Ask Not The Moon cover
Ask Not The Moon
Copyright © Tori Minard 2012
Cover art by Tori Minard from photos by Terrance Emerson and © Stryjek
This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.
All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.
Kistalleh climbed into her carriage after another seemingly endless day of searching for acceptable lodgings. Rain thundered on the roof of the vehicle and rattled against the window glass. It blew in the open carriage door, smacking her in the face and clinging to her already-sodden cloak and skirt.
She glanced at Garek, who leaned against the bench on the opposite side, so pale he looked almost gray, his lips thinned and pinched together. He must be in considerable pain and exhaustion. She’d given him slave clothes to wear, but they fit poorly, the sleeves and trouser legs too short, the fabric thin and inadequate to the weather.
“How are you feeling?” She closed the door to shut out the storm.
“Like dancing.” He folded his arms across his chest.
“I should have brought you a better cloak. Nona, get him a blanket.”
Nona gave her a disapproving glance out of the corner of her eye. With lips pinched even more tightly than Garek’s, she opened the bench seat and removed an old woolen blanket, which she tossed to the Amaki.
“Thank you, Nona,” Garek said.
The maid gave a muffled snort before closing the bench and perching on the seat next to Kistalleh. She’d probably be just as pleased as Father if Kistalleh got rid of Garek. However, that wasn’t going to happen, so Nona might as well get used to him.
“I’ve secured an apartment on the third floor of this house,” Kistalleh said.
He made a noncommittal sound as he arranged the blanket around his shoulders.
“We can move in three days.”
“It’s fully furnished, so we won’t have to move anything heavy.”
This time, Garek didn’t bother to respond.
“I don’t think he cares, my lady,” Nona said.
“He’s in a lot of pain.”
Nona snorted, more loudly this time.
With her fist, Kistalleh rapped on the separation between the passenger compartment and the driver’s box. The carriage lurched into motion. Garek’s jaw flexed as a low grunt of pain escaped him and his hands tightened where they held the blanket. She’d kept him out too long and they hadn’t stopped to eat a mid-day meal. She’d forgotten the laudanum, too. What a mess she’d made of the day.
At least you found a place to live.
Kistalleh leaned against the back of the bench and drew her thick woolen cloak around her to stop her shivers. If she was cold, how much worse must Garek feel, in his worn linen slave shirt and trousers, with only a patched cloak that reached no farther than his hip to keep him warm? He’d been outside in the carriage most of the day because his injuries made it difficult for him to walk. Getting in and out of the carriage was a torture for him.
She and Nona had gone inside the houses they’d inspected, warmed their hands at the landlords’ fires, sipped hot mulled wine. They had warm clothes, too. He’d had nothing.
As if he felt her gaze on him, he opened his eyes and looked at her. Even in the gloom of the carriage, she could see their bright blue color. He was a remarkably beautiful man. How much more beautiful would he be when he was warm and healthy and happy?
“Do I please you, my mistress?” His tone held ages of weariness and disillusionment.
You please me too much. So much she had to continually fight the urge to caress him.
“You do. But I’m not pleased with myself. I wish I’d had you come inside where it was warm.”
“No, you should have brought him in to the fire itself, where the heat could shrink his swollen head,” Nona muttered in a barely audible voice.
“He’s already disrespectful enough, my lady. He’ll never learn his place with you spoiling him this way.”
“As you know yours?” Kistalleh said tartly.
Garek watched the exchange with little expression on his face. He looked too exhausted to care what they said about him.
“It’s a long drive home,” Kistalleh said. She rapped on the wall of the carriage again.
The driver slid open a tiny window in the wall. “Yes, my lady?”
“Take us to the first reputable tavern and order some hot wine and a meal to be brought out to us. Get enough for all four of us.”
“Yes, my lady.” The window closed.
“That will only delay us more,” Nona grumbled.
“You may have been with me all my life, but I’m still the mistress.” She gave her maid a sharp look.
Nona bent her head. “Yes, mistress.”
They rode in silence, Garek huddled in the corner on the opposite side, eyes closed. Somehow she knew he wasn’t dozing; he was enduring until the ride ended and he had a reprieve. Nona, at Kistalleh’s side, sat with her arms crossed under her cloak and stared out the opposite window with a long-suffering air.
Kistalleh turned her face to the window on her side, ignoring the two slaves. The bubbled glass and the raindrops running down it obscured much of the view, and the gloom of a late, wet winter afternoon did the rest. Yet she could still make out the shapes of the three and four story stuccoed buildings that loomed all around and the dull winter clothes of the people who scurried in and out of them.
A passable neighborhood. Not fashionable nor prestigious, but safe and respectable. Her father and Dariu wouldn’t approve. She’d be secure and comfortable, though, and she cared nothing for the opinions of Father, Dariu and Sari, and their aristocratic friends.
Kistalleh had few friends with which to concern herself. Other aristocrats invariably found her too drab or eccentric for their taste, and she rarely met people of other classes. Maybe when she’d moved into her new accommodations …
The coach pulled into the yard of a tavern with brightly lit windows. The yellow glow of the lamplight drew Kistalleh’s eyes and gave her a strange sense of yearning. It looked warm inside, and friendly—but the reality was probably nothing so pleasant. Rough men and disreputable women usually filled such places, even in decent neighborhoods.
She glanced at Garek to find him watching her again, his gaze unreadable. “What is it?”
He shook his head faintly. “You are a puzzle.”
“The same could be said of you.”
“I’m no puzzle.” His lips curved. “I’m just like every other enslaved Amaki.”
“Well, since I’ve never met another of your people, that makes you quite an enigma to me.”
Garek raised his brows. “Never?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“And have you heard none of the stories they tell of us? The fearsome magic we work? Our treacherous ways?”
She gave an uncomfortable shrug. Clearly he found the tales insulting. “Of course I’ve heard stories.”
“And yet you dared to purchase such a creature for your own,” he said in a voice that oozed sarcasm. “You must be brave indeed.”
