Cool against my bare back.
Squinting at the glare of the sun, I sprawled in it and ignored the prickly itch of verdant spears that stabbed at my legs. The discomfort would drive me up soon, away from this place, and if not, my duties would not long await me. I could not think of my endless obligations, though, not while the midday sun warmed my skin and the crisp scent of the grass tickled my nose. Instead, I rolled in it, naked, happy. And free.
My lips curved as joy lit my heart.
My master strode down the embankment that hid me from all save the watchtowers circling the estate. I grinned even wider at my master’s tunic—delicate silk, all of one piece. Green. To match my eyes. His breeches were a deeper shade of emerald and finely stitched. The sandals that met my gaze when he crouched beside me had replaced the sturdy, serviceable boots he’d worn that morning.
My breath caught at the masculine artistry of him, my appreciation—and gratitude—overwhelming me. I shifted to rub my cheek against his ankle.
“Tyrant.” He chuckled, his fingers tunneling into my odd yellow hair. He fisted it in his grip to urge me from the ground. “Come, little prince.” He pulled me atop him, settling me on his lap. He smoothed his palm over my back, drawing me in. “You’ll not buy my forgiveness so meanly.”
There was little my master would not forgive for the price of a kiss, so I lifted my mouth for him, expectant, like a baby bird waiting to be fed. I wriggled closer at the familiar weight of his arms at my waist. He smiled, anchoring my smaller body to his as though I might escape him.
His fingers cradled my scalp to angle my mouth just so. He lowered his head. The softness of his lips dizzied me. His tongue slid inside to explore me, and I opened for him. He tasted of the sweet pomegranates he’d fed me that morning. And Eli. My giddy senses whirled at the flavor that was wholly and uniquely my master.
His lips were ever gentle though, his hungers leashed.
I could not regret his chaste affection in the hush of these stolen moments. My heart was too full with the luxury of curling with Eli on the grass. Here, my world narrowed to my master and me—secreted away from prying eyes within the home that had become my prison the fortnight past.
I stiffened against him, shock arrowing through me.
Had it truly been as little as that? Just a fortnight since I’d been delivered to this opulent cage?
When my master lifted his head from the bribe of my kiss, my forehead furrowed, for I had not realized I had learned to count as high as a fortnight either.
So much had changed.
And yet much remained the same.
“No frowns, my lord.” Eli kissed me again and beamed a teasing grin that smoothed the rugged crags of his face. He lifted his arms to model the snug fit of his tunic. “You see my borrowed finery.” He winked. “No glowering, little one. You won.”
Rolling my eyes, I reached for him and dragged his hands back to my hips. If my master had bent knee to my unraveled hysteria by changing into the elegant clothing I’d chosen for him, ’twas only to suit his purpose.
He lifted his fingers to nudge my chin up. “Smile for me.”
He’d commanded. So I twisted my lips into a bow.
“Your pretty mouth makes a liar of you.” Eli snickered. “But I’ve no time to love your temper from you. Your father’s party has arrived. He is eager—anxious—to greet you.”
My heart stuttered. The pit of my stomach plummeted to the ground at our feet. So soon?
Blind, deaf, and dumb to my roiling panic, Eli untangled me from his embrace. “Where are your clothes?” His glance searched the lush riverbank. “Not here? Well enough then.” Eli stripped his tunic over his head so that I scowled afresh, but he ignored that too. Instead, he tugged the silk over my head, forcing my arms into the holes. The hem dropped to slide, cool and delicious, over my knobby knees.
I tilted my chin to a mutinous angle and seethed.
“I would have worn what pleased you.” He cupped my jaw in his palm, thumb stroking my cheek. “But I dare not return you to your father wearing only your skin, especially after you outfitted me so handsomely.”
When his free hand plucked at the laces to his breeches, I tugged against his grip and snarled.
No! I would not have it!
He could not make me bear it!
“Shh.” Rather than shoving his breeches down his hips, he gathered my tense body to his. “The tunic preserves your modesty.” He lifted me against his chest, handily trapping my stiff limbs to his body to end my angry struggle. “You’re expected to take extra care with your appearance for your first audience with the king, so a stop in your suite to prepare you would not be amiss.”
I growled, for I had no wish to meet the king who was my father. I’d liked Barak, the brother who had escorted us to my new prison, and I longed to meet my other brothers as well. And sisters! According to Eli, I had two already wed.
But this man, this monster who was my father? Him, I could muster no desire to meet. I’d rather bow to Xerxes again. Allowing my master to make me pretty for the Alekite monarch who had fathered me soured my stomach.
My grimace must have said as much, for Eli frowned. “You won’t accept me as your slave, but trust me, they do. Would you have me beaten for neglecting my duty to properly present you?”
I glared at him for that.
None of them dared raise a hand to my Eli. I endured the lash on my fingers when I failed the tutor forced upon me once we’d reached this place. I gritted my teeth whenever the man cuffed me for my stupidity, and I did not protest when he berated me. Which was often. I’d suffered far worse under Xerxes, enslaved in his kitchen and passed among my Herran masters as their whore. What was a switch or unkind words compared to that?
