Darkness Forbidden

Darkness Forbidden: Legends Of A Dark Empire

Garek, an Amaki, never thought he could love a human until beautiful Atlantean Kistalleh saves his life. They are enemies, yet they overcome prejudice to form a bond that will defy death itself. When fate rips Kistalleh from his arms, his agony propels him into the modern USA. But the reborn Kistalleh is terrified of him and Garek must fight a deadly enemy before he can win her trust.

Darkness Forbidden

Tori Minard

Copyright © Tori Minard 2012

Cover art by Tori Minard from photos by © Shirophoto and  © Artemfurman

 

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.

Darkness Forbidden

 Part One

Chapter 1

 Callista awoke from a deep sleep with a scream in her mouth. Sweat soaked the cheap polyester nightgown she wore and made strands of her hair stick to her scalp. She pressed her hand against her chest, trying to calm her frantic heart. It had only been a dream, after all. She was still herself, Callista Harris, still alive.

Weak gray sunlight pressed and poked all around the edges of the black-out curtains on her window. It must be the middle of the day—the time when vampires everywhere felt most vulnerable. Callista gazed at the curtains for a moment, longing for a real view out a window, a view of the day. A view filled with sunlight. But if she opened those curtains, she’d be severely burned.

She crawled out of bed. Her body felt shaky, although her hands looked steady. There was no sound in the ratty two-bedroom apartment she shared with Raphael Black, the Seer of the Dark Empire, so he must still be asleep. Thank God. It was bad enough just having him in the apartment with her; having him awake was an experience she could do without.

Creeping out of her bedroom, she went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of milk. This marked the tenth time she’d had that dream. It was always the same. Atlantis. She’d been struggling with a man she couldn’t see, a slave in her father’s house, until he’d shoved her out of the way so violently that she’d fallen through an open window to her death on the pavement below.

Just a dream. It was just a dream.

Atlantis wasn’t real. It had never been real. The Empress Daranda and Raphael Black both claimed to have originated in Atlantis, but she didn’t believe them. That story was just something they’d cooked up to make themselves seem more mysterious and powerful than they really were.

Callista was a vampire, and she knew there were some strange things in the world. Things like herself, like the Amaki, who were basically fairies. But Atlantis? Come on. There was no archaeological evidence it had ever existed, and every reason to believe it was a myth.

Therefore, her dream was just a dream. Not a past life memory. She didn’t know why that thought had even occurred to her. She was probably only dreaming of violence and death because of the slaughter she’d witnessed over a year ago now, when Black’s enemies had attacked their house to retrieve a woman Black had kidnapped. All those men, vampires and Amaki, dead because of her and Black.

He thought she should be over it by now, that she shouldn’t be haunted by images of bloody corpses littering the floor and lawn of the house where they’d lived. But she would never forget. Never be over it.

She took her glass of milk back to the bedroom with her. Sleep would come eventually. Maybe this time she wouldn’t dream at all. 

*** 

Ancient Atlantis, year 25 of the reign of King Iaso the Great.

They came in the middle of the day, which is how Garek knew they were after Ravki and not him. Ravki, with his vampire blood, had never managed to adapt to night sleep. He still slept during the day, like his vampire kin. To keep him company, Garek also kept late hours, although as an Amaki he loved the daylight.

He and Ravki lived quietly. When they wanted women or drink, they visited one of the nearby taverns or attended a party at a friend’s house. Their neighbors had no reason to complain about them. And Garek, careful as he was, saw no reason to expect a visit from the Atlantean authorities.

He slept peacefully that morning, unaware that his life was about to be shredded. The sound of footsteps—heavy boots on the stairs of his apartment house—invaded his dreams as distant thunder, something far-off and only vaguely disquieting. But the thunder grew closer, until it crashed against the door of their rented room.

Banging. Lightning strikes. Thunder booming in his ears, the fury of an army of gods advancing to crush him until he burst into red pulp like a pomegranate smashed underfoot. The dream disappeared. But the banging continued.

Garek bolted upright in his narrow bed, hair falling into his eyes in a pale curtain. Ravki still slept on his belly in the other bed, one long arm dangling from beneath the covers, his fingers brushing the floor. How could he sleep through such a racket?

The door burst open as Garek threw off the blankets, leaping to his feet. A dozen Guardsmen surged into the cheap rented room, swords drawn. The first man through the door had a tube pressed to his lips. A dart flew out with a little whick and lodged in Garek’s chest, just above his left nipple. Garek pulled it out.

Whatever was on the point of the dart surged into his bloodstream with wicked speed. He frowned fuzzily at the Guard. Poison. Poison darts. His arms and legs already felt heavy, weighted, as if it took all his strength to lift them. He took a step to the left, tried to enter the Between, but nothing happened.

Earth’s bones. They must have used iron powder on the tip.

Garek staggered toward the end of the bed, where he kept his sword. They knew. The Atlanteans knew what he was, else they wouldn’t have had iron-poisoned darts. He couldn’t let them take him, or Ravki either. Better the two friends should die by Garek’s hand than be taken by the Atlanteans.

Ravki lifted his head from his rumpled blankets. He shouted something unintelligible. Garek snatched up his sword as Ravki exploded from the other bed. He already brandished a blade, which he could only have had under the blankets with him. Ravki slept armed?

Obviously, I should have done the same.

They stood back-to-back facing the much-slower humans. Ravki slashed at the nearest, catching the Guard on the upper arm. Armor deflected the blow, but the human yelled anyway. Probably startled by the swiftness of the strike.

“The Between,” Ravki panted.

“Can’t. They shot me with iron.”

His friend swore viciously.

The Guards pressed forward, their blades a wall of sharp metal between them and the two non-humans. Pain surged through him and his stomach convulsed, rebelling against the iron and forcing him to bend at the waist.

“Earth’s bones!” Ravki shouted. “Garek?”

“Go—run—” he gasped.

But there was nowhere Ravki could go, not with the sun glowering from the sky, ready to cook his flesh if he stepped outside. Another convulsion drove Garek to his knees. A Guard stepped past him and unlatched the shutters covering the window.

“No!” Garek roared. Not again, not again! First Niko and now his son.

Ravki screamed as the light touched his skin. He wasn’t full vampire, but he was vampire enough to burn. The smell of cooked flesh filled the room. Garek groaned as he twisted, reaching for the younger man. By the gods, what was he going to say to Niko and Laila? He’d sworn to look after their son. His closest friends in the world, and he’d betrayed them.

If Niko found that his son had suffered the same horrible burning he had years earlier, he’d be devastated.

Garek struggled to help Ravki, but he couldn’t make it, could barely move his body. The Guards seized him, dragging him from his friend. Through bleary eyes he saw the monstrous bag they hauled into the room. Man-sized, made of thick leather. They laid it next to Ravki’s writhing form, hefted the young man and tossed him inside, wrapping the leather over him and shielding him from the deadly sunlight.

More evidence they’d come for Ravki and not him. Gods, what was going on here? Garek’s vision blurred and his thoughts unraveled as iron sickness dragged him down, down into a darkness he couldn’t escape.

The gods and ancestors forgive me for this. He would never forgive himself.

 

The next time he awoke, the air felt hot enough to scorch his lungs. Garek pried his eyelids open with a groan and blinked up at the metal bars—maybe iron—above his head, the hazy daylight pounding down on him. All around him, people laughed and shouted and cursed, metal clanged against metal, horses whinnied and stamped, dogs barked. Dust hung so thick in the air it looked like smoke or fog.

There was iron on his body—thick, black metal bands around his wrists, his ankles, and his neck. It hurt. The ache was worst in the places where the metal touched his skin, but it didn’t stop there; it penetrated all the way to his bones and blood.

He was in a cage. He sat up, his head feeling like a rotten melon about to cave in, and touched the bars experimentally. A shock of pain coursed through his fingers. Definitely iron.

He was alone in the cage, but other cages pressed in close on two sides. A middle-aged woman dressed in the skins of the mainland savages occupied the one to his right. She leaned against the bars—hers were of wood—with a resigned expression on her thin face. Two children in similar clothes were in the cage to his left. They had their arms wrapped around each other, and they stared at him, their eyes round and wary in their smudged faces.

Where was Ravki? What had they done with him? They knew he was a vampire. He closed his eyes and prayed they hadn’t exposed his friend to the sun. It would kill him, a slow and agonizing death. But they could easily have done that in the apartment; they must want him for some other purpose, one which Garek could not, at the moment, fathom.

I should have looked after him better. Ravki was young, barely seventy, and inexperienced. His disappearance would crush Niko and Laila, who deeply loved their son and had trusted him to look after the boy. This was all Garek’s fault.

He’d known Niko and Laila since before Ravki was born, had once helped save Niko’s life—but only after failing to defend him from Atlantean soldiers. Niko, too, had been severely burned; his injuries had been so horrible that his face had been destroyed. Only Amaki magic had been strong enough to restore it.

Because Laila was half Amaki, she and Niko lived among Garek’s people and Ravki had been raised there, in Nissa, Garek’s homeland. Ravki was as much Amaki as vampire—maybe even more so, given his upbringing and training. Growing up in the Amaki way conferred a great deal of magic and power on even non-Amaki.

Now the young man had disappeared into the possession of the Atlantiri City Guard, and the gods only knew what had become of him after that. Garek shivered in the heat. Atlanteans hated vampires, and they hated Amaki even more. An Amaki-vampire hybrid wouldn’t fare well in their hands.

Wherever Ravki was, it couldn’t be here. A vampire would never survive the light. This place looked and sounded just like the Atlantiri slave market; he’d been here before, but then he’d been on the other side of the bars. They were going to sell him as a slave, and with the iron on his body, he’d have no access to his Amaki powers. He’d be as helpless as any human.

This is a just punishment for what I’ve done to my friends.

When he opened his eyes again, a slender woman with brightly painted lips stood outside his cage, staring at him. She wore expensive-looking clothes and jewelry and had a sharp-featured face with the darkest eyes he’d ever seen. Those eyes traveled over his naked form, lingering on his belly and the place between his legs.

A greasy-haired man in a bright yellow silk tunic smudged with dirt stood next to her. The fellow pointed at Garek and said, “Amaki. He’s a beauty, ain’t he? Powerful, too, I’ll wager. You’ll have to keep him in iron at all times.”

“I’ll give you seventy-five sovereigns for him,” the woman said.

The man’s eyes lighted as he grinned. “Done.”

That was the auspicious beginning of Garek’s long nightmare.

 

Twenty years later

One cold winter afternoon, his owner’s guards dragged him outside and locked him in a windowless wagon. He knew where they were taking him—to a market in Atlantiri—not the place where slaves were traded, but the famed Central Market, where farmers and artisans came from all over Atlantis to sell their goods. It was the biggest plaza in the city, and the place a certain kind of slave owner took slaves for punishment.

To be whipped in the Market Square was a special kind of humiliation, where the whole city could witness the degradation of the slave who’d dared to displease his master. Or in his case, his mistress.

Garek leaned his head against the wooden side of the wagon’s back compartment and closed his eyes. He didn’t care. Let them beat him. Let them watch. What difference did it make anyway? He was past caring about being humiliated, past any kind of pride. They’d already beaten it out of him.

Lady Rina had been trying to break him for twenty years. She couldn’t do it, and now she undoubtedly planned to have him flogged to the edge of death in revenge. Hoping to make him beg. She was going to be disappointed; he wouldn’t beg for mercy because he didn’t want it. Death would be a welcome escape.

His defiant thoughts couldn’t stop his muscles from tightening as the wagon bumped over the cobblestone streets of the city, however. Garek folded his arms across his chest and waited in the dark and cold of the back compartment. It would be colder outside, and they’d taken every stitch of his clothing from him.

Maybe he would die. They’d had him collared, shackled and chained in iron for two decades now. The iron weakened his Amaki body, depriving him of his powers and shortening his lifespan. A beating in the winter rain might be the death of him.

Good. Let it come. I’m ready.

If only they’d give him a chance to get his hands around Rina’s neck. But that would never happen. She’d stand back, far away from any danger, and watch from a distance as they tore his skin into bloody shreds. That’s what she always did. The only difference was that this time she did it in the public square instead of outside the stables of her father’s compound.

The wagon lurched as it turned a corner, then slowed and finally stopped. Was this it? He crouched in the corner of the little compartment, readying himself. They were going to whip him to death, but he was going to hurt them first.

 

Chapter 2

 Kistalleh sighed at the slowness of her carriage’s progress through the city. Traffic always seemed to crawl on these rainy winter days, while the chaos of pedestrians and people on horseback seemed only to increase. One would think they would stay inside when it rained, but perhaps they had no choice. Most of the folk who thronged the Market Square and the streets surrounding it were poor. Peasants. Only the rich rode horses or protected themselves inside vehicles.

The sluggish pace of the carriage gave her more than enough time to gaze out the window at the dreary gray city. Winter changed Atlantiri, and not for the better. She’d much rather have the heat and dust of summer, with its blue skies and bright flowers, than this mess. Even the newly white-washed buildings, so carefully groomed during the summer, looked gray in the rain.

When her carriage stopped altogether, she leaned forward and banged on the panel that separated the passenger compartment of her carriage from the driver’s seat. “What is the delay?”

He didn’t answer.

She looked at her elderly maid, who shrugged and said nothing. Kistalleh opened the window and poked her head out. Another vehicle, a small enclosed wagon by the looks of it, had parked right in the road, blocking them completely.

Her driver was standing up in his box and yelling at the driver of the wagon.

“Ah, fuck off,” the wagon driver shouted back. “I’m following my lady’s orders.”

Kistalleh opened the door of the carriage.

Her maid, Nona, laid a hand on her arm. “Milady, no! You mustn’t go out there. It’s unseemly.”

“Would you like to argue with that driver in my place?”

Nona shook her head. “Oh, no. I wouldn’t dare tangle with the likes of him. He sounds like a rough one.”

“Then let me go.” She pulled away from the woman and stepped out of the carriage.

Nona wrung her hands, but Kistalleh ignored her. She pulled her cloak more tightly around her and put up the hood to keep out the icy rain and the penetrating wind that came off the harbor. At least she’d had the foresight to dress in her warmest woolens and ankle-high leather boots today, instead of the silks she frequently wore for making social calls.

Walking around the carriage, she found the wagon driver unlocking the back doors of his vehicle. Another man, equally rough, had joined him. They didn’t even glance in her direction as they completed their task and opened the thick oaken doors.

Inside, the compartment was dark, but she made out a slight movement. They had something in there, an animal of some kind. As if in answer to her thought, a fierce low growl issued from the back of the box. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. What in the name of the gods was that? A wolf? They had no business bringing a wild wolf into the Market Square.

Maybe you should get back in the carriage.

The two men leaned over the edge of the wagon’s back compartment, reached into the box and began to drag the creature from its depths. Weren’t they afraid they’d get their hands bitten off? Kistalleh took a couple of steps backward as the beast emerged.

Her mouth fell open. It was a man. They had him shackled at both wrists and ankles with heavy, black iron bands connected with chains and were dragging him by those chains to force him to come out. Smears of brown and black marred his skin, and his face had a rough beard. Long, tangled golden hair fell over his shoulders. Such beautiful hair, even tangled and dull with dirt and oil. That color was almost never seen on Atlantis.

How had a man made that terrible animal noise?

He growled again, kicking at the two men. The sound made chills run all over her body. But he was utterly naked, and that was even worse. Surely they didn’t mean to expose him in the Square in this weather? It wasn’t freezing, but the cold and wet could be deadly just the same, especially after a long exposure.

“Mistress Kistalleh, come away,” Nona said. She climbed out of the carriage and scurried over to Kistalleh’s side. “This isn’t a sight fit for a lady.”

Kistalleh turned to her. “I’m not going anywhere.”

She wanted to know just what this man had done to merit such cruel treatment. She opened her mouth to ask the question.

The prisoner twisted his upper body, lowering his head at the same time and ramming his skull into the jaw of the captor to his right. Kistalleh gasped. The man went down with a grunt. The prisoner turned sharply and swung his chained hands up, catching the other captor under the chin with the weight of the metal.

The captor’s head flew back. He staggered and fell on his buttocks.

The other guard clambered to his feet and launched himself at the prisoner while the blond was engaged with his partner. With a roar of rage, the captor slammed him on the shoulder with a wooden stick she hadn’t seen before. He must have carried it in his belt.

“Wait! Don’t hurt him!” She took two steps toward the struggling men.

The guards didn’t seem to hear her or even notice she was there. Stick-man whacked the prisoner on the ribs. Under the blow, the blond groaned and stumbled, falling to his knees on the wet pavement. Stick-man kicked him, then lifted his weapon for another brutal blow.

The man who’d been felled by the chain struggled to stand. “Don’t beat him to death. He’s got to be alive for the whipping.”

His partner glared at him, but he stopped beating the prisoner. “He can live with a few broken ribs.”

“What has this man done?” Kistalleh said.

The two ignored her. They grabbed the prisoner’s arms, yanked him to his feet and shook him as he sagged between them.

“Do that again and I’ll cut off your cock, understand?” said the one with the stick. “And then we’ll whip off your hide.”

The blond, his long hair obscuring his face, muttered something in a foreign language.

“None of your filthy Amaki speech. Talk like a civilized human being.”

Amaki! But he wasn’t human at all, then. She stared at the prisoner in wonder. An Amaki in the Market Square of Atlantiri. She’d never thought she would see such a thing, or be near enough to such a being that she could almost touch him.

There were rumors, of course, of Amaki prisoners and slaves being held in the city. Some claimed that members of the Atlantean aristocracy kept them for sexual entertainment, because the Amaki were known to have powerful sexual appetites and an unusual charisma that gave their human partners extra pleasure. But she’d never seen one or met anyone who claimed to have one.

She tapped the nearest guard on the shoulder. The man turned to her with a grunt and an unfriendly chill in his eyes. “Yeah? What is it?”

“What has he done to deserve this punishment?”

The guard grinned without humor. “He’s a slave and he threatened his mistress.”

“Oh. I see.”

That was bad, a serious offense, especially since no quarter was given to Amaki slaves—at least, that was what she’d heard. Until now, she’d regarded tales of the Amaki as little more than fairy stories.

She stepped back as the two guards dragged the naked prisoner into the Square. A small crowd, mostly peasants and slaves, had gathered while they struggled with him. They followed behind, talking in excited murmurs and elbowing each other. They were thrilled by the prospect of more violence.

Didn’t they have any pity for one of their own? But of course, he wasn’t human, and in Atlantis his people were regarded with disgust and fear.

One bystander spat on the ground as they dragged the prisoner past him. “Amaki filth!”

Someone threw a clod of dirt—or perhaps something worse—at the blond. It struck him on the bare skin of his belly and stuck there.

The whole thing made her feel sick inside. She felt that way every time someone punished a slave, especially in a violent manner. Atlanteans believed violence was the best way to control their thralls, but although she was Atlantean through and through, she’d never grown accustomed to it. Never accepted it.

There had been a time when she’d thought she would rather die than witness anything like this again.

Perhaps she still ought to get back in her carriage and wait there. Maybe her driver could find a way to turn the vehicle around and take her home. Or she and Nona could walk—anything to get away from this place and the terrible scene that was about to unfold. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Nona standing next to the carriage, still wringing her hands. Nona would like nothing better than to get out of here.

Kistalleh stole a look again at the prisoner and the men who were dragging him into the Market Square. They had almost reached the great pole mounted in one section of the square. That pole was reserved for the punishment of recalcitrant slaves, and was spattered with the stains of dried blood from countless beatings. There was so much blood, no amount of rain could wash it away.

She really ought to go. There was nothing she could do for him. He didn’t belong to her and she had no authority over him, no authority to protect him. Yet she couldn’t quite make her feet move; she couldn’t quite make herself turn away from him. When she did begin to move, it was to follow, not to avoid.

She walked across the Square, weaving in and out of the crowd, her stomach churning at what she was about to witness. People glared at her and muttered as she made her way between them, but no one really complained. They could see, no doubt, by the quality of her clothes that she was not one of them but an aristocrat.

The white stuccoed buildings surrounding the open center of the Square looked on with blind eyes, their windows shuttered against the cold, their little balconies empty of flowers and people. They gave the market all the gaiety of a funeral. Even the open-air stalls with their colorful jumble of goods for sale looked grim and sullen this afternoon.

By the time she reached the pole, they had already pulled his arms over his head and clipped the chain connecting his hands to a large metal loop screwed into it. Great reddening bruises marked the flesh of his shoulders, his upper back, and his rib cage where they’d beaten him with that stick.

Kistalleh walked all the way around the pole until she came to the other side where she could see his face. Part of her mind observed this behavior and wondered at it. People were staring at her, muttering, a few of them pointing in her direction. She’d drawn attention to herself. It was quite out of character for her.

Kistalleh stood in the rain and looked at him. Water had collected on his naked skin and darkened his blond hair. He was shivering. He lifted his head and looked directly into her eyes, an insolence most Atlanteans would never tolerate from a slave. His eyes were a startling, sky blue—one paler than the other, but both like a bright summer sky. She’d never seen eyes so blue in her life.

There was a look in them of defiant despair, the look of a man who knows he is condemned to die and is determined to make you think he doesn’t care. Something in her responded to that look. That he could go to this painful and humiliating end with such a look in his eyes, that he would fight his captors, that he would inflict on them a measure of his own pain—for some reason she couldn’t articulate to herself, that touched her deeply. He had a kind of courage she had never encountered before, a kind she had only read about and heard in songs and the old tales.

She’d never imagined it could exist in real life.

One of the guards—she thought it was the one who’d held the stick—clumped over to her, a scowl on his face. “You’ll want to step back, Mistress,” he said. “You don’t want to get hit with the whip.”

By all the gods of mercy and decency, was there nothing she could do for him? Kistalleh glanced around the square, looking for she didn’t know what. All the other observers seemed more than happy to watch the end of this beautiful, brave man.

As she looked, a rather ostentatiously dressed woman emerged from the wagon that had brought the prisoner and minced in high-heeled boots across the square toward the place of punishment. The newcomer looked vaguely familiar to Kistalleh, but she couldn’t place the woman or remember her name. She seemed to be, like Kistalleh, an aristocrat, judging by her elaborate costume of fine woolens trimmed with fur. She wore face makeup fancy enough to match her clothing, including scarlet-painted lips that seemed too bright for the day and the somber occasion.

That might be his owner, and if it was then there was truly nothing Kistalleh could do, other than plead with the unknown woman for his life. The slave owner took a position about ten paces away from the pole and stood there waiting, a smirk on her pretty face. She did not look the sort of person who would have any sympathy for the plight of a slave, and besides, if she had been the one to pronounce the punishment, it was unlikely she would relent because of anything Kistalleh said or did.

The man with the stick reached to his side and drew a cat of nine tails from his belt. The ends of the tails glistened even in the dim afternoon light and clicked together as he lifted it. It must be tipped with metal. And that metal would tear into the skin of the prisoner’s back, destroying it, causing hideous pain. If the young man survived the beating, he would be severely scarred for life.

The whipmaster fondled the tails with their metal tips, smiling a little as he stared at the prisoner. He raised the cat and brought it whistling through the air to strike the Amaki’s back. The prisoner jerked in his bonds, his breath hissing between his teeth, but he made no other sound. Lines of bright red appeared where the tails had struck him. The crowd cheered and Kistalleh winced. This whole scene was grotesque.

The whipmaster raised his arm again and again, striking the blond in a fast series of blows until they drew a groan from him. She had never wanted to intervene in a beating so much since—well, since she’d been a foolish, sentimental girl. But when she looked toward the owner, she could see the gloating pleasure on the woman’s face. The owner took savage and grotesque satisfaction in having him punished this way. Nothing Kistalleh could say would dissuade her.

She had seen it before, although never in such an open and public fashion. Some slave owners looked for any excuse they could find to punish their slaves, simply because it gave them pleasure to see helpless people suffer. The woman in furs was obviously that kind of person. Perhaps it would be better, after all, for Kistalleh to leave. There was nothing she could do for this poor man and in fact begging for clemency from his owner might just as well result in an even more vicious punishment.

Her feet refused to move. She couldn’t leave him. If she left, there would be no-one who cared about him to witness his death, only the jeering mob. So she kept her mouth shut and continued to wince and cringe with every strike of the whip.

Kistalleh could sense Nona glaring at her from behind her back, willing her to return to the carriage and behave as a proper lady, but she ignored her. She could not have explained it if someone had asked. She only knew that she had to remain and witness this. She was probably the only person on the square who had any sympathy for the prisoner, the only person there who cared what became of him.

Why she should care for the fate of a man she didn’t know, a man who was not even human, was again more than she could explain. But it was so, and remain she would until the last blow had fallen.

The whip struck again, drawing more blood in what was already a welter of gore covering his back. With every blow, with every new layer of blood, ugly memories of another winter day and another slave flooded her mind.