“My lady,” Nona protested with a glare in his direction. “Will you tolerate this insolence?”
She ignored the female slave. “I take it you disagree with these stories you mention. Why don’t you tell me the truth about your people, then?”
He studied her, as if considering whether to comply with her request. “You would have no way of knowing whether I spoke truth.”
“When do we ever know if people are honest with us? I’m willing to give you a chance to explain your side of the matter.”
The carriage interior had become so dark she could hardly see the look on his face. Finally he sighed. “What would you like to know?”
Everything. She searched about for a suitable opening question. “Where are you from?”
“A kingdom called Nissa.”
“Is it far from here?”
Kistalleh waited for him to elaborate, but he said nothing more. She leaned forward. “Tell me about it.”
“It’s . . . large. Powerful. There are many beautiful gardens there.” He gestured vaguely. “I don’t know what to say.”
“That’s because you didn’t give him time to come up with a fantastical enough lie,” Nona muttered.
Garek chuckled. The unexpected sound made the female slave look at him in apparent surprise. “Nona, you slay me with your doubts. I’m devastated that you don’t believe me.”
“Hmph.” Nona tightened her cloak and stuck her nose to the window glass. “Whatever is taking the driver so long?”
Kistalleh bit her lip to keep from smiling. Nona was jealous of her interest in Garek. That was the best explanation for her behavior. She was accustomed to being the one closest to Kistalleh, and had been in that position for most of Kistalleh’s life, so it was natural for her to feel possessive.
Boots rang on the pavement. The driver knocked on the door of the carriage before opening it and handing in a tray and a basket covered in a dishcloth so spotlessly white it seemed to glow in the gloom of the carriage. Nona hastened to take the provisions from him and shut the door of the carriage.
She set the things on the bench next to her, wedged between her thin frame and the wall of the carriage. Opening the basket, she lifted out an earthenware jug that probably contained the wine, and three cups to go with it. Nona filled one of the cups, handing it to Kistalleh. Spicy steam curled up and teased her nose with its enticing scent. Nona poured another for herself and stoppered the jug.
“Aren’t you going to give any to Garek?” Kistalleh said dryly.
“Oh, dear, I must have forgotten.” She opened the jug and poured a third cup.
Garek cradled the drink in both hands, bending over the steam. He gave a long inhale before lifting the cup to his lips and tasting the wine, his eyes half closed. The expression on his face was so sensual and full of pleasure, it was almost too private for Kistalleh to watch. She felt as if she’d intruded on a personal moment, so she averted her gaze, turning toward Nona and her dinner preparations.
They had slices of roasted chicken, freshly baked bread, soft white cheese, and some little fruit tarts with crystallized honey sprinkled on top. Kistalleh chose generous portions of everything, arranging them on a plate without waiting for Nona to do it for her.
The maid smiled at her. “Hungry, my lady?”
“Yes.” But Kistalleh handed the plate to Garek.
He gave her a startled glance before accepting it. “Thank you,” he murmured, surprise in his voice as well.
If Nona tightened her lips any more, they’d disappear altogether.
Kistalleh pointed at the food. “I’d like a little of everything, too.” She pounded on the carriage wall to tell the driver to take them home.
Nona fixed her a plate without saying a word or looking at either her or Garek. Well, let her sulk. She’d come around eventually, or else make herself miserable.
The food was plain but of excellent quality and well-cooked. Kistalleh peeked at Garek as they ate and found he had exquisite table manners. He ate noiselessly, carefully, not cramming the food into his mouth the way most peasants did—and she suspected he’d not eaten any kind of decent meal in a long time. Did all Amaki behave like that, or had he come from an aristocratic background himself? And would he tell her the truth if she asked him?
Garek looked up from his plate and found her watching him. Kistalleh blushed, but she couldn’t look away. “My people keep slaves,” he said. “I never thought too deeply about it until I was caught and made a slave myself.”
She tilted her head. “How were you caught? Had you committed a crime?”
“Yes.” He smiled a bitter smile. “The crime of being Amaki on Atlantis. And they wanted my friend, who is—was—half vampire. We rented a room together.”
“Was? Is he dead?”
“I don’t know.” Even in the dark, he looked sad. “I never saw him after that day. I don’t know what happened to him.”
Vampires were considered to be an abomination, although they were tolerated better on Atlantis than the Amaki were. Perhaps that was because vampires were confined to the night, which limited their powers. There was no time of day or night when the Amaki were especially vulnerable, and they had formidable magical abilities.
The blood drinkers might be better tolerated, but most Atlanteans would be pleased to know that a vampire had been captured and perhaps even killed. However, she could see how much pain it caused him. “I’m sorry.”
He dropped his gaze, bending his head. “So am I.”
Kistalleh gripped her plate against an overwhelming urge to reach across the carriage and take his hand. What was this strange bond she was beginning to feel with him? She’d never had such an interest in a slave before, never felt the need to comfort one, even though she’d always hated to see them punished.
Slaves occupied a different world from her own, one that was side by side with it and yet utterly separate. They slept and ate in the slave quarters, and even when they shared a meal with their masters, it was always in a servile capacity, such as Nona taking care of the food tonight. Never were they friends or equals.
Maybe there really was something wrong with her, as Dariu never tired of telling her. Taking a slave to bed, requiring him to please her sexually, was something many married and widowed women did, at least according to the gossips. But comforting one? Knowing his heart? That was unthinkable.
Garek had finished his meal and was leaning back against the seat, looking more comfortable than he had all day. She wished, foolishly, that she were sitting next to him instead of Nona.
“I imagine Nissa is very beautiful,” she said.
He smiled faintly. “It is.”
“Tell me. . .I don’t wish to be rude, but… is it true that your people can walk through walls?”
His smile broadened. “No. Where did you hear that?”
Kistalleh shrugged. “Oh, here and there. Everyone seems to believe it.”
“We Walk the Between. That’s how we can appear from out of nowhere.”
