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People of Stone

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Chapter 1

Hank watched the city fly by through the tram's window. He held on to the rail across the roof to keep himself grounded, despite being unable to feel the movement as they soared through the sky. If he didn't, he'd get dizzy and that wouldn't help anyone.

He looked over at Ian, who stared out at the view with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. They were heading to Pasdar as part of Princess Alona's team of advisors. Her mission was to find how deeply the district had been corrupted by the former Duke Adrian – the man who'd kidnapped Captain Jensen Ackles and tortured her brother. She'd asked Hank because he was an outsider, hoping he could see what the Harmony natives couldn't.

Honestly, Hank was just thrilled to have a job. It wasn't that he didn't like being Ian's sex toy, Hank just wanted to be something more, too. He'd had an interesting and varied military career, and Hank couldn't go from full throttle to empty. Even though he'd chosen to stay with Ian, Hank couldn't stand the idea of waiting around for Ian to return home from work.

"What's wrong?" He kept his voice low, not wanting it to carry to the others on the tram. There was a group of guards towards the front, all with their subs kneeling at their feet. Normally guards wouldn't take subs on assignment, but since this was expected to take a while, they'd be living in Pasdar.

He caught some of the guards throwing nasty looks their way. They probably didn't like seeing Hank standing next to his master instead of kneeling as was proper. Well, Hank wasn't the typical sub, and Ian appreciated that if no one else did.

"Just wondering what we'll find in Pasdar. This mission is long overdue." Ian turned and gave him a wry smile.

There had a been a short briefing before they had left, but it only showcased to Hank how little they really knew about what had gone on. Adrian had used subs to access the city's technical network, causing their deaths in the process. He hadn't seen them as human, and hadn't felt a shred of guilt at what he'd done. The queen worried that his viewpoint had spread throughout the district. Hank hadn't the first clue as to how to fix things if that was the case.

He wished Karl Johnson was here for this mission. Karl was the anthropologist, the expert on civilizations and culture. But Harmony had brought back bad memories for Karl, causing the doctor to flashback to his time as a Confed slave. Unlike most collared subs, Karl had been forced to serve – sometimes sexually and sometimes not. If the UP hadn't rescued his ship, Karl would still be trapped in the mines doing hard labor. Hank thought that would make him all the more valuable for this. Karl understood better than Hank ever could. He clenched his fists, deciding he'd dedicate this mission to Karl, remembering that example as they worked through Pasdar.

"They've been without a leader for what, a week now? Do you think things have degenerated that much?" Hank frowned. He wasn't sure what to expect as they descended into the district. All of his experience in Harmony had been in the royal district – where the queen alone ruled. He guessed the dukes were sort of mayors of their own areas. He needed a better grasp of the political system if he was going to be truly effective.

This was what he'd done in the UP – as part of the Ground Corps he'd worked with the populations of various planets, some more alien than others – he'd never forget the pink skies of Vidrine or the strange orange seas on Zeta 5. Hank had a gift for assessing the situation quickly and suggesting solutions that were out of the box. That was how he'd made Major at his age despite not starting out on the officer track.

"The day to day business of ruling would have fallen to the four nobles just under the duke – in this case two counts and countesses. I'm expecting the princess will make choosing a new duke or duchess her first priority."

Hank nodded, filing that information away in the back of his mind with the rest of his info on Pasdar. He'd started a file, just as he did with any mission, and would update it when they had a free moment. Right now the tram was starting to descend toward the Ducal palace. It was nowhere near as ornate as the Royal castle in the very center of Harmony, but it was clearly the tallest building in this district. Hank could see the gardens that grew on slopes and terraces built into the side of the castle. There wasn't a single individual anywhere in sight.

***

Ian kept his eyes on the window, watching the other tram as it descended to the terrace before theirs. He avoided making eye contact with the guards who kept shooting glares his way. If he looked back, Ian was afraid his uncertainty might show on his face.

Last week he'd been just a guard, one of the lower professions in the hierarchy of Harmony. When the queen had promoted him to royal advisor, it had given him a jump in status that hadn't been seen in decades. No wonder the other guards shunned him. Ian couldn't blame them, not when he wasn't exactly qualified to fill this role. It felt wrong, and he couldn't help the guilt that coiled in his gut. He'd have to learn quickly, because he was not about to let the princess down.

"There's no one here to meet us." Henry gestured to the empty gardens.

It was because of Henry that Ian had been chosen for this role. Henry was the one with the expertise – having come from the stars and visited hundreds of planets. He was unlike any sub Ian had ever met before, being a soldier in his own right long before Ian had made him a sub. Hank had never learned to constantly defer to his Dom, and had a streak of independence that would drive other Doms mad. But Ian liked the idea of Hank as his partner, as someone he could share his life and work with and he'd done everything in his power to keep Henry with him. Ian thanked Harmony every day that Henry wanted to stay, instead of returning to his life on that starship.

"The queen freed the subs held prisoner by Adrian. I can't imagine any of them wanted to stay behind." Still, there should be others stationed in the palace, those responsible for the services required by the Ducal family – sub groomers, healers, tailors and the like. Had they all left when Adrian was exiled?

"I can't imagine what it was like for them." Henry frowned as they docked, but then turned and gave Ian a blinding grin. "Well, that's what we're here for, right? We'll get this place squared away, no problem."

Ian was surprised into letting out a laugh. He didn't doubt that Henry was determined – or stubborn - enough to do the job. For a moment he just looked at his sub, taking in Henry's rugged beauty – his electric eyes and hair that glinted gold in the sun. There was so much more beneath the surface of his independent, brilliant sub. Ian never regretted taking Henry as his. He only wished the contract term was longer than a mere two years. Still, he would enjoy every moment that Henry gave to him.

"Grab the bags. It's time to start work."

***

Hank scrambled with the other subs to gather his and Ian's luggage. One of the bags was far heavier than the other and he wondered what the hell Ian had packed. Ian had needed a whole new wardrobe for his new status – no more guard uniforms for him, no matter how cute he looked with the skirt and sandals. But new clothes couldn't weight this much, surely?

He followed the other subs out onto the terrace where all the other advisors had gathered around the princess and her sub, Dourdan. Alona was dressed for work - a pale blue shirt over tan pants and tall black boots. She didn't look like his mental image of a princess, lacking the elegance and finery that the queen displayed over and over. But this wasn't the time or place for that. Hank could appreciate a leader who understood how to read a situation.

Dourdan stood beside her dressed much like the other subs in a leather kilt that hit him at the knees and a pale green shirt that crisscrossed over his chest. Hank wasn't a big fan of wearing a skirt. He didn't think he had the knees for it. Luckily, Ian hadn't asked that of him and let him choose his own, slightly more modest bit of sub wear – usually loose pants that hung low on his hips.

The princess waited until everyone stilled before she began to speak. "We don't know what we're going to find inside. Mother tele'd my arrival, but I don't know how that will be received. Our first goal is to set up base in the palace."

The captain of the guard stepped forward. "We'll need to sweep the palace. There might be some guards still loyal to the old duke inside."

Hank agreed. His hand flexed, missing his sidearm. There was no reason for him to have a weapon here, but man, he missed having one.

"Remember, Captain Reddick, that there could also be subs with no master inside. Mother freed them, but this was their home. We will not be evicting them. If you storm the palace it would only frighten them." Alona waited for the captain to nod in acknowledgment before she continued. "I will use the tele to summon anyone inside to the Great Hall. Then you may patrol the palace and look for anyone hostile to our intentions."

Everyone nodded and waited as Alona put out her summons over the tele, which Hank considered much more efficient than using a bullhorn. He bit his lip to keep the laughter inside at the sudden picture in his mind of the princess issuing commands through one like his high school gym teacher. No one else would get the joke. Times like this, he really missed having someone from home with him. It only reminded Hank just how isolated he was, with the Mercury in orbit and the base far out of reach.

The group split up to utilize the lifts to travel to the Great Hall. Hank followed Ian, still carrying their bags. They emerged into a room that looked exactly the same as the last time Hank had been here, when Queen Michelle had used her power to change the colors and brighten the place up a bit. She'd gotten rid of the cages, and manacles on the pillars that ringed the room, and freed the subs trapped within them.

Hank touched his own collar, feeling the smooth leather warmed by his skin. Adrian's subs had worn the collar of the unwilling and had been forced into submitting to him against their will. He shuddered at the thought, remembering the one and only time Ian had used the training collar's choke feature on Hank. Of course, then, Ian had thought Hank had been escaping custody, and it had been before they really knew each other. This collar Ian had placed around Hank's throat and had been wanted by both of them. He couldn't imagine how terrible it had been for the subs here.

"There's no one here." Hank's voice carried across the room, causing most of the other advisors to turn and glare at him. Unrepentant, Hank just shrugged. "Maybe they all left."

"It's possible." The princess answered him, ignoring Hank's faux pas of speaking without permission. At least she seemed to value him for his experience, for something other than just being Ian's sub. "Harmony knows Adrian abused them enough to make them run."

"Mistress!" One of the advisors shouted.

A sub stood in the doorway. She was an older woman, dressed in a simple gray dress with short blond hair. Without a collar, all that marked her as a sub was her bright blue eyes.

Alona held up a hand to keep everyone back as she began to slowly walk toward the sub. "Hello there. I'm Alona."

The sub fell to her knees and bowed her head. "Mistress!"

"What's your name?"

"M-Martha." The sub stumbled over her own name. "I was head housekeeper for Duke Adrian."

Alona nodded. "Please stand, sub Martha. Please." She took the woman's hand and helped her up. "Do you know why we're here?"

"The queen said - to choose another Duke for Pasdar. Duke Adrian lost the way."

"Yes, Martha. He had. Will you stay as housekeeper for us? We need rooms for our stay and someone to show us around."

Martha's hand went to her bare neck in a familiar gesture. Hank felt a pang of sympathy for these lost subs. Their entire world was shifting and they couldn't even be sure it was for the better. "Will I be yours then, Mistress?"

"Oh!" Alona looked startled, showing signs of the young girl Hank knew was in there. "We would have to draw up a contract for that."

"I can promise you my services around the palace. Nothing more."

Alona squeezed Martha's shoulder. "I would be honored to have you in my household, sub Martha."

Martha smiled at her, finally looking less haunted. Maybe they'd get something decent done here after all.

***

Ian took in the quarters Martha had assigned him and Hank. The bedroom was a bit smaller than the chambers in the queen's palace, but it still put his tiny apartment to shame. The bed – large enough for Ian, Hank and another sub or two – stood across from a ridiculous fireplace with a marble mantle. There was a pile of pillows and cushions tossed before it, which let him imagine Hank, nude but for the reflection of the fire on his golden skin, lounging about waiting for Ian to return.

He smiled at the thought, knowing Hank would never sit around moping until his master returned. Ian had never wanted that type of clinging sub, who had no other purpose but to look beautiful and be a willing body. Not that Ian minded Hank's willing body.

Hank opened the glass doors that led out to the terrace. He stood in the sunlight, the blond highlights in his hair glinting gold. Ian wanted to go out there and strip the shirt from his back, revealing the planes of muscle beneath, just perfect for him to mouth and kiss.

Hank turned and grinned at him. "Not too shabby digs, huh?"

Sometimes Ian still had no idea what Hank was talking about. It was one of the hazards of having a sub from another planet. "The rooms?" He made a guess based on the way Hank gestured, flinging one arm out to encompass the bedroom.

"Yeah. Let me tell you, I've been on some planets where they weren't so free with the accommodations. Hell, once we were lucky to be able to dig a hole for the toilet."

Ian grimaced and Hank laughed. "You've never lived out of the city? Never went camping in the woods?"

Ian frowned. "Why would I?" There was no reason to leave Harmony.

"We should try it sometime."

Ian didn't understand why. He let the comment pass and picked up one of the bags left by the entrance. This one was filled with the equipment he'd brought from home – gear and toys that were too personal to borrow.

"Shouldn't I be unpacking?" Hank stepped forward.

"You can unpack the clothes. I'll take this to the playroom." Hank blushed at Ian's words. Ian liked having that affect on him. They'd come together so abruptly, yet fit together so well that Ian had to keep reminding himself how new his sub was – especially when he gave such delightful responses.

Ian found the playroom more than adequate. The equipment was clean and in good condition, leaving a fair amount of space in the center of the room for whatever scene he could devise. He stored his gear in an empty trunk along the wall. Adrian had abused his subs, but there was no longer any evidence of it in his castle, not that Ian could see based on the equipment. The queen had scoured the place clean.

When he returned to the bedroom, Hank was back out on the terrace, looking over the city. Ian joined him, the air cool against his skin. The weather would be changing soon, getting colder, though the city's temperature never dropped as much as it did outside the walls. "What are you looking for?"

Hank gave him a tight lipped smile. "Nothing I can see from up here."

"And that is?"

"We need to be down there, talking to the people. You know, the regular Joe who lived through Adrian's fucked up shit. If Pasdar is as broken as everyone says, then it's gonna take more than just picking the right guy to wear the crown." Hank slapped the stone rail.

This was something Ian knew he was capable of. He might never have advised a member of the royal family before, but as a guard, he'd spent his entire career in the city, keeping the peace. Ian had helped abused subs before, though never on the scale here in Pasdar. It was usually a matter of helping some redbands caught up by Doms who'd gone too far, never the extensive torture Adrian had indulged in.

"We can't talk to everyone today."

Hank chuckled. "No." He held up a hand and called up a tele screen which showed a map of the district. "We should draw up a grid system and work our way through the streets. I'm just a little antsy to get started.”

Ian thought about it. They weren't restricted to their rooms - the princess had, in fact, given them all this time to settle in while she worked with sub Martha. They weren't required to meet with her until later in the evening for supper. There was plenty of daylight to at least go to market. "I'll summon a tram. We can check out the main city square at least."

Hank's lips parted and he didn't speak for a moment. It was a rare moment that Ian startled him into speechlessness. Then he winked and said, "Are we dressed appropriately?"

It might have been a joke, but Ian considered it as a legitimate question. They weren't going as the princess's official advisers, and they needed to blend in with the rest of the people of Pasdar. "You'll do," he said, tugging on the blue shirt Hank wore. Later, he promised himself, he'd tear it off and break in the bed properly. "I need something more subdued." Scarlet was one of the primary colors of the Royal district, and Ian didn't need to draw attention to that. It wouldn't take long to change. "By the time I'm done the tram should be here."

"Sounds fun."

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

It turned out that Ian hadn't needed to change his clothing in order to blend in at all. The tram dropped them off in the main square, but the streets were empty. There was no crowd to fit in with. Ian scanned the buildings, noting that a few shops seemed open, but the tavern was shuttered, and the auction block in front of it was vacant, lacking the usual subs on display.

"Do you think anyone's around up a level or so?" Hank shaded his eyes and peered up at the bridges that crisscrossed overhead.

"We'll check up there in a moment. Let's take a walk." Ian started across the square, toward the open shop he could see on the other side, beyond the large fountain in the center. There should be plenty of people around the fountain, enjoying the day.

Hank trailed his fingers through the water as they passed. It splashed against the stone base, the sound of the rushing water the loudest thing in the area. Ian realized what bothered him about the lack of people, more so than the lack itself.

"There aren't any guards around." They should never have left their posts. That was one of the sacred duties of the Guard – to protect the people of Harmony. Ian scowled. "Cowards."

Hank moved close enough for their hips to touch. "Maybe not. They probably don't want the princess to think they're still loyal to Adrian."

That made sense. "Of course. If they presented themselves armed, our guard might consider them a threat." Ian shook his head. When did his Harmony become such a place? Adrian hadn't only destroyed the relationship between master and sub, he'd fractured the delicate political balance of the entire city.

"The princess will need to reach out to them." Hank ran a hand through his hair, causing it to stick up in all directions.

"We'll advise her to that effect." Ian grinned at Hank who laughed at the pun.

They continued to walk through the square, stopping just outside one of the shops. Ian could see the clerk standing behind the counter, gripping its surface tightly. There were a few people inside, though he couldn't tell if they were shoppers or workers. "Be on guard," Ian murmured before pushing the door open and striding inside. Even that was wrong – the door should have opened smoothly at his approach.

The shop sold leather goods and the smell hit Ian's nose as soon as they entered. He breathed in deeply, taking in the rich scent. Though he often preferred metal and chains to leather, there was nothing like this pure richness.

Hank moved to one of the racks of harnesses, sifting through them as if he were just an ordinary shopper. Ian hid his smile. Perhaps they would make a purchase. That might put the shopkeeper at ease. "See anything you like?"

"Working on it." Hank moved on to the shelves of cuffs and bands.

"May I help you?" The shopkeeper had ventured from behind his counter to come see what they were looking at.

Hank continued on toward the back of the shop while Ian smiled at the proprietor. "We're just browsing right now. Do you have anything on special?"

"There are some handmade kilts over here." The owner – a Dom a bit older than Ian – gestured to some racks near the front of the shop. "We have a variety of colors…"

"Thank you." Out of the corner of his eye, Ian saw Hank speaking with one of the subs in the back of the shop. "Out of curiosity, do you know where everyone is? The square seems unusually empty."

The other Dom swallowed hard. "Surely you are aware that the princess has come to Pasdar?"

"I am aware, yes. I'm also one of her advisors."

Ian watched the panic spread across the other man's face. First his eyes widened, then his skin lost all color. The Dom wet his lips convulsively before finally being able to speak. "Bring whatever you'd like to purchase to the front and I'll process your transaction." Then he escaped to the relative safety of the counter.

Any amusement was short-lived. Ian wondered how deeply the fear ran among the people of Pasdar. Did they all have reason to be frightened? He went over to the cuffs and wristlets, deciding he might as well purchase something to ease the Dom's mind. Then he'd find out what Hank managed to get from the sub in the back.

***

Hank nodded at the sub girl who was reorganizing a series of leather crops in a shelving unit. He thought she might be arranging them by color and size, but he wasn't sure since she kept messing up and restarting the entire project again.

"Anything good?" He grinned at her, which only caused her to drop the crop she was holding.

Hank bent to help and nearly knocked heads with the girl. "Here you go." He handed it back. "I'm Hank."

"Rachel." She didn't meet his eyes when she accepted the crop.

"Nice to meet you." He tried smiling at her again, but Rachel had gone back to work.

Hank wondered if he were being given the cold shoulder or if she was frightened to speak to him. He looked over and noticed Ian in conversation with the owner. "I think your master's a bit busy."

She finally looked at him. "I saw you leave the tram. Did you come with the princess?"

"Yes. We're on her team of advisors." At least Hank didn't have to bring it up himself. He wondered how to draw her out. She seemed skittish, but he didn't know if that was because she was a sub, or because of how subs were treated here in Pasdar.

Rachel bit her lip. "They say…they say that the princess has come to punish us."

He blinked. "Oh. No. No." Hank shook his head. "She wants to help. After what Adrian did…"

"I don't understand. It was his right…to do with his subs as he wished." Once again she didn't meet Hank's eyes as she spoke.

"I don't think those subs consented to being killed." Hank could hear the anger in his own voice and tried to dial it back. "And I may be new around these parts, but that's the most important thing. You're allowed to say no."

Her head snapped up and she gave him a look he couldn't interpret. Had anyone ever told her that? How long exactly had Adrian been fucking up his district with his weird ass ideas?

Hank saw Ian was purchasing something. Time to go. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Rachel. The princess is open to all sub testimony, so if you need to, you can send a message to her special tele account, all right?" He waited until Rachel nodded before slipping away to join Ian.

"Please have the packages sent to the Ducal palace." Ian smiled at the shopkeeper, who did not smile back. Hank wondered how well their conversation had gone.

He didn't speak, just followed Ian back out of the shop. Once they got a moment of privacy he repeated what the girl had said.

"They're frightened." Ian looked up at the levels above. Perhaps the monumental nature of the task before them had just hit him.

"I've seen this before. Back when we were working with planets that had been occupied by the Confed." Hank frowned at the memory. "They were so beaten down.. There was always the threat of being enslaved. Nobody was safe. Even when we showed up they hid from us. It was like they couldn't believe the Confed wasn't coming back." But then again, the Confed sometimes did come back, and they weren't very forgiving. Morgan had lost his wife because of that.

They started walking again, back through the main square and towards the shuttered tavern. "What did you do?"

Hank shrugged. "Depended on the situation. Most of the time you had to just be a presence. Show them that you were there to help. It took a lot of patience."

Ian grinned. "I didn't think you were known for your patience."

Hank chuckled. "Not always." But there were times when Hank could be very patient. He knew they were in for the long haul here. They had to get the people of Pasdar to trust them somehow. Maybe the princess should make it known that she had no intention of punishing anyone. And get the guards squared away. All that and somehow choose a new Duke or Duchess, too. Yeah, this mission was going to take a while.

They walked past an archway made out of stone. Hank looked over at the alley beyond it, entranced by the unique architecture. He always found something in Harmony to catch his eye - the city was like a puzzle, all little pieces that fit together into something beautiful. Maybe they should start working their way up to the second level. It didn't seem like anyone was around down here.

He opened his mouth to suggest it to Ian when movement caught his eye from the alley. Hank blinked, shocked to see a little boy pop his head out from the wall. They locked eyes for a moment, then the kid ducked back.

"Ian!" Hank didn't wait for him to answer, just ran down the alley. The kid was gone, but there was a little door cut out of the stone.

"Henry?"

"I saw a little kid go in here." Shouldn't the children all be in training? Or did they have days off? Hank didn't know.

"A child?" Ian crouched next to him and touched the door. He traced it carefully. "It looks like it could be the entrance to the sewers."

There had to be some. Hank just never thought about that part of the city. "Can we follow him?"

"Normally we'd have to ask one of the local guards to open it for us."

And good luck finding one of them right now. Damn it. Hank didn't want to lose this one lead.

"But with any luck," Ian twisted his hand and the door rolled open, like a wheel into the divot in the wall. "It will open for me."

"Awesome." Somehow the city must recognize Ian as being a guard, despite his new role. Hank tried to see inside, but only caught sight of a dark brick tunnel that seemed to go on for a while. The kid wasn't anywhere to be found. They'd have to go in.

Ian led the way, crouching low to get through the entranceway, but then the ceiling opened up after they went down a few steps. There were tiny lights along the tunnel and he could hear water dripping somewhere. They came to a fork, two tunnels branching off in different directions. "Any chance of a map?"

"I could call one up on the tele, huh." Ian frowned, hand hovering in mid air. "It's not working."

Hank didn't know that was possible. They were still in Harmony, weren't they? The tele should work. He stared down one tunnel, sniffing the air. It was damp and musty, but not what he expected a sewer to smell like.

Just when he turned back to Ian, Hank saw movement out of the corner of his eye. "This way. Come on!"

He set off at a jog, Ian right beside him. The kid darted out of an alcove and started to run from them.

"Wait, stop, please!" Ian shouted, but the child only ran faster.

The tunnel turned, and then opened into a large chamber, with pipes in the walls, metal catwalks extending between them, and a moat of greenish water around a stone island in the center. Hank held out his hand and kept Ian from advancing into the chamber. "Maybe it's you."

"What?" Ian turned to look at him.

"That little kid had blue eyes." Hank had gotten that much from the startled glance in the alley. "Maybe he's afraid of Doms." It wouldn't be out of place with what they saw in the square. Hank just didn't know how the kid got it into his head to hide down here.

Ian ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Of course. Damn Adrian."

"Just wait here. Let me try something." At Ian's nod, Hank ventured back into the chamber, closer to where the water trickled into the moat. He was conscious of Ian's eyes on him, and knew Ian would rather be right by his side instead of being left behind.

"Hello?" he called. "My name's Henry. My friends call me Hank. I just want to talk. Hello?"

He waited, for a moment hearing nothing but that ticking of water. Then, as if they came out of nowhere, people started entering the chamber, emerging from the tunnels on the other side. They were dressed in rags, and looked dirty and tired. Though none of them wore a collar, he could guess they were all subs.

Was this where they had run to after escaping Adrian? Hank felt his heart pounding. No wonder they didn't want to come out when Ian was there. Any Dom must terrify the shit out of them.

"Who are you?" A man stepped forward out of the mass of people. He was ridiculously good looking, like everyone seemed to be here in Harmony, with black hair and piercing blue eyes. But he was unshaven, with dark rings under his eyes and clothes that hung on his frame. The others stepped back and deferred to him.

"Like I said, my friends call me Hank." Hank gave him his best grin and tried to look as unthreatening as possible. This was actually much easier without the sidearm and military uniform.

The man's eyes narrowed as he stared at Hank. "You're the sub from the stars."

Huh. Hank thought that was Ackles. He was the one who'd ended up on the tele, way more than Hank anyway. Though Hank really couldn't deny that Ian claiming him in front of the Queen and everyone had been more than public.

"One of them, yeah." Hank scratched his head and tried to look humble. He didn't think he was a celebrity. "And you are?"

The man nodded, as if confirming something with himself. "I'm Dylan."

"And the rest of your friends?" Hank gestured to the other subs who stayed silent. "I'm assuming you guys used to be Adrian's subs?"

There was a hiss and whispers of shock. Really, it hadn't been that hard to guess.

"We're not going back to him!" One of the women behind Dylan shouted. She was much too thin and wrapped up in fabric from head to toe.

Dylan held up a hand to quiet the continued murmurings from the others. "We are all subs who once wore the collar of the unwilling."

Hank's own collar felt heavy on his throat. He swallowed. Despite everything, he'd gone into this willingly, with his eyes open. He couldn't imagine growing up in this world, hoping for a decent master, and then having all of his dreams dashed.

He did remember that first week here, when Karl had tried to escape and Hank had followed. Ian had had to use the choke feature on their collars to stop them. Hank remembered how it felt – tightening around his throat, cutting off his air until he nearly passed out. He couldn't imagine feeling like that all the time – every action being controlled under threat of choking.

"I'm sorry," Hank said. Even though he understood their horror, Hank knew what it was like to find a good master – a Dom who knew how to take care of his sub, even when said sub didn't exactly understand what that meant. "But why the hell are you all hiding out down here?"

Dylan raised an eyebrow. "Where do you propose that we go? Back to the Doms who betrayed us?"

Well, the guy had a point. Who could they trust after Adrian was ousted? "You know, they're not all bad."

Almost as if it had been planned, Ian chose that moment to enter the cavern. Hank heard his footsteps behind him, but didn't turn around. The crowd whispered and shrunk back. "It's just Ian," Hank said. "He's my Dom, he's not here to hurt you."

"What could you know of it?" Dylan snapped.

"Okay, look, you're right. I sure as fuck haven't been here long enough, but I understand that you people have been through hell. And that I'm familiar with. I've fought the Confed for crying out loud. I understand hell." Hank shook his head, knowing he was losing them. "But you don't know the princess. She's going to fix this place from the top down."

"How is she not like any other Dom?"

Dylan seemed like he really wanted to know. Hank didn't know how to explain. "I get a feeling about people sometimes. My gut doesn't lie, and I got a good feeling about her. She's too young to be jaded, and she really wants the best for everyone in Harmony."

"But she is very young," Dylan said, almost too softly for Hank to hear.

"Look, you don't have to take my word for it. Just watch over the next few days. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised." Hank turned and met Ian's eyes. Ian looked concerned, but didn't interrupt. "Are you sure you want to stay down here?"

"What alternative do we have? To grovel on our knees before your princess?"

Now that pissed Hank off. Because no matter how little he knew how things should work around here, he knew Alona was nothing like the bastard who'd tortured Ackles and hundreds of other subs. "Hey, you don't even know her. Why don't you try at least listening to what she has to say before making snap judgments?" Hank turned around. "Ian?"

"Henry," Ian replied.

"Let's go." Hank turned around and stormed back down the path they took here, through the darkening tunnels back to the street. He couldn't explain the anger, or how he was finding it hard to shake off. At least when he worked with former Confed slaves, they knew the UP were the good guys. Hank didn't know how he could convince the damaged subs that the princess wasn't anything like Adrian. Maybe that was a job he wasn't suited for.

Once outside of the sewers, Hank slowed his pace. Ian walked next to him, their shoulders brushing companionably. "We'll have to tell Mistress Alona about them, of course."

"Yeah, I can't imagine she'd like it that all these subs are sleeping in the sewers." Hank frowned. Just how many people were living down here, anyway? He should have taken a head count.

"I meant that they've congregated here without any Doms."

Hank stopped walking and turned to stare at Ian.

Ian stopped as well and met Hank's gaze. "It is unnatural for so many subs to be without a master."

"Man, these guys were abused by the Doms who they were supposed to trust. Can you blame them for starting up a little society on their own like this?"

Ian opened his mouth and then closed it. He shook his head. "No. It's just … disconcerting to see them like this. Lost. Afraid. Alone."

Okay, so Ian wasn't being too much of an asshole. It was just another point where they had to find common ground. Hank saw former slaves clamoring for freedom, and Ian saw subs who needed a strong Dom to guide and protect them. Hank let out a breath. "Well, this is what we're here to fix. We'll bring it up at the dinner meeting tonight." He started to walk back towards the exit. "I know one thing, that girl has a shitload of work ahead of her."

He grinned at the laugh he'd startled out of Ian.

***

Ian spent the tram ride back to the palace thinking about what Hank had said. His sub often had very different ideas about things, and Ian valued that about him. He'd never considered what it would be like if a group of subs formed their own society. It was only natural for a sub to want to be ruled by a Dom, after all.

But what happened when subs had learned to fear and hate their Doms? The problem, Ian realized, wasn't with the subs themselves, but with the Doms who'd broken faith. From childhood he'd learned he'd have responsibilities as a Dom. There was more to having a sub than just telling them what to do. Doms needed to meet their subs' needs, even the darkest desires that most subs were afraid to voice. At the same time, they couldn't let the subs lose themselves.

Most important of all, a sub was someone to be treasured – a gift – not a thing to maim or kill at whim.

Somehow the princess would have to find out how many Doms in Pasdar held these views, and then change their minds. Ian didn't envy her the task and was glad he only had a very small part to play in it.

The tram docked at their terrace and Ian led the way off. As the tram floated away, he watched the play of remaining sunlight filter through Hank's hair. It was such an odd thing to stir arousal in his belly. But maybe it was more than that. He'd seen subs frightened and lost today, and Ian wanted to celebrate his own. Hank was his, and he was damn proud of him.

And maybe he wanted to show Hank there was joy in being owned.

They walked just a few steps past the glass doors when Ian stopped Hank with a hand on his shoulder. Hank turned with a quizzical look on his face. Ian slid his hand to Hank's cheek, feeling the slight bristle of stubble. He brushed his thumb over those plush lips. Ian just had to have a taste.

He leaned forward and licked across Hank's lips, before biting down on Hank's lower lip. Hank moaned. Ian drank in the taste of his sub – no one tasted like Hank. He didn't know if that was because his sub came from another world or because Hank was just that amazing.

Ian pulled away. He wanted to see Hank's mouth in action. "Suck me," he ordered.

Hank threw his usual smirk. "If all you wanted was a blow job, why didn't you just say so?"

Ian pushed down on Hank's shoulders as a signal to get on his knees. "Oh that's not all I want. You just have to get me nice and wet." He resisted the urge to wink. That would be giving away his plans, and a good Dom knew how to create anticipation.

"Fuck," Hank swore.

That mouth! Hank always seemed to be using it in one way or another. Ian closed his eyes as his sub undid the fastenings on his pants and sucked him between plump lips. Hank took him in a little at a time, like he was savoring a treat.

Ian made a mental note to train Hank to cock worship. He was a natural for it.

"Enough." Ian cleared his throat, his voice raw. He could stand here all day and let Hank suck him, but Ian had other plans. "Strip."

Hank gave him a heavy lidded smiled as he pulled off his clothes, leaving him naked except for the two bar piercings in his nipples. His skin gleamed golden, just a shade darker than his hair. Ian wanted to lick every inch.

Instead he waited until Hank straightened from pulling off his pants. Then Ian took his sub and pushed him up against the wall. Hank let out a grunt, and a flush rose in his cheeks. "Hands over your head."

"You are one kinky son of a bitch, aren't you?"

At this point, Ian had learned to expect Hank's outbursts. His sub always said the most fascinating things when flushed with desire. Ian looked forward to whatever next came out of Hank's mouth.

"You know it," Ian breathed along Hank's ear, gratified when Hank shivered. Despite his bravado, Ian knew he had him on the brink. Ian slide his hands along the wall, sending a mental command to summon chains to link around Hank's wrists and bind him until Ian released him.

Ian stepped back and took a moment to enjoy the view. Hank hung from the chains, his arms stretched over his head, muscles working in his back and shoulders. He looked over his shoulder, a grin on his lips and his eyes bright with desire. Hank's buttocks flexed as he shifted his weight, drawing Ian's attention to his ass and long planes of his legs. That beautiful package belonged solely to Ian.

But he couldn't quite let Hank's cheeky little grin go. Ian slapped Hank's ass, alternating cheeks until it was a pale pink. There, a blush on both sets of cheeks. Hank twisted and turned, trying to get away, but the chains kept him in place.

"Good boy," Ian murmured. He had been taught it was always good to praise your subs. At his words Hank stretched and preened, arching his neck to show off the collar that extended across his skin.

Ian palmed Hank's ass, feeling the warmth of his skin. He slipped one finger into the crevice, hunting that hot little hole. Ian grinned – Hank had done his due diligence that morning and prepped as ordered. But it had been a long day. Ian reached for one of the pump dispensers and coated his fingers with oil. Then he continued to probe Hank's entrance, slicking and stretching.

Hank pushed himself up on his toes. "Fuck. You don't fuck around…"

Ian pressed close, snaking his free hand around to fondle Hank's cock. It was hard and leaking to Ian's satisfaction. He always made sure to tend to his sub's pleasure. Even if what he planned wouldn't necessarily end with it. "No."

He didn't bother removing his clothing. Hank had freed Ian's dick, and that's all he needed. Ian pushed himself inside his sub with a grunt, enjoying the feel of slick heat as it closed around him. "No one else," he breathed into Hank's ear. "This is mine. You are mine. Understand?"

"Yeah," Hank gasped. He made a sound in the hollow of his throat, something between a groan and a whimper.

Ian tightened his grip around Hank's waist, digging into to that golden skin so there would be bruises in the shapes of his fingers later. He rolled his hips, searching for that sweet spot, knowing he found it when Hank cried out and tightened around him.

