He had apparently hurt Lord Severin for insulting Lord Yulie, but he wouldn't fuck me even when I spread my legs for it, because it had hurt me to be touched.

"You and half the kingdom apparently saw that, Leanna," I said, feeling as though I had finally snapped out of it. "I'm beginning to think it never happened."

Leanna sat completely still on the floor. I watched the colour draining from her face.

"It happened," Throren said.

We stewed in awkward, terrified silence for a while longer, before I realised that was exactly what had happened when I had gone to his bed. He had let me stew in worry, but he hadn't elaborated, hadn't cleared things up, hadn't told me how to do better.

Oh, fuck this, I thought. If he won't talk, I'll fucking do it for him.

"I heard that Lord Severin insulted Lord Yulie. Seeing as no one here is in the habit of doing that, I think we'll be fine. If worst comes to worst, I'll screw the table to the floor."

Throren left and closed the door behind him. I shushed Leanna when she tried to speak, and I listened.

I hadn't heard footsteps. He was standing outside the door. And - was that what I thought it was?

"ae'Aberda," I whispered. "He's laughing."

 

 

 

That night, the Master did not turn his back to me. He didn't say anything, either, but he didn't have to.

I knew what I heard.

"I've been rethinking my decisions," I said quietly. He ignored me. I sighed and went to sleep.

I was telling the truth. I had been thinking a lot.

I had made the decision to go to his bed - sort of. It was an order, not a decision. I'd been ordered to go to his bed, and I had made the decision to obey, and he wanted me to rethink it.

The only way to explain it was that he wanted me to rethink my obedience. That was an extremely strange thing for me to consider, as a slave, but I had to consider it, as my Master had told me to.

Yulie had told me that my Master's father had liked to make his slaves scream. I had gone to my Master's bed and started crying from gentle touches, and he had not enjoyed this.

Clearly, I had misjudged what my Master wanted from me when he had ordered me to his bed. I had obeyed his order blindly. I had been doing what had been asked of me by traders, who had wanted nothing more than stock that they could sell. They did not want to consider me as human, just a thing. They were perfectly content to disregard me and my pain, leaving me in an open-topped cage in the middle of a market square so that I could parch and burn.

My Master had disapproved of this. He had not appreciated that I had been treated that way, and he had done everything in his power to rectify things.

Then I had blindly gone to his bed and put him a position where he was bound to hurt me. I had assumed that he would disregard my pain, just like the traders had.

I remembered that he had woken Quentin in the night to bring potions for my pain.

My Master would not disregard my pain. This realisation did all sorts of calming, pleasant things to my nerves.

None of my father's slaves had ever obeyed orders blindly. Once he had them for a while, they would become autonomous. They figured out what needed doing on their own, and got it done in their own way. My father rarely gave orders. He simply waited for his slaves to go to him with their accomplishments, and he would be pleased.

Rather than being autonomous, I had been waiting for my Master to Master me, to tell me what to do and how to behave. This clearly hadn't worked.

I entertained the notion that my Master wasn't very good at Mastering. It was a risky notion. It made me think of what my father might have thought of my Master, and that was an even more risky line of thinking. Father would have told him that he had to talk to me, and if I knew anything for certain about two-word Throren, it was that he didn't want to talk.

But he also didn't want me to go to his bed without telling him that I was in pain.

So, two-word Throren wanted me to talk, but he didn't want to talk to me, and that was the height of hypocrisy. Father would have hated that, too.

But my Master had laughed at what I'd said about screwing the table to the floor. Hypocritical or not, talking when my Master wouldn't had worked. I had managed to please him.

I had been going about this in completely the wrong way. I needed to be pleasing, not obedient. When I had been obedient, I was told to rethink my decisions, but when I had been pleasing, he had laughed.

So - what pleased Lord Throren Drextrer?

He wanted me to tell him if I was in pain, he did not want blind obedience, he wanted to care for me with his own hand when I was sick, he didn't buy an Andonian for more of the same, and he did not want to fuck me if my skin still hurt to the touch.

It was getting easier and easier to snap out of it, like Lord Yulie had told me to. Throren Drextrer was beginning to seem like a decent enough man to belong to.

I slept well for the first time in months.

When I woke up, my Master was gone, but I was forming a plan.

I went to the atrium that we'd had breakfast together in. I sat alone on the bench and stared at the plants in the pots, wondering what an alyssum was. Yulie had told me that my Master liked it, whatever it was. I assumed it to be a plant, or a flower.

A man I presumed to be the gardener came through, carrying water. He doused the pots in it until the water ran through and trickled out the bottom of the pots.

Wasteful.

"Excuse me, sir, may I ask a question?"

He smiled at me. He was ancient. "Ask away, but come over here," he said.

I rose and walked to the edge of the shade.

"I've been ordered not to go out from underneath a roof," I said.

He moved closer to me and nodded. "You're a bit of a pale one, aren't you?" he said. "You'll be Lord Throren's, is that right? He's the only one that ever really comes here."

"Yes, sir. I'm Kath."

He nodded absently. "Garnth," he said eventually, then smiled again. Now that we were closer, I could see that his smile did not reach his eyes.

"Could you tell me what an - um - alyssum is?" I asked.

"Alyssum?" he said, pronouncing it correctly for me. He turned and plucked a tiny white flower from an overflowing carpet of them that was creeping out from one of the pots. This he looked at fondly, before offering it to me.

I opened my hands and he placed it into them. Even in my hands, it was a tiny flower. I imagined what it would look like in Throren's huge, dark hands and found myself smiling. It was so ridiculous, it was comical.

I had thought that I might pluck one to put in a vase by the bedside, but that simply would not work. It was much too small.

"You're a very long way from home," Garnth said. "But it's good to find beauty where you can."

"Thank you, sir," I said.

"Come with me," Garnth said suddenly. "Ah - you'll be under a roof. Technically."

That piqued my interest and I just had to follow him. He ambled with a bit of a limp, but his pace was steady, and he seemed to know where he was going.

We wound up in the guard's kitchens, near the orchard. He brought me through the kitchen. "Don't normally go this way, normally go around the outside," he mumbled. There was a door in the kitchen that I thought might lead outside, but instead went into a room made of glass, except for the side attached to the kitchen.

It was like a garden, but also a workshop, with a long bench at standing height and tools scattered everywhere.

I stared at the glass roof above me. Technically. Technically I was under a roof. If I stayed here, though, I'd burn just as well as I'd burned at the market. There were all sorts of plants here - lush, green things I had no names for. Tiny little trees with odd berries on them stood in the corner. A tray full of grass was in another corner. Even smaller flowers than the alyssums floated in a bucket of water.

Garnth seemed more interested in me than in the strange room. "You don't have greenhouses where you are from?" he asked.

I could hardly look at him, there were so many other things to look at. Why were those pots sitting inside other, larger pots? Why was all the soil different colours? Why were there little bits of tree bark in that pot? Why was that tree lashed to a stick? Why couldn't it stand on its own?

"I ... no," I said. "I ... why?" was all I could get out.

"Keeps the heat in," Garnth said, as if that answered the question.

"Why? Heat is the death of green," I said. It was the main rule of life. "If you let it burn, it will go brown and die."

Garnth smiled. "If you let it freeze, it will go brown and die," he said.

I opened and shut my mouth, feeling out of place, foreign and useless.

Garnth didn't seem to mind, however. He was plucking a pot from a shelf. He put it into my hands. In the pot was a tiny alyssum plant. It was even smaller than the others, with only a few flowers on it. It was a baby plant - if plants had such things.

"Place this on the sill outside your bedroom window," he said. "Feed it three fingers of water every morning. Bring it inside the window when the frost comes, then put it back outside in spring."

I held the heavy clay pot in my hands, fighting the urge to tremble.

"For me?" I asked.

"For you," Garnth said.

"Why?" I asked again.

"Because you asked," Garnth said, and smiled. "That's all it really takes, see. Most people will give you whatever you want, so long as you ask."

I stared at the plant in my hands. It was a flower, not a vegetable or a grain. It would guzzle down water every day, and it wasn't even edible, as far as I knew. It was just a pretty little thing that served no purpose whatsoever, that my Master liked.

Just like me.

"Could I come back here sometime?" I asked.

"Sure," Garnth said.

 

 

 

When I returned to the Master's quarters that night, I found him at the bedroom window, staring at my useless, wasteful plant.

He didn't say a word, he just looked at it.

"I thought it might be nice for you to have something to look at," I said. "You stand there often enough, Master."

He said nothing, just stared at the plant, so I left him and returned to my mending. When it came time to retire, I joined him in bed.

He still said nothing.

I took a deep breath. I wondered what he would do if he got angry at me.

My skin didn't hurt anymore, so he wouldn't be using that trick again.

Would he hit me? Would he swing a table at me? Would that get Yulie angry?

Would he be more thoughtful with his punishments, like my father had been with his slaves? Would he deny me food? Would he order me to do too-hard labour? Would he hurt my little plant?

There was only one way to find out.

"Leanna, Kath. It happened," I said.

For that, he finally looked at me. "What happened?"

Wow, really? He didn't know what I was getting at?

"'Leanna, Kath', and 'It happened'," I repeated. "Those are the four words you've said to me in the last three days, Master."

"You've been counting?"

"You haven't?" I said. I couldn't believe he hadn't hit me yet, so I kept pushing. "You ration your words more than any man I've ever met, and you aren't even doing it on purpose?"

He was silent - silent, of all things, at the time when I was pushing for a beating.

"I've been distracted," he said eventually.

I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to think. "I thought you were mad at me," I said, after many long minutes of silence.

More silence followed, tense and thick. "Mad and disappointed are two very different things," he said.

"Are you still disappointed?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I never really was," he said.

What the fuck did that mean? "If you weren't disappointed, and you weren't mad, then what were you? Master?"

He shrugged again. "I can be disappointed without being disappointed in you," he said.

What the fuck did that mean? More to the point, was I going to have to ... to question him like this to find out?

Was this what I should have been doing all along?

"What were you disappointed in, Master?"

He was quiet, but only for a moment this time. "Sometimes, certain people ... see through it," he said, but it was rough, like he was really fighting to get the words out. "They see through my height, and they ignore it, and they treat me like I'm normal."

Oh.

Oh, fuck.

"It's not your fault, Kath," he said. "It's only ever been ... special people, that can ignore the way I look. I'll never ask you to be ... better than everyone else."

His tone was so blank, so completely clean of emotion that it hurt to hear it, but I also felt somewhat angry about it.

Only special people could do it. He thought I wasn't special. Fuck that.

I was special. I was so special, I could wrench more than two words out of Throren Drextrer, the table-swinging giant.

I didn't say this. I guarded my words, clenched my teeth, and went to sleep.

 

 

 

The next day, he was gone early in the morning, before I woke.

I stretched, dressed, and fed my plant three fingers of water, smiling stupidly at it as I did.

I worked in the laundry again, mindful that tonight was the end of my four days. I wondered if he was even going to try again. I wondered if he was that disappointed.

I wondered what had made him like this.

In the afternoon, Secturn found me. "Your Master wants to see you in his rooms," he said.

"Yes, sir," I said, rising and leaving what I was doing for Kayla to finish. I could hear her, in my mind, saying 'horse cock' to Leanna as I left the laundry.

Secturn walked with me. "Has he touched you yet?" he asked.

"No, sir."

"If you need anyone to intervene - "

"I don't think so, sir," I interrupted. "I think everyone is overreacting to a problem they have in their heads."

"I doubt his size is in my head, Kath," Secturn said. "My eyes are just fine."

I took a deep breath. I tried so hard to be special. "He cared for me with his own hands when I was sick, sir. He carried me here on his shoulder. The only work I'm allowed to do is the work I've asked for. When I tried to please him last, he was repulsed because he hurt me. I really don't think I've anything to be afraid of, sir, but your concern is ever so kind."

Secturn seemed placated by this, but he continued on with me anyway. "You've had a change of heart, then," he said. "Yulie is ever so good at that."

I smirked, then turned my head so Secturn wouldn't see it. Yulie was good, sure, but not the way Secturn thought. "I have been afraid of my Master because of his size, and because he doesn't talk to me about it. Everything I know about him, I've been told by other people, and other people are so convinced that he can't have me in his bed, it won't work. Maybe, maybe not. In any case, it's none of anyone's business but his."

Secturn smiled. "You would have been such a good replacement for Dune," he said wistfully. "It's not fair. Throren's a good man, but he's not our Lord Yulie. He deserves better."

"I appreciate the compliment, sir. I can only hope things with Dune get better," I said, but my heart twisted. Everyone wanted Yulie to be happy, but who wanted Throren to be happy? How could a man so huge be so overlooked?

We had reached the door. Secturn snorted in a very unappealing way, and looked at me with dry, unpleasant eyes. "We're past getting better," he said. "Dune needs to go."

I couldn't find it in my heart to care about Dune as I pushed open the door. The Master was in his chair, staring at the hearth. He was so blank and so cold that I felt an urge to light the fire and warm him. Instead, I remembered that he had called for me, which made me feel a little warm. I went and knelt by him.

"You asked after me, Master?" I asked.

He nodded slowly, then spared me a glance. "On the table," he said.

"Yes, Master," I said. Weird. Was it a good thing or a bad thing, for it to happen on the table instead of the bed? "Would you like me to take off my clothes first?" I asked.

"What?" Throren asked. He furrowed his brow, then unfurrowed it and chuckled.

It made me hurt, to see him laugh. He was so guarded, so blank, it looked unreal. I thought maybe he was faking it, but I couldn't tell. I could never tell.

"Not you. Go look on the table," he said. Then, "Keep your clothes on."

I rose and went to the table. On it was a long piece of wood. It was sanded and felt smooth as I picked it up. On the end was a round stopper, and on the other end it tapered into a point, then recessed into a hook.

"Did Secturn send this, Master?" I asked, wondrous.

"No," the Master said. "He did describe it to me, though. Will it do, or does it need changing?"

It was ever so slightly different to what I'd had at home, but who the hell cared? "It will do," I said. "Where on earth did you find it?"

Throren shrugged. "On the floor of the woods by the lake," he said.

Surely not. What were the chances of that? Ridiculous.

Wait. Oh. Oh.

"Did you carve this?" I asked.

"It isn't that complex," he said.

When I dared to sneak a glance at him, he was staring rather firmly into the empty fireplace. We were both refusing to meet one another's eye.

He cleared his throat. "I have promised to join Yulie for dinner," he said. "I won't be late, and you are free to do as you please until my return." With that, he rose and walked to the door.

My fingers tightened around my hook. "Wait," I called, but my voice broke halfway, and I barely made a sound.

Chapter Text

When the Master returned, I was on the floor by his armchair. I'd been unable to resist the urge, and I'd cannibalised one of the irreparable pieces of clothing from the laundry for its yarn. The hook wasn't quite the same as I was used to, but it functioned for the job. It was well made, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. All I could think about was that he had made it for me with his own hands. I sat there with it and let myself sink into the familiar motions as I passed the yarn forward and back.

It was the first touch of home I'd had in months, and it reminded me of ae'NaNathra, my father's favourite slave. It was the first time in months that I had been able to think of any memories of Andonia that were pleasant, and not about what my father would have thought about my situation.

I sat on the floor and remembered ae'NaNathra reading to me while I knit. I remembered Father falling asleep in his chair with his hands in ae'NaNathra's hair, and I remembered Mother telling the three of us that we were utterly incorrigible layabouts. I remembered her telling us she loved us anyway.

The Master sank into his armchair and watched my hands. I had stopped knitting, and my thumb was caressing the wood fondly instead. I tried to find words to thank him. I tried to think of how to tell him what he had given me. This wasn't just a tool to me, not now that I had it in my hands.

This was a memory. This was home, this was my family. This was safety, this was calm.

He found words first.

"Strip. Lie on your back in the middle of the bed with your legs spread."

I put my work down on the floor by the armchair and fled to the bedroom, where I disrobed quickly and obeyed, returning to the same position I had adopted four days prior.

He did exactly the same things he had done four days prior. A tub of water and a washcloth were placed beside the bed. A notched candle was lit on the nightstand. He sat between my feet and pressed the tub of oil between his knee and thigh. He did not disrobe, but he did carefully roll up his sleeves.

He put his hand on my inner thigh again. "You haven't made the same decision again, have you?" he asked.

I shook my head. "I don't hurt anymore, Master," I said. He nodded, but he was still just looking at me with his hand on my thigh. He moved his thumb back and forth. It felt soothing.

I realised I was shaking. I tried to stop and couldn't.

He trailed his hand up to my knee and pushed. I let it fall back to the bed, just like before.

He took a deep breath. "I understand," he said, then swallowed. He may have been having trouble speaking. Or he might have had something stuck in his throat. I couldn't tell. "I understand why you're afraid," he finally got out. "I am no good at soothing."

I felt my heart quicken in my chest. "I'm not afraid," I said, wondering, if I said it aloud, might it become true? "I'm not, I'm ... I'm nervous."

The Master looked at my face with unreadable, blank, dark eyes. "It's a large difference, is it? Nervous and afraid?"

I nodded. "Yes. Very large difference, Master."

He was not satisfied. He kept his hand on my thigh, but he looked at me everywhere. "What is the difference?" he asked.

"Fear is based on the idea that you might be hurt," I said. "I don't think - I don't think I'm about to be hurt, Master. But I don't know what else I'm about to be, either, and it's the not knowing that's hard."

His hand tightened, then relaxed on my thigh as I spoke. When I finished speaking, he caressed my leg. He could have been doing it to an alyssum flower, for how gentle he was being.

I wondered if he was just going to touch me. Touch me, look at me ... I wondered if he intended to watch me come by his huge hands. I hadn't gotten hard yet, but with where my thoughts were going, it was only a matter of time.

I wondered if I had vastly misjudged the situation. I still couldn't read him. He was as blank as ever while he touched me. For all I really knew, he was about to take his pleasure by beating me.

He moved over me and placed his hands on either side of my stomach. He kept his body above mine, untouching. The oil jar clunked and fell as he moved his leg. He lowered only his head. His hair, unkempt and thick, brushed my belly, then his lips did.

It was not unpleasant. If there was anything I felt from it, it would be worshipped.

He moved up, kissing up my stomach. He kissed each individual rib on my right side, then latched his lips onto my nipple and sucked. As he did, my cock began to rise.

He lifted his head back up and went back to looking. First, he studied my face. I was fairly certain he saw a blush reddening my cheeks. Then he looked at my chest, the nipple he'd just sucked on, the other one. Then he looked down.

As usual, I couldn't tell whether he approved or disapproved of my half-hard cock. But he did look at it. He looked and looked, and if I wasn't blushing before, I felt certain I was then.

"Should I be doing something, Master?" I asked.

He didn't look away. "Only exactly what you are doing," he said tonelessly.

Well, that sounded like approval, at least. "Should I touch you?" I asked.

He shook his head. "I don't much enjoy being touched. I'd prefer you didn't."

Not for the first time, I wondered what had made him this way.

He liked to touch me well enough, it seemed. He kept on doing it, anyway. He leaned back, put the oil back in the junction between his thigh and calf, and put his hands on my legs again. My leg hairs ran through his fingers and I wondered if it bothered him. If it did, if he wanted me shaved, he said nothing of it.

My cock continued to rise. He kept watching it. I felt fairly certain that he intended to watch me come apart under his hands. I felt rather okay with that.

Eventually, he touched my cock. He took it into his hand as my breath hitched. He didn't pull me, he just held me, caressing gently. It felt weird. He touched my balls, rolling them between his fingers, and my hips moved slightly before I managed to control myself.

He pulled his gaze from his hands to my face. "If it brings you pleasure to move, I would have you do it," he said.

I nodded, meaning to say yes, but only managing a broken, formless noise. The next time he moved his hand I moved into his touch. I could only assume this pleased him - he'd asked me to do it, after all - but he didn't show any pleasure on his face.

He looked at the notched candle. The flame had fallen from where it had been. There were still just as many notches, though. It hadn't burned through any of them yet.

Was he timing this? If he was, he seemed satisfied with the time. He uncorked the bottle of oil and dipped his fingers in it. "If this hurts you at all, it will not hurt for long," he said.

I nodded. He pressed his hand beneath my balls and stroked. Up, down, over my arse. It felt too intimate, but there was a spot just beneath my balls that felt kind of good when he pressed. I felt like moving my hips when he stopped, to get that press back. I refrained.

"Pass me that," he said, and I followed his gaze. Was it the pillow? I grabbed his pillow and offered it to him. He took it. "Lift up your hips."

I did as best I could, and he stuffed the pillow under my arse. It forced my hips to cant up to him and opened me up a bit better. I felt once again like a harlot.

He dipped his fingers in the oil again and pressed against my arsehole. I clenched, even though I knew I wasn't supposed to. "Sorry," I said.

He shook his head. "I'll not rush you," he said.

Eventually, I managed to unclench and accept the finger he pressed inside me. He didn't seem pleased. He didn't seem anything.

"Are you hurting?" he asked.

I shook my head. It felt weird, but it didn't hurt.

"Have you ever had anything inside you before?" he asked.

I shook my head. "It - it isn't done, at home, Master."

He very slowly withdrew the finger, then pressed it back in again. "It isn't done between men? Or it isn't done in the arse?"

"It isn't done at all, between anyone, except for bonding," I said. I was starting to feel super weird about the finger in me. I was starting to get really ... overheated.

"Bonding?" the Master questioned.

"To ... forge a bond," I said. It came out like a squeak. "Between husband and wife, between Master and slave, but always ... always to bring you together. It's ... I never had a wife or a slave so..."

I was starting to pant heavily, and my hips were starting to jerk. The Master didn't seem to mind. "Do you feel like you're bonding now?" he asked.

I took three deep breaths while he continued to do exactly the same movement in my arse, then I ground out: "Do you not?"

He looked at my face, then at my arse. He cocked his head almost imperceptibly to the side. I thought I saw the beginnings of a smile.

I wondered if I'd just managed to read him.

Surely, if there was any point that he would let his guard down, it would be now. If I was ever going to get close, if I was ever going to form a bond, surely it would be in his bed, serving him?

He crooked his finger and dragged it downwards and I yelped, so he did it again, and again. My hips jerked until I fell into a rhythm, moving with his finger as it poked and dragged. My cock dribbled onto my stomach.

The Master looked at the candle. It had burned through a notch.

He looked back at me. "It might seem hard to believe, right at this moment, but you will eventually reach a point where you stop enjoying this."

It did seem hard to believe. It seemed like it had to be a lie. The Master kept poking me in that spot inside. It dragged a sound from me every time.

"There will come a time, tonight, where you will ask me to stop," Throren said.

That was ridiculous. I was a bed slave. I was bought to go to his bed, spread my legs, and take what was given. Even if I wanted to tell him to stop, which I didn't, I didn't have the balls to refuse my Master.

"When you do, I will," Throren said.

I wondered whether I'd ever be allowed to kiss him.

"Why?" I asked.

He looked at me, then looked back at his finger as it disappeared into my body. "Because you are good," he said. I thought that I might have detected fondness in his tone. "Because when you ask me to stop, you will ask because you are no longer able to do as I ask without pain. You will ask because you remember that I preferred to stop than to touch you when it hurt you."

I remembered Yulie telling me: 'He doesn't like causing pain, but that's all he can do,' and my chest felt tight. I nodded to my Master.

His finger retreated and he dipped it and his middle finger back in the oil. He brought them back to me and pressed them inside.

Several things happened at once. The two fingers penetrated me. It burned ... but I liked it. The Master watched my body take them, and for a brief moment, I could read him.

That was what hurt. Not his fingers, thick as they were and small as I was. It was what I read on his face, for a tiny moment, that split me apart inside. His fingers went into me and he longed ... he longed for it ... and I understood him.

He was a monster of a man with a monster of a cock and no one could take it. He hurt everything he wanted. He was a giant with gentle hands. He couldn't stand pain, and all he really wanted was to fuck me - fuck anyone - but he only ever hurt people.

It was no wonder he wasn't bothering to talk to me. He'd bought a little slave. I was too small for him, and we both knew it. The whole household knew it. He knew that he couldn't get what he wanted from me. Throren liked the look of me, and he was kind enough to help me get better. He was interested enough to take me to his bed, but he knew that it wasn't going to work.

Why bother talking to me if I wasn't ever going to be able to do the job I was bought for? Why would he want to let himself get attached?

As quick as it had come, his emotion was gone and I couldn't read him anymore. His fingers were still in me and it had stopped burning. He moved them again, back to that spot, and my hips began their dance again. Up, back, up again, meeting and pushing against his fingers.

The pain he expected wasn't there yet. He seemed certain that it would be.

"What if I can't take enough?" I asked.

He stilled his hand. "There is no enough," he said. "There is no good, no bad. You'll take what you can, and no more."

"And if I can't take you?" I asked.

Throren moved his fingers onto that spot and he fucking massaged it. "Kath, no one takes me," he said, while I lay there and hyperventilated.

Then he spread his fingers apart, stretching me ever so slightly wider, and a very ugly part of me reared and made itself known. A part of me that I and many traders had stamped down suddenly screamed out, after months of silence.

He told me no one took him. And all that I could think?

Fucking watch me.

I hadn't had this sort of defiance since I'd been a free man, and having it now terrified me. The Master didn't seem to notice. He was back to pressing his fingers in and out of me.

It wasn't the sort of thing that I could fight, though. It was in my head and wouldn't get out, and the next time he moved his fingers apart, it felt like a promise to come and I moaned.

"Hurt?" he asked.

I shook my head. "It feels good," I said.

I was so fucked. So fucked.

It did hurt. It hurt, and I didn't care, because I was turning back into what I had been before I was collared.

When I had been free, I had been a stubborn, defiant man who did whatever I liked. I was a spoiled child and an even more spoiled young man, and when I made up my mind about something, I got it.

Even if it caused me a little pain.

"It doesn't hurt, even a little bit?" Throren asked. He moved his fingers and I felt stretched, burning, but also ... strangely victorious.

"Sort of," I said. "But it's not ... it's not that sort of pain. If that makes any sense."

"It does," he said. "You tell me when that changes."

The part of me that was a defiant little child frankly refused, and I felt like stamping my foot and saying 'Never!' The rest of me struggled against it and won - barely.

I didn't have a time limit, I decided. So, I had decided I would take his cock - it didn't have to be tonight. It could be tomorrow, or next month. Maybe I wouldn't get there tonight. That would be fine. Tonight, I'd tell him when it hurt too much. I'd take what pain I was willing to take, and when it got too much, I'd tell him.

I wasn't worried about the Master hurting me anymore. I was worried that my own defiance would be what hurt me.

I had the feeling that I was about to force my body to do more than it really ought to, and I just didn't care. I was going to push my body as far as I could make it go, because that was what I did when I decided to be stubborn.

Maybe when I did, I'd be able to read him. Maybe we would bond.

Throren watched the candle for a while and kept moving his fingers. As the pain receded until it was gone completely, I realised that there was no other way to describe what he was doing, except to say that he was pleasuring me.

Oh, I was definitely going to take that cock of his, horse cock or not.

It doesn't have to be tonight, I reminded myself forcibly. Some other night. On this night, I would tell him if it hurt too much.

He watched the candle burn slowly through a notch. He was definitely timing it.

"Why ... the candle?" I asked.

"I can get carried away," he said. "It's easiest on you if I don't rush."

"Oh," I said. "Thank you, I guess."

"You're welcome," he said.

I wondered if he ever rushed anything. He certainly didn't seem inclined to rush this.

I was going to have his cock if it was the last thing I did. Maybe it would be the last thing I did. Maybe it would split me in half and I would die from it.

I couldn't have cared less if it did, at that moment.

Throren eyes travelled every part of me he could see while I took his fingers. He watched my face, he watched my arse, he watched my cock.

He even watched my hands as I gripped at the sheets underneath me.

The candle burned lower, and I suddenly realised how badly I wanted to come. I hadn't in a very long time, and if I was ever going to, it had to be with his permission.

"What happens ... when I ... when I ask you to stop?" I asked.

"I stop," he said.

I shook my head. "I mean, after you stop," I said. "Do we just ... do I just roll over and try to sleep like this?"

He shook his head. "Depends how it happens. If we're smart about it, and I'm patient, it will happen slowly enough that I can just ... take a step back."

He withdrew, and he pressed back with only one finger. I hated it. Even as he pressed it against that good spot, I hated it.

"Then I'll do this until you come from it."

That didn't sound so bad, except for the fact that I hated it. "I - I'm not done," I said. "I ... give it back."

At this, I got another moment of being able to read him. He was pleased. Obligingly, he gave me the second finger back, and I noted studiously that he enjoyed being asked for more.

I was going to please this man if it fucking killed me.

"If it happens quickly, and suddenly it all hurts, I'll take my fingers out and I'll find some other way to finish you," he said. "There is no small amount of different ways."

I couldn't find it in me to give a shit. I had it in my head that I was going to come on his cock, and I couldn't manage to knock it out.

It doesn't have to be tonight, I kept trying to remind myself, but it wasn't working.

"If we're not smart, if we leave it too long, the pain might stop you from being aroused at all. Then, you can just roll over and sleep."

Hm. Best be careful, then, because I desperately wanted that orgasm. "And you?"

"I don't want to be touched," he said.

"So, you'll ... just sit there and be ... what, unaffected?" I asked breathily.

He furrowed his brow and slowly shook his head. "Unaffected might be the wrong word," he said, but hah, I could read him again. Unaffected was the opposite of what he was.

"I will take care of myself," he said, and I closed my eyes to stop him from seeing the madness going on in my head. I wondered if I would ever be able to let him take care of himself. It seemed beyond my capacity to endure the idea of him, alone, taking care of himself without me. Taking care of him was supposed to be my job, and yet there he was, taking care of me instead.

I was not going to let him take care of himself. I was going to take his cock, because that was what I was for. I was bought to take care of his needs, not to lie here and be pleasured.

I wasn't supposed to be given the option to tell him to stop. I wasn't supposed to be given a hook made by his own hand, I wasn't supposed to be fed so well and given such lenient rules. I wasn't supposed to be allowed things like a budding, pleasant friendship with Leanna, I wasn't supposed to be comfortable.

I was supposed to be a slave bought to be fucked in the arse, and if my Master was going to go above and beyond to do better by me than he had to, then I was going to do the same to him.

I pretended not to feel these things. Instead, I nodded and opened my eyes.

"Can I have more?" I asked, and there he was again, readable like an open book, for only a moment. He was shocked, but also delighted. Then he closed off again.

He definitely liked being asked for more.

He nodded, withdrew his fingers, picked up more oil with them, and pressed back against my hole. This time was even slower than before, and it burned again, but it didn't feel like pain to me, it felt like winning.

I wondered how big his cock was, and I felt my own twitch.

He moved so slowly it was torturous, and he watched my face or my arse the whole time. I could read him more often now than I couldn't, and it felt good. He was watching my face for signs of pain, and I stubbornly refused to show any.

It helped that I wasn't feeling pain. I was feeling an odd burn that really wasn't pain. It felt more like success.

Whatever it was, it was making my cock leak and my hips jerk, and Throren seemed to really like it too. He looked almost like he was proud.

I wanted to take more, but my cock was so hard it hurt, and I wasn't sure what was going on with my body - I felt almost like I was about to come, but not quite, and I hadn't been touched. I was pretty sure that if I took myself in hand, I'd spill all over myself in seconds, but I wasn't allowed to do either of those things.

"When ... when is it supposed to hurt?" I asked, and I sounded meek, broken, and breathless. I couldn't make myself care.

Throren looked at me, and at his fingers in me, his huge fingers and my little arse.

He was breathless too, when he spoke. "Honestly? A while ago. This is ... this is more than I'd expected of you."

I suddenly wanted more, and couldn't contain myself, couldn't keep it behind my lips. "More," I said, and I didn't even say it because I knew that he liked it. I said it entirely because I was feeling defiant, and I had decided that I would do the thing no one thought I could. I was going to have his cock, and if I didn't do it soon, I was probably going to combust from the need to come.

Throren shook his head, but I didn't let him speak.

"More," I demanded again.

He shook his head again. Then he pressed hard into that spot with his fingertips and didn't stop. He rubbed, and rubbed again, and I quaked and bent and moaned.

He looked me in the eye. "You will come from this," he said, and I wondered what he meant. If he had said it with the right inflection, it could have meant anything. It may have been an order, a demand to give him my pleasure. It might have been an observation, and if so, he would have been right. If he kept doing that, I was going to come, whether one of us touched my cock or not. He might have been shocked - I certainly was. I had known it could be pleasant, but I hadn't known it could be this pleasant. He might have even meant it to be mocking - some places found this act to be demeaning. It wasn't in Andonia, and it wasn't in Lestrat, generally. It certainly wasn't in Summer Hill.

It didn't seem to matter, because my body seemed to take it as though it was an order. I gripped the sheets and bit my lip, finding it desperately difficult to restrain myself from taking my cock in hand.

I felt completely obscene when I actually did manage to come from it, exactly as he had said. I felt even more obscene when I realised that it had been the best orgasm I had ever had, without even the slightest amount of competition.

The heat in my entire body was obscene, especially in the soles of my feet. The shudders I had were obscene, and I very nearly closed my knees on my Master. My eyes dropped half-closed obscenely, my cock spilled obscenely, and I let out an obscene sounding noise.

He did not stop, and it went on and on while he kept doing it to me until it became uncomfortable. I had the faintest inclination that I had started frowning in discomfort, and then he stopped completely.

My panting breath sounded obscene to my ears.

He took his fingers out and it felt weird, to have them in there and then not, but he held himself above me and he looked at me like he was finally satisfied with me. I raised my hand to him, and it shook. I didn't care.

He stoppered the oil and put it away in the nightstand. He picked up the washcloth, wet it in the water, and cleaned his hand. Then he cleaned my chest and cock. Then he cleaned my arse.

Then he had the gall to stand up as if to leave, the absolute brute.

"Come here," I said, and it sounded like a reprimand, so I tried to control my tone. "Please, Master?"

He did. He knelt between my still-spread legs and leaned over me, not touching. I reached up to him, linked my hands behind his neck and tried to pull him down. He was so strong, and I so shaky and small that I couldn't move him. After a moment, he bent anyway, and let himself be pulled into a kiss.

It was nice. It may have been made nicer by the fact that I'd just had a spectacular orgasm, my first in months, and my whole body was buzzing and floaty. I didn't care much why it was nice, only that it was.

I had been kissed like this once before by a man who I'd thought might buy me. He'd been far smaller than Throren, and he'd kissed me right there at market, one hand yanking my collar in one direction, the other yanking my hair the other way. I had felt molested and dirty. I'd felt his mouth and his teeth for days later.

He had balked and shoved me away when he'd heard my price.

The Master - clearly - had not. He kissed like a man who knew precisely what my value was. He tilted his head to angle himself just right. He applied just the smallest amount of pressure to me. I felt the tension under my hands where I held them behind his neck as he held himself upright. He did not force his weight on me. He chased my bottom lip when I let it fall open, then he drew it between his own. When he was done with that, he kissed the corner of my mouth and my cheek, then went back to my lips, and took my top lip.

We kissed for ages and I enjoyed it. I held him to me the whole time, refusing to release him. I couldn't stand the thought that he might leave me. I couldn't stand the idea that he might leave his bed slave to take care of himself. He didn't seem much interested in leaving anymore either. He couldn't have been comfortable, the way he held himself above me, but he did not complain.

Eventually, he drew back, even as I tried to hold him down. I realised that I'd have more luck trying to hold onto him. If I clung to him and made him drag me away with him, maybe then he would let me touch him.

He did not leave. He shifted his weight onto his left arm, and with his other hand, he took me lightly by the chin and turned my head away.

He didn't do anything, he just looked. He looked at my face, turned to the side, and down my neck. Then he turned me the other way and kept looking.

This whole thing had started with him looking at me, and I wondered if it might start all over again.

He turned me back to face him, rested his arm back down, and kissed me again with renewed vigour. I opened my mouth to him and gave myself over, letting his tongue into my mouth and stroking it with my own.

I don't know how long we were there, kissing and doing nothing else, but it felt right. It felt normal for this man, patient and restrained, to be content just to kiss me.

This treatment did nothing to dull my desire to take his cock.

Every so often we parted for breath. During one of these times, I asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

He shook his head and shut me up by kissing me again.

Eventually, he let his kisses trail down my jaw and into my neck, where the collar blocked him completely. He skipped over it, found my shoulder, latched his lips onto my collarbone and sucked gently. He kept at it for some time. It was a while before I figured out what he was doing. When I realised that he intended to leave a mark, I felt my spent cock twitch.

Fuck.

He sucked on, oblivious, as my breath quickened, and my cock filled again. I couldn't quite see the spot he was working on, but when he moved back to survey his work, he seemed content enough to move further down my shoulder and start again. This one I would be able to see, but I didn't look. Instead I moved my head further aside and tried to give him better access.

It didn't so much hurt as it just ... felt. It was just suction and time that he gave me, no biting or pain.

I wondered what the hell I was going to do about my hard cock. Would he want to touch me again? Would I be ignored, already paid attention to once?

Would he give me his cock?

Would I be able to take it?

Would I be able to stop thinking about taking it?

He eventually finished his sucking, and when he pulled back, I glanced at my shoulder. An angry red mark greeted me, and I wondered if I ought to be glad that my shirt would hide it. I figured I ought to be glad. I actually wasn't.

My hands were still linked behind his neck, and he pried one hand away. I didn't struggle. Not really. I didn't go gladly either. He either chose not to comment, or he was so strong he didn't even notice my resistance. With my forearm in his grasp, he sucked another bruise onto the bone on my wrist. I stopped struggling. We locked eyes over my hand. I stared into his dark eyes until he was finished.

This mark, I would not be able to hide.

Would I be able to hide it if I took his cock? Would everyone be able to tell, plain as day when they saw me next? Would I limp, would I cry, would I bleed?

"I had expected you to be tired," he said, and kissed the palm of my hand.

I had expected you to fuck me, I almost said.

Instead, I glanced downwards. He followed my eyes. I couldn't tell if he was pleased or displeased with what he saw.

"When did that happen?" he asked.

So far, with him, the truth hadn't fucked me over, so I told it. "When I realised you were going to leave a mark," I said. I wondered if the truth would make him fuck me.

It didn't. What it did get was him back to sitting cross-legged, between my legs.

I wondered if he'd ever let me climb into his lap.

He stared at my cock for some time, doing nothing. Then, finally, "Would you like me to leave some more?"

Fuck.

I felt my head hit the pillow. I hadn't realised I'd been holding it up, looking down at him. "Yes, Master," I said, and he obliged, getting to work on my inner thigh with his mouth.

He left it after only a few moments. He leaned over me and retrieved the oil from the nightstand. He placed it back in between his thigh and knee. I whimpered and he put his mouth back.

Some time and some bruises later, he dipped his fingers into the oil, then gently pressed two into my arse. I arched my back. "Yes," I rasped out, pressing back into them.

He was gentle and slow with me, but I didn't want it. "More," I said.

He pressed a third in, and it felt just as good as it had before. He looked like he was concentrating hard - so very hard - on me and my arse. His brow was furrowed, his gaze intent.

Eventually, after looking back at the candle, he started moving his fingers gingerly apart, burning me and stretching me even further open, and I wondered - if I could take this, surely, I could take him? Surely, I could take anything.

He worked me open tenderly and slowly, as though he thought I couldn't take it. He stared intently at my cock as though waiting for me to lose my erection. I wondered if I was going to come again.

He was looking at the candle again, and I was moving with his fingers, taking them even when he stretched them apart. Eventually, he shook his head, as though his own thoughts were bothering him, and he pulled his fingers out. He oiled them up again, and his other finger.

Fuck, really? I wondered what a slave had to do to get fucked around here.

Still, when he pressed it inside, I didn't really mind, because the burn was back, and that burn felt like success. I was a little shocked when I managed to take it.

The Master looked pleased. He looked satisfied and impressed, and I wondered if he would look at me like that when I inevitably took his cock. It was inevitable now. It was simply a fact. I was going to take it. I couldn't possibly not take it. I was going to have him inside me, and no one could stop me.

"Kath," he said, and I recalled what Kayla had said. He knows everyone's name. Kayla, Kayla, Kayla ... I could stand to hear him say my name over and over again.

When had I started thinking of Kath as my name?

"I won't be disappointed," he reassured me, but I could read him, and I knew he was lying.

He wanted me to like it. He wanted me to like that last finger almost as much as I wanted to. It still burned. If I'd had a different frame of mind, it might have felt terrible. Instead, it felt right. It felt good.

"It doesn't hurt," I said.

"That's a lie," he said, and he wasn't entirely wrong. I wondered if he'd punish me for lying.

"It would feel better if you'd move it," I said. No lies there.

"Kath," he said again, but he did move his fingers. In, out, up, touching with the pads of his fingertips. The burn did not go away this time. I didn't mind.

He slowly sped up, and when he did, I couldn't contain the moaning. I wanted to keep rhythm with him, moving my arse back into his fingers, but I found myself erratic and unable to keep that level of control.

"Kath," he said. I couldn't answer. I had stopped moaning and started wailing. "You need to tell me to stop."

"Is that an order?" I asked.

"It shouldn't have to be," he said.

"If you want me to ask for something I don't want, it has to be an order," I said.

He didn't order me to tell him to stop. Instead, he withdrew from my arse and I felt tears prick my eyes. "Turn over," he said.

It seemed odd to turn over, because he'd been so interested in looking at me. But I turned over anyway, showing him my back. He positioned me with gentle hands, lifting my hips up, spreading my knees out underneath me and pushing my shoulders down to the bed. I felt spread out, on display and obscene.

He put his fingers back in me, and the burn was less in this position. It was easier for me when I didn't have to hold my legs open. I was bent over and wide open.

I realised that he had sacrificed the pleasure he took from looking at me in order to make it easier for me to do this.

This man was going to ruin me, and it wouldn't be his horse cock that did it. It was going to be his kindness.

It still burned, and I couldn't help but start wailing again. He put his other hand on my hip and pulled me back even further. The head of my cock dragged against the mattress.

"Kath," he said again.

I didn't respond. I'd put my hands above my head and braced against the headboard, and the pressure I could get when I pushed back now was so good, it was all I could think about. No amount of pressing back could keep his hand in me when he withdrew it, however.

It felt weird and wrong to have nothing in me again, but at least I could think clearly again. I took deep breaths. My face was wet, and I didn't know why.

"Kath," he said again. He knows everyone's name. Kath, Kath, Kath. "When you tell me to stop, I'll stop." When. Not if, when.

I heard his belt unbuckle. Oh, thank fuck, finally.

I wondered if I should look back. I wondered if I was even capable of looking back.

He oiled himself up, and I wondered if he had turned me over so I couldn't watch. I probably could see him, if I turned enough, but I was too overwhelmed to even think of it.

Besides, it didn't matter. Whatever he kept in his trousers couldn't possibly be more than I could take, if I could take four of his fingers. He didn't have small hands.

When he breached me, it was the most intense burn yet, but the sound I made wasn't one of pain. The sound didn't stop. It wrenched out of me, stopping only when I drew breath, starting again the moment I exhaled. It came out of me completely without permission and I made every effort to stop it. I failed miserably.

Taking his cock, though, that I did not fail at. That was a huge success. It was a completely different shape to his fingers, and stretched me in a different way, but the burn was the same. When he finally stopped, both of his hands were on my waist, gripping me lightly. They were shaking. I was shaking.

He gave me time to get used to it. I eventually realised that he had stopped, he wasn't just waiting. He wasn't going to move until I did something, so I pushed back, and it went deeper.

Oh. Oh, fuck. It wasn't even all the way in yet.

He started moving anyway, slow, gentle thrusts that felt like an assault to me. I suddenly understood the euphemism. Split in half. Yes, that seemed about right.

The tip of my cock was dragging on the mattress as he moved, and I quivered under the strain. His hands were twitching on my waist, like he wanted to grab harder. He didn't.

His movements started getting deeper, and I started to run out of breath. I felt lightheaded and woozy, and wondered if I would float away.

My cock threatened to finish without me, and I tensed. The Master noticed. He fell still. "It's okay, Kath," he said.

"I just ... I need to move," I said.

"That's not what I meant," he said breathlessly, but he let me rearrange myself underneath him, still speared on his cock. I pulled my knees in closer together and lifted my hips higher. There. Hopefully now I would be able to control my cock.

"Okay," I said.

"Okay?" he asked breathlessly.

"Okay," I repeated.

He started to move again. If anything, it felt better without the distraction of my cock, which seemed completely absurd to me. I wailed again. He pressed in deeper. I wondered how deep it would go.

Eventually, he managed to get as far in as he could get, and it was so much deeper than I had expected. I felt him pressed against my backside tightly. His hands tightened on my waist again, then relaxed. I wondered, if I asked him to, would he keep them tight? I wondered if I'd ever be able to speak again.

He started a rhythm, pressing forward, pulling back. It wasn't anything like before, with his fingers. There was no moving with him, no pushing back. My whole body felt limp and incapable. All I could do was wail, and that I could not stop.

I realised only moments in that I was going to come, and nothing was going to stop it, no amount of willpower or restraint would do it. I bit my lip and the pain did nothing. I needed him to stop ... but I couldn't say that word.

"Wait," I said, and he did. He stopped, suddenly and almost fiercely, and it made me wonder where the limit of his restraint was. Certainly not here.

He put a hand on my spine and stroked with his thumb. "Slowly," he said, and started to pull out of me.

"No," I gasped out. My arse clenched around him, trying to keep him in, and doing that hurt, so I quickly relaxed as best I could. "Not that."

"What, then?" he asked. His voice sounded gentler than I'd ever heard before, and I could read it so clearly. There wasn't an inch of blankness or coldness in him.

I wished I could see him. I wished I could look at the man who would just stop for me when I asked it of him.

"I ... can't hold it. I'm not supposed to, without permission, but I can't. I'm trying, but I can't." I knew I was babbling, but I didn't know if he knew what I was saying, so I tried again. "It's too much, I can't stop myself. I need - I need - I don't know what I need but I can't keep doing this and not ..."

"Kath," he said, and it sounded strained and wondrous. "If you can come on my cock, then that is exactly what I want you to do."

He waited until I nodded, then he pushed back in as deep as he could, and it took only a moment before I screamed and came. It went on for ages, the feeling racing through me like wildfires raging painfully on my every nerve. The soles of my feet burned, and my head felt weird and dizzy. My vision went dark at the edges and what remained in the centre was blurry. My fingers shook weakly, trying to grapple the sheets, but not having the strength to even bend themselves.

I had thought the first one had been good. I'd been wrong, apparently, because this one was the most obscene thing I had ever felt. I wondered if I'd ever be able to come again. It felt like I'd used it all up, like I'd done enough of it all at once that it would be perfectly understandable that there would be no more left after this.

When I was done, he was still moving inside me exactly the same as he had been the whole time in slow, controlled movements, and he did not at any point lose that control. He was controlled and slow with me even when it seemed like it pulsed inside me and his come filled me up even further. He moaned something that my addled, exhausted brain thought sounded very much like "Kath".

It sounded like victory.

When it was all over, I couldn't move. He extricated himself gently and carefully. He pulled the washcloth from the tub and washed himself up, then I heard him button himself back into his trousers. He placed the oil back into the nightstand. He washed me down, not just my arse, but my whole back. It was covered in sweat. I hadn't noticed.

He helped me onto my back. He wiped down my chest and my cock. He rinsed off the cloth and washed my face. My cheeks were already wet. When had I cried?

Throren had closed off again. He'd returned to being methodical and patient. He pinched out the candle. It had almost burned out anyway.

It had still been light outside when we had started. When he pinched out the candle, we plunged into the pitch black of night. It seemed appropriate, as I'd been plunged into the pitch black of his coldness.

But when he crawled into bed, he pulled up the covers over me, too. He checked to be sure I was properly under them, and he slept close enough that we touched.

I'd been in his bed for almost two whole weeks. I knew damn well how large it was. I knew damn well that if he slept close enough to touch me, it was because he chose to.

I reached out to him and tried to find his hand in the dark. His hand found mine instead.

I dreamed of ae'NaNathra, when I had been young and sick with pox. He had crawled into bed with me, and he had refused to leave my side. In my dream, he was as big to me as Throren was, because I had been young and small.

He had held me in his arms and his golden hair had tickled my face. His collar, studded with riverrock and as beautiful as jewellery, had brushed my forehead when I sought closer comfort.

He had told me that he loved me, that I was his son, just as much as I was Father's and Mother's, and that I would be all right. The pox would fade, the sun would come back up, and the rains would come for me again.

I had believed him then, and I believed him now.

 

Chapter Text

The next morning passed without my knowledge or intent. I woke late, somewhere past noon.

Surely Leanna would have come to get me? She had done it for Sethie several times when he had accidentally overslept.

I had thought that I was a bit sore, but that was before I tried to get up. When I moved, I was in agony. So, I stopped moving and waited, propped up on my arms, turned to the side so that I didn't put weight on my arse.

I'd grown up with slaves, so I knew that a certain amount of pain could be normal. I didn't have any reference for how much, though. I found myself checking the sheets for blood, and then chastised myself for it. My Master would have noticed, had I been injured.

The Master appeared in the doorway, and gave me an inscrutable, unreadable look. I wondered if Leanna had come to wake me, and he had turned her away. I wondered if he had stayed with me. He wasn't normally here at this time of day.

He disappeared for a moment, then returned with a cup of water. "For you," he said, and offered it to me.

I was completely parched, and my throat hurt. It was not lost on me that I did not have to ask him for the water or get it myself. He had spared the thought to reason that I might be thirsty and taken care of it for me.

Even if I had bled, I probably wouldn't have regretted the night before.

"Thank you," I said, and drank from the cup he gave me. My voice was hoarse - of course it was, after the sound he had wrenched out of me the night before. I left some water in the cup - about three fingers worth, for my alyssum flower.

I tried again to stand. The Master placed a hand on my shoulder and pressed me back down. He took the water from my hand. "Stay down," he said.

"Yes, Master," I said. I realised he was back to speaking in two-word allotments, and that worried me. "I have to water my plant," I said.

"Already done."

What? He ... surely not. "You did?" I asked.

"I did," he said.

He sat beside me. He pressed gently on my shoulder until I lay back down. "Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome."

Two words suddenly didn't seem so bad.

He lay down beside me and placed a hand on my back, which he used to trace soft patterns against my spine. I realised that I was going to fall back to sleep.

"Stay here," he said.

"Yes, Master," I agreed.

Eventually, he left, but not before I'd fallen into some sort of trance from the touch on my back. It had been nice. I fell asleep the moment he closed the door behind him.

When I woke again, it was to the door opening, but it wasn't the Master that greeted me. It was Quentin.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, in the fragile voice one might use to comfort a trapped animal.

I wondered what he knew. Surely someone had heard the noise I'd made last night.

"Does the Master know you're here?" I asked.

Quentin smiled gently. "He asked me here himself," he said. "He thinks he was too rough on you last night."

Oh, of course. Of course, he did. He fucked me into oblivion, and I took a really long nap afterwards, so of course he thought he hurt me.

He hadn't hurt me. I had hurt me. And I was rather proud of it, too.

I closed my eyes, trying to keep my frustration to myself. Quentin took it the wrong way.

"You haven't done anything wrong, Kath," Quentin said. "No one ever expected you to be able to do this."

Hah. Well you were wrong, weren't you? Fucking watch me.

I tried not to let that part of me out. "I don't ... that's not it," I said. It was so hard to find words that weren't smug.

Quentin was nothing if not kind. "It's all right, Kath, whatever it is. Everything will be all right. You and I will talk about what happened, I'll take a look, and then we'll decide what's best for you. No problems anymore, okay?"

Wait - he'll take a look? I pulled the blanket up further over my naked body and resisted the urge to tell him he could fuck right the hell off.

Wait. Wait again. "Decide what's best for me?" I said, at least, I tried to say. It came out as more of a squeak.

Quentin smiled gently. "Yulie won't stand for it, and neither will Throren," he said. "I can see you're in pain. Throren says you've been passed out. We'll fix you up, you'll get better, and we'll find something else for you. Throren doesn't want to hurt you. He just liked you so much he had to try."

"Oh, fuck off," I said, then clapped my hand over my mouth. I'd said it aloud. Oh, no, I'd said it aloud. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, that wasn't aimed at you, you've been so kind to me -"

"Hush, Kath," Quentin said, but he wasn't looking at me, he was looking at my neck. The blanket had fallen down, and the marks Throren had left were visible. "There is nothing you can say to me that will get you punished. That was aimed at Throren, I assume?"

"No," I said quickly. Quentin was not convinced. "It's aimed at everything else. It's aimed at this." I didn't know how to describe it, how pissed off I was, how angry, how sad.

"You just talk, Kath," Quentin said. "You don't worry about anything, you don't have to make sense, you don't have to be respectful, you just talk until I know what's going on."

I didn't. I couldn't, not for some time. Eventually I sat up and levered myself into a position that didn't put too much pressure on my arse. "I need to know exactly what he said to you," I said.

Quentin nodded. "He didn't say much. You know what he's like. He came and found me in my rooms and said he'd taken it too far. That's all."

"That's it?"

"That's it," Quentin said. "Why is it important?"

I shrugged. "Because he didn't say it to me, I suppose. Did he say you should find something else for me?"

Quentin shook his head. "He didn't have to," he said. "This is what always happens, Kath. He's ... you're not the first one he's taken a liking to. You'll not be the last, either. You're certainly the smallest. But when he realises that he's not going to get what he wants, he loses interest, and he lets go."

"And that was the impression you got? That he wants to let me go?" That wasn't the impression I'd gotten, when I'd fallen asleep holding his hand.

"He never wants to," Quentin said. "But he'll let you go before he hurts you again."

I was silent, thinking. Quentin thought he was here to patch me back together again. Like the others. He thought he was here to help me recover. Then, he would help me to find something else. That sounded like an incredibly roundabout way of telling me they'd make a sale. Something else would be Yulie - Secturn would be so happy - and what? Would I take Dune's place?

Not a fucking chance.

"You're angry," Quentin said. "That's all right, you know, to be angry. These last weeks can't have been easy for you. And Throren isn't exactly much of the comforting sort."

This was said about the man who had watered my plant this morning without being asked. The man who had carved me a hook without being asked. The man who had painstakingly cared for me when I was burned. Not only was he not asked to do that, he could have had someone else do it. Quentin had offered to take me to the infirmary.

"He asked me to stay here, before he left. He said, 'Stay here'," I said.

Quentin said nothing.

"I'll not leave his bed without an order," I said.

"No one expects you to disobey, Kath," Quentin said. "I just want to know how bad this is. I can't help you unless I know what's going on."

I took several long, deep breaths. "What's going on is that you and everyone else seem to think that hurt me is all my Master can ever do, and he's heard it so much and so often that he believes it, and it's the biggest crock of shit I've ever heard. Please don't be mad at me."

Quentin nodded. He did not get mad. He got patient. "Kath, it's ever so kind of you to protect him, but it is my job to know pain when I see it, and right now it's sitting in front of me with yellow hair and a sore arse."

I huffed. Two could play at that game. "Quentin, it's ever so kind of you to protect me, but it is my job to please my Master, and it's a little difficult when people keep acting like that's impossible."

Quentin was finally frustrated with me. "It is not your job to let him break you."

"Why the hell not?" I said, temper suddenly completely lost. "I'll let him break me if he likes. Maybe I'll like it half as much as I liked it last night!"

Quentin was completely silent for quite some time while I reigned in my temper.

"Sorry," I said. He said nothing. "I'm sorry, sir, I -"

"No, Kath," he said, stopping me in the middle of my apology. "It has just occurred to me that I have been operating under a rather large assumption." He looked at me, and his eyes were twinkling. "When he came to me and told me he took it too far, I assumed that meant that he alone took it too far. Are you trying to tell me that taking it too far was a co-operative effort?"

I sat back, winced at how much it hurt to sit that way, and refused to move out of the position out of sheer stubbornness. It wasn't enough to satisfy my desire to show how obtuse I felt, so I folded my arms. "I'm trying to tell you that he didn't take it too far at all," I said. "I'm trying to tell you that if everyone could please stop telling him he'd be evil to even think about it, it would make my job here a whole lot easier."

Quentin, who had come here to me with the soothing airs of a rescuer, had now straightened his back and put on a smirk so wide it was surely criminal. "Of all the things I'd expected from you, Kath," he began, shaking his head and grinning. "This was not it."

"What did you expect of me?" I asked.

He shook his head. "I expected you to break," he said. "You were so timid, and tiny. I expected he'd terrify you and you'd break long before he took you to his bed. I expected tears and terror and I expected to have to piece you back together. I never expected you to be just as stubborn as he is."

"You have no idea," I said dryly.

"How bad is it? The pain?" he asked again.

I shrugged.

"Did you bleed?"

"I don't think so," I said.

"Did he hurt you when he made those?" he asked, pointing at my neck.

"Sort of," I said. "Not really."

"Did he use enough oil?"

"I think so," I said.

"You'd have noticed, if he hadn't," Quentin said. "Do you want me to take a look?"

"No," I said firmly. "I really, really don't."

Quentin smirked again and looked away from me. "Then I suppose there is nothing more you need from me, is there? I'll tell your Master you are to stay abed and off sex for a while."

"How long is a while?" I asked.

"A day or two, at least," he said.

I shrugged. "Okay, sir," I said.

Quentin left, but he smiled at me when he did, as if he was proud.

 

 

 

The Master returned shortly after Quentin left. He was carrying my lunch. He kicked off his boots and lay down beside me on the bed while I ate.

He didn't say anything about Quentin's visit. I wondered if he knew that we had talked about finding me something else.

"What would you say if Lord Yulie offered to take me off your hands, Master?" I asked.

"That's an odd question," Throren said.

He didn't know, then. "Just - hypothetically. I don't think he actually would, Master. What would you say?"

Throren looked at me. "I'd say, that's an odd question," he said. "Yulie doesn't tend to ask things he already knows the answer to."

"What's the answer, then, Master?" I asked.

Throren looked at me, then looked down at the marks on my neck. He shrugged. "A table to the face, probably," he said without feeling. He was as cold as ever, and it did not scare me.

I laughed so hard I spilled my food. Throren didn't laugh. He didn't have to. I could read his amusement.

I could finally read him.

"What would you say?" he asked.

"I don't think I'd manage a table," I said. "Maybe a chair."

Throren didn't laugh. He didn't have to. "I told him I'd ride with him this afternoon," he said.

He'd rather stay here. I just knew it. "I hope you have a pleasant time, Master," I said.

Throren nodded, but he didn't leave. "Are you in much pain?" he asked instead.

"Some," I said. "Not much."

"I asked Quentin for one of his potions," he said. "He told me that if I didn't want you in pain, I shouldn't have hurt you."

"You didn't hurt me, Master," I said.

"Indeed. My not hurting you is precisely the reason you're sitting funny," he said tonelessly. "Still, that's not the point. The point is Quentin said no, and I knew he was going to say no, and that's why I nicked this."

He flicked his wrist, and out of his sleeve fell one of the little vials of green sludge that I'd had when I'd had the dehydration headache. He held it up to me.

"You stole it?" I asked.

"Funny thing about being this size," Throren said. "Everyone expects you to use intimidation or force to get what you want. But stealing? No one suspects a thing from me."

I took the bottle and sipped from it, taking only a third of the dose. "Everyone's too busy nailing their tables to the floor to notice, I imagine," I said. I thought I saw him smile.

He pushed the vial back into my hands when I pushed it away. "Take the rest," he said.

"I think you're overestimating my pain, Master," I told him.

He was silent for some time. "I think you're underestimating how much your pain bothers me," he said.

I took another sip of the bottle. He seemed satisfied.

It wasn't fair to him, that he should cause so much pain. He was the last person that could stand it.

When he left to ride with Yulie, I watched him go feeling like we had bonded.

 

 

 

I slept most of the day. That night, we went to sleep apart, but I woke up to the Master putting his face in my neck in the early morning hours. I slept again, and when I woke up, he had me in his arms. I lay still for a while, feeling his chest rise and fall. He was, as ever, completely clothed.

I'd still not seen him naked.

By morning, I no longer felt like I'd taken a small mountain inside my arse, and the Master let me out of bed. I sat by his feet with only moderate discomfort while he sat in his armchair and stared at the empty hearth.

I wondered if he'd appreciate it if I talked for him. Maybe he'd like to hear another Andonian story? I didn't know, and I didn't know how to bring it up, so we sat in silence.

Every so often, he reached out his hand and stroked my hair.

It was something my father used to do to his slaves - ae'NaNathra more than most - and at first it made me deeply uncomfortable. This did not last long, because the sensation felt much, much nicer than I had originally anticipated.

It made me feel relaxed and a little sleepy after a while, and he noticed. He gave me a small smile and sent me to bed. I was only tired because he had made me be, but I wasn't about to disobey him when he was offering me smiles, so I went.

He left for most of the day, but he returned with food for me, so I assumed I wasn't supposed to leave. I slept most of the day again, purely because there wasn't much else to do. By nightfall, he had returned to his armchair, and I joined him, feeling well-rested and brave enough to try to lure him into speaking to me.

"Will it get cold soon, Master?" I asked. I had gotten my hook out and started using it, hoping that it would keep me from drooping if he started petting my head again. I'd started making something I hoped would warm my hands.

"Yes," he said. "We've time, though."

"Is winter terrible, Master?"

"Not here," he said. "Some places are terrible."

"Why is it better here?" I asked. I wondered if this was how I should do it. Should I just keep poking him with questions until I managed to pry a conversation out of him?

He thought on this for some time. "Yulie," he said eventually. "There's a lot of different reasons, but it all ends up at Yulie."

"People talk about him like he's really spectacular, Master, but I don't really know what he does," I said. "I don't really know what you do, either."

He thought again. "Yulie governs. He is the one who decides how much grain we keep stored for winter. He decides whether we buy in extra food from outside, he decides how much to tax. He decides what we tax."

"Aren't taxes gold?"

"Usually. No one here had any gold when we arrived. They'd spent it all on medicine and food, and had a terrible harvest, so they had nothing. Yulie decided he'd start charging workhours instead. From there it morphed into charging them in their own trade. You can be desolate and penniless, Yulie will still be able to figure something out for you."

"I imagine that's why everyone likes him so much, Master," I said. "Kayla goes out of her way just to be near him."

"Does she?"

"It ... it isn't unruly, or anything like that, Master," I said. "She just knows where he's likely to be and she finds a good reason to be there."

"Do you know where she came from?" Throren asked.

"Kayla? No, Master." She talked a lot, but that didn't mean she talked about herself. She talked about Yulie all the time.

"Yulie picked her up on the way here. She had a Master who beat her every time she made a noise, even when she made noises from the beatings. She couldn't even whimper, when I first met her. Yulie dirtied up his hair and his clothes, put on a common accent, and paid a pittance for her. Then he put her on his horse and walked the rest of the way."

Yulie's girl was Kayla.

Kayla, who could not stop talking, had come to Summer Hill so downtrodden she could not make a sound.

Yulie fascinated me. I imagined him walking here, showing the people of this town that he was capable. He would have been flanked by his own personal giant, showing he commanded strength. He put a beaten, rescued slave on his horse, showing he had kindness and mercy. He had come to a battered, plague-ridden town, put his mind to the task and fixed it. There was no doubt in my mind that Yulie knew exactly what he was doing. Yulie had inspiring loyalty down to a fault.

It was no wonder everyone loved him.

"Kayla doesn't wear a collar," I said, but I knew exactly where this was going. Yulie would have freed her at a point when people thought he was too harsh. He freed his beloved broken girl and softened the hearts of the common people.

I wondered if Yulie did this on purpose. Did he calculate every move he made, like he was playing a grand game and people were the pieces, or did he simply happen to do the right thing at the right time?

Furthermore, if he could do this to Kayla, what the hell was going on with Dune?

"Yulie doesn't need a collar to keep her anymore," Throren said. "He never needed a collar to keep me, either."

"I thought you were friends," I said.

"We aren't not friends," Throren said cryptically. "You'll be keeping your collar."

Of that, I had not even been thinking. Just because Yulie freed Kayla did not mean Throren would free me.

"I'm not Yulie. I can't make you love me. I can't make you loyal," Throren said.

I chose my next words very carefully. "You have your moments," I told him.

He stopped looking at the hearth. Instead he looked at me. He didn't seem like he would stop looking at me.

I raised the hook, the just-started might-be glove going with it. "If you hadn't left right after you gave me this, I might've kissed you," I told him honestly.

His eyes did not return to the hearth. I thought he might tell me to kiss him.

"Strip. Lie on your back in the middle of the bed with your legs apart," he said.

Oh, that was a much better idea. I wondered if he saw the bounce in my step as I went to the bedroom.

He did all the same things. He brought water and a cloth, he lit the candle, he sat between my legs, he tucked the oil into his leg. It was all rather comforting - the routine, the fact that he had a method about things.

"You're nervous again," he said, placing his hand on my thigh. It was trembling.

"It's not nerves. It's anticipation," I assured him.

He looked away and shook his head. When he looked back, he was smiling, just a little. "I'm going to pretend that last time didn't happen," he said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because that's the only way I can wrap my head around it," he said. "And because it's absurd that it happened once. It's not going to happen twice."

Fucking watch me.

"Okay," I said. "Absurd is good, though. My people thrive on absurd."

He shook his head. "It's mad, Kath. I'll not make you do it again."

No. He wouldn't make me do it again. I'd make him do it again. I smiled at him. "As you wish, Master," I said.

He didn't buy it, but it didn't matter. He'd caught sight of the marks that were still on my thigh. He wouldn't have left them there if he didn't like them. He wouldn't have left them there if he didn't know they'd lead him to distraction.

"It's faded," I said. "What a shame."

He put his mouth to work on my thigh. I put my mouth to work on a self-satisfied smirk.

He took a few minutes to patiently suck the blood to the surface of my skin while my cock rose, and my breath quickened. He relocated his mouth to the inside of my knee, then opened the jar of oil and dipped his fingers in it. He kept his mouth working while he penetrated me.

It burned straight away. I was still sore from the first time. I couldn't find it in me to care, because he went straight for that spot and pressed on it over and over.

The first time had felt like he'd been studying me, trying to learn me like an instrument. Every movement experimental, testing me, trying to see what sound I'd make, waiting for me to tell him to stop. This time felt like he had finished learning, become an expert, and wanted to show off.

Even though I started out sore, by the time he'd put a second finger inside me I was moaning. This time, he pushed me straight to the place I'd been the first time I'd come in his bed, then he kept me there, dancing back and forth from an orgasm.

He kept his mouth on my body the entire time. I wound up with marks in the oddest of places. One each behind my knees, one on the back of my ankle, one on the top of my opposite foot. My stomach became completely unrecognisable.

"You like this," he said, after laying one onto my hipbone, and I was confused.

"Should I not?" I asked.

"Does it not embarrass you?" he asked.

"Should it?" I asked.

"It does for most," he said.

I'd never known any of my father's slaves to be embarrassed about anything he did to them. They could be private, perhaps, but embarrassed? Never.

"Master," I said, panting, because he had taken to circling his fingers around that spot inside me. He relented to let me speak. "If you want me embarrassed, you'll probably have to do it to my face."

"I like your face too much," he said. If I wasn't already feeling so warm, I'd have gotten warmer.

By the time I took a third finger, I'd begged for it for what felt like hours, but was really only one notch on his candle. Then he stopped playing with me and started testing me again. This time he was testing to see how rough I could take it. He pressed me down by the stomach and shoved his fingers into me, and I completely lost myself in it. I lost the capacity to say anything - anything except "Harder."

This time, he didn't put his cock into me. He fucked me with his fingers until I begged him to let me come.

"Please," I said.

"Not yet," he said.

"I can't," I begged.

"Not yet," he said, and kept going. He looked at his candle, waited until it had burned through another notch, and said yes.

It was incredible, intense, exhausting, and a little painful.

I must have fallen asleep afterward, because the next I knew, it was morning and I was even more sore than the first time. I curled up, alone in his bed, and cried when I realised that he must have taken care of himself alone.

 

 

 

By noon, I'd finished crying and gotten a hold of myself. I had made the mistake of thinking that I had any power here, thinking that I could control what he did. I'd made the mistake of thinking that he needed to punish me to shape my actions. He didn't. He just had to touch that spot in my arse, and then he could do whatever he wanted to me. He could leave and take care of himself if he wanted, because he could pleasure me so hard, I'd pass out. I couldn't stop him if I passed out.

I doubted that I could stop him if I was awake either.

So, I took deep breaths, pretended I wasn't sore, and smiled at him when he brought me lunch.

"Shouldn't I be serving you meals?" I asked with false cheer.

"You're exactly where you should be, and you'll stay there until I tell you otherwise," he said, then settled himself on the bed and watched me eat.

Something about him was off today. His tone felt clipped. His eyes felt colder than usual as he watched me. Even the monumental amount of his marks all over me wasn't enough to warm his gaze.

Part of me was wary of his clear discomfort, but another part of me was pleased to be able to read him at all. I felt extremely conflicted.

Halfway through my lunch, he sighed. "Sorry," he said.

I dropped my spoon with surprise. "You don't have to apologise to me, Master," I said.

He shook his head. "I can apologise if I like," he said, staring at my dropped spoon.

"Did something happen, Master?" I asked.

He grunted. "Just let me sit here and watch you eat," he said.

I finished my meal before I spoke again. "Have I done something wrong?" I asked.

"You don't eat enough," the Master said. "You finish whatever I give you, but only if I watch you, and Rohan says you're not eating enough when you serve yourself."

I put my head down, trying to be submissive. "I hadn't noticed. I'll eat more if it pleases you, Master," I said.

He looked out the window, and I had the feeling that something was unsaid. Part of me was wary. Another part of me was proud to have any sense of what he was thinking.

"I'm sorry, Master," I said.

He said nothing.

"I'll do better," I tried.

Still nothing.

"How was I to know?" I asked quietly. "How am I to know unless you tell me?"

He looked back at me. "It's not you," he said. "You're too thin, but you've only been here two weeks. You're not refusing to eat, you're just not showing an appetite, and that's fine."

It didn't seem fine to me. Nothing about this conversation was fine. "It's fine?" I asked.

"It's fine," he said.

"Is it fine, or are you just finished talking about it?" I asked.

"It's fine," he said again.

"Is it, though?" I asked. I felt like I was about to get smacked, but I'd been here two weeks, and hadn't been eating right apparently, and I still hadn't been smacked yet. I was getting cocky. Also, I could read him, at least a little bit, so I was smug, too. Cocky and smug was never a good combination, especially not on a slave.

"It's fine, Kath," the Master said.

"If you stopped eating, it wouldn't be fine with me," I said.

"You haven't stopped eating, Kath," the Master said.

"Then why do I feel like I've committed some sort of sin?" I asked.

"You haven't done anything wrong, Kath," he said.

"Well, someone did something wrong," I said.

He stared at me for a very long time, looking at my eyes and my face and the faded marks on my neck.

It occurred to me that this conversation had been a perfect example of what talking back was. My Master would be the worst Master in the world if he didn’t punish me for this.

"It wasn't you," he said simply.

"Who was it, Master?" I asked, trying for politeness again.

He shook his head, but he answered. "Dune."

Oh, of course. Dune. I remembered his order - don't go near Dune, don't speak to him, avoid him at all costs. The Master had been visibly furious when he'd said it, and it was one of only two times that I had ever seen him angry. The other had been when Quentin had first suggested that I go to the infirmary, rather than stay in his bed.

Even when he had purposefully touched my burned shoulder, he had been cold and blank, not angry.

I had to tread lightly. I wasn't particularly interested in anything that might make my Master angry.

"He hasn't eaten in days. Yulie's shut himself up in his rooms with him but there's no making Dune eat if he doesn't want to eat," the Master said.

"Do I remind you of him?" I asked. I needed to make sure that I could put some distance between myself and the Dune situation.

The Master shook his head. "No. You really don't. Not even a little bit."

"When I don't eat enough, does it make you think of him, Master?" I asked.

This time, he nodded. "It isn't the same thing," he said.

"Of course not, Master, of course it's not the same thing," I said. "But I'm here to please you and if it would please you not to be reminded, then I'll do it. I'll do it until I'm as fat as a house, if it would stop you from being reminded."

He shook his head. "I don't want you fat," he said, but his voice had gone soft. "I just don't want ..." he trailed off and stopped completely.

"You don't want what Lord Yulie has," I offered, and he nodded. "You haven't got it, you've got me, Master."

He lay down and put his head in my lap. Once there, he let me stroke his hair and his face until he fell asleep. I felt like I had done something right, but I couldn't feel good about it. I was too busy wondering if Dune was okay.

I still hadn't met him, or even seen him. I had no idea what he looked like. I had been told he wasn't pretty like I was, but what that meant I didn't know. My people had a skewed idea of beauty. We liked the absurd.

I wondered if Dune liked the absurd. I hoped that he did. Liking the absurd would be a requirement to having any kind of bond with Lord Yulie.

I tried to push it from my mind. I didn't want to have anything to do with it. It upset my Master, and that was the opposite of everything that I wanted.

He had shown me he could be kind and patient. He didn't have the technique or the finesse and comforting ability my father had with slaves, but I wasn't fool enough to expect a perfect Master. Throren was more than good enough.

I would do what my father would have instructed. I would be good regardless of how poorly he communicated. He could come to me angry and refuse to tell me the problem, and I would wrench words out of him until I knew how to please him.

If I had to talk back to get him to communicate, then I counted myself lucky that he didn't even seem to notice it, let alone care about it enough to punish me for it.

 

 

 

That night, the Master fell asleep in my arms, and that morning, I woke up in his. He fetched us both breakfast and we ate in silence. I ate until I was sated, then I ate more. He didn't seem satisfied. I didn't know what more to do about it.

He stayed in the sitting room until lunch, with me at his feet while he sat in his armchair. He put his hand in my hair and left it there, stroking my scalp and rubbing the strands of my hair between his fingers.

There was a knock on the door, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I had been relaxed, and people didn't tend to knock, except for the laundry to change sheets and clean, and that was my job.

The Master opened the door, even though that was probably my job too. Standing at the door, looking a thousand years older than when I'd last seen him, was Lord Yulie. In one hand he held a plate piled high with food, in the other, two bottles of wine. "Feel like doing something stupid?" Yulie asked, his big fake smile firmly in place.

Throren looked at me, shrugged, and stepped aside to let Yulie in. Yulie put the plate down on the table, uncorked the wine, and took a swig straight from the bottle. Then he passed it to Throren. "Bit early," Throren said, but he took a sip.

Yulie sat down on the settee. He didn't put his back to the seat. He sat so rigidly, it was as if he hadn't come here with wine and the intent to relax.

"Have you met Kath yet?" Throren asked.

"Hard to miss him, isn't it?" Yulie asked. "We've met, briefly. Secturn brought him to me. I think he wanted me to take him, actually."

Throren closed the door to the sitting room, and the change in Yulie was immediate. I had expected him to relax, finally alone and private in the presence of his friend.

Instead, he tensed up, and for some strange reason, this seemed more natural on him. I realised that his relaxed nature was the fakest thing about him, and he hadn't shown me his tension even when I had seen through him in his library.

Throren was allowed to see it immediately. He didn't react to it, and I wondered if this was normal behaviour for Yulie. Throren sat in the armchair and put his hand in my hair. He did not move it away.

"I didn't know what to do with myself, to be honest. I thought you might burn my house down and salt the earth if I told you about it," Yulie said.

Throren stroked my hair. "Secturn said something similar to me, once," he said. "I think his words were 'not for me'."

Yulie smirked, and it was bitter, like it left a bad taste in his mouth. "I'm surprised you didn't kill him on the spot," he said. "I kind of want to sometimes."

"What did he do this time?"

"Tried to stop me from getting lemon cakes," Yulie said.

Throren said nothing.

"Oh, don't give me that look," Yulie snapped. "I lasted four whole days. That's two days longer than last time."

Throren shook his head, but he said nothing.

"You don't get to be silent with me, Throren," Yulie said. "I take it from Dune, I'll not take it from you as well."

Throren shook his head again. "You already know how I feel about this," he said. "I don't have anything to say."

"If you're not careful, I'll do the thing," Yulie said. "I'll do the thing, and I'll do it in front of Kath."

Throren glared.

Yulie took another swig of the wine. "You shouldn't be giving him cake, Yulie, that's rewarding disobedience," Yulie said, imitating Throren's voice. He was actually rather good at it.

ae'Aberda. This was how Yulie managed Throren's silence.

"You need to give him a good solid smack about the head. Keep going until he does as he's told. Only give him the darn cakes when he's good," Yulie said in Throren's voice. He had put his hand into his perfect hair and scrunched it up. He was yanking on his own hair. It looked painful.

Throren said nothing, but he didn't deny what Yulie was saying. It occurred to me that he had never given me a good solid smack about the head.

Clearly, Dune and I did not share the same rules, in Throren's mind.

Yulie kept going. "You need to give him the list of rules, make him repeat them back to you, that's how you know he understands, then when he disobeys, you give him the lash and it's all his fault," Yulie said. He pulled harder at his own hair.

I realised that I was watching a man fall apart.

Throren got up and went to Yulie. The settee creaked under their combined weight. "I think you're giving Kath a poor impression of me," he said. He put a hand on Yulie's shoulder.

"Should I go?" I asked, as quietly as possible.

Throren nodded and I fled into the bedroom, shutting the door firmly behind me.

I thought about a lot of things in my solitude. I thought about Dune and about Yulie. I thought about the fact that Throren was clearly aware that Yulie wasn't what everyone thought he was.

Mostly, I thought about the thing, and how genius it was. When Throren didn't talk, Yulie talked for him. It wasn't something that I could do, as a slave. It would be exceedingly insolent.

Getting away with talking back was one thing. Getting away with putting words in my Master's mouth would be another thing entirely.

Hours later, Throren came to me carrying what I assumed was a lemon cake. He handed it to me.

"I'm sorry you had to see that," the Master said. "He's normally much more impressive."

I nodded and bit into the cake. It wasn't particularly sweet, or savoury. It was mild and simple.

"Yulie's asleep on the couch," Throren said. "He gets like this, sometimes. Dune messes with his heart too much."

I put the cake down. I couldn't stomach it. "Why does he keep him? Why would he do this to himself?" I asked.

Throren sat down beside me. "He can't let go," he said. "He's never been able to let go. He's obsessed. Selling Dune would be admitting defeat, and he can't."

I said nothing. Throren said nothing. I struggled to eat my mildly sweet cake.

"I'd rather you had nothing to do with this," Throren said.

"I'd rather I had nothing to do with this," I said.

The Master gave me an exhausted smile. "Don't disturb Yulie," he said, and left the bedroom. When he came back, he had a large serving of dinner for me, and his own. We ate together in the bedroom, and when we were done, Throren held me in his arms and pulled me into bed. He tucked the blankets around us and stroked my hair.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Yulie was gone. A bottle of wine and a basket of fruit mysteriously showed up on the table around lunchtime, though.

Throren didn't seem surprised. He introduced me to the splendour that was the local type of berry, and we sat on the bed and stuffed ourselves with it. Throren asked me about home and I told him a story and sang him a song.

He smiled at me. "I asked about home, not homeland," he said, but when I fell silent, he fed me a berry and told me he'd ask again later.

I kissed him, because there wasn't really any other response to give to that sort of kindness, and he kissed me back. I was truly beginning to adore him for his patience.

Then he ordered me to strip and lie on my back in the middle of the bed with my legs apart, which I probably should have expected by that point. He got the water and set the candle, and I watched him, thinking over the last time, when he had left me.

That was how I wound up speared on two of his fingers while he sucked my neck and I begged him for his cock again. If I got him to fuck me again, he wouldn't leave. There was something primally wrong about him leaving me to deal with himself alone.

"You're mad," he told me, but he opened me up anyway, slowly and carefully just like the first time.

"Not mad. Andonian. I'm absurd," I corrected him, and he chuckled.

He behaved just like he had the first time. I didn't. I felt wanton and obscene, and I behaved that way. I moaned and spread my legs as far as I could make them go, I writhed and I gripped the bedsheets to keep my hands from touching myself - and from touching him, because I wasn't allowed to touch anything.

By the time he told me to turn over, I was grateful, because I wanted to reach for him so badly that I was beginning to doubt that I could stop myself. I turned over, assumed the same position as I had the first time, and pressed my face into the sheets so that he wouldn't see my frustration.

He pushed into me and I wailed again, my body quivering and jerking involuntarily. Most of the things that I did when his cock was involved tended to be involuntary.

He wasn't quick or rough about it. He was slow and gentle, and it didn't matter, because it was huge, and if he ever was actually rough with me it would probably be the end of me. He was as patient with his cock in me as he was when he fed me berries and told me he would ask again later, and when I made that comparison, it took every ounce of my willpower not to come on the spot.

I wailed louder, because I was too far gone to talk. I couldn't ask for permission. I could only scream.

"That noise," he said, and grabbed my hips harder than he usually did. He pressed into me while I wailed and quivered and came without permission.

When he finished, he cleaned me up and tucked me into bed, even though it was barely evening. "You'll stay in my bed until I tell you that you can leave," he said.

"I'm sorry," I whispered. My voice was incredibly hoarse.

"For?" he asked.

"I finished without permission," I said.

He snorted derisively. "Don't tell me you were trying not to," he said.

"I ... sorry," I said.

"Careful, Kath," he said. "If you tell me you can't help but come from my cock, I'm going to have to reward you."

He lay with me and grinned lazily at the ceiling until I slept.

I woke up that night in a cold sweat, calling out for my father. I was on the floor. Throren was with me, holding me in his arms, and I was afraid of him again. I'd left the bed in the night. That was one of the rules. Bed slaves don't leave the bed.

It was a terrible rule and my father would have hated it. I didn't understand when it applied and when it didn't, but Secturn had told me not to leave in the night and the Master had specifically commanded me to stay there, so I was certain that I'd broken the rules.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I wept, but the Master didn't let go. He held me, then he held me tighter, and I cried until I was spent. Then he put me back in bed and held me again.

I dreamt of ashes, mercenaries, and screams.

That morning, I felt awful, but I couldn't bear to stay cooped up. My sore arse was telling me to laze in bed, but my mind was telling me I had to get out. "Could I go outside, please?" I asked the Master.

He nodded. "Go get some sun," he said.

I headed for the door, but I stopped. "Does that mean I'm allowed out from under roofs now?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Since your burns are gone, yes," he said. "Don't leave the grounds. Oh, and Lord Dufrais is here. Are you familiar with Hector?"

I shook my head. "I've heard of Lord Hector, but we've not met, Master," I said.

Lissal had completely refused to shut up about her Master, Lord Hector. She had told me all sorts of things, from his opinions on wine to his opinions on silks. I probably knew more about Hector than I knew about Throren.

