The weather has been good, the seas fair. Bright Flame, part of the great naval fleet of the Callisto Empire, is making excellent time out of Pithiya, and should reach her destination, The Isle of Stars, in only two more weeks.
Their cargo is dried fruits and sweet wine, which will be traded for furs and tallow. And they carry gold and gemstones, which will be exchanged for magical items, mostly transference orbs, that can only be made in the North.
On board the ship, Galen’s routine is familiar. It rarely changes from voyage to voyage. He has served as a pillow boy on a Callisto vessel many times before. A decade ago, when he’d first worked a ship, he’d truly been a boy. Now, he’s 25, and so has been a man long enough that sometimes being called a pillow boy feels strange and jarring. But when a man gets on his knees, bends over for silver, he remains a boy to most.
Galen is not a sailor, not part of the navy. He has no deck duties. His tasks begin at twilight, when most of the crew’s work is done. He goes first to the galley, where the men without watches eat supper. He walks the tables and prepares a lists of which sailors require his services, designs a timetable while he eats his own meal, and then returns to the pillow room to begin work, finishing, usually, around dawn. When he’s done, he takes a walk on deck, sees the sun come up, eats another meal, then returns to the pillow room to sleep in the same bed where he works, which is comfortable. Bright Flame’s pillow room is small, but it has a porthole, rich coloured drapes and a variety of cushions and silks.
Bright Flame is an old ship. Since Emperor Queece, Callisto ships are no longer made with pillow rooms. The practice of ships taking pillow boys is going out of fashion, is rumoured to soon be made illegal. This, Galen is sure, will be his last sea voyage.
On the tenth day of the voyage, Galen wakes in the evening, and while the feel of the ship rolling under him, and the soft purple twilight outside the cabin window are familiar, something is different about the room. He knows that before he sits up. And when he does sit up he sees another man is in the cabin.
There have, of course, been many other men in this cabin, but this man is not in his bed, he is on the floor. And not simply on the floor but inside a large iron cage, a cage that has been set under Galen’s small porthole while he slept. The cage takes up most of the floor space in the small room. It completely covers the single rug, cushions have been tossed aside to make room for it.
Galen sits up and peers at the cage, at the man. He is asleep, or lying down at least. Although, with the cage being the shape it is, it would be hard for a grown man to do much else in it. He’s curled up, his face hidden, and he’s naked, all of him that Galen can see. He’s well muscled and he’s badly bruised, grazed and bloody in places. He’s been beaten. Beaten and locked in a cage in Galen’s pillow room.
Is he a prisoner?
There is a perfectly adequate brig on Bright Flame.
Galen slips from his bed and moves nearer. When he’s closer he can see the man’s wounds more easily. He’s seen men beaten before. The bruises all over his ribs and thighs are from booted kicks. The ones on his arms look more like the impact of fists.
He’s been flogged too. Not the worst Galen has seen on this ship, but his back is criss-crossed with red welts. Fresh ones.
Galen walks quietly around the cage so he can see the prisoner’s face. And when he does, he pauses, surprised by the sight. The man is handsome, somewhere in his 30s. His face is well made, strong. His nose is large and his jaw is wide and blunt. His hair is dark, tangled and reaching to his shoulders. There are more bruises on his face, a black eye, a split over his cheekbone.
And he is breathing, he is alive.
He is sleeping.
Why is this prisoner sleeping in a cage in his cabin?
Is the brig full?
Surely Galen would have heard if anything so dramatic had happened aboard Bright Flame that the entire brig was full.
But something had happened during the day while Galen was sleeping. He remembers being woken to shouts and running, a cry of, ‘on deck, come and see it’. Galen turned over and went back to sleep. He's not a sailor. He doesn’t do deck duties.
He’d been half aware of some kind of drama, but if anyone had required him they would have knocked on his door.
But that commotion, could that have been caused by the arrival of this man? Was that when he was dragged on deck. Was that excitement men running to watch his flogging, join in with his beating?
Galen decides he needs to find out, and before he starts work for the evening.