Ian pounded that tight ass, nearly losing himself in the sensation. His cock ached and Ian raced towards his climax. Just as he reached it, he had the presence of mind to circle his fingers around the base of Hank's cock. Hank let out a strangled moan. "Not this time."

He reached for the plug that had just appeared on the nightstand, before carefully withdrawing from his sub. Ian moved quickly, making sure not a drop of his essence fell from Hank's hole. "You will hold onto that until after dinner. Only then will I let you come."

Hank shook and shuddered as the plug moved in place. "You…oh, you."

Ian buried his face in Hank's hair, breathing in that scent of sweat and musk. He was addicted to it, loved the way Hank was overcome with lust and desire. "Mine."

"Yours." Hank's voice was so small, Ian hardly heard it.

***

Hank hoped no one noticed he was walking a bit funny. Butt plugs were still something new to him and fuck if Ian didn't seem incredibly fond of them. There was something to be said for always being open and ready if Ian wanted him. Hank shuddered at the thought, not missing the grin Ian sent his way. Damn him – bastard was more than enjoying this.

They walked into the great hall to find a circle of low chairs and pillows in the center, with tables of food next to every chair. Hank was glad this wasn't going to be a formal dinner. He hadn't had training in that kind of service – from what Ian had described, it was a bit more involved. Most of the other advisors had found their places along with their subs. The captain of the guard had his own seat, though the other guards stood along the back of the room in position.

Ian slid into a chair and pointed to the plush pillows next to him. Hank sank to his knees, glad he didn't have to actually sit on his ass. This would give him a bit of a cushion, although it was impossible to forget the hard piece of rubber inside him. Hank had to keep willing his erection down – although the baggy pants forgave a lot, his cock would be a hard line against the fabric if he let it.

Better if he focused on the rest of the crowd. The Doms were varied – from tiny Healer Alyson to bulky trainer Quentin. Hank thought Alona had made good choices, picking people who were so clearly different. He hadn't spoken to any of the other subs. Hank didn't really know the protocol for that, and he'd been so wrapped in Ian and their mission that he hadn't thought to ask.

The room went quiet and Hank saw Alona enter with her sub Dourdan at her side. She still dressed simply, with her hair tied in braids down either shoulder. The princess sat in the empty chair while her sub sank to his knees.

"Please, eat. We're not going to stand on ceremony tonight." She already sounded tired. That wasn't a good sign. "I'm sure we'll have much too much of it in the upcoming days."

Ian picked up a pastry from the table near their chair and offered Hank a bite. It felt so odd to be fed like this, in public at least. Hank didn't mind it in the privacy of their bedroom. So many things were public in Harmony that Hank thought better off done in private.

"Is everyone settled?" The princess asked, not taking her own advice, although she handed a plate to her sub. "I thought Martha did a lovely job with the room assignments."

There were nods around the room. The healer with the bright red hair sat forward. "I took a look at the healing center. It's been abandoned for a while, and I don't believe it was kept up at all while it was running."

"Mistress, how much of what we're doing here involves bringing these people to justice?" Dom Sendhill spoke. Hank didn't know much of anything at all about him, other than he was a merchant in the royal district.

"Not justice, Sendhill. Adrian perverted our ideals and led these people astray. I want to bring them back to the fold, not punish anyone."

"Speaking of that." Hank leaned forward, drawing all eyes in his direction. It wasn't until he spoke up that he realized it might have not been a good idea to interrupt the princess. "Ian and I took a trip into town this afternoon. There aren't any guards on patrol, which makes sense considering no one noticed the group of subs living in the sewers."

Ian touched Hank's shoulder. "It seems the subs that once belonged to Adrian have sought refuge there."

Alona exchanged a quick glance with her sub. Dourdan frowned, but didn't speak. "I'd wondered what had happened to them. In the sewers, you say?" She looked appalled. "We'll have to bring them here, of course."

Ian cleared his throat. "Mistress, they seemed keen on staying right where they were. Adrian has destroyed their trust completely." He ran his thumb along the back of Hank's neck just enough to make Hank shiver.

"And there is the matter of the guard. Captain, would you work with Ian to speak to them. It would be best if we get everything back to status quo as soon as possible."

"Of course, mistress."

Ian nodded his assent. Hank gave him a look, knowing this would be the first time Ian would work with the guard in his new role. This could go very wrong very quickly if he weren't careful.

Alona sat back in her chair. "Our task here will not be easy. Publicly, I'm here to choose the next duke of Pasdar."

Everyone leaned forward, and you could hear a damn pin drop in that room. Hank bit his lip to keep from talking. Even he wanted to hear this.

"But I have no intention of elevating an unworthy candidate. I don't expect to choose and be done with it. We need to start repairing the heart of this district. Trainer Quentin, you and your subs are tasked with evaluating the scholas – to see how the subs are being trained. Healer Alyson, Soul Healer Tim – you must do the same for all the Healers in this district. Sendhill and Ian – you and your subs need to talk to the people. Find out what they're thinking."

"This sounds like it may take a while." Hank couldn't keep his mouth shut for that long.

Fortunately Alona smiled at him. "Yes, it will. The four candidates will be here for a formal dinner tomorrow. You'll all be in attendance and the subs will be serving. Before then I'd like you all to plan how you'll approach your duties and report to me."

Sure. Piece of cake.

Hank thought about the problem all the way back to their room. He'd want to look at population graphs, maybe split the district into grids and divide it with Sendhill and his subs. Of course, attitudes change over time, so they'd have to reassess after Alona started making changes.

"Stop thinking."

Hank turned to look back at Ian, who was leaning against the wall and just staring at Hank. "How can you tell?"

Ian grinned. "I'm observant. And you're not focusing on what I want you to focus on – that plug in your ass."

It wasn't like Hank could forget. But when his head got going on doing his job, well, Hank could focus with the best of them. "We do have work to do."

Ian crossed the room to come to him and play with the ties on Hank's shirt. "It can wait for tomorrow." He let out a little sigh. "We're going to need to do some work on your training. There are some things you simply can't do – like speak out of turn."

Hank grinned. "This is me we're talking about."

"I know. But in the formal settings if you wish to speak you signal me, and I'll give you leave to speak. If you don't, we'll appear very rude in front of the court tomorrow and the princess must make a good impression."

"I understand." Hank let his shoulders droop. It was easier when it was just he and Ian in the playroom, and he didn't have to worry about Harmony's rules. But Hank had asked for this – to be more than just Ian's toy. He supposed he'd have to live with the consequences. "But you need to tell me when I'm doing something wrong."

"I intend to." Ian's playing with the ties turned into pulling them open, baring Hank's chest and the nipple rings. Ian was terribly fond of playing with those and at just the thought, Hank felt his nipples tighten in anticipation.

"You gonna finally let me come?" Hank could give into his desire now, feeling himself thicken and harden against the soft fabric of his pants.

"If you're really, really good." Ian winked. "Strip and get on the bed."

"The bed?" Not the playroom?

"Yes." Ian didn't explain, just started stripping off his own clothes, leaving them on the floor where they fell. Hank would have to clean that up later, but right now he didn't care.

Hank lay on his back, scooting back on the bed until his head rested on the pillows. Ian's eyes blazed as he stared at Hank, making Hank feel open and exposed. Ian had a knack for making him feel like this, and Hank would never have let another lover do the same.

To his surprise, Ian crawled onto the bed, kneeling between Hank's spread legs. He stared at Hank like Hank was a feast laid out for his pleasure. Well, according to all the laws of Harmony, Hank actually was. He was Ian's property at least – collared for Ian's pleasure.

Ian placed a hand on each of Hank's thighs. "Touch yourself for me." He leaned forward. "Show me how you like it – but don't come."

Hank growled in frustration, but he slide a hand down and cupped his cock as ordered. It was always better with a little something to ease the way, so Hank dragged at the tip, gathering the fluid that had gathered there. He was all but fucking dribbling precome and had been since this afternoon when Ian had gotten him all het up and left him hanging.

He went slow, knowing that's what Ian wanted, and knowing if he didn't, he might bring himself off and that would be disobeying. Hank wasn't in the mood to get punished tonight. Hank slicked himself up, tugging at his balls with his other hand as he started to stroke himself, taking his time with long, languorous movements.

There was power in this, he realized, watching as Ian's eyes grew heavy lidded with desire. Hank was making Ian feel that, using his own body to entice and seduce. He arched his back and moaned, this time on purpose, just to see the effect it had on Ian.

"Touch your nipples," Ian said, his voice raspy. "Flick your piercings. Do it."

It was hard to take his hands off of his cock. Hank had to force himself and touching his chest only made it worse. Those piercings made him feel it from the inside, and his nipples were all the more sensitive for it.

"Fuck," Ian whispered, like he didn't mean for Hank to hear. He pulled at Hank's thighs, pushing them up and back.

Hank grunted at the awkward position. It turned into a gasp when Ian plucked out the plug in Hank's ass and tossed it away. Hank didn't get a chance to miss it, because Ian just plunged right inside – like Hank had a pussy that got wet instead of an ass that needed lube and stretching.

Damn, but that shouldn't turn him on so damn much.

Ian used his shoulders to keep Hank's legs apart, rolling his hips with those perfect, practiced movements. By now he knew exactly where Hank's prostate was and managed to hit it every time. Hank fisted his hands in the sheets, unable to do anything but take Ian's punishing pace.

"Bring yourself off," Ian gasped. "I want to see."

It was hard to get the coordination. Hank's hand just wanted to flop there on the bed. But his cock cried out for attention, and Hank answered its call, curling one hand around the swollen length. It didn't take long, by now he'd been teased beyond endurance. "Oh!" Hank cried out as he came, spilling over his own fingers and belly.

"Like that." Ian sped up, his eyes closing just as he came, once more filling Hank up with his seed.

Ian let Hank's legs down and stroked the side of his face with a gentle hand. "All right?"

Hank nodded. "Think I need a shower before bed, though." And quite possibly another set of sheets. But he didn't mind. Hank had what he'd asked for – a job and a purpose, and in the bedroom after, he had Ian. If he didn't shower soon, Hank would fall asleep right here and now, despite the mess.

Ian nuzzled his throat, licking and nibbling at the soft skin there. "Did you think I was finished with you?"

Hank started to laugh. "Shower is big enough for two."

"And I do so like you wet."

It looked like they had a long night ahead of them.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

"I'm here to see the princess."

Dylan didn't know why he was surprised to see Martha answering his summons at the main gates of the castle. She hadn't retreated with the rest of them – probably because she loved the old building that much. It wasn't like she had any friends among the other subs. In her position, she had been spared much of the abuse that served for entertainment in the great hall. Dylan didn't blame anyone for turning away from her.

The horrors of Adrian's great hall were still too vivid for him, even now, but he had decided to do this, to return to this place. Dylan would not turn back.

Martha's eyes widened at the sight of him. Dylan could only imagine how he looked – dirty, in clothes that hung on his frame, his cheeks filled with stubble and none of that as shocking as the lack of collar around his neck. "You!"

He cleared his throat. "Please gain me an audience with her."

Martha immediately schooled her expression. She was always good at that, always remembering propriety over everything else. "Follow me. She's holding court now."

Dylan swallowed. He hadn't planned on doing this so publicly, but he couldn't expect to get an appointment outside of court. Not when he was no one, without any status, a sub without a collar.

He thought memories would overwhelm him the moment he stepped inside the castle. But the inside was so changed from how he'd remembered it. The stone of the walls, what used to be a cold steel gray, was now a polished warm sandstone. Dylan trailed his hand against one wall, surprised to feel it pulse beneath his fingertips. There were heavy tapestries in the hall, interspersed with brightly lit sconces. These were not the dark corridors he'd been dragged through.

"It's different," he couldn't help but say.

Martha turned. She was only a few steps ahead of him, but it might as well be a mile. "It's been different since the queen came and went. But you left too fast to find out."

He'd run the moment the collar had dropped off his neck. It had been sheer luck that he was down being groomed instead of in one of the cages hanging in the great hall. Those cages had become his home after prince Peter had taken Dylan's place as Adrian's favorite. Not that Adrian begrudged Peter that place. Dylan had held it for ten years and knew just what depravity Adrian had been capable of.

Dylan shuddered, his hands creeping up to cover his arms. Sometimes he could see feel the spikes sliding under his skin and he had to touch and make sure they were gone.

"Wait here. I'll send you in when she gives permission." Martha disappeared behind a tapestry, the blue cloth falling back into place behind her.

He lifted the edge and took a good look at what the great hall had become. The cages were gone, although the pillars still braced the edges of the room. There were chairs set into a circle in the center, over a warm looking blue carpet with gold embroidery. Light came from the chandeliers overhead, brightening the entire room. There was no longer a dais or throne. If Dylan didn't know he was back at the castle, he would have thought this a completely different room.

He saw Martha curtsey before someone. Surely that slip of a girl wasn't the princess? She'd looked so much larger than life on the tele. Dylan couldn't believe she was even old enough to have her first sub.

"A petitioner requests the honor of appearing in your presence, mistress." Martha's voice carried even here.

The princess frowned. "Who is it, Martha?"

Martha hesitated. "A former sub of Master Adrian's."

"Bid them come."

Dylan didn't wait for Martha to come get him. He pushed the curtain aside and strode into the great hall.

"It's you!" He heard someone say, and out of the corner of his eye, Dylan recognized the sub who had come to the sewer yesterday.

It was because of sub Henry that Dylan was here at all. He'd followed that sub and his master as they left, and listened in astonishment as Henry questioned his Dom and yet, wasn't punished. Not only that, but his Dom took the concerns seriously. That convinced Dylan that there was more to this visit than he had previously believed.

He only hoped it meant good things for Pasdar.

Dylan got within a few feet of the princess before dropping to his knees. It grated, to be abasing himself like this again, when he'd known freedom for this long. "Mistress," he began, his mouth going dry. Dylan swallowed and attempted to gain his composure. "I am sub Dylan."

She nodded at him to continue, her eyes narrowing. He saw that she did resemble the queen, though her features were still caught in the prime of youth. Her pale blonde hair was left in loose curls around her ears, which was what probably made her look so young.

"I've been told that you've come to make things better here in Pasdar."

She gave him a wistful smile. "I hope to."

Dylan swallowed. He had to do this. It was the only way to know. "I'm here on behalf of all the subs who wore the collar of the unwilling under Adrian. He made us promises too, promises that he never planned on keeping. It has been my experience that the only way to truly know a Dom, is to submit to them. I offer myself for the duration of your time here." It was the only way to find out if he could trust her.

He could hear the gasps and whispered around the room. But he could only focus on her. What would she say?

The princess moistened her lips before finally speaking. "I would be honored to accept your submission."

Her words caused Dylan's heart to thunder in his chest. He couldn't breathe, unable to get enough air in his lungs. He braced himself for the feel of the collar closing in around his neck.

"Dourdan." She turned to the man kneeling beside her chair. "Will you escort sub Dylan to a private room and give him a copy of my standard contract to review? I'll be along shortly. We have business to conclude here, first." The last was directed to both Dylan and this other sub.

Dylan pushed himself to his feet, still a little shocked to not find himself locked into a collar immediately. He'd forgotten how it was before Adrian. It had been so long.

Dourdan rose gracefully. He was a beautiful sub, with dark creamy skin that only emphasized the contrast of his pale blue eyes. Dylan could see why the princess chose him. "Please follow me." He bowed politely before leading Dylan through yet another heavy curtain, down a short hallway and into a small room with nothing but a square table in the center and several chairs around it.

Dylan looked for a place to kneel, but there were no pillows and hardly any room at all below the table. He frowned in disapproval when Dourdan pulled out a chair.

The other sub smiled. "She likes to make the contract negotiations a meeting of equals. You won't kneel until she'd ready to put the collar around your neck."

Dylan nodded and took a seat hesitantly, sitting on the very edge. Part of him wondered if this sub was playing him – tricking him into misbehavior just for the purpose of punishment later. There were subs who played such games, though recently they'd all had to band together to survive Adrian and … afterward.

"I know you don't trust her, and for Harmony's sake, you don't have a reason to." Dourdan sat, looking just a little too closely at Dylan, enough to make Dylan want to squirm. "But you can trust her to keep her word."

So sub Henry had said, but Dylan couldn't believe it, not until he'd seen it for himself. He wondered what she had on this sub that he seemed to content to do her bidding. Dourdan sat with his shoulders back and his posture straight. He didn't seem to be wearing any devices to constrain him or cause him pain, and the leather kilt he wore left little to the imagination, though Dylan supposed there could always be a chastity device beneath. Something like that wouldn't keep the other sub from sitting straight. But most important, he looked Dylan right in the eye, and there wasn't an ounce of shame in that beautiful gaze.

Heedless of Dylan's regard, Dourdan tapped the table and the surface mirrored. Text started to scroll. Dylan leaned forward despite himself. He wanted to see exactly what this princess demanded.

"This is just her standard form. You can add or remove anything from the list."

Right. As if that would matter. Contracts were easily signed and even more easily broken. Dylan skimmed it anyhow, not willing to go into this blind, even if he didn't believe any Dom would keep to the terms.

"I can show you a copy of my own, if that would ease your mind."

Dylan looked up in surprise. "That's generous of you."

"Not really. Most contracts are public record." Dourdan called up a tele screen and had it overlay over the table. "Although there are perfectly good reasons to have a private contract drawn up, of course."

"She's thought of everything, hasn't she?" Dylan murmured, skimming the contract. Dourdan didn't answer – either he hadn't heard or he was politely ignoring Dylan's cynicism.

Dylan didn't see anything objectionable in the princess's rather bland contract. She didn't make any promises, but she didn't ask for anything outlandish either. He tapped the table to dismiss Dourdan's overlay and fill out his own copy. He was reviewing it for a second time before the princess finally made an appearance.

"I hope you've had enough time to review the contents." She smiled as she sat across from him, pausing to lay a gentle hand on Dourdan's shoulder. There were no words of discipline for daring to sit in a chair in a Dom's presence.

"There is only one thing I want to add." Dylan sliced his finger through the text. "I want to be able to end this contract at any time."

She didn't even blink. "As opposed to setting a definite date limit?"

"Yes." Dylan would not be trapped again.

"All right."

He still didn't quite trust her.

***

Ian tugged at the cuffs of his tunic as he stepped onto the tram behind the captain of the princess's guard. In the old days this man would be higher than Ian on the hierarchy. But now that Ian was an advisor, he wasn't exactly sure where he stood. He wasn't used to feeling like this; Ian liked knowing his place and exactly where he fit in.

They were going to meet the head of Pasdar's guard, a General Lloyd at the guard tower. That had been the captain's idea, in order to put Lloyd at ease. Calling him up to the castle would only create an adversarial confrontation. Ian had agreed.

He sat as the tram took off, feeling bereft at leaving Hank behind. It couldn't be helped, he had to get this out of the way and Hank had to learn how to serve at a formal dinner. Ian felt sorry for Martha, who'd be giving the lessons. Hank wasn't easy to handle.

"You have a most interesting sub." The captain sat across from him.

Ian searched his face for mockery, but didn't find any. He wondered how long the other man had wanted to talk about Hank. "Hank is unique. He wasn't raised to be a sub."

Ian didn't necessarily mean it as an excuse. He liked Hank's eccentricities, but knew that wasn't universal in Harmony.

"That explains why he is so much more independent than other subs."

Hank's world was so foreign to them. Ian still didn't understand how they functioned without distinct roles. It might be something they'd want to look into – especially since Harmony had signed an agreement with Hank's UP. If more strangers from the stars were to come to Harmony, they had to know how to deal with them.

"I like his independence." Ian felt he had to say it, to make it known that he wasn't sub-whipped. Hank acted as he did with Ian's blessing.

"It is fortuitous then that you advanced to advisor. He is most unsuited to be the sub of a guard."

Ian bristled. There were plenty of subs who were partners with their Doms. However, no sub ever worked as a guard. It was something that simply was not done. How could a sub act in a role of authority? Still, he did not want it believed that he had taken Hank to climb the social ladder.

"It was certainly not any plan of mine."

The captain held up his hands in apology. "I meant only that the two of you seem to work well together in this role. The princess chose wisely. You discovered much in a very short time."

Going out into the city had been Hank's idea. The captain was right, however, Ian could easily speak with the Doms while Hank drew out the subs. "I'll accept the compliment, then."

The captain laughed. "Now if only this will go so smoothly."

The tram lowered to drop them off at the guard tower. Ian felt for his weapon instinctively, but found his belt empty. They were walking into enemy territory, if the guards truly had remained loyal to Adrian. Ian hoped Hank was right.

"Welcome." A slim sub greeted them as they stepped off the tram. "The general is waiting for you in his study. I will show you the way."

She didn't look nearly so beaten down and frightened as the subs Ian saw yesterday. Perhaps there was some hope that Pasdar wasn't irreparably damaged.

They entered the room to find Lloyd pacing in front of his desk. The general was dressed in a standard guard uniform – crisp green tunic, chest plates, and silver pleated kilt. He looked up as they entered and when he saw them his shoulders slumped.

"Have you come to arrest me?"

Ian blinked and looked over at the captain, who seemed perfectly content to let Ian handle this. "No, General. Not at all. Unless there's a reason you think we should?"

Lloyd gave him a look. "For obeying Adrian, of course."

Ian rubbed his forehead. "Let's start at the beginning, General. I'm Advisor Ian and this is Captain Reddick. We've come on behalf of Dom Princess Alona, who will be choosing a new ruler for Pasdar to replace Adrian. What we're not doing is punishing the common people for being caught up with Adrian's…sickness." That was one way of putting it. Ian couldn’t think how else to describe a man who'd kill his own subs.

"What the princess wants is for the guards to be back on the streets, doing their jobs." Reddick pulled out a slate he'd brought from the palace. "It would give the people some confidence that we aren't here to do them harm."

"I expect this comes with conditions." Lloyd nodded towards the slate. "Are we to be forbidden weapons?"

"No." Reddick handed over the slate.

"But you will need retraining in what is acceptable Dom/sub behavior. The guidelines are just a start." Ian pointed. He and Reddick had worked hard on drawing them up this morning. It was always a challenge as a guard to determine if one was witnessing something perfectly consensual or something that bordered the fine line of abuse. He'd been wrong a few times in his career, but Ian would rather have been wrong than missed out on the chance to help a sub.

Lloyd flipped through the contents and let out a shaky breath. "This is standard operating procedure."

"It's nothing earth shattering, General." Captain Reddick smiled.

"We were told to ignore it when on duty at the palace. Laws didn't apply to Adrian."

"Well he was wrong. Very wrong." Ian stepped forward. "It's not going to be easy to fix, General." No, Ian was sure there were guards who thought exactly as Adrian had. "But getting the guard back out there is a good place to start."

Lloyd nodded. "Shall we go over the guidelines?"

This was something Ian knew he could do. He'd been a guard; he knew how the system worked. Maybe he was worth more to the princess than just being Hank's master. "Of course."

***

The cream was cold on Dylan's skin, despite Dourdan's attempts to warm it before slathering it over his body. Dylan appreciated the gesture, though he shivered as the other sub's hands made their way down his naked skin. This wasn't the first time he'd had depilatory cream, although the way Dourdan applied it made Dylan want to moan.

Dourdan gave him a slow smile, as if he knew exactly how his touch affected Dylan. It had been a very long time since Dylan had experienced such slow sensual caresses. Of course, this was just grooming. At least he wouldn't be punished for the slight hardening of his cock.

Dourdan turned away to wipe the cream off of his own hands. He came back with a slim silver scraper and started at Dylan's shoulder, working his way carefully along the skin. Now he moved perfunctorily, doing this job so smoothly as to not nick a bit of skin.

Dylan stared at the blue and white tile of the shower, trying not to think about the sharpness of the blade pressed against him. The other sub would not be trying to cut them. Dylan had to keep telling himself that. Things were different now, or at least they appeared that way. "How long have you belonged to the princess?"

Dourdan looked up at him. "Since the Choosing." He wiped off the scraper on a towel before moving back to his task.

That wasn't so long ago. It was just before the queen had come to depose Adrian. That meant Doudan probably didn't know his mistress very well at all. Then again, Dylan wasn't one to talk. He'd been taken in himself. Perhaps he should pity this sub before him who wasn't aware of what the Doms were truly capable of.

"You were one of Adrian's?" Dourdan kept his voice low.

Dylan closed his eyes as Dourdan slid the scraper down his thighs, then close to his balls. "For ten years."

Dourdan let out a whistle. "That's a damn long time."

"Too fucking long," Dylan growled. He opened his eyes, needing to see the other sub, otherwise he could get lost in memories. The last thing Dylan wanted to talk about was Adrian.

"Hmm." Dourdan seemed to pick up that the subject was a sore one and changed it, chatting away like a typical grooming sub. "Mistress doesn't like body hair. One of the things she's actually picky about is hygiene. Gives us the excuse to pop down to the groomers for a massage now and then."

And that was so far outside Dylan's experience that he didn't quite know how to respond. Going to the groomers was an exercise in torture – it was reprieve, ever so brief, of whatever his master had planned for him. But there certainly weren't any massages involved. In fact, he'd never been shaved like this, with the sensuous strokes Dourdan was making down his skin – wielding that silver blade even down to Dylan's ankles.

Dourdan wiped down his blade, and then pulled out another container. He used a brush to cover Dylan's cheeks with the cream. "I think she might like the stubble, however, so we'll only go with a shave for that."

Dylan was aware he'd let himself go. At one time his appearance had been so important to him. He could barely remember it, but Dylan knew once he'd been a fresh faced sub, so eager to make a good impression and get a good master. Adrian had beaten that hope out of him.

He must have been a sight walking into that room, dirty and ungroomed, wearing nothing but rags. The princess hadn't had a choice but to accept him. Perhaps she'd be a bit more pleased with his appearance now that her favorite had done the work to make Dylan presentable.

Dourdan hadn't done anything to assert his own place, Dylan realized. There hadn't been any rules laid down about Dylan having to defer to the senior sub, not even a subtle threat. Perhaps that would come later.

Dylan was still as Dourdan used a sharper blade this time, moving carefully with the curve of his jaw.

It wasn't until he finished and went to reach for the shower head that Dourdan spoke again. "Mistress would prefer you not serve at this evening's dinner with Adrian's former court."

Dylan shivered and it wasn't from the warm water Douran directed on his skin. "She's choosing one of them to take Adrian's place?"

"You don't seem happy about the idea. Close your eyes, I want to do your hair."

Dylan obeyed. It was easier to speak this way, without looking at the ever so earnest Dourdan. "I'd served under all of them at some point. Zachary is conniving, Halle vain, Kyra cold and Mark? He just wants you to think he's clueless." Dylan couldn't see any one of them ruling the district.

He didn't want any of them ruling the district. Each of them had taken him at one point or another. Kyra could make him bleed and bleed, to the point where he thought he'd die and then be blessedly free of her torture. But she knew exactly how much to take before it became too much. And Zachary? He hid his tricks behind smiles and jokes, pitting one sub against another until Dylan gladly wielded a whip against someone who had been a friend. No one could inflict pain quite like Mark, and Halle could cut as deep with her voice as her knife.

When the other sub didn't respond Dylan opened one eye, wiping away the suds from his face. Dourdan was frowning, his bottom lip caught under his teeth. "She will be grateful for your insight."

"Don't tell her I said that, for Harmony's sake!" Dylan felt his heart flutter. There were things you could say to your fellow subs, but never, ever say in front of the Doms. For a moment he'd forgotten that Dourdan was the princess's first. The other sub had lulled him with his gentle touch and soft voice. Dylan should damn well know better. He couldn't trust a fellow sub, not when Dourdan had the opportunity to look good in front of his mistress.

Dourdan only frowned harder, if such a thing were possible. "I'm hoping you'll tell her yourself. She'll most likely ask for your opinion."

"She can't really want it?"

"I don't know what you were accustomed to, but I assure you, my mistress would never ask for honesty and not mean it." Now Dourdan looked downright angry and that was the last thing Dylan wanted to do. He needed this sub as an ally, not an enemy. It was time to start playing the game in earnest.

"I apologize." Dylan bowed, nude and soaking wet in the bath. "You're right, I've rarely been asked for my opinion." Or even to speak at all. Dylan had been a body to fuck and hurt, with no care paid to the mind inside.

Dourdan pulled one of the fluffy towels from the shelf and began to towel Dylan down. Dylan kept himself stiff, not sure if he'd made a muddle of everything after all. "Just be honest when she comes to you. You won't regret it."

Dylan already did.

***

"Has no one ever showed you the proper way to hold a tray?"

Hank cringed at the incredulous tone in Martha's voice. It wasn't like tray-carrying had been an important element of basic training. He could strip down a rifle, had one of the best shots of his unit, and could flatten a soldier with a well-timed kick. Unfortunately none of these skills would matter tonight. At least, he hoped not.

At least he hadn't felt so useless when comparing notes with Dom Sendhill and his sub earlier. Then Hank had been the one with the expertise and advice on how to best approach the people in the city. In fact, he itched to be out there right now, doing what he knew best, not trying to figure out how best to serve food.

"Not really, no." Hank didn't think there was that much to it, however, he couldn't seem to master holding the tray with one hand while placing platters on tables. He could either focus on the plate or the tray, not both.

He and Martha looked down at the third tray he'd dropped. Hank didn't seem to be improving at all.

She crossed her arms and looked at him thoughtfully. "Do you think you can manage a pitcher?"

"Maybe." Hank wasn't ready to commit to anything.

"Let's practice pouring."

Maybe he could do that.

***

Dylan was only conscious of his own nudity when they left the bathroom and found his new mistress waiting for them both in the bedroom. She had changed her clothing from what she wore at court. Now she was in a tight black bodysuit that hugged her curves, and her blond hair was pulled back into a severe knot at the base of her neck.

She smiled when they emerged. Dylan wished he still had one of those towels draped around his waist. He realized he didn't have any other clothes, other than the ones Dourdan had unceremoniously dumped down the laundry chute.

He dropped to his knees. "Mistress."

"Thank you, Dourdan. He looks much improved."

"I did my best, mistress." There was a hint of amusement in Dourdan's voice.

Dylan fought to keep himself composed. He was the interloper here. With time he'd know exactly what to expect, but for now he needed to play quiet and obedient.

She clasped her hands behind her back and walked towards them, her heels making an ominous clack against the floor. "Dylan, I've put in a basic order for clothing from the local tailor. Of course, when you have enough Tal earned up, you may order whatever you wish."

Dylan blinked up at her. He hadn't had access to his own finances in years, and in fact, hadn't touched his account even when he had been freed. Dylan had been afraid that he and the rest of the subs could be tracked if they accessed the tele. He cleared his throat. "Thank you, mistress." It helped to be polite.

"I assume Dourdan told you about not serving tonight?" She waited until he nodded before continuing. "I thought it a good idea if we have a scene now. It's the best way for me to take your measure."

Dylan swallowed, trying to moisten his dry mouth. "Whatever my mistress wishes." She could have him anywhere she wanted, whenever she wanted. Hell, she could lay him out on the banquet table tonight for Adrian's old court to fuck and abuse.

But all she wanted was a private scene. Dylan thought he might be able to work with that.

"We'll take it into the playroom. Dourdan, you will be joining us as well."

"Of course, mistress."

Dylan shot a look over at the other sub, trying to read his expression. Dourdan must know what was coming, after all. She might have done the same thing with him.

Of course, as the first sub of the princess, Dourdan must have had a proper courting. Adrian had done the same to trick Dylan to his side. He'd been so kind then. Dylan would have done anything to earn his favor. That was before.

Dourdan came over to help Dylan up off his knees. "I'll be right there," he murmured. Dylan didn't know whether or not to be reassured by that.

The playroom had been prepared. She must have been arranging this while Dourdan groomed him in the bath. Of course. All Doms had ulterior motives.

There were lights in each of the corners, directing the light up and towards the center of the room, where a bar hung from the ceiling. The shadows made it so Dylan couldn't see the toys she'd selected for use, or any of the other equipment in the room. At least the floor was soft under his feet – carpet instead of hard wood or stone. It could change, he knew, depending on his mistress's orders.

What did this soft carpet say about her? Did she grant him this softness only to prepare him for the harshness that was to come?

"Dylan, I want you to grasp that bar with both hands." She spoke softly, her command something he had to strain to hear.

He did as she asked, raising his arms above his head to do so. It wasn't uncomfortable – he could keep both his feet on the rug without rising up on his toes.

"Spread your legs. Yes, just like that."

He'd lost sight of both of them, facing away like this. A mistake. He should have turned and taken hold of the bar so he could see his new mistress. Now Dylan had no other way to gauge her commands except for the low tone of her voice. Dourdan moved to stand in front of him, looking almost like a stone statue, so still and perfect under the dim lighting.

He felt a gentle touch on his ass and he gasped.

"Your skin is so smooth," mistress murmured.

"The healers were very good," Dylan said, before cringing at his own words. He should never admit to weakness. Although, if she were thorough, she'd looked at his file. Every injury should have been cataloged there, and it wasn't as if Adrian had monitored his subs for abuse. Not when he was the cause of the abuse.

His mistress kept her hands on his body, though she didn't speak for a moment. Her caress was gentle, but it sparked his newly shaven skin. Dylan felt his cock thicken, almost despite itself.

Her hands were on his shoulders now, tracing along the muscle. "Dylan, if at any time you want me to stop, I want you to say 'stop.' Understand?"

"Yes, mistress." He hadn't been given a word in ten years. Dylan didn't quite believe she would stop if he said so. He decided he'd test her, use it when things started to get rough.

The princess walked away, leaving him feeling almost cold without the warmth of her hands upon him. She moved into the shadows and returned with her first toy.

Dylan almost laughed at the flogger. The tiny stripes of leather hanging from that little handle hardly looked like enough to cause him any pain at all. Some of the amusement must have shown in his eyes, because his mistress smiled at him before disappearing behind him once more.

"I want to test your sense of pain." Her voice was calm. "On each stroke I want you to give me a number – zero being no pain at all and ten the worst you've ever experienced."

"Yes, mistress." Dylan squashed the temptation to ask her to clarify – there were different kinds of pain, not just low and high levels - or at least give him a larger range of numbers. Because the worst he'd ever experienced had been pretty bad.

She began with a caress of the flogger, smoothing it up his hip and across his ass. It tickled.