"Lord Dufrais is his father. They're our neighbours and we're on good terms. He visits often enough. Keep out from underneath him, if you can. He's not cruel, he's just an entitled idiot," Throren said.

"Would I be better off staying here, Master?" I asked.

"No," Throren said. "I've kept you cooped up long enough. Dufrais will have brought his slaves - he keeps far too many - and you might as well take the chance to meet them. If I keep you under lock and key it will look strange to them, and they'll spread rumours."

I bit my lip and chose my next words carefully. "I don't like rumours, Master," I said.

The Master looked back at me and offered me a smile, but I'd already known how he felt. The man rumoured to have a horse cock definitely hated rumours.

Never mind that there was some truth to it.

"You're dismissed," he told me, and I left.

I went for a long walk, exploring everything I hadn't been able to before. There was a creek that ran under the wall of Summer Hill, down by the stables, and out under another wall. There was an orchard full of trees, heavy with fruit. Horses were at pasture, birds sang, and I was happier than I had ever been since I had been collared.

I wasn't brave enough to visit the stables. If I surrounded myself with horses ever again, I would never be able to leave them. Throren would have to have my arse right there in the stalls.

There were new people all around Summer Hill. Lord Dufrais had travelled with an entourage. I met three new slaves that morning alone, and I was even stopped by a free man who begged me to tell him about Andonia. I did my best, and he listened with rapt attention until he was pulled away to return to his duties.

I sat by the creek, careful of my sore backside, and let the sound of running water drown out the sound of my father screaming in my dream. It had been persistently refusing to leave my head all morning.

When I was finally feeling better, I returned inside and sought out the laundry, eager for something to do.

This was a mistake.

Kayla threw her arms around me and pushed me into a stool, sobbing, and Leanna's face was white as she asked if I was okay.

"How long have I been gone?" I asked.

"Six days," Kayla sobbed. "Six! We thought you were dead."

"Not dead," I said.

"Oh no," Kayla said. "You're talking in two words. What has he done to you?"

At this, I laughed, then I couldn't stop laughing. Eventually, Leanna cottoned on to the fact that I was happy enough to laugh, and she laughed to.

Kayla needed it explained, though. "I'm okay," I told her. "I'm okay, he's okay, we're okay, nothing's broken, I might even be happy, okay?" I said.

Eventually, she seemed to get it, and then she was smiling. "So ... an update on the horse cock situation, then," she said expectantly.

I shook my head. "I'll not spread gossip about it," I said. I didn't mention that I still hadn't actually seen it. I'd felt it, sure, but seen it? No.

I strongly suspected that Throren had some sort of problem. Not letting everyone else see it was fine, but not letting me see it? It had been in my arse. Surely by now I should have caught a glimpse of it.

Kayla groaned, and I was reminded that once, Kayla had been so timid, she could not make a sound. I didn't tell her that I knew. It didn't seem like it was any of my business.

Eventually, there was washing that needed hanging, and I begged to do it, because I wanted to go outside again. The girls stayed inside, and I took a basket of sopping wet clothes and sheets into the lines out into the sun.

There was a young man out there, probably a few years younger than I was, with braided hair that fell to his thighs. He wore a very thick collar with a heavy steel ring on it, unlike anything I'd seen on any other slave in Summer Hill.

He was hanging some soiled socks on the line. They looked grass-stained, like they had spent far too much time in a garden. A wash bucket was next to him. I wondered if he knew that he could have come inside with us.

"Hello, I'm Kath," I said.

He turned to me, looked me in the eye, and I realised that I needed to know him. It was an Andonian thing, surely, because this boy was absurd.

He had thick, dark hair, and miles of it. His eyes were the deepest blue-violet colour. Eyes should not be that colour - it was wrong. Just looking at them unsettled me and made me feel heavily uncomfortable.

He must have known it, because he cast his eyes down quickly. Part of me was glad of it, because that part of me hated his odd eyes, but another part of me wanted to look at them again, because they were so absurd.

Everything about him was absurd, from his flickering gaze to his too-long hair. For once, I wasn't the most out of place person in Summer Hill, and I had to know him.

"Hello, Kath," he said, then turned away from me, back to the line. "I heard you belong to Throren."

"I do," I said. "Where are you from?"

He shrugged. "Dunno. Me Ma looked like me, but that's all I know," he said. "Where are you from?"

"Andonia," I said. "East of the sea."

"I never saw the sea," he said.

"It was beautiful, though I didn't see much of it," I said. "It was plenty scary in the boat, when it stormed."

He was quiet for some time, before he looked back at me with those ridiculous eyes. "Thank you for speaking to me," he said, and I felt my heart die a little.

"Do people not speak to you often?" I asked.

He nodded, then turned to me and clasped my hands in his. He stared at me with his absurd eyes and his hair tickled about his face with the wind. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"I ... yes," I said. "Why do you ask?"

He shrugged, but he didn't let go of my hands. He dropped his eyes to the ground. "I know your Master," he said.

I shook my head. "If you're worried about me, you don't really know him," I said. I gave him a smile.

He was not convinced. "I just ... he scares me," he said, looking intently at everything that wasn't eye level with me.

"He's good to me," I said.

"I just wanted you to know, that if you're scared of him, you're not alone," he said. As he said it, he raised his eyes to me again, but couldn't keep them there. He looked away.

He did not let go of my hands.

It was ... sweet, really. I didn't know what to say. "I'm not scared of him," I said. "Are you all right?"

He seemed taken aback, like he hadn't been asked the question before. He didn't get to say any more, though. His eyes had locked on to someone behind me, and his expression abruptly turned foul. I turned, and Secturn was watching us, staring at our linked hands.

"Come with me," Secturn said, and we followed him. I expected to be brought to my Master, or before Lord Dufrais, but we were taken to Yulie's sanctum. We climbed the stairs, and entered Yulie's library, where Yulie was sitting. He had put a pillow on his chair, but he sat as rigidly as though he had not.

"What's this?" Yulie said, and the book he had been reading fell from his hands onto the table with a thud.

"I found these two holding hands by the clotheslines," Secturn said.

"Holding hands," Yulie repeated slowly, like it made no sense to him whatsoever.

"I couldn't make out what they were saying. I'll go get Lord Throren." Secturn turned and left.

Yulie looked at me. "Holding hands," he said.

I tried to keep myself calm. "It wasn't romantic, my lord," I said. "We'd only just met. He was asking if I was all right. I've been ... ah ... sequestered for a while. Everyone's been asking."

The slave beside me took in a sharp breath, as though he was surprised at what I'd said. "It was my fault," he said quickly. "I made him talk to me, he didn't want to."

Yulie's face contorted into an expression of pure, exasperated annoyance. "Now? Really?" he spat. "You don't speak to me for weeks and you pick now to open your mouth?"

Oh god. No. What had I done? This wasn't ... This wasn't one of Lord Dufrais' slaves. This was Yulie's slave, this was Dune.

"I am so sorry," I said. "I didn't know."

Yulie shook his head at me. "You've disobeyed Throren, not me," he said. He got up from his chair. "Dune, get upstairs. I don't want Throren seeing you."

Dune didn't move. He looked at me. "It was my fucking fault," he said. "I'll tell him, I did it, it was my fault - "

"Get upstairs," Yulie said.

Dune actually stood there and didn't, as if a direct order was something that was negotiable.

Throren came up the stairs while I watched Yulie stare down Dune. Dune stood his ground and stayed where he was.

Throren was furious. I fell straight to my knees.

Dune turned to my Master. "I did it," he said. "I took his hands in mine and I wouldn't let him go."

That wasn't strictly true, but this had turned into a maelstrom and I wasn't going to move or speak until it played out.

"Get out," Yulie snapped.

"No!" Dune shrieked. His voice went incredibly high. "It was my fault, punish me about it!"

"No one will be punished until they've had their chance to speak for themselves," Throren said, and it was cold as death, but he was often cold as death. His words relieved me.

Dune had clenched his hands into fists. "He didn't do anything wrong," he said.

Yulie'd had enough, and he reached for Dune's shirt. Dune ducked out of his reach, so Yulie advanced on him until his back hit a bookshelf. Yulie grabbed at the ring on Dune's collar and yanked, hauling him away.

Dune turned, rather promptly, into a vicious beast. He scratched at Yulie's arm, shrieked, and writhed, throwing his weight around until they reached the next floor.

I heard a door open, then another door open, then a door slammed, and Dune fell silent with a moan.

Yulie stalked back down the stairs. His arm was covered in blood from where Dune had scratched, and his sleeve was ripped. He did not seem to even notice.

Throren sat in one of Yulie's chairs. "Speak," he said.

"I thought he belonged to Lord Dufrais', Master," I said immediately, in the smallest voice I could manage. Secturn huffed. Throren was blank and unreadable. "I introduced myself. He didn't. I'd never seen him before today, I didn't know what he looked like. I thought he'd come with Lord Dufrais."

"It looked to me a lot like you were sharing a moment," Secturn said. "You were holding hands."

"He was holding my hands, sir. He took my hands and he asked if I was all right. I thought he was being kind. He told me he was scared of you, Master," I said quickly. "I think he wanted to know if I was being mistreated - "

"Your treatment is irrelevant," Secturn said.

"Let him speak," Throren said. He was distant, but I could handle distant. At least he wasn't furious. At least he was letting me speak.

"I know it's irrelevant, sir," I said. "I only let him touch me because it seemed like it was out of kindness, not ... certainly not romantic. I wouldn't allow that."

"But you let him touch you," Throren said. "You let him touch you, and you let him talk to you."

"I didn't know it was him," I said.

"Go back to my rooms," Throren said.

I felt a lot like I ought to imitate Dune. I felt like I needed to stay, I needed to make myself heard, to make sure he understood.

I'd just seen Dune do that, and he'd been hauled away anyway. "Yes, Master," I said. I walked slowly down the stairs, but I felt like I was fleeing.

 

 

 

I returned to the Master's rooms and paced back and forth, trying to relieve some tension. It didn't work. I knew I was scared for nothing. Throren had never been anything but fair to me. I had no reason to fear him.

He wasn't going to be harsh with me. I had made a mistake. I hadn't done it on purpose. He might smack me to make me be more vigilant about it next time, and I would understand that. I should have found out what Dune looked like. I didn't, and I let him touch me, but it had been an accident.

My Master wasn't going to be harsh. I had barely spoken to Dune, I'd barely touched him, and Dune had adamantly taken all of the blame.

Why had he done that?

I wrenched my thoughts away from Dune. He wasn't my problem. My Master was my problem, and I had to stay focused.

I didn't know where I was supposed to be. I knew my place was in his bed, but if I was about to be punished, that didn't seem the right place for it. Instead, I settled on my knees by his chair and rehearsed what I would say if he gave me the chance to explain myself.

When Throren returned, I kept my eyes firmly on the floor, hoping to seem remorseful.

He sat in the chair. "Do you know what you did wrong?" he asked.

"Yes, Master," I said.

"And? What was it?"

"I was negligent. You ordered me not to let him near me, and I didn't think to find out what he looked like. In doing so, I let him near me," I said, staring resolutely at the ground. "All I can say is that I'm very sorry, and I won't do it again."

Throren was quiet for a while. Then, "Do you expect me to believe, with the way people talk around here, that no one told you about Dune?"

That ... was not good. "They talk about Dune only to complain about him, Master. They don't talk about what he looks like."

"I'm not going to enjoy this," Throren said.

"Yes, Master," I said. It was only a matter of time, really. It had been almost three weeks and I hadn't even been smacked. I'd hoped it would have been something significantly smaller than this that I'd get punished for, but it was bound to happen sooner or later.

"Strip and bend over the table," he said.

I did as I was told, feeling apprehensive. I didn't want to take a punishment on my arse. I'd only taken his cock the night before, and I was sore enough already.

The Master lumbered over to me. He carried with him a riding crop. Surely ... surely, I hadn't been that bad.

Throren wasn't angry. He wasn't anything at all. He was duller and more lifeless than I had ever seen him before. There was no spark of life in him, no ripple in the water, nothing.

I saw Dune behind my eyelids when I closed them. 'It was my fault', he said. 'Your Master scares me.'

The crop fell on my thighs and I yelped. It was worse than I expected it to be. My whole body tensed up, and I knew that if he did it again, I'd run, and I couldn't stop it.

'You're not alone,' Dune said to me in my head.

I forced myself to breathe. I had to stay put. I'd been disobedient and I had to stay put and take my punishment -

The crop hit me again, and I spasmed and tensed further. I was breathing so hard and fast, any moment I was going to flee -

Smack, again. I felt tears on my cheeks. I was gripping the table so hard I couldn't feel the tips of my fingers anymore -

Smack. Not again, not ... really? I'd fucked up, sure, but I hadn't meant to -

Smack. I bolted. I hadn't meant to, I wasn't stupid. It didn't matter. Throren caught me and put me back onto the table with hands that were far too gentle for this situation. He put a hand on my back, and he held me down effortlessly, like I was nothing.

'You're not alone,' Dune had said, and his words weighed more on my mind than Throren's hand weighed on my back.

Smack. I screamed.

Smack. I cried.

Smack. "Please, please, stop -"

He laid three more hits over my thighs, then released me. I fell to the floor and cried.

He collapsed into his armchair. "Go to bed, Kath," he said.

I shook and trembled too much to stand. One step at a time. First, I hauled myself up onto the chair - ow - then put my hands on the table. Up a bit more. Now just make it to the wall. I fell against it and used it to hold me steady until I could get into the bedroom. Once inside, I aimed for the bed and fell on it. Then I brought my knees up to my chest and cried.

If he had hoped to keep me from Dune, he had failed, because Dune was in my head, telling me I wasn't alone, and I truly didn't want him to ever leave.

 

 

 

I didn't move when the Master came in that night. I didn't say anything. I didn't even look at him.

Logically, I knew that it hadn't been that bad. I had expected a smack at most, and that was why it seemed so much worse than it was. I'd had worse than this from the traders, especially the first few.

The Master hadn't broken my skin. He hadn't lain the hits over each other. If he had at any point used his full strength, I would still be bleeding, and the crop would probably have snapped.

It had only been so bad because I'd trusted him not to be angry with me. I had trusted him to understand.

I had thought that we had bonded. I had thought that he would know that I'd have learned the lesson with a smack, or being sent to bed without dinner, or ...

If he had just looked at me and said, 'I'm disappointed,' the way Mother used to, I'd have snapped like a twig and fallen to tears.

He went to sleep by my side and said nothing. I let him have his beloved silence. I had no desire to speak to him anymore.

He didn't say anything the next day, either. He got up and left, and I cried again. I didn't know if I was supposed to stay in the room or not. I didn't want to risk leaving his bed without permission, but I also didn't want to risk slacking off without permission. Leaving his bed was probably the worse transgression of the two, so I stayed put, with nothing but my memory of Dune telling me I wasn't alone for company.

He came to check on me in the afternoon. He brought lunch with him. He washed the welts on my thighs with cold water and I tried not to flinch. Then he left. I ate what he had left me sluggishly. I didn't want to risk a punishment over food, not now that I knew what punishment was like over simple, little mistakes like speaking to someone I didn't know.

He brought me dinner. I ate it. I didn't look at him. He barely looked at me. He went to sleep beside me, and I cried. I tried not to wake him up, but he woke anyway. He took me into his arms, and I cried harder.

That night, I dreamed of my father again. 'ae'Quartthtra,' he called to me. 'No slaves until you've trained a dog,' he said, stern and wise, as he always was. Then there was fire.

When I came to, I realised I'd left the bed in my sleep. Throren hadn't moved. I sat, naked on the stone floor, and hyperventilated. Did it matter that I'd done it while I was asleep? That I hadn't meant to? I hadn't meant to talk to Dune. That hadn't mattered. If I got back in, he'd wake up, and he'd know I'd left the bed.

I stayed on the floor and shivered.

"Kath," the Master said. "Come back to bed."

I hauled myself back into bed with him.

"Tell me about your home," the Master said.

What could I tell him? What could I say? Could I say anything? "It burned," I said. It came out as a whisper.

The Master didn't say anything for a while. Was I supposed to say more? Could I say more?

"That's sad," the Master said.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"I know," the Master said. "Come here."

I shifted myself closer to him, and he pulled me into his arms. It did not help.

He fell asleep. I spent the next hour trying to inch away from him slowly enough to not wake him up.

The next morning, he woke me up by kissing my neck. I tried to control my breathing. In, out. Quiet and calm. "You had a rough night last night," he said. "You had a dream so bad you fell out of bed."

"Sorry, Master," I said quietly. Did it matter? If I apologised, would it matter, or would he just take the crop to me again?

He tensed behind me. "It's all right," he said. "I'll not ask you to control your dreams."

"Yes, Master," I said. So, he wouldn't ask me to control my dreams, but he'd crop me for making a mistake?

He kissed my shoulder. I breathed. In, out.

"You're all right, Kath," he said. "It's all right."

"Is it?" I whispered, and the tears started again.

He kissed my temple and left. I realised that I had started speaking in two-word sentences, and I cried for hours.

'Not alone,' Dune said in my head, but he had started speaking in two-word sentences too.

Chapter Text

The Master came to me with lunch. "You're not confined, Kath," he said. "You can stay here, or you can wander."

I ate lunch while he watched me, then I dressed and fled.

I sat by the creek and watched the water. I couldn't face the girls in the laundry. I couldn't stand the idea that people who cared about me might have been right to be worried for me. Instead, I sat by the tiny trickle of water and remembered Dune taking my hands and telling me I wasn't alone.

Someone sat next to me. I had expected Leanna, but instead, it was Lissal.

I wasn't certain that I could handle Lissal. She made me feel soulless at the best of times.

She had brought with her a piece of embroidery. She showed it to me. "The light is much better out here," she said. She sat next to me, piercing the cloth over and over.

"It gets easier," she said, after several long minutes of absolute silence.

"I don't believe you," I told her.

"Fair enough," she said. "What do you think, red or yellow?"

I shook my head. "I don't care," I said.

"Neither do I," she said. "But if they think I do, it's all so much easier. So, red or yellow?"

"Yellow. You don't care for Lord Hector," I said quietly.

"Oh, hunny," Lissal said, shaking her head and smiling. "I don't care for anyone. Not even you, not really. But I remember me back when I was like you, and me when I was you really didn't want to be left alone. So, I suppose I care for me. Maybe."

"If I stay around you, I'll lose my soul," I said.

Lissal smiled sweetly. "You lost it the moment you took that collar, sweetie. You left it in Andonia, I suppose."

"Does it hurt? Living without a soul?" I asked.

"Not really," Lissal said. "It doesn't feel like much of anything at all."

"That sounds nice," I said.

I had a not unpleasant but also not pleasant hour or so with Lissal before Leanna found us and sat on my other side. The two slave girls flanked me in what felt like a protective cocoon.

Slaves had never protected each other in my father's house. Father had protected them.

"Heard you got caught with Dune," Leanna said.

"Is that what people are saying?" I asked.

"People are saying he tried to seduce you," Leanna said. "Kayla keeps telling people you were screaming out for help, saying you already had too much cock in your life."

"Kayla wasn't there," I said.

"I know she wasn't there," Leanna said. "But she loves to talk."

I shrugged and watched the creek.

"Do you want to tell me what happened?" Leanna asked.

I shook my head.

"Do you want me to distract you?" Leanna asked.

I shrugged. "If you think you can," I said.

"Dune caused a ruckus yesterday," Leanna said. "Huge ruckus."

Lissal nodded. "He did. Even I heard it."

"Yulie put him to the block over what he did with you. He put him over the block, gave him - what, thirty lashes or something - and Dune just shouted obscenities about Throren the whole time."

Thirty lashes? Fuck.

"You should have heard it, it was incredible. Dune's normally really quiet - makes a big thing about giving Yulie the silent treatment - but when he wants to talk, it gets filthy."

"The Master covered my ears and sent me away," Lissal said. "But what I heard was terrible."

"Something really ticked him off," Leanna said. "He kept saying it wasn't fair - kept saying it wasn't your fault. I don't normally like Dune, but I liked him standing up for you."

"He didn't do anything wrong," I said. "He only talked to me after I talked to him."

"That's not what Yulie said. Yulie said he touched you."

"He touched me when he asked if I was okay," I said. "You touched me when you asked if I was okay. Kayla was almost in my lap when she asked me if I was okay."

"Why were they asking if you were okay?" Lissal asked.

"He'd just been locked up in Lord Throren's room for six days straight," Leanna said.

"That's his job," Lissal said.

"How would you feel, if it were your job?" Leanna asked. "Throren's more than twice the size of Hector. And he's more than twice as strong, easily."

Lissal shrugged. "Master Hector is stronger than you might think, and you might find out his strength if you fail to use his title again," she said.

"This is why no one likes you," Leanna said.

"I don't care what people like," Lissal said. "All I care about is pleasing the Master, and I think the Master will like the yellow, don't you?"

Leanna shook her head. "You should use green," she said.

"Now you're just trying to mess with me," Lissal said.

"Is Dune all right?" I asked.

"That's a dangerous road you're on," Lissal said.

Leanna shrugged. "I don't know. He's had worse. Yulie knows what he's doing with a lash, he'd never injure him. Yulie's - he's Yulie. He wouldn't even scar him. Dune's not going to die from it, but he's not going to be happy at all for a few days."

"When I spoke to him, I got the impression he wasn't happy to begin with," I said.

Leanna shrugged. "You're not wrong."

Lissal tutted disapprovingly. "This is a bad place you're going to," she said. "Only sadness follows you where you're going. Sadness and beatings."

I nodded. "You're right," I said. I tried to put it from my head and failed completely. I wondered if Dune knew that he wasn't alone.

"I know I'm right," Lissal said.

 

 

 

That night, we went to bed in silence again. I dreamed of the fire and I woke up screaming. Throren held me down and I thrashed, calling out for my father. He held me tighter. I cried and hyperventilated, and he pressed me down into the bed, saying, "Shush, Kath, calm down."

Eventually, I managed to become still underneath him. "I'm sorry," I said.

"I know," he said.

He rolled off me and I fell asleep again. When I woke up, I felt like I hadn't slept.

Throren was up and already dressed. "Come with me," he said. He looked like he hadn't slept.

I dressed and followed him. He took me to the stables. We went to a stall where the biggest horse I had ever seen was kept.

It was huge. It was big enough that Throren could ride it. That was mad - how was there such a thing? How was there a horse big enough?

Throren led it from the stall and tacked it up himself while I watched in disbelief.

It was so tall. It was so wide. I wondered how much water it took to keep it alive - too much, surely, way too much. Then I remembered that water wasn't an issue here.

It wasn't just the size of the horse that had me in disbelief, it was the beauty of the creature. It had a shiny black coat and a well-kept mane. Throren kept this horse's hair better than he kept his own.

Eventually, the horse was saddled. Throren gave it an affectionate pat on the neck, then looked to me. "Come here," he said.

Oh, no. Surely not. I wouldn't - I couldn't - this wasn't a beast for me to mount. That was not at all a thing that I could be allowed to do.

Throren picked me up by the armpits and deposited me on the saddle. It was so much higher than any other horse I'd ridden. This wasn't - this wasn't right. My fingers itched for the reins. My feet reached for the stirrups. There was no way I'd reach them. They were at Throren-length.

He pulled himself up and sat behind me. His feet found the stirrups, then we were walking out of the stable.

Oh, but this beast's walk was smooth. It was such a big thing, of course it was smooth.

My time with his crop and my time with Lissal had sucked out my soul, but this horse was going to shove it back in. I couldn't be riding this. This was a horse for kings and queens. Throren shouldn't even be riding this. Gods could ride it, maybe, if they behaved themselves.

Throren was unaware of the sheer heresy we were committing, and he brought us out of the gate, and out of Summer Hill.

I wondered if he intended to take me back.

Throren took the horse to a trot, then out of it into a canter, and that was smoother, but it was so much faster than I'd ever had before. I supposed that was what I should have expected, when I was put on a horse twice as big as any I'd ever ridden before.

The town below stretched out before us, and I could not remember its name. I'd been to so many towns and so many markets. When I had been put in this one, I hadn't been expecting to be sold to anything but another trader. That had been the trend.

We went into the town and down the same road we had walked up to get out of it. We passed the spot I'd been bought from - I remembered being placed into a cage, right over there. A different stall was there now, trading furs. We rode on.

Eventually, Throren stopped the horse. We were in front of a house, some way away from the market stalls. A sign above showed a needle and thread.

Throren dismounted, hitched the horse to the house's porch, and held out his arms to me.

I looked down. Yes, that seemed fair - it was a lot further down than any other horse I'd ever ridden. I swung my leg over and let him help me down.

He led me inside. An older man sat on a cushioned stool, using needle and thread on some fine linen. "My lord," he said, smiling, and put his work down. "Always a pleasure, what can I do for you today?"

"This one needs clothes," Throren said. He leaned against a wall, keeping himself out of the way. "Something for every day, something for when my Father comes to visit. And boots."

The tailor pulled a sturdy looking footstool out from a corner and placed it in the middle of the room. "Up, and stand straight," I was told.

"Yes, sir," I said, and stood on the stool.

"Couldn't have gotten a taller one, could you?" the tailor asked, as he bent to measure my leg from hip to ankle. He wrote the measurements down in a book he kept by the window. I wondered how wealthy a place had to be, for even their tailors to be able to read and write.

"You cannot begin to imagine how many times I've heard that in the last few weeks," Throren said.

The tailor chuckled and resumed measuring me. "Oh, I can begin," he said. "You wouldn't believe the things I've been hearing."

"I could stand to listen," Throren said.

"According to the innkeep, you took in a slave from Andonia who can't speak a word of our language. You've been keeping him in your bed and teaching him to speak." I must have made a face, because the tailor was smirking. "That one's not true, is it?" he asked.

"He can speak," Throren said.

"Could've fooled me," the tailor said, looking at me expectantly.

"I speak when I'm spoken to, sir," I said.

"According to the baker, you've taken in an Andonian prince, and you're beating the entitlement out of him every night with a stick," the tailor said.

It had been a crop, not a stick, and it hadn't been entitlement that he'd beaten out of me. It had been affection.

"The baker once told me Yulie and I would be the death of this town," Throren said. "You'll have to forgive him, it's not his fault he's never right."

The tailor laughed. "And Cessie - you remember Cessie, she was the first child born after the plague - Cessie's certain you've adopted a unicorn."

Throren chuckled. "Kath - what's an alpaca look like? Cessie might not be far off. Look anything like a unicorn?"

I was surprised for a moment. I hadn't expected Throren to remember what my name meant. ae'Quartthtra was old Andon for a feral alpaca. Alpacas were not found in Lestrat, that I had seen.

Throren had committed the name of the beast to his memory.

This did not keep my attention for long. The mention of a unicorn had made my usually blank Master react, which told me that it must have been a very absurd suggestion, and absurdity normally cheered me up.

"What's a unicorn?" I asked.

"Really?" Throren asked. "Your people love the mythical, and you've not heard of a unicorn?"

I shook my head. "I must have missed that story, Master."

"It's not - is there a story? I don't think there is a story about unicorns," Throren said.

"Cessie would know," the tailor said as he measured my arm. "But I don't think there is a story."

"There's a story about the Pegasus," Throren said.

I loved that story.

"But I don't know of one about a unicorn. It's a horse, essentially, with a horn on its head."

I preferred the Pegasus. "Like a goat, Master?"

The tailor laughed. "No, not like a goat. Like a ... like a pretty white horse, with one horn in the middle of the forehead. They're elusive and they only show themselves to virgins. They're magical and they live in forests, and Cessie wants one so very badly."

I still preferred the Pegasus. A flying horse would be darn useful. And I wasn't a virgin anymore, so there would be no unicorns for me anyway. I refused to dwell on that.

"I don't think an alpaca looks anything like a horse of any sort, Master," I said. "Maybe if you were really, really drunk."

That got another laugh from the tailor. "What is an alpaca?"

"Kath is named after it, whatever it is," the Master said.

"Do they give fleece?" the tailor asked. "I think I've heard of a beast from the east that gives fleece."

"They do give fleece, sir," I said. "We don't normally keep animals that don't give fleece, or down, sir. Even our dogs give a fleece."

"No horses, then," the Master said.

"Horses are not usually kept, Master. They are only good for transport, they don't give fleece, they don't give eggs or milk."

The Master looked at me. I wondered if I'd said something wrong. I wondered if I would get the crop for it.

"I'm done here," the tailor said. "So, you'll be wanting formal, and regular. How many?"

The Master shrugged. "One formal, four regular," he said.

That sounded ... oddly permanent. Four. That would be enough for me to break a few.

"Have you gotten him anything for winter yet?"

This stopped the Master short. He said nothing for a while.

"My lord?" the tailor pressed.

Throren nodded, pulled himself out of his thoughts, and spoke. "He's not made for our winter," he said. "I don't know how cold he'll get. He'll need something warmer than you might normally make."

"I'll manage," the tailor said. "Fur?"

Throren nodded. "Something soft."

"I can do rabbit or fox, but there's not much else at market at the moment."

"Rabbit," Throren said. "And gloves."

"It'll not come cheap," the tailor said.

Throren shrugged. "Yulie keeps telling me to stop hoarding," he said. "Apparently it's bad for the economy."

"I haven't the faintest idea what that means," the tailor said.

"Nor do I," Throren said.

"Any preference of colour?"

"Not green."

"Red would look good on him."

Throren looked at me. "Any preference?"

I shrugged. "Anything but black, Master," I said.

"Red, then," the Master said.

"Six hundred."

"Five. And you can tell Cessie I adopted a unicorn, but it ran away."

"Done."

Throren dropped a bag full of coin on the table and counted out the fee.

I stepped down from the stool and followed the Master from the shop. He stood by the horse and waited for me to come to him. He lifted me up and onto its back again and mounted behind me.

We walked for only a few minutes before dismounting again. Mounting the beast seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

Throren stopped in front of another shop and strolled inside.

"My lord!" he was greeted by a chorus of women who all sounded rather startled.

I followed him inside. It was a spin shop, full of fleeces and yarns and local knitting tools.

I got the sense that this was not a shop frequented by lords often. The women were all at work. A spinning wheel was turning, and I was fairly certain that I could smell dye. The largest loom I had ever seen took up an entire wall. This was a place of supplies, not finished products, and my Master had no place here.

He placed three coins into the hand of a waiting girl. "Make him spend that," he said to her, then guided her over to me.

She looked at me, bemused. "Do you ... know a craft?" she asked.

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, equally as confused as she was. "I ... yes, but ... I don't use the same tools as you," I said.

She nodded, looking at the coins in her hand. "Do you use yarn or fleece?" she asked.

"I - yes. Yarn. It's like your knitting."

"Well, let's find you a yarn, then," she said. I spent the next few minutes having everything I even slightly liked being piled onto a bench. There was too much. I'd never use it all.

"Do you have a bent needle?" I asked.

"I'm not sure what that is," the girl said. "Like a cable needle?"

"I don't know what that is," I said.

She showed me a cable needle. It wasn't that. "It's like a regular needle, for sewing, only it's bent," I said.

"Oh, like a tapestry needle?" she asked.

"I don't know what that is," I said.

She showed me what a tapestry needle was. "Yes, like a tapestry needle, apparently," I said. She laughed and we added it to the pile.

So it was that the Master bought me a small mountain of yarn and supplies. We pressed it into his saddlebags and left the confused but sale-happy girls.

"Thank you, Master," I said.

It seemed that his rewards were just as extreme as his punishments and made equally as little sense.

"You're welcome," he said. Then he put me back on his horse, swung up behind me and headed home.

Once we were out of the town, he spoke again. "I understand you're upset with me, Kath," he said.

"It's not my place to be upset with you, Master," I said.

He snorted. "Yes, because that's how it works, isn't it?" he said.

Sarcasm wasn't particularly helpful to me when I couldn't read him anymore. It had to be a sarcastic remark, but I couldn't tell from his tone.

"I don't see what I've done wrong here," he said. "All I see is you pulling away from me after I punish you once. I'm trying to be patient with you, but you're not speaking to me, and I can't fix the problem if you don't tell me what it is. That's exactly what Dune does, Kath, he refuses to speak, refuses to tell Yulie what the problem is. And I'll not tolerate it from you. You'll tell me what the problem is, and you'll tell me soon, because I'll not wait around forever."

He wouldn't? Funny, that's not the impression he'd just given me, from buying four sets of clothes and a whole shop's worth of yarn. I was just useless at reading this man.

He'd essentially told me that he wouldn't tolerate me being quiet anymore, so what was I supposed to say? "I'm afraid I'll get the crop again," I said weakly, because I didn't really want to say anything at all.

"Clearly," Throren said. "But you went three weeks before you got it, and you disobeyed a direct order to get it. Do you think I've gotten a taste for it? I don't think I've got a taste for it. I think I'm done. I think I could stand to never pick it up again."

I shook my head. "I don't want to do this," I said, and he held me closer.

"Do what, Kath?" he said. "I don't know what you want, or what you don't want. You seemed to like me well enough, then you went and talked to Dune and now you can hardly stand the sight of me. I don't know what you want unless you tell me."

I frowned, miserable and scared. "I can't have this conversation without disagreeing with you," I said. "And if I disagree, I'll be punished. It's a trap, Master, you're pulling me into a trap and I'm afraid of it."

He stopped the horse and we sat there, incredibly close, on her back. "It isn't a trap," he said. "Do you really think me so devious? Tell me what's going on here, Kath."

I took a few deep steadying breaths and pushed my hands into the horse's mane. It was warm and coarse. I felt safer, for a moment.

"Either you believed me when I said I didn't know it was him, and you punished me for making a mistake, or you didn't believe me, and you believe I'm a liar," I said finally, convinced I was going to get the crop again, so I might as well say what I was thinking. "So either every time I open my mouth, you might punish me for lying, or every time I make a mistake, I'll get punished. Either way, I don't see anything but the crop again, and there's no way for me to fix this. I can't change it. I can't do better."

Throren said nothing. He nudged the horse with his knees, and we walked again.

"I'm sorry, Master," I said.

He said nothing.

"What will you do with me?" I asked.

"Nothing," he said, but his voice was clipped, and I could feel the anger in it. "I told you to speak. It's not your fault I didn't like what you said."

"I'm sorry, Master," I said.

We went back through the gate, and back to Summer Hill.

"Will you be getting rid of me?" I asked, and Throren tensed up completely behind me.

"What?" he asked.

"Sorry," I said quickly.

He did not relax at all, that I could tell, not even when we reached the stables and he dismounted. He was tense when he pulled me off of the horse, and tense when he unbuckled the saddlebag full of yarn and pressed it into my hands. "Go back to the room," he said, and he oozed tension through his pores.

I went back, wondering what new hell he would bring back with him when he joined me.

It took a while. I unpacked the yarn and placed the saddlebag by the door. I knelt by his armchair and waited.

When he returned, it was hours later. He did not have the crop with him. He was drenched in sweat, and his hair was wet, but he was still tense. "Get up," he said, and I did, but he didn't give me any other orders, so I just stood there.

He stalked me until I backed away, and then he backed me up into the wall, where he bent until he could press his lips against mine.

He smelled like sweat, horse and water. He smelled good. He held my head in his hands and kissed me, even as I couldn't bring myself to kiss him back.

"Kath," he said, and it sounded strained and a bit mad to my ears. He pressed his forehead to mine. "What ... what part of this made you think you were replaceable?" he asked.

I opened and closed my mouth, but I didn't have anything to say.

"You were just supposed to be pretty," Throren said, and it sounded like an admonishment. "You were supposed to be pretty and distracting and that was it, that was all I wanted. You were supposed to take a couple of fingers and then tell me to stop, and I would, because I'm not an arsehole, but here we are, I'm an arsehole and you're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, and you're the only thing that's ever taken my cock like that and you're probably the only thing that ever will take it like that, so don't ... don't ever ask me if I'm going to get rid of you, don't ever ask again."

I couldn't bring myself to speak, so I just nodded dumbly. He ran a hand through his damp hair, pulling it back from his face. Then he shook his head, like he couldn't believe what he was seeing, and left.

I rested my back against the wall and tried not to think of what my father would have said, but I couldn't. He was in my head, counting off Throren's transgressions on his fingers. My father's image was powerful, domineering, and full of critical derision and cold disgust. His expression was angry and vicious.

'You used a crop over a dumb mistake, you fool,' Father said in my head, berating Throren in a way he had never berated me. He had only ever berated other Masters in this manner, and he did it often.

They usually paid him to do it, too.

Father had always been utterly implacable, so it made a perfect, unpleasant measure of sense that even death would not hold him at bay for long. He was in my head, as alive as he had always been, giving a lecture and making himself heard.

'You let your slave talk back to you, and he feels like he has to because you won't talk to him or give clear instructions. Your punishment makes no sense, your rewards make no sense. You're kind or you're cold, but the slave doesn't know why. You want him to take your absurd cock and when he does it, he starts to bond with you, so you promptly beat that out of him.

'And worst of all - this is truly horrendous - you just scolded him for exceeding your expectations.'

Father's voice echoed in my head, bouncing off the walls, and I worried that I was going to go mad if I listened to myself think in his tone any longer. I ran into the bedroom, trying to escape him, but he followed me in my head.

'Don't get me started on that ae'Aberda-bedamnable 'no leaving the bed' rule,' Father said in my mind the moment I saw the bed. 'I'll rip it to pieces, and every last shred of your dignity with it.'

I burrowed into the bed, pulled the covers over my head and closed my eyes, hoping that would banish my father's tirade.

Blessedly, it did.

'You're not alone,' I remembered Dune telling me, and that was much, much more comforting.

Chapter Text

That night, Throren turned his back to me and didn't fall asleep. He stayed awake for hours, and I couldn't sleep while he couldn't sleep. The next morning, he left without a word to me.

I was summoned to Secturn's office that afternoon. "Your Master wants to see you. He's in the stables."

I went to the stables, but Throren wasn't there. Neither was his colossal horse. The stablemaster saw me frowning in front of Semmy's stall.

"I am Tempen," he said.

"I'm Kath-"

"I know who you are," he said quickly. "He took Semmy out to the paddock. You'd best hurry, he was in a mood."

"Thank you, sir," I said, and ducked my head to the ground in respect.

"He looked like he was about to throw a table again, don't make him wait," Tempen said.

"Thank you, sir," I said, and walked quickly through the back of the stable.

Throren was indeed out - was Semmy the name of his horse? He was putting her through her paces in circles around the paddock. I went to the fence and waited for him to come around.

When he stopped, he stopped on the other side of the paddock, furthest from the stables and the rest of the house. He waved me over, so I clambered under the fence and went to him.

He held Semmy in front of him by the bridle. I circled around her and approached them from the side. Throren nodded at me. He must have calmed down, because he didn't look like he was about to throw a table. He looked incredibly blank.

"You mustn't ever come at her from behind," he said. "She's a kicker."

I nodded. "Yes, Master," I said.

"Come here," he said, and held out his hand.

I went to him. He picked up my hand in his, squeezed it, then brought it to Semmy's nose. She sniffed it, then left it, uninterested. Why would she be interested? Why would this beautiful creature have any care in the world for a slave's hand?

Throren let go of my hand, and I placed it tentatively on Semmy's neck, feeling her warmth.

"Good," Throren said. "I've asked Tempen to give you lessons."

Wait - lessons? I didn't need lessons. How dare he think that? "On horses, Master?" I asked, trying very hard to keep my annoyance out of my tone.

He nodded. "I spend half my time on horseback, and Yulie wants me looking at the North forest over winter. I'd prefer you not to slow me down, if I choose to take you out with me. We'll not rush you on it, though. I understand it's new to you."

New? Oh - I'd said that Andonians didn't keep horses. "My people don't usually keep horses, Master, but my father was ... eccentric in many ways. I can ride."

Rather well, thank you very much.

Throren was looking at me oddly. "You seemed afraid," he said. "You still seem afraid. You flinch every time you look at her."

I looked at Semmy, and he was right. I did an odd kind of shiver at the sight of her. "It isn't fear, Master," I told him.

"Then what is it?" he asked.

I tried to find words. "This," I said, patting Semmy's neck, "Is the most beautiful creature I've ever seen."

Throren looked at Semmy. He looked at her fondly, but not with any sort of reverence. "This is a plough horse," he said. "This is a well trained, well bred, well kept plough horse."

"What's a plough horse?" I asked.

"For farms," he said. "This is ... this is a horse for working, not for lords. It's all I can fit on."

I shrugged.

"I don't see it," Throren said. "I'm fond of her, but if you want a beautiful horse, you should see Yulie's."

"Is Lord Yulie's horse smaller, Master?" I asked.

"Well, yes. But she's more agile, she's faster."

"If you want an agile animal, get yourself a goat," I said. "Get a rabbit. Horses are only any good for transport, and people have legs."

Throren shook his head. "Legs could not take me the places a horse can take me, not in the same amount of time," he said.

"That's not the point," I said, because it wasn't, and Throren didn't understand - he didn't understand Semmy's value, he didn't understand Andonia, and he didn't understand me. "The point is that horses are an extravagance. They can only do one job, and we can already do that job without them. You keep a horse after everything else is plentiful - food, water, cloth, heat, shelter - the horse is what you keep when you've got so much wealth you don't know what to do with it."

"Am I being lectured?" Throren asked Semmy. "Is this happening?"

Once I'd started ranting, I felt a lot better. I recognised that I was very likely to get the crop again - or worse - but I felt like lecturing Throren was getting something caustic and vile out of my body.

I realised that it was probably going to be worth it to snap at him every so often and take the consequences.

Father would have hated that.

I couldn't stop talking, though, not with Semmy next to me, lending me her warmth and her solidarity. I had to defend her honour. "You've got a horse this size, and it's mad, how much does it eat? How much does it drink? This is four slave's worth of feed and water, probably more, and its only use is to carry you places you can already go. It's mad, it's excessive. This is the sort of beast you see kings keep - this isn't the sort of beast you put a slave on. It's wrong, you shouldn't have let me ride it, I don't deserve to even look at this, it's above my station," I said.

Throren looked at Semmy and carefully carded his fingers through her mane. "It's funny," he said eventually, looking everywhere but me. "That's exactly what goes through my head when you're on my cock."

Well. That was unexpected. I'd expected the crop again for that rant, but instead I'd gotten a weird compliment.

"So, your father kept horses, and you ... disapproved?" Throren asked.

My hand was still on Semmy's neck. How was I to put this? "He had the money, and he travelled enough, so keeping the horses was excusable," I said. "It probably could have been better spent, but no one ever said no to my father."

"Did you?" Throren asked.

"I always said no to my father," I said.

Throren smiled at that, but not for long. The smile dropped and he went cold. "I wanted to talk to you about my father, actually," he said. "He'll be coming here soon. I'm not particularly fond of him."

'His cunt of a father,' Yulie had said. I said nothing.

"You told me once that you were well loved," Throren said.

I nodded.

"I wasn't," Throren said. He pulled Semmy closer to him and let her nose at his face. "I think the only thing my father ever loved was himself."

Throren sighed, and the action served as an unnecessary reminder to me of how huge his shoulders were.

"I have spent my entire life trying not to become him," Throren said, not to me, but to Semmy.

That resonated strongly with me. I had spent my free life under my father's shadow, trying not to be exactly what he was. Once collared, I'd assumed that I had escaped him, but instead he had inserted himself into my thoughts. Even now, he was in my head, commending Throren for talking to me.

'It's good for the bond,' Father would have said.

I was angry about it, though. The last thing I wanted at that moment was to identify with Throren. I wanted distance, not understanding.

"It has occurred to me that you are missing some context, which is my fault," Throren said.

Truer words had never been spoken, in my opinion.

"When we spoke yesterday, you were wrong. What you said - either I believed you or I didn't - you were wrong. And that's my fault. You couldn't have known what I believed, because I never explained it to you. To understand what has happened here, you need to understand the issue with Dune," Throren said.

"I don't want anything to do with that, Master," I said, and he frowned.

"That's the problem," Throren said. "It's not your choice."

"It's your choice, Master, I know that, but - "

"It's not mine, either," Throren said. "It's Yulie's choice, and Yulie's not going to change his mind now any more than he has since he bought him. We're both stuck with Dune, and there's nothing either of us can do about it."

I put my head down and tried not to fidget. None of this sounded like it was likely to end well for me.

"I'll not be rid of you, and I can't be rid of Dune. You need to understand why this is a problem, and you need to understand what I'm going to do to correct it."

I was not looking forward to any further corrections of his. "Yes, Master," I said quietly. I couldn't keep the resignation from my voice.

"To understand the issue with Dune, you'll need to understand my relationship with Yulie, and to understand that, you'll need to understand my family," Throren said, and it sounded rehearsed. It sounded like he had thought about this and prepared what he wanted to say in his mind. Was this what he had lain awake all night over? It sounded like a line of logic, and that was Yulie's area, not Throren's.

He had talked to Yulie about this.

Everyone had said that Yulie wouldn't tolerate cruelty, and I wasn't sure what else to call what Throren had done to me. Had Yulie talked to Throren, or had Throren talked to Yulie? When had it happened?

Did Yulie have some issue with my punishment? How could he have an issue with mine, but not with Dune's? He had given Dune a lashing - but Dune had insulted Throren the whole time, while I'd taken the crop and fallen apart.

Did Yulie understand that I was not as resilient?

Could I trust Yulie to help me?

"I - I was hoping we could do this better," Throren said, staring at Semmy and sounding less rehearsed. He sounded a little bit less certain than he usually did, less confident.  "I wanted to break this to you slowly, because everything about this situation is awful. I wanted to shield you from it. You've already got your own past. You don't need to be dealing with mine."

That was strangely kind, coming from the man who had taken a riding crop to my arse.

"I don't need to understand to obey, Master," I said.

Throren snorted. "I'm not asking for obedience in this," he said. "I'm asking for understanding."

I didn't want to give it to him. "Yes, Master," I said, looking determinedly at the grass under my feet and trying to appear less reluctant than I was.

"My father is the most evil man I've ever met," Throren said. "He's callously, thoughtlessly evil. He was cruel to the servants, the staff, the slaves - especially the slaves - but he didn't stop there. He was cruel to me and to my brothers as well."

I stubbornly refused to pity him. His father's cruelty did not excuse his own.

"My brothers learned from this," Throren said. "They grew up in a place where cruelty was a normal, regular way to get what you wanted, and they were older than me. Most of them could remember a time that they were bigger than me."

I continued to withhold pity. I'd never assumed that he had a perfect life, but his life had left him a lord in Summer Hill while mine had left me a slave with nightmares and a dead father who wouldn't get out of my head.

He was quiet for a while, then he spoke again. "My father claimed I wasn't his for a long time. I was taller than he was by the time I was twelve. He couldn't find a man tall enough to pin as my actual father, so he had to keep me.

"My mother was convinced I was malformed. She'd had eleven other children, and none of them were anything near my size at birth. She thought I was punishment for my father's whoring.

"Mother and Father both didn't want anything to do with me, so I was left with the servants a lot. Half the time I was shielded from my brothers and from Father, but that just meant that I didn't learn to play their game. I didn't like to fight back. I didn't like to hurt people. Father did that to me. I slept in the bedroom underneath his. I heard every hurtful thing he did in his bed, every night."

I stubbornly continued to withhold pity.

If he had told me this before he had taken the riding crop to me, I'd have hushed and soothed him like a bird with a broken wing. I'd have wanted to nurse him back to health.

I would probably have told him all about my own terrible injustices.

Instead, I only felt annoyed with him. He had become his father, as far as I was concerned. He'd tried not to, and he'd failed.

"Yulie came to live with us when I was seven, and he was the worst of them, for a time. He wasn't - he wasn't a strictly normal child, he was ... odd. He was smart, though, smarter than any of my brothers, and he could mess with me worse than them. No one could catch me if I ran, but Yulie was smart enough to figure out the places I'd run to, so it was only a matter of time before they'd catch up."

"I thought he was your friend," I said quietly, confused.

"He isn't not my friend," Throren said. "He wasn't - he isn't quite right in the head. It was all an equation to him - pick on me, people will be your friend, they'll share their toys with you. But he was smart, even then, and eventually he realised that I wasn't going to keep running away forever. He came to me and told me he'd changed his mind and wanted to be my friend. He used to come to me whenever I'd taken a hit, and he'd say to me: 'Sooner or later, you will realise that you are bigger than they are.'

"And I did, eventually, come to that conclusion. I couldn't really stand and fight, though, I - didn't hurt people well. It turned my stomach, made me hurl. Yulie - he read too much, even then - he desensitised me. We'd fight together, and it would be okay to hurt him, because he was Yulie and he told me to. So, when it all went south for him, and he was too smart and too weird for my brothers to like him anymore, he had me, and I ... I only took their shit because they gave it to me, it was a whole different story if they were giving it to Yulie. Even now, whenever Yulie is threatened, I get violent. I can't not."

"That's ... loyal," I said, because I didn't know what else to say, and because I didn't want to hear any more of this. I didn't like how human he was becoming in my eyes.

"I protected him, and he forced me to stand up for myself, and when he inherited this place, we just left. I don't think I even said goodbye to anyone. I haven't seen half of my brothers in ten years, and that's fine, because they aren't Yulie."

"Lord Yulie is your brother," I said.

"Yes," Throren said. "But no. I've got brothers, and brothers are shit. I don't think there is a word for what Yulie and I are. He says we are a unit. We don't function right without each other. Yulie is just like me. He's fucked up in the head, sure, but my body is all wrong. I'm too tall and ... well, you've felt it, you know that's not normal."

I shook my head. "I know no such thing," I said firmly. At no point had his cock ever been the problem, in my opinion. "I don't make it my business to judge what people keep in their trousers."

"You're the only one, then," Throren said. "I've heard what they say about me."

"It's hard not to hear what they say about you," I said. "I don't know what you want me to do with this."

"I'm getting there," Throren said, so I shut up and waited for him to finish. "You once asked me what I do here. It's a tough question. The truth is a little weird. Yulie doesn't always get his responses right. He still fucks up sometimes, and when that happens, it's my job to tell him how he should act. The time I threw a table, that was because Yulie didn't get offended. He should have been offended, but the way it was phrased - it was an insult shrouded in facts - it just flew right over his head. It's my job to step in and tell Yulie how to behave, and I'm good at it, and this is how we've gotten here. Yulie's too smart but he's also too stupid and I keep him from fucking up with other people.

"But it works. All this? This place was a ruin when we got here. Yulie took a toll - seven out of ten people died. They died during the harvest, so no one harvested, they were too busy tending sickbeds and digging graves. We nearly starved that winter. Yulie and I have spent the last ten years building this place back up, and we're good at it. We're good at it because Yulie does what I tell him to do, unless he's got one of his crazy ideas, but he runs those by me first, and he always listens to me."

"He doesn't listen to you about Dune," I said.

"No, he doesn't, and that's only half the problem," Throren said, and his anger was back, building and raging like fire. He let go of Semmy and put his hands on the fence. I watched it flex under his grip. "Yulie has never been happy. Never. His parents died, and the poor sod became a ward to my twat of a father, and then his aunt and uncle and all his cousins died. He came here and it was terrible, but we fixed it, we finally got ourselves surrounded by good people, and he still wasn't happy. Then he came back with Dune, and I knew it wasn't going to work, because nothing could ever make Yulie happy, so I never expected anything. Even Kayla - he doted on Kayla, and she still didn't make him happy."

"So why are you so angry about it?" I asked.

"Because I was wrong," Throren said, and I flinched. In my tenure as a slave, not a single Master had ever said those words. "Dune did make him happy - Dune made him blissful, for about a week. It was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen. He was relaxed, he was calm, and I spent that week being jealous, of all the stupid things to be. But it didn't last. It was a week, at most. I don't know what went wrong. Yulie doesn't know what went wrong. Dune won't fucking speak of it. All I know is that Yulie's more miserable now than he's ever been, but he won't take any of my advice, and Dune is getting worse, not better."

Throren stood and gripped the fence, breathing heavily and glaring at nothing in particular. I stood next to him and wondered what the hell was happening here.

Throren licked his lips. "You said either I didn't believe you, and I cropped you for lying, or I did believe you, and I cropped you for making a mistake. And you're wrong. It's so much worse than that. I did it because you spoke to Dune. I didn't care if you were telling the truth or not. I didn't care if you made a mistake. All I cared about was making sure you knew damn well not to do it again, because there is only fucking one of you, Kath. I cannot replace you if Dune fucks you up. All I cared about was making you keep the hell away from that piece of shit slave that Yulie can't get rid of."

He stopped talking. He'd talked himself into a frenzy, and I knew I had to calm him down somehow. "I learned that lesson," I said. "I did, and it's done now, Master, I'm not going anywhere near him."

"That's not the fucking point, Kath," Throren snarled.

I couldn't help but step back. He didn't like that. I could tell my fear only made him even more upset.

"The point is, you're right. There's nothing but the crop again for you. I can't keep my temper over Dune, and I can't make Yulie get rid of him. He's here and sooner or later you'll see each other again, and I'll lose my temper again. So, you're fucked, and I'm fucked."

He was furious, and I was terrified. He hadn't even been angry like this when he'd cropped me. He had been blank then. I had never had a punishment from him given with anger before, and I wasn't convinced that I would survive one if he gave it.

"So, here's what we're going to do," he said, breathing sharply. "You are going to do your best to stay away from Dune."

"Yes, Master," I said, trying to sound meek and small.

"And I am going to not punish you. If Dune is involved, in any way at all, you don't get punished. Nothing. If I can't be trusted to do it right, I'd best not do it at all. I'll just ignore it and forgive you."

My mind blanked for several moments.

Wait.

Really?

Surely not.

That's not something Masters do.

I folded my arms over my chest, hugging myself. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to act?

Throren was still furious. He came to me and took my face in his hands. "If you can't stay away from Dune, I'll make you," he said. "I'll not punish you, but I can confine you. I can make Yulie confine Dune. If you can't stay away, I can fix that problem. I can't fix my anger. That evil little fucker is keeping the only person I ever cared about miserable - I can't not be angry about that, I can't be rational about it. I can't trust myself to punish you appropriately, so I won't do it at all."

Holy fuck.

"It's not going to happen again, Kath," Throren said.

I believed him. I was shocked to believe him, because I'd had my trust quite thoroughly broken, but there it was. I believed that I had some sort of ... free pass when it came to Dune.

I didn't forgive Throren, though. He hadn't even apologised.

"Fine, don't speak to me," he said. "I get it - I really cocked this up. I'm sorry. Take some time. Be mad at me. Get it out of your system. I'll just deal with it and ... forgive you, because it's about Dune. Don't take too long. I've gotten attached."

I almost wanted to kiss him. It would have been a good idea, if I could manage it. It might have helped him to understand that opening up to me was a good idea. It might have helped him to learn that I wanted to encourage this behaviour.

I realised that I was considering ways to train my Master, and my stomach lurched uncomfortably.

"You go on," Throren said. "Go ... I don't know. Sit with your yarn. I'm furious, and it's because of Dune, so you're safe. Leave me to deal with it alone."

"Yes, Master," I said, and left him, hoping that Semmy could take care of his agitation.

When I looked back, she was poking his arm with her nose, and I felt relieved. However terrible my Master was with slaves, he was at least able to keep a horse well.

'No slaves until you've trained a dog,' Father had always said, and I wished I could stop thinking about him.

 

 

 

The next day, I woke up bright and early and met the stablemaster. "I can ride, sir," I told him.

"Oh, good," Tempen said. "He made me think you were scared."

"Not scared, sir. I'll be glad to be near horses again, to be honest. I miss them."

Tempen showed me to what I presumed was the smallest pony they had. "You'll tack up Sunshine here and I'll watch to make sure you do it right," he said.

The saddle fastened completely differently to how I was used to, and the bit was different, but it seemed to me that horses were horses, no matter how far away from home you were.

Tempen walked outside to the paddock that the Master had been in, opened the gate, and let me in.

Once inside and on the back of the pony, I learned that a few things were different. The first was that this was not my horse. After all this time, I'd dreamed of getting back into the saddle, but everything was different. My horse was gone. My horse had been special.

I had my father's voice inside my head all morning. 'No slaves until you train a dog.' Over and over, I heard his voice, and all I could think about was getting off this pony's back and putting it to training.

"Your seat is all wrong," Tempen told me when I finally took the pony back inside.

I took the saddle off the pony's back. "The Master sometimes likes me to do things the Andonian way, sir," I said.

"Is that how they sit?" Tempen asked.

I nodded. "Would it be all right if I trained her?" I asked.

"She's trained," Tempen said.

I shrugged. "Yes, but ... not the way I would have her trained, sir," I said.

"I don't know," Tempen said. "She's not yours, and your Master wants you on something bigger." Even as he said it, he was looking me up and down with doubt in his eyes. He didn't think I could control something bigger.

"Not like Semmy, surely?" I asked.

Tempen nodded. "He said he wants you to be able to keep up with him. Why he'd want that, I have no idea."

I didn't particularly like Tempen, but now that I was allowed outdoors, I couldn't help but visit the stables and help care for the horses. I even let myself bond with Semmy, even as I looked at her and felt like she wasn't for me.

The Master was keeping his distance, and he wasn't asking for sex, so we barely interacted. I was glad of this, because I hadn't forgiven him. He didn't seem to be rushing me on it, and that wasn't helping me to stay angry at him.

I spent my early mornings in the laundry, stayed inside with my unending supply of yarn during the harsh midday sun, and spent my afternoons with the horses. I caught sight of Dune a few times, and he looked at me with sad violet eyes. He did not try to speak to me. When I entered a room, he would get up and slink quietly out of it. I was grateful.

My new clothes arrived, and I tried everything on in front of the Master. He seemed satisfied. My new boots were wonderful in every way, even though they weren't worn in yet. I felt constricted and too hot in my winter coat and gloves, but I didn't say anything.

The Master seemed to like me in them, though, because he lay a soft kiss on my cheek before he let me disrobe.

I slowly felt confident enough to talk to him again. When I told him about my time with Sunshine, he shook his head. "I told him not to put you on the pony. You need to get used to a proper horse."

A day later, he pulled me by the hand back to the stables and showed me to another 'plough horse'.

"Show some respect," I said, then covered my mouth in shock. Tempen glanced at us from another stall and gave us a sour look.

"I've missed your cheek," Throren said, grinning. "Name him, then," he said, and I realised this was what he intended me to ride.

"Name him?" I asked.

"I'm not going to name him for you," the Master said.

I shook my head. "Let me think about it," I said. "Can I train him?"

"Train? To do what?"

Tempen sent us another stale glance, but from the height he was glaring toward, it seemed it was the Master he was glaring at, not me.

I shrugged. "I don't know, anything. It's ... it'll make things easier. I still ride the Andonian way, and it's a bit different."

The Master grunted. "You can do whatever you like," he said. "You'll be spending plenty of time on his back fairly soon, so I'd start sooner rather than later."

Tempen finally sidled over, his arms folded and his face the picture of annoyance. "I will not be held responsible when he falls, my lord," he said.

"As you've already said," Throren said. He didn't seem annoyed, but Tempen annoyed me plenty and I hid it well, so I could be wrong.

"It's too -"

"Too big, I'm aware, I cannot tell you how many times I've heard that this month," Throren said.

I struggled to contain my amusement.

Tempen furrowed his brow. "You only brought it here this morning. I've only been saying it since this morning."  Tempen was giving me the most unpleasant look, while I made a face and shook with unreleased laughter. "This one's getting out of hand," he said, his annoyance growing.

Throren wasn't displeased, though. "It's about time someone around here laughed at my jokes," he said. He turned me to face him and put his hands on my shoulders. "However, if even for a moment, you think that you cannot control him, you come straight to me. You will not be punished."

"Thank you, Master," I said.

"Good," he said. "You'll feed him yourself, you'll tack him up yourself, and you'll groom him yourself."

"Yes, Master," I said, smiling. That was exactly how I wanted it.

 

 

 

It took only one day with my new horse to put my soul back into my body. I named him Kelpie, after the tale of the water-horse, because he drank so much.

It took two more days for me to start getting twitchy. It took three for me realise what was wrong.

I was, by all definitions, a spoiled and pampered bed slave. I had free reign to go where I pleased, I could almost do whatever I pleased. I ate plenty, I was allowed friends in the laundry, I'd been given a horse and permission to take it out to the paddock as often as I pleased. I had pretty new clothes, tailored to me, and my Master had given me all that yarn.

So much yarn.

We weren't having sex. I was the most pampered bed slave I'd ever met - and I'd met my Father's slaves. But for all that Throren was giving me, he hadn't given me the order to strip and lie on my back in the middle of his bed again. And that was a problem.

I had the fleeting worry that he was losing interest, but it was easily quashed. He had not behaved the way an uninterested man would behave. He had been giving me things and preparing for me to have a more permanent life here.

The only explanation was that he wasn't giving the order for my benefit.

Did he think I didn't want to? Maybe.

Did I not want to? Maybe.

Did he think I was afraid of him now? Maybe.

Was I afraid of him now? Probably.

How long would this last, though? How long could a bed slave feasibly go without spreading his legs before suffering some form of repercussion? I'd counted ten nights since he'd took the crop to me, and we'd had sex the night before it.

Furthermore, was this my responsibility? I knew what Father would say. I kept hearing him say it in my head, over and over, to ae'efreiYa, who we had bought to help with cleaning.

"You're not here to sweep, you're here to please me," he'd say.

The problem was that Father was eccentric, even for my people, who adored and encouraged eccentricity. He was an odd man with an even odder profession, and he was foreign. His advice was not for this place and not for these people. But Throren had always wanted me to act Andonian, even so far as encouraging it.

It wasn't strictly abnormal for me to have a horse. Lords travelled, and often they took their slaves with them. Having me take care of it was a bit odd, but it made plenty of sense. I needed a bond with it if I was going to hope to be able to make it obey me.

It wasn't abnormal to buy slaves gifts - but my Master had brought me to a shop and told me to pick, and that was a little strange.

It wasn't abnormal to buy slaves clothes - but he'd bought me winter clothes that would be extremely warm, just in case I was colder than his people usually got. And he'd had them lined with rabbit. He could have gotten me cheap, scratchy wool. He could have bought me cheap, scratchy yarn and had me make it myself.

It wasn't even abnormal to buy a foreign bed slave - but Throren had gone and bought an educated one who wasn't trained. I was too smart in all the wrong ways.

It wasn't abnormal to buy a slave that was expensive - but Throren was a guest in Yulie's house, and there could be no doubt that I outpriced Dune from the start. It wasn't obscene to outshine one's host in this manner, but it wasn't something one would expect.

While Throren wasn't technically doing anything abnormal, when one looked more closely, he was doing everything abnormally.

Perhaps Father's eccentric advice was worth following. Perhaps I should stop following orders and seek to please.

It wasn't like the sex had been unpleasant.

But as I wondered if I should ask him to bed me, I kept thinking of the first time he'd ordered me to bed. I kept thinking of how he'd been disappointed that I had let him touch me without telling him that it hurt. I kept thinking that he'd be disappointed again, because nothing was the same anymore.

I was still scared of him, and he hated it when I flinched. I didn't do it all the time, but it was often enough. I'd flinch or tense up when he moved too quickly or too quietly or when he was particularly two-wordy. I had realised some time ago that he could always tell when I was scared. He didn't like it at all, but that wasn't helpful, not when his displeasure scared me further.

He'd stopped putting his hand in my hair when we sat by the empty hearth, him in his chair and me beside him on the floor. It was this, more than the sex, that bothered me most. If he pulled away that far, how much further? He had been incensed when I'd asked if he would sell me, but how long would that last if he wasn't using me in his bed and wasn't even patting my head when he felt like it?

The very last thing that I wanted was for him to sell me. His bed was warm, sex with him had not been a chore or a torture, and the man had bought me a horse. If I was to wear a collar and be forced to be a whore, it might as well be for a man that paid me well.

I hadn't forgiven him for the riding crop, but that did not mean I was done with him yet.

So, one evening we sat by the hearth, and as I settled in with my yarn and hook, I decided to figure out what to do about it.

"Master?" I asked quietly, wondering if he'd even answer. He had been rather distant for some time.

"Yes?" he said immediately.

"May I ask a question?"

"Yes," he said.

"Are you still mad at me?"

He shifted in his chair. It was one of the most uncomfortable reactions I'd ever seen him have. "I'm not mad at you," he said very softly. I wondered if he used the same tone with Semmy, when I wasn't around to see it. "I can't be sure I ever was mad at you. I am definitely still mad at Dune, though."

I put down the piece I was working on - I'd hoped to give Throren a new glove. I imagined he found it difficult to find one sized right, so I'd decided I could make something appropriately huge that he could then tighten if he needed to. What I was attempting was complex enough that I couldn't focus on it and this conversation at the same time.

"May I ask another question?" I asked.

"You may stop asking permission," Throren said. "I've yet to punish you for speaking, haven't I?"

I flinched, and he saw it. "I'm sorry, Master," I said.

"Still not mad at you," he said.

"It's less about being afraid you'll punish me for speaking and more that I'm trying to tread carefully during an important conversation," I said.

"Ask the question," he said.

"Have you noticed that you don't pat my head anymore?"

He shook his head. But then - "Yes."

He did not reach out to me. "Do you understand why that might make me think you're mad at me?"

He shook his head again. "Yes," he said again. "Do you understand why your constant flinching might make me think you're still mad at me?"

Oh. Huh. "I was never mad, Master," I said.

"Not falling for that, Kath," he said. "You were. You kept it to yourself perfectly well, I have no complaints. But don't deny you were angry. That's a lie."

Well, fair enough. "I never meant to upset you, Master," I said. He said nothing. "Will you punish me for lying?" I asked.

"When have I ever punished you for saying anything to me?" he asked.

When he had grabbed my burnt shoulder, he had technically been punishing me for not speaking, so it was hard to argue with his logic, but I had plenty of logic of my own. "I'm sorry for lying. I'm sorry for flinching. I don't do it to upset you, and I don't do it out of anger. I do it because you frightened me."

"I'm aware of that. I don't see how I can fix it beyond what I've already done," he said.

"You're going to have to teach me not to be frightened anymore," I said. "There's no getting around it. You taught me to be afraid of you, and if you want me to learn not to be, you're going to have to teach me."

"I don't see how I can fix this beyond what I've already done," he said again. "I've spoken to you about it. I've assured you it won't happen again. I've even apologised. And still you flinch."

"Then let me flinch, Master," I said. "I'll never get over it if you keep pulling back."

Throren didn't say anything for some time, but his hand twitched on the arm of his chair.

I picked up my complicated glove again and did a whole two rows of the pattern before he spoke again.

"Kath, are you asking me to touch you?"

I paused in my work. "I'm asking you to accept the fact that you are bigger than me, stronger than me, and faster than me. You're above me in every way there is, and there is no way I could ever protect myself from you. I'm asking you to accept the fact that every now and then, I'm going to remember that you're my Master and you can do whatever you want to me whether I deserve it or not, and that is going to terrify me. You can either try and work with that fear, and touch me until I forget again, or you can keep pulling away. I won't ask if you'll get rid of me again, because you told me not to, but if you keep pulling away, you'll start asking yourself for me."

He didn't speak at all, nor did he put his hand back in my hair. I wondered if I'd said too much, or not enough, or if I'd worded it poorly.

Mostly, I worried because I'd told him exactly what my father would have told him.

I wondered if he was angry. I didn't think there was anything I could do about it if he was, so I went back to my work and he said nothing about it.

That night, however, he pulled me into his arms and held me. I trembled and flinched, but he held tighter. Eventually I fell asleep, but he did not.

I had several nightmares. He woke me up from every one, and he held me until I calmed down and fell back to sleep.

The worst ones were the ones that were real. I saw things that never happened sometimes, and they could be harrowing, but they were never so bad as the ones that were nothing but real memories.

I saw myself, on my knees, while the mercenary drenched my father in oil and set him alight. Usually, when that dream came, I would be forced to watch him, on fire and screaming, running through the hall, scorching the furniture as he went. Usually I would have to watch when they slit the throat of ae’NaNathra and unclipped his collar. He had been Father's favourite, and they had known this, otherwise they would have kept him to sell. Usually I would have to relive having ae'NaNathra's collar, still warm and wet with his blood, being clipped around my neck.

Not this night, however. On this night, Throren woke me up before I even saw the urn of oil being tipped.

"Do you ever dream of me?" he asked.

"No," I said. My voice was small and hoarse.

He pulled away from me only once that night, and it was to return with water.

"Sometimes you try to get your collar off, in your sleep," he said.

"Sorry," I said.

"You don't do it while you're awake, that I've seen."

"It's a memory. I keep seeing it in my sleep. I've stopped doing it now," I said. I wondered what had possessed me to tell him that.

"If it's uncomfortable, I'll get you a new one," Throren said. "Something smaller, or lighter?"

In that moment, I loved him more than I had ever loved anything else in my entire life. It wasn't permanent. The feeling faded as quickly as it had come, beaten back by my reluctance to care for him.

I shook my head. "This one's fine. They changed it when I crossed the sea. The first one had stains on it, and they wanted me to fetch a higher price."

"And you didn't like the first one?"

I shook my head. It had taken a month. A month of scratching, pleading, and tears, and in the end, it hadn't come off because I'd asked or begged. It had come off because it was bloodstained, and they wanted more money.

"But this one is better?" the Master asked.

I nodded. My ability to speak was gone, chased away by a lump in my throat.

"Would a different one be better still?" he asked.

I cried. I couldn't speak. Somehow, he knew exactly what would calm me down, though.

"I suppose that as someone who chose to work in a laundry, stains would be a bit too much for you," he said.

I couldn't speak, and I couldn't stop crying, but I could laugh and cry at the same time.

By morning, I no longer flinched at his touch. I had not forgiven him, but it didn't matter.

If he kept offering me kindness and patience, I was going to fall in love with him. There was no way to stop it. The crop had made me resent him, but it didn't matter. I would just have to love him and resent him at the same time.

One could laugh and cry at the same time, after all.

Chapter Text

The Master found me the next day while I was out with Kelpie. We'd finished training and we were taking a canter around the paddock. I stopped us next to the Master. It felt weird to be taller than him, even atop a horse.

"Tempen's right, your seat is all wrong," he said.

"Would you have me change it, Master?" I asked. "You usually let me do things the same as I've always done."

"It's how you ride, back home?"

"Yes," I said. Ah, so Tempen was one of those people - those who give criticism without giving the entire story. I was truly beginning to dislike the stablemaster.

The Master shrugged. "So long as you don't fall, I don't mind," he said. "Mostly, I'm surprised you can even get him to move without a crop."

"I never bothered using one, back home," I said. "Father used to nick them all the time."

"For his slaves?" Throren asked.

I realised that I'd backed myself into a corner here. There was no way out without talking about it. "No, he didn't use the crop on slaves often. He just liked to try to thwart me."

"I thought you were well-loved," Throren said.

"Well-loved and obedient are two very different things," I said. "They were his horses. I wasn't supposed to be riding them, or training them, or anything. So, he hid the crop, and he hid the saddles a few times. When it became clear that I would just do it anyway, he gave the saddles back, but he never gave the crop back."

"You have to be sparing with it," Throren said eventually. "Do it too much, and they learn to ignore it."

"I don't think that was why he did it, Master," I said. "Father was an incredibly strange man, even by Andonian standards."

"Why did he do it, then?"

I smiled fondly. "He trained dogs, and horses, and slaves, and me. I think he knew that if he took away the crop, I'd figure out a better way to do it just to spite him," I said.

"And did you?" the Master asked.

I made sure that Throren saw my feet. I made sure he knew I hadn't kicked Kelpie. I gave the command, a click of my tongue, and Kelpie walked forward. Throren walked with us, looking at my feet. "This is what you meant by training," he said.

"Sort of," I said. "Tempen's right, to a point. It's one thing to control a horse of a regular size, it's another thing entirely to control one this size. If he's ever going to take my heels as anything more than a friendly reminder, he's going to have to like me."

"And teaching him to walk on command will make him like you?" Throren asked.

"Mostly it's the oats that make him like me," I said.

"That's why I told you to feed him yourself," Throren said.

"It's incredibly good advice," I said, then pulled on the reins until Kelpie stopped. "We haven't worked on stopping yet. Tomorrow I think we'll do turning."

"That I'll have to see to believe," Throren said.

"You will," I told him.

He afforded me a tiny smile, but quickly wiped it from his face and scowled instead. "Father will be arriving tomorrow. I have asked Lord Hector to dine with me tonight. I would prefer to find out if you're up to serving me at the table before he arrives."

I wondered if I ought to dismount. "I'll do as I'm told, Master," I said.

He shook his head. "You do as you're told, yes, but at a dinner with my father, you'll be expected to do without being told."

"Am I ... doing things wrong, Master?" I asked, feeling deeply unsettled. Had I been misbehaving all this time and not been corrected?

Throren's scowl deepened. "You're foreign and untrained, and you act like it. It's never displeased me - I didn't buy you because I wanted more of the same. Father will be furious if he sees anything but more of the same. I'll need you to pretend you're trained and meek and appropriately frightened, and just generally behave exactly how I don't want you to be," he said. He stared at the grass under his feet as if it had insulted him, then raised his eyes back to me. "Tonight, Lord Hector will bring his girl, Lissal, and all you really have to do is watch her and do what she does."

"Yes, Master," I said.

"Just - you ought to know, I fucking hate Hector," Throren said. He did not say it with anywhere near the venom he said it about Dune. He didn't hate Hector at all. Hector just annoyed him. "He's a shite and a bit of a cad. But Lissal is obedient and well trained."

"We've met," I said. "I could ask her to help me. She has been kind to me in the past."

Throren nodded. "She must be all manner of kind, to tolerate Hector," he said.

"Is he cruel?" I asked, after looking around to make sure no one was in earshot to hear me.

"No, Yulie wouldn't tolerate cruelty," Throren said. "It's more that Hector's a twat. You'll understand after tonight. He opens his mouth and you just want to punch him. He'll be perfect practice for my father, who's exactly the same, only cruel as well."

"What if I'm not ready by tomorrow?" I asked.

"Then I'll tell everyone I fucked you too hard and you can't walk," Throren said, with the swiftness of one who had already come up with his excuses. "Father likes to hear that sort of thing. Of course, I'll get a lecture about letting you off easy, but there's no way I'll get out of this without a lecture, so it might as well be that one."

"I'll do my best, Master," I said, but I would really have liked more time to prepare. Dinner with Hector would be an hour away, at best, and his father would arrive tomorrow.

'His cunt of a father,' Yulie had said.

"Dress in the formal clothes, and wait for me in our rooms," he said.

I hurried to put Kelpie away, gave myself the quickest wash I could manage, and dressed as quickly as I could.

When the Master arrived, I was wondering what to do with my hair. Nothing, apparently, was the correct answer, because shortly after, Hector and Lissal entered through the door the Master had left open.

I hadn't been given any time to prepare, but at least I hadn't been given the time to fret either.

Hector came straight inside and threw himself down on the settee. He put his legs up on the seat with the soles of his boots down on the fabric, and I cringed.

I'd seen Hector around often enough, but I could never forget the first time I'd seen him. It had been my first day here, and we'd been just outside this room, on the terrace. I'd been following the Master, Hector had spotted me, lost his entire sense of decorum and stated: 'What the fuck?'

Hector was a young man, barely even of age. He was tall for a Lestran, but of course he had nothing on Throren. He had black hair and pale grey eyes. He roomed near here, with Lissal, but I wasn't sure exactly where.

The thing that set Hector apart in Summer Hill was how he dressed. Everyone in Summer Hill, even the lords, seemed to favour basic clothing made with sturdy, thick fabric. They were a simple, functional people. Hector, however, always dressed richly in layers of fine linen and silk. He outclassed everyone with his fashion, and he seemed incredibly comfortable doing it.

"Throren!" Hector said magnanimously as the Master settled in his armchair.

Lissal gracefully took a place on the floor by her Master's knee, and I imitated her, assuming that to be the right choice.

"You would not believe what Yulie told me today," Hector said. His shoes were putting stains on the settee. I understood why Throren had said he wanted to punch him.

"Try me," Throren said.

"He said that he's going to have you surveying the North Forest over winter," Hector said.

"He is," Throren said.

Hector seemed to take personal offence at this. "That's not a fit task for you," he said. "That's common-folk work, that's mad."

"Yulie and I have always agreed that if you want something done properly, chances are you'll have to do it yourself."

"I hate it when he says that. When he says that, it means he's about to make me do something unpleasant."

"More unpleasant than the North Forest in winter?" Throren said.

"You let him take advantage," Hector said. "You've got things to do during winter. Winter is meant for huddling up in front of a hearth and drinking wine, not prancing about in a forest looking for shrooms."

"I'm rather looking forward to it," Throren said, and I believed him.

"It's insane," Hector insisted. "We've already got a lodge. We don't need another."

"Have you been to the lodge?" Throren said.

"Why, on this earth, would I ever want to go to a lodge?" Hector said. "Have we met? Do I look like a lodge sort of person? I don't hunt."

"You'd hate it especially. It's run down. It isn't liveable. It's in a terrible spot." Throren said, but I was distracted. Lissal was trying to catch my eye. She kept looking at me and then my Master, then back to her Master.

I didn't know what to do, so I tugged on the Master's trouser leg, and he looked at me.

"Yulie said as much," Hector said. "But I don't see how it's an appropriate task for a lord. Get someone else to do it."

Hector was oblivious. The Master put his hand on my head. "You haven't done anything wrong, Kath," he said softly, but even as he said it Lissal was pursuing her lips together and giving tiny shakes of her head.

Hector finally figured out what was happening under his nose. "Oh, fuck me," he said. "Here I am, forgetting I was to do you a favour! It's fine, though, really, he hasn't done anything wrong."

Lissal turned to her Master and put on the most adoring eyes I had ever seen. Oh - she was good.

Hector finally looked at her. She had it perfect, just the right amount of looking him in the eyes imploringly and pressing her lips together. "Oh, go on," Hector said. "You know I love it when you talk pretty."

"I wouldn't normally say anything, Master," Lissal said. "But if it were me, I'd have offered wine."

Hector looked her and smiled fondly. "Of course you would," he said. He sighed. He was smitten with her. It was a little bit revolting.

"Would you let me help, Master? It would make me happy to help our friends," she said. Her voice dripped from her mouth, sweet and thick like honey. I was simultaneously impressed and disgusted.

Hector shrugged. "You help, darling, that's what we wanted," he said, smirking. He liked this a little too much.

Lissal and I got up from the floor. Lissal took me to the cabinet where the Master kept his wine - he had a rather large amount, on account of the fact that he rarely drank. I'd only ever seen him drink when Yulie had come around, and Yulie had brought wine with him.

Lissal spoke to me in hushed tones. "You'll get a knack for picking wine eventually. My Master likes white, yours only drinks when in company, and even then, not to excess. He wants something weak. Always bring two, just in case your first choice is wrong. I'd go with this one, and this one, unless there's something in here you know he wants to save."

I didn't, so we put the two bottles on the cabinet. Lissal found a tray I hadn't known was in there, and two goblets. She handed the tray to me. "You'll do the serving, as your Master is hosting. Take the wine to Lord Throren, let him pick one, then take it to Master Hector, and let him pick one. Then bring it back to the table. Pour your Master's, and take it to him, then kneel straight back down."

"I don't serve Hector?" I whispered. Hector and Throren weren't paying us any heed, however. They were talking about some lords I'd never heard of - well, Hector was ranting indignantly and Throren was being incredibly patient.

"That's Lord Hector, and no, you let me do it."

"Lissal," I said, even as she was turning back to our Masters. "Thank you, so much."

"Any excuse to get him drunk," she whispered, smirking, then she went back to Hector's side and knelt again.

I brought the wine to my Master, and he tapped the red one. He said nothing, as Hector was still talking. I brought the tray to Hector, and he waved his hand at me. "She knows," he said, and kept talking, so I took the wine back to the table. I uncorked the red one and poured it into one of the goblets.

Lissal joined me and did the same to the white. "Where did you learn this?" I asked.

"Slave house in the capitol," she said. "That's where most of the slave houses are. Most lords get trained slaves for this. They usually don't want to bother training their own."

We returned to our respective Masters with their wines. Hector almost downed his in one go, my Master only took the goblet from me and sipped from it. Hector immediately resumed talking.

"And then she had the gall to tell me how to get there, as if I don't know my way around my own hometown," he said. "The nerve of her, honestly."

"Was Lissal from your hometown?" Throren asked.

"Lissal? Oh, no, nothing so refined as Lissal comes from there," Hector said. "Just rubies, really, that's all it's any good for. Yulie keeps telling me I could make a good deal of it if I wanted to - keeps saying that I need to sponsor some jewel smiths to move in. But what's the point, really - they're good to export, but they're completely out of fashion nowadays."

Rubies? No wonder he was so well dressed.

"It takes remarkably little to start a fashion, I'm told," Throren said. "Send a few gifts to the right people, if they're seen wearing rubies, they'll take on again."

"We've tried that," Hector said, and downed the rest of his goblet. Lissal immediately took it from his hands and rose to go to the table. "It's not like we're not trying. We'll not go hungry, but no one is wearing rubies."

"Yulie doesn't have any ideas?"

"Oh, he's got plenty, apparently, but he says I'm here to learn from him, and he's not going to let me go until I've figured it out for myself," Hector complained. "Say, you know Yulie's head - what would you think?"

Throren shrugged and took another sip of his wine. "Yulie's right, of course, you're better off if you can figure it out for yourself. But part of governing is helping your friends out, which is what you're doing right now, and another part is taking advice, which is what you just asked for, so, if you want me to tell you, I'll tell you."

"Go on then," Hector said. He'd taken the wine from Lissal and had another half a goblet already.

"You said nothing so refined as Lissal comes from home. Fix that. Set up a slave house there, train up some slaves - exotic ones, like Kath, something people look at - but put your rubies on their collars. They went out of fashion because there's a mine inside the country. They'll come back into fashion if people start thinking they're exotic."

Hector leaned back with a thunk into the settee. "Faaaarck," he said with a surprising amount of eloquence. "My father told me all the Dextrers were stupid. He'll be rolling in his grave."

"Your father's not dead," Throren said.

"He probably will be next time he writes me and tells me you're stupid. I mean, I always knew not to mess with you, on account of ... the ... well ... yes," he said, trailing off and gesturing at Throren. "But you're smart, too? It isn't fair."

Throren stubbornly refused to be insulted. "Does your father know my father?" he asked.

"To a point," Hector said. "He knows your brother, though - the eldest - and my grandfather knew your father, and my mother knew your uncle, and, look, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but when my father learned you were here he outright told me not to have anything to do with you. He told me your whole family was cruel."

"You'll get to make your own mind up about that tomorrow," Throren said.

"I figure that if you're not so bad, maybe my father's wrong," Hector said.

"There's rarely talk like that without any truth to it," Throren said.