He takes another look at the sleeping, caged man, before turning away and rooting out his overshirt and breeches. He pulls them on, steps into his boots and leaves the cabin. It’s almost time to start work, but instead of going to the galley, Galen goes, first, to Captain Fry’s cabin.
During the voyage, Galen has spent several nights with Captain Fry. Pillow boys have been part of Calistan crews for centuries and some of the rules surrounding the practise are ancient. One rule that Galen has found on every ship he’s ever worked is that it is the Captain’s prerogative to enlist his services for the entire night whenever he desires them.
Fry was a Queece loyalist, and no fan of the tradition of pillow boys. His attitude to Galen’s presence and profession had made it surprising when he turned out not only to know about this rule, but also to request it adhered to.
When Fry wanted somewhere to stick his dick, Galen had been there to oblige.
This is not the first time Galen has found himself in service of a man who is disgusted with himself over it. That disgust often manifests as rough sex, slaps, fists in hair, name calling. And this is the case with Fry, who seems to need to force Galen to choke on his dick in order to complete. And even after he’s done, hits Galen in the face and calls him a disgusting whore.
But none of this is new territory. And Galen learnt long ago how to take a blow, fake being choked.
But tonight, that’s not why he’s here. This is the first time Galen has knocked on the door of Fry’s cabin, uninvited.
Fry opens his cabin door. He looks tired. He spends a moment gazing at Galen, perhaps and image of Galen on his knees, choking on dick crosses the Captain’s mind before he barks out, “Yes, boy?”
Pillow boys are no longer legally sailors, no longer allowed to wear the naval uniforms of the Calisto Empire. When Captain Fry looks at him in Galen civilian clothes, he feels unkempt and lowly. But he draws himself up. This matter needs resolving. “Captain Fry, sir. There is a man in the pillow room. A prisoner in a cage. I require some kind of explanation.”
“I don’t need to explain anything to a ship’s diseased whore. Please leave I have real work to do.” Fry makes to close the door in Galen’s face, but Galen reaches out and blocks it with an arm. Fry narrows his eyes at this. “You will leave now, boy,” Fry grinds out, “or I will have you flogged.”
“Please, Captain Fry. The men who require my services also use that room. They will surely ask why there is a prisoner in there.”
“They all know why he’s there. He’s not an ordinary prisoner. He’s a whore. Like you. Another whore for the ship. That’s why you’re sharing a room. You should be pleased. You’ll find yourself with half the work for the same pay.”
“He’s a whore? I’m sorry, Captain. I don’t understand?”
Fry leans into door frame, softening further. Something about this situation is amusing him. “I’ve already told you I don’t explain myself to whores.” The smile Fry’s face widens, he reaches out and touches Galen’s cheek, with an odd affection.”You really needn’t worry,” he says. “He won’t be there while you’re working. I have another location in mind for him to perform his duties. I’m going to have him lashed to the mast. For the use of all. Even you. You should come up on deck and join us. If you enjoy performing like a man as well as like a slut.” He finishes with a soft pat on Galen’s cheek.
Galen isn’t sure what all of this means, but he says, “I see, Captain.”
“Now get off to the galley. If I am to suffer a creature like you on this tub, I will at least have him perform his duties.”
And this time, when Fry slams the door, Galen lets him.
When Galen returns to his room to prepare for the night’s work, the man is gone. The cage is empty, the door open.
Galen walks over to it and, exploratively, bends over the top of it. It’s a good height. Despite Captain Fry’s assumptions, not every man who comes to see Galen wants his mouth or his hole. Some want his dick. Perhaps if one of them comes to his room tonight, he will take them bent over this cage.
But the four sailors he sees that night are all sodomisers, rough careless ones at that. It’s the most tiring kind of night when that’s all that’s required. After the first two it’s all bruising and burning, no way to find pleasure in it.
As the third mounts him, he thinks of the man from the cage. Fry had made it clear what was to be happening to him tonight. Is he taking his third too, his tenth? And he will be bound, being forced. Raped. He won’t, unless he is truly a whore, have the knowledge of how to do that without injury. Galen shudders under the man inside him, which earns him a moan of pleasure, and a soft slap to his flank.