"Zero, mistress," Dylan told her.

"Good boy."

Those words should not have caused a thrill in the center of his belly. Dylan should be beyond that. He shouldn't need the approval of a Dom – not after what they'd done to him.

But it had been so long since anyone had told him he was 'good.'

The flogger lifted off of his skin and Dylan tried to remain loose and not anticipate the blow. The strike against his ass was hardly worth tensing for. He gave it another zero. She continued, striking him harder and harder. Dylan felt his ass warm with the heat of being slapped. It made him feel hazy.

But he never got above a 'four' with the flogger.

Mistress ran her hand over his heated skin. When she pinched his ass it surprised him into a yelp. "I think that just about warmed you up." She disappeared into the shadows again, and this time returned with a long, slim cane.

Dourdan gave him a wink and Dylan ducked his head, embarrassed at his reaction. He felt his cock pulse between his legs and he struggled not to press his thighs together. That cane wouldn't be anything like the leather. He'd feel every bit of it against his skin – and it would bruise.

There was no request to give voice to the level of pain this time. Blows rained upon his ass – the cracks were loud against his skin. Dylan leaned into it, knowing he was pushing his ass out like a slut, but not caring. He needed that, wanted the stripes and bruises that would be left behind.

She varied the blows – hitting the sensitive skin at the top of his thighs. Dylan didn't know what she would do next and didn't expect her to stop and slide the cane between the curves of his ass, the tip of it prodding his balls.

"Do it," he whispered. "Oh, please…"

The cane was up against his cock now and he didn't know which was harder – the wood or his dick. Dylan had his eyes squeezed shut, wanting only to feel. His entire body was aflame – the warmth seeping up from his toes, stretching out to every inch of him.

She tapped once – hard – against the base of his cock and Dylan groaned.

"You like that?" She sounded amused.

Dylan was surprised. He'd forgotten, really, what it was he liked. Everything had been so perverted and twisted that he didn't even know how to find pleasure in pain any longer. But now, this little Dom had managed to draw something out of him, made him remember something he'd long forgotten.

"Yes," he told her, voice raspy.

She hit him – and then hit him again – not letting up until there were tears running down Dylan's cheeks. He didn't know how much time had passed – it seemed he was caught – trapped between pain and pleasure, unable to go over that peak to orgasm.

"Dourdan," Mistress called, startling her other sub out of his stoic posture. "Suck him off."

Dylan gripped the bar harder, trying not to jerk himself into Dourdan's warm, willing mouth. And then something slick probed his ass, letting him lose all of the careful control he had left. He could push himself onto something hard and unyielding or choke Dourdan with his cock. Both felt good, too good, and the tears kept coming, as he couldn't decide which way to go – forward or backward.

"Come for me, boy." Her voice was in his ear, her breath on his cheek. Dylan shuddered, unable to do anything but obey.

He cried out as he came, the sound somewhere between a moan and a sob. His climax was wrung out of him – so intense it hurt.

Then gentle hands were tugging him free of the bar – "you can let go now, boy, that's right" – and letting him fall to his knees. She stroked his hair and Dylan buried his face in her chest, letting her surround him and pet him and croon soft words in his ear. Dourdan knelt behind him, a warm presence at his back.

It had been so long since he'd been given this simple comfort. Dylan found himself sobbing. He felt wrung out, like he'd been torn apart and put back together.

"You did so well," she told him, over and over.

When he could stand – and he did so flushed with embarrassment – they bundled him into bed and tucked him underneath covers that were so soft they soothed his sore body. Mistress sat on the edge and smoothed his hair back.

"There was so much more I'd hoped for. But we need to get ready for the dinner." She frowned.

Dylan caught her hand with his own. He felt sleepy and it took effort to keep his eyes open. "Go just as you are. They won't know what to make of you."

She grinned – that smile so different from her calculated ones in the playroom. "Thank you. Now sleep."

"Yes, mistress."

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

They had changed the décor of the great hall since Hank had last seen it that afternoon. Luckily it hadn't been his job to set the floating little lights all around the room, or to drag in the tables that turned it into a dining hall. There was a larger table, draped in red velvet on a little dais where the princess and the other royals would sit. The advisors would have places at the smaller tables dotted around the room.

Hank stood just behind Ian's chair, like all the other subs did, waiting for the guests to arrive. Ian had picked out their clothes, so Hank's pants – charcoal gray with gold embroidery – matched Ian's. As a sub, apparently he didn't rate a shirt, but at least he wasn't wearing one of those leather skirts that the others wore. Ian had pulled out a special set of nipple rings for the occasion, decorated with bright sapphires.

"They are almost as bright as your eyes," Ian had told him.

"You know you don't have to do the flattery thing with me." No, Hank was pretty much a sure thing at this point.

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. This was exactly the kind of thing that he hated back in the Corps. Give him a sidearm and a target to shoot any day. Though, Hank admitted to himself, he really should have skipped officer training if he wanted to avoid the diplomatic shit.

Ian turned his head. "Remember to listen."

Hank was surprised Ian wasn't telling him to remember his brief training in serving a high table. His lessons under Martha hadn't gone well at all. There were some things Hank just couldn't do gracefully, and carrying a tray apparently was one of them. He remembered when Ian had introduced Hank to his mother who had been very open about Hank's lack of finesse.

Well, if Ian had wanted finesse, he had scores of subs he could have chosen. But instead, he wanted a sub who would keep his ears open and listen to the subs of the Counts and Countesses, to the conversation at the royal table, anything that would help them fix this place. Hank was more than capable of following that strategy.

"Count Zachary Quinto with his sub, James." The announcement echoed throughout the room, amplified by unseen speakers.

Hank turned his attention to the curtained hall, where the count emerged with his sub. Count Zachary led a younger man by a leash that sparkled in the lights of the great hall. There was something about Zach's eyes, a deviousness that gave Hank chills.

It didn't help that the guy seemed to stare right at Hank as he made his way through the hall before reaching the head table.

"Countess Kyra Sedgewick and her sub, Kevin."

The countess wore a high collared overcoat that made her cheeks look hollow. Her sub followed on his hands and knees. Luckily his little skirt was long enough to cover his privates.

"Countess Halle Berry and her sub, Heather."

Halle wore a diamond encrusted gown that wouldn't look out of place on some movie star in the UP. Her sub had diamonds covering strategic areas. Hank wondered at the show of wealth, maybe Halle really wanted to be a duchess?

"Count Mark Shepard and his sub, Beth."

This girl wore hardly anything at all – scraps of fabric that reminded Hank of some caveman porn he'd watched when he was a teen. The count, on the other hand, was completely covered in black and green. He pulled out a handkerchief from a pocket and mopped at his brow. Hank made note of that.

Once all of the royals were at their places – standing behind their chairs at the head table, with their subs on their knees – a little trumpet tune sounded. Then a spotlight appeared on the opposite side of the hall and the princess emerged from one of the curtained doorways.

"Princess Alona Tal and her sub, Dourdan."

Hank didn't think anyone was listening to the announcer. Alona emerged dressed all in black, in a floor length gown. Her blond hair was pulled up into curls dotted with sparkling diamonds – in a style that reminded Hank of the queen. Her sub wore a white leather kilt that showed off his dark skin. Together they were a study in contrasts – male and female, large and small, dark and light, sub and Dom.

Nicely done. Nothing could overshadow this entrance.

Ian gave Hank the signal they'd arranged beforehand so Hank would know when to discretely disappear into the kitchens. He still didn't understand how the other subs simply knew when to do these things.

In the kitchens there was organized chaos as Martha barked out orders about who should take what tray. Hank grabbed his pitcher, since that afternoon had shown that he couldn't be trusted with food.

"Don't worry," a sub whispered to him as she hefted a pitcher of her own. "I'm the healer's sub. I don't normally do this either."

"I won't tell anyone if you spill if you promise the same for me."

She giggled. "I promise."

And then Hank was back through the curtain, following the other subs up to the head table, where the royals were to be served first. Hank didn't get why they got to keep their subs, but he was sure there was some explanation for it. Maybe it was because Alona didn't have 200 subs like her mother.

While pouring tye for the counts, he was in the perfect position to eavesdrop. Hank moved very slowly and carefully. The last thing he wanted to do was trip over a sub!

"…but Mistress, you must share with us the criteria you are using to make your choice," Halle said. She ignored Hank completely. "How else will we know how best to present ourselves?"

"The criteria, Countess, is only this: finding the person best suited to healing the damage Adrian has done to Pasdar." Alona's voice was like ice. Hank had never heard her sound like that.

"Sounds so simple, really." Mark leaned forward in his chair. "But I doubt you'll have your answer by the time dinner is over."

Hank continued to move around the table.

"You're correct, Count. I imagine it will take some time to make my decision. I will also need to explore exactly how deep the damage has gone."

"But you still haven't said how." Countess Kyra just sounded indignant.

Hank moved to refill Zach's cup. The count's hand shot out and grabbed Hank's wrist, preventing him from pouring and trapping him into intimate contact with Zach. "No more tye."

"Um, okay, I mean, yes, sir. She has the water." Hank tilted with his head to point to the other sub with a pitcher.

Zach smiled at him and winked before letting go. Hank didn't think that was allowed – at least he knew Ian wouldn't like another Dom flirting with his sub. Hank pulled away and moved further down the table, aware of Zach's eyes following him wherever he went.

"You know there is only one proven way to know a Dom's mettle." Mark leaned forward. "Scening."

"Mark does make a good argument." Zach took his eyes off of Hank long enough to say.

"I agree." Hank was surprised to hear Alona assenting. "Of course, you are most comfortable in your own homes. We should make arrangements for me to visit each of you."

Why did it seem like the princess had got exactly what she wanted? Hank hid his smile as he went for a refill.

***

"Well, at least I didn't spill the tye on anyone."

Ian grinned as he shut the door to their bedchamber behind him. Hank had drenched his pants after managing to trip over Countess Kyra's sub, who had knelt crouched low to the floor. His poor sub wasn't very graceful, but he had learned much from serving at the head table. "True."

He just watched as Hank stripped, dropping his soaked pants into the laundry chute. When Hank opened the wardrobe, Ian stepped behind him. "Don't put any clothing on."

Hank gave him a look over his shoulder. "Going to make me clean in the nude?"

"Something like that."

"Mmmm. Does this have anything to do with the way Count Zach was giving me the eye?"

Ian frowned and he stepped back. "Count Zach?"

Hank waved the nickname away. "Guy gives me the creeps."

"Be sure to tell that to the princess. She values your insight." Ian might have made himself useful today, but it was Hank's expertise that had caused them both to be invited as advisors. Hank had insight from his life before that could not be replicated by anyone else in Harmony.

Hank closed the wardrobe, still naked. "What? Aren't you insanely jealous that I had a count lusting after me?"

Ian laughed. "Not when I know you'll be coming back here with me."

Hank folded his arms over his bare chest and winked. He still wore the sapphire nipple shields Ian had put on him. Ian's mouth watered and he wanted to suck on those pierced bits of flesh.

But then the tele started to blink. The screen flashed to life just to the right of them with Henry's name in bright letters.

"Huh. For me?" Hank turned and made to grab a shirt.

"It's a recording." At least Hank could stay naked. "You don't have to dress for it."

Hank laughed, and slid his fingers across the bottom of the light. He had become so adept at using Harmony's gifts. Ian felt a flash of pride.

The image came to life, showing three very familiar figures, although Ian hadn't seen them since he'd gone up to the Mercury.

"Hey, Tappen, check it out. Gyllenhaal hooked up the comm system to Harmony's tele." Ian winced as Whitfield spoke. He was one of the people who were not too happy about Ian taking Henry as his sub.

Both of the women turned to glare at him before Gyllenhaal spoke. "Hi, Major Tappen. As you can see, we've managed to patch the two systems together. What this means is that you can use the tele to contact the base. We're still working on being able to contact the ship. Eventually you'll be able to access all of the UP feeds right through your screen. I've uploaded some samples so you can try it out. Actually, I'd appreciate someone doing some testing from inside Harmony."

"You can start by replying to this message. We look forward to hearing from you, Major." The other woman said – Ian had trouble remembering her name – Chekie, Chekani, Chekezi?

Hank turned a blinding grin at him. "Would you mind if I played with it a bit?"

It wasn't what Ian had had in mind for the evening, but now the mood was truly and totally killed. "Go ahead. I need to write my report anyway." That was true – Ian did have to record all of his impressions about tonight before they faded from memory. He had just wanted to steal some time with Hank first.

Ian had promised himself he'd not stand in the way of Hank and his old life. He wouldn't be that cruel a master. Still, as he watched Hank drag the screen to the bed, where he could curl up and play with the new options, Ian felt jealousy burn in his chest. He only had Hank for a short time, until the contract ran out. Was it so wrong to want to savor every moment?

***

Dylan didn't know how long he'd been asleep for. He realized he must have slept through the entire dinner when he saw his mistress sitting in one of the chairs on the other side of the room. She was wrapped up in a fluffy robe, with her feet tucked under her thighs. Dourdan was pulling out the pins from her hair.

He must have made a sound, because they both turned his way. Mistress smiled. "Someone's awake."

Dylan pushed the covers away and scrambled out of the bed. He had planned to be up long before they came back, so he could greet her properly on his knees. Everything ached as he slid into position. She hadn't worked him over that hard, really. It had just been a while.

He flushed as his knees hit the floor. Embarrassment covered him anew. Even under the worst of Adrian's torture, he had never cried. A few strokes on his cock and he had sobbed. What kind of sorceress was this princess?

"Mistress. Forgive me." He bowed low.

"Oh, Dylan." She slid out of the chair to come to his side and brush her fingers through his hair. "I'd ordered you to sleep and you did. There is nothing to forgive."

"I should have been awake to greet you properly." He wanted to kick himself for saying it. There was no good reason a sub should point out why he should be punished – unless he wanted to be punished. Dylan still wasn't too sure about that.

"We haven't set up those routines yet." She urged him up. "And I will only punish you for willful disobedience or disrespect. Not for making a mistake or not knowing a rule."

"You can always ask me, if you can't ask Mistress. There is much to learn." Dourdan smiled at him. By now he was more than aware of Dylan's anxieties. "I haven't even shown you to your room, yet."

Dylan stood, wincing at the way his back creaked when he did. He hoped his room was larger than the cell he'd been cast in under Adrian's rule. Of course, how much of this persona was carefully calculated? Giving him his own room, not punishing him for failing to give a proper greeting – was the princess just trying to convince him of her worth?

"There will be time to go through everything tomorrow. It looks like we'll be here for some time." Mistress sat on the edge of the bed and straightened out her robe.

"Was the dinner not a success?" As much as Dylan disliked the idea of seeing Adrian's court again, he wished he had been there to witness what had happened.

"Oh, but it was." Mistress grinned. "They all agreed to scene for me. And they thought of it on their own."

"And that was what you wished?" Dylan was trying to understand. So far his new mistress confounded him at every turn.

She nodded. "A Dom reveals part of herself during a scene. It's the best way to see their true nature."

Dylan didn't quite disagree. Adrian and his ilk had been just as ugly during scenes as when not. But he couldn't help but think about what exactly he'd revealed this afternoon. He still felt angry about those tears. He had wanted to learn about the princess, not expose more of himself.

So far this plan seemed more and more foolish. He would always be a thing to the Doms, something to beat and abuse. Dylan didn't know what made the princess think she and her advisors were different.

He wouldn't quit just yet. Dylan would give them plenty of time to reveal their true natures.

"Dylan, you know the court. What do you think of them?" She seemed like she wanted an honest answer.

Dylan recalled what he'd told Dourdan and flushed again. "I think you'll find your plan has unintended consequences."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning, my mistress, that the four are just as, if not more, calculating than you."

Dylan couldn't help but feel that this plan would turn out to be a spectacularly bad idea.

***

Dylan didn't expect his assessment to prove to be so apt so quickly. The very next day Count Mark showed up at the palace for a private audience.

Mistress saw the count in a small, private sitting room, where she had just been meeting with some of her advisors. Dylan knelt on one side of her chair with Dourdan on the other. That morning had brought the arrival of his new clothing from the tailor, so he now matched the other sub in a long blue tunic that stopped mid-thigh. All of his outfits seemed to have a counterpart with one of Dourdan's. Apparently mistress liked having a pair of subs to dress up.

It was still better than having to kneel here in the nude. At one time, it had felt odd for him to wear clothing at all.

The count entered with his sub, who followed just behind him. Her arms were bound behind her back, and her outfit consisted mostly of leather straps. However, when she looked up from under her eyelashes, Dylan saw some fire in her eyes, as if she knew a secret no one else did.

"Mistress, thank you for seeing me on such short notice." Mark all but vibrated with excitement. Dylan knew this could not be good.

The princess inclined her head. "I assume you've come to make your scening appointment?"

She'd given them time to prepare, leaving it to the Doms to schedule themselves and their households. Dylan didn't know if that was sheer genius or stupidity on her part. You never gave the court occasion to plan – it only got worse with more time.

"Better. I've just had an excellent idea. I will host an exhibition of sub games at my estate. The culmination of which, of course, will be my scene with my sub Beth, here. I assure you, Princess, it will be particularly brilliant."

To her credit, his mistress didn't even blink. "I assume the games will be open to any sub who would like to enter?"

"Of course! There will be prizes and gambling. It will be fantastic." Mark grinned and Dylan did not like the sight of that grin at all. "All will be ready in a fortnight, or so my steward tells me. Is that acceptable, my mistress?"

"Just make sure it doesn't conflict with the others' schedule."

"I will send out the invitations this very day."

"Very well then. I look forward to it, Count Mark." She smiled at him.

"Thank you, mistress." He bowed before he left, his sub once again trailing after him. Before she left the room, she turned and winked.

Dylan had no idea what to make of that. What he did know was that Mark had just upped the stakes on the princess. The other members of the court would feel compelled to compete.

"You realize they will all try to outdo each other?" he said. Already he had gotten accustomed to speaking his mind around her. Well, she had told him she valued his honest opinion, so Dylan gave it.

Mistress stood and began to pace, biting on the nails of one hand as she did so. "Of course. But this could work in our favor."

Dylan didn't see how.

She turned and snapped her fingers at her other sub. "Dourdan, you need to scour the subs of the advisors, see who is willing to take part in the games. I need more information."

"Yes, mistress." Dourdan stood, moving gracefully to his feet. He bowed before leaving the room.

It was the first time Dylan had even been truly alone with his mistress, without Dourdan as a buffer between them. Already he missed the other sub's calming presence. He swallowed down the lump in his throat. "And I, mistress?"

"You and I will be taking a stroll in the gardens. There's something I need to see. . . and I do believe we need to get to know each other a little better. Don't you agree, Dylan?"

Dylan did, but probably not in the way she expected.

***

Someone had set out a blanket over fresh grass in the palace gardens and placed a basket in the center. Obviously his mistress had planned this. She led them straight to it from the palace gate, sitting cross-legged on the soft fabric.

Dylan knelt at the very edge of the blanket, slipping into resting presentation pose. He hadn't been to the gardens in years – he'd spent his last few years with Adrian locked in a cage – and had forgotten the peacefulness of the place. The scent of wildflowers and greenery tickled his nose, and reminded him of what it had felt like to be free.

His collar felt like a heavy weight at the thought.

Mistress opened the basket and pulled out several wrapped plates of food and a flagon of tye. "My brother told me that this is where he used to come to escape for a little bit." She looked down as she spoke, setting the food on the blanket.

Dylan frowned. "Your brother, mistress?"

She pushed a plate in front of him. "My brother was Adrian's primary."

He hadn't made the connection before. Of course the sub prince had been the son of the queen as well – and thus his mistress's brother. "Ah. Peter."

"Levi," she corrected with a snap. "sub Prince Levi Tal."

Dylan bowed his head. "I meant no disrespect, mistress." He kept his palms flat on his thighs, despite the urge to dig into his own skin. After every misstep – every word said wrong – Dylan still feared punishment.

Mistress touched his knee. "I know you didn't. I suspect Adrian was awful to you too. Now, eat up, you hardly had any breakfast."

"Shouldn't I serve you, mistress?"

"Not on our picnic." She kicked off her sandals and dug her feet into the grass, wiggling her toes. It reminded Dylan of how very young she was. He had almost two decades on her. It made him feel old and tired.

Dylan took a bite from his plate. He suspected Martha had packed the lunch and she'd chosen well. The flavors from the meat-filled pastry dripped onto his tongue and made him salivate for more.

"How long were you with Adrian?"

Dylan swallowed, chewing hastily. "Ten years." Ten very long years. "Only the last five were under the collar of the unwilling." No, Adrian had seduced him into that first contract. And then Dylan couldn't leave, even though he'd wished to.

"And before that?"

"I'd had two masters. I also spent a few years working in a tavern." Those years seemed so far away now. Dylan could barely believe he was a creature who'd once craved pain enough to seek it from strangers.

Mistress bit into a pastry and chewed it thoughtfully. "And before that? Did you grow up in a household of subs? Or did you have a Dom for a parent?"

Dylan snorted, and then flushed. That was terribly undignified. "I was given up to the Schola."

It wasn't done much anymore. Dylan thought it rare enough when he was brought to the Schola as an infant. Once it was thought to be an honor – a child raised by the trainers instead of by individual parents. It became something of a stigma – often those given up were sub children that were supposed to have been a Dom's heir, or they were the offspring of two subs who went to separate masters. Either way, they had become the unwanted.

She touched his chin and tilted his face up. Dylan didn't realize he'd dropped his gaze. "A Schola child. And what Adrian did to you. . .it was a crime."

Before he realized what he'd done, Dylan reached up and grasped her wrist. "It wasn't only Adrian and it wasn't only me."

She stroked his face with her fingers, ignoring the clamp of his around her. Instead of releasing her, Dylan brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. "And what of you?" He might as well get to know his mistress. That and he didn't want to talk about Adrian. "What was it like being the daughter of the queen?"

This time she pulled away, folding her arms around her knees as she looked out into the garden. "Not what you'd expect, I think. I went to the Schola with my peers – I didn't have private tutors. My brother and I used to get into all sorts of trouble." A smile touched her face, but it wasn't for Dylan. He suspected she'd forgotten he was there.

"Odd that they let the two of you mix."

Mistress turned back to regard him. "I think we both have much to learn, sub Dylan. I need to know more about Pasdar, about what happened here. And you – you need to learn how far off the path you've gone."

He suspected she was right. "How do you propose we start?"

"I'd like to court you. Do this properly, despite the contract already being in place. And I want you to advise me, much like the rest of my entourage. I need to know how Adrian's people think – how the subs here think. You are a mystery."

She was one to talk. Dylan could not figure her out at all. "I will advise you the best I can, mistress."

"And you'll allow me to court you?"

"I don't know." He decided to stay honest. "Adrian was the last to court me. And that turned out not well at all."

"Then I'll just have to erase him from your memory."

He would have laughed, but the look on her face was so determined, Dylan thought she could do exactly whatever she wanted to. Well. Let her try.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Hank could feel the energy thrumming through the crowds of people. This was a huge change from the empty streets and frightened people they had met in Pasdar not too long ago. Count Mark had opened up the sub games to the entire district, and even with the uneasy mood in town, it seemed like plenty were curious enough to check it out. Hank wished the princess had thought of throwing a city-wide party first. It certainly brought the people out of their shells.

Mark's estate and grounds were nowhere near as extensive as the palace, and so the celebration spilled out onto the streets where food vendors had set up little booths. Hank bought a packet of roasted nuts that he shared with Ian as they walked, taking a set of moving stone stairs up to the next level, where most of the games were going on.

Lights and garland decorated the walls and columns, making the entire event seem like weird mix of Christmas and a summer barbeque. Hank popped another nut into his mouth, savoring the salty sweetness as they moved closer to the actual games. They stopped to mingle with the crowds around what looked like a race track. Hank looked down the line to see the racers and ended up gaping.

A line of subs had been strapped to little carts, behind which Doms stood with tiny whips. The subs were wrapped in black leather and tight fitting straps. Their arms were strapped behind their back and they were all muzzled with something that looked like a bridle. Hank couldn't get a good look at the strange boots they wore, but he bet there were horse shoes under there. They would go well with the long and plush tails.

"I didn't think you guys even had horses here." Hank hadn't seen so much as a pony in town. The people in Harmony didn't need them for transportation or to pull a load. They had enough tech to do all of that. Yet for some reason they wanted to dress their subs up like horses.

Ian covered his mouth – which he tended to do when he didn't want Hank to know he was laughing at him. "We don't. But there are images in our histories."

That sounded like the kinda thing Dr. Johnson would be interested in. Hank made a mental note to send him a comm later. It was a handy thing having the comm system hooked up to Harmony's tele.

"Which do you think will win?" Ian slipped an arm around Hank's waist, sliding his fingers under his shirt.

Hank caught his breath at the skin to skin contact. Ian always surprised him, especially when he least expected it.

He leaned forward to check out the subs waiting in a row. Some kicked their feet, as if impatient to be off. One of them had blue ribbons woven in his long black hair – mane? Something in his eyes had Hank pointing: "That one."

"Hmm." Ian pulled up the tele with his other hand and quickly placed a bet.

Just as he closed the screen a whistle sounded and the subs were off. They didn't move very quickly, certainly not as fast as real horses, yet they were determined. Hank found himself clapping and cheering on "his" horse. Although the whips cracked through the air, Hank didn't see any make contact. He suspected that was for more private moments.

They circled the track once before hitting the finish line which was marked by a blue light that beamed across the road. Even through all the dust that was kicked up, Hank could clearly see that his "horse" had come in first. He jumped up and punched the air.

Ian didn't bother to hide his laughter this time.

They continued to walk through the games. The mood seemed to lift as the day went on. Hank figured the people had discovered it was okay to be happy. They didn't have to fear punishment from this event the princess so clearly endorsed.

"Have you seen anything you'd want to participate in?"

Hank frowned, and had an immediate flash of himself all done up in straps and hooked up to a cart while Ian waved the whip in the air behind him. He choked at the thought. "Not really." He knew the princess had asked the subs to try to take part if they could. He just hadn't found anything.

As they continued through the grounds, they stopped to watch a wrestling match. This was full on Greek wrestling – all nude and oiled up bodies. Even though it was erotically charged, Hank noted they were still using good technique.

"Is this where I admit I used to wrestle in high school?" He said in an undertone.

Ian raised an eyebrow.

"Only not naked," Hank had to put in. He really wasn't sure about doing it nude.

"Would you want to try?"

Hank frowned. The wrestling looked like a big deal. There were little tents set up around the ring, and under one of the pavilions he could see one of the Counts with an entourage of subs. There was a crowd in the benches overlooking the circle, and it appeared one of the more popular events.

Fuck, was he seriously considering stripping down and grappling with another sub? Of everything he'd seen, this was the only game Hank thought he might have a chance with. He thought back to the flexibility contest they'd watched right before coming up the wrestling. There was no way Hank could fit his leg over his neck or get into position to suck his own cock.

"All right." He squared his shoulders and turned to Ian. "Just don't expect anything much, okay?"

Ian smiled. "I can't exactly promise that, Henry."

Hank didn't know how to interpret that. He just went to the tent where it looked like they were taking entrants. Hopefully this wasn't the absolute worst idea ever. Plus, he had to remember Alona's charge. Entering this game was also work. He had to pay attention to how they treated the subs and report back.

Ian spoke for him after they went through the flap. Hank realized he nearly committed another faux pas – he shouldn't have tried to enter on his own. He kept forgetting that his master had to make all the arrangements. It was oddly like having his own agent.

Hank couldn't laugh about that – because the next thing he knew he was being stripped by two subs with very perky nipples. That reminded him. "Wait, what about?" Hank pointed to the rings in his own chest. Those would catch during a wresting bout.

One of the subs bowed to him. "We can cover them. We would never ask you to remove such beautiful pieces of ownership."

Hank blinked at her. "Why, thank you?" He wasn't sure it was a compliment.

The other sub approached him with two flesh colored bandages. "Pasties?" Hank choked. Oh if the boys in the barracks could see him now – oiled up, naked and wearing pasties like a stripper on Venus V.

Ian came over as the subs started applying the oil. "There are a few subs ahead of you. Each bout is three rounds. The goal is to pin the other sub."

Hank held up his dripping hands. "Gonna be kinda slippery." One of the subs snatched them back and patted off the excess oil.

"That's the point. There is a time limit in case either of you can't pin the other. The judges will determine the victor then."

"Is it based on points or holds?"

"I believe it's based on who gives the best show."

Ah, so Hank had to make this look good. He winked at Ian. "Well then, you know I got this."

"Just do your best, Henry." Ian ran his fingers through Hank's hair – the only part of him not oiled up – and sent him on his way.

Hank followed the other two subs out of the tent. They directed him to a little roped-off area with his opponents. There were four other oiled up subs there, all male. He wondered if the women had their own circle somewhere else.

Hank balanced on one of the ropes and stretched out his calf muscles. He needed to forget about the audience, about the other contenders in the ring, and just focus. At least this way he got to observe a few matches and figure out the rules.

It seemed he had just gotten warmed up when he heard his name being called. Hank left the roped-in area and walked towards the circle. His opponent was about his size, though the other sub looked like he was hiding some weight there. Hank would have to be careful.

They bowed and waited for the bell to start. Hank dropped his stance, changing his center of gravity. He let the other guy make the first move, needing to know his measure. Very soon they were grappling, rolling over and over, the oil making it impossible to get a proper wrestling hold.

Hank lost the first match, but when he stood up for the second, he had a damn good idea on how to approach it. The oil made it hard, but there was a way to get leverage, and since they both had been rolling around in the sand, they were both a little less slippery. That gave Hank the advantage.

He won the next two matches, and thus the bout. As he stood from pinning the guy the second time, Hank blinked at the audience applauding him. He'd actually forgotten he was being watched. "Nice match." He held out a hand for the other sub.

The guy blinked wide blue eyes up at him, but then grinned and took Hank's hand. "Very nice."

Hank stepped over the end of the ring, intent on making his way back to Ian who stood near the tent where they'd left Hank's clothes. One of the little subs stopped him and handed him a green chip. "For entry into tomorrow's rounds," she chirped before flitting off somewhere. Hank grinned at her before starting back on his way.

Someone stepped in his path. "Sub Henry, is it?"

"Um. Yes, sir." Hank blinked at the count who'd left his place under the pavilion. It took him a moment to remember this guy's name. Count Zachary.

"The sub from the stars. You did remarkably well for your first match." The expression on Zach's face could only be a leer.

"Not the first time I've wrestled." Oh, crap, now that sounded like an innuendo and the last thing Hank wanted to do was encourage the guy. But there really wasn't a good way to tell one of the royal counts to fuck off.

"Indeed? I look forward to your…future battles."

Oh fuck. "If you'll excuse me. My master is waiting."

"Of course."

Hank barely waited for the dismissal before he was barreling towards Ian. Ian, bless him, held a fluffy towel to great Hank. "Please," he murmured under his breath. "Do something caveman and possessive."

Ian blinked, but then simply reacted. He fisted one hand in Hank's hair and brought him down for a devouring kiss where Ian bit at Hank's lip and forced his neck back. Fuck, that was hot. And Hank was naked. Oh, crap.

Hank flushed as he heard the audience cheering around them. Maybe they were cheering for the next match. He could only hope.

Ian pulled away. "Enough?"

"Is the count still staring at me?"

"Mmm. And he doesn't look happy.”

"Good."

***

Dylan followed exactly four paces behind his mistress as was proper for a sub of his station. He had to be careful to avoid impropriety here in public. There were so many eyes in the crowd, all watching, waiting for him to make a misstep.

Dourdan didn't seem to worry about that. He walked in step with their mistress, every so often leaning down to whisper something in her ear. They seemed to be enjoying the sub games. Dylan wished he could do the same. Right now he felt detached from both of them, despite the strides they had made.

He couldn't forget what had been done to him and Adrian's other subs. They had been treated like objects – possessions without thought or feeling of their own. Seeing these games, watching the crowds mock and jeer, only brought the past back. How could the princess think this event was a good thing?

It shocked him into remembering his mission. He hadn't reported in for far too long. The games should be a good cover at least. Dylan waited until mistress had paused before a food vendor – she waited in line instead of barreling forward, once again confounding him – before stepping forward and asking for a break of nature.

"Of course, Dylan. Meet us at the royal pavilion?"

Count Mark had set up a separate area for the other royals to view the games. They'd stopped there briefly before venturing out. "Yes, mistress."

Dylan slipped into the crowd, aware of Dourdan's eyes on him. Did the other sub suspect anything? He'd have to find out.

He followed the signs to the public toilets, but then circled it, checking to make sure no one was looking at him. There was a grate in the floor and it lifted easily at his touch. Dylan slid down the rungs that pushed themselves out of the stone wall just in time for him to make contact. He reached the bottom, the sound of dripping water almost comforting. Dylan tapped the signal out on a nearby pipe and then crouched down against the brown brick wall to wait.

Dylan closed his eyes. He could breathe now, without the ever present eyes of his mistress and her sub upon him. There was so much work in pretending. And he couldn't escape her constant questions. Dylan feared he'd slip and reveal something he shouldn't.

At the sound of footsteps he straightened and looked down the corridor. The lights flickered on to illuminate Lara as she came into view. She wore caramel colored trousers and a patterned tunic that crisscrossed over her chests. Her black hair was pulled back, making her blue eyes look even larger in her pale face.

"It's taken you long enough."

"I couldn't exactly get away. I don't have much time now."

"Dylan, what are you doing?" She frowned at him, but even Dylan could see the concern in her eyes.

"Exactly what we agreed I would. I entered the service of the princess as her sub." Dylan couldn't look directly at her. He found himself counting the bricks of the wall behind her.

"Has she…hurt you?"

Dylan snorted. "She's but a girl." He could feel his face heat. Yes, his mistress was young, but she had been well-trained. She managed to tease Dylan to heights he hadn't experienced since before Adrian. Just the night before she'd plugged him and bound his cock, not letting him come until Dourdan had inserted a thin sound down his shaft. Dylan had passed out afterward.

He cursed himself for revealing his desires to her so thoroughly that first session. Not even Adrian had known how much Dylan had loved his cock being tortured. If he had, the Duke would have twisted that as well, instead of just Dylan's love of pain.

"A girl with the power to destroy everything."

"Or save it." Dylan felt he had to add that.