Eli had never felt the sting of the switch, though. He never would. I wouldn’t stand one hair on his head mussed.
And he knew it.
My master lifted me and marched up the hill, carrying me back to the house. My cold, beautiful, and wholly terrifying jail.
Eli kissed my temple though I jerked my head away. “He’s your father, Micah. Running away won’t change that. Hiding doesn’t erase it. I wish just this once that I truly was your master so I could order you to believe that he loves you.”
I buried my nose in the crook of his shoulder and snorted.
Yes. The king loved me. So much he’d left me to rot in the hands of his enemy for so long I’d forgotten I’d ever been anything except a slave. Until every trace of the boy these people remembered had been wiped away. Until there was nothing left of me but a slut who knew only work and the whipping post.
And rape. Countless cycles and seasons of rape.
I took the tender skin of my master’s neck between my teeth and bit down. Hard.
Eli grunted but didn’t slow his steady pace across the rear courtyard. “You’re angry with him. No, that’s a lie. You’re furious.” He shifted to one side so he could carry me through the door a servant held open. Eli neatly threaded through the entrance without knocking my legs and jutting elbows against the door frame. “He gave me to you as well. Does that not credit him at all in your heart?”
My teeth parted. I licked at the injury I’d inflicted, soothing the irritation I’d caused. Not because I credited the king for the gift of my Eli. I didn’t. Eli had given himself. He’d sold his freedom to win mine because Xerxes had sworn to kill me should my homeland fight for my release. Captured as a boy, I could not legally own slaves until I’d reached my maturity, but Eli was able to come for me then—without risking me to Herran vengeance. As a slave, Eli had given up his citizenship. He was neither Alekite nor Herran. He was simply my property. Mine. And well within our laws and theirs to secure my freedom.
Eli alone had loved me enough to fight for my release.
My father had nothing to do with that.
What had the Alekite monarch done except rob another man of liberty in my stead? He was no better than Xerxes. In my eyes, the man who was my father was worse.
Xerxes had hurt me. He’d raped me and passed the body he’d broken to others to violate as well. Again and again and again. So much that night terrors had begun waking me, sobbing and desperate for my master, since we’d arrived here. Even now, although I was safe in Eli’s arms, my heart raced. I quivered at the pain and humiliation Xerxes had taught me.
But the Herran had never betrayed me. He’d raped my body.
Cyrus, the Alekian king who’d sired me, had raped my soul. And he’d robbed my precious Eli of his freedom to win me back.
That, I could never forgive.
I kissed the bite on Eli’s neck, though, because none of it was his fault. He and I both were the playthings of monarchs. They did with us as they wished. No matter my master’s constant assurances that I was free now, that I must stop thinking of myself as a slave and certainly not his slave, the truth was we were both in bondage, and none more tightly than me. I might one day court the king’s favor and beg permission to grant Eli his liberty.
I would always be the hateful man’s son. His youngest and most useless son, true. With a score of elder brothers before me, I’d never inherit the throne, and I was far too damaged to be of any use to Cyrus in strengthening political alliances through marriage either. I was reportedly his favorite, though.
I’d never escape those chains. Never.
Eli carried me through the back rooms of the house, up the servants’ staircase and to our private rooms. Once he’d settled me on the expanse of our bed, he held on to the arms I’d threaded around his neck when I would have obediently pulled away. His dark eyes bore into mine with kindness, compassion, and a sad hurt that plucked at my heart. “I’d give anything—be anything for you, even your master if that’s what you need—if you would say my name again.”
I ducked my head.
“I understand why you won’t speak to the others. You’ve had little reason to expect kindness from the world.” He sighed, his breath hot on my temple. “Do you blame me for bringing you here? Are you angry with me as well? Is that why you stopped talking?”
I lifted my chin, giving him my mouth, and hoped the tenderness of my kiss would tell him what I could not say.
I did not understand why I couldn’t speak anymore. I hadn’t uttered a word since I’d been a boy, when Herran soldiers had captured me, but I’d tried to talk after Eli had stolen me from Xerxes. For Eli, I had tried. And for a short while, I’d succeeded. During our journey from my Herran slavery, Eli had patiently worked with me until I could say his name. Though my rusty voice cracked from disuse, he’d delighted in my saying it, and I’d rejoiced in giving that to him because saying his name pleased my master so. I’d managed a little more after my brother and his soldiers met us to escort us to the gilded prison the king had selected for me among the Alekites.
I’d told Eli that I loved him.
And I hadn’t managed a word since.
When I tried, my throat tightened. My chest squeezed until the air fled my lungs. The one time I’d dared to press on in spite of my panic, I’d fainted.
When we’d arrived at this cursed house, my brother had introduced us to the staff and guided us through one elegant room after another. My fear had grown inside me with each new face, the lavish furnishings and art in every room, until my terror paralyzed me, and I could not force my feet to move. I’d needed my Eli. But when I’d parted my lips to call him to me—
I’d dropped to the tiled floor like a stone.
