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northerncorpdominion

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 8 months ago

Northern Corporate Dominion

 

Author: NA53

Fandom: Original

Pairing(s): Lukas/?, Joran/several

Warnings: Abuse, m/m rape, violence

Summary: When humans are seen only in terms of profit and loss, what happens to humanity?

 

Nominated Category:

Best Original Fic


 


Opening

 

Northern Corporate Dominion

 

As government became increasingly dependent on private industry to support society, the corporations began to assert more and more control, and eventually the two became indistinguishable. When the corporate government realized that slavery could be a viable economic solution to the costs of maintaining a workforce, many citizens found themselves reclassified as corporate assets.

 

Slaves were not taken from other civilizations through conquest, as in the past, but through more insidious means. Children, as property of their parents, could be sold to pay debts. Convicts became property of the state, and soon filled the factories and assembly lines of the private companies that bought them. Breeding farms, set up in the second generation after reinstitution, turned out enough product to meet an ever-more-voracious demand.

 

When humans are seen only in terms of profit and loss, what happens to humanity?

 


Book I: Pride

 

The train hissed almost silently through the night on its cushion of air. A few lights twinkled from outlying installations, but the area was largely uninhabited, and the countryside was deserted. Inside the train it was just as dark; the moonlight fell in narrow bars through the ventilation slits at the top of the car. Lukas shifted position inside his crate, and his chains jangled. He breathed deeply, tried to relax. His muscles were cramped from too long in the small space. He wished he could get out and stretch. Answering jingles came from elsewhere in the car, above, below, and to either side. The men were restless after thirty-six hours together; tired, bored, and hungry, they shuffled and muttered softly.

 

Lukas rubbed at his neck to get the kinks out. The manacles chafed his wrists and he grumbled quietly to himself. The wire floor of his crate had imprinted patterns on his bare ass and thighs, so he peeled himself off and got on his knees; the position was even more difficult, but it was worth it to give his backside some relief. When he couldn't hold it any longer, he settled back, wincing at the contact. He sighed, trying to get comfortable.

 

Something splashed through the ceiling of his crate and he swore, throwing himself to the side. "Goddamn it, warn someone before you piss!" he yelled. Snickers broke out around him. The man above him smiled and shook his cock off, hitting Lukas with the last few drops. "Shithead," grumbled Lukas, settling back down. Nothing he could do about it. The train moved smoothly, rocketing through the night.

 

The boy heard crying as he ran into the townhouse. "Mother?" Who was crying? Mother never cried, not ever. His ten-year-old heart raced as he pounded up the steps. "Mother, what's the matter, what happened?" Into her sitting room, and he stopped suddenly at the sight of two men. One had his hand on his mother's arm; the other stood by the chaise, a set of manacles slung over his shoulder. "Ms. Hansson, please don't make this difficult," the first man said. "You received notice two weeks ago; this should all have been taken care of by now."

 

She glared at him through her tears. "You unmitigated bastard," she spat. The boy blinked in shock. Swearing? Where had his mother gone? She'd told him how common that was...

 

"Mother, what are they doing here?" The boy scowled at the men. "Why is my mother crying? What have you done? Leave this house at once."

 

The man holding the manacles shook his head. "I hate dealing with aristos." He came over and swept the boy up in muscled arms, tossing him easily over his shoulder, striding toward the door.

 

The boy hit at his back, tried to kick him. "Put me down!" he shouted, trying to project a note of authority. "Let me go! Mother, tell him to let me go! Mother!" As he was carried from the room, he saw the other man chaining her wrists, and he screamed.

Early in the morning the train pulled into the depot. A murmur ran through the men stacked in the freight car as they looked forward to imminent offloading. Lukas grabbed the bars by his feet and pulled, stretching his shoulders. I want a shower. And some food. He heard a roar rising from the other cars, and he tried not to think about the gnawing feeling in his stomach that wasn’t hunger. This happens all the time. Get hold of yourself.

A shout broke out as the door slid open and the stevedores were silhouetted against the dawn sky. Men rattled their bars, yelled insults at the workers. They shouted back and began offloading the first crates. Lukas was toward the middle of the car, and he settled in for a long wait. The antigrav pallets sped things up, but they were only built to support so much weight, and stacking more than three crates on them was an invitation to catastrophe. The sun was high before they reached Lukas's row, and he was sweating as the heat rose in the car. He grumbled again to himself when he saw the hovering trucks, wondering how long it would be until their final destination. The stevedores stacked his crate on top of another, another pair loaded a crate on top of him, and they lowered the bay door. Lukas leaned back to wait. He'd had a lot of practice waiting. He sighed. At least he'd be one of the first off.