Lara frowned at him. "If you believe that what's broken can be fixed." And that was key. Most of the subs down here in the sewers didn't think it possible. Of course, most of them didn't want to be subs anymore either. "Have you seen this, yet?" She drew a shape in the air and called up the tele.

"What?"

"Those people from the stars. . . they have their own communication system that they plugged into the tele. We've been watching their feeds. Did you know about their agreement with the queen?" Before he could answer Lara went on. "They'll offer asylum to any of us if we wish it. She signed it, Dylan."

"Lara…"

"This means we can leave. All of us. No one will ever collar us again." Her eyes flared, bright with triumph.

Dylan caught her by the shoulders. "Lara. Not all of us want to leave Harmony."

"Why stay here? What do we have to look forward to except being some Dom's plaything?!"

Dylan didn't know what to say to her. He understood her rage, but something deep within him knew he couldn't leave Harmony. It was his home. More than that, just the idea of leaving his mistress felt like a stone dropped into his belly. Dylan couldn't explain why.

"All right. Speak to the others. Give them the option – but don't pressure those who want to stay. We'll go to the strangers from the stars and ask for asylum."

Lara wiped at her eyes. "What about you?"

"I'm on a mission." He smiled. "I always finish what I start. Tell the others that the princess is kind and keeps her word. We'll see if the rest of the district follows suit."

He turned and grasped onto a rung, lifting himself back up toward the surface. The sewer always changed and modified to help them, as if Harmony itself approved.

"Don't wait so long, next time!"

Dylan knew he couldn't promise anything. He waved before pulling himself into sunshine.

***

By the time Dylan made it back to the royal pavilion, the princess was already listening to a report from two of her advisors. He paused when he saw the sub from the stars, but then continued up the dais and slid to his knees to the left of his mistress’s chair. There were ropes cordoning this part of the grounds off, with the princess having her own special section with chairs, and a table heavy with food. Dylan’s stomach rumbled. He’d have to ask for permission to eat soon.

But right now he wanted to seize this chance to observe sub Henry.

The sub in question was gesturing with large, flamboyant waves of his arms. “And then for some stupid reason I thought it would be a great idea to enter the wrestling competition.”

Henry’s master stood back with his arms crossed over his chest and watched his sub with a fond smile on his face. Dylan knew many would call him sub-whipped. But even the princess seemed engaged by Henry’s speaking.

“And was it a good idea?” Mistress asked, not hiding her smile.

“I suppose. Since I won.” Henry brandished a green chit. “But now this means I have to compete tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to.” Dom Ian stepped forward. “You are eligible to compete in the next round only if you wish to.”

“Hmm.” Mistress propped her chin on her fist. “So far Count Mark seems to taking care to ensure consent at every measure.”

“He knows that’s what you’re looking for.” Dourdan piped in from the other side of her chair. Dylan wasn’t aware they were part of this conversation. Subs should be silent unless invited to speak.

“Have either of you seen any evidence otherwise? Subs forced into games against their will?”

“He would not be so open.” Ian frowned, all trace of his earlier gaiety gone.

Dylan supposed it had finally occurred to them how easy it would be for the court to fake acquiescence with the princess’s views. Her task was an impossible one.

“We’ll just have to keep listening.” Mistress nodded. “I have yet to see him scene. He cannot hide then.”

Henry exchanged a look with his master. “We’ll keep talking to people. If there’s something up, I’ll dig it out.”

“Thank you, Henry. Ian.” She dismissed them gently.

Dylan watched as the sub from the stars went to the food table with his master. “Mistress, may I speak?”

He was surprised by her hand in his hair. She stroked him gently. “Go ahead, Dylan.”

“Sub Henry is different…”

She chuckled. “You could say that.”

“He is permitted liberties. I don’t understand.” Dylan tried to sound humble without actually asking a question. Questions got you punished.

The princess continued to play with strands of his hair. It was very distracting. "Henry is one of the visitors from the stars." Dylan nodded to show he understood. Everyone knew who Henry was – the trial for his ownership had been broadcast on the tele for all to see. "Up there he wasn't trained as a sub. Yet, he chose to become a sub in order to stay with Ian. It's terribly romantic."

Dylan supposed she must think so. To her it was an epic love story, not the tragedy Dylan's life had become under Adrian's heel. Maybe Lara was right. They could leave Harmony and being subs behind.

The thought made that ache start up in his chest. That hand in his hair reminded Dylan of something in the past, so long ago now he'd almost forgotten. Bea used to do that – stroke his hair when she was being thoughtful.

Dylan ducked his head, pulling out of the princess's grip. She didn't reprimand him. Only sighed a little before telling him to go and eat. "Dourdan and I already had our fill while you were gone."

"The almond cookies are very good," Dourdan said.

Dylan scrambled to his feet and made for the table, hoping she didn't dwell on exactly why he had been gone for so long. No simple bathroom break should have taken so much time. Her eyes were on him as he took a plate from the end and began perusing the food. How much did she know? Would she continue to humor him?

Dylan found himself reaching for a rice roll at the same time as sub Henry. He couldn't have planned it better if he'd tried. "Excuse me," he said, but made sure to smile at the other sub.

"Hey, no problem. Just saw something I hadn't tasted before. It looks yummy."

"They are rather tasty." Dylan stepped back and let Henry fill his plate first. "Congratulations on your win."

Henry laughed. It was an infectious sound that made Dylan want to throw back his own head and join him. He had not laughed in a long time. "Oh, I think I just got lucky. First time I tried sparring with Ian he had me on the floor. Maybe all the extra training helped."

"You. . .spar with your master?" Dylan kept his voice down. Dom Ian was on the other end of the table, still picking his way through the desserts. He shouldn't have been surprised, not really. From the moment Henry walked into the sewers, he had been a sub who had broken all of the rules.

Henry looked up from his food, eyes puzzled – and Dylan had never seen eyes so blue on any sub before. They had their own radiance, and he bet they could be seen from across a dark room. "Well, he wasn't my master at the time."

Dylan knew he had to ask quickly, while he had the chance. Who knew the next time he'd get the sub from the stars alone again? "If I knew subs who wished to take your people's offer of amnesty, where should I send them?"

All traces of humor left Henry's face. "I don't know. But I can find out."

They didn't have time to exchange any more words. Henry's master approached them with his own plate of heaping food. Odd that he didn't make Henry fetch food for the both of them. When Henry turned to greet him for one moment Dylan's heart beat loud in his ears, afraid Henry would spill their secret.

Instead, Henry merely grinned. "Are we staying here to eat? There are plenty of other games I haven't seen yet."

"You'll have five more days of them." Dom Ian sounded in good humor. He turned to Dylan. "Are you participating in any?"

"No, sir." Dylan let his gaze fall, as was proper. He would not, of course, explain that there was no way Dylan would ever participate in these games. Adrian had squared him off other subs enough for Dylan to have lost any taste for it. He couldn't imagine such a thing being fun. It had taken days after Adrian's exile for Dylan to even speak to those subs again, even though they all lived in the sewers.

There were some things that were hard to forgive, even when a Dom forced you to it.

"I hope you enjoy watching, then." Ian's voice was gentle. He led Henry away, leaving Dylan to return to his mistress.

There were five more days of these games to get through. And who knew when sub Henry could give him an answer. Lara would just have to wait a little longer.

***

Ian had waited patiently all day to get Hank back to their rooms. There had been something about seeing his sub grappling in the nude with another man that did things to him. He was sure Henry wouldn't respond well if Ian told him it made him want to tie Hank down and beat him. Ian knew his sub well enough by now.

However, he made sure to keep touching Hank throughout the day. The touches were innocent – skimming his hand along Hank's side, or sliding up the back of his shirt to touch bare skin. Once he brushed his fingers over Henry's lips to wipe away a crumb. He wanted his sub aware, every moment, of what Ian's hands felt like on him.

So he was already hard when they made it up to their bedroom. They hadn't needed to meet with the princess tonight since they'd already given their reports. The entire evening was theirs and Ian intended to make the most of it.

"Would you mind," he asked, having to clear his throat to hide the raspiness of his voice. "If we played a little harder tonight?"

Hank turned and raised an eyebrow. "What did you have in mind?"

"Nothing that I think you can't handle. Just a little more pain involved than normal." Ian stepped forward and slid his hands up Hank's arms, delighting in how his sub shivered. "Strip down and meet me in the playroom."

Henry pulled back. "The playroom?"

They hadn't had a true scene since coming to Pasdar. The last thing Ian wanted was for Henry to forget his place, to assume all that would be between them would happen in their bed. No, there were some things where it was best to leave the bedroom behind. "Yes. Now go, before you give me another reason to paddle that ass."

"You like it!" Hank wiggled his ass at Ian before running off to the playroom. Ian smiled. Yes, yes he did.

***

There was a hint of scent in the playroom, like someone had burned incense in it earlier and never aired the place out. Hank liked the smoky flavor. Just inhaling it made him feel calmer and a touch aroused. Perhaps there was something in it to enhance the encounter. Hank would certainly believe it possible, although that wasn’t like Ian.

No, Ian never relied on anything but his skill and sheer sensuality to take Hank to the edge and back.

Hank had to leave the day behind. As he stripped, he tried to set his worries aside with his discarded clothing. He’d have to check the comm when they were done – he’d made a promise to Dylan. It was something Hank should damn well know anyway, especially since everyone seemed to know him as the sub from the stars.

He scanned the room to get an idea about what Ian might want. Not like Ian had time to set anything up, but with the way furniture just moved into place here, Hank bet Ian could just think the room into the setup he wanted. But all the furniture and implements had been shoved in the corners and along the walls, leaving the center of the room empty.

Never one to ignore an opportunity, Hank moved to the center of the room and dropped to his knees. The action had his heart thumping loudly and his dick hardening against his thigh. By now he was like fucking Pavlov’s dog – put him on his knees and Hank started to salivate. Well, not literally, unless one counted his cock leaking, though he hadn’t nearly reached that stage yet. Ian wasn’t even in the room.

Hank straightened his back and rested his palms on his thighs. He’d never have the perfect posture of the subs trained on Harmony, but he was willing to fake it.

The door slid open and Ian strode in. He’d changed his clothing, had put on those heavy boots that Hank loved which matched the leather jumpsuit that clung to his body like a second skin. Oh. It was going to be one of those scenes. Hank swallowed, unable to stay completely still.

Ian nodded at him. He moved to one of the trunks along the wall and rummaged inside before coming up with what he wanted. Turning, he held out the ball gag between both hands.

“Oh.” They hadn’t played with one of those since that very first night Hank had submitted. Back when Hank hardly knew what he was doing.

“I’ll make sure you’ll be able to tell me to stop, even if you can’t speak.” Ian let his hands drop. “May I?”

Hank smiled. “I trust you.” He did. Ian was the only person he’d let do these things to him. Inside these walls, he belonged to Ian, and wasn’t afraid to sink into that submissive state. Ian would never do anything that went beyond Hank’s comfort zone.

Ian grinned back. He crouched down to fasten the gag around Hank’s head. The ball stretched his mouth open, but not too wide. Hank wouldn’t want to wear it for long, but he could take however long Ian needed him to. The bigger hardship would be his inability to speak. It turned out it did take a gag to shut Hank up.

Ian’s fingers stroked through Hank’s hair. “Scene starts now.”

Hank nodded.

“Hands and knees. Now.” Ian’s voice had changed, becoming more fierce and commanding. It reminded Hank of a drill sergeant. But no drill sergeant ever got him hard just by talking.

Hank moved into position, bracing himself on his forearms, which would help if he was gonna be in this position for a while. Ian knelt beside him and tapped the floor. Shackles emerged – metal that glinted in the light – and wrapped themselves around Hank’s wrists, tying him tight to the floor. He wouldn’t be able to move unless Ian allowed it.

“If you want to stop, at any time,” Ian said in a low voice. “Touch here with your finger.” A red square appeared on the floor – just far enough to be a bit of a reach, so Hank wouldn’t hit it by accident. “Try it now.”

Hank obeyed, tapping the red square with his index finger. The lights began to flash in the room. When he pulled his finger off, they stopped. Nice.

Ian moved away and Hank missed the heat of his body. He was alone now – naked and chained to the floor. That should not make his cock thrum between his legs, but it did.

“Spread your legs. More.” Ian’s foot prodded at Hank’s calf, forcing his legs further apart. Then more shackles tightened around his ankles. Hank turned to look and could just make out the bar that kept his legs spread wide. He shuddered.

When Ian returned this time, he poured a measure of warm oil on Hank’s back, smoothing the liquid down his skin, towards the cleft of his buttocks. Hank leaned into the touch.

“Did you like being all oiled up in front of everyone today?” Ian’s voice was low and dangerous. “Wrapped around that other sub like some kind of slut.”

Hank flinched.

Ian’s dexterous fingers prodded at Hank’s hole, pushing oil inside and stretching him. “I didn’t like it. If you’re oiled up and naked, it’s for my pleasure, no one else’s.”

Hank couldn’t speak, couldn’t deny being called a slut, and he couldn’t tell Ian that Hank would only do that for Ian’s pleasure. He nodded and let out a sound, a whimper at the back of his throat.

Something thick prodded at his entrance and Hank relaxed into it. By now he recognized the feeling of the plug as it penetrated him. Ian took his time pushing it in, tilting it to prod at every bit of Hank’s insides. It felt big, much bigger than anything Ian had ever used on him before.

“Want to keep you plugged all day long. So whenever I want to fuck you, I can just bend you over, no matter where we are.”

Hank closed his eyes. The words sunk into him, added to the thrill of arousal that ran through his blood. He wanted that – wanted to be ready for whatever Ian wanted to do to him.

“But tonight I need to remind you who you belong to.” Ian’s words were like steel. He just finished the last work before striking – something slim and hard against Hank’s buttocks.

Hank cried out into the gag. It hadn’t hurt, but it had startled him out of his complacency. He’d thought he knew where this was going. It turned out Hank had no clue.

Ian struck him again with that strange implement. It wasn’t a paddle, but it was hard and firm and Hank was sure it would leave welts. He couldn’t pull away from it, not the way he was chained down. Hank had no choice but to take it.

He couldn’t hide. As the blows continued to rain down, Hank found himself shuddering and biting down hard on the gag. His breath came out ragged and he could barely get enough air. It hurt, stars did it hurt, but it did something else.

A sound filled the room – something aching and full of pain. It took Hank a moment to realize it was coming from him. Ian stopped and dropped whatever he was holding – it fell to the floor with a clatter. “All right, boy,” Ian said, catching his fingers in Hank’s hair to pull his head up and back. “You’ve been so good.” He mouthed down Hank’s jaw, sinking his teeth into the flesh near his collar.

Hank moaned. This was pain, but good pain.

“Just a little longer now. Gonna fuck your tanned ass.”

This Ian wasn’t carefully controlled. He was foul-mouthed and wild. Hank couldn’t help but respond to it. If he was only like this with Ian in private, then Ian only shared his out of control self within these scenes with Hank. It made Hank’s heart swell, although that didn’t detract from the pain when Ian pulled out the butt plug.

Ian’s fingers were on his buttocks, massaging the remnants of the oil into his bruised skin. It ached, not as much as when Ian was first striking him, but with an almost pleasant warmth. Hank pulled against the shackles, not used to being so restricted. He wanted to move, damn it.

“Easy, boy.” Ian split him open with his cock, which felt twice its usual size as it penetrated Hank’s sore ass.

That wasn’t all. Ian plastered himself over Hank’s back, one arm across Hank’s chest like some fucked up wrestling hold. Ah. It made sense now. Ian wanted to fuck him as if he’d pinned Hank on the mat. Hank would have happily obliged with a match if Ian wanted, and would have said so, if not for the damn gag.

Maybe it was a good thing for Ian to have used it.

Hank stopped thinking when Ian started to thrust, hitting that sweet spot on every other push. Pain and pleasure swelled together, and he was close, so close. Ian’s weight was heavy and hot, and Hank struggled to keep himself upright. He was breathing hard, with grunts and moans the only thing that could escape from his gagged mouth.

“Come for me, Hank.” Ian’s lips were on his ear.

Hank scrunched his eyes closed and let go, feeling Ian spill inside him just as he climaxed. It was too much, but just when he couldn’t take it anymore, Ian was there, undoing the restraints and unhooking the gag.

“Ugh.” Hank worked his jaw, trying to get used to being able to close his mouth. His muscles were sore and he ached everywhere.

“I’ll fill the bath.” Ian stroked Hank, his touch a soothing warmth. “And then we’ll put some healing cream on your skin and you’ll be as good as new.”

Hank groaned. “As long as we end up in bed after that.”

Ian chuckled. “Thank you for indulging me.”

“That, that was hot, man.” Hank shook his head. He still didn’t quite understand why Ian did it for him, but now he just stopped asking and started rolling with it.”

“You were hot today.” Ian cupped Hank’s face with one hand. “Grappling on the field, in front of everyone. I wanted to run out there and push you down myself.”

“Good thing you didn’t, else I wouldn’t have won that fancy chip.”

“Come on. You’ll only be sore if you stay down there much longer.”

Hank let Ian give him a hand up and followed to the bath. He kinda liked the idea of being pampered for a bit. As he sank into the hot water, Hank closed his eyes and let Ian take care of him.

***

“Tell me about your first mistress.”

Dylan frowned as he followed the princess through the gardens. They’d be going to the games later, but she wanted to take breakfast out here first. It was all part of her attempt at courting him. She just seemed to want to walk around a lot and ask him questions he didn’t want to answer.

They walked down a set of stairs cut into the earth. There was a trellis along one side with vines woven throughout. Mistress stepped carefully, lifting her skirts to see her way. She wore a cloak to combat the morning chill. The weather was cooling now, as they were just entering the cold season.

Dylan wore the boots she’d given him – the first time in years he’d been given weather appropriate clothing by a Dom. Adrian had kept his subs naked for the most part – or gave them scraps that barely preserved modestly. But the clothing the princess had ordered from the tailor had been a range of things, not just the skimpy kilts that Dylan expected. It matched Dourdan’s wardrobe, so it wasn't just for his benefit. She honestly did think about her subs' needs.

Perhaps he’d misjudged his mistress.

They came to a ledge that looked over the city. Clouds hung low in the sky, not yet burned away by the sun. Light glinted off of the buildings and bridges that seemed to go on forever. Dylan caught sight of a few trams making their way across the district, perhaps early risers on their way to the games.

Mistress pulled a flower from a nearby bush and brought it to her nose. “Well?”

Dylan leaned over the low brick wall and stared into the distance. “I haven’t thought about Mistress Bea in years.” He couldn’t think of her while Adrian was destroying him.

“Are the memories that painful?”

“Not of Bea,” he answered before thinking about it. Dylan dug his fingers into the brick, feeling the grain give under his skin. “I was only twenty-one and she was very much older.”

Mistress smiled and joined him leaning over the ledge. “I’ve heard that’s best for a first.”

She was so very young herself. Dylan wanted to protect her from the darkness of the world. She still believed in happy endings for Doms and subs.

“She died. A long time ago now.” Else Dylan would probably still be with her. That was one of the problems with such a large age difference.

“I’m sorry.” Mistress touched his arm.

“So am I.” He missed Bea, so fiercely his belly ached. She’d have a comment or two about what was going on right now. Dylan pictured her putting all of the royals in their places with a single sarcastic dig. Half of them probably wouldn’t even realize they’d been insulted.

She cracked the whip as well as she did her wit. That was back when Dylan was so desperate for pain – any sort of pain – that he’d happily begged for more. Adrian had taught him to beg for it to stop.

As if sensing the direction his thoughts had gone, mistress asked abruptly: “What did Adrian do to you?”

Dylan pulled away from her, stepping back from the ledge. He scowled. “What Adrian did to all of us. Or did you forget the subs living in the sewer?”

“I have never forgotten.” Her eyes flashed. In her face Dylan saw no traces of the girl he’d thought he knew. This was a princess and a Dom putting him in his place. “But I can’t help you unless I know everything, Dylan.”

He lowered his eyes. It wasn’t his secret to share. Not until he found out how they could claim asylum and leave Harmony forever.

“I think it might be a good idea if you met with the Soul Healer.”

Dylan’s head snapped up. Of all the things he’d guessed she’d say, that wasn’t one of them. “What?”

She came forward and took his hand. “I know you’re trying to take my measure, but I want to make this work. You’re only my second sub, and I can’t fail you. But we can’t move forward until you deal with your past.”

He could see the wisdom in her words. Dylan couldn’t speak for a moment. She seemed to actually care, and he wasn’t expecting that. “I will meet with the Soul Healer as soon as possible.”

“Good.” She cupped his hand between both of hers. When she pulled away, there was a pale strip of braided leather between them. Dylan blinked at the courting gift. It had been so long since he’d received any sort of token.

“It’s a promise,” she told him.

***

At the end of the sub games, Hank ended up in the top ten of the wrestling tournament. Somehow that qualified him to go out with the other winners to get medals on the main stage, and then get congratulated by all of the VIPs. Count Zach put his hand on Hank’s shoulder, and he could still feel that heavy gaze on his eyes even after he was dismissed and off of the stage and back into the stands.

The crowd was gathered in an amphitheater on Count Mark’s grounds, with video being projected on the tele. After the awards, Mark would perform his scene for the princess and the rest of Pasdar. The atmosphere reminded Hank of a mix between a sporting event and a religions ceremony. Only on Harmony could such a mix work.

He slipped up the steps to the box where the princess and her advisors were sitting. It was supposedly to give her the best view – there were screens all over the little private area – but Hank had a feeling it was to keep her away from the main action.

“Good work, boy,” Ian whispered as Hank slid onto the pillow set to the right of Ian’s chair. Even the stadiums here had separate seating for subs.

Hank slipped the medal off of his neck and handed it to Ian, who took it with a look of surprise on his face. “Hold onto this for me?”

“Of course, Henry.”

He snuck a glance a few rows above them. Both of the princess’s subs were kneeling beside her. This might be a good opportunity to snatch a chat with Dylan. “I’m going to see if I can steal Dylan and do a food run. You want anything?” There were still venders set up around the games, though they were just outside of the theater.

Ian shook his head and Hank slipped through the crowd of Alona’s advisors. Mark was still congratulating winners. Who knew when he’d start his actual scene? And wasn’t that the entire freakin’ point of these whole games?

When Hank made it to the princess, he dropped to one knee like he was genuflecting. “Highness, might I borrow your sub Dylan for a food run?”

She smiled at him, the first genuine expression he’d seen on her face all day. The cameras were watching, and she’d schooled her features much like her mother did in the public eye. “You may. Be sure to bring us back some roasted nuts.”

“Sure.” Hank was pretty fond of those himself.

Dylan followed, pushing himself up off his knees slowly.

They made their way through the crowd, then down the stairs and out of the stands. The stadium was open to the sky, but they were in fact on top on a building, with bridges and supports connecting it to other areas of the city. Trams were still coming down with guests for the final scene. There wasn't much space left, but as they made their way through to the food vendors, Hank could see crowds had gathered in courtyards and parks, around giant tele screens.

Hank grabbed Dylan's arm and pulled him behind a pillar, shielding them from most of the crowd. Dylan frowned, but waited for Hank to speak first. "I got the info you wanted. About asylum."

"Yes." Fire danced in Dylan's eyes. Hank didn't think he was that eager to get out of here, but who knew, really?

"It's right in the agreement between Harmony and the UP. Officially you can present yourself to either member of the Dom/sub team that works as a liaison between Harmony and the base. Any official is supposed to escort you directly to them once the request is made." Hank looked around and licked his lips. Dylan's people obviously no longer trusted Harmony's official channels. "As long as you make it to the base and ask for asylum, the UP won't deny you. I still have some contacts if you want me to arrange transport. It's about three clicks to the west."

Hank had debated long and hard about contacting anyone in advance before making the offer. In the end, he'd decided to tell no one yet, not even Ian, until things became more formal. He still didn't know how many people still lived down in the sewers, rather than subject themselves to a Dom.

Dylan put one hand on the pillar and leaned on it for support. "Thank you, sub Henry. That means a lot."

Hank quirked a grin at him. "At this point, you should just call me Hank. How many subs are you thinking, Dyl?"

Dylan didn't flinch at the nickname. He shook his head. "I don't know. There are. . . people I need to speak with."

And the princess probably didn't know about them either. "I didn't tell Ian," Hank blurted. He wanted Dylan to not worry about this leaking out. "Or the princess. You might want to speak to her about it. She's actually pretty cool about this stuff."

Dylan gave him that glazed eyes look that Hank used to see on Ian's face back when he'd first come to Harmony, and when neither of them could readily understand the other. "I will consider it," he said finally, probably needing the time to parse what Hank had said.

"Good man." Hank slapped Dylan's arm. "Now, come on. Gotta grab the nuts while they're warm. And I wouldn't miss this final scene for anything."

He was gratified to have surprised a laugh out of Dylan. Hank considered it a job well done.

***

Hank didn't quite know what to make of Count Mark's scene. The spotlights had converged on the center of the amphitheater and the crowd had hushed, waiting for him to begin. Hank expected something bright and flashy, to go with the general mood of the games.

Instead, what Hank saw was some rather impressive rope work. Mark trussed up his sub like she was the turkey for old Earth Thanksgiving. The ropes were black, which matched Mark's clothing, and showed up in stark relief against his sub's skin. Beth, Hank remembered, that was her name.

People had leaned forward in their seats, seemingly entranced by the technique being displayed below. Hank had to cover his mouth to suppress a giggle – he'd had the sudden image in his head of other basic skills like knot tying being treated as a concert. He supposed his drill sergeant mouthing off to the platoon would be considered entertainment for this city. Ah, Harmony.

Just when Hank was about to sit back on his knees and ask Ian if that was all, the girl did something amazing. She managed to slip the knots and undo all of Mark's work without being touched. A gasp rang through the crowd. Of course, Mark had to go on and punish her, but from the smile on his face – and the moans coming from his sub – no one doubted the staged nature of the scene.

It made Hank almost uncomfortable to watch. He supposed it should be hot to see Beth over Mark's knee, with her buttocks reddened from his hands. But to him, that was something meant to be private, between Hank and his Dom. Apparently they didn't feel that way here!

After the applause, Alona drew herself to her feet, stealing all eyes from Mark's spectacle. "Thank you, Count Mark, for your generosity this week. We've all enjoyed this event. I'm so glad that so many subs were able to participate." The tele carried her voice throughout the theater – and the district, Hank knew. "I'd like to extend a special thanks to your sub for this demonstration. It has been most enlightening."

Hank wished he knew where she'd stolen that poker face from. He could have used it to win a few hands. Nothing on the princess's face gave the game away at all.

"And we thank you for your presence, Mistress Alona." Mark gave an exaggerated bow, that smirk never leaving his face.

"If I may." A third voice entered the air. Hank had to look around until a tele screen popped up at the foot of their box and he could see the Countess Halle – wearing a grossly inappropriate jeweled outfit that would be better suited for a ball than an event like this one. "I'd like to remind everyone that each of the Four will be providing you with a public scene. I offer the people of Pasdar another event to be remembered for the ages – a masquerade, starting with a week long celebration at my estate. Of course, you'll have a fortnight to prepare your costumes."

Alona thanked the countess, though Hank swore he could hear her teeth grinding. "We will be delighted to attend."

He didn't think delighted was quite the right word for it.

***

Dylan didn’t know how to read his mistress’s mood as he followed her and Dourdan back to their chambers. She hadn’t said anything since they returned from Count Mark’s scene, keeping silent even in the tram back to the palace. Dourdan kept shooting her worried glances, but she ignored even him. The game had gotten away from her and she was shrewd enough to know it. He kept his own thoughts to himself.

Mark was a master manipulator, and the scene had been constructed perfectly. He came off like a permissive, fun-loving Dom, but Dylan knew better. He’d seen Mark pour acid on a screaming sub.

Mistress pulled off her cloak and handed it to Dourdan, who stood for a moment waiting for her to speak before he went to put it away. She ignored him to turn to Dylan. “Dylan, you have an appointment with the Soul Healer in a half hour. You should get ready.”

“Yes, mistress,” he murmured. He’d be able to change out of his display kilt and into something more comfortable. Dylan started for his own little bedroom and the wardrobe of clothes in there.

Before he got near the door, a tele screen flashed into life in the center of the room. It showed a live call coming in. Mistress sat on her bed and let out a sigh. “Open connection.”

“Alona. Are you free to speak?”

Dylan blinked, unable to believe the image before his eyes. It was the queen. He dropped to his knees, not certain if he were visible in the queen’s view of the room. His heart pounded rapidly and he could feel himself reddening. He’d last seen the queen when she’d freed him and the other bound subs, but surely she’d taken no notice of him.

Dourdan had also dropped to his knees. It was a relief to see that. Dylan wasn't the only one awed by being in the queen's presence.

“Yes, mother.” Mistress sounded so young suddenly, looking every inch the girl.

“I watched the broadcast.”

Dylan flicked his eyes up long enough to catch the expression on the queen’s face. She did not look happy.

“They are manipulating you. These spectacles aren’t going to show you the Doms’ true nature.”

“No.” Mistress clenched her fists in her lap. “But they are giving me time for Trainer Quentin to evaluate all of the scholas, and Healer Alyson to investigate all the Healing Centers. And I have Henry and Ian speaking to the local guards and common people one by one to find out how deep the corruption goes.”

This time the expression the queen’s face was pleased. “So you realize you might not be able to choose one of the Four at all?”

“I know, mother. That became obvious from the first time I met them.” Mistress shook her head. “They were complicit in Adrian’s betrayal of our values. Yet not one has come forward to admit it.”

“What are your contingency plans?”

“I’m still working on that.” Mistress hugged her knees to her chest. “I’m hoping that you have some advice.”

“I will review the reports of your advisors. Then I’ll give you any suggestions I may have. But, Alona, this is your assignment. It must be your decision.”

“Yes, mother.”

The queen shook her head. “Your brother sends his love. He and Nicci are expecting.”

The change in his mistress was like night to day. Her face lit up and she all but leapt off the bed. “That’s wonderful! I’ll send him my congratulations!” She paused. “He’s doing well?”

“Very well. We all heal, Alona, eventually.”

Dylan hoped she was right about that. By the time the queen handed the tele over to her primary sub – Alona’s father – Dylan figured he could slip away and change. He didn’t want to be late for his appointment. Something about seeing the princess with her parents rubbed him the wrong way. Did he resent her having a family while he’d had only trainers? Or perhaps he didn’t like being reminded that she was really just a girl – daughter of the queen, yes, but still, so young and needing her mother’s guidance.

As he pulled on a comfortable pair of drawstring pants, Dylan wondered what he expected of his mistress. Wouldn’t it be better for Doms to be human and not the gods Adrian had set himself and his like to be?

This was probably a conversation best had with the Soul Healer.

When he slipped back into the bedroom, Dourdan was sitting on the bed next to mistress, his arm around her shoulders, whispering something in her ear. She needed him, Dylan realized, and yet he was still very much her sub. Dylan excused himself. “I’ll be back as soon as my appointment is done.”

“Take all the time you need.” Mistress smiled at him.

Dylan didn’t think they had enough time in the world for that.

***

Dylan stepped off the lift and into an open courtyard decorated with large flowering plants and brightly colored paintings. He could hear the gentle rumble of water flowing, though he’d yet to see the fountain it came from. This level hadn’t existed when Dylan lived at the palace, or if it had, Adrian had used it for some other purpose. The former duke hadn’t been fond of Soul Healers.

He walked through, brushing his fingertips against the rough sandstone archway that separated one end of the courtyard from another. There wasn’t anyone else here and for a moment he thought he’d missed his appointment.

“Oh, hello!” a bright voice caught his attention. A sub was hurrying rapidly towards Dylan. “I’m so sorry. Normally this place would be filled and there certainly would have been someone to greet you. Unfortunately there’s only the three of us right now.” The sub grinned. His dark hair was disheveled and he pushed the curls out of his bright eyes. He was young, but not nearly as young as the princess. “I’m sub Matthew. The princess and my master asked that I counsel you.”

Dylan was so startled he could only stare at the handsome young sub for a moment. “You?”

He worried he’d insulted Matthew, but Matthew just grinned. “I have had extensive training in Soul Healing. I can show you my credentials if you like.”

Dylan shook his head. “It’s just, I’ve never…”

Matthew’s grin faded into a sad smile. “You’ve been taught that subs only have one role.”

It hadn’t always been like that. Dylan remembered Bea asking him if he’d wanted any special training. Then he’d only wanted to be hers, and hadn’t thought towards the future. If anything, Dylan would have said he wanted to be a red band once. He’d been open and pliant and he’d loved to fuck.

“I’m sorry.” When in doubt, apologize. That only made Matthew’s forehead crease.

“Nothing to be sorry for. Now, come along. I’ve just got my lounge set up the way I like it.” Matthew led Dylan to a door that slid open at their approach. Inside was a cozy room – not large enough to be cavernous, but not small enough to be claustrophobic. There were comfortable looking couches arranged in an L shape, although there were plenty of fluffy pillows on the floor. A fireplace had a crackling fire going, giving the room a glow, but not too much heat.

Dylan stood in front of the fireplace, watching the flames dance. It wasn’t really cold enough to justify a fire, but something about it just made him feel warm inside.

“Would you care for a drink? Something to eat?”

Dylan was about to shake his head no, but then asked for some water. His mouth was dry.

“Of course.” Matthew brought a pitcher and two glasses from an unobtrusive Dumb Waiter in the corner and set them on the low table in the center of the room. “Please sit wherever you are most comfortable.”

He was given the choice of the couch or the pillows. Dylan thought about it, and then sank into a pile of blue and gold pillows. He didn’t kneel, but he was truly more comfortable in his place. Matthew didn’t react at the action, other than to sit across from Dylan on his own set of cushions.

Once Matthew seemed satisfied with his seating arrangements, he poured them both glasses of water. “Now, Dylan, why are you here?”

Dylan took a sip of water to cover his confusion. Didn’t the Soul Healer know exactly why he’d come? “My mistress thinks I need to deal with the issues of my past with the former Duke Adrian.”

Matthew picked up his own glass and gestured with it. “That’s what your mistress wants. Is it what you want?”