Hector downed his goblet and Lissal took it. She looked at me pointedly, and I rose up a little to check the Master's goblet. It was full. I stood and followed Lissal to the table nervously.

"He's not drinking," I whispered.

"I didn't expect he would, but when you go back over, lean in and ask him in his ear if the wine is to his taste. He might tell you to open a different bottle. Don't be afraid to do it while Master Hector is talking - you'll never get a word in otherwise. Don't be wordy about it, just ask 'is the wine all right, Master', real quick and quiet right into his ear," Lissal said as she poured Hector his third goblet.

I went to do as she said. Hector was talking about how lonely it had been to grow up with no brothers and only a sister. I leaned in, asked "Is the wine all right, Master?" and Throren nodded and sipped it. He could have been agreeing with Lord Hector, for all I knew, but Lissal nodded to me like that was what I'd been waiting for, so I knelt back down.

Lissal gave Hector his wine, and as he downed it, there was a knock.

Lissal motioned to me and we both rose. "Normally, I wouldn't help, as you're hosting," she said.

I opened the door. One of the kitchen girls ... Maisie? I couldn't remember, these people all had such weird names. Maisie stood before us with a tray of food. "Am I meant to take it and serve?" I asked Lissal.

"No, just get out of the way," Lissal said quietly. "Your serving duties are entirely drink focused. If they want something else of you, they'll order it specifically."

I followed Lissal back to the floor by our Masters and Maisie emptied her tray onto the table. Hector just kept on talking.

Eventually Maisie was done, and she walked to the door. She curtseyed by the door, even though Hector was clearly ignoring her.

"Thank you, Maysel," Throren said. Maysel! I was reminded of Kayla. 'He knows everyone's name,' she had said.

Maysel smiled brightly at Throren. "My lords," she said politely, and pulled the door closed behind her.

Hector and Throren moved to the table.

Lissal stood behind Hector and to his left, so I imitated her, and she nodded to me. Throren served Hector, then himself. Hector did not eat until after Throren had started, but I could not tell if that was propriety or because he was too busy talking.

"Is it true you're one of twelve?" Hector asked.

Throren drank from his goblet and took his biggest sip yet. "It is," he said.

"I cannot imagine the stress," Hector said, and I was for once impressed with his tact. "My sister can be a handful all on her own, and there's only one of her."

Throren nodded. "I cannot relate, unfortunately. I have only brothers."

Hector shook his head and drank again. "Your mother must be thrilled," he said, dripping sarcasm from his pores. "Twelve sons. What an enormous bother."

"Mother never seemed to mind, but I can hardly imagine she ever had the time," Throren said.

Hector laughed. "And then Yulie, as well," he said. "She couldn't have taken in a little girl as a ward, could she? Poor woman."

After that, they ate mostly in silence. Hector only spoke up to admit how much he liked the food here. Every meat served in Summer Hill was marinated in some sort of delicious sauce, while his household cooks at home were unlikely to season anything.

Lissal topped up his wine several times. I did my best not to shift around too much. I didn't like standing idle.

Eventually, conversation dried up, and Hector proved somewhat drunk. Lissal didn't take his cup when it was empty now that we were at the table. She waited until there was about a third left, then topped it back up.

It took an age for Throren's to reach that point. When it did, I refilled it and Lissal nodded at me.

Hector picked himself up from the table and deposited himself back on the settee, then put his feet up again. Lissal carried his cup to him but didn't offer it to him in his reclined position. She held onto it, knelt by him, and watched him for any sign that he wanted his wine again.

Throren carried his goblet with him when he moved back to the armchair. I followed him and knelt by his side. He put his hand straight into my hair. I inched closer.

Hector watched us. "It's nice, isn't it," he said. "They all tell you how nice it is to have your bed warmed, like you can't already imagine that for yourself, but they don't warn you how nice it is to just sit and not be alone."

Throren nodded. "You're not wrong," he said.

"I know I'm not," Hector said. "C'mere," he said softly to Lissal. She went closer and moved from her knees to on her backside with her legs beside her. This put her head lower down, and at the right height for her to go to her Master as he reclined. Hector put his hands in her hair and messed it all up. It had been perfect and elegant, but he touched it and it came undone. He didn't seem to care. "So pretty," he said. "So pretty. I don't understand those two, with their boys. Look at you, you're so pretty."

Lissal offered him a smile, and he swooned.

Throren pet my head affectionately, but he came no closer and gave no orders.

Hector did not take his hand from Lissal's hair, but he turned to look at Throren. "Sorry," he said, with the tone of one who was not sorry. "We come here to give you a regular dinner, teach your Kath how to behave, and end up cuddling on the couch."

Throren shrugged. He did not move his hand from my hair. "Far better this than the alternative," he said.

Hector was enamoured with Lissal again and did not respond immediately. "Hmm?" he said suddenly. "Oh, yes. What's the alternative?"

"Yulie and Dune," Throren said, and Hector laughed so hard Lissal had to stop him from falling off the settee.

He took too long to recover, and halfway through his recovery, he took his wine from Lissal and downed it. "Is it true Dune tried to touch yours?" he asked. Lissal pried the goblet from his hand and stood to refill it.

"To a point," Throren said. He had some more wine. "He took Kath by the hand, but nothing more than that."

Hector laughed. "Hand holding," he said. "All that ruckus over hand holding. One of these days, I'm going to see a Kolt house slave at market, and I'm just going to buy it and dump it in Yulie's bed, Dune be damned."

"Kolt house? Is that Lissal's?" Throren asked.

Hector nodded. "You should have been there," he said. "Father gave her to me, as a gift for coming of age, but he didn't just give her, he let me pick, and oh - oh, the tits in that place."

Throren had some more wine. "What made you pick her over the others?" he asked.

"Definitely the freckle," Hector said with enthusiasm. Lissal knelt by him again with his wine in her hand. She did not offer it to him, and this was probably wise, as he might have spilled it.

Lissal did not have any freckles that I had ever seen. I wondered where it was.

"What made you pick him?" Hector asked.

Throren shrugged. He still had his hand in my hair. "His hair, probably," he said.

Hector nodded. "It's mad," he said. He was back to looking at Lissal. "Sun catches on it something awful. Probably blinded you silly."

Throren chuckled. "It did blind me silly," he said.

Hector shrugged. "It's probably time for bed," he said. "What do you think, dear?"

Lissal turned to him with kind, adoring eyes. "Yes, Master," she said. She offered him his goblet, and he downed it, then gave it back to her. She took it to the table, then knelt by him again. He looked at her for several moments before rising. I felt fairly certain that she was about to get a very drunk and probably very handsy fuck.

I also felt fairly certain that she had orchestrated it that way.

They left, and I watched with awe as they did. Hector kept giving Lissal meaningful, but drunk looks and she kept blinking at him simperingly from beneath her lashes. She was a master of her craft. My father would have loved her.

Throren stayed in his chair with his hand in my hair. "You did well," he said eventually.

"I don't think I'm as good as she is, Master," I said.

"That's on me for buying an untrained slave," Throren said. He kept petting my hair, then he sighed. "I fucking hate Hector," he said.

"We have a word for people like him, back home," I said.

"Please tell," Throren said.

"Fire hawk," I said.

"I'd was hoping for something a little less impressive," Throren said. He was still petting my hair.

"They pick up burning branches from fires and transport them to unburned areas," I said. "They're impressive, sure, but you do not want one around when you're fighting a fire."

Throren laughed. "Your people have the strangest stories."

"It's not a story," I said. "It's a real bird. Honestly. We hate them. Everything's going well, you've made a firebreak on the side the fire's coming from, then some stupid fire hawk comes and lights a new fire on the other side."

Throren laughed harder. "You're making that up," he said, but I didn't think he cared whether it was true or not. His hand was still in my hair and he seemed happy enough. "Come on," he said, and got up from the chair. He led me to the table, put me into Hector's seat, and started heaping food onto the plate.

I ate. Even cold, the food here was delicious. Throren watched me eat for a time, then he offered me his goblet. I tasted the wine, and it was also delicious. I'd rarely had wine before. Grapes did not grow well where I was from. They scorched.

"Did you really buy me for my hair, Master?" I asked.

Throren shrugged. "Your hair, yes," he said. Then he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "And your eyes, and your face, and your neck, and your wrists. Your fucking wrists, Kath. And the trader said you could read, so maybe your mind, too."

"My wrists?" I asked.

"You are so bony," Throren said. "It shouldn't be attractive, but it is."

I looked at my wrists. They seemed normal to me. Weird. "Will you be taking me to bed tonight?" I asked.

There were several reasons that I asked. I'd had wine, so I was feeling fairly relaxed. I'd not served him in over a week, and that was what I was bought for - that and my wrists, apparently.

Mostly, I asked because as a slave, I not only needed his permission to touch myself, but I also needed it to come. It had been a while, I was getting tense, and Throren had yet to show me any unpleasant bedroom habits.

He looked at me, in the way of his he had when I knew he felt something quite strongly, but I could not tell what. "I don't think so," he said.

I nodded. "As you say, Master," I said. I finished what was on my plate. My fingers itched for a second helping of the potato. Throren followed my eyes and served it to me.

I devoured it.

Throren watched me eat. "As much as I dislike Hector, and as much as your fire hawk story has me wanting to throw you over my shoulder and put you in my bed, I don't think tomorrow is a good day for you to recover."

I nodded, filing away his pleasure at fire hawks for future reference. "Because your father is visiting?" I asked.

"Because my father is visiting," he agreed.

"I don't want you to consider your father when you bed me," I said. "I'd like you to ignore him completely."

"Difficult, when he'll be here tomorrow," Throren said.

I drank some more of his wine. He didn't seem to mind. He seemed perfectly content just to watch me. "Do you remember when Lord Yulie was here?" I asked, forming a plan in my head.

Throren nodded. "I do," he said.

"Do you remember the thing he did?" I asked.

Throren furrowed his brow. "I'd actually managed to forget, until just now. I hate it when he does that."

"Do you think you'd hate it if I did it?" I asked.

Throren looked at me, turning slowly ever more blank and unreadable. "Yes, Kath, I think I'd hate it even more if you did it," he said.

I shrugged, as if I wasn't bothered. "All right, Master," I said. Then I picked up the wine again and sipped at it. I very carefully said nothing and employed one of his own tactics - I stared at him until he felt compelled to say something.

"Why would you even ask?" he said.

I stared at him a little longer.

"Of course I'd hate it. You, talking like me, putting words in my mouth. Yulie can do it, but only because we've already had those conversations a hundred times. You? Of course I don't want you doing it."

I shrugged. "All right, Master," I said. "I won't do it, if you don't want me to. I won't do anything you don't want me to."

He relaxed, piece by piece. Slowly, he became less blank to me. He was on edge, though. I'd bothered him.

"Pity," I said. "Now you'll not know what I'd have had you say, Master."

He went blank again immediately, but he rose to my bait. "Kath. Whatever you would have said would have gotten you in trouble," he said.

I shrugged, fingering the rim of the wine goblet. "I doubt that, Master. I've yet to be punished for speaking."

Throren exhaled slowly. "Tonight is really the last night I need this sort of stress," he said.

I shook my head. "I think tonight is the best night for this sort of stress. Go on, ask me what I would make you say. Either you ask me, or you'll lie awake wondering."

He shook his head. "What, then?" he said.

I leaned in close, as if to tell him a secret. "Strip. Lie on your back in the middle of the bed and spread your legs," I said. I didn't bother imitating his voice like Yulie had. We didn't sound anything alike, and I didn't think I'd be able to manage anything even close.

He stared at me blankly. He watched me as I went to the bedroom and took off my shirt as I went. He followed me, after a moment, and watched me undress. He watched me crawl onto the bed and onto my back. He watched me bend my knees and put my feet near my backside.

"Well?" I asked.

"You've yet to be punished for speaking," he said pointedly. He left me there, naked on his bed and smirking. He went back to the sitting room. He poured the water and he fetched the washcloth. He came back in, dropped them on the floor, and gave me an unreadable look. He took out the notched candle and lit it. He picked up the oil from the drawer in one hand, the pillow from his side of the bed in the other and sat between my legs. I raised my hips and he put the pillow under my arse. He placed the oil between his thigh and calf and started to roll up his sleeves.

Then he looked at me. He looked at my feet, he looked at my arse, he looked at my stomach. He placed his hand on my thigh and looked at it. He watched my cock rise.

He shook his head and uncorked the oil. He was back to being readable again, and I thought he looked as though he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He dipped his fingers inside the oil jar and brought them to my arse.

I yelped and jerked away. His other hand came down on my stomach, firmly keeping me down. I felt less like I was trapped and more like I was anchored. "You're okay, Kath," he said. "I'm not going to hurt you."

I shook my head. "No, I just, it's ..." And then I suddenly understood. He kept the oil between his thigh and calf to warm it. "It was cold. It's never been cold before. I just didn't expect it. I ... I mean, it's oil, of course it's going to be cold," I said.

He pressed his cold fingers back on my hole, and I flinched, but refrained from pulling away. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. Then, "I still want you to."

He offered me a small smile. Then he pressed in a finger, and it felt good.

"You've really got this all figured out, haven't you?" I said.

As if to prove my point, he dragged his finger over that spot that made me shudder. "I suppose. I have a routine," he said.

"I like the routine," I said.

He pressed another finger inside. It burned, and I let out a little hiss. "Too much?" he asked.

"No. Well, yes, but I kind of like too much," I said.

"That explains a lot," he said. He let me get used to it for a while, keeping still and looking me in the eye. I pushed back. He smiled at me and obliged my insistent hips, moving his fingers in a parody of what he would do with his cock most of the time, but sometimes finding and purposefully stroking that spot that made me incredibly distracted.

It was nice for a while. It wasn't too much anymore. It was easy and it didn't burn. I could move with it and we found a downright pleasant rhythm. I was absolutely certain that if he went just a little bit faster, I'd build to an orgasm, and it would be pleasant and nice, and I probably wouldn't be sore the next day.

I hated it.

"More," I said, and he obliged. The burn came back. It was probably too much, too fast, but I didn't care.

The Master didn't seem to care either. He seemed perfectly content to watch me take it - and oh, that was a pleasant expression on his face.

Perfectly content. He was content. Blank, cold Throren was not blank or cold anymore. He was content.

The burn, previously only mildly pleasant, suddenly felt like an achievement. "More," I said.

He raised his eyebrows. "You're keen," he said.

I pressed back, trying to get his fingers deeper. "I don't think keen is the right word," I said. "Greedy, maybe."

He smiled again. "I'm not going to risk hurting you. You'll have to wait."

I felt a terribly immature pout firmly take place on my lips. I was at the point in this where schooling my expression was an effort in futility, so as much as I tried to make any other face, I couldn't.

The Master was watching my arse again. A few more minutes, a notch on the candle, and he pulled his fingers out. "Turn over," he said, and I was only too pleased to do it.

Embarrassing as the position was, it was easier to take this way. He oiled up his fingers, all four this time, and pressed them back inside. It burned less than I'd expected it too, thanks to the way my body was bent.

The Master let out a surprised breath. "This should not be this easy," he said. I craned my head and looked back at him.

"Shouldn't it?" I asked. It was hard to keep turned the way I was to begin with, let alone with him stroking me inside, so I let my head fall back forward.

"No," he said.

I shrugged as well as I could in the position I was in and pressed back. He put a hand on my hip and kept me still, then pat my hip and let go. I stayed still. I heard him fumbling with the oil behind me. He poured it onto the place where we joined, and I heard some of it drip onto the bed.

Then he pressed his hand in deeper. Past the knuckles, deeper inside. I let out a most un-manly noise, but even as I did so, I moved with him, pressing back against him until I felt his thumb rest against my arse.

"Maybe if I had smaller hands," the Master choked out. "Maybe then it would make sense." He sounded bewildered.

All I knew for certain was that I needed his cock. It was life or death now, he either gave it to me or I'd just keel over and die. "Please, please fuck me," I said.

"For fuck's sake, Kath," he said, but he relented anyway, and withdrew his hand.

I felt empty and strangely hollow. I screwed my eyes shut and braced myself against it. Throren undid his trousers and pressed his cock straight onto my hole. I pushed back against it and he pressed forward, and I stopped feeling like death was imminent.

He put his hands on my hips and slowly but surely pushed deeper, and as he did, my voice activated without permission and I wailed. He went in deeper and I quivered, deeper still and I lost the capacity to push back, pull away, or move even a tiny bit. Once all the way inside, he paused.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

I nodded between moans. I thought that if I tried really hard, I might eventually be able to say 'please', but it was too difficult to think on at that moment, so I just let myself stay there, shaking and panting and moaning.

He moved and I went back to wailing.

We did not last long. We hadn't lasted either of the other times we'd done this, and I didn't think this trend was going to stop any time soon. He fucked me slowly, but it didn't matter - slow or fast, there was no escaping the size of it inside me, no escaping the depth it reached or the places it touched.

He reached around me and barely touched my cock, but I came immediately. I think I probably would have come if he'd just suggested it to me, I was that close, that precariously perched on the edge.

He did not take long to follow. When he was done, he pulled out of me and collapsed beside me. I didn't move. I wasn't sure I could move.

He took several breaths, calmed himself, and then picked himself back up. He washed off his cock and tucked it back into his trousers. He wiped down my trembling arse. He cleaned my come off the bedsheets beneath me. Then he pulled me into his arms and fell asleep almost immediately, still wearing his fine dinner clothes. Once I'd calmed down, I managed to wrestle out of his arms and pull the blankets up over us.

He started snoring. I found it strangely endearing. I fell asleep easily, and I dreamed of nothing at all. 

Chapter Text

When I woke up, the Master had dressed himself in different but no less formal clothing than the night before. He was sitting cross legged by my side and stroking my hair. I rolled over slowly and smiled at him. I wasn't sore enough to regret the night before, but I was sore enough to wince when I moved.

"It seems I shall not have to make the excuse after all," he said. "I need only tell the truth. I did fuck you so hard you can't walk."

I smiled. "Walking will be fine. Sitting might not," I said.

He shook his head. "You'll be the death of me," he said fondly. "Get dressed. Father will be here this afternoon, but in case he arrives early, stick with me today."

I dressed in the formal clothes again, and we went to Yulie's sanctum, where the table in Yulie's library was set for two. From the set table, and the way he and Yulie only saw fit to grunt at each other in greeting, I assumed that Throren ate breakfast here most days.

Dune was nowhere to be seen. Throren put me in a chair - ouch - at the table and pushed his plate between us. "Eat," he commanded, so I did.

"Don't show off," Yulie snapped.

Throren shrugged. Yulie pulled open a book and read with such speed that even I was impressed. He ate sparingly.

"Where will Dune be?" Throren asked.

"Locked upstairs until your father leaves," Yulie said.

Throren nodded. "That's for the best," he said.

"For the best, certainly, but it's best left as a punishment. He's actually been doing better lately, and now I've locked him up," Yulie said.

"He's been doing better?" Throren asked.

Yulie nodded. "On three separate occasions, from three separate people, I've been told that when Kath enters a room, Dune gets up and leaves it."

If it was possible for Throren to be pleased during a conversation about Dune, this was the closest he could get. "I didn't know that," he said.

I nodded. "He does it all the time, Master," I said, unsure if I was supposed to be speaking or not. I was at the table with them. And technically the conversation was about Dune, so I couldn't be punished. I wondered if that was pushing the limit of the rule.

"Good," Throren said.

"I've been feeding him lemon cakes all week, but he's not happy about being locked up," Yulie said.

"Better locked up than allowed near Father," Throren said.

Yulie hadn't left his book. He'd been carrying on this conversation and reading at the same time. I wondered what the book was about.

"It's odd to see you with the same book twice," Throren said.

Yulie furrowed his brow, then shook his head. "Different book, similar binding," he said. "Same author. This one is about systems of government."

"Feel free to bore me," Throren said.

"The author poses the theory-"

"No theories before lunch, Yulie," Throren said. I had the feeling he said it often.

"It's not my theory, it's his theory. You asked."

Throren shook his head and sighed. "Fine," he said.

"He poses the theory that we are not a monarchy."

"I think the King might disagree."

"He poses that the Lords of the great houses have too much power, and that they control the Kingdom more than the King does."

"So? He's still King."

"Technically, that would make this an aristocracy, not a monarchy."

"I fail to see the relevance," Throren said.

"An aristocracy is only one step away from an oligarchy," Yulie said.

"Now you're just throwing words around to confuse me," Throren said.

"Andonia is an oligarchy," Yulie said. "Kath can tell you about it." With that, he put his nose closer to his book, furrowed his brow, cocked his head, and appeared to read harder.

Throren looked at me. "I don't know what an oligarchy is, Master," I said.

Yulie offered no further explanation.

"Presumably a system of government," Throren said, clearly used to how odd Yulie was. "How is Andonia governed? You have a King, don't you?"

"No - well, yes, I suppose. We respect the position of Dabren's King Leir, but I don't think he is our King."

"Who makes your laws?" Throren asked.

"No one, really, Master," I said. "If you are on someone else's land, you obey their rules, and you don't touch their things."

"That does not sound particularly safe," Throren said.

"You see the author's point," Yulie said. "Andonia has five or six wealthy houses, and they far outweigh the wealth of everyone else, so people obey them - but there's nothing stopping anyone from making ridiculous demands, and nothing stopping anyone from committing crimes. There are no laws, no guard, no military. The author of this book proposes that it is only a matter of time before an aristocracy devolves into an oligarchy, and we're all doomed to a lawless madness controlled by a few rich men."

"You read the happiest things," Throren said.

Yulie slammed the book shut. "Kath," he said. He looked me right in the eye. "You've been here, you've been there. Which is better?"

"Here, my lord," I said immediately. "But it's difficult to say why. Here, the nobility and the King is responsible for laws and protection. There, there isn't enough food and water to worry about protection. Most people just live their lives and hope for the best."

Yulie seemed content with that answer. "It's the basic law of need. Shelter, then water, then food, then protection. You don't bother building an army while your people starve. You don't bother stopping your people from committing crimes while they're hungry. And if they're left hungry long enough, they stop listening, and anyone with authority loses it."

"I doubt that will happen here," Throren said.

"Here, no. Your father's house? It was already happening. You could see it in the way the cook and the steward fought. The servants would obey whoever put food on their plates, and it wasn't your father that did it. This left a hole in his authority, and people were trying to fill it."

Throren shrugged. "Is this why Secturn and Rohan don't fight?"

"Secturn and Rohan don't fight because everyone underneath them knows that it's me that feeds them. No holes, no power to grab," Yulie said.

"You'd do well not to bring this up when Father's here," Throren said.

"Noted," Yulie said.

"You'd do well not to bring up that conversation we had about inheriting, too," Throren said.

"You'd do so well," Yulie said.

"Doesn't change the fact that I've got eleven older brothers."

"If only we could control the plague."

Throren snorted. "We can control the plague. It's called bathing."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it," Yulie said.

"I'm not going to dignify that with an answer," Throren said.

Yulie nodded. "Did I give you the book with the flowers yet?" he asked, and the conversation lurched with his change in tone.

"No, but I've got better," Throren said, not seeming to mind Yulie's sudden change in topic. "Quentin had some pressed. I know exactly what I'm looking for."

"Good," Yulie said.

"Do you worry it will happen again?" Throren asked.

Yulie shrugged. "I worry about everything," he said. "It wasn't the plague that killed them, it was the infected blisters. Infection kills - whether from plague, attack, famine, it doesn't matter. I want those flowers. Garnth says he can't make them grow. If he can't make them grow, we'll have to find them wild, and for that I need a lodge. I need a forester."

Throren was quiet for a while, acquiescent. They were in agreement, and I was missing context.

"What are the flowers, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie stood up abruptly and I flinched, worried that I had annoyed him. Throren put his hand on my arm and patted it soothingly. Yulie returned with another book and placed it in front of me. He opened it to almost the right place by memory alone, moved two pages back, and showed me a thorough drawing of a weedy looking flower.

"It dies in every pot we put it into," he said, flexing frustrated fingers over the page. "It dies in soil. It dies in sand. Crushed seeds make a poultice that will fight rot, and it's plentiful up the mountain, but not plentiful enough."

"The balm we put on your burns was made of it," Throren said. "It was what saved the people that survived the plague. We're hoping that if we can build a new lodge further north, we can put a forester in it, and he can harvest further out."

"A forester ... someone who tends a forest?" I asked.

"Essentially," Throren said. "They care for the plant life, make sure nothing important blights. They harvest and forage for more valuable things, too - like those flowers that we can't manage to domesticate. They also keep an eye on the wildlife and let us know if any bears, boars or wolves have moved in. It's best for the people if we hunt down predators and keep them far out. Otherwise all the game dies off, and anyone who goes out to hunt becomes game themselves."

"Rangers," I said. "We have a different word for it."

"The old lodge has almost fallen over," Yulie said. "And Throren has convinced me that we shouldn't rebuild it."

"It's in a bad spot," Throren said. "It takes a day's ride to get there, because of the terrain, but it isn't actually that far away. If you want to hunt, you're best off just riding past it. It's on a ledge, and everything in the ravine below it can see it, which scares off the game."

"What is the building for, Master?" I asked.

"Mostly, it's a house for the forester to live in," Throren said. "He needs to be able to get where he's going every day, and he'd be terribly limited if he had to return to town for the night."

"It's also to host us, and others from afar, if we choose to go on a proper hunt," Yulie said. "And there's a huge benefit to having somewhere big and remote that you can send women and children to in case of an attack."

"Not that that is ever going to happen here," Throren said.

Yulie did not seem convinced. I doubted he was capable of not being prepared for something. "We are surrounded on all sides by friendly cities," he said. "The only way we would get attacked would be in case of a civil war."

"Which we'd probably see coming years away. Civil wars are usually preceded by civil unrest, which I'm not seeing."

Yulie grunted. "Some people will never be content with their place," he said.

Throren shrugged. "Then they'll lose their heads as traitors, and the world will go on as though they'd never existed."

Yulie didn't say anything.

"You haven't been hearing things, have you?" Throren asked.

Yulie shook his head. "I can't be certain," he said.

"That doesn't sound good," Throren said.

Yulie shook his head again. "No, I mean that I can't be certain. It might be treason, or it might be loyalty. I can't tell. You probably could."

Throren glanced at me.

"Should I leave, Master?" I asked.

Throren looked at Yulie.

Yulie shrugged. "If he's going to spread talk, I'd rather find out sooner than later," he said.

"What did you hear?" Throren asked.

Yulie sat back from the table but did not let his back hit the chair. His left leg jigged in place almost violently. "It's not just what they say, it's how it feels. When I go down to the barracks, I don't feel like Lord of Summer Hill. I feel like I'm King and they are just waiting for the command to march out and prove it."

Throren leaned back in his chair. "How many of the original regiment is left?"

"Thirteen," Yulie said.

"Only thirteen of seventy were here to see you save Summer Hill," Throren said. "The loyalty of thirteen men is not enough to start a war. It's not enough to start a battle."

Yulie shook his head. "The other fifty-seven display the same level of reverence," he said. He did the math too quickly.

"I wouldn't worry about it. Come see Kath and Kelpie one day. When people start to look at you the way Kath looks at Kelpie, you can worry," Throren said.

"Kelpie," Yulie said. "like the water-demon?"

"Kelpie, like Kath's horse," Throren said.

Yulie nodded. His leg had stopped jigging. "Kelpie is an absurd thing to name Kath's horse," he said.

"Thank you, my lord," I said.

Yulie gave me a twist of his lip as a smile. "A water-horse of myth, to bear an Andonian. Absurd indeed."

"Precisely how little water is there in Andonia?" Throren asked.

"Every description I have found sums it up as an arid shrubland. Almost a desert. Some green, barely any of it edible, but all of it burns," Yulie said.

Throren looked at me. "That's about right, Master," I said. "There are no rivers and no lakes. What we call a river, you might call a creek."

"I have a book here, somewhere," Yulie said. "I wondered if I might find Dune's parentage, so I read books on foreign peoples."

"Did you ever find anything?" Throren asked. He rose and went to the shelves.

"Nothing," Yulie said. "I can only presume he's a mutation. It happens, occasionally. You are one."

"I don't appreciate that," Throren called back from between shelves.

"You're either a mutation or a bastard," Yulie called.

"I'd rather be a bastard," Throren said.

"You have inherited features from both of your grandfathers," Yulie said. "You are not a bastard. You are a mutation."

"That's definitely an insult," Throren said.

"If you're a mutation, I'm a freak," Yulie said.

"Still an insult," Throren said.

Throren and Yulie spent the better half of the morning arguing. It was incredibly endearing. I succumbed to temptation and read the book in front of me - I needed something to distract me from Yulie's hard chair and my sore arse. The book was a list and definition of local plants.

I stopped when I realised that Yulie was watching me. "Throren," he called. "Could I borrow Kath?"

I made a face before I could stop myself. Slaves that were lent were rarely happy slaves.

"What for?" Throren asked. He was still looking for the book on Andonia.

"I occasionally need a book read and don't want or have the time to read it myself."

"If you promise not to bore him to death," Throren called.

Yulie shrugged, but he leaned in toward me with a conspiratorial glint in his eye. "For every boring book you read for me, you can read one about dragons."

I leaned in. "How many books on dragons are there, my lord?"

Yulie gave his little twisted smile. "More than you'd expect," he said.

"I think you have yourself a deal, my lord," I said.

Yulie got up, walked past Throren, picked up a book and deposited it in front of me.

A few paragraphs in, my brow was creased in a frown. The book was about planting late in the season, but it used terms that made no sense to me. A few pages later, one of the terms made sense and I started again from the beginning. It was like piecing together a puzzle. I could understand Yulie's reluctance to read it.

Throren eventually found the book about Andonia. He settled in beside me with it. I occasionally looked over, corrected the book, and let him continue reading.

A horn sounded. Yulie jumped up like he'd been waiting for it. He left his book open and went to the door. Throren joined him, albeit slower. They shared a long-suffering look before leaving together. I had the feeling that they would not part one another's company until Lord Drextrer was gone. I scurried after them. I did not want to be parted from them either.

 

 

 

We stood in front of the entrance hall. There was a table laid inside of it with water, wine, and food. The lemon cakes that I now firmly associated with Dune were piled high on the left side of the table, far away from the main fare.

Throren had physically put me in the spot I was to stand, with his hands on my shoulders. He took me by the chin and put my head at just the right incline. Down but not too far down, I hoped.

Yulie stood at the front of the hall, in the middle. Throren took his right side, and Lord Hector took his left. Lissal stood behind Hector on his left, and I stood behind Throren on his left. Throren and Yulie were both tall enough that I could hide behind them.

Lord Drextrer arrived on a dusty white horse. He was dressed austerely, covered completely in solid black clothing. He had not an inch of skin visible underneath his jaw.

The man himself was ever so slightly portly, but I was not fool enough to let this ease my worry. Fat or not, any man could wield a whip, and a lord could have someone else do it for him. Behind Lord Drextrer was a small entourage of servants and slaves.

Lord Drextrer dismounted. He walked straight to Throren and looked him up and down. Throren was much taller than his father, but any claims about his parentage were disproven when I saw them next to one another. They looked similar in too many ways. Throren had his father's jaw, his dark eyes, and his black hair. I had even seen that very scowl on Lord Drextrer's face on Throren's, when he had told me his father was coming.

"You've got taller again," Lord Drextrer said in a huff.

Throren nodded. "Yulie feeds me too much," he said.

Lord Drextrer went to Yulie, but before he could speak, Yulie did. "Beloved Father," he said. He put on the largest, fakest smile I had ever seen on him and he opened his arms wide. "It has been too long since you brightened my house with your presence. Come, let me house you as you housed me. Let me feed you, as you fed me."

Lord Drextrer allowed himself to be pulled into the manliest of hugs. He and Yulie patted each other firmly on the back. "I'll need you to excuse me, Yulie," he said. "I'm afraid I need to do some parenting."

"Oh, dear," Yulie said, opening his huge fake smile even wider.

Throren visibly bristled as Lord Drextrer came back to stand in front of him. "I heard a most disturbing tale in Calen," Lord Drextrer growled. "I heard that you've become the plaything of some foreign prince."

Throren relaxed a fraction. "That's easily the most absurd retelling of the truth that I've heard yet," he said.

"Shut up and tell me what you've done," Lord Drextrer hissed.

Throren looked down at his father. "I've bought an Andonian bed slave," he said. "Not a prince. And I'm not the plaything, he is."

Lord Drextrer glared up at Throren. Throren looked down on him. "Well, that's all right then," Lord Drextrer said. "Where is it? I'll not tolerate any of Yulie's madness with you. No hiding, no secrets - "

"He's right behind me," Throren said. "He's exactly where he should be, he's just short."

Yulie had to move a step to the left for me to be easily visible. I kept my chin where Throren had put it and looked firmly at Throren's elbow. Lord Drextrer glared daggers at me. He was exactly the kind of man I'd feared would buy me, every time I'd been at market. He wasn't tall for the local people, but that was tall enough for me. He was big, powerful, and he wasn't just quick to anger, but angry by default. I instantly feared him, and I wasn't ashamed of it. It was a wise thing for me to feel.

"Put your head down, you insolent little shit," was the first thing he said to me, and I lowered my head further. He might have turned back to Throren, he might still have been looking at me, I couldn't tell with my head all the way down. "You've been soft," he spat.

"Actually, I haven't," Throren said. Even without looking at him, I could hear bitterness in his voice. "You'd be proud of me."

"Have you been introduced to my guest?" Yulie said suddenly. "Lord Hector Dufrais, Lord Arexan Drextrer."

I wondered if now was really a good time to introduce a fire hawk to the situation.

Hector stepped forward to shake Lord Drextrer's hand. "A pleasure," he said.

I didn't know what was going on, really, with my head this bowed, but I couldn't imagine that Lord Drextrer would approve of Lord Hector, with his fancy clothes and even fancier smile. There was no telling without raising my head, though.

Yulie had been right to introduce them, though. "I can't tell you how parched I am, and I've not been riding all morning!" Hector said brightly. "I think it's time for a drink, don't you? The kitchens have been serving a truly delicious honey mead lately."

"My wife drinks honey mead," Lord Drextrer said, and his meaning was clear.

"Oh, there's no denying it's a woman's drink," Hector said quickly. "But a carefully embroidered cloth is a woman's work, and even Kings wear those!"

I wondered if the new fire Hector was starting was going to distract Lord Drextrer from the fire that was Throren and I - and strangely enough, it did. The lords all went inside, and Yulie himself poured Lord Drextrer a drink. He made a great show of it, and I assumed it to be a customary gesture. Yulie was doing what was normally a slave's job, as far as I could tell, but he did it magnanimously and gallantly.

The Yulie I knew was carefully, perfectly hidden. This one was a fake. It was a great fake, and it fooled everyone, but it wasn't Yulie.

I wondered if Yulie had any other fake personalities to draw on.

Lissal looked at me pointedly as she poured her Master a goblet of honey mead.

I didn't know what to pour for Throren. Not the honey mead, surely, that would leave his father incensed. I picked a red wine and poured it, then offered it to Throren, keeping my eyes down.

He took it and downed it in one go.

I poured him another. He did not take the goblet from my hands, so I held on to it like Lissal had held Hector's drink the night before. The lords sat around the table, and I stood behind Throren, but no amount of bending my neck kept my eyes out of sight of Lord Drextrer. When Lissal refilled Hector's drink, she placed the goblet on the table in front of him and glanced at me, so I did the same with Throren's.

The lords discussed Lord Drextrer's travel, and I learned that thankfully, he was only going to stay the night. His true destination was further south, where one of Throren's other brothers was receiving some sort of military commendation.

"You, boy, don't look your betters in the eye," Lord Drextrer snapped at me mid-conversation. I looked away, even though at the time I hadn't been looking him in the eye. I'd been looking at Throren's goblet to check if it needed filling. Even still, I cast my eyes onto the floor and to the side.

A few minutes later, Lord Drextrer grumbled again. "I don't like your new boy, Throren. He's shifty looking."

I wondered if I ought to just close my eyes.

Lissal was no help, she just gave me a pitying look.

"You'll want to watch out for that," Lord Drextrer said. "I know a tryst when I see one."

Hector excused himself extremely politely after this, promising to reunite with them for lunch. I watched Lissal go longingly, then realised what I was doing and forcibly put my eyes on the floor.

Yulie talked well, forcibly moving conversation forward. He talked about the goings-on of Summer Hill. He inquired politely about Lord Drextrer's hometown, claiming that he still missed it sometimes. He gushed praises for his adoptive mother, he became the picture of grateful wards. Lord Drextrer berated him for being too soft. Yulie laughed and admitted that yes, he was much too soft.

Throren drank too much. Some men drink, others do not. Those that do not should never drink quickly, and Throren drank quickly. I refilled his goblet anyway. I wondered if I'd ever experience the drunken, handsy fuck that Lissal surely had the night before.

A small team of slave girls were taking turns to swoop in on Lord Drextrer. It was a fabulous tactic. There was always a different person refilling his drink, and therefore, always a different person was getting snapped at. Each of them had a dead look in their eyes that made Lissal seem soulful. The slaves did not allow Lord Drextrer to get into a routine of berating the same person, as they never let him see the same person twice in a row.

Throren and I did not have the same tactic. I was not being constantly swapped. I was also directly in Lord Drextrer's line of sight. He loudly made it incredibly clear that he disapproved of me every few minutes, and I did my best to keep my head down.

After a time, we left the entrance hall and went to Yulie's entertaining room, an even bigger hall underneath his library. Inside, the table had been set for lunch. Kayla was waiting a few paces from the head of the table. She was smiling brightly. Yulie took his seat at the head of the table. Throren sat to his right. Lord Drextrer sat to his left. Kayla moved forward and poured Yulie's wine. I felt reasonably certain that she was the only person happy to be there.

Halfway through lunch, Lord Drextrer berated Yulie for the taste of his wine. Yulie insisted that he liked it well enough. Lord Drextrer kept drinking it, though, and adamantly refused to try the honey mead.

Hector did not join them for lunch.

"And this is your terrible slave, I presume?" Lord Drextrer said, looking Kayla up and down.

"Oh, no," Yulie said. "This is my wonderful ex-slave, Kayla. You met her last time you were here. I've freed her since then."

"You freed a slave?" Lord Drextrer said.

Yulie shrugged. "I have the oddest tastes," he said. I saw right through his game, even stuck staring at the floor as I was. He played to what Lord Drextrer knew about him - and Lord Drextrer remembered him as an odd child. "I like her smiling, so I freed her."

"You can order slaves to smile," Lord Drextrer said.

Yulie laughed. "Slaves disobey. I've yet to meet a servant that disobeys. They just leave."

"You're an idiot," Lord Drextrer said.

"Not in this house," Throren said, and I nearly jumped out of my skin with fright. He'd been incredibly silent, even for his own standards. I'd never known that his voice could go that deep.

Lord Drextrer glared at his son. I had no idea whether Throren returned the glare, or just sat there, patient and blank as ever, because my head was all the way down and Throren was facing away from me.

"I forgive you, of course," Yulie said. "Sometimes I am an idiot."

The rest of lunch was even more tense and uncomfortable than it had been before.

"I'll be forgiven, of course, if I wish to speak with my sons privately?" Lord Drextrer asked.

"Of course," Yulie said.

Kayla curtseyed, and I bowed and retreated.

I spent the afternoon hyperventilating while Kayla rubbed my back and told me it was all okay, he's just like that, it's not your fault. This did not help me to calm down, but it helped me not to spiral further into panic.

Eventually, dinner was being served, and we returned to Yulie's hall. I stood back behind my Master, and Kayla returned to Yulie's side. Lord Drextrer's throng of slaves had stayed with him.

Yulie's usually happy mask had fallen. When I caught sight of Throren's face when we entered the room, he looked dark, tense and furious. He was wearing his father's scowl. I vowed never to tell him that they shared anything, not even that one expression.

Dinner was precariously silent. Lord Drextrer continued to berate anyone he could.

Kayla smiled too much. I was insolent. Yulie was soft. Throren was ungrateful. When I refilled Throren's cup, I had shaking hands, and I spilled some.

Lord Drextrer insisted that I be beaten on the spot.

Kayla - bless her heart - refilled Lord Yulie's cup and spilled some of his wine all over his plate. I was certain this was on purpose.

Lord Drextrer stood and took a step toward her, and she quickly stepped directly behind Yulie, who had not moved.

Throren stood. "Not in this house," he said again, and even though it wasn't directed at me, even though he faced away from me as he said it, it was terrifying. I could feel his baritone through the floorboards.

Throughout this, Yulie had been absent-mindedly picking at a chicken wing and the very picture of unaffected.

I watched Throren's hands flexing and straightening and wondered if he was about to throw a table.

Lord Drextrer carefully sat back down.

Throren carefully sat back down.

Yulie carefully discarded his chicken wing onto his plate. "Allow me to speak plainly," he said. "I'll take you into my home, I'll feed you, I'll give you drink. I'll take your wisdom and your experience, and I'll respect you for it. But if you let me think for one moment that you will try to punish my servants for me, I'll have your own son put you out on the street. I will do this because I own this house, and that town, and I own six miles west and seventeen east. I own them, and I run them as I please, and I will not allow even a most revered guest as yourself to overstep my authority."

"My son would not dare," Lord Drextrer said.

"Your son has never done anything but dare," Yulie said. "Why else do you think I keep him around? Of all the people I could have chosen, I keep him. In fact, I took him. I took him from your house. I took him and I'll keep him, just like I'll keep Kayla here, collar or not. I see what I want, and I take it, and you'd do best to remember that. Threaten my staff again, and I'll take something far more precious to you than your youngest, least favourite son."

Yulie reached for the honey mead and drank some straight from the bottle. "Hector was right, this is delicious," he said. Then he went straight back to eating, as though he had not just berated his own adoptive father.

"I don't particularly appreciate being talked about like I am a thing that you took," Throren said tersely.

"I apologise," Yulie said immediately. "You know I get carried away. You're not a thing. You're an asset."

"That's only ever so slightly better," Throren said.

"You're a valued member of my household," Yulie said.

"That's the one you're looking for," Throren said.

"You know, when you put the two of you together, you almost make a whole person," Lord Drextrer said.

Throren stood up so quickly that his chair fell over.

Yulie smiled brightly. "An excellent idea, Throren," he said, and stood as well, but in a much more relaxed fashion. "Time to retire. You're in the south quarter, Father, we'll show you the way," he said, jovial as ever.

"I remember the way," Lord Drextrer said. He stalked from the room, and his servants scampered after him. They reminded me of frightened rabbits running toward a trap.

Lord Yulie sat back down.

Throren took a deep, rattling breath. He picked up his chair and sat down too.

"I think that went well," Yulie said.

Throren shook his head. "Kayla," he said quietly. "Did you do that on purpose?"

Kayla stepped forward and poured Yulie's wine with steady hands. "He's nothing I'm not used to," she said. "Men like him cannot make me shake anymore."

I wished I had half of her resolve.

"I cannot tell you how grateful I am," Throren said.

"We're lucky I'd already freed you," Yulie said. "If I hadn't, I might have done it on the spot."

Kayla smiled. "Always happy to be of service," she said.

Yulie shook his head. "We'll have to reward you, I think," he said.

Throren nodded. "You should leave that to me, it's my arse she saved."

Yulie gave his twisted smile. "Yes, but I got the satisfaction," he said. "You'd have just thrown furniture, and that never satisfies anyone."

"It satisfies the carpenter, my lord," Kayla said.

Yulie laughed. "Every time you're cheeky, it simply fills me with pride, Kayla, my darling girl. You must stop, else I'll become an egotist. Now, off to bed with you, all of you," he said. He stood and harvested a few lemon cakes from the table. "Duty calls," he said, and left.

Throren left, and I followed. We did not go to our quarters. Throren walked alongside Kayla as she turned.

"My lord, are you walking me home?" she asked.

"When you get inside, lock the door," Throren said by way of answer.

"You're joking," she said.

"I wish I were," Throren said.

"Then I'm glad you're walking with me, my lord," she said.

"You're welcome."

Kayla entered the servant's quarters through a side passage and went through a hall. I'd never seen exactly where she lived before now. She did not live in the slave’s room, with Leanna, Sethie and Riga, as she was a free woman.

Kayla opened her door but did not go inside. Her quarters were small, but well-kept and full. She owned several things that surprised me. She had a spinning wheel and a small loom, two expensive investments for a woman who did not spin or weave for a living. On a small dresser were multiple pieces of jewellery, and one of the finest dresses I had ever seen was hanging on a hook on the wall.

I wondered how many gifts Lord Yulie had given her before he freed her. I wondered what the hell was going on with Dune.

"Lord Throren, may I offer you some advice?" Kayla asked.

Throren tensed. "You may," he said.

"Kath isn't trained," she said gently. "Neither was I, and it took years of Lord Yulie's patience to get me anywhere near where Kath is now. Please, please, be gentle with him."

Oh, Kayla. In another life, in another world, I'd have wanted to marry her.

Throren looked at me. I wondered what I looked like. I'd been fighting back tears since the moment Lord Drextrer had first seen me. Since spilling the wine, I'd only gotten shakier.

Throren looked back to Kayla. "You have my word," he said.

She smiled. "Thank you for walking me home, my lord," she said, and went inside. She shut the door, and I heard a bolt slide into place. I was grateful that at least one of us was safe.

Throren and I walked back to our rooms, and I barely breathed along the way.

When we finally got there, I knew I was fucked because the panic had set in. All I could think of was spilled wine, the way Throren's voice had boomed up into my body through my shoes, and the riding crop. Tears had welled up in my eyes.

I'd rolled the dice and landed on Throren, but I could have landed on his father, or a man like his father. For every man like Throren, there were twelve Lord Drextrers. That wasn't an arbitrary number, either - that was the actual amount of other Drextrers, unless he had uncles or cousins. Throren was better, he was wonderful, and I did not want to roll the dice again.

We went inside, and I closed the door behind me with trembling hands. Throren threw the bolt on the door, and just for good measure, turned his key in the lock as well. Then he went straight to the bedroom and started to disrobe.

It spoke much about his mood that he'd disrobe in front of me.

I looked at the table. I wondered if I should - no, not unless he gave the order. Throren didn't seem to be going for the crop again. I kept my eyes from the bedroom. He didn't like me to see him naked.

If he was taking his clothes off in front of me, he didn't care anymore. Did he not care anymore because he was done with me? Would I be gone tomorrow, sold off, and not able to spread any of the rumours he so hated?

I knelt by the armchair and let the tears fall.

Throren returned, and he'd dressed in the shirt and trousers he usually slept in. I realised I was looking up and put my head all the way back down.

Throren came to me on quiet feet. He did not sit in the armchair. Instead, he put himself on his knees in front of me. "Kath," he said. It was barely a whisper.

I sobbed. "I'm sorry," I said, and that was all I'd meant to say, but once my mouth opened, I couldn't stop it. "I didn't mean to, I tried, but I didn't mean to, and I made Kayla step in and that just made it worse and I - please, please don't get rid of me," I said.

It was the wrong thing to say, because it made him lean back sharply.

"Give me the crop again, lash me, I don't care, just don't get rid of me, please," I said, and I didn't know if he could even understand me through my sobbing. "I'll do better, I promise, please."

Throren put his hand on my shoulder, and I flinched so hard that I almost fell over. I knew he'd hate this, so I just cried harder. "Do you even know what you did wrong?" Throren asked.

"Everything," I said. "I did everything wrong."

Throren put his other hand on my chin and tilted my head up. I looked him in the eye for the first time since his father had arrived. He looked haggard and worried, but only a little bit angry. "You only did one thing wrong all day, Kath," he said. He moved his hand from my shoulder to the top of my head, where he carded his fingers through my hair.

He liked my hair. He'd said as much, yesterday. Yesterday seemed so long ago, now.

"Do you know what you did wrong?" he asked.

I shook my head. If I could speak, I'd have said that I spilled the wine, or that I was belligerent, but my attention was on his hand in my hair and the lump blocking my throat.

"You thought you could succeed," Throren said.

I let my head fall down again and I sobbed.

"That was my fault, though," Throren said. "I had you try on Hector, and you could succeed there, so I think you thought you could do it again. That's mad, Kath, that was never going to happen."

He took my chin and lifted my head again.

"You can never please him. You can follow all his orders, you can succeed at every task he gives you, but you can never really win. Why do you think I left?"

Throren moved his hand from my chin and put it on my face. He stroked my cheek and wiped at my tears.

"Look at me," he said, but I already was looking at him, at his large dark eyes, his unusually long eyelashes, his black as night hair.

I looked at him, but not because he told me to. I looked at him because his voice held a softness that I'd never heard from him before.

"I could have been a knight," Throren said, and that made so much sense to me. He should have been a knight. A military career would have been perfect for him. "I could have wielded a sword so long no one would be able to reach the gaps in my armour. I could have been brilliant. I could have commanded soldiers - could you imagine me leading a charge? People see me coming in the street and they get out of the way."

He inched closer. He put his forehead on mine and he did not break eye contact.

"I could have won wars, Kath. I could have won wars for him, and I'd still have been a failure. That's why I left. Yulie didn't take me from him. Yulie just gave me somewhere else to go."

I closed my eyes but tears still came. "I didn't do anything else wrong?" I asked.

Throren pulled me to his chest. "Kath, you never do anything wrong. Now come to bed, I have to rub your neck."

"Rub my neck?" I asked.

"You can't tell me it's not sore," he said.

He was right, I couldn't. Not honestly, anyway. I let him help me up off the floor, and I let him take my shirt off. I was still shaking, and hadn't eaten since breakfast, but I wouldn't have wanted anything to eat anyway. He put me on the bed and sat behind me. He took the oil out of the drawer, put some on his hands, and rubbed my neck.

I hardly lasted one minute under his gentle, kind treatment before I was sobbing again.

"Too hard?" he asked, but I couldn't answer. I turned around and crawled into his lap, putting my face into his shoulder and my arms around him.

He held me, and eventually brought one of his hands back to my neck, rubbing it so softly and kindly that it broke me inside.

"I love you," I said, getting snot onto his shirt.

He pat my back and didn't say anything for several deep breaths. This was fine. I didn't need him to say anything. I needed him to know what I felt. I needed him to know that this was exactly what I wanted from him.

He put his forehead into my throat, nosed at my collarbones, then kissed underneath them.

"Love you," he said, quiet and strained, like he had no idea how to form those words in that order. It was muffled by my chest, but clear enough to be heard.

When he finally finished rubbing my neck, he put me into bed on my back and kissed me incredibly slowly. He told me he loved me with that kiss, and he said it far better that way than he had said it with his voice.

When he pulled away and helped me out of my boots and trousers, it wasn't to start anything more. It was to tuck me into bed, wrap me in his arms, push my face into his shoulder, and stroke my hair.

My father would have had absolutely no criticism for how Throren had handled this. He might even have approved.

I certainly did.

Chapter Text

The next morning, I caught sight of the Master in a state of undress. He had his trousers on and was pulling on his shirt.

It seemed that he got dressed while I slept, and he did it on the side I was turned away from. He had his back to me. The skin I could see looked beautiful to me.

He turned and saw me watching him.

He didn't seem fazed. I'd expected a reaction - I'd been sharing his bed for a month and hadn't seen him without a shirt, so I'd assumed he had an aversion to it.

I must have been wrong. He did up only half of his buttons, and then he crawled over to me in bed.

He kissed me long and slow, and he did not object when I put my hands on his shoulders. He did not even object when I slid them under his shirt. His shoulders felt weird to me - they were all hard muscle - I'd never felt anything like it.

"Breakfast with Yulie," Throren said, but he was still kissing me.

"Mm," I said. "We have to get up."

But he was already up and mostly dressed - I was the one naked and in bed. He didn't seem to mind, though, as he kept on kissing me. "Up," he said, but he moved his mouth onto my neck and pressed on my chest with one of his hands, pinning me down.

"Yes, up," I said breathlessly. "Time to go."

We did not get up, though. We stayed in bed and I rubbed and touched and scratched his shoulders and his neck while he sucked mark after mark onto the same spot on my neck.

I wondered if I was going to get to see all of him - I wondered what he looked like, underneath his clothes. I wondered if I could reach my hands down to his buttons and unwrap him. At the exact moment I had gathered my courage to try, a knock came at the door.

"Fuck off," Throren groaned, but he pulled away anyway and sat on the side of the bed. He did up his buttons while I stayed where I was and caught my breath.

He got up to answer the door, and I scrambled to get dressed. Throren let the bedroom door swing closed, but it did not entirely shut. He opened the door to the hall while I was tugging on my trousers.

"Bit early," Throren said in an unusually snappy tone. I hoped it wasn't his father at the door.

"Early, is it?" Yulie's voice answered. "Right, that's why you look like you've been in a fight. Because it's early."

Throren chuckled. I pulled on my shirt. The buttons were fiddly. "You should see my opponent," Throren said, and I laughed. I probably looked a sight - I had no doubt that the mark on my neck would be visible even with my shirt buttoned up, and I definitely blushed redder than Throren, who I'd never seen blush at all.

"Oh, sure, joke about it," Yulie said. "You know how much I love jokes. Dune's kept me up all night because the little demon does not appreciate being locked up and you look like you just got married, you simpering fool."

All of a sudden, I wasn't in a rush to finish dressing. This was a conversation I needed to overhear.

"Don't start," Throren snapped, and I deflated. "You'll give me ideas."

What?!

Ideas?

Ideas?

There was no way I could tie these buttons. My fingers were shaking. Throren was joking. He had to be joking. For Throren to have ideas about marriage, I'd have to be free.

And he'd have to want to marry me.

Throren opened the door. He did not seem to notice my predicament. He got straight to work on buttoning up the rest of my shirt for me.

Yulie stood in the doorway and took stock of my appearance. "Throren," he said, picking at his fingernails but looking at me. "Are you aware that Kath has been mauled? Was there a bear in here?"

Throren picked up a pillow from the bed and threw it at Yulie. Yulie caught it and threw it back. He had better aim and hit Throren in the face.

"Perhaps a wolf?" Yulie said. "It couldn't have been a wildcat. It must have been something much bigger."

Throren finished doing up my buttons, then put his hand over the mark on my neck. "You don't have to come out today," he said. He pulled me in closer.

Yulie shook his head. "Why, of course not. One does not get mauled by a bear then go for a stroll with its father. That would be madness."

I shrugged. After last night, and this morning, I was on such a high that I doubted even Arexan Drextrer could bother me. "I'll go if you want me, Master," I said.

"Ah, now there's a trap," Throren said. "Of course, I want you."

"Simpering fool," Yulie repeated.

"Shrivelled trout," Throren snapped back.

Yulie grinned. Throren grinned back, then caught himself grinning and stopped. "Shoes," he said, and moved away from me rather suddenly to put his boots on.

I put on my boots as well, while Yulie stood in the doorway and watched us, tutting about time and decorum and lateness.

We rushed outside, forgoing breakfast entirely, and I fell into step behind Throren as he fell into step beside Yulie. We met Lord Drextrer in the east courtyard, a big, formal space with a huge wrought iron table. He was already drinking.

"Beloved Father!" Yulie called. "I hope you slept well."

Lord Drextrer grunted. "I shall be away by this afternoon," he said haughtily. "I want to reach Dourenne by nightfall."

"Well, then by all means, we must take our stroll immediately," Yulie said. "I want to show you the nets. You didn't see them last time."

With that, he turned on the spot and walked back the way we had come, toward the gate. Throren and Lord Drextrer fell into step together behind him.

Lord Drextrer had spotted me. "You mustn't let that one outside the walls, surely," he grunted, looking at Throren with surprise.

Throren looked at me, then back to his father. "Obviously not alone," he said.

Lord Drextrer shook his head. "Don't be ridiculous, boy," he said. He took a step closer to Throren. "Look, I know a runner when I see one-"

He was interrupted by Yulie's laughter. It was righteous and booming, and one of the most fake things I'd ever heard, yet it fooled everyone except Throren and I.

"I don't see what's funny," Lord Drextrer said.

"Oh, my," Yulie said. "Really? Just me, is it? Well, it's to be suspected, I suppose. I read too much, it's fair to assume my head is warped."

"I still don't see what's funny," Lord Drextrer snapped.

"It's just, well, where's he going to go?" Yulie said. "I mean, really, have you seen him? He doesn't exactly blend in."

Yulie was not wrong. I was just glad that Lord Drextrer hadn't spotted my neck yet.

"Who gives a fuck where he goes?" Lord Drextrer snapped. "It's the running in the first place that's the problem-"

"Father," Throren said. "If he's going to run from me, I'd rather find out today and teach him better tonight than spend the rest of my days trying to prevent him from running."

Lord Drextrer snorted. "Teach him better, would you? Grown some balls, then, finally?"

Throren made no retort. I couldn't see from my position behind him, but I had the feeling he was wearing a reasonably sour expression. Or a blank one.

Lord Drextrer huffed and kept walking. Eventually we reached the gate, and walked outside it, to respectful hails from the gatekeeper. We turned off the road to the city immediately and followed a smaller dirt track that followed the wall. It led us around Summer Hill, and we walked in silence.

One of Lord Drextrer's slaves walked in step behind her Master, and directly beside me. She did not look at me, and I figured that looking at her would only make her life harder, so I didn't look at her, either.

Eventually, we came upon the creek that ran under the wall. There was a small bridge across it made of wood that didn't match, but we didn't cross. Yulie turned and we followed him along the creek. We reached a river, which the creek joined. There was a bridge over it, again, of mismatched wood.

I took a breath. There was so much water.

"So, the river is that way," Yulie said, pointing across the river. "The lake is just further down it, and that's where the main nets are."

Wait - this wasn't the river? What was this, then?

I'd seen rivers, of course, of all sorts of sizes. I was just surprised that this didn't qualify as one. How massive did water need to be to be called a river here?

"But we'll stop here because this one can be done with one man," Yulie was saying.

Lord Drextrer had gone to the river-but-not-a-river's bank beside Yulie, and his slave was behind him. Throren held back and turned to me. I had trouble tearing my eyes away from the water to look at him. When I finally did look at him, he seemed to be having trouble tearing his eyes away from me to look at the water.

Yulie knelt at the bank and picked something up. It was a chain of some sort, on a reel. He unwound it, wrapped it around his hand, and put the end over his shoulder. Then he took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. Then he took another breath, and as he exhaled, he charged.

Yulie was a perfect man with perfect long fingers and perfect hair and perfect posture. As he forced his way back from the bank, he managed to make an ungainly task look elegant.

At the end of his charge, he let the chain off his shoulder, swung himself around, dug his heels in and used his entire body weight to pull on the chain. Then he manoeuvred one of its links over a spike on the ground, and watched it hold the weight.

I looked back to the river that was apparently not a river. The other end of the chain had been underwater. Now it was not. It was raised up off the riverbed, and between it and the water was a rusted, completely iron net.

Yulie walked about thirty paces upstream and did exactly the same thing with another chain.

Then he walked back to us. I could see fish caught in the net.

"We had no food, and the fields had frosted over," Yulie said conversationally, as though this net wasn't the most interesting, intriguing thing in the world. "The harvest was dead. No one had any money to trade in any food - and everyone had sold everything to pay for medicine. Some had sold the clothes off their own backs. The healer had gotten filthy rich and left with all the money, leaving everyone with nothing. His apprentice - our Quentin - was sick himself, so although he knew what to do, he couldn't actually do any of it.

"What we did have was a heap of raw iron, and the fortune that a smith survived. The snow had come, and the lake was sure to freeze over - so, no fishing for much longer. There wasn't a forester, so the game had all been eaten already, and we knew there was a whole pack of wolves up north, so we couldn't forage or hunt safely.

"So, I had my one smith make me a net. I knew it would have to survive under the water, so it couldn't be anything but iron. We placed the net in the lake, let it freeze over, and when we were out of food and ready to starve, we pulled up the chains - it took about ten men and a Throren to a side. We got the chain up to the ice, then we slid it underneath. Trapped the whole lake. Every single fish."

"You still would have had to break the ice," Lord Drextrer said.

"Oh, yes," Yulie said absently. "But only in one spot. The fish were so frantic that half of them jumped out."

"You always did like your little schemes," Lord Drextrer said.

It was at this point that I could no longer be afraid of Lord Drextrer. I'd never had much patience, but what patience the fear of him had given me had finally run out. Now I was just pissed at him.

Little schemes? Little? Nothing about this scheme was little. This was a huge scheme. What kind of complete idiot could possibly hope to downplay this as a little scheme?

Yulie smiled as though he'd been given the highest of praise. "Yes, I did at that," he said brightly. "In any case, it worked a charm, to a point. Every scheme has its potential, and this one was limited."

How? How could there be a limit to this? This was fantastic.

"Over-fished it, did you?" Lord Drextrer asked.

"Oh, we didn't care about that, not the first year. We ate the big ones and threw the rest back under the net. The real problem is the fish themselves. How was it that you used to put it, Throren?" Yulie asked.

"Preferable to starvation," Throren said.

Lord Drextrer chuckled. He was satisfied to find a flaw in Yulie's brilliant scheme. His pettiness disgusted me. "Not good, eh?"

Throren shook his head. "Not good at all," he admitted.

Yulie shrugged. "No, they're not. Dune likes them, though, but he's a madman when it comes to food."

"Dune is your terrible slave, I hear," Lord Drextrer said.

Yulie smiled at him. "Terrible as ever, so most of the time I keep him locked up. It's for the best."

This was an outright lie. Dune was as free to roam as I was, most of the time. Now that I knew what he looked like I was able to keep an eye out for him. He was sneaky - that was how I'd missed him the first few weeks I'd been here. He snuck around like a snake and did not speak to anyone. He did what he had to do in the quiet, lonely spaces of Summer Hill, and no one ever saw him unless he had no other place to do his task except the place that they were in.

Lord Drextrer nodded sagely. "Sometimes the best thing for it is to chain them to a bed, remind them that's all they're good for."

Yulie did not reply, but even he could not keep his fake smile going at that comment.

Throren said nothing, but he shifted ever so slightly, putting himself more firmly between me and his father. I appreciated the gesture, but I had lost the capacity to fear this man. He was a petty, vindictive man who could not appreciate the pure and simple fact that Lord Yulie was a genius. This made him a man who would easily underestimate his betters, and Throren had shown me last night that he didn't care what his father thought of me. I could not be scared of this stupid little man. No matter how much I angered him, Throren would never respect his father's anger.

"You might try it with yours, Throren," Lord Drextrer said.

Throren's whole body tensed up.

"Or has he already run off?"

Throren looked back at me. I was standing my ground, exactly where I was supposed to be, as far as I knew.

Throren looked back at his father. "Kath has yet to run," he said. "Funny, that. How often do yours run?"

Lord Drextrer clenched his fists. "You'll not try that with me, boy," he snapped. "Show some respect."

"And here I'd hoped we'd have a nice, quiet stroll," Yulie said, sighing.

"I could tip you in the streamlet right now," Throren said.

Hold on - this was only a streamlet?

"No one would know," Throren continued.

What did a full stream look like to these people?

"That's enough, Throren," Yulie said, his voice dark with warning. He put himself between the two men.

What did a river look like to them?

Lord Drextrer looked past them both, and straight at me, startling me out of my watery confusion. He looked back at Throren, his expression derisive and hateful. "You think you're impressive, don't you? You think because you can put a sweet little love bite on his neck, that I'll think you've finally grown a cock."

"In a fight between myself and Throren, I cannot win," Yulie said to no one in particular. "And there is no one around to call for help. Kath's hardly going to take him on - though, that would be amusing."

Throren's voice was deep again, but it didn't carry through the earth the same way that it had carried through the floorboards. "You know perfectly well that the last thing I need to grow is more cock," he spat to his father, ignoring Yulie completely.

Lord Drextrer laughed. "Yes, right, you're not proud of it - you're so ashamed of your own manhood you don't fuck anyone. How do you think it feels, to be accused of being the father to a man that isn't even a man?"

"How do you think it feels, to be accused of being the son of a vicious idiot?" Throren snapped back.

"Tell you what, Throren," Lord Drextrer said. "I'll tell your mother you're well. I'll leave out the part where you're a cocksucking coward. I'll pretend we had a nice, pleasant visit."

"Bullshit," Throren said. "You won't."

"I will," Lord Drextrer said. "If - only if - that adorable little virgin that you're cuddling every night can convince me you've fucked him."

"Absolutely not," Throren snapped.

"Because he can't, can he?" Lord Drextrer said.

Fucking watch me, I thought. Oh, fuck. Not that again. The last time I'd had that thought, I'd fucked a man with a horse cock. It just wasn't a safe thought. I couldn't keep such a contrary frame of mind, not as a slave.

It didn't matter, though. I'd tried to fight this side of me before, when I had been free, and I'd never succeeded. I was already plotting how I could convince Lord Drextrer that his son had been fucking me until I went limp and screamed from it.

"He's a precious little flower, you can't bring yourself to even try, can you, Throren? Go on, then, little flower, tell me, tell me - how does it fit?" Lord Drextrer asked, vile pettiness dripping from his tone.

Throren was saying something, but I didn't give a fuck anymore.

"Sheer force of will, my lord," I said. My voice came out steady, but toneless like death.

Everyone fell silent.

"What was that?" Lord Drextrer said, like he couldn't believe I'd spoken.

"You asked me how it fit, my lord," I said. "I answered. Would you like a more thorough explanation? I could give you a rundown, though I'm sure you're experienced enough not to require it. You don't look like the kind of man who needs me to explain anything."

"Sheer force of will?" Lord Drextrer repeated. He looked confused. I wondered how long it had been since a slave had dared to speak so much in his presence, even to answer a direct question.

"Yes, my lord. Is there some other way? I'm not aware of any other way. Do you know of another way?"

Even Yulie was silent.

If I got the crop for this, it would be so worth it.

"He'd split you in half," Lord Drextrer said.

Oh, perfect. Fucking perfect. I pulled up what Secturn had said to me, all that time ago. My eighth day here, he'd said it, and I recalled it perfectly. I knew that I could say it like I had to, cold and blank, because it was a quote.

"That's only a euphemism," I said. "That doesn't actually happen. It's nothing so neat, simple and quick as that."

Lord Drextrer opened his mouth, then closed it again. He took a deep breath, then another. Then he guffawed loudly. He walked around Yulie and patted Throren on the back - hard. "You son of a bitch, you!" he said. "Finally grew a pair, for fuck's sake, you little shit."

Lord Drextrer looked like he was struggling not to be proud.

Throren was disturbingly silent. The cold and the blank had taken him. I understood it now - he did it when he was struggling to hide his feelings. He couldn't hide what he wanted to, so he hid everything.

Yulie was struggling not to laugh.

As for me? I wasn't struggling at all. I felt vindicated.

 

 

 

When we gathered in the entrance hall to see Lord Drextrer off that afternoon, Throren was still blank, and had been since the river. Yulie had been stealing glances at me all day, like he wanted desperately to yank me aside and talk to me about it.

Lord Drextrer had been in a fine mood for the rest of the day. He thumped Throren on the back several more times, had some wine to drink, stuffed himself with lunch, and even complimented the cook on the meal. When he was finally ready to mount his horse and leave, he turned back to Throren. "We'll make a proper man out of you, yet, son," he said, and then he was off.

Throren walked back to his quarters and Yulie tagged along, glancing back at me every few steps.

When we got into the sitting room, Throren sat in his armchair. Someone had lit the hearth. It was the first time I'd ever seen it with a fire going. Yulie stayed standing just inside the room. I closed the door, and as soon as it was shut, Yulie was talking.

"Throren," he said, but he was looking at me. "Where did you find him?"

"Market," Throren said blankly.

"What did you pay for him?"

Throren shook his head. "Not enough," he said, but it did not sound like praise. It sounded hollow and ... sad.

"I'll say," Yulie said. "Sheer force of will - sheer force of will - honestly - where do you come up with that sort of thing, I can't believe - did you see how quickly he shut up? Arexan Drextrer speechless, I never thought I'd see the day."

Throren said nothing.

"If I didn't know I'd lose my jaw for it, I'd kiss you," Yulie said, looking me straight in the eye. "Hell in a teapot, I need a drink."

With that, Yulie stalked through the door and left us. I gently pushed the door shut and wondered what kind of storm I'd called down upon myself.

With Throren blank and cold, I couldn't tell. He'd been blank and cold when he'd cropped me, but he'd also been blank and cold when he'd taken me in and painstakingly cared for my burns. I was either in for punishment or reward, and I had no way of knowing which.

I knelt by his armchair. "Master," I said quietly.

He said nothing.

"I think I might have spoken too much, earlier," I said.

He still said nothing. He didn't even look at me.

"Master?" I questioned.

He was quite determined to ignore me, so I picked up my hook from where I had left it on the floor last and started working. I didn't see any point in wasting the time. Whatever he'd do, he'd do when he wanted to.

Eventually, he licked his lips, set his jaw, and spoke. "Sheer force of will," he said coldly. He said nothing else.

"I think I would have pleased you better if I'd said nothing at all," I said, and it was true. I had spoken because I hated Lord Drextrer, and he'd challenged me, but Throren didn't care what his father thought. "But I can't know for certain unless you tell me."

"You've yet to be punished for speaking," Throren said, but it wasn't the same as before. His voice sounded hollow.

So - what - he wasn't upset that I'd spoken? He wouldn't punish me over it? What did he want?

"Sheer force of will," Throren said again. "I don't understand. Of all the things to say, why that?"

I shrugged. It was what had come to me, in the moment. "What would you have had me say?" I asked.

"I don't know," Throren said. "Patience? Time? Anything. Anything but that."

"I don't understand what I've done wrong, Master," I said.

He was quiet for a while. "After the first time, I thought you'd learned your lesson," he said, but he didn't sound angry. He sounded wretched and heartbroken.

I turned to face him. The indifference had fallen from his face, and he looked horrified and smaller than he had any right to look. I dropped my hook and went to him. I put myself between his knees and reached for him. He batted my hand away like I was a fly.

"I don't understand what I've done wrong, Master," I said again.

He could hardly stand to look at me. "After the first time, did you really think that what I wanted - what I wanted was to - to enforce my will upon you?"

I reached for him and he pushed my hand away again.

"Is that what this has been for you, Kath? Is that what you think is happening, do you think you are just lying there and accepting my will?"

"Stop it," I said.

"Don't tell me what to do," he snapped. "I don't see how I could have been any clearer to you what I wanted. I did not want to use sheer force of will on you!"

"Stop it," I said again.

"Don't tell me what to do," he snapped back. "I'll not punish you for trying to please me. But if all we're going to do is run circles around you figuring out that your pain does not please me, then we might as well just stop this now."

"No!" I said, probably with more force than necessary. I reached for him again and he batted me away again, so I just kept reaching. He pushed me away, once, twice, three times, before he captured my wrists in his hands. I pushed forward, letting him hold my hands, and pressed against him. He released my hands and pushed me back.

Even now, he was gentle. I doubted there would be a bruise on me tomorrow. "Would you stop fighting me and let me give you a hug?" I said.

He shook his head. "Kath, I do not want a hug," he said.

"Oh, fuck off," I spat. "You don't get to do this to me. You and your niceness and your gentleness and your candles and your routines. I know damn fucking well that you don't get off on my pain, you're not subtle about it!"

He shook his head. "It was too quick, Kath," he said. "You said it too quickly to have made it up. It was the first thing to come to your head."

"Of course, it was!" I said. "It's true! Now shut the hell up and let me hold you, you ... you ... argh!"

I couldn't call him what I wanted to call him. What I wanted to call him was an imbecile. I wasn't quite ready to cross that line, so I folded my arms across my chest and sulked.

"Kath," Throren said.

I shook my head. I needed to find words. I did not look at him.

"Kath," Throren said again.

"It's not your will," I snapped. I did not raise my eyes. "It's never been your will. You just wanted me to be pretty. That's what you said, remember? I was just supposed to be pretty and distracting."

"Kath," Throren said again.

"No," I said sharply. "You'll shut up and you'll listen to me, because it's my job to please you and you'll never be happy unless you get it into your head that you're allowed to be."

He said nothing. I looked up. He'd raised his brow. I'd lost him.

"You're not a monster," I said. "You're a huge man with a huge cock and that's not a crime. You're allowed to be happy."

"I know that," Throren said softly. "I don't see how that's got anything to do with-"

"If you thought for one moment that you were allowed to have me, you'd have known exactly what I meant," I said. He wouldn't let me hug him, so I hugged myself tightly instead. "I meant what I said. There's no other way to make it fit. Nothing but force of will, and you would never. You couldn't. You couldn't because you're not a monster. You're my Master and I love you because you're so ridiculously good to me, and you couldn't use force of will to shove it in if you tried. So, I do it for you."

Throren looked at me with such sadness that I started to cry on his behalf. But still, he did not move to let me hold him.

"I don't see how that's much better," he said quietly.

I shook my head. "You don't have to, because I do," I said. I reached up to wipe tears from my cheeks.

Throren's hands moved as if to try to stop me, but he stopped himself.

"I am so sick of this," I said. "Everyone keeps saying it to me. From the moment I got here, people have been taking every opportunity to tell me you're too big for me. Everyone keeps insisting you'd be evil to even try, and I'm sick of it. You're not evil. You're mine. You're my Master, and I will make you happy if it fucking kills me. And I'll not do it because of this stupid collar or for fear of your stupid crop, I'll do it because I damn well feel like it, and I'd like to see you try to stop me."

Throren sank further into his chair. He wasn't blank again, but he still looked very small.

"What exactly did you think you'd done to me?" I asked. "Hurt me? Raped me? Do you think I cared about that? I'd have let you hurt me, I'd have let you rape me, if it meant I got to stay and be treated kindly. I didn't know what you wanted but I was willing to try it to make you happy. And I tried it, and you told me I could tell you to stop, and I never have, because I chose not to. You're not a monster. You're not evil. You just made me like you so much I wanted to make you happy."

Throren did not say anything. He just looked at me. He stared and stared at me, while I sniffled and wiped at my cheeks and held myself around the middle.

"One of us needs to give the other one a hug," I said. "You're miserable because you think you're an arsehole and I'm miserable because you won't let me love you."

Throren slowly came forward, like a skittish and extremely overgrown gazelle. I met him halfway and wrapped my arms around him.

"You're okay," I said. "You're okay, Master."

"You're the one crying," he said softly. He sounded like he was too afraid to speak at a regular volume.

I held him in my arms and cried onto his shoulder. "I am going to fix this," I said. "I promise, I am going to fix this. You'll come out the other side and you'll know, you'll know you deserve me, you deserve better than me. You'll come out the other side of this and you'll be happy, because I'll make you be."

He held me closer. When he finally spoke, it broke my heart.

"You're wrong. I will never deserve you," he said.

Chapter Text

That night, Throren lay on his back and let me cuddle up to him. I placed my head on his shoulder and my arm over his body, and I swung a leg over him. He lay still and stared at the ceiling, stroking my back. It took all night and well into the early morning hours for Throren and I to slowly piece our shattered composure back together.

It rained so heavily that I couldn't sleep. This wasn't unusual for my people. We had too much respect for water to do much else but lie awake when it came from the sky like a gift from a god.

The situation with Dune finally boiled over while we were in bed. Due to the distance between the buildings, the rain, and the way we had sequestered ourselves in the bedroom, the first we heard of it was when we heard a frantic pounding on the door.

Throren blearily and grumpily went to the door and opened it to Yulie.

"Dune's missing," Yulie said.

"For fuck's sake," Throren snapped. "Let me get dressed."

I stood at the door, wiping my tired eyes. "What's going on?" I asked.

"Kath," Yulie called. "When he spoke to you, did you get any sense of where he might go, if he were to go anywhere?"

"Of course he didn't," Throren said. "They spoke for all of half a minute."

"Dune defended Kath," Yulie said. "They were holding hands - they must have made a connection."

"They did not make a connection," Throren said, in that terrifying voice he could make just by switching tones.

"Dune doesn't speak to me, and after he found out you punished Kath, he practically ranted at me," Yulie said. "Kath, honestly, just guess, if that's all you can do."

I shrugged. "I ... sorry, I don't know," I said. "I'd tell you if I knew."

Throren and Yulie rushed out in the early hours of the morning, looking for Dune, while I thought about him and worried.

I thought about his beautiful sad eyes and his long hair. I thought about the way my heart had broken when he'd said, 'Thank you for speaking to me,' like it was the sweetest gift I could have given him.

Dune was clearly lonely, but that didn't tell me where he would go. He didn't have any friends here. When Yulie had come for advice about Dune's motivations, he'd come to me. I'd only ever spoken to Dune once and since then we had completely avoided each other. If Yulie thought that it was worth asking me about it, then Dune had no friends. Dune had no one.

I couldn't understand why me, though. Why had Dune defended me? Why had he spoken out at all? Why would someone who refused to make friends choose to defend me?

I tried to remember. Leanna said that he'd ranted about Throren when Yulie lashed him - but it had started before that. He had defended me when we had been taken to Yulie. What had I done?

And then I remembered. He'd taken a sharp little breath and he'd looked at me with surprise when I'd told Yulie that it hadn't been romantic. I'd told Yulie that all Dune did was hold my hand innocently and ask me if I was all right.

I'd defended Dune first.

But that wasn't enough, surely, to inspire the kind of loyalty that made a slave who normally refused to speak suddenly rant on my behalf...

Unless no one ever defended Dune. Shit - of course they didn't. There probably wasn't a girl in Summer Hill that didn't want to be the centre of Yulie's attention. He was gorgeous, he was kind, and he had almost single-handedly saved the whole town from starvation. Everyone would want Lord Yulie's attention. Even Lissal would probably trade in Hector for Yulie, if given the chance.

Dune clearly didn't like it here, and he had no allies. He had no one but enemies and people who wanted him gone.

No one envied me the way they envied Dune. Throren was more often kind than not, sure, but he'd 'split you in half' and he threw tables at people. No one wanted to put me down because no one wanted Throren angry, and no one wanted to be the subject of his attentions.

Throren's secretive bedroom habits had helped me there. If everyone knew that all he wanted was to give a right good fingering until he was asked to stop, then I'd probably have had more trouble with the staff.

I knew the laundry well enough. I could trust Leanna and Kayla to a certain extent ... but then again, I'd seen how happy Kayla had been to serve Lord Yulie at the table.

Not for the first time, I wondered if Dune had been okay here. Yulie wasn't outright cruel, but he was more than a little bit different. The only one who truly understood him was Throren, and Throren had spent the first week Dune was here being jealous that Yulie had someone making him happy and he didn't. Then something had changed, and Throren had turned furious, so there was never a point where Dune would have had any help.

Dune was trapped here, surrounded by unfriendly people. It was really no wonder he had run away.

None of this gave me any ideas on where to find him. All it told me was where he wouldn't go, and that was everywhere in Summer Hill.

I hoped that I was wrong, and in case I was, I decided to put myself somewhere visible. If he wasn't gone, if he was just hiding, then maybe he'd spot me and hope I'd defend him again. At least this time I wouldn't get punished for it.

In the end, it wasn't anything I did that helped. It wasn't even Yulie, or Throren.

Dune brought himself back.

Word got around while Throren, Yulie, and even Secturn were still out looking. Dune had turned himself in. He'd come to the gate at the North side, near the guard's barracks, and just walked on through it, like he hadn't been out without permission.

I managed to reach Yulie's sanctum just in time to see the guard march him inside. It was the first time I had ever seen any of them in the main part of the house. Dune walked with them with much the same airs as a prisoner walking to their own execution.

I waited by the front gate for my Master to return.

When Yulie and Throren returned, Yulie was ash white, as though he had lost his life, not just his slave. Throren had his jaw set and was exactly as furious as I expected him to be. The gatekeeper let Yulie in on the situation, and life came back into him as I watched.

Yulie didn't take his horse to the stables. He galloped through Summer Hill. Throren pulled me up onto Semmy, and we followed. Yulie did not stop until he reached the door to his sanctum, and once there, he dismounted and left his horse untended and unhitched.

Throren and I followed him up the stairs to his private quarters.

"Should I go, Master?" I asked, because the last time I had been near Dune, he had taken a riding crop to my arse over it.

Throren shook his head. "You're immune to punishment from this, even if you actually do misbehave. Stay in my sight."

Yulie opened the door from the landing into his sitting room. It was bigger than Throren's, but most of it looked as unlived-in as Throren's settee had looked before Lord Hector had put his boots on it. Yulie stalked straight to one of the doors on the left wall, put a key in the lock, and opened it.

Dune sat on the floor with his back to the wall in what I presumed to be Lord Yulie's antechamber. He had his arms around his knees. There were other places to be in the room - he could have sat on the bed, he could have sat on the chair at the table, he could have sat on the armchair. He chose to sit on the floor.

I'd been put at the table with Throren and with Yulie just often enough to know that I was definitely allowed on the furniture.

Dune either didn't know or didn't want to take that liberty. Yulie did not seem surprised. I wondered if this was normal.

Yulie flung himself at Dune and embraced him. "Don't you ever do that again," he said, and I realised that I'd never heard him angry before. He hadn't even been angry when he'd told off Lord Drextrer, but he was angry now, and I could hardly blame him. Running away was one of the worst transgressions a slave could make.

Dune did not return Yulie's embrace. He turned his face away and he tried valiantly to push Yulie away. Yulie did not relent. He took Dune by the hair and forced his face back. Dune scrunched his eyes closed and breathed heavily, biting his lip.

"Speak to me," Yulie snapped. Then, weakly, "Say something."

Dune did not.

Yulie fell onto his backside on the floor and put his head in his hands. Throren, who had been standing by the door with me, went inside the room. Dune's eyes snapped open and followed Throren with scarcely controlled hate. Throren sat down next to Yulie on the floor and put his hand on his back.

I went into the room and sat down with my back against the wall, where my Master could see me easily. I didn't sit next to Dune, but I sat near him. I put my arms around my knees, just like he did, and I waited.

"So, what happened?" Throren asked. Dune glared at him. "Don't look at me like that," Throren said.

Yulie made a distressed, oddly high-pitched grunt. Throren immediately turned away from Dune and went back to rubbing Yulie's back.

"You could have been hurt," Yulie said. "You don't eat properly. Your bones are weak. You haven't slept in days. You could have caught cold in the rain. You could have tripped in the mud, hit your head on a rock and bled to death."

Dune said nothing.

"My people are annoyed with you," Yulie went on. "If the wrong person had caught you, they might have tried to teach you a lesson for me. You could have been hurt. You could have been killed."

Dune said nothing.

"I don't know what to do with you," Yulie said. "Pretty soon I'm going to have to start listening to Throren's ideas, and he's a brute."

Dune looked at me.

Throren offered no defence of himself.

I didn't know what to do. "I don't think he's a brute," I said quietly.

"I'm a brute where Dune is concerned," Throren said.

I said nothing. Throren said nothing. Dune was an expert at that game and said nothing better than all of us.