Luka.

He’d been just a boy, about her own age of twelve years. Her older brother, Dariu, had accused him of striking him with his fists and threatening to kill him. She’d never known what Dariu had done to provoke him, but it had to have been something bad. Dariu was brutal with the family slaves, and relentless in demanding every imaginable sort of submission from them.

They had tied Luka up in the stable yard and, while the entire household watched, flogged him to death.

She’d had nightmares for months afterward. She should have defended him. Begged for his life. He was only a boy; perhaps he’d lost his temper, perhaps he even deserved to be whipped. But to be killed? No. But she’d said nothing, and Luka’s death was on her conscience forever.

The prisoner had begun to release a strangled sound with every blow of the whip. Blood and strips of hanging skin obscured the beautiful muscles of his back. Kistalleh felt tears beginning to sting behind her eyelids and she blinked rapidly to hold them back. Nothing would be gained by openly showing sympathy. Such a display would only draw the contempt of other Atlanteans.

But you have to do something. You can’t let it happen again.

The whipmaster paused in the beating and switched to his other arm, as if he were growing tired. At the same moment, a slight young woman in shabby clothes like those of a house slave approached the slave owner and whispered in her ear. The woman in furs gave her a look of supreme irritation and raised her hand as if to strike her.

The servant cringed back. The slave owner glanced around at the people crowding near and held her blow. She spoke in a sharp voice to her slave. Kistalleh could not pick out the words; however, the two of them turned and walked back toward the wagon in which they’d come. A few minutes later, the wagon pulled away from the curb, leaving the two guards and the prisoner behind in the Market Square.

Perhaps this was her chance now that the owner had gone. Kistalleh approached the whipmaster just as he made ready to strike the prisoner again.

He looked at her with a mixture of deference and annoyance. “Yes, mistress?”

“I wish to view the prisoner. May I examine him closely?”

The whipmaster shrugged. “Guess it can’t do any harm. But don’t get too close to him, my lady. He might look harmless, but I can tell you he’s a vicious one.”

“I’ll be very careful, I assure you.”

She approached the prisoner. Up close, she could see the filth thick on his skin. His back was torn open over and over again where the metal tips had ripped the flesh; in places she could even see the muscle tissue where the skin had been torn away. Fighting to stay calm, Kistalleh walked around the prisoner until she could see his face. She was closer now than she had been before. Much closer.

His eyes were half closed, his head sagging as if he hadn’t the strength any longer to hold it up. His hair was even more matted and dirty than she’d realized, and was now thick with clots of blood splattered up from his back.

Under the filth, the blood and despair, he was magnificent. He had the body of an athlete, heavy with muscle, yet lean and graceful. His lids lifted and he looked at her without seeming to see her. The defiance was gone and there was nothing left but mute animal despair.

The whipmaster shuffled his feet, shifting his weight from side to side as he slapped the cat of nine tails restlessly against his thigh. “Begging your pardon, my lady, but perhaps you’d allow me to finish before the sun goes down.”

He jerked his chin toward the sky, where lowering clouds gathered. It was later than she’d realized, and the wind had begun to pick up. The prisoner’s lips were turning blue. He wouldn’t survive much longer out here. If she were going to do something to help him, she would have to do it now.

Kistalleh met the whipmaster’s gaze. “How much would you take for him?”

The whipmaster shook his head vehemently. “Oh, no, my lady, on no account would I take money for this man. He ain’t for sale. Lady Rina has given us our orders.”

“She’d rather you kill him than take money for him?” That seemed rather unreasonable.

The whipmaster was nodding. “Indeed, yes, my lady. He’s not for sale. He’s too vicious, ma’am. You’d never get any use out of him; you’d spend all your time punishing him. These Amaki make terrible slaves, if you don’t mind my saying so. They don’t know their place and they haven’t got the proper respect for Atlantis.”

I can’t imagine why. Unless it might be the way you’re beating him.

“I believe I could handle him.”

“Mistress, Lady Rina has had this slave for twenty years, and she ain’t taught him respect yet. He’s been nothing but trouble to her. I ought to know, ma’am—I’ve been the one to whip him.”

“And I’m sure you’ve done an admirable job of it.”

The whipmaster preened under her dubious praise.

His companion guard joined them, frowning. “What’s keeping you?”

“The lady here wants to buy the slave.”

The newcomer laughed openly. “If you’ll take some good advice, Mistress, you’ll leave this one alone. He ain’t worth the money it would take to cut his throat and ditch his corpse.”

Kistalleh glanced at the prisoner. He’d lifted his head and was looking over his shoulder at them, a look in his eyes that she could only describe as murderous. He’d recovered enough strength to glare at them. Maybe they were right. Maybe he was vicious, untamable, and a waste of her time.

But something made her open her mouth and say, “I am Kistalleh of the Waverider clan, and we know how to manage slaves.” Her clan was famous for taking an iron hand with their chattel.

The guards widened their eyes. “Waverider clan, is it?” the whipmaster said. “Your pardon, my lady. We didn’t know. We didn’t understand.”

“Does that mean you will accept money for him?”

The whipmaster shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no. I don’t want to disappoint you, my lady, but mistress Rina’s prescribed one thousand strokes for him, and we daren’t disappoint her.

“One thousand strokes? But that would kill him.”

“I believe that’s what she’s after. I don’t gossip about the mistress, but I don’t mind telling you she’s at her wit’s end with this one. He’s hopeless, no good. And when a slave is that way, and violent, there’s only one thing to do. And that’s to put him out of his misery.”

Kistalleh reached into her purse, which hung at her belt, and withdrew the handful of coins she kept there. “I have ten sovereigns. It’s all I’ve got on me. Surely Lady Rina would rather have some money and be rid of her slave than have nothing. If he’s truly intractable, I’ll cut his throat myself.” Of course, she would do no such thing, but they didn’t know that.

The second guard nudged his companion. “That’s a lot of money. You know Mistress Rina needs—”

“Shut it.” The whipmaster glared at his companion and the other man subsided. The whipmaster turned to Kistalleh. “Alright, my lady. We’ll take your money. But the gods have mercy on you, for you may come to wish him dead after all.”

“Have no fear for me,” she said tartly. “Do you have his papers?”

“Yes, mistress, they’re back in the wagon.”

“Very good. Bring him to my carriage and put him inside. Then bring me the papers and we’ll sign him over into my custody. Once everything is taken care of, you’ll get your money.”

The whipmaster nodded. “Sounds fair enough.” He jerked his chin toward the prisoner, and his partner accompanied him to the post, where they set about releasing the man. Kistalleh turned and left them, returning to her carriage.

When she reached the vehicle, Nona nearly jumped on her. “What happened?” The maid craned her neck, trying to see what was happening at the whipping post.

“I bought him.”

Nona’s jaw dropped. “You did what? You had no business buying a slave, Mistress Kistalleh. What will your father do when he finds out? If you’d only stayed in the carriage, like I said, but, no, you had to poke your nose in where it doesn’t belong—”

“Nona,” Kistalleh said sharply. “I’m a grown woman and if I choose to buy slaves it’s no business of yours.”

Nona visibly wilted. “Yes, my lady.”

Nona had known Kistalleh since she was a small child, had practically raised her, and sometimes imagined she was more of a mother than a slave and handmaiden. Kistalleh patted her on her shoulder. “Never mind. They’re bringing him to the carriage. Let’s get the doors open and find the blanket to wrap him in. He’s likely to die of the cold if we don’t cover him.”

Nona shook her head, but did as she asked. They opened the carriage door on the side of the Market Square and climbed in. Once inside, Nona opened the carriage box beneath the seats, where they stored things they might need on a longer journey. These items were kept in the carriage at all times for convenience sake. A blanket in winter was always welcome, even when merely crossing the city. Although Atlantis had a warm climate, it could be miserably wet and chilly in the winter, just as it was this afternoon.

Nona pulled out a large, scratchy wool blanket. “Will this do?”

“Yes, that should be fine.”

A clump of heavy booted feet on the stones outside the carriage announced the arrival of the guards and the prisoner. “Here he is. Where would you like him?” the whipmaster said.

“Here on the floor.” Kistalleh pointed to the floor of the carriage.

The guards dumped the prisoner unceremoniously on the floorboards, where he huddled with a low groan.

“I’ll have your paperwork in a moment, my lady.”

The guards shuffled off, leaving Kistalleh and Nona alone with the prisoner. She sat on the cushioned bench of the carriage and nodded at Nona. “Go ahead and cover him before he dies of the cold.”

The prisoner shivered continuously. His skin was so pale now it almost appeared to have a blue tinge, and his lips were definitely blue. He would die of exposure and shock if they didn’t treat him very soon.

With pinched lips, Nona arranged the blanket over his naked body. She took her seat next to Kistalleh with a look of prim disapproval. Nona had never approved of Kistalleh’s few love affairs, and probably imagined her charge had lascivious plans for the man on the floor of the carriage. That, of course, was ridiculous. He was beautiful to look at, but Kistalleh had no designs on his body. She only wanted to help him.

She opened her mouth to explain these things to Nona, then shut her jaw again. She had no need or obligation to explain herself to a slave, dear though Nona might be.

The guardsmen returned with the papers. Kistalleh wrote her name in the appropriate place on the ownership paper, using a silver-point stylus she kept in her pouch. She gave them the money and they went away, looking satisfied with the afternoon’s events.

Their mistress might not be pleased with the decision they had made on her behalf, but Kistalleh couldn’t care too much about their welfare when they were willing to beat a man to death and seemed to take, if not pleasure in the act, at least no pain. Anyway, from the sound of things, Mistress Rina needed the money, so perhaps she wouldn’t be too angry.

Kistalleh’s driver came around and stood at the open door of the carriage, staring at the man within and shaking his head.

“You may take us home now,” Kistalleh said.

“Begging your pardon, my lady, but nothing good can come of this. Good Atlanteans don’t take Amaki into their homes.”

“I don’t recall asking you for your opinion. Take us home.” She reached out and slammed the door of the carriage shut.

Still shaking his head, the driver resumed his seat, and soon they were off. The carriage bumped over the uneven surfaces of the streets, jarring the prisoner and making him groan softly. Kistalleh resisted the urge to crouch down with him and comfort him. He wouldn’t relish the comfort of a woman like her, anyway. She was, no doubt, the enemy in his mind. After all, she was Atlantean, like Lady Rina. Besides, Nona would never fail to remind her of the proper comportment expected of a lady. Comforting wounded slaves would not meet Nona’s standards of behavior. But her heart ached for this unknown and hostile stranger.

 

Chapter 3

 Garek’s body was nothing but a great lump of pain, swinging moment to moment from icy cold to fiery agony and back again. He shivered, still, although someone had covered him and he was no longer quite so cold. The surface on which he lay was hard and chilly and damp, covered with grit, but he hardly noticed these small discomforts. They must have broken some ribs when they were beating him with that thrice-damned stick. And his back—his back was ablaze with the worst agony he’d ever experienced.

The rhythmic rattle and jolt beneath him told him they had thrown him back into the wagon. Why, then, could he see? There were no windows in the back of the wagon, and here, where he was, there must be openings of some kind because he could see.

His eyes made out two sets of small feet in the weak light of the fading afternoon. Skirts brushed the tops of those feet. Garek blinked. Skirts? He moved his head, grinding his teeth against the pain. He would not cry out. They would never know how badly they had hurt him.

He peered through the gloom, turning his head to look up along the expansive skirts and cloaks until he reached the faces of the two women who shared the carriage with him. He blinked again, and frowned. He was in a carriage with two women. What was going on here?

When they’d taken him down from the post, he’d been too weak and cold and tormented by the damage in his body to really notice what was happening to him. Even now, it took all his strength to hold on to his consciousness enough to notice his traveling companions. One was a middle-aged woman with graying hair. At least, he thought it was graying; it was difficult to make out in the darkness of the carriage. She wore the drab clothes of a house slave. The other woman was young, with unusually light hair for an Atlantean.

He’d seen her before, hadn’t he? Watched her, watching him as the guards dragged him from the wagon. She was lovely. The thought that she’d seen his degradation caused his stomach to twist.

His strength failed then and he let his head drop back to the floor boards as his eyes closed. They must have sold him. Rina must have changed her mind. Or maybe this was another of her elaborate games, and he would find in a number of days or perhaps weeks that she hadn’t sold him after all, that he still belonged to her, and that he would be bundled back to that terrible house of hers where rot and evil lurked under the beautifully painted surface.

The rattling seemed to go on forever. Garek drifted in and out of awareness. He lost track of the turns they took, the times they stopped for cross traffic. The light in the carriage dimmed until there was nothing but black beyond his eyelids.

Finally, the vehicle halted and the carriage doors opened. He was dimly aware of people bending over him, taking him, lifting him like a corpse and throwing him face down onto some kind of stretcher. He opened his eyes.

He was looking down at rain-darkened paving stones. Cold water fell in fat icy drops onto his back, soothing the fire and making him shiver at the same time. Turning his head, he saw the stucco walls of a substantial compound rising all around them.

The other slaves—he assumed they were slaves—carried him across the courtyard and into the dark, warm interior of one of the buildings. Ah, gods, it was blissfully warm. Garek let his eyes close again.

People were talking around him. Their voices seemed to drift over his head, male and female intermingling until he couldn’t make out the words or tell who said what. It didn’t matter, anyway. They would do with him whatever they wanted. He hadn’t the strength to resist at the moment.

The slaves carried him up a flight of stairs and down a long, dark upper corridor. They passed through a doorway into a room even warmer than the rest of the house and filled with flickering golden light.

“Where would you like him, my lady?” said a rough male voice.

“Put him on the couch.” This voice sounded young. The light-haired woman from the carriage?

“He’ll get blood on the upholstery,” said another woman, this one perhaps older.

“Never mind, Nona. It can be cleaned.”

The older woman grumbled something under her breath. The people carrying him lowered him, stretcher and all, onto a padded surface.

“There, you see?” the younger woman said. “Now the upholstery is safe.”

Where had they brought him? If the older woman was worried about upholstery, this couldn’t be the slave quarters. He pried his eyelids open.

Since he was still face down, he couldn’t see much besides the floor and a bit of the hearth, but the materials seemed luxurious. The wood of the floor shone with a soft gleam and the hearth was faced with smooth marble. No, this couldn’t be the slave quarters.

“That will be all,” the young woman said.

People trooped out of the room, leaving him alone with her and the other female. The older woman bustled around the room. He couldn’t see what she was doing, but he could hear her picking up objects and moving them around. She seemed an officious sort of person.

“Nona, you’re dismissed.” The young woman sounded impatient, her words clipped, her tone brusque.

“Now, see here, Lady Kistalleh, it isn’t right for you to be alone with this one. I’ll stay right here and chaperone, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, I do mind. Go down to the kitchen and get yourself some supper.”

“Mistress, I must protest.”

Lady Kistalleh gave a heavy sigh. “Don’t start one of your lectures. I know exactly what I’m doing and you’re not going to stop me no matter how many disapproving looks you give me.”

Maybe she was one of Rina’s friends. She seemed to have the same lascivious intentions toward him. Unfortunately for her, she was in for a rude disappointment. If Rina couldn’t make him service her, this girl certainly couldn’t do it.

Nona snorted. “It isn’t proper to have a male slave in your quarters—”

“I’m a widow, not a little girl. I have no innocence to protect.”

“The slaves will talk.”

“Let them talk. My brother has female slaves and no-one whispers about him.”

“Your dear mother would not approve, and I promised her, I swore at her death bed that I would watch over you and keep you from harm, and here you are doing everything in your power to ruin your reputation—”

“Oh, for the love of Desou,” Kistalleh snapped. “Fine, stay and make yourself useful. I need a basin of water, towels, some wine and the laudanum. Bring up some food as well, while you’re at it.”

“Very well.” The maid sniffed. “I’ll be back shortly.”

Her footsteps crossed the room and faded into the corridor. Garek blinked wearily. The conversation had diverted him from his pain for a moment, but now the distraction was gone and the fire had returned, just as fierce as before.

The woman—Kistalleh—moved around the room with a soft rustle of her skirts. She left briefly. He closed his eyes and fell into an uneasy doze. A moment later, she’d returned to draw a chair up next to the couch and sit by him. He turned his head to get a better look at her.

She had lovely dark eyes. They weren’t black like Rina’s, but more of a dark amber, and fringed with thick sable lashes. Her face was more pretty than beautiful, with a softness of feature that he found oddly appealing. She had soft pink lips, unpainted. Natural.

“Don’t strain yourself,” she said. “You’re badly hurt.”

“It’s. . .nothing new.”

Her lips tightened. “They’ve done this to you before?”

He huffed a short, humorless laugh. “Yes.”

Lady Kistalleh reached for a vial on a small table next to the couch where he lay. There was a tray on the table, with a cup of wine on it. She measured out some of the vial’s contents into a spoon and stirred it into the wine before holding the cup to his lips.

“What is it?”

“Laudanum.”

He frowned. She’d sent the maid for laudanum, hadn’t she?

“I wanted Nona out of the way for a while. Besides, this bottle is almost empty.” She pressed the rim of the cup against his mouth. “Go ahead and drink. I’m going to have to hurt you when I clean you up.”

“If you take the iron off me. . .” he paused for a breath, “I’ll heal up in a minute. . .all by myself.”

“I’m aware of that.” There was restrained amusement in her voice. “I’m also aware that would free you and make you impossible for me to control. So for now, we’ll leave the iron where it is.”

Ah, yes. Control. It always came back to control for them, didn’t it?

“Drink.” Kistalleh brought her other hand up to grip his jaw, as if she meant to force him to open for her.

He drank. The laudanum made the wine bitter, and he grimaced at the taste.

“Here.” She offered him a crust of dry bread. “It’s all I have at the moment, but you need something in your stomach so the drug doesn’t make you sick.”

Garek took the bread. “You’re going to a lot of trouble…for a mere slave. What is it…you want from me?” He put the crust in his mouth and chewed.

“Just to get well, for the moment.”

He snorted. “Right.”

Her face colored. He could see the red stain on her ivory cheeks even in the low yellow light of the fire. “What do you think I want from you?”

He tried to shrug. Pain knifed through him, bringing a gasp from his throat. “Same thing every Atlantean lady wants,” he said between gritted teeth.

“And that is?” Kistalleh took a cloth from the table, moistening it with wine.

“I thought you had no innocence to protect.”

She dropped her hands to her lap with an affronted stare. “I don’t take advantage of the people in my household.”

Closing his eyes against her outrage, he tried not to smile. That would only anger her more. Maybe that proper lady act worked on some people, but it didn’t fool him. He’d seen the way she ogled him when he was chained to the whipping post. She desired him. They all did.

They all wanted a piece of the Amaki slave and his astounding sexual prowess. Garek felt a sound of disgust rising in his throat. He should have provoked the whipmaster into cutting off his cock after all. That would put a stop to the groping, the stares, the knowing smiles. And the beatings when he refused to comply with their demands. They couldn’t demand what he didn’t have.

The cloth in her hand met the wounds on his back and stung like an entire hive of bees. Garek hissed, clenching the leg of the couch to keep from fighting her.

“Earth’s bones! I thought you…were going to wait for the… laudanum to take effect.”

“I’m not sure you deserve it.” She dabbed him again.

Garek groaned. “I didn’t mean to insult you, my lady. I only know what every other Atlantean has wanted from me.” The men as well as the women.

“You’re very sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

There was no sense in talking to her. She’d already made up her mind about him, and she probably wouldn’t understand even if he explained it to her. She was clearly an aristocrat, a woman who’d had every whim gratified since babyhood. He studied the grain in the wood of the floor, counting the rings as the lady continued to torment his ruined back.

Whatever her intentions, they’d become clear soon enough. When she began pressuring him, ordering him to touch her, lick her, please her, then she would no longer be able to deny that she was exactly like Rina.

His former mistress had taken him to her bed immediately, and like a fool he’d believed her when she’d said she cared for him. With the iron on his body, he had no ability to read her thoughts. It wasn’t until later that he discovered what sort of person Rina really was. She loved to play cruel games, wooing him, getting him to drop his guard, and then attacking and humiliating him.

If this Lady Kistalleh thought she could do to him what Rina had done, she was going to get a surprise.

“What is your name?” She refreshed the wine on the cloth.

“Slave,” he said, blinking against the beginning of the opium haze.

“That’s not a name.”

“I have no name anymore.”

“Oh, come, now. Of course you have a name.”

“You’ll call me whatever you want. What difference does my real name make?”

“Because I want to know. I want to know you.”

I’m sure you do. He remained silent.

“If you won’t tell me, I’ll have to call you Sunshine.”

His lips twitched, amused in spite of himself. “Garek. It’s Garek.”

“I’ve never heard that name before.”

“That’s because it’s not Atlantean.”

“Ah, of course.”

He should have kept his mouth shut. The laudanum had begun to work on him, giving him a wonderful sense of glowing comfort, a looseness in his bones and muscles and the illusion that everything was going to be alright. Even the searing jolt of the wine-laden cloth on his back didn’t hurt so much anymore. Laudanum was dangerous. He should have refused to swallow it.

Kistalleh leaned over him as she worked on his wounds, bringing her slender body ever closer to his. She smelled edible. He was in too much pain to become overtly aroused, but her scent—sweet flowers, spice and woman—entered him, bringing with it a poignant longing he’d believed he would never feel again. She was lovely, so lovely, and he’d been alone so long he’d forgotten what a gentle touch felt like.

Keep hold of yourself. It’s just the drug talking.

But the drug’s voice was louder than his common sense.

Garek floated on a soft cloud of opium. She leaned even more intimately, reaching for the opposite side of him, where the couch backed up against the wall. Her skirts brushed the edge of the furniture, brushed his hand where he gripped the couch leg. He released the turned wooden leg and let his hand skim the smooth wool of her gown.

His hand—it drifted lower, toward the floor, and landed gently on top of her foot. She wore ankle-high leather boots. Garek clasped her ankle just above the leather. A woolen stocking prevented him from contacting her bare skin, but he could still feel the slender strength of her leg beneath the gentle curve of her calf. He stroked her leg with his thumb.

She started. “Garek, release me.”

Earth’s bones. He jerked his hand away from her, his face burning in spite of the opium giddiness in his brain. “My—my apologies, Mistress. I forgot myself.”

She gave a little sigh. “It’s alright. Laudanum can make people do and say things they wouldn’t otherwise. But don’t let it happen again.”

“No. I won’t.” His voice sounded slurred even to him.

The door opened and three more people bustled in, bringing in a savory smell of food with them.

“Put those things on the other table,” Kistalleh said.

“What are you doing? You shouldn’t be tending him yourself.” It was Nona’s voice.

“I want to see that it’s done right.”

The slave made an exasperated noise. He thought fuzzily that she must be highly placed in the household to get away with talking to her mistress in such a fashion. Rina never would have tolerated it for an instant. Of course, Rina would never tend a slave with her own hands. She had minions for that.

This Lady Kistalleh might be different after all. He frowned. No. That thought led to a road he’d sworn he would never walk again. Not even opium tincture could make him return to it.

“See if you can sit up,” she said. “We have some food here for you.”

Sit up. He wasn’t sure about that, but there was no way he’d let Kistalleh know how weak he felt. He pressed his palms against the couch beneath him and pushed. A loud groan escaped him. What in the seven hells had they done to him? It felt like every bone in his torso was broken.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself upright. Sweat broke out over his forehead and his arms trembled, but he managed it. He sat up, his naked legs awkwardly draped over the wooden dowel in the side of the stretcher.

The room was luxuriously comfortable, with the couch and several padded chairs, the marble fireplace, a rug on the floor and plenty of oil lamps burning. The walls had been painted a deep rose, with a border at the top of gilded leaves and vines.

He glanced at Lady Kistalleh. She was staring at him. Not at his eyes—at his body. When he looked at her, she blushed and quickly looked away. Her gaze fell on his cock; the blush blazed red and her attention skittered away to land on the table next to the couch. Garek suppressed a cynical smile. Maybe she didn’t take advantage of her slaves, but she couldn’t seem to stop staring at him, either.

“Very good,” she said in a prim voice, as if she hadn’t been caught ogling him again. Reaching for a bowl on the tray, she lifted it and brought it to him. “Chicken soup.” She dipped up a spoonful and lifted it to his lips.

“I can feed myself.”

Her hand paused in mid-air. “Can you? I thought perhaps—”

He lifted his arm to take the spoon. Savage pain speared him in his left side. Garek swore and dropped his arm. The right one wasn’t any better.

“Let me help you.” She pressed forward with the spoon.

With a sigh, Garek opened his mouth. Did she take pleasure from his helplessness? It made him want to scream with rage. Even the laudanum couldn’t erase the humiliation of sitting and waiting for her to feed him, as if he were a weakling or a child.

Kistalleh presented him with another spoonful of soup. He had to admit it was delicious, delicate and savory, the best thing he’d tasted in weeks.