The assent was on his lips – of course he wanted whatever his mistress wanted. But Dylan stopped before he could get it out. He’d come to the castle with one intention – to find out if Princess Alona was truly honest about wanting to repair the damage left in Adrian’s wake. And if she was, he’d hoped to find a resolution for the subs he’d left behind in the sewers.

He’d come because of sub Henry. When Henry – Hank – had left the sewers, Dylan had followed, and watched Dom Ian listening to his sub and taking his opinion into consideration. Yet Hank was still very much Ian’s. Could such a thing be possible?

But from the moment Dylan had walked inside, he’d been unable to trust, unable to believe anything the princess told him. Adrian had broken his sense completely, left him unable to tell who would hurt him and who wouldn’t. Dylan couldn’t give her that power over him, but until he did, he’d never get the answer to his questions, never find hope for his people.

Dylan put the water back on the table. “I want to heal what’s broken inside me. Adrian made it impossible for me to trust another Dom. I want to know if I can be a sub again, or if I can’t.” If he should ask for asylum and leave the city forever, no matter how much the thought of that made him ache.

Matthew smiled. “I’m glad you decided to accept healing, Dylan. I can’t promise perfection. Some subs can never suffer another master. That is why the gray band exists.”

Dylan had forgotten about that. Adrian had relied on the metal collar of the unwilling to subdue all subs, no matter if they were under contract or not. He knew many of the subs in the sewer would take the option of the gray collar – it was the closest to freedom they could get here in Harmony.

“All right.” Dylan fiddled with his water glass. “Where do we start? Should I tell you about Adrian?”

“You’ve never seen a Soul Healer before, have you?” Matthew looked sad. He plucked something out of his pocket – a clear crystal that sparkled in the light. “First I must read your soul.”

Matthew moved until he was sitting a few inches in front of Dylan, their knees almost touching. “Give me your hand.” He cradled Dylan’s hand in his, putting the crystal in the center of Dylan’s palm. Then Matthew covered them both and closed his eyes.

Dylan followed suit. Something warmed him from the inside and there was a heaviness in his throat. Pressure built in his ears and he felt like he was being pushed down to earth. Just when it seemed he couldn’t take it anymore, it eased and Dylan could breathe again.

When he opened his eyes he saw that Matthew was crying, tears bright on his cheeks. “Oh, Dylan. I’m so sorry.”

Perhaps the soul healer had his work cut out for him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

The entire week of the Masquerade reminded Hank of the time he was on Earth for Mardi Gras. There were parades in the streets and brightly colored streamers decorating every pole, gate and column. The masks ranged from large monstrosities that towered over everyone’s heads, to tiny glittering showpieces that barely covered the eyes. The most common theme, as far as Hank could tell, were animals. Did these images come from the histories? Hank doubted anyone in Harmony had ever seen a lion or a bear. The costumes were made more realistic by subs dressed as dogs being led through the streets on all fours.

Today they were walking the streets and speaking with the townspeople – part of the job Alona had tasked them with. Hank was chatting with a sub who was trimming the shrubs in the courtyard of a set of apartments on one of the upper levels. It was so pleasant to see the change in the people – no longer frightened, they were downright happy to speak to Hank.

“If you want my honest opinion,” the sub said as he clipped a particularly nasty branch. “Adrian never really had any influence on us. He was too wrapped up in his own little world.”

Hank watched as Ian spoke with a group of guards. He was worried about that. The guards had been the ones to enforce Adrian's dirty work. There was no way to tell how much of that had been forced on them and how much they had relished it. Ian would sort it all out, he knew. “So you don’t think Pasdar is broken?”

The sub spat something into the dirt. “Didn’t say that, exactly. He was shit for a ruler. Left us pretty much alone. But some people followed his example.” His voice lowered. “He killed those subs, didn’t he?”

Hank straightened. “What are you saying?”

“No, no, never saw anything that bad. But he lost the way, you know? We,” he slapped Hank’s arm and gestured to himself. “Follow Harmony’s path. We are her subs. Adrian forgot that.”

Sometimes Hank still felt like everyone was speaking a different language, one that he almost understood, but not fluently. “Would you say this has affected your relationship with your Dom?” They’ve been asking everyone that question and carefully compiling the results.

The sub laughed. “I’ve been with my mistress for fourteen years. Harmony willing, we’ll have another fourteen together. She’d always given me just what I needed. And she thinks Adrian was a bastard too.”

Hank smiled. “Good to hear.”

Ian had finished up with the guards and walked in their direction. He looked thoughtful and Hank was looking forward to hearing what he had learned. “Henry.” Ian nodded toward them both. “Are you ready to go pick up our costumes?”

“As long as it doesn’t take us all afternoon to get dressed.”

The older sub laughed. “You will be attending the Countess’s fete then? Enjoy it for those of us not invited.”

Hank laughed with him. “I think you’ll have plenty to keep you occupied out here.” As he spoke, a group of jugglers and clowns in white face paint ran past the front of the courtyard, some walking on their hands.

They waved goodbye and made for the bridge that would lead back to the palace. Hank was starting to know Pasdar better than Ian’s home district. He stopped to count up the weeks and realized they’d been here for two months. He hadn’t noticed time passing since they’d been so busy. It also didn’t look like they’d be out any time soon. This survey mission was quickly turning into an occupation.

Hank had experience with those – on planets that were caught between UP and Confed control. The ground corps often played the role of convincing the local government to submit to the UP. At the time he’d rationalized it away – at least they weren’t bombing the cities and enslaving the people. But their presence often put the planet in a very awkward position.

“What’s got your mind so busy?” Ian asked.

Hank sighed and stopped walking. He leaned over the edge of the bridge, sliding his hand over the smooth marble. The air smelled of woodsy smoke and cooking food – another sign of the celebration going on in town. “Just wondering if we’re doing any good by being here.”

Ian crossed his arms over the ledge and looked out in the distance. “The guards were telling me that they’ve enjoyed the recent events. They needed something to uplift the darkness covering the district.”

“Yeah, but that wasn’t exactly Alona’s idea.”

“But they would not have happened without her presence.” Ian squeezed Hank’s shoulder. “We are but one part in her plan. When we meet as a group again I’m sure much will come to light.”

Ian knew this place better than Hank. Harmony wasn’t like any of the planets Hank had visited before; he just needed to remember that. “Thanks.”

“Now, come. It shouldn’t take all afternoon to squeeze into your costume, but I don’t want to take the chance.”

Hank wasn’t sure if he wanted to see his outfit, never mind wear it.

***

Hank shouldn’t have worried so much. Ian had been very creative with their costumes, but it wasn’t anything too tight or showed more skin than Hank was comfortable with. He still felt some of that should be private, or at least, he wanted to keep his own sexual desires and playtime private. Hank wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else how to be.

Ian had dressed Hank up as the sun – wearing a simple outfit of sky blue and a mask of gold with curving points that moved whenever Hank spoke. “The gold matches your hair,” Ian said.

Hank blushed. “But what are you supposed to be?”

Ian grinned. He was dressed from head to toe in black, with a simple mask. “The sun submits only to the shadows of night.”

“Okay, that’s too cute.”

He was spared Ian’s witty response by the arrival of the princess and her subs at the platform where they waited for the tram. Alona was dressed in a blindingly brilliant crimson that glittered in the light. She held her mask in one hand, and grinned at them. Hank saw the mask would cover her entire face and wondered if that had been calculated or not.

Dourdan was dressed entirely in white, while Dylan was in sheer gossamer blue. Hank didn’t get it, until Ian stepped forward and said, “Blood, sweat and tears? The three veta?”

Alona nodded. “Of course. Light and shadow? Brilliant.”

“Veta?” Hank asked. Once again, they were talking about something he had no concept of.

Alona turned to Dourdan, who bowed. “The three veta – blood, sweat and tears, are the elements of our lives, whether sub or Dom.”

Dylan turned and blurted, “I was taught they only applied to subs.”

It was the first time Hank saw Dylan not carefully controlled. In fact, Dylan looked a little unsettled. If Hank knew him better, he might take him aside and ask if something was wrong. Dylan still hadn’t taken him up on the offer to arrange transport for those who wanted asylum.

“Many things you were taught are wrong,” Dourdan said in a low voice. He ran a hand down Dylan's back and the other sub seemed to calm a bit. Hank wondered about the two of them.

Other advisors started to trickle onto the platform. They would be off shortly. Dylan and Dourdan exchanged glances, but nothing more was said.

“Do you believe we’ll learn anything tonight?” Ian asked.

Alona shrugged. She fitted the mask onto her face, concealing her expression completely. “It’s a masquerade. Everything will be hidden. Remember to listen and observe anything you can.”

“Yes, mistress.”

The ride to Countess Halle’s estate was quiet. They had a job to do, despite this being disguised as yet another party.

Tiny balls of light dotted the night time sky as the tram floated and landed at a terrace. There were subs wearing nothing but garlands to welcome them. Hank followed behind Ian, trying not to gape at the sheer decadence of the décor. Little waterfalls sprang from ice sculptures, while food was served off of the flesh of subs draped over tables.

Hank really didn’t want to eat anything off of anyone’s body. Except maybe Ian’s, but that could wait until later.

The princess was announced as she walked down the staircase into the ball room. Hank heard the gasps and knew that costume had made an impression. He grinned as he and Ian leaned over the balustrade to watch. The dancing had paused and Countess Halle came from the crowd in order to make a pretty curtsey to the princess. Hank couldn’t make her costume out, but there were plenty he didn’t recognize.

“Want to explore?”

Ian grinned back at him and they followed in the princess’s wake along with the other guests. Hank heard their names being announced, but the announcer quickly moved on to the next couple. They weren’t nearly as important or awe inspiring as the princess and her two subs.

When they hit the dimly lit ballroom, Hank saw subs chained in cages, all dressed as animals. One hissed at him when he got too close. Now there was taking role-playing a little too far. There was seating all along the walls – low chaise lounges and fluffy pillows – and most were already occupied. He saw that Alona managed to get a prime spot near the front, set on a dais so she was a little bit above everyone else. Perhaps that was intentional.

“There should be, ah, come.” Ian pulled aside a curtain leading to a set of little rooms set off from the ballroom. The first had food and drink, with a line of Doms savoring what looked like sushi off the belly of a sub draped over a couch.

Hank winced, but accepted a cup from Ian to fill at the fountain in the corner. He sipped at the scarlet drink, pleased to find it was fruit juice. Hopefully there would be some food available that he didn’t have to eat off of anyone else.

They continued through the maze of rooms, walking in on different scenes and Doms and subs in various stages of coitus. Everyone wore a mask and seemed to take their costumed role very serious. Hank had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the “starman” costume and roleplay going on in one room. His uniform looked nothing like that – fewer straps for one – although the sub certainly enjoyed saying “sir, yes, sir.”

“Remind you of home?” Ian asked innocently as he pulled back another curtain.

Hank chuckled. “Not quite.”

A smoky haze filled this room. Hank waved his hand at first, trying to dissipate it. Then he saw the giant hookah – tall and intricately made of glass - in the center, with various people taking puffs from the pipes. Some stumbled away giggling and Hank stopped in mid-step.

“What the hell is that?” As far as he knew, they didn’t even have alcohol in Harmony. Ackles had gone on once about how important it was to stay sober during a scene, so Hank had just taken it as a matter of course, no matter how much he craved a beer some days.

Ian frowned. “Different inhalants create different moods. Some enhance pleasure, or pain.”

Hank shuddered. Why would anyone want to enhance pain?

“Would you like some?” A female sub wearing nothing more than a loincloth offered him her pipe.

He waved her away. “No thanks.” Hank made for the doorway out, but the room spun and he wasn’t quite sure which way he was walking. Oh, stars, was he getting a contact high?

Hank’s hands touched cloth, and he pushed past it, hoping to get someplace that was clear of the smoke. He emerged on the other side and bent over, coughing in an attempt to clear his burning lungs. It would be nice if he had his cup of juice, but he must have dropped it in an attempt to get out of the smoke room.

When he could breathe again, Hank straightened and realized he was alone. Ian hadn’t followed. He turned and blinked at the stone wall behind him. Hadn’t he just come through there?

“Sub Henry.”

That voice had his hackles rising. Hank turned, not surprised to see Count Zach walking towards him. The door out was all the way on the other side of the room – and it was set up like a playroom, he realized, with plenty of surfaces for a sub to be bound to or bent over.

“Lost your master, I see.” Zach didn’t sound surprised at all. Who exactly had been filling the hookah?

“If you will excuse me,” Hank tried for polite, “I must return to him.”

“Why the hurry? Wouldn’t you rather share the company of a count instead of a mere guard? A former guard at that.” Behind the mask, Zach’s eyes were narrowed and he took a step forward towards Hank.

Behind him there was only the wall. Hank held his ground. “He is my master,” he said through gritted teeth. Zach had been looking for info on Hank. That wasn’t good.

“For now. That blue collar says it’s only temporary at best. I can offer you so much more.”

“I’m not interested.” Hank knew better than to hope those words would be enough.

“I can change that.”

Zach rushed him – to knock him out, force him into restraints, or something else, Hank did not know, but he was ready for him. Hank ducked to the side, grabbed Zach’s arm and twisted it behind him, forcing the count up against the stone wall.

“It’s not up for negotiation,” Hank hissed in his ear. “I’m not like the other subs you might have tried your little games on. I’m a major in the UP Ground Corps and I don’t put up with shit. Now, you’re going to leave me the hell alone and I won’t tell everyone that a mere sub had you balls to the wall.”

Hank twisted the arm a little further, hard enough to hear a grunt out of Zach before letting go and making for the nearest door. He didn’t look back.

***

Dylan knelt to the right of his mistress in this little area set off from the rest of the ballroom. It was almost as if the countess wanted to segregate the princess on purpose. Anyone who wished to speak to her needed to cross a small barrier first. But his mistress didn’t seem inclined to leave. She sat straight in her chair, her entire body wound tight with tension.

He’d felt unsettled himself, ever since he started seeing the Soul Healer. Sub Matthew clearly knew his craft, but sessions with him left Dylan feeling like he’d been torn apart and then sewn back together. Dylan knew he’d lost his ability to read his mistress. That was a skill crucial in training, but had been broken by everything Adrian had done. With the princess, Dylan needed to learn all the basics once more.

Right now he watched her body language, since he couldn’t see her face behind the mask. She had hid her expression on purpose, but he could tell she did not like what Countess Halle had done here tonight.

From the corner of his eye he saw Countess Kyra approach. Dylan stiffened, but forced himself to take a deep breath. She couldn’t hurt him now; she no longer had permission to.

“A moment of your time, mistress?” Kyra asked before sliding into the seat next to the princess. She waved a hand at her own sub, who disappeared into the crowd, perhaps in search of food or drink. Except for the lacy mask covering her eyes, she didn’t seem to be in costume at all.

“Good evening, countess.” Mistress inclined her head. She held herself like a queen – noble and royal. Dylan felt a flash of pride – that was his mistress.

“I wanted to confer with you instead of making a general announcement. I’ve decided on my event before my scene.” Kyra affected a personable tone, as if she was trying to be Alona’s friend.

“Oh?”

“It’s going to be a lecture series on the philosophy of submission. I’m inviting scholars from throughout Harmony.”

Now that sounded incredibly boring. Dylan wondered if she’d done it on purpose to counter the extravagance of Halle’s event. The masquerade was over the top even by Harmony standards.

“Sounds interesting. How much time will you require?”

“It does take a while for scholars to prepare. I’ve managed to convince them to keep to the same time limit everyone else has. It would only be fair, you see.”

“And fair is so very important.” Dylan caught the dryness in her tone, but didn’t think Kyra did.

The countess reclined in her chair, showing no signs of getting up to leave yet. Her sub approached with a tray of drinks and finger foods. Alona shook her head when Kyra offered her some of the bounty.

Kyra picked up a tall clear glass filled with a bubbling liquid. She held it up and tilted it around, not seeming to have any intention to actually drink it. “I see you have taken a Pasdar sub.”

Dylan stilled. Mistress didn’t turn to acknowledge him. He didn't know what Kyra wanted with this line of conversation.

“That was well done. Most people just don’t understand the masochists of Pasdar. I see subs playacting with pain, but so few truly enjoy it as our subs do.”

Dylan bit his lip to keep himself from reacting. He’d enjoyed it once, had been a self-described pain slut. Until Adrian had destroyed that, too.

“I think all this talk about Pasdar being broken is just a misunderstanding of how hard we really play,” Kyra went on.

Had there been talk? Dylan had only heard it from the princess’s advisors, but perhaps they were getting around town. Adrian would never have called what he’d done breaking the district.

Mistress whipped her head to the side and without that mask, she’d be glaring daggers at the countess. “My brother wasn’t a masochist. How do you explain him?”

Her distress didn’t seem to affect Kyra at all. The countess sipped at her drink. “It’s funny that you still call him your brother. A sub belongs to his owners – they cannot inherit from their parents – they become something new.” She put the glass down on the tray her sub still held for her. “I’d heard that the former prince was spawning. Interesting, since the queen seems to see it the same way you do. The babe could be the new heir if it’s born a Dom. Aren’t you worried about losing your kingdom?”

Dylan gasped at the audacity of the countess. How dare she speak to his mistress like that? But she apparently wasn’t finished.

“Of course,” Kyra leaned forward into the princess’s personal space. “You wouldn’t be, not if you were planning something else. After all, there is a perfectly good district without a ruler at present.”

That was just shy of treason. Mistress straightened. “It would be best if you thought about these things before speaking them aloud, countess. Why would I stoop to being a mere duchess when someday I shall be queen of all of Harmony?"

"Ah, but why wait for the power you can have now?"

Mistress did not deign to answer that. "If you will excuse us, we have a masquerade to partake of.”

“Enjoy the rest of the evening, mistress.”

Even Dylan caught the glittering grin on Kyra’s face as she led her sub away. He crept forward, noting that Dourdan did as well, so both were at their mistress’s feet.

“Do you think she’s repeating that?” Dourdan asked in a low voice.

“For Harmony’s sake, I hope not.” Mistress put her hand to her forehead, as if it hurt.

Dylan touched her arm. He didn’t doubt that Kyra was spreading that rumor all about the party. The only thing he didn’t understand was why she had tipped her hand so soon. She had to be playing some sort of deeper game. He suspected her ‘lecture series’ was only the beginning.

“Would you like me to get you something to eat?” Dylan asked. It was the only thing he could offer.

She patted his hand. “Some water would be lovely. This place. . .it’s too much.”

He understood as he slipped into the crowd. Something different was in the air – a tension that echoed amongst the revelers. This dark energy was similar to what Adrian often stirred up. Dylan tried to shake it off as he made for one of the fountain and cup displays.

“Sub Dylan,” a voice had him turning it response. It was Ian. “Have you seen Henry?”

Dylan nearly dropped the goblets in his hands. “No, sir. Has something. . .do we need to contact the guards?” His heart dropped. Despite all his idiosyncrasies, Henry was not the kind of sub to just leave his master without explanation.

Ian frowned. “Not yet. We were separated, on purpose, I dare say.”

“Let me get back to my mistress and I’ll help you look for him.” No one knew the conniving ways of the counts like Dylan did. He could believe Kyra had arranged Henry’s kidnapping or, hmm, Zachary seemed more than enchanted with the sub from the stars. Adrian had almost made kidnapping a sacrament, when he’d stopped trying to pretend with slow seductions. He just took the subs he wanted.

“Wait. I see him.” Ian fled into the crowd. Dylan followed for a few steps until he saw Henry. The sub stood near one of the doorways, his mask in one hand as he scoured the room, probably looking for Ian.

When Ian approached, Hank’s face changed – it lit up with pleasure. He moved forward and let himself be enveloped his Dom’s arms. No one could doubt Henry’s devotion to his master. Dylan felt sorry for the Dom that had even tried.

He let them be, scooping up his discarded goblets of water and making for his mistress. There were too many games being played. If mistress wanted to stop them, she’d need his help. For once, Dylan didn’t doubt that she was trying to do the right thing. He just wondered if anyone in Pasdar would let her.

He could almost feel her frustration during Countess Halle’s scene. Halle had her subs all dressed as animals and she was outfitted as their ringleader, directing them into nearly impossible positions and acrobatic tricks. It was highly entertaining, but not nearly as soul-revealing as the princess had wanted. Dylan wondered what Matthew would see in their souls, if he used that crystal device.

Perhaps it was better if Dylan didn’t know.

***

Everyone had something to say the next time the advisors gathered to meet. Mistress had called them together the morning after the masquerade and Martha had prepared a buffet of breakfast and desserts to get them through it. This time they met in a cozy little sitting room with plush carpets and comfortable seating. Dylan knew that meant the princess had planned for a very long meeting.

He settled back in his pile of pillows at his mistress’s feet as Hank told the group how Count Zachary had made a move on him.

“. . .shouldn’t that disqualify the guy automatically? I mean, if I hadn’t slammed him into the wall . . .” Hank paused and said in a softer tone: “Who knows what would have happened?”

Dylan shifted forward and looked up at his mistress for permission to speak. She nodded, though her eyes widened in surprise.

“Adrian actively encouraged kidnapping. He said only a strong Dom could keep his subs.” Dylan shrugged. “We can’t disqualify him for doing what has been acceptable for years.”

Mistress rubbed her forehead, closing her eyes for a moment. “Kidnapping needs to be prearranged, it should be contractual.”

“Contracts have meant nothing for years now.” Dylan settled back into his pillows, having said enough in front of the crowd. He was the outsider here, although no one had treated him that way. Dourdan touched his knee in a show of support.

“Mistress, they are making a mockery of everything we are.” Quentin stood and began to pace. “I made a disturbing discovery at the scholas. They’ve removed the final test requirement for Doms.’

There were gasps throughout the room. Dylan blinked, not sure what they were talking about.

Hank raised his hand. “Um, excuse me. I’m not sure if this is one of those things I’m supposed to know. . .”

“No, Henry,” his master answered. “This is known only to Doms.”

“And why should it?” Mistress sounded angry. “How can we build trust, if the subs don’t know this? All Doms must pass the final test – to serve one day as a sub.”

That did change things. Dylan had no knowledge of this, despite his childhood in the Schola. He couldn’t help himself: he stared at his mistress, picturing her wearing a collar and on her knees. The image was so wrong in his mind. She ruled over him - no one should command her.

Would knowledge of such a test change things between Doms and subs? It could only help the fractured subs of Pasdar. However, it seemed like Adrian had squashed this long ago. How many Doms graduated without ever knowing what it was like to be one of the subs they dominated?

“Mistress,” another advisor spoke up. “How long will we let this sacrilege continue? Clearly none of the royals are capable of leading Pasdar.”

“We’re in the process of exploring the lesser nobles.” Mistress gestured to Dourdan, who moved to the table of food and drink and began to prepare a platter for their mistress. Dylan wished she’d asked him instead. He itched to serve – in a way he hadn’t for years.

“But, essentially, I cannot merely select one of the current four and just leave. I will need to start the reforms. Perhaps. . .” she bit her lip. “I will host an event of my own, after Countess Kyra and Count Zachary finish their scenes. We are here to teach as well as learn.”

Dylan doubted that many of the nobles saw it that way. They wanted to take Adrian’s place, and would do anything to get into the princess’s good graces, except of course, admitting the error of their ways and begging for forgiveness.

The meeting concluded with a discussion of Countess Kyra and a request to listen for rumors, to find out just what was being spread about them. As the events drew to a close, Dylan knew the gossip would get nasty.

When Mistress dismissed the advisors, Dylan knew that it was his time to speak. He had to trust her, had to believe she’d do as she said and try to fix the district. From everything he’d witnessed so far, she was trying. Every session with Matthew had been building towards this moment.

“Mistress,” he said, and then had to clear his throat to get rid of the hoarseness. “I wish to speak with you.”

She paused in the middle of standing. “Dylan? What is it?”

He crawled closer to her, but was unable to meet her eyes. “You know there are subs still living in the sewers, waiting for my word. But what I haven’t told you is that most of them wish to claim asylum with the people from the stars.”

“Leave Harmony, you mean, and never return?” She’d gone pale, his lovely mistress so white under her golden hair. “Of course, I imagine many could not bear to be owned ever again. But Dylan, this is such a permanent decision, and made without even seeing a Soul Healer.”

He placed his hands behind his back – it felt right, somehow, to go into the poses of his youth, without being ordered. Everything that he resented under Adrian’s thumb he wanted to do for her. “I could speak with them.”

She touched his face and forced him to look up. “Do that. Offer any who wish it access to a Soul Healer. And if they still wish to go, I will do what I can to make it as easy as possible.”

“Thank you, mistress.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Ian woke to a warm body covering his. He lifted his hands to gather naked handfuls of Hank, pulling his sub down for a wet kiss. Hank laughed against his mouth. “Before you ask - yes, breakfast is set out on the table, under those neat warming covers. My other chores are done, too.”

His other chores being cleaning and prepping himself for Ian’s pleasure. They had gotten their routine down here in these borrowed chambers. Sometimes, Ian missed his little apartment in the Royal District. It had been small, and crammed into a high rise without a decent view - as befitting a lowly guard - but it had been his. He and Hank had never gotten the chance to make it theirs.

“Good boy,” Ian praised with a smirk. He could feel Hank’s hardness poking his hip. He had a feeling he knew exactly why Hank had woken him up.

“Instead of going to the princess’s lecture on reforms, can you just tie me up and fuck me?” Hank looked hopeful.

Ian laughed. It had been a long few months and they had to suffer through both Countess Kyra and Count Zachary’s events. The lecture series had seemed to go on forever, and if Kyra hadn’t mandated that everyone under her order go, Ian doubted it would have been well attended at all. He'd found her speakers too focused on the harder edge of philosophy. There had been nothing outside of black and white strict roles of Doms and subs. Obviously Ian didn't quite agree, having Hank as a sub, but there had been no mechanism for discourse, no way to debate or offer a countering point of view. Even back when he'd been just a student at the schola, Ian remembered there being more to it than what the scholars had spoken of.

Zachary had done a series of musicals, all retelling different myths and folktales. Some had been familiar to Ian. Who didn't know the story of the loyal sub, who stayed true even when being punished unjustly by his master? All the tales chosen had been similar, portraying a sub suffering beautifully but always under the yoke of a powerful master. Ian would have liked to see the tale of the two Doms, although he was sure he was the only one who really liked that story. His mother had told it to him as a child – about two Doms who'd fallen in love, and, in order to be together, had chosen to let Harmony make one of them into a sub.

Alona had taken control afterward, announcing a series of reforms without making a decision about who would be the next duke or duchess of Pasdar. That, she would supposedly announce at the end of her lectures.

“We can do both.” Ian wasn’t afraid of compromise. He flipped them so he was straddling Hank’s waist. Without his clothes, Hank looked both vulnerable and beautiful, his skin golden in the morning light. Every day Ian felt honored that he could own this man who had never trained to be a sub. Hank had given him such a gift and Ian treasured it.

Ian lifted Hank’s arms above his head and secured them to the headboard. This wasn’t a complex scene – he hadn’t really had time to prepare – but sometimes the very simple things were the best. He sat back on his heels and just admired Hank – the way his throat moved as he swallowed, the tightness of his nipples bisected by Ian’s piercings, the pearl of liquid at the head of his intact cock.

Hank ducked his head against his upraised arm. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Why not?” Ian tweaked Hank’s nipples, his own cock thickening at the sounds Hank made in response.

Having Hank’s nipples pierced had been a fantastic idea. Ian only wished Hank would consider having his cock done as well. An image flashed in his mind – all three connected by chains and Ian leading Hank by them. He shuddered at the thought and smiled down at Hank.

“That is one evil grin.”

Ian laughed. “Spread your legs.” He shifted so he knelt between them, giving him full access to Hank’s thick cock and heavy balls. Ian reached for the end table and snatched up the length of chain he found there. He attached two clips to the piercings, tugging on them slightly.

Hank pulled against his bonds and moaned. Ian kept hold of the end of the chain, fingering the clamp that dangled as he lowered his lips to Hank’s belly. His sub smelled fresh from the shower, with the hint of musk rising from his arousal. Ian licked down Hank’s abdomen, tasting his salty precome before trailing his tongue around the head of his sub’s cock.

This was one of his favorite positions – having Hank beneath him, bound and at his mercy. Ian palmed his own cock, already so hard against his hand. First, he must attend to his sub.

He cupped Hank’s cock in one hand – so hard, so smooth, so hot and heavy. Ian stroked it, watching Hank’s eyes, how they grew heavy-lidded the closer Hank got to climax. He moved faster, his eyes on his sub, cataloging every movement, every groan and writhe. Just when Hank was on that edge, when he’d have to come or pull back, Ian used the clamp on the ridge of Hank’s cock.

“Come for me,” he commanded.

Hank screamed. He was caught between pleasure and pain, but couldn’t go back. Hot liquid covered Ian’s hand as he worked Hank’s cock through his orgasm. When he thought he’d gotten it all, Ian eased off the clamp, licking at the tender skin. They’d never done cock torture before, it was too far beyond Hank’s experience.

Ian stroked his own cock, swollen nearly to the point of pain. He needed to come and now. It didn’t take much before he was marking Hank with his seed, mixing with Hank’s on his belly. Ian rubbed it into Hank’s skin before sidling up next to him on the bed.

“All right?” He searched Hank’s face, looking for what Hank didn’t say.

Hank’s eyelashes were wet, but there were no tears, just a flush in his cheeks. “Are you always going to keep upping the ante like that?”

Ian blinked, not certain what his sub meant. “Um.”

“Making things more and more intense.”

“It’s important to know your limits, Henry.” Ian reached up to undo the cuffs. “You’ve never been tested, so you don’t know. And, I admit it, I find testing you enjoyable.”

Hank sat up, rubbing at his wrists. “Not sure I’m going to survive it,” he muttered.

Ian chuckled. “Come on. Shower and then breakfast. We still have work to do today.”

That they did, but it turned out to be not what Ian had expected. They were in mid-meal when a tele conversation flashed into being with Hank’s name.

Luckily Hank had dressed after their shower – although Ian did so love to keep Hank naked when they ate – so he could merely answer it. Ian did not expect it to be the Dom/sub pair from the UP to be on the other end of the line.

“Major Tappen, we’ve got a problem. Have you been following the news feeds from the UP?”

It took Ian a moment to come up with their names – Dom Aldis and sub Kristen they were known as here, but he didn’t know the equivalent ranks in Hank’s military. He’d have to ask later. Hank’s past always made him uncomfortable, especially when it came out of nowhere to surprise them like this. It reminded Ian that their contract was only temporary, that Hank could always leave him and return to that life he had before.

“Haven’t had the time. What’s wrong?” Hank stiffened. Ian noticed how his own demeanor changed – his shoulders straightened and his face grew serious.

“It’s Captain Ackles. He’s been captured by the Confed. They sent a hostage vid, and it got broadcast on every damn UP news channel that exists.”

Ackles – the green-eyed sub from the stars – sub Jensen had carved out a place in the hearts of all citizens of Harmony after his capture by Adrian and rescue by the queen and her guards. Seeing him in danger would not sit well with anyone.

“It’s that bad?”

Aldis sighed. “Better just show you.” He made a motion with his hand and another window appeared beneath the tele screen.

Ian stood behind Hank to get a better view. He watched as a woman circled around a set of kneeling subs – but her words were threatening, even though Ian didn’t really understand all she said. Ian didn’t recognize sub Jensen until the final few moments of the vid – when their captor slit the throat of the man next to Jensen, and the camera closed in on the horror in those green eyes.

His stomach twisted and for a moment he regretted finishing breakfast. But he knew he wouldn’t have been able to eat at all after witnessing that.

“Fuck,” Hank swore.

“The queen wants to make a statement.” Aldis looked over to his sub. “But damn if we don’t know what to tell her. That footage is old, you know how long it takes for stuff to get out here.”

“Have you spoken to Commander Morgan?” Hank was only being sensible. Morgan was, or had been, Jensen’s Dom.

“You think,” Aldis leaned close and lowered his voice, “You think Morgan might go after Ackles?”

“It’s possible. Fuck, Lieutenant, we just can’t leave here, we’re in the middle of a mission.” Hank looked torn in half – clearly wanting to be involved, but not wanting to deny his responsibilities here.

Ian gently squeezed Hank’s shoulders. “We should speak to the princess. I doubt she would want to keep us from helping.” If Hank was going, then so was Ian.

Hank looked up at him, eyes widened in shock. “I’ll get back to you, Hodge.”

“Make it quick. Don’t like to keep a lady waiting.”

The screen shut off. Hank stood. “Are you sure? If Morgan is spearheading a rescue, this would take us far from Harmony. The stars are dangerous. Hell, the Confed makes Adrian look like a pussy cat.”

“I’d only protest if you left without me.”

***

The chiming of the door came at exactly the wrong moment. Mistress was finishing up a tele call – one of many she’d handled already that morning – and Dylan was in the middle of his chores. He’d just finished cleaning the equipment in the playroom and had come to ask if she had a more important task for him before starting on the linens.

Dourdan moved to answer the door. Mistress relied on him for so much. Dylan wished she could lean on him just a little. But that would be foolish. Dylan had asked for a temporary arrangement.

Mistress looked up from her slate just as Ian and Hank entered the sitting room. They looked just as distressed as she. “You’ve heard?” She waved Ian to a seat. Hank slipped to his knees beside his Dom, though no one would call his movements graceful.

“Yes. We’ve been in contact with the Dom/sub liaison from the UP.” Ian ran a hand through his hair, causing it to stand up in all directions.

Dylan slid to his knees at his mistress’s side, closing his eyes as she petted him absently. He would give comfort the best way he knew how.

“Mistress, they are going to contact Commander Morgan – sub Jensen’s master. If there is a possibility that he will be mounting a rescue mission,” Ian cleared his throat. “Henry and I would like to be included.”

It took Dylan a moment to truly understand. He saw the moment it clarified for his princess. “You mean leave Harmony – for the stars.”

Ian nodded. “With your permission, mistress. We would not want to leave a job half finished. . .”

“Ian, I understand. Everyone in Harmony wants to know what happened to sub Jensen. My mother should be making a statement later today. This is just awful.”

“Yes.” Ian and his sub met each other’s eyes. It was downright strange for Hank to be so quiet. “We will be leaving for the palace immediately.”

“Do what you can.” Mistress dismissed them both, not even waiting for them to leave the room before turning back to her work.

