It wasn’t strange that the Master hadn’t led the attack. Along with the Steward and the Consort, the Master seldom left the court unless he was accompanying his Lady. His duties were no longer in the field. But one of those duties was to choose the right men for an assignment.
The old Master had sent a handful of lighter-Jeweled,Fifth Circleguards and a small band of marauders to destroy a Gray-Jeweled Queen and the escort waiting for her at the Coach station. There had been no time to overwhelm the escort before the Gray bitch’s arrival. There had been no backup force to attack her if she tried to escape on the Winds. There had been nothing.
Only one of those lighter-Jeweled Hayllian guards had returned to report the failure.
One was all Dorothea had needed.
Well, he hadn’t made that mistake. He had tame marauder bands waiting at the Coach stations the Gray Lady would most likely use on her return from the auction. They would eliminate any escorts waiting for her and send a messenger to Lord Maryk, his second-in-command. Maryk, along with carefully selected, experienced First andSecond Circleguards, would arrive at the station just ahead of the Gray Lady to finish the kill. If that ambush wasn’t completely successful, and Maryk and the men were killed, he still had a way to keep track of the bitch and leave a trail the marauder bands could follow. The hunt would continue until the Gray Lady was destroyed.
Krelis fingered the Master’s badge on his left shoulder.
With the spells Dorothea had woven for him, his strategy would bring down her most dangerous rival. That would prove to the aristo bastards in the First and Second Circles that he wasn’t some upstartThird Circleguard who had gained a coveted position in the court by using his cock.
Of course, he didn’t know any male who wouldn’t use sex in order to achieve his own goals.
It hadn’t always been like that.
He remembered that night so many, many years ago. He’d been permitted to stay up when some of his father’s friends had come to the house for their weekly chess games and male conversation. The evening had grown late and he’d been dozing on the couch when his father, who had a strong interest in Hayll’s history, especially where it pertained to the Blood, had gently voiced his concern about some of the changes that had taken place in their society over the past few centuries. Olvan had made no accusations, had named no names, had merely pointed out some differences in the way males who didn’t serve in a court were treated.
The next day, when he and Olvan were taking a rambling walk along one of the country lanes near their village, the Queen of the Province and twelve of her guards came riding up. The Queen had snapped a few questions at Olvan, becoming more and more enraged with his respectful replies.
A few minutes later, Olvan dangled from a tree branch. The spelled ropes around his wrists had prevented him from using Craft to undo the knots or sever the ropes. Even if he’d managed to free himself, his Jewels weren’t dark enough to challenge the combined power of the Queen and her guards.
They let him hang there while he pleaded with the Queen to tell him how he had displeased her. When the pleading finally stopped, six of the guards uncurled their whips.
The force of the blows swung Olvan back and forth, back and forth.
There had been no sympathy in the guards’ faces, no mercy in the strong arms that wielded the whips. If anything, there had been a hint of fear in their eyes, as if coming in contact with a male who didn’t understand obedience would taint them somehow and make them less desirable to the Queen they served.
Through it all, another guard had held Krelis and made him watch.
When they rode away, they left his father hanging there, half-dead.
Krelis still remembered running desperately to the nearest house for help, still remembered sitting next to his father’s bleeding body during the ride back home, still remembered the Healer’s reluctance to do anything.
And he still remembered the moment, years later, when he realized that the whipping had nothing to do with the courteous answers his father had made to the Queen and everything to do with Olvan’s oldest and most trusted friends never once coming back to the house or inviting his father to any of theirs.
That was the moment he decided to train to be a guard.
That was the moment he understood that how males were treated in the past didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered to a young Hayllian male was surviving the way things werenow . And the only way to do that was to serve in a strong court.
Krelis stood up and stretched.
So here he was just beginning his sixteenth century—a young man by the standards of the long-lived Hayllian race—and he was already the Master of the Guard of the strongest court in Hayll. An important goal in itself, but now just a stepping-stone toward the other things he wanted.
He had worked too long and too hard to let some Gray-Jeweled bitch who would die in a few decades anyway spoil his plans.
He had almost made it, had almost gotten close enough to catch one of the Winds. If he’d had a few more seconds before the auction steward had used the Ring of Obedience to pull him down and make him easy prey for the guards and their whips, he would have been home by now.
He would have had those seconds if he had killed the guard keeping watch on the slave pen. But at the last moment, when that wild stranger inside him had surged forward intent on the kill, he had seen the same fear and knowledge in the guard’s eyes that had been in the eyes of the Queen just before her blood had covered his hands . . . and he had yanked that savagery back. His attack had stunned the guard long enough for him to escape from the pen, but the man had recovered too quickly, had been able to sound the alarm too soon.
There would be no other chance. Not after last night.
I’m sorry, Mother. I’m sorry.
“Don’t look so pretty now, do ya, twat-licker?” Pain and the guard’s sneering words brought Jared back to the present. He looked at the man—a vicious brute whose Yellow Jewel was as grimy as the rest of him—and said nothing.
The guard hawked and spat. “All you pretty boys, prancing around in your fancy clothes, acting like you was better than other men,real men, who know what to do with their spears. Well, no one’s going to want to play with you now, are they, pretty boy? ‘Cept theQueensin Pruul, and everyone knows what kind of gamesthey like to play.” The guard grinned, showing a black hole where a couple of teeth were missing.
Jared watched the guard warily. He’d been brought back to this slave pen at dawn, forced to his knees, and then tied so securely to the four waist-high iron posts he couldn’t move at all, not even his head. He’d had no food or water since yesterday afternoon’s ration. The auction steward in charge of the controlling ring connected to his Ring of Obedience had been sending low-level pain through the Ring since his capture last night. His genitals were so tender that even a fly walking across his balls made him grit his teeth to keep from screaming.