Yulie put his hands in his hair and pulled. Throren took his wrists in his hands and held on, tighter and tighter until Yulie's grip failed and his fingers slid from his hair.

"You need to grow a beard," Throren said. "If you pull out your beard hair, you can shave it, and no one will think it odd."

"It's not the fashion," Yulie said.

"Neither are bald spots," Throren said.

"I'm not pulling it out," Yulie said.

"Sure you aren't," Throren said.

I had the clear impression that they'd had this conversation before.

"What would you do if Kath did this to you?" Yulie asked.

Throren frowned.

Dune tensed. "Don't you fucking dare," he whispered quietly, glaring at Throren.

Yulie groaned. "You'll speak to him and not to me," he said, defeated and miserable.

Dune kept glaring at Throren. "He hasn't done anything," he snarled.

Wait? Were we back on Dune protecting me again?

"He's just sitting there," Dune said. "Don't you fucking dare."

"I'm not that much of a brute," Throren said.

Dune snorted.

"He won't hurt me," I said.

"When did you two get so close?" Yulie asked.

"I haven't the faintest idea, my lord," I said. "I was told to stay away from him, and I have."

"Of course you have," Dune said. "You're not an idiot."

"Thanks, I think," I said, utterly confused.

"What would you do, Throren?" Yulie asked again.

I frowned. I knew what I would do, and I hated it. Dune clearly didn't want me punished, so I would punish me whenever Dune misbehaved.

It might work. Father would never have done it, but he would never have let this situation get this bad in the first place.

Throren, for once, had a better idea than I did. "I'd put Kelpie in the barracks stables," he said, after thinking about it for a while. "They're guarded all day and all night. Kath won't go anywhere unless he can take Kelpie with him."

"That's not helpful," Yulie said.

"You asked me what I'd do if it was Kath," Throren said.

"What would you do about Dune?"

"I'd be rid of him," Throren said. "I'd have been rid of him months ago."

"Still not helpful," Yulie snapped.

Throren shrugged. "What do you want me to say? Lash him again? Like that's ever worked in the past. He needs a firmer hand than you've got, Yulie, and every single one of us knows it. Sell him away or send him to one of the houses in the capitol."

"I will not send Dune to a slave training house," Yulie snapped. "They'd ruin him. Would you send Kath to one?"

"Of course not, they'd ruin him," Throren said, echoing Yulie. "I didn't buy an Andonian because I wanted more of the same. You should've bought an Andonian. You could've bought an Exrian, or a Seblan, if you wanted something different to a trained house slave. You could have bought a kitchen slave or a house slave and taught them to fuck. Instead you went to a fucking Stockade and bought a Stockade slave, and you got exactly what you bought. Dune's not the right slave for this, and you knew it when you bought him."

Yulie pointed at the door. "Out," he said, his voice dripping with venom.

"Hit a nerve, did I?" Throren said.

"Get out," Yulie snapped.

Throren stood, and I stood too. "Which nerve did I hit, exactly?" Throren asked.

"You, of all people, do not have the right to tell me that my slave is not for me," Yulie snapped.

Throren left the room immediately and I followed. He closed the antechamber door and sighed.

We made it to the bottom of the stairs before Throren spoke to me. "Well, that hurt," he said, glancing at me softly. "I'll have to apologise to him tomorrow."

"Will he accept it, Master?" I asked.

"An apology? Almost always, yes, he accepts apologies," Throren said. "I'll explain it to him tomorrow, when he's cooled down. That's not what I meant to say. I meant that Dune is what he is. If Yulie wants him to be something he isn't, he's going to have to break him first. And he won't."

"Would you?" I asked softly, then immediately regretted it. I didn't want to know the answer.

Before I could rescind the question, Throren answered it. "Purposefully, no," he said. "Accidentally, I think I almost did, once, with you."

I didn't know what to say to that.

"I didn't like it," Throren said. "That's not the point, though. The point is that you're not the same. I could break you, if I was harsh enough. I don't know if I could break Dune. He's stronger than he looks. When he started laughing at the lash, I knew he'd won. He's able to take more punishment than anyone here is willing or able to give. He's won."

"I don't think it's a game to win or lose to him, Master," I said quietly.

Throren stopped and turned to me. I eyed him warily.

"It isn't a game. It's more like a war, and Dune's won it," Throren said.

"What will be done with him?" I asked.

"Hell if I know," Throren said. "Yulie's out of ideas, I'm out of ideas. Secturn's usually the most practical of us, but he hasn't said anything useful about Dune in months. He just wants him gone."

"He wanted to replace Dune with me, Master," I said.

"That would have made everyone happy," Throren said, and his father's scowl crossed his face. "You're not for me, after all."

"You've complained to Lord Yulie about that before," I said.

"If something ever bothers me, I've complained to Yulie about it," Throren admitted.

"You could complain to me about things, Master," I said.

"What exactly do you think I'm doing right now?" Throren said.

I bit my lip and dared to edge closer to him. "Is it helping?" I asked.

"Not really," Throren said, and I frowned with disappointment. "But it isn't hurting, either."

Throren and I made our way back to our rooms, both of us feeling tense and worried. He was angry with Dune, but he wasn't taking it out on me, so I was relieved and cautious at the same time. We crawled back into bed, despite the morning hour, and he glared at the ceiling.

"Why is he so attached to you?" Throren asked. "You didn't speak for long. I thought he had been avoiding you."

"He has, Master, we both have," I said quickly, watching him warily.

He looked at me and furrowed his brow. "I'm not angry with you. Even if you haven't been avoiding each other, I said no punishment if Dune is involved. He's gotten attached to you, and if you haven't been seeing each other, I don't understand why."

I frowned. "I don't really understand it either, Master," I said, because Dune's attachment to me made very little sense to me too. "I - I think it's because of what I said when I told Lord Yulie what happened at the lines - I told him he was only asking if I was all right, that he wasn't holding my hands romantically, and Dune just started trying to take all the blame for me. I think he expected me to lie about it and get him into trouble."

Throren frowned. "There was a rumour going around that he was trying to seduce you," he said.

"I don't put much faith in rumours, Master," I said. "You don't believe that, do you?"

"I'd had your arse that night, so, no, not really. I'd believe it of Dune, but not of you," Throren said.

"When I heard it, the rumour was that I was screaming for help, telling Dune that I already had too much cock in my life," I said.

Throren managed to laugh at this. He always found humour in jokes about his height, but rarely about his cock, so I smiled, and pushed further.

"Honestly, that's probably exactly what I would have done if he had tried to seduce me," I said. "Rumours are rarely ever so accurate."

Throren laughed harder. "I had not heard that version," he said.

"He didn't try anything. He just took my hands and asked if I was all right."

Throren nodded. "It makes sense, then. You could have told Yulie that Dune was touching you romantically without your permission, to save your own skin. Everyone would have believed you, Dune would have taken all the blame for it, and you would have been painted as an innocent victim."

Throren turned his head toward the window and looked at the pot on the sill. The alyssum seemed to be doing well, as far as I could tell. It didn't look any different to how it had looked when I had first brought it from Garnth's greenhouse, but it wasn't dead, and I considered that to be a good sign.

"I worry that he's interested in you," Throren said.

"I think he's just lonely, Master. I don't think he really likes me personally," I said.

"I think you're underestimating how likeable you are," Throren said.

"That's ... thank you, Master," I said.

Throren was still looking at the alyssum. "If he tried to touch you, I don't have any idea what I would do," he said.

If there was anything that the Lestran people seemed to share, it was an innate sense of what I could only describe as possessiveness. The traders that had ferried me through the country had all been rather immediate in their responses to any perceived trysts, Secturn had told me specifically that slaves were not to touch one another, and Throren had flatly refused to allow me out of his bed, even when I had been sick enough that I could have gone to the infirmary. Even Throren's father had been quick to point out a possible tryst between Lissal and I, the two people in Summer Hill that were the least likely to bother with each other.

"I don't think Dune would try anything with me. I'd say no, and he's only ever been nice to me. Even if he wanted to, he'd listen when I said no," I said, trying to soothe.

Throren shook his head, but he kept staring at the alyssum. "I am certain that you would say no, Kath. You've made it clear that you have a completely inexplicable affection for me. It's Dune I can't predict."

I frowned and dared to sidle up closer to him. I put my face on his shoulder and kissed it.

This tactic wasn't working. He had at least refrained from taking his anger out on me with the riding crop, but he also wasn't calming down or able to change the subject. I didn't want him staying in this mood, and I didn't want him imagining Dune trying to have me.

I switched tactics. Talking about Dune wouldn't help. Neither of us understood him. I couldn't soothe Throren about some unknown and unpredictable risk. Throren knew me, though. I could soothe him by making it about me.

"I think you're more worried about this than you need to be, Master," I said, trying to keep my tone calm and soothing.

"How so?" he asked, turning away from the alyssum to look at me.

"Well, for starters, I know I'm smaller than he is, but if Dune did corner me, I can scream pretty loud."

Throren smirked. "You can," he agreed.

"I think you're worried that he'll change something between us, Master," I said, kissing Throren on the shoulder. "And that's crazy."

"Crazy?" Throren asked.

I shrugged. "Have you met me? I'm stubborn. Dune can't affect me. Besides, I'm already a terrible slave, and you seem to like me that way."

"You're not a terrible slave," Throren said, and looked back at the plant I had put on his windowsill.

"I talk back all the time," I said.

Throren just shrugged.

"I'm completely spoiled, and I'm not trained," I said.

He shrugged again.

"I talked back to your father," I said.

"Are you trying to list your faults or your successes, Kath?" Throren asked, and I laughed.

"I'm just trying to say - what's Dune going to do to me? Make me misbehave? I already do."

"Not the way he does," Throren said.

I shrugged. "There's a difference, Master. He could incite me to misbehave, maybe, but he couldn't specify how I chose to do it. I don't want to run away. Where am I going to go? Dune can't make me want to run, that's stupid. He can't make me want to be violent with you - even if I tried it you probably wouldn't even feel it, so I would never bother, because it's stupid."

"He could make you not like me anymore, Kath," Throren said.

I shook my head firmly. "How?" I asked. "What would he tell me? That you're not for me?"

Throren abruptly tensed. Hah. There it was, there was the nerve.

"Fuck that," I said vehemently. "I'd like to see him try. He wouldn't be the first. Quentin said you'd be evil to even try, Secturn said you'll split me in half, and Yulie - Yulie told me we were in complete opposition, or something, and we could never work together-"

"He said what?" Throren said.

"To be fair to him, he also admitted that he didn't really understand what romantic meant," I said.

Throren laughed. "You figured him out fast, didn't you?" he said.

"He's not that complicated," I said.

Throren ran a hand through his hair and shook his head, then he yawned. I kissed his shoulder, trying for sweetness, and watched him settle down and finally appear tired.

"You were out riding in the rain when you should have been tucked into bed sleeping beside me, Master," I said. "You should have been warm and comfortable and keeping me company. You owe me those hours of sleep beside you."

"I do have things to do, Kath," he said.

"So does everyone else in the world, Master," I said. "Stay with me. Let me love you."

That appeared to be the right tactic. It got him to look at me with utter, absurd loving confusion, and close his eyes. He let me kiss his shoulder as he fell asleep.

 

 

 

Yulie put Dune to the block again. Dune took thirty lashes in complete silence.

I stood and watched. At first, I felt like I owed it to them. I'd seen slaves lashed before. The traders would have us all watch it, whenever someone earned it.

I thought I wouldn't be able to keep watching. I'd never been able to stand the sight of it before. After it started, though, I was too fascinated to look away.

Yulie was incredibly controlled with the lash, and he wore an angry, guilty, and repulsed expression from start to end. Dune, however, seemed not to care at all. He grit his teeth, he barely tensed, and when it finally ended, I was absolutely certain that he could have taken more.

Of the two of them, Yulie looked more distressed by Dune's punishment than Dune did.

Afterward, I felt like I had to retch.

That very night, the Dune situation boiled over again.

The Master came to bed late. I was already asleep. He woke me up.

He'd lit a candle - not the notched one, I noted. He got into bed with me and cuddled right up to my back. "So, about my unhappiness," he said quietly.

I fully intended to let him have me right then and there, but that wasn't where he went with it.

"I have noticed a correlation between Yulie's unhappiness and my own."

"You don't say," I said. "What brought you to this conclusion, Master?"

"It's Dune again," he said.

"It always is," I said.

"He's been caught stealing."

"You're fucking joking."

"Oh, I wish I was joking," Throren said.

"When did he find the time? He was lashed this morning - shouldn't he be lying on his stomach feeling sorry for himself?"

"He didn't do it today, that much is clear. As for when he did it, who knows. The problem is, he was caught today, and you can't just let stealing slide, and Yulie's finally asked me what to do about it."

I shook my head. "That's hardly fair, Master," I said. He held me tighter. "What are you supposed to do, lash him again? Before he's even healed?"

"You see my predicament," Throren said sadly. He propped himself up on his elbow behind me and put his hand on my bare shoulder. "What happens in Andonia, when a slave steals?"

Oh dear. It was only a matter of time before this sort of thing came up.

"Well, I don't really know," I said. I was stalling, and I knew it.

"You said your father kept slaves," Throren said. He was stroking my shoulder.

"My father was at least a little bit insane," I said. "I've no reason to believe that anything he did was even close to the norm."

"Did your father ever catch a slave stealing?" Throren asked.

This conversation could not be going in a worse direction. No way in hell could this go in a worse way.

"Yes," I said.

"Why are you so uncomfortable, Kath?" Throren asked. He bent and kissed my shoulder. "You weren't stealing. Besides, it's about Dune, so you can't be punished."

I put my face in my hands. "Ever heard of a thresher root?" I asked.

"No. Like from a plant?" Throren asked.

I nodded. "It's, ah, spicy, Master," I groaned.

"Kath, if it's this bad, you don't have to talk about it," Throren said.

"It's not bad, it's embarrassing," I said. "And I really, really don't want to even think about it getting done to Dune."

I peeked through my fingers at Throren. He was studying me very hard. "You've blushed up to your ears," he whispered. His voice was reverent, like he had never even imagined something so glorious as a person who blushed so hard their ears turned red.

I covered my eyes again.

"Now I really need to know," Throren said.

"I ... oh, fine, so the root is spicy, it's like ... it's like a tuber. Father would go to the pots, he'd pick out a tuber, then he'd peel it, and then he'd say: 'Well, if you're going to take things that don't belong to you, then I'll make you take something else that doesn't belong to you,' and then he'd put the root inside the slave," I said really fast, hoping for this to be over.

Throren went very still. "Inside them? He'd ... use sex as a punishment?" he asked.

I was quiet for a while, trying to find a way to phrase this.

"I would never do that, Kath," Throren said.

That was reassuring, but not the point. "It wasn't sex. Not really. More like a really sensitive spot to apply something that's going to sting quite a bit."

"Still," Throren said.

"The worst bit was that half the time they'd get really aroused," I said, covering my face again.

"Aroused? Even though it hurt?" Throren asked.

"The sting makes you squirm, and there’s only so much squirming you can do when you've got a tuber inside you that doesn't end in arousal."

"That's absurd," Throren said.

"Andonia," I said, laughing with embarrassment. "Lovers of the absurd."

"I thought you said sex was for bonding."

"Well, if your slave is stealing from you, then obviously your bond needs some work too," I said.

"That's insane," Throren said.

"I completely agree, Master," I said.

"Did he ever use anything like that on you?" Throren asked.

"I honestly don't believe I ever was punished by my father," I said. "He might have made me study extra once."

"What an odd man," Throren said.

"Extremely," I agreed.

Throren stroked my shoulder again. "Do you know where he is now?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Do you want to not talk about it?" he asked.

I shrugged. "I don't know. I want you to know everything, but I don't want to have to say it," I said.

"I can't imagine there's any other way," Throren said.

"Would it distract you from your Dune predicament?" I asked.

"Probably," Throren said.

"Father pissed off one of our neighbours," I said quickly. "He would come to us every Dunmer, asking for grain. He'd never stockpiled enough, and there was something wrong with his storehouse - things kept spoiling. There's a great fix for that in Andonia, if you can't feed yourselves - you stop having children. This twat kept having them and coming to us every Dunmer saying his newborns were going to starve, and Father kept giving him grain, because Father was a gullible fool. One year, he asked for grain and Father said, 'This is the last time, and it won't happen ever again,' because we had to give him our animal's grain."

"No," Throren said. "Not the horses."

"Father took the horses to our other neighbour. I don't - he told me he sold them, but I didn't believe him, but if he'd killed them, like he did the hens and the goats, he'd have brought the meat and the pelts back, but he didn't."

"You don't know?"

"I don't know," I said. "I know - he and ae'NaNathra fed his favourite dog from their own rations, but the horses were all gone, and he told me he didn't kill them, but I didn't believe him, and I think I might have been wrong, because Father never really lied to anyone-"

"Kath," Throren said gently. "It's all right. You can calm down."

I hadn't realised that I was agitated, but once he pointed it out it was obvious. "He had to kill his other dogs, but I don't think he killed the horses. He wasn't really talkative, after that, and I was angry at him over the horses, and over our stupid neighbour, so I wasn't speaking to him. We didn't speak for two months, and ae'NaNathra was talking for us, I'm pretty sure, because he did stuff like that, he was so good."

"Who was - ae-NaNa ... thra? Am I saying that right?"

"A slave. One of Father's."

"A slave was ... peacekeeping between you?" Throren said.

"ae'NaNathra would have kept the peace between fire and rain, he was so good," I said, and my voice broke. It didn't sound right. I didn't sound right. I sounded like someone else, speaking out of my body.

"I don't like your neighbour," Throren said.

I laughed. It sounded manic. "The next Dunmer, he came back asking for grain again, and Father said no, see, because it was too much, and if we gave him the grain, we'd have had to get rid of the slaves. You can't just offload slaves in Andonia. They aren't ... they aren't commodities, people bond, you can't just get rid of them, you have to source the right buyers and find the right people. We would have had to choose between letting them starve or killing them. So, Father said no. He would never kill the slaves."

"Good," Throren said.

"No, not good," I said. "He buggered off back to his house, and a week later, I wake up and I'm being dragged by the hair out to the courtyard, and the fat fuck is standing there with a mercenary, divvying out our grain. Father's there, and he's a tad pissed off."

"I can imagine."

"So, Father makes a fuss, I don't remember what he said, really, every time I dream about it, he says something different. So, the mercenary goes to the kitchen and gets our oil urn, and then he tips it over Father's head, and, well, you only really do that to a person if you intend to add fire to the mix."

"Kath," Throren said. "You can stop, Kath."

"Father's on fire and he's screaming, and he goes running, but they've blocked up the well, so he has nowhere to go, so he just, sort of, screams and runs until he's dead."

"Kath," Throren said quietly.

"Then they go and they get ae'NaNathra, and they bring him in front of me. ae'NaNathra was Father's favourite, he'd been with him longer than I had, longer than Mother even. So, ae'NaNathra is on his knees in front of me, and he gives me this little smile, and then they slit his throat."

"Kath," Throren said.

"And it's different, because it's Andonia, and it's not here, and because it's Father and ae'NaNathra, they weren't really a Master and a slave anymore, they were them, and in Andonia if a slave runs there's nowhere to go - there's no water anywhere, so they're more likely to just kill themselves, so ae'NaNathra, his collar just unclips, because why would you bother with something that locks properly, not with him, he was so good."

"Kath, you don't have to do this," Throren said.

"So, they unclip his collar, and they go and get the lock from the door, and they put his collar on my neck, and they lock it shut, and then, because Father liked to train slaves, they took me to the port and sold me to a trader specially, to make sure I got sent here, because here I'd be a pretty foreign slave that would get fucked in the arse."

"Kath, stop," Throren said. "You need to calm down."

"And that trader took me across the sea, and then another trader took me further, and then another, and I didn't give a fuck about the slave thing, I didn't, because I didn't care, because my horse was gone and my father was dead and I had ae'NaNathra's collar on."

"And it was stained," Throren said. "Kath, please, you need to breathe."

"So, I begged, and I pleaded, and I cried, and I got beaten so many times, but I didn't care about being a slave, I just wanted that collar off-"

"Kath, please, breathe-"

"And then I got sold again, and this new trader takes one look at me and gets me a new collar, because it had bloodstains on it, and he wanted me to fetch a higher price-"

"Kath, please-"

"And then you come along, and one night I tell you I used to hate my collar, and you just offer me a new one."

I finally stopped to breathe.

Throren was out of breath behind me as well. He was holding on tightly, a bit too tightly, and he was breathing like he had run for miles.

"Kath?" he asked tentatively.

"Master?" I asked. My voice felt hoarse. I felt like I'd just died.

"Please don't do that again," he said.

"Sorry," I said.

"It's not that you told me," Throren said. "It's that you didn't breathe."

"Oh," I said.

Throren shook his head. "My Dune predicament seems completely ridiculous now," he said.

"I knew I could distract you," I said.

Throren kept shaking his head. "I think I need to distract you now," he said.

"Oh," I said.

"What happened to your mother?" Throren asked softly.

"I don't know," I said. "I never saw her, and they didn't tell me."

"I knew it was bad, Kath, I never knew it was this bad," Throren said. "Surely someone would do something about this?"

I shrugged. "Who? We don't have a guard, like your people do. No soldiers, no barracks, no sovereign lords."

"You are really pale, Kath," Throren said, and I shrugged, because if there was anything that I felt like, it was pale. I felt drained and wrong, and my brain was mush.

I was pretty certain that I'd told him everything. Everything except that my father had been a slave trainer. Had I told him that? Surely, I'd retained the sense to skip over that.

Throren hadn't mentioned it. Did that mean he hadn't noticed, or that I hadn't said it? What would he do, if he found out? No Master could ever stand knowing that their slave had been raised by a man who wanted them to learn to be a slave trainer. No Master - not even Throren - could possibly stand a slave that had the sort of thoughts that my father put into my head-

"I swear, you just got paler," Throren said. "Please breathe."

I forced myself to breathe. In, out. He only asked me to breathe, and he had the decency to say please. I couldn't stand to lose him.

"I think - I think I should distract you," Throren said. "Make you think of something else instead."

That sounded like a great idea, so I nodded dumbly.

"Yulie was changing Dune's sheets, because he sweated and bled onto them from the lash."

"Oh," I said. This distraction was shit.

"And stuffed into the mattress, was Dune's haul."

This distraction was still shit.

"He must have been hoarding it there for the escape attempt but didn't get a chance to come back to get it," Throren said.

Still shit.

"So, now we have to figure out what to do with him, and Yulie has to break to the kitchen staff that he knows where the silverware has been going."

Still shit ... wait...

"Silverware?" I asked.

"Yes," Throren said.

"Cutlery?" I asked.

"Yes," Throren said. "It's an easy target, people don't tend to notice there's a fork missing."

Yes, but... "Why?"

"I don't know," Throren said. "Because Dune does shit like this."

Well ... "Isn't that the problem, though? That Dune does stuff like this and we don't know why?"

Throren shifted behind me. "Yes, I suppose. It might be easier to manage if he'd tell us why."

"So why silverware?"

Throren shrugged. "It's an easy target, and people don't notice when it goes missing."

"No, that's not what I meant," I said. I gingerly sat up. I felt wrong, like I needed to fall asleep but also to wake up.

Throren left the room and fetched water for me from the sitting room. I drank it down and felt much better.

"Do you want to talk, or do you want to stop?" Throren asked.

"It's just ... silverware," I said.

Throren shook his head. "I've said it twice already," he said. "You should lie down. You're not well."

"No, that's not it," I said. "I heard you, and I know that's why silverware goes missing, and you're right, it's just that it makes no sense."

"I'm right but I make no sense," Throren said quietly.

"Well, no, you're right, and Dune makes no sense."

"Now you're making more sense," Throren said.

"Why would he take silverware?"

"Now we're going around in circles," Throren said.

"Well, it's just, I don't understand why Dune would take silverware."

"Kath, it's an easy target, and people don't notice when it goes missing."

"And that's a great motivation for a kitchen servant, who can take a piece at a time. Pop it into your apron, if you get caught, claim you forgot it was there. It's a perfect crime, because even if you're caught, it's just an accident."

Throren nodded. "Yes, that's about right," he said.

"But the whole concept hinges on taking one piece at a time," I said. "And if Dune was going to escape, he's not going to escape one fork at a time, is he? He'd have to take the whole lot at once, and that would be heavy, and noisy."

Throren furrowed his brow. "Just because it's not smart, doesn't mean he wouldn't do it," he said.

"Well, no, but if he's stealing stuff without being smart about it, then why silverware? I bet Lord Yulie's got all sorts of jewellery, he must have to fight off women in droves. He's probably got a drawer full of unwanted gifts that he doesn't look too hard at, right there in his sanctum."

Throren put his hand back on my shoulder. "Huh," he said. I looked up at him. He was as stumped as I was. I watched him slowly work out the problem in his head, just like I had. "Dune wouldn't even have needed to hide it," he said eventually. "Just wait until the right moment to escape, and then grab what he wanted on the way out."

I looked around Throren's bedroom.

"There are buttons on that coat you wore to the river that would be worth more than silverware. I could pop one off every time you wore it and sew them inside out inside the hem of my trousers. You'd get annoyed at your tailor for shoddy work before you suspected me," I said.

It spoke much of my state of mind that I said that. It was an incredibly stupid thing to say to one's Master, and I realised that only after I'd finished saying it.

Throren looked at me very sharply. "You're devious," he said. He did not sound disapproving.

"That's the thing, though, isn't it? Everyone accuses Dune of being devious. So, why's he being so stupid?"

Throren inhaled swiftly. "It's obvious," he said.

Was it? I hadn't figured it out.

"The little fucker's been set up," Throren said. "You're right, only a kitchen maid would steal silverware."

Chapter Text

Throren and I caught up with Yulie in his library early the next morning.

"Don't thank me. You can pin at least half of this on Kath. And probably some of it on his father," Throren said.

"Please don't bring my father into this, Master," I said uneasily.

"I don't see why not," Throren said. "He trained slaves, he made you study so you're smart, he's at least partially responsible for this."

"Kath's father trained slaves," Yulie said. He shut his book, put it on the free chair, and turned straight to me.

It was the first time that I had ever seen him voluntarily not focus on a book.

"Kath's father was a slave trainer," Yulie rephrased.

Oh, shit, I knew someone would make that connection one day. Of course, it would be Yulie that did it.

"There's a difference between training the slaves you keep and training them as a profession," Throren said, but he had caught sight of my face. "Oh," he said, and my secret was out.

"I was never involved!" I said, a bit too hastily. "He always told me I wasn't allowed slaves until I could train a dog."

"Surely he taught you something," Yulie said.

"I never had anything to do with training the slaves," I said, and it was true, but there's only so much one can witness happening in their own house without learning about it.

"What did you learn from training the dog?" Throren asked warily.

"I never even tried," I said. "I didn't like doing as I was told, so I refused to even try with the dogs."

Yulie deflated very quickly. I realised that he had been hoping I had been a slave-trainer in training. To be fair, my father probably would have sorted out this Dune situation three times over by now.

Throren was on to me, though. "He said you had to train a dog, so you wouldn't. He said you weren't allowed to train the horses, so you did."

Yulie snapped back to attention. "Is that similar?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I don't know anything about it. Horses and slaves are not the same thing, and even if they were, I'm not a slave trainer, I'm a slave, and I can't be both."

Yulie shook his head. "It doesn't matter. You're Andonian, Andonians do things differently. All I need is something else I can do to punish Dune - he can't take the lash again, and he's basically immune to it anyway."

I put my head in my hands. Throren talked for me. "We already had that conversation, and believe me, it is not something you even want to hear about," he said. "What we've got is about a thousand times better. And I mean it, you're going to love this."

"Throren, I have never loved a single one of your suggestions regarding Dune," Yulie said.

"You've got to do nothing," Throren said.

"And it took the two of you together to figure this out?" Yulie drawled.

Throren explained to Yulie about the silverware and Dune's most likely frame up. Yulie took an unusually long time to process it.

"It's not that I don't believe you," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You're making a lot of sense. What I don't believe is that you are standing up for Dune."

"Crazy, isn't it," Throren said. "You'll be wanting to lock him up. Put him under lock and key until we can figure out who actually did it."

"Why don't we ask Dune, my lord? He'd know who wants to hurt him better than anyone," I said.

Yulie tensed. "Because Dune does not speak to me," he said.

"He speaks to Kath. He speaks to me," Throren said.

Yulie looked at me with cold, calculating eyes. "Kath's father was a slave trainer," he said again.

Oh god, no.

"Kath isn't a slave trainer," Throren said. "Besides, we've had trainers. They haven't helped. You kicked them out, remember? You're not going to kick Kath out."

"I've had local slave trainers," Yulie said. "I've not had an Andonian one."

"Has Dune been trained?" I asked. "Like Lissal?"

"Oh, no," Yulie said. "But, yes. I've employed slave trainers to come and decipher him, but we never got anywhere."

"They told you what you had to do. You balked and put them out on the street," Throren said.

"You would have balked too," Yulie snapped.

"What were you asked to do, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie huffed and scowled. Throren scowled too.

They both scowled like Lord Drextrer had.

"I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the best thing for Dune is a proper bit of rape," Yulie said.

I didn't think that I reacted. It wasn't something I was unused to, or found particularly odd, in my position. I must have had some sort of reaction, though, because Throren tensed and shook his head slightly.

"Violently, my lord?" I asked, because I wasn't sure what Yulie meant. Dune was a bed slave, wasn't he? Wasn't sex his job?

"Preferably, by their recommendation," Yulie said. "It's - I understand the logic. It's about power and breaking him down. That's the whole problem, though. I don't want to break him. I like him."

"I don't agree with it either," Throren said. "But you were also told to punish him better, and you've not done that."

"If I punish him harsher than I already am, I'll have to start breaking fingers," Yulie snapped.

I tensed, and Throren put his arm over my shoulder.

"You'll not speak of breaking fingers in front of Kath," Throren said.

"I'd never do it," Yulie said. "But I'm out of options. He takes the lash too often already. He doesn't eat to begin with, so I can't starve him. He doesn't like being confined, but what am I to do? Lock him up all day forever? How is he supposed to behave if he's locked up? What do they do in Andonia? What would your father do, Kath?"

I tensed up even further and looked at Throren for help.

Throren glared at Yulie for a few moments, then turned to me in his seat. He lifted his arm from my shoulder, took my face in both of his hands, and looked at me firmly but fondly. "You've yet to be punished for speaking," he said. "And we're talking about Dune, so you're completely exempt from punishment, even if you say something completely terrible."

With that, he released me, and I had to figure out how to answer Yulie's question.

"Nothing," I said. "Father never did anything unless he understood the problem. He wouldn't punish Dune in any way whatsoever until he knew Dune well enough to know why he disobeyed in the first place."

"Well, there's the problem precisely," Yulie said. "Dune doesn't speak. I can't know his motives."

I shrugged. "I'm sorry, my lord. I would have liked to have been more helpful."

"Never mind," Yulie said, but I could read him, and he was lying through his teeth. He minded. He'd always mind.

"Father would not have let Dune put himself into the position to accrue further punishment while he was suffering from a previous one," I said. "Father would have confined him to keep him from doing any disobedience and forcing his hand."

"Combine it, then," Throren said. "If he takes the lash, he also takes confinement. Lock him into the antechamber until he's had a few days to stew on it and heal."

"Confinement should not be a punishment," I said, then reigned myself in. It was a risky business, telling Masters what made good punishment and what didn't.

"If he doesn't like it, it's a punishment," Yulie said.

"If he doesn't like food, but you make him eat anyway, that's not a punishment," I said, trying to keep my voice soft and meek. "If you want your slave to stay in a certain place, that's his duty, not a punishment."

"I don't want him to stay confined," Yulie said. "He hates it."

"Everyone hates it, my lord," I said. "It doesn't matter what he hates. It matters what you hate. If you hate how he ran away and made you lash him more than you hate confining him, then you should confine him. He's your slave, and if he can't act like it, he should be prevented from acting at all."

Throren put his arm around my shoulder again. "That might be a bit harsh," he said. "We'd surely let him out sooner or later."

"Dune has shown that he can't be trusted not to run away, even here, where there are walls. I don't know how he got out. He's sneaky. He should not be allowed to do it again, Master."

Throren frowned. "That's the sort of shit Father would say. Tie him to a bed and remind him all that he's good for." He sounded furious.

"Dune is good for more than just being tied to a bed, Master," I said. "But if lashing isn't enough to teach him not to misbehave, then he can't be taught, and if he can't be taught, then the best you can do is prevent misbehaviour."

Yulie grit his teeth. "He's intelligent. He can be taught," he said.

"If he can be taught, then he can be taught whilst under confinement," I said.

"You once thought I was never going to let you outside again," Throren said, his voice deep, low, and furious. "You didn't like that much."

"I would have done as I was told, Master. Besides, think of the reasons behind it," I pleaded desperately. "You confined me to stay under a roof so that you could prevent me from being burned again. If Lord Yulie confines Dune to his rooms to prevent him from being lashed again, it's much the same thing."

"It's not the same thing," Throren said.

"It is only different because we are comparing Kath to Dune," Yulie said. "Kath would take confinement kindly. He would obey and he would forgive you. Dune would not obey, and he would not forgive me."

"Dune will not obey and he will not forgive you if you keep lashing him, either, my lord," I said, but I sensed that I was fighting a lost battle. "And if Dune had been confined, you would not have believed that he'd stolen silverware. You would be just as angry at the servants bringing his food and letting him hide his cutlery as you would have been at him for taking it in the first place."

Yulie shook his head, tense and disappointed. "I will not confine Dune for any large amount of time. He'd never forgive me," he said firmly, and that was that.

 

 

 

It occurred to me that I didn't understand the Dune problem well enough to offer Yulie advice, but others might have better insight. Throren had proven to me that he wasn't likely to go back on his word, and if Dune was involved, I wouldn't be punished.

I wasn't sure if seeking out information on Dune would count or not, but my burning curiosity won out in the end, so when I went to work in the laundry, I set to questioning Leanna about it.

"Has Dune got any friends?" I asked.

"Oh, this is not a good thing for you," she said, worry etched on her face.

"How can anyone help him when he doesn't have friends?" I said.

"There's no helping Dune," Leanna said. "He's just like that."

"That's the most horrible thing I've ever heard you say," I said.

"Exactly. It's horrible. You should leave it alone."

"He's a terrible thing that won't make Yulie happy, and Yulie is easy to make happy," Kayla said. "Dune's clearly unhappy, but if Yulie ever knows what's wrong, he fixes it. If Dune's unhappy, it's his own fault. And that's all I've got to say."

"He flinches a lot," Sethie said, and that was strange, because Sethie almost never talked. He laughed along, and he agreed, but he didn't often have anything to say.

"Flinches?" I asked. "Like he's afraid?"

Sethie nodded. "It's odd, though, because Lord Yulie is really good at soothing people. He flinched from the start, even before Lord Yulie started punishing him. If he flinched back then, he was flinching from a memory, not a fear," Sethie said.

The way the three girls became deathly quiet the moment Sethie talked told me exactly how important it was that he was talking, and how much they cared about what he said. Barely anything could make Kayla shut her mouth.

"It's not unusual for a slave to flinch from memories," I said.

Sethie shrugged. "It's unusual for them to flinch off stuff," he said. "Dune'll flinch away so hard he crashes into things. And lately, he doesn't flinch when he should - Lord Yulie goes to grab him, and Dune doesn't flinch, he just throws a punch instead. Punches shouldn't be instinct. You shouldn't throw them before you think about them."

"If I'd known that, I'd have tried to get to know him better. I'm the best person to talk to about that," Kayla said. "I've never seen any of that from him, though."

"He avoids you," Riga said.

"Why?" Kayla asked.

"Think about it, you'll figure it out," Riga said.

Kayla scrunched up her nose. "Well, yes, I suppose," she said.

Even I could figure out why a bed slave might want to avoid his Master's previous bed slave.

"Sethie, do you think he's been, well, mistreated? Is that what his problem is?" Kayla asked.

Sethie chuckled, and he sounded nihilistic. "Haven't we all been mistreated?" he asked.

The words hurt to hear for the truth in them.

"There's levels of mistreatment, though. The ladder of cruel. There's Yulie, at the top, then there's Quentin, then there's a whole heap of rungs for middling Masters, the trader that let Kath sizzle, then there's your old Master at the bottom," Riga said.

"It's probably more like a spectrum than a ladder," I said. "Cruelty comes in so many different forms."

Kayla laughed. "You're way too smart to be working in a laundry," she said.

"Dune's definitely been hurt," Leanna said. "He's so defiant. You can't be defiant like that and not get punished a lot."

"It doesn't make any sense, though, because if you've been hurt, the cure for that is Lord Yulie," Sethie said.

Kayla nodded.

"I don't even belong to him, just to his household, and even I know that Lord Yulie fixes you, he doesn't make you worse," Sethie said.

"Does he still check up on you?" Kayla asked.

Sethie shrugged. "Not often, lately," he said. "Mister Quentin reports to him, though, so does Secturn."

"Lord Yulie has an interest in you?" I asked.

"Not like that kind of interest," Sethie said. "My last Master was pretty mean to me. Secturn bought me thinking that I was just quiet. Then he found out I was panicking and not sleeping, and Lord Yulie found out. I thought I'd be punished - tiredness and laziness are usually the same thing, according to Masters - but instead Lord Yulie just checked in on me every few days at first, then every week, now he just stops me if he sees me and makes sure I'm all right."

I couldn't understand what was going wrong. Yulie seemed utterly perfect.

"I even told him I wasn't able to sleep without a pup," Sethie said. "I was kept in the kennels, see, so I was used to the dogs. Lord Yulie thanked me for telling him the problem, now I sleep in the stables with the hounds. No problems, no questions, just, problem fixed. He's like that."

"The problem can't be Yulie," Kayla said. "He's perfect. So, the problem must be Dune."

It wasn't particularly pleasant to consider this, but it was where my mind was going too. While Yulie was odd, he could fake not being odd, and his actions were always kind.

No one understood Dune. Sethie was certain he'd suffered something, but so had everyone.

This was how almost every single conversation about Dune went. No one understood him, no one tried, and no one cared.

I didn't get any real wisdom about Dune until I asked Garnth, who I found in his glass-roofed workshop attached to the second kitchen.

"He's a lost soul," he said, smiling. It did not reach his eyes. "He just wants peace and quiet. If I find him, I let him have his peace and quiet."

"Most people can only take a certain amount of peace and quiet before they get lonely, sir," I said.

"No doubt," Garnth said. "That's why I don't leave. I give him his peace and quiet, but I don't just leave him."

"That's the nicest thing I've ever heard anyone say toward him," I said honestly.

Garnth frowned. "That's rough," he said. "Not even our Lord Yulie?"

I shook my head. "Not even Lord Yulie."

"Time was, Yulie wouldn't shut up about Dune," Garnth said.

"Would you tell me about that?" I asked.

Garnth shrugged. "He came here on Yulie's horse. Yulie walked. He was from Rimmendar. Yulie bought him at the Stockade, see."

"I don't know what that is."

"Sweet thing like you probably wouldn't," Garnth said. "Yulie brought him back here. Dune was pretty beat up - that's normal, from time in a Stockade - but Yulie gave him, oh, I don't know, a week? He put him into his bed, talked about him to anyone that would listen, sang his praises, that sort of thing. Dune had free reign - Yulie gushed after him so much, he could probably have skinned our Lord Throren and gotten away with it. He didn't do any work, he was rude, and the eating problem started pretty early on too ... and he spent all his time in one garden or another. I rather liked him for it, I like being appreciated, of course. Secturn thought he was lazy. When I talked to Dune about it, he said he couldn't stand the bed. And then it just ... drained away, over time. Yulie stopped letting him get away with everything - lightly, 'course, Yulie's always had a soft hand, but nothing ever took. Dune just got more disobedient, so Yulie got harsher."

"It didn't start with lashings, then," I surmised.

"Oh, no," Garnth said. "Yulie's much more the bed without dinner type of man. It's always worked for him, too, up until Dune. Yulie can frown at you and it makes you feel like you've kicked a puppy. No one but Dune seems to be able to stand disappointing him."

"How long has it been since Dune last spoke to you?" I asked.

Garnth shook his head. "Couldn't say," he said. "He used to talk to me at first. He asked questions about the plants - a little like you did. As it all started going wrong, Dune got quieter. Yulie never really liked Dune talking to people, so I never really pushed."

"Lord Yulie doesn't like him talking?" I asked, surprised.

"Oh, no, not like that," Garnth said. "Dune's got a fraternizing charge, see, so Yulie's not particularly trusting."

"A what charge?" I asked.

"Um," Garnth said. "Well, slavery is a punishment for a crime, right?" he said.

"Yes," I said, because it was, here in Lestrat. In Andonia, it was more of a matter of whether you were able to protect yourself or not from neighbours who were annoyed at you.

"When you become a slave, you get a record, and that lists on it your original crime," Garnth continued.

Huh. I wondered what mine was. Was it falsified? Maybe they'd omitted it because I was foreign?

Did Throren think I was a criminal when he bought me?

More importantly, what was Dune's crime?

"But if you keep committing crimes when you're a slave, that just gets added onto the record," Garnth said.

"So, Lord Yulie has a list of every crime Dune has ever committed?" I asked.

"Yes," Garnth said. "And, uh, it's a long list. And it's got some pretty sordid stuff on it, so I've heard."

"But you can't believe everything you hear," I said.

"Oh, no, absolutely not," Garnth agreed. "But there's a standing order that the steward has to let everyone know about Dune's fraternising charge and instruct them that Yulie will not be lenient on either party if it happens again. That's why he got lashed when he was caught with you. He knew he wasn't allowed to get close to you at all, much less hold your hand."

"I've never heard of a fraternising charge before."

Garnth did not seem upset, but he didn't seem like the kind of person who could become upset anymore. I wondered how many people he had lost in the plague. "You probably had your own orders to keep away," Garnth said.

"Will you tell me what it is, please? And what is a Stockade?" I begged.

Garnth shrugged. "It's ... not something I want to be involved in putting in your head," he said. "Anyone else can tell you, everyone knows, but I like you how you are today, right now. I don't want to change you."

This was a sweet, heart-warming sentiment that was completely and utterly useless to my current mission of information gathering.

I sought out Leanna again, and found her heading to the clotheslines by the laundry.

"What's a fraternising charge?" I asked her.

She dropped the basket she was carrying, surprised either by my appearance or by my question. "Oh, not this again," she said.

"Apparently everyone but me knows," I said.

"You're joking," she said, and picked up the basket. "Surely Secturn filled you in?"

"No," I said. "Consider me un-filled."

"Look, Dune doesn't really talk to people, right, and most of that's because no one likes him, but the other half is that he's got a fraternising charge," Leanna said.

"Which is?"

"Well, it's ... surely you can figure it out."

"Surely I can't," I said.

"He cheated. It means he fucked someone without his Master's approval."

Oh. Lord Yulie, who made it his business to make everyone loyal, had bought himself a disloyal slave. "So, Lord Yulie doesn't trust him to befriend people?" I said.

"Well, yes. It's not - it just isn't something that people do. Even slaves. It's ... it's not okay, it's wrong," Leanna said.

"And Lord Yulie thinks he might do it again," I surmised.

"Probably," Leanna said. "And, if I'm honest, with the way he was screaming at Throren, I sort of wonder if he's picked you."

I shrugged. "Maybe. But I'm not interested."

"That's for the best," Leanna said.

"I already have too much cock in my life," I said.

While Leanna was struggling not to laugh, I snuck another question in.

"What's a Stockade?"

"Oh," Leanna said. "You're on a dark turn today."

"What is it?"

"I suppose you wouldn't have been to one, you're much too pretty and well behaved."

"So, it's a place for ugly and disobedient slaves?"

Leanna sighed. "Well, sure. Sort of. Dune was a Stocks slave. So, yeah, it all sort of fits."

"Dune's not ugly."

Leanna shook her head. "Now you're just talking crazy talk."

"You think he's ugly?"

Leanna blinked at me a few times, like she couldn't think of any other way to react. "Well, yes," she said. "I mean, no, that's mean. He's ... well he's got that big ugly scar, and all that lanky hair, and he's way too thin."

"Dune has a scar?" I asked.

"How have you not seen it?" Leanna asked. "It's on his face."

How distracted by his crazy eyes had I been? "But his eyes, have you seen his eyes?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," Leanna said. "They're the worst. A little freaky if you catch him head on."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"It's not his fault, obviously, it's just, well, Yulie could do so much better."

"Yulie doesn't seem to want to do better," I said.

"Yes, well, that's part of his charm, isn't it? Yulie doesn't give up on people."

"Even people like Dune, who've got a history of sleeping with other people behind his Master's back?"

"Yes," Leanna said. "And more, from what I've heard."

"More? What more could there be?"

"Well there's running away, that's a crime too, and violence toward a Master," Leanna said. "I'm pretty sure I heard he had those two, but it hardly matters, because he's done them here anyway. There was a rumour going around that he had a murder charge, but that's probably nonsense. There's also stuff like theft."

"And he had all these charges before he came here?"

Leanna shrugged. "I guess so."

"And Yulie bought him anyway," I said.

Leanna nodded. "Nuts, right?" she said.

"You're telling me that Yulie bought him, knowing he had all these problems, then he brought him here, told him not to talk to anyone or make any friends, and then he expected him to get better," I said.

The Dune situation was starting to make an awful lot of sense to me.

Leanna frowned. "I ... look, I don't think that's a wise road to go down. I don't think Lord Yulie would like that sort of talk."

I, however, believed Yulie would very much like that kind of talk. He wanted to know Dune's motivations. That talk was exactly what Yulie needed.

 

 

 

Throren and I went to bed that night and settled in to sleep without talking. He hadn't brought up my father. All that he had said on the matter was: 'Oh,' when he had first realised what my father had been.

Since then, Throren had failed to react at all about it. He wasn't blank - he just behaved as if it hadn't happened. I was on edge about it.

I was gritting my teeth and preparing to stew in the unknown when I remembered that things usually went pretty well when I interrogated him about them, rather than waiting for him to bring them up.

"Master?" I asked.

"Yes?" he said, turning to look at me.

"Does it bother you that my father trained slaves?" I asked.

Throren's reaction to this was absurd. "Does it bother you that my father is a vicious idiot?" he asked. He shrugged and yawned, completely nonchalant.

He didn't care.

"This has been bothering you, hasn't it?" he asked. "You've been here this whole time, a slave-trainer's son, trying to pretend you weren't so as not to undermine my authority."

I opened my mouth to speak, but there was nothing to say. He was right. That was exactly what I had been doing.

"I can understand why you didn't tell me," Throren said. "And you only managed to tell me what happened to you yesterday. I don't care. People are not always what their fathers make them. If they were, I'd be a knight, and you would have trained that dog."

Throren pulled himself across the bed, corralling me on one side so that I had no room to escape. He lay half his body on top of mine in the sleepiest hug I'd ever had, and he shrugged.

"'s not like I bought you because I didn't want something different, anyway," he mumbled. "Can't say I've been disappointed."

He fell asleep like that, and I laid there and looked at the ceiling, contemplating the vastness of my luck.

I would make him happy if it killed me. It didn't seem likely that it was going to kill me, though. It seemed like making him happy was the easiest, simplest thing in the world.

The next day, it rained again, coming down worse than I'd ever seen in my life. No one else seemed surprised at it, and when I asked, they said it was just rain - just rain - like they thought any kind of rain was just rain.

I was told that it might start hailing soon. I asked what that was, and simply did not believe the answer I was given. They were playing a joke on me. Ice from the sky? Hah. It was a rather funny joke, but a joke, nonetheless.

The rain was so intense that I could barely contain my wonder all day.

Then it got cold.

Fires were lit all around Summer Hill, but unless I was within two feet of one, I was cold. I brought out the warm coat that Throren had given me and learned that in the cold it wasn't so uncomfortable.

The rain did not let up at all. The laundry ran out of space to hang things inside, so we hung rope in the corridors and hung on that, but still the rain did not cease. We agreed to leave the laundry to essential things only and stop washing.

Once I stopped working, the cold became unbearable. I went to see the horses, hoping to get close to Kelpie's body heat. He helped me immensely.

When Throren came and found me in the mid-afternoon, I was standing beside Kelpie with my face in his mane. Throren nodded at me and I left the stall and followed him back to our rooms.

The fire had been lit again. I wondered who had done it.

Throren sat in his armchair and I sat on the floor. I curled up as close to his legs as I could get. After only a few moments, Throren stood up. He went behind the settee and shoved it, moving it easily to be closer to the fire. "On here," he said, and I rose to obey, happy to get off the cold stone floor.

Throren did not join me on the settee immediately. Instead, he went to the bedroom, tore the blanket from the bed, and shook it out over me. Then he sat next to me and drew me in close.

With my winter coat on, I was too constricted to get comfortable, but eventually Throren's body heat, the fire, and the blanket warmed me up. Then I got too stuffy and uncomfortable, so I pushed the blanket off and took off the coat. I laid it carefully over the arm of the settee and got back under the blanket. Once free of the coat, I could bend and move, so I did, and I moulded my body to Throren's.

He offered me a smile, then he pulled me into his lap. The settee creaked under our combined weight on only one side. Throren ignored it and pulled the blanket firmly over us both. I put my face into his neck.

"Your nose is cold," Throren said.

"Sorry, Master," I said, pulling away.

"Get back in there," he said. He grabbed the back of my head and pushed my face back into his neck. His pulse felt warm and pleasant on my nose, which I had not realised was indeed very cold.

"Thank you, Master," I said into his neck.

"It's not even that cold," Throren said. "It's just turned winter. It's going to get so much worse."

I shivered and wriggled in closer to him. "I was all right when I was moving," I said. "But then we ran out of places to hang things and I stood still."

Throren's hand left my neck and started rubbing my back. I shivered again. "It sounds like you are asking for harder labour," he said softly.

"Work that doesn't let up when it rains might be better. I'll find something. There's always something that needs doing somewhere, raining or not," I said. I kissed him on the neck. "Today won't happen again. It took me by surprise. I can't concentrate with this rain. I've never heard anything like it. My people have too much respect for water to ignore it."

Throren nodded. "That's not at all what I meant by harder labour," he said. He nudged me off his lap. I went grudgingly. He took the blanket off me and spread it on the floor by the hearth. Then he pointed at it and looked at me.

Oh. Oh.

I stripped off my clothes, shivering, and lay on my back with my side to the hearth. Throren filled the tub of water. He took the oil from the nightstand. I shivered and wished that he would hurry up.

He sat down between my legs, cross legged on the floor. He tucked the oil into his thigh and looked at me. "Please," I said.

He lifted his brow. "Begging already?" he asked.

"I'm cold," I whined. "I'm cold and your hands are going to be warm."

"The oil's not," Throren said.

"I don't care. Come here," I said, holding out my arms.

He put the oil down beside my hip and obliged, leaning over me with his weight on his hands.

I had it in my head that tonight, I was going to get his shirt off. I pulled him in close with my cold hands around his shoulders and ducked my head to the side for a kiss. He went easily, offering kisses, nibbles, and sucks to my lips.

I could feel the warmth of his torso, even as he kept himself steadily above me, not touching anywhere but our lips. I moved my arm and tried to get it around his middle.

He pulled back, looking at me with his brow raised again. "You're eager," he said.

"You're warm," I said. "Come here."

Slowly, gently, he eased down over me, covering me with his body. It was fantastic, except his belt buckle, which was hard and cold. I pressed my legs close to his and held him to me with all four of my limbs.

I felt his cock against me through his trousers. I'd only ever felt it in my arse, and I was more than a little surprised at how big it felt against my crotch.

Unabashed, I clutched at his shirt and pressed my face into his shoulder. I was going to have that cock again. I was going to take it right here in front of the fire and no one could fucking stop me.

I took my arm from around him and pressed my hand between us.

He drew back immediately, tense. "Kath," he said. He'd gone blank. I hadn't even gotten to his belt. "I don't like being touched," he said. He picked up my hand and pushed it away.

I let my hands fall to the blanket and removed my thighs from where we touched. I felt cold and I shivered.

He shook his head and came back down, putting his lips to my neck. "I don't mind being held," he said.

I wrapped my arms and legs back around him. "I do mind. Sometimes, when I'm sore and you're giving me time to recover, I want to hold it," I said into his ear. "I want to hold it and kiss it and tell it I'll be ready for it again really soon."

Throren tensed and drew back his head. "You're insane," he said.

I shrugged. "I want what I want," I said. I looked him in the eyes, pulled myself up, and kissed him square on the mouth. "Lucky for you, I'm not sore right now, so I want something else."

Throren looked at me like I was mad, and I was tired of it. I'd taken it three times now, and he looked at me like I was mad to want a fourth.

"If you're not going to put your fingers in, I'll do it for you," I said.

"Will you?" he asked.

"I will," I said defiantly.

"Will you?" he asked again.

I blushed. Oh.

I reached for the oil and uncorked it. I dipped my fingers in and reached down. I didn't feel quite so cold anymore.

I pressed a finger inside myself while Throren watched intently and I frowned, screwing up my face in displeasure.

"You don't have to," Throren said immediately, and that only made me want him more.

I pulled it out and pressed two in, and that was much better. It was nothing compared to two of Throren's fingers, but it was better.

I couldn't do it deep enough, and I couldn't do it hard enough, and even when I pulled free and added a third finger it still didn't feel like enough. My cock was happy enough, and my arse felt nice and good and easy, and I hated it.

"You don't look like you like this," Throren said.

"I can't go deep enough. The angle is all wrong," I said. "And I don't think I have enough fingers to get me ready for your cock."

Throren sat back. He took my wrist in his and stilled my hand. He pressed his other hand into the oil jar and brought it to my hole. He added his index finger in underneath mine, and I made an obscene noise from my mouth and an even more obscene sort of squelch from my arse.

His finger was longer and thicker than mine, and not hindered by being attached to my upper body. He could push and pull and prod me in the way I liked, deep, firm, and thick.

"If I can't touch you, can I look at you?" I asked.

"I don't see why not," Throren said.

"Will you take off your shirt?" I asked.

He stilled for a moment. His eyes did not leave my arse. Slowly, tensely, he pulled his finger out and unbuttoned his shirt. He shrugged it off his shoulders and tossed it aside. His chest wasn't anything at all to be self-conscious about. He had a few small scars, one of which crossed his right nipple. He was muscled everywhere, even down his stomach.

His eyes were on mine, though, gauging my reaction. His face was blank. I raised an eyebrow and worked my fingers inside me again. "I didn't tell you to stop," I said.

The blankness receded and he smiled at me. He put his finger back in obligingly. I pulled out one of my fingers, and he replaced it with a second of his own before I even asked him to. I set to moaning obscenely and staring at the scar on his nipple.

"Turn over," Throren said.

We pulled our respective fingers from my arse and I turned over. I opened up my knees and put my shoulders down on the blanket.

Throren put four fingers into me and it burned. I pushed back and arched, hissing. "Please," I said.

He somehow knew what I wanted, and he fucked me with his fingers hard and deep while I moaned and quailed, arched back for him and spread open like a whore.

He stilled his forceful pace, and he put his mouth onto my arse, right above his fingers. There he placed a gentle, sweet kiss, followed by a playful and rather adorable lick. Then he pulled back and fucked my arse harder with his fingers.

"I need it," I whined.

He undid his belt and trousers one handed while his fingers were still in my arse. He got into position with them still in my arse. He removed them and within moments, his cock was going in.

I wailed and pressed back, taking it further, further, further, until it reached that part of me that turned me limp and docile. Then I just wailed as he pressed it further. He put his hands on my hips and pulled me back the rest of the way.

He pulled back immediately once inside, giving me little shallow thrusts that took my breath away and made me wail. When he sped up, he pulled further out, too, and that made me wail louder.

"How do you like this?" he growled, pulling on my hips so that I was moving back into his thrusts.

I hoped I wasn't supposed to answer. Talking with it moving inside me was something I didn't think that I'd ever be able to do. So was moving, breathing, or not wailing.

I finished quickly, getting it all over the blanket, but I didn't mind. I'd be the one who washed it anyway, and Throren always used so much oil that it got everywhere too.

Throren kept going inside of me. Finished or not, I couldn't stop wailing or catch my breath, move, or talk. He took some time to finish, and as he did, I wondered if it was possible for me to get hard again so soon.

When he was done, he didn't pull out of me. He pulled me up against him, and I rested against his bare chest, feeling limp, worn and fucked.

He bent and sucked bruises onto my neck and I let my head hang limp.

Even soft, his cock was huge.

"You can get up any time you like," he said, after leaving an even spattering of marks on my neck and shoulder.

I moaned softly. "I don't think I can," I said. My voice was hoarse and croaky.

Throren wrapped his hands around me and lifted me off of his lap.

I let myself fall onto the blanket on my side, and I let my eyes fall closed. I heard Throren cleaning off his cock and I wondered if I should look at him, to finally get a good look at what I'd been taking inside my arse and was forbidden to touch.

Why?

What good would it do? Clearly, he had issues about it. Was he hiding something, other than its size? Would I care if he was? It didn't feel misshapen, as well as I could tell with only my arse to study it. I didn't have anything else to compare it to, though. Did all cocks feel like that, only smaller? I wouldn't know.

I kept my eyes closed. I didn't care. His cock wasn't a problem. His insecurities were a problem, but not a pressing one. I could satisfy his lusts well enough without touching him. He had made his pleasure with my arse perfectly clear, with his behaviour during and after sex.

That night was no different. He picked me up and carried me in his arms to the bed. He brought the water and washcloth from beside the fireplace and washed me down. I shivered and became cold again. He brought the blanket back over, wrapped us both in it, and sucked some more bruises onto the other side of my neck.

Absolutely none of this was strictly necessary. I could have walked. It wouldn't have been wholly comfortable, but I could have done it. Instead I luxuriated in his attention and let myself fall into the kind of relaxation one could only reach when enveloped in another's arms.

"Is there anything you want?" he asked.

"Hm?" I said. I had been falling asleep.

"Is there anything I can give you?" he asked. "Clothes, presents, jewellery? Pretty things, yarn? Different work, less work?"

"Hm," I said, mumbling sleepily, barely awake.

"I'll give you anything," he said quietly. His voice was soft and reverent, like he spoke a secret. I realised that he thought that I was more asleep than I really was.

Will you? I wondered tiredly, before I realised how little it mattered. He had given me enough. I was happier than I had thought I would ever be allowed to be again. I did not need more.

I only needed Throren, and I clearly had him.

"Hm," I said, and fell asleep.

Chapter Text

I had been fast asleep in Throren's arms when the noise woke us. He roused first and extricated his arm from underneath me. I looked around at the dark of the room and rubbed my eyes. It wasn't terribly late, but it was late enough to be dark. We'd slept through dinner.

Throren rose and left wordlessly, while I frowned in confusion. He left the bedroom door open and went to the sitting room. I heard the quiet, muffled tones of two people who did not want to wake anyone.

Throren returned to the bedroom. "Kath, could you get dressed?" he asked.

I rose and did, wondering what the hell was going on.

Throren took his boots and put them on in the sitting room. When I emerged from the bedroom, dressed in yesterday's clothes, Secturn was in the sitting room. He was frowning deeply, and his jaw was clenched.

"Have I done something wrong, Master?" I asked.

Throren barked out a laugh. "Like you ever do anything wrong," he said furiously.

Ah. Dune.

"Put your coat on, Kath," Secturn said.

I retrieved my coat from the arm of the settee and put it on. Throren took his coat and hung it over his shoulder. He was glaring angrily at Secturn.

Secturn led us out of our rooms. He and Throren walked quickly, side by side, with the purpose of two men who knew where they were going and what for.

I limped after them as quickly as I could. I could still feel the effects of Throren's cock in my arse. Usually I got a whole night to sleep it off, and I only had to worry about it in the morning. Tonight, I was not so lucky. It had been a few hours, at most.

We entered Yulie's sanctum, and Secturn led us up the stairs, through Yulie's library, and up again to his rooms.

Dune was nowhere to be seen, but Yulie was standing by his desk with his arms crossed and his face as pale as a ghost. He was staring out of two glass doors, onto the balcony.

I thought he was staring at the rain.

"Absolutely not," Throren said lowly. It reverberated through the floor, and Secturn visibly flinched.

Yulie looked at Throren. His eyes were wild, desperate, and more than a bit mad. "Please. They've talked. Kath said to confine him, and I didn't. Look what it's gotten me."

I really, really didn't want to be dragged into whatever was going on here. I put my head down and tried to make myself small.

"I will not send him out into the fucking rain," Throren spat. He looked outside, to where Yulie had been looking.

I moved closer. Once further inside the room, I spotted Dune. I wished I hadn't. I had been so much happier before I'd seen him.

He was as beautiful as ever and completely drenched. He perched on the balcony rail in the far corner, out from under the roof, with his back to us and his entire person in the rain.

All he would have to do would be lean forward just a little bit, and he'd slip off the wet railing and down three stories below, where he would hit Summer Hill - not the place, but the actual hill. Once he hit it, he'd roll down it until he hit the guard’s barracks. It wasn't a grassy, soft hill. There were rocks and pebbles. The dirt was compacted and hard.

It probably wouldn't kill him. That was the worst part - that fall probably wouldn't kill him.

"Go get him yourself," Throren said.

"He's already told me if I go out there he'll go over," Yulie said. "Why do you think I'm just standing here, doing nothing?"

"We can put some people outside to try and break his fall," Secturn said.

"If he sees them coming, he might do it before they get in position," Yulie said. "Throren-"

"I'll go out and get him myself," Throren said. He moved toward the doors.

"No!" I said.

Throren stopped. Secturn tutted.

"He's scared of you, Master. If you go out, you'll scare him and he'll flinch so hard he falls off," I said.

"Kath," Yulie began.

"Absolutely not," Throren snapped, interrupting him.

"Please don't make me watch this," I begged. "Send me out or send me back. Let me help or let me go away and pretend it's not happening, but please don't make me stand here and watch it."

Yulie's fingernails dug so hard into his arms that they left marks.

Throren seethed. Everything was tense and silent for a moment, while Throren looked like he was trying to decide whether to go out and drag Dune inside or pick up Yulie's desk and beat him to death with it.

Eventually, Throren turned his furious eyes on me. "Your choice," he said. He pointed to the doors. "Go there or go home."

I rushed to the glass doors. I didn't want to startle Dune, so once there, I knocked lightly.

"Fuck off," Dune called back without turning to look at me.

"Can I just come out and say one thing?" I called out.

Dune turned and looked back. He saw me and nodded, so I opened the glass door and went outside.

"Close the door behind you," Dune said, and I did.

It was freezing outside, and it only got worse once I stepped out from the roof and into the rain next to Dune.

"Sorry," he said. "I thought you were Yulie."

"That's okay," I said. "Can I still say the one thing?"

"You can say as much as you like," Dune said. His lips were pale, and he was shivering.

I reached toward him and took his hand. "I just wanted you to know that you're not alone," I said, because that was what he had said to me. It had worked on me, and I prayed that it would work on him. His hand was even colder than mine had been earlier that afternoon.

Dune's breath caught and he looked at our hands. "Oh, farck," he said. "You're this nice and you're stuck with Throren? Fate is evil."

I bit my lip and kept holding his hand. Dune was bigger than me, and if he decided to go over the edge, I couldn't hope to stop him. Holding his hand made me feel better regardless.

"Throren's not so bad," I said.

Dune laughed. "That's sweet," he said bitterly. "Tell me pretty lies. You think I don't know? You think the people here don't talk around me as if I'm not there? I know you scream. I know you come out the next day limping, or you don't come out at all, and I'm not blind, I can see what he's done to your neck."

I raised my other hand to the rather small amount of my neck that the coat did not cover. I yearned for a mirror. I loved the sight of it.

"I know he hurt you after I fucked up," Dune said. "I thought you knew who I was, and you were talking to me anyway. Turns out you were being good, you didn't know at all, and you still stood up for me. Throren's the last arsehole in the world to deserve you. You're a fucking saint."

"I don't feel like a saint. I feel like a hedonist," I said.

"I don't know what that is," Dune said.

I smirked. "A slut, I suppose."

"You shouldn't feel like a slut over what that arsehole does to you," Dune said. He grasped my hand harder.

I found it a tad absurd that he was trying to comfort me while he was the one threatening to throw himself off a balcony. "It's not what he does, it's what I do," I said.

"You shouldn't feel like a slut over what he makes you do," Dune said.

"I feel like a slut over what I do that he doesn't even ask me for," I said. "He's not stupid. He likes me, he wants to keep me around. He knows he can't fuck me. He knows he'd break me."

Dune relaxed a fraction, but grimaced. It twisted his face, and I was finally used to his eyes enough to realise that he did actually have a scar. It was under his left eye, and it looked like a burn.

"So he makes you do other things," Dune said. He looked disgusted.

"No - well, yes," I said. "But then I become a slut and I make him fuck me. It's kind of fun, actually. I've been slowly realizing that I can make him do whatever I want. He looks scary and he talks scary sometimes, but underneath, he's just Throren. He's lonely and angry and all you really have to do is be nice to him and he does whatever you like him to. That's how Yulie got him on side."

Dune sat completely still on the railing and stared out over the hill beneath us. The only part of him that moved was his clattering teeth. "You make him fuck you?" he asked.

"Pretty much," I said. "Promise you won't tell."

Dune exhaled a huge breath, laughing shakily. "Who the fuck am I going to tell?" he asked. He shook his head. "Now I'm even more convinced that he doesn't deserve you."

"He said the same thing to me once," I said.

"I don't believe it," Dune said.

"He's an interesting man. He's got so many different sides it can be difficult to figure out who he actually is. I spent my first week here completely terrified."

"That sounds about right," Dune said.

"Why are we talking about my Master?" I asked.

"I don't fucking know," Dune said, shaking his head. "Does it hurt?"

"Sort of," I said. "He really ... he really kind of romanced me. It hurts less to take his cock than it hurts to think about him having to go without."

"People go without all the time," Dune said.

"Not me," I said. "I don't go without. He makes rather sure I don't go without."

"Oh my fucking god," Dune said breathlessly, shaking his head. "He really doesn't deserve you."

"Maybe we don't deserve each other," I said. "Why are we talking about my Master in the rain out here? Shouldn't we be talking about yours?"

"Yulie can go fuck himself," Dune said, breathing hard again. "Besides, Throren's so much more interesting right now. It must all be fake - he doesn't have a horse cock, does he?"

"Oh, no, that's definitely true," I said. "It's absolutely massive. I'm a bit worried, actually. There must be something wrong with me. He's got a horse's cock, so I must have a horse's arse."

Dune laughed. "Oh my god," he said. "Oh my god," he said again, as if the first time simply wasn't enough.

I glanced back inside.

Secturn had taken a seat on one of Yulie's chairs. Throren was glaring furiously out at us. Yulie was standing with his arms folded, looking frail and defeated whilst still having perfect posture. I didn't know how he managed it.

"Would you do me a favour?" I asked.

Dune nodded.

"I know we hardly know each other. I've got no right to ask you to come inside. I don't know anything about what drove you out here in the first place, so I won't ask you to come in," I said. I held onto his hand as tightly as I could. "Whatever you've decided, I can't un-decide it for you. So, if you've decided you're going to go over, could you do me a favour and wait until I'm out of sight? I really don't want to see it."

Dune frowned and looked at our hands. He swallowed and grit his teeth. "Sorry. I probably should have started with that. I was never going to do it," he said quietly.

I felt a gigantic weight heave itself off of my chest. "Really?" I asked.

"I just wanted to piss off Yulie," Dune said. He glanced over his shoulder at the three men inside. "It's working, though, it's working so fucking well."

I turned away from the glass doors, not wanting the men inside to see my expression of utter relief. "It really is. Yulie's digging his fingernails so hard into his arms I think it might scar."

"He does that when he's really pissed," Dune said. "Hope it does scar, the evil bastard deserves it."

I frowned. Yulie was a bit much, sure, but an evil bastard? That could be pushing it.

"What did Yulie do?" I asked cautiously.

"What fucking didn't he do?" Dune said bitterly.

"What did he do this time?" I rephrased.

Dune sighed and looked up at the sky. He closed his eyes and let the rain fall on his beautiful face. "I tried to talk to him, and he wouldn't listen. Same story as all the time, really."

"I thought he wanted you to talk," I said quietly.

"That's the whole fucking problem. He says he does, but then I do, and he fucking hates it," Dune said. "Talk, don't talk, it doesn't matter, either way he hates it. I don't really care anymore. I'm never going to say another fucking word to him. I'm done even trying."

I frowned. "That sounds really lonely," I said.

"You're damn fucking right it's lonely," Dune said. "I nearly shit myself when you talked to me that first time. I honestly think I might die if you let go of my hand now."

I squeezed his hand, and I turned so that I could give him my other one, too. He let out a pained little sob. His face was so wet with rain that I couldn't tell if he'd been crying from the beginning or not.

"You need a hug," I said simply.

"Good fucking luck," Dune said, sounding broken and lonely. "The only person allowed to hold me is Yulie, and he won't come anywhere near me. Sometimes I hit him just to make him hit me back. That's the closest I can get."

"I bet I could make him do it," I said.

Dune snorted and started laughing. "You can't make him do shit," he said. "You're a two foot tall little elf who can manipulate Throren, who's a stupid brute. You can't make Yulie hold me."

Fucking watch me.

I was already halfway into formulating a plan to force Yulie to hold Dune before Dune spoke again.

"Besides, I hate the evil sod. He's a gigantic steaming pile of horse shit."

"There's nothing wrong with taking what you need from evil people," I said. "Evil or not, if you need a hug and he's your only option, you should take what you need."

"He wouldn't fucking let me," Dune said.

"I reckon I could make him," I said.

"You're so full of shit," Dune said.

"I mean it," I said.

"Reckon you could make him fuck me?" Dune said.

I remembered Yulie talking about the slave trainers telling him to rape Dune. I'd been a bit mortified then, but now, I wondered. After Throren and I had finally had sex, we'd connected. We bonded.

Dune and Yulie definitely didn't have a bond.

"I don't know," I said. "Do you want him to?"

"Hell if I know," Dune said. "I'd like to find out what all the fuss is over before I cark it."

"You've never?" I asked, bewildered. Didn't he have a fraternizing charge? Didn't that mean he'd fucked another slave? Dune was beautiful - he was gorgeous, and he had a huge slave record, apparently, which meant he'd had at least one or two Masters before Yulie. Surely one of them had done it with him?

"I'm not exactly pretty," Dune said. "Yulie's crazy. I don't know what he sees in me. I've had Masters want my arse before - it's not so bad, see, if they come at me from behind and they don't have to look at my face. And some people like the hair. But I'm not exactly good at being a good slave, see, so whenever they try it, I end up punching them."

"And that stops them?" I asked.

"Stops Yulie every goddamn time," Dune said. "And I don't even mean to fucking do it all the time. If he does get close, I freak out. And it's not fucking helpful, is it, cause all I want is a fucking hug and I can't get one without beating the shit out of him. So then he lashes the shit out of me, and around and around we go, in circles forever."

My plan needed adjusting.

I thought for a moment, finished adjusting the plan, and nodded firmly. "All right. If you'll come inside, I'll get you your hug," I said.

"You're so full of shit," Dune said. "I don't believe you."

"You're going to have to try me to find out," I said.

"Yulie's a cold piece of work. No one could make him hug anyone," Dune said. He sobbed again. His teeth were chattering. I had to get him out of the rain.

Out of the rain and into Yulie's arms.

"Fucking watch me," I said.

Dune shook his head. "You're mental," he said. "But I can't go."

"Why not?" I asked.

"My legs are numb," Dune said. "I was out here for hours before Yulie came up, and this railing is thin. I lost feeling in my feet ages ago."

"I don't think I could carry you," I said.

"And if Yulie comes out here, I'm going to attack him," Dune said, laughing breathlessly.

"It'll have to be my Master," I said warily.

"I'd rather it be Secturn, and he's an evil piece of shit," Dune said. His whole face twisted with his glare, simply at the mention of Secturn.

"As someone who has been carried by Lord Throren on multiple occasions, you ought to take my recommendation into account," I said.

"You're mental," Dune said. "Like he'd carry me like he carries you."

"I can make him," I said.

"I don't believe you," Dune said.

"Fucking watch me," I said.

Dune laughed and shivered. "Okay," he said. "Try. This will be fun."

Dune slowly - as though it hurt him - unwrapped his fingers from my hands. It was painful for me simply to watch his pain while he did it.

I left him apprehensively and went to the doors. I opened them and refrained from stepping inside. Warm air flooded out of the room and made me realise just how cold I was.

"Master, could I have a word?" I asked.

Throren immediately walked toward me. Yulie and Secturn were on his heels, but I held out my hand and shook my head.

"Just Master, please," I asked.

Yulie stopped obediently. Secturn looked furious.

Throren came to me looking even more furious. I eyed him warily. "I'll not be punishing you again, but I am going to be very angry for a while," Throren said under his breath. He sounded like he desperately wanted to destroy something, and he was glaring at Dune.

"Okay," I said. "Dune has confessed to me that his legs went numb some time ago. He's been unable to come in voluntarily for a long time. He's worried he'll flinch and fight it if Lord Yulie carries him in. Would you mind?"

Throren grit his teeth. "You've got him to agree to come in?" he asked.

I nodded. "He's got some problems going on in his head," I said. It wasn't a complete lie. "It's why he's been especially volatile lately. He's agreed to come in, but he's fragile. Please be gentle with him. He'll respond to gentleness. I always do."

Throren did not look gentle. He looked mean. Regardless, he walked outside and into the rain, and he grabbed Dune firmly by the arm. Once satisfied he had a hold on him, however, Throren turned gentle. He carefully scooped his other arm under Dune's legs, removed his hand from Dune's arm, and placed it behind his back. He lifted Dune easily and quickly.

"Careful, please, Master," I said. "He came out here so that he could break and stop Lord Yulie from seeing it. He'll snap clean in half if you're not careful." Again, it wasn't entirely a lie.

It had precisely the desired effect. Throren stiffened, slowed down, and shifted Dune so that his head could rest on his shoulder. Dune stared at me, shocked. His upper body was stiff as a board, while his legs dangled uselessly.

"Thank you, Master," I said. "Would you put him in front of the hearth?"

Throren was already on it. While Dune and I had been outside, our Masters and Secturn had made a space for him by the hearth. Towels had already been placed by it and I was grateful.

I pulled off my wet coat once I was inside. It was so thick that my shirt was mostly dry, and it was long enough that only the ends of my trouser legs had gotten wet. I knelt by the hearth with a towel in my hands.

Throren placed Dune gently and carefully, like a precious alyssum flower, onto the floor. Dune looked from Throren to me in clear disbelief.

"Dune, I need you to do something for me," I said. I pushed the towel under his head and tried to get his hair off his back and into it.

"What will you do with him?" Secturn snapped at Yulie. "I've had it, we've all had it. He needs to go."

"That's not your decision," Yulie said.

Dune was watching them.

"Dune, I need you to pay attention to me," I said.

Dune struggled to do so, but Throren didn't. He was watching me, attentive and careful.

"Up in the middle of the night," Secturn snapped. "Getting Throren's boy - Throren's good boy - out and drenched in the rain!"

Dune finally looked at me.

"Not a word, Dune," I said, and put my finger to my lips. "I need you to shut your mouth and not make a sound. You'll do about a thousand times better if you let me talk for you," I promised.

Dune looked from me to Throren and back again. He nodded shakily. His teeth chattered as he pushed his jaw closed.

I started to undo Dune's shirt, glancing at Secturn as he started to rant again.

"He'll drive a wedge between you and Throren if you keep him," Secturn was saying. "He knows exactly what he's doing - he needs to be lashed and returned to the Stockade-"

"Mister Secturn, sir," I called out. "I'm sorry to interrupt."

Secturn fumed. "What?"

"If I don't get Dune out of these wet clothes, he'll catch his death of cold, sir," I said. "But I think Lord Yulie's had enough stresses tonight, I don't want him to have to suffer through everyone seeing Dune naked. Would you mind continuing your conversation in another room?"

Secturn bristled. "No, Kath. This is important-"

"There's nothing you can say that hasn't been said a hundred times already," Throren said. "We'll talk about it tomorrow morning. I'll walk you out."

"Lord Throren, with all due respect, this is a serious problem," Secturn said, but Throren had opened the door to the stair and was standing there in all his usual mountainous glory. Secturn had no choice but to meekly follow him.

I finished unbuttoning Dune's shirt while Yulie stood in the same spot he had stood in all night. He was gripping his arms so hard that large red half-moons had formed from his fingernails.

Dune let me peel off his drenched shirt and wrap a towel around his chest. He was shivering. He kept his mouth shut and glanced from myself to Yulie.

"Lord Yulie, could you point me to where Dune keeps his clothes?" I asked.

Yulie startled as if he had been slapped. He did not point me anywhere. He left straight away and went into the antechamber. When he returned, I'd gotten Dune's trousers off and covered his lower half in another towel, and Yulie personally handed me a change of clothes for him.

"Thank you, my lord," I said. I put the clothes on the floor right next to the fire, in hopes of warming them. I set to actually drying Dune. He was drenched, dripping, and cold. His teeth clattered.

"Not a word, Dune," I said. "Please, not a word."

Dune nodded. His teeth kept clattering, but he did not say any words.

"Thank you," I said.

By the time Dune was dry enough for me to put his trousers onto his numb legs, Throren had returned. He did not look at Dune when he entered. He went straight to the balcony doors and pulled them closed, then he glared out of them as though they had wronged him.

"What is wrong with him?" Yulie asked.

"His legs went numb hours ago, my lord," I said. "I think it might have been from the railing - it wouldn't have been a comfortable seat. Master carried him in because he couldn't have walked in. He's been wanting to come in for ages."

I helped Dune into a fresh, dry shirt. He was able to help me more with it than he could with his trousers. He lifted his arms obediently, and he watched me and Yulie very closely.

"I would have brought him in, but he kept telling me to fuck off," Yulie said.

"He's mad at you, my lord," I said. "He needed to cool off. He took it much, much too far, but his intentions were in the right place."

Dune looked like he wanted to say something, so I headed him off early.

"Dune, stay quiet," I said. "Please, not a sound."

"Why are you telling him not to speak?" Yulie asked. "That's the last thing I need from him."

"Because he's out of control, my lord," I said. "He's making terrible decisions - just now, going out onto the balcony, that's mad - and he ran away a few days ago. He's already doing things he regrets, if I can help him not to say things he'll regret, that's a kindness."

This wasn't a lie, but it also wasn't the entire truth. Dune had been rude and foul-mouthed on the balcony, and I didn't want him to make his situation worse. He had also specifically told me that he never wanted to speak to Yulie again. If I told him not to talk, then I could let him do that under the guise of being obedient.

Dune watched me carefully. I had the feeling that I was being studied in exactly the same way that I had studied Lissal not so long ago.

I glanced at my Master, who was still glaring furiously out the balcony windows. "I know that my Master won't punish me over any of this, no matter what I say," I said. "Dune doesn't. If the only one of us that talks is me, I can offer him some of that protection. He's weak, he's cold, and he's fresh from a lashing. I can't help but want to protect him."

I dried Dune's hair as best I could, but the best I could was not very much. All three towels were soon so drenched that they couldn't take any more water out of his hair.

"Is there a hearth in the bedroom, my lord?" I asked.

"Yes," Yulie said.

"Could we light it?" I asked.

"It's lit," Throren said.

"Dune doesn't sleep in the bedroom," Yulie said. "He sleeps in the antechamber."

"Is there a hearth in the antechamber?" I asked. I didn't remember there being one.

"No," Yulie said.

"It's up to you, my lord. He should sleep next to this hearth, or the one in the bedroom."

"You could give him to Quentin," Throren said.

"Quentin won't see him again," Yulie said. "Too many lashings. He says he's done with it."

"Dune will do better in a bed, my lord," I said firmly.

"Bedroom, then," Yulie said.

Dune looked at me with huge, wide eyes.

"In a moment, I'll ask you to take him there, my lord," I said. "Not yet. He's out of sorts. He'll need a minute to come to terms with it. He'll startle easily."

Yulie nodded, his jaw set firmly.

Throren had turned from the doors and was looking at us. He still looked angry, but he didn't look furious anymore.

I took Dune's hand in mine. "Can you feel your feet?" I asked.

He looked at Yulie, then back to me.

"Try using one word," I said. "Just one. Think on it, then say it."

Dune was quiet for another few seconds. "Hurts," he said eventually.

"That's better than numb," I said. Dune's lips had regained some colour, and I was grateful. "He's going to pick you up, and you might do really well. You might be sweet and docile, and it'll all go smoothly."

Dune looked at me mournfully and shook his head.

"You might be," I said firmly. "You might not be. You might spit and yell and scream and fight. So, I'm going to ask you to forgive yourself. Whatever you do, whether it's right or wrong, can you forgive yourself?"

Dune shook his head.

"That's really sad," I said. Then I looked at Yulie. "Can you forgive him, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie seemed a bit surprised by the question. "Yes," he said.

"Even if he goes a little mad, my lord? I think he's been going a little mad for a while, now. It wouldn't surprise me if he fought you."

Yulie's fingers finally broke the skin on his arms. He didn't seem to notice. "Yes," he said again.

"Try to approach him like he's a skittish horse, my lord," I said.

Dune tensed up and glared at me, but I just smiled at him kindly.

"Dune, you're the most skittish horse I've ever met," I said.

Dune mumbled something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like 'horse's arse', and I smirked at him.

Yulie approached on incredibly soft feet. He came at Dune from the side and scooped him up slowly. Dune tensed up even further, his eyes wide and manic, his shoulders drawn up so high they reached his ears. He seemed completely frozen.

Yulie carried Dune into the bedroom even more gently than Throren had carried him out of the rain. I scurried ahead and opened the door for them. Then I turned down the bed so that Yulie could place Dune on it.

Once Yulie had straightened back up, I tucked the blankets around Dune and pulled his still-wet hair from his back. "Sweet and docile. Well done," I said. It wasn't technically true. Dune had looked like he would flee at any second.

Dune looked ready to bolt out of bed. He eyes were full, half with a glare, half with wonder.

"Try to stay in bed," I said. "Lord Yulie, if I might have a word outside?"

Yulie, Throren and I left the room. I closed the bedroom door behind me.

"Thank you," Yulie said to me.

"Don't thank me yet, my lord," I said. "He'll wind up straight back out there if you don't address the problem, and I don't particularly want to be roused from my Master's bed at this hour ever again. I was having a very pleasant snooze, and I don't appreciate this at all."

"Kath," Throren said quietly. "Be polite."

"I'm trying, Master, but I'm cold and I'm wet and I just had an incredibly unpleasant conversation that I never want to have again."