He had work of his own to do, but needed to leave his mistress to do so. “Mistress,” he interrupted. “I have an appointment with Soul Healer Matthew.”

She waved a hand at him. “Go ahead. I’ll see you at dinner.”

Good. He didn’t look back as he slipped out of her chambers. Recent events with sub Jensen were troubling, to say the least. Dylan kept his head down as he look the lift to the lowest floor of the castle. He then followed the corridor until he reached a heavy door that opened to reveal a steep staircase. Down here the walls were damp and gray, as if this place had been immune to the queen’s purification.

He came to a large chamber with seven statues suspended from the ceiling over the giant stone coffins in the center. Dylan pressed his hand against the cold black stone. If sub Peter – Levi – had gone to the gardens to escape, Dylan had come here. Somehow the mausoleum of dead dukes and duchesses was comforting in its silence and inevitability.

But his journey was just beginning. Dylan walked through the chamber and down even more stairs, until he came to a grate in the wall. The bars dissipated to let him pass. This was how the subs had escaped to the sewers in the first place, as if this passage had been made just for them.

Some of the subs had taken the offer the princess had made and met with the Soul Healers, though they still retreated down here. Many did not, and others were just as determined as ever to leave Harmony. Dylan tapped the code on the nearest pipe and waited.

Lara arrived a few minutes later, as if she’d been waiting for him. She hadn’t been happy that others had decided to use the Soul Healers and had refused one for herself. Dylan had tried to convince her, but she’d just looked at him as if he’d betrayed her.

“I assume you’ve seen the broadcast?” Dylan knew she was an avid follower of the UP news feeds. Her mind had already left Harmony, even if her body hadn’t.

“Of course. We all have.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“Lara.” He sighed. “Even if you leave Harmony, there are other dangers out there in the stars.”

“Sub Jensen was part of their military. He was on a mission before his capture.” She sounded far more familiar with the details than Dylan himself. Perhaps he should have spent more time with the UP feeds. “There are parts of the UP that are perfectly safe.”

“How many have reconsidered since the vid?” He challenged.

She looked away. “A few. But so have those who’ve gone to your Soul Healers.”

“They aren’t my Soul Healers.”

“They might as well be, the way you go on about yours.” Lara shook her head. “I don’t want to argue, Dylan. We’ve done as the princess asked and taken advantage of her Healers. There are those of us who will not be swayed.”

“Like you.”

“I will not be anyone’s sub ever again.” She stared him down as she spoke. Dylan didn’t doubt her words.

“Lara, I understand, I do. But you can’t speak for everyone.”

She flushed, a dark blush coloring her cheeks. “We can’t all fall in with a sweet, naïve princess and lose our integrity.”

Dylan clenched his fists, so angry that he considered punching the wall. “How dare you. I went to her because it was our only chance. It was sheer luck that she wasn’t another Adrian. She’s promised to help us, Lara, not imprison us.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

He had nothing to say to that. “We’re waiting for an announcement from the queen. I’ll be in touch.”

Lara just nodded and disappeared back into the shadows.

Dylan took a deep breath before turning back the way he’d come. The entire encounter had unsettled him. Since he’d been with his mistress, Dylan had been viewed differently from his fellow fugitive subs. He didn’t blame them for distrusting him, not when he himself felt distant from them.

He reached the grate that led back to the castle and stilled when he saw Dourdan leaning against the wall.

“Your appointment with the Soul Healer isn’t for another hour,” Dourdan said. “Something wrong with using the tele?”

Dylan stiffened. “You followed me.” It felt wrong, for Dourdan to have done so. Dylan had thought he'd earned the other sub's regard, if not his trust.

“It’s not like she doesn’t know you’re communicating with them somehow. In fact, she wants you to. But lying about where you’re going is unacceptable.”

Dylan pushed past him and through the grate. “What do you care? My presence is only temporary.” He'd leave and Dourdan would still have their princess.

Dourdan grabbed Dylan’s arm and pulled him back. Dylan snatched his arm away and whirled around. How dare this sub touch him?

“After all this, you’re still going to leave Harmony?" The anger was no longer in Dourdan's voice. Instead he sounded hurt.

“What other choice do I have?” He was out of breath for some reason. Dylan wiped at his eyes, trying to clear his blurry vision.

“Dylan.” The other sub’s voice had gone quiet. “She’s grown very fond of you. And I think you’re more than passing fond of her too.”

“I can’t,” Dylan gasped. “She has you.”

Dourdan laughed. He reached out and cupped Dylan’s face in one hand. “She’s a princess, remember? It’s not one or nothing.”

“I was one of a hundred once. I’m not sure I can do it again.”

“Oh, Dylan. Stop worrying about tomorrow. Worry about today.” Dourdan stepped forward and kissed him.

“Is this permitted?” Dylan whispered.

Dourdan smiled. “Why don’t we go back inside and ask?”

Dylan nodded.

***

When they returned to Pasdar several days later, Hank felt like a failure. The visit with Commander Morgan hadn’t turned out anything like he’d expected. He’d served under Morgan for a few years, and he’d never see the man so dejected and lost. But it had been Ian who seemed to understand the most and had taken Morgan to a club to let out his anger.

Because despite Morgan’s obedience to the UP military's decree, he had been incredibly angry. Hank didn’t know how he’d handle it himself – to be told that there would be no rescue attempt, that the UP was giving up on all scuts trapped in the Confed – especially when one of those scuts was someone he loved. Fuck, he’d seen the way Morgan had looked at Ackles.

If it had been Ian trapped out there . . . well, Hank hoped he’d have the strength to defy everyone and everything to get to him. The thought took him by surprise and he looked over at his Dom. They were waiting with the rest of the advisors in the great hall for the queen’s latest missive. Everyone had been surprised at their return, though Ian didn’t both to give an explanation. The queen’s words would be clear enough.

Hank realized he wanted to explore the stars with Ian. He wanted to share that part of his life, to show Ian what the rest of the galaxy was like. They only had a little more than a year on their current contract together. How had the time gone so fast? It seemed only yesterday that Hank had been resisting everything Ian offered.

The screen flashed into life – huge, spanning the length of the room. It reminded Hank of the ones hung over cities in the UP, long before holos went into fashion. These popped in and out of existence, however, unlike the more solidly anchored tech of the UP.

The queen’s image appeared, looking like she’d been carved out of marble. Her hair was pinned back with no strand out of place, and her lips were pursed so tightly together that they were nearly bloodless. Her eyes were the only thing that dispelled the illusion. They were dark, but liquid, as if she was only a breath away from tears.

“People of Harmony. My people. For the past few days since we’ve seen the disturbing video of sub Jensen’s capture, I’ve been in contact with the UP military, hoping as you do, that something could be done to help a sub who’d come to mean so much to us.”

She bowed her head. Hank braced himself for what was coming. He wondered exactly what spin she’d put on things.

“First you must understand – because we are so far from the stars, it has been many months since this video was first released. We’ve seen it far too late. My contacts believe sub Jensen is dead, killed with the other sub soldiers in the line of duty. To honor his sacrifice and his work here, I declare a day of mourning. The city shall be draped in black and purple. All the death rituals shall be maintained. No contracts will be struck until the day is done. We shall begin at sundown tonight.”

“My people, know that I mourn with you.”

Hank felt sour bile rise in his throat. She was sugar coating things just a bit. They had no evidence Ackles was dead. The UP just didn’t want to bother finding out. Damn them. He rubbed his forehead. There was no point in telling that to the people of Harmony.

“For those who question our agreement with the UP – I see this video of evidence of why we must partner with them. The enemy they face on their battlefield is wily and lacks honor. The Confederation denies treaties and breaks contracts. We cannot let such evil take root in Harmony.”

Hank followed Ian out of the room as the screen faded away. Neither of them felt like speaking with the other advisors. He just wanted to head to their room and sleep for a week.

“How will this affect Pasdar and Alona’s work?” Hank asked in a low voice as they reached the lifts.

Ian shrugged. “We’ll have to wait until after the mourning to find out. The princess was on the verge of announcing her choice.”

“Was she?” Hank was under the impression that Alona hadn’t been satisfied with any of the Counts or Countesses.

“I suppose we shall see.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

The mood in the banquet hall was so tense that Hank was grateful for the presence of the guards at every entrance. Alona was hosting again, and all of her advisors were present. The royals didn’t seem to like that at all. Hank hovered around the head table, pouring whenever he saw a cup even the slightest bit empty. He really wanted to hear this.

Hank had to compete with the other subs – this time the subs belonging to the counts and countesses took their turns in the kitchens as well. He guessed they were doing so to find out what the princess’s subs knew. Every time he went back to the kitchen for a refill, one of them tried to engage him in conversation. He doubted they were just being friendly, although even Count Zach’s sub liked to get a little grabby with him.

Hank dodged the smirking sub, keeping his ass well out of reach, as he went to go pour for Count Zach. The count didn’t seem to notice him, thankfully, his focus solely on the princess who was feeding Dylan something that had him licking her fingers.

“Mistress, forgive my impulsiveness.” Zach gestured with his newly refreshed goblet. “But we are most anxious to learn of your decision.”

Alona looked up from her sub, her face cool as a cucumber. “And what decision would that be, Zachary?” Hank hung around, trying to look useful. This looked like it was going to get good.

Zach put the goblet down with a thump, sloshing all of Hank’s hard work onto the tablecloth. “Which of us is to be ruler of Pasdar, of course.”

“What makes you think I’ve chosen any one of you?” She took up her own goblet and sipped slowly. Hank made his way over to her to pour her some more tye.

None of the four looked happy at her pronouncement. Kyra leaned forward. “Mistress, then what have these past months been about?”

Zachary wasn’t quite so calm. “If you had no intention of choosing any of us, what was the point of this farce?”

“Farce?” Alona stared him down. “If there has been any such thing going on here, it was not perpetuated by myself.”

Hank blinked as he stepped away with his pitcher. Where had sweet, kind Alona gone? The woman glaring down the table bore no resemblance to the princess he’d come to know. She looked like her mother, only fiercer, if such a thing were possible.

“I asked for scenes. I asked to see into your hearts. Was it Count Mark who inspired you all to stall? Did you hope I’d grow bored and make my decision rashly? Or did you think you’d distract me from the truth?” She leveled each of them with a gaze. “All of you tortured subs at Adrian’s side. Perhaps you even knew he was killing them in order to take control of Harmony’s systems. I’ve spoken to far more reliable witnesses and I’ve seen your actions for what they are – nothing but camouflage. How can I choose one of you, knowing what I know?”

If Hank expected humility in response, none of the four obliged.

“The law must be followed. Unless your goal is to unseat all of us, one of us must follow in Adrian’s wake in absence of an heir.” Kyra responded first, just as coolly.

Mark leaned forward. “You said from the beginning you were here to correct Adrian’s mistakes. How can we move forward unless we’re forgiven and taught the right way?”

“Oh very politic, Mark. Are you so certain you’re for the job then?” Halle blasted him.

“Enough. Based on what you’ve shown me it is impossible for me to choose one of you.” Alona let that statement fall, which finally resulted in silence.

Hank, forgetting that he wasn’t really supposed to be participating other than pouring from his pitcher, blurted, “Well, you could put it to a vote.”

All eyes turned towards him. Oh, crap. Why did he keep doing this? He should have stayed by Ian’s side.

Alona’s lips twitched, but she fought the smile successfully. “Explain for us, please, sub Henry.”

“I meant – why not just ask the people of Pasdar who’d they want? Back home, that’s how it works. The citizens of each planet cast their vote for a senator to represent them at the galactic senate.”

“Every citizen gets a vote?” Alona asked, her eyes twinkling.

“Well, everyone over the age of 18 does. And some people chose not to vote for whatever reason, though I know some planets where everyone is mandated to vote when an election is called.” Hank did not expect to be explaining democracy. He wished he’d paid more attention in civics class.

“And how do they choose who to vote for?”

Damn her, the princess was downright enjoying this! “Well, people choose to run for office. Declare their candidacy and why they’re the best choice. Um. And there’s always the write-ins. People can vote for someone just because they like them.”

“Thank you, Henry. That is most enlightening.”

“Surely you can’t be considering this!” Zach burst out first.

“Why not? You’ve each been inviting all of Pasdar to your events. Surely by now even they could make the decision. They will be the ones ruled, in the end.”

Hank took this opportunity to escape to the kitchen. He had an empty pitcher and all eyes on him. Fuck. He’d promised Ian he’d be good and wait for his turn to speak. Although Alona seemed more than happy with his suggestion. And why shouldn’t she? He’d just given her an out.

The other subs in the kitchen were talking rapidly.

“You don’t think she’d actually?”

“Would we all get a vote, too?”

“Perhaps my master. . .”

Hank put his pitcher down. “Oh, stars.”

“You’re blushing. It’s cute.” A sub turned to him. She wasn’t one of theirs. She belonged to Mark – sub Beth he recalled at the last moment.

Hank leaned against the table and winked at her. “It’s not every day I’m in the spotlight.”

Nor did he get the chance to flirt with anyone anymore, not since he belonged to Ian. He’d feel guilty, but Hank knew it was harmless.

“I think you’d be more than comfortable there.” She winked at him before taking his now full pitcher and pouring them each cups full of tye.

Another sub put a platter of what looked like cookies in front of them. “My mistress’s recipe.”

Hank took one absently. It tasted like a snickerdoodle. He hadn’t had one of those in ages. Hank chomped down another one, washing it down quickly with the tye. He'd been nibbling at food in the kitchen since the beginning of the banquet, since he hadn't had a chance to eat beforehand. They didn’t have long before the next course, although Hank had switched tables with another sub. It was probably best he avoid the head table for a while.

After pouring out the tye this time, he settled on his knees next to Ian. The mood was subdued, although it looked like the four were still arguing with Alona. Hank knew that none of them would be happy. Even if she did pick one, the other three would do something to sabotage things.

“You’ve been busy,” Ian said in a low voice, bending to share a plate of food.

“No kidding.” Hank pulled at his collar. He was sweating. Had it gotten hot in here? His stomach twisted at the plate Ian handed him. Maybe he’d eaten those cookies a bit too fast.

Ian blinked at him when Hank pushed the food away. “Henry?”

“I’m not feeling too well.” He hadn’t gotten so much as a cold since he’d been in Harmony. Maybe everything was catching up to him.

“Go on back to our chambers. I’ll be along as soon as I can.”

“Thank you.” Hank made for the lifts. He hoped he could make it back to the room before he lost his cookies.

***

The banquet had ended with nothing being decided and Dylan knew his mistress was worn and tired. Time was rapidly running out. Soon she’d be escorting the fugitive subs to the UP station for amnesty or self-imposed exile. Dylan still hadn’t decided if he’d be accompanying them or not.

The Soul Healer had asked him to consider what he desired most as a sub. “You’ve lost that sense of awe when it comes to one’s master. But you can still regain it.”

Dylan watched as his mistress slipped on her nightdress. She’d never betrayed his trust, had always given him what he needed, but had never bound him needlessly. She had somehow known that he still couldn’t bear that.

Desire coiled in his belly and he wanted, oh, how he wanted. He went to his knees before her, knowing he startled her. Unless summoned, he was free to sleep in his own bedchamber. But he didn’t want to be alone tonight, nor did he wish to lose this one chance.

“Mistress,” he begged, voice hoarse, “May I worship you?”

She gasped and met his eyes, as if searching for something. Then she nodded and signaled Dourdan to kneel and wait.

Dylan pushed himself to his feet. He was nude, having stripped from the moment they walked through the bedchamber door. His body was his mistress’s to use.

Mistress remained still, her chest heaving as she breathed deeply. He raised his hand to undo the buttons at the top of her nightdress. Dylan lowered his lips to her neck, tracing the smooth white skin down along her clavicle. She tasted like peaches and the summertime. Her body was made to be tasted and savored.

He slid the sleeves off of her shoulders, revealing her pert, pale breasts. Taking them within his hands, Dylan brushed his thumb along erect pink nipples. He cupped them tightly and she moaned as he dipped his head to taste the sweet flesh on his tongue. The nightdress slid to the floor, leaving her bare before him. She was so beautiful, his mistress, and yet so powerful. She deserved his regard.

Dylan dropped to his knees once more, pressing his lips against her belly, letting his hands trail down her thighs. He could smell her arousal, this close to her mound. But he didn’t indulge, not yet. Instead he lowered himself even further to kiss her feet, nuzzling each perfect toe. He traced the arch of each foot, following with his lips, up her ankles and just under each knee.

Gently, and every so slowly, he parted her thighs and slid between them. “Use me,” he said, “Take your pleasure from my face.” Dylan raised his head and delved his lips within her sweet folds.

She surrounded him completely. He could see nothing, taste only her honey, breathe in her scent. Mistress became his world.

Dylan cupped her buttocks in his hands, encouraging her to ride him, to press himself even deeper inside. She moaned above him, making a high pitched keening noise that had his cock thickening and filling. He felt her pulse her climax around him and continued to suckle and nuzzle her through the aftershocks.

“Enough,” she gasped, easing off. Mistress cupped his face in her hands. “Good boy. So very good.”

He could feel himself flush under her regard. He’d pleased her, that was all he wanted. It had made that empty space in his belly go away.

“Dourdan, come.”

The other sub crawled across the room. He caught Dylan’s lips in a kiss, tasting their mistress and licking her essence from Dylan’s cheeks.

“Let’s reward, Dylan, shall we?” There was joy in her voice and Dylan had put it there.

He was surprised when Dourdan pushed him back on the floor. The other sub caught Dylan’s cock in his hands and slowly sank down on it. Dourdan must have prepared himself – he was slick and open and rode Dylan’s dick like he was made for it.

“So good,” Mistress said again. She had her fingers in Dylan’s hair and she hovered in his vision as Dourdan rocked and rolled his hips. “You can come, boy.”

At her words Dylan gasped and let go. Dourdan moaned and started to stroke his own erection, but he waited for mistress’s nod before letting himself come, spilling over Dylan’s belly.

Dylan blinked up at both of them. “I’m all sticky,” he said, sluggish and slow from his orgasm.

Mistress laughed. She gestured and Dourdan went and grabbed a washcloth. “What was that about, Dylan?”

He touched her cheek. “Everything. It was about everything.”

***

Hank couldn’t get comfortable. He rolled over, pushing the covers off of his bare skin to the end of the bed. The normally soft sheets felt heavy and scratchy. He didn’t want them covering him. His belly had settled down, but he still felt flushed and overheated.

He went to the bathroom and splashed cool water on his face. It didn’t help. Hank leaned on the sink and stared at his reflection in the mirror. He didn’t recognize the face he saw there – flushed with bloodshot eyes.

Maybe he should go down to the infirmary? It felt like he was coming down with a flu of some kind, and you never knew with alien planets what kind of germs could be lurking.

He stumbled on the way back to the bed. Hank fell onto the covers, suddenly overcome by arousal. His cock was hard and heavy, and his balls ached. He shuddered, needing release.

Hank pressed his hand to his erection. No. He shouldn’t. Ian’s rules meant he couldn’t take care of himself. It hurt so much that surely Ian wouldn’t mind if he touched himself just this once?

But Hank couldn’t do it. That belonged to Ian and he couldn’t disobey.

Something was wrong. He felt all twisted and turned on. He needed Ian. Master would fix him.

***

Ian yawned as he palmed open the door to his bedchamber. The banquet had gone on far longer than he’d anticipated. He should have left with Hank. It would have spared him the extra hours of listening to the nobles bicker. Children solved problems with more efficiency.

The lights were dimmed, and he assumed that Henry had gone to bed. However, once he got further in the room he saw Hank kneeling nude on the bed. At first Ian smirked, thinking that Hank planned to seduce him. But as he got close, he saw that Hank was trembling ever so slightly, his hands clenched into tight fists at his sides and a hot and swollen erection leaning against his thigh.

“Henry?”

“Please, please, pleasepleaseplease,” Henry was murmuring under his breath.

Ian turned up the lights and gasped. Henry was flushed, with sweat beading on his forehead. His eyes were glassy and dilated, like he was riding a drug high. Ian cupped Henry’s face in his hands and turned it upward, forcing Henry to look at him. His skin was clammy.

“Master, please, it hurts.”

Ian swallowed. Something was terribly wrong here. “Henry, did you take anything? Did someone give you something at the banquet?”

Henry just blinked, his eyelashes fluttering. “Master…”

This wasn’t Henry, not his Hank. Ian pulled up the tele and called down to the Healer, telling her they were on their way before cutting the connection. She was probably just as tired after leaving the banquet, but he had no choice. “Come on, Henry, we’re going to the Healers.”

“Yes, master.” Henry pushed off of the bed and onto his hands and knees on the floor.

Sour flooded Ian’s mouth. He had a feeling about what this was, but only the Healers could fix it. “Stand for me, Hank, please. Let’s get you dressed and get on the lift, okay?”

Ian grabbed the first bit of clothing that came to hand – it looked like one of his own shirts - and threw it around Hank’s shoulders. Hank shuddered. “It hurts.”

“The shirt?” Ian frowned. This was all wrong. They needed to get to the Healers quickly. He couldn’t spare Hank’s modesty at the moment – and normally Hank would protest at being led through the halls naked. He just hoped the Healer could fix this.

***

Hours later, Hank was bound to a bed in the Healers quarter, writhing under the thin sheet the Healer’s sub had placed over him. Ian watched from the other side of the wall, fretting and waiting for the Healer’s diagnosis. When she came through the door he hurried to her side. “What is it? What’s wrong with him?”

Healer Alyson turned her tired eyes upon him. “Perhaps we should sit down for a moment?”

He damped down his temper. Ian wanted to know now. But he allowed her to lead him to a sitting area. Ian sank into a couch, missing the presence of Hank on one of the pillows at his feet.

“I found two substances in his system. One a very powerful aphrodisiac. The other. . .” She took a deep breath. “Subservien.”

Ian shuddered. Subservien was only used in the rarest of situations in order to help a sub who was having trouble submitting. It was often used on Doms during their final test, to help them get into the right mindset. “Subservien could do that to him?”

“The dosage he was given is far higher than recommended. I’ve already given him the counter agent.” Alyson leaned over and touched his arm, which made Ian go cold inside. Whatever she said next would not be good. “He’s not responding to it. I’m not sure if it's due to the combination of the aphrodisiac or if it’s because he’s alien.”

“Henry isn’t an alien,” Ian snapped. “He’s from the stars, but that doesn’t mean. . .” He let his head fall into his hands. Would he need to return Henry to his people for treatment? Would they ever let Ian near him again?

“Ian, I have to ask.” Alyson grew very serious. “Did you give him either substance?”

Ian stared at her, not understanding for a moment. “No!” He sputtered a denial. “He wasn’t feeling well at the banquet and went up to our chambers early. I found him like that when I went back.”

She gazed at him, as if measuring his truthfulness. “I believe you, mainly because I don’t think you’d be stupid enough to give him such large doses. No, someone wanted to hurt him.”

Of the four candidates, one stuck out in Ian’s mind. It had to be Count Zachary. The bastard probably hadn’t gotten over being soundly turned down by Hank. Ian would strangle the count himself.

The violence must have shown on his face because Alyson took his arm again. “Your sub needs you, you know. I’m concerned about his heart rate, but I can’t give him a counter for the aphrodisiac – it might interfere with the other drugs in his system.”

“What are you saying?”

“The Subservien makes him dependent on you. He can’t even touch himself without your permission. You’re the only one who can help him through the next twelve hours.”

Ian frowned. “Are you saying I’m going to have to fuck it out of him?”

“If you must be so crude. I could keep him here and pump fluids into him, but I can’t do anything for the pain. At least that you can alleviate.”

It was no choice at all. “I’ll take him back to our chambers then.”

“Bring him back when the fever breaks.” The Healer jabbed something in his arm.

“What was that?” Ian pulled away and rubbed at the bruised skin.

“Stimulant. You’re going to need it.”

***

Ian brought Hank back to their shared bedchamber, but not before lending a hand under the sheet covering Hank in the infirmary. He hated seeing his sub in pain. The relief he'd granted didn’t last long, however. By the time the door was shut behind them, Hank was on his knees, his forehead on the floor, begging for his master to fuck him.

This wasn’t Hank. That was the first thing that crossed Ian’s mind before he ordered his sub over the side of the bed. Ian didn’t want to fuck him on the floor. Not like this.

“Please, master, please. . .”

Hank was slick with sweat under Ian’s hands. He pushed back onto Ian’s cock, squeezing tight. Ian closed his eyes and pressed his face to Hank’s back, taking in Hank’s scent, trying to remember that this pleading little slut under him was still his Hank. “Come for me, boy, come.”

Ian tried to hold off as long as possible. He needed to save his cock for the next round. Fuck, he should have put on a cock ring. He only thought of it as Hank moaned through his orgasm.

It wasn’t long before Hank was begging for more. His skin was still flushed and his body hot under Ian’s hands. He was in pain, and only Ian could salve it.

Ian fucked Hank with his cock, fingers and tongue. He pulled out dildos and vibrators when he couldn’t get it up yet again. Hank’s hole looked red and swollen, but still the sub groaned in pain when he wasn’t filled. Alyson’s stimulant had helped, but Ian hadn’t slept, and after six hours of non-stop fucking, he knew he needed a break.

“Come on, boy, to the playroom.” Ian slapped Hank on the ass and led him inside. He stumbled and the room spun. He needed some sleep, but he couldn’t leave Hank like this. Ian had tried to get him to sleep a little after his last orgasm, but after a few minutes Hank woke, pressing his erection into Ian’s thigh and begging once more.

Ian pulled the fucking machine out of the corner. He didn’t bind Hank onto it, just ordered him to straddle it and hold on. With a judicious application of lube, he set the medium-sized dildo on the second slowest setting. Ian turned around and tilted Hank’s head up. “I want you to come whenever you can, understand me, boy? This is your command.”

“Yes, master.” Hank’s cheeks were pink and his forehead beaded with sweat. He closed his eyes and moaned in bliss.

Ian dropped into a soft chair, setting an alarm to wake him in a half hour. He needed a few minutes just to rest. “I’m sorry,” he whispered before dropping off.

The beeping eventually woke him, but Ian didn’t know how long it had been going on before it finally drew him out of sleep. He blinked open his eyes and nearly cried out at the sight of Hank still writhing on the end of the fucking machine. Ian staggered over there and turned the machine off.

“Henry? Are you all right?” Ian pushed back Hank’s sweaty hair.

Electric blue eyes bore through him. “Master, please, I need…”

“Oh, Henry.” Ian helped him off of the device. Hank couldn’t stand on his feet and fell to his knees. How much longer would he have to suffer?

Not long, it turned out. Ian fucked him once more, and this time, when Hank groaned out his orgasm, he didn’t grow hard again. Hank curled up right on the floor of the playroom and passed out. Ian dropped down next to him, out of breath. He’d need to call the Healer, make sure Hank was okay. Right now, he'd let Hank get some rest.

***

Hank opened his eyes and found himself staring at tan carpet. Why had he gone to sleep on the floor? He tried to push himself up to his knees, but winced as every muscle in his body cramped up.

“Easy. Let me help you.” Ian’s hands were on him and that immediately made Hank feel better. His muscles eased and he was able to stand. “I’ve prepared a bath. Then we can go to the Healers.”

“The Healers…” Hank was about to ask why, but then the entire night came back, in dark, flashing images. He remembered heat and desire, being so caught up that it was only Ian’s touch that brought him out of the haze of lust. “Oh. Thank you.”

Ian recoiled. “Why in Harmony’s name are you thanking me?”

He was angry. A pit formed in Hank’s belly. The last thing he ever wanted to do what make his master angry. That was bad, very bad. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Shit. The Subservien is still. . .” Ian shook his head. “Come, boy, let’s get you in the bath.”

The word ‘boy’ caused warmth to flood him. Hank liked how it sounded, affectionate in Ian’s mouth. It helped dispel the bad feeling caused by Ian’s anger. He followed his master and let Ian help him into the bath. The warm water felt good, but still not as good as Ian’s hands on him, especially when Ian washed his hair for him.

Hank closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. It made him feel sleepy and sated, chasing all the aches away.

“You’re quiet,” Ian said after a while, rinsing the last bit of soap with the shower head.

Hank shrugged. “What do you want me to say?”

He didn’t know why those words made Ian’s forehead crinkle up like that.

“Come. Let’s dry you off and get you to the Healers.”

Hank would rather have stayed in the bath, but he didn’t disobey. Especially when Ian seemed keen on doing the drying off himself. The towel was warm and fluffy, and Ian’s hands just felt good, even with the soft fabric between them.

“Get dressed and I’ll meet you in the sitting room.”

Hank blinked. “What should I wear?” He asked before leaving the bath, holding on to the doorway. It felt wrong to go so far from his master.

Ian frowned at him, that furrow appearing in his forehead once more. “Your blue tunic and trousers.”

He hoped that outfit was clean. Hank didn’t want to disappoint Ian if it wasn’t and he had to come back and ask for another selection. As he dressed, Hank thought that something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t explain it. It felt like he was stuck in a fog, with the rest of the world a little bit hazy when he tried to look too closely.

Ian joined him, having dried and dressed himself. Hank felt a pang at that. It should be his job to ensure his master was well taken care of. He bit his tongue before saying such a thing, however.

“They’re expecting us, let’s go.”

Hank waited for Ian to lead before following him out in the corridor. He pulled at the fabric of his shirt, not liking how it scratched against his skin.

“Henry?” Ian asked once they got into the lift. “Do you remember anyone giving you something odd at the banquet?”

He didn’t quite understand. “What do you mean?”

“You were drugged, boy. That’s why. . .last night.” Ian stared at the wall of the lift, tracing the ivy pattern cut into the marble. “Whoever it was gave you far too much.”

Perhaps that explained the haze in his mind. Hank frowned, trying to remember the banquet. “I shared food with some subs in the kitchen.” He recalled the taste of something sweet, although Hank couldn’t remember what.

“Which subs?”

The memory wouldn’t hold still. “I don’t know. I’m sorry, sir.” He made to fall to his knees – he couldn’t even answer a simple question!

“Henry, Henry, no, please.” Ian took Henry’s arm and preventing him from kneeling. “It’s the drugs, Hank. The Healers will help, I promise.”

Hank trusted Ian. He didn’t understand exactly what the drugs had done to him, but if Ian said the Healers would help, then they would.

Once they found their way there, he was ushered into a private room, away from his master. That made Hank’s heart thump too fast. Why were they separating him from Ian? He couldn’t ask.

The healer had him lie down on an examination table and ran an IV line to his arm. “Hello, sub Henry. I’m Healer Alyson and this is my sub, Alexis. We met briefly before coming to Pasdar, but you’ve been lucky enough not to need my services before now.” She had a friendly smile and lovely red hair. Her sub smiled too and kept a gentle hand on Hank’s arm.

Hank still wanted Ian.

“Do you know what happened to you?”

“Ian said I was drugged.”

She nodded. “That’s right. You were given a cocktail of two drugs. One was an aphrodisiac, which I’m sure you remember the effects of.”

Hank could feel his face heating. She knew then, exactly what he and Ian had to do the night before. “Yes, mistress.”

“The other one is a bit tricky. It’s called Subservien. It helps subs who aren’t able to quite embrace their submission.”

He frowned. Something bothered him about that. “Like the chain collar?”

She shuddered – so slightly, but enough that Hank noticed. “Not quite. Subservien has a counter agent, and it can be used for something a simple as a single scene. There are a number of good, practical uses for it.” Alyson sighed. “But it’s never given in the amount I found in your system.”

“Is that why I feel so. . .weird.” He didn’t know how else to describe it. Hank knew something was wrong, but only Ian could fix it.

“I suppose that’s one way to describe it. The drug alters your personality – makes you more dependent on your master.”

Maybe that was why he needed Ian so badly. Hank started to tremble, feeling out of sorts having to speak to the healer on his own.

“Henry, I gave you the counter agent, but it didn’t seem to help.”

“What does that mean?” Whatever it was hadn’t worked.

“I’m going to try flushing your system with fluids. If that doesn’t work. . .I’m worried the drug did permanent damage, because you’re not originally from Harmony. The only thing we can do is wait and see.”

Hank could wait. He could be very patient when master wanted him to be. “All right.”

“I’d also think it a good idea if you saw a Soul Healer.” She moved to adjust the machinery hooked up to Hank.

He leaned back on the medical table and closed his eyes. “Whatever Ian wants.”

***

Dylan followed his mistress as they burst through the doors of the healing center. Ian looked like he was trying to single-handedly wear a hole in the carpet by the furious way he was pacing. This place had changed the most dramatically since Adrian’s exile.

Before, this room had been nothing but a wall of beds, where healers moved from sub to sub, trying to heal as quickly as they could. Adrian had given them plenty of business. Dylan had spent his fair share of time here.

The queen’s changes had lightened the walls and added warm carpets. There were now private rooms, and plants around the seating areas. Overall it looked like a place to heal – both body and mind.

“Ian.” His mistress’s voice snapped the other man out of his mindless pacing.

“Mistress.” Ian stopped long enough to give a bow of respect. “Thank you for coming.”

She moved to take his hands in hers. “How is he?”

They’d received the message over the tele that morning. Ian had sounded harried and rushed, before asking her to meet them at the Healer’s. Dylan had no problem believing that someone had tried to poison Henry. Subservien had been used widely during Adrian’s reign. The thought of what he’d done while under it – of what he’d begged for – still made him shudder.

Ian sighed. “Not himself. He’s turned into a clinging, obsequious sub. And he’s quiet, so quiet.”

“Oh, Ian. Wait and see what Healer Alyson has to say.”

“Mistress. . .someone tried to hurt him. The drugs could have killed him.” Ian clenched his hands into fists. “I will demand retribution.”

“Justice first, advisor.” Her face changed and took on that look Dylan thought of as her princess face. Just the sight of it made him flush. She was so powerful, but like a good Dom, wielded that power with restraint. “But I will discover who did this. They will not go unpunished.”

“Hank said he shared food with some subs in the kitchen.”

Mistress looked at him and nodded. “We’ll start there.”

“Mistress, we also know Count Zachary has attempted to take Hank by force.” Ian looked just as fierce.

“We can’t accuse him just yet. I’ll send guards to investigate all of the four.”

“Thank you, mistress.”

The door slid open and Healer Alyson emerged, closing the door behind her. She held a slate in one hand. “Ian, may I speak with you?”