 


 

He couldn't tell how long he'd been sitting oblivious while the man in the crate beside him tried to get his attention. "Hey. Hey. Hey there. What's your name? Hey boy, what's your name?"

 

Lukas roused. "What?"

 

"What's your name?" The man was greasy and unkempt; he looked as if he hadn't washed in weeks. Lukas doubted he looked any better.

 

"Why do you want to know?"

 

The man grinned, showing missing teeth. "I want to know who's going to be sucking my cock later tonight."

 

Lukas rolled his eyes and moved to the far end of his crate. He turned his back and pointedly ignored the man. But his trance had been broken, and he grew restive. God, when are we going to get there? I'm so thirsty. He fiddled with the chip in the web of his hand. Bit his nails, cracked his knuckles one by one, braided the tangled strands of his brown hair. The man next to him stared at him, stroking his cock lazily. Lukas closed his eyes and endured.

 

Toward the front of the truck, someone yelled. "God! Get me out of here! I can't stand it, get me out, get me out, someone let me out!"

 

Everyone's attention turned to him. There were scattered derisive comments and lewd suggestions; the boy continued to scream. One joker near him started imitating him, drawing shouts of laughter. Lukas held his hands over his ears to shut it out, but when the guy beside him started banging on his crate, he lost his temper. "For God's sake, shut it down!" he yelled at the boy. "Shut the fuck up, Christ, you're going to drive me crazy!" The boy's screams grew more hysterical, and Lukas let out all his pent-up anxiety and tension in a wordless howl of his own.

 

That set everyone off. The men started hooting, shaking the bars and making animal noises. One guy on top started pissing, aiming anywhere he could reach. Lukas shouted again and kicked at the bars separating him from the man behind him. That man grabbed at his leg, leaving long scratches, and seized his foot. Lukas tried to shake him off, but the man shoved the foot in his mouth and bit down hard. Lukas screamed and hit at him, trying to nail him with the chain. The man held on with incredible jaw strength, eyes wild with delight. Lukas reached through the bars and grabbed matted hair. The man grunted in pain, and bit down harder. Lukas yelled, tried to ignore his hurting foot and gave a mighty yank, ripping the hair right out. The man screamed, and Lukas jerked his leg back into his own crate. The man lunged at him through the bars, but Lukas backed away to the end of his crate, closest to the door.

 

Breathing hard, he shut out the enraged screaming and concentrated on his foot. It was bleeding, and already beginning to swell. He spat on it to clean the other guy's saliva off, but his mouth was too dry to produce much. He fell back against the bars, spent for the moment. The rush of adrenaline had left him shaky, and he tried to remember how many days it'd been since he'd eaten.

 

His foot throbbed. He used the beats to mark the time. Five hundred, and the mass hysteria was dying down. Eight hundred, and it had stopped. A thousand, and he could feel himself falling asleep. He curled on his mesh floor, ignoring the pain of the wires pressing into his shoulder. He drifted in and out of sleep, counting the pulses when he could, pretty sure he wasn't counting right but so the hell what.

 

He was just waking up when the truck slowed and made a sharp turn. He was pressed against the side of his crate and tumbled to the floor. His heart lurched in grim anticipation.

 

 

 


2

 


 

The lowering sun hit his eyes hard as the bay door rolled up. He ducked his head, covered his eyes with his hands, the chain knocking him in the chest. The workers came up the ramp and yanked at the crates above him. Some of the men yelled at the stevedores; others sat silent and apathetic now the journey had ended. One man on the bottom started giggling and talking quietly to himself. The workers ignored him as they shifted the crates off the truck, hauling them around the corner of the building and out of sight.

 

Two workers lifted Lukas’s crate. "This one's awfully light," one said as they hefted it onto the pallet. "Think he’s eating?" They brought him around the building and into a wide courtyard. The crates were lined up in rows of eight, all placed on the ground. Lukas played idly with his chip as he stared around him. The gray walls enclosing the courtyard were high; the building itself was a solid block. He wondered if that was what all these places looked like. It had been so long, he couldn’t remember. There was a post by the wall, a ring bolted to it. He looked away, knowing what that was for. He stretched his neck to see the rows of crates placed side by side. How many trucks had there been?