She smiled. “You scowl so fiercely. I can tell you hate having to accept my help.”

“I may be a slave, my lady, but I’m still a man.”

“I see.” Her smile deepened, making charming dimples appear in her cheeks. “I promise I won’t think any less of you for humoring me.” Her gaze faltered. “Why do you stare so?”

Had he been staring? Yes, he had. Garek felt his own face burning. He’d been staring at her like a lovestruck boy. Make up your mind. Do you hate her or are you falling in love with her? “I beg your pardon, my lady. I meant nothing by it.”

Nona gave a harrumph of indignation. He looked up to find her glaring at him from her post near the fire. She was Kistalleh’s watchdog, apparently.

The drug’s effects surged in his blood, reaching a new and higher level. She must have given him an extra-large dose, he thought, even more fuzzy-headed than before. The resentment that usually armored him against his Atlantean masters dissolved on a wave of bliss.

He grinned, buoyed up by the opium. “You’ve got nothing to fear from me, Nona. I’m celibate. Wanted them to cut it off, but they wouldn’t. Damned cowards.”

Nona gaped. “Cut it off?”

Garek gestured toward his cock. “Can’t use it. Don’t want it. Everyone else does, though, and they won’t leave me alone. Why do they want it so bad, do you think?”

Both women were staring at him now, with matching expressions of dismayed disbelief. He pointed at the soup bowl in Kistalleh’s hands. “More, please?”

She started, making the soup slosh around in the bowl. “Oh. Yes, of course.”

He made her uncomfortable. What was she so embarrassed about, anyway? It wasn’t her cock they would’ve cut off. Somewhere in a distant corner of his mind, he knew he was not thinking rationally, that the opium was doing his thinking for him. But he was too far gone to care or do anything about it.

The strange, fixed expressions on the women’s faces made him grin again, just as Kistalleh offered him another spoonful of soup. He took the soup. It was making a comfortable, warm feeling in his belly, filling him up after days—or was it weeks—of near starvation.

While the mistress fed him, Nona set about preparing long strips of linen and arranging them on the second table in the room. She managed to look efficient and outraged at the same time, which struck Garek as hilarious. He kept himself, however, from laughing out loud.

Kistalleh fed him the rest of the soup without speaking. Yes, he’d definitely embarrassed her. That seemed unfair—after all, she wasn’t the one sitting there naked in front of strangers. Not that he minded nakedness under usual circumstances. He was Amaki, after all. His people had no nudity taboo. But his years in Atlantis had changed him and he had absorbed some of their strange notions, such as the idea one should be embarrassed by one’s own body.

Years of being subjected to the gropings and suggestive remarks of one Atlantean after another had taught him the power and danger of his body. Something about him, probably about his people in general, drove humans to wildly inappropriate displays of lust. Atlanteans seemed especially susceptible. Maybe it was their overall prudishness; or maybe their exaggerated fear of magic made them more vulnerable to the attractions of his kind. He didn’t know, and at the moment it all seemed more amusing than anything else.

When he’d finished the soup, Kistalleh gave him a small chunk of cheese and another of bread, and when he’d eaten those, they prepared to bind his ribs. She studied him with a thoughtful frown. Then she turned to Nona and said, “I’ll need more water and more towels. He’s so dirty that I want to bathe him before we bandage him.”

Garek gave Nona a sidelong glance. She was rolling her eyes and shaking her head at the idea of her lady bathing him.

“You’ll let me do that, my lady. It isn’t a job for you.”

“Don’t be absurd. Just get me the water and towels, please.”

Nona heaved a sigh. She stomped off into an adjoining room, the emphatic harshness of her movements speaking loudly of disapproval. Apparently, she hadn’t taken his remark about his cock seriously. Garek closed his eyes and let himself drift for a few minutes. He wanted nothing more now than to lay down and go to sleep.

Kistalleh made rustling noises and little clicking sounds as she cleaned up from his meal. Why was she taking such a personal interest in him? It was quite out of character for an Atlantean aristocrat to pay any attention at all to the health of a slave, let alone to tend him with her own hands. And they were lovely hands, small, with delicate little fingers and neatly manicured pink fingernails.

He wanted to kiss them; he wanted to take one of those tiny fingers in his mouth and suck on it. What would she do if he reached out right now and took her hand and lifted it to his mouth? Of course, the question was moot, since he couldn’t lift his arm without severe pain. Rina’s idiots might have broken it.

Nona returned with a basin of water and a pile of bleached white towels, which she laid on the small table next to the couch. Kistalleh immediately took one and dampened it. She leaned forward, lifting the damp cloth toward his face. He closed his eyes again, savoring her gentle touch as she wiped his skin. No one had ever bathed him before, at least not since he’d been a child. There was something surprisingly intimate about it.

When she’d finished wiping his face, she moved on to his neck and then his shoulders, moistening the towel several times as she worked. He kept his eyes closed. If he looked at her, he would give too much away, and even in his opium-addled state, he knew this was not a good thing. He was already far too vulnerable to her.

Her hand strayed lower and lower, moving down his back and then around to the front of his chest and over his belly. The opium suppressed most of his body’s response to her nearness and her touch, but even so he felt himself stirring, his blood quickening as she touched him ever more intimately. He opened his eyes to find her face inches from his own, her amber gaze fixed on his face. She looked away with another charming blush. If he could only lift his damned useless hand, he could touch her in return. Would her hair be as soft as it looked? Would her skin?

She backed up abruptly and dropped the towel she was working with on the tray. “Well, you’re probably clean enough for bandaging.” She turned her torso and reached toward Nona. “Hand me those strips, will you?”

Nona brought them over. “You must let me help you with this part, my lady. The work will go much faster with two of us.”

“Yes, I agree. And when we’re done, go and fetch the doctor. I think his left arm may be broken.”

After that, the strange sense of intimacy between him and Kistalleh was broken. She and Nona briskly bandaged his ribs and back with the long strips of linen. The doctor came and examined his arm and found it badly bruised, but not broken. Then they let him alone and he sank back down to the couch with a grateful sigh and closed his eyes. Sleep, at last.

But his dreams were full of strange, unfamiliar, groping hands, rude touches in places he wasn’t accustomed to being touched. He woke over and over again during that long night, until finally dawn came and he dreamed no more.


Chapter 4

Kistalleh awoke with a mixed sense of dread and anticipation. What was she going to do with Garek now that she’d acquired him? The night before, she’d been completely occupied with tending him, and had given her long-term plans for him no thought at all. No, in fact, it had taken all her self-control to refrain from touching or staring at him even more openly than she’d already done. He had a way of making her feel things she didn’t have names for.

The lust was obvious, no doubt to her and everyone else. She couldn’t help herself. He was beautiful in a way that few men were, and yet he was entirely and indisputably masculine. The combination was so potent that she didn’t know what to do with herself in his presence. And now she had to find some job for him, some excuse to keep him that didn’t involve them becoming lovers.

Many Atlantean widows kept male slaves for that purpose. It was an openly acknowledged fact of life and no one would have thought less of her for doing the same. Except Kistalleh. She’d always prided herself on being the kind of person who treated her slaves decently, and buying a human being—or an Amaki—for the purpose of servicing her sexually, well, it was more than out of character. It was, in spite of its ubiquity, something she had openly despised. She could not now go back and take the opposite position. Besides, Garek wanted nothing to do with her. He’d made that perfectly clear last night.

Well, she couldn’t hide in her bedroom all day long. She made herself get up and put on a simple gown without Nona’s help. Then she opened her bedroom door and walked out into her sitting room.

Garek’s eyes were open, watching her as she came through the doorway. There was a knowing, hard look in them. The unfocused softness of the night before had vanished as if it had never been. She gave him a tentative smile.

“Good morning.”

“Is it?”

She let the remark pass without response as she went to the bell pulls and yanked on the one for the kitchen. The maids would be up with breakfast in a few minutes. Until then, she would have to endure being stared at in the most insolent manner by her new slave.

He wore the most un-slave-like expression she’d ever seen. Gone was the amiable open smile. Gone too were the caressing glances he’d given her last night, glances that had made her blush and ache with longing at the same time. He looked at her now as if she were single-handedly responsible for his current situation.

Kistalleh took a seat in one of the armchairs near the unlit fire and folded her hands in her lap. She gazed at him as calmly as she could. “Suppose you explain to me why you were looking at me that way?”

“I don’t know what you mean, my lady.” But his tone of voice told her he knew exactly what she was talking about.

“I’m not your enemy.”

“That’s so silly I won’t even bother to argue with it.”

She pressed her lips together. “You will find me a kind and generous mistress as long as you serve me well and cooperate with me.”

“Serve you?” His mouth bent in a grimace that she supposed was a smile, but which held no humor or goodwill. “Just what kind of service did you have in mind?

“I haven’t had time to give it much thought. But I’ll find something for you to do.

“I’m sure you will.”

The cynical expression on his face made her want to smack him. “And just what do you mean by that?”

He laughed. “I think you know exactly what I mean.”

Was he trying to provoke her? He seemed to be looking for a fight. Maybe he really hoped she would cut off his cock after all. She’d thought that was just the opium talking, but perhaps she’d been wrong.

He certainly gave every appearance of a slave trying to provoke his mistress to an act of violence. Perhaps that was how he’d ended up in the Market Square, naked and chained to the whipping post in the rain. The whipmaster had warned her, after all. And she had refused to listen.

“Tell me what skills you have, and I’ll find a place for you. If nothing else, they can always use help in the stables.”

He looked at her as if trying to decide whether or not to take her statement seriously. “I do know horses.”

She nodded. The thought of sending him to the stables, to sleep away from her in the slave quarters, was somehow sadly disappointing. But she hadn’t saved him merely for her own entertainment. She’d saved him because it was the right thing to do, and because she couldn’t bear to see such a beautiful and courageous man murdered before her very eyes. “Perhaps, then, that will do. For now, however, I want you to stay here so I can monitor your progress.”

He tilted his head slowly to one side. A frown creased his forehead. “You really aren’t going to force yourself on me?”

“No. I told you I’m not like that.”

“Why did you help me, then? Why didn’t you leave me there to die?”

It was very hard to look at him. She lifted her shoulders in a clumsy shrug and let them drop again. “Foolish sentiment, I suppose. I can’t bear to see people being hurt that way. I suppose it’s un-Atlantean of me, but I never like to see a slave whipped, and they seemed fixed on murdering you.” It was simply too embarrassing to stand there and let him watch her, so she turned her attention to the cold hearth.

He laughed again, a low, bitter sound. “What a talent you have. You are wasted as an aristocrat. You should have been an actress.”

Kistalleh jerked her head up and glared at him. “You think what I said is a lie? You think this is an act?”

“I know it is. You’re an Atlantean. You’re a lady. I don’t know why you’re playing this game with me, when you can have whatever you want of me anyway. I advise you to stop wasting your time and mine with this act. Honesty is so much simpler, don’t you think?”

She got to her feet. “I don’t know why I bother trying to talk to you. You’re right, it’s a waste of my time.” She hurried from the room, just barely keeping her strides slow enough that it didn’t appear she was running away. She would eat breakfast downstairs in the dining room. Sharing her meal with him would be a mistake.

How dare he accuse her of pretending! She’d gone out of her way to help him, had risked making an enemy of his former owner and the censure of her family, all to save his sorry hide. And he sat there with that superior smirk on his face, advising her to be truthful. The barefaced nerve of him!

Kistalleh swept into the dining room. Her brother Dariu and his wife, Sira, were already seated. Lovely. The two of them did nothing but pick at her every choice and complain about her to their father. Sira looked up at her with a smile and a syrupy good-morning. Kistalleh took her seat, still fuming, and gave her sister-in-law a tight smile.

Today Sira wore a gown made of layers of blue and green silk embroidered in gold thread. Her black hair was drawn up in an elaborate arrangement of curls interspersed with slender braids and she had gold earrings dangling from her ears. She looked like she was on her way to a formal party instead of attending a family breakfast.

A kitchen slave offered Kistalleh a plate of sausages still sizzling from the pan and fragrant with herbs and garlic. She chose one, although she had little appetite. Sira was still looking at her, with a knowing smile. Great Desou, she’d heard.

“It’s all over the household, you know,” the other woman said as if she’d read her mind.

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Why, that you’ve taken a slave to your bed. A beautiful slave.” Sira winked at her.

Kistalleh blushed. She hated how pale her skin was. It showed every shift of emotion.

Dariu set his fork carefully on his plate, staring at her. “Sister, is this true?” he said with a frown.

She lifted her chin. “Yes.” Garek wasn’t really in her bed; however, she refused to explain herself to these two.

“And he’s Amaki,” Sira continued.

Dariu frowned. “You brought an Amaki slave into this household? Father will never approve.”

“I bought him with my own money. I have as much right to buy a slave as any other member of the family.”

Her brother shook his head. “Not an Amaki. You know how Father and I feel about that.”

“He’s banded with iron. He’s no more dangerous than any other male slave.” She cut into her sausage. Its delicate casing gave a little pop as she sliced into it. Lifting a bite to her mouth, she chewed slowly as if she had nothing in the world on her mind but enjoying her breakfast. Dariu could think again if he imagined he could bully her over this.

“I’m sure Father will agree with me when I say you’ll have to return him to his former owner.”

“No.”

Sira stared at her.

Dariu lifted his brows. “No?”

“I’m not returning him. His owner was having him beaten to death. If I hadn’t intervened, he’d probably be dead by now.” Thrown into the bay, no doubt, as food for the fishes and crabs.

“That’s irrelevant. He doesn’t belong here.”

“It’s not your decision to make, Dariu. If Father wants to forbid me from having this slave, he can tell me himself.” And then she’d find another house. She had her own income, a modest fortune settled on her by her husband in the event of his death. She’d thought it was a silly idea, but he’d insisted. And then he’d been lost at sea.

Why was it suddenly so important to make a stand? She didn’t know and didn’t care to think about it too closely. The important thing was that Garek, no matter how obnoxious he might be, depended on her for his well-being. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—fail him.

“May I see him?” Sira said.

She glanced at her sister-in-law’s avid face. Maybe that was why she wore such an absurdly over-formal gown. She meant to impress Garek, and she didn’t seem to care who knew it. What did Dariu think of her behavior?

Kistalleh shook her head. “He’s badly injured. He’s not very presentable at the moment.”

“Oh.” Sira deflated slightly. “Well, I suppose it can wait.”

Looking at Sira, Kistalleh had the sudden urge to laugh. Something told her that her sister-in-law’s attempt to impress the slave would have the opposite effect. Oh, he would indeed be impressed, but not the way Sira intended. Or maybe he’d like the black-haired beauty—it was said she’d had plenty of lovers before marrying Dariu.

Men never looked at Kistalleh the way they did Sira. What was wrong with her, that she couldn’t attract a man? Her husband had only wed her to gain connections to the powerful Waverider Clan. He’d been kind to her, but never very enthusiastic about the bedding. Even a lowly slave, whose life she’d spared at considerable expense, wanted nothing to do with her.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’re better off without a husband anyway.

Except living in her father’s house was little better than being under a husband’s thumb. Everything she did or said was subjected to scrutiny and criticism, or sly remarks from Sira, who liked to pretend to a friendship Kistalleh knew was false.

Her father’s body slave entered the room and bowed to Kistalleh. “My lady, your father requests your presence in his office.”

Sira opened her eyes wide. “Oh, my.”

Ignoring her, Kistalleh rose and followed the slave with all the serenity she didn’t feel.

Her father sat at a huge desk, piled with scrolls and tablets. His head was bent over his work as he marked some kind of document. Kistalleh stood in the doorway of his office and waited to be acknowledged, while his slave went to him, bent, and whispered in his ear. Her father nodded but did not look up. So he planned to keep her waiting, did he? That was a sure sign of displeasure.

Kistalleh entered the room and took a seat in one of the chairs without waiting to be in the invited. Still, her father did not look up from his work. He was burning several oil lamps to compensate for the darkness of the winter day, yet the light in the room was dim except for the area around his desk.

She suppressed the urge to get up and pace, but tapped her fingers impatiently on the arm of the chair. Her father ruled the family as a king rules a kingdom. In his mind, no doubt, he was a benevolent despot. Like most Atlantean patriarchs, her father believed in his absolute right to rule, and until now Kistalleh had always been his obedient subject. She had married the man father had chosen for her. She had moved back home when her husband died. She’d conducted her life according to her father’s dictates. Until now.

Finally he looked up and fixed her with an icy stare. “I hear you made a new acquisition yesterday.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Did you plan to inform me?”

Kistalleh shrugged as casually as she could. “I was not aware we were required to obtain your approval before buying slaves.”

“Perhaps not, for any ordinary slave, but according to household gossip this man is Amaki. Is that true?”

Kistalleh lifted her chin and returned her father’s stare. “Yes, it is.”

He scowled, his black brows lowering. “I will not have an Amaki of any sort in my household. You’ll have to get rid of him.”

Kistalleh realized she had been harboring a faint, foolish hope that her father would not give her such an ultimatum, at least not right away. Yet he had. She shook her head. “I can’t do that, sir.”

Her father’s scowl grew even darker and more ominous. “Did I hear you correctly? Did you just defy me?

“You know I’ve always done my best to be an obedient daughter, and I don’t take this action lightly. But this man’s life is in my hands and I can’t—I simply can’t abandon him. If I did that, he would die. His former owner was determined to beat him to death in the Market Square.”

“I’m sure he must have done something to deserve it.”

She leaned forward in her chair, her hands tightening on the arms of the furniture. “Why would you assume that? Simply because he’s Amaki?”

“Confound it, Kistalleh, you know what they are. They’re not human. They’re dangerous and unpredictable and full of filthy magic. I don’t want a creature like that in my house. Get rid of it.”

“Have you no compassion, Father?”

“Compassion is for sentimental fools. I know you like rescuing strays, but you’ve taken it too far this time. This is not some beggar child or starving dog you can feed and send on its way. This is a monster, and you’ve brought it into our house. What do you think would happen if that thing got loose and attacked the children?”

“Father, he’s not a thing, he’s a person. And he’s no more dangerous than any other male slave. He has iron bands on his wrists, his ankles, and even his neck. He’s lost his Amaki powers, so there’s no reason to be afraid of him.”

“A caged lion is still a dangerous beast.”

She supposed it was too much to hope that she could have a rational conversation with her father on this matter. He and Dariu were both almost violently opposed to any Amaki presence in Atlantis. But she stood by her earlier conviction. She couldn’t abandon Garek. He was a living, sentient being, not a monster, and he deserved to live.

Why am I so sure of that? For all I know, Father and Dariu are right. I know nothing of this man but what I’ve seen physically; I don’t even know if the name he gave me is his real name. Do I truly want to throw over my family for this stranger, a man who isn’t even human?

No, she didn’t want to. But she’d seen too many slaves beaten, humiliated and murdered by vindictive, vicious owners who thought the fact they held ownership papers gave them not just the legal right but the moral duty to do whatever they wished to a person who was helpless to defend himself.

She would never forget the look on that young boy’s face as Dariu sentenced him to death for the crime of defending himself from the predations of his owner. That time, she had done nothing. She’d been a coward, too afraid of her own brother and her father speak up in Luka’s defense. Well, she wasn’t afraid anymore and she would never allow a human being in her charge to suffer that fate again—or an Amaki being, either.

She raised her head and gazed calmly at her father. “I will not give him up.”

“Very well. Then you’ll be finding yourself and your slave another place to live.” Her father looked inexpressibly smug as he finished, folding his hands together on the desk top and looking at her expectantly. He probably thought she would cave instantly with that threat.

Kistalleh nodded. “Yes, I think that would be best.”

Her father blinked in transparent shock. Then his scowl reappeared. “You won’t find it so easy out there on your own. You have no idea what it takes to survive in the city, living the sheltered life you have.”

“Then I will simply have to learn, won’t I?” She forbore from mentioning that she’d lived away from his household for five years during her marriage and had managed perfectly well the running of her husband’s home. It was what she’d been raised for, to run an aristocratic household. Surely she could manage a handful of slaves in a small house. “If you’ll give me a month to acquire the dwelling and move my belongings there, I’d be happy to do so.”

Her father shook his head emphatically. “Ten days is the most I can give you. And I think I’m being overly generous to offer you even that. If at the end of ten days you have not removed yourself and your slave, then I will remove him for you.

She frowned at her father in dismay. “Ten days? You know perfectly well it’s impossible to find decent lodgings in Atlantiri in such a short period of time. You’re deliberately making it difficult for me.”

Her father shrugged. “Nevertheless, those are my terms.”

“Very well. We’ll simply have to make do with the best we can get.” She rose from her seat. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a great deal of work to do and I’d better get to it.”

Her father got to his feet. “Now see here, Kistalleh. Why would you want to go to so much trouble for someone you hardly know? He’s only a slave. Wouldn’t a human slave do as well? Let’s not be hasty. I’ll give you as many slaves as you like, if you’ll only get rid of this one man.”

Her father truly had no understanding, no idea at all of her reasons for wanting to help Garek. To him, even human slaves were beneath contempt. He’d never comprehended her desire to help those weaker than herself, and her habit of bringing home what he contemptuously referred to as her strays had resulted in many blistering arguments.

Kistalleh sighed. Maybe if she reasoned with him one more time … “I know you think Garek is evil, but he’s really just a person, like you and me. I’ve committed myself to his care. I’ve given my word of honor.” That wasn’t quite true, since she hadn’t offered any guarantees to Garek or anyone else, but in her heart she’d made a promise.

“You would abandon your family for this thing, this creature?”

“No. I’m not abandoning you. I simply wish to have the running of my own household and to buy whichever slaves I desire without having to answer to anyone else.”

Her father’s lips pressed together until they nearly disappeared. “If you leave my home with that slave, you won’t be coming back. I won’t have a disobedient daughter under my roof.”

“What are you saying?”

His face hardened even further. “I’m saying you won’t set foot in this house or have contact with your brother, his wife, or his children, if you choose to disobey me in this matter.”

Her heart froze within her. “I see.”

“I hope that means you’ve come to your senses.”

Come to her senses? Kistalleh sighed against the icy pain inside her. How had it come to this? She’d thought they could work out some compromise; never once had she imagined he would ban her entirely from the family. Yet now she knew her father would cast her out over such a disagreement, she could hardly picture herself continuing to live here.

“Well?” He’d returned to looking smug.

“I’ll have to think about it.”

“Well, don’t think too long. Ten days. That’s all you have.”

Kistalleh nodded numbly before turning on her heel and leaving the room without a word of farewell. 

 

Chapter 5

A kitchen slave brought Garek some breakfast soon after Lady Kistalleh left. The slave was a skinny thing who wouldn’t look at him as she entered and placed the bowl of porridge she carried on the table next to the bed. Was it the iron bands? They proclaimed to anyone looking that he was Amaki, not human, and therefore evil and dangerous.

“Good morning,” he said in his most pleasant voice.

The girl gave him a sidelong glance from under her lashes and scurried out of the room without speaking. Her fear made him want to throw the porridge bowl at the wall. Instead, he picked it up and began to force himself to eat. The food would help to settle his stomach after the dose of laudanum he’d given himself just before she’d come in the room.

He shouldn’t have been surprised or even disappointed. Her attitude was one of three he’d encountered since the Atlanteans had enslaved him. Fear, hatred, and lust. Those were the only ways these people seemed to be able to interact with him.

Except for Lady Kistalleh. She’d shown him compassion…but was it real, or just a show to gain his trust? Rina had played that game with him more than once, pretending to feel sympathy for him just long enough so he let down his guard.

I must not be too bright if I let that woman fool me so many times. Although, to be fair to himself, he had been desperately lonely, desperate to believe in her. But he’d learned that lesson and he didn’t require a repeat.

As Garek set down the empty bowl, movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention. He turned his head. The door was opening slowly, as if the person on the other side wasn’t sure what kind of reception to expect. He snatched up the blanket Lady Kistalleh had left him and wrapped it around his waist.

A woman slipped into the room. She wore an elaborately draped blue dress with gold ornaments on her arms, her neck, and dangling from her ears. Her black hair was piled on her head in a bewildering combination of tiny braids and spiraling curls spangled with more gold beads. She winked at him and shut the door behind herself.

“Is Kistalleh here?” she whispered.

He shook his head.

“Good.” She gave him a slow assessment that reminded him of Rina. “You’re even more beautiful than I expected. Drop that blanket so I can see the rest of you.”

“I believe Lady Kistalleh wishes to keep me for herself.” He had no idea whether that was true, but maybe it would keep this predatory female at arm’s length for a while.

The woman pouted. “She wouldn’t be so selfish she’d refuse to share with family.”

She slunk over to him, the fabric of her dress alternately clinging to and concealing her curves. Her flowery-sweet perfume engulfed him and made him want to sneeze. When she reached the couch, she leaned over him, putting her face next to his. Garek glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t move. He refused to cringe.