“Yes.” He made another of those vague gestures. “It’s a kind of other world that we Amaki can access. From the Between, we can get to any other place on the earth without traveling. So I could step into the Between in this carriage and come out in Nissa without taking more than a few steps.”
“That is a wondrous power indeed. If you had no iron on your body, you could do this?”
“No wonder you wanted me to remove the bands.”
He laughed softly. The sound seemed to caress her skin and get inside of her, warming her and making her tingle deep within. “Yes. I thought it was worth a try.”
The food and wine had pushed some of the pain away, filling Garek’s belly, warming and relaxing him, lulling him into giving himself away to Kistalleh, if only a little. Yet by the time they reached the Waverider compound, some of the wine-induced euphoria had retreated and he felt the pain and exhaustion creeping back. The reprieve was over.
He crept out of the carriage, hunched like an old man, breathing in shallow pants against the agony in his ribs. If she would only remove the iron, he would heal in minutes. But she would not. What was the advantage to her of taking off the bands?
Without the iron to suppress his powers, he could escape. He would escape—and she knew it. She could see it in his face. Earth’s bones, he’d just admitted as much to her. Of course she wouldn’t remove them.
Kistalleh paused as they walked across the rainy courtyard of the compound and looked at him. “Are you alright? Do you need help?”
He shook his head. “No. I’ll make it.”
Talking to her, confiding in her, was a mistake, one he must never repeat. She was his mistress, his owner, not his friend. Anything he told her could—and probably would—be used against him eventually. He’d made the error of trusting Rina, had even fooled himself into thinking she loved him. He’d never forget the devastation of discovering it was only a game to her, how crushed he’d been.
He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“You look quite ill,” Kistalleh said. “I think you’ll need help to get up the stairs.”
“No. I’ll manage it alone.”
When she laid a solicitous hand on his arm, he flinched away with a glare that he knew was surly and ill-mannered.
What did she want of him, anyway? She seemed intent on treating him as some kind of bizarre hybrid of slave and guest. Didn’t she know how painful it was to be so near her, near enough for a touch, a kiss, and yet be forbidden to approach her? It was almost worse than the torture of his broken ribs. But maybe that was the point; maybe she took pleasure in teasing him with her inaccessibility.
They went inside, Garek following her like a good slave. The first night, he’d been half-unconscious when they’d brought him in and he’d noticed little of his surroundings. He hadn’t known what the house really looked like until this morning when he’d come down. Now he saw again the heavily carved double doors, opened by a slave, and the fine marble tile of the entry hall. Inside, the white plaster walls displayed colorful frescoes of dolphins, mermaids and other sea creatures cavorting in the waves.
Yet the interior of the great house was chill and gray—his first impression of warmth had been exaggerated by the contrast with the outdoors— and the slaves seemed to creep through the shadowed spaces, everything about them hushed and subdued. As if someone had died. Kistalleh seemed not to notice the morbid atmosphere, walking briskly to the stairs, Nona by her side. Maybe the household always felt so funereal.
Garek hesitated at the bottom of the marble-tiled staircase. It looked a lot longer now that he was down here, about to climb up, than when he’d been at the top this morning. No matter. He’d said he could make it on his own and he would. With one hand on the wall, he fought his way up stair by stair. Sweat broke out on his forehead and his breath grew ragged.
He paused to rest for a moment and glanced upward. Sira stood poised at the head of the stairs, watching them with a covetous smile on her face. She wore another diaphanous dress, this one in red, which seemed even more inappropriate now than the blue one had at yesterday’s breakfast. She glided down the stairs, passed Kistalleh without acknowledging her, and stopped next to Garek, laying a finely manicured hand on his arm.
“Oh, you poor thing! She’s exhausted you. Here, let me help you.”
Garek fought down the urge to throw her off. “I am grateful for your concern, but I fear I’m much too heavy for you, my lady.” He looked straight at Kistalleh as he spoke, although his words were directed at Sira.
“Don’t be silly, Sira,” his mistress said. “What would you do, carry him?”
Sira gave her an irritated glance over her shoulder. “You’re working him too hard. You should have left him with me. I would have looked after him for you.”
“I’m sure you would. Garek, can you manage the rest or shall I call someone?”
“I’ll manage.” Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to climb another step, and then another.
His whole body ached, his head pounded and he felt cold, so cold, as if he’d turned to ice inside and would never thaw. Sira fluttered beside him, her every movement releasing clouds of the cloying perfume she wore, which only made his headache worse.
He’d never had an aristocratic lady make a fuss over him before. By the gods, why wouldn’t she leave him alone? He’d much rather have Kistalleh’s matter-of-fact concern than Sira’s theatrical offers of help.
She took his arm, apparently to assist him up the stairs, but instead of supporting him, she leaned against him, hampering his arms and legs. Her weight, slight though it was, dragged at him. Somehow he had to get rid of her.
Garek stopped, putting one shoulder against the wall. “My lady, truly, I need no help.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble, really.” She gave him a dazzling smile.
He responded with a mournful look. “But I’m afraid that if I fall, I could drag you down with me. I could never live with myself if I caused you to be injured.”
Sira glanced over her shoulder at the unprotected drop to the marble floor below. There was no hand-rail. “Oh. Oh, dear, I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, I suppose you’re right.” She released him. “I—um—well, I must visit the kitchens to order tomorrow’s meals. I bid you good evening.”
“Good evening, Lady Sira,” he said solemnly.
After she was gone, he looked up at Kistalleh, who seemed to be trying not to laugh. At him or her sister-in-law? No matter. She could laugh at him all she wanted—it made no difference to him. Garek hitched himself up another stair. Then one more. He was almost to the top.
“You do look done in,” Kistalleh said. “Soon we’ll have you in bed and you can rest. Tomorrow will be an easy day.”
He shot her a sour look. “I’m not a child.”
Nona had watched the whole performance with the carefully blank expression he’d seen on so many house slaves. She looked like a drab, thin statue, a figure that could only observe but never comment or judge or even hold an opinion on what she saw. That was ironic, considering her earlier behavior toward him.