When Galen is done for the night, he finds himself on deck. He isn’t sure how he made the decision to go an investigate the fate of the man in the cage. But there he finds himself, amongst the shouts of drunken sailors. It’s dark and wild, the atmosphere harder, darker than he’s ever known aboard Fry’s tight ship. A few men greet him, slap his shoulder and cheerfully call him, ‘whore’. A wooden cup full of rum is pressed into his hand.
This is a party. And he is a welcome guest.
In front of him, most of the sailors are in a wide circle. He can guess what’s in the centre of it.
Pushing through the crowd, he sees him. The prisoner. His bare skin is glowing in the firelight. Not lashed to the mast but to a barrel. Bent right over it and roped into place. Still naked, he’s the centre piece of this evening gathering.
And there’s a sailor fucking him. From where Galen is standing, directly behind them, the sailor is most of what he can see. Breeches pooled at his ankles, moving fast, close to finishing. Galen can’t see either of their faces, he can see others though. Faces from the crew he recognises. Some are casual, watching this rape as if it’s barely enough to hold their attention, drinking or chatting. Others have thrilled expressions, eyes lit up with pleasure, staring hungrily and what is before them. When Galen notices the knot of men standing over the left, he realises with a sickening horror, that they are a queue.
On the other side of the circle is Fry, sitting on a high wooden chair, a drink in his hand, he watches the prisoner, watches and smiles to himself.
For all the grotesqueness of it, Galen can’t look away. He finds himself moving around the edge of the crowd. He isn’t sure why, what he’s searching for until he finds it. He moves around until he’s opposite the point where he began. And he can see the prisoner’s face.
That handsome face. His dark hair tumbles over it, hangs down over his cheeks and in his eyes. But his eyes are open, open and defiant, staring past Galen, past all of them, looking only at Fry, meeting his eyes steadily as the thrusts of the sailor behind him knock him rhythmically across the barrel. There’s something noble about that. The way he’s holding his dignity together, even as he’s being used like this.
The prisoner’s wrists are drawn out in front of him with rope. His arms are thick with muscle. He’s strong. Strong enough that he could probably take a few of them down if he was free. He’s a fighter, a warrior. And he’s being treated cruelly even by Fry’s vicious standards.
Who is he? Who is he and what has he done to earn this kind of treatment.
The sailor mounting the prisoner jerks and finishes. He withdraws and the prisoner turns his head, glancing behind him as the sailor steps back, a satisfied smile on a face that’s cut with a scar. Galen recognises that sailor now. That same sailor fucked him earlier. Fucked him and then came up on deck and raped the prisoner. Like Galen wasn’t enough. Like if he had been, he might have saved the prisoner from this.
Galen swallows. His logic doesn’t make sense, but this makes him prickle with shame.
As the sailor steps away from him, the prisoner turns back to look at Captain Fry with a steady gaze. Head up, expression fixed and defiant. Like he’s daring Fry to abuse him further.
Fry looks past him to the sailor. “How was he, Jackson?” he says lightly.
The sailor leers. “A dream, sir. As tight as a virgin.”
“How nice,” Fry replies. “Although, sad to say, he won’t be soon. And how was it for you, filth?”
The prisoner spits on the deck. “Tedious,” he says, in a voice that is rough. Galen thinks it’s a voice that, for all his defiance now, has been screaming, has already broken once today.
“Such a shame. Perhaps we can make things more entertaining for you. I notice our other whore is here. What brings you above deck, boy? Curious about your new bed fellow?”
From somewhere in the crowd a voice shouts. “I can get another barrel.”
Galen freezes. Horror struck at the idea of being treated the same way as the prisoner. Unable to move or speak for a moment until Fry says, “Oh no. This treatment is for our most special guest. We couldn’t possibly treat our own ship’s boy this way.” Galen manages to breathe again, as Fry turns his attention to the prisoner, still staring at the Captain, eyes burning with contempt. Fry says, “But we’re neglecting you. You ought to be the centre of attention, this evening. And I hope, every evening for the rest of your short life.” He pauses as if thinking, then continues. “Boy, how about you fuck this thing for us,” and it takes Galen a second to realise the Captain is talking to him again.