“You may speak in front of the princess and her sub. It may help in the investigation.”

Alyson grinned at him. “Spoken like a true former guard.” Then her face fell. “I’m flushing his system with fluids in the hope that will wash more the drug from his system. My greatest worry is that it’s done permanent harm.”

“In Harmony’s name. . .” Ian swore.

"That's why I'd like to send him to a Soul Healer. However, I'd like the command to come from you. He's still so focused on your approval."

Ian nodded. "I'll do whatever I need to help him."

"And you should make an appointment for yourself, too."

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

“I don’t see why I need to be here.” Ian rubbed his palms against his thighs, resisting the urge to get up and pace. “My sub is the one injured, not me.”

“And sub Henry is currently meeting with my sub, Tiffany.” Soul Healer Tim sat forward, clasping his hands between his knees. He turned his intense gaze onto Ian.

Ian turned away from those eyes and stared out the window that went from floor to ceiling and looked out over the gardens. The Domain of the soul healers should have been relaxing and soothing. Instead, everything grated on his nerves. The water babbling down the wall fountain sounded brash and loud. There were far too many plants and the cushions of the couch were too soft.

“Then what do you want of me?”

Tim let out a little sigh. It seemed Ian tried even his patience. “I’m here to help you, Ian.”

Ian pushed himself to his feet and stood before the window. There were two squirrels playing on the branch of one tree. “So tell me what you think I need help with.”

“Let’s talk about Henry.”

Ian closed his eyes and leaned his head against the glass. “Henry has been damaged.”

“Made more submissive,” Tim pointed out. “Some Doms would not have a problem with that.”

Ian whirled. “I am not one of them!”

“So if Henry can never return to the way he was, you’d cast him off?”

“No! Never!” Ian swore.

“Then you must learn to accept Henry as he is, while giving him the help he needs.”

Ian sank back onto the couch. “That’s why I’m here, then.”

Tim didn't say anything for a moment. He seemed to be mulling words over in his head and Ian wished he would just spit it out. "You and Henry came together after an unusual situation, correct?"

He couldn't help it. Ian laughed. "That's one way of putting it." Everyone had witnessed Ian staking his claim for Henry at the Choosing. It had been broadcast over the tele and had threatened the agreement with the UP. In retrospect, he probably should have tried something lower profile than that.

Tim smiled. "I refer to the fact that Henry wasn't born in Harmony. He came to his sub nature late in life."

No, before Ian, Henry had been a soldier, a warrior fighting against the Confed before coming here. He'd lived a life so different from everything Ian had known in Harmony. Ian still felt guilt about pulling Hank away from that life in his own desperation to keep the man his sub.

"That's correct." Ian swallowed, looking down at his hands.

"In Harmony, a sub is part of a family. They are trained, for the most part, at a schola, and have a network of other subs to call friends." Tim gestured with his hands, as if trying to visibly display this network. "Henry doesn't have that. You are all he has."

Ian had never thought of it quite like that. He'd never had a sub for longer than a week before. None of the subs on the market had ever appealed to him, so he'd contented himself to spending time with various red bands on temporary contracts. Ah, but Henry. There had been something about Hank from the moment Ian met him – a spark that all other subs lacked. In his quest to keep Henry, Ian hadn't seriously considered what that had meant – to have a long term relationship with a sub.

He simply didn't think that a sub would have friends other than his master. Of course, it made sense when Tim laid it out like that. Henry wouldn't have known to ask for time either. He'd followed Ian's lead in all things Harmony.

“Henry has friends from the UP, back at their base.” Ian said it to cover his shame. He’d neglected something so essential to his sub without even thinking about it.

“Of course. But now that his world has changed, I think it would be an excellent idea if he develops friendships with other subs. However, the suggestion must come from you.” Tim looked very serious. “Perhaps encourage him to become more familiar with sub Dylan. He, too, is a newcomer in the princess’s circle.”

“That makes sense.” And it wouldn’t be like Ian was pushing him away. It would be a task, something that Henry in his altered submissive state would like.

“You must be prepared to take a firmer hand with Henry now. He needs the structure, but he doesn’t know what he needs.”

Ian nodded. He would do whatever he could. “Can you help me?”

Tim smiled. “I have a few suggestions.”

***

"Will you think on what I've said, Henry?"

"Yes, sub Tiffany." Hank pulled at the collar of his shirt. The fabric was just so itchy. He wished he could take it off, but Ian had picked out these clothes for him today and Hank couldn't go against what Ian wanted.

"Just Tiffany, remember?" She grinned at him. The Soul Healer had a lovely smile and bright eyes. She sat curled up across from him in her own nest of fluffy pillows. Hank hadn't wanted to sit on the couches. It felt wrong – that was where Ian was supposed to sit.

"Then it's Hank, please." The words spilled from his lips before he had time to think about them. It's what he always told friends to call him. Tiffany wasn't a friend exactly, not yet.

“All right, Hank. I’ll send my list of recommended reading to your tele account. Do you have any other questions?”

Hank frowned, curling his arm around his knees, hugging them closer to his chest. “Do you think you can help put me back together?”

Tiffany leaned forward and touched his ankle. “Oh, Hank. You’re not broken. You’re just not seeing things very clearly right now. But, yes, I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

There was a chime at the door before it slid open, revealing Soul Healer Tim, Tiffany’s master, followed by Ian. Just the sight of Ian calmed the nerves that constantly roiled in his belly. Even in the presence of the Soul Healer, Hank had been unable to calm his agitation.

“Are you finished, Tiffany?”

She moved gracefully to her feet. “Just finishing up, Master. Hank, you are free to go.”

He stood, not nearly so smoothly. “Thank you.” He tried to smile at her, but couldn’t really move his gaze from Ian.

Ian looked thoughtful. Hank was glad that worry line had gone from Ian’s forehead, but he couldn’t quite make out the look in those eyes.

“Come along, boy. We have some work to do.”

Hank didn’t quite know what that meant. As far as he knew, while he was ‘sick,’ he and Ian had been given time off from working for the princess. He knew he wasn’t any good to her right now, unable to leave Ian’s side for very long and still so uncertain about everything.

Ian waited until they got back to their chambers before explaining. That was all right. It was a master’s prerogative, and it certainly wasn’t something Hank would want anyone else to overhear. Part of his mind wanted Ian all to himself, although he knew he had no real right to that. Hank wanted to serve his master, and sank to his knees just as the chamber doors slid shut behind them.

“I’ve done you a great disservice, Henry.” Ian clasped his hands behind his back.

Hank’s lips formed the word no, but he didn’t speak.

“For now all I can do to remedy it is give you some new rules to follow in our daily routine. I expect them followed to the letter.”

Yes. This was exactly what Hank wanted. He crawled forward and pressed his lips to Ian’s shoes. “Thank you, sir.”

Ian touched his head briefly before stepping away. He crouched near the bed and pulled out a slim pallet from underneath. “This is where you will sleep from now on, unless I explicitly invite you onto the bed.”

“Yes, sir.” The hair on the back of Hank’s neck prickled. He felt like he was being given a special gift and it felt good.

“Stand up and strip for me. Quickly.”

It was a relief to get out of those clothes. Hank all but ripped them off. Finally, he was bare and free of that unbearable itching. Ian stepped close and ran his fingers over the red marks on Hank’s neck. “What is this?”

Hank flexed his fingers and tried not to scratch. “The clothes are itchy, sir.”

Ian made a little face, and then smoothed his expression. “The next rule – if something is causing you discomfort – bad pain – I want you to tell me immediately. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Hank nodded. His breathing sped up as Ian stroked his hands along Hank’s abs and pecs, pausing to tweak at the nipple rings.

“I’m going to give you a gift.” Ian pulled out what looked like straps of leather from a drawer. Hank remained still as Ian dressed him with it – the straps turned out to be a harness that crisscrossed Hank’s chest, around his nipples, and buckled in the back. He heard the snick of a lock being slid into place and knew that Ian had locked the straps around his body. “Whenever I’m not around you, this harness will be holding you tightly, as if it were my own hands.”

Hank shivered. Ian’s words did something to him. It was more than just the feel of the leather on his skin, or the way it smelled – rich and warm. He felt almost hazy, like after drinking a few beers, just enough to give him a nice buzz.

“Now this.” Ian cupped Hank’s cock in one hand and stroked it gently. It twitched, but didn’t harden. Hank had seemed depleted since coming down off the aphrodisiac. “This belongs to me, correct, Henry?”

“Yes, sir.” Hank answered in a hoarse voice.

Ian wrapped something around it. Hank looked down as Ian snapped the object around the base of Hank’s cock. It looked like a little black balloon that covered him from shaft to tip. “You require my permission to get hard. You even need to ask me when you need to piss, understand?”

Hank couldn’t explain the warmth that formed in his groin. It was almost like arousal, but without the swelling of his dick. “Yes, sir.” He licked his lips. “Will you fuck me while I’m wearing it?” He immediately winced, fearing punishment. He should not question his master.

Ian took Hank’s chin between his fingers and forced Hank to meet his eyes. “I will. But not today.”

Hank moaned. “Thank you, sir.”

“Oh, Hank.” Ian cupped Hank’s cheek in one hand. He pressed their mouth together and bit down on Hank’s lower lip. “Suck me off,” he ordered, his face looking determined.

Hank slid to his knees. He couldn’t wait to have Ian in his mouth – to taste him on his tongue, breathe in nothing but his master. Everything was exactly as it should be.

***

Dylan pressed himself closer to his mistress’s feet, his head lowered, but his gaze flickering to Count Mark who sat across from them. There was a Tournabout board set up on the table between them, but the game was moving rather slowly. This wasn’t why mistress had showed up at the count’s estate, but Mark had invited her to a game and she’d accepted.

The count’s sitting room was just like him – bold and brash. All of the furniture and wall hangings were in strong colors – reds and black and solid browns. Mark himself was dressed in black, showing up in contrast to the tan chair he sprawled in. His sub knelt at his feet, wearing the simple one shoulder tunic that was common on sub women. She’d winked at Dylan when he’d sunk to his knees. He didn’t return the gesture.

“I assume this isn’t a social call, Princess.” Mark leaned forward and picked up one of the pieces on the table – a lioness with glowing blue eyes. He rolled it between his fingers for a moment, a smirk on his mouth, before placing it back on a square.

Mistress gestured and one of her own pieces galloped forward to lick the muzzle of the lioness. Both creatures' eyes switched to a matching green. “No, Count. It is not.”

Mark grinned. “I suppose you have good news for me, then?”

She blinked at him, hand upraised. “Why would you think that?”

“There have been no more events called, no more late night banquets. I assume you’ve made your choice and have come to speak to each of us privately. Since none of my compatriots have called to gloat, I assume I am the first you’re meeting with.”

The count had come to exactly the wrong conclusion. Dylan was looking forward to his mistress shutting him down. Count Mark hadn’t been the worst of Dylan’s tormenters when he was part of Adrian’s court. No, he had just been one of the more creative.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Count.” Though by the gleam in her eyes, anyone could see that the princess wasn’t sorry at all.

“Who is it then?” Mark clutched the arms of his chair tightly. “Who did I lose to?”

“You haven’t lost at all. Not yet. I haven’t made a choice, Count. I’ve come to share some rather discomforting news with you.” She sat back in her chair and crossed her legs, looking like the royal she was. “One of my advisor’s subs was poisoned at the banquet in the Ducal palace two nights ago.”

“Poisoned?” Either Mark was a very good actor, or he was genuinely startled by the princess’s words.

“It was sub Henry – the sub from the stars, you may recall. Someone slipped him a cocktail of drugs including Subservien. It did not mix well with his alien heritage.”

“Is he dead?” Mark leaned forward, eyes narrowing.

She shook her head. “No.” The princess didn’t elaborate further. Good, keep him in the dark. “I’m investigating why anyone would want to hurt a sub under my protection.”

He barked out a laugh – a harsh, rueful noise. “You think it was one of us? Surely you know I wouldn’t risk everything for some petty fun with a sub.” He ran his fingers through the blond locks of the sub at his side.

“Perhaps your sub saw something in the kitchens.” Mistress gestured to the girl.

“Is that how it was done?” Mark said in a low tone, as if to himself. “Well, girl, did you see anything?”

She looked up from lowered lashes, but Dylan couldn’t shake the idea that her submissiveness was nothing but an act. “We were all sharing food that night. I can’t remember anything suspicious, sir.”

“Very good, girl.” Mark turned back to the princess. “Perhaps you should make inquires of Count Zachary. He was more than passing fond of sub Henry, as I recall. But before you speak to him. . .”

Alona leaned forward, almost despite herself. “Yes?”

“You might want to find out what he’s doing at the prisons. He goes down there nearly every day. Or so I’ve been told.”

Mistress smiled, though it was icy and cold, nothing like her usual warm grin. “Thank you, Count Mark, you’ve been most helpful.”

“I hope that you remember that when it comes to choosing a duke.”

Mistress stood and snapped her fingers, the signal for both Dylan and Dourdan to rise with her. “Oh, but I won’t be choosing a duke, you see. After sub Henry was targeted, I thought it best to use his suggestion. There will be a vote, Count Mark. And everyone in Pasdar – Dom or sub – will have a say.” She made for the door. “Thank you again for your help. Have a good day.”

Dylan looked back in time to see the dark cloud that settled over Mark’s face. She’d routed the bastard but good. Finally they were about to realize exactly who they were dealing with. Princess Alona might be young, but she was the queen’s daughter.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Hank didn’t want Ian to pick up on how nervous he was. Without the harness and chastity device, he felt bare. But they’d have to stay off for now, since today he was going out with subs Dylan and Dourdan. Hank guessed they might be going to the groomers since that seemed a popular pastime among subs.

“Have you decided on what you want to wear?” Ian had ordered him to pick something from the closet.

It was getting easier to make his own choices now – as long as Ian ordered him first. Tiffany said they would learn to work around that eventually.

Hank remembered that it wasn’t always like this. He wasn’t always like this. But just the thought of disobeying made him grow nauseous and ill. “I’ll wear the kilt.” He pointed to his selection, just in case Ian decided it was unsuitable.

Ian was frowning. “Is that your choice because you think it will make me happy?”

They’d had this discussion before. Hank wasn’t supposed to guess about what made Ian happy. “No,” he answered, and it was the truth. “Too much clothing still . . . itches.”

Ian frowned deeper. “Mention that to the healers at our next appointment. It should be fading soon.” He pulled out the leather kilt and handed it to Hank. “If you end up leaving the palace, take a cloak. It’s still rather cold outside.”

“Yes, sir.” As if Hank would forget something so basic. He’d only go without if Ian ordered him to.

“If you return early, just remain in our chambers and wait for me. You may attend to your needs when necessary.” Ian looked so tired. Hank opened his mouth to offer something to help – a massage or perhaps a quick fuck – when the door chimed.

Hank dressed quickly, snapping the kilt around his waist and slipping into a pair of matching sandals. Ian gave the door the command and it slid open, revealing the two subs on the other side. They were dressed similarly to Hank, so he didn’t feel quite out of place. However something about them showing up like this to pick him up made him feel like a child whose friends came around asking if Hank could come out and play.

“Take good care of my Hank.” Ian told them, his words making Hank blush. Master had called him ‘my Hank.’ He belonged to Ian and no one else.

“We will, sir.” Dourdan grinned.

Hank didn’t realize they were going to the public baths until Dourdan led them off of the lift. He hesitated just outside the disrobing room. He’d always been uncomfortable with the idea – worried that some other Dom would make a play for him while he was wet and slippery. Hank had since learned that wasn’t necessarily done, though with the memory of Count Zachary’s ploy fresh in his mind he wasn’t so sure about the propriety of the other Doms in Pasdar.

“Don’t worry. We’re the only ones here.” Dourdan had already slipped out of his sandals. “My mistress allows only her staff to use the baths in the palace and I just checked – everyone else is on duty.”

Hank stepped into the tiled room. The little green and gold squares formed a mosaic on the floor, a pattern of three circles that intersected each other. “Then what are we? On vacation?”

“It’s a treat. Try to enjoy it. You too, Dylan.”

Dylan rolled his eyes, but didn’t comment, just started to strip off his clothing. Hank followed suit, watching them closely. He didn’t know the etiquette for naked bathing with fellow subs. This wasn’t like the open showers at the barracks, where you just averted your eyes and tried not to drop the soap.

They placed their clothes in little cubbies built into the wall. The tile was chilly against Hank’s bare toes, but warmed the longer he walked. He followed carefully as they moved to the next room, where Dourdan grabbed a shower hose and began to rinse himself off. This room was bigger and smelled wet, like the pool on the Mercury. This, Hank supposed, was where they did the real cleaning, before getting into the actual baths.

“You’ve never been to the baths before?” Dylan asked. He gazed at Hank with too serious eyes.

“I’m not a big fan of stripping for strangers.”

Dylan laughed, but there was no joy in it. “Adrian sent us here when he wanted to pass us around. It looks different since the queen came.”

“Much is different since the queen came,” Dourdan snapped. Hank guessed he didn’t like Dylan bringing up Adrian.

Dylan had been Adrian’s sub for ten years. That was bound to fuck with you. Hank had seen for himself the kinds of things Adrian had been capable of. He still saw the body of the dead sub being carried out at Adrian’s trial. Harmony had blessed him with Ian for a master.

After rinsing themselves off they were allowed through a giant set of double doors that parted as their approach. Inside, Hank took a deep breath, getting strong scents of cinnamon and mint. There were plants all around the room and sunlight streamed in from the skylights. As far at the eye could see there were various water features – tubs and fountains, and what Hank guessed was a pool.

“Can I swim in that?” He pointed.

“Of course. I’m going to soak, myself.” Dourdan slid into a round tub of bubbling water. It looked inviting, too, but Hank wanted to get a few laps in. If he’d known he could do that here, he might have found the public baths a bit sooner.

The water was cool when he climbed in, and at a good depth. Hank did a few laps of the breaststroke before pushing himself off the wall onto his back. He intended to backstroke, but ended up floating, staring up at the blue sky through the clear roof.

He was enjoying himself, and he was doing it without Ian. The thought was a little traitor in his mind, the part that said his master was all. But Ian had wanted him to go, so enjoying himself must be what Ian had intended. That kept the worried sickness away and allowed Hank to keep floating, savoring the feeling of weightlessness.

When he finally climbed out of the pool onto the tiled floor that had a few inches of water on it, Hank stopped in his tracks. Dylan leaned against the wall of the hot tub and Dourdan was standing between his spread legs, peppering kisses all along the other sub’s throat.

“Is that allowed?” Hank blurted without thinking. He expected the two to spring apart.

Instead Dourdan turned toward him and gave him a smoldering look. “It’s not unusual among the subs of a royal. And yes, sub Henry, we have permission.”

“Hank,” he corrected. “Call me Hank.”

Hank found another hot tub to climb into – not like there wasn’t a score or more to choose from – to give them some semblance of privacy. Though maybe they wanted to be watched? This was Harmony and he didn’t quite understand how everyone seemed to be very fond of public sex. He closed his eyes and sank into the heat, sitting on a bench built into the wall. The water felt so good against his muscles.

“You’re too quiet.”

Hank made a face. “I thought you were too busy getting it on.” He sank a little further into the water.

When he looked up, Dylan was leaning over the edge of the pool. “I wanted to thank you for your help.”

Hank smiled. “It’s my job. Used to be my job. Are you leaving with the other subs?” He knew that the princess would be taking the subs in exile to be transported to the UP base soon. Time had gotten away from him, so he wasn’t quite sure when that was going to happen.

Dylan bit his lip. “I don’t think so.”

That was news. Everyone thought Dylan was going to be the first one on that tram. Or at least, they did at one time. Hank was a little out of touch with sub gossip.

“You’ve found your place with mistress.” Dourdan joined them. “You no longer need to reject your sub nature.”

“Are we going to argue philosophy in front of Hank?”

“Philosophy or faith?”

Hank felt like he only understood half of the conversation. “This sounds a little deep for me.”

“It’s something you should be aware of.” Dourdan gave him a small smile. “All subs should have been taught these things during training.”

Dylan clasped his hands together. “Regardless of how it’s been applied in Pasdar so far, he’s right. It’s been a long time since I studied philosophy, however.”

Hank remembered Countess Kyra’s little lecture series. He hadn’t attended many – being far too focused on his real job, which was scouting the general populace for their views. “Can you give me a quick run down?”

Dourdan laughed. “You’d need to speak to a scholar for anything in depth. Know that the path of submission is a gift to all subs. It brings us closer to Harmony herself and to the divine.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Dylan interrupted. “There are many who reject the idea, including that of the queen’s primary as high priest.”

“That rejection is what has caused Pasdar to stray.” Dourdan grew serious. “Subs have been abused, their very natures twisted against them. You have found your way back to the path, Dylan. It is tied to your own soul.”

Dylan looked less than pleased about that. “So you don’t agree with the subs who want asylum?”

“Those who want to leave are straying from their path. But they can never escape themselves. They’ll never be happy outside of Harmony.”

This argument sounded a lot like the readings Hank had been assigned by Tiffany. He hadn’t even so much as looked at them yet, but he realized he needed to make that a priority. “What about me? I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t meant to be a sub.”

Both men turned to regard him. It was Dourdan who spoke first. “But all roads brought you to us, Hank. Your destiny was to come here and find your true nature.”

Hank laughed. This philosophy stuff might be interesting, but it was ludicrous to think that when he joined the military in his teens that he was meant to find this planet in the middle of nowhere and become one of their subs. “I don’t really believe in destiny.”

“It’s a good thing destiny believes in you, then, Hank.”

***

Ian couldn’t shake the feeling that he was betraying Hank by doing this without him. But right now Henry was in no shape to act. He couldn’t make the most basic decisions without Ian’s direction first. Every day Henry was getting a little bit better, a little bit more like himself. But they still had such a long way to go.

He stared out the window of the tram, watching the towers and bridges of Harmony fly by. The princess sat at the head of the vehicle, looking stern in her dark jumpsuit with her blond hair tied in a knot at the base of her neck. Guards filled the other seats, waiting for her command. This was a mission of secrecy and importance.

As they landed, the princess stood and addressed the tram. “My informants have told me that Count Zachary is only twenty minutes ahead of us. Advisor Ian and I will go ahead first. I want the guards to stay back until I call for you. He must not be aware we are following him.”

“Mistress, I implore you to at least take another guard with you.” Captain Reddick stood. “We don’t know what treachery Zachary is up to.”

She nodded. “Very well. You may choose my escort. We must move quickly and discretely.”

The captain nodded to a woman seated across from Ian. “Guard Gina. You accompany the princess.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ian clenched his fists and released them slowly. He was eager to move forward. If they found evidence that Zachary was the one who had harmed Henry then he wanted the first opportunity at the count.

“Let’s move.” Alona gave the order.

They left the tram. Ian could hear the ocean’s pulsing waves this close to the city’s outer wall. The smell of salt and fish were heavy in the air. He touched the weapon at his waist – still allowed to carry one due to his status as former guard – and hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. No, he wanted to beat Zachary with his own hands.

They were met at the gateway by a man wearing a blue cloak. “Mistress.” He bowed at Alona’s approach. “I am Lord Finn, director of this prison.”

The prisons. Why on earth was Zachary slumming here? Ian eyed the heavy stone façade. It looked so innocuous unless you knew exactly what went on beyond these doors. He’d had to escort prisoners to the one in the royal district, on the rare occasion that it had been warranted. Ian had never ventured within.

“Thank you for meeting us, Lord Finn. Has he gone inside?”

“He’s already entered the lift. You’re right behind him. If you’ll allow me to guide you?”

“Of course.”

They passed the gateway into the first level, which was as well appointed as any room in Harmony – comfortable chairs, Dumb Waiters on the walls, and even cushions for subs. Those who worked in the prison still deserved a respite from the darkness within.

Alona turned to the captain of her guard. “After we descend, wait ten minutes and then follow. If I need you sooner I’ll signal.”

Reddick didn’t look happy, but he didn’t protest.

The lift doors opened to reveal a dark and dreary place. The smell of the ocean was stronger down here and Ian realized they were beyond the city walls, exiting into one of the many caves that went beneath Harmony and opened out into the sea. The walls were dark, unpolished stone with bars between them and the cells of the wretches who lived here. At this time of day they’d all be working in the mines, gathering the material to keep the city powered and the food replicators working.

Guards were positioned at various corridors and immediately Ian saw they led to the mines. He heard nothing but the hum of the mining machinery and the occasional grunt or moan. The prisoners all wore the collar of the unwilling, so there was no need for the guards to do more than watch.

“Did Count Zachary pass this way?” Ian couldn't imagine what Zachary wanted. Perhaps something in the mines?

“He comes every day with a small crate, and then passes through this corridor to the opening to the ocean.” Finn spoke in a low voice as they approached. Ian could see the sunlight streaming into the dark cavern.

“What in Harmony’s name?” Alona murmured.

It took them a few moments when they emerged into the sunlight to adjust their eyes. They stood on a cliff that overlooked the dark blue waters, with a set of stairs cut into the side. Ian looked over and could see Zachary sitting on a ledge closer to the beach, with another person by his side, the crate opened and food spread out like a damned picnic.

“Adrian.” Alona whispered. “He’s been feeding him.”

When the former duke had been transformed into a sub and exiled into the wilderness outside Harmony, he’d been expected to either die of starvation or return begging for the collar. Instead, it seemed he’d found another way to survive. Ian nodded at Guard Gina and they unhooked their weapons before making their way down the steep stairs.

She struck first, firing the stunner off and causing Adrian to collapse onto the floor. Ian preferred to get his hands dirty instead. He grasped Zachary by the labels of his coat and slammed the count against the wall of the cliff face.

“Traitor!” Ian slammed his fist into Zachary’s face. “Why? Damn you, why?”

“Ian!” Alona’s voice held him back from punching the count yet again.

Zachary spat out blood. “I’m no traitor. I’m loyal to my duke.”

“A man who killed subs for his own power.” Alona’s voice was colder than the breeze coming off the ocean.

“He didn’t deserve to starve!”

“No.” Finn stepped forward. “What he deserves is the collar of the unwilling.” The prison master held such a collar in his hands. He put it around Adrian’s unresisting neck and then he and Gina lifted the unconscious man and started to carry him up the stairs. The former duke would wake up in a jail cell.

“Why did you poison Henry?” Ian demanded. He needed to know.

Zachary laughed and Ian nearly punched him again. He mollified himself by slamming Zachary against the wall.

“You think I’m the one who drugged your mouthy little sub?”

“You’re the one who tried to take him from me. And then he shut you down.” Ian shook Zachary again.

“And then I wanted nothing to do with him. Why would I want to call your attention to me?”

Damn him, that made sense. Zachary wouldn’t want the princess to grow suspicious of him and find out that he was harboring Adrian. But if he hadn’t poisoned Hank, then who had?

“But.” Zachary smirked. “You might want to question Countess Kyra.”

“Kyra? Why?” Alona commanded.

“She said something about punishing that uppity little sub who dared to suggest policy at the banquet.”

Ian exchanged a look with the princess, who nodded. They would definitely be paying the countess a visit.

He pushed Zachary back up the steps and into the hands of the guards waiting for them. There would be a trial, but it was now out of Ian’s hands. He still burned for vengeance. They just needed to find the right criminal.

***

The trip to Countess Kyra’s estate was silent and tense. Ian gripped the rails along the roof of the tram so hard he thought he heard the metal crack. He could never recall being this angry. All of his training as a Dom had been dedicated to taking control of his emotions. Entering a scene with rage on his mind was the worst possible thing he could do.

But he wasn’t entering a scene now. Ian pictured himself throttling Kyra, shaking her so hard her head rattled. How dare she hurt his Hank? His beautiful, vocal, independent Hank. And why? Why would she do such a thing?

“We must apprehend the countess as soon as we arrive.” Alona addressed the tram. “Like Adrian, she might take any opportunity to escape.”

“How will we get her to tell us the truth?” Ian gritted his teeth. His heart pounded loudly and his pulse raced. She’d deny it, cool as a cucumber, and they had no proof other than Zachary’s mocking comment.

“I'll be able to request use of the truth machine from Mother.” She gave Ian a firm nod. “We will see justice done.”

“For Hank,” Ian murmured.

“For Hank,” she agreed.

Alona called up the tele and ordered it to show her Kyra's location. A map of the city appeared, and then zoomed in to show the countess's estate. The princess commanded the tram to land at the closest terrace. The guards accompanied them as Ian and Alona stormed the building. It reminded Ian of when he'd joined the force that took down Adrian. Then he and Hank had gone in beside the queen and Commander Morgan. Ian missed both of them right now – both were impressive personalities, people who seemed like they could accomplish anything.

"Mistress, can I assist you? Our mistress is currently in the middle of a scene..." A sub came up to them and stuttered out her request. She twisted her hands as she spoke, unable to stop from eying the large number of guards.

Alona smiled at the sub. "I'm afraid this cannot wait. Please, lead us to the room."

The sub swallowed and then nodded. It seemed she feared the princess more than her own mistress, at least for the moment. She led them down a narrow corridor to a door that was barred shut. Ian didn't like the hallway; they couldn't get the entire guard through it at once.

Alona placed her palm on the door, not bothering to chime for admittance. "Harmony, let us through, please."

To Ian's surprise, that worked, and the door slid open. He followed on the heels of the princess, unwilling to let her go forward unguarded. There were two guards behind him, and they flanked the room.

The first thing that hit Ian was the smell of blood. He wrinkled his nose, never one fond of bloodplay, though it had its uses. He focused on the two figures in the center of the room – the sub, wearing nothing but streaks of crimson, on his knees before Kyra who was dressed in a flowing white gown stained at the edges. She held a whip in one hand, but didn't lower it as they barged in.

"What is the meaning of this?" She snapped. "How dare you interrupt a scene?"

It was more than a breach of etiquette to do what they had done. Breaking into a scene was disturbing the sacred bond between master and sub. But if she had been the one to poison Hank, then she didn't understand the meaning of the bond.

"We've come on behalf of justice. Kyra, you have been accused of poisoning Henry, sub to Advisor Ian. How do you answer the charge?" Alona spoke calmly, ignoring the rest of the guards as they moved into the room.

Ian swore he saw triumph in Kyra's eyes – a flash of arrogance at Alona's words. "I've no idea what you're talking about."

"So you didn't tell the others that you were going to teach that uppity sub a lesson?"

The slip of emotion was gone from Kyra's face. "If I did, I surely never intended it to be taken as a threat."

As she spoke, her sub began to crawl away from his mistress, leaving smears of blood on the floor as he crept towards Alona. He reached out a hand and touched the princess’s boot. “You can grant me asylum, like the other subs, right?”

“Shut your mouth!” Kyra hissed.

Ian didn’t even notice the device in her hand. It was Guard Gina who reacted, darting forward to slap it out of the countess’s fingers. When it clattered to the floor, they all recognized the collar controller.

“We’ve seen that trick before!” Gina snapped. Ian had been there when Adrian had tried to strangle the queen’s son. It seems Kyra followed Adrian in more ways than just philosophy.

“Speak,” Alona told the sub. Two other guards had moved to restrain Kyra.

“She gave me the drugs, told me to slip it in some food. She made me.” The sub’s voice had gone raw.

“You’ll swear to it?”

“I will.”

“He’s a liar.” Kyra held herself very still, as if conscious of her dignity even when being held by two guards. “They’re all liars.”

Rage burned in Ian’s belly. She was just as filled with blasphemy as Adrian had been. Doms were charged with guarding and protecting their subs, not denigrating them. And she was the one who’d hurt Henry. She had to pay.

As if reading his mind, Alona put her hand on Ian’s arm. “Take her to a cell in the palace. We’ll have a proper trial.”

“You’re not worthy of judging me!” Kyra snapped, finally losing her cool.

“You had no right to harm my sub,” Ian shot back. “Consider yourself lucky she’s not just handing you over to me!”

***

Ian was waiting for him when Hank got back to their chambers. He’d spent an interesting day with the princess’s subs, discussing philosophy when they weren’t grooming or swimming or touring the sculpture garden. Hank had grinned at the sight of his master, eager to share his adventures. But the sight of Ian’s face stopped him cold.

Hank dropped to his knees on instinct. If master was angry, then he must have done something wrong. The sick feeling started in his belly again and he crawled to Ian’s feet, desperate to make up for it.

“Oh, no, boy, no. I’m not angry with you.” Ian took Hank’s chin and forced him to look up, stopping Hank from nuzzling at his boots.

“What is it?” Hank couldn’t even begin to guess what had put that look on Ian’s face. He trembled, still worried. He didn’t like it when Ian was angry.

“Countess Kyra was the one who drugged you.” The words dropped like a stone. “Her primary sub confessed and Alona had him hooked up to a truth machine, just to be sure.”

It took Hank a moment to understand Ian’s words. The drugs that had given them those twelve hours of hell, that had stolen his will from him – it had all been arranged by the countess. But why? “Not Count Zachary?”

Ian frowned. “No. Although he isn’t innocent either. We caught him feeding Adrian. Both of them are at the queen’s prison now.” He ran a hand through Hank’s hair. “We have the opportunity to face the countess before her trial. Alona is arranging it in the great hall now. Will you come?”

“Whatever my master wishes.” That’s what Hank fell back on when he couldn’t make a decision. He needed Ian to tell him what to do.

Ian’s shoulders dropped. “Then let’s get ready to go, then.”

Ian picked out formal attire for Hank, but fitted the harness on snugly beneath the tight fitting black shirt. As his fingers ran along the leather straps, he whispered in Hank’s ear: “Remember this is me, always around you.” Hank shivered as the locks snapped into place. The clothing reminded him of his military uniform, complete with tall black boots to match Ian’s. When it was all tugged into place, he felt more like himself, the darkness and sick feeling in the pit of his belly banished.

Hank didn’t know what to expect when they finally made it down to the great hall. The mood of the room was somber. Most of the wall hangings and other decorations had been put away, leaving nothing but a dimly lit room with hard backed chairs and pillows for seating. Alona stood alone on the dais at the front, where Adrian’s throne used to sit. Neither Dylan nor Dourdan were anywhere in sight.

She gave them both a nod as they entered. Ian led Hank to a seat behind the other advisors. Tiffany turned and gave him a tight smile. Hank was glad she was there, too. He dropped to his knees on the pillow, waiting for whatever this was to begin. Ian said this was before the trial, so Hank didn’t know if he’d have to testify there. He should have spent more time learning about Harmony’s justice system, but it was too late now.