When he reached the top of the stairs, the elderly slave touched Kistalleh’s hand. “My lady, the fire has been lit and hot soup will be brought momentarily.”
Fire? Hot soup? How had Nona left and come back without him noticing? He must have lost some time. Maybe it had been while Sira was accosting him. The gods knew he found it difficult to notice anyone or anything else when she was near—and not because he lusted after her. It was because she made him desperate to escape.
A fire did burn in Kistalleh’s sitting room, along with several oil lamps. The light gave the room a mellow glow, enhanced by the rose-colored walls. This room had none of the gray gloominess of the rest of the house. It felt home-like, cozy and welcoming, although the fire hadn’t chased all the chill away yet.
Garek didn’t bother to wait for permission to go to the couch. He hobbled to it and lowered himself gingerly to the seat. The stretcher was gone and someone had spread a clean sheet over the upholstery.
“Do you need help undressing or should I call for Sira?” Kistalleh said. He scowled at her and she laughed. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t really do that to you.”
She seemed unusually happy. What for? Garek eyed her suspiciously as he tried to lean against the back of the couch. His torn skin ached ferociously and when he touched it to the furniture a shock of pain seized him, stealing his breath. He leaned forward, trying to conceal his grimace.
“I’ll undress myself.” The truth was he didn’t know if he could manage it, but he didn’t want Kistalleh helping him. If she touched him, his cock would spring up and beg for attention, declaring loudly just how much he desired her. No Atlantean woman would ever have such a declaration from him again.
She gave him a level look before nodding. “Alright. If that’s the way you want it.”
Nona gave another of her contemptuous snorts. He ignored her. Someday soon, he and Nona were going to have a talk, but not tonight. He didn’t have the energy to wrangle with her.
Kistalleh picked up the bottle of laudanum and a spoon and measured out some of the drug. She offered the spoon to him. He took it carefully, trying to keep their fingers from touching, but her skin brushed over his in spite of his efforts. Her hand felt soft and smooth. The hand of a lady who didn’t need to work to earn her way.
Garek swallowed the bitter medicine. She had a puzzled wrinkle between her brows as he returned the spoon. So she’d noticed he tried not to touch her. It was probably his imagination that she looked hurt. Why would she be hurt? He was only a slave, after all.
She turned to Nona. “You can go for the night. I won’t need you.”
The female slave pinched her lips together, shooting another glare at Garek, but said nothing as she left the room. Yes, he would definitely have a talk with Nona.
“Take your shirt off so I can check your back.” Kistalleh made a gesture, as if to take the garment from him.
“My back is fine.”
“That’s good. I still want to check it.”
No. If she touched him, he’d surely embarrass himself.
Kistalleh frowned. “No?”
Had he said that aloud? “There’s no need for you to play doctor. I’m fine.”
“I’m not playing anything. I want to see your back.”
“And I don’t want you to.”
Her frown turned to a scowl. “Have you forgotten who is mistress here?”
At that, he smiled. “How could I possibly forget?”
Kistalleh put her fists on her hips in that age-old gesture of a woman who isn’t getting what she wants. “If you refuse to comply, I’ll simply call in some of the other male slaves and have you held down.”
“Tonight? It’s rather late.”
“Not that late.”
“But think, my lady. If you call them, you’ll have your father’s slaves tramping through your rooms.” He shook his head in mock regret. “What little privacy you have will be ruined.”
Kistalleh made an inarticulate sound of frustration. “Fine. We’ll bring in the doctor tomorrow morning. And then we’ll hold you down.”
“For the doctor you won’t need to.”
She peered at him, still frowning. “You wouldn’t fight the doctor?”
The laudanum was beginning to work on him already. He smiled. “Because the doctor isn’t a fine Atlantean lady trying to get me to take my clothes off.”
Her mouth fell open. “Trying to get you to take your clothes off? Is that what you think this is? I’m just trying to get you naked so I can rape you? Even though you’re almost twice as big as I am.” She took a step toward him, her brown eyes narrowing in anger. “I told you before; I don’t treat any of my people that way. You’re my responsibility and I care about your health. Beyond that, I have no interest in you.”
His smile broadened. “Do you always lie to yourself like that?”
Kistalleh made a growling noise. Coming from her, it was oddly appealing. “You conceited, arrogant monster. That whip-master was right. You’re intractable, no good. Untrainable. Worthless.”
Garek blinked. “Worthless, am I? Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh? You’re the one who bought me, after all.”
“Yes, and I see now what a mistake I made. It was an utter waste of good money.”
She seemed to be quivering; even her lower lip trembled. He’d upset her much more deeply than he’d expected to.
“Well,” he drawled, “Maybe you can whip the rest of the skin off me. That ought to teach me a lesson.”
She growled again as her hand came slashing down in a gesture of rage. Kistalleh spun on her heel and stalked from the room into one of the other chambers of the suite, her damp honey-brown hair swinging against her back. The door slammed shut behind her.
Garek slumped on the couch. Now that no-one was there to see, he could let go of the pretense that he was merely tired. His head felt like it was floating somewhere a handspan above his shoulders, attached by nothing but a thread. His back was on fire, and his ribs as well. He closed his eyes.
Lady Kistalleh’s reaction to his suggestion she might want him was odd in its vehemence. Atlanteans routinely took sexual advantage of their slaves. She’d seen Sira’s attempts to get her hands all over him, and she could hardly be so naïve at her age that she didn’t know what her sister-in-law wanted from him. Yet from her behavior one might think he’d accused her of high treason instead of something as mundane as desire.
Earth’s bones but he was tired of this Atlantean nonsense. Tired of the games, the lust, tired of everything. He couldn’t live this way anymore. Twenty years of continual humiliation and helplessness was enough.
For the first few years, he’d thought things would get better, that he could bring Rina around, maybe work his way up in her household. Maybe even buy his freedom. That dream had died. No Amaki would ever be allowed to buy freedom, and Rina wanted him only as a toy, something she could torment.
When he got his strength back, he would leave. Walk away. Even if he must die in the attempt; at least he would die a man.
