Taehyung stands in his room, the stone of the walls making the air hot in the midst of the brutal summer. He reaches into the small basket at his cot side to fetch the wire-fashioned hairbrush he’s kept for years. Since childhood. He gazes up at the shard of mirror that hangs hap-hazard on the wall and drags the brush through his long, black, locks of hair.
His lady wishes for him to keep it long, so keep it long he shall. He has requested that it be cut on more than one occasion. He’s met with a displeased, scolding glare. As if it were such a dare to even ask. He must keep his hair long like a lady. How else would he continue being a handmaiden if he were no longer a maiden?
He must admit that he is grateful to her. A life of servitude under a noblewoman is not nearly as bad as one would think. He is clothed, and fed, and all of his other essential needs are met. As long as he performs all of his duties accordingly, there is never any trouble.
His lady favors him over the rest of the handmaidens. They of course, notice how their lady favors him. So naturally, he is not well liked. He stares at his bare chest, knowing he will have to cover up before reporting to his lady’s quarters. Another basket on the floor holds his clothes. He likes wearing the longer linen, as it’s more flattering on his frame. But he knows it will be hard to work. He reaches for the shorter linen tunic, cut for a female form. He then loops the necessary netted harness over his chest and pulls it down to rest over his hips. The noise of the beads against the linen is comforting in his morning routine. He usually doesn’t like the appearance of his legs. He looks down with a grimace as he fastens his sandals in the lowlight of the candles. It’s very early in the morning. The sun has yet to rise.
He strides carefully to his lady's chambers. He passes the courtyard with a small amphora of her morning wine gripped tightly in his hands. A few other slaves and guards pass him.
He is not permitted to speak to anyone. He is never allowed to utter a word to anyone unless he has permission from his lady. It has been this way since he was brought here to serve her nearly ten years ago.
She taught him the language slowly and patiently, she was only about 14 at the time, Taehyung a fresh eleven. He can’t remember how he came to be here in this land. She tells him that he suffered a terrible head injury. And that he awoke speaking a foreign tongue that no one knew. But it didn’t matter where he was from and who had known in the past.
He remembered only his name. And even though they gave him a new one, he still held onto it. He is still Taehyung. At night in the confines of his room, where no one is there to command him, he is Taehyung.
He was a slave now. To think of what could have been is a waste of his time. And he was taught not to waste any time. Not someone else's, nor his own.
He finally has arrived, and the archway to her rooms are guarded by a single soldier. His skin is dark from the sun and he looks down at Taehyung with the same strange expression every day, harsh and far too assaulting.
Taehyung knows the fears of women all too well as he waits for him to step aside.
The soldier steps aside. Not too far past, she lounges on the day bed, not quite dressed yet.
“Lady Tera,” He greets her briefly. He pours her wine and effectively waits on her. The look in her eyes are solemn. Her energy has been depleted as of late, the sharp light in her dulling.
He is too caring.
“I have news.” She says, tone clipped. He stands straighter, waits patiently. “My father has announced that I'm to be wed.”
Taehyung does not know if this prompts joy or sadness. He doesn’t know what that means for him. He knows better than to ask.
“The general has found you a husband?” Taehyung immediately scolds himself for referring to him as such. It was thoughtless of him.
Lady Tera smirks in slight contentment. A flicker of amusement. “He would fume if he heard such a title fall from my lips. After all he is Pharaoh .” She mocks to no one in particular. Perhaps to make herself feel better. Taehyung appreciates her leniency more than her humor.
“Do you know this man?” Taehyung inquires innocently enough.
She sighs windily, flailing her robe a bit too dramatically for his taste. “I do not, but I'm certain he’s not very agreeable.” She sits, crossing her legs and reaching to sip her wine.
Taehyung does not understand how Lady Tera could act so casually about marriage. Unity such as marriage with another is something he’s dreamt of time and time again. Or at least the freedom to choose it. He will never have it though.
“I had so wanted to stay pure until death.” She muses thoughtfully. Taehyung understands her plight, but he does wish that Lady Tera would not project her personal choices on him as well. He is to remain a virgin for all of his time as a slave according to his Lady’s wishes. He’s never likes that feeling of knowing that his body is not wholly his own. His distaste must show on his face.