“Bring her in.”

Two guards brought the countess in. She walked between them, her arms bound behind her back. There were red stains on the pale dress she wore, and it made Hank want to shrink back and hide. He didn’t know why – he’d never been especially squeamish before. The blood was clearly not hers.

Alona held out her hand and a tiny ball of light appeared. It fluttered out of her grasp and hovered a few feet above them. Hank belatedly recognized a tele broadcaster. This pre-trial would be for the entire district to see.

“Countess Kyra, of the Pasdar district, you have been charged with causing harm to another Dom’s sub. The evidence for this is the word of your own primary, sub Kevin.” Alona took a deep breath. She had her hands clasped in front of her as she stared down the countess.

“The sub overstepped his bounds. If his own master wasn’t about to step up and punish him, then I had to.” Was that her defense then? Hank didn’t see any lawyers around to argue for her. The countess could have used one, because that was one shitty argument.

“You broke the cardinal law of interfering with another master’s sub by your own words.” Alona remained calm. “That gives that Dom the right to demand your punishment.”

The countess went pale, but still a smile floated around her lips. “You think yourself superior to Master Adrian. Yet you are ignorant, you let your subs control you. Is it any wonder the queen exiled you here?”

Gasps came from the crowd. Hank couldn’t believe the countess had the audacity to speak like that. Or maybe she was just aware she had nothing left to lose.

“Your words prove that my presence here is necessary.” Alona remained cold, not showing a shred of emotion. She turned away from the countess and toward the crowd. “Advisor Ian. Kyra has wronged you. What punishment do you demand for her?”

Ian stood. “Mistress, I only ask for parity. Let it be done to her what she did to my sub. Give her the same drugs and let her suffer the consequences of her own actions.”

There were nods from the others, as if they approved. But Hank didn’t like it. He remembered the fever that raged through his system, how he couldn’t seem to be satisfied, no matter what Ian did to him. It had hurt - a pain that went beyond the physical discomfort into something like agony. This wasn’t justice, it was vengeance, and he couldn’t let Ian do it. He reached out and grasped Ian’s hand. “No.”

“Henry?” Ian turned to look at him. His eyes were wide and yet there was a smile on his face.

“You can’t,” Henry whispered. “If you do this – then you aren’t any better than she is. But you are, Ian. You’re so much more.”

Ian touched Hank's cheek briefly before turning back to the assembly. “Mistress, I retract my request. If my sub can forgive such a terrible wrong done to him, then I must as well. I give Kyra’s punishment over to the queen’s justice.”

Ian sat back down and all attention moved back to the princess. Hank put his head on Ian’s knee and closed his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“Oh, Henry,” Ian whispered back. “You’re almost you again.”

Not quite. Hank still didn’t feel exactly right. He hadn’t gotten sick, but he felt jittery, like he’d gotten a wicked case of the nerves. But he had been able to speak his mind and challenge his master. It was, at least, a start.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Ian hadn’t expected the idea of the vote to take off. But the people of Pasdar had embraced the idea, throwing themselves into election mode. He wondered if there was a soft spot for the idea because it had come from Hank, and the wrong done against him had resonated among the people of Pasdar.

Countess Halle and Count Mark were the only two left of the original four eligible to be elected. Two lesser nobles had stepped up to represent the districts of the disgraced Kyra and Zachary. Campaigning had been going fast and furious for days. The tele had non-stop coverage of the speeches and events the candidates were throwing in an attempt to gain the majority of the vote.

Hank himself seemed tickled at how the concept had been embraced. It was good to see him smiling and talking about other things without being lost in a submissive haze. He was almost like himself, though he was too quiet sometimes.

Ian still made Hank sleep on a pallet. His rationale was that when Hank demanded his place back in bed, then he’d be completely cured. The Soul Healer warned him that day might never come.

“Not running the tele?” Hank had just returned from his session with Tiffany. He dropped to his knees beside Ian.

Ian set down the slate he was flipping through. “I’ve had quite enough of the pleading for votes.”

Hank laughed. “Congrats, you’ve finally learned the truth about democracy.”

Ian grinned merely because Hank laughed. He didn’t give a fuck about whatever it was Hank had just said.

There was a chiming noise that had them both starting, looking for the source. It was Hank’s comm. Now that Ian had his own – a gift from Hank – he had to learn to get used to that sound.

Hank dug the device out of the bedside table and flipped a switch. “Tappen, here.”

“Hey, Tappen, it’s Whitfield.” Only the other man's voice came through; Hank hadn’t employed the holograph feature.

From the way Hank relaxed, Ian could tell the call wasn’t important. He didn’t know how Hank got that from the simple greeting, but he had. Hank hadn’t spoken to any of his friends from the ship since their visit back there, when the UP officials had asked Henry to spy on Harmony.

“What’s going on, man?”

“A few of us are due for some shore leave, and I was hoping you might want to show us around the city tonight.”

Hank frowned. “Who’s coming with you?”

“Just me, Chikezie and Gyllenhaal. Not going to throw the whole gang at ya.”

“All right. Hold on a minute, I need to check our schedule.” Hank very deliberately pressed a button on his device before turning to Ian. “Well?”

Ian nodded. “You may go if you wish.” He would not stop Hank from seeing his friends. He’d learned the hard way that he couldn’t be the center of his sub’s life.

“I was actually hoping you’d come with. You know the clubs around the Royal district much better than I do, and I wouldn’t want to bring them around Pasdar just yet.” Hank shrugged and looked down.

“Are you sure I’d be welcome?” Ian hadn’t been received very well back on the Mercury. Many of Hank’s friends blamed him for stealing Hank away.

Hank smiled. “I’ll make sure you are.”

Ian didn’t think Hank could make that promise. “All right. Tell them we’ll greet them at the gate.”

Hank flipped the comm back on. “We’re on, Whitfield. Meet you at the main gate at 1900?”

“Catch you then.”

Ian hoped that he wasn’t making a terrible mistake.

***

Hank tucked his hands under his armpits, sheltering them from the cold breeze flowing through the city. As he did so his fingertips caught on the harness he wore under his shirt and warmth flooded him. His face heated and he knew he must look flushed under his cloak when only moments before he was shivering.

“Don’t be anxious,” Ian told him. “They are your friends.”

“You know you can’t order me to not be nervous.” Hank smiled at him. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Ian ruffled Hank’s hair. “It was worth a try.”

Before Hank could respond, the great gate to the city started to open. This was always a treat to watch – the metal slid together like the scales of a fish, spiraling and swerving to retract and reveal the snowy forest on the other side. An all-terrain vehicle drove through the opening, and the gate stopped and started to close once again.

One of the guards posted at the door stepped forward and spoke to Whitfield, the first to climb off the vehicle. Their presence was expected, so the meeting with the guard was just a formality. Eventually the guard grinned and waved Hank and Ian over. “I believe these are your guests, Ian.”

Ian nodded. “Thank you, Aaron.”

It had been a long time since Ian worked the gates, Hank realized. He remembered the first time he’d seen the guard, back when Hank had been part of Morgan’s team. Ian had looked smart and yet alien in his strange uniform. Even then Hank had noticed him, though he never would have predicted how his life changed from that one simple meeting.

Gyllenhaal and Chikezie followed Whitfield off the vehicle. All three were dressed in heavy winter coats and boots over their uniforms. Whitfield was already peeling off his layers. “How the hell is it warmer in here?”

It still felt cold to Hank, but nowhere near the wintry temperatures outside the city. He’d just grown spoiled by the warmth.

Gyllenhaal held up a hand scanner. “I’m already working on it.”

Whitfield wagged a finger at her. “Uh-uh. No working during shore leave. Leave that thing on the ATV.”

Chikezie rolled her eyes at the both of them. “Hi, Hank. It’s good to see you.”

It was good to see her too. Hank hadn’t realized how much he’d missed his former team members when he’d become part of the alien culture they’d be sent to study. “Hi.” He swallowed against the shyness that suddenly closed his throat. “You all remember Ian?”” It was easier to step slightly behind Ian and let his master shine. Hank didn’t want all eyes on him.

Ian smiled, though perhaps only Hank could see how it didn’t touch his eyes. “It’s good to see you again. I’ve made arrangements for dinner.”

Gyllenhaal grinned at him. “That sounds great.” She, like the other two, wore a green band on her upper right arm. The armbands had come out of the agreement with the UP as a way to avoid misunderstandings when the two cultures mixed. Green bands meant that if the UP citizen was interested in play with the citizens of Harmony, that person should be treated as a Dom. Red meant as a sub, and gray meant the wearer had no sexual interest whatsoever.

Ian led them to a tram stop, where there was already a tram waiting for them. Hank wouldn’t put it past him to have it arranged earlier. Ian liked to be prepared.

They were the only ones on the tram. As soon as they boarded, Hank started to slide to his knees. Ian shook his head and pointed to one of the seats. It felt so weird to actually sit on a tram again. Hank had to grasp at his knees to keep them from shaking. Sitting while his master stood was wrong and it hurt.

Hank tugged at his shirt, remembering the harness beneath. It comforted him to have it on, reminding him that Ian always held him tightly, even when he couldn’t command him.

Whitfield gave him an odd look, one that Hank couldn’t decipher. He tried to smile in return, but only got a scowl for his troubles.

“Oh, it’s lovely at night.” Caroline pressed up against the glass, watching as they rose higher in the city, diving under a bridge.

Hank had to agree. The lights sparkled like stars – a variety of colors twinkling on the slopes and towers that speckled the skyline.

“We’ll be able to walk the upper levels, so you can take in the view,” Ian said.

They landed just outside the place Ian had picked. Hank hadn’t been here before, so he was surprised to see the low tables with fluffy pillows instead of chairs. Was this a restaurant just for subs? But the sub who greeted them didn’t seem surprised to see them, not even shock at the presence of the guest from the stars. She led them to a table near one of the floor to ceiling windows. It felt good to sink to his knees.

“I’ve asked for a sampling of Harmony cuisine.”

“No menu then?” Whitfield leaned forward.

“You know they don’t actually have beer here.” Hank still missed beer.

“Then I’ll have something else.”

Hank smirked. “I hate to break it to you, but there’s no alcohol at all.”

As he spoke a sub came around and gave them all fragrant glasses of tye. Whitfield sniffed at his before taking a tentative sip. He wrinkled his nose, but then his face smoothed in a surprised expression.

“So what have you been up to, Hank?” Caroline played with her own glass.

Hank turned toward Ian. “We’ve been busy working for the princess. She’s trying to replace that duke that kidnapped Ackles.”

That didn’t do a great job of summing up what the last few months had been like, but it would have to do. There were plenty of things that Hank didn’t want to talk about. He shifted on his pillow, uncomfortable, although inching a little closer to Ian helped.

Whitfield shook his head and raised his glass. “To Ackles. Poor bastard.”

“Any word?” Hank hadn’t heard anything since Morgan had nixed the attempted rescue mission.

“By the time we’d get the information, it’ll be months out of date.” Gyllenhaal shrugged. “The last I heard, the UP was recalling all scuts from the field.”

“What about Hodge and Bell?” As far as Hank knew, it was required for the UP to have a Dom/sub pair stationed in Harmony for the agreement to have a base on planet.

“Hodge went back on the Desert Moon. Bell stayed because it’s harder to find a replacement for a sub, apparently. They paired her with someone from the Mercury – a Lt. Hartley.” Caroline frowned.

Hank didn’t like the sound of any of that. “Why were all the scuts recalled?”

They paused while three subs came to the table, pushing a hovering cart of delicacies. The subs served them quickly and gracefully before slipping away. Hank realized that was the kind of movement he lacked, that ability to glide in and out that looked almost like floating. He studied them, wondering if it was a skill he could pick up, or if he were doomed to be that clumsy sub forever.

Gyllenhaal started to make a plate while she answered. “They’re closing the program. Apparently they just realized that putting soldiers in highly sexualized situations was a bad idea.”

“Didn’t know you felt like that, Gyllenhaal.” Whitfield looked curious.

“I’ve felt like that since they recruited my brother.”

Hank pursed his lips and looked over at Ian, who was doing a good job of paying attention. He wasn’t sure exactly how much his master understood. Being away from the UP himself for this long made Hank feel like he was discussing some alien culture.

“Aren’t you going to eat, Hank?” Caroline asked after a while.

He blinked at her, realizing he’d been so accustomed to Ian feeding him that Hank had forgotten to make himself a plate. He didn’t know how to answer. Hank very well couldn’t explain that he’d been waiting for permission. That was something they wouldn’t understand.

Ian slid a fully filled plate in front of him. “I apologize. I forgot to give you your plate.”

Hank smiled over at him. He trusted Ian to always take care of him.

Dinner was delicious, and included some things Hank hadn’t tasted before. He preferred the puffed pastries, but enjoyed the seafood rolls that exploded with flavor. For dessert the subs brought out another cart of fruit and placed a little bowl of hot chocolate in the center of the table with skewers on the side. It was incredibly decadent, although Hank would have preferred to have Ian feed it to him. He wanted to lick the chocolate off of his master’s fingers.

“So where are we heading now?” Caroline asked after they left the restaurant.

Hank turned to Ian. “Well, now that depends on what you’d like to experience.” Ian smiled. “It’s not too cold to walk the bridges. We could take a tour, or we could check out one of the nightclubs.”

Whitfield shrugged. “You know I want to see the clubs. Show us the real Harmony.”

Ian frowned. “Harmony is more than just the sexual aspects.”

“I don’t know. You people seem real caught up in that.” Whitfield reached out and tugged at Hank’s collar.

Hank jerked back, startled. No one was to touch him but Ian. He ended up hiding behind Ian and rubbing at his neck. Ian pulled Hank close with an arm around his waist.

“If that’s what you wish, that’s where I can take you.” Ian had a very blank look on his face, not reacting to Whitfield’s faux pas. “We can walk there and enjoy the view on the way.”

“I’d like that.” Caroline slid smoothly between the awkwardness. “I never got the chance to really look closely at the buildings and never at night.”

Ian led the way, still holding on to Hank. Hank was grateful for the reassurance. He still got twitchy if he thought Ian was angry. That was one aspect of the drug that Hank could not seem to shake.

“There are many gardens and parks,” Ian played tour guide as they walked. “Though most are better seen during the day.”

“Look, man, I believe you. There’s other stuff to do here. But we’re on shore leave. We want to have some fun.” Whitfield didn’t bother to enjoy the view. He seemed impatient to get to their destination.

Ian sighed. He stopped walking. “Do you understand how this works? If you find company for the night?”

“Contracts and collars. Got it.”

“No, you don’t ‘got it.’” Ian scowled. “The only collared subs open for company are those with red collars. You need to make arrangements with the representative at the establishment. You can’t just do anything you want to them. Their collar will glow and that means you stop, immediately. Do you understand?”

“If I need help, I’ll just ask my man Hank here.” Whitfield slammed his hand on Hank’s shoulder.

Hank wondered what was up with the obsession with touching him tonight. His skin tingled. He didn’t like it; only Ian should touch him. He hoped the rest of the evening wasn’t going to turn out to be a disaster.

***

Ian had to keep reminding himself that he was doing this for Hank. This Whitfield kept getting on his nerves. He understood that Whitfield was Hank’s friend, that he blamed Ian for taking Hank away. But if the man touched his sub one more time Ian would not be responsible for his actions.

A darker part of him considered taking them to one of the hard core places. A little blood play should be enough to show them exactly how far out of their depths they were dealing with. But Gyllenhaal and Chikezie had both been perfectly polite, and Ian couldn’t justify being that spiteful.

So they turned the corner and climbed a set of stairs to a place known for its music and dancing in addition to the redbands on offer. He spoke briefly to the sub at the door, who grinned and let them inside.

The music struck them as they passed through the door – it had a sharp beat, but the singer’s voice swelled with power. Ian grinned as he heard the song – he recognized this sub. He was quickly making a name for himself and would probably be famous throughout Harmony soon enough.

“You’re wearing too much,” he said in Hank’s ear, nipping at the lobe before pulling away. Ian liked the way pink tinged his sub’s cheeks. To the others he told them: “You can check your coats here.”

There was a little booth with a sub, in addition to a line of cabinets along the wall. Ian took both his and Hank’s cloaks, and ordered Hank to remove his shirt. He’d been playing too hands off with Hank all evening. Henry was his sub, and it was about time his friends understood what that meant.

“Yes, sir.” Hank gave him a twisted grin before undoing the clasps and shrugging off the pale blue shirt to reveal the black leather harness beneath. It looked amazing against his golden toned skin. Ian had to touch, sliding his palm along Hank’s abdomen.

“Beautiful,” he whispered in Henry’s ear.

The soldiers checked their winter gear, as well. Gyllenhaal grinned at him, while Whitfield had that sour look on his face again. Well, he was about to get an eyeful when they walked into the club proper.

“Come.” Ian led them inside. There was a good crowd tonight, probably all here to see sub Adam sing. The stage hovered a few feet above the ground, and the sub wore little – a short black kilt and heavy black leather boots – as he seduced the crowd with his voice and movements. This main room was well lit, with various colored lights making the rounds. There were darker, shadowed alcoves, and more private rooms around the back. Ian hoped to make use of one of them.

Gyllenhaal leaned over to Chikezie. “Mmm. I wonder if the singer is up for grabs?”

Ian laughed. “I can ask and see if he’s booked for the night?”

She blushed a deep red. “Oh, no. Thank you, but no.”

He could tell they were attracting attention, even if it weren’t for the green armbands the trio would stand out. They were clearly not from Harmony. This was the first time the aliens were invading the city, and everyone wanted a look. It wasn’t long before they were approached by the first group of redbands.

“Enjoy yourselves,” he said, just loud enough to be heard. “We’re getting a table.”

Hank laughed in his ear. “Do you think it’s wise to leave them on their own?”

Ian turned and slid a leash out of his pocket. “Just long enough for us to have some private time of our own.” He watched Hank’s eyes glaze over as Ian snapped the leash onto his collar. Hank needed this, needed to submit in a way he never had before.

Ian tugged Hank after him, into the shadows to find a little alcove that was empty – easier than usual, since most of the crowd was still watching sub Adam sing. There was a plush bench set into the wall. Ian knew if he lifted the seat he’d find any equipment he might need for an impromptu scene. But right now all he needed was Hank.

“On your knees,” he ordered before sitting back on the bench. The sound here muffled the music enough for his commands to be heard without shouting.

Hank dropped to his knees and crawled the extra few feet to his spot between Ian’s legs. “Please, master, I need. . .”

“I know,” Ian murmured, running his fingers through Hank’s soft hair.

Hank all but trembled. His eyes were heavy lidded as he licked his lips, leaving them shiny wet. The blush had traveled to his chest, and his pierced nipples were tight with arousal. He looked entirely fuckable at the moment.

Ian bit back a groan. He would have felt guilty at enjoying this, this more submissive Hank, except that Hank was getting better. This scene felt more like something they shared than Ian taking advantage of Hank. “Hands behind your back.” He undid the ties at his crotch and freed his thickening dick. “Suck me.”

With his hands tucked behind him, Hank leaned forward and lapped at the top of Ian’s cock, just teasing for the moment. Ian clenched his fingers into fists and kept them on the bench. There was a spark in Hank’s eyes as he finally opened his mouth and slid down the head of Ian’s cock, sucking gently as he moved.

Ian struggled to maintain control, to sit there as still as any well-behaved Dom. Hank’s lips were plush and full around Ian’s cock, and his mouth was sinfully warm and wet. It felt good, too good, but not enough to get him off. Almost before he’d decided to do it, Ian reached out and grabbed the sides of Hank’s head. “Let me fuck your face, boy,” he murmured.

Hank hummed in agreement, not backing off. Ian took that as acceptance and tangled his fingers in Hank’s hair, using that as leverage to guide Hank how he wanted him. As Ian moved him faster, Hank began to moan, a harsh sound deep in his throat. He must be so hard from this, locked away in those trousers as he was. It took only the thought of that – Hank’s cock, hard and thick, and straining against the fabric that confined him – for Ian to cry out and come. He pushed Hank far enough away for the last drops of his come to sear his face. His boy looked so good when he was marked with Ian’s seed.

It wasn’t until he looked up that he saw Whitfield standing in the doorway to the alcove.

“Just how much of an asshole are you?”

Hank sprang to his feet, wiping off his face and getting between Whitfield and Ian. “Charles, calm down, all right?”

It gave Ian time to tuck himself away and gain his composure. This was the last thing Hank needed in his recovery. Ian moved to stand behind Hank, ready to support him.

Whitfield ignored Hank. “What the hell are you doing to him?”

Hank put his hand on Whitfield’s shoulder and forced him to look at Hank. “You don’t understand. This isn’t just Ian screwing around. I needed this, like, like food or sleep.”

“You never did before.” Whitfield scowled. “What did he do to you?”

“He didn’t. . .” Hank shook his head. “I was poisoned. It made me. . .want these things more than I normally did.”

“Who the hell poisoned you? Him?”

“And you just fucking want to believe the worst about Ian. No, the person who did it is already behind bars.”

Ian could see Hank start to tremble. His sub was holding it together, but he was still so fragile. Ian had to stop this. Whitfield was supposed to be Hank’s friend.

“What the hell is wrong with you, Hank? Don’t you see how fucked up this is?”

Ian moved, pushing Hank behind him and blocking Whitfield’s line of sight. “Stop it. You don’t get to make him feel ashamed about this. None of this is Henry’s fault.”

“So, what, it’s yours?”

Ian swallowed. Ever since the incident he’d felt that crushing sense of failure. He should have been there to protect Hank. Hank pressed up against him from behind, putting his hands on Ian’s waist. Ian didn’t know if that was for Hank’s reassurance or his.

“Yes. You’re right. I failed to protect my sub from harm. But I know my responsibilities. I will not let anyone else hurt him, even his own supposed friends.” He felt Hank’s grip tighten after he spoke. Ian squeezed Hank’s hand in return.

“Charles.” Caroline’s voice was like the crack of a whip. She and Gyllenhaal had come up sometime during the argument, though Ian hadn’t noticed them. “Back off.”

Whitfield shook his head. “Whatever you think, I am his friend. And whatever ways you got of fixing this, I think he needs to be seen by UP doctors.”

“Whitfield. . .”

“I agree.” Ian couldn't ignore this any longer. Hank wasn't from Harmony and maybe that meant that Harmony healers couldn't help him. But he'd avoided bringing it up, afraid that if he brought Hank back to his former people they'd try to take Hank from him.

“Ian?” Hank said in a low voice.

“If they can help you,” Ian turned back to Henry. “Then I wouldn’t deny you the chance.”

“All right, that’s settled.” Gyllenhaal stepped between Ian and Whitfield. “Can we just go enjoy the rest of the night? Please.”

They could try.

***

Hank scraped at a particularly persistent smudge on the window. He didn’t know what the hell had caused it, just that it was proving very difficult to remove. Ian had given him the task after Hank had spent two hours doing nothing but pacing the sitting room, waiting for his medical results. However, it was rare that Hank did housework completely nude except for the weights hanging from his nipple piercings and the metal cage encircling his cock. It made things very interesting. And it helped to keep his concentration on his body, instead of going around in circles, reliving his medical appointment.

They’d ventured out in the cold to the UP base only yesterday to see the medic on duty. There they’d met with a young doctor that Hank had never seen before. She’d taken one look at Whitfield’s stormy face and ordered them all out except for the patient.

“Ian stays,” Hank told her. He couldn’t do this without his master beside him.

She hadn’t minded that, as long as it was what Hank wanted. He’d forgotten about the privacy laws. His commanding officer could always be told of his medical condition, of course, but right now, due to the amorphous status of his military career, Ian was that person at the moment.

They’d explained the drugs used on Hank, and Ian had come prepared with samples. The doctor had taken blood and ran Hank through a variety of scanners. Just when it seemed like he couldn’t stand not knowing any more, she’d told him she’d call with the results.

“Can’t you just tell me now?” Hank had asked while pulling on his clothing.

“I need to run samples up on the Mercury. This place is good for basic triage, but I don’t have the equipment I need to really analyze the data.”

And so Hank waited. He’d managed to keep Ian and Whitfield apart, and considered that a major victory. It had taken all of his willpower to do so. By the time they’d made it back to their chambers in Pasdar, he felt worn down. Hank wanted nothing more than to drop to his knees and stop thinking for a while.

But he couldn’t just shut his brain off. Luckily Ian seemed to sense this and gave Hank an endless series of tasks to keep him busy. Hank had never seen the sitting room floor shine so brightly. He hoped the doctor called soon, before he ran out of things to clean. He wouldn’t put it past Ian to have him doing the rest of the palace.

His cock ached too. This shouldn’t be so arousing. Hank leaned his forehead against the glass, knowing he was smudging it again, but desperate for something to cool him down. His nipples were so sore, and every time he moved the weights swung a little and made it worse.

“Henry.”

Hank pushed away from the window, straightening at the tone of command in Ian’s voice. Was he about to be punished for slacking off? His heart shouldn’t beat with anticipation at that thought. “Yes, sir?”

Ian held up his comm unit – the one Ian had given him. “I have the doctor on the line. Are you ready?”

That was a good question. Was he? Hank let his sponge drop in the bucket of water and moved to Ian’s side. Ian slid his hand around Hank’s neck and brought him close, until their foreheads touched. The physical contact helped. “Yes.”

Ian clicked a button on the comm. “Go ahead.”

“Major Tappen?”

It was odd to hear himself referred to like that. Hank had gotten used to just being ‘sub Henry.’ “Yes. I’m here.”

“This is Dr. Shields. I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate your results. I must say, Major, you’ve given us more questions than answers.”

Hank grinned. Of course he did. “How so?”

“Your bloodwork came back fine. There’s no trace of foreign drugs or substances. However, when we compared your brain scans to the set we had on file, we noticed changes.”

“Changes. In my brain?” Hank swallowed. “Is this a result of the drugs?”

“Actually, I don’t think so. We found similar changes in another soldier stationed in the city, a Lt. Bell. I’m not sure if it’s the city causing the changes or the planet itself.”

Fuck. If it was the planet, or even the city, Hank didn’t know what that would do to the UP’s plans to use the technology. “What does this mean?”

He heard her sigh on the other end of the connection. “It means we’re going to have to carefully monitor every person who is stationed at the new base and in the city. Also, I’d like to keep examining you, Major, and see if the changes continue.”

Hank let out a deep breath. “How often?”

“Once a week to start. We’ll adjust if we need to.” She paused. “I can come to the city if that works better for you.”

“I have a rather full social calendar.” Hank smiled at the way Ian had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing. “But I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Thank you, Major. I’m sending your results to your comm account so you can review them at your leisure.”

“Thanks.”

Ian cut the connection. “This is a concern to your people.”

“Makes sense.” It suddenly occurred to Hank that the other person with brain changes was here as a sub, too. “Do you think. . .whether someone is a sub or not is in the brain? And the city – she changes people to fit that?”

“I don’t know, Henry. This is beyond my area of knowledge.” Ian looked truly upset that he couldn't answer.

Hank wondered if the queen knew. It seemed like a secret she might hold. But that wasn’t Hank’s purpose here. They still had a job to finish in Pasdar, and Hank was going to see it through, no matter what.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Dylan never thought he’d see all of Adrian’s former subs gathered in the great hall again. But they were all there, every single one who’d joined him in the sewers, back when he’d had no idea about anything other than survival and escaping from the Doms that ruled them. But Dylan had found that there was something more to strive for, and up until this morning, he hadn’t been sure what his decision was going to be.

Today those who were leaving would go. The tram would take them to the city gates, where the UP was providing a shuttle to collect the former subs and take them to the new base. Dylan wasn’t quite sure what would happen to those who didn’t want to leave.

Mistress was having this broadcast throughout the district. She wanted every sub to know they could leave if they wished to. Kevin, Countess Kyra’s former sub, was on the list, although his testimony was needed before he could join the others leaving for exile - amnesty.

Lara caught his eye from where she stood at the front of the crowd. She frowned at him and tilted her head towards the other subs. Dylan felt his face heat and turned away from her knowing gaze. He should be down there with them. Instead he was kneeling to the right of his mistress.

“Thank you all for trusting me,” Mistress said, so softly Dylan wasn’t sure if the cameras picked it up. She lifted her head and addressed the district of Pasdar.

“As you know I came to repair the harm caused by former Duke Adrian. One of the darkest aspects of his legacy was the way he used the collar of the unwilling on his own subs. The consequences of that are not so easily fixed.” She spread her hands to gesture to the crowd. “Today I offer the opportunity for those subs who wish to leave Harmony and take refuge with our UP allies. Have you chosen who will go?”

Lara stepped forward. “We have. The five of us are ready to leave.” She pointed to the four other subs flanking her.

Dylan was surprised. He’d thought that there would be many more to leave with her. But perhaps the Soul Healers had helped more than he’d imagined. His own sessions had certainly done much for him.

Another sub stepped forward – an older man named Gerard. “Mistress, the rest of us will take the gray collar for now. We ask to take refuge in your household.”

Mistress breathed sharply. Dylan could see that her eyes were wet and she quickly blinked that away. “Certainly. I will always have a place for you.”

“Thank you, mistress.”

The gray collar would keep them from having a master until they were ready for one. It marked them as free as subs could be in Harmony. Now they had a place to stay until that could change. Dylan looked up at his mistress, his heart swelling.

“For those of you leaving, I’m sorry to see you go. Know that you may always return to Harmony if you so wish it.” Mistress kindly ignored the face Lara made in return to that statement. “The tram is waiting just outside the terrace. The tele will follow you so that all subs may know that you have truly left.”

The four subs beside Lara turned to go. She bit her lip and stepped forward. “Dylan?”

He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “I’m staying.” The decision hadn’t been easy, but it had been as natural as breathing. Dylan woke up that morning and knew he could not walk away from his mistress, from what they’d only begun to build.

Lara didn’t say anything, just turned and followed the other four out. Dylan swallowed and turned to the princess. “Mistress, may I speak with her in private?”

Mistress nodded, her dark eyes wet once more.

Dylan pushed himself to his feet and started after Lara, catching her in the corridor to the terrace. “Lara, please.”

She turned at the sound of his voice. “I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind?”

“No.” Dylan grasped her by her shoulders and pulled her into an embrace. “I wanted to say goodbye.”

Lara allowed it for a moment before pulling away. “Why, Dylan? Why are you staying? There’s nothing for us here.”

He tugged at his collar. “I don’t agree. Lara, I was lucky. I found a mistress I care for. She’s not like Adrian. She’s not like anyone else.”

Lara gave him a twisted smile. “They’re all alike, Dylan. I won’t stand a collar around my neck ever again.”

There was a chasm between them now, a gap Dylan could not cross no matter how hard he tried. “Then you should go,” he told her, despite the pain in his chest. “But you will write to me. They hooked up that comm to the tele for a reason.”

“If your mistress lets you talk to me.” Lara snorted. “Yes, Dylan, I will.” She turned and followed the others through to the terrace. Lara never looked back.

***

Today was the day. They would be releasing the results of the election and Hank couldn’t wait to find out. He hoped it would be a good candidate chosen, if only to show he hadn’t had such a bad idea after all. The last message he’d gotten from Karl about the whole thing had gently chided him for attempting to introduce democracy into a monarchy. But Karl was the anthropologist, not Hank.

Karl was also working from the base, not naked and on his knees in the actual city. Hank would give his point of view more consideration once Karl got more exposure to Harmony. The city was bound to change once the UP settled in, no matter how careful they tried to be.

“It’s nearly time.” Ian called up the tele. He’d hardly eaten any of his breakfast, leaving his plates mostly full. Hank stopped in the act of clearing up and dropped to his knees next to Ian.

“Who do you think will win?” Hank bit his lip. He couldn’t begin to guess.

“We’ll find out soon enough. It’s pointless to wonder.”

“You’re taking all the fun out of it.”

Ian enlarged the tele screen. It was almost like being there themselves. The princess was on a little platform in the central square of the district, along with the four electoral candidates. She stood next to one of the leaders of the guard in Pasdar. The guard had run the election from start to finish, being the most neutral party in the district – not linked to a royal family, but still holding their own authority.

“…Captain Zeno, will you announce the results of the voting?” Alona was already in mid-speech. Hank was glad they could just get to the damn results without pussyfooting around it.

The guard stepped forward. “Thank you, mistress. I want all people of Pasdar and Harmony to know that the results were double checked by my staff. These numbers are absolutely accurate. To our surprise, the winner was a write in candidate.”

“Who the hell?” Hank muttered.

“The people of Pasdar have spoken, and the person we choose to lead us is the Princess Alona.”

“Well, now, I didn’t see that one coming.” Hank grinned. The smile slipped from his face as he looked up at Ian’s very serious expression. “This is going to cause problems, isn’t it?”

Ian touched something on the screen, and the display changed, providing the tally of the vote. “She won the majority, but the other candidates still have good numbers.”

“These things never end up unanimous,” Hank pointed out.

Ian switched back to the scene at the square. Alona looked shocked – she was so pale, and all but leaning on her sub Dourdan. “I want to thank everyone who cast their vote for me,” she was saying, her voice steady despite the shell-shocked look in her eyes.

“This is crucial,” Ian said. “If she doesn’t accept, she’ll undermine the entire purpose of the vote. But if she does. . .she most likely will have to abdicate her position as heir to the throne.”

“I look forward to continuing the work we’ve started here,” the princess finished saying.

Well. She’d accepted. But what did this mean for Harmony?

Hank reached up and gripped Ian’s knee. The physical contact helped, it always did. He already felt more grounded. “Ian, this is a huge fucking deal. We’re not going to be heading home anytime soon.”

“It depends on whether the princess– duchess– wants to retain us as part of her staff. Henry, I fear things only have become even more complicated.”

Hank squeezed Ian’s knee. “That’s okay. At least it won’t be boring.”

Ian laughed. The sound of his laughter made Hank happy. It was the small things, really.

Hank hadn’t known what to expect when he’d accepted Ian’s contract and left his entire life behind. Harmony had proved a difficult place, with its own challenges, even with the often magical quality to the city. Despite everything, Hank knew he would never give Ian up. He knew as long as he could remain by his master’s side, they’d weather this challenge, and any challenges the future brought them, together.

END