Someone knocked on the door. Earth’s bones, not Sira again. But when the door opened, it was only one of the kitchen girls—a different one than the slave who’d brought him breakfast. She carried a small soup tureen and two bowls on a tray.
“The soup my lady ordered,” she said, putting the tray down on the larger of the two tables.
“Thank you.” He inclined his head toward the suite’s interior door. “Would you tell her for me? I don’t think I can get up just now.”
The girl’s thin face flushed. “Certainly.”
But when she knocked on Kistalleh’s door, the lady simply called out to leave her alone. The slave, looking crestfallen, took herself off and left Garek with enough soup for two people. Luckily, the table was close enough to him that he didn’t need to get up to serve himself.
It was a thin mutton broth, something he wouldn’t have expected to be served to the lady of the house…but perhaps it was the only soup available in the kitchens at the moment. Whatever the reason, he didn’t mind. He liked mutton and the soup was hot, sending fragrant steam up to scent the room.
Garek filled one of the bowls. By the time he’d finished the soup, the drug had sent him up into the clouds again. He didn’t bother to remove his clothes before stretching out on his side and going to sleep.
Kistalleh sat on her bed and steamed, her arms crossed and her foot tapping impatiently on the floor. Garek was impossible. She ought never to have bought the big ingrate. She’d only wanted to inspect the wounds on his back to ensure they were healing correctly. Not because she’d wanted to molest him. Yes, she found him attractive—probably any woman alive and conscious found him attractive. That didn’t mean she intended to force him.
She got up and paced the room. It was dark; she hadn’t ordered any lamps to be lit. She could have light if she went into the sitting room and brought in one of the lamps that burned there, but then she’d have to look at Garek. And she didn’t want to do that.
What a big baby you are. He’s your slave. Don’t let him intimidate you.
Yes. That was right. If she let him know how much his insinuations had bothered her, how reluctant she was to face him, he’d never respect her. Kistalleh opened the door to the sitting room.
He lay on the couch with his eyes closed, still fully dressed and apparently asleep. An empty but used soup bowl sat on the table next to the tureen and a clean bowl. Kistalleh dished out some broth for herself and took it into her bedroom. Then she returned for a lamp.
His eyes were still closed. As she looked at him, he gave a soft, barely audible snore. Fake? His face had the relaxed, open look of someone asleep. With an inner shrug, she took a lamp and retreated to her room.
She feared he was too much for her to handle. Buying him had been an impulse, based on the need to atone for her cowardice with Luka all those years ago. But Garek wasn’t that boy, and nothing she did could bring Luka back or make up for the wrong that had been done to him. In attempting to use Garek for that purpose, she was only hurting him and herself.
She would have to sell him to someone who was prepared to handle a recalcitrant Amaki slave. Someone who would be firm with him, but not abusive. Was there such a person in Atlantiri?
You could free him.
No, she told the inner voice. Freeing an Amaki slave was against the law. If she were caught, she would face execution and she simply wasn’t ready to make that sacrifice. Especially not for someone as infuriating as Garek.
Tomorrow she would send some letters to her modest circle of friends, asking if they had any suggestions. She’d find a new home for him, and they could forget they’d ever met. And if that inner voice whispered that she’d never forget him, she simply ignored it. Eventually, someday, it would fall silent.
Sometime in the night, Kistalleh awoke. She’d extinguished the lamp before going to sleep, and her room was dark. She lay in her bed listening, wondering what had awoken her.
A thump came from the front room. She jerked upright, heart pounding. Someone was out there. No-one came into her rooms at this time of night. It had to be a prowler.
There were hideous penalties for thievery in Atlantiri, yet thieves were common and bold. They knew which were the houses of rich merchants and nobles, and which the hovels of the poor. Perhaps the rooftop guard had fallen asleep at his post or even gone off to enjoy one of the female slaves, leaving Kistalleh vulnerable to the robber.
What if it wasn’t a thief? It could be worse—someone sent by an enemy of their clan to murder them in their beds. Her father had many enemies, both in politics and business. Kistalleh’s heart zoomed out of control at the thought of an assassin coming into her rooms.
Then she almost laughed aloud. Of course someone was out there—Garek was asleep on her couch. For a moment, she’d been ready to believe assassins had broken into the compound and were creeping about looking for throats to slit.
Another thump sounded, followed by a low moan. Perhaps he was having a nightmare—one about the terrible consequences of being disrespectful toward a kindly mistress who was only trying to help him. Served him right.
He moaned again, a long, miserable sound. Kistalleh bit her lip. What if he really needed her help and she sat in here, refusing to come to him just because her pride had been hurt? She’d never forgive herself if he—if something terrible happened because she’d been trying to teach him a lesson.
She sighed. Her father and Dariu were right; she was a sentimental fool. But what could she do? It was the way she was made. Sliding out of bed, she took up the wrap she used at night and left the bedroom.
Only one lamp still burned in the sitting room and the fire had died down to coals. Garek lay sprawled on the couch, face down, one leg hanging off the edge of the narrow cushions. As she watched, he flung himself onto his side. He gave a cry of pain, yet didn’t awaken.
She took up the lamp and held it close to him. His face was damp with sweat, his pale gold hair darkened with moisture and clinging to his forehead. He looked flushed. Kistalleh set down the lamp and laid her palm against his head. His skin burned with inner fire.
Fever. A high one, dangerous.
“Garek, wake up.”
He gave no response.
She poked him in the shoulder. “Wake up, Garek.”
Still no response.
Kistalleh shook him gently, then more vigorously, but got nothing except another moan. She slapped him lightly on the cheek. “Garek! Wake up!”
He still gave no response, not even a twitch to show he was aware of her. Something was very wrong here. She must see his back, was determined to see it no matter what he said or did. Even if he woke up and fought her. First, she’d have to get that shirt off him.
It slid on over the head, being nothing more than a short tunic. She wouldn’t be able to remove it the usual way with Garek asleep. Instead, she’d have to cut it off with the shears she kept in her work basket. The shears were really meant for mending and for cutting lengths of fabric for embroidery, but they’d have to do.