“Are things not better that way?” She asks, almost as if it were a test. He thinks carefully.
“I would never know anything different, my lady.”
“Hm.” She snickers. “A cautious answer. Dare I say, you sound curious.”
Taehyung is no stranger to pleasure. He is very familiar with himself under sheets, in the candlelight of his own bedroom. Pleasure with another however, that, he is lost on.
“It matters not.” She says quickly. And though he doesn’t ask, he does wonders how it couldn’t matter?
“If someone were to bed you, all of our secrets would be revealed.” She taunts, making Taehyung feel rather stupid. “And we wouldn’t want that.”
She reminds him again and again in her own special way that he is a woman in the eyes of the kingdom. This won't break him. He feels like the man that he is, and even if he’s accustomed to female garbs and carries himself as such.
She giggles then, nearly in the throes of humor with no one but herself. Part of that light that Taehyung so admires stems from how carelessly cruel she can be, yet it is so easy to forgive her.
“Pray, tell,” She says as she reaches for Taehyung’s hand, “If you could, if you could have anyone, who would be the object of your desire?”
Lady Tera teases him once in a while. Like always, he laughs and supplies the only thing that will please her. “You of course, my lady.”
Just when she is about to laugh, nearly drunk on her own vanity, soldiers appear before them.
“Lady Tera,” The soldier with the permanent predatory look addresses her. “Your new charge is here.”
Taehyung perks up. A new servant. Maybe this one would like to actually befriend him. A boy stumbles forward, and Taehyung stiffens at the sight of him. He is littered with injuries and his hands are bound in a rough rope. His dark, matted hair covers his eyes as he looks down at the floor. Taehyung’s heart pangs painfully. He has never been treated that way. He knows not all slaves are quite as lucky.
The boy finally looks up and the first thing he notices is his features. Taehyung could swear, past all that blood, they are of similar descent.
“He doesn’t know the common tongue, my lady.” The soldier gruffs out. The Pharaoh thought it best that he stay under your care for the time being.”
“Very well” She says, far too pleasantly for the stench of coppery blood that permeates through the room.
The boy coughs, blood spattering onto his tied hands. Lady Tera tuts in mock sympathy.
“Can you speak, boy?” He looks up at Lady Tera, lips trembling, clearly holding back tears. He obviously recently suffered some kind of beating. Taehyung doesn’t know him but he would like to dress his wounds, clean his face, soothe him long enough to convince him it’s not a nightmare and he will be alright.
Lady Tera sighs, annoyed when the boy fails to speak. She addresses Taehyung instead.
“Take him to my bathing chamber. See that he is well in less than a fortnight.”
Taehyung is positively delighted by this task, but tries very hard not to show it.
The guards file out of the room and Taehyung moves quickly usher the boy towards the washroom.
The boy shivers as Taehyung cuts his ropes with a sharp tool and undresses him of his dirty linens. The clothes are heavy with blood and he peels them off of his body as gently as he can manage. He eases him down into the water, and winces as the boy hisses in pain from the steaming bath.
The washroom is quite big, the tub large enough to fit fifteen people. Taehyung, still clothed, enters the water and reaches for a washcloth. He’s too thin, Taehyung decides, too weak for this world.
The boy begins to cry softly as Taehyung starts to wipe away the sand and dried blood.
Taehyung was not permitted to speak to the boy. He is sure his Lady is no longer present.
“Can you speak?” He asks gently. “I won’t hurt you.”
Large eyes rise up to meet his, and they are so much to look at.
He mumbles something in a language uncommon in this land. But Taehyung recognizes it right away. The language he never let himself forget as a child floods back into his mind like tidal wave. He tries his best to switch back to that tongue the best he can.
“My name is Khat.” Taehyung says in his mother tongue. Judging by the recognition in the boy's bright eyes, he’s done something right. There is a way for them to speak to each other.
“Khat?” The boy repeats.
“That is not my true name. It’s the name Lady Tera gave to me. As she will give you a name as well.” He’s not sure why he says any of this.
“What is your true name?”
Taehyung bites his lip, unsure of what to do. He raises the washcloth and wipes dried blood from his brow. It would feel nice for someone to know it. If This boy can’t speak the common tongue, he would be the perfect person to tell.
