“I won’t deny it,” Jared said. “But you, free? For now, maybe. The only difference between service and slavery is a circle of gold. If the Red can be chained, how long will the Purple Dusk stay free? If the right amount of gold marks changed hands tomorrow, how long do you think it would take to turn the handsome escort into a handsome slave?”
The escort’s face flushed a dull, angry red. He raised a fist.
Jared didn’t speak, didn’t move. He just glanced at the door leading into the hallway and smiled knowingly. He watched the escort fight to hide the clashing emotions, saw the moment the man realized he wouldn’t be able to justify the “discipline.”
Lowering his fist, the escort spat out words like they were gristle. “In five minutes, I’m chaining you and taking you out of here.” He flung open the hallway door but stopped in the doorway and stared at Jared with burning eyes. “I hope she cuts you apart a piece at a time.”
“I imagine she will,” Jared said, after the escort slammed out of the room. By force of will, he managed the couple of steps needed to reach the rough bench. Spreading the shirt, he sat on it carefully, grateful his shaking legs didn’t have to support him for a minute.
Jared, if you’re going skin-swimming at the pond, remember to spread the towel on the log before you sit on it or you’ll have splinters where you least want them.
Where’s that, Mother?
Ask your father.
So he had. Belarr had studied his son for a minute, muttering something about why couldn’t they have had one girl so he could return the favor. Then Belarr had sighed and explained what he thought Reyna meant. That’s the way Belarr always phrased it:I think what your mother means is . . . As if, despite being a strong Warlord, he felt the need to hedge when it came to explaining a woman’s words, especially the words of the woman he’d married.
Sighing wearily, aching in ways that hurt deeper than physical wounds ever could, Jared pulled on the coarsely woven trousers and slipped his feet into the poorly made leather sandals. He picked up the scratchy shirt but couldn’t bring himself to pull it over his head. Taking a careful breath, he turned toward the full-length mirror attached to the room’s back wall. In the building where pleasure slaves changed hands, the entire back wall was a mirror. He understood the reason for that. He didn’t want to think about why they’d put a mirror here, where it didn’t matter if a slave looked well-groomed when he emerged.
His fingers shook as he lightly brushed the buttons on the trousers’ fly. Psychic sense, physical sense ... he just couldn’t feel the Invisible Ring. There was no way to tell how fine-tuned it might be, no way to know where the shifting boundary was between what was permissible basic Craft and what would bring agonizing punishment.
“Balls and sass,” Jared muttered. Hard to judge the risks when there were no reference points. But he just couldn’t pull that shirt over his head without doing something to protect the wounds. He’d listened to men scream when a shirt that had stuck to lash wounds was pulled off their backs, tearing off the fresh scabs with it. He’d seen what those men had looked like when the wounds finally healed.
Basic healing Craft. A thimbleful of power. That’s all he needed to create a tight protective shield around his back and belly that would keep the shirt away from his skin.
Taking another careful breath, Jared created the shield and waited.
Nothing. No surge from the Ring, no angry footsteps in the hall.
Swallowing hard to push his heart back down his throat, Jared pulled on the shirt and studied the man in the mirror.
He wasn’t dressed for an aristo outing, but even so he was a good-looking man, tall and well built, with that golden Shalador skin—not brown like the long-lived Hayllians or fair like other races, but sun-kissed, gold-dusted. A pleasing shade when combined with the dark-brown hair and brown eyes of the Shalador people.
Except his eyes were the rare Shalador green—eyes that could be traced back through the bloodlines to Shal, the great Queen who had united the tribes into one people.
He was the only one of the three boys who had her eyes.
He had been willing to destroy himself, but now that he was still alive, he wanted to survive. Sweet Darkness, hehad to find some way to survive long enough to get home, long enough to talk to Reyna and take those words back.
Balls and sass. It was the only weapon he could safely use. He was wringing himself dry, squeezing what was left of his physical endurance, but he had to last until they reached the slave compartment in the Coach, had to make Grizelle believe he was still a male to be reckoned with. For a little while longer, he had to hide the fact that he was nothing more than a hollow man.
Raising his trembling hands, Jared ran his fingers through his hair. It was a bit shaggy now, but with a little Craft, shaggy could be altered to bedroom disheveled. The Gray Lady was an old woman, but he was a bed-trained slave who had a few sweets he could offer that might entice her, might distract her, might help tip the scales to his advantage while he tried to figure out how much control this damned Invisible Ring had over him.
His stomach churned at the idea of encouraging the Gray Lady to enjoy him. But if it made her lower her guard, it might be possible to slip away and ride the Winds to Shalador.
Without warning, the escort opened the door and stopped short, unable to hide his surprise at the transformation of the naked slave he’d left into the Warlord who turned away from the mirror and smiled at him.
Pleased that he’d managed to unsettle the man, Jared walked toward him and held out his hands as if bestowing a favor. “If you’re going to chain me, get on with it. The Gray Lady’s waiting to dance.” He hoped the escort would mistake the exhaustion in his voice for boredom.
“She didn’t specify chains,” the man said grudgingly.
“No, I didn’t think she would. She strikes me as a discreet Lady, and chains tend to call attention to themselves, especially when the sound they’re making becomes rhythmic. Don’t you think?”
The escort’s lip curled in a sneer. “I’ve never worn chains.”
“I wasn’t implying thatyou had worn them.” Jared waited for the insult to sink in and then shrugged. “Or that you needed them. I just thought that since you earned a living restraining people, you might know a few interesting positions that aren’t considered common in the courts. But perhaps not. Things like that are a bit like mounting a woman dog-style. It isn’t to every man’s taste.”