“Mmmm, you smell all male,” she said.

There was nothing sensible he could say in response to that, so he remained silent.

The lady touched one delicate fingertip to his bandaged ribs. “They were awfully hard on you. Wouldn’t you like me to comfort you, to help you forget how cruel they were?”

“I am in no need of comfort, my lady.”

“Truly? But you look so sad.”

“I am content.”

Her hand crept up his side, over the bandage to his bare skin, and lingered over his collarbone before sliding up and around to his neck. “Perhaps it’s I who need comfort. I’m lonely here, you know. My husband pays no attention at all to me.”

Garek sat with his back rigidly straight and stared at the wall behind her. If he pushed her away, he’d be punished for attacking an Atlantean lady, but he couldn’t comply with her unstated demand that he service her. He wouldn’t comply.

She was beautiful in the same way that Rina was—artificial, brittle, highly decorated and perfumed. She had lovely, regular features, abundant hair, and from what he could see of it, a good figure. He wanted nothing to do with her.

The woman—Kistalleh’s sister?—pressed her painted lips to the side of his neck. “Yes, I do need comfort.”

“My lady, I have taken a dose of laudanum. My ribs are broken. I wouldn’t be able to do a good enough job to please you.” He spoke without looking at her.

“Oh, pooh.” She kissed him again. “I’m sure we can work something out.”

The door opened again, briskly this time, and Kistalleh came into the room. The black-haired lady continued to nuzzle him, her other hand coming up to clasp his neck. She seemed completely unaware they were being observed.

Kistalleh glared at the lady’s backside with such a thunderous expression that he wanted to laugh.

Her hands went to her hips. “Sira, leave my slave alone.”

The black-haired lady started, jerking away from him. She whirled to face Kistalleh. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I can tell.”

“You needn’t look so put out. I was only doing the same thing you’re doing with him.”

“You have no idea what I’m doing with him. Now leave.”

Sira’s back was to him, so he couldn’t see her face, but her spine went stiff and her head came up. “I beg your pardon?”

“Leave. Now. I have no wish to visit.”

Sira stalked toward Kistalleh, her hands clenched into fists. “I have some advice for you, sister-in-law,” she said in a sugary tone. “People who share what they have make friends. People who refuse to share make enemies.”

“I suppose you know that from personal experience.”

“Oh, indeed I do. Indeed I do.” She paused in front of Kistalleh. “I can see your slave is in much pain, so I’ll leave. But you should know that if you refuse to share him, the people in this household will have little tolerance for a creature like him. Things will be…difficult for him.”

Sira left with an air of regal disdain, the skirt of her dress belling out around her legs with the force of her movement.

When the door closed behind her sister-in-law, Kistalleh moved toward him. “I’m sorry about that.”

Garek blinked. “Sorry?”

“Yes. I had no idea she would barge in here and molest you.”

“You. . .are not angry?”

“No. Why would I be angry?”

He tried to shrug, but a stabbing pain forced him to stop. “I allowed her to touch me. I failed to please her. Many reasons.”

Kistalleh stopped directly in front of him, her gaze troubled. “I was angry with her, not with you.”

Garek fought to conceal the surge of pleasure her statement caused, but he feared the laudanum in his blood made his face easy to read. “I will not lie with an Atlantean bitch, no matter what the reward, nor the punishment for refusal.”

Her eyes sharpened. “You aren’t being instructed to lie with anyone.”

“That is good.”

“Are you trying to provoke me?”

He gave her a level stare.

“You baffle me. One moment you’re concerned you might have angered me; the next you’re insulting the entire female population of Atlantis.”

“I am Amaki.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Haven’t they told you how inconstant and changeable we are?” he said bitterly.

“They’ve told me many things about your people. I don’t know what is lies and what truth.” She made an impatient gesture. “It doesn’t matter at the moment. My father is throwing me out of the house and I must find another place to live immediately.”

“Throwing you out?”

“For bringing an Amaki into the house.”

For bringing an Amaki into the house. Her words seemed to repeat over and over inside his skull. Her father was throwing her out because of Garek. “Why don’t you simply get rid of me?”

Kistalleh shook her head. “If I did that, you might sicken and die. You need care.”

He frowned. “I don’t understand. What is it to you if I die?”

She turned away from him. “I’ve taken you into my household. There aren’t many people in it—just me and Nona, really, and now you—but all in my household are my responsibility to provide for and protect. I won’t turn you out just because my father threatens me.”

Could it be possible that she was the kind and principled woman she seemed? No. He refused to believe it. She played this charade for reasons of her own, which she’d make clear eventually, and this time he wouldn’t be drawn in.

“I’ve sent for clothing for you to wear. Tomorrow we’re going out to find a new residence.” She glanced at him over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, you’ll be riding in the carriage with me.”

She thought him weak? He lifted his chin. “I can walk.”

“I’m sure you can; however, I can’t and besides it’s been cold and wet every day this moon. We’re taking the carriage. I’d leave you here, but with Sira prowling around it might not be safe.”

“I hardly think Lady Sira is a threat to me. She’s no bigger than you.” He flushed when he realized how disrespectful that sounded. Well, Lady Kistalleh might as well get used to his bad attitude now, because it wasn’t going to improve.

“I’m not worried about Sira hurting you physically. She could make trouble for you with my father or brother, though. She has a vindictive nature.”

 *** 

In the darkest part of the dungeons that lay beneath the royal palace of Atlantis, a strange hybrid creature huddled against the dripping walls of a cell that had never seen daylight. Half vampire and half Amaki, Ravki had spent untold years of his life within its walls, breathing its fetid air, emerging only so the men who kept him could stretch him on their torture racks and flay the skin from his flesh.

He had just come from such a session. The skin of his right forearm was gone, all gone, nothing left but a dripping wound and the hideous burning pain. If it became infected, his vampire blood wouldn’t let him die of the wound, even though he didn’t have enough of the vampire for immortality. He aged more slowly than a human and had some of the healing powers of the Amaki, but he couldn’t Walk the Between. He couldn’t save himself.

His powers only allowed the torturers to prolong his suffering.

Ravki leaned his head against the noxious stone wall, eyes closed, breath coming in little pants. If he focused on his breath, just in and out, air moving through his nostrils, then he wouldn’t groan or scream from the agony in his arm.

It was so dark in his cell that even he, with his inhuman vision, could see nothing at all. He’d been here a long time. Millennia, perhaps. He’d long lost count of the years, had stopped trying to scratch the days and weeks and months into the walls, stopped caring.

Somewhere out there, in that other world where people came and went as they desired and no-one tortured them, there were men and women who knew him. People who’d once, long ago, said they loved him. Where were they now? Why had they left him here?

He’d asked the guards, again and again, why he’d been brought here, but no-one would say. What did they want from him? Why did they continue to torment him? He’d told them everything he knew, which wasn’t much anyway. He had no information for them.

After all these years, they should know they weren’t going to get anything usable from him. Yet they continued with the tortures. They hadn’t even bothered asking him questions for years.

A heavy door creaked on its hinges somewhere above him. It must be the door at the top of the stairs that led down into this level of the dungeon. Ravki bit his lip so hard he tasted the metallic flavor of blood in his mouth.

By all the gods, they couldn’t be coming for him again. Wasn’t it enough that they’d peeled him like a piece of fruit?

Footsteps descended the stone stairs. He could make out the heavy tread of one of the guards, and a lighter one he couldn’t identify. Perhaps they were dragging some new prisoner down here to be lost to torture and madness. Poor bastard. Whoever it was would soon wish he’d died.

As the people came nearer, the light from the torch they carried flooded the passageway outside his cell with a warm, golden glow. Ravki squinted against the glare. A draft from the stairwell wound through the bars on his cell door, bringing with it a whiff of scent from the guard and his…companion.

A woman. He was bringing a woman into this place of despair. Ravki sniffed. A vampire?

The footsteps stopped outside his cell. He lifted his head, still squinting as keys rattled and then scraped in the lock. The door swung inward, the light so brilliant he couldn’t see for a moment. Surely they didn’t mean to put a female prisoner in with him.

“This is the one,” the guard said.

A woman’s light footsteps moved toward Ravki, her scent floating toward him and teasing his nose with its delicate femininity. She smelled like flowers. He could remember flowers. He squinted at her, peering through the glow surrounding her.

“Indeed,” she said in a soft and musical voice. “Unchain him.”

“Yes, madam.” The guard strode toward him, his scent turned belligerent, the way it did when he and his fellow guards visited Ravki’s cell to beat him.

The guard bent to the irons on his wrists. Ravki flinched away from the man’s touch, pressing his whole body into the wall. It was a response he couldn’t control and hardly noticed anymore.

“Hold still, you. This lady is taking you out of here.”

His words made no sense. Was she moving him to another cell? Why should she care what cell he occupied, and what difference could another cell make anyway? Unless it was one with a window. The sunlight would come in and roast him to death, slowly, over the course of days.

I can strangle myself with my chains if it comes to that. It was a thought that had given him much comfort in the endless dark.

The guard unlocked the wrist irons, then moved on to his ankles. If she wanted him moved, there was no reason to take the irons away. In fact, he could only think of one reason for such an action, and that was to set him free. But that was nothing but a dream, a fantasy. Maybe he’d fallen asleep and was dreaming this.

The woman came near, her garments rustling softly, and bent over him. Jasmine. That was her scent, richly combined with warm female. And she was beautiful, like a goddess, her thick dark hair in curls to her waist, her eyes pale and surrounded with the thickest black lashes he’d ever seen. He cringed from her as she raised her hand and stretched it toward his head.

“It’s alright,” she murmured. “I won’t hurt you.”

He suffered her to place her hand on the crown of his head.

“You’re safe now. You’re coming home with me.”

Ravki blinked up at her. When would this dream end, leaving him to awake alone in the dark? How could he prolong it?

She reached into the folds of her woolen cloak and produced a small flask, which she un-stoppered and held to his lips. “Drink. This will help the pain.”

Ravki drank. He tasted red wine with something bitter in it, a flavor he didn’t recognize. The wine soothed his dry mouth and throat, bringing a rush of dizzy relief with it. Gods, he hadn’t tasted anything that good in so long he couldn’t remember anything like it. Maybe he’d never had a drink so delicious.

“Tha. . .thank you,” he rasped.

The woman stroked his head. “You’re welcome, Ravki. Can you stand on your own, or do you need help?”

Stand. Could he stand? He had no idea. Normally when he left the cell, it was between two guards who dragged him wherever they wanted him to go. He pressed his hands to the slimy stone, got his feet under him and levered himself upright, swaying.

“You want me. . .to go there?” He pointed to the open door of the cell.

“Yes. I’m taking you away from here.”

Now that he was on his feet, he towered above her. He gazed down at her, still blinking in the unfamiliar brilliance of the torchlight. “Am I to be your prisoner, then?”

The woman’s exquisite eyes widened. “No, you’re not to be anyone’s prisoner. I’m freeing you.”

Freeing him. Free. Freedom. This was surely a dream, but now he was curious to see where it would take him. Ravki focused his attention on that open door. That was where he had to go. He put one foot out and leaned, transferring his weight to it.

His leg held, and he dragged the other foot even with the first. Then he repeated the operation. The third time, his knees gave out and he fell to the filthy floor.

“Oh, dear.” The woman bent to him and put a slender, wool-clad arm around his naked waist. “Let me help you.”

“Don’t need help.”

“It’s only until you get your strength back.”

“Here, madam,” the guard said. “I’ll do it. He’s a dirty one, and heavy too.”

She gave him a sharp look. “He’s only dirty because of your mistreatment, and I’m stronger than I look. I don’t need your assistance.”

The guard took a step back. “As you wish, my lady.”

“Here, now, Ravki. Lean on me. I can take your weight.”

How could she bear to touch him, when he’d wallowed in his own filth for centuries? Shame stole his voice. He allowed her to help him to his feet, and leaned on her as she led him to the door and through to the other side.

The stairs looked like a mountain when he reached them. Above, there was light. He could see it creeping down the stairwell toward them. Light and air and open spaces, with no walls or ceilings, nothing to contain him. His heart began to pound and he broke out in a sweat. “I…can’t climb that. I’m sorry. Can’t.”

The woman looked at the guard and pointed upward. “Leave us. I’ll manage from here.”

The guard frowned. “Are you sure? How will you hold the torch and help that one at the same time?”

“That’s none of your concern. Leave us and be quick. Take the torch with you.”

He nodded and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. As the torchlight faded with his passing, the dark enfolded them once again.

“Leave me, my lady.” Ravki leaned against the wall. “I’m nothing. I belong down here now.”

“No, you don’t, and I’m not leaving you. I didn’t come down here into this stinking hole for nothing.”

She removed her arm from his waist, and for a moment he thought she would contradict her own words and abandon him here at the foot of the stairs. But she turned to face him, bent her knees and grabbed him by his hips, hoisting him over her shoulder. She was so small that his head dangled near the ground in this position.

“What are you doing? How can you—”

The woman mounted the stairs and carried him up without the slightest quickening of her breath. Up and up they went, the air growing cooler and cleaner with every step. She wasn’t human at all.

But hadn’t he sensed vampire when she first came into the dungeon? That would explain her extraordinary strength, and maybe the mental power she seemed to exert over the guard. She was a vampire, like his parents.

She never paused at the top of the stairs but swept through the dark passageway that led away from it without hesitation. After a few paces, she came to another stair which she took in the same manner. Her thin shoulder dug into his emaciated belly.

By now, whatever she’d put in the wine had worked its magic on him and he seemed to float on a cloud of euphoria. He barely noticed the compression of his abdomen or the blood pounding in his upside-down head. He didn’t care and nothing particularly mattered. She could have toted him back down and thrown him in his cell and he would have smiled.

The air changed, grew abruptly cold and wet. The pavement, which loomed just a handspan or two from his eyes, glistened with moisture. Drops began to fall onto his naked skin and Ravki shivered. They’d finally made it outside the prison, and it must be raining. He remembered the rain, from before.

“We’re almost there,” the woman said.

A moment later, she lifted him into a box of some kind, laid him on a cushioned surface and climbed in after him. The walls of the box, flimsy though they appeared, comforted him with their closeness. They shut out the open spaces that threatened to swallow him.

A lamp burned on the wall, filling the little enclosure with bright light. The woman covered him with a soft blanket and took a seat on a bench on the opposite side. What was this thing they were in?

“This is my carriage,” she said with a smile that transformed her face into even more goddess-like perfection. In the light of the lamp, her hair took on a reddish glow like polished mahogany. The gold hoop earring Atlanteans required all vampires to wear gleamed, peeking out from her curls.

Someone outside closed the door. The box—rather, carriage—lurched and began to move. Ravki clutched the side of the seat to steady himself against the unfamiliar motion. He’d ridden in a carriage once—he thought—but it had been a long time. Several lifetimes ago.

He stared at the woman. “Who are you?”

She leaned across the carriage and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’m Daranda, the vampire queen. I’ve come to take you home.”

Ravki closed his eyes. Home. They were going home. He liked this dream and everything in it, including Daranda. Especially Daranda. A wave of adoration and gratitude filled him, buoying him up even higher than the drugged wine. He opened his eyes again so he could gaze on her lovely face.

I love you. I’d do anything for you, anything at all.

Chapter 6

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.”

“Huhn.”

“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.

“Nona!”

“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.

Nona flushed.

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?”

“Very far.”

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.”

“The Between?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

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.

 

Chapter 7 

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.

“Wait.”

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.” 

Chapter 8

Daranda, the Queen of Atlantean Vampires, sat upright on the gilded couch in her audience chamber and smiled at the young half-vampire who stood before her. He’d lost the nauseating stench that had wafted from him when she’d brought him from the prison. He’d had a thorough scrubbing and his hair had been cut, his repulsive beard shaved off. He wore clean clothes she’d bought for him before she’d gone to have him released, and a clean linen bandage covered the hideous wound on his forearm.

“My lady,” Ravki said, kneeling.

He looked up at her with a worshipful expression on his face—a face that looked disturbingly like that of his father, Niko. A man she despised. Well, she’d have to overlook that flaw in him. They couldn’t do much about his face.

“How are you feeling tonight, Ravki?” She spoke in the most gentle, friendly voice she could muster.

“I am much improved.”

He sounded so solemn it made her want to laugh. She settled for smiling. “Good. I’m so glad we could find some clothes that would fit you. Have they fed you adequately?”

“Yes, my lady. The food here is the best I’ve ever tasted.”

“How is your arm?”

He glanced at the bandage. “Much the same; however, I’m sure it will heal.”

She leaned forward. “May I see it?”

“It isn’t a pretty sight, my lady.”

“Can you remove the bandage?”

He looked at her searchingly for a moment before bowing his head. “If you wish.”

His long fingers began unwrapping the bandages. The bath slaves hadn’t been able to get all the grime from beneath his nails, but at least he didn’t stink anymore. The linen gaped away from the wound, which looked even worse than she remembered, the raw exposed flesh seeping fluid. The smell of it didn’t even arouse her blood hunger—it just made her queasy.

“Oh, my dear,” she said, as if she were shocked. “It looks horribly painful. I didn’t realize it was as awful as that.”

“I’ve had worse. It will heal.”

“You’ve had worse? Really?” Perhaps she should have ordered the torturers to be a little easier on him. But, no, that would have ruined her plans for him.

“They did this to me many times.”

No wonder she and all her court had been awoken twice during the brightest hours of the day by his screaming. “How awful for you.”

Ravki merely bent his head again. “I apologize for the disturbance today. Sometimes I…dream.”

“Anyone would, after an experience like that.”

“I will try to keep quiet in the future.”

Daranda shifted on her couch. “Do you know I have a way to make that awful wound heal much faster.”

Ravki lifted his head and gave her a quizzical look. The touch of his strange, green gaze made her uneasy. “You do?”

“Indeed.” Daranda tried not to smirk and give herself away. With eyes like that, she could almost believe he could see into her mind, and that was the last thing she wanted. “I have a proposition for you.”

“To make me one of you? Is that how you’d make the wound heal faster?”

“Yes, exactly.”

He shrugged, a frown creasing his brow. “I have a home, my lady, and I can’t tarry here with you forever. I must return to my own people.”

Daranda allowed a shadow of sadness to darken her face. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“Why?”

She bit her lip. “It’s just—I’d rather not say. I simply believe you will be safer here.”

He narrowed his eyes, his gaze intent. “Tell me.”

Daranda lowered her head. She sighed. “Truly, it isn’t something you should hear.”

“My lady, I must hear it. Please tell me.”

Sighing again, she raised her eyes to his, allowed the sorrowful expression to deepen. “When I heard they were holding a vampire hybrid in the royal prisons, I investigated further and discovered who you were. I contacted your parents and explained the situation to them.”

His face went very still. “And?”

“They. . .oh, Ravki, I’m so sorry. They refused to come for you. They said you had made your own bed and now you’d have to lie in it.”

Now he looked like a statue. His face and body were absolutely motionless, almost lifeless in their immobility. Only his eyes showed the pain her words had caused him. Something in that green gaze made her heart contract—a sensation that was most unfamiliar to Daranda. She didn’t like it.

Ravki blinked once. “I see.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. And it was almost true.

“They have truly cast me off, then.” His voice was rough but steady.

“I’m afraid they have.”

He nodded. “Very well.”

“I would be most honored if you would consent to become one of my people.”

A smile slowly lit up his face. On most people, such a smile would warm them, make them seem open and friendly. On Ravki, it gave him a look of such danger that Daranda shivered. Perhaps this project of hers wasn’t the best idea she’d ever had. But she couldn’t give up on him. She’d cultivated him so carefully over these twenty years, read every report on his progress, made so many plans for them both. She couldn’t give up on him now.

“I take it you approve?” She didn’t like the breathless tone of her voice.

“Oh, I approve,” Ravki said.

 

Chapter 9

Kistalleh studied Garek’s face. He looked unsure, as if he might be considering telling her everything, even though he didn’t yet know if he could trust her. His dark lashes lowered, concealing those sea-blue eyes from her.

“What did she do to you?”

He licked his lips. “She—uh—made me believe that she…cared for me.” His voice had gone so quiet she had some trouble hearing him. “And then she did things…that let me know she never had.”

“What kind of things?”

Garek’s lips pressed together, thinning. He gave his head a single shake. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I think it does. Whatever it was, it’s still haunting you.” Kistalleh tightened her hand on his. “She is cruel. I could see it when I watched her in the Market Square. She enjoyed seeing you hurt.”

He glanced at her, then averted his eyes again. “She tried to loan me…to her friends.”

“You mean sexually?”

He nodded. “Male and female. I’m not—some of my people enjoy sex with those of their own gender, but I’m not one of them. I think that was why she chose so many male partners for me. Besides that, I didn’t have to—I mean, it wasn’t important for me to be…”

His voice trailed off into awkward silence.

“Aroused,” Kistalleh said.

“Yes.”

Somehow the fact that she was mistress and he slave didn’t seem to matter anymore. She wanted to take him in her arms and hold him. Would he allow it? Probably not, and she wouldn’t force him to accept her comfort any more than she would her sexual advances.

Her throat tightened so much it hurt. She drew their clasped hands to her lips and kissed him there, the way he’d kissed her.

“When she gave me to females, I refused to service them. Then she would beat me. But when she gave me to men, they just tied me down and there was nothing I could do to resist.” He said it without looking at her. “I hoped they would kill me with the beatings, but I wasn’t so lucky.”

“I’m sorry,” she said through her painful throat.

Garek lifted his head and gave her a wry smile. “So you see, my lady, I’m damaged goods. Do you still want me in your household?”

She reached up and pushed a strand of hair from his eyes. “Yes.”

“I can’t imagine why.”

“You are quite extraordinary. You have more courage than anyone else I’ve ever met.”

He snorted.

“It’s true. Courage and dignity. I saw it in you that day at the square, the way you carried yourself in spite of what they were doing to you.” Could she really keep this man as a slave? He wasn’t meant for servitude; yet to free him would mean her own destruction.

She looked up at him and his eyes grew darker, his gaze intent as he studied her face, her lips…he was looking at her lips and she wondered if he would kiss her again and her heart began to gallop, making her lightheaded.

He wasn’t even clean, hadn’t had a proper bath in…how long? Perhaps twenty years. Bathing in a tub would have rusted the locks of his bands shut. He wasn’t clean. Normally, unwashed men disgusted her, but Garek didn’t smell bad. He smelled of healthy male.

The scent, now that she’d noticed it, seemed to get down inside of her and do strange things to her, made her want to put her mouth on every bit of his naked skin, lick him, rub herself all over him. Her whole body flushed hot at the turn her thoughts had taken.

Garek set one big hand at her waist. The heat and weight and span of it aroused her as much as his scent. “I desire you,” he said in a low voice. “Do you desire me?”

His gaze fixed on her eyes, searching, vulnerable again. Kistalleh nodded, a quick ungraceful movement of her head. He smiled, his blue eyes warming, and her breath caught. He looked so young, so unguarded, when he smiled like that. He looked…sweet. Now there was a word she would never have thought to associate with Garek.

He cocked his head. “What?”

“I like your smile.”

And he blushed. Oh, my. Somehow, the sight of that blush on a man so fiercely rebellious as Garek made her insides seem to melt.

Kistalleh went up on her toes and kissed him. “Let’s go into the bedroom.”

He followed her, but before they made it to the bed he stopped her and pulled off her wrap, throwing it onto the floor. Her night dress followed, leaving her utterly naked. Kistalleh lifted her chin and let him stare. If he was going to be disappointed in her unremarkable figure, she might as well know it now.

He let out a shuddering breath. “Earth’s bones, you are so beautiful.”

She scoffed. “I think all that iron has damaged your eyes.”

“Hush. Don’t say that about yourself.”

She waved his words away. “I’ve always been plain, brown Kistalleh. You don’t have to lie to me.”

Garek captured her chin again. “Attend me well, my lady. I do not lie. Especially not about this.”

She couldn’t pull her gaze away from his. “Truly?”

“Yes. Truly, you are one of the loveliest women I’ve ever known. I am drunk on your beauty.”

“But I’m not—” Like Sira.

“You don’t need paint and perfume and fancy dresses to be beautiful, Kistalleh. Some women, like Rina, do. Your beauty is something that comes with you, that’s a part of you, not something painted on the outside.”

She wanted to believe him, but he was the only person who’d ever seen her that way. Even loyal Nona wanted to paint her and put brightly colored dresses on her.

“Let me show you,” he murmured, bending down to her.

Once more they kissed. . .but that was such an inadequate word for something that was more like lovemaking. The sensuous, intimate joining of their mouths, the sweet wet heat of his tongue gliding over hers, licking the inside of her, the taste of him—gods, the taste of him—she found herself moaning against his mouth while her hips surged into him, her whole body undulating with need.