“Taehyung is my true name.” He smiles, not expecting it to feel so wonderful to say it out loud again. “And you?”
“Jungkook.” He mumbles quite brokenly.
“Jungkook,” Taehyung repeats as he washes his hair gently, “You’re very brave, Jungkook.”
He starts to cry again; Taehyung continues to wash him, his touch remaining ever so gentle.
“You don’t speak Egyptian?”
He shakes his head no.
“You don’t speak Greek?”
“That’s alright. You can talk to me at least.” He admonishes. “No one is really much fun around here anyhow.” He hadn’t really thought before he spoke. Because this seems to bring on a fresh wave of tears.
He tries his best to soothe him, pouring the warm water over his head and smoothing his hair back.
“You’ll become accustomed to this place. It’s not so bad.” He can taste the lie on his own tongue.
“I won’t worship their gods.”
“You don’t have to.” Taehyung chuckles, wondering why that’s even a concern for him right now. Almost as if he said it only to be rebellious. “I never have.”
At the final dump of water Taehyung rises from the tub. “I’ll fetch you some fresh clothes.”
Suddenly a hand catches his wrist, and Taehyung is positively startled. No one has ever touched him in such a way, with such force. He pulls his wrist back, holding it to his chest as if it had been damaged.
“I’ll return shortly,” He promises, eyes shifting strangely. He feels bad for the boy. He must have not wanted to be alone. Taehyung knows this feeling well. The loneliness. The ache. “Stay here.”
He fetches clothing from the slave quarter not too far from Lady Tera’s rooms. A simple Linen kilt and a plain sash to tie around the waist.
He returns and Jungkook sits on the thatched bench, seemingly waiting to become dry. He sits there completely bare, starting at the floor. The only thing he wears is the iron ring that sits snug around the base of his neck. The same one that Taehyung wears. The same one that all slaves wear.
Taehyung hands him the clothes with a heavy sigh, noting how red the boy’s eyes are from crying.
“come on, now,” Taehyung pulls him to his feet like he’s a child who needs his help. “Put this on.”
He purposely averts his eye’s as Jungkook dresses himself, determined not to let his mind stray.
Water drips from Jungkook’s hair as he finally lifts his eyes to meet Taehyung’s features. He clutches the clothing tightly in his grip, fingers trembling a bit.
“I- I’m a slave, aren't I?” He whispers to Taehyung.
He sighs, sweeping wet strands of hair out of the way so he can look at Jungkook properly. He is quite beautiful now that he can see his face free of dirt and blood. Taehyung smiles, and it’s very genuine because it’s all he can give him now.
“Yes, you are.” He says regretfully. “As am I.”
Nothing is more is said that morning.
Jungkook catches on very quickly. He performs his duties as Taehyung acts as an unofficial translator, teaching him simple words and phrases whenever he can. Like Taehyung, he doesn’t speak much. He does what he is told and at the end of the night he retires to his cot in the mass quarter. Taehyung has made it a habit to wordlessly walk him there and wait until he is under the thin blanket before he bids him farewell.
He knows how difficult it is to adjust to this life. But he hopes he can offer some comfort. He feels guilty, as Jungkook seems to be a comfort to him. He hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary, just his quiet presence is comfort in itself.
Taehyung feels slightly lucky, he hadn’t counted his stars before. But he never thought about the fact that he had his own room. He’s been here much longer than the others, and he used to sleep in the mass quarter. But as he grew, Lady Tera thought it best he was in solitude.
In her words, he was becoming ‘too tempting.’ And she is far too territorial for someone to put their hands on that which is hers.
Taehyung tries to shake the reminder, a slight grimace on his face as he lady Tera’s gown in the courtyard, Jungkook at his side, watching closely. It’s interesting how focused he looks at such a mundane task. Surely, he already knows how to wash clothes. Everyone does.
His eyes draw away for a moment, gazing over to some children trying to play discreetly, quietly enough so they won’t be scolded. His eyes seem to sadden at the scene, and Taehyung feels a pang of harsh guilt. He’d like to offer some kind of comfort, but he is not used to speaking so freely unless he’s obeying or instructing. Or feigning interest in complimenting Lady Tera.