 

The shadows grew as the sun went down, and Lukas began to shiver. It might have been hot during the day, but it was cold out in the open now that night was coming. He heard a shout and jerked his head around.

 

A blast of water hit him in the face, and he choked, sputtering for air. The heavy storm pounded down his body, then just as suddenly moved on to the crate next to him. He gasped and swore, wiping water out of his eyes, and began to shiver in the sudden chill. I don't remember that before, what the hell just happened? Yells around him indicated the hose was moving down the line. He bit his lip; his teeth still chattered, so he clamped his jaw tightly. The breeze picked up and the outside floodlights came on.

 

When his crate door was flung open, he wondered if he was dreaming. "Out," commanded a voice, and hands reached in, grabbed whatever parts of him they could reach, and hauled him onto the pavement.

 

He wasn't sure if he should try to stand. They hadn't been told to stand. But others around him were getting up, and nothing was happening to them, so it seemed fairly safe. He tried to stand and fell down. Fuck. Ow. His leg was cramping and he rubbed it, trying to chafe some warmth into it. He tried standing again but his back spasmed, bringing him to his knees. Shit. Shit. Shit. He tried once more, managed to make it to his feet. He shivered, dizzy, as another gust of wind hit him.

 

All around him he heard muttering. He couldn't make out words, but some of the men were talking in low voices. He didn't think that was a good idea. They hadn’t been told they could speak, and in the absence of explicit permission, silence was wisest.

 

"Shut up!" A voice through a loudspeaker. Conversation shut off instantly. "Single file, follow the lightpath, start on the left. Move your sorry asses!"

 

The ground lit green underneath his feet. He looked ahead and saw the path. He waited for the man in front of him to move, and when he did, Lukas followed. The path led across the courtyard and into the building. Lukas shivered again as he came inside; it was warmer, but not by much. He followed the man in front of him through the corridors, keeping his eye on the lightpath, until they stopped for no reason he could make out. He stood, unobtrusively stretching his muscles and rotating his joints, shuffling forward as the line moved. The only light came from the path, and it cast an eerie glow on the men as they waited.

 

"Name?"

 

"Lukas Dominikus Hansson."

 

A slap. "Name?"

 

"I told you," the boy protested, holding his cheek.

 

Another slap. "No last names. Name?"

 

"Lukas Dominikus, then," said the boy, arching an eyebrow.

 

A backhanded slap. The boy staggered, involuntary tears springing from his blue eyes. "No last names. Name?"

 

"Lukas." Grudgingly.

 

Slap. "Show respect."

 

"I'll show respect when I think you're worthy of it," growled the boy.

 

A thud. A kick, and another kick, and a cry of pain...

He reached the head of the line, where a guard stood. As Lukas waited patiently, he spoke into his comm, listened for the response, and gave Lukas a shove to his left. "Down there. Second to last door on the right."

 

"Thank you, sir," Lukas said and moved down the hall.

 

A man sat there behind a counter, a man in a white lab coat. "Sit," he said. "Hand on the table." Lukas sat upright in the straight-backed chair before the counter and put his hand out. The man scanned his chip with a beamer and entered the info into a datapad. He frowned. "That’s not right. You’ll need recoding." He looked up. "Name?"

 

"Lukas, sir."

 

He began to enter the name. "We have two Lukases already. You’ll be Lukas 305." He noted it.

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Age?"

 

"Twenty, sir."

 

"First sale was when?"

 

"Approximately ten years ago, sir."

 

"Number of sales?"

 

"Just the one, sir."

 

Sharp eyes peered at him over rimless glasses. "Ten’s awfully old to be let out of creche. What was the problem?"

 

Lukas stumbled over the reply. "I—no problem, sir. No creche. I lived with my mother, but her corp went bankrupt. There was malfeasance, and she was Chair. We were sold to make good on debts."

 

"Exek," muttered the man, noting it. Lukas folded his hands and tried not to fidget with his chip. "Training?" the man asked.

 

"General upkeep and maintenance, sir."

 

"Scutwork."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"No personal service or food preparation experience?"