He broke free to whisper, “you have the sweetest, most tempting mouth,” before kissing her all along the side of her neck. “The most gloriously smooth skin.” His hand cupped her breast. “The roundest, most luscious breasts—” His breath caught as he lifted and squeezed her, his thumb finding her nipple. The scrape of his thumbnail across the sensitive pink flesh brought a gasp from her throat.

“So lovely,” he whispered, lowering his golden head to take her nipple into his hot, wet mouth.

“Oh!” She arched into his kiss.

He began suckling, first gently and then in long, hard pulls that made her tremble and cry out, clutching at his shoulders for support as her knees went weak. Each suck sent a dark shaft of pleasure from her nipple straight to her womb. She clasped his head in one hand, fingers buried in the long blond strands, her other hand still hanging on to his shoulder.

Garek lavished the same attention on her other breast before going to his knees in front of her. She stared down at him. Why would he take such a humble position with her? It seemed unlike him.

His hands clasped her naked buttocks as he kissed her belly, flicking his tongue into her navel. Kistalleh giggled at the odd sensation and he glanced up, smiling. Then he kissed her just above her pubic hair; she gasped a little and quivered.

Garek curved his fingers around her upper thighs. “Move your legs apart.”

Giving orders again, was he? Bemused, she obeyed him. He pressed his face between her thighs and took a long, deep breath.

“Garek!” She pushed at him.

Laughing softly, he parted her flesh with his thumbs and gave her a leisurely swipe of his tongue. Another gasp escaped her. Garek shot to his feet, swept her into his arms and carried her to the bed.

“You smell delicious,” he said, his voice low and rough, like a growl.

She covered her face with her hands. “I can’t believe you did that.”

Lowering her to the bed, he stretched out half over and half beside her, pinning her to the mattress. He drew one hand from her face. “Didn’t your husband ever do that to you?”

“No.”

“He was remiss in his duties, then.”

Kistalleh peeked at him, laughing. “Remiss in his duties?”

“Absolutely. A man should give his woman a thorough licking at every opportunity.”

“And why is that?” She was still laughing.

“Because.” He settled himself between her legs and slid down the length of her body until his face was right over her sex. “It keeps her happy.”

He used his hands to spread her open, blatantly staring at her sex in a way that made her squirm. His head bent down. He gave her a delicate, teasing lick. Kistalleh almost came off the bed.

Garek glanced up at her with another smile, this one hot with the promise of something she wasn’t sure she understood. “Hold still, now.” There was a smile in his voice.

“I’ll try,” she whispered.

He returned to licking her. Oh, Desou, the pleasure! It was like hot, wet silk on her most intimate, most private places, places she’d never really explored herself let alone shared with another person.

No, her husband had certainly never done this to her.

Garek moaned, giving her another long stroke. He was enjoying this? Really? She lifted her head, saw him between her legs, and moaned herself. So erotic.

His wicked tongue found her sheath, her aching sheath, and plunged inside. Kistalleh’s eyes rolled back. She was lost to the ecstasy of his mouth on her, in her, and he began to tease the little nub of flesh that always gave her the greatest pleasure, circling around and around it, then over the top, and she jerked, crying out, begging him without words to—ah, gods—help her, help her…

Kistalleh shattered, flew apart, melted, her thoughts broken in a thousand tiny glowing pieces.

His mouth descended on hers, possessing her again, and she threw her arms around him, answering his kiss with mindless passion. He tasted salty, tangy; it must be her own flavor on him. She moaned against his mouth, and he gave an answering moan.

He paused to position himself at her entrance. She looked up at him. His eyes were so dark, not blue at all in this light—dark with lust for her. Kistalleh lifted her hips and spread her legs wide at the same time. Garek entered her in one smooth thrust.

He was. . .so big. . .too big. . .she panted, digging her nails into him. Garek withdrew almost to his tip, then slowly pushed inside her again. The movement rubbed against every sensitive spot inside her. He repeated the act. And something within her seemed to light up, like the flame of a lamp, responding to the movement of his body with burning heat.

“Oh,” she moaned breathlessly. “Garek.”

She clasped him at his hard, narrow waist and thrust against his hips. His breath caught. She loved that sound.

With his gaze fixed on hers, he worked himself in and out of her body in a sweet rhythm that stoked the fire inside her higher and higher. He was so—so good, so beautiful, his possession more than she could ever have imagined or dreamed, and the shove, the thrust of him deep in her brought her to a gasping, groaning climax.

Garek groaned, too, his eyes closed now, his thrusts pounding her fiercely. His long, gold hair tumbled over his shoulders and tickled her face. He cried out, shuddering, spilling inside her. Filling her with his seed.

She held him as he collapsed over her. What would she do if she conceived a child by him? The thought should have terrified her, but instead it made her smile. A tiny Garek, maybe even with his blond hair. She might have to move somewhere else, away from the capitol city, but that was alright. They could be happy together, somewhere in the country, where no-one would care who had fathered her child.

Garek kissed her on the forehead. “My beautiful lady.”

She turned her face to his, capturing his lips. He was still inside her, and somehow he managed to stay there as he rolled to the side with her legs still wrapped around him.

“I’m not squashing your leg, am I?” he said.

“No. I’m fine.”

Kistalleh pulled back just enough so she could look up into his face. He looked peaceful. Calm and happy. She reached up to caress his cheek before looping her arms around him and snuggling her face up to his bare chest.

He began to comb his fingers through her hair again, his other arm still around her, clasping her to him in an embrace more intimate than anything she could remember from her chilly and unenthusiastic marriage.

She sighed. “Thank you.”

Garek laughed softly, under his breath. “I’m the one who should be thanking you.”

Kistalleh bit her lip. “No-one—my husband never—”

His hand stilled. “Never what?”

“Held me like this. Made me feel so…” She didn’t know how to put it into words.

“Of course not. He never licked you.”

She choked on a laugh. “That’s not what I meant. You make me feel…wanted.”

“That’s because you are.” He slipped his hand down to her bare rear end. “I lusted after you the first minute I saw you.”

Kistalleh looked up and grinned at him, shaking her head. “You did not. You were too busy fighting Rina’s guards.”

His face grew serious, his eyes fiery. “I noticed you.”

“I wish I could have stopped them from whipping you.”

He reached up to stroke her cheek. “You saved my life. Twice.”

“Yes, but—”

“Shhh. What you did was heroic.”

“No, it wasn’t. Anyone with money could have done the same.”

Garek brushed his thumb across her lower lip. “Perhaps they could, but they didn’t. You did. And for that, I will always be grateful. I will always honor you.”

The intensity in his gaze was too much, too much; it was somehow more intimate than the physical joining had been, and she looked down, hiding from him.

He was as fierce in his giving as he’d been in his rebellion. She’d wanted him to show proper gratitude to her, but this exchange had gone far beyond an encounter between mistress and slave. She feared that from this moment, although she might legally own him, she was as much his as he was hers.

“You’re not afraid of me, are you?” he said, his voice wistful.

“No. It’s only—the way you look at me—”

“I take it you’re not accustomed to being worshipped as a goddess.”

Kistalleh opened her eyes wide in shock and then burst out laughing. Garek laughed with her, his voice so carefree and happy it made her want to kiss him. So she did.

“Sweet lady,” he whispered against her lips. “You are a goddess to me.”

That would make you a god.

But she didn’t say it. She was a coward, cringing away from the implications of love—er, of having such powerful feelings for a slave. Heartache was coming, flying toward them with the wind at its back. She knew it. If only she could think of a way to hold it off.

 

Chapter 10

Garek slept in her embrace, their bodies twined around one another, and he didn’t dream of Rina’s house at all. When he awoke, the sun was shining through the cracks in the shutters, filling the room with thin, gray daylight. He looked down at the woman in his arms. She was so lovely, so sweet, and what they had was as fragile as a newly spun spider web; one storm could destroy it all.

The door to Kistalleh’s bed chamber banged open. Nona stood there, her eyes narrowed to slits, her mouth nearly invisible it was pinched so hard. She put her hands on her hips. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m trying to let Mistress Kistalleh sleep in,” he said amiably.

Nona advanced on the bed. “You have no business touching her.”

“Nona, I did nothing she didn’t want.”

She snorted.

“Leave us. You’ll wake her making noise like that.”

The woman looked as if she’d like to slip poison in his morning porridge.

Kistalleh murmured and lifted her head. “What…oh, it’s you, Nona. Ring for breakfast, please.”

Nona stood there tapping her foot on the floor. “My lady, I’m shocked to find you—”

“I don’t want to hear it. Ring for breakfast and leave us alone.”

For an instant, Garek could see the hurt on Nona’s face and pitied her. She wasn’t used to sharing her mistress. However, he had no intention of letting the older slave dominate him or think she could determine what kind of relations he had with Kistalleh, so he said nothing.

Breakfast arrived not long after Nona left. There was enough for both of them, and they ate together at the table in the sitting room. It couldn’t last—he knew that, and he kept expecting some giant hand to come from the spirit world and snatch her away from him. But what if it did last? What if, somehow, they could be together as man and woman instead of mistress and slave?

Kistalleh leaned against him and kissed his jaw. “Let’s go and walk in the garden. I have something I’d like to show you.”

“My shirt is ruined.”

She waved that away. “You can wear one of my cloaks. Later we’ll find you a new shirt.”

“Mistress, that’s very generous, but it won’t look right if I wear your things.”

“You sound like Nona. Come along; it’ll be fine.”

He shrugged against his misgivings. Kistalleh jumped up, dashed into her bed chamber, and returned with a plain cloak of fine blue wool.

She handed it to him. “Here. This is simple enough.”

“Still—”

“I command you to wear it.”

“Very well.” He stood and draped it around his shoulders. The fabric was so soft, the fibers so fine it didn’t scratch at all.

The cloak covered his bare torso and his legs to mid-calf, which left the bottoms of his threadbare slave trousers on view. But there was no help for it—Mistress Kistalleh wanted to take him into the garden and Mistress Kistalleh must always be obeyed. He smirked behind her back as they left her quarters. Thoroughly besotted he might be; however, he had no intention of becoming the perfectly compliant model slave.

The only other people who seemed to be awake and about this morning were other slaves. They gave him and Kistalleh covert glances as he and his mistress passed through the front hall, but none of them spoke. Apparently the household was funereal every morning, just as it had been last evening.

Kistalleh led him through a formal dining room with a gleaming wooden table and lavish frescoes of sunny vineyards on its walls. On its far side, doors fitted with many small windows let in wide rivers of sunlight, and beyond the doors was a courtyard and garden. The sky was clear and blue, the sunlight still winter-weak, but a glorious change from endless rain.

She opened the doors. The courtyard seemed designed for open-air dining. A pergola covered in a leafless grapevine provided shade for summer and pots of herbs and winter flowers ringed a rustic wooden table and chairs. Beyond the courtyard, a kitchen garden fronted a small orchard featuring lemon and orange trees, the fruit bright among dark glossy leaves.

Kistalleh went directly into the orchard and plucked an orange. She peeled it, letting a burst of citrus scent the air. Garek’s mouth watered. He hadn’t tasted an orange in nineteen years; the first year Rina had him, she’d fed him all kinds of delicacies, but after that she’d kept him on punishment rations.

Kistalleh popped a section of fruit in her mouth. “Sweet. Here, you have one.” She separated another section and held it to his lips.

Their eyes met and held. Hers were rich brown, warm with affection and desire, the sunlight turning them a brighter amber than they’d been indoors. Garek opened his mouth and she laid the orange section on his tongue. Rina had never looked at him that way. Not once, not even when she’d been playing at loving him. He bit into the orange; tart-sweet juice burst over his tongue, filling his mouth, and he almost moaned because it tasted so good.

She was still standing close, looking up at him with a smile. He leaned down and kissed her. She tasted of orange. When he released her, she stuck another orange section in his mouth.

“That’s what you get for kissing me.”

“A reward.”

“Exactly.” She grinned at him and took a piece for herself.

“These are the sweetest oranges I’ve ever tasted.”

“They’re a special variety developed by a friend of my father’s.” Her smile faded, her face going somber as she looked at him. “Garek, what if I conceive?”

He took her by her free hand. It felt small and cold in his. “It’s unlikely because of the iron. It makes me almost completely infertile.”

Her gaze remained clouded. “How awful for you.”

“I don’t know.” He smiled, hoping to cheer her. “We can make love as much as we like without any unfortunate consequences.”

She didn’t smile as he’d hoped. He squeezed her hand. “You weren’t hoping to have my child, were you?”

He’d said it jokingly, but still she didn’t smile. Her gaze flicked upward, toward his, then fell again. “I don’t know. I’m so confused.”

The fact that she would consider, even momentarily, the idea of bearing his child rendered him mute. He cupped the side of her face in wonder, rubbing his thumb over her ripe lower lip until she lifted her chin and looked at him. Then he bent down once more and kissed her.

“You slay me, beautiful lady.”

She moved in close, putting her arms around his waist. “It’s against the law to free an Amaki slave, on penalty of death.”

“I know, love.”

To his dismay, there were tears in her eyes. “I would free you, but I’m too much a coward.”

“Hush, now. You’re no coward.”

“I am. I am!”

“No. Kistalleh, I’ve seen the terrible things your monarchs do to people who displease them. I would never want you to risk that.”

He took the orange from her, peeling off a new section and holding it to her lips. “Here. We’re together now and that’s what matters.”

Slow clapping punctuated his words. They turned together to see Lady Rina standing under the pergola, a mocking smile on her painted face.

“What a wonderful performance, my dear.” Her tone matched her smile.

A portly female slave bustled out of the house behind Rina. “I’m so sorry, Lady Kistalleh. I tried to stop her.” She twisted pudgy hands together.

“That’s quite alright, Luda. I’ll take care of it,” Kistalleh said, as Rina prowled toward him.

His former owner wore a heavy red wool gown with a plunging neckline that showed a ridiculous amount of cleavage, considering the temperature and the occasion. But she’d always been like that. She had to prove, to herself and everyone else, how sexually desirable she was.

Now that she stood close, he could see the crow’s feet around her eyes and the lines that bracketed her mouth. Those details wouldn’t have mattered a whit if she’d been kind and loving. But she knew nothing of compassion and love.

She gave Kistalleh a predatory smile. “I see you’re taking excellent care of my slave.”

Kistalleh gazed back at her, calm and unmoved. “You were trying to murder him. He’s mine now.”

Rina’s eyes narrowed. “Not as far as I’m concerned.”

Kistalleh shrugged. “I paid for him and have his ownership papers. What else is there?”

Rina took another step closer, her head thrust forward belligerently. “You had no right to take him from me. You stole him.”

“No, I paid for him.”

“I wasn’t going to sell! I never agreed to sell, and if I had, it certainly wouldn’t be to you.” She gave Kistalleh a contemptuous once-over.

His mistress merely shrugged again. “My money is as good as anyone else’s.”

“I want him back.”

“No.”

Rina’s nostrils flared as her eyes narrowed to furious slits. “What did you say?”

“You heard me. But I’ll repeat it for you anyway. No. I won’t sell or give him to you or anyone else. He’s mine now.”

“You can’t do this to me,” Rina said. She seemed to be switching tactics, trying to soften her approach, but the words came out as a whine. “Garek means so much to me. He’s been with me for twenty years, and you—you think you can just come along and buy him out from under me? The slaves who sold him to you were whipped until their skin hung in shreds—that’s how much I care about this. That’s how much it hurts me.”

“It seems to me that it hurt your slaves more than it hurt you.”

Rina’s mouth fell open. The urge to laugh overwhelmed him, and he bit the inside of his cheek. Had anyone ever spoken to her in this manner? Maybe her husband had, but he was long dead.

Her manicured hands clenched into fists as she pushed herself almost nose-to-nose with Kistalleh. “Now look here, little girl. You give me back my slave or I’ll make you more miserable than you’ve ever been in your pathetic little life. You think I don’t know who you are? I know all about you. You’re the Waverider shut-in, the one with no friends, no style, no money and no connections. Don’t press me on this or you’ll come to regret it.”

Kistalleh laughed. Garek turned to stare at her in surprise. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Rina looking even more shocked than he was. “You’re forgetting something, Rina,” she said, still grinning. “I’m a Waverider. That alone ought to protect me from riffraff like you.”

“Riffraff?” Rina shrieked. She lifted a hand to slap Kistalleh.

Garek caught her wrist in a punishing grip. “No. You won’t lay a hand on her, or you’ll answer to me.”

She vibrated with rage, her arm pushing hard against the restraint of his grip. “Let me go!”

“When I’ve seen you out the front gate,” he said.

“I’ll kill you for this.”

“You already tried that.”

“Here,” said a deep male voice. “What’s going on in my garden?”

The three of them spun toward the building. A middle-aged man with a powerful build and graying black hair strode toward them from the house. He was frowning.

Garek dropped Rina’s arm.

“What’s this all about? Lady Rina, what can I do for you?”

Rina simpered, lifting a hand to brush at her hair. “I came to make a request of Lady Kistalleh that she return my slave to me.”

The man—who must be Kistalleh’s father—gave him a withering glance before turning to his daughter. “I take it this is the creature you recently bought?”

“This is Garek, and his ownership papers are in my name.”

“Well, Lady Rina obviously wants him back and I want him out of the house. Where is the difficulty?”

Kistalleh’s mouth tightened. “The difficulty is I won’t let him go. I’m moving into my new home in two days, so you’ll be rid of both of us.”

“Oh, my lord Waverider, you have no idea how important this slave is to me,” Rina said. “He’s been with me for two decades and I simply can’t do without him.” She gave Waverider a sweet, pleading glance, as only Rina could.

He softened, gazing at her with a fond smile. Had he bedded her too, along with most of the rest of the men in Atlantiri? “Let me see what I can do.” He patted her head. “I’ll take care of this, my dear, and have him back to you within the week. You’ll see.”

Rina gave him a brilliant smile. “Thank you, my lord. I knew I could count on you.”

Garek glanced at Kistalleh, who rolled her eyes. He suppressed a grin. Showing over-confidence would only bring Waverider’s wrath down on both of them.

“Let me show you out,” the older man was saying. He offered Rina his arm and conducted her out of the garden.

When they were out of sight, Kistalleh leaned against Garek, going up on her toes to whisper in his ear. “We’ll leave tomorrow. I just have to get my money from the counting-house and we can go stay at an inn.”

“Alright. That sounds like a wise plan.” Not that he had any say in the matter—but she seemed to be looking for his approval.

A moment later, Waverider reappeared with a much younger man in tow; the younger looked like a more youthful version of the patriarch and must be Kistalleh’s brother. Both men wore identical scowls on their strong-featured faces.

The brother advanced on him and Kistalleh. “I told you Father and I don’t approve of this—” he gave Garek a glance identical to his father’s— “this thing being allowed in the house. Get rid of it or I’ll do it for you.”

Garek gritted his teeth. His hands ached with the struggle not to beat the human worm into the ground.

“He’s a person, not an it. And we’re leaving tomorrow,” Kistalleh told him.

“Tomorrow isn’t soon enough.” Waverider the Younger gave him another poisonous glare. “I want it gone now.”

“Dariu, you have no authority over me. You might have intimidated me when we were children, but not anymore.” She took a step toward her brother. “I’m leaving the household. That should satisfy you.”

“It doesn’t.”

“Then you’ll have to remain unsatisfied.” She gave him a scathing glare. “You always were a bully, but it won’t work on me anymore.”

“Kistalleh, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into,” Dariu said. “You really think you’re capable of taking care of yourself? You’ll be lost out there.”

“I’ll be better off than here, with a brother whose main source of joy lies in raping little boys.”

Dariu backhanded her, sending her tumbling backward to the pavement. Garek leaped on him and bore him to the hard stones. Waverider’s head thumped against the pavement. Garek put him in a tight hold, his forearm across the human’s throat, the iron band digging into Dariu’s skin.

Kistalleh scuttled over to him, clasping his arm. He heard her voice, begging him, but he couldn’t understand her words through the crimson rage in his brain.

“Never touch her again,” he said through gritted teeth. “Or I will take your head off with my bare hands. You understand me?”

“Yes.” Waverider choked out the word.

“Let go of my son. Guards!” Waverider the Elder bellowed behind them.

“I don’t give a shit what happens to me afterward. If you hurt Kistalleh, I will kill you.” Garek growled low in his throat, and Dariu blanched. “Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

The human nodded frantically.

“Good. Don’t forget.”

He didn’t want to release the piece of shit. When he got up, the guards would probably shoot him full of arrows, but there was no help for it—he couldn’t stay where he was forever. Still, he wasn’t ready to die yet. Not when he’d just found her.

Garek jumped backward to his feet. Kistalleh threw her arms around him, pressing her body to him as if making a shield of herself. He tried to push her away, out of danger, but she refused to budge, and he didn’t have the heart to use real force against her.

“You!” Elder Waverider’s face had turned a mottled red. He pointed at Garek. “You inhuman monster! How dare you lay hands on my son?”

“Had you failed to notice your precious son struck your daughter?”

“She’s disobedient and disrespectful. Of course he hit her.”

Garek’s mouth opened, but no words came out. Then a vicious growl escaped him, and both male Waveriders turned pale. “You don’t deserve to have a daughter like her.”

Guards rushed up and surrounded them, brandishing swords and pointing knocked arrows at him in spite of Kistalleh’s presence.

“Don’t shoot!” She tightened her hold on him. “We’re leaving tomorrow, Father. By Desou, let us go. You’ll never see either of us again.”

“This creature needs to be punished for his insolence. I demand you punish him,” her father said. “If you won’t do it, I will. He’ll be whipped here in the garden.”

“I will punish him,” she said. “He shall go without food or water for the rest of today and all of tomorrow, and sleep on the windowsill with the window open and no blankets. Will that satisfy you? I need him strong enough to help move my things.”

Her father’s mouth tightened, but he nodded. “Very well.”

“Father, you can’t mean it!” Dariu glared at his sister.

“Lady Rina wants the slave back, and I intend to see she gets him.” Waverider slung an arm around his son’s shoulders. “He’ll be punished in plenty once Lady Rina has him in her possession again.”

Dariu smirked at Garek. “Well, then, let’s see to it immediately.”

“If you try to steal him from me,” Kistalleh snapped, “I’ll kill you myself.”

She defended him as fiercely as a lioness. It made Garek want to kiss her all over again, but they weren’t safe enough at the moment. Later he would show her how much that meant to him.

“Later, Dariu.” Waverider drew his son toward the house. “Be patient.”

Garek wrapped his arms around Kistalleh. Glancing up, he saw Sira on a balcony above them, her hand across her mouth. When she noticed him looking at her, she turned and disappeared into the house.

The situation had turned ugly. Kistalleh could come to grief over him, which was the last thing in the world that he wanted. If only he had the power to really protect her, to take her away from here to a place where no-one could hurt her.

“We need to leave as soon as possible,” she said, echoing his thoughts. “In fact, let’s go now. We can buy you something to wear while we’re out.”

“As you wish, mistress.” It was going to be a long day without food or water.

 

Chapter 11 

Kistalleh swept out of the garden, Garek in her wake, and went to the stables where she called for a carriage. They left without Nona, going directly to the counting-house so she could collect the money she needed. At the counting-house, he waited in the carriage for her to finish her business. Afterward, she ordered the driver to stop at a well-known Atlantiri restaurant and bring a lunch out to the carriage.

“I don’t want to take you inside. I think it would be unwise,” she said to Garek as the driver went into the establishment.

“You’re probably right. I seem to be a liability for you.”

She frowned at him. “Don’t say that.”

Garek shrugged. “I’ve already put you in danger.”

She rested her head against his arm. “You’re worth it.”

Oh, Kistalleh. He put his arm around her and held her tightly. If only that were true. But he wasn’t worth it, wasn’t worth the risk she was taking. What if she…he couldn’t bear to follow that thought, so he distracted himself by looking out the window.

The driver returned with a basket full of food. Kistalleh thanked him and ordered him to drive to the public gardens so they could enjoy their meal. Then she opened the basket and peered inside.

“They’ve been very generous.” She handed him a thick slice of freshly baked bread.

“Do you wish to torment me, then?”

Kistalleh looked up, her brows quirked. “What do you mean?”

“Giving me food to hold when I’m not allowed to eat.” He smiled wryly. It was a trick worthy of Rina, but he hadn’t thought Kistalleh would do something so cruel.

Her lips parted. “What do you—oh, no, Garek. I meant for you to eat it.”

“You’re not going to punish me?”

“For defending me? Of course not.”

He flushed. “I thought—you said—”

“Darling, I only said that for my father’s and Dariu’s benefit. They needed to think you were going to suffer.”

He smiled. “And if you hadn’t, they would have attacked me right there.”

“Well, they would have ordered the guards to do it for them, at any rate.”

They laughed. Kistalleh took the bread from him, broke off a piece and held it to his mouth. He took it from her and kissed her fingertips. He was falling for her. Earth’s bones, he’d already fallen, in spite of his own warnings to say aloof. But at the moment, he didn’t care.