"What did he say?" Yulie asked. He moved to the desk and sat behind it, studying me as I moved to stand in front of him.

"It's less what he said and more the impression he left me with," I said. "I think I might have some better advice for you than last time, but first I need to know what happened from your perspective."

"This happened because I didn't follow your advice," Yulie said. "You told me to confine him. I did not. I tried to send him for water, but he refused to go. I made him, and he sat outside the door for an hour, so I brought him inside and punished him. He still wouldn't go. I should have confined him."

"How did you punish him?" Throren asked.

Yulie scowled. "Backhand," he said. "I lost my temper. Afterward, I sent him to the antechamber."

"And you let him get away with not getting the water?" Throren asked.

Yulie scowled even harder. "Yes. I decided I ought to have confined him."

"And how did he get onto the balcony, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie shook his head. "I didn't lock him up. I told him to stay there. I had to go to the town on an errand, and he ambushed me while I was leaving."

"He attacked you?" Throren asked.

Yulie folded his arms and dug into the skin there with his nails. "No. Not at first. He asked me - he told me not to go. He ordered me not to leave and then he ... he tried to offer me sex."

Yulie did not look like there was anything at all he found more distasteful.

"I declined, but he would not let it go, so I had to get him off me forcibly. I told him to wait for me in the antechamber and I stupidly thought he would obey me. When I came back, it was late. I read for a while downstairs, and when I came back up here, I found him outside." Yulie said.

"I have some questions, my lord," I said.

"Yes," Yulie said.

"You're not going to like them."

Throren grit his teeth.

"Yes," Yulie said again.

"Why haven't you gotten rid of him?" I asked.

Yulie did not like the question. He didn't answer, he just looked at me quite angrily.

"He's in love with him," Throren said.

"I am not," Yulie said.

"You really are," Throren insisted.

"If it isn't love, then why?" I asked.

"Why does it matter?" Yulie snapped.

"It matters because you might be able to fix this, but only if you love him. If you don't love him, you ought to give up, you ought to have given up months ago," I said.

Yulie scowled again. "It's not love. I do know what love is. Love would have been letting him go. Love would have been setting him free. Love would have been hunting down his ex-lover and letting them get married and be happy," he said furiously.

"And this isn't that," I said. "What is it, then, my lord?"

"It's obsession," Yulie said. "I'm obsessed. He's driven me mad. I can't get rid of him. I see him in my sleep. Sometimes I'm so distracted by the mere thought of him that I can't even read. I can't let him go. I can't send him away. It would be easier to cut off my leg and give that to the Stockade."

I pulled over a chair and sat in it without waiting for an invitation. "I see. You'll do best if you call it love, though, my lord," I said.

Throren pulled up another chair and sat next to me. "Why is that?" he asked.

"Most people will not make such a distinction between good, selfless love and love that drives a man to obsession. I doubt Dune knows the difference. He gives me the impression of someone who has rarely ever been loved at all. If you want to fix this, you're going to have to love him. It doesn't much matter what kind of love. Obsession will do just fine."

"It will?" Throren asked.

"Dune is a slave," I said. "He's not entitled to be loved. The love is required on Lord Yulie's part because this is going to be difficult. It's going to be hard and horrible and Dune might fight it every step of the way. Love would enable Lord Yulie to put himself through it, but failing that, obsession will do just fine."

"But you think I can fix this?" Yulie said.

"I think you can make it better than it currently is," I said. "I don't know how much better. Dune might never be very good, but I think he can do better."

"How?"

"I have more questions," I said.

"Yes," Yulie said.

"You said he offered sex and you had to physically remove him," I said.

"Yes," Yulie said.

"Why did you remove him? He's your bed slave, isn't he?" I asked.

Yulie tightened his grip on his arms. "He doesn't follow through," he said after a while. "He offers - he tries to touch me, but if I ever try to touch him, it ends in tears. Tears or punches."

I suddenly related to Yulie's predicament rather strongly. I knew the pain of loving someone you weren't allowed to touch.

"Why isn't he in your bed? He lives in your antechamber. That's not a bed slave's place," I said.

Yulie grit his teeth. "Dune does not sleep in my bed," he said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because he does not sleep," Yulie said. "He can sleep if I am not there, but if I am there, he cannot sleep."

"He just lies awake all night?" I asked dubiously.

Yulie nodded. "I sent him to the antechamber when it started getting torturous. If he ever did manage to fall asleep, he would go straight into nightmares. In the meantime, he was so tired, I didn't know what to do with him."

"Master can educate you on how to deal with nightmares," I said.

"I can?" Throren asked.

"You can. You're perfect for the job," I said.

Yulie looked at Throren insistently, while Throren floundered. "I just hold you," he said quietly and tonelessly.

"You wake me up sometimes," I said.

"Is that helpful?" Throren asked.

"Immensely," I said.

"Dune does not allow me to hold him," Yulie said.

"Why does Dune get to allow or disallow anything?" I asked.

Yulie scowled. "What do you suggest I do? Force him? Do you think that will make the nightmares better? I think that will make it worse."

"Lord Yulie," I said slowly. I was beginning to get frustrated with him. I had to get through to him somehow. "I'd like to pose a theory," I said.

Throren groaned. "Not you too," he said.

"Yes, me too," I said. "Lord Yulie is stronger than Dune. He's faster, he's smarter - smarter by far. He's the Master and Dune is the slave. So, following that logic, if Dune fights, it is because Lord Yulie lets him."

"Kath," Throren said warningly. "I'm not certain that's the best way to go about this-"

"No," Yulie said. His voice was dark, thick, and purposeful. "If you are suggesting that this is my fault, then that is exactly what I want to hear. If it is Dune's fault, there's nothing more to be done. Punishment hasn't changed his behaviour. If it is my fault, I can change my behaviour. If it is my fault, I can fix it."

We all looked at each other appraisingly for a while, judging one another's reactions. I found Yulie's statement rather endearing. Men in power rarely admitted fault, and even rarer did they want to fix their faults.

Throren had done the same thing after he'd given me the crop. If getting Yulie to change his behaviour was as easy as getting Throren to, then this Dune situation might not really be so difficult to fix.

I took a deep breath and returned to my original plan. Getting Yulie to give Dune a hug, whether he fought it or not, that was the plan.

"I'd like to pose another theory," I said.

"Pose it," Yulie said.

"Humans live in cities. We live in towns. We live in communities like Summer Hill. We form bonds - the bond between the yourself and my Master is a good example. We are not meant to live alone," I said.

"Perfectly reasonable theory," Yulie said. "Even the most especially odd humans are not completely alone for very long."

"Foresters are loners," Throren said.

"Foresters more often than not bring their wives and children into the forest with them," Yulie said. "They're odd, but they still come into town. They trade, they barter, they drink themselves stupid at inns. The theory still stands."

"That isn't the theory, it's a fact. People shouldn't be alone. The theory is that if you strip a person from their home and their family, they will go quite mad, unless you provide them with a new home and family," I said.

Throren frowned deeply. "You were stripped from your home and family," he said.

"And I went quite mad, until you came along and offered me a new one," I said.

"You are proposing that Dune is mad," Yulie stated. He did not seem even slightly convinced.

"Can you convince me he's not?" I asked.

Yulie grit his teeth. "He's perfectly capable," he said.

"I'm not arguing his capability, I'm arguing his state of mind," I said. "Just now, he put himself out on a balcony in the rain and stayed there for hours. He must have been so cold, every moment of it would have hurt.

"He ran away from you - this is the nicest place he could ever hope to get, as a slave. The food is delicious and plentiful, the beds are warm and soft. Secturn's strict but he lets you do whatever you like so long as you get something done, Quentin's kind, and your gardener, Garnth, is the sweetest old man I've ever met. Dune is surrounded by kindness on all sides and he ran away from it.

"He didn't even have the presence of mind to finish the job, though. He came back. What kind of mayhem must his mind be in, to make the decision to run away, go through with it, and then come back?

"He's been framed for theft, he could have spoken to you about it, he could have accused the kitchen staff of framing him just as well as we did. Instead he just let you think that he did it.

"And he and I - we spoke for a minute, just one, maybe less, and I'm told he ranted on my behalf. I took a few hits from a crop, he went to the block, and he was trying to protect me.

"Dune has absolutely no concept of self-preservation. He's making progressively stupider and stupider decisions and he's getting himself hurt."

Yulie listened to me carefully, watching me talk with attentive, perfect blue eyes.

Throren had furrowed his brow, but he looked pensive, not furious. "If he's a madman, he's not really responsible," he said quietly.

I wondered if I'd just convinced Throren to forgive Dune. I didn't get the chance to question him, because Yulie had already put two and two together.

"And people go mad when they are alone," Yulie said.

"That's my theory, my lord," I said. "It's up to you what you do with it."

"Dune won't let me," Yulie said. "I've tried to get close to him, he won't let me."

"My lord," I said slowly. "You're bigger than he is, you're stronger than he is, you're faster than he is, and you're smarter than he is. If he doesn't let you, it's because you let him not let you."

Yulie was studying me much the same way Dune had earlier, like I was something to be learned from. It was rather pleasant. I was starting to see why Father had liked this job.

"What, precisely, is your suggestion?" Yulie asked. "Obviously we need to test your theory."

"I propose that you start treating human contact the same way you treat food," I said. "If he won't accept it from you, force-feed it to him."

Throren nodded, looking at me intently. "We did that, once," he said.

"And it worked, Master," I said.

"It did," he agreed. He glanced at Yulie. "It'll make the nightmares worse, though," he warned.

"Temporarily, yes," I said. "Take him into your bed, forcibly if necessary. Forgive him if he fights you, forgive him if he flinches. Make him take some form of affection. It doesn't have to be sexual."

"He'll definitely fight me," Yulie said.

"He'd fight anyone. He has no capacity for self-preservation," I reminded him.

"I would appreciate if you would show me," Yulie said.

"As you wish, my lord," I said. I rose and opened the door to the bedroom.

Dune had told me that I couldn't make Yulie hug him.

Fucking watch me.

Dune was sitting inside on the bed, wrapped in blankets. He looked tired, broken, and frail. I went to his side and sat on the bed. Yulie followed me inside and stood at the foot of the bed with his arms folded.

Throren stood in the doorway. He no longer looked furious. He didn't look blank either, but curious.

I put my hand gingerly on Dune's back. He flinched.

"Do you remember what I said, earlier?" I asked him.

He looked from me to Yulie, then back again. "You already did it," he said. His voice was hoarse and grating.

"You mean when he carried you?" I asked softly.

Dune shivered and held the blankets around himself tighter.

I smiled. "I need you to lie down," I said, softly, like I was talking to Kelpie.

"Oh, god. No," Dune said. He clutched the blankets around him tighter.

"If you can't do it, I'll get Lord Yulie to make you," I said.

Dune made a high-pitched sort of whine. With shaking hands, he pulled the blanket off and lay down on the bed.

I shook the blanket out over him. "On your side," I told him.

Dune turned toward me. I made sure he was covered up, then I took his hands in mine. If he decided to fight, I wouldn't be able to hold him, but if he didn't fight, I could comfort him.

"Lie behind him, on top of the blankets, but don't touch him yet, my lord," I told Yulie.

Yulie did. Throren stood at the foot of the bed, watching the spectacle like it was a highly intriguing performance.

"You're fucking joking," Dune said in a high pitched, disbelieving squeak.

"Try not to swear," I chided, but without any bite to it. "Come up a bit, my lord. It's important that you don't mirror a sexual position. He'll just fight that. Try to offset your hips. This is about contact, not sex."

Yulie shifted further up the bed, until the top of his head touched the headboard and Dune's head was level with his shoulder.

"My lord, take his hand - this one - and keep your distance."

Lord Yulie reached over Dune carefully and took one of his hands from me. Dune stopped breathing completely and stared at their joined hands with wild, huge eyes.

"If he doesn't fight you, be slow about approaching him. Give him time, make sure he knows where your hands are and where they're going. Keep that hand on his so that he always knows where it is," I said.

Yulie held Dune more firmly by the hand. Dune started breathing again, but he breathed at too quick a pace.

"If he doesn't fight you, stay behind him and don't put any of your weight on him. If he does fight you, use your weight and your legs to hold him down. Make it less about restraining him and more about lying on top of him. You won't be easy to throw off," I said.

Dune whimpered. "What the fuck?" he said.

"Is that considered fighting?" Yulie asked.

"No," I said. "That's fright. It's the opposite of fight."

Yulie nodded.

"Let him calm down, my lord. When he's calmed down, you'll come a little bit closer," I said. "Unless he fights. If he fights, you'll hold him down and lie on top of him."

Dune looked at me with wide, startled eyes. He opened and closed his mouth a few times.

"What did you think I was going to do?" I asked him.

Dune blinked his huge, violet eyes rapidly, then tucked himself into as much of a curl as he could and started crying.

"I feel like this is a punishment," Yulie said.

"Life is hard. He'll get over it. Come closer," I said.

Yulie inched in closer. Dune heaved a sob. Once Yulie was pressed against Dune's back, Dune started fighting. It was the weakest thing I'd ever seen. It was as though he was simply jerking around, not trying to actually accomplish anything. Yulie did not need to get on top of him to keep him down. Dune's fight had no strength to it, and Yulie's single arm over him was enough.

Yulie looked ready to back off. I waited for him to lose his nerve, ready to have to wrangle him back to the task. He held on longer than I expected.

"I don't think this is working," Yulie said eventually.

Dune howled into the pillow.

Yulie backed away. As he did, Dune stopped jerking about, but he cried harder. "My lord," I began, but Throren solved the problem for me.

"Quiet, Yulie," he snapped. He stalked to the bed behind Lord Yulie and shoved him, square on the back. Yulie fell forward onto Dune.

"Throren," Yulie said warningly.

"Shut your mouth and do as I tell you," Throren snapped. He knelt on the bed and put his hand on Yulie's shoulder, preventing him from moving away. Yulie shut his mouth. "You better be right about this, Kath, or I'm going to get banished," Throren said.

Dune had returned to hyperventilating, but he hadn't started fighting again. He had fits of tears that lasted a few seconds each, then stopped. He kept the hand that Yulie wasn't holding on his face, constantly rubbing his eyes or just hiding under it.

After what seemed like eons, Dune brought his face out of his hand and looked at me. The tiredness in his eyes was so defined, so excessive, that it echoed in me. His eyes made me exhausted to look at him. He stared at me, dull, lifeless, and expressionless, and slowly relaxed.

All four of us waited in silence for him to start up again. He did not. Every time he shifted, we all tensed up, waiting for him to lash out. Every time he sniffled, we strained our ears, waiting for sobs. It did not come.

Finally, Dune had gotten his hug.

"If you're really careful about it, he might let you put your arm under his head," I said as quietly as I could.

Dune blinked and shivered, but he didn't start sobbing or fighting again. Yulie's other arm had been awkwardly stuffed under the pillows, having nowhere comfortable to go.

Dune slowly lifted his head. I moved the pillow out from underneath him, and Yulie moved his arm. Dune put his head down onto Yulie's arm, blinked a few times, then closed his eyes.

"Do it every day until he's so used to it, he doesn't bother fighting it in the first place," I said.

Yulie nodded.

"Stay with him tonight," Throren said. "He could use the body heat."

"If he fights again, you do exactly the same thing, my lord," I said.

Yulie put his face into Dune's wet hair and sighed.

Throren and I bade him goodnight, and we left to return to bed. I had no idea if I'd helped or not, but at least Dune knew that I could get him a hug, one way or another.

Chapter Text

I had expected some form of commentary from Throren when we reached the bedroom. I didn't get it. He said nothing to me and dropped heavily into his armchair. It creaked in protest. I sat at his feet on the cold stone floor and shivered.

Throren stared at the smouldering remains of the fire. I knew that he wouldn't punish me. Dune was involved, so I wouldn't be punished, unless Throren intended to go back on that promise. I doubted that with a solid, unthinking surety. I trusted his word.

"Strip. Lie on your back in the middle of the bed with your legs apart," Throren said.

I obeyed apprehensively. It had not been long enough since our last time. It was still the same night. Throren brought the water and cloth. He did not set the candle and he did not take out the oil.

He put himself above me and looked me in the eye for a while. He looked blank and cold, exactly as I had expected him to after this much contact with Dune.

"I haven't the faintest idea what you did just now," he said, after a time of just looking me in the eye.

I bit my lip and tried to find the words to answer him.

"Don't try to explain it," Throren said. "I have the feeling that whatever just happened was so intensely manipulative it would go over my head anyway."

I bit my lip harder, and he leaned down to pluck it from my teeth with his lips. I kissed him, trying to placate him, and it seemed like it worked while he kissed back, but then he leaned back and looked at me blankly, and I wasn't sure.

"I'm sorry, Master, I was only trying to help," I said softly. "Are you going to confine me to keep me away from Dune?"

Throren did not answer my question. Instead, he ran his eyes over me, from the top of my head to as far as he could see between our bodies. His gaze made me feel warm, but it also made me shiver as though I was cold. "Can you do it?" he asked.

My knees shook in response as I lay naked underneath him. No. It was too soon. I hadn't even had a night to recover ... oh, fuck, I'd done it again.

I took a sharp breath as I realised how badly I'd cocked up. "Master, wait," I said quickly. "Wait, I'm sorry, I've - I'm sorry-"

"Stop," he said simply, and I shut my mouth. "You panicked rather suddenly," he said after a few moments. He leaned down and kissed my neck, and I whimpered uncomfortably. He pulled back immediately.

"I'm sorry," I said slowly, trying to draw out my words so as not to seem panicked. "I did it again, I obeyed the order to come here, and I didn't think, I just did, and you wouldn't have wanted me to - "

"Kath, breathe," Throren said warningly.

I closed my mouth and breathed.

"Why exactly wouldn't I have wanted you to obey me?" Throren asked.

"Because I'm sore," I said. "You don't like hurting me, and I'm hurting and it's too soon, and the last time I put myself in this position when it was going to hurt, you told me to rethink my decisions-"

Throren's eyes widened. He'd been blank since we returned, and this was the first time I'd seen a reaction from him. It stunned me into silence again.

He lowered his lips to mine incredibly gently and we kissed without any fervour at all. He kissed quietly and calmly, and I kissed nervously.

"I'm glad you took it to heart," he said eventually, but it was stilted and forced. "The issue that time was that you didn't inform me that you still had pain and I didn't know. Do you think I don't know that you're sore?"

I looked away, trying to figure out what he meant by that. "You don't want to hurt me, knowingly or unknowingly," I said eventually. "So why would you want me like this right now, Master? I shouldn't have come. I should have stayed at your feet and told you I was too sore."

"And I'd have commanded you here anyway, to do what I'm going to do to you. Sore or not," Throren said.

I furrowed my brow, trying to figure out how to reason that in with everything I knew about him. It didn't make any sense, and it put me on edge.

"Now, can you do it?" Throren repeated.

"You told me to stop you," I said feebly. "You told me to stop you if I couldn't take it-"

"Not that. This thing with Dune. Whatever it is you're doing, can you do it?" Throren asked.

I clenched my jaw. "I don't know, Master," I said. "I can do something, but I don't know if it will be enough."

Throren leaned down and pressed a kiss to the corner of my mouth. "If you can do something, it'll be more than I've managed," he said against my lips. "I think you managed more tonight than Yulie and I have since Yulie bought the little shit."

"I don't know the situation well enough. Dune spoke to me about it a bit, but not nearly enough for me to make anything but the most simple of changes. And I'm in a ... a precarious position. I'm worried I'll offend you, or Lord Yulie, or even Dune. I don't have any authority over him, and if I bother him, he'll just ignore me like he ignores everyone else. I don't know if I can do it," I said.

"I bet you can't," Throren said. The words sent a hot bolt of pain through my chest. Throren didn't think I could help? What the fuck? After everything? How many times did I have to prove myself to this man?

When he pulled back, he was smirking at me, like an arsehole-

Wait. Blank Throren didn't smirk. Regular Throren barely even smirked.

"You bet I can't," I said. "Like how I can't take your cock, and I can't ride a plough horse, and I can't please your father."

"I bet you can't get Dune to behave," Throren said, smirking down at me, and I'd never felt quite so proud as I did at that moment.

"Watch me," I said.

"You may use every tool at your disposal, except sheer force of will," Throren drawled. I laughed.

He kissed my cheek. I felt out of breath and immensely smug.

He leaned back and settled between my thighs. My smugness faded and my apprehension returned.

"I'd like to apologise," Throren said. He stroked my thighs with his huge hands, and I shivered. "I'm not usually half as neglectful as I've been with you."

"Neglectful, Master?" I asked, confused. That was hardly how I'd have described him at any point in my time as his slave. He could be cold, certainly, but neglectful? He'd always seen to my every need. He was often cold or detached when he did it, but he never neglected to do it at all.

"You do this amazing thing with your arse, Kath," Throren continued. He mouthed at my knee, then he placed soft kisses on my thigh. "It's incredibly distracting, and it's driven me to a level of distraction I wouldn't normally have."

"What exactly haven't you been doing, Master?" I asked.

"Everything else," Throren said obscurely. "Everything else is usually all I get, so with you, I've been rather single minded."

"I don't know what everything else is," I said.

"See? Neglectful," Throren said, seeming properly ashamed of himself.

Then he put his lips on my half-hard cock and took it inside of his mouth.

My reaction was primarily comprised of shock. Seeing Throren with my cock in his mouth was a very similar sort of image to seeing him in that spin shop. He didn't belong there, he was too high class for that sort of thing.

It was filthy and wrong, and I hadn't even done it to him yet. Most slaves would go their entire lives not knowing what this felt like, let alone having it done to them by a Master ... let alone by a lord...

I let out a choked, aborted noise and tried to still my hips. I completely failed. Within moments I was making soft, pleading little sounds and moving my hips up, pushing my cock further into his mouth. He was warm and wet, and his mouth felt tight - oh, he was sucking on me - for fuck's sake, this wasn't right, this wasn't something I should be allowed.

This man was going to ruin me. I'd spent months with traders carefully crafting a submissive, pliant little slave personality to show to Masters. He was going to suck out all my hard work through my cock and spit it out onto the floor, ruined.

How was I ever going to submit to him after this? How could I ever be his slave, to use as he pleased, after he let me fuck his mouth like a ... like a whore?

I'd never be able to look him in the eye again without seeing the way his eyes were so attentive as they looked up at me. I'd never be able to hear his voice again without remembering the way his timbre had felt around my cock.

I'd never be able to look at his hand again without seeing it wrapped around my cock, holding it firmly while he pressed his tongue - oh, ae'Aberda, fuck - just underneath the head of my cock.

I'd never be able to look at his fingers without seeing them running experimentally over my balls, touching, cupping, rolling, while his eyes looked at me and I knew he was listening - listening intently to every noise that passed my lips. He was learning and learning well.

Before I knew what I was doing, my hands were in his hair, gripping and tugging him, and he let me. He let me yank on his hair until I could control myself and make myself let him go.

"Sorry," I said breathlessly, but I wasn't sorry.

I'd never be able to forget the spit coming down his chin as he pulled off my cock. I'd never be able to let him take me by the wrists again without remembering him putting my hands back into his hair. I'd never be able to hear Throren - two-word Throren - speak in two-word sentences again, not without hearing him say what he said to me, husky and low, in the late hours of that night.

"You may," he said, and everything was ruined.

I spread my legs further, fisted my hands into his hair, and thrust back into his mouth while he just took it and sucked.

Two-word Throren's two-word sentences were running through my head like tiny hallucinations, wild and rampant.

'Turn over,' he had said, every time we had sex, even though he liked my face.

'Love you,' he had said, as though he had no idea how to say it.

'Please breathe,' he had said, and then he had distracted me until I calmed down.

'Will you?' he had said, a question, not an order.

'You may,' he had said, and my whole world had crashed to pieces to lay in a shuddering mess at his feet. No amount of collars, servitude, or riding crops could do what he had done to me in this room, with those words.

I knew what I had always known from the start.

This man was going to ruin me.

I could not come out of this in one piece. Throren was going to ruin me with his two-word sentences and his notched candles and his filthy tongue. I'd thought that it would be his cock that did it, when I'd first learned that I belonged to him. I hated to admit to being wrong, but I couldn't deny it when it was now so blatantly obvious. His cock would not ruin me. It would be his tongue, his words, his eyes, and his actions. It would be the way he paid studious attention to me while he fucked me, regardless of how he did it. Fingers, cock, and now mouth, and he was as attentive as he always was.

It became apparent quickly - to both of us - that what I liked best was to hold on to his hair for dear life while he tongued at my cock. Once he figured that out, he just kept on doing it, stopping only to try new things and note my reactions.

He could fit almost all of me into his mouth. I liked the sight of that, and he could tell, so he just kept on doing it. I liked holding onto his hair and letting myself lose control, thrusting up into his mouth while I yanked his head down, and he didn't even seem to mind.

I didn't like it too rough, or too fast, and I didn't like too firm a grip on my balls. He didn't repeat those actions. He did what I liked best. He did what he learned would get my hands drawn tight in his hair and my voice to escape out of my throat in unplanned, likely unattractive grunts and moans.

"Master," I pleaded. I used the word entirely out of habit. He could never be a Master to me ever again. No Master would do this. This was a Throren thing to do.

I tried to pull him off me before I came, because that was just too much, but his neck was stronger than my hands. He would back off a bit, but he wouldn't release me from his mouth. I realised then that he could have quite easily defied me and kept his head still or moved at his own pace. Instead, he had chosen to let me grab, pull, and yank his head onto my cock however I wanted to.

I came into his mouth to that realisation. I'd never be able to stare at his throat again without remembering the way it had moved as he'd swallowed my come.

Well, fuck. There went all my hard work at trying to be a good, submissive little whore. It was gone forever, right down his throat.

When he was done swallowing, he licked his lips and gave me a most insolent little smirk. He looked smug and pleased with himself. He knew exactly how much he'd wrecked me. He just didn't know precisely how. He could tell that he'd given me pleasure - lots of it. He might not yet have known that he'd completely fucked our Master and slave dynamic.

Throren looked like he'd just done something incredibly easy for an incredibly large reward. He drank in the sight of me, sprawled out on his bed, staring at the ceiling so that I didn't have to look at his face.

Surely, if I looked at him, he'd know that everything had changed.

He crawled up the bed and into my line of view. He either didn't notice that everything had changed, or he didn't care.

He dipped his head and kissed me. I kissed back. I'd never be able to kiss him again without remembering the way he'd tasted after he'd had me in his mouth.

I didn't want to forget. I didn't want to go back. I wanted him to suck me every day for the rest of my life. I wanted him, complacent and eager, with my cock in his mouth and his eyes studying me to learn what I liked. I wanted to put a collar on his neck and make him do that to me forever.

I never wanted to remember my place ever again.

He kissed me thoroughly and I wrapped my arms around him. He let me draw him in closer. I burst into a sob when I felt his hard cock on my thigh.

"Hm," he said, pulling back. "That's not usually how that goes."

"Why won't you let me touch you?" I whined. I couldn't take his cock in my arse again, and he wouldn't let me touch it.

Things had been fine before, when he had only wanted my arse. I could please him with my arse. How could I please him now, when I was sore, and he didn't like hurting me and he didn't want to be touched?

He was going to leave to take care of that cock. He was going to fuck off and deal with it without me. He'd done it before, but at least that time I'd fallen asleep, so I hadn't had to lie awake knowing that he'd left me.

My eyes dried up as quickly as they had started to water, because I wasn't upset. I was furious.

It made me want to strangle him. It made me want to wrap my hands around his glorious throat and squeeze until he relented, but I could no longer think of his throat without remembering the way it had looked when he had swallowed my come.

He kissed me again. "Is it really that big of an issue?" he asked dubiously.

I levelled at him the dirtiest glare I could summon, before I remembered myself and looked away.

Fuck - I was already fucking up. Slaves were definitely not supposed to glare at their Masters. Especially not to a Master that had just done that to their slave's cock.

He either didn't notice the glare or he chose not to mention it. "Kath," he said.

"I'm your slave," I ground out. "I am here to please you. If I let you go off and please yourself, I'm worthless."

"You're not," Throren said, unusually strongly, but he'd used two words to say it.

'You may,' ran through my head with astounding forcefulness.

This had nothing to do with my self-worth. That had just climbed skyward, because Throren had sucked my slave mindset out from me through my cock and it had been glorious.

It had also reminded me that I could not bear to lose him.

"I'm supposed to please you," I whined. "That's my job."

Throren put his nose into my neck, just below my ear. "You please me all the time, Kath," he said.

"It's not enough," I said, before I could stop myself.

Throren pulled back and looked me in the eye. I tried to school my expression into something more slave-like. I must have failed.

"I don't think anyone has ever sulked after I sucked them off before," Throren said absently, as though he found the whole thing amusing.

I turned away. If I didn't, I was going to do something I'd regret.

He chuckled - the absolute twat - and spoke again. "Is this because I've said you can't? Your father told you no horses. Everyone told you couldn't take my cock. Do you want to touch me just because it's forbidden?"

He didn't even sound angry. He sounded fond, like my casual wilfulness was something he liked. That just made me want him more.

"Have you ever considered the idea that I might want to touch you for the exact same reasons you want to touch me?" I spat.

He refused to get angry at me, despite my extremely disrespectful tone. "No. There's no possible way you want to touch me because I'm adorable and tiny and so, so white," Throren said.

I huffed. "You're adorable and huge and so, so dark," I snapped.

"There is no possible way you find me attractive," Throren said.

"I'd find you attractive if you were mangled and covered in boils," I said angrily, glaring at him. "How dare you try to tell me what I can be attracted to? I'll be attracted to you if I like."

Throren looked at me for a long time. I glared back, wondering in the back of my head if I was going to get hit with the crop again. I just couldn't bring myself to care.

"You're not afraid of me anymore," Throren said eventually.

That wasn't entirely true. I was afraid of something very different than I had been before. I had been afraid that he'd be cruel to me when I didn't deserve it. Now I was afraid he'd be cruel to me and I would deserve it.

"I'm afraid of what I'm going to do if you keep pushing me away," I said, twisting the truth. "It hurts. The only part of me good enough for your cock is my arse."

Throren lay down beside me and drew me into his arms. "That's not true," he said softly. He stroked my hair.

I felt trapped. I struggled out of his arms and sat up. He let me go, frowning.

"What is true, then?" I said. "I can't know unless you tell me."

Throren ran a hand through his hair. "It's not like that," he said. He sat up, reached out with a hand, and lightly touched my shoulder.

"What is it like, then?" I said.

Throren didn't speak for some time. When he did, I couldn't stay angry at him.

"You may have noticed I had a routine," he said softly. "I have been very careful with my routine. It's taken years to perfect it. You're not anywhere near the first person I've had in my bed."

I had known this. He was experienced, of course, that was obvious.

"You're not the first person to take it. You're the first person to take all of it. You're the first person to like it. But I've tried enough times with enough different people to know that the moment someone sees it, however much they could take before, they suddenly balk at less," Throren said.

"You think if I see it, I won't be able to take it anymore?" I asked incredulously.

Throren shrugged. "No," he said. "I - I'm sure you've seen it. It's not that. It's that I don't want to see you see it. I don't want to see the expression you'll take when you look at it. It's always the same look, Kath. People look at it and they think, 'that's too big', and it's written all over their faces. I just - I'm tired of that look. It's not something I ever want to see on you. I like your face too much."

I flopped back onto the bed and put my hand over my eyes. I was exhausted. "I haven't seen it," I said warily.

"I'm sure you've peeked," Throren said.

"When, exactly?" I asked, my voice dry. "In the three seconds between when it comes out of your trousers and when it goes into my arse? In the times when you get dressed with your back turned while I'm asleep?"

Throren frowned. "You haven't peeked," he said.

"What good would it do?" I asked. "I wanted to know before I took it in me, back then I thought it would be useful to know what I was in for, but you were so sneaky about it. You're so protective. Since then I didn't see the point. I know what I'm in for, now. I don't need to see it. I need you to need me. I'm supposed to be your bed slave. I'm supposed to please you."

Throren lay down beside me again. "You do please me," he said warily. "I don't quite know what you're asking for, anymore."

"I don't care how you do it," I said. "You're supposed to take your pleasure from me. If I can't touch you and you can't see me see it, then I'll look away. But you like looking at me well enough. There's absolutely no reason for you to leave."

Throren curled up against my back.

"I'm your slave," I said. I sounded angry, broken, and a little bit vicious. "If you want to do it yourself then you should, and my presence shouldn't matter at all. I'll do as I'm told and I'll leave you to it, if that's what you want."

Throren put his hand on my side and his lips at my neck. "So, you'll just ... lie there and look away?" he asked.

"I'm your slave," I said again. "I'll do whatever I'm told."

"But you won't let me leave," Throren said.

I grit my teeth. "I'll let you do whatever you like," I snapped. "You'll do what you like whether I want you to or not, but if you want me to just lie here and be unaffected after you let me do that to your mouth, you can fuck right off."

Oh, shit. There it was. There's the crop, right there.

And Dune wasn't even involved.

"I'm sorry," I said, floundering, trying to find a remnant of the pleasant little slave he'd stripped from me earlier. It was gone. He'd taken it from me. It was in his stomach now. "I've gotten emotional. I need to learn to control myself better. I'll submit to whatever punishment you decide," I said. My voice didn't sound meek and pleasing. It sounded dead. It sounded hollow.

Fake.

Throren trailed his hand down my side and shifted closer, bringing his front against my arse. He wasn't hard anymore. He pulled me into his arms.

He didn't say anything for a long time.

Eventually, I pulled out of his arms to find the blanket and cover us. He pulled me straight back against him afterward.

I was almost asleep, figuring that punishment would await me the next day, when he finally spoke.

"I don't think I've ever been loved before," Throren said. "It seems to involve a lot more lectures than I'd expected."

I laughed. "Are you not mad?" I asked incredulously.

He put his lips on my neck again and kissed the marks he'd left there not so long ago. "You took me by surprise," he said eventually. "You were supposed to take a few fingers, be pretty, and then lose my interest when you couldn't take my cock and you failed to not be afraid of me."

I shrugged. "Sorry," I said.

I was not sorry.

"I didn't expect there to be feelings," Throren said. "It complicates things."

"How?" I asked.

Throren kissed my neck. "It means that I have to forgive you when I cock up and you lecture me," he said.

If he didn't start beating me soon, I was going to become a real terror.

"This is the fourth time, you know," he said idly. He stroked his hand up and down my arm. "You lectured me after I cropped you. You did it again when I wouldn't touch you. You did it again when I misunderstood your sheer force of will comment. Now, here we are again. Each time, it gets longer, and you get ... blunter."

"I'm sorry," I said.

"I'm not," Throren said. "You've yet to be punished for speaking. You lectured Yulie earlier and look how well that turned out."

I felt tension seep out of my shoulders, even as disbelief settled in. I wasn't going to get the crop again? Really?

"You're probably right, anyway," Throren said.

Fucking hell. I was so fucked. This man was going to ruin me.

Throren really was spoiling me. I'd told him to fuck off and he told me I was probably right.

I'd never be able to fake it again. The whole dynamic was fucked. He wasn't my Master anymore. He was just Throren. I loved him, but I couldn't be reverent to him anymore. I wasn't scared of him. He'd taken me into his mouth like he was my whore and let me tell him to fuck off.

I realised, belatedly, that I hadn't called him Master since he'd sucked me off. I'd just talked like we were equals. Even ae'NaNathra couldn't have gotten away with that with Father.

"Go to sleep," Throren said. "Yulie's going to want to put you to work with Dune tomorrow. And I'm going to want to suck you again. Or worse. You'll need your rest."

Or worse?!

What ... what the fuck was 'or worse'?!

"Relax," Throren said. "I promise you'll like it, and I won't leave after."

I didn't know what to say, and I was exhausted, so I reluctantly did as I was told. I closed my eyes, expecting to be plagued with my own imaginations of 'or worse'. Instead, I fell asleep nearly instantly.

Chapter Text

'Or worse' turned out to be nothing at all, because we overslept. We'd been up for most of the night, and I'd been out in the rain when I should have been recovering tucked up in bed from having Throren's cock up my arse.

I awoke to a knock at the bedroom door. It was odd - people normally only knocked on the door to the front room. Whoever had come in must have had a key.

Throren was still asleep behind me. I reached over and shook him. He was the one with trousers on, and I wasn't particularly enthused about the prospect of getting out of bed.

He got up blearily and unhappily and opened the door. I pulled the blankets up to cover my bare shoulders.

Secturn stood at the door. "I apologise, my lord. I tried the other door, but I think you must have slept through."

"Long night," Throren said.

He'd said a two-word sentence. 'You may' flashed through my mind, as did the image of his lips stretched around my cock.

"Indeed," Secturn said. "Lord Yulie has asked you and Kath to see him in his rooms for lunch. I believe he wants to apologise for last night."

"I see," Throren said.

'You may', I remembered.

"I'm still trying to get him to see sense regarding Dune," Secturn said. "I would like to apologise for all the trouble this has caused you. As steward, I feel personally responsible for all of the servants in this house, even those that aren't technically mine. Dune's behaviour has been reprehensible."

"You're no more responsible for Dune's behaviour than you are for Kath's," Throren said.

Secturn relaxed noticeably. "You're quite a bit calmer than you usually are about this," he said conversationally.

"You can blame Kath for that," Throren said.

"Blame?" Secturn said, smiling softly. "More like reward, I'd think. You do make sure you reward him appropriately?"

"I try. He insists on not wanting anything," Throren said.

"Really?" Secturn asked. "That's a bit odd. Still - if only there had been two of them, right, my lord? You and Yulie with a pair of Andonians. What a sight that would be."

"Yulie won't get rid of Dune," Throren said. "Getting him another slave will just make him pissed off."

Secturn frowned. "In any case, Kath here must have been incredibly patient, to tolerate Dune in the rain last night. I was thinking it might be an idea to offer him some time off. He likes to ride, yes? Perhaps take him out for a day. See the forest. It's going to start getting cold soon. You should take him to see the lake before it is too cold. He has a - uh - odd obsession with water, I'm told. He'll enjoy it."

Throren looked at me, expecting an answer. "I'd like it," I said, then cursed myself. I'd forgotten to say Master, and Secturn was right there.

I feigned a cough. "Sorry," I said, and coughed again. "I'd like it, Master," I said again.

"Straight to Quentin," Secturn said immediately.

Hah. He fell for it.

"That poor boy was out in the cold and the rain in the middle of the night. Of course he's caught the cold," Secturn said, furious.

I couldn't tell if Throren fell for it or not. He returned to me, sat behind me and stroked my hair. "If you don't mind, tell Yulie we will be along shortly," Throren said.

"Of course," Secturn said. "But I must insist. Kath ought to go to Quentin."

"We'll stop by on the way," Throren said.

"Yes, my lord," Secturn said. He pulled the bedroom door shut behind him and left.

I pulled the blanket down and stretched. Throren started getting dressed.

"Should I be peeking?" I asked mildly.

Throren chuckled. "Peeking, faking coughs, giving lectures. I'm not sure there's a limit to what you can get away with," he said.

I turned to look. He'd already changed his trousers and was buttoning them up with a sly smirk in my direction.

I rose from the bed and dressed while Throren yanked a comb through his hair. I finished dressing before he was done. To my amazement, once combed, his hair was still a bit of a mangy mess.

He fiddled with it, sighing. "This needs a cut again," he said. From the dresser, he pulled out a strip of leather and tied his hair back in an extremely messy tail.

I went to him and took his face in my hands. He looked extremely different with his hair pulled away from his face. I stood up on my toes and pulled him down to kiss me. He had to stoop rather far.

"Don't cut it," I said.

He looked at me with eyes dark as night. "Oh?" he said simply.

"I'll comb it for you, if it bothers you," I said.

"It might not bother me, if you liked it," Throren said.

"I think I can stand it," I said, and kissed him again.

He smirked against my lips. "Yulie's," he said, and straightened up.

"Oh, all right," I said reluctantly.

We didn't go to Yulie's. Throren led me to the room that Quentin lived in, which was off the room with all the beds in it. I'd gone there once before, half catatonic from stress and rethinking my decisions.

It seemed so long ago now.

"Have you heard what happened?" Throren asked Quentin.

Quentin frowned and pushed me onto a bed. "Everyone's heard what happened," he said. He opened my eyelids forcibly and looked under them, at the flesh that normally rested against my eye. He put the back of his hand against my face. "You're a little warm," he said.

"I was just getting kissed, sir," I said. "I ought to be warm."

Quentin straightened up from where he bent to reach me on the bed. He turned to Throren and grinned salaciously. "I'd think rest ought to be your first priority for a sick slave," he said reproachfully, but he still grinned.

"He's not sick. I'm paranoid. It's not the same thing," Throren said.

Quentin laughed. He returned to examining me. "Drink more water, and you'll be fine," he told me when he was done.

I nodded. Throren was already fetching me water from a jug on the mantle over the hearth. He handed me a cup and I obediently drank it.

"Good," Quentin said. "Come back if there's any sign of a fever."

"Thank you, sir," I said.

Quentin smiled at us as we left.

Yulie wasn't in his entertaining room, nor was he in his library. He wasn't even in his sitting room. Throren went to the bedroom and knocked.

"Enter," Yulie called. He sounded tired.

Inside, Yulie and Dune were almost exactly where we had left them. At first glance, Dune looked like he was sleeping. At second glance, he looked like he was too exhausted even to manage falling asleep. His nose and eyes were red.

Throren went straight to the bed and put his hand on Yulie's shoulder. I went to the fading hearth and put another log on it.

"Have you stayed abed?" Throren asked.

Yulie nodded. "He's been having nightmares," he said sadly. "I don't think either of us have slept more than moments."

"You can borrow Kath," Throren said quietly.

"Really?" Yulie asked. He blinked a few times. "What changed your mind?"

"Kath did," Throren said. "He's persuasive."

"All right," Yulie said. "Thank you."

Dune rolled over. Yulie let him go immediately. Throren and I twitched, ready to try and contain Dune somehow, but he settled right back down on his other side. Yulie put his hand onto Dune's again, and Dune let him.

"You'll stay for lunch, won't you?" Yulie said in the absent tone of a man who hadn't slept.

"Of course," Throren said.

'You may,' ran through my mind.

"Can I trust you to stay put if I get up?" Yulie asked Dune.

Dune didn't answer.

"I could stay with him, my lord," I offered.

"Not if I want to speak with you," Yulie said.

"I'll stay," Throren said.

'You may,' he said in my mind.

Yulie picked himself up and returned to his sitting room. He was elegant and poised as ever, even as exhausted as he was. Throren didn't seem tired at all, and he deposited himself in a heap into an armchair by Yulie's hearth.

Dune eyed Throren warily. There was no trust there, clearly.

I went to Dune before I followed Yulie. "Keep quiet, stay in the bed, and if you must glare, don't glare right at him," I said. Dune nodded slowly. "If you don't speak to him, he'll just sit there and stare at the hearth in complete silence. He'll leave you alone."

Throren watched me leave.

Yulie had sat behind his desk again. He waved at a chair, and I sat in it.

"I've taken issue with trainers before," Yulie said. "I'd like to be certain I won't take issue with you. I cannot send you away quite so easily."

"I will do my best not to cause offence, my lord," I said.

Yulie nodded. "I cannot tell if last night helped or made it worse," he said.

"I'd reassess in a week's time, my lord," I said.

Yulie frowned, but he was an intelligent man who could understand the value of a structured experiment. I'd get to him if I kept throwing logic at him.

"I can't have him threatening suicide. Or..." Yulie stopped mid-sentence.

I understood. Dune probably wouldn't have died if he'd fallen. He was threatening to seriously injure himself, not just to kill himself.

"I need him eating better. He's starving himself. If he's going to go falling off balconies, I need his bones well nourished," Yulie said bitterly. "I can deal with his general misbehaviour. You were right, earlier. I should have confined him. If I keep him confined, he can lash out at me as much as he likes, and I can manage it."

"I don't think he will stay put with an order," I said.

"I can lock him in the antechamber when I am gone," Yulie said. "He won't like it, but if it keeps him under control while we work on food and ... balconies ... then it will be worth it."

"I agree, my lord," I said.

"I have some limits that I won't cross," Yulie went on. "I have trouble imagining that you would suggest them, as you are a slave also, but still I must discuss it. I will never rape him. I will never break any bones. I will never ... mutilate him in any way. That's the reason he takes so many lashes. It has to be done lightly. I won't scar him any further than he already is."

Yulie grit his teeth, frowning, and continued.

"I was once recommended to try keeping him tied down," he said. The words were thick and unpleasant. "Our father - beloved Lord Drextrer - he was fond of that technique. Lock him up, chain him down until he begs to be let up. I will not do anything even slightly similar. I will not partake of torture."

I nodded. He'd been given some fairly cruel advice, over time, it seemed. I wondered if any of it would have helped. If Dune couldn't learn from the lash, then would other forms of torture have been any more efficient? Lord Yulie probably had exactly the same thought in his mind.

"What would your father have done, if Dune was in his care?" Yulie asked me carefully.

I bit my lip. A thousand things came to mind. Father had trained his own slaves, and trained slaves to sell, but he also took in guests. People liked to travel and spend Dunmer in new places. We would often house men with troublesome slaves. Father would often advise them over dinner. Then he and ae'NaNathra would go to bed with them and continue advising them.

Every single one of those dinner conversations had been different. Every single man was given different advice. Sometimes the advice overlapped, but there was never just one piece that everyone always got.

"Talk," I said eventually. "Father would have talked. He'd talk to you, he'd talk to Dune, he'd talk to anyone else he had access to. Father liked to know everything there was to know about a situation, and every perspective. In Andonia, we don't keep records on slaves. It's a bit of a problem, to be honest. A slave can tell you their history and lie completely."

I didn't even have to ask for it. Yulie was already taking a key from his belt and opening a locked drawer in the bottom of his desk. "Throren keeps yours here too," he said.

Yulie placed Dune's slave record on the desk in front of me. It was thick and battered. He placed the papers that Throren had shown me to prove that he had bought me on the desk in front of himself. They looked clean, orderly, and small by comparison.

I picked up Dune's papers carefully. The very top page was a bill of sale. It read: Rimmendar Stockade to Lord Yulie Summer.

"It may help to start from the back," Yulie warned.

I skipped to the back page. Yulie was idly leafing through my record.

There was information on the back page about Dune. It listed his features - he had 'lanky long brown hair', even then, and 'odd purply eyes'. The burn under his eye was not listed. It stated that he was six years old, and he had committed a crime called 'destitution'.

"My lord, what is destitution? I know the word, but is it a crime?" I asked.

"He was six," Yulie said, frowning. "If there was no family and no one would take him in as a ward, then he'd have been on the street. It is only a matter of time before he would become a thief, after that."

"Did he have a family?" I asked.

"I'd like to know that too," Yulie said. "He never speaks of it. I have asked."

"Do children often become slaves here?" I asked.

"If their parents are gone and they aren't taken in, yes," Yulie said. "It's terribly sad. I don't allow it to happen here. I have a few wards of my own, from the township. What happens to children in Andonia?"

"They die, usually," I said.

Yulie looked horrified.

"We don't kill them," I clarified. "It's just that if something happens to the parents, the child won't last long without them. We live in isolated places. If they're not old enough to care for themselves, by the time word gets around, they will have died already."

"That's terrible," Yulie said.

I shrugged. "We tend to die by the household, not by the handful. If something takes a few of us, chances are that it will take us all."

I turned over a page in the huge pile of pages that was Dune's record.

Sadenvil Stockade to Tem Silne was written on what was clearly a bill of sale. Dune's price was listed, and I struggled to remember what Throren had paid for my clothes.

Three hundred? Five hundred? I couldn't remember.

Dune had been sold for sixty. He had cost less than my wardrobe.

Tem Silne had signed the paper with an 'X'. This told me that Dune's first Master could not read, only mark where he was told. I flipped through the next few pages, checking signatures. There were many, many more 'X' marks than signatures.

Dune was raised as a slave with common people. That struck me as a problem, straight away. I was common born, but I had been wealthy enough to have been taught to read. My father had been intelligent and had valued critical thinking. Dune had been raised to a far lower standard, and Summer Hill expected a very high standard from anyone for Yulie. Conversely, I'd been raised to a high standard, but no one in Summer Hill really minded if Throren didn't get someone perfect, because he would just 'split them in half' anyway.

Dune and I would have had very different experiences here.

I checked the dates between Tem Silne and the next Master. Dune had spent four years with him. After Silne, Dune went back to Sadenvil Stockade, and there was a disciplinary report containing Dune's first charge.

Murder.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The report accused Dune - at ten years old - of beating Tem Silne to death in his own bed.

"I tried to get him to explain this to me, but he won't speak of it," Yulie said. "I have my doubts as to its accuracy. The capitol keeps its own records, they've checked for me, and they insist that it is in order. I don't know what to think."

"It can't be true, surely," I said.

"He raised him," Yulie said. "Dune spent four years as his slave. I find it difficult to believe he murdered him."

I flipped the page. Dune went to another Master, and then had another report filed. He had run away.

The next four years of Dune's life had been spent on escape attempts. There were over fifteen of them. After each one, he was bought back by one Stockade or another, kept for up to a month, then sold again.

"What exactly does a Stockade do, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie raised one of his perfect eyebrows. "You don't have them, in Andonia?" he asked, then thought for barely a second, and continued. "No, I suppose you wouldn't. Not enough government, too sparsely populated..." he trailed off, looking thoughtful.

"Everyone is very reluctant to even speak of them to me," I said.

Yulie nodded. "Of course they are," he said, as though that made perfect sense. "Stockades are a fear tactic. Quite effective, too. No one would want to speak of them to you. You don't respond well to threats, and you certainly haven't done anything to merit them."

That confused me even further.

"It's not something you would ever see," Yulie said. "You'll only ever get sold privately or through traders. You're a commodity, you could be profited from. The Stockades are for criminals.

"When it's about crime, it's usually either slavery, prisons, or executions. Prisons are expensive. Executions rile up the public, it makes them bloodthirsty. Rather than fund those, the Kingdom funds the Stockade. The purpose is generally in the hopes of reform - it's supposed to teach people to do better. Free men are afraid of committing crimes and being sent there, and if you have a slave that commits a major offense, you can send them to the Stockade rather than selling them privately. If you can prove the slave commit a crime, the Stockade will take them back from you for almost full price, and they will take charge of discipline for you. It's all funded by the crown, and it keeps crime down and slaves behaving themselves."

"So - it can be better financially to pin a crime on them when you return them?" I asked incredulously.

"You have to be able to prove it," Yulie said. "You need witnesses and testimonies. And if the Stockade learns they've been lied to - and the slave will talk - they pursue that. Perjury is a crime. Masters wind up in the Stockade with their own collars if they do it."

"What do you mean by 'the slave will talk', my lord? Dune wouldn't talk," I said.

Yulie grit his teeth, and his perfect face hardened into stone. "The Stockade's purpose is to lift the quality of the slaves in this Kingdom, and to keep free men afraid of becoming slaves," he said slowly. "It is a place of punishment. Its purpose is to keep slaves so scared of it that they never disobey. Slaves that go in there will talk. They'd sing, if they thought it would help them."

"How bad is it in there, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie's stone face somehow hardened even further. I got the sense that the Stockade bothered him even more than it bothered me, and of the two of us, I was the one who ought to have been the most troubled by it. "That depends on the crime. Some crimes end in lashings, some end in beatings. Some end in broken bones. We don't have a Stockade here. I have better methods of keeping crime down, and Throren can't stomach it."

Of course he couldn't.

I went back through Dune's record. For almost every Master he'd ever had, Dune had spent time in the Stockade. Some stays were weeks, some were months. "It's no wonder he's immune to the lash," I said eventually.

"Precisely," Yulie said. "He has barely any response to pain whatsoever. I always knew this would be the case - Stockade slaves are exposed to a different level of punishment than regular slaves. It's not been my experience with slaves - or with anyone, for that matter - for punishment to be the best method. I always try to temper it with reward - or replace it completely - and that's always worked for me in the past."

That had been my father's technique, too. It had worked for him.

Yulie's slave-keeping technique had worked on Kayla so well that it had brought her from a terrified mute to a happy, cheeky woman who had earned her freedom and was unable to shut up. Yulie's technique worked on his other slaves, who all worshipped him. It had even worked on me. He had promised me a book on dragons, and I desperately wanted to finish reading that terrible book about plants to get it.

Yulie's technique worked.

"But it didn't work with Dune," I concluded. "Does he never earn anything?"

"It's not that," Yulie said. "It's that he just doesn't want anything."

I frowned. "Nothing at all?" I asked.

"He doesn't eat. He doesn't care for better clothes or things. He doesn't want gifts. He won't accept affection. Praise makes him uncomfortable," Yulie said. "The only things he wants are basic human necessities that I can't deny him in the first place. He wants his clothes, rags will do fine, he wants access to bathe and a hairbrush. He doesn't care for much else."

"He eats lemon cakes, doesn't he?" I asked.

"He doesn't even like them!" Yulie snapped, finally frustrated. "I keep telling Throren this - he keeps telling me to use them as a reward. They're the only thing he'll eat, but he picks at them. He doesn't enjoy them." Yulie huffed and put his hand in his hair. "I - I don't know what to do. If I knew what he wanted, I'd shower him in it - that's just what I'm like - but he doesn't want anything, and he won't talk to me."

I left Yulie to continue fuming and returned my attention to Dune's record.

He had lived for a whole year with one master - Jarash Hale - when he had been fifteen. There was no disciplinary report there. He had spent a year getting no new charges.

"This one did something right," I surmised.

Dune had been sold, privately, from Jarash Hale to Nemda Earnurie, who Dune had then escaped from three days later. He had been caught in two days, sporting a new scar on his face, and he had been sent to the Stockade.

I sighed. Whatever Jarash Hale had done, it had faded immediately.

Dune had then lived in one to three month bursts with other Masters, who had returned him for all sorts of reasons. Fighting with other slaves, running and theft were common. Finally, I started to get back to the top of the pile of papers.

Fraternising.

He had been caught with another male slave. Dune was kept in the Stockade for three whole months for this. I shuddered to think what sort of punishment took three months to recover from - or three months to apply.

After, he'd gone to one more Master, named Semper Thone, and stayed with him for eight months, his third longest bout with any Master yet. He had only one charge from Thone - Violence Against a Master. The record went on to state that rather than allow Thone to use his body, Dune had punched him in the face. This seemed consistent with Dune's earlier complaint about hitting Yulie whenever he tried to get close. For this violence, Dune had spent another three months in the Stockade, and finally, Yulie had bought him.

Yulie was sitting across from me, watching me read through Dune's miserable life story. My record was in his hands. It was tiny by comparison. Even if Yulie didn't read faster than I did, he would have been able to read it six times over in the time that I had taken to get through Dune's.

Yulie put my record on his desk and tapped it with his finger. "How do you feel about yours?" he asked.

"Morbidly curious, my lord," I said.

Yulie slid it over to me. "There's always a copy in the capitol, in case it's damaged," he said. It didn't sound like a warning. It sounded like context for why he would hand it over to me.

I picked it up and leafed through it. I had no disciplinary records, which surprised me. I'd taken my share of beatings. Instead, my record was full of praises. Each trader had attached a written recommendation. My original crime was omitted entirely. According to my record, I'd just manifested out of thin air into the arms of the trader who had ferried me across the sea.

According to him, I was a quiet, submissive, happy little thing that would do well as a scribe for a Master who wanted something to write his letters and suck his cock. This was rather surprising, as when I'd been with him, I'd screamed, cried, sworn, begged, and scratched at my collar so hard my neck had bled.

The next trader described me as cute, calm, and obedient. That one had beaten me bloody when I'd asked him to take my collar off, so I had just kept asking.

It went on like this the further my record went. They were traders, and I realised that they had lied to make a profit.

"You don't seem happy, even though it's a good record," Yulie said.

"It bothers me that my Master bought me under the idea that any of this might be true," I said.

"No one trusts traders," Yulie said. "Precisely how wrong is it?"

"Lies of omission are still lies, my lord," I said.

Yulie smirked. "It paints you as rather spineless, but I've seen you stand up to Arexan Drextrer. I shudder to think what you did to those traders."

"Precious little, I'm afraid. I was not in the state of mind to do anything significant, my lord," I said.

Yulie gave me a wry smile. "Too busy going mad?" he asked.

"It certainly felt like it at the time, my lord," I said.

I put my record down next to Dunes. My tiny pile of lies looked ridiculous against his huge pile of accusations.

"I always try to give my slaves a fresh start. I like to think I did that with Dune. I tried to ignore all of this. I still am trying to ignore all of this," Yulie said. He had picked up Dune's record. He was leafing through it, but not really reading it. He stopped on the disciplinary charge for fraternising.

Dune had told me that he'd never had sex. I didn't know what to believe.

"There are parts of this that are reliably true," Yulie said. "Dates and names, for example, those I believe. The charges themselves are not necessarily true. I believe the escape attempts are true, and the violence, because he has proven himself capable of that with me. I don't believe he murdered anyone when he was a child, though. Children who are insane enough to start murdering at ten years old don't stop murdering until the day they die, and although he kept misbehaving, he wasn't charged with outright violence again until the Master before me."

"Is he often violent?" I asked.

"To me, yes," Yulie said. "To others? Never. He even seemed protective of you. He's got kindness in him, just not for me."

"And you don't know what his problem with you is?"

Yulie shrugged and patted the record. "That's pretty simple to guess, isn't it? The problem is that I'm his Master, and he doesn't want to be a slave. He's an escapist - he has been his entire life. If he wasn't, he wouldn't have that many names and dates on his record. The charges might be lies, but the names and dates are reliable. He has spent his life trying not to stay with any one Master for very long. He doesn't want to have a Master."

"If he wants to be free, the only cure for that is inevitability," I said. "He's escaped enough times that he thinks escape is attainable, even if only for a few days at a time. He needs to be taught otherwise."

"Now we're back on confinement," Yulie said, frowning. "I hate it, he hates it, but there's nothing else to be done about it, is there?"

"I don't think so, my lord. How often do slaves actually get free, when they escape? That doesn't happen in Andonia. They die of thirst without the household and the wells."

"They don't, if they're like Dune," Yulie said. "He's marked between the fingers and toes. They do it in the Stockade. He'll never be seen as a free man unless he carries his record and a written letter of freedom from his Master."

"Could he pass as free if he hid the marks?" I asked.

"Not for very long," Yulie said. "There's a census, and checks - the Guard don't like not knowing who's living where - he would have to pay someone off, and he'd have a hard time finding work. The reward for his return would be higher than any bribing he could afford to pay. He could get free if he got to Exria, but they keep slaves there as well. Without money or references he'd probably just wind up as a slave there, too."

I frowned. "This is only further proving my point about his decision-making. If he does want to be free, escape isn't the way to get it. The way to get it is to imitate Kayla. You've freed a slave before, if he repeats what she did, you might do it again."

Yulie nodded. "You see my confusion, with him. I don't, for a moment, pretend that I understand him. I can't help or change what I don't understand, and he refuses to speak to me," he said.

"And it's not like you're that bad, really," I said, then caught myself abruptly. "Forgive me, my lord, I only meant that-"

"I know precisely what you meant," Yulie said. "If one must be owned, it might as well be by me. I've heard a similar sentiment before, and I don't take offense."

I frowned. Yulie really wasn't that bad. A little odd, sure, but he wasn't terrible. Dune had surely had far worse.

"Does Dune know what you are?" I asked.

"I don't know what I am," Yulie said. "Dune ... no, perhaps he does not. I don't think he cares. He isn't particularly normal, himself."

"He can't be, if he has resisted your charm this long."

"He has a startling immunity to charm and pain," Yulie said. "The tactics that have always worked on others have fallen miserably short with Dune."

"He needs a different tactic, then," I surmised.

"Kindly point me to one," Yulie said frustratedly. "I have been told that the solution to this is further violence. More pain - mental, physical, sexual. Why should I expect that to work? The Stockades are staffed with far better torturers than me, and they've never managed to change his behaviour. I cannot bring myself to that level, or even close to it, and even if I could, I would not. It isn't my game. My game is loyalty. I make people like me. People do not give their loyalty to a man that tortures his bed slave."

"Dune wouldn't give you his loyalty if you tortured him, either," I said.

"Precisely," Yulie said. "I don't need him to be perfect. I've got Kayla at the table, I've other servants to do other tasks. I want him healthy and I want him loyal. I'll get the opposite with torture."

I frowned and looked at my hands. Yulie wanted loyalty, but he had gone to a place where criminals were kept and bought one that was accused of fraternising, the ultimate act of disloyalty.

"Why him, my lord?" I asked. "Why did you choose Dune over another slave?"

Yulie shrugged. "I don't think I did choose," he said. "I caught sight of him, and all options that didn't end in him being mine were no longer plausible. I count myself lucky to have found him a slave. If he had been a free man, I would have insisted on a courting. He could have said no, and I would not have handled that well. Had he been another lord, there would likely have been a battle. A prince, and I'd have started a war over him. It's not like I couldn't scrounge up the allies and the forces, think up a semi-legitimate excuse... No, I don't think I chose this at all. I think this is an unholy obsession thrust upon me without my consent."

Well, at least I didn't have to worry that he would lose interest and give up. "Was it like this with Kayla?" I asked.

"Oh, no," Yulie said. "I definitely chose Kayla. I saw her commit a misdemeanour. She dropped a plate - didn't even break it - and her Master set to beating her for it. It made perfect sense to buy her. I needed an inverse to Throren, when I arrived in Summer Hill. He's huge and scary. I can't have him as my sole companion, else I too will be perceived as huge and scary. She wasn't expensive - she was beaten, had a broken arm, that sort of thing drives down the price. I didn't care for her, at first, but I rarely care for anyone or anything at first. She grew on me. She was consistently kind and obedient, when she wasn't panicking. And I do believe I have a conscience. Perhaps it isn't as large or as accurate as others, but I saw her being beaten and decided it was right to do something about it. Everything about Kayla was right, logical, and moral. Nothing about Dune is even slightly similar."

It really wasn't. Nothing about Dune's presence in Summer Hill made any sense, and everyone knew it. Dune wasn't right for Yulie.

No one had thought that I was right for Throren, either.

'You were just supposed to be pretty,' Throren had said. He had known that I wasn't right for him. He had never intended to keep me, though.

Yulie had always intended to keep Dune. He was obsessed from the start, and while Yulie might think that he was inciting loyalty in others, his own history implied that he himself was the loyal one. Once he had met Dune, all options that did not end in him being Dune's loyal sovereign lord and Master were no longer plausible.

Yulie was loyal, and he wanted loyalty in return, but he had bought himself a slave accused of fraternising, the ultimate disloyalty to Lestrans. If they were ever to achieve any sort of peace, Yulie was going to have to make peace with the fraternising charge, and Dune was going to have to convince Yulie that he would never do it again.

If he had ever even done it in the first place.

"Do you believe he fraternised?" I asked. "We question the murder charge, should we not question that one too?"

"I don't believe it outright," Yulie said. "I believe the circumstances make perfect sense. A slave who clearly does not want to be one, at an age for young love and sexual exploration - it makes perfect sense that he would seek it from another slave, someone in his position, an equal. I believe it makes sense, but I don't believe it blindly."

"Does he ever talk to you about it, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie frowned. "He has, on more than one occasion, brought it up. I don't want to know the details. He tried to bring it up yesterday, when he wouldn't get water."

"What did he say about it?"

Yulie shook his head. "He tries to tell me how it started. He tries to tell me it wasn't his fault - I always tell him the same thing. It's in the past now, and he needs to let it go. Move on. It doesn't matter what actually happened. I am willing to ignore it."

There was another problem. Either Dune brought it up because he thought it was important that Yulie understood it, or he brought it up because he knew it would hurt Yulie to hear it. I had seen him put himself in the cold and the rain for hours just to hurt Yulie, I had no doubt he could bring up past love to do exactly the same thing.

Either way, Yulie needed to hear it. If it was meant to hurt him, Yulie needed to develop a thicker skin for it. But if Dune thought it was important for Yulie to hear it for any other reason, then he needed to hear it.

"I wish he'd talk to me about anything else. Anything at all," Yulie said.

"Sometimes it helps people to talk about things like that. He would have been punished heavily. He might be trying to talk to you about the trauma of it, not the fraternising itself," I said.

"I had not considered that," Yulie said. He stacked the two records and put them away in the desk drawer, then locked it. "It wouldn't make it any easier to hear, though," he said.

"I doubt it was easy for Th-Master Throren to hear my traumas either," I said. "I certainly haven't enjoyed hearing his."

"Oh?" Yulie said, ignoring my slip-up. I doubted that he hadn't noticed it. "He tells you his traumas?"

"How else could I know how to handle him when he turns cold?" I asked honestly. "I can't please a man without knowing what displeases him. I can't refrain from displeasing him without knowing what has caused him the most displeasure in the past."

Yulie looked at me studiously. "Do you think I should tell Dune my ... I don't think I have any traumas to tell," he said warily.

"I think you are so very used to trauma that you can't tell what qualifies for it anymore," I said.

Yulie frowned.

"Has Dune ever met Lord Drextrer?" I asked.

"No," Yulie said. "That would be a disaster."

"A very educational disaster. It certainly was for me," I said.

"You think they should have met?" Yulie asked, incredulous.

"I think Lord Drextrer is proof of what you have chosen not to be," I said. "He is everything I don't want in a Master. He's everything Dune shouldn't want in a Master. You and Th-the Master, you're both proof that you can be better. If you can be raised by that man and turn yourself into this, you can keep going. You can keep becoming more and more, on and on forever. Meeting Lord Drextrer was a terrifying, horrific experience, and I wouldn't take it back for the world. It told me that Th-the Master is a man who can always do better."

Lord Yulie was silent for a while, studying me carefully.

I was equally silent. I hoped Yulie thought I just had a stutter. I was extremely grateful that 'Throren' and 'the' started with the same sound. I could never think of him as Master again, and I was going to fuck up many more times than this.

"You've become loyal very quickly," Yulie said. "I've not seen it happen quite so quickly before."

This came from the man who made it his business to turn people loyal. Hah.

"It's not loyalty," I said honestly. "It's love. I'm in love with him. He's ... he's trod on a few sensitive places in my heart and I've just ... fallen."

"Sounds just like him," Yulie said. "Blundering about the place, making a mess. Don't let him tread too hard. He's a brute."

"He's incredibly light-footed, when he wants to be," I said.

Yulie smirked. "We used to get into such trouble from sneaking," he said fondly. Then he turned serious again. "He talks about you quite a bit."

"I've rarely known him to say much at all, let alone quite a bit," I said.

"He talks about you the same way you just talked about him," Yulie said.

I closed my eyes, letting that statement wash over me. Throren was going to be the death of me, but at least he liked me as much as I liked him.

"He wouldn't be letting you anywhere near this unless he thought you could succeed," Yulie said.

"I think he's starting to realise how stubborn I am, my lord," I said.

Yulie nodded. "Sheer force of will, if I recall correctly," he said. "Well. Dune. Let's start with food and balconies."

"I think you should lock it," I said simply.

"I think he could break the glass. I also think he could threaten to use something else to hurt himself," Yulie countered.

"Maybe we should just tie him up forever, so he can never touch anything that could hurt him ever again," I said sarcastically.

Yulie glared at me. "Point taken," he said amiably, but he continued glaring. "So, shall I lock the balcony and just hope he doesn't start threatening with other methods?"

"Yes," I said. "In the meantime, I'll talk with him. I'll try to figure out why he won't eat."

The task seemed so much more daunting now than it had before. Dune had just been a boy who held my hand and sat on a balcony railing, talking to me about Throren so that he didn't have to talk about Yulie.

It had seemed like it might be simple enough. Now, it seemed like it might be a trial of wills, and Dune's will seemed to be a formidable beast. The Stockades were a place of torture, and he had not only survived them, he had done it repeatedly.

Murder. Fraternising. Violence Against a Master.

Did Throren truly think I could do this?  'I bet you can't,' Throren had said. It had been said as a joke, but for once, a vote of confidence inspired me in a way only a challenge usually could.

Watch me.

For all that Dune's past was important, Yulie still had his priorities right. None of Dune's past mattered while Dune attempted to hurt himself and refused to eat.

Dune had never intended to hurt himself, but I chose not to tell Yulie this. It seemed like it would be a breach of Dune's confidence in me, and I would need that confidence if I were to get anywhere with him.

Balconies weren't a problem, but food was, and it was more urgent than any of Dune and Yulie's other problems. And there were so, so many of those.

Chapter Text

When I returned to Yulie's bedroom, Throren had fallen asleep in the armchair. Dune was sitting on the bed, watching him in absolute disbelief. I shook my head fondly and went to my knees in front of Throren.

The correct thing to do would probably have been to quietly nudge his knee or say 'Master?' until he woke up. That would have been what ae'NaNathra would have done.

Instead, I leaned right in and woke him with a firm kiss on the lips.

He looked at me fondly when he opened his eyes. "Good morning," he said, looking at me attentively.

'You may,' I recalled him saying, and I wrenched my gaze down, because his eyes only reminded me of the way he had looked at me with his mouth over my cock.

"You were supposed to be watching Dune," Yulie said disapprovingly from the door.

Throren shrugged. "I had a late night last night."

"We all did," Yulie said.

"Mine was better," Throren said. He stretched his arms above his head and the armchair creaked with his movement.

That had sounded an awful lot like a brag. Surely, he wasn't boasting about our night, was he? He'd sucked me off and I'd done nothing for him. I'd lectured him and he had gone to sleep unsatisfied.

Over time, I had learned the nuances of Throren's face. What I probably wouldn't have seen before, I could see now. He had relaxed satisfaction on his face and in the line of his shoulders. He was perfectly satisfied with the night before. He hadn't gotten off, but it had still been good enough to gloat about.

This did not help me to remember my place. This only made me want to put my hands in his hair and drag his face back to my cock again.

"Should I stay, or should I go?" Yulie asked me.

"I might do better without you, my lord," I said.

Yulie nodded his head at Throren. "Come on. Kath's got work to do," he said.

Throren grumbled in the back of his throat. He put his hand into my hair and pulled me in to kiss me on the forehead, then he rose. I shuffled out of his way.

Throren did not immediately leave with Yulie. He looked over at Dune. "You hurt him, and I'll hurt you," he said simply.

Yulie frowned, but he did not object. They left the door slightly ajar when they went, but I heard them sit far enough away that if Dune and I kept our voices down, we wouldn't be overheard.

Dune watched them go with wide eyes, then looked back at me.

I picked myself up from the floor and lay down on Yulie's bed, on my side with my leg hiked up. It was the most comfortable post-horse-cock position that I'd found yet.

Dune lay down beside me at a very respectable distance.

"I got you your hug," I said simply, and held out my hand for him.

"You're insane," Dune said quietly, but he took my hand.

"Probably," I agreed. "Did you like it?"

Dune was silent for a time. "Maybe," he said eventually. "I take back what I said about getting him to fuck me."

I shrugged and hitched my leg higher. "Next time, maybe," I said.

"No, I'd hit him," Dune said. "I almost hit him last night."

"I almost strangled Throren last night," I said.

"I don't believe you," Dune said.

"He was being obstinate," I said.

"I don't know what that means."

"It means he's making me want to strangle him," I said.

"And yet you kneel at his feet and kiss him awake," Dune said.

"I can want to kiss him and strangle him at the same time. I am not so simple that I'm limited to just one feeling at a time," I said.

Dune smiled knowingly. "What's Yulie going to do with me?" he asked.

"Confine you," I said. "You'll be locked up here, spending a lot of time with me for a while."

"Some punishment," Dune said dryly.

"It might be more effective than lashing you," I said.

Dune nodded. "True," he said. "Is he moving me back in here?"

"I don't know. Would you want him to?"

"I don't know," Dune said quietly. "I'm worried I'll hit him."

"I think we're all worried you'll hit him. But mostly I'm worried you'll try to hit me. Yulie will take it - Throren won't," I said.

"I like you," Dune said. "I'm not going to hit you."

"I've been asked to try to get you to eat, and I've been told that's an issue for you," I said.

"I wouldn't hit you over it," Dune said quietly.

"Okay. So, what's the problem with food?" I asked.

Dune grit his teeth and shook his head. "I ... I don't want to talk about it. Can we talk about something else?"

"Sure," I said. "How about we talk about whatever it is that makes you hit people when they touch you?"

Dune frowned, looking miserable. "I don't want to talk about me," he said. His volume had dropped so far that it was hard to hear him. "Why are you lying like that?"

"Horse cock," I said simply.

Dune burst out laughing, then drew a hand to his mouth. "I'm so sorry, that was so rude. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I just normally like to sleep it off, and I've been thoroughly interrupted from that this time," I said.

Dune frowned. "Sorry," he said. "Did he fuck you after last night? He must have been furious."

"No," I said. "We fucked in the evening, before you went out."

"And you went out into the rain straight after? Sorry," Dune said.

"It's all right," I said. "It's not like I don't like it. Besides, Throren's ... how do I put this ... he's coming around about you. I think he thinks I can fix you."

"Can you?" Dune asked.

"That depends on whether or not you're even broken," I said uncomfortably, because talking about fixing people as if they were things was making me feel wrong. I didn't want to fix Dune, if I could help it. I wanted to make his life easier. "I can't fix a problem I don't know, and you don't want to talk about it."

"What will happen if you can't fix me? Will Throren punish you?" Dune asked.

"No," I said. "We have an agreement. He doesn't punish me if you're involved."

Dune had exactly the same reaction to this information as I'd had when Throren had proposed it. It made the mind stumble over itself in confusion. He opened and closed his mouth, failing to form a coherent response on the first few tries.

"You - why?" Dune asked.

"He can't trust himself to be logical about it. You make him too angry to do it right, so he won't do it at all," I told him.

"You're telling me you have a free pass?" Dune said incredulously.

"It's absurd, right?" I said. "I don't know how to feel about it."

"Can you get me one?" Dune asked.

"I doubt it," I said, then thought a bit harder. "Maybe. It would be pretty tough to pull off. I'd have to word it just right."

Dune laughed breathlessly. "Just like that? You think you can get anything you want, just by wording it right?"

I shrugged. "Throren sometimes gives me that impression," I said simply. "Yulie was giving me that impression just now. People here normally give you whatever you want, if you just ask."

Dune snorted.

"We've had a very different experience here, I think," I said, frowning.

"People don't give me whatever I want," Dune said.

"Everyone is so nice to me it's infuriating," I said. "I spent the first two weeks here being told by Secturn and Quentin that Throren would have to be evil to touch me. They kept trying to rescue me and get Yulie to take me."

Dune frowned.

"I think that's probably the best way to explain it, actually," I went on. "Everyone wants to be nice to the poor sod that has to get fucked by the horse cock, and everyone wants to replace the lucky bastard that has to get fucked by sweet, perfect Yulie."

Dune didn't say anything for some time. He fiddled with the pillowcase and stared at it intently while his lower lip wobbled. "Everyone thinks he's so perfect," Dune said after a while.

"He is perfect," I complained. "He's so smart sometimes he makes me feel inferior."

Dune shrugged. "Imagine how I feel."

"Frustrated," I said. "You feel frustrated."

Dune smiled at me sadly.

"I know you didn't steal that silverware," I said. "Let's not talk about you. Let's talk about the bitch that stole spoons and tried to pin it on you."

Dune shook his head. "What even are you, a witch?" he asked. "How do you know that?"

"Throren figured that one out, actually," I said. "I got stuck on why you'd steal silverware. He made the leap that you didn't. Even Throren knows you're not that stupid."

"The books in the library wouldn't clang about," Dune said. "Books are always worth something."

"There's all sorts of better things to steal on every floor of this place. Why would you hoard anything? It's mad. Tell me who did it."

"I don't know," Dune said reluctantly. "I don't want anyone getting into trouble."

"Someone hid silverware in your mattress and you're worried about getting them into trouble? This is precisely the kind of stuff people should get in trouble for."

"It would be us that got into trouble," Dune said. "That's just how it goes. People set me up, I get into trouble. I don't want to drag you into it."

"I can't get into trouble, remember? Not if you're involved," I said.

"Maybe. But Throren can always change his mind. Yulie can change his mind. I don't want you involved. You've been nice to me," Dune said.

I frowned. "You're sweet. You're wrong, but you're sweet," I said.

Dune smiled. "Don't let Throren hurt you," he said. "If you do, I'd have to kill him, and I don't think Yulie will like that very much."

I laughed at the idea of Dune trying to take on Throren. The idea of anyone trying to fight Throren was ridiculous.

Murder.

The record had said that Dune had murdered his Master when he was ten. If anything, that only made everything seem even more ridiculous.

"Good luck," I said sarcastically. "Don't forget to bring a step-stool. You'll need it to be able to reach."

Dune laughed. "What's Andonia like?" he asked suddenly. "Have you ever seen someone that looked like me?"

I shook my head. "They all look like me," I said. "I've never seen anyone that looked like you."

Dune looked very disappointed, but not surprised. "What's Andonia like?" he asked again.

"Dry," I said. "Dry and ... sad."

Dune nodded. "I know that feeling," he said. "Well, not the dry one, maybe. Sad, sure."

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"Here," Dune said. "Well, Lestrat, anyway. I was born three towns south of here. Sadenvil. Ma looked like me. Eyes and hair like me, anyway. She was much prettier, though."

"Do you miss it?" I asked.

"Not the town. I miss the people. Some of them, anyway. Most of them were shits, some of them weren't."

"I don't miss Andonia," I said. "I miss my parents, and my household. I miss my father's slaves and I miss the routine and how familiar everything was. I miss knowing what the next season will bring. I don't miss the drought and I don't miss my neighbours."

"You were a lord, right?" Dune asked.

"No," I said. "But I was wealthy. I suppose it's much the same thing, really."

"Might as well be," Dune said. "Mustn't've been easy to change from being rich and free to being this."

"I suppose," I said. "I - I don't think I paid attention, really. I..."

"You don't have to tell me shit if you don't want to," Dune said.

He was right. I didn't. But how else would I get him to open up to me? And I'd told Throren about it, and before that I'd told Secturn at least some of it - surely I could manage to tell Dune?

"I was distracted," I said falteringly.

"Must've been some distraction," Dune said.

"My whole family was murdered in front of me," I said. "My father - he had a favourite slave - and they slit his throat and put his bloody collar on me. I wasn't - I didn't pay attention to being a slave. It didn't matter. I had to get his collar off."

Dune did not open up to me and swap stories as I'd hoped he would. Instead, his whole being sprang to life, and he sat up in the bed, taking my hand in both of his in a firm grip. His eyes were wild and excited. "Well, that changes things," he said simply. "I know a way out. I can show you. There's a blacksmith in the town. You can always tell them - the forge, you can see it. If we can slip in, we'll find clippers in there-"

"Dune," I stopped him. "I'm not going to run away with you."

Dune rolled his eyes. "Like either of us could ever actually get anywhere," he said sarcastically. "You've got hair like a beacon and I've got creepy eyes. We'd stand out. But if we can get to the smith, we'll find the clippers, and we can mangle the fuck out of that collar."

I couldn't help but smile at him, despite not wanting to encourage this in any way. He was incredibly sweet.

There was no way in hell that he had beaten a man to death.

"I got that collar off months ago," I said. "One of the traders who bought me replaced it for one that wasn't bloodstained. He wanted me to fetch a higher price."

"Oh," Dune said. "Well, that's good, I guess." He sounded incredibly put out, as if it would have given him great pleasure to go on this crazy quest with me to get me a new collar.

It had sounded rather fun, if I was honest with myself about it. It would be an adventure, on my own terms, not on a Master's or a trader's terms. I saw the appeal, and I knew why.

Somewhere in Throren's stomach, my willingness to be a slave was slowly digesting.

We'd have been lashed if we'd done it, and I expected we'd be forbidden from seeing each other again. Even with that in my mind, I thought of the excitement in Dune's eyes, and I understood it.

"Throren offered to change the collar for me the moment I told him about it. I didn't even tell him how it got the stains on it. I just told him I used to not like it and he offered to get me a new one," I said.

Dune nodded slowly, biting his lip. "He's not completely evil, then?" he asked.

"Not that I've seen," I said. "How do you like your collar?"

Dune's collar was similar to my current one. It was thick and lined with leather. It looked heavier and more durable, though. It had a big loop through it, for attaching a chain, while mine didn't. His was for control and leashing, mine was only to symbolise my position.

Dune shrugged. "I don't really give a fuck," he said. "A collar is a collar. They're all the same."

"ae'NaNathra - Father's slave - his collar was beautiful," I said. "It was beautiful before he died in it, anyway. It was silver and studded with riverrock - local gems. Father had it made special. It was lined with silk."

Dune shrugged again. "A collar's still a collar," he said.

"He used to take it off when he slept. He worried he'd damage it in his sleep."

"He could take it off?" Dune asked, surprised.

I shrugged. "Father loved him so much," I said. "He helped raise me. He and I used to read together. Hours and hours, we'd waste away telling each other stories and reading myths."

"Your mother must have hated him," Dune said.

"Mother loved him," I said, scandalised. "Why would she hate him?"

Dune seemed confused. "Jealousy?" he asked.

"Of what? Over Father?" I asked.

"Well ... yes? Isn't that how it normally goes?"

"No," I said, utterly confounded. "She had her own slave. Father had his. She and Father only came together when the time was right for children, anyway, and they never needed any more than me. Besides, how could anyone have hated ae'NaNathra? He was patient enough to tolerate my father, and my father was a nutter," I said.

"Is that what it's like with you and Throren?" Dune asked. "You tolerate him, and he ... loves you?"

"I'm still trying to figure out what's going on with me and Throren," I said, honestly bewildered by whatever it was that was going on between me and Throren. "I keep trying to figure out where he draws the line, and I can't find it, and lately I've been getting away with stuff even ae'NaNathra wouldn't have."

"You're actively trying to test him?" Dune asked. "That's brave."

"How else do I find out where the line is?" I asked. "Don't you test Yulie?"

Dune snorted. "Never," he said. "I'm either toeing the line or I'm pissed off and attacking him. It doesn't matter. Either way I'll get punished. Half the time I don't even know what for."

I bit my lip. "Really?" I asked.

"Really," Dune said. "I never know what's going to bother him, what he'll just ignore, or if I'm doing it wrong."

I frowned. "Have you asked him?"

"I don't want to ask him," Dune said. "I'm done with talking to him, remember? He's an evil shit."

"Maybe," I said. "But he's a brilliant evil shit, if he is one."

Dune tensed. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.

"It means he's smart, he's rich, and he's obsessed with you. You could do much worse."

Dune stayed tense. He shifted awkwardly, repositioning himself, as though the conversation was so uncomfortable for him that it had translated into his body. "I have done much worse," he said.

"Is that why you came back?" I asked.