Kistalleh hurried to her basket, which she kept at the foot of a chair by the fire. The shears in her hand, she returned to Garek. He still lay on his side, facing her. She stood over him, pondering how she was going to get him onto his belly. Could he even lie that way without further damage to his ribs?
Well, he’d been in that position when she’d entered the room, so maybe it wouldn’t do him any more injury. She hoped. Setting the shears on the table next to the empty soup tureen, she put her hands on his shoulder and pressed him down toward the couch seat.
“Roll onto your stomach.”
He showed no sign of hearing her.
Kistalleh shoved harder, leaning into the push with all her weight. He frowned in his sleep and reached up to shove her hands away. To her shame, the contact with his body made her warm all over, the deep places inside her beginning to tingle with awareness. By the gods, she was only trying to help a sick man. This was not the time to be overcome with lust.
She smacked him, harder this time, on the shoulder. “Roll over!”
This time he obeyed, with a mutter of words she couldn’t understand. Finally his back was in a position where she could see it. Kistalleh picked up her shears, slipped the bottom blade between his shirt and bandages, and started cutting. When she had the shirt open all the way, she began to cut away the bandaging.
The linen strips fell away, revealing the wounds from the whipping. And they looked bad, even in the dim light of the single lamp. She got up and refilled one of the lamps that had gone out, lighting it from the one that still burned, and brought both of them over to the couch, holding them close for a better look.
The skin of his back looked red and shiny, swollen with infection. Some of the whip marks oozed pus; others were merely red and angry, standing out even against the florid color of the rest of his back. The whole region looked infected. That, taken with his obvious fever, worried her. He could die of this.
How was she going to treat him? Hot soaks? Garlic and cabbage compresses? Those methods could be effective, but on this scale she didn’t want to rely on them. In addition to the infection, he suffered from broken ribs and malnutrition, conditions which would interfere with his natural healing abilities. He needed something more powerful than compresses, but she had nothing at all. Nothing.
What about taking off the iron? That would allow him to heal quickly.
Kistalleh shivered. Yes, removing the iron would let him heal, but at what risk? Once the iron was no longer on his body, he would have full access to his Amaki powers…and Garek was angry. If he decided to take out that anger on her family, there would be nothing she or anyone else could do to stop him.
If she removed those bands, and he took advantage of the opportunity to take revenge on the Atlanteans he despised, she would be responsible for the consequences.
Maybe. . .maybe she could take the bands off while he was unconscious, leave them off just long enough for healing to take place, and then replace them before he woke up. It was a risk, but there was a chance she could get away with it. She rubbed her face as visions of a rampaging Garek filled her mind.
Still. . .if she did nothing, he would probably die and she would have another death on her conscience. One almost-certain death against many possible deaths. Gods, gods, what to do?
There were five bands in all—one on each ankle and wrist, and one around his neck. Could she get them back on him before he woke up? Her palms broke out in a nervous sweat as she contemplated the risk of failure. If Garek went on a rampage and didn’t kill her, the king would certainly have her put to death. Probably by torture. She’d rather have Garek break her neck.
But the alternative was to do nothing except watch him while he died. She couldn’t. Maybe she was an idiot, but she couldn’t let him die without trying to save him.
Kistalleh took a lamp with her to her bedroom. She’d put the key to Garek’s bands under a pile of bracelets in a jewelry box she kept on a tall chest of drawers. With one hand, she held the lamp, and with the other she rummaged through the brightly enameled bangles. Where was it?
The bracelets rattled and chimed against one another as she moved them around in the box. Where was that key? She leaned to the side to put the lamp down so she could use both hands. Her wrap swept the top of the chest and the box went tumbling to the floor, the bangles spilling out in a multi-colored mess.
Muttering curses under her breath, she crouched down to scoop up the jewelry. Kistalleh dumped the rebellious bracelets back into the box. She still hadn’t seen the key, and she knew she’d put it in there. Could Nona have found it and hidden it from her?
That interfering old hen needed to learn to mind her own business. Kistalleh loved her, but she was the mistress, not Nona, and just because the elderly slave had changed her diapers and dandled her on her knee when Kistalleh was a baby didn’t mean she could boss her around now.
Shaking her head in frustration, she turned to another, larger jewelry box. Maybe she’d remembered it wrong. Then a little glimmer on the floor caught her eye, and she bent down to examine the object. It was the key. Now all she had to do was unlock the bands.
He was still on his belly when she returned to the front room. As she knelt by his feet, he began to mutter again in that unfamiliar language and move his head fitfully against the upholstery. She grabbed his nearest foot, wincing at the filth that still covered it, and looked for a lock.
There it was, on the inside of the ankle—a most inconvenient location. Kistalleh rotated the cuff. The movement made Garek flinch and cry out in a harsh voice. Was his ankle broken as well? It wasn’t swollen, and he’d been walking alright. She stuck the key in the lock.
It wouldn’t turn. There must be rust inside the lock. She tried again, but couldn’t get more than an iota of movement.
“For the love of Desou, turn, you stupid key.” But the key wasn’t listening.
She withdrew it and wiped it down with her night dress. When she inserted it again, it turned perfectly. The band clicked open and she pulled it from his body. Skin came with it, leaving a raw and oozing patch on his ankle.
“Oh, no.” She reached out and pressed a gentle fingertip near the edge of the wound. “Oh, Garek, I’m so sorry.”
Of course, he didn’t hear—or if he did, he gave no response.
She didn’t want to hurt him again, and the other bands might also have stuck to his skin. But they had to come off or he wouldn’t be able to heal. Besides, any damage done would presumably disappear once she got the iron off him.
Kistalleh moved swiftly to the next ankle and wrestled the band open. This one didn’t stick to his skin, thank the gods, but the flesh beneath it was swollen and red as if it, too, had become infected. She touched it and found it hot. This was what the iron was doing to his skin. What effect did it have on his internal organs?