“Me, sir?” Galen splutters out.
“Yes, you. Would you enjoy the novelty of being the user rather than the used. I’d enjoy very much to see this creature degraded by being fucked by filth like you.”
Galen finds himself shaking his head before he’s even thought about the consequences of refusing. “No. No, sir,” he says. “I cannot.”
“I am your captain,” says Fry, calmly. “I could order you do it.”
“You could sir.”
“I could have you flogged if you refuse me.”
“Yes sir.” Galen manages, feeling the presence of angry, drunk sailors all around him. Again he’s frozen, waiting to see what will happen. He’s been on boats long enough to know he ought to be scared of the lash. Especially a lashing from a tyrant like Fry. Men have died from such treatment. Fry’s enforcer is heavy handed and Fry’s sentences are brutal. But he waits to see what Fry says, isn’t sure what he’ll do if he has to take a lashing or fuck this prisoner.
But once again, he is rescued by Fry saying, “But I won’t do that tonight. Next time though. Now, get below. This is no place for a creature like you.”
Galen collects some hard biscuit and water from the galley and goes back to the pillow room. It’s quite some time before the prisoner is returned to his cage.
He’s dragged in by two men. He seems exhausted. He’s not the defiant creature Galen saw up on deck. He’s broken. There’s no fight in him. They shove him into the cage and lock it, taking the key with them. As they leave, one of them winks at Galen and says, “Don’t look like that, we cleaned him.”
He does looks clean, Galen thinks as he glances over. He also looks like he taken a fresh beating.
They stare at each other.
The prisoner speaks first. His voice is a croak, but he says, “Is anyone going to explain why my gaoler is a fucking doxy?”
“I’m not a gaoler,” says Galen. “I’m a pillow boy.”
“So that’s what he meant, on deck.” The man is speaking slowly, thinking, “fucked by you, something like you, because you’re a whore. I’m surprised Fry would take a pillow boy.”
Galen shrugs. “He didn’t. Volent did, contracted me before he died.”
The prisoner’s bruised faces moves as if this interests him. “Volent was meant to Captain this ship?”
“Yes,” says Galen.
The prisoner nods at this small fact, but he doesn’t ask any more about it. Instead he says, “If you are a pillow boy why are you in the brig?
“This isn’t the brig,” says Galen. “Look at it. This is the pillow room. “
“Your whoring room?”
“I suppose so. Captain Fry tells me you’re another whore. So you’re sleeping in here when you’re not being used.”
The prisoner nods, knowingly. “Fry’s joke then. Us together. The worst things on his ship.”
“Yeah,” says Galen. “I don’t like it anymore than you do.”
The prisoner smiles. Galen watches the cautious movement of it. His bottom lip is split. “I didn’t say I didn’t like this,” he says. “This room is nicer than the brig and the company’s far better.”
This easy charm surprises Galen. There is something incredible about this man, that he can be as affable as this after what he’s just been through. And while he’s naked, locked in a cage.
Again Galen wonders who he could possibly be. “I’m Galen,” says Galen.
“Cole,” says the prisoner. “Do you think you could get me some water.”
“They didn’t give you any water?”
“No. I’m sure they will eventually. As Fry doesn’t want me to die yet. But it’s been a while since they remembered I need water to stay alive.”
Galen crosses to his bed and finds the canteen he keeps there and brings it over, passes it through the bars.
Cole takes it with a hand that has every knuckle bruised and bloody. He thanks Galen and drinks for a long time. When he’s done, his voice sounds far less scratchy when he says, “Galen, can I ask, I want to ask, did you enjoy watching Fry’s men rape me?”
Galen startles at this question. “No. Fry’s an animal.”
“Yet you came to see it.”
“Yes,” says Galen, what else is there to say. He did.
“But you refused Fry when he told you to fuck me. That was noble. Although after that many it would have made no difference to me if you had.”
Galen shrugs. “It would have made a difference to me,” he says.