Dune released a long-suffering sigh. "I came back because he'd have found me eventually anyway. They look for escaped slaves. It's all very organised. Maybe I'd get away for a day, maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe a year, but sooner or later, they catch up to you. Besides, I didn't actually run away. Not properly."

I frowned, confused. "You didn't?" I asked. "You got outside the walls."

"I got spooked and needed to hide," Dune said evasively. "It was either hide outside Summer Hill, or hide inside Summer Hill, and the inside of Summer Hill is full of people that hate me."

"What spooked you?" I asked. "What could possibly spook you enough that you'd risk getting lashed just so you could hide?"

Dune shrugged. "I don't want to talk about it," he said.

I frowned. "If you don't talk about it, how can I help?" I asked.

"You can't," Dune said. "And you shouldn't try. I'm a lost cause, we all know that. You're not. You should focus on manipulating Throren. You're good at it, and it is so entertaining for me."

"I got Yulie to hug you," I said defensively. "I can manipulate him, too."

Dune laughed. "It's not the same thing."

"I think it's exactly the s-"

A knock came at the door. Yulie opened it a second later. I was astounded to have been given the courtesy of a knock in his own bedroom.

"They've served us lunch in the dining room," Yulie said.

"Come on, then," I told Dune, who had turned immediately sour.

Dune sulked his way down to Yulie's dining hall. Places had been set for all four of us. Throren had already sat, served himself and started eating. I noticed his empty goblet and filled it for him before I sat down.

Throren poured a cup of water and pushed it toward me. "Thank you, Master," I said.

Dune didn't seem to want to sit with us. He walked to the table as slowly as he could. When he sat, he did not pull his chair in.

I served myself. Toward our end of the table was a large bowl of the pottage they usually served in the servant's hall - oats, wheat, rye, carrots, beans and spices with what I was fairly sure was some milk or cream added. I found it delicious. Throren didn't often eat it. As a lord, he was usually served finer dishes. Roast meats, seasoned vegetables, breads, butters, cakes and cheeses were served to lords.

I had simpler tastes, and it had not escaped my notice that the pottage was never offered unless slaves or servants were dining. It seemed clear to me what was and what wasn't deemed to be common food. I'd never been served anything I didn't like here, but I wasn't thinking of me. I was thinking of Dune.

Even the most common food here was delicious to me, and I'd been wealthy when I was free. To Dune, the food must be glorious.

So why didn't he eat it? The only thing he ate was the lemon cakes, and while they were nice, they were easily the least impressive food on offer.

Throren picked up my cup of water and lifted it to me. "You were told to drink more water," he said.

"Oh," I said. I took the cup from him and drank it all. He took it back from me and refilled it, then put it back in front of me.

Dune didn't look interested in serving himself. He sat in a slump, keeping his head down and his shoulders hunched. I had the urge to reach out, smack him, and tell him to sit up straight. I refrained.

"Have you had any luck with him?" Yulie asked me.

The answer to that was a resounding no.

When Yulie had told me that he didn't want to hear about Dune's fraternising charge, I'd thought that might have been the root of their communication problem. Now, I was wondering if Dune's refusal to communicate was the root of their communication problem.

Almost everything we'd ever talked about was about me. He had only admitted to me that he wanted a hug after I had deduced that he needed one.

I wondered if Yulie'd had the same problem with Dune, before they had stopped speaking, or if Dune had adopted the same strategy I'd first had with Throren, and spoken only when spoken to. If there was anything that I'd learned for certain in my time with Throren, it was how terrible that strategy was.

"He'll open up when he knows me better," I said. "For now, he's reluctant. He doesn't want to spend any effort, and he probably won't want to spend any effort until he's eating properly. He must be exhausted."

Dune sent me a weak glare. He knew my game. I was back on getting him to eat, and he didn't want to.

I glared back at him. "I'm not exhausted. I'm well fed and taken care of. I'll chase it until I get what I want out of him."

Dune's glare got meaner. I smiled at him and started serving him pottage.

Throren looked pleased. I had the strangest feeling that he might suck me again soon. Or worse.

Dune refused to touch his food. When I'd finished eating, I turned in my chair and watched him. He glared back at me, and we had a silent battle of wills while Throren and Yulie finished their meal.

Throren interrupted our duel by dropping some chicken and cheese onto my plate. "You've skipped as many meals as I have, Kath," he said warningly, and I mentally counted what we'd skipped.

Oh, we'd not eaten since lunchtime yesterday. I hadn't noticed. Throren hated when I didn't eat enough. I obediently tucked into the chicken. Dune looked away, as though he couldn't stomach the sight. I decided I'd won our battle of wills.

I put some of the chicken onto Dune's plate, then some cheese. He was stubbornly refusing to meet my eyes.

"Did he say no to you?" Throren asked. He looked smug and immensely pleased with me.

I thought over my conversation with Dune. "Not specifically," I said. "But he did on multiple occasions imply that I couldn't."

Throren smirked. Yulie raised one of his perfect eyebrows.

"Never tell Kath he can't do something," Throren said. "He takes it as a challenge."

Yulie kept his eyebrow high. "That's worrying," he said. "Slave keeping is all about what slaves can't do."

Throren shook his head. "You've completely missed the spirit of the thing," he said. He smiled at me. "I bet you can't make him eat," he said.

"Maybe not today," I said. "Maybe not even soon."

Throren sipped some of his wine. "It'll happen," he said surely.

'You may,' I remembered him saying, with his hands guiding mine into his hair. I wondered if he'd let me wrap my legs over his shoulders and squeeze his head with my thighs.

I wondered what 'or worse' was.

Dune looked sour. He glared at the wall and folded his arms. Yulie frowned, but he kept his worries to himself.

I wondered, with terror, what would happen if I couldn't fix this. I wanted to watch Dune slowly wither away as little as I'd wanted to watch him fall from the balcony.

I wanted to disappoint Throren even less, and he seemed so sure of me.

Yulie was right, slave keeping did mean putting restrictions on slaves. My need to rise to challenges was not even slightly appropriate for my position, but Throren looked at me with something resembling pride because of it.

I wanted to make him happy.

I wondered, with even more terror, what would happen if I couldn't maintain the pretence of being a good slave for him. If I couldn't keep kneeling, calling him Master, and obeying his every whim, what would happen? How would I make him happy if I couldn't be what he wanted me to be?

I didn't want to be a slave. I didn't want to be a possession.

That didn't mean that I didn't want to be his.

Chapter Text

Yulie and Throren had business in the town, and Throren wasn't willing to leave me alone and locked in with Dune, who was bigger than me and had a history of violence. So, Yulie locked Dune in the antechamber. Before the door closed, I saw Dune sit on the floor next to the door with his arms around his knees. After it closed, I heard him shuffling over. He'd moved to sit with his back against the door.

I accompanied Throren and Yulie to the stables and helped prepare Semmy for Throren to ride. Tempen, the stablemaster, prepared Yulie's mare himself, while he cooed over her appreciatingly. She looked fast, I supposed, but she was nothing compared to Semmy or Kelpie, who bested in her in width, length, and height by no small margins.

After seeing them off, I saw to Kelpie. Despite my still raw arse, I took him out to the paddock. We rode for a while, then we trained, then we rode again. He was desperate for training, having gone without for a few days while I'd been distracted with Dune's mayhem. We made solid progress.

When Yulie and Throren returned, Kelpie and I were still training. I was trying to teach him to turn on command, and it was going really well.

"What on earth are you doing?" Yulie asked.

I probably looked rather odd. I was using a combination of the 'come here' command - a whistle - and the reins to get Kelpie to move in the right direction, whilst also pressing down on the stirrup with my hand to get him familiar with the new command. To Yulie, it would have looked like I was just standing next to Kelpie and making him walk in circles, occasionally feeding him a slice of apple.

"Training, my lord," I said.

Throren knew what I was doing, having heard me talk of it before. "Is it working?" he asked.

"Rather well, actually," I said. I was waiting for the moment Kelpie figured out to move when I pressed on the stirrup, rather than waiting for the whistle or the rein tug, and he was doing it now more often than not. Soon, I'd phase out the whistle and the rein entirely, and he'd turn for me when I weighed down the stirrup. Once he did that, I'd teach him to do it when I was on his back and leaning to one side or the other.

"What are you training him to do?" Yulie asked.

"Turning without the rein, my lord," I said. I didn't want Kelpie distracted, so I cut the session short and let Kelpie have the rest of his apple slices.

"What do you gain from that?"

"Trust, my lord," I said simply. "He's bigger than me and he knows it. I can't kick him hard enough to do any more than annoy him, and if he wants to, he could yank the rein right out of my hands. I need him to know what I want and give it to me voluntarily, rather than just letting me yank his head around and force him into the direction I want."

"Did your father teach you this?"

"If learning by proximity is teaching, then perhaps, my lord. Much of what I do with horses is modified from what he did with dogs. Some of it is unique. Horses aren't dogs."

"What will you do when you run out of apples?" Yulie asked.

"Hope that he likes me enough - and the habit is strong enough - to do it anyway, my lord," I said. "If I've trained him well enough, he'll obey without even thinking twice. For that to happen, he needs to form the habit in the first place."

"And Dune doesn't have any habits," Yulie said.

"Dune is not a horse, my lord," I said.

"The theory still stands," Yulie said simply, and I couldn't argue with that.

"Tempen thinks you're mad, Kath," Throren said. "He thinks I'm indulging you in absurd behaviour."

"You are indulging in absurd behaviour. Kath is Andonian. You've been indulging the absurd since you bought him," Yulie said.

"It's yet to bother me," Throren said.

"You would tell me if I bothered you, wouldn't you?" I asked. For the first time since he'd sucked me, I actually managed to sound appropriately meek. I'd still forgotten his title, though.

Throren shrugged. "I would," he said.

'You may,' I heard in my mind, and remembered him putting his hands in his hair to let me pull it while he sucked me. Two-word Throren, Leanna called him. Two-words indeed.

"If Dune doesn't eat tonight, he'll have gone three days without," Yulie said.

I frowned.

"I'm not expecting miracles from you, Kath. I've not managed to make him eat in all this time. I don't expect you to get it in a day."

"I appreciate that, my lord," I said.

"He doesn't normally manage more than four days at a time," Yulie went on. "But he's not behaving normally. You're around, and he's aware that I'm going to be holding him every day. I don't expect him not to retaliate, and he knows that not eating hurts me."

I frowned again. "I'll have another go at it, my lord," I said.

"It might be better to wait until tomorrow," Yulie said. "He doesn't start getting hungry until the fourth day."

That made me snap to attention. "Is it that reliable? Four days, guaranteed?" I asked.

Yulie shrugged. "For him to get hungry, yes, it seems so. When he doesn't want to eat, he won't bat an eye at food at all, but once he's hungry, he will stare at it until he gives in. Why, what does that tell you?"

I bit my lip. "How much does he eat, when he finally gives in?" I asked.

Yulie frowned. "Enough, but then he sulks quite badly and stops eating again," he said.

"Four days to get hungry is quite a lot, my lord," I said.

Yulie nodded. "It bothers me too," he said.

"You're never hungry, either," Throren said.

"I don't think my people eat the way yours do," I said. Whoops. I forgot the title. "Master. We only eat two meals a day and we fast every Dunmer, twice a week. It's not that I'm not hungry. It's that I'm expected to eat more here than I've ever eaten in my entire life. Even I would get hungry before four days, though. That's extreme."

It wasn't just extreme, it was unsustainable. It was life ending, if done too often. Dune was thin, but he wasn't that thin - he had to be eating more than that. He just wasn't letting Yulie see it. Dune's refusal to eat hurt Yulie, just like his time on the balcony had hurt Yulie.

Was the food problem entirely based on spite and hurting Yulie? If it was, it was working, and that would make it extremely difficult to break Dune of it. I would have to break him of the spite, and that would be hard. I had no doubt in my ability to teach a horse to turn, but I had serious doubts in my ability to teach a human being not to feel something.

"I agree," Yulie said. "I've had him seen. Quentin says there is nothing wrong with him."

"When did Quentin see him, my lord?" I asked. Quentin was unlikely to cause Dune any problems, in my opinion. He was incredibly kind - but he couldn't help unless he knew the problem, and Dune didn't tell people the problem.

"Shortly after he first started refusing food," Yulie said.

"Was he refusing to talk at the time, my lord?"

"You see why I'm concerned," Yulie said, clearly on precisely the same page as I was.

"Tomorrow, when he's hungry, I'll try again," I said. "If he's actually sick, that's got to be the first priority. Would I be able to get some lemon cakes for him?"

"Of course," Yulie said.

"He needs better nourishment than that," Throren said. "He ought to be having the pottage."

"I'd feed him beef and saffron if I thought for a moment that he would eat it," Yulie said.

"Will you hold him again tonight, my lord?" I asked.

"Yes," Yulie said. "It wouldn't do to cut the experiment short before it has the chance to show any effect."

"Good," I said. "It doesn't need to be all night. Just for however long it takes for him to go calm."

"I'll take that under advisement," Yulie said dully, and I pondered for a moment what he meant.

Ah. He intended to hold Dune all night, necessary or not.

"In any case, it is time for dinner," Throren said.

"I'll need to put Kelpie away, Master," I said, managing to remember his title for once.

"I'll see you in our rooms. I'll bring dinner," Throren said. With that, he turned and walked away.

Yulie watched him go, then turned back to me.

"My lord, could you answer a question for me?" I asked.

"Yes," Yulie said.

"Is it my job to bring him dinner?" I asked.

Yulie twisted his lip into a smile. "I don't think you have a job, Kath," he said. "I think you were just supposed to be a pretty distraction because he heard his father was going to visit, and everything after that has been a surprise."

I shook my head and smiled, ignoring Yulie's disturbing accuracy. "Would it be my job, if I were a regular bed slave?" I asked.

"Depends on the Master," Yulie said. "It's certainly unusual for him to fetch you dinner."

"I think I might be rather spoiled, my lord," I said, aiming for lamenting but accidentally winding up sounding proud.

"I think you might be right," Yulie said, then left abruptly, leaving me wondering if I'd upset him. Maybe. Maybe not. Yulie was often abrupt.

When I finally returned to our rooms, Throren had dinner in front of him on the table, and he'd served us both. I sat in the chair he pulled out for me. I ate dutifully and then ate another helping while Throren watched me. I was going to get fat if he kept this up.

Throren poured me water and watched approvingly as I drank.

"Master, may I ask a question?" I asked carefully.

"You may quit asking permission to ask questions," he said, but he smiled as he said it.

"Last night, you threatened me with 'or worse', and I don't know what you meant," I said.

"I don't recall threatening you at all," Throren said.

"It wasn't a traditional threat," I said. "You said you were going to want to suck me again today, 'or worse'."

Throren smirked and leaned back in his chair. "Or worse," he said slowly. "Or worse has been running through my head all day."

I sat still and tried to wait patiently for an explanation. It didn't come.

"Strip and lie on your stomach in the middle of the bed with your legs apart," Throren said.

I'd autonomously risen and started undressing when the command came, but I paused. "Stomach?" I asked.

"Stomach," he confirmed.

I stripped off completely and went into the bedroom. Changes in the routine made me nervous, but we'd completely ignored the routine the last night and that had been glorious. I pulled the blankets down so that we wouldn't mess them, and I climbed into the bed and onto my hands and knees. Throren usually liked me lower, though, so I put my head and shoulders to the bed.

Throren came in carrying the water and washcloth. He looked at me for a few moments, then he stripped his shirt off and got behind me. He put his hands on my hips and held me there, stroking with his thumbs. Then he circled one hand around to my belly. "This is your stomach," he said, and dipped his finger into my navel. "Lie on it."

"Oh," I said. I lowered myself to the bed, feeling incredibly odd about this new position. I worried about it. It was always so much easier to take his fingers after I went onto all fours. Surely, lain out flat like this would be harder?

Throren leaned over me and sucked on my shoulder blade. "Still sore?" he asked.

"Not a lot," I said. "Not so much that I didn't ride a horse."

Throren nodded. "But still some," he said.

"Some," I agreed. "Tonight might not be the best time to try a new position."

"We're not trying a new position," Throren said. "I'm going to give you 'or worse'."

I shuddered underneath him as he sucked harder.

"Your task is to relax," Throren said, so I did as well as I could. "And tell me when you want me to stop."

"That again?" I asked.

"You'll be asking for a different reason," Throren said. "And you will ask, this time."

"Is that a challenge?" I asked dubiously.

"Oh, no," Throren said. "Certainly not." He kissed my shoulder and left the bed to take the oil out from the drawer. When he returned to the bed, he had with him our usual oil jar, and a second, unopened one.

What the fuck was he planning that he needed a refill on hand?

He took the oil and poured it liberally over both of his hands - hands, not just fingers - while I stared over my shoulder in shock and confusion. "This will be cold," he said. He moved over me and straddled my thighs, then he put his hands on my back.

I twitched as the cold oil touched me. Then I tensed up when I realised what he was doing. Then I relaxed when I felt what he was doing.

His huge hands spread the oil all over my back, lightly at first, then more firmly.

I was a little surprised at how quickly I started releasing soft sighs of contentment. He wasn't doing anything more than firmly petting me, all up and down my back and shoulders, but it was enough, nonetheless.

A tiny bit firmer, and I started moaning.

'Or worse,' he called it. Hah. He found a particularly sensitive spot just beneath my shoulder blade and pressed, over and over, when he heard my breath hitch and my volume grow.

"I thought about this a lot, when I first bought you," Throren said, as he shifted lower and took my arse in his hands. He dug his thumb into a spot that I hadn't known was there. It hurt, but also released something primal and pleasant. I tensed up, but when I relaxed, I had relaxed even further than I had been before.

"Oh?" I asked.

"I did. You were especially tense," he said. "It's a part of my usual routine. I expected you'd take a few fingers and tell me to stop. I'd find out how much you could take, and then the next time, I'd do this first, and you'd relax enough to take a tiny bit more."

"Hmm?" I said. I was listening, but not really listening. He had taken his hands to my upper thighs. I considered myself legitimately distracted.

"I imagined I'd have to use every trick there is, Kath," he said. "I imagined I'd have to spend all day and all night, rubbing away your tension, getting you used to my fingers. I imagined that even after all of that, you'd take three, and you probably wouldn't even like it."

"I like three," I said slowly, as he returned his attention to my arse. "I like four better."

He pressed one hand onto the small of my back and rubbed in small, glorious circles. The other hand dipped between my cheeks and touched my hole gently.

"Sore?" he asked.

"Not that sore," I said. Obligingly, he pressed a single finger in.

"Your only task is to relax," he said, as his other hand kept rubbing my back. "You're not getting my cock tonight, no matter what. I have something else in mind for you tonight. You only have to relax."

I let out a contented sigh and tried to shift my legs further apart. He took his finger out and returned to rubbing my back, but the damage was done. It was sexual now, and I was so, so interested.

Staying relaxed and pressing my arse back to try to get his finger back inside me were two markedly different things, however, and I couldn't do both. I took a deep breath and focused, not on my growing erection, but on the feel of his hands on my skin.

I really was loosening up. Usually, we loosened up my arse, and my body followed. This time, it felt like the reverse.

He put more oil on his hands and focused on my shoulders and the back of my neck for a while, then without warning, he put his finger back inside me. I was looser than I expected to be. It felt good, far better than a single finger usually did.

I pressed back, and he curled his finger to that spot that felt so good. After too long teasing me, he removed his finger. I expected to get another one. I was wrong.

He put more oil on his hands, got off my thighs, and settled beside my leg. He started rubbing down my leg, just like he had been doing to my back.

I was not sure that language could ever form a phrase to describe what happened to me in that moment. Melted may have come close to the physical aspect, but it left the emotional aspect a little wanting. I fell even deeper in love, most certainly.

This man was going to ruin me.

I couldn't argue the point he was making, however. As he worked his hands over my body, I relaxed further and further, and that translated into a relaxed arse.

One thought kept running through my head - that he didn't need to.

I could take his cock without this. I didn't need to be attended to like a too tense, too small slave. He had thought about doing this when he thought he would have to, to find out how much he would be able to get inside of me.

Now, he was doing it just because he wanted to - or because he thought I might like it. Either of those possibilities made me feel warm.

He finished up with my leg and pressed two fingers inside me. I normally liked it to burn. I usually felt wanting and frustrated if it didn't burn. Not this time.

This time, I felt loose, sloppy, and boneless. The limp feeling that I usually got when his cock was in me was already there. I normally only got like this when he was filling me up so much that I felt about to split open, but I had it now and he was lazily stroking me inside with only two fingers.

I moaned quietly and pressed back weakly. I'd gone somewhere else - somewhere calm and pleasant, somewhere my body was nothing but sensations, and I didn't have much need for movement.

Throren pulled his fingers out. He spread my legs further and settled between them, then he worked on my other leg.

I missed the fingers the whole time he did, but I didn't have the heart to comment on it.

When he finally brought both his hands back to my arse, I moaned in quiet anticipation, even though all he did was knead my cheeks. This too relaxed me further.

When he returned to fingering me, I didn't press back immediately. I felt like I was half-asleep. It took time for me to come out of my relaxation to remember that my hole being massaged gave my body an entirely different response, an entirely different kind of relief. He let me come to and press back on his fingers for a few minutes before he pulled his fingers out and put his hands back on my back.

I pressed into the mattress for a while, trying to stimulate my cock, but it wasn't enough, and his fingers dancing on either side of my spine were too distracting. Instead, I whined a bit and settled back in to relaxing.

He shifted his body weight at some point. How he managed it without alerting me, I would never know. I barely noticed until his breath was above my hole. Then I wondered how I possibly hadn't noticed. His hands traced down my back and rested on my cheeks, parting them, with his thumbs next to my hole.

He leaned in and licked me.

I fought not to tense up. I took a deep breath and relaxed. His thumbs massaged near my hole. He pressed his lips to it and kissed it. I shuddered and whimpered.

He pressed his tongue inside me, and it was so easy, so effortless. For possibly the first time in my life, I wondered absolutely nothing. My mind went completely, gloriously blank.

Throren licked and sucked until I was mindlessly pressing back into his hands and face. He kept going until my breath hitched and I started making the noises that I assumed he knew meant that I was about to come, and he backed off. He leaned back over me and put his hands back on my back.

I thought I knew this game. He'd played it with me before. He'd taken me to my finish before, let me see it, then refused to let me cross it. He had just stared at that be-damned notched candle of his until the time was right and then he'd guided me over.

As he touched my back again, I realised that I didn't know this game. He wasn't asking me to stay there with the end in sight, he was guiding me back down. I relaxed into his touch, like I was supposed to, and let him ease me away from the urge to finish and into the urge to sink deeper into calm.

Once I was calm again, he put his thumbs into my arse, stretched it wide, and pushed his tongue in between. I stayed relaxed and calm for as long as I possibly could under that kind of assault, which admittedly was not particularly long. Soon enough, I was pressing back and moaning his name.

He took me back to that edge, then removed his tongue and his thumbs. He kissed my right cheek fondly and returned his hands to my back. I groaned.

"Stop, please," I said.

He did immediately. I tried to shift my legs further apart, but they were as far as they could go. He pressed three fingers to my arse, but not inside. "Here?" he asked.

"Please," I said.

He pressed them in, and I hissed, not because it hurt, but because I wanted it so much. He sucked on my arse cheek while he slowly fucked me with his fingers.

I moaned his name, enunciating it the way I would have if I'd been home, and when it was finally out of me, I came for a really, really long time.

I was still riding the high when he rearranged my legs, pressed them together, and put himself over me. I had absolutely no idea when his trousers had come off, only that when I came around, his naked legs were against mine, bracketing them together, and his cock was between my thighs.

All I could think about was that it was a truly great position for him to suck marks under my hairline or pant harshly into my ear, which was strangely erotic. It hardly even occurred to me that he was taking his own pleasure from my body without using my sore arse. All I could think about was how incredibly calm I felt, how perfectly all right I was with this, and how much I wanted him to finish.

It made sense. This was my role, as his slave. To serve him, to bring him pleasure. I wanted him to be satisfied.

But that wasn't what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was his breath hitting my ear, and how desperately I wanted to hear it hitch, get faster, even out. I wanted to feel his cock as he came. I wanted to know what sound he would make - a grunt, a moan, a sigh.

Perhaps he'd even grace me with some delightful two-word combination.

He didn't. He spasmed, he held his breath, and he went silent as he finished. I relished his silence. I'd stolen his breath from him. Some part of him was mine, at least for a moment.

His mess joined my own underneath me, and he kept moving throughout. He slowed down before he stilled completely, and he stayed still for a little while as he learned how to breathe again.

When he was done and pulling away, I was a bit more lucid. He cleaned us both up and wiped the oil off my entire body. He rolled me over to get the come from underneath me. My whole body felt lax and unresisting.

I opened my eyes. He had not put his trousers back on yet.

I saw his cock that night, in the bleary moments before I fell into the best night's sleep I'd ever had. That morning, what I thought about wasn't his cock, or that I had finally peeked at it without even meaning to.

Instead, I thought about the fact that I had called him by his name.

Chapter Text

Throren came into the bedroom while I was pretending to still be asleep. I had been lying underneath a nest of blankets and trying to figure out what to do about having said his name the night before.

I needed to get myself under control. I was turning into a terrible slave. I'd never been great at it, but I had at least been able to fake it.

Throren tried to rouse me with a gentle nudge on my shoulder. "Come to breakfast," he said.

I pretended to wake up, and I looked at him. He sat on the bed beside me, fully dressed, seeming for all the world like someone who didn't care that he owned a slave that couldn't even call him by his proper title.

I sat up, wrestled out of the blanket, and looked at him some more. He lifted his brow in the way he did when he was waiting on me to answer him. He wasn't wearing the blank face, so he probably wasn't upset with me.

Maybe he really didn't care.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

I shook my head. If he wasn't going to make a fuss over it, then I definitely wasn't going to either.

But if there wasn't going to be a fuss, or a punishment, or even a talk about it ... then I wasn't looking at a man who might be disappointed in me. I was looking at a man who had put his tongue into my arse the night before, and I wanted nothing more than to climb onto his lap and have more of his hedonistic ideas enacted upon me.

I did climb onto his lap, and he chuckled, unprotesting. He let me sit on his thighs and mould my lips to his. His comforting hands came to rest on my back and on my thigh.

"We don't have time," he said.

"I don't care," I told him.

"Clearly," he said. He had to take my face in his hands to get me off him, and this only seemed to amuse him. "Come eat breakfast. I don't like you skipping meals."

I frowned. "There's always food in the kitchens for me-"

"There's a place at Yulie's table for us," Throren said.

I sighed. I might have been able to convince him to stay in bed with me. Convincing him not to show up to an arranged meal with Yulie was unlikely.

I wondered how late I could convince him to be, though. I set to working on that instead.

When my hands were crumpling his shirt and his were kneading my backside, he still hadn't decided we were too late. The deciding factor ended up being when I started grinding my hips down, and that was probably for the best. Once I got into that, turning back would be uncomfortable for both of us.

When Throren and I finally joined them for breakfast, Dune and Yulie were in the dining hall, glaring holes into each other.

On Dune's plate was a single untouched lemon cake. Yulie looked like he was trying to force Dune to eat it using nothing but sheer force of will. Dune looked like he was willing to subsist without any food at all using exactly the same method.

The lords and I ate together, having stilted conversations about weather, politics, and Yulie's latest books. Dune did not participate in conversation or food.

Once Throren, Yulie and I had finished, I tried to talk Dune into eating. Dune levelled a fierce, angry glare at me and told me to fuck off.

Throren didn't like this. He visibly tensed and his hands made fists. Dune glared at him with the usual amount of hate he seemed to have reserved for him.

I sighed. "All right, all right, I give up," I said.

"No," Yulie said sternly.

He gave me a little frown, and it knocked the life out of me. I could tell, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this frown was very similar to his diplomat's smile. It was cultivated and designed to have an effect. Garnth had once told me that Yulie could frown at you, and make you feel like you had kicked a puppy.

Even though I knew that it was something that Yulie used like social siege weaponry, it knocked me down easily. It hurt to see him disappointed.

"There's no point in pushing a fight I can't win, my lord," I said.

"You don't give up that easily," Throren said, seeming adorably dismayed. I could hardly stop myself from getting back onto his lap.

"We'll circle back around to food later," I said. "It's clear that I'm not going to get anywhere with it right now. I'll have to pick something else to do instead, and I can't be bothered to choose. Dune, you pick."

Throren frowned deeply. Yulie didn't seem to know what to make of this. Dune didn't either.

Mostly, I just wanted to get him to talk in front of Yulie. I needed to see how an actual interaction between them would play out.

I sat back, put on my best sickly sweet smile, and looked at Dune. "What will we be doing today, Dune?" I asked him.

He folded his arms and looked away, and I knew that I'd lost. Not talking was his game. I'd been a fool to play it at all.

"Fine, make me choose, then," I said grumpily.

Choosing wasn't easy. Up until that moment, I had simply been doing what had seemed right at the time. Choosing a course of action seemed ever so daunting.

I needed to bring Dune and Yulie together, which meant that I needed to find something they could agree on and focus on it. Did they agree on anything at all?

The very first time I'd met Dune, he'd been hanging socks on the clothesline. They had been heavily grass stained. While I'd been confined under a roof, I'd not even seen him. He liked it outside, clearly.

Yulie had been insistent that he wouldn't confine Dune. He seemed to believe doing so would be unforgivable.

They agreed that Dune needed to be let out.

"Your Master hates having you confined. We'll go for a walk in the sun. I can keep an eye on you, keep you out of trouble," I said.

Dune tensed, but he didn't refuse. Instead, he looked at me and nodded.

"Stay near other people," Throren said. "I don't want Dune getting violent with you anywhere remote."

Dune slinked out of the dining hall almost immediately, and I hurriedly excused myself to follow him, rather than bother trying to get him to wait. He folded his arms and walked briskly toward the North Gate, and I wondered where he was going as we climbed down the hill, avoiding the path completely.

Summer Hill was covered in gardens. Kayla had once talked for an hour about Garnth's personal quest to turn Yulie's house into a food basket. Only then had I learned that a large amount of what grew in Summer Hill was edible. They had nearly starved here, once. I supposed that it made sense that they wanted to surround themselves with food.

Dune did not respond to any of my questions. I asked many. He kept walking.

When he finally stopped, we'd passed the orchard, and we were in a tiny courtyard garden, surrounded with a half-sized wall. Dune put his back against the wall and slid down it, then he slouched until he was hidden.

If I sat next to him, no one would see us except those that came close enough to peer over the wall. I sat beside him, wondering if hiding counted as breaking Throren's command to stay near other people. I didn't care about the disobedience of breaking a command. I cared because he had only said it because he wanted me safe.

"Are you all right?" I asked Dune.

He said nothing.

"Can I help you?"

Nothing.

"I'm sorry," I said, but I wasn't sure what I ought to be sorry for. He was clearly upset about something, but I hadn't done anything except what I'd been told to do by our Masters.

Dune took off his boots and socks, and he pushed his feet into the soil, getting his toes dirty. He pointed at the plants in front of us. "Know what these are?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"These here under us, they're sweet 'taters," he said. "We'll be digging them up next time there's guests, I reckon. Tasty little fuckers. You can eat the leaves, too, but why you'd want to is beyond me."

"They don't taste good?" I asked.

"Bitter," Dune said.

"Do you eat them?"

"Nah. Even I've got standards."

Dune pointed at the middle of the tiny garden, where a taller plant stood.

"That's an Arcter shrub," he said. "Deep roots. Deep rooted plants are supposed to be good for apologies."

I frowned. "How do I use it?" I asked.

"Fucked if I know," Dune said. "The flowers on it are used to make a purple pigment. It's a valuable plant. I ain't gonna risk touching it."

"I'm sorry, anyway," I said.

"It's not for you, you dumb tart. It's for me. I'm sorry for telling you to fuck off," he said, in a sad and disappointed voice.

"Do you see why I was worried you'd hit me?" I asked. "I'm having to press on something you really don't want pressed. You're lashing out at me."

"I wouldn't hit you over it," Dune said.

"I don't know you well enough to tell," I said simply. "You're evading my every question."

"I don't know you well either," Dune retorted.

"I've told you more about me than you've told me about you," I said. "I don't see why you're willing to talk about breaking us out and mangling my collar for me, but you won't even explain this problem."

"There's nothing you can do about it," Dune said. "I could've fixed your collar problem, if you still had it. You'd get lashed for it, sure, but you can't fix my food problem."

"Watch me," I snapped.

Dune shook his head.

I calmed my defiant, petulant side, and realised that Dune had messed up. "So you admit that it's your problem?" I asked airily.

"What?" Dune asked.

"You said your food problem. Not Yulie's problem with your eating, not your hunger strike. You admit that you have a food problem," I said conversationally. I couldn't keep the smirk from my face, though.

Dune sighed. "I don't see why it matters," he said.

"I do," I said simply.

Dune frowned when I said nothing more, but if he was going to restrict the information he gave me, I was going to do exactly the same thing right back to him.

It mattered because it told me that Dune thought it was a problem that needed fixing. Yulie and Dune agreed that Dune had a problem. That ruled out the possibility of Dune doing it to spite Yulie.

This meant one of two things - either Dune had told Quentin about his food problem, and that hadn't fixed it, or Dune had not told Quentin about his food problem.

Now that he had admitted to me that it was a problem to him too, I knew that there was only one reason he wouldn't tell Quentin about it - if he thought Quentin couldn't help.

If he thought Quentin couldn't fix it, then it wasn't something a healer could fix. It was an old problem he'd already had seen to, or it was all in his mind.

If he had told Quentin, then Quentin hadn't told Yulie, even though Yulie had made it clear that he wanted to know everything there was to know about Dune, especially his eating. This meant Quentin was not Dune's ally, was willing to keep secrets from Yulie, and wouldn't have helped Dune in the first place.

All I had to do was figure out Quentin's role in this, and that would be easy, because I was obsessed with the absurd, and nothing was more absurd than Dune's eyes. I could hardly take my own eyes off them.

As such, I had afforded his eyes enough attention to determine that he had a very obvious glare, and he either chose not to restrain it, or he was unable to. Within this glare, he had a hierarchy. He glared at Throren the worst, who had taken a riding crop to me and constantly advised Yulie to be harsher with punishment. He glared at Yulie next as angrily, who wasn't quite as bad, and who refused Throren's insistence to be harsher, but was still his Master and the man who lashed him.

I'd seen Dune glare when mentioning Secturn, too. Dune didn't like Secturn either, but he placed lower than Yulie on the hate scale.

Least of all was when Dune glared at me. It was feeble, more like angry disappointment than real dislike.

If I could get Dune in a room with Quentin, I'd know how much Dune hated him, and if I knew how much Dune hated Quentin, I'd know if Dune had ever told him about the food issue and failed to receive help.

Luckily, getting them in a room together would be so very easy.

"Will you come with me?" I asked Dune, but it didn't really matter what he said or not. If he came with me willingly, or if I wrangled Yulie into helping me, I'd easily be able to get Dune and Quentin together.

Dune shrugged and put on his boots. He didn't seem to mind as I led him toward Quentin's rooms.

When we arrived, he took a seat on one of the beds in the bed-lined room, which was as empty of the infirm as it ever was. Either people didn't ever get sick in Summer Hill, or Quentin was so good at his job that they never got sick enough to need to stay with the doctor.

I knocked on the door to Quentin's quarters. He emerged and smiled at me kindly. "You look well," he said. "Is Lord Throren being paranoid over nothing again?"

"I think it's me being paranoid this time, sir," I said. "Lord Yulie has asked me to try to convince Dune to eat, but I'm not sure if I'm doing the right thing by him. I don't recall being forced to eat after the sun went at me, and I wanted to ask you if it's the same for rain."

Quentin looked behind me and spotted Dune. He frowned deeply. "I don't see Dune anymore," he said. It sounded like it pained him to say it. "Lord Yulie would be kindest to sell him to someone else, someone who would not ask so much of him. It's a cruelty to keep him here, and I'll not be part of it any longer."

I nodded. "I understand, sir," I said, looking at Dune, who wasn't looking at us.

"That being said, it's even crueller to involve you in it," Quentin said. He sighed sadly and moved into the infirmary, toward Dune.

Quentin reminded me firmly of himself, when he'd come to see me after my first time with Throren. Quentin approached Dune like he would approach a frightened animal. He sat on the bed next to him and put himself at Dune's level. He did not touch him, and he spoke very softly. "There's nothing you can say to me that will make things worse for you," Quentin said kindly. "What happened, out in the rain? Are you feeling all right?"

"Yes, Master Quentin," Dune said, and I flinched at the improper use of the word Master. Quentin wasn't his Master. If I went around calling someone who wasn't Throren my Master, Throren would probably crop me again. He was rather protective, and jealous.

"You were out in the rain for a while, I'm told," Quentin said.

Dune kept his eyes down, but it seemed to me as if it was in deference, not sulking.

"Have you noticed any symptoms since then?" Quentin asked.

"My legs went numb, but they're better now," Dune said.

"You've got full feeling back? Even in all of your toes?"

"Yessir," Dune said.

Make up your mind, I thought. Either he's a sir or a Master, he's not both.

"Are you congested at all? Anything like that?"

Dune shook his head.

Quentin looked to me and frowned. "If there's no symptoms, there's nothing to be done," he told me.

"Are you nauseous at all, Dune?" I asked.

Dune shook his head.

Quentin frowned harder. "I don't know what the problem is with your eating, Dune," he said, softly and gently. "If you were nauseous, I'd give you something to help. I can make a tincture for almost anything, and a potion for everything else. There are even inhalants. I wish I could help you."

"Thank you, sir," Dune said. He lifted his eyes slightly and didn't have even the slightest glare in them.

That answered that question. Quentin was not an enemy, according to Dune's glare. This had been, without doubt, the most respectful behaviour I'd ever seen from Dune, but he was terrible at it. It was hardly any wonder at all that he didn't bother speaking to Yulie. Even when he tried to behave, he was awful.

"Thank you for your help, sir," I said. "I'm sorry to bother you."

"Oh, no, Kath, you've done the right thing here," Quentin said. "I'll have a talk with Yulie. It's bad enough that Dune is suffering, best not to involve you, too. If Yulie can't make Dune eat, what are you supposed to do? It's mad, it is."

"Right? It's mean. Um. Sorry ... sir," Dune said.

"You can say whatever you like to me, Dune," Quentin said. "It's none of my business whether you're polite or not. I just want you well, and clearly, Yulie can't do that for you. Maybe someone else could. That's the reason I don't see you anymore. You're breaking my heart."

Dune stared at the floor and frowned, his lip quivering the tiniest bit.

Quentin, Garnth, and Yulie were the only people I had known to attempt to be kind to Dune, even once. Garnth had left him alone, thinking that was the nice thing to do, and Quentin had refused to tend to him anymore, hoping that would make the suffering end.

Yulie had tried to be kind. He'd followed the general rules of kindness. He'd offered a warm bed, food, and tried to offer rewards. It hadn't been enough, and Yulie lacked the skills to figure out why.

Everyone who had tried to help Dune hadn't known him well enough to figure out why what they did wasn't helping. Dune was only making his problems worse for himself, because I was trying to get to know him, and he refused to talk to me.

"Run on home, then," Quentin said sadly. "Unless there's something else I can help you with?"

Dune shook his head.

"Thank you, sir," I said.

Dune and I left.

"Thanks for trying to get me out of eating," Dune said, once we were back in the corridors. I smirked. If he wanted to believe that was what I was doing, I wouldn't correct him.

"Quentin's sweet, though, isn't he?" I baited.

"He's the kindest free man I've ever met," Dune said.

Dune didn't believe Quentin could fix his food problem, and he'd never even told it to him. That meant that it wasn't medical. It was probably all in his head then, which was excellent, because I was the most manipulative person I'd ever known.

Yulie couldn't have fixed it, because Yulie was a sociopath. Quentin couldn't fix it, because Quentin was a doctor of the body, not the mind. Even if he was adept at working on a madness of the mind, Dune would need to talk to him.

I wouldn't need to talk to him, because I was a mind reader - according to Yulie, anyway.

I took Dune to the kitchens next. I rarely ever went there, having chosen other work for myself. I sat Dune down at a worktable, out of the way of the staff.

Almost every one of the kitchen hands glared at Dune, but Dune ignored them and kept his eyes on the floor. I wondered if while we were there, I'd figure out from Dune's glaring who had stuffed cutlery into his mattress.

The cook himself came over to us. His name was Rohan, and I'd spoken with him personally only once before. He had given me a sweet bun, seen my appreciative reaction to it, and promptly decided that he liked me. He was a squat, redheaded man with a beard almost as wide as his own shoulders.

"I hope we aren't any trouble, sir," I said. "Would it be all right if we sat here for a while?"

Rohan frowned. "You, sure," he said gruffly. There was blood on his apron. He jabbed a thumb in Dune's direction. "But that one's got a knack for being disruptive."

I frowned. "It's sad, isn't it, sir?" I said, throwing on the meek mask. "Lord Yulie has asked me to try to make him eat. I'm trying to make him hungry, and nothing smells even half as good as your kitchen, sir," I said brightly.

A little flattery and he bent to my will like wild grasses bent to the wind. "Why, thank you, little one," he said, smiling. "Keep an eye on him, though," he said, jabbing his thumb in Dune's general direction again.

Dune glared at Rohan's back as he returned to the counter.

As the scullions and the cook returned to their work, I stared Dune down. Once I was sure we no longer had anyone's attentions, I spoke calmly and sincerely to him. I did something that I had never done before, and I purposefully imitated my father.

Once I started, he nearly took me over. Even dead and simply a shadow in his own son, my father had a presence and a surety. His words, his phrases, and his calm insistences spilled out of me with barely any hesitation.

"Let me make something clear to you, Dune," I said, smiling at him reassuringly even as he frowned back at me. He didn't like it here, surrounded by food and Rohan, who he ranked somewhere near Secturn on the hate-filled glare scale. "You can either talk to me, or you can let me figure it out for myself. I want you to understand that it doesn't matter what you do. If you talk to me, I'll be happy about it. I'll make sure Yulie's happy about it, too. If you don't talk to me, Yulie won't hear of it, but you can be absolutely certain that I will figure you out. You can't stop me. I am relentless. Either way, I end up knowing. You can make it easy for me or you can make it hard."

Dune folded his arms. "I hate that they're making you do this," he said venomously. "But I also hate that you're so fucking confident about it."

Dune's voice carried further than the sweet, mild tone of my father's slave training voice. Rohan came back over to us. He was carrying a butcher's knife.

"He giving you any problems, little one?" he asked me.

Dune eyed the knife, but he didn't look particularly scared.

I smiled at Rohan. "Oh, all the usual ones, sir," I said. "I'm thinking he's just mad, you know. Maybe he's been struck on the head too many times. I hope he comes around, but he might not. My people have a good remedy for madness, it's a tonic. Terribly painful to have to take, though. I'm hoping we can work around having to administer it."

Rohan seemed appeased by the idea of Dune in pain, which was exactly what I'd expected. He smiled widely and returned to his counter. Dune was scowling at me rather heavily.

"We don't actually have a remedy for madness," I reassured him. "Unless you count embracing it wholeheartedly - that always worked for Father."

"Do you just lie to people all day?" Dune asked.

"Depends on whether it works or not," I said. "Throren can always see right through me, but someone that walks up to you with a cleaver in their hand will always be swayed by subtlety."

Dune snorted and started laughing. "You're insane," he said.

"Almost definitely," I said, but I was smiling.

Someone who could laugh in a kitchen that smelled like this was not someone who was nauseous. Someone who could get a cook to approach them with a knife in hand by just sitting and talking in his kitchen was someone who had a disagreement with the cook.

I was pretty certain that I knew what was going on, now. The pieces were all fitting together rather nicely.

"I like those lemon cakes," I said lightly. "They're just this side of sweet. Very nice when you're not feeling well."

"You're not going to let this go, are you?" Dune asked. "I'm not nauseous. That's why you brought me here. You want to see if I keel over from the smell."

"Oh, you're so far behind, it's a little amusing," I said. I sounded smug in an ugly way, even to my own ears. "I'm going to make a huge leap of logic, and you're going to hate it. I'm going to guess that those lemon cakes aren't made in this kitchen."

Dune leaned back, blinking rapidly.

I stood up. "Come on, then," I said.

He followed me wearily out of the main kitchens. We walked through Summer Hill, and toward the second kitchen, the one that Garnth's greenhouse was attached to. This kitchen did not serve the main house. It served the barracks at the bottom of the hill, and as such, it served milder, more average fare. I was willing to bet my leg that Dune's lemon cakes came from there.

Dune and I sat at the lone worktable in the kitchen and we were not greeted nearly so harshly as we were in the main kitchen. Instead, we were completely ignored. We outranked anyone that might work here.

Dune stared at me and shut up completely. I stared back for a while, before I got bored of it. Then I stood. It was lunchtime, anyway.

I served myself from a pot on the hearth. The three maids in the room were busy peeling potatoes on the other side of the worktable. None of them seemed to care, so I nicked a hunk of bread and some cheese, too.

Dune watched me eat, and I realised what Yulie had been talking about. Suddenly, Dune was hungry. He'd take four days or more to break down and want Rohan's food, but this food, he wanted immediately.

I pushed my plate between us. Dune gave me a withered, defeated look, and took both my bread and my cheese and started eating them.

I smiled widely at him, and he glared at me feebly.

When he had finished, I got him a second helping. He shook his head. "If I eat any more, I actually will be nauseous," he said.

"Either you can talk to me or you can accept that I'm going to find out anyway," I said, reiterating my earlier statement to him. My father's voice tumbled from my lips. "Tell me. Is it because you've got a problem with Rohan or is it because the food here is blander?"

Dune frowned. "You've got this all wrong," he said.

"From here, watching you eat, it looks like I've got it all right," I said, feeling rather satisfied with myself.

"You think it's one of several possible problems," Dune went on. "The truth is, it's all of them."

I frowned. I hadn't thought of that.

"I'm sick, or something," Dune said, so quietly the maids wouldn't hear over their own quiet chatter. "It's something in spices. I dunno which one. It could be all of them. I can eat regular food just fine, but these nobles want everything seasoned and delicious and it makes my stomach turn and my skin crawl. I'll only eat it if I'm going to die otherwise. Quentin can't help me. It's how I am, it's how I've always been. I've had two Masters that were healers - do you think I'd still be like this if I could be fixed? And Yulie's a bitch, so yes, I'm on a food strike. Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. And I'm nauseous - fucker keeps whipping me, so I can't relax. And Rohan - the first day I was here, I asked him. I said I can't eat this shit. I begged him to let me make my own food, and he told me he'd make my food special for me. He did it for a week, then Yulie stopped liking me so he stopped feeding me and then the turd-faced runt banned me from the kitchen. Now all I can do is try to sneak food from here or the gardens or get those stupid lemon cakes, and I am so fucking bored of lemon cakes."

Dune heaved a sigh, and I felt terribly sorry for him. He raised sad, defeated eyes to me and continued. "Somewhere in all this, I've developed a problem," he said. His voice quailed and he looked close to tears. "I can't eat when I'm stressed, and I'm always stressed. So, there's your fucking food problem. Good luck fixing it. You fucking can't."

"Watch me," I said immediately.

He put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. He started sobbing, right there at the table.

The maids finally took notice. "Is he all right?" one asked quietly.

"Oh, no. He's not all right at all. He's been systematically sabotaged since the day he got here," I said dryly.

Dune whipped his head up and stared at me.

"What?" I said. "No use lying about it. You're a common class slave living in Lord Yulie's bed. Everyone wants to be you. Everyone wants to take you down a notch. Everyone thinks they could do better, and I'm sick of it."

"What are you going to do about it?" Dune said.

I smiled at him. "Have you seen Lord Throren? You realise he's as big as a house and he loves me? You're going to stick with me, Dune. You'll stick with me because if anyone tries to pull this shit anywhere near me, he'll start throwing furniture. All of this has happened because you've got some trumped up fraternizing charge, so Lord Yulie doesn't let you make any friends. Is it even real? Or did Secturn make it up just to spite you?"

I knew perfectly well that the fraternising charge was real, but Dune didn't know that I knew, and maybe if I could get him to correct me, I'd find out some truths.

Dune swallowed thickly and looked at his hands. "Secturn didn't make it up," he said quietly. It didn't matter how quiet he was - the maids had stopped working and were hanging on to our every word. "But that doesn't mean it's real."

"Dune, do not speak to me in riddles. I am trying to help you," I said.

"Why?" Dune said, still quiet. "You're right, everyone wants to get rid of me or take my place. People worship Yulie as a saint around here. I'm no good for him and everyone knows it. Why are you trying to help me? Why don't you want to be in his bed? Throren's the biggest arsehole I've ever met. Surely you want a trade more than anyone."

I snorted. "Lord Throren has probably never said more than two words to you, like he does with everyone. You've never properly met him. No one has. As for Lord Yulie's bed, are you fucking serious? Do you really think that pretty, pretty little man could ever satisfy me now that I've had Throren?"

The maids had turned in their seats to watch us. This sort of thing clearly didn't happen in their kitchen often.

"Is it true then? About ... is it a horse's cock?" one of the maids whispered.

I folded my arms and pretended to be reluctant to answer. "I'll not spread rumours about my Master," I said loudly. "Truths, however..." I said quietly, purposefully trailing off suggestively.

The three kitchen maids all turned red in the face and giggled obscenely.

"Either you'll let me help you or you'll fight me," I said to Dune. "I don't much care which. It would make Throren happy to see Yulie happy, so I'll help you no matter what you do. Don't fight me on this, Dune. You can't win. I am going to make Throren happy and there is nothing you can do to stop me."

"Wow, what is going on here?" asked someone at the door. It was a new slave and I hadn't met him yet. He was large, burly, and carrying a thick canvas carrier filled with firewood. He had dark red hair and lots of it. "Half of you giggling, half of you threatening each other. Sounds like a fun place to be," he said. He sounded jovial and light, but his face did not look it. He looked incredibly tired.

"Are you the one who's been lighting the fire in our rooms?" I asked.

"Yes, I've been doing it," he replied smoothly. He hauled the wood to the kitchen hearth and started unpacking it next to the fire for when it was needed next. "It's a winter job, so I won't be here long. I expect I'll be traded off come springtime to help someone plough a field."

My heart twinged uncomfortably. The only hope for freedom a slave had was for their Master to decide they had earned it and give it to them. If he changed Masters every season ...

He was more trapped than any of us.

"I'm Kath," I said.

"I'm Ger. Believe it or not, I have had my ear talked off about you all week," Ger said. "People seem to think you've tamed a dragon, the way they rant."

The maids devolved back into giggles. Dune had gone very quiet.

Ger served himself from the pot on the stove and sat down at the table next to me. "Now, don't get mad at me for eating the fancy soup," he said, confusing me. This wasn't the fancy soup. The fancy soup was in the other kitchen - oh. Were there levels of fancy food, even throughout the two kitchens? Were the other slaves asked to eat only certain things, even here?

"I've got special orders from Master Secturn," Ger went on. "I have to keep my muscle up, see, otherwise I can't swing the axe. I've got a great deal here. I get to eat the good food, nice sharp axe for chopping, and everyone keeps telling me one of our lords has adopted a unicorn, so I figure it must be a really nice place to live."

I laughed. Throren had told his tailor he could tell a little girl that he'd adopted a unicorn. The rumour mill in this town was incredibly efficient.

"Will someone tell me, is it true that Lord Throren threw a table at somebody?" Ger asked.

"It was another lord, and he deserved it," one of the maids said.

Ger looked at me. "Really? He's your Master, right?" he asked.

"It was before my time, but he's admitted it to me, and I've yet to catch him in a lie," I said.

"Those are the best kind of Masters," Ger said easily and longingly. "Ones who don't lie. They're my favourite. What about you, little quiet one? Who's your Master?"

Dune didn't move or speak.

"This is Dune," I said for him. "He belongs to Lord Yulie."

"Oh, whoopsie. I've been told to keep away. Sorry, you know how it is," Ger said. He picked up his bowl, gave us a tired looking grimace, and rose from the table. "Thanks for the introduction, and I hope we all continue to not get accused of fraternising."

Ger left without another word.

"See?" I said to Dune. "No one is allowed to be your friend. It's no wonder you're losing it."

Dune burst right back into tears.

The three maids looked a little abashed. "I didn't know it was like this," one of them said.

"We can't just disobey Lord Yulie's orders, though," said another.

"Don't worry about it," I told them. "He's letting me do it, that will have to be enough."

Dune folded himself over the table and sobbed into his forearms. I rubbed his arm apologetically, and he flinched.

"Can we go back now?" Dune whimpered. "Please? I ate, didn't I? Are we done?"

I sighed. "Yes. Come on. We'll go back."

Dune and I left the kitchen, and we started to climb the hill. Dune walked ahead of me, with his arms folded and his head down.

"Everyone does that, don't they?" I asked.

Dune said nothing.

"They find out who you are, then they turn around and they leave."

He said nothing again.

"I don't think Yulie knows how bad this is," I said.

Nothing.

"If I knew what the truth was, I might be able to get him to change it," I said. "I'm not convinced you ever fraternised at all."

Dune stopped suddenly and looked back at me with the dullest eyes I'd ever seen.

"I've never been accused of a crime I wasn't guilty of," he told me, and kept walking.

I frowned, because he had essentially just admitted to fraternising, and that was the last thing I wanted to tell Yulie. I'd been hoping that Dune hadn't done it. I'd been hoping for some elaborate set up, like the silverware in his mattress.

I started to hurry after him, but I paused, because I had remembered something terribly worrying.

Fraternising was not his only crime.

Murder.

Chapter Text

When we returned to Yulie's rooms, he and Throren were in the library. Throren was carving, and I nearly jumped in shock. I knew he did it, of course, my hook was proof, but I'd never seen it. I watched him quickly slide whatever he was working on into his pocket before I could see it fully.

Was he self-conscious about his craft?

Why did that make me even more attracted to him?

"Something happened," Yulie said as he took in Dune's ashen, tear stained face.

Dune walked toward the stair, clearly intending to leave, despite Yulie's interest and lack of dismissal.

"Dune," Yulie called warningly.

Dune stopped, but that was all he did. He did not turn back and he did not answer Yulie.

I contemplated telling Yulie what Dune had told me about food - that he needed bland food, he hated Rohan, and he couldn't eat while he was stressed.

It wouldn't help. Dune had perfectly legitimate problems with food, just like he had a perfectly legitimate argument for not stealing silverware. The problem wasn't the food, it was that Dune refused to tell Yulie about it.

He refused to tell anyone about it, and why wouldn't he? He had told Rohan, and that hadn't turned out well. I'd had to pry it from him, and he had only told me about it once I'd figured half of it out for myself.

I couldn't tell Yulie what the problem was. I would only increase their problems if I communicated for them. Dune had to learn to go to Yulie for help, but he also had to learn that talking to me was a good idea.

I was frustrated. Dune didn't think I could help him, he was wrong, and I had to prove it to him. Maybe, if I proved to him that I could manipulate Yulie in his favour, he would actually talk to me, rather than talking in circles, insisting that I couldn't help him, and implying he had commit crimes that I just couldn't believe he would do.

"We had a disagreement," I said flatly. "He hasn't done anything specifically - he's just being difficult. Could I recommend a punishment to you?"

Yulie grit his teeth. Dune looked at me warily, seeming betrayed.

"You may make a recommendation," Yulie said.

"We need to break him of this food issue. He's pushed it too far and it's time we pushed back. No more lemon cakes, no more pleasant food at all. I recommend offering bread, cheese, and plain meat from the soldier's kitchen. Nothing but, and if he won't eat it, let him starve it out," I said.

Throren tensed. "And here I thought you were such a sweet little thing," he said lowly.

"I think it should be the first thing you do," I went on boldly. "I think the moment he misbehaves, or refuses to eat when he is supposed to, he should be relegated to the same rations, or plainer, than the soldiers get. If he won't act like a lord's bed slave, he certainly shouldn't eat like one."

Yulie frowned. "All right," he said. "But if he starts collapsing, I'll break and offer him cakes again, and we all know that, so he's just going to wait it out anyway."

Dune stared at me for about three seconds. It was the longest I'd ever seen him maintain eye contact with anyone. He broke into a hysterical, manic little laugh, and then ran up the stairs. I felt incredibly self-satisfied, and I smiled widely at Dune's retreating back.

"When exactly did you become callous?" Throren asked.

"I needed to show him I've got power," I said. "He doesn't think I've got any say here. Besides, I only said it because I know Lord Yulie would break and give him lemon cakes. He doesn't need to know that I know that."

"What did you disagree on?" Yulie asked.

"Oh, everything," I said. "He's very reluctant to talk about anything, but so's Thr-the Master. I'm an old hand at forcing conversation by now."

Throren actually smiled at this, and completely ignored my stumbling over his title. "You just keep questioning him until he talks?" he asked.

"That's all there is to it," I said.

The door to the stair opened again. Dune stood there for a few awkward seconds, biting his lip, before he came into the room. "Can we talk?" he asked, looking me in the eye, then looking away again.

His breath came in quick pants, from fleeing up the stairs and coming back down them almost immediately. While I had hoped he would talk to me after this, I hadn't expected it quite so quickly. I certainly hadn't expected him to initiate it.

This was going well.

"Depends," I said flippantly. "Are we going to talk, or are you going to talk around the issue, like before?"

Dune bit his lip again, and he didn't seem willing to answer.

"Go talk to him," Yulie said.

I looked at Yulie and carelessly raised an eyebrow. Yulie seemed to sense that I was far too confident for someone that didn't feel exceedingly smug. He decided to let my behaviour slide.

"Or not," Yulie said, his brow creased. He respected that what I was doing was going way over his head.

"Dune, if the question is hard to answer, try answering it in just one word," I said. "The shorter the answer, the more likely you are to be asked to explain it better rather than to get in trouble for saying the wrong thing. Now, I'll ask again. Are we going to talk, or are you going to talk around the issue?"

Dune's lip biting turned into lip munching. His entire bottom lip disappeared into his mouth and his brow furrowed heavily. Finally, he made a little noise of frustration. "Both," he said in a high pitched, whiney tone.

"Both?" I repeated. "That, I'll have to see. Excuse me, my lord, Master," I said.

Dune fled back up the stairs.

"Kath," Throren called as I followed. "What are you doing?"

I stopped at the door to the stairs, and I looked back at Throren. "Making friends, I think," I said, smiling widely.

Throren shook his head, bemused, and he shrugged. I followed Dune up the stairs and met him in Yulie's sitting room. He was staring into the hearth and frowning. He reminded me of Throren. I sat down on one of Yulie's plush armchairs and allowed Dune to brood.

"Did you just tell Yulie that the best way to punish me is to let me eat or not eat exactly as I like?" Dune asked.

"I think I did, yes," I said, smirking.

"And he just accepted it," Dune said.

"No, he made it very clear that he intended to break down and give you dessert too," I said.

"All right," Dune said, looking at the fire and grimacing. "So you can make Yulie do some things," he conceded, and I felt immensely smug. I could not keep the grin from my face.

Dune came toward me and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me. This made me feel awkward in the armchair, so I eased off it and sat with him on the floor. Dune sat very still, moving only to bite his lip and take a breath as though he wanted to say something, then stop himself, over and over again.

"I want him to fuck me," Dune finally said, very quickly.

"Sure, that's why you're on a hunger strike and you keep telling me you hate him," I said sarcastically.

Dune shook his head frantically. His hair flew about with the motion, so much so that he was already reaching up to smooth it down before he'd even finished shaking his head. "No, that's a crock of shit," he said simply. "That's me trying to hide how I actually feel - well, no, I do hate him - but that's not really ... I mean, I hate everyone. Has he told you what it was like the first week I was here?"

"No. Others have, though, but I don't know anything about what went on privately between you," I said.

Dune kept stopping and starting. I wondered how badly jumbled his thoughts were, for him to need to keep cancelling his own sentences like he did.

"When he picked me up at the Stocks," Dune said, breathing very fast, "I was done. I was over it, see, I never wanted another Master or another Stocks trip ever again. I was going to give it one more go, see if I could luck out and get a good one, right? It happens. I've had enough Masters to know that there's good ones and shit ones."

Dune stopped completely. He opened and closed his mouth several times, failing to start again. I wondered if I should say something, but I worried he'd stop, or lose his thoughts in the mess of his psyche if I distracted him.

"He found me in my cell - I wasn't even finished recovering. I don't even know why he was there. He took one look at me and just stopped. He turned to me and told the guard to let him in, and they said they couldn't do that, and he looked about ready to murder them for it. But he didn't. He knelt down on the floor - he stained his knees, he got filthy, and he asked me to go over, so I did, because ... honestly, because he looked rich. With rich ones, at least if they're cruel, you're comfy, right? So I dragged myself over, and he looked at me, and I was filthy. He asked me what my name was, and he asked me if I wanted to be bought. I figured, hey, fuck it, no one's ever asked before, so I said yes. And he did. The guard tried to tell him my term wasn't up, to come back in another month, but Yulie laughed in his face and told him to get his boss. Then he told the next guy to go and get his boss and eventually they let him buy me. And I thought, maybe that's okay, right? Clearly he wanted me. I figure if I'm going to be stuck in this life he might as well like me."

Dune stopped himself, clearly realising he was in a rant. He breathed heavily, sniffed miserably only once, and it took a while before he figured out how to continue.

"The first week was mad," he said, and the lilting break in his voice told me just how mad it had been to him. "Yulie brought me back here, on his horse, and he walked in front of me. I was all fucked up from the Stocks, and we'd stop whenever I asked. I don't do well with horses, and Yulie just didn't care how useless I was. He'd stop right there in the middle of the road and help me down when I asked for it. He'd sit with me on his arse on the fucking ground like a fucking peasant and he'd wait."

Dune had tears in his eyes, and he looked as if he was about to shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. "He talked to me. I didn't have anything to say, really, he'd seen my record - good luck fucking explaining that shit. He got it out in front of me once and said it read to him like I was pertinacious, and I didn't have the nuts to ask him what that meant, because I'm a fuck-up and he was being so nice to me, but Garnth told me later, and it's not a fucking insult," Dune said. He sniffled and pressed his hands to his eyes, getting the tears out before they had even fallen.

"He spoiled me, when we finally got here. I've never been spoiled in my life. I don't even mean - I know you're getting shit. Throren bought you a fucking horse, and that's nothing. Yulie gave me everything. He put me in his bed, and he told me he wouldn't even touch me until I loved him. He told me he'd wait forever. He let me do whatever I wanted - he ordered me not to work. He was perfectly happy for me to mope about in the gardens until I healed up. He bought me jewellery and got Quentin to give me all these potions that made me feel fuzzy and happy, and my fucking arm was still setting but that stuff made it stop hurting. I used to wake up and he'd be fucking reading to me while I slept, and I hardly ever knew what any of it meant but he cared enough to try. I ... I know I say I hate him and he's an evil shit, but he didn't start out that way."

"This sounds a lot more like the Yulie I'm used to," I said, when Dune had finally finished and didn't seem able to start again.

What Dune was describing explained Kayla's recovery perfectly. It didn't explain why it hadn't worked on Dune, though. Dune seemed like he had wanted it to work just as much as Yulie had.

"Do you know what happened? What went wrong?" I asked.

Dune shrugged and shook his head. "That's your problem, Kath, you keep trying to find the one thing. There isn't one thing. I did everything wrong. I couldn't let him touch me, I couldn't eat right, I couldn't sleep, I kept waking him up with nightmares. I'm not - I've never had a lord before. I didn't know how to act - I still don't know how to act - and whenever I talked, he'd just sort of frown at me. It got better when I talked less, so I shut up more and more and now I can't fucking speak to him at all."

I nodded. "Okay," I said, digesting this new information as slowly as I could. "This is incredibly helpful to me, Dune, and I really appreciate you telling me this," I said, trying to be encouraging.

Dune made a soft, frightened sound, and his entire body shuddered, caving in on itself. I remembered something Yulie had said - praise makes him uncomfortable.

No wonder this had gone so wrong. Dune couldn't stand to be touched, nor could he stand kind words in a soft tone. Yulie could never have rewarded him. Yulie would have stopped giving him praises or touches the moment he saw discomfort.

This would be a problem.

"If I can get you back to what it was like that first week, would you let me? Would you help me?" I asked cautiously.

Dune let out another hysterical laugh. "Are you fucking mad? Of course I would. I just - I can't go on like that, either, it fell apart because I wasn't good enough, and I'd need to be good enough."

"Thinking you aren't good enough is a swift way to hurt yourself," I said softly. "Yulie thinks you're good enough. If he didn’t, he'd have gotten rid of you by now."

"That's not what I meant," Dune said swiftly. "I meant that I can't do the most basic of my duties. I can't talk to him, and I can't fuck him. When I talk, I make him angry, and when I try to get him to fuck me, he either pushes me away or I punch him. If I can't even fucking fuck him, what's the fucking point?"

I frowned. That rang true for me too, though I doubted I'd ever have phrased it that way. I still wasn't allowed to touch Throren. When we'd first fucked, I'd wondered what the point was. What if I couldn't take his cock? What would be my purpose, what would be the point?

"So," Dune said, breathing hard. "You got him to hold me. Twice. Last night I actually landed a punch and he just said, 'I forgive you' and fucking laid on top of me until I calmed down. Can you get him to do the same thing, only fucking me?"

I grimaced. "I don't think so," I said. "Forcing a hug on you while you struggle isn't the same thing as forcing sex on you while you struggle."

"It's not force. I don't even want to hit him," Dune said. "I don't. I get spooked. I don't even know what I've done until I've already done it."

"We'll have a tough time convincing him," I said.

Dune bit his lip. "But we will convince him?" he said hopefully.

"It'll take time," I said. "The thing is, we're already doing it - what do you think I have him holding you for? You're fighting him when he touches you. Learning not to fight when he holds you is the first in a long line of steps to learning not to fight when he fucks you."

Dune frowned. "That's ... how long will that take?"

I shrugged. "We're not on a time limit, Dune. He's made it very clear to me that he's not going to get rid of you."

Dune shook his head so hard that he had to smooth his hair down again. "I want it to go faster," he said. He took the plait from his back and drew it over his shoulder, where he held it in his hands. His fingers flexed protectively and ran over the length of his hair, where several strands had come loose. Dune's slightly shaking fingers pushed wayward hair back toward the plait, and I knew a nervous gesture when I saw one. "I want him to fuck me soon. Tonight," Dune said. His voice came out firm, but his fingers were still shaking.

I took a deep breath. I had originally suggested madness to Yulie just to get a point across. Now, I wasn't so sure. Dune had always seemed like a wild creature to me, but this tipped him over an edge. This wasn't right. "Why the rush?" I asked tentatively.

Dune shook his head. "I can't," he said, sounding pained. "I can't - just, seriously, Kath, can you do it or not?"

"Probably not," I said honestly. "I could speed up the process we've already got. You won't like it. Yulie won't like it either. And Throren's already worried that I'm too cruel with you. He might hate it too, and I needed him to make Yulie co-operate with holding you, I'll definitely need him for this."

"Okay," Dune said, nodding frantically. "How?"

"You'd have to be prevented from throwing punches," I said.

Dune breathed hard for a few seconds, then steeled his expression. "Okay. Chains?" he asked simply.

I nodded. "Or rope," I said.

"How will you get him to agree to it? He never ties me up. Not even when I'm really bad."

"Lord Drextrer does it," I said.

"Throren's father?" Dune asked.

"'Tie them to a bed and remind them all they're good for'," I quoted bitterly. "That's what Lord Drextrer said. Yulie will have trouble tying you up, especially in a sexual sense. He doesn't want to be anything like Lord Drextrer."

"Yulie holed me up under lock and key while he was here," Dune said.

"He's not a nice man. Yulie won't do anything that reminds him of him - oh, never mind, I know exactly how I'll do it," I said.

"What?" Dune said. "How?"

"Yulie won't be anything like his 'Beloved Father'," I said. "But he's always interested in what my father would have done, and my father would have tied you up months ago."

"Why does he care what your father would do?" Dune asked.

"He trained slaves in Andonia," I said.

Dune let out a breathless little laugh. "Is that what's going on here? Am I getting trained?"

"Hell if I know. I was a lot less involved in his work than everyone seems to think," I said.

"Okay. Fucking train me then. Have at it. Yulie's had others try it - and do you know what they said?" Dune asked, struggling to contain a laugh.

"They told him to rape you," I said. "He mentioned it to me."

"They didn't say that, that's just what Yulie took from what they said," Dune told me. "You can't rape property, no matter how hard property punches you in the face for it. They just said that he should be using me for what I was bought for, and the best part is, it would have fucking worked. I'd have struggled, then I'd get used to it, and then I'd probably stop hitting him."

"I am absolutely certain there's a better way to deal with your problems than this," I said.

"Nah," Dune said. "Just get it the fuck over with. I'm not a princess. He's not gonna rip my skirts and damage me so bad I weep for months. 'Sides, what's he gonna do? Hurt me? I don't give a fuck about pain. Just tie me up so I don't beat his face in, arse-fuck me until I stop struggling, and what's the worst that can happen?"

I wasn't sure which of the many terrible things that could happen would be the worst. Dune would be struggling, and that might end in a severely sore arse, or injury. Dune might hurt Yulie, even while tied up. Dune might change his mind halfway through, but because he would struggle from the start, no one would be able to tell.

While I tried to figure out how to tell Dune precisely how terrible this idea was, Dune moved on without giving me the time to explain it.

"So, your father would have tied me down and had his way with me already?" Dune asked.

"He'd probably have done it so many times you looked forward to it by now," I said honestly, recalling the way ae'NaNathra used to start smirking cheekily before bedtime.

"Fuck. All right. Let's do that," Dune said. He didn't even sound scared.

This was a terrible idea. I knew just enough about my Father's bedroom habits to know that he knew his slaves well. He would have tied Dune up by now, certainly, but he would have known Dune far better than Yulie did. He'd have been able to tell the difference between every one of Dune's different glares, his expressions, his nervous movements. He'd know from a look what Dune was feeling at any given moment, and he would know that he could stop or push forward accordingly.

I couldn't give Dune what he was asking me for. Not just because it was such a terrible plan, but because Yulie would never do it.

Yulie would never rape Dune. He'd made that clear. If Dune struggled, Yulie would back off.

Suddenly, the plan didn't seem so bad. It could never go as far as Dune was asking for, because Dune would struggle. It could only go as far as Yulie would allow it to go. Yulie wouldn't allow it to go anywhere if he thought rape was involved, so if Dune wanted sex, he would have to communicate his consent to Yulie, which meant he would have to communicate with Yulie.

How would I get Yulie to start it, though? He wasn't going to be easy to convince. It had been hard enough to get him to stay with Dune while he struggled weakly that first night. I couldn't imagine Dune would struggle any less now than he did then. I imagined it would be worse if he was tied up and expecting sex.

"I need you to tell me more about your hitting problem," I said. "If I can phrase it to Yulie like we're trying to cure you of your problem, then he'll roll right over and do anything to try and help you."

Dune shut his mouth so hard I heard his teeth click together. I thought perhaps he didn't want to talk about it, but I was wrong. "Really?" Dune asked, his voice weak and feeble, more like a whine than anything else.

I nodded. "Yes," I said. "How do you think I got him to hold you? I told him he was torturing you by starving you of touch. I told him you were going mad without it. He won't tie you down, he hates confining you, do you really think he can stand the idea that he's denying you the most basic of human comforts?"

Dune bit his lip, even as it wobbled. "Okay," he said. "The hitting started with my last Master. I didn't know he wanted me. He came up behind me while I was cleaning a bench, and I didn't hear him coming, and he bent me over the bench, and before I knew what was going on, he was on the ground and my knuckles hurt," Dune said.

"He just surprised you?" I asked.

Dune nodded. "Sort of," he said evasively. "I'd been his for eight months. I thought he didn't want me that way. He clearly changed his mind, or maybe it took eight months for him to get it up, I don't know. But I'd thought about it - when he'd bought me, I was done fighting already, I just wanted to stop. I'd have let him fuck me, that'd have been fine. But eight months later, I'm still thinking I'd give him whatever he wanted, and he tried, and then my hand hurt, and he was on the floor."

"And now, with Yulie? Does he surprise you?"

"Yulie never surprises me," Dune said. "He's always been like that, even that first week. The most he did the first week was kiss me on the fucking forehead a few times, and he always told me about it first. I ... really miss that, actually."

"Being kissed on the forehead?" I asked. I wondered if he missed that the way I would miss Throren's hand in my hair if we went too long without time by the hearth.

"I - he had a ritual about it," Dune said. "He'd tell me first - he'd say 'I'm going to kiss you now,' and he'd walk up to me, use two fingers on the back of my head to pull me in, kiss my forehead, and then he'd smile at me and just go back to whatever he was doing."

"I cannot tell you how much Throren's rituals mean to me," I said, thinking about how we'd sit by the fireplace, or how he'd tell me to strip and lie on the bed with my legs apart. What came after was always known, solid, pre-defined and expected.

Except lately. Lately it had turned into something brand new. I couldn't say that I minded.

Dune smiled and looked wistful.

"Have you been able to figure out what exactly makes you hit?" I asked. "You can be still when you're touched some of the time. You just look uncomfortable, but you don't always fight."

Dune bit his lip. "I - fright. I just react when I'm frightened. And ... and anything on my neck," he ground out. "Breath, hands, face, anything, it - I can't do it."

"Is this because of the collar?" I asked.

"No," Dune said. "If anything, the collar gives me something to hide my neck in. I - Yulie had this sheepskin I used to nick. It belonged to his mother, and he didn't like that I'd take it. I don't know where it is, now. I used to wrap it around my neck when we went to bed, and that helped. He got pissed at me for nicking it - I think he thought I just did it to piss him off - and I haven't seen it in months."

"All right," I said. "I think I know what I need to tell him to do, but I don't know if it will work. It might speed up the process, but there are too many different things that might go wrong. Yulie won't touch you if he thinks you don't want it, and if you're struggling, he'll think you don't want it. If you want him to do it, you'll have to convince him you want him to, and you'll have to not fight him."

"I can't not fight him, though," Dune said.

"You'll have to learn not to, and teaching you not to is how we'll make Yulie agree to this," I said. "I'll tell him that you need him to teach you not to struggle, and for that, he'll need to touch you. Everywhere. You'll have to find a way to tell him you want him to keep doing it."

"He fucking hates it when I talk," Dune said.

"Then don't talk," I said. "Use body language. Moan. You're a bed slave. Be - I don't know - sultry."

Dune snorted. "I definitely cannot pull off sultry," he said.

"You're not supposed to fake it," I said. "You're the one that's asking for it. If you really want it, you'll have to act like it."

"What does that even look like, though?" Dune asked. "I'm not a fucking bed slave. Yulie's fucking weird, no one else can stand the sight of me. I don't fucking know what sultry looks like."

"People can stand the sight of you, Dune," I said. "You're not half as ugly as you think you are."

Dune grimaced and shook his head at me in rebuke. "Don't. Really. It's not fucking helpful. You think you're being nice but you're forgetting that my weird eyes aren't blind, I can see exactly the same thing everyone else can. Yulie's crazy and that's fine. He looked me in the eye and paid money for me anyway, so I might believe it from him, but it's not fucking helpful, coming from you."

"You'll never manage to act sultry if that's what you think of yourself," I said.

"Then I can't act sultry," Dune said firmly.

It hurt to hear it. Dune said it as though his undesirable appearance was a fact, not a perception. I wondered if Dune had the same difficulty seeing his own reflection as everyone else seemed to have when seeing the real thing.

Creepy.

Dune's eyes were absurd, and they felt wrong and off-putting to look at. Was he actually ugly? Did I only like the look of him because I was attracted to the absurd?

Did Yulie like the look of him? Did Yulie like the look of anyone? He was a strange man.

Yulie had bought Dune immediately on sight. He had told me he was obsessed before he had even bought him. Yulie had to be attracted to Dune.

Dune thought he was ugly. I disagreed, and Yulie clearly did too. Dune might find it easier to behave in a sultry way if he knew how Yulie felt about his looks.

There were so many things that I could do to improve things between Dune and Yulie. I could tell Yulie he needed to tell Dune he was beautiful, I could work on Dune's manners, I could try to force them to communicate better, I could tell Yulie that the rule on Dune getting too close to others was not helpful at all.

In the end, though, all of those problems were secondary issues. They all stemmed from one main problem.

Dune and Yulie did not have a bond. They were not speaking, they weren't intimate, and they weren't able to predict or understand one another.

They desperately needed to work on their bond.

"Can you do as I tell you, so long as you aren't touched?" I asked.

"Yes," Dune said.

"Come downstairs with me, and I'll see what I can do," I said.

I wasn't convinced that this was a good idea, but Yulie had been adamant that he wouldn't rape Dune, and he had hardly been able to stomach forcing Dune to be held. He'd owned him all this time and not fucked him.

Yulie would back out. Dune wouldn't be able to convince him he wanted it, unless he actually did want it. I wasn't convinced, but I still hadn't seen them interact properly together, and I'd never get anywhere if I didn't call Dune's bluff. If I could get them together, touching and hopefully communicating, maybe I would learn why Dune was asking for this.

Chapter Text

I went back down to the library. Dune trailed along behind me, looking immensely nervous.

Throren hid his carving up his sleeve the moment I opened the door. I had long wanted to take his shirt off and meticulously inspect what was underneath, but never for this particular reason. It was a novel experience.

Yulie and Throren turned to us immediately. Yulie even closed his book.

I walked to Yulie's side and held out my arm to beckon Dune over. He inched closer to us. I pointed at the floor directly next to Yulie's chair. "Sit there," I said. Dune went down obediently, but not with any kind of grace. I pulled a chair over and sat in front of them. I leaned over to Dune, and he glanced up at me, but made no attempt to talk or move. "Good," I told him, and straightened up to talk to Yulie.

"A punishment is a punishment, my lord," I said simply. "Once threatened, you can't go back on it. I still think he should be on simple fare from the soldier's kitchen."

Yulie frowned. "Unless he gives you reason to think he'd eat something else," he said, sounding concerned. His eyes flicked warily to Dune, and I wondered if Dune had ever actually sat at his feet before.

Probably not.

"Oh, no, it's nothing like that," I said. "We just had an enlightening conversation. I think you ought to reward him for it, and I don't want you to think I'm silly enough to endorse going back on your word."

"He spoke to you? Properly?" Yulie pressed.

"To the best of his capacity, yes," I said. "I think he should be rewarded. The level of honesty he just gave me was astounding, if not abrasive."

I could almost hear Yulie questioning my usage of the word abrasive in his mind. He wasn't one to miss a thing - he would know that if I said that Dune had been brutally honest, that meant that I'd heard something difficult to hear. He thought on this for a while, then quite obviously forced it from his head.

"This brings us back to the subject of rewards," Yulie said.

Sometimes, Yulie truly astounded me. He wanted to understand Dune. I'd just told him that Dune had opened up to me, and rather than demand I tell him everything, treading on my young relationship with Dune, he had instead chosen to focus on the task at hand.

"The conversation itself told me exactly what Dune would like to be rewarded with," I said.

Yulie nodded slowly. He was clearly reluctant to press, and he took some time before he finally asked me the question. "What did you speak of?" he asked.

"Many things," I said. "I finally had the conversation with him that I had with you - the one where you listed your concerns, and what your priorities were."

"And you have Dune's concerns?" Yulie asked.

"I have one, but it's a big one. Bigger than yours, actually," I said carefully.

"I'm concerned he'll throw himself off a balcony, and you think he's got bigger problems?" Yulie said dubiously.

"If Dune throws himself off a balcony, it will be because he chose to. We can influence his decisions. We can lock our balcony doors. Dune is concerned with what he does without choosing to," I said.

Yulie frowned again.

"He's confessed to me that he doesn't think he can control his actions when he is touched," I said.

"It's not unheard of to lash out when touched unwillingly," Yulie said.

"I'm not talking about lashing out when he's unwilling, my lord. He's lashing out even when it is wanted. I'm talking about coming to and not knowing what he did or how he got there."

"Madness?" Throren asked softly.

"Can anyone convince me it isn't madness?" I asked. "I don't think he's lying. I think he's frightened that you're going to touch him, and he'll break your nose, without even wanting to. I'm worried he'll do something irreparable. He's worried."

Yulie frowned. "I don't think Quentin has any experience with madness," he said.

"Dune assures me it has only happened when he is touched - by you, his last Master, and he's flinched from me, too."

That, finally, snapped Yulie to attention. "It isn't just me?" he asked.

I shook my head. "No, it isn't just you, it's everyone, and it's bleeding out into other things. He's - look at his posture, right now," I said.

The moment I mentioned Dune's posture, it got worse. The tension jumped higher, he curled his back further, and his jaw clenched harder.

"He's standoffish, and no one is even touching him yet, but this is what he's always like," I said. "He's giving everyone the impression that he wants them at arm’s length, which he does, because otherwise he'll hit them, but no one knows that, so everyone just thinks that he's an angry little cheat, because that's all they know about him."

Yulie was getting concerned. I could see it in the set of his mouth.

"His last Master took a hit too, and Dune tells me he didn't mean to do it. This problem has already cost him one Master, and he doesn't want it to happen again," I said.

"He doesn't?" Yulie asked.

I shrugged.

"I don't believe he wants to stay here," Yulie said.

I shrugged again. "He wants to be able to choose," I said. "If he's going to get sent away because he hits people, he wants to be the one that chose to do it."

"He isn't going to be sent away for hitting me."

"He can't be expected to know that," I said. "It's gotten worse, or at least more frequent, since he's been here. I think time being untouched has made him more sensitive. He's getting worse, and if he keeps getting worse, he'll eventually reach a breaking point. Yours, or one of your peoples'. He's already getting framed for theft. He needs this problem addressed."

Yulie sat back in his chair. "How?"

"I think he needs to be broken of this, which sounds worse than it is. It's like breaking a horse. There's a lot more sitting around and waiting than actual breaking. I think we should push his limits with touching until he attacks, then keep going until he learns how to stop," I said.

Throren looked intensely uncomfortable.

"Dune, if at any point what I'm saying bothers you, I want you to get up and leave," I said.

Dune fidgeted, but he stayed on the floor.

"We've talked about it," I said. "There's nothing I'm going to say right now that he hasn't already heard."

Throren and Yulie both seemed rather dubious. "He wants to be broken?" Yulie asked.

"Do you have any idea how dangerous this is for him?" I asked. "He's a slave. He can't go around hitting anyone that touches him. He'd never leave the Stockade again."

"He'll never go back to the Stockade," Yulie said firmly.

"He's a bed slave who's not doing any fucking," I countered just as firmly. "His Master lashes him all the time. He can't do simple tasks like talking and eating. If you think he feels like he's safe and that he isn't going back, I urge you to rethink your assumptions, my lord."