 

"No, sir."

 

"Of course not." The man scribbled more notes. "Stand up. Come around to the back." Lukas did as he was told. The man placed him on a set of scales, measured his height, his muscle tone, his bodyfat, all the while scrawling on the datapad. Lukas turned his head and coughed, followed the light with his eyes, held still while the man looked in his ears and nose, opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue, bent over for the man to push a finger up his ass. He got a spray of antibiotics and a bandage for his foot.

 

The man checked over his notes, scanned his chip again, printed a plast and handed it to Lukas. "Take this and go to the end of the hall and up the stairs. You'll be shown where to go from there."

 

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Lukas left the room.

 

 

 


3


 

He found another guard at the top of the stairs. The guard held out a hand for the plast, and Lukas handed it over. The guard filed it and held out a hand again. Lukas frowned. "I'm sorry, sir?"

 

"Give me your hands. The manacles go back to the shipping company."

 

Lukas obediently held out his wrists, and the guard unlocked them. "Name and assigned location?" he asked.

 

"Lukas 305, sir. I don't know where I'm assigned."

 

"305, no problem, that's your designation. You're in Block B, Lot 5. Down the middle hallway, you’ll see the number over the door."

 

"Thank you, sir." Lukas followed the directions, blowing on the raw skin on his wrists. "5" was lettered over the first space he saw, a large cell with a grated front. The door was open; he went inside.

 

There were three men in a cell with eight doubletier bunks. Lukas measured them with his eyes. Two, he could probably handle the two by the wall, but not all three, not all at once. He crouched slightly, warily. The one on the bunk looked at him briefly, looked away. Lukas wrote him off in his mind. He must have lost quickly, or maybe he knew the others from before. The two by the wall looked him up and down, apparently deciding to hold off for the moment. Lukas was glad; he might be able to pick up a reinforcement from the others still due in. He took up a position opposite the two, splitting his attention between them and the door.

 

Another guy arrived, a big one. He stood in the middle of the cell as if claiming it. Shit. Lukas couldn't take him, not as weak as he was after the long trip. He hoped the big guy's trip had been longer.

 

Three more to go. The big guy moved toward the one on the bunk, only to be met threateningly by the other two. He backed off, raising his hands. Not worth his trouble, not yet. Attention was distracted when two more arrived, one red-haired, one dark. They hung back by the grating, looking nervously at each other. Lukas made a mental note to start with them.

 

One still to come. He arrived courtesy of the guards, who dragged him shrieking through the door. "No, please, no, don't put me in there, please!" Lukas scowled. It was the headcase, the kid who'd started screaming in the truck. He was going to go down hard. Everyone would go for him first. Maybe even the guy on the bed.

 

"Shut up," Lukas hissed at him. The boy slumped against the grille, trembling. The guards counted heads, nodded, and clanged the door shut. "Enjoy yourselves, ladies." They headed off down the corridor.

 

This was it. The stupid kid was moaning, wouldn't shut up. Lukas felt a surge of adrenaline. The others felt it too, eyeing each other, flexing muscles, clenching hands into fists. It was going to start, it just needed someone to set it off...

 

The two by the door began, lunging toward the kid. Lukas attacked them, yanking one back by his hair, snapping a kick at the other's knee. The red-haired guy went down and Lukas tossed the dark one aside and went for him. They grappled on the floor, first Lukas on top, then the other, and Lukas whispered harshly "Work with me here; if we hang together we can take the big guy."

 

"Fuck you," the guy on top of him grunted, banging Lukas's head against the floor. Lukas was dazed for a second, but recovered and slammed his knee into the guy's groin. The guy folded; Lukas shoved him off and jumped up. The dark guy had the kid by the hair and was banging him against the bars. Lukas grabbed him and threw him halfway across the room, where he ran into the big guy, who was menacing the wallhuggers. The big guy spun, furious.

 

Lukas turned to the kid, ready to take him down. The kid cringed back into the corner. He couldn't have been more than sixteen; his eyes were blue and they were screaming at him...

 

Lukas growled. Stupid, I am a fucking waster. "Get behind me," he ordered, and the kid obeyed immediately. He's useless, God, I hope we get out of this alive. He scanned the room. The big guy had given up on the wallhuggers and their boy; he was squaring off with the other two. They rushed him; he backhanded one to the floor. The other one danced out of reach. The guy on the floor looked up at Lukas, called "Hey!" They turned around, caught sight of Lukas and the crazy kid. The big guy grinned. Shit.