He takes note of the sunburn that covers Jungkook’s bare shoulder, and before he can stop himself, he’s reaching to caress it. Jungkook doesn’t waste a sing second in flinching away.
“I’m sorry!” Taehyung apologizes right away, feeling bad for startling him. He most likely doesn’t wish to be touched. And Taehyung should never break the rules to begin with. He doesn’t know what he was thinking, he just acted.
Jungkook looks up, hair slightly damp from sweat under the offending sun. “I-” It’s rough, so he clears his throat. He speaks in their mother tongue. “I’m sorry, I was startled.”
Taehyung smiles gently at this, but doesn’t speak. Jungkook looks as if he would like to say more. Taehyung welcomes it.
“Your hands,” He starts again, voice shy, but also strained from not speaking often. “They’re cold from the water.”
Taehyung nods slowly waiting for more, proud that he has something to say.
“It felt nice. On the burn.”
His words serve as a request. It somehow manages to break Taehyungs heart a little more with this small suggestion. He wonders when the last time was that Jungkook received a touch that wasn’t meant to harm him. His heart quickens, not being able to remember the last time was touched either. Even simply.
He looks around for any sign of Lady Tera in the courtyard, or any guard that may try to report him to her just to see Taehyung punished.
He decides quickly when there is only children present and moves to settle his hand as gently as he can manage over the burn. He soothes his fingertips over it and waits for any kind of reaction. It feels so strange. Strange and freeing. Jungkook seems to visibly relax, which spurs Taehyung on further. He traces his cold hand up to the side of Jungkook neck where the sunburn seems to extend slightly. Jungkook lets out a deep breath and seems to practically shudder under the touch. Taehyung has to pull his hand away, or he fears he’ll continue.
It isn’t fair of him. Though he is not allowed to touch another, Lady Tera’s rule explicitly states that no one is allowed to touch Taehyung. He doesn’t want to cause any trouble for Jungkook. He knows what it looks like when Jungkook is hurt, and he never wants to see something like that again.
He pulls away, and tries not to think about the look of disappointment on Jungkook’s face. And he tries not to think about how good it felt, for just that small moment.
He specifically avoids touching from then on. Even though he would like to do nothing more, he can’t risk punishment.
He remembers once. A long time ago, his sixteenth year. He had snuck off with another slave in the late hours of the night with only a torch to light his way. It was only a kiss. A simple and innocent kiss.
Little did he know that Lady Tera was very much awake, and had seen from the balcony.
They both received a whipping. Taehyung had suffered, but his friend had suffered even more. No one was allowed to touch him. Their whipping was so terrible that he couldn’t stand up properly for a week. Taehyung doesn’t with to relive such a thing. He can’t the misery. He can’t bear the guilt. He so wishes that he was his own person, that his body was his to decide on alone.
He’s come to accept it now. But Jungkook- it doesn’t aid his self-preservation that he is so comfortable around him. It also doesn’t help that he is so beautiful.
He lies in bed that night wondering what stops him from gathering what spoils he can manage and running away from this place.
He hears his homeland is very different from this barren desert. He has heard that in the winters it may snow. And that the trees are green and crops are much more plentiful. He hears that more people come by boat every week to fill the land. Jungkook tells him that it’s just as beautiful as he could hope for, but that he can’t go back.
Taehyung will ask him why. And Jungkook will tell a very vague story about his parents abandoning him for money. Selling him off once he had become strong enough to work. Jungkook wont weep at telling this tale, his eyes will remain utterly empty. He can only recall that the journey was long and he has injured many times. Taehyung will tell him that he can’t remember their homeland at all because he hit his head. He’s only ever known Egypt.
Jungkook will reach over to comfort him, to give him something to hope for. To be his beacon to a country who’s shores he can only dream of.
And Taehyung: Taehyung will flinch away from the touch.
They settle in to a routine. Jungkook picks up on their everyday with ease. Lady Tera allows them to spend time together because of Jungkook’s lack of knowledge in the common tongue. Taehyung is grateful that he’s allowed to speak to someone now. He supposes it’s fitting, as Jungkook is the only one who he would like to speak to.
Jungkook isn’t as talkative as he would like, but he supposes there isn’t much to discuss besides their duties.