Yulie frowned, but he couldn't argue with me. I was right and we all knew it.

"Dune is worried he's going to break your incredibly handsome face with an unlucky and unintended hit," I said. "Imagine that life for him. You're revered around here. Imagine what would be done to him by your beloved people if he mangled your face."

Yulie frowned deeper.

"You do have an incredibly handsome face," Throren said. "It's very tiring to be compared."

"There's no comparison, not with your hair like that," I said swiftly. Throren's reaction was shocked and slow to comprehend. I doubted he'd ever been complimented like that before. I wondered if I would ever be able to make him blush, but now was not the time. "In any case, if Dune doesn't want to do it, he can get up and leave right now," I said.

Dune took a deep breath, but he did not move.

Yulie folded his arms. "If I were to do this, how would I do this?" he asked.

"He needs to be prevented from attacking you, my lord, and that means chains."

Yulie's fingernails dug into his skin.

"Kath," Throren warned. "Really?"

"Look at him not moving," I said, pointing at Dune, who still sat on the floor. "I'm not saying that you should do it permanently. It's not even long term. It's - I don't know - half an hour, once a day. Maybe he'll even chain himself up for you. I would, in his position."

"You would?" Yulie asked.

"Without doubt, my lord," I said. "I'd be scared of myself. I'd welcome not having to be afraid of what I'd do. I'd put myself in chains whenever they were offered, if it meant I didn't do things I'd regret."

Throren's face became blank very quickly. I worried about it, but I couldn't stop this conversation half-way through.

"I'd like to come back to this later, my lord," I said. "It's clear to me that you're reluctant. It's obviously an issue. I don't want to push it."

Dune looked up at me, and his jaw was grit together. "Push it," he ground out.

Yulie's eyes went so wide, I worried they might fall out of his head.

"Later, I'll push," I told Dune. He put his eyes back on the floor. "You asked me what my father would have done with Dune," I said to Lord Yulie.

"You said he'd talk," Yulie said.

"I've done a lot of talking now, my lord," I said. "I know exactly what he would have said to you."

"What?"

"He'd have told you that your slave won't talk to you, and as such, your bond needs work," I said.

"Kath," Throren said warningly. "You cannot be serious."

"This isn't Andonia," I said. "You don't have to do it the Andonian way. But you must work on your bond."

"What is the Andonian way?" Yulie asked, concerned.

"Andonians bond with sex," Throren said furiously.

"I'm not telling you to do it the Andonian way, my lord," I said.

Yulie looked deeply uncomfortable and Throren still looked blank.

"I told you I would not rape him," Yulie said.

"I'm not asking you to," I said. "I'm asking you to make a connection. Even if you wanted to do it with sex, you couldn't. He'd hit you. What you can do is everything else."

"Everything else?" Yulie said.

"Sex isn't so simple a thing as just one act," I said. "Father used to give very specific instructions on the type and routine of sex required for a bond between a Master and slave. It's different to that between lovers. You can hear the instructions, if you like, or you can forget we ever had this conversation."

One did not collect as many books as Yulie had collected without being an incredibly curious person, and Yulie fell straight into my bait. "There's no harm in hearing it," he said uneasily.

"Take him into your bedroom. Put him onto his back on your bed, tie his hands above his head. Put yourself above him, have him at your mercy and under your control, and order him to look you in the eye while you do absolutely whatever you want with him," I said.

I'd always blushed madly whenever I'd heard Father give this little spiel, even though it was a hell of a lot tamer than the one he gave about the thresher root.

Father didn't say this to all the men who stayed with us. I heavily suspected that he tailored it to Dabrenese Masters. Culturally, eye contact was only allowed between equals in Dabren, and I could see how terrible that would be for communication. Father would use this advice to make the Master believe that eye contact happened most during sex and submission, and therefore, it was a good behaviour, not a poor one.

The advice did not contain any specific sexual directions, but it did contain a demand to look each other in the eye. If Yulie and Dune couldn't communicate with words, maybe they could do it with eye contact.

And Dune had asked me to get Yulie to fuck him. I doubted it would happen, but after this, I could tell Dune that I'd done my best.

Yulie said nothing. Throren had gone so cold, he was like stone.

"If whatever you want is to not rape him, then do that," I said. "Have him look you in the eye while you have him powerless beneath you and you do not rape him. I doubt that's what you want, though. People want to do, more than they want to not do. Perhaps what you would really like is to have him like that, staring up at you while you kiss him on the forehead, and you tell him how absurdly pretty his eyes are."

Yulie finally looked like he was considering it. I'd struck a nerve - of course I had. A man doesn't buy a slave for his bed and do nothing to them but kiss them on the forehead unless they liked kissing slaves on the forehead.

"Allow me to circle back to my original point," I said.

"Which was also about tying him up," Yulie said. "Same book, different binding."

"Precisely, my lord," I said. "It all ends up coming back to the exact same thing."

Yulie frowned.

"I would like to point out that Dune is currently sitting calmly and quietly at your feet," I said, feeling a little smug.

Yulie glanced at Dune, who was noticeably tense, but was indeed sitting quietly at Yulie's feet. "He'll fight me," Yulie said.

"He would fight anyone, and that's the entire problem," I said. "He could have asked me to help him get over it myself. He didn't. He chose to ask me to come to you. You told me earlier that if you knew what he wanted you'd shower him in it. Here it is. This is what he wants."

"He'll regret it," Yulie said.

"Everyone has regrets, my lord," I said simply. "It's your choice. None of us can make you do anything."

Dune was looking at me, meeting my eyes fiercely in short, momentary bursts. "Push it," he said quietly.

"This is pushing it, Dune. Get used to it. You can't make Masters do anything - lords even less so. All you can do is explain how badly you want it."

Yulie was quite clearly having an internal battle of wills. "I said I wouldn't do anything cruel," he said after a time. "I can't quite figure out if this is cruel or not."

Throren grunted. "You're in murky waters," he said coldly. "You've always been in murky waters with Dune."

Yulie frowned. "That's no help," he said.

"Would it help if Dune did it to himself?" I asked. "He's in control when you aren't touching him. If he is in control of when it happens, or if it happens at all, would that help?"

Yulie frowned.

"Yes," Throren said. "If Dune initiates it and can choose not to, that's helpful."

Awkward silence followed. Yulie looked trapped and worried. It did not look like he agreed with Throren.

"If you're going to do this, it can't be on your own. You'll back out," Throren said, which was exactly what I had been thinking.

"Probably," Yulie conceded.

"Kath should be there. He's the only one Dune has ever spoken to. If Dune's going to be fighting you with Kath there, then I have to be there too. I won't let Dune break Kath's face. I like it too much," Throren said.

Dune tensed up at this. He shifted, bringing his feet underneath him. He didn't get up and leave, but he was ready to.

"I think restraints coupled with your presence might be difficult, Master," I said softly. "He has issues with you."

"We said we were going to break him of it, and that it's not just limited to Yulie," Throren said. "Who better than me? He hates me. I'm far more intimidating than Yulie is. If we can get him to control himself with me, Yulie will be easy."

That was ... unexpected. Yulie looked thoughtful. Dune was looking at me and rocking on his feet, ready to bolt. I slid out of my chair to get down to his level.

"You want to take this," I said to him, and settled on my knees in front of him.

Dune shook his head.

"No, really," I said desperately. "Dune, you can trust me on this. If there is anyone who can help you, it is him. He's who you've needed all along to help you."

Dune shook his head again. I bit my lip.

"If you can use him to get over the fighting, you can move on to Yulie and it will be easy. You can't hurt Throren. You couldn't move him, even if you weren't restrained. You can't make him angry - he wasn't even angry when he gave me the crop. He's methodical, he's patient. He is a stone wall. He's like furniture. You can't upset him, you can't hurt him."

Dune still looked uneasy, but he hadn't gotten up and left yet.

Throren took a deep, blank breath. "There's bound to be shackles somewhere," he said.

Dune flinched.

"I'll figure it out," Throren said. "Get Dune upstairs, try to keep him calm. Try to keep Yulie calm, too. He doesn't act like it, but he's anxious. It just looks different on him."

I realised belatedly that he was talking to me. "Yes, Master," I said.

Throren rose from his chair and stalked from the library. Yulie and Dune followed me upstairs rather mutely.

 

 

 

When Throren returned, he was blank as ever. "I am getting tired of Secturn bleating at me," he said beneath his breath, when he spotted all three of us sitting at respectable distances from each other on separate corners of Yulie's bed.

He tossed a pair of heavy shackles on the bed and watched Dune flinch. "Those are yours now," he said. "I'm not going to touch them. You want to do this, you put them on."

Dune looked at the shackles, pale and frightened.

"I bet you can't do it," I said.

Dune frowned. He picked the shackles up, turned the key, and watched the cuffs open.

"Thread them through the headboard," Throren said. He sat down, his back to us all, and started unlacing his boots.

Dune's hands shook as he did as he was told. He put one wrist after the other into the cuffs and pressed them closed. He still held the key in his fist. I scooted over and held my hand out underneath his. He released his fist and dropped the key into my hand.

I gave it to Yulie. He took it like it was precious and laid it gently onto the nightstand.

Throren took his boots off and sat next to me, ignoring Dune completely. "Where should I start?" he asked.

"Avoid his neck, at first, or anywhere too personal," I said. "Try his feet. See what he'll let you do. We'll have to be mindful of kicking anyway."

Dune's knees rose protectively, moving his feet further up the bed and away from Throren. The soles of his shoes planted carelessly on the bedcovers, and I grimaced.

Throren didn't move immediately. He'd always been so patient. Eventually, he sat himself on the foot of the bed, facing Dune. Dune's feet went higher and higher up the bed, trying to get away from him, and Dune breathed heavily.

Throren started by unlacing Dune's shoes, which went well. Dune even allowed him to carefully pull them off his feet and put them on the floor.

Throren's hand on Dune's socked foot was fine, too, though Dune was breathing heavily. Nothing seemed to be amiss until Throren's hand started to close around Dune's ankle, and Dune immediately went irate. His other foot lashed out and caught Throren in the shoulder. Throren was true to my expectations, and he seemed not to care. He caught Dune's other ankle and pressed it to the bed.

Dune reacted exactly how I'd feared he was going to. He fumed, seethed, struggled, and screamed. Yulie went quite green. Throren stayed just as blank as he had been from the start.

"Let me go," Dune said, pulling sharply on the shackles and twisting his torso, trying to find any sort of leverage.

Throren looked him in the eye. "No," he said.

I shifted closer, reaching for Dune's hands to comfort him.

"Get away, Kath," Throren said darkly.

I faltered, but I didn't move away.

"He'll hurt you," Throren said. "You were right from the start. He's mad. He put himself in this position, knowing what it would do to him. He's mad and he needs healing, not punishment."

I nodded. "See, Dune?" I said. "You can trust him-"

"FUCK OFF!" Dune screeched. "Let me out, let me go!"

Throren released Dune's ankles suddenly and got on top of him, using his weight to pin his lower body. He grabbed one of Yulie's blankets and dragged an edge of it up and into Dune's screaming mouth, while Dune twisted, jerked and flipped his head to the side to get away.

"Throren," Yulie said, shaking his head. "This is enough-"

"You're all right," Throren said quietly to Dune. "You're not in any danger. No one will hurt you. You're all right."

I sat by and waited uselessly. Dune screeched behind the blanket and flailed.

"Kath, tell us a story," Throren said suddenly.

"Throren," Yulie warned. "This isn't working - "

"Shut up and hold his feet down," Throren said.

Yulie did not look like he was in a fit state to do anything of the sort.

"ae'Sammerhat the fire daemon was old and lonely," I said.

Dune was not paying attention.

"His fires had burned away all of old Andon's forests and all the fire hawks had no more twigs to nest with."

Throren kept a hand on the blanket over Dune's mouth, muffling him. He put his other hand directly in the middle of Dune's chest, applying steady pressure and keeping him from twisting too much.

"The old Andon's starved. They cried out to the gods. 'ae'Sammerhat is cruel and evil', they cried. 'Send us a saviour. Help us overthrow this evil daemon.'"

Yulie managed to find it in him to hold Dune's twisting feet.

"The gods heard the people's plea. They set forth a series of heroic trials with which to test their chosen saviour. But they argued amongst themselves about who to send. Poseidon, the ocean-god, demanded they send ae'Ikrishda, the tree-man, to slay ae'Sammerhat. Humbaba, the gatekeeper to the cedar-forest of the gods, insisted they send his brother, the demon prince Pazuzu. Pazuzu insisted they send his nemesis, Lamashtu, but all the gods knew that he only said so to get her out of his way. Lamashtu insisted they send herself, as she was the oldest of all succubi, and ae'Sammerhat was old and lonely. He was a perfect target."

"Oh, this is going to be a good one," Throren said. Dune's thrashing was so mild beneath his massive strength that he barely even had to pay attention to it, and could instead listen to me. "You're all right, Dune. Listen to the story."

"Odin was old and wise, and insisted that they send his son, Thor. But Thor was young and tardy. The gods agreed he would be perfect for the task, but Thor was late to the meeting."

Throren chuckled.

"While the gods argued, ae'Aberda, the water daemon, slipped down to the earth, and took with him the mantle of saviour. He was slippery and cunning, and Poseidon could not control him, for Poseidon ruled the oceans, and ae'Aberda was without salt."

Dune whimpered into the blanket, and his struggling was getting weaker. Throren did not move.

"ae'Aberda awoke in a strange, dry land, consumed by ae'Sammerhat's fire. The trials of heroism awaited him, but ae'Aberda was too smart for all of them. He parted himself and sank deep into the earth, soaking through the dry lands and creating underwater rivers for the old Andon to build wells over. He flowed underground, and completely ignored the trials laid out for him by the gods.

"ae'Sammerhat was furious to be so thoroughly circumvented. His fires raged harder. ae'Aberda stayed underground, only coming up when the old Andon pulled him from their wells. ae'Sammerhat cursed ae'Aberda and challenged him to a duel.

"ae'Aberda agreed. They met in the last forest, and they began their duel. The people cried out to the gods again, 'Bless our saviour.' The gods bickered amongst themselves for seven days and seven nights. They did not want to reward ae'Aberda's treachery, but they did not want ae'Sammerhat undefeated either."

Dune's breathing had evened out, and he no longer fought Throren, but Throren didn't budge from his spot atop him.

"During their bickering, on the seventh morning, ae'Sammerhat defeated ae'Aberda. He struck him low, turning him to steam. ae'Aberda yielded to the fire daemon, accepting his defeat.

"ae'Aberda retreated underground, but as he had yielded, he could not allow the old Andon to draw from him with their wells. The people cried for him, and their tears salted the earth. Each tear turned ae'Sammerhat's earth dull and lifeless with salt.

"The people cried until ae'Sammerhat had barely any fertile land left with which to grow his trees, and without fuel, his fires died out. ae'Sammerhat, sensing his own end, called to ae'Aberda for one last duel.

"The people cried out, and the gods listened. They kept their bickering to only one day this time, and after the day, they agreed to empower ae'Aberda with the power of flight."

Throren carefully pulled Yulie's blanket out of Dune's mouth. Dune licked his lips and stayed very still.

"What the gods did not know was that ae'Sammerhat was a cornered beast, and at his most powerful. He had struck ae'Aberda down within the first three hours of their duel, before ae'Aberda had received the power of flight. As ae'Aberda's body dripped into the earth at ae'Sammerhat's feet, ae'Sammerhat roared with satisfaction, and ae'Aberda's game was finally won.

"For ae'Aberda never intended to overthrow the evil fire daemon. He never intended to be saviour to the people. ae'Aberda had always intended to be saviour to ae'Sammerhat.

"In ae'Aberda, ae'Sammerhat had found a companion, someone he could not burn. ae'Sammerhat had been consumed by fire, and needed tempering, not destruction. ae'Sammerhat relinquished ae'Aberda, and together, they were able to control the fires.

"When ae'Sammerhat grew too powerful, ae'Aberda would use his power of flight to fall from the skies and block ae'Sammerhat's path. Thus, the only place ae'Sammerhat could burn was where ae'Aberda allowed him to. ae'Aberda steered ae'Sammerhat to the trials the gods had placed, and one by one, the trials fell beneath their combined might, releasing trophies and gifts. ae'Sammerhat had no need of them, so ae'Aberda took them into his body, dripped through the earth into the ground, and allowed the people to draw the gifts up from their wells. The old Andon became strong and wise from godly gifts, and they cast aside the gods of other peoples. They had better gods now, and no more need for bickering."

Dune lay underneath Throren, breathing shakily. He was a mess of tears and snot. I had no idea if he'd been listening to the story or not. Yulie had released his ankles and was gently stroking the tops of his feet.

"I am going to touch you now," Throren said. "You will not be harmed, and I will not do anything sexual to you."

Throren was exactly as methodical and clinical with Dune as he had been with me when he had taken care of my burns. He placed his palm gently, starting with where Dune's skin was clothed. He grabbed him and handled him, and generally exposed him to touch and manipulation.

Dune didn't fight as hard as the first time and didn't need me to tell another story. He would occasionally jerk about and try to get away, and every so often he tried valiantly and completely futilely to buck Throren off. He frequently insisted that he fuck off, or die in a fire, or eat his own shit, or someone else's. Usually, he calmed back down within moments.

While Throren was calmly touching his face, Dune bit his hand, then immediately let go. "Sorry," he said. He sounded surprised and ashamed.

"I forgive you," Throren said, blank as ever.

When Throren went to Dune's neck, he started sobbing and squirmed into the mattress, trying to get away. "Kath," he squeaked.

"I'm right here," I said.

"No," Dune said.

"You're all right, Dune," Throren said calmly.

"No, no no no, make Yulie do it," Dune said quickly, sobbing and hyperventilating around Throren's hand.

Throren shrugged. "Fair," he said.

Yulie and Throren swapped places. Dune took the time to try to calm his breathing. He didn't succeed.

There was a noticeable difference between Dune's reaction to Yulie's touch and his reaction to Throren's. Dune allowed Yulie to touch his chest, his face, and his arms with only flinches and extremely weak struggles.

Dune clearly didn't hate Yulie half as much as he pretended to.

When Yulie placed his hand on Dune's chest, then slowly inched it higher, up toward his neck, Dune still didn't fight the way he fought Throren. He broke down, and he cried in a near constant stream of sobs. "Sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry," he said, until his words were indistinguishable from sobs.

Yulie leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. Dune whimpered loudly, and Yulie sprang back. "Stop," Dune said.

Yulie paused but didn't stop. "It's gone on long enough now that we might as well just finish it," he said.

Dune shook his head. "W-Wait, then," he said.

Yulie withdrew, and Dune took a few moments to breathe.

"What's the other thing again?" Dune asked, looking at me.

I furrowed my brow, unsure what he meant.

"This is breaking, right?" Dune said. "There was another thing for bonding."

"We'll talk about it after," I said softly. "You're almost there."

Dune shook his head. "No," he said. He pulled at the shackles, then relaxed his hands. "Give me bonding."

"Dune," I said softly and reproachfully. "For bonding, you'd ideally need to be naked."

"Okay," Dune said, which wasn't the response I had hoped for.

"Dune," I said, trying for a warning but still patient tone. "You're going to have to finish this. You've done so well. We can't just cut it short when you're doing so well. You can do this."

Dune flinched, and I frowned. He didn't even like to be encouraged. He made a noncommittal hum and shook his head slowly.

"Try asking for specifics," I said. "There's quite a bit of overlap. Try saying exactly what it is that you want right now."

Dune closed his eyes. "Fuck me," he said quietly.

Yulie and Throren both seemed to think he was joking or using it as an expression.

"That would hurt pretty badly, without any preamble," I said. "You don't want that right now. What do you want right now?"

Dune frowned, keeping his eyes closed. "Not hands," he said, then opened his eyes. "Just breathe on it, it's bad enough."

I shifted closer to Dune and put my hand in his. He held on weakly. "Breathe on his neck," I told Yulie.

Yulie leaned down and blew softly onto Dune's shoulder. Dune flinched like he had been hit.

"Keep going," I said. Yulie did, and Dune shuddered under it, crying.

"This isn't like before," Yulie said, and he wasn't the only one who had noticed. Once his neck was involved, Dune had called out for Yulie and he'd been unable to tolerate air, let alone touch.

"Is it the collar?" Yulie asked. "I know you hate it. We can work around it. I'll find you something smaller."

Dune didn't respond. Yulie returned to just being near Dune's neck, and his breath caused the sobbing to start back up.

"I don't think it's the collar," I said. "I think something bad has happened there."

Dune shuddered and cried harder.

Yulie retreated and fisted a hand in his hair, pulling at it with frustration. "What good is a slave record if it doesn't tell me my slave has suffered something so traumatic, he can't stand to be breathed on?"

"The shit that Kath's left out is fairly traumatic," Throren said.

Yulie abruptly picked himself up off Dune and left the bed. "We're not done," Throren called.

Yulie ignored him and left the room. Dune burst back into tears and gripped my hand tightly.

Yulie returned after only a few moments, holding something leathery on one side and woollen on the other. Sheepskin, I realised. Yulie put himself back atop Dune and pressed the sheepskin over his neck. He tucked it in around him, then brought his lips to Dune's forehead. Dune squeaked.

"Sorry," Yulie said. "If you would have told me, I'd have let you keep it."

"Yulie," Throren said, shaking his head. "We're here to break him of it, not give him a crutch-"

"Fuck off, Throren," Yulie said. "I'm done. He's finished. He's getting his sheepskin, and this is over."

"Yulie-"

"He's never going back," Yulie seethed angrily, glaring at Throren. Dune peeked up at Yulie with reddened eyes. "He's staying with me and if no one ever touches his neck again, it will be too soon. I don't need it. He can wrap it up and no one ever has to even see it again."

Dune blinked up at Yulie, watching him carefully.

Throren shook his head. "Kath?" he said. "Maybe if you talk, he won't interrupt you."

I shrugged. "I have no complaints. Do either of you realise what is happening right now?"

Yulie seethed some more and Throren shook his head. Dune stared at Yulie, watching him glare furiously from Throren to me.

"Dune is looking you in the eye while you do whatever you want with him," I said.

Yulie's hard gaze snapped to me, still furious, but also surprised by what I had said.

"I told you, I don't care what you do. If what you want is to wrap his neck up in a sheepskin and yell at us, then do it. You're still bonding," I said.

Dune's eyes drifted to me for only a moment, before they went back to Yulie, who had tensed up under my words, frowning.

"Look at him," I said. "He's stopped pulling on the shackles, he's just lying there looking at you. Keep it going. Do whatever you want."

Throren frowned. Yulie did nothing.

"Yell at us some more," I said encouragingly. "Tell us what you'll do if someone tries to make you touch his neck."

Yulie said nothing, while Dune just kept looking at him and holding my hand. He was squeezing very hard, but I didn't mind.

"I don't know," Yulie said eventually. "I should have to consider it carefully."

"That sounds an awful lot like a polite way of saying you'd get creative with their punishment," I said.

Dune's breath hitched when he realised that Yulie wasn't going to deny my assessment.

"Tell me what you wanted to do when you first laid eyes on him," I said.

"I doubt that's appropriate," Yulie said. He stopped looking at me and started looking at Dune.

Dune looked away.

"Look at him," I said, and squeezed Dune's hand. Dune wrenched his eyes up, but he had trouble keeping them on Yulie while Yulie was looking at him. "Tell me anyway, my lord, appropriate or not," I said.

"I was thinking of what I would do to him in this bed when the bruises were gone," Yulie said carefully.

"Think of that until you find something you would be comfortable doing right at this moment, then do it," I said.

Yulie did not need to think. He immediately leaned in and put his lips on Dune's forehead again. Dune whimpered. He kept his eyes open, staring up, waiting for Yulie to withdraw and his eyes to come back into his view.

"Dune hasn't done any fighting in some time now," I said. I squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back. "I think we might only now be seeing what he's actually like, underneath all that mayhem."

Dune blinked a few times, and tears were pushed from his absurd eyes. He kept his mouth carefully shut.

Yulie put his hand onto Dune's cheek. Dune flinched, then quickly leaned into it. Yulie carefully stroked Dune's cheek with his thumb.

Dune turned his face from Yulie to me. "Can you make him lemme go?" he asked quietly.

Yulie's hand retreated, as if he had been burned.

"Yes," Throren said, and released Dune's feet. Dune moved only to stretch out his feet and ankles, then settled back down and looked at Yulie's hand.

Yulie slowly put his hand back. Dune watched it coming this time and did not flinch. He kept his eyes on it, but he had stopped glaring a long time ago. He was just watching it attentively - probably to avoid flinching when it moved.

"Dune," I said softly, trying to be coaxing. "This is most effective if you look your Master in the eye."

Dune tried. He tried really hard. He couldn't look at Yulie head on for more than a moment at a time. When he wrenched his eyes away, he didn't look demurely downward, the way I'd trained myself to, the way ae'NaNathra did. He wouldn't simply lower his gaze, so that his lashes fell to make him look pretty and submissive. He would force his eyes to the furthest corner they could go to. He would even turn his head away.

This process frightened him. While he had been relaxed before, now he was tense. He couldn't keep from flinching from Yulie's hand on his face. The hand of his that still held mine was getting tighter and tighter. It was starting to hurt.

The result was that Dune looked shifty, not submissive. He looked like he was hiding something. He looked like he hated this.

I knew better.

"I know it's hard for you to talk," I said. Dune stopped trying to look at Yulie, and instead looked at me, which seemed easier for him, but still far more difficult than it ought to have been. He looked at my chin a lot, and at my hands. "Instead of talking, could you count with your fingers for me? I'd like to know how many times in your life you've been punished for looking a Master in the eye."

Yulie took a sharp breath. Throren let out a breath in a low, angry rumble.

Dunes hands were tense and tight. He forcibly opened them, but not to hold up fingers. It was an open, simple gesture, and I knew exactly what he meant by it.

He didn't have enough fingers.

"You've got very odd eyes. 'A little freaky, if you catch him head on' - that's what they say about your eyes," I said. I tried to say it softly, as it wasn't a nice thing to say, but I had to say it. Dune wasn't an idiot. He knew what he looked like, and he knew what people said about him. "Your Master has kept you this long despite that," I said softly, trying to be reassuring.

"I know," Dune said in a choked whisper.

"I like them," Yulie said. "What sort of complete idiot buys a slave whose eyes they don't like?"

"Common folk without the money to choose exactly what they want, my lord," I said. "I think you're likely to be the only Master he's ever had that actually wanted him. If bought for labour, he's not big enough to get the job done well. If bought for serving, he's not polite enough. If bought for bed warming, he's not got the temperament, and he's got weird eyes and scars. He's a compromise. He's what you buy when you can't afford the slave you want."

Dune didn't even seem offended by this. He just nodded his head with tiny, jerky little movements.

Yulie, however, was very offended. "That's ridiculous," he said.

I shrugged. "It's not pleasant. It's the life we've got."

"Not yours," Throren said.

I nodded. "It was the life I thought I was going to have, before you," I amended.

"He's gorgeous," Yulie said. He was still offended. He looked furious at me for even suggesting otherwise.

Dune flinched from the compliment, and Yulie frowned, looking apologetic for having said it.

"Eye of the beholder," Throren said very quietly. "Kath tells me he's attracted to me. If I'm supposed to believe that, you're just going to have to believe that not everyone thinks Dune is pretty."

Yulie was stiff and annoyed at the concept. It was as foreign to him as it was to me. Yulie looked at me, frustrated and angry. "You find him attractive?" he asked me in utter disbelief, glancing at Throren and appraising him, as though he'd managed to forget what Throren looked like.

Dune was looking at me with exactly the same amount of disbelief. So was Throren, but his expression was laced with amusement.

"At first, I was too scared to find him anything," I admitted. "Since then, he has grown on me."

"Growing always was my biggest problem," Throren said, and I laughed. "It only gets worse when you laugh at my jokes, Kath. You started out pretty enough, but now you laugh, and every time you do you get prettier."

Yulie's hand was still on Dune's cheek. "This is ridiculous," he said, and I had the feeling that we had stumbled upon something that his brilliant mind could not comprehend. "His eyes make him unique. He has long, thick hair - just like the King's concubines. It's in fashion right now. He's the right height. He's got the right facial structure, he's not too broad in the shoulders."

I smiled. "You sound like a blind man quoting a book on beauty, my lord," I said. "Sometimes you can get everything right and still fail. I'm sure you learned that lesson when you lived with Lord Drextrer."

Throren chuckled, appreciating that assessment.

Yulie was not willing to let this go. "Do you really expect me to believe that he's not beautiful?" he said.

I shrugged. "No, of course not. I couldn't change your perception of beauty any more than you could change mine. I just want to drag this conversation on. It's good for Dune to hear this sort of thing. He needs to understand how to please you, and if he pleases you by looking right, that's one less thing he needs to worry about."

Dune had indeed relaxed. He was back to lying calmly underneath Yulie, not tense anymore. He still couldn't look him in the eye, but he wasn't trying quite so hard anymore. His lower lip was quivering a little.

"Try looking near his eyes, not at them," I said to him. "Find a place you can look at without looking away, and every day, try to look a little bit closer."

Dune was able to settle his eyes on Yulie's stomach without looking away.

"Do you believe you're not beautiful?" Yulie asked Dune, utterly bewildered, and unable to let it go.

Dune bit his lip and looked away.

"Do you want him to believe he is, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie was still having difficulty processing this conversation. "If you're asking if I want him to believe the obvious truth, then the answer is yes," he said.

"If it's a fact he must learn, he might as well study it. If you can teach Lord Hector to govern, you can teach Dune about beauty, my lord," I said.

This subject was having an intense effect on Dune. His lower lip was wobbling madly. He looked like he was about to start crying again, and he'd started shivering.

"He doesn't take praise well," Yulie said. "It bothers him."

"While you're at it, you can teach him to take praise, my lord. I doubt you'll be able to do one without the other anyway."

Dune let out a whimper that sounded completely involuntary.

"It bothers him," Yulie said.

Dune turned wild, tearful eyes onto me and hyperventilated for a few breaths. "P-Push it?" he said weakly.

Yulie seemed completely baffled by this. I smiled at Dune encouragingly. "Sure, if you like," I said.

Yulie finally took his hand from Dune's face. Dune's eyes snapped to it and followed its retreat.

"I do not understand you at all," Yulie said.

"I think that's the smartest thing you've said all week," Throren said.

"I think you need rules," I said.

"It's obeying the rules that's the problem," Yulie said. "More rules isn't going to help."

I shook my head. "Not more rules, different rules. Rules for you, not for him. No pulling away unless Dune asks you to, with words. Whining, looking uncomfortable, even fighting you doesn't count."

Dune let out another little whimper.

"He doesn't speak to me," Yulie said.

I sighed. "He needs to learn to. You need to be able to talk to each other," I said.

"I won't put myself in that position," Yulie said. "I won't be able to do it if I think he might just be letting me close because he's giving me the silent treatment."

I sighed again, frustrated.

Dune dropped my hand suddenly and wrapped his hands around the chains on the shackles and jerked on them, rattling them against the headboard.

Yulie frowned, pulling away further.

"Good," I said. "Try that instead. You want him off, you do that."

Dune manoeuvred his hands carefully until he had the chains wrapped tightly in his fists. They couldn't make much noise, muffled in his hands like that.

"I'm not going to budge on words, though. If you want him to keep going, or come closer, tell him to push it. You've been doing that well enough to me, you can do it to him too," I said.

Dune bit his lip, then took a deep breath and turned back to Yulie. In the few moments he could manage to look him right in the eye, he said, "Push it," and then looked away, breathing hard.

Throren left the bed and dropped into the armchair by the hearth, looking away.

Yulie stayed exactly where he was, frozen.

"If you were waiting for an invitation, that was it," Throren said to the hearth.

Yulie slowly leaned down to Dune and kissed him on the forehead. Dune let out another whine and his breathing got quicker. Yulie pulled back.

"He doesn't want you to pull away, my lord," I reminded him.

Dune's hands stayed wrapped around the chains. He was shaking, but it looked like he was shaking from the strain of trying to keep the chains absolutely silent.

Yulie shifted his stance, on his knees over Dune, and shuffled up a bit further on his body. He went back in and kissed Dune again. This time he did not pull away when Dune whined.

"You used to hate this," Yulie said, his lips still on Dune's forehead.

"I don't think you have much understanding of how Dune feels about anything, my lord. I'm really curious as to how long it will take for him to tell you to stop," I said, wondering if I could challenge Yulie to just stay there until Dune calmed down.

Yulie didn't like not knowing things, and now that I had posed the question, he was naturally too curious to not find out. He frowned, but he stayed close.

Dune let out a breathless, squeaky little laugh, closed his eyes, and just lay there until he soothed.  Then, to my delight and Yulie's utter bewilderment, Dune spoke again. "Push it."

Yulie put his hand back on Dune's cheek. Dune leaned into it, turning his face right into Yulie's palm. "Push it," he said again.

"I am beginning to become uncomfortable," Throren said to the hearth. I wasn't. I found this to be a bit exhilarating.

Dune smirked. He pressed a kiss to Yulie's palm. Yulie flinched.

"Push it," Dune said again.

For someone that didn't know what sultry looked like, Dune was doing a very good job of behaving that way.

I wasn't sure if Yulie could get any closer in the position they were in, but he seemed willing enough to try. He moved himself lower and softly put his lips against Dune's.

Dune didn't even flinch. He tilted his head to the side and kissed back. He was stilted and a little off, like someone who didn't know what they were doing. My doubts as to the validity of his fraternising charge only became larger.

"I am definitely uncomfortable," Throren said to the hearth.

"Shut up," Yulie growled against Dune's lips.

"Be aware that he might still fight you," I said. Yulie inched back and looked at me. He was flushed and breathing heavily. "You might catch his neck accidentally. We didn't touch his legs at all, or his back, and this sort of thing probably doesn't get better quickly, anyway."

Yulie clearly didn't like this, but Dune still hadn't rattled the chain, so he didn't pull back.

"Push it," Dune whimpered.

Yulie captured his lips again.

"For fuck's sake, Kath, are you just going to sit there and watch?" Throren asked.

"If that's what it takes to get the job done," I said dryly.

Yulie finally leaned back. "Whatever I want no longer involves you two," he said.

"Push it," Dune said, smirking.

"In a moment," Yulie promised.

Obediently, but secretly a tad reluctantly, I removed myself from Yulie's bed. Throren had moved to the door with the speed of someone who desperately did not want to be present. I followed him out.

Throren waited until I was in Yulie's sitting room, then forcibly shut Yulie's door behind us. He threw himself down into Yulie's settee. He gripped the back of it hard enough to make indentations.

"What is happening here?" he asked me.

I sat next to him on the settee. "Lord Yulie got the job done halfway. He's used to making people like him, he's done it with this entire town. He tried it with Dune, and it worked, but Dune's a terrible slave and has never been able to reciprocate," I said.

"For fuck's sake," Throren growled.

Dune's high-pitched whine came to us through the closed door.

"I could have done without learning what Dune sounds like when he's into it," Throren snapped.

"It's rather important that Lord Yulie learns what Dune sounds like when he's into it," I said.

Dune whined again. I wondered if they needed help.

"At least it's less embarrassing than I sound," I said.

"You will refrain from criticising the noises you make in bed ever again," Throren said furiously, in that angry tone that could vibrate through the floor.

It managed to put me back into a submissive place that I hadn't been to since he'd put his mouth on my cock. It felt familiar and oddly safe. I put my head down and smiled widely. "Yes, Master."

Throren was not satisfied. "Say it back to me so I know you understand," he said.

"I will never criticise the noises I make during sex ever again," I said, still smiling. "It would be nice if the whole Kingdom couldn't hear me, though."

"Then criticise their good hearing," Throren snapped.

Dune moaned this time - or maybe it was Yulie.

"For fuck's sake," Throren said. "Go back to the room. I'll be with you shortly."

"Yes, Master," I said.

Chapter Text

When Throren came back to our quarters, he was a bit wet, and he was carrying dinner. He nearly dropped it when he saw me. I had surprised him by being naked on my back in the middle of the bed with my legs apart.

He turned away, put his head on the cool stone wall, and took several deep breaths. "Come have dinner," he said.

"Yes, Master," I said.

"No need to get dressed," he added.

I rose from the bed and joined him, naked at the table. I wasn't cold. The roaring hearth was seeing to that.

Throren barely ate, he was so intent on watching me. "When I asked you to do this, I had no idea you'd do it so fast," he said.

"Would you have preferred it slower, Master?" I asked, digging into Rohan's latest sourdough recipe. It was one of the most delicious things I'd ever eaten.

"No," Throren said. "I just - this is unbelievably quick."

"I can make it even more unbelievable, if you like," I said, smirking.

"How?" Throren asked dubiously.

"He ate lunch today," I said.

"You're joking," Throren said. "Why didn't you tell Yulie?"

"I needed to prove to Dune that I could get make Lord Yulie do things. Making Lord Yulie do things because Dune ate and deserved a reward doesn't count. I didn't tell him because I needed Dune to see I could get the job done," I said.

Throren shook his head, disbelieving, frustrated and incredibly impressed. His hair was coming loose, and he pulled it away from his eyes with his hand. I wanted to touch it.

"Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?" Throren asked, staring at me with wide eyes.

"Sometimes I do, when you look at me like that," I said.

He smiled and laughed. "Finish your dinner," he said.

I ate quickly, and he watched me the entire time.

"You may go back to what you were doing," Throren said when I was done.

I went to the bedroom and returned to being on my back in the middle of the bed. Throren followed and watched me arrange myself, then he shook his head in disbelief and fetched the water.

I stayed obediently on the bed, waiting and feeling my cock rise from nothing but anticipation.

Throren joined me and put the water by the bed. He immediately took his shirt off, to my delight. I couldn't restrain my smile.

"You're insane," Throren said, watching my eyes rake over his chest.

"Insanity isn't so bad," I said.

Throren pulled the oil from the drawer and put it on the bed. He didn't sit between my legs, instead he crawled on top of me. "We need to talk about your father," he said seriously, looking me in the eye.

I frowned. "I'd really prefer we kept our fathers out of the bedroom," I said.

"Mine, yes, absolutely," Throren said. "Yours, however, seems to have some good ideas."

It took me a surprisingly long amount of time to realise that Throren intended to tie my hands and do whatever he wanted to me. Even when he took his belt off, I wasn't quite sure what was going on yet. It took a very pointed, drawn out look for me to figure it out.

When I did, I felt a surprising lack of nerves about it. I raised my arms above my head. He used his belt to lash my forearms to the headboard. Once restrained, I still didn't really feel anything about it.

He did, though. I was back to not being able to read him, but I could still read how much he was feeling something. As he tied my arms up, he felt something so extreme that he wanted to hide it.

After, he stopped being blank again and smiled at me warmly. "If at all possible, I'd like to skip the part where you struggle and bite me," Throren said.

"Oh, I'll bite you," I said teasingly.

Throren smiled at me, then leaned back and put his fingers in the oil. "You're going to have to explain this to me, Kath," he said. "I can't understand why this would be good for bonding."

I pressed back into him as he pushed a finger inside me. "It's not, for us," I said. "Restraint is about power. You really don't need to restrain me. What am I going to do? Push you away? If I wanted you to budge, I'd need a battering ram and ten good men."

Throren stopped his finger's movement, dropped his head, and laughed. When he had control over his humour, he pressed another finger into me.

"So this isn't relevant to us?" Throren asked, twisting his fingers.

"I feel exactly as vulnerable right now as I always do," I said between moans. He slowed down and gave me time to talk. "So, it's not really relevant, no. You've never needed this. Besides, our bond doesn't need work. I don't know if you've noticed, but I really like you," I said.

For that, he moved over me and took my nipple into his mouth. Once I'd managed to get used to how weird and rather nice that felt, he pulled his fingers out, oiled them up again, and pressed three into me. I bucked against them. Oh, that burn...

It was unusually good, tonight.

Throren did not make any move to untie me. "If I could bond you harder," he said, punctuating it with a deep thrust of his fingers, "I'd do it in a heartbeat."

I moaned. It wasn't entirely sexual. I had a feeling I might've made the same noise even if he'd said that outside of the bedroom.

"I'm never going to let you go," Throren said suddenly. He stilled his fingers and moved above me, putting his forehead against mine.

His expression went horribly blank.

"Yulie would. He's stronger than me. He'll let Dune go the moment he realises he's not just obsessed, he's actually in love. He'll put him on a horse with a ridiculous amount of coin and he'll let him leave," Throren continued. He was cold, blank, unfeeling, and I couldn't read a single thing from his face.

I didn't know what to do with what he had said. It didn't make any sense.

"I can't. I'll never let you free. You'll be mine forever, stuck in my bed, not allowed to leave me," Throren said.

I should have been upset. I should have been furious at his words. What would be the point of being his slave, knowing that he would never free me? I should have been so angry that I struggled. I should have become determined to be belligerent. I should have decided, then and there, that if he wouldn't ever set me free, I'd make him hate me so much he would sell me to another Master that might.

Instead of feeling any of this, I felt worried. Throren was never cold during sex, except for the beginning of the first time. We hardly knew each other, then, and he hadn't thought that he would keep me. He hadn't wanted to get attached, so he had kept himself blank.

Why was he cold now? He had a slave underneath him, on his fingers, willing and able to take his cock. He shouldn't have been distancing himself, he should have been opening up to me.

I couldn't hold him. I couldn't reach for him and I couldn't comfort him. I didn't even know what he was feeling - was he upset? Was he furious? I didn't know, but I wanted to hold him just in case it was pain that he was hiding from me.

I started to feel different from being restrained. I felt vulnerable in a way I'd never felt before.

"I'm sorry," Throren said. I'd been looking right at him - of course he could see my pain. I just couldn't see his. It wasn't fair. "I can't. I won't. I won't even think about it," Throren said. There was nothing in his voice to tell me what he felt, either.

He wasn't even clenching his jaw. That was the last thing to go, when he was like this.

"Yes, Master," I whispered. I sounded withdrawn and afraid. I didn't feel either of those things. I felt raw and confused.

I didn't know what was going on with this freedom talk. Freedom was something given after years of good service, if at all, it didn't belong here.

I couldn't think about freedom while Throren was blank above me. He wasn't supposed to be blank. He was supposed to be watching his fingers disappear inside my arse. He was supposed to be happy, content, aroused and constantly disbelieving that they could fit.

"Are you all right?" I asked.

Throren's jaw clenched, and even though I knew it to be a sign of his tension, I was glad to see it. "A little," he said. "If I kiss you, will you bite me?"

I almost wanted to cry at that. I wouldn't be violent with him.

"Maybe a nibble," I said softly, trying to lighten the mood. "Is this really what you want?"

"Yes," he said. "It's what I've decided."

I shook my head. "Not that, that's ... your decision. I won't question your decision," I said.

How could I even begin to question it? Why had he even brought it up? Did I actually want him to set me free? Where would I go?

"I meant, for bonding, that you're supposed to do whatever you want with me," I said. "Is this really what you want? To have your fingers in my arse while you tell me you're never going to set me free?"

Throren did not respond. He stayed blank, but he did move his fingers again.

I couldn't believe I'd actually loosened up during that.

"Perhaps not," Throren said. He glanced up at my arms. He pressed against that spot inside me and I moaned loudly. "You're mine," he growled forcibly, and I shuddered.

Oh - was that what this was? Was this because he was having feelings? "I'm yours," I told him.

This only seemed to appease him a little bit. He pressed another finger inside me. I was rapidly reaching the point where I'd go incoherent, and I worried about what was happening. My worry did not make it feel any less amazing, and as he pressed further in. It hurt more than usual, but with the pain came that burn I was so fond of. I wailed and pressed back.

"You're mine," he said again.

"I know," I said, trying again. It wasn't enough. He was still blank.

"You're mine," he repeated.

"I love you," I tried.

If anything, that made it worse. He went to my chest and sucked a bruise there, and now he was not just hiding his expression, but hiding his face too.

My legs were shaking. I wasn't going to be able to hold them up much longer. He pulled his fingers out.

Oh. Oh fuck. He - he was undoing his trousers in front of me, he was pulling them off... I - I'd seen it the night before, but I'd been about to fall asleep, and - what - why...

He pulled up my right leg, higher and higher until my foot was nowhere near the bed - what the fuck...

He wasn't going to turn me over. He pressed his forehead against mine again. "If you tell me to stop, I will," he said.

What the fuck? When had I ever given him the impression that I might want that? He held his cock in his hand, and pushed it against my hole, but I'd tensed right up.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, no - he couldn't - I - what - no.

If he couldn't get it in me, he'd think it was because I'd seen it, and it wasn't. Once it went in, I'd lose my opportunity to talk to him.

I'd thought he'd untie me to turn me over. If he wasn't going to, I wouldn't get my arms free, and if I didn't get free, I couldn't hold him. I couldn't soothe him. I didn't even know if he needed soothing, but I had to try.

"Wait," I said desperately.

He was cold - so cold - as he waited. I had to say something. I had to figure this out, I had to make this better.

"If you never let me go, you'll be my Master forever," I said.

"I will," he said tonelessly.

"So you'd be mine forever," I said.

Throren's jaw tensed, then his brow, then his shoulders.

"You're mine. My Master. Mine," I said to him, and he blinked a few times. The cold completely fell from his face, but I didn't have time to look. He went straight for my mouth. He kissed me with a hunger and a lack of restraint that I'd never seen from him before.

His restraint held everywhere else but his mouth. His cock was still perilously close to my arse, but not going in, while he ravished my open mouth. When he finally pulled back, his dark eyes were hot, not cold.

"I don't deserve you," he said, looking at me underneath him.

"You're mine," I said again. He made a frustrated noise before pressing his lips back to mine.

I turned away. "Are you going to put it in or not?" I said.

"Not until you tell me to stop waiting," he said.

"Stop waiting," I said.

He repositioned himself and pressed forward incredibly slowly, and it was huge.

Surely it hadn't been this big last time? It had never been this hard to take before. Maybe he was right, maybe seeing it did make people stop being able to take it.

As the head forced painfully inside, he paused to give me a moment to breathe. "I won't be disappointed," he said. It was a lie, written plain on his face.

I would be disappointed too.

I didn't understand. His cock wasn't ... it hadn't grown ... I'd taken it before, and I'd seen it. There was nothing about it to make me worried. It was exactly the size I'd expected it to be. I hadn't expected it to be quite so red, but my cock went a bit red sometimes too. It wasn't a horse cock - maybe a small one - but it was in size, not looks. It didn't look weird at all, and aside from being huge, there was no reason for me to be tensing up about it.

Throren pulled back incredibly slowly. "Wait," I said, desperate. "I - I can, I know I can."

He didn't wait. He pulled out. I was distraught, thinking that it was over, that I'd finally failed to do the thing that he wanted so much - the same thing that I wanted so much.

He yanked his pillow from beside my head and brought it down. I lifted my hips and he pushed it under me. He put more oil on his fingers and pressed them in again, spending time gently spreading them, twisting them, and pressing on that spot.

It was a bit easier with the pillow. Maybe that was it - maybe it was just the position? Maybe I needed to turn over.

That would be disappointing. I didn't want to turn over. I wanted him to let my arms free so that I could wrap them around him. I wanted to take him inside me and stare into his eyes at the same time.

Just thinking about it put me on edge, I wanted it so much. It didn't help that he was fingering me exactly how I liked it, hard and rough now. I was so ready. I wanted it so much.

Throren pulled his fingers out and tried again, pressing his cock against my arse. The head went in, and it was difficult. I didn't understand. This had never been so hard to do before. The burn had never hurt like this did.

I breathed deeply, slowly, trying to relax.

Throren's hand wrapped around my cock and stroked. He was gentle and slow with his cock, giving me tiny little rocking thrusts. Almost immediately, I started going limp, the way I usually did when it was almost all the way in.

"I can't hold my legs up," I said shakily.

Throren obligingly hooked his elbows under both of my knees and planted his hands on the bed. My knees bent and my calves rested over his forearms. I let my thighs relax, trusting his arms with their weight.

Oh. Oh, that was so much better.

I was spread a bit wider and bent a bit further now, and it had stopped hurting. Now it was burning, closer to how it usually did, only much more extreme.

Throren kept slowly rocking into me, watching my face carefully. He didn't normally watch my face, because it usually ended up in the mattress. He was checking on me, the same way he did when he was fingering me open.

He was intently watching me for pain. How did he normally do this, then, when I was face down?

"Kath," he said quietly. His eyes flicked to my bound arms.

"Yes, Master?" I said.

"You're beautiful," he said simply.

I moaned. I think that might have been his cue, as he went a tiny bit deeper when I did.

Then everything stopped making sense, because the further in his cock went, the closer to me he got.

He was going to ruin me. If I bent my hips, and he bent over ... if I craned my neck up ... if I shifted my legs further ... he'd be able to kiss me.

This man was going to destroy me.

I was wailing, and then he was pressing further, and getting closer, and then I was wailing louder.

I'd never really used my arms during sex before, as he didn't like to be touched, and I wouldn't know how to touch him even if he wanted it. Normally my arms were just supposed to brace me in the right position, and even then, they were rather useless. Throren was too strong. No amount of bracing on my part would do anything against his strength.

Despite having no idea what I even wanted to do, I started struggling against the belt holding my arms. I wasn't sure how I was doing it - I felt just as limp as I normally did. Throren spared my arms a glance, pushed inside the rest of the way, and kissed me.

I screamed and came all over us both.

Throren stopped. His cock was still in my arse and he kissed me, even as I was basically catatonic underneath him.

I have no idea how long he just waited inside me, kissing my limp, open mouth, holding my legs open and still inside me. When I finally came around, I tried to kiss back, but it wasn't easy with his cock in my arse.

He leaned back every now and then to stare at me, his face fond and open. He wasn't hiding what he felt anymore. When he started moving, it was slow, but I was so sensitive, it didn't matter.

I groaned. If he went any faster, I'd probably die from it, but if he didn't go faster, he would probably never finish. I didn't know what would be worse. Throren pulled away slightly, changing his angle. He stared at my cock.

I got louder and louder without meaning to, and he made his thrusts deeper, but not faster. I was still pretty sure I was going to die from it. Throren still watched my cock.

Once I started wailing, I realised that I was getting hard again. He had been watching me get aroused from his cock moving in my arse.

I was rather surprised not to be dead yet. It still felt like it would kill me, I was so over sensitised.

Once he was satisfied from watching my cock, seeing that yes, his cock alone had indeed made me go from sated to ready for it again, he moved back in and kissed me. He shouldn't have bothered. I couldn't kiss back. I could only scream into his mouth.

He kept it up, getting steadily harder, faster, and deeper. I couldn't close my eyes, and he was right there in front of me. Everything was painful - my trembling, too wide thighs, my too full arse, my too soon arousal. Everything hurt, except the sight of his face in between kisses. He was open, warm, and loving.

I came again, and it was really uncomfortable. I wouldn't have taken it back - not for the world - but it was so much. I felt so raw.

I would have liked to have passed out. It seemed like a great idea, and I waited for it, hopeful and willing. It didn't happen.

Throren fucked me for only seconds longer and came in front of my eyes, grunting as he finished. I couldn't tear my eyes off him, his face screwed up, his mouth open, sweat all over him and hair plastered to his forehead.

I wondered when he had become the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

I wanted to sleep. I wanted to fall into a coma. Surely this was it - surely he'd finally split me in half, surely I was ruined now.

Throren rolled off me and lay beside me, catching his breath.

"For fuck's sake, Kath," he said eventually, sounding broken and weak. "Twice?"

I didn't have any words. It was hard to even nod.

Throren cleaned me off after he had rested for a minute. He had to lift my legs with his hands to carefully clean my arse. He pulled his belt undone and let my arms loose. They fell bonelessly onto the bed, and I left them where they fell.

Throren pulled the blanket over me, and when it became clear that I wasn't going to move, he arranged me on my side with my leg hiked up.

When had I told him that was the best position to recover? Had he just ... noticed?

He pulled my arms gently under the blanket and tucked me in. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly.

"I think so," I said, but my voice was hoarse.

Throren immediately got up and returned with water for me. I didn't have the strength to move for it. He saw my apathy and helped me to raise my head. I drank wearily.

Why hadn't I passed out? I would have liked to have passed out. I didn't want to be conscious anymore.

Throren put the water down and got into bed. He tucked himself against my back and put his hand on my head. He stroked my hair.

Oh, thank fuck, I thought, as my vision went black and I went down.

 

 

 

I woke up to Throren holding a thick broth under my nose. Everything hurt.

"-hell did you do to him?"

"Is this because he's been dealing with Dune?"

"I'll not tolerate this in my house."

"He'll be coming with me straight to the infirmary."

"What possessed you?"

I raised myself up gingerly, testing whether I could move. There were ugly red marks on my forearms.

Throren offered me a pain potion and frowned deeply. Secturn and Quentin were both in the bedroom, glaring daggers at him.

It was too bright. "What time is it?" I asked, hoarse.

Throren put the potion closer to my lips. "Lunch," he said.

I sighed. "You have to stop letting me sleep in," I said testily.

He put the potion closer still, and I pulled my head away, even though I did want it a little bit.

"What happened? Why is everyone here?" I asked.

"Why do you think?" Secturn snapped. "Yulie's stuck dealing with Dune and Throren's gone evil. I'm here to get you the hell out of here."

Throren shook his head. "You're here because you happened to be standing next to Quentin when I asked him here," he said. He offered me water instead of the potion, and I drank that willingly.

"I'll not tolerate it in my house," Secturn snapped. "This sort of nonsense will kill the morale of every servant here. I thought you knew better. I thought you were restraining yourself. I live on the other side of the goddamn Hill, and even I heard it last night. I thought for sure it was someone else, but no, apparently Kath screams for his fucking life every other night and I'm absolutely disgusted with you, Throren, you're supposed to be better than this."

"Is this happening again?" I asked weakly. My head was all wrapped up and confused, tangled and in knots. Throren had really fucked me up last night, with his talks about never letting me go and his fucking me on my back.

"Take the potion," Throren said, holding it under my nose. It did not smell appetising, but I knew that it would make me feel better. It would also make me feel weird and weak, so I was not interested.

"You take it," I said belligerently.

"All right, out, both of you," Quentin said.

"No," Throren said. He put his hand in my hair and I dropped back to the bed. ae'Aberda, that felt so nice.

"Now," Quentin said.

Throren did a thing I really liked with his middle finger and the base of my skull, and I sighed into it. "Secturn can go," Throren said. "He was never invited, anyway."

Secturn fumed. "I am not going anywhere until that slave is safe," he said.

"I feel pretty safe," I said, under the pleasant feel of Throren's fingers.

Quentin folded his arms. "Has this happened again?" he asked.

"Has what happened again?" Secturn spat.

"Kath?" Quentin asked seriously.

"What do you think?" I grumbled. "Fuck off."

This finally changed Secturn's demeanour. "Absolutely nothing excuses that language," he snapped. "You will be corrected for that, once you've finished recovering-"

"Fuck off," Throren said darkly, pulling his hand from my hair. He walked to Secturn until Secturn stepped back - then he just kept walking until Secturn had nowhere to go but out of the bedroom door. Throren shut the door on him, while I struggled not to laugh.

"Take the potion, Kath," Quentin said.

"Make me," I said.

Throren sat by my side and put his hand back in my hair. "Sorry," he said softly.

"I'm not," I said.

"We need to talk about your volume," Quentin said. "It seems to be causing issues."

"I've been banned from criticising the noises I make," I said, slurring a little.

"You've been ... banned?" Quentin said, grinning wide and salaciously.

"I had expected it to carry," Throren said. "I'm already toward the edge of the house. We might have to build a cabin out by the east wall."

Quentin took a seat at the foot of the bed, studiously watching Throren as he ran his hand through my hair. I wondered why I wasn't passing out from how calming it was.

"You'd build a house out of range, rather than keep him quiet?" Quentin asked. "Surely you could just tone it back a bit?"

"That's just how he sounds," Throren said. "He tries to shut up, but he likes what he likes, and I can't say no to him."

"He likes being made to scream," Quentin said dubiously.

"Try it someday," I said.

Quentin chuckled. Throren shrugged, shaking his head.

"What did you do to his arms?" Quentin asked.

"Failed to control myself," Throren said. "It won't happen again."

"That looks like you tied him up," Quentin said.

"Failing to control myself and tying him up are not mutually exclusive," Throren said.

"It won't happen again?" Quentin asked.

"Absolutely not," Throren assured him.

"Did he do anything to deserve this? Is it because he's been spending time with Dune?" Quentin asked.

Throren thought about that for a while. "Yes," he admitted.

"You can't be upset over that. Surely Lord Yulie asked your permission first?"

"I offered," Throren said.

"If you offered, you surely shouldn't be getting upset over it," Quentin said.

"I'm not," Throren said.

"Throren, tell me what's going on," Quentin snapped.

Throren shrugged. I pulled myself upward, smelling broth on the nightstand, and forced myself to sit up enough to sip it.

Throren watched me with a studious gaze while I took several small sips, then became ravenous and started gulping down more.

"It's not my fault he's perfect," Throren said eventually.

"He's perfect, so you tied him up and made him scream," Quentin said softly.

"Try it sometime," I said.

Quentin burst into laughter.

"I'm sick of it," I snapped at Throren, who frowned at me. He looked apologetic and guilty, and I hated it. "I'm sick of it and I'm done hearing this. Next time your cock convinces me to sleep in, do not call on the doctor. It's not a weapon, it can't hurt me unless you want it to."

I turned to Quentin, who looked shocked and worried. His expression should have tipped me off as to how bad my behaviour was, but I was tired, sore and angry. I felt completely out of control, and I could not have stopped myself if I'd tried.

"Quentin, if he asks you back, tell him to fuck off. And I will speak to Secturn myself about daring to call my Throren evil ever again. I'll fucking castrate him. I'm done with hearing it. I'm sorry I scream. I can't help it. I'll try to stop, but that's all I'll try to stop, and if anyone ever tries to rescue me again, I'll set Throren on them with a table."

Quentin was very quiet, looking at Throren with pursed lips.

I barely even realised that I'd fucked up. I'd not said a single title in that spiel. I'd called Throren by name. I'd threatened people. I'd given orders.

When I belatedly managed to realise what I'd done, I looked at Throren. He was staring at his hands with a tiny little smile on his face. I realised I'd say it all again, if only to see that expression again. I'd take his riding crop again. I'd take a lashing. I would let Throren do whatever he wanted to me forever, if I got to see him smile like that again.

This man was going to ruin me.

"Normally, I recommend leniency when a slave speaks out when they're in pain," Quentin said.

"Leniency," Throren repeated tonelessly. "Honestly, if he'd just tell me what he wants, I'd reward him for that," he said.

I had begun to suspect that I couldn't say anything that would upset Throren. The more I talked, the more he seemed to like whatever I said. This, finally, convinced me that it was real. He liked everything that I said. He liked me cheeky, he liked me brutally honest, he liked me threatening to castrate the steward.

Quentin let out a breath, sounding relieved. "You don't mind your slave threatening to set you on people?" he said, laughing nervously.

"If it would make people stop accusing me of being evil, I'd set myself on people," Throren said, sounding incredibly tired. I put my broth down and gave him a hug. "Just tell me what you want," he said, hauling me into his lap and wrapping his arms around me tightly.

I didn't know what to say.

"I'd give you anything," Throren said.

Quentin kindly pat Throren on the shoulder and left. Secturn stood waiting at the door. Quentin pulled him away by the arm.

I held Throren closer. "I don't even know what I've done right," I said.

"What haven't you done right?" Throren said, his head on my shoulder. "Tell me what you want. You never say anything. You don't want anything. You look at me and your horse and your yarn and you act like there is nothing else in the world that could make you happier."

I shrugged. I acted that way because it was true.

"I'll take you to the lake," Throren said. "Secturn suggested that, though, and he's absolute trash about rewarding slaves. It's just a lake. You've crossed the ocean. You don't want time off. You only sit still if someone makes you. Tell me what you want."

Set me free, I thought, before I could stop myself. I didn't say anything.

I didn't want to be free. I had nowhere to go. Everyone I'd ever loved was dead, except Throren.

Lestrat, while it wasn't home, was comfortable. There was plenty of food, so much water, and it was safe. There wasn't a risk that a neighbour would show up and murder my family.

Summer Hill was even better, because it was turning into a home. I felt like I had purpose here, like I could be useful. Throren clearly liked me, and Yulie was at least taking my advice. Dune was a bit more difficult to understand, but I felt like I was helping him.

I only wanted to tell Throren to set me free because he'd banned me from it the night before.

So what did I want?

"I'm going to have to tell the truth soon," I said quietly.

Throren tensed. "You've been lying?" he asked.

"Not to you, to everyone else. I can't hear this anymore. People keep saying you're evil, and I'm going to have to tell them what actually happens here, because I can't keep hearing it."

"I never asked you to lie about it," Throren said.

"I haven't been lying," I said. "I've been letting people come to their own conclusions. Some of them conclude that you're evil and some of them conclude that you don't actually have a horse cock."

Throren flinched at the phrase, but he did not stop me.

"Some people think we aren't even fucking. Some people think you're just doing other things with me. I imagine there are rumours about the sorts of things an evil man might do to make me make these noises."

"You don't have to tell people anything, Kath," Throren said. "It's no one's business."

"It is if I scream, and that's already done," I said. "I can't hear it anymore. I'm going to have to tell everyone exactly how fucking delightful it is to be in your bed."

Throren held me tighter. "I don't ... am I supposed to not like this?" he asked.

I sighed and pressed my face into his neck. "Once the household knows you use the horse cock for good and not for evil, I'll be a target," I said.

Throren flinched again. "A target?" he asked.

"Do you have any idea how many people would want to be me?" I asked. "You give me an orgasm - or two - more often than not, and all I have to do is limp for a while and sleep in. You buy me things and you let me mouth off. You're not half as hideous as you think you are and you're plenty rich enough. The only reason the slaves haven't been forming a queue outside your door is because you're big, scary, and cold, and you've got a horse cock. The moment I let people know I'm not suffering, I'll find out who my real friends are and who was only friends with me because I kept you from looking at them."

Throren was tense, holding me tightly. His thumbs stroked my skin. "I don't expect that sort of behaviour from Summer Hill," he said. "But I won't accept it, if it happens. Tell people what you have to tell them. No one will try to challenge you."

"Master," I said quietly. I pulled back and looked him in the eye. "What exactly do you think has been happening to Dune?"

Throren slowly put it together, looking at me while he did so, getting steadily more furious. "You're not Dune," he said.

"I'm smaller and slower than Dune, and unlike Dune, I've always got a sore arse to contend with," I said softly. "At least Dune's got a record. People are scared he'll murder them."

"That's not ... I don't understand what you want," Throren said. "If anyone tries to mess with you, I will not use a table. I'll use my hands, and it won't be pretty. Is this - what are you asking for? Protection?"

"Just understanding," I said. "I'm trying to figure out who is doing it to Dune. If I don't, it might happen to me. It's a recurrent thing in these situations. Some of the bullshit ae'NaNathra dealt with would make your skin crawl."

"This entire conversation is making my skin crawl," Throren said. "You can't be replaced, Kath."

"You can't know that."

"I've tried," Throren said. "I haven't been celibate, I've been trying to find someone, but - funny thing is, there's no one my size in the whole fucking Kingdom, and even if there was, they wouldn't be selling."

"Other people can't know you've tried," I said. "You don't exactly tell anyone, do you? I didn't know you'd fingered a thousand whores trying to make your cock fit until you told me. No one else knows. They'll assume that if you found a way to make it good for me, you'll be able to find a way to make it good for them."

Throren clutched me to him and stroked my back. "Okay," he said simply. "You'll get ... heckled. I'll refuse to fall for it. You'll point me to anyone doing it, if you can catch them, and I'll terrify them until they don't want me anymore."

"Thank you," I said.

"Is this really what you want?" Throren asked. "This isn't a reward. This is basic decency. You're mine. I'll protect you."

"The way Yulie has protected Dune?" I asked.

Throren sighed. "He's tried, Kath. Dune doesn't talk to him, how could he know-"

"This is me talking to you," I said. "I'm talking to you now, hoping to avoid what he's getting."

"This isn't a reward, Kath," Throren said. "I'll protect you, and I'll do it no matter what. You don't have to earn a reward to get it. You just get it."

"I don't want anything else," I said.

"Then think of something," Throren said. "Until you've thought of something, no working. You're a creature of leisure. You eat whatever you want, you do whatever you want. Ride your horse and laze about with your yarn. You help Yulie only because I already committed you to it. Everything else, drop."

"That's going to make it so much worse," I said. "Everyone hates a spoiled slave."

"For fuck's sake," Throren said. "Is that it? You don't want to appear spoiled? Suck it up. You already are spoiled. I can't stop myself. I don't want to."

I sighed and curled in closer to him. "Okay," I said.

"I'm going to have to suck your cock again the moment you're up for it," Throren said.

"And that's not a reward?" I asked numbly.

"No," Throren said obstinately.

"Can I suck yours?" I asked.

"It won't fit," Throren said.

"Watch me," I said.

Throren chuckled. I frowned.

"Do you think I'm joking?" I asked.

"I'd have to break your face to get it in there," Throren said, laughing lightly. "Let alone to get it into your throat."

"I am tired of not being allowed to touch you," I said angrily. "Let me touch you. That's what I want. Take it or leave it."

Throren frowned. "That's not a reward either," he said.

"I'm tired of being told what I'm allowed to want," I snapped. "Aren't you? I want what I want, and you can either give it to me or not. That's what this is. I'm your slave, you're my Master. You do what you want. I'll just sit here and let you. Don't ask me to ask for things I don't want. I can't lie to my Master."

Throren sighed. He dropped his forehead onto my shoulder. "You hate it, don't you?" he asked.

Hate what? Being his slave? Not being able to lie to him? Having to let him do what he wanted?

"Don't answer that," Throren said quickly. "Fine. You can touch me. Not now, while you're sore. Later. Maybe. I don't know."

Triumph flooded me. I'd won - at least a little bit. I was going to get to touch him.

I was going to get to touch him.

I came to a sudden, dreadful realisation.

I had only wanted to touch him because I'd been banned from it.

Chapter Text

We went to see Yulie and Dune after I'd muscled down my broth. I put Dune's problems firmly into the forefront of my mind and pushed my own issues back. I tried to, anyway. I failed.

Throren ambled slowly along with me, keeping his walk mercifully slow. It didn't hurt me to move quite so much if I was really slow about it. I didn't even care that I was sore. I never cared that I was sore.

I just didn't want to touch him. Fuck.

Why?

He was the best I could possibly have hoped for. He was kind and attentive, he let me speak my mind, and serving him in his bed was wonderful, even when it hurt.

So why did the thought of putting my hands on his cock make me clench my fists? Why did the thought of putting my lips on him make me nauseous? He'd taken me into his mouth, he had touched me with his hands. What reason could I have to not want him?

I decided just to pay attention to walking. Walking was easier than thinking about it, even with the pain. The pain made me remember what he had done to me, and that did not make me nauseous or clench my fists.

The thought of touching him was not even slightly arousing to me, it was the opposite. But the thought of him above me, staring down at me as I took him inside me was arousing. The thought of him doing anything he had already done to me made my heart skip beats.

I wanted him to suck me again, and I did not want to return the favour. I focused on how much climbing the stairs of Yulie's sanctum hurt, because I wanted to punish myself for my hypocrisy.

Yulie was tense and upright in an armchair in his sitting room with a split lip and his hand in his hair. Dune was nowhere to be seen.

"Did Dune do that?" Throren asked.

Yulie nodded and pulled on his hair. I knelt before him and inspected the split. "Secturn has already had a look," Yulie said. "It's been washed. It's fine."

The lip was fine. What wasn't fine was the dried blood up his nose - that was troubling. Dune had not just gotten his lip, but his nose too. If Dune ever broke Yulie's perfect nose, there would be no coming back from that.

"What happened?" Throren asked.

Yulie shook his head. "I don't know," he said. He took a moment to organise his thoughts. "It was - I thought it was going well. We - neither of us has slept. Not since the first night I held him. I think he might be just as frayed from it as I am. This morning, he did this. I don't know what caused it - I wasn't even touching him. He won't come near me anymore - I undid the shackles when we tried to sleep, and since then every time I go anywhere near him, he picks them up and rattles the chain. I thought if I left him alone, he might sleep."

"Lack of sleep is a problem," Throren conceded.

"I agree, Master," I said. "I'll go see him, if you don't mind, my lord?"

Yulie shrugged and pulled on his hair harder. I worried it was going to start falling out.

Dune was in the bedroom, holding the shackles to his chest. He wasn't sleeping, or even trying to.

"Don't close the door," Throren said. "If he gets aggressive, I want to hear it."

"Yes, Master," I said.

Dune sat up and I crawled onto the bed and lay on it, putting my leg up.

"So, you couldn't get Yulie to fuck me, but you got Throren to fuck you," Dune said quietly.

Yulie hadn't fucked him? Dune had laid in his bed, goading him on, and Yulie hadn't fucked him? Why? Who had backed out - Dune, or Yulie?

"It was always going to happen, I suppose," I said, focusing on the fact that I'd been fucked. "You can't tell your Master that tying up slaves and doing whatever you want to them is a good idea, and then expect him not to do just that."

Dune skirted around the issue once again. "You know, even we heard you screaming," he said.

"I think Andonia heard me screaming," I said.

Dune smirked. "He must've been pissed after I bit him," he said.

"I'm not sure he even cares that you bit him," I said dryly. "I think he thinks you're crazy and you just need patience and care now."

Dune lay down on the bed with me. "I don't think Yulie wants to fuck me at all," he said.

I frowned, contemplating. Yulie was rather odd. Maybe he had other tastes? Who even knew, when it came to Yulie and Throren? They were both as inconceivable as each other.

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe he's worried you don't want it. You've been especially unstable lately. He probably thinks this is another instability."

"Do you?"

I shrugged. "We're all mad in our own way. Andonia treats madness by embracing it. You are what you are."

"What I am is someone that needs him to fuck me," Dune said insistently.

"That will be hard to get, now. His face seems to think you don't want it near you anymore."

"If he won't fuck me, he can fuck off," Dune snapped.

I hoped that our Masters hadn't heard him. He hadn't been loud, but his voice might have carried in that tone. "You're going to have to explain to me why you want to get fucked so badly," I said.

"And what will you do when I tell you?" Dune said angrily, seething. "Throw food I can eat at me? Take me on pretty walks through the kitchens? Bitch at me about how you can help me, when you can't, you're just as fucked as I am?"

"I am not just as fucked as you are, Dune," I said. "My Master and I can talk. He'll listen to me."

"Yeah, he'll listen to you, then he'll take the crop to you over nothing."

"That was one time," I said.

"One time too many," Dune snapped.

I sat up, shook my head, and left the bed.

"Where are you going?" Dune asked.

"I'm going to talk to someone who'll talk to me about it. You're clearly not interested in helping yourself, so I'll just have to do it for you, behind your back," I said. Dune watched me leave the room with his mouth hanging open.

Yulie took his hand out of his hair and watch me move slowly out of the bedroom. He hadn't moved from the armchair. Throren sat on one of Yulie's settees. I sat next to him gently on my hip with my legs underneath me, keeping my weight off my arse.

"That was quick," Yulie said.

"He's back to being belligerent," I said simply. "I don't know why. There's a lot of possibilities. Sleep, food - who knows?"

Yulie frowned and put his hand back in his hair. "Should I just leave him until he's calmed down?"

"Absolutely," I said. "In the meantime, can you give me an idea of what happened before he hit you?"

Yulie frowned. "It was earlier this morning. I kept taking the shackles off all night, trying to get him to sleep, and then he'd put them back on and tell me to push it."

"Again?" Throren asked. "Even though you 'pushed it' already?"

Yulie scowled. "He's not ... satisfied," he said.

"He told me you didn't finish the job, my lord," I said.

Yulie put his head down with his hand in his hair. "I can't. He doesn't want to."

Throren was even more frustrated with this than I was. "For fuck's sake," he snapped. "He kept telling you to. No one was making him!"

Yulie shook his head and tugged on his hair. "You don't know him like I do," he said.

"You don't know him at all," Throren snapped. "What are you waiting on, a written invitation? Shall we teach him to write first?"

Yulie kept shaking his head. "No, that's not what I meant. I meant that I've heard him talking in that tone before. He says push it in exactly the same tone as he said please stop when he was half-dead from the Stockade, and we were riding home. He says it the same way he says I hate you and just kill me already. He doesn't want me to fuck him. He wants to give up. He wants to throw himself off my balcony."

Throren frowned. I did too. Dune hadn't wanted to go off the balcony. He'd told me he wasn't going to do it. I had kept this from Yulie, thinking that if Yulie thought Dune was a danger to himself, it would be easier to control him and keep him lenient with punishment. This may have been a mistake.

Still - Yulie had known Dune a long time. If anyone knew what Dune sounded like when he was hurting, it was Yulie, who had whipped him twice in the time I'd been in Summer Hill.

"You might be right, my lord," I said. "He's brought up sex almost every time I've spoken to him. I think he's using it to cover something else. He does that a lot. He talks about one thing to avoid talking about another."

Throren glanced at me, his eyes dark and worried. Then he looked at Yulie. "You should know that he's being ... bullied," Throren said.

Yulie shrugged. "Of course he is," he said simply.

"You knew?" Throren hissed.

Yulie sighed and ran his hands through his hair, one after the other, over and over like a ritual. "Of course I know," he said. "Have you never read A Slaver's Guide? There's a whole chapter about infighting in slaves and servants. They supplant each other. You can trace the King's concubines - they jump like grasshoppers, up and up, from merchant to Lord to Duke to King. Dune's got the top spot of the servants and if he'd just speak to me, he'd have my ear. Of course the servants envy him. That and..."

"And?" Throren pressed.

Yulie sighed. "Unlike you, I cultivate my reputation," he said. "I never paid anyone not to talk. I wanted this town to like me, remember? Every whore I've had, I've had well enough that they wanted to talk about it. Do you have any idea how many anatomy books I've read? I know things, Throren."

Throren snorted derisively. "Explain how it fits, then," he said, glancing at me.

"Sheer force of will, you complete idiot," Yulie snapped. "You can fit anything in there if you're willing to apply the necessary steps. I know how long you spend at brothels. You're there for the whole day in one room with one whore. You're always patient and methodical. You just never managed to find someone willing to enjoy it for you.

"But that's not the point. The point is that Dune's always been at risk. He's made it worse for himself, because he's out of control. I'm not controlling him and that makes him a power sieve. If I'm not controlling him, someone else will try. That's how power works."

"And you let this happen?" Throren said darkly.

"I don't let it happen," Yulie said. "It happens over my head because the situation permits it. If I ever managed to catch it happening, I'd put a stop to it, but I can't fix a situation that's happening to someone who won't talk to me about it. I've reached the point where the staff are unwilling to participate - you've never cared for him, Quentin won't see him anymore, and Secturn won't say a thing unless it's about lashing him or selling him. No one is keeping an eye out for him."

"If he's confined, he'll be kept away from it," I said. "Only the staff who come to your rooms would ever see him, and you could keep a closer eye on them, or hand pick them."

"And Dune would hate me for it, because he hates confinement," Yulie said. "And now, I can't even let him onto the balcony. You realise he'll never feel the sun on his back again, unless he's taken for a walk like a dog? We're trying to fix his madness, not torture him into further madness."

"We need to identify what makes him change," I said. "He keeps changing persona - yesterday, he was practically meek, today, he's belligerent. What happened before he ran away, what happened before he came back? What put him on the balcony? What happened in the moments before he hit you?"

"You think something triggers it?" Yulie asked. "Like a condition?"

"If we can figure out what put him into the mood he was in last night, he'll go back to talking about it with me honestly. If there's something that puts him in that mood, I need to find it."

"You went for a walk and he hates confinement," Yulie said.

"You put him out to get water and he refused to go," I countered.

"For someone that hates confinement, coming back to a walled-in household after escaping it is incredibly odd," Throren said.

"It's absurd," I agreed. "He'd get punished no matter what, so why not draw out his freedom? Why come back at all?"

Dune told me he'd been spooked. He didn't escape, he just knew how to escape, and had used that knowledge when he went to hide.

"Did anything scare him?" I asked.

Could it be that simple? Was everything Dune ever did related to taking a fright?

Yulie shrugged. "Maybe. I spoke to Secturn about his food changes. I left him alone for a few minutes. He was fine when I came back. Then one of the labour slaves came through to stock wood for the fires. I introduced myself, introduced Dune. He said he'd met him yesterday in the kitchen, with you. One of the servants came through with food for us - plain from the soldier's kitchen for him. He wouldn't eat, so I let him starve it out, like you said to. Dune was fine after that for about half an hour, then he hit me."

"We have a new slave?" Throren asked.

"Fire keeper," Yulie said. "It's gotten cold. It's that time of year."

Oh ... no.

No, no, no.

"Could Dune be bothered by the weather? Kath is ... not bothered, but changed somewhat, by rain. Dune ran away in the rain, then he went to the balcony in the rain," Throren said, but I couldn't hear him. My own thoughts were too loud.

Why would Dune have wanted to hide outside of Summer Hill? He'd been here for a long time, avoiding people and slinking about. I'd lived here for over two weeks before I even knew what he looked like. Dune knew plenty of hiding places. The only reason he would have wanted to hide outside of Summer Hill would be if what he was hiding from could and would go everywhere that he could hide inside of Summer Hill.

Yulie hadn't been worth hiding from when Dune had run away. Yulie had just let him out from being confined while Lord Drextrer was here. He had felt guilty about keeping him locked up. Yulie would not have minded if Dune had kept his distance. Yulie would have let Dune do as he pleased.

"I don't think so," Yulie said, and it made no sense to me at all, because I had completely lost the thread of the conversation. "He's never minded rain before now."

What Dune hid from had to have access to Summer Hill, and a motive to seek out Dune. What better access than someone with access to the hearths? A slave whose job was to keep the hearths stocked would have a key to go almost anywhere.

Dune had run away on the same night that our hearth had first been lit. Someone had been into our rooms, lighting fires.

"Food," Throren said. "You talked to Secturn about food, maybe that was it."

Dune had come back - of course he had - if he'd stayed away long enough to get sick in the rain, Yulie would have forced Quentin to take him in the infirmary, and there was a hearth there. Yulie had lashed Dune, then he'd stayed close, even changing Dune's linens for him personally, in the antechamber, which had no hearth.

Dune had tried to talk to Yulie, who hadn't listened. Yulie had put him out of his sanctum, and Dune had refused to leave to get water. How many hearths would he have to pass to reach the well? How many chances of meeting the fire keeper were there in between those two places?

"He wouldn't have overheard from the bedroom," Yulie said.

Yulie had left. Of course Dune would have gone to the balcony. A flighty, sneaky thing like Dune would have gone outside where he would have an exit - not a particularly good one, but an exit nonetheless. Yulie had come back and Dune had been angry that he hadn't listened to him, so Dune had stayed outside out of pure spite. Since then, Yulie had not left his sanctum. Dune had been safe. The fire keeper had been through, but with Yulie nearby, he couldn't have done anything except frighten Dune.

When we'd gone to the kitchen, I'd finally gotten Dune to open up about the food, but then the fire keeper had shown up. Dune had gone completely silent and I'd had to introduce them. Then he'd broken down and begged to come back to the sanctum.

Ger had been so friendly in the soldier's kitchen. I'd thought Dune had broken down because the other slave had just gotten up and left him, like everyone did the moment they learned who Dune was, because of the steward's instructions and Dune's fraternising charge.

But that hadn't been the reason, had it?

"What do you think, Kath?" Throren said.

Then Dune had asked me to make Yulie fuck him. Recalcitrant slaves that claim to be virgins don't just demand their Masters fuck them. Not unless they truly believe the end is nigh.

They had gotten close last night, they had nearly done it, but Yulie was right. Dune wasn't asking Yulie to fuck him, he was begging to lose his virginity before the slave that had a key to almost every room in Summer Hill caught up to him.

Did he expect to be raped? Beaten? Killed? What had transpired between them to frighten Dune so much? What had made Dune so afraid he couldn't speak of it, and Ger pretend like he didn't even know who Dune was?

"Kath?" Throren asked.

Surely they'd met. If Ger could bring this sort of reaction from Dune, surely they'd met, or talked ... but Dune was quite unstable. Maybe Ger just reminded him of someone?

Probably whoever had traumatised him so much he couldn't stand his neck to be breathed on.

"Kath?" Yulie asked.

I slid to my knees on the floor before Throren. "Please don't leave," I said quietly.

Dune wasn't afraid of the whip. He'd survived the Stockade over and over again. But this fire keeper could do nothing but deliver some firewood to his bedroom, and in that small task, undo all the progress I had made with him the day before, and I had made so much progress.

I needed Throren. Anything that could frighten Dune could flatten me, and I was in no condition to run.

Throren looked rather uneasy. "All right," he said.

I practically fled back into Yulie's bedroom.

Dune didn't know what had happened. He didn't know that I knew what I knew.

"What?" he said sulkily, his arms folded. "What do you want?"

I went to his side. Throren had moved in the sitting room. I could see him now. He was sitting in my line of sight through the door I'd left open. I was immensely grateful.

Dune struggled with all sorts of things, and I worried that if I voiced my conclusion, he'd sink further into his reluctance. Maybe he'd refuse to speak to me, maybe he'd think there was nothing I could do.

"Unless you've got some other bright idea to get me fucked, you can fuck off again," Dune said, quietly, because of the open door.

We'd had success with short conversations and short phrases before. Dune answered questions with one or two words well - any more than that and he might try to talk around the issue again.

"I need a yes or a no from you, Dune," I said.

"Sure, whatever," Dune said.

"Would it be helpful if I could get Lord Yulie to change the locks? Fresh locks. Fresh key. Just the one key, and it's Yulie's. No one gets in unless he lets them in himself."

Dune tensed and his brow knitted together. "No," he said eventually, looking at me shrewdly.

I frowned.

"Secturn and the staff all have keys," Dune said.

"Just the one key, Dune. No more. No one gets in here unless Lord Yulie lets them in himself."

Dune did not give me the answer I expected. "Please don't tell him," he said, his eyes suddenly wide and afraid. "I don't know how you figured it out, you fucking witch, but don't tell him. He hates it, he'll send me back to the Stocks. I'd rather die than do this all over again."

I took a deep breath and sat down on the bed. "If I promise not to tell, will you?" I asked.

"What? No," Dune said. "He won't hear it. He hates it. He'll stop me before I get anywhere. I've been trying to tell him since the start. The oily twat won't listen."

"Tell me, then," I said.

Dune shut his mouth so hard his teeth clicked. He looked at me, wary, closed, and so guarded he reminded me of Throren. "What are you going to do about it?" he asked.