They forgot about fighting each other and came closer. The third one picked himself up and joined them. They approached Lukas cautiously, alert for weaknesses. He glanced at each of them. He knew he'd have to be first, or there was no chance. He lunged out suddenly, stomping on one guy's instep, crashing an elbow into the next guy's solarplexus. He brought his hand up to smash the big guy's nose, but the big guy was quick and caught his wrist, twisting his arm behind his back. Fuck! Oh fuck, I’m losing... Lukas kicked upward, trying to catch the man's groin, but the big guy deftly sidestepped and yanked Lukas's arm up sharply. Lukas yelled through his teeth, tried to catch the guy's head with an elbow, but one of the others grabbed that arm. Lukas used him as leverage and kicked out at the third, who danced back and rushed in, swinging a fist and catching Lukas on the side of the head. Lukas fell back, stunned. They let him drop, the big guy kicked him in the head, and the lights went out.

 

 


 

"Who the fuck do you think you are?"

 

"I'm Lukas." He wanted to use his full name, but the bruises up and down his body warned him against it. He didn't know if this boy would report him; he didn't know anything for sure down here.

 

"I'm Lukas." The boy imitated him in a high-pitched voice, and the others laughed. Lukas glared at them. Who were they to laugh at him?

 

"Silence," he told them, in his coldest exek voice. They shut up for a second, surprised, then roared with laughter. He stared at them icily, willing his consternation not to show. This wasn't supposed to happen, this was not the way things worked--

 

"Silence yourself," grunted their leader, and sank his fist into Lukas's belly. Lukas doubled over, retching, and they swarmed him.

Lukas woke up facedown on the floor, his hands tied behind him with a sheet from one of the bunks. He grunted, assessing bruises and other damage, and turned his head with difficulty, only to see the kid likewise facedown and tied. Surprise. God, am I stupid. Ever stop to think, shit-for-brains? He saw out of a swollen eye a foot stop beside his head. He had time to hope dully it wouldn't kick him again, before its owner straddled him and thumped down on his back. Lukas let out a whuff, trying to swallow a groan. The big guy pulled his head back by his still-damp hair. "I'm Stefan. What do you call me?"

 

"Sir," Lukas spat, thoroughly familiar with the drill. Stefan banged his head on the floor; his ears rang. "Listen up, fucker, you call me master. Got it?"

 

"Yes, master," he managed, his head spinning. Sure, master, king, lord of the fucking universe, whatever you want. We won't be here forever.

"Who are you?"

 

"Lukas 305, master."

 

The hand banged his head on the floor again. Blood trickled into his eye, stinging. "Who are you?"

 

"I'm Stefan’s fuckboy, master!" That had to work. Get this bastard off me.

"Damn straight," Stefan grunted. He forced Lukas's legs open and Lukas gave in to the inevitable, pulling his knees up and arching his back. He forced himself to relax and closed his eyes, hoping this would end soon. Stefan chuffed in satisfaction and thrust into him, pumping fiercely. Lukas fought for balance, and Stefan grabbed his hips to keep him upright. Lukas breathed against the abrasive concrete floor, clenching his teeth shut, enduring as he'd had to so often.

 

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes I all alone beweep my—ah fuck—outcast state—dammit—When in disgrace with fortune—son of a bitch—and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless—God, end it already—cries and look upon myself—he groaned as Stefan clamped down on his hips and shoved hard. Breathing fast, the big man got up and kicked him negligently in the ribs. He collapsed, sweat and blood stinging his eyes.

 

He heard him go to the kid and start the same routine. The headcase moaned when Stefan sat on him. Lukas hoped the kid had heard his answers and had been paying attention. It would go easier for him.

 

"Master," came the kid’s voice, and Lukas sighed. Good. He hoped the boy remembered the rest. When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes...

"I’m Jens, sir—I mean master." Oh, stupid kid, weren’t you listening before? Stefan smashed Jens’ head into the floor and the kid began to wail.