Her kisses, her laughter, her body against him, all was so sweet he couldn’t bring himself to reject her. Whatever happened to them, they would have these few days and no-one could steal it from them.

After a day riding around Atlantiri, outfitting him in better clothes, eating a dinner together in a tavern with the driver as a make-shift guard, they returned to the Waverider compound. Garek shook his head at her as they drove into the front courtyard, the carriage rattling over the cobblestones.

“This isn’t wise, Kistalleh. Your brother and father—”

She waved him off. “They won’t do anything. They know we’ll be gone by tomorrow afternoon.”

“That doesn’t mean they won’t try something.”

“Like what? What are they going to do?”

Garek shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. All I can tell you is this feels wrong to me.”

She laid her hand on his arm. “It’ll be fine. Trust me. I won’t let them hurt you.”

“Darling, it’s you I’m worried about. I can take care of myself.” He took her by her shoulders. “If things get rough, I want you to stay out of the way. Understand me?”

“Oh, Garek.” She gave a little laugh. “Things aren’t going to get rough. Dariu wouldn’t dare attack you after that display in the garden.”

“Don’t be so sure.”

“I don’t want to argue. Let’s go up to my quarters.”

She wasn’t going to listen to reason. He’d have to be vigilant enough for both of them until they were safely away.

Nona met them on the stairs and followed to Kistalleh’s quarters, lecturing her mistress all the way about her folly in her choice of male slaves. Kistalleh ignored her. Once in her rooms, she ordered Nona to start packing her clothes.

“We should leave now,” Garek said. “You can always send someone to pick up your things later.”

She just laughed and went up on her toes to kiss him. “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.”

***

Kistalleh could see Garek was worried. He had a perpetual frown the whole day, although he seemed otherwise cheerful, and he kept losing track of their conversation. Even after the kitchen maid had removed the supper remains and locked the door of her front room, he seemed distracted.

He needed a little help taking his mind off their problems. So she called Nona and ordered hot water for a bath. A parade of male slaves then trooped through her rooms carrying pails of steaming water to fill the tub, while Garek watched with a bemused expression.

When they’d finished and the door was once again locked, he turned to her with a smile. “You wish me to bathe you?”

“Actually, I thought we could share.”

His eyes widened. “Me? Bathe? In a tub?”

“Yes, you. Will it ruin your bands?”

“I don’t know. Maybe if we drip oil in the locks, they’ll be protected.”

She got some perfumed oil from her dressing table and carefully poured a little into each lock. “There. Now let’s get in.”

“Such a waste of expensive oil,” he said, sniffing one of the bands.

Kistalleh shrugged. “It will scent the water.”

“True.” He smiled. “Allow me to undress you.”

Slowly he pulled the pins from her hair and undid her braids, combing them out with his fingers. She closed her eyes at the pleasure of it. “You have beautiful hair. It’s the color of dark honey.”

When he said it, she almost believed.

Garek moved around to the back of her and unlaced her plain gray gown, letting it slide from her body. He picked it up and laid it across a bench against the wall of the bathing chamber. Then he undid her shift, placing it with the gown.

His hands came up to cup her breasts. “There. All done.”

She arched forward, thrusting herself into his hands. Garek made a low, needy sound in his throat. “Your bath, my lady.”

“Yes.”

The tub was big enough to seat both of them easily, with no crowding. It had once belonged to her grandmother Waverider, and she’d always wondered why it was so huge. Perhaps her grandmother had liked to bathe with her husband…or a well-formed male slave.

The hot water relaxed her almost instantly, making her muscles soften and the tension run out of her. She studied Garek’s face, hoping he was responding to it the same way. He seemed to be—he had his head tilted back against the curved end of the tub, eyes closed, a secret smile on his face.

She picked up a small, roughly-woven towel and the container of squishy soap, spread soap on the towel and leaned forward to rub it across his chest.

His eyes popped open. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to.” She scrubbed his chest and shoulders thoroughly, savoring the beautiful planes of muscle as she worked the cloth over his skin. “You’re in great condition.”

“Rina made sure I got plenty of exercise.”

She paused. “Oh? What did you do?”

“All kinds of manual labor.” He pulled her forward until she straddled his lap. “You do know I make a very poor slave? I don’t have enough respect for my masters.”

Kistalleh smiled into his eyes. “I know.” Still smiling, she reached around him to scrub his back.

Garek grabbed her bare rear end in both hands, squeezing and massaging the muscle. “You’re in good condition yourself.” He let go of her bottom and cupped her breasts instead, lifting one to his mouth.

She gasped at the warm, wet suction. “I have to—I still have to do your legs and feet.”

“Well, get to work, woman,” he murmured against her skin.

“Let go of me so I can.”

Garek released her with a broad smile.

She rolled her eyes at him. “Put a foot on the edge of the tub.”

“Yes, mistress,” he said as she complied.

Kistalleh put more soap on the towel and started on his thigh. He had gorgeous legs, muscular and strong, not skinny with the knobby knees so many men had. What beautiful children he would make.

She cut off that thought before it could ruin her mood. Perhaps someday…but first they had to get to a safe place.

His feet were shamefully dirty, and she was weirdly pleased to scrub away the grime, performing a task most ladies wouldn’t even do for themselves. They would delegate it to a slave. But she wanted to take care of him, to make up in a tiny way for all the years of abuse he’d suffered.

She finished with the first leg and moved on to the second. As she worked the cloth along his inner thigh, his cock swelled from half erect to a rigid, pulsing state of arousal. She said nothing as she continued to wash his leg and foot, but when she finished she bent her head and kissed the tip of his sex.

His breath hissed out between his teeth. “Be careful or I might ravish you.”

Kistalleh released the plug in the bottom of the tub, letting the dirty water run out through internal pipes to a cistern where they collected it for irrigation.

She reached for one of the rinse buckets and got to her feet. “Stand up and I’ll rinse you.”

He shook his head. “I’m too tall for you.”

“Not if you bend your head like a properly respectful slave,” she teased.

Garek bent down from a standing position and she poured the warm water over him. He in turn rinsed her, then wrapped her in a large towel and swept her into his arms.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Ravishing you.”

Kistalleh bit gently on his earlobe. He strode into the bed chamber, past thin linen curtains billowing in the breeze created by a window left open, threw her on the mattress and pounced on her. Wrapped in the towel, her arms pinioned against her body, she was helpless as he peeled the fabric up off her legs and spread her thighs wide. His head descended to her sex.

She gave a gasping moan as he began to kiss her there, his tongue seeking out every nook, cranny and fold of her most intimate place and exploring it in detail. She wanted to touch him but the sheet held her arms trapped and she couldn’t move.

Garek mounted her, his expression dark with sexual intent as he plunged his cock inside her. She tipped her head back with a cry. He bent toward her and kissed her, taking her mouth with long thrusts of his tongue that mimicked his possession of her sex.

Kistalleh moaned against his lips and bucked her pelvis against his. With a groan, he began to pump into her, sending explosions of bliss through her body with every movement of his hips. Fullness began to gather in her core until it burst outward and she sobbed ecstatically through her climax. Then it was Garek’s turn. Kistalleh watched him close his eyes, a look of near pain on his elegant face as he groaned her name and shook with his release.

Afterward they lay side by side, facing each other. His eyes were soft, almost glowing with an expression that she was afraid to identify. Because it couldn’t be true.

They didn’t speak. Just gazed at each other. There was nothing to say, nothing at this moment that had to be given words. The bed was soft beneath her body, and he was hot and hard against her, although his sex had gone soft with his climax. He felt safe, like home; the way home ought to be and not anyplace she’d ever really known.

Desou, maybe she was just imagining this intimacy. But that thought was discordant, jarring her sense of peace and sanctuary, and she thrust it away. For now, it was enough just to lay here and look at him, let him look at her.

As they stared into each other’s eyes, the distance between them seemed to fall away. She had the curious sense that she was tipping forward into the well of bright blue that was his gaze, and the blue swelled around her like a loving ocean, holding her, letting her float in its warm and gentle waters. She could feel him, not simply his skin, but his mind. His thoughts. His emotions.

There were no words with which to describe the experience to herself. She only knew that she knew him. And he knew her. That as they lay together, somehow whatever divided them from each other dissolved away, and they knew one another in a way she hadn’t thought possible.

He was. . .infinitely lovable to her. A beautiful soul.

Kistalleh. . .love. . .you. . .

And I love you.

She never knew how long they lay there looking at each other. Feeling. Knowing. Only that in those minutes or hours, they shared everything that needed to be shared.

Eventually, Kistalleh blinked, returning partially to her separate self. “What was that?” she whispered.

He cupped the side of her face. “Our minds touched somehow.”

“But the iron—”

“It must have been you. Some humans have psychic gifts.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t known such a thing was possible.

They were still connected, although not sharing coherent thoughts. She could feel him inside her, feel herself inside him. It was a bizarre sensation, like being in two places at once, and oddly peaceful.

They loved.

This changed everything between them. Ownership papers and iron bands, they were wrong. Wrong for him.

Something had to be done about the situation. They couldn’t go on as mistress and slave, even in name only. Here in Atlantis, Garek was constantly in danger because of his race. She couldn’t keep him here, no matter how much she wanted to.

She drew back, out of his arms and rolled off the bed.

“Where are you going?”

“I have to get something. I’ll be right back.” She dashed out of the room and into the front chamber to fetch the key to his bands.

It lay on the table where she’d left it. Kistalleh snatched it up and hurried back into the bed chamber. Garek was sitting up in bed, a slight frown on his face. He looked worried. She held up the key.

His eyes widened. “What are you doing?”

“I’m setting you free.”

“Kistalleh, no. It’s forbidden. They’ll kill you.”

She climbed onto the bed. “I won’t allow you to remain in iron, Garek.”

He caught her hand as she bent over his ankles. “You’ll come with me.”

“With you?” She lifted her head. “Where?”

“Nissa. It won’t be safe for you here. We can live in peace there, raise a family.”

She couldn’t help smiling at him. “You’d do that for me?”

“Of course I would.” He kissed her. “I love you, remember?”

“I love you, too.” She began to unlock the bands, her fingers trembling.

***

Garek watched Kistalleh as she worked on unlocking the last wrist cuff. Her dark hair had fallen into her face, so he swept it back for her. She was…he had no words for her. He, who was usually so articulate, had no words. He loved her. She loved him. She was setting him free. What god had decided to smile on him that day in the Market Square, sending this gift from out of nowhere?

Although they were no longer in close spirit contact, he could still feel her presence in a way that was much deeper than the merely physical. They had created a bond between them that even two Amaki lovers rarely experienced, let alone an Amaki and a human.

She was a treasure he didn’t even deserve.

But he would take her with him, and treasure her, and protect her from the wrath of her own people. They wouldn’t be pleased that one of their own had helped him escape. Luckily, once they were in Nissa, there was nothing the Atlanteans could do to either of them.

Something moved behind him. The curtains, perhaps. There was a draft in this room, probably because one of the slaves had left that window wide open.

Kistalleh’s head came up, her eyes round with shock and fear, and he felt the presence of another human. Someone was in the room with them. He tensed, ready for battle, ready to turn and face the attacker, and in that instant, it hit him. Something heavy, powerful, struck him in the back.

Garek gasped. He turned. There was a man in the room, carrying a large knife dripping with blood. His blood.

The man darted out of his reach, still brandishing that knife. He had a cold look in his eye that Garek recognized—the look of the assassin, bent on his kill. He’d been sent for Garek. Or Kistalleh? No, not Kistalleh, otherwise the assassin would have already attacked her.

Garek rose from the bed in a fighter’s crouch. The man slashed at him with the knife. Garek’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl. He was going to take that blade from the human and shove it down his throat, iron be damned.

“Please, no!” Kistalleh cried.

They circled each other, the bed hampering their movements. It wasn’t a very large room for a lady like Kistalleh, and there was little space to maneuver. Rina’s bedchamber had been a palace in its own right.

The assassin swayed lightly on his feet, poking at Garek, testing his defenses. He could feel Kistalleh’s terror beating at him, fraying his concentration. The assassin swiped at him again, the thrust coming near Garek’s face. Son of an ape—he needed to be more careful.

Another lightning-fast swipe caught him on the arm, drawing blood.

“No!” Kistalleh launched herself between them.

“Kistalleh!” he yelled.

She stumbled into the assassin. The man growled, threw her off with a violent thrust of his arm. Kistalleh went staggering backward, toward the window. The open window.

Garek leaped for her. It was too late. Her shins caught the windowsill and she went over backward with a shriek, her arms windmilling, horror flashing up in both of them, so strong it nearly stopped his heart.

“No!” He lunged for the window, hearing the sickening crack as her head hit the pavement. “Gods. Oh, gods, no.”

She was looking at him. Her eyes were open, staring upward, so still. His heart, his mind, seemed to shatter into a heap of broken glass.

Garek turned on the assassin, who stood frozen in the center of the room. The man looked horrified. He hadn’t come here to kill her, then. Garek walked up to him, took the knife from his hand, and cut his throat. The assassin went down, choking on his own blood.

He picked up the key. She hadn’t unlocked his neck band yet. The key fit easily into the lock, and he opened it, and the band sprang off and fell to the floor. So easy. Probably because she’d worked it open already that evening. Had it been only that evening?

Oh, gods, Kistalleh.

He went to the window and looked out. She still lay there, staring upward. A pool of blood was beginning to form beneath her head. She was badly injured; she was…Garek hopped up to the windowsill and from there dropped two stories to the courtyard below, his heart a jagged hole inside him.

He fell on his knees beside her. He could feel her soul, hovering, still somehow in contact with his. “Kistalleh, love, wake up. Darling, wake up. We’re going home now.”

She didn’t answer. Just kept staring at the sky.

The only woman he’d ever loved. He’d just found her, and now this. Don’t leave me. His eyes stung and his vision blurred. There might be a way to save her. There had to be a way.

He bent down to her, kissed her lips. “We’re going home.”

A door leading into the house opened and people came rushing out. Garek didn’t look at them. He took Kistalleh into his arms and held her, his head bent down to hers. “We’re going home.”

“What have you done?” a man roared. “Not Kistalleh! Not my daughter!”

“He was supposed to kill the slave,” said another voice. Another male.

Garek stood, Kistalleh limp in his arms. “I’m taking her home.”

The human males rushed him, shouting.

Garek stepped to the side. It had been so long, he hadn’t been sure he could still do it, but the Between opened up for him just as it always had, comforting him with its impersonal foggy whiteness. Here, very little ever happened.

He paused to look at Kistalleh’s face. She was still staring, her eyes wide as if she were afraid. “Don’t be afraid.” he whispered. “They can’t hurt you here.”

But she didn’t answer.

Garek stepped again, holding a picture of Nissa in his mind. His parents’ council chamber. The room materialized around them as he stepped from the Between into the ordinary world, and he heard voices shouting, but they were shouting in Amaki…his native language…he was home. At last.

People surrounded him, calling his name. He clutched Kistalleh tighter, trying to protect her from the jostling of the crowd. Trying to keep her from being frightened. She still hovered, above him, inside him, confused. Scared.

“Don’t,” he snapped. “You’ll hurt her.”

A man laid his hand on Garek’s arm. Garek looked at him. He was older, even for an Amaki, and had silver in the hair at his temples. Garek knew him…didn’t he? The man’s name escaped him.

“Don’t you remember me?” the man said. “I’m Yena. Let me help you, my prince.”

“She’s injured. You must help her, not me.”

Yena glanced down at Kistalleh’s face, then back at Garek, his gray eyes troubled. “My prince, she is dead.”

Garek splintered inside. “No. No, she’s not, she’s only hurt. You can help her, make her better. Please.”

He couldn’t feel her anymore. Where was she? Where had she gone? He had to bring her back, make her well again. “I have to save her.”

“No, my prince.” Yena looked unutterably sad. “She’s gone. We can do nothing for her.”

“But—”

“Her soul has taken flight. She’s gone too far for me to call back.”

“No,” he whispered. He lifted Kistalleh up, brought her head up so he could kiss her lips. “Come back to me.”

“My prince, let me take her. You must let me take her now.” Yena reached for her…her body.

Garek began to scream.

Arms came to restrain him as Yena took Kistalleh from him, and he was empty except for the tearing, raging grief, so he fought them. She looked so small and broken in Yena’s arms, her eyes still staring as if pleading with Garek to save her. There was blood on her beautiful, naked body.

The elderly Amaki turned, bearing her away from him. Gods, they were taking her away from him. No! He lunged against the ones holding him, but there were too many. Too many.

“Kistalleh!”

They wouldn’t let him hold her anymore, wouldn’t let him stay with her as he wanted to, wouldn’t let him comfort her. She would be lonely and afraid in a strange place, couldn’t they see that? But they wouldn’t listen to him, wouldn’t listen, and so he screamed, and fought them until someone spoke his name and a strange, heavy darkness came over him.

The darkness held him still now. Was he dead? That was good, that was what he wanted; if he was dead, he could be with her. Maybe she was already here, waiting for him. But he couldn’t see anything. Couldn’t see if she were here.

Garek moved his lips, trying to say her name. No sound emerged.

He floated in that place that was not a place for a long time. He wasn’t cold or hot, hungry or thirsty, tired or awake. He was nothing, in a place that was nothing. But he could still feel the pain of Kistalleh’s loss.

“What are we going to do with him?” a voice said out of the darkness. He knew that voice, didn’t he?

“I’ve tried to reach him.” This one was a female. Who were these people? “He’s gone beyond where I can call him back. It’s as if he’s trying to die.”

Die. Yes.

“Earth’s bones,” the man murmured. “To be with her. Who do you suppose she was?”

“I don’t know.”

The man sighed heavily. “So now what?”

“I’ve put him into a magical sleep. He can stay like this indefinitely while we try to find a way to reach him.”

“Are you sure that’s wise? Maybe we should let him go.”

Yes! Let me go. To float away, free at last, free to see her again…

“I can’t tell the king and queen we let their son die,” the woman said, “especially not after they’ve just got him back. Can you?”

Another sigh. “Earth’s bones. No. I suppose you’re right; we’ll keep him like this until we can find a better way.”

No!

The darkness pressed down, even more heavily, the voices faded and went silent, and Garek was alone. Forever.

 

 

Part Two

 

Chapter 1 

Present time, Portland, Oregon

Callista Harris stared hungrily at the adolescents, the guilt and starvation within her beating at each other until she could hardly think. She had to do it. But, God, she didn’t want to. Even on this rainy winter day they milled around on the steps outside the Multnomah County Library, at least a dozen humans, young and rootless and vulnerable.

They were here, outside in the rain, because they had nowhere else to go. Callista was here because she needed their blood.

She watched them for a while from a position across the street. Even though she was out in the open, blatantly staring, they didn’t seem to know she was there. Some of them probably imagined they were tough—street kids, homeless and cynical, wise to the ugly ways of the world. Some probably carried weapons in self-defense or for other, darker reasons.

Those weapons would be of no use against her, a vampire. And the kids didn’t even know predators like her existed.

A young man with light brown hair in dreads to his waist had a black lab puppy on a leash. The dog rolled on its back, tail wagging, as he rubbed its tummy. The girl next to him carried a backpack that probably held every one of her possessions. She wore a long gypsy skirt over blue jeans, with a tattered down jacket over the top.

There were so many more like them, some of them talking and laughing, or smoking cigarettes, or just staring into the distance. They needed their blood more than she did.

A mom with two school-age kids in tow came out of the library, her arms full of books. The kids, a boy and girl, danced around her, chattering to each other and giggling. She would never have children to take to the library, or hold after a nightmare. No school plays or baseball games in her future, just the endless night.

It was like an invisible wall separated her from these people. She would never be one of them again, no matter what she did. Yet all her life—long before she’d become a vampire—she’d felt strangely alone, as if there ought to be someone beside her and she didn’t know who that person might be.

Callista turned on her heel, walked away. There were other places in the city where she could find a blood donor. Places where the humans were less vulnerable than street kids and moms with third-graders.

She wandered down the street, past chic little cafes and boutiques, gritty bars, an old-fashioned tobacco shop, a discount shoe place. The evening had barely begun, and humans of all types crowded the sidewalks in spite of the drizzly weather. But none of them were people whose blood she felt comfortable taking.

The blood hunger pounded in her brain and her veins, clawed at her stomach, made everyone she passed look like a meal. Their warm human scents found a way into her nose, making her mouth water. She adjusted the collar of her coat and found her hands were shaking.

If she waited much longer, she was going to lose control of herself. When that happened, she might do something a lot worse than sip a couple mouthfuls of blood. Vampires in the grip of the blood hunger were known to drain people dry, and the last thing she wanted was to kill someone.

Ahead of her was a tavern with a clutch of hard-faced men outside, drinking beer out of bottles and smoking. As she neared, she could smell the overpowering odor of sweat, beer and cigarette smoke. One of them looked right at her and smiled a slow, mean smile.

“Hey, baby, want a drink? It’s on me.”

If he only knew. “No thanks.”

The man frowned. “You don’t wanna drink with me?”

“No, thank you.” She gave him a polite smile as she tried to pass.

The man grabbed her by the arm. “Where you goin’, baby? I wanna buy you a drink.” His breath reeked of alcohol.

Oh, for God’s sake. “I don’t want a drink,” she said, more loudly this time.

“Well, I want to give you one.” He gave her an evil grin.

She could easily have forced him to let go of her, but that would draw attention she didn’t want. Then again, she could also easily use her mental powers to convince him to leave her alone. But as she looked up at him, at the male arrogance and aggression on his face, she had a better idea.

Callista stopped fighting his hold and leaned against him instead. “On second thought, that’s a great idea. I’d love for you to buy me a drink.”

His grin softened, became a little more genuine. “Yeah? Cool. C’mon, babe.”

She let him put an arm around her waist and lead her into the bar, although he smelled like an ashtray. It seemed he was a regular; many of the male customers and a few of the female called out to him as he paraded her into the place. It smelled like years of spilled beer and cigarette smoke had permeated the very fabric of the building.

When he tried to choose a table smack in the middle of the room, she murmured in his ear, “let’s sit in the back where it’s dark.”

His eyes lit up. He looked so delighted she almost felt guilty, almost felt sorry for him. But he’d literally twisted her arm to get her in here, so she couldn’t sympathize too much. She slid into the inside spot in the booth, hoping his body would shield her actions from the rest of the patrons.

Callista let him order a couple of beers first. Really, though, she just wanted to get the whole song and dance over so she could go back to the apartment—but first, she had to pretend to get drunk so she could believably pretend she wanted to kiss this guy, so she could actually drink his blood.

She laughed at his jokes, told him her name was Christine and that his name—Bob—was one of her favorites, drank two beers and said hello to some friends of his who made a point of stopping by their table. The whole time, he had a meaty hand on her thigh, a hand that inched up ever so slowly toward her crotch. Finally, she couldn’t take any more, so she leaned up and kissed his cheek.

He turned toward her, smirking. “I knew you wanted to, baby.” His hand arrived at her crotch and she let it stay there.

Bob set down his beer and switched hands, using the one that had been on her thigh to grab her head while the beer hand made a beeline for her crotch. His mouth came down on hers, hard. He tasted of beer and cigarette smoke. Yuck. But she kissed him back with as much fake enthusiasm as she could muster.

It was easy to put him under a spell of lust—he was already half way there. All she had to do was nudge his mind in the direction he already wanted to go and he was all hers. He didn’t even protest as she pulled away from his mouth and pushed his head to the side, kissing his neck.

When she bit him, he moaned. His blood tasted better than she’d expected. It was clean, except for the alcohol, and healthy. She took a couple of big swallows.

The blood hunger receded and her head cleared, free of the clawing need for vampiric sustenance. She licked the wounds, watched them close. Then she looked up at Bob’s face. He turned his head, gazing down at her with an expression she could only describe as reverence.

“Damn, baby, you’re good.”

He looked like he was ready to declare his undying love for her. No pun intended. Callista’s stomach dropped through the floor.

It was sick, vile, what she’d just done to him. Yeah, he was kind of a scumbag and if she hadn’t been a vampire, if she’d been an ordinary woman, he might have raped her. But still—his bad behavior didn’t make hers acceptable. What she’d done was like rape; it was a rape of the mind.

“I have to go. Let me up.”

“You just got here, Christie. Stay and have some more fun with me.” He tried to put his arm around her.

She pushed him away. “Bob, I have to go. You’re going to find another woman and you’re going to treat her with respect.”

He looked vaguely puzzled. “I am?”

“Yes. You are. Now let me up.”

Obediently he rose from the booth and let her slide out. After two beers, she really needed a bathroom, but she didn’t want to use the one here. All she wanted was to get out, get away from Bob.

“Thank you for the drinks,” she said, patting his arm. “Good night.”

“I love you, Christine.”

“Bye, Bob.”