"Throren," I said. "Throren is what I'll do about it. Have you met him? He's terrifying."

Dune frowned. "And Throren isn't ... completely evil?" he said unsurely.

"Throren is not even a little bit evil," I said firmly. "He's been angry at you because when you were first here, Yulie was happy, and Yulie has never been happy before or since. You're it. You're the only thing in the world that's ever made Yulie happy and Throren doesn't understand why you stopped."

"I don't understand why I stopped," Dune said. "It's not like I did anything different! He changed his mind about me!"

"All I'm trying to say is that you can trust him. If there's a way to help you, Throren will do it," I said.

Dune tensed and shook his head. "I have never trusted a mother-fucking Master in my entire life and I'm not going to fucking start now," he said.

"Trust me then," I said.

"Why? So you can trade in the horse cock?" Dune spat.

"So that what's happening to you doesn't happen to me!" I said.

This shut Dune up completely. He put his hands in his lap and fiddled with his thumbs.

"Could it happen to me?" I asked.

He grimaced. That meant yes. "I dunno where to fucking start," he said.

I shrugged. "Just start somewhere," I said.

"I can't ... why?" Dune whined. "Why are you doing this? If you just let it go, Yulie will eventually get bored of me and you won't have to bother. Just let it go."

"Dune," I said, slowly, pleadingly. His name was exceptionally hard to elongate the way I wanted to, the way I would have if I was trying to console another Andonian. "I am trying to be your friend. That's why. That's all there is to it. I don't want Yulie to get rid of you. I want us to be friends."

Dune grimaced and fidgeted.

"How long has it been since you had a friend?" I asked.

Dune's expression answered the question. Too long.

I entertained the notion that Dune was fighting me on the pure and simple basis that he didn't know how to have a friend.

Had he ever had one before?

"Who was the best friend you ever had?" I asked. "Start there. Work forwards or backwards until I understand why you won't let me help you."

"Lar," Dune said, and promptly burst into tears.

"Tell me about Lar. Tell me how you got from Lar to here," I said.

Dune laughed, and it was the most miserable thing I'd ever heard. He wiped his tears away, cleared his throat, and steeled himself.

"Silne - my first Master - he bought me when I was six. I met Lar there. He was older - I dunno how old. I used to think he was old, but he was probably only ten or something."

"Why would anyone buy a six year old?" I asked.

Dune laughed again. "The hell if I can understand it," he said. "It wasn't what you'd expect."

"What should I expect?" I asked.

Dune just looked at me until my expression turned appropriately horrified.

I got up and closed the door. Throren made no move to get up, and stayed completely still, taking in my pale face as I shut the door to the bedroom, hoping it would block out the sound of whatever horror Dune was about to confide in me.

"It wasn't that. Dunno what it was, but not that. There's laws against it. I think he had a dead kid, wanted to pretend his kid was still around. All the kids he bought looked pretty same-ish. He'd get a new one every year so there was always one at the right age. He was pretty attached to Lar - he was the eldest, so I think he was the first one, he used to talk to him all the time."

Dune sniffed, and he looked utterly miserable.

"He didn't get a good look when he bought me. He just saw a little kid the right height with the right hair and that was it. When he got me home, he didn't like my eyes - but bad eyes aren't a crime, so he couldn't send me to the Stockade, and no one would buy me, so he just stuffed me out of sight in the kitchen and bought himself another one."

Dune's lip quivered, but he wasn't about to cry again. It was an angry quiver, as he was caught between scowling and schooling his expression.

"Lar kept getting sick, and when he did, Silne would bring him into his bedroom, and take care of him himself. I think that was how his kid died, so whenever Lar got sick, Silne would get clingy. It got worse and worse, though, and by the time it was over, he hadn't left the bedroom in weeks. I snuck in one day and there he was, dead."

"Because of Silne?" I asked.

Dune shrugged. "Because he was sick and Silne hadn't taken him to a doctor." Dune sniffed and glared at the door. "I say shit about Yulie, and Throren, but those evil shits still let their property see a fucking doctor, so, they're not that bad."

"What happened after Lar died?" I asked.

Dune shrugged. "Silne went batty. I went battier, though. Lar was my only friend. Silne drank until he passed out every time he woke up, and he expected us - a bunch of fucking children - to take care of him and his house while we were grieving, and he wasn't even fucking awake."

Dune took a deep breath and wiped at his eyes, which were oddly dry.

"So, I got pissed off one night, and I was trying to clean up the bottles around him, but he wouldn't wake up to even get off the bed so I could get the mess under him, so I just lost it. I dunno what killed him. Could have been grief. Could have been the alcohol - he hadn't spoken without slurring in weeks. Could have been the fact that I smashed a bunch of empty wine bottles over his head. No fucking idea."

Dune leant back, rested himself comfortably on the pillows, and sniffed. His eyes were dry, and he looked wholly unremorseful.

"There's my Murder charge," Dune said. "He was killing himself with the bottle and the most I did was speed it up, but it went on my record. Now I'm a murderer. Silne's not a murderer, though. Lar's death was property loss, not murder."

I felt nauseous, and I wished that I could emulate Dune's careless disregard.

"Still want to help me, now you know I'm a murderer?" he asked.

"You don't know how old Lar was?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Dunno. I was a kid. He always seemed like he was so smart."

"But he was the eldest?" I asked.

"Yeah," Dune said. "You're not gonna say anything on the murder subject?"

"It's just, if he was the eldest, he was probably the most mature when it came to you," I said.

"Sure, I guess," Dune said. "You're just gonna ignore it, aren't you?"

"And Silne's other slaves, they would all have been children, just like you."

"Yeah, they were. I don't know what you're on about, Kath. I fucking killed a man," Dune said.

"Children can be mean."

"And murderers! Don't forget they can be murderers," Dune said.

It was not lost on me that Dune was attempting to sabotage the friendship I was attempting to create. There were plenty of other ways he could have phrased this. He didn't have to keep using the word murder.

Even now, while he opened up to me, he was trying to push me away.

"Dune," I said softly. "Your eyes are creepy."

Dune looked down and sniffed. "What the fuck are you on about?" he asked.

"You were best friends with the eldest, who was always busy with the Master and being sick. Why not the other children? Why not the one he bought that was your age?"

Dune shrugged. He wiped at his nose with his hand.

"Were any of them nice to you?" I asked.

Dune shrugged again. "They were kids," he said.

"So were you."

"I don't see how this is fucking relevant," Dune said.

"It's relevant because you don't know how to have a friend!" I said. "Lar protected you, didn't he? Then he was gone, and you were all alone, left to grieve. You said you went batty. None of the other kids helped you, did they?"

Dune shrugged. "No one ever helps me."

"Lar helped you, didn't he?"

Dune bit his lip and looked at the blankets. "Yeah," he said.

"That is what I am trying to do," I said.

Dune sniffed. "Why?" he asked.

"Why did Lar do it?" I asked.

Dune shrugged. "He was nice," he said, and looked at me with unshed tears.

"That's why I'm doing it," I said.

Dune frowned. "'Kay," he said quietly.

"How do you want to do this?" I asked. "Do you want to tell me what's happening now, or do you want to tell me what happened after Silne?"

Dune shrugged. "Nothing really happened after Silne. No one any good buys a slave with a murder charge. I realised pretty early on that if I just ran off, I'd get sent back to the Stocks, and that's not pleasant, but at least it's predictable. Same arseholes, same shit. You take a couple lashes, feel like shit for a while. Sometimes you get strung up over a block for hours, but, once you get used to that, it's really not so bad. Hurts like a bitch when they break toes, but who gives a fuck about toes, really?"

I certainly gave a fuck about my toes, but I didn't voice this to Dune. "How long was it until you had another friend?" I asked.

Dune looked confused. He had to think about it. "I don't fucking know," he said. "One or two, maybe, fuck. People don't really give a shit.  I knew this little girl at Hale's - um, god, that guy was an absolute cunt-munching arsehole - but he had a little daughter, she was six or something and almost blind, and she was great. I stuck around for her. Hale would tell you he was a fucking slave trainer - hah - I was getting older, then, so people who liked my hair were starting to take an interest. He wanted to train me up to suck cock - he had it in his head that if you saw my eyes while I sucked, they'd be a selling point, not a fucking deformity."

Dune frowned and shrugged. "Maybe - I mean, maybe he was on to something. I don't know. The thing about teaching me to suck cock, though, is that I've got fucking teeth, and I wanted to use them, so he had to try and get me docile first, and that just didn't fucking happen."

Dune looked really proud about that.

"That's how I got this," he said, pointing to the burn under his eye. "I kept running, but he wanted me to learn better, so he didn't give me to the Stocks for it. Once I'd run off the third time - or fourth, fuck, I don't remember - he got his initials tattooed right there, so everyone would know who I'd run from. He tattooed my fucking face, the horrible freak. So, I toed his line for a while, got him thinking he'd broken me, then I dosed up his drinks with Anserian root - it makes your cock hurt - and he couldn't train me to suck cock when his cock didn't work, so he sold me. I ran from the next one, burned off his stupid mark, and now I've got a great scar."

Dune looked even more proud of this. He smiled when he spoke of it. It took some time for his smile to fade.

"I dunno what broke me, in the end," he said.

"You think you've been broken?" I asked, confused. Dune seemed the opposite of broken, to me.

He shrugged. "Not the usual way, I guess. I just ... there was this girl, working in a healer's kitchen. I worked the garden. I like garden jobs. I usually stick around in those for a while. The girl - don't even know her name - she used to stop me every time I picked the fresh herbs for the breakfast, and she'd pour me a cup of water. It wasn't - we weren't friends. But one day, she was gone, sold off. No idea why. No idea where. No goodbyes. It ... it doesn't seem like it's enough, right? But I just fucking snapped. I ran away so that I could get caught and go the Stocks, get my back torn up, and then get left alone to cry like a baby over some bitch that used to bring me water. You must think I'm crazy."

"I think everyone's crazy," I said softly. "You want to know what I think broke you?"

Dune sniffed. "What?"

"Time," I said.

Dune shrugged. "Yeah, sounds about right. I just - I just wanted it to stop," he said, and he finally let some tears loose. "I thought - I thought I'd be okay, you know? I thought that if I just started behaving, everything would get better. I thought I'd find a routine, everything would calm down, and I'd get to wake up in the same place with the same people, and maybe some arsehole Master would fuck me up every so often, but that's fine, it's not like I can't take it."

Dune did not say family, or home. I didn't think he knew what the words meant. He couldn't have described to me what he was missing, because there was no way he had ever experienced it before.

"I got sold again, and I tried. I shut my stupid mouth and I did as I was told. Wasn't enough. Fucker didn't like me. Fine, right? I thought he'd just sell me. Stockade wouldn't take me back unless I did something bad, and I wasn't doing bad shit. But I just don't sell well, never have. So he couldn't move me. Had to keep me," Dune said, and he brought his knees up to his chest. He wrapped his arms around them and shrugged nonchalantly. "And now, thanks to you - you witch - now I have nothing to talk about but Nash, and I really fucking don't want to, because every time I do, Yulie fucking loses it, and if I tell you, you'll tell him, and he'll fucking lose it, and here's the thing: I got what I wanted. Every day, I wake up in the same place with the same people, and this is what I wanted. It's perfect here. Yulie's soft with a lash, he barely ever hits me, and no one else is allowed to punish me. If I tell you about Nash, you'll tell Yulie, and he'll finally decide he's fucking done with me, and that's the last thing I want."

"Then I won't tell him," I said.

"You fucking will," Dune said. "You will because I fucking want you to, because I'm fucked now, either way, and I don't want you to be fucked too."

I frowned.

Dune took a deep, rattling breath. "Nash was this super nice slave. First person to be proper nice to me - not even the water-bitch was proper nice. She just gave me water. Nash used to wake me up if I overslept, used to pat my back if I got punished, that sort of shit. It took me way too fucking long to notice that he was flirting with me, but by the time I noticed, everyone else had noticed. I was trying to be good, right, so I was not fucking okay with it, and I told him so. I said, sorry, friend, you're six months too late. I'd have fucked you raw before, let you fuck me even raw-er, but now? No. Not a fucking chance."

I did not like where this was going, but I was afraid to interrupt Dune, for fear he would lose his stride and stop talking.

"Nash, obviously, didn't like that. Couple days later, and he corners me in the wood shed and he's trying to do it anyway. I don't think he realised that I wasn't just going to let him - he kept telling me to stop fighting him and he'd make sure it didn't hurt, but, honestly, when have I ever given a fuck about whether or not anything hurt? So I wouldn't let him, and he didn't like that, so that's how I got all fucked up about getting my neck touched," Dune said, talking very quickly into his knees.

"I ... I'm not sure I understand," I said. "What did he do to your neck?"

Dune shrugged. "He wanted me not to fight him. Strangled people don't fight so good," he whispered.

"Did he ... I thought it was ... I thought the fraternising charge was supposed to be consensual," I said in horror. "Surely you don't get the same charge if it's rape."

Dune shrugged again. "He didn't get that far. The Master walked in on it. My throat was fucked up, and I wasn't really awake, I could hardly breathe, I could hardly talk. I went straight to the Stocks for it, though. And there is a different charge for rape. The victim doesn't get a charge, the rapist gets a rape charge. The problem is the law. The law stating the difference - the fucking difference between rape and fraternising is whether or not one of us is fighting the other one."

Dune fidgeted and pulled his hair over his shoulder, where he held onto it tightly.

"So, Kath, here's some advice," he said, laughing breathlessly. "If someone tries to rape you, don't fucking fight it, 'cause they'll choke you 'til you stop. But you also have to fucking fight it, otherwise you're a fraterniser."

This was the most awful piece of advice I had ever been given. "Has Yulie-"

"Won't fucking hear of it," Dune said. "It's in the past, he says. Forget it, move on. He thinks I was fucking in love or something else completely insane. Like that's a thing - even if it was, nobody fucking compares to Yulie. Took me hardly a day to want him, with his fucking forehead kisses and his stupid reading to me and his bonkers refusal to even try to fuck me. Even if I had some other lover, I'd have dropped them for Yulie, I'm not fucking stupid."

"What happened? Something happened, that first week. Things were good and then they weren't-"

"For fuck's sake, Kath, everything happened!" Dune snapped.

He took three quick, deep breaths, his eyes darting from side to side, and what happened next was nothing more than a disorganised, panicked rant.

"Rohan turned on me, Secturn decided I was lazy, Yulie fucking frowned at me every time I talked. I couldn't sleep because Nash was fucking choking me in my dreams, and Thone was bending me over benches and I was getting beaten for hitting him, and Yulie was right next to me in this fucking bed. Every time I fell asleep I dreamed that he'd try to touch me in my sleep and I'd break his fucking face without meaning to and I couldn't fucking talk about it because Yulie wouldn't listen and no one else was allowed to talk to me, but Yulie kept telling me to talk to him but he didn't want to hear about it! I couldn't eat or sleep and everyone says I'm rude and I get it, I do, I'm terrible, but I can't ask anyone about it except Yulie and he just tells me all he wants is for me to eat, but I can't fucking eat and - and - for fuck's sake, Kath, everything is wrong and I just want to fucking sleep."

Dune put his hands onto his braided hair and pet it quickly and compulsively, looking wide awake and exhausted at the same time.

"He ... he cast me from his bed so quickly," he said, brokenly. The words were odd, but the tone was familiar. "He doesn't want me. He doesn't love me. He doesn't want to listen to me. He doesn't care. He cast me from his bed."

The Lestrans were a possessive people, with an incredibly odd rule about beds. Bed slaves were not supposed to leave the bed. They had even named the role after the bed. Bed slave, not sex slave, not pleasure slave. Bed slave.

I remembered Throren's absolute refusal to send me to the infirmary when I was dehydrated and burned. 'I'll not cast him from my bed,' Throren had said, and even though he had only just met me, he was insulted to be asked to even think of it.

Dune said, 'He cast me from his bed', 'He doesn't want me', 'He doesn't love me', and the bed rule made a tiny little bit of sense, finally. Dune's tone did not change through those phrases, not the tiniest bit. They were synonymous. They meant exactly the same thing in the mind of a Lestran.

Yulie had put Dune in the antechamber and in doing so, he had as good as told Dune that he was done with him. Of course Yulie didn't understand it - it made so little logical sense. It was a cultural anomaly, a tradition, something that people only thought was important because it had been treated that way by others their whole lives.

Yulie would have prioritized Dune's sleep over an idiotic tradition within a heartbeat. He would never have considered doing anything else. He certainly would not have taken the time to reassure Dune over it. It would never have occurred to him that he might be doing the wrong thing.

Dune was right - there was no one thing that went wrong. The amount of things that had gone wrong between Yulie and Dune was, quite simply, astounding.

There was only one fix for this. I could not sit down with Lord Yulie and present to him a single problem and a single solution. Dune and Yulie needed to be able to talk through their problems, because there were so many.

"The whole problem between you has always been that you can't talk to him. Everything else has piled on because you haven't been able to communicate with each other," I said.

Dune shrugged. "Yeah, maybe," he said. "But not anymore. The problem now is that he's fucking here. Nash. Fucker is here, introducing himself as Ger and pretending not to remember me. He's here and he's got a god-damn axe this time and he's in charge of fuelling the fucking hearths."

Dune flung out his arm with force and pointed at the hearth, right there in Yulie's bedroom, and his point was clear. He wasn't safe.

For all I knew, neither of us were safe.

No wonder Dune wanted Yulie to fuck him. Anyone that thought they were going to get raped, or choked and then raped, would want Yulie - perfect, kind Yulie - to do it first.

Chapter Text

I knelt before Throren. He took my face in his gigantic hands. I'd cried sympathetically with Dune, and I was worried what my face might look like.

"You were in there for a while," Throren said quietly. "I hope that crying wasn't all you."

"Could you help me?" I asked.

Throren pulled me closer. "Of course," he said.

"I need you to investigate something for me," I said. "You're not going to like it. Lord Yulie's going to like it even less."

"You're worried he's lied to you?" Yulie asked.

"I think he's told me the truth and it's horrible," I said. "I'm not willing to leave him. I'm not willing to be left alone, either. I need Lord Yulie to stay with me and Dune, and I need you to deal with this for me. Please."

"All right, done," Throren said.

"What did he say?" Yulie asked.

I worried about telling Yulie. Every time Dune had brought up his fraternising charge, it had ended poorly. Yulie himself had told me he didn't want to hear of it.

"I'd rather not be the messenger on this, my lord," I said.

"Is there some way to do this without you being the messenger?" Throren asked kindly.

"Yes," I said. "You can do it."

Throren frowned, but he didn't protest. "All right," he said. "Yulie, go sit with Dune. I'll be in shortly to tell you something you clearly don't want to hear."

Yulie tensed. "I'm not unreasonable," he said. "I won't be upset with him. He's not responsible for what Dune says."

Throren gave me a patient smile, then turned to Yulie. "Kath asks me for help, he gets it. Those are the rules. Leave. Go sit with Dune, or you don't get Kath's help anymore."

Why didn't I want to touch him? He was so good. I wanted to kiss him just fine, but I still didn't want to put my hands on him.

Yulie huffed, but he rose from his chair and left anyway.

"Go on," Throren said.

"I need you to investigate this new fire keeper," I said.

Throren frowned, then slowly relaxed his expression until he was blank. "The timing fits," he said simply. "What are you expecting me to find when I investigate this?"

"Lies," I said. "I think I know the truth. Dune doesn't lie to me. He evades, he gets aggressive, and he changes the subject, but he doesn't lie. I expect the fire keeper to lie to you."

Throren's jaw clenched. "You think he's been threatening Dune? Bullying?"

"He hasn't had much chance. Dune hasn't been letting him. He's either been in confinement, escaped, or ready to throw himself off a balcony the entire time the fire keeper has been here. Dune has been keeping away. I expect the fire keeper will deny this, he'll level accusations and try to get Dune into trouble. Lord Yulie might fall for it, but you won't," I said.

I hoped he wouldn't fall for it, but I needed to know. I needed to know that I could trust him. One day I might be dealing with the same lies, and I needed to know he would trust my word over others.

Throren's jaw was working harder than any part of a lord had any right to work. "All right," he said, but he did not move to get up. He placed a hand on my cheek, and I leaned into it. "You're testing me, aren't you?" he asked.

"Is it that obvious?" I asked.

"Rather obvious," Throren said. "If you don't know already, I can always tell when you are afraid. I've a rather long history with fear."

I wrung my hands in my lap, looking down.

"If it's that terrifying for you, you're right to stay with Yulie," Throren said. "He might not look like much, but he's a fighter. We still spar, often enough. He can't take me, but he can delay me, and that's more than this fire keeper can hope for."

"He might have an axe," I said.

Throren shrugged. "I might have a table," he said nonchalantly.

I smiled and let myself feel a little less worried.

"When you're done, would you talk to me about it before you talk to Lord Yulie?" I asked. "I'll know if you've learned the truth or not. Lord Yulie will just act on whatever you bring him."

Throren's jaw clenched again. "All right," he said. "Not because you're right, but because you asked. I wouldn't bring anything to Yulie unless I knew it to be truth. You ought to trust me to know what's truth and not."

I wrung my hands again. The whole point of this was that I didn't trust him to know. "But you'll bring it to me first?" I asked.

"Because you asked me to," Throren said.

'Most people will give you whatever you want, if you just ask,' Garnth said in my head. "Thank you, Master," I said.

He put his lips on my forehead, something I would forever associate with Yulie and Dune, then he left.

I sat for a moment, worrying at my hands, before I went to join Dune and Yulie in the bedroom.

 

 

 

"Where is Throren?" Yulie asked me. He was sitting in the armchair by the hearth, while Dune sat on the bed, wrapped up in blankets and looking heavily dishevelled.

"He's investigating what I told him, my lord," I said. I sat on the foot of the bed opposite Dune. "I'm to wait here."

"You're not even going to go with him?" Dune asked in a terrified squeak. "He's going to lie-"

"Of course he is," I said to Dune, who shut up immediately, looking at me with his mouth open in betrayed shock. "Dune, you're going to have to get used to this. They are Masters and you are a slave. If you have a problem, they will either fix it or not, and there is nothing you can do about it except keep them informed."

Yulie glared at me, his upper lip turning. It was odd to me, how similar his look of distaste was to his smile. "That is not helpful," he snapped.

"Dune needs to learn to trust, my lord," I said. "He's in your hands and he's going to have to learn to trust in it. I trust my Master. He'll see through the lies he's going to be told. Maybe once Dune sees my Master fix this for me, he will learn to trust you to fix things for him."

Dune sank back onto the headboard and drew the blankets tighter. "He's not fixing anything for you," he grumbled.

"What is Throren fixing?" Yulie asked.

"I'm still not comfortable being the messenger on this, my lord," I said uneasily. "My Master will be able to break it to you gentler than I can."

"And we are waiting here for his return?" Yulie asked.

"We are," I said. "All three of us, laying our trust in Master Throren."

"Sounds about right," Yulie said.

I wondered what life had been like for Yulie, all those years ago, before he had learned to fake being normal. I imagined Throren leading him through the mess of human experience like he was blind. 

Dune did not wait well. He fidgeted and cursed. He lay down to rest, but only lasted two minutes before he sat back up again. Eventually, he got off the bed, stalked angrily to the dresser, fished out a hairbrush and started obsessively brushing his hair. Yulie did not even try to tear his eyes off this spectacle.

"Has anyone ever brushed it for you?" I asked Dune idly.

Dune snorted. "Yeah, 'cause I'm that popular," he said sarcastically.

"Would you like me to? Or Lord Yulie?" I asked.

Dune glared at me. "Oh, hell no," he snapped. "No one with short hair is allowed to brush someone else's long hair. That's nothing but pain. Fuck off."

"Dune," Yulie said warningly. Dune spared him a glare, then went back to brushing his hair.

I'd hardly have described my hair as short, but by comparison to Dune, everyone had short hair. "I used to brush ae'NaNathra's hair. Father did, too. He had a rule, ae'NaNathra wasn't allowed to touch it himself," I said.

Yulie seemed rather pleased with this concept.

"Try it, witch," Dune snapped. "I'll end your entire bloodline."

"I'm pretty sure my whole bloodline is dead already," I said simply.

"I'll end Throren's bloodline, then," Dune seethed.

Yulie was uncomfortably tense. I reminded myself that this was probably the most he'd heard Dune speak in a long time, and Dune was not exactly refined.

"I think we'd all thank you for that, actually," I said. "My Master doesn't seem too fond of his bloodline."

"There's no fucking winning with you, is there?" Dune said. "You can talk your way out of anything."

"Basically," I said.

"Well, not this one," Dune said. "You try putting him near my hair. Just fucking try it. I'll kill all three of you."

I laughed even as Yulie tensed further, clearly wanting to react in precisely the same way that a Master ought to react to a death threat.

"Don't forget to bring a step-stool," I said, wheezing. "You'll need it to reach my Master."

Dune laughed too.

"Is this banter?" Yulie snapped.

"Oh, I don't know, my lord," I said. "Dune's prickly. I've found it's easier to control my reaction to him than it is to control how he talks."

"I ain't prickly," Dune snapped. "I'm soft and squishy. I'm practically a sweet bun."

"Oh? Do you eat those?" I asked.

"Absolutely not," Dune said. "Don't even try."

"Watch me," I said, but I was mostly joking. The mere mention of a sweet bun had me hungry and realising that it would be dinner time soon. "Are you going to eat tonight?" I asked.

"Don't bet on it," Dune said dryly.

"He didn't eat lunch," Yulie said.

Of course he wouldn't have been able to stomach his lunch. He'd just been visited by the fire keeper.

"I'd expected him to break by now," Yulie said. "Five days. Any second now I'm going to get him lemon cakes."

Dune furrowed his brow, looking at me. "You - you didn't tell him?" he asked.

"Tell me what?" Yulie asked.

Dune bit his lip.

"Dune ate yesterday, while we were out walking," I said.

Yulie frowned. "You had me punish him!" he said, seething.

"I had you punish him for being belligerent with me, which he also did. I didn't mention the food because I knew I hadn't fixed the problem. The stars aligned and the situation convalesced into one where Dune would eat. I wasn't going to take credit for it, not even Dune should take credit for it. It was nothing short of a miracle," I said.

"A miracle I should have liked to have been aware of," Yulie snapped.

"Why, so you could get your hopes up? It hasn't happened since, my lord. Dune's just as reluctant as ever. The problem isn't solved," I said.

Yulie frowned. "Any success, even a small one based on luck, is still worth a reward," he said.

"Dune doesn't want rewards, Dune wants change," I said. "You can't tempt him to do better with things or words. He wants proof that things will change. That's why you got so far with him last night. I showed him things could change."

Dune fidgeted, his hand wrapped hard around his hairbrush, his knuckles turning white. "Witch," he said again. "Get out of my head. Seriously, fuck right off."

I laughed.

"He's a mind reader," Yulie said knowingly.

Dune rounded on him aggressively. "Oh, so you've been on the end of this too, have you? Good. It wouldn't be fair for it to be all on me."

Yulie frowned, but he didn't say anything.

Dune bit his lip, his knuckles went even whiter on the brush, and he turned away. "Why do I even fucking bother," he grumbled, and went back to brushing.

"You could try being polite, you know," I said conversationally.

Dune snorted, proving his lack of politeness rather well. "Yeah, 'cause I'm so good at that," he spat.

"You've never had any motivation to try before," I said.

"I still don't," Dune snapped.

I laughed. "This man owns a town and a palace, and you think there's nothing to gain from being polite to him?" I asked.

"I don't own a palace," Yulie said.

"He owns a very nice house. It's not a palace," Dune said.

I shook my head. Even now I felt out of place and foreign. "If this isn't a palace, what is?" I asked. "Further, who cares? This is the nicest house I'll ever see. If this isn't a palace, then I'll never see a real one, and neither will you."

"That's some motivation," Dune drawled. "I'll never see any better, because I'm stuck here."

I laughed again before Yulie could get offended. "Everyone's stuck, Dune," I said. "I used to be stuck in Andonia under my father's shadow. Now I'm stuck here. My Master's stuck here, yours is stuck here. Just because they're not wearing collars doesn't mean they can leave. The only difference is that they've made the best of it and you haven't."

"Made the best of being lords," Dune ground out. "Made the best of being rich and better than everyone else-"

"And having nowhere to go to get away from their evil father than here," I said, interrupting Dune before Yulie could erupt. "This was a plague ridden, rundown town with no food and no money. Look what they've made it, Dune, look what they've done. Imagine what you could do here. You're resourceful, you're sneaky, you have practically no weaknesses. You're immune to pain and you're more stubborn than a stone wall. You can't be starved out or lured out. If Lord Yulie can turn a plagued town into a palace, you can turn Summer Hill into a home, and I'd like to see someone try to stop you," I said.

Dune finally shut up to mull that over. Yulie didn't seem to know how to act. I doubted he'd ever seen a conversation with Dune before. He was used to the reverence that the people of Summer Hill gave him. I didn't think that Dune was capable of reverence.

"Your Master needs you," I said. "He was raised by an evil man. He has no family left to support him. He needs someone who can kneel by his side and warn him when he is about to stabbed in the back. My Master can't be with him all day, every day."

"No one stabs Yulie in the back," Dune mumbled quietly.

Yulie frowned.

"Lord Yulie is being stabbed in the back from every angle, Dune," I said. "It's just hitting you, instead of him. You need to stop thinking of yourself as separate. You're not. An attack against you is an attack against him."

Dune grumbled, flexing his grip on the hairbrush. "So, what, you think I have some grand purpose here?" he asked.

"We all have a grand purpose," I said. "Lord Yulie is a tactician, Lord Throren is his army, I'm apparently a mind reader, and you're invulnerable. Think of what the four of us could do. If Summer Hill isn't a palace, it's going to become one. Think what Lord Yulie's mind would be doing if it wasn't stuck trying to make you behave. Imagine his schemes. Imagine how you could influence them."

"It isn't his job to influence me," Yulie said.

"It is the task of all slaves to please their Master," I said. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, my lord, but all your schemes have failed to make you happy. You're miserable. Maybe Dune could push you toward something that would make you happy. It is his purpose to please you."

Yulie frowned, but he didn't object. "What would you have me do?" he asked, watching Dune carefully.

Dune grimaced. "Hell if I know," he snapped. "Leave me alone, probably."

"You once told me that the lords have too much power in Lestrat, my lord," I said. "Are you included in that assessment?"

"In a sense," Yulie said. "The Hills aren't a very large province. The plague set us back quite far, but it would be inaccurate to say we've no power. When I write, I am heard. I suspect that might be less to do with the Summer name and more to do with mine, however. I have a reputation for being a scholar."

"Can you change laws, my lord?" I asked idly.

"Depends on the law," Yulie said. "I've done it before. If you write the right person with a good argument, then it will happen. Why?"

"Are you seeing my point yet, Dune?" I asked.

Dune had stopped brushing his hair and sat, staring at me, while I talked to Yulie. "Point taken," he said quietly.

"Which law would you have me change?" Yulie asked.

Dune opened and closed his mouth, confused and a little upset.

"Let my Master deal with this first," I said. "Once he's back, I'll teach you how to talk politely. We'll practice and practice until you're as sweet as sugar, then you can ask your Master to change a law for you."

Dune sat there, numbly, occasionally remembering to run the brush through his hair.

We waited awkwardly. Once conversation had died, I couldn't help but worry about Throren. What if I'd misjudged? What if he came back angry, or he came back fooled by some other slave's lies?

When a knock came at the door, I knew it wasn't him. It was too soft. Yulie got up and opened the door. Technically, that should have been Dune's job, but Dune was staring at the door in trepidation and obvious discomfort.

It was Maysel, from the kitchen. "Good evening, my lord," she said. "Where would you like dinner served?"

"Sitting room," Yulie said.

"I thought Lord Throren was joining you, my lord," Maysel said. "Should I take his plate to him?"

"Leave it here, he'll be back," Yulie said.

"As you wish, my lord," Maysel said. She set the table in the sitting room alone, while the three of us returned to our awkward waiting in the bedroom.

"Have a good evening, my lord," Maysel called when she was done.

"And yourself," Yulie called to her as she left.

Dune followed Yulie and I to the table reluctantly, but only half as reluctantly as the last time that I'd seen him drag his feet to a table. He had been served simpler fare than us, but I didn't think it was from the soldier's kitchen. It was doused in gravy. Dune didn't even look at it after his first glance. He folded his arms and looked away.

I sighed and inspected his plate. Nothing was salvageable. I wondered if the soldier's kitchen even served gravy, so I tasted it. I didn't know the names of the spices they used here, but I knew what an unspiced gravy tasted like, and this wasn't it.

"Simple food from the soldier's kitchen," I said, shaking my head. "Dune, your Master wouldn't know simple food if it hit him in the face."

"I did nearly starve my first winter here," Yulie said.

"You'd know a simple tasting fish if it hit you in the face, my lord," I said. "Don't touch that, Dune, you're not allowed gravy. You're not allowed ... are those peas?"

Indeed, there were peas - slightly mashed, but there nonetheless.

"If that came from the soldier's kitchen, I'll eat my horse," I said.

"I've seen the way you look at that horse. You'd never," Yulie said.

"I've done it before," I said. "We don't waste meat in Andonia. Horse, dog, alpaca, goat. All delicious, when prepared correctly. Less delicious if they were once a beloved pet, but still just as preferable to starvation."

Dune frowned and didn't touch his food while Yulie and I ate, but once I'd absolved him of the impetus to eat, he wasn't angry or grumbly.

We returned to the bedroom when we were finished, and we waited for Throren.

 

 

 

When Throren finally pounded on the bedroom door, I knew it was him by the force of it. When I opened the door, he looked furious.

I had never seen him quite like this before. I had seen cold fury on him many times. He was not cold. He was enraged like fire. He was shaking and tremulous with it, and he was unable to keep still.

He pulled me out into Yulie's sitting room, even as Yulie stood and walked toward us. "You stay put," he said, then he shut Yulie's bedroom door in his face.

Ger - Nash - whoever he was - was kneeling by the stair, looking apprehensive and tired.

He worried me. I didn't see anything in his manner to suggest that he was as horrid as Dune said, and I hadn't seen it in the kitchen, either. I worried that whatever he had said, Throren had believed it.

Throren pulled me to the door by the balcony, where Ger wouldn't hear him speak if he did it quietly enough.

"He's told me the truth," Throren said quietly, his anger so thick it felt almost palpable.

"Master-" I began, but Throren interrupted me.

"There's no way Dune even knows the truth," he said. "Dune isn't in on it. Listen, Kath, I know you think he'd lie, but he hasn't. It's so much worse than that. It's a scam. Lilger isn't even going to say anything to implicate Dune. He says Dune is innocent."

"Really?" I asked, shocked, because that wasn't what I'd expected at all. Throren didn't even call Ger by either of the names I knew. How many names did this slave have?

"I need to give this to Yulie," Throren said. "This is too much. We can't wait on it. I know I said I'd give you the opportunity to refute him. I said it and I still will, to me, after, but right now, Yulie needs to handle this before word gets out that I've gotten involved."

"You're going back on your word," I said.

Throren grimaced, his hands in fists. He forcibly flexed them open and put them on my cheeks. "Neither you or Dune are in any trouble," he said. "Trust me on this. I don't have time to do this twice."

He pressed forward and gave me a chaste, furious kiss. Then he pulled back and opened Yulie's door. "Out," he snapped.

He turned to Ger - Nash - Lilger - whoever he was - and stalked to him. Ger shrank back appropriately from Throren's angry movement. Throren grabbed him and hauled him to the middle of the room, then kept his hand on the back of his shirt, scruffing him in place. Ger's hands rose, placatingly raised and open.

Yulie entered the room and patiently leaned on his desk, looking from Throren to the fire keeper expectantly.

Dune appeared at the door, yelped, and turned back, shutting the door behind him firmly. Ger didn't even turn to look.

"Start with your sister and don't make me hit you again," Throren said.

Ger licked his lips. "My Master bought me and my little sister six years ago, my lord," he said, glancing up at Throren, who did not get any less furious. Yulie folded his arms, and Ger continued. "I thought it was a kindness. I'd expected to be separated. It wasn't kindness. She's an incentive to make me do what he wants, my lord."

"Tell him who your Master is," Throren demanded.

"His name is Priore Nesmet, my lord," Ger said.

"There's a book on your desk," Throren said.

Yulie glanced behind him. There was indeed a book on his desk. It was open. Yulie walked around the desk and leaned over it. "Laws regarding slave crimes," he said.

"Read up on fraternising," Throren said.

"I'd rather not," Yulie said, but his eyes were on the book, reading already. Throren must have already opened it to the correct page. "And?" Yulie asked, after barely a moment.

"Ever heard the phrase, frozen in fear?" Throren said darkly.

Yulie frowned. "Of course," he said.

"You'll submit to my understanding of what might make someone freeze in fear," Throren said. "People do it at the sight of me often enough."

"I had noticed," Yulie said.

"If someone bigger than you approaches you with an axe, you freeze in fear, and you do not fight them. You consider yourself lucky if you can even so much as beg," Throren said. "Why do you think I never carried that sword Father gave me? If I carry a weapon, people your size start pissing themselves. If this one carries a wood-cutting axe, people Dune's size start pissing themselves."

Yulie's eyes drifted back to the book. I knew what he was reading. He was reading the law stating that the difference between fraternising and rape was whether someone fought or not.

"If I don't do it, he hurts my sister," Ger said. "But I knew I couldn't even try it here - it's treason, isn't it? And everyone says Lord Yulie won't let Dune go anyway, and for it to work I have to get caught. If I do it here, I'll get tried for treason-"

"Shut up," Throren snapped, and Ger did.

"Treason only applies against the throne," Yulie said, but it was blank and soft, like something completely beside the point. He looked at Ger, his eyes cold and distant.

"Why?" he asked.

Ger was about to answer, but Throren did it first. "The Master is normally involved," he said. "It's a scam, Yulie. When a Master can't sell off a slave at the price he wants, they hire another slave to fraternise with them. The victim goes to the Stockade, Lilger here goes back to Nesmet, and the Master gets compensation for a poorly behaved slave. The plan was for Lilger to either seduce Dune or make him freeze up, then have someone you would believe walk in on it. Dune's already got a fraternising charge - he could deny it all he liked, you wouldn't believe him."

Yulie frowned. His eyes flicked to me. "Dune told you about him," he said, then turned cold eyes back to Ger. "How did he know what your intention was? Did you try already?"

"No, my lord," Ger said. "I've been trying to keep away. I didn't know what else to do. He's got my sister."

"It would never have worked," Yulie said. "Dune does not freeze in fear. Dune attacks."

"It would never have worked, because when you run a scam long enough, sooner or later you'll hit the same target twice," Throren said. "Dune didn't freeze in fear the first time, either. So Lilger had to put him down somehow."

"The first time?" Yulie asked.

Throren just looked at him, his head cocked to the side, patiently waiting, and I was shocked. Surely, Throren didn't expect Yulie to be able to figure it out without telling him more clearly.

Throren did expect it, and he was right to. I saw the precise moment Yulie pieced it together. I'd expected rage or frustration. Yulie gave me neither of these responses. Instead he sat down calmly in his desk chair and leaned back, resting his back against the chair.

I had never seen him sit like that before.

"Secturn hired him. He's not even local. He was specifically brought here for the purpose of fraternising with Dune," Throren said, spitting the word out like it was poison. "That's the only thing you've ever taken a stand on. That's the only thing Dune hasn't done to you yet, he's never fucked someone else while belonging to you."

"He's never fucked someone else while belonging to anyone, if this is the case," Yulie said quietly.

"Secturn, Yulie," Throren said. He was practically growling. "Secturn brought him here. He'll need to be made an example of. I need your say on it."

Yulie sighed. "Take care of it, however you see fit," he said.

"The Master - Nesmet - he's in town until the job is done, with this one's sister. I will get Secturn. You'll have to send the guard out to get Nesmet. They won't follow my order, only yours," Throren said.

"Yes," Yulie said.

"I'll put this one in a cell, then," Throren said, and stalked back out of the room, hauling Ger with him.

Yulie's back stayed put in the chair. It didn't look right at all. "He kept trying to talk to me about it," he said in a quiet, null voice, then he rose. "Stay with Dune. I'll be back shortly," he said, then left.

 

 

 

Yulie returned first. Dune and I were on the bed. I had decided that I didn't care for the rule about keeping a distance from Dune anymore, and I had offered him a hug. Dune had consented, and he was quietly sniffling into my shoulder.

Yulie didn't look upset, and he did not separate us. Instead, he crawled behind Dune, lay down on his back and stared at the ceiling. He stayed there for only a few minutes before a frantic pounding began on the door.

Yulie was up and at the door before I could even begin to disentangle myself from Dune, who steadfastly refused to budge from his position.

Yulie opened the door to see Lord Hector, and I wondered if now was really a good time to introduce a fire hawk to the situation.

Hector rose up to his toes, then back down onto the balls of his feet, with his thumbs stuffed into his fancy silk vest. He gave me the impression of a nervous dancer. "Uh, Yulie, the thing is, it's Throren. He was - uh - might still be - uh - strangling the steward."

Dune shuddered in a breath.

"It's really a bit - uh - terrible? Yes, terrible. He won't let go. He's not killing him, exactly, he's just sort of making him go limp. I'm not sure what to do, really - I called for the guard and they're all a little confused. He normally only acts on your behalf, see, so attacking the steward is-"

"Remarkably appropriate," Yulie said. "Couldn't have done it better myself. Hector, you're here to learn how to govern, so here's a lesson. Occasionally, your staff will betray you, and you will have to send your muscle out to strangle them. Unfortunately, once you've done so, you'll be missing a staff member. As such, you ought to have a rudimentary knowledge of everyone's job. Consider yourself learning rudimentary knowledge of how to be a steward until further notice."

Hector was completely speechless for several seconds. "Secturn betrayed you?" he asked eventually.

"I'm afraid I shall not be writing him a reference," Yulie said.

"You sent Throren out to strangle him?" Hector asked.

"I sent Throren out to make a point," Yulie said. "I'm actually rather impressed with his tact. I imagine Secturn is well and truly learning his lesson right now. Apt, actually, that's the word I want. Apt. Apposite, even. Befitting."

"Is everything all right?" Hector asked.

Yulie shook his head. "Not really," he said eventually. "I've had Secturn for ten years. I'd never have expected him to do this. It's a tad painful, if I'm honest."

"What's he done?" Hector said.

"He hired a slave to attack Dune," Yulie said. He folded his arms and pinched at his own skin. "To make it look like they were fraternising. It was a poor job, but the intent was still there. The plan would have been to throttle him until he stopped fighting and have someone walk in on it."

"You're fucking joking," Hector said. "You're fucking - fuck. I mean, it's one thing to want you to get someone better, but to actually try to pin a crime on him? So Throren is - oh I see! Yes, apt, right, I get it. What now?"

"You're the steward," Yulie said. "You figure it out."

Hector frowned. "Well, shit," he said. "Oh, I guess I should probably calm everyone down. That'd be right, let's do that. Are you going to come?"

Yulie shrugged. "Baptism by fire," he said. "You'll figure it out."

"Oh! All on my own-"

Yulie shut the door on him and lay back down with us.

"I fucking hate that guy," Dune said.

Yulie groaned. "He's such a prissy little idiot," he said. "His father loaned me money, though, so I have to stand him. I don't know how to break it to him that his father didn't send him here to learn to govern, he sent him here because he talks too much and he wanted some peace and quiet for once."

Dune and I laughed so hard that he nearly started crying again. When we were done, Dune rolled off my shoulder and onto Yulie's. Yulie sighed and shuffled closer to put a kiss into his hair.

When Throren returned, he was still utterly enraged, his hands flexing and unflexing. His eyes darted around the room, as if keeping an eye on what he would be able to pick up and throw if he got too mad.

"I do hope you didn't murder him," Yulie said.

Throren grunted and sat on the bed next to me. "I let him speak his peace. He tried to weasel out of it, then he told me 'it's just a slave', so I lost my temper. He's in the cells with Lilger, nursing a very sore throat."

I relaxed slightly. If Throren had lost his temper, Secturn wouldn't be in a cell. He would be dead.

"Just a slave," Yulie repeated. He kissed Dune's hair again.

"He sounded just like Father," Throren said. "All I could think of is that Kath is 'just a slave', too. I think I might need to break something before the night is out."

Dune tensed. I sat up and put myself into Throren's lap. I kissed him gently, and he put his tense hands over my hips, not touching me at all.

"Careful, Kath," Throren said. "I don't need to lose it with you two nights in a row. Lie down."

I went, but not before I gave him a hug.

"Did you know Hector is sauntering about saying he's the steward now?" Throren asked.

Yulie chuckled. "I may have told him to," he said.

"That boy is the most gullible tart I've ever met," Throren said.

"How does Lissal stand him?" Dune asked.

"She gets him drunk," I said, and we all laughed.

"Fire hawk," Throren said, laughing in a deep rumble. "Don't - don't explain it, Kath, if you do, I'll have to take you to bed," Throren said, wheezing.

"It's a bird we've got in Andonia," I began, and Throren laughed harder. "They pick up burning sticks and they light new fires with them-"

"I warned you," Throren said. The next thing I knew, he had me over his shoulder and was heading to the door. I squirmed until I could lift my head, and I waved goodbye to Dune and Yulie, who were both watching, bemused.

Throren carried me that way all the way to the bottom of Yulie's Sanctum. "I can walk, Master," I told him.

"I'm sure you can," Throren said, and carried me the rest of the way to our rooms. He even carried me to the bed, where he put me down on the edge and knelt before me.

For the first time, he undid my trousers for me. He pulled them down only far enough to free my cock, then he put it into his mouth.

I put my hands in his hair immediately. I grew hard in his mouth while he sucked. He pulled my trousers down to my ankles. I struggled to kick my shoes off, but I couldn't without undoing my laces.

Throren sucked and hummed every now and then, and this was so much worse than the first time - this time he was on his knees on the floor. He pulled off, pushed me further back on the bed, and pressed his hand to my chest until I fell backward. Then he leaned back over and took me in his mouth again, and I let my eyes slide shut.

Between my panting and moaning, I heard a noise I couldn't recognise, so I lifted my head. Throren was opening his trousers - he was taking himself in hand - he was...

He was getting himself off on this.

Some Master he was, getting off on being on his knees and sucking on a slave's cock. It didn't take me long to spill into his mouth, and he came onto my shins while I softened in his mouth.

ae'Aberda. Our dynamic was fucked.

Throren went to my hip and lazily sucked a bruise onto it. I threaded my hands back into his hair and held him there until I felt satisfied with it, which seemed longer than he thought it should take. He tried to pull away a few times, only to chuckle and go back at my pull on his hair.

When I let him go, he returned with water and cleaned off my legs. Then he pulled up my trousers, tucked me back into them, and laced them back up, which I thought was odd.

"Going somewhere, am I?" I asked.

"I don't know," Throren said. "Were you done with Dune?"

"He and Lord Yulie seemed pretty relaxed when we left, and it's gotten late," I said.

"Well, in that case," Throren said, and undid my laces again. He pulled my trousers back down, kissed my other hip, and helped me out of my shoes. He let me sit up only long enough to pull my shirt off, then he pushed me back into bed.

He pulled the blankets down and let me get comfortable, then he undressed and got in with me. He did not bother putting on the clothes he normally slept in. He pulled me into his arms and held me very closely, and I reached over him with my arm and leg, clinging.

"Did I pass your test?" he asked.

"I think so," I said. "I hadn't expected you to strangle Secturn. I think that might be a bonus."

"I'm sorry," Throren said. "I know you wanted to castrate him."

"That was before I knew this was happening," I said.

"This is the worst," Throren said. "I am sick to my stomach with this."

"That's probably just a reaction from swallowing it. Try spitting it out next time."

Throren chuckled. "Never," he said, shaking his head. "You know what I meant. I meant this thing with Dune. This whole time, Yulie's banned him from getting too close to other slaves, over a fraternising charge that's not even real."

"You know that my record's not real either, right?" I asked tentatively.

Throren shrugged. "Anyone trying to sell something can't be trusted," he said. "No one ever trusts what traders say. I bought you because you were pretty and you kept calling me Akartha, like it was really important. You were more interested in getting me to say Akartha than you were in being afraid of how big I was. I knew you weren't lucid, I knew it wasn't real, but I wanted you anyway. Then you came around and you were terrified."

"Not Akartha - ae'Quartthtra," I said.

"Ay-Kart-t-some-more-'T'-sounds-gorgeous-fucking-Andonian-prince," Throren said, not even trying to pronounce it. "I don't give a fuck what your name is. I love you to death. I'm never going to be able to pronounce that. It just won't happen. Just like you can't pronounce Throren."

"I can so," I said indignantly.

"You can't," Throren said. "You overenunciate it. It's embarrassing. I don't care, though, you mostly only do it when we're in bed and you know the rules on criticising those sounds."

I laughed breathlessly. "You don't mind?" I asked.

"Mind you butchering my name while you cry out in bed? No. I do not mind at all. I might even be fond of it," Throren said.

"I can pronounce your name," I said. "It's Throren. Master Throren, that is."

"Hm," Throren said softly. "So it's the sex that makes you butcher it? I might like that even better."

I laughed again. "It's not the sex. It's Andonian. We overenunciate to denote respect," I said.

Throren pressed his lips to my forehead. "So what you're doing is telling me you respect me while I've got your cock in my mouth?" he asked, smirking against my skin.

"You want to worry if I start clicking at you after, ae'TherorRenn," I said, following his elongated name with two clicks of my tongue.

"Why, what's wrong with that?" Throren asked.

"Clicking is about approval. If I click at you more than twice, it means I love you," I said.

Throren was quiet for a while, then he held me closer. "You don't realise you've been doing that for a while now?" he asked softly.

My breath hitched. No - no, I had not realised. "I have?" I asked.

"I thought it was a pleasure noise," Throren said. "When you aren't screaming, you do that. Not the first few times, but lately, it's been a lot."

"I didn't know," I said.

"I didn't know it meant something," Throren said. "Well, except that you're close to finishing. It definitely means that."

I brought up a hand to cover my face. "You must think I'm so strange," I said.

Throren shrugged. "You know the rules on criticising your noises," he said, smirking. "You are very strange. I clearly like strange. I wouldn't over-think it."

I burrowed my face into his chest to hide my blush. Throren didn't seem to mind. He put his hand into my hair and stroked calmly.

"I'm sorry about last night," he said eventually, his tone completely changed. It was no longer light, teasing, and a little smug. It had become soft and apologetic.

"You need to stop worrying about it," I said. "I overslept."

"You didn't oversleep. You crashed," Throren said. "You crashed because I did everything wrong with you last night - everything."

"I didn't bleed and I came twice," I reminded him.

Throren shook his head. "If not bleeding and finishing are your only expectations of sex, I've been doing it wrong," he said.

I frowned. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to tell him that he was right - the sex last night had been ... problematic. Not bad, but ... off.

"I shouldn't have tied you up with the belt," Throren said.

That was definitely not the problem.

"I should have waited until I had something that wouldn't cut up your arms," Throren went on. "I shouldn't have said what I said, either. That was cruel. You shouldn't have had to hear that."

I scowled into his chest, grateful he couldn't see my face. He was right, probably - he shouldn't have promised never to free me while he had his fingers in my arse. It wasn't what he'd said that had bothered me, though, it was how blank he had been when he said it.

"Did you mean it?" I asked, tilting my head up and squirming backward to look at him.

He sighed. "Maybe. Probably. Probably not. I don't know," he said lamely.

I was fairly certain that I would have been able to tell if he was lying. He wasn't, but that didn't help me when his answer was so vague.

"I shouldn't have rushed preparing you, either," Throren went on. "That's why I use the candle. It's not just about sticking fingers in, you've got to give it time, and I didn't. That's why it was so hard on you."

"I thought it was the position," I said.

"That's the other half of it," Throren said. "It's easiest on all fours, that's why I always put you that way. But I wanted to look - I always want to look - and you were all tied up and I wasn't thinking right. You kept saying the whole point was to do whatever I wanted, and what I wanted was to watch you while you took my cock."

Throren sighed and held me very tightly - almost uncomfortably - then loosened his grip.

"I could have gotten away with doing one of those things," Throren said. "But I didn't, I did all of them at once. I called on Quentin because I was worried you'd be crying when you woke up. I know you can take my cock. I was worried that I was so mean you couldn't take me anymore."

I put my head back down onto his chest, and I cuddled into his warmth. "Father probably wouldn't have told you to tie me up," I confessed. "He didn't say it to everyone."

"Oh?" Throren asked. "What would he have said to me?"

"He'd probably have told you to stop sucking my cock," I said reluctantly.

"Hmm," Throren said, and put his hand in my hair. "Terrible advice, that is. I imagine he'd tell me not to suck your arse again, either?"

"Probably," I agreed.

"What a prude," Throren said, stroking my hair fondly while I laughed breathlessly.

He stroked my hair until I fell asleep, pressed up against him, warm and safe.

He didn't sleep well at all. He woke me, several times in the night, by holding me extremely tightly, or kissing tenderly at my neck. He didn't seem to drift in and out of sleep, like I did. Whenever I woke, he was wide awake and coherent.

"I've known Secturn for ten years," he said finally, and I frowned heavily and rolled over, to wrap my arm around him and push my face into his shoulder.

"No one expected this," I said.

"You did," Throren said.

"Not like this, and not from Secturn," I said. "I expected things like cutlery theft."

Throren shook his head. His hand wrapped possessively around my waist.

I nodded off to sleep again, and woke up to Throren sitting up in bed, massaging his brow. I sat up and he let me run my fingers through his hair and massage his scalp.

"I didn't mean to wake you," he said.

I smiled at him sleepily. "You've never complained when I've woken you," I said. He let me tug him back into the bed and allowed me to cover him with half of my body and the blankets. His arms came around me firmly.

"Is this something that you worry about?" he asked. "Someone else deciding to ruin your life, just because they didn't like you?"

I shrugged. "Someone else did decide to ruin my life, just because they didn't like my father," I said.

Throren sighed. "I hate this," he said.

"I know," I said. "Should I distract you?"

"Just - no. Just don't leave my bed tonight," he said.

"I never do leave your bed," I said, confused.

"Don't start tonight," Throren said.

Even if I wanted to, I doubted I'd be able to get away from him. He had me in a strong grip, and he clearly wasn't going to sleep. He'd be on guard for it, waiting for movement, and he would keep me there if I tried to leave...

He'd be on guard. It was no wonder I wasn't having any trouble sleeping, with Throren wide awake and alert, keeping watch.

We were safe, I reassured myself. Everyone to worry about was in a cell. Others might betray us in the future, but not tonight.

I traced a circle on Throren's shoulder with my finger, staring at his bulk. He would protect me. He would protect me easily.

I wondered if I had always been attracted to strength, or if I had become attracted to it because Throren had it.

"Don't leave my bed tonight, either," I said. Throren relaxed, and he slept a bit easier after I said it.

I still didn't fully understand the bed rule. I wasn't sure that I ever would.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Throren and I attended breakfast with Yulie in his library. Throren was exhausted, with dark patches under his eyes, his demeanour muted and his back slumped. Yulie looked contrastingly alert.

I wondered if Dune had managed to fall asleep the night before, and I let myself feel some hope for him.

"Did the guard get Nesmet?" Throren asked.

"He's in the barracks. Lilger's sister is with Garnth," Yulie said. "I interviewed them all last night. It's a mess. The only stories that match are Lilger and his sister's. It's not easy. I want him drawn and quartered for what he's done, but I also want to reward him for being so forthcoming. It's a nightmare."

"Is Dune all right?" I asked.

"He was fast asleep when I came in," Yulie said. "He woke up once, cried on my shoulder and fell back to sleep the moment I told him Lilger was in a cell."

"He can't have been sleeping well, knowing he was here," Throren said.

Yulie nodded. "He's exhausted. I won't have him woken."

Halfway through our meal, Dune wandered blearily in and dropped into the seat next to me, rubbing his eyes.

"You're allowed to go back to bed," Yulie said, as Dune completely ignored the food at the table.

Dune glanced to the stairs tiredly, frowning.

"You don't have to," I said. "It's an option, you don't have to take it."

Dune slumped in his seat and rubbed his eyes again. "'m fine," he said. "Just feel like I been asleep for a week."

"Only for a night. Will you come for another walk with me, when you've woken up a bit more?" I asked him, eyeing the food he had been sent up. It was not simple fare.

"Not until you tell me what actually happened last night," Dune said quietly.

Everything was silent for a time. I sat back in my chair and folded my arms. "I think your Master should do that. I'm fed up with you two not talking to each other."

Yulie frowned. He carefully closed the book next to his plate. "Your fraternising charge has been here for days and you didn't tell me. Kath managed to pry this information out of you and had Throren verify it. It turns out he was brought here specifically by my steward to convince me you were fraternising, in the hopes that I'd finally get rid of you. The worst part? This isn't even the first time this has happened to you," Yulie said. He was calm and poised again, and not resting his back in his chair.

"Your charge is a gross misinterpretation of the law," Yulie continued, frowning. "Your Master hired that slave to seduce you, he failed, so he choked you until you stopped fighting him, and had your Master and as many neutral witnesses as he would need to convince the Stockades walk in to see it."

This woke Dune up very quickly. His eyes went wide, and his shock enabled him to hold Yulie's gaze for several seconds. "Oh," he said, as he dropped his eyes to the floor. "That makes so much more sense."

"It does?" Yulie asked.

Dune shrugged. "I thought maybe he was crazy or something, you have to be, to want to fuck me," he said.

Yulie's fury was raw and obvious, in the clench of his shoulders and the scowl on his lips, and it left me worried that Dune might have just earned a punishment I couldn't save him from.

"You are infinitely beautiful," Yulie snapped.

Dune shrank back from both the anger and the compliment. "Yeah, but, you're crazy," he said quietly.

Yulie's scowl slowly faded.

"Crazy isn't the word you're looking for," I said, trying to interrupt this before it became anything too serious. "Unique would have been a better choice."

"Unique, then," Dune said. He sighed and slouched, then put his hands on his hair. "Am I going to be punished?" he asked.

Yulie glared at his plate, frowning. "For what, exactly? Failing to talk to me? How do I punish that without making you shut up further?" he asked. He pinched the bridge of his nose and put his other hand into his hair.

"Do you even know what you did wrong?" Throren asked Dune, his voice soft.

Dune shrugged, staring at the ends of his hair.

"You didn't come to me when he wouldn't listen to you," Throren said. "Yulie's always been difficult. If you think you're the first person to want to punch him in the face, you're wrong. You should have come to me. I've the most experience with dealing with Yulie when he's difficult."

Dune frowned.

"I'm not difficult," Yulie said.

"Fine, everyone else is difficult, and you're perfectly normal," Throren said. "It doesn't matter. What matters is that particular problem is solved, and now we need a steward."

"And a fire keeper," Yulie said.

"And a fire keeper," Throren agreed.

"And I need to write to the capitol. There is a law that needs changing," Yulie said.

"I didn't know you could just change laws," Dune mumbled.

"I can't. That's for the scholars in the capitol to put to the King. He does change laws - a little too frequently, if you ask me," Yulie said.

"Did anything ever come of that tour he was going to take?" Throren asked.

"Nothing but hearsay," Yulie said. "Summer Hill would never host him, anyway. He might stop for lunch by the lake, to see a net or two, but we don't have the space for a King's entourage."

"What about the Prince?"

"Gout," Yulie said. "He's got another year in him for travel, at best. We'll never see him."

"Sooner or later they'll demand you visit again," Throren said.

"I dread the day," Yulie said. "The capitol reeks. Too many people, not enough bathing. I shall have to send you instead."

Throren frowned, then glanced at me. "Kath might like to travel."

Yulie nodded and opened his book again.

"I'd like to travel," Dune said.

Yulie slammed his book shut. Dune jumped.

"Where?" Yulie asked. "Also, how? You can hardly stand horses."

Dune shrugged, refusing to meet Yulie's eye.

"Has Dune seen the nets, my lord?" I asked.

Yulie frowned. "Not that I'm aware," he said.

"Maybe we could take him on a day out. No point in travelling afar when there are new things to see nearby," I said.

"That sounds good, actually," Throren said. "You're due to come with me to the lake. The four of us could go."

"The lake might be a bit far without putting Dune on a horse," Yulie said.

"Why don't you like horses?" I asked Dune.

"Never met a horse that liked me," Dune said.

"That's easily fixed. Kelpie likes anything that's holding an apple."

"I ain't going anywhere near that thing," Dune said. "They have too many legs, and I ain't fond of getting kicked."

"Kelpie won't kick you," I promised.

"I'm more interested in food and balconies than horses," Yulie reminded me sternly.

Dune scowled at the table.

I shrugged. "Food, then," I said brightly. "Let's go for a walk, Dune. We'll see if there's any work to do in the soldier's kitchen. Maybe you'll get hungry there."

 

 

 

Not only did Dune get hungry in the soldier's kitchen, he also made a friend. Her name was Tabitha, and she was one of the girls that had been there the last time we had.

Dune had clearly worked in a kitchen before. He could peel and prepare well. He needed practically no direction. I had never made my own food in my life, and I felt woefully inadequate.

Tabitha kept asking if she was allowed to be talking to us, in a sweet, common sort of way. After spending so much time among lords and high-class servants, she was refreshing. She had a foul mouth on her, and when Dune finally started talking to her, their conversation devolved into what I could only describe as filth.

They used a lot of slang that I asked patiently to be explained to me. They swore at least once in every sentence, and they never seemed to actually be upset about anything when they swore about it.

I was reminded rather forcibly that Dune did not belong to this world. He was common folk, through and through. He did not belong in Lord Yulie's bed. Everything about Dune, from the way he stood to the way he spoke, was crass and offensive.

If I were to make things work with Dune and Yulie, I would have to teach Dune to change everything about himself. This was a sobering, unpleasant thought.

Throren himself came to find us just after lunch. Dune and Tabitha were peeling potatoes and talking about something to do with drying fruit, and I was washing pots. Throren looked just as out of place in this kitchen as he had in the spin-shop, but less out of place than he did with his mouth on my cock.

"Checking up on you," Throren said. He sat at the table with Dune and Tabitha and started peeling a potato. Tabitha dropped the potato she was working on and quickly ducked under the table to retrieve it.

I was reminded that Throren carved. Of course he would know his way around a knife, even in a kitchen.

"We're doing well, Master," I said. "You're looking better."

He was. The dark patches under his eyes had receded and he seemed much more alert.

"Am I?" he asked.

"You were very tired this morning," I said.

"Would you believe I've been asleep on Yulie's settee?" Throren said. "I'm mortified. He didn't even try to wake me. Likely just laughed at my expense."

Tabitha resurfaced from the floor, half-peeled potato in hand. "My lord," she squeaked.

"Tabitha, right?" Throren asked.

Tabitha fumbled the potato again. It dropped to the table with a thunk, but she managed to catch it before it rolled to the floor. "Yes, my lord," she said.

"He knows everyone's name, Tabitha," I said. I hadn't intended for it to come out quite so worshipful, but it did.

"I do?" Throren asked.

"You do," I confirmed. "It's a little surprising for most of the staff. Servants and slaves are not generally used to being called by name, Master."

Throren frowned. "Should I stop?" he asked.

"Absolutely not," I said, aghast. "It's one of your most charming qualities."

"Charming, am I?" Throren said, shaking his head. "That's a new one."

"I dunno," Dune said. "You're growing on me. Since when do you peel things?"

Throren clenched his jaw. "Call me 'my lord', Dune," he said sternly.

Weird. He'd never corrected me on a title before. He hadn't liked it when I'd called him 'sir' when we first met, but even then, he hadn't corrected me.

Dune just scowled at him.

"I am a man of many talents," Throren went on. "Your Master and I both earned our keep when we first came here."

"I hear all sorts of kind things about it, my lord," Tabitha said. "Is it true you took care of the children?"

Throren huffed. "Hardly. I was just the only person with enough energy left to keep them corralled. You've only been here a while, right?"

"About three months, my lord," Tabitha said.

Throren nodded. "It was all far less heroic than some will insist. Anyone will work if they are hungry or cold. Even lords will work."

"You're not hungry or cold right at this moment, Master," I pointed out.

Throren smiled at me and kept peeling. "And yet, here I am. I had intended to go and help Hector take over the steward's post, but he's actually figuring it out fine for himself. I'm worried he'll set me on fire if I try to take it away from him."

I chuckled.

"He's called for a meeting tomorrow," Tabitha said. "All the servants and staff are to report to the main courtyard. I imagine that's to tell us what has happened to Secturn."

Throren nodded. "Most likely," he said.

"Exactly what he deserved, from what I hear," Dune grumbled, stealing a glance at Throren.

"Indeed," Throren said simply.

"What will happen to him?" I asked.

"Banishment, I expect," Throren said. "He'll have to try his luck in Seblar. It's going to make things difficult for Yulie for a while. Secturn was popular here, and he had been running this house since before we arrived. He's laid roots."

"I didn't know it was so bad, my lord," Tabitha said, shocked. "What did he do?"

"He tried to subvert Yulie," Throren said simply. "If you want details, ask Dune. I believe the rule on being too friendly with him has come to an end, now."

"Really?" Dune asked.

Throren shrugged. "I doubt Yulie ever intended for it to be long term. He likely just wanted you all to himself for a while, then he didn't trust you. He's going to have to learn to live with it, though, else I'll take him to task."

Throren peeled a few more potatoes while Tabitha seemed unsure what to do about the idea of her lord being taken to task. Eventually, Throren stopped peeling and came to me where I scrubbed pots. He wrapped his arms around me from behind and squeezed me to him in a very obvious, very public display of possessiveness.

"I'd like to apologise in advance. I try not to sleep during the day because it keeps me up at night," he said.

"I forgive you," I said easily.

"You might not, later tonight. I have to go to town, and while I'd like you with me, you should stay with Dune," Throren said. "Do what you like to help him, but remember my rules on working. You are a creature of leisure, Kath. You're spoiled and loved and if I come back to see prunes and callouses on your hands, I'll have to put you in my bed and kiss you until they're gone, and callouses do not fade quickly."

"I've already got callouses," I said.

"I suppose you're just fucked, then, aren't you?" Throren said. He kissed my cheek and left.

"What the hell was that?" Tabitha said, once he was out of sight. "That looked like flirting. Aren't ... aren't you the one that screams for mercy every other night?"

"I'm not screaming for mercy, I'm screaming for cock," I said.

Tabitha squealed. "Oh my god, oh my gosh, what the fuck, you're fucking joking!" she said.

I pulled my hands out of the soapy dishwater and dried them, frowning at my callouses and prunes. "Honestly, there's no fixing this," I said. "Dune, you're going to have to manage on your own. If he locks me up in the bedroom till these are gone, winter will pass me by before I see you again."

Dune snorted. "Like he'd ever lock you up," he said. "That's an idle threat if I ever heard one."

"Oh, he'd lock me up, all right," I said. "Not for any amount of time, of course, but he'd do it, and I probably wouldn't even mind."

Tabitha had the intense, needy look of a kitchen maid who was desperately deprived of gossip. "You need to tell me everything, right now," she said.

"Yeah, go on," Dune said, smirking widely.

So, I sat with Dune and Tabitha and talked about how delightful it was to be in Throren's bed.

 

 

 

When the Master returned, it was late. I was already abed, and he undressed. His hair was a bit wet.

"Where do you go, when you come back wet?" I asked him.

"You'll see," he said. He got into bed with me and pressed up against my back. I flinched away. He was freezing. "Sorry," he said.

I turned around and welcomed his cold body into my arms. "Wherever it is, it's cold," I said.

"You're not wrong," Throren said. "I went to town first. I picked up something for you."

"Oh?" I asked.

He rolled over, picked something up from the floor on the side of the bed where he had undressed, and dropped it in front of me. A pair of extremely soft, fur lined leather cuffs greeted my eyes. Holding them together was a simple, thin chain.

"Didn't like the welts, did you?" I asked. I picked up the cuffs and turned them over. They were actually rather pretty, and the fur on the inside felt marvellous against my fingers. They made me think of my father, and the things he would buy for ae'NaNathra.

"I did not," Throren said.

I slipped my hands into the cuffs while Throren watched me with the most intensely lustful expression that I had ever seen on him. I couldn't tighten them on my own, so I just lay there with my hands in them, feeling the fur.

"Now what?" I asked, smiling.

Throren offered me a tentative, gorgeous smile. "You know how I like you," he said.

I rolled onto my back. With my hands cuffed together, I had nowhere comfortable to put them except above my head. I raised my knees and parted them, then I raised my hips for Throren to stuff a pillow under.

He left to fetch water from the sitting room, and when he returned, he tossed the oil on the bed.

Then he retrieved a notched candle from the dresser. He hadn't used one in some time. "Is this because you rushed last time?" I asked.

"This is because this time, I'm going to do it properly," Throren said as he lit the candle. "No getting distracted with your incredible arse this time. I'm actually going to be patient."

"You're always patient," I said.

Throren shook his head. "Hush, you," he said, as he leaned over me and inspected the cuffs. He tightened them, then used the chain that connected them to lock them together and fasten my wrists to the headboard. "Is that uncomfortable?" he asked.

"They're actually rather pleasant," I said. "The fur is nice."

"It's fox," Throren said, frowning. "And it's not good enough for you." With that, he leaned in and captured my lips in a kiss. Something about Throren and his compliments always made me feel rather warm. That, coupled with the kiss and the knowledge of what was going to happen, made me searingly hot. I opened my mouth and let his tongue in, caressing it with my own.

When Throren pulled away, I was hard and eager, and ready for him to get started with my arse. He went straight to it, settling between my spread legs and oiling up his fingers. He pressed one in immediately, and I welcomed it.

It took me twenty seconds, maybe less, to ask for more, and he gave it, smiling at me, then glancing at the candle.

After this, no amount of asking for more helped me. "Please?" I asked, and he shook his head, even as I accepted his measly two fingers as they stretched and poked and stroked me. It was so easy to take them, and I hated it.

"It's not enough," I whined.

"It's plenty," Throren said. "You could come from this."

"I don't want to," I told him. "I want your cock."

Throren smiled at me. "It's exactly that sort of thing that makes me lose my patience, Kath," he said, but his expression was fond, not annoyed. "Not this time. This time, you're getting it slowly."

I whined and looked at the candle. It was about to become my nemesis, I realised. Tomorrow, I was going to open up his dresser, find those candles, and carve extra notches into them so that he would think that time was passing faster than it really was.

Throren made me take the two fingers, and he kept dipping them back into the oil over and over again, until I was so oily his fingers squelched. Eventually, as though taking pity on me, he put his mouth on my thigh and sucked on a bruise.

After some arbitrary amount of time that he got to choose and I didn't, he pressed in a third finger, and I swore at him angrily.

"It doesn't even burn," I snapped. I liked the burn. "How dare you? That's my fucking burn. Make it burn."

Throren raised an eyebrow at me and licked my thigh. "Shhh," he said soothingly.

I kicked at him feebly, and he laughed. "Don't shush me," I snapped. "Give me your fucking fingers. Harder. Wider."

Throren smirked and didn't.

All he would do was keep slowly, gently stroking me, in and out, while I seethed and fumed and behaved terribly poorly for a bed slave. If anything, he seemed to like it.

"You're such an arsehole," I snapped.

He only grinned at that.

"I'm not a fucking princess."

To that he laughed.

"I'm not made of glass."

That got me a tender, loving kiss on the knee.

"If you don't fuck me hard soon, I'm going to kick you in the face."

For that, he pulled himself up, bringing his lips to my ribs and his face away from the range of my feet. Exasperated and desperate, I kicked him in the side.

"Your heels are sharp," he said, smirking.

"And you're being such a wimp," I said. "This isn't doing it for me. I need it harder. I need more."

"You're doing so well," Throren said, and I shut up. Compliments seemed to do that to me.

The three fingers moved in me slowly and expertly and I went mad from them. They felt nice in the same way that a loving pat on the head felt nice. They had absolutely no chance of getting me to my finish, or even close.

Throren and I watched the candle drip lower and lower. He watched patiently. I tried very hard to glare a hole in it. Another notch passed by.

He shifted back down and swallowed my cock.

Once they were no longer the only stimulation, his fingers weren't so bad. They were ... comfortable, I supposed, for lack of a better word. I still wanted him to do it harder, I still wanted it faster, but with his mouth on me I didn't have to think about it. This was the first time I'd had his mouth on me and not had my hands in his hair, controlling his pace, and I pulled weakly on the cuffs. His eyes glanced up at me, then slid closed, choosing instead to pay all his attention to my cock and arse.

He was not quick about it. He sucked slow and long with precisely the same maddening not-enough rhythm that he fingered me with.

It wasn't enough, it wouldn't get me there, and I lay out of breath and over-sensitised while he ignored my pleas for more, harder, faster.

It wasn't enough. Another notch of the candle went by, and then suddenly, it was enough. He didn't change pace and I didn't know what changed. Maybe I was just tired. My pleasure built, slowly but surely, in my gut. It seemed to take ages, slowly inching closer and closer. When I finally came, it seemed to last equally as long. I spilled down his throat with a choked sigh and closed eyes.

When I finally opened my eyes, he'd snuck another finger into me, and I hadn't even noticed. He withdrew them, licked his lips, and held himself over me on one hand, using the other to pull on his cock. He looked at me, at my face, at my spent cock, at the mark on my rib that he had left. He spent quite a long time looking at my hands in the cuffs, and it was with them in his eye that he finished, getting his come all over my belly.

He leaned back, licked his lips, and wiped us both clean with the washcloth, except my arse and thighs. He left those an oily mess.

"Sore?" he asked me, and it was such an absurd question that I laughed aloud at it. "Good."

He undid the cuffs and placed them on the nightstand with the oil, then he pulled me into his arms, tucked my head into his chest, and stroked my back until I felt extremely sleepy.

He did not extinguish the candle. I wondered if he intended to fall asleep looking at it.

I was wrong. He didn't intend to fall asleep at all.

I woke up some time later with two of his fingers in my arse again. "Uh, what?" I asked sleepily.

He kissed me on the forehead. "Think you can sleep like this?" he asked.

"You've got to be joking," I said, but the answer was yes, yes I could, so I fell back into a very light sleep.

When I next woke up, his fingers weren't in me and I felt really weird about it. Throren dropped the leather cuffs on the pillow in front of me. I had my hands in them before I could think to protest and ask him to let me sleep. I was too focused on the weird, unpleasantly open feeling in my arse.

"On your stomach," Throren said, so I rolled that way obediently, and lifted my hips when he picked up the pillow. He slid it underneath me and fixed my hands to the headboard again.

He rubbed my lower back and my arse with the oil until I fell asleep, then I woke up with three fingers in me. "If I ask for more, are you going to say no?" I asked.

"Yes," Throren said. He kissed my arse, and I shifted my legs a bit further apart for him.

I sighed, resigning myself to the inevitable, undeniable force that was Throren Drextrer's patience. He alternated fingering me with rubbing me down until I was convinced that I might just have to murder him tomorrow.

"If I asked you to keep your fingers in, would you say no?" I asked, when he returned to rubbing my back.

"No," Throren said, and pressed four fingers into me. It didn't burn - it didn't even stretch. I sighed, exasperated.

It felt better than three had, but I was feeling terribly mournful over the burn that I liked so much. Throren used his other hand to keep rubbing me, but after a time, he focused mostly on my hip.

"Harder," I said.

"No," he said.

"On my hip," I clarified.

He pressed his fingers into my hip harder. It was an odd contrast to the loose, soft touch in my arse, but it satisfied me.

"You really do like it rough, don't you?" Throren said, gripping and releasing my hip, hard then soft, then hard again. I wondered if my hip would be sorer than my arse the next day.

"Clearly," I said. "Am I ever going to get your cock or are you just going to mess with me all night?"

"I'm going to mess with you all night," Throren said.

I sighed, feeling quite exasperated.

"If you're very good, I'll go faster, but I won't go harder," he promised.

"I'm always good," I snapped, then laughed, because I honestly couldn't remember the last time I'd felt like a good, submissive slave.

"True," Throren said. "Say my name."

I laughed breathlessly. This was an absolute nightmare. He gave me permission to say his name, he sucked my cock, he carved me a hook and he bought me a horse. Was it ever going to end? Was I ever going to figure out where I stood?

Was I a slave or was I a lover? Did people even treat their lovers like this? I doubted it.

"Say it," Throren said again.

This man was going to ruin me.

"Throren," I said. He sped up his fingers, and that was ... nice.

"Again," he said.

"Throren," I said. He sped up again, angling and hitting that spot. He hadn't exactly been neglecting it, but he'd been going so slowly, just brushing it, so it hadn't been getting me as riled up as it usually did. Now it was.

"Throren," I said again, and he sped up again, so I just kept saying it. "Throren, Throren, Throren," I said, over and over, until he was going as fast as it seemed he could - or would.

It didn't take particularly long for me to notice that I was fucking up his name, overenunciating, and elongating vowels. I stopped caring quickly. I blamed it on his fingers and the fact that I could rub my cock on the pillow under me.

I noticed I'd started clicking my tongue right before I came, and I had no idea how long I'd been doing it for. It was embarrassing, but it didn't stop me from messing up the pillow under my cock.

I was really very sleepy when he pushed my thighs together and mounted the space between them. I was so slick and oily that he didn't even need to get the oil out, he could fuck my thighs without any issue.

Surely he knew that his cock would fit, right? Surely he knew that I could take it?

I fell asleep before he finished, and I woke up to him cleaning us up. He pushed the heavily soiled pillow onto the floor, then he stretched out beside me, and put his fingers back in my arse. "Shh," he said softly. "Goodnight, Kath."

He actually let me sleep this time.

 

 

 

When I woke up, I felt weird.

Throren was asleep beside me, the sun was bright, and the notched candle had burned itself out. My arse was not the usual amount of sore. It felt well used and loose, but not actually painful. It felt weird.

I wondered when he'd taken his fingers out, or if he'd just left them there until he fell asleep.

I shifted around to lie on my side, a somewhat difficult manoeuvre because I was still cuffed to the headboard. My arms felt leaden and sore - sorer than my arse, and that was weird.

Throren woke up at my squirming, as I tried to get comfortable despite the cuffs and my weird feeling arse. He smiled at me, soft and content, then he undid the cuffs and pulled them off my hands.

"Thank you," I said. I sat up gingerly, expecting pain in my arse and not getting it. It just felt weird - too loose. I stretched out my arms while Throren watched me. When I was done, he sat up, pressed himself behind me, and ran his hands carefully over my wrists and rubbed them softly. "It doesn't hurt," I promised him.

"Good," he said, but he kept his hands around my wrists.

I wasn't quite so stupid as to not realise what was happening here. Throren looked at my hands in those cuffs in the same way that Yulie had watched Dune brush his hair, and the same way Father had looked at ae'NaNathra's collar against his neck.

Throren had found something he liked. That was fine. It didn't really bother me, after all. Cuffs or no cuffs, there was no fighting him. If I hit him with all my strength, he probably wouldn't even flinch. He could restrain me all he liked - it didn't make me any more vulnerable than I always was.

All it did was take my hands out of the equation, meaning that I wouldn't have to touch him. It relaxed me a little, if anything.

I leaned back into Throren's chest and let my head rest on him. I didn't try to get my wrists free from his grip. He pulled them together so that he could hold them in one hand, then he used his free hand to turn my head with a gentle touch to my chin. He turned me until I shifted my body enough to take a kiss from him.

He released my wrists and put both of his hands on either side of my face. He kissed me softly, then hungrily. I twisted until I was able to put my knees on either side of him and my hands on his shoulders. I didn't mind touching them, I realised, as I felt his muscles bunch under my fingers.

It was in this position, straddling his lap, that I realised that our escapades the last night had not dulled his appetite that morning. His mouth was ravenous, and his cock was hard and huge under me. I ground down on it, letting it take my weight.

Throren put his hands around my waist and simply picked me up when he moved. He put himself against the headboard, resting there comfortably, with me on his lap. He reached for the oil, still on the nightstand, and slicked up his fingers.

I held myself up off his lap for them, and he positioned them under me, then held onto my hip and didn't move. "Whenever you're ready," he said lazily. My breath caught and I slowly, gently sank down onto the two fingers he offered.

"If I ask for more, you'll say no, won't you?" I asked.

"Try me," Throren said.

"More?" I asked.

He urged me up with the hand on my hip. When I sank back down, it was onto three fingers. He didn't move them. He kept them still for me and let me move myself over them. I'd never had this much control over it before, except the time that I'd done it to myself, and that really didn't count because I didn't have his fingers. The angle hadn't worked for me and I couldn't do it deep enough or hard enough, but this time, I could just move my whole body, and it was doing a weird thing to my brain. I kept losing my thoughts and going a little bit blank. I stopped worrying about touching Throren, I stopped worrying that he was going to do nothing more than fuck me with his fingers until I died, and I just took those fingers over and over. I was mindless and content.

"You're beautiful," Throren said, and I blinked myself out of my reverie. "Want another?"

"You know I do," I said breathlessly. I lifted myself up for him to reposition his hand. He let me take it at my own pace, which was faster than he'd have done it, and so, so good.

He let me work myself on his fingers, doing nothing but watching me. My grip flexed on his shoulders - they were rock hard, strong and reliable under my hands.

"I'll leave it up to you," he said, his voice hushed but deep. "You can do it like this, or on all fours."

It took me a moment to realise what he meant. "Really?" I asked, panting and shocked. I felt like I hadn't had his cock in months, though it had only been two nights.

"Really," he said.

I kissed him. I couldn't help it. I also couldn't decide how I wanted his cock - I knew I wanted it, now, but I couldn't decide how. I wanted what I usually got, on all fours and spread for him with my arse up and that burn, but I also really, really liked what I was getting right at that moment, where he was still underneath me and I controlled it.

It was a moot point, really, because I knew his cock would send me limp the moment it got halfway in. It always did.

I wanted it anyway.

"Like this," I said. I knew that it wasn't going to work, but I wanted so badly to try.

"Good choice," he said. He patted my hip and I lifted myself off. He oiled up his fingers again and stroked his cock with them. Then he stilled, holding on to it, and pat me on the hip. "Whenever you're ready," he said.

I took a deep, shaking breath, and shifted into position. I gripped his shoulders hard as I felt his blunt, huge head at my entrance.

I did not have to push down on it. I just relaxed my thighs, let gravity lower me, and in it went, easy. I relaxed a little further, a little more went in, a little more, a little more, and then - oh, right there, there it was, my burn. It didn't burn much, only a little, but it was just enough to set off that odd, primal feeling of success that I liked so much. I had a vague, absent knowledge that I was moaning. I wanted more, but I also wanted friction, so I lifted up a