Taehyung is pinning the folds Lady Tera’s wedding gown on her lithe frame. He pins them accordingly to fit the curves of her body while remains mindful not to prick her skin. It will later be peeled off of her carefully, the adjusted fabric to be sewn into place.
Meanwhile Jungkook stands at the side of the room, pitcher in hand for whenever she may require wine. It’s an easy task. Much easier than Taehyung’s. Jungkook is amazed that Taehyung knows so many skills. To wash, and cook, and clean. To make clothing, to speak more than one language, to weave a basket from the dry husks from the dead crops. To tell a good story, or even the wit to just say something too clever.
Jungkook is truly enamored by all that Taehyung can do.
He waits until Lady Tera retires to the baths until he asks. Taehyung can tell something has been bothering Jungkook. Normally he would not press. But he could very clearly see Jungkook’s eyes following his every movement as he worked on her gown.
He looks down to the ground, setting the wine down with a gentle thud on the wood.
He was looking at Taehyung’s dress, and the plain brown and bright blue beadwork that adorns his torso. He seemed conflicted, not knowing if he should speak.
“Jungkook?” He questions quietly, in fear of someone eavesdropping. He knows he is allowed to speak to him, but he still has to get used to it. Get used to not being afraid. And he knows, logically that no one in the city can understand the language they speak.
“Why does lady Tera dress you as a woman?”
Ah, the question that Taehyung so dreads answering. He doesn’t quite know how to answer. But he supposes he can think of something as he goes.
“Lady Tera treated me as her handmaiden from the beginning. The clothing was only a suggestion. But I quite like my attire.”
“It-” Jungkook becomes flustered if Taehyung isn't mistaken. “It does look very nice on you.” He clears his throat.
“Thank you.” Taehyung smiles, genuinely delighted at the compliment. He makes Lady Tera’s and he makes his own garments as well. He’s proud of both.
He pulls the gown up over the crafting table and pulls the prepared thread through the needle with ease. Jungkook hovers- but not too close, just to watch him work.
It doesn’t feel too dangerous now. After all, there is no rule that he can’t have a friend.
“But it’s not just the garments.” Jungkook mumbles.
Taehyung raises a brow, feeling rather playful for once. He waits for Jungkook to continue.
“The way Lady Tera treats you. She treats you like a woman as well. She would have you stay pure as a handmaiden should.”
Taehyung isn’t quite sure what Jungkook is implying, but he supposes they are at a point now where he could tease him a little.
“I can’t question Lady Tera. I must obey.” He starts off, sewing perfectly, practically without looking. His gaze is very sharp when he looks up at Jungkook. “But under this dress, I am very much a man.”
If he isn’t mistaken, Jungkook gulps. His eyes shift nervously.
Taehyung would be lying if he said he didn’t appreciate that reaction. Maybe they cannot touch. But he will say whatever he pleases.
And it seems that Jungkook will listen.
The ache seems to grow, but Taehyung will ignore it. It isn’t until they both reach for the same jar one day in the kitchens the tension seems to thicken. Their hands brush for only a moment, but Taehyung feels it down to his bones.
Jungkook doesn’t look freighted or ashamed, no. His hand still hovering awkwardly in the space between them. No one is here. It’s very quiet. And Taehyung see it. There is no shame. Only longing.
He blinks rapidly, turning away from Jungkook. He quickly fetched the jar. He doesn’t pay Jungkook any mind, even as he speeds up to walk beside him up the grand hallway.
Taehyung has never really liked the palace all the much. He prefers the courtyard and the outskirts, even the mass quarter. All of this grandness seems empty and pointless. The grand halls all built on the back of slaves for a self-proclaimed king. He supposes it’s not his fight. He doesn’t want it to be.
For every day that he has spent with Jungkook, the more it becomes clear that this is not his home. This is not his country.
He wants to tell him that. He wants to tell Jungkook that he’s his light. But that would be foolish. He can’t encourage him when they are controlled, broken, and treated as belonging.
This doesn’t feel like the time to spark hope. Taehyung shares the food with him, dried fruits that sit in the stolen jar. Jungkook knew he would.
Taehyung thinks that with his strange mix of pessimism and optimism, everything might be alright. He just hopes that Lady Tera isn’t to be wed for a long while. Because he doesn’t know what happens to him after that. He doesn’t know what happens to Jungkook. There’s no way to tell what will befall them once they no longer belong to Lady Tera.