How terrible that they’d done this to him. How terrible that she was going to continue doing it, that she didn’t have the courage to free him.
She scooted over to his wrists, picked up the hand he was dangling over the edge. His fingers were long, gracefully formed and powerful. Even with grime under his nails and ground into his skin, it was a beautiful hand. She released the cuff, moving on to the next one.
As the final cuff fell away, he rolled to his back again. Kistalleh leaned over him, the warmth of him radiating to her and making her tingle more fiercely than ever, and felt along his neck band for the lock. Naturally, it would have to be at the very back. She’d have to turn it…but what if it took more skin with it?
Either way, the neck band must be removed. With a sigh, she gripped the iron in both hands and pulled. Garek grimaced. He shoved at her and almost pushed her away.
“It’s alright,” she murmured. “I’m only going to take this off.”
The sound of her voice seemed to settle him and he subsided. Kistalleh shoved the key into the lock. This one was almost as stiff as the first. She leaned closer as she struggled with both hands to turn the key. Her hair fell forward and brushed against his face as she worked.
Something warm touched her calf. Kistalleh glanced down and saw Garek caressing her leg. He’d done that the first night, too. This time he didn’t seem to be conscious, but her face burned anyway. He only wanted her when he was out of his mind with opium or fever.
The neck band sprang open. She pulled it away from his body and dropped it on the floor with the others. No, that was a mistake. She needed to get them cleaned up and ready to re-apply as soon as he was healed.
One of the slaves had left a clean towel on the couch-side table. Picking it up, she bent to retrieve the neck band and wipe it. Garek’s hand continued stroking her bare leg, making hot tingles of awareness travel all the way up to the core of her body.
She wiped feverishly at one band after another, until all five were as clean as she could make them in such a short time. Kistalleh pulled at Garek’s shoulder until he rolled far enough on his side that she could look at his back. The swelling was gone completely, and there were only a few reddish scratches to show where some of the worst of the whip marks had been.
That was incredible. He’d healed the whole infection in the time she’d taken to wipe down five metal bands. Were his ribs healed, too? With him unconscious, she couldn’t very well ask him how he felt, and she needed to get the iron back on him before he awoke.
Kistalleh worked fast to lock the bands one after the other on his neck and limbs. Getting them back on was far easier than it had been to remove them and soon she was nearly finished. As she fastened the last ankle cuff, she heard him move.
“Kistalleh,” he said in a caressing voice.
She straightened and looked at him. He was propped up on one elbow, gazing at her with heavy-lidded eyes. With his free hand, he reached out and caught the skirt of her night dress, crumpling the thin linen fabric. He pulled on it, as if it were a leash, drawing her closer.
“You’re better,” she said.
“I’m always better when you’re here.” He gave her a seductive smile, one that made her heart trip over itself.
“I was worried.”
Garek released her gown to take her by the hand and bring her down toward him. In a daze, she allowed the liberty. The room had taken on a strange, dreamlike quality, with the flickering flames of the oil lamps sending soft, uncertain light over his face and the deep rose wall behind him.
Kistalleh let herself fall to her knees, bringing her face nearer to his. What in the name of all the gods was she doing? This was pure idiocy. But she didn’t get up or draw away. She let him slide his hand around to the back of her neck and pull her ever closer, his gaze moving to her lips. He angled his head and their mouths met. Clung.
She whimpered. Trembled. Her hand moved to his shoulder, clutched him, the hard muscle beneath his ruined shirt. His lips teased, caressed, and her mouth opened of its own accord and his tongue entered in a hot slick possession. Garek gave a low moan.
Her nails dug into his flesh. He started. His gaze met hers and his face flushed with brilliant red color. What was wrong? Garek jerked back, out of her embrace, shoving his fingers through his long gold hair. He wouldn’t look at her.
“My apologies, mistress,” he said in a rough voice. “I seem to have forgotten myself.”
“No. No, I’m not—”
“I didn’t mean—”
They both spoke at once. As their voices crossed and tangled, they stopped, him looking as abashed as she felt.
“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I thought you wanted—that is, you seemed—I didn’t mean to take advantage of you.”
He flicked a glance at her, then returned to studying his lap. “I thought I was dreaming.”
“Oh. I see.” She had taken advantage of him, and now he didn’t want her again. Now that he was in his right mind. The pain of it stole what little breath and dignity she had left. Kistalleh rose to her feet.
Garek sat up straight, patting his ribs. “What happened to my shirt?” He reached around his back and ran his fingers over the skin there. Then he looked at her, a puzzled frown on his face. “I’m healed. Even my ribs.”
“Good.” She nodded. “That’s good. What I was hoping for.”
His frown deepened. “What you were hoping for?”
Kistalleh made a helpless gesture. “Never mind. Good night.” She started toward the bedroom.
She stopped, looking back over her shoulder. “Yes?”
He stood up, pressing his fingers deep into the flesh over his ribs and making them sink between the bones. “You…you must have taken off the iron. That’s the only way I could heal so fast.”
She couldn’t speak.
He gazed at her intently. “Why would you do something like that?”
Kistalleh gave an awkward shrug. Trust Garek to demand an explanation for something she couldn’t explain without revealing most of her heart to him.
He moved toward her with more grace than she’d seen in him yet, smooth and catlike, a leopard stalking across a moonlit plain. He stopped behind her, took her by the shoulders, turned her around. She made herself meet his eyes.
There was a new look on his face, something soft and wondering. Something vulnerable. One big hand came up to palm the side of her face. “Thank you.”
Kistalleh blinked hard. “You’re welcome. I. . .I’m going back to bed now.”
But she didn’t move, just kept staring up into those eyes, blue as the sea and sky. Garek stared back, as if he were as fascinated as she…but how could that be true? She was just plain, brown Kistalleh. Nothing special.
“I didn’t think anyone like you really existed,” he said, his hand still cupping her face.
“What do you mean?”