Callista strode out of the bar at a pace she thought was business-like yet not so fast it looked like she was running away. None of the men tried to touch her or even look at her. Because she willed it that way. Bob had caught her off-guard, and she’d used it to her advantage, but now she had no intention of letting anyone mess with her.

She’d raped that man, and made him enjoy it. He didn’t even know he’d been raped. That was the life of a vampire; that was what she did to her blood donors. Her victims. She was so dirty inside she would never get clean. Never.

***

California

Rina had tied him to the bed again. At least, he thought so. There was something in his arm, something tethering him. Garek opened his eyes slowly, squinting against the bright light in the room. The air smelled strange, with a sharp tang he didn’t recognize.

What an odd place. He’d never seen a room like this before, full of strange-looking furniture and weird…devices fixed to the walls and loaded on shiny metal carts. There was a line of beds along the length of the long, narrow room, and most of the beds were occupied by other men. This was not Rina’s palace.

He looked down at his right arm. A translucent tube emerged from the skin on the top of his hand to run up to an equally translucent bag of liquid hanging from a metal pole. Garek frowned. What kind of magic was this? It didn’t feel Amaki. In fact, now that he thought about it, he could sense an enormous amount of iron all around him, even in the structure of the building.

Atlantean? But the Atlanteans didn’t have the knowledge to build anything like this.

Something on the opposite wall was making a great deal of noise, music and voices blaring from it so loudly they hurt his ears. He frowned at the thing. It was a thin, flat box with pictures that moved. A divination tool of some kind? He didn’t understand the language the voices were speaking.

He wasn’t in Atlantis. Even the aristocrats like Kistalleh didn’t—

Kistalleh.

The savage tearing in his heart caught him by surprise, made him groan. Kistalleh is dead.

One of the other men turned his head toward Garek and said something in that strange language. Garek shook his head. I don’t understand you.

He tried to reach them, those other men, with his mind, but his powers seemed to be suppressed. It must be all the iron in this building. He needed to get out of here. Would they try to stop him?

Garek pushed himself gradually into a sitting position. He was wearing an ugly, tunic-like shirt made of thin fabric patterned with tiny green checks. It only came to his upper thighs, and he had no trousers to cover his legs. That would be easy to fix once he was away from this damnable iron.

He inspected the tube in his hand. Some kind of smooth, sticky fabric held it to his skin. He yanked off the fabric, pulling arm hair with it. One pull brought the tube out of his arm, leaving a tiny hole behind that welled with a drop of bright crimson blood.

The other man yelled.

Garek glanced at him and gave him a reassuring smile. The fellow just continued to yell, so he climbed out of the alien metal bed and walked toward the door of the room. Just before he reached it, the door burst open and a couple of women in pale blue tunics and trousers came rushing into the room.

One was dark-skinned, with soft brown eyes. The other had red hair so bright it looked as if it had been painted. The women began to speak in firm voices to him, as if he were a misbehaving child.

“I can’t understand you. Do you speak Atlantean?”

The women exchanged a glance. The dark-skinned one said something in what seemed to be yet another language, but he couldn’t understand that one either. He shook his head and smiled, pointing at the door. The women took him by the arms, trying to urge him back to the bed.

“No. I’m leaving now.”

Their voices went up in pitch and volume as they struggled to force him toward the bed. The woman who’d spoken to him in that other language raised her hand. She was trying to be stealthy, but he saw her in his peripheral vision. She had some kind of tool in her hand, and it possessed a sharp and pointy end which he did not want in his flesh.

Garek twisted slightly, grabbing the sharp tool and tossing it onto the floor, where it skidded under one of the metal beds. The woman stared at him, her dark eyes going round. Her expression reminded him of Kistalleh, and his heart clenched again.

“I won’t hurt you,” he said gently. “But I’m leaving now.”

They let go of him as if he’d burned them. Garek went out the door of the room and into a long hallway lined with other rooms very similar to the one he’d left. There was some kind of carpet on the floor; it went all the way from one wall to the other, so he couldn’t tell what was beneath it. The two women followed behind him, talking loud and fast.

The only thing on his body was that ugly tunic. It opened in the back, exposing most of him. Maybe that was why they were so angry; they hated nudity the way the Atlanteans did. Well, soon he’d be away from them and they wouldn’t have to worry about his state of undress.

At the end of the hallway there were several sets of doors. At least, he thought they might be doors, although they had no handles that he could see. As he approached, one set slid open from the center outward, revealing a tiny windowless chamber within, from which two people emerged.

The elderly couple gave him wide-eyed stares as they hobbled past him. What was that tiny room? Did he want to get inside?

No. There were no windows; no way to escape if he needed to leave it suddenly. The thought of being trapped inside that chamber made all the hair on his body stand up straight, and he turned toward another door. This one he understood. It had a handle, and a tiny window in it.

More people were yelling at him now, including one man dressed in a blue uniform like the ones the women wore. He looked at them and shook his head. Unless they bound him with iron, he was leaving and there was nothing they could do to convince him to stay.

He opened the door. It opened onto a stairwell with stairs going both upward and downward. Garek entered the stairwell. The shouting people stayed behind, thank the gods. He didn’t want to drag a parade of them with him wherever he went. Where was he going to go? He shrugged and started down.

The stairs went down a long way. There were landings with doors, presumably leading onto more hallways like the one he’d left; each door had a sign on it with incomprehensible symbols. He counted four stories as he descended. One of these levels must lead onto the street. The iron in the building interfered with his powers, making it difficult for him to get a sense of where he was.

Finally the stairs stopped. He opened the door and peered through. This hallway was different. It had no carpet, only a shiny white floor with gray speckles. There were no pictures on the wall, and no people, but there were doors.

Garek walked silently down the hall. He peered through door after door. Some led onto rooms with many desks, others to rooms full of equipment he didn’t understand. None of them had people inside, and there were no windows. This wasn’t the way to the outdoors. It must be a service basement, for the slaves.

Returning to the stairwell, he went up one story and opened that door. Here now, this was more like it. Beyond the small corridor that held the stairwell and more of those faceless double doors, a great hall opened up to an enormous height.

He left the stairs, venturing into the great hall. It was by far the largest room he’d ever seen, with the highest ceiling. Even the Amaki didn’t build anything this grand. There were trees planted in pots throughout the enormous room, and equally enormous windows of glass. Beyond the glass, it was night.

There were few people in the great hall, and the place had a hushed quality. Here and there, lights glowed. They weren’t oil lamps. He gave them a distracted glance as he passed by, but couldn’t see the source of their light.

Where was the entrance? Garek stood in the center of the room and gazed about him for a way to the outside. Several corridors led off the huge room, but they just went back into the depths of this strange building.

A man in dark blue trousers and shirt approached him, speaking in a firm voice, such as one might use with a slave. Did he think Garek was a slave? Maybe that was the reason for the ugly tunic.

There—a young woman came in from the outside through glass doors that slid open the way the ones to the tiny interior chamber had. Wind blew in from outside, making the scarf she wore flutter around her face. Garek turned from the man in blue and started toward the glass doors.

The man didn’t follow him, which was good. He didn’t want to fight anyone. He made it to the doors, which slid open as he approached. A strange magic indeed.

Outside, it was chilly with a fine mist in the air. But there was no iron, or at least not enough to make him ill. His powers returned with a surge that made him shudder for a moment as he stood on the pavement.

A young man wearing faded blue trousers and a jacket made of black leather walked toward him, giving him a sideways glance that told Garek he looked out of place. It must be the tunic. He needed to find a discreet place to make himself a new set of clothes.

He walked along the front of the building and around to the side, where the bright alien lights were dimmer and there were shrubs to hide him. Once he was concealed, he transformed the ugly tunic into an outfit to match that of the young man. It was the first magic he’d done since he’d been made a slave—except for Walking the Between with Kistalleh.

Don’t think of her.

The clothing warmed his body. Now, to find out where he was. He went back to the front of the building where he sat on a bench and waited for someone to come by so he could read them.

Soon enough, people walked by him. Many of them wore similar clothing to the young man he’d copied. Even the women wore mostly trousers, although he saw one in a bizarrely tiny skirt that only reached halfway to her knees and another in a brightly colored dress that almost brushed the ground. And the women’s shoes—towering heels shaped like ice picks or spikes, exaggerated thick soles, boots with no toes. The men, on the other hand, mostly looked alike—drab, sloppy, with flat comfortable shoes like the ones he’d conjured for himself.

How strangely these people dressed.

Now that he had his powers he could read them in spite of the unfamiliar language they spoke. But none of them knew anything about Atlantis, or Nissa, or anyplace else he would recognize. Their garbled thoughts about Kistalleh’s homeland made no sense to him. A “vacation resort?” A “TV show?” What were these things? He picked up only a vague sense of entertainment from the humans, as if Atlantis had become nothing but a form of party amusement.

There had to be someone, some place he could go. Some place where people knew him, or at least could understand him. Garek cast out mental feelers, searching, searching for anything familiar.

For a long time, there was nothing. He encountered a great deal of psychic noise, as if the whole earth had been subsumed by a mass of shouting, squirming humanity. The thought made him shudder, but he kept searching.

There were traces of Amaki, now and then, so thin and weak it made his heart even heavier than it already was. So few of his people? Where had they all gone? What had become of the earth while he slept?

Then. . .something he recognized. No. . .someone. Two someones. Niko and Laila. Garek jumped to his feet, his heart suddenly racing. Niko and Laila were here—well, not here exactly, but they were alive and well somewhere on the planet and that meant he could find them. Go to them. But would they accept him, after the way he’d failed them and Ravki?

Something tells me you don’t have much choice but to ask them.

They were his closest friends. Maybe they could manage to forgive him.

He found a discreet spot and stepped into the Between. In the foggy otherworld, Niko and Laila’s energy was even easier to detect and he focused on it with all his strength before stepping out of the Between and into the mundane world.

 

Chapter 2

 He stood in a room with warm, golden firelight flickering on the dark-red walls. The air was warm, scented with wood smoke and something that hinted of Amaki magic. There was a brightly colored carpet underfoot, plush-looking red curtains, comfortable chairs and a couch much more generously stuffed than the one in Kistalleh’s rooms had been.

Kistalleh!

Don’t think about her.

Niko and Laila. On a second couch. They wore modern clothes, like the people he’d seen at that other place, and were staring at him with matching expressions of such astonishment that he grinned.

“Good evening,” he said. And collapsed.

When he awoke, he found himself lying on one of the couches in the firelit room. There was a fluffy red blanket tucked around him. Niko had pulled a chair nearby and was staring at him with a contemplative expression on his face. Earth’s bones, he looked just the same as Garek remembered.

Niko leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. His black hair slid forward. “By all the gods, where have you been all this time, Garek?”

His voice was hoarse, but he spoke Amaki. The familiar sounds of Garek’s beloved native language were such a relief that he closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened them and looked at his friend. “Captured and enslaved.”

“For thousands of years?” Niko said, frowning.

Garek blinked. “No. For twenty years.”

Thousands?

Niko looked to his side. Garek followed his glance to see Laila sitting in another chair pulled up near his feet, the same perplexed frown on her face. Her dark hair, as curly as he remembered, tumbled around her shoulders, the firelight catching red and gold glints in the deep-brown strands.

Garek shoved himself upright. “What do you mean, thousands of years?”

Niko and Laila exchanged another glance.

“Garek,” Laila said gently, “you’ve been missing for millennia. We—to tell the truth, we lost count of the years, so we can’t tell you exactly how many.”

“Thousands of years,” he repeated dully. “How is it that I’m still alive?”

“That’s what we’d like to know,” Niko said.

He sat motionless, while the idea of thousands of years passing by him unmarked soaked into his mind. He’d been asleep all that time. How was that even possible? The magic necessary for such a trick was completely unknown to him.

Thousands of years. . .that would mean… “My parents.”

“They’re gone.” Laila scooted forward and took his hand. “I’m sorry.”

He hadn’t seen them in twenty years. Hadn’t expected to ever see them again. And now they were gone. Kistalleh was gone, too. They’d been gone so long they were nothing but dust, not even memories except for the few like Niko and Laila who still survived from that time.

He swallowed hard. “I had no idea.”

His parents had viewed him mostly as a disappointment, a failure as an Amaki because he spent his time with humans and vampires. They must have believed he’d abandoned them entirely during his years of slavery and now they’d never know the truth. He closed his mind to the spasm of grief that followed the thought; right now he needed to focus on survival. The time would come, very soon, when he would grieve without reservation.

“Do you know where you were?” Niko said.

“Atlantis.”

“Atlantis is gone, Garek. Not too long after you disappeared, as a matter of fact. About a hundred years later. You couldn’t have been there—it’s under the sea.”

He stared at the vampire. “Gone?”

Niko shrugged. “Yes. There was a gigantic volcanic eruption that tore the island apart. Then, a few years later, a series of enormous waves finished off what was left of it.”

Atlantis, gone. For thousands of years. No wonder those humans thought of it in such strange terms, if they thought of it at all.

“We don’t want to shock you,” Laila said.

He glanced at her. There was obvious concern for him in her pretty face. “It’s alright. I need to know.”

“We had no idea what happened to you,” she continued. “You disappeared at the same time as Ravki.”

Ravki. Another innocent soul on his conscience. If Atlantis had been destroyed, then what had happened to his young friend?

Garek closed his eyes. “I failed him and you.”

“Tell us what happened,” Laila said.

“We were both captured.” In halting words, he told them the story of his capture and degradation at the hands of the Atlanteans, while they listened in sympathetic silence, Laila’s hand still clasped around his own.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last. “It was my fault. Can you ever forgive me?”

“It sounds to me like someone turned you in,” Niko said.

Garek narrowed his eyes. “Does it?”

His friend nodded. “If you were discreet, and I have no doubt that you were, the Atlantean authorities wouldn’t have known anything about you. But clearly someone did, and I suspect I know who it was.”

He frowned. “Who?”

Niko and Laila exchanged another of those glances.

“Daranda,” they said in unison.

“Daranda? That skinny dark-haired woman who took over after Sosima died?”

“We think she had Sosima murdered,” Laila told him.

Sosima had been a close friend and occasional lover, and the leader of the Atlantean vampire community. He’d cared for her, although he’d never loved her the way he loved Kistalleh.

Kistalleh.

Don’t think about her.

“So she murdered Sosima,” he said, musing aloud. “I can see why she would do that, if she coveted her position. But why me and Ravki?”

Laila bent her head. “She wanted Ravki. You were just—what do they call it now?”

“Collateral damage,” Niko said.

“Yes. Collateral damage.”

The words were strange to Garek, in some language so foreign he didn’t recognize any of its syllables—although it did seem to match the tongue spoken by the people in that strange building where he’d awoken. What word had Niko used? Oh, yes. The hospital.

Niko stared at him with those pale gray eyes of his. Winter eyes, Laila called them. “How did you get free of the Atlanteans with all that iron on you?”

Kistalleh. He couldn’t speak of her. “There was someone…who cared for me. Sh—that person released me from the iron and I escaped to Nissa. That’s why I wasn’t on Atlantis when it was destroyed.”

His friends seemed to be having trouble meeting his eyes.

Garek frowned. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Laila shifted uneasily in her chair. Niko cleared his throat, crossed his arms, then uncrossed them again.

“Nissa is gone, too, isn’t it?”

For an instant, Niko hesitated. Then he looked straight in Garek’s eyes. “Yes.”

He was numb. This was too much information to absorb in such a short time. “I suppose that explains why they never woke me up, then.”

“Do you remember why they put you to sleep?”

He nodded. Yes, he remembered. The images were as vivid as if they’d happened yesterday—which he supposed they had, as far as his psyche was concerned.

Ah, gods, Kistalleh.

His face contorted, and he bent his head, bringing his hand up over his features to cover his expression. Why? Why did they have to take her away from him? What had he done to deserve that? What had she done? Nothing. She was the best, kindest, most giving woman he’d ever met—she’d been in the act of setting him free at risk of her own life when she was taken.

Garek could sense Laila and Niko’s stunned concern for him, but he couldn’t respond to it. The most he could do was keep himself from roaring at the pain. He was the one who’d put Kistalleh in danger. The assassin had gone into her rooms after him, yet she’d been the one to die. He bit down on his lip until he tasted the metallic tang of blood.

“Garek,” Laila said, in a voice softer than down, “are you alright? Is there anything we can do for you?”

He shook his head.

“You’re not alright?”

Gods. “Please—” he choked. “I can’t—”

The couch squeaked slightly as Laila settled her tiny frame next to him. A delicate pair of arms came around him. “It will be alright,” she said.

“No—”

“Whatever it is, someday it will be bearable.” She stroked his hair. “For now, just hold on.”

Slowly, slowly he put his arms around her. She was so small, yet her embrace was comforting, like that of a sister. Would Niko kill him for this, for touching his wife? He’d always been so possessive of Laila. But Niko’s hand clasped Garek’s shoulder, letting him know without words how he felt, and Garek lowered his head to Laila’s and wept.

***

Callista paused to lean against the trunk of a tree and catch her breath. What kind of tree was this? She had no idea. It had rough bark and green needles and a wonderful Christmas-tree scent, so it must be some kind of evergreen. Conifer. Whatever.

She’d never been an outdoors kind of girl; at least, not until Raphael Black, Seer of the Dark Empire, had decided to drag her all over the Portland metro area and the muddy countryside that surrounded it. If only her folks could see her now. She was such a little princess as a child, ballet lessons, frilly pink dresses and everything. They’d probably laugh just thinking of her in muddy jeans, scrambling up a hillside in the middle of the night.

Yeah. The vampire part would sure crack them up.

Her spirits took a nose dive at the thought of her parents’ faces after she’d explained matters to them. That would be if she could convince them vampires were real. The retractable fangs and flying might help on that score.

It doesn’t matter. I can never see them.

Not without endangering their lives, anyway. Daranda forbid all contact with the people from her vampires’ former lives. It was kind of like a witness protection program in reverse—instead of protecting, it destroyed.

And the agent of that destruction was somewhere on this hillside, expecting her to keep up with him. She and Black had exhausted all of the close-in possibilities already and were almost all the way through the second sector they’d marked on the map they kept in their cheap apartment. He was convinced they would find Niko and Laila’s headquarters this way.

The man was insane. Beautiful, but insane.

The underbrush on the hillside above her crackled and Black appeared, his usual wool gabardine suit and long woolen overcoat swapped for a high-tech weather-resistant jacket, sweater, hiking boots and jeans.

Speak of the devil and he appears.

He glowered at her. “Keep up.”

Callista glowered right back. She was sick and tired of his attitude. “I’m doing the best I can. If you don’t like it, get someone else to help you.”

“There isn’t anyone else, as you well know,” he said between gritted teeth. “Now get going.”

Her old training, her Dark Empire indoctrination, demanded she submit to him, that she cringe and apologize, but she’d had it. Callista lifted her chin. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t continue at this pace.”

He opened his mouth, then shut it. Then opened it again. It was the first time she’d ever seen Raphael Black at a loss for words. Finally, he sighed. “Alright, we’ll stay here and rest awhile.”

Callista allowed herself to relax slightly. “Thank you.”

Black glanced around, then went to sit on a downed log. The thing was so big his feet didn’t even touch the ground. He patted the bark next to him. “Come. Sit awhile.”

Warily, she made her way to him and perched on the log, far enough away that he couldn’t easily touch her. “There are probably spiders crawling around on this thing.”

“Probably.”

She gave him a look out of the corner of her eye. “Yuck.”

“You’re a vampire, Callista. Get over it. Isn’t that what all the young people say these days?”

“And you’re a fossil, Black.”

He laughed. He was in a rare good mood tonight, although she had no idea why. They’d been searching for Niko and Laila’s hideout for months, with no success. The Empress Daranda—or rather her assistant, Grant—had called them at least ten times demanding progress reports which Black had refused to supply. Any day now, they were going to see Daranda’s soldiers outside their door. She just knew it.

“Sir, what do you intend to do if we manage to find them?”

“Take them down. What else?” There was a discordant note of uncertainty in his voice that undermined his words.

“Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” he snapped.

“But there are only two of us.”

“For now, yes.” He scooted over on the log and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. “I’ll find more followers. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to be in the force that attacks their stronghold. I know you’re not a warrior.”

His moods dizzied her. One minute, he was a martinet, the next he was trying to reassure her. Definitely crazy. It was a good thing she felt no sexual attraction toward him, or he’d drag her down with him into his insanity. Pity the woman who ever fell for those good looks.

Why don’t you leave him? her inner voice whispered.

It made the same suggestion every night, and every night she gave it the same answer. Because she was afraid. Callista Harris was a big wimp, and she was scared to run from the Dark Empire. If she ran, they would come after her, they would find her, and when they did their retribution would be terrible.

Death would be too easy. She’d heard what Daranda did to traitors, and even seen a little. Those images haunted her nightmares. No, she was far too weak to run.

“I’m hoping to get to the top of the hill by the end of the night,” Black said. “Leaving time to get home, of course.”

Of course. They wouldn’t want to be caught out here when the sun rose. She nodded to show she was following what he said.

“There’s something about this place—” He stopped speaking abruptly and put his finger to his lips.

Callista stared at him. There was just enough moonlight to show the shape of his features. He seemed to be listening.

She cocked her head. She could hear only the faint wind in the treetops, the occasional drip of accumulated rain from a mossy branch, and the singing of some of those frog thingies in the distance. Callista looked back at Raphael.

He leaned close. “Vampire coming,” he whispered, so softly that even with her vampire hearing she could hardly make out his words, and pointed at the sky.

She looked up. A human-like shape, even darker than the sky above it, passed overhead, above the trees. She could feel his energy now. A male vampire, flying. Flying home? Callista glanced at Black. He crooked his finger and began to rise into the air above the log.

They remained below the tree canopy to avoid detection, following as silently as they could in the vampire’s wake, dodging tree trunks and branches with questing twigs that kept trying to poke her eyes out. Callista kept up a continuous mental prayer that whoever it was wouldn’t notice them. She doubted that God, or the Great Spirit, or whatever, actually listened to vampires when they prayed, but what the hell. It couldn’t hurt and it might help.

They trailed him all the way up the hillside and halfway across the top before he disappeared. Callista was looking straight at him when he did it. He just winked out, like a snuffed candle flame. There one instant and gone the next.

She hovered in mid-air and looked at Black. “How the hell did he do that?”

Black stared at the place where the vampire had been. “Amaki. That’s the only explanation.”

“What? I thought they hated us.”

“My—” He stopped and ran his fingers through his hair. She’d never seen him make that gesture either. “They only hate those of us in the Dark Empire. Laila is half Amaki and has lived with them for—for a very long time.”

She cocked her head. If only she could see his face more clearly. “How do you know so much about her?”

“She’s—I’m acquainted with her.”

Now Callista’s mouth fell open. “You are?”

“It was a long time ago. I hardly remember her.” He turned to leave.

“What are you going to do now?”

“Tomorrow night, we’re going to come back. Now that we know where to look, we can fly right to the area and then hike around.”

“Good,” she said. “I’m hungry.”

***

King was a stupid name, Jared thought as he lay flat on his back in the middle of a sprawl of other pets. Take him, for instance. His name was King and he wasn’t king of shit. He wasn’t even allowed to wear clothes.

Oh, he’d tried once, about three months after he’d joined Daranda’s little empire. One of her vamps had beaten him black and blue and then they’d just about sucked him dry as punishment. That was the last time he’d ever put on a shirt unless given a direct order.

“What’re you thinking about?” Emma said.

He turned his head and smiled at her. “Nothing much. You?”

Emma shrugged, a lock of bright auburn hair sliding over her bare shoulder. “I try not to.”

“Yeah. I know what you mean.”

Thinking was dangerous. Most of the pets were too far under the vamp’s mind control to have much in the way of thoughts, but for some reason the mental crap didn’t work well on him and Emma.

She put her small hand in his. Emma wasn’t his sister. But if he’d had a family, he would have wanted her in it. It was the luck from hell that had allowed her to get trapped here, a slave to vampires.

One of the blood-suckers sauntered toward them. It was the one who’d been surreptitiously watching him for a week or two. She had long, perfectly straight black hair, a color that had probably come out of a bottle. Or did the vamps just wave their magic blood-sucker wands and switch their hair color to whatever they wanted?

Jared snorted. Like he cared.

Black-hair slithered along in a floor-length dress the color of fresh blood, her matching stilettos peeping out every time she took a step. She looked like a goddamn statue—beautiful, cold, her features painted on. What was her name? He hadn’t asked; asking would have brought attention to the fact that he’d noticed her. And that would not be good. You never wanted anymore of the vamps’ attention than absolutely necessary.

The vampire stopped at the edge of the pets, her gaze locked on his. “You. Get up.”

Nice. He got to his feet because, let’s face it, what the fuck else was he going to do? Challenge her to a bout of arm wrestling? He’d learned long ago there was no point in running or fighting them. But he kept his eyes on hers.