At this thought, when he reaches into the jar, he allows their hands to brush.
Taehyung can never anticipate how awful he’ll truly feel when someone he cares about is hurt.
Jungkook falls ill from the heat. He cannot rise from the bed that morning. He follows orders weakly, barely able to move to his feet. Lady Tera send some guards to fetch him when he is absent that noon from his regular duties.
Taehyung shivers with fear at her command, very much worried that they will hurt him.
She sends Taehyung away, and he does not see Jungkook. He retires to his room where he bites his nails in worry and fidgets with anxiety. He knows that Jungkook received some kind of punishment.
He waits as patiently as he can manage for all the torches to go out in the courtyard. He waits for the mass quarter to quit down unto stillness. He makes his way through the stone halls and weaves through the bunked cots that line the walls.
He removes his sandals so they don’t make any sounds against the cobble. And there, in the very back of the mass quarter a lone cot is there, the tan linen stained with red. Jungkook lies there unsuspecting and Taehyung manages to catch the horrid sight just by the moons light through the open arch of the stone window.
His back is littered with cracks from the whip, red and angry. The skin split in certain places where the whip was brought down even harder. Taehyung’s heart shatters in his chest. He never wanted to see something like this again, but somehow, he knew he would have to.
Jungkook stirs slightly and Taehyung debates on waking him. No one is sleeping close by. He could. But he should let him rest. He should leave now before the sob that that’s building his throat threatens to rip out of him.
Then he hears it. The smallest of cries. A tiny sob, a whimper of pain. His resolve crumbles into nothing, making his way to the poorly built cot.
“Jungkook.” He whispers, afraid he might startle him. Jungkook head turns swiftly, suddenly alert.
“Taehyung.” He replies just as soft.
The tears build in his eyes faster than either of them can stop. And there is now rule, law, or command by their master that could stop Taehyung in that moment from wrapping is arms around Jungkook.
He plants himself on the cot-side, opening his arms. Jungkook rises with a wince through his pain and through his tears and accepts the embrace. Taehyung didn’t expect this intense feeling of relief. It feels like there is suddenly air to breathe.
“Shh,” He comforts him just like he wished to so many times before, “It’s alright now.”
Jungkook clings on tightly, like he’s never been held in this life, like he’s never been loved. Taehyung desperately wishes he could change all of that. But he can only stay for so long. He quickly pulls the hammock from over his shoulder that he had earlier tied. Jungkook’s tears still springing free.
Inside is a salve he had hoped he would not have to use. But here they are.
Jungkook lays on his stomach while Taehyung gently applies the healing salve to the crisscrossed gashes that litter his back and shoulders.
“I thought they were coming with medicine.” Jungkook mumbles sleepily, hissing lightly at one cut in particular that Taehyung touches. “It was only to whip me.”
“I’m sorry.” Taehyung says regretfully. “I’m so sorry Jungkook.”
“It’s not your fault.” He slumps further into the bed.
“I feel as though it is.”
“How can it be?” He chuckles lightly.
“I want to protect you.”
“How?” He whimpers painfully. Taehyung has never heard him like this. This feels like his heart is breaking over and over again. He didn’t know it could break so many times, just from the sounds coming from Jungkook.
He wants to take his place. Take this pain away from him. He wants to lie bleeding in his stead.
“I’ll vouch for you, even beg.” Taehyung admonishes.
“They’ll whip you too.”
“So be it.” He says sincerely.
He finishes up and places the medicine back in the cloth sling, trying it across his chest this time.
“I have to leave now.” He fears if he stays longer, someone might see. And that won’t end well for either of them.
Jungkook manages to sit up and he reaches forward, eyes hopeful. He takes Taehyungs hand. Taehyung doesn’t pull away. The contact where their fingers are intertwined practically burning him, the desire to keep holding on much too intense to ignore.
“Don’t go. Please.” He begs, eyes shining desperately. Desperate for any bit of affection or comfort that Taehyung is willing to give him. Taehyung doesn’t know how much more his heart can take.
“I’ll return. As often as I can, I promise.” He truly means it.
The moment his and Jungkook’s hands fall and cease to touch, the distance between them feels like miles.