He bent, slowly, giving her plenty of time to protest, pull away, remind him of who she was. Her heart began to race frantically, like the heart of a small bird. Dariu used to call her Sparrow, and not as a compliment. She felt like a sparrow now, trapped and waiting, helplessly, for the killing strike of the predator.
But the strike never came. Garek’s lips were warm, soft, coaxing a response from her, and his arms came around her, holding her to his powerful body; she couldn’t help but wrap her own arms around his tight, narrow waist. It had been so long since she’d felt a man’s body against hers…and her husband had never felt like this, had never made her come alive with desire.
“Lovely mistress,” he whispered, pressing kisses to her cheeks, her eyelids, her brow.
“I thought you had no use for Atlantean women.”
He laughed softly against her hair. “So did I.”
“I don’t—don’t understand.”
His fingers combed through her long brown curls. “You took a great risk in removing the iron from my body. I know you were afraid of me, of what I’d do if I woke up and found myself free. Yet you risked it anyway, just to help me.”
“How did you know I was afraid?” she whispered.
“I’m not sure. Maybe the iron doesn’t suppress all my magic. Or maybe it was just a good guess. Either way, no other Atlantean has ever done anything like what you did, in all the years I’ve been a slave.”
Their lips met again, in a gentle kiss.
“How long?” she said. “How long has it been?”
His hands made long stroking motions along her back. “Twenty years.”
“So many?” She frowned up at his unlined face, the hair that had not one silver strand. “But you look so young. Were you a child when they captured you?”
“No.” He smiled wryly. “Amaki don’t age at the same rate as humans. But now, with the iron on me, I’ll live a shorter life, closer to a human one.”
“I’m sorry.” It seemed terribly unfair.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t want to live like this anyway.”
He wasn’t referring to her—at least, she didn’t think so—but the remark still stung. Kistalleh dropped her gaze. She’d been fooling herself for the last few minutes, thinking they might have something together that went beyond mistress and slave. They didn’t. Couldn’t.
Garek’s long fingers caught her under the chin and gently tipped up her face. “What is it?”
He wasn’t behaving at all like a slave. This was what came of allowing him to kiss her—he now thought he could treat her as an equal. Kistalleh turned her face away. “It’s nothing. You must be tired. Go back to sleep.” She tried to pull back.
“I don’t think I could sleep now if I tried.” He sounded amused.
“Then stay up. I don’t care.” Taking a step backward, she leaned against the cage of his arms. “Let me go, Garek.”
“You’re upset because I said I don’t want to live as a slave? What did you expect; that I’d fall at your feet and beg to serve you?”
“I didn’t expect anything. But the fact remains that you are a slave and when I tell you to let me go, I mean it.”
His arms dropped away from her. “Damn you.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He scowled. “You had me fooled for a while, there. I thought you were different, but you’re just like Rina.”
“Lady Rina? Is that what you’re talking about?”
“Yes. Lady Rina of the Dolphinkiller clan, my illustrious former owner. Aren’t you acquainted with her?”
“No.” She tilted her head. “Only by reputation. The first time I ever saw her was in the Market Square.”
“She is a great lady,” he said with deep sarcasm.
“I’m not like her. I would never have a slave whipped.”
Garek laughed. The sound of it made her want to slap him. “You’re right; you’re not like her. You’re even better at playing games than she is.”
“You accuse me of things and I don’t even know what they are. It seems to me that you’re the one playing games here. I didn’t ask you to kiss me. You volunteered. And if you don’t want to stay with me, that’s fine. I was planning to find another owner for you anyway.”
For a moment, he looked uncertain. “A new owner?”
“Yes. One who can handle your attitude, but who won’t abuse you.”
He studied her. “Why?”
“Because clearly you’re too much for me. You don’t belong with me and the last thing I need is a rebellious slave who takes every opportunity to fight and defy me.”
Garek arched one brow. “I suppose I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“By the gods, what is wrong with you?” Her voice rose with her irritation. “Why do you never believe what I say?”
“Because my experience with Atlantean aristocrats is that everything they say and do is part of an elaborate game. It’s all lies. All a performance. So you can stop playing because, as you can see, I know what you’re doing.”
“You have no idea what I’m doing.”
He laughed again.
“Garek, I haven’t lied to you.” Why did she even care what he thought? He was just a slave, and one who would shortly belong to someone else. But she took a step closer to him, reached out and took him by the hand. “I don’t know what Rina did to you, but I’m not like her. I’m not like Sira. I want you to be happy.”
For an instant, she thought he would laugh, but he didn’t. He stared down at her, looking baffled. “Do you think it’s possible for a slave to be happy, my lady?”
The question made her thoughts lurch to a stop. She had thought so. The ones who were well-fed, clothed, treated gently. She’d assumed… “I don’t know.”
“Is that why you bought me? So I could be a happy slave?”
Her face flushed with heat. “No. Yes. Maybe; I don’t know.”
“Don’t you? What were your plans for me?”
“I told you. I didn’t have any plans. I just wanted to help you.”
“Why? Why would you care what happened to a slave?”
Kistalleh chewed on her lip. “I was—there was someone once, and I couldn’t save him. So I though …”
“You would save me and that would somehow make up for your failure?”
When he put it like that, her altruistic impulse sounded foolish, childish. Stupid.
His hand still lay in hers. Slowly, his fingers curled around hers. Kistalleh looked down at their clasped hands. What did that mean?
“Who was he? This man you couldn’t save.”
“He—” Her voice sounded thick and strange. She cleared her throat. “He was just a boy, about my own age. I was twelve. His name was Luka.” She found herself telling Garek the whole, pathetic story, even the way poor Luka’s body had looked when they carried him away and how she’d cried for days and hadn’t slept properly for months afterward.
“And you think your brother provoked him?”
“I know he did. He makes a game of it.” She flushed again, painfully, when she realized what she’d said.
“So you do know the games I was talking about.”
She shook her head. “I don’t play them. Please believe me.”
Garek lifted their hands together to his lips and kissed her fingers. “I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“Did Rina provoke you?”
He nodded slowly. “In a manner of speaking.”
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