Healers had poked and prodded me awake, which frightened me all the more, for I could hardly spy my master through the throng. Listening to Eli’s assessment of my improving health since my escape from Herra had kept hysteria at bay. Even so, I balked at the physicians handling me. Only my master could touch me. Only Eli. With his husky murmur nearby, I endured as much as I could, but I soon snapped, scrambling away from the foreigners until my ass plopped to the floor on the other side of the bed and I found a table to dive beneath.
My beautiful Eli had come for me then.
Safely tucked in his arms, I’d rested my head on his shoulder while the healers had delivered their diagnoses. The fainting spells would lessen as I recovered. I would remain forever small. There was no righting growth already stunted by starvation and abuse, but barring my size and scars from the whip on my back, ass, and thighs, the physicians swore my Herran slavery hadn’t permanently damaged me. I would strengthen.
None of them wondered that I did not speak, including my master. Not then. Not until he laid me down to make love to me that night, when I would have sighed for him. Cried out for him.
I didn’t. Because I couldn’t. Not anymore.
My failure confounded me. I wanted to speak to my master. I did! I wanted to tell him how very frightened I was. I needed to tell him that the house was so big I felt lost within it and feared every day when he left me with the king’s tutor that Eli might disappear. Or that I would. Terror that I would not be able to find him again so distracted me that I earned several slaps for my inattention alone.
I wanted him to know, too, that the servants who attended us jangled my nerves, and the watchful, beady eyes of my guards balled my stomach. I wanted to tell him that I’d like more of the honeyed figs he’d fed me that first day. And that I’d bear the scratchy clothing he dressed me in without complaint if he would wear the finery I’d insisted for him as well.
I wanted to tell him everything.
Mostly, though, I wanted to tell him the king’s tutor slapped me when I did not understand the Alekian words he spoke. I wanted to tell him that the man cursed me—in Herran so I was sure to comprehend the depth of his contempt—and that he called me names for the blasphemy of my birth. I wanted Eli to know Master Rigel condemned my mother as a witch. Oh, how I trembled when, cheeks ruddy with his ire, the king’s man insisted that my pale skin and funny yellow hair marked me as a witch exactly like her.
The king had abandoned me to Xerxes; he must surely hate me to force Master Rigel on me in the Herran’s stead. The king, not Eli, had inflicted this torment upon me, but I had to believe my master would stop Master Rigel from hurting me if I would tell him.
Yet I could not.
Each day, my ears rang when he knocked me to the floor during lessons that taught me little save my new captor’s loathing. And my voice fled farther away.
So I kissed Eli. I kissed him and hoped he might understand what I could not fathom myself.
He stared at me, his dark eyes shining with love. And sadness. He brushed his mouth over mine. “Allow me to dress you, little one. Your father waits.”
Biting my lip, I docilely complied while he stripped his tunic from me and draped a creamy undertunic over my head in its place. He fastened me into delicate new robes of a deep, warm yellow that nearly matched the honeyed shades in my hair. I preened at how pretty I must be for Eli to gaze at me with eyes that glittered with such hunger. The seamstress must work by candlelight to outfit me with new robes such as this every day. What a waste, for I hated clothes and gladly stripped them away whenever I could.
The jewelers of Alekia must have been kept busy the past fortnight as well. Every morning, more gifts arrived: necklaces, rings, and ear cuffs sent in secret. Eli had grinned like a boy when he’d informed me that word had reached the aristocracy of my fondness for jewelry, because the gifts that reached us now were to decorate me. He liked dressing my hair, so I held still for the skinny braids he wove semiprecious stones within at either side of my face.
Once he’d fitted my feet with sandals, he sat back on his haunches and gazed up at me, his features etched with wonder and an adoration that made me squirm.
“Kalos kai agathos,” he whispered.
I frowned, because in spite of the cruel taunts and slaps of my tutor, I was learning—my master would arguerelearning—the language of the Alekites.
Beautiful and good?
No. Eli had showered me with many praises, but he’d not used that phrase. I’d heard it before, though.
My brow furrowed.
That’s what the words meant. My master believed me perfect.
My head buzzed sickly because I remembered, too, how I’d learned that figure of speech, so peculiar to the Alekites: the king’s tutor insisted my mother’s witch’s blood inside me made my sin perfect as well.
“Micah? You paled.” Eli clasped my hands in his. “Is it Xerxes? No matter that he gave you to his men, I know he treasured you. Did he… Were you kalos kai agathos to him as well?”
Shame churned my stomach. My gaze dropped. I shook my head.
I’d been less than nothing to Herra’s king, a chip to be bargained with. As I was to King Cyrus and to Alekia, regardless of the luxury of their gifts. Those gifts, after all, had included the house that was too big and the tutor who beat me.
Eli squeezed my hand in his. “Whatever has stolen you from me, no matter what you will not say, remember that you are kalos kai agathos. And you will forever be so.” His mouth curved. “You are ready for your father, my lord.”
I froze like a rabbit sensing the wolf poised to strike.
“Come, Micah.” My master stood, shrugging into his own discarded tunic. He pulled me up beside him. “Let us greet your king.”