“Yeah?” he said in a careless tone. He let his gaze travel down, over her showy body, and back up to her face.

She did not look amused. “Come here. I want to use you.”

“Now how could I resist a come-on like that?” Jared stepped carefully over the other pets.

Now that he was close, he could smell her perfume. It was something mellow, not the cloying florals Daranda wore. He liked it, liked the musky scent of woman underneath. And that pissed him off. He gave her a sneering smile.

“Are you new here, pet?” she said. “Because someone needs to teach you a lesson in manners.”

He was taller, even in bare feet, than her in stilettos. He looked down at her. She had amber eyes. “I have perfect manners. I’m just not using them.”

Her mind pushed hard on his, trying to muscle him under her control. Jared leaned down, put his lips near the shell of her ear. “It won’t work,” he whispered. “I’m immune.”

Her sculpted, crimson lips pressed together. “Fine. Follow me.”

She spun on her spiked heel and strode off toward the entrance to the room. Jared shrugged and followed her. Why not? There was no place else to go.

Black-hair brought him down one level to the floor where many of Daranda’s courtiers had rooms. From what he could tell, the building had once been a bank before the empress had it converted into her HQ. Black-hair’s quarters still had one of those funky windows over the door.

She unlocked her quarters and gestured for him to enter. The long, narrow room had high ceilings and tall windows with the curtains drawn back to show the rainy night outside. There was a bed with weird, old-fashioned hangings on it that almost made it into another room. An oriental carpet covered the floor, peeking out from under a French-looking settee and a wild collection of side tables, statues and a giant mirror propped on one wall.

When he’d come here, he hadn’t known a French settee from a public toilet. He’d learned a lot from the vampires. All of it useless.

“I need sex and blood,” she said.

He turned toward her. “Kinda figured you did.”

“Why are you so disrespectful?”

“Hmm. I don’t know. Maybe because no-one is respectful to me.”

“You’re a pet.”

“Yes, I am.” He lifted a lock of her hair to his nose and took a deep breath. “You smell good.”

Black-hair’s mouth fell open. Jared took her head in his hands and captured that mouth with his own. She could have fought him and won, easy. With her vampire strength, she could have picked him up in one hand and tossed him through the window. But she didn’t.

Her arms snaked around his shoulders as he plunged his tongue into the hot, wet cave of her mouth. Jared reached down to clasp her by her taut little waist. The small moaning sounds she was making got his cock so hard it hurt.

He fumbled for her zipper, pulled it down. The dress sagged, held up by spaghetti straps and the press of their bodies against each other. Her hand began to roam over his skin, exploring.

They stumbled to the bed, fell on the mattress in a frantic tangle. God, she was hot. She felt better than a drug. His body ached to plunge into hers. Jared yanked up her skirt, pushed her thighs apart, buried his face between them. He pushed aside the silk thong she wore and began to lick her.

“Jared!” she cried. “Oh, Jared!”

She knew his name? How did she—whatever—he didn’t give a shit. Right now he just wanted more of her. He laved and suckled her until she fell apart, screaming, pulling his hair. Then he mounted her and took her in one brutal thrust.

She kept moaning his name as he rode her. He was too far gone to be distracted by it, too wild with lust to care about anything but coming. And when he did, it seemed to go on and on forever, draining him utterly and leaving him exhausted, panting, shivering.

That was when she struck.

Her fangs punched him in the side of the neck. He shouted at the pain, tried to pull away, but she locked slender arms and legs around him, trapping him. Fuck. He’d been so lost in her, he’d forgotten he was with a vamp.

She pulled out the fangs and took a long draw from his vein. The drinking soothed some of the pain from the puncture wounds and Jared relaxed against her. She was moaning again, her hands stroking his back and hair. Just when it was starting to feel good, she let him go.

The woman—vampire—licked the holes she’d made in him. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I couldn’t put you under.”

“They never can. No-one except Daranda.”

She kissed his jaw. “No wonder you’re so angry.”

Yeah. Whatever. He pulled back to look her in the eye. “How did you know my name?”

She blushed. Actually blushed. “I asked around.”

So it hadn’t been his imagination. She really had been watching him. “Who are you?”

“Rebecca.”

“Nice name.” He withdrew from her body and clambered off the bed. “See you around, Rebecca.”

“Wait,” she said softly.

Jared kept on walking. He opened her door and slipped out of her room, let the door slam shut behind him. Goddamned vampires. If he had the guts, he’d burn this place down around their ears.

 

Chapter 3

Hours after he’d broken down on Laila’s shoulder, Garek was finally clean and fed. A long soak, followed by a thorough scrubbing, had removed most of the dirt still remaining in his skin and hair. He lay on the couch in yet another room in Niko and Laila’s house while they watched something called TV—a box on the wall that had moving pictures, music and voices. Like the one he’d seen in the hospital.

Because of the language barrier, he couldn’t understand what the people in the box were saying, but the pictures fascinated him. As much as he could be fascinated at the moment, anyway.

He was numb again, the agony pushed back far enough that he could function. That was an improvement of sorts, after his utter breakdown in Nissa. At least he could move, and eat, and think after a fashion.

His feet were in Laila’s lap, and she was rubbing them. Niko sat on her other side with his arm around her—it was a very large couch. Both of them seemed to understand without being told that he needed touch.

He should have been ashamed to behave this way, weak and needy…although among his own people, touch would have been offered as a matter of course. Niko and Laila had spent many years in Nissa, with Garek’s extended family, so they understood Amaki ways. Why hadn’t they touched him in Nissa?

Maybe because you were screaming and trying to attack people.

Closing his eyes, he pushed the thought, the memory, into a deep hole inside his mind and buried it.

“We’ve asked a friend to come and help you with the language,” Laila said. “Do you think you’re up to it tonight?”

He shrugged. “I suppose.”

A handsome young man with short dark hair and a hard face poked his head around the doorway. He had the energy of a vampire, one who was a great deal older than he appeared. He spoke in the language the people in the TV were using, and Laila answered him the same way. The young man went away. A few moments later, another man entered the room.

This one was tall, blond and Amaki. His hair was long, some of it in several long, narrow braids and the rest loose. He wore clothes that didn’t look like they belonged in this time period, but didn’t fit Garek’s either—a short tunic with embroidery around the neckline and cuffs, and a pair of snug trousers with ankle-high boots. The newcomer grinned at Laila and Niko and said in Amaki, “this had better be important. I left a feast to be here.”

“Melisera,” Niko said, waving him into the room. Welcome. “We want you to meet someone. Garek, this is Finn of the Leaping Boar Clan. Finn, this is Garek of Nissa.”

The blond glanced at Garek, then scowled at Niko. “Not funny, vampire.”

“It’s no joke. He just arrived this evening.”

Finn’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Garek. “You’re Garek of Nissa?”

“Yes,” Garek said slowly. “Have I done something wrong?”

“Yes. I mean, no. Not at all. I just—Garek of Nissa? Really?” His eyes lit up and he grinned.

“Uh, yes, really.” Garek looked to Niko and Laila for some clue about what was going on with Finn, but they just smiled blandly and refused to comment.

Finn descended to the floor in front of the couch and sat cross-legged on the carpet, his back to the TV. “I can’t believe I’m actually sitting here with Garek of Nissa.”

“Will someone please tell me what is happening here?” Garek said, levering himself into an upright position.

Niko laughed. “You’re famous.”

“For what?” Being dumb enough to fall into the hands of the Atlanteans?

“You’re the lost prince,” Finn said. “You disappeared, and not long after that, Nissa fell to invaders. No-one knew what had happened to you. There are all kinds of crazy stories—eaten by a trow or a sea monster, murdered by humans…”

“Alien abduction,” Niko said dryly.

Garek frowned at him. “What kind of abduction?”

“Never mind.” Finn was almost bouncing like a boy meeting his childhood hero. “Tell us what really happened.”

“Finn—” Laila said.

“It’s alright, Laila.” He met Finn’s eyes. “I was captured by the Atlantean authorities, banded in iron and made a slave. After I escaped, the sorcerers of Nissa put me in a magical sleep, where I’ve been until a day or two ago.” How long had he lain in the hospital, unconscious?

Finn seemed to deflate. “Earth’s bones, I’m an idiot. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

Garek gave his hand a negligent wave. “Doesn’t matter. It’s over.”

“How did you escape?”

“A friend helped him,” Laila said before he could answer. “And that brings me to the reason we called you. We’d like you to give him the English, if you’re willing.”

“I’d be delighted. Do you want to do it now?”

She looked at Garek. “Well?”

Did he really want yet more information flooding his mind? He wasn’t sure he could absorb anything more. But until he learned the current language, he wouldn’t be able to read books, listen to that TV contraption or communicate with humans. Although he could learn languages faster than humans because of his psychic abilities, it would be a slow and arduous process compared to receiving it directly from Finn.

“Yes.” He nodded.

“Alright.” Finn came up on his knees and raised his hands to Garek’s temples. “Close your eyes. That will make it easier to take in the new information.”

Garek complied. Finn’s fingertips touched him lightly, with hardly any pressure at all. Garek took a couple of deep, steadying breaths and let the tension in his muscles drain out. A few heartbeats passed with no noticeable effects…then a shaft of brilliant light seemed to invade his skull, bringing pain like a great bell ringing.

He grimaced as the bell grew louder and louder, the light brighter and brighter until they filled all his consciousness and he knew nothing else. Just before he shouted against the pain, Finn removed his fingers and it stopped. Garek opened his eyes.

Everything looked blurry. People were talking and he couldn’t understand what they were saying. He rubbed his eyes. At least it didn’t hurt anymore.

The long strings of unintelligible syllables droned on and on until they began to differentiate themselves into sounds he could identify. The sounds became occasional words separated by gibberish; the words became phrases, and the phrases began to connect and form sentences.

“. . .not sure. . .a place. . .what about the…could put him in the room Kayla was using,” Laila said.

He looked at her and her features were clear, not blurry at all. “Who’s Kayla?”

She beamed at him. “It worked!”

“We are speaking the English?” he said.

“Yes, we’re speaking English.”

Garek turned to Finn. “Thank you. That was a great gift.”

Finn shrugged, looking embarrassed. “It was nothing. I was glad to be of service.”

“Nevertheless—” Garek clasped the other man by the shoulders. “Thank you.”

Finn clasped him in return and kissed him on either cheek in the traditional Amaki fashion. “You’re indeed welcome. But there’s one other thing.”

“Yes?”

Finn’s eyes and mouth tensed. “You’re not going to live much longer.”

Niko and Laila both sat up straight, leaning forward. “Why not?” Niko demanded.

Inwardly, Garek shrugged. The less time he had to live, the less time he had to go without her.

“The sleep they put him in slowed his aging process but it didn’t stop it entirely. And he was under the spell for so many thousands of years that he’s essentially used up almost all his time.”

“How long do you think I have?”

“Maybe five or ten years before aging begins to show and five or ten years after that.”

“Hell,” Niko said.

“Oh, Garek, I’m so sorry.” Laila rubbed his back.

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to…it just doesn’t matter.”

Finn turned back to Garek. “You might be able to prolong the time you have left by aggressively pursuing your health. I hope you’ll spend as much time outdoors as possible over the next few days. You need to restore yourself after such a long captivity.”

Direct contact with the earth, growing plants, and sunlight always helped an Amaki heal any wound or illness. Then again, he didn’t need to stay on the mortal plane much longer, and that was good.

“I’ll do what I can.”

He didn’t go outside until the next morning, when he ventured out alone because Finn had gone home and Niko and Laila, as vampires, had to avoid the sun. Their house was actually a modified traditional Amaki palace, built for them by their Amaki allies and large enough to accommodate at least fifty other people who lived here with them.

Garek left the circular compound and its manicured gardens searching for something wilder with which to connect. He found it just outside the compound walls. They’d built on a hilltop, and there was a meadow around the whole compound, fringed by a thick temperate forest of conifers and the occasional maple or oak. Luckily for him, the sun shone that day, so he simply lay down directly on the ground and stared up at the sky.

That evening, feeling much stronger, he left the compound again in search of moon and star light. The night had its own energy, and was just as necessary to healing as the day. Clouds had come in, partially obscuring the heavens, but that was acceptable. Simply being outside allowed him to absorb much more than he would indoors.

Once again, he lay down in the meadow. The air smelled of recent rain and the pungent scent of plants eager to grow after a long winter. A loud chorus of frog voices started up just as he put his head against the ground. Garek smiled at the sound. In the trees, a great horned owl hooted.

For the first time since Kistalleh had…since he’d left Atlantis, he felt peaceful.

***

Black had lost her again. Callista leaned against yet another conifer near the top of the hill and closed her eyes, trying to calm her breath. Screw him. Well, not literally, because ick. But she wasn’t in shape for this kind of crap and she wasn’t going to kill herself trying to keep up with him. Hadn’t she just told him that last night?

She really needed to start an exercise program. Apparently, even a vampire gets out of shape when she sits on her butt all night staring into a crystal. The months of hiking had toughened her, yet she still couldn’t keep up with Black. He was like a wild animal in his ease with the woods.

Bizarre. She never would have guessed he had it in him, until they’d come out West. Back home, he dressed so urbanely she would have thought he had no idea how to put on a pair of hiking boots, let alone make his way through these jungle-like forests with such confidence.

All around her, some kind of small creatures were chirping. Crickets? No, they only sang in the summer. It was way too cold and early in the year for crickets. Maybe they were frogs. They sounded pretty, in a slimy amphibious kind of way.

Somewhere nearby, an owl said “ooooh-ooooh-ooh-ooh.”

Callista shivered. It was creepy out here alone. What if she ran into someone from Niko and Laila’s fortress, or whatever it was? Their invisible lair. Would they know she was a subject of the Dark Empire?

You could always beg for amnesty.

Right. Like that would ever happen. In her experience, most vampires were just looking for a weakness they could exploit or something they could use to curry favor with those more powerful. There was no compassion in the vampire world.

She loathed it and she made a crappy vampire. She hated blood-drinking so much she hadn’t taken any in nearly three weeks, not since the Bob incident. Soon she would be forced to drink again, if only to prevent herself from going into blood hunger.

Becoming a vampire was the worst decision she’d ever made. The only thing that kept her from walking into the sun was her own cowardice.

Once upon a time, she’d been able to walk under that sun, look up at blue sky, listen to birds singing in the morning. Now all she got was an owl.

She straightened up and dusted conifer-tree grit off her butt. It was time to go—she couldn’t hang out in one spot all night. With a sigh, she started up the hill again, trying to ignore the ache in her calves.

What did Black expect to find, anyway? It was dark out here, even for a vampire, and it wasn’t like they could light the place up with flashlights or anything. All they were doing was stumbling around in the dark, hoping to get lucky.

Callista emerged from the trees into a large, level meadow. It was flat, like a plateau, and so vast she could hardly make out the trees on the other side—they were nothing more than a jagged shape blacker than the sky. But the moonlight was brighter up here and she could see where she was putting her feet. She started to cross the open space.

“Who are you?” said a gruff male voice.

Callista froze with a gasp. Oh, shit, she’d run into someone from The Lair. But this someone wasn’t vampire; he didn’t have the right energy.  Yet he wasn’t human either.

She turned to see a tall masculine form looming over her. He had long, light-colored hair; it seemed blond but the moonlight bleached the color out of everything, so it was hard to tell.

“I’m—um—I’m Callista. I think I’m lost.”

The man grabbed her by the upper arms and jerked her around so the cool, bluish rays of moonlight fell on her face. Her mouth went dry. What the hell was he doing?

He rattled off some words in a language she didn’t understand, but had heard before. Raphael Black and Daranda sometimes spoke to each other in words like those. The tone in his voice made her feel like tiny insects were crawling all over her; he sounded too excited, almost stunned. Almost as if he knew her, which was impossible. She was a nobody.

Her heart raced so fast she felt dizzy. “Please, let me go. I didn’t mean to—to bother you.” Christ, she’d almost said “trespass.” The last thing she wanted to do was alert Niko and Laila’s bunch that she and Black suspected they were up here.

“Kistalleh,” the man said reverently.

“I-I don’t speak your language.”

She couldn’t see his face; it was in full shadow. Was he glaring at her? Was he going to hurt her?

Suddenly she knew what he was—she’d sensed energy like his before. He was Amaki. Oh, God, he was one of those fairy lunatics like the men who’d slaughtered all the vampires Black had gathered that night in November.

The man dragged her farther away from the trees, where the light was brighter. He released one arm only to grab her chin and turn her face up toward the moonlight.

“Please don’t hurt me,” she said in a choked whisper.

His hold on her gentled instantly. “I would never hurt you, Kistalleh. You should know that.”

“I-I’m Callista. My name is Callista.”

“Callista.” His accent made her name sound exotic.

“Yes. I think you’ve confused me with someone else.”

“No.” He stroked her chin with his thumb. “I recognize you. Do you not know me?”

“N-n-no.” He was even crazier than the November killers were. And she was alone with him. Had she survived that awful night only to die here on this lonely hilltop?

“It is I. Garek.”

“G-garek?”

“Yes.” He folded her in his arms.

The embrace happened so quickly she had no warning it was coming, no opportunity to evade. His body felt hard with muscle. He smelled of virile male, woodsmoke, and a hint of sweat. For some reason, that scent made something deep inside her clench in longing.

God, what is wrong with me? This madman shouldn’t be turning me on.

Garek had begun to stroke her hair. “My love, my darling,” he murmured. “I never thought I would see you again. How is it you are here with me? How did you get here?”

“In a plane.”

He paused in his stroking. “A plane.” He spoke the word as if he had no idea what it meant.

“Yeah. You know, an airplane? I got on one and flew across the country to Oregon.”

“Oregon?”

Oh, boy. “That’s where we are. The state of Oregon.”

“But you were dead.” The stroking resumed, his fingers gently combing through the length of her hair. “I saw you die. They took you away from me.” His voice, low and rough, was full of wonder.

“Um, Garek, honestly I’m not this Kistolly girl. I’m Callista Harris. Okay? You’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”

He held her away from him, at arm’s length, and peered intently into her face. For the first time, she got a good look at him. Holy smokes, he was hot.

He had an angular face, with features so perfectly formed he could only be described as beautiful. Maybe even pretty. High cheekbones, straight nose, arched brows, pale hair that waved around his shoulders…and from what she could see of it, the body of a Greek god. His lower lip had a pout so luscious she wanted to bite it.

What the hell is wrong with me? He’s crazy, and that’s not sexy.

“When were you born?” he said.

“Huh? Uh. . .” How could she answer that? If she told the truth, he’d know she wasn’t human. But maybe he knew anyway, being Amaki and all. “I’m fifty years old.”

“Fifty,” he said, seeming completely unsurprised. “You are Kistalleh. The same soul in a new body.”

“What? No. No way. I don’t believe in reincarnation. Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you around, okay?” Callista tried to pull free.

He wouldn’t let go of her. “Do not go. I want to talk to you and try to understand this.”

“I can’t talk. I came up here with my boss, and he’s still around here somewhere. He’ll be pissed if he finds me slacking off on the job.” Oh, hell, she’d probably just given herself away. What kind of boss would take his employee hiking in the middle of the night? She sucked at this espionage stuff.

But give me a crystal ball and I can really kick ass.

“Your boss?”

“Yeah. The man I work for.”

“You are a slave?”

She snorted. “Not exactly.” But close enough.

Garek pulled her back into his embrace. “I will protect you. He will not harm you while I am here.”

He felt warm against her, even through the layers of their clothes. With her ear pressed to his chest, she could hear his heart beating. The urge to put her arms around that gorgeous body was almost too strong to resist. Would it hurt to play along for a little while? He was so yummy, and he seemed nice, for a crazy guy.

Callista, don’t be an ass. He could rape you, and there would be no-one to help you.

“Garek, you’re very sweet, but I really can’t stay and talk. I have to get back to my boss.”

“You truly do not know who you are, do you?” He sounded honestly perplexed.

“Yes, I do. I’m Callista Harris, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s been nice meeting you, but it’s time for me to leave.”

He still refused to let go of her. “Who is your boss? You are a vampire, are you not?”

Callista stilled. So he did recognize that part of her energy, at least. “Yes, I am. And you’re Amaki.”

“Uh huh. How is it you can read that part of my energy, and yet not recognize me?”

She sighed. “Because I’m not Kistolly. I’m Callista.”

“Kistalleh. And you are her. You just do not remember.”

“We’re not getting anywhere with this.”

“You do not believe me.”

“No, I don’t. I just met you, for pity’s sake. For all I know, you could be some psycho who lurks out here waiting for clueless women to happen along so you can murder them.”

Garek growled. He sounded just like a wolf, and it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. “I would never do something so vile. How could you think that of me?”

“I. Don’t. Know. You.” Callista used all her strength to jerk herself out of his grasp. “Leave me alone.”

She tore off at top vampire speed across the meadow and into the shelter of the trees. Strangely, he didn’t follow her. He probably could have caught her if he’d really wanted to—Amaki could run just as fast as any vampire. But he let her get away.

Screw this. Screw the whole damn mission. She was going to find Black and tell him she was done. If he wanted her to continue, he could damn well carry her.

Callista took to the air, homing in quickly on Black’s energy. He was still under the tree canopy, although farther toward the east than she’d been. She should have done this immediately after he’d lost her, and been done with it, instead of wasting her time with that hilltop lunatic.

It was easier tonight to weave her way between the branches of conifers and leafless deciduous trees. She only caught her clothing on a branch once. The frogs had fallen silent; even the owl had stopped calling and the forest had a stillness she found even eerier than the noises of the night creatures.

What a wimp. She should have never become a vampire. If only she hadn’t met Black…

Callista found the Seer hunched down beneath a naked deciduous tree whose rough gray bark gleamed silver in the moonlight. He was staring at something in his hand, but he glanced up at her as she lowered herself gently to earth beside him. His eyes looked silver, too, and seemed to glow from the shadows.

The man who’d seduced her to the vampire way. He gave her the creeps more than anything else in these woods. How could she ever have found this guy attractive? Yet at one time, he’d seemed like the key to something precious she’d lost, or maybe never really had but dreamed about.

“Callista.” His voice sounded cool as ever. “Did you find anything?”

She opened her mouth to tell him about Garek, but something in her throat seemed to close around the words. “No. I’m going back to the apartment.” Not home. That place would never be home.

Black frowned. “I haven’t dismissed you yet.”

“I feel ill.” She gave a shudder that was more real than theatrical. “I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from…you know…that night.”

He sighed and shook his head, “Very well. We’ll just have to return tomorrow night, however.”

“Okay. Fine.” Callista shrugged, as if she didn’t care one way or the other. But in her heart, she was thinking what about Garek? What would happen to him if Black found out about him?

All the way home, she pondered whether or not to tell the Seer about Garek. She ought to. It was her duty to report anything she’d seen that might be of interest, even if she didn’t know what it meant. But she didn’t want Black to know about him. And that was quite strange.

While she despised the vampire life and the Dark Empire, she’d never balked at doing her job. She hated all other vampires impartially. What did she care if they murdered each other? Every death lowered the overall vamp population, so it was all good. Of course, Garek wasn’t a vampire.

She’d only met a few Amaki. They tended to view the Dark Empire with hostility, which scored them several major points with her. They must have something going for them if they hated the Dark Empire as much as she did.

One thing she knew about them—they were able to go out during the day. In fact, she’d heard rumors they actually derived energy from sunlight, that they needed it for physical and mental health. That was something she could identify with.

Callista had never pursued suntans, but she’d loved the sunlight. She remembered the way it shone through leaves and flowers, making them glow like stained glass. The way it glinted off the surface of water and warmed her skin and made her feel alive.

I wouldn’t hate the night if I could have the day too.

Rumor had it that humans could be changed into fairies. If she’d met Garek instead of Raphael Black, she might have become Amaki instead of vampire. A weird surge of longing crashed through her, making her throat and heart ache. Almost as if she knew and missed him.

He thinks you’re his long-lost love, or something like that. What a crock. But a tiny, hidden part of her wondered, what if it was true? What if she really was this Kistalleh woman?

Nope. Not gonna go there. Reincarnation was completely bogus. Vampires—yeah, they were real. She had proof. Fairies, too. But dying and coming back as someone else? Come on. It sounded too good to be true, and in her experience, if something sounded too good to be true, it usually was.

Besides, at this moment in time, there were more people on the planet than had ever lived in the entirety of prior human history. If reincarnation was real, then were all those people brand-new souls? Or had some been sharing bodies with other souls during their past lives? Riding double, as it were. It made no sense.

Oh, Garek. So beautiful, and so totally crazy. Someone ought to help that poor man. He shouldn’t be wandering in the forest at night by himself.

Buy Darkness Forbidden:

Amazon   eBook    Paperback

Barnes and Noble    eBook     Paperback

Smashwords