 

"Master, you sorry-ass motherfucking piece of shit, you call me master, you got it?" He banged Jens' head on the floor again. Jens was sobbing, couldn't speak. Lukas turned his head to the other side so he wouldn't have to see it. He twisted his wrists, trying to loosen the knot, and one of the other guys strode up and kicked him in the ribs. He grunted and gave up. The kid's screams rose on the other side, and he cursed himself for a fool.

 

 

 


4

 


 

Lukas rolled over on his bunk, trying to get comfortable. It had been at least an hour since they’d been let up, and the kid was still keening. He sighed in frustration at the noise that whined through his head like a drill. The customary pain in his ass was easier to ignore. It was a relief when Stefan stood up and hit the kid in the head. The keening stopped instantly, and Lukas relaxed. Thank God. His foot still hurt, and his body ached from the fists and feet of the others, but he could put up with all of that, as long as it stayed quiet.

 

He lay on the bunk, trying to calculate how long they’d have to wait. We’re only Lot 5. Wonder how many lots came in today. Eight in a lot... maybe twenty? He shook his head, stretched and let it go. There was no point to this; it'd been so long since his first and only sale, he had no reference. For all he knew it’d be six months till the next auction. And it was so good to lie down, so nice to feel something under his back other than wire mesh. He folded his arms under his head and closed his eyes.

 

Morning came quickly, and he jumped out of the bunk and stood, head down, as Stefan and his two lieutenants got up to use the toilet. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jens slide down from his bunk, copying Lukas’s attitude. Lukas ignored him. He’d thrown away his chance of a better position in the hierarchy for the sake of this little fuckhead; now he was stuck serving these three creeps for God knew how long, and seeing Jens so quiet just made him angry. Why the hell couldn’t you have done that before, and saved me so much fucking trouble?

"Down," said one of Stefan’s new buddies, grabbing Lukas’s hair, and Lukas fell to his knees and opened his mouth. Typical, no imagination here, he thought as the shaft slid down his throat. He inhaled when he could, forgoing any tongue action as the guy only seemed interested in banging in and out. You must be so popular with the ladies. Lukas swallowed the come reflexively, wiping his mouth as the jerk turned his back. Jens was getting the same treatment, Lukas could see, but he wasn’t taking it nearly as gracefully as Lukas had. He choked, coughing, and when the man came he let it spill out of his mouth as he sobbed. He choked again and threw up at his tormentor’s feet. The man backhanded him to the floor, and Lukas shook his head in disgust.

 

A pair of legs stopped in front of Lukas; he looked up to see Stefan. "Ravi says you know what you’re doing," he commented. Lukas shrugged. Stefan pointed to Jens. "Tell him what he needs to do. I don’t want him giving us this much trouble. Tor’ll end up killing him."

 

Oh God, why me? "Yes, master," he muttered, scowling at the sobbing boy. If I don’t kill him first.

"On your feet!" came a voice echoing down the hall. "Everyone line up by the bunks, hands behind your head. No moving!"

 

The door opened automatically; they stood still until a guard came down and waved them through. "Down that way, turn to the right. No talking." Lukas followed at the end of his group, hands fixed in place. Food? he thought hopefully. He was so hungry he felt lightheaded.

 

It wasn’t food, it was showers, almost as good. The water was warm, and it felt good to be able to scrub off the blood from yesterday’s battle and its aftermath. A couple of the men leered at him, but were warned off by hard stares from Stefan, Ravi, and Tor. His bruises and the dried blood on his legs made it clear he’d been claimed, and no one had strength or energy to dispute it right now. He sighed, rinsing off the soap, watching the water run down the drain.

 

When the water shut off, they were ordered to move to the next room, where their heads were shaved and they were sprayed with some chemical that made everyone’s eyes sting. As the line moved through the room, each man received a towel and a coverall. Lukas gratefully dried off and got dressed; the worn coverall provided a bit more protection from the chill air, not to mention from the eyes of the men around him. He saw Jens to his left, eyes huge-looking in his naked skull, shivering as he fastened the coverall shut. Lukas looked away, biting down on his anger.

 

They were marched down another hall and into a giant room. Cafeteria, oh thank you. Each man received a scoop of mush and a piece of dry bread, but the blandness didn’t stop Lukas’s mouth from watering. Two days? Three? God, I’m hungry.

 

He followed Stefan’s sharp motion to a table, sat where he was directed next to Jens. Before he could begin eating, Ravi snagged his and Jens’ bread, handing it over to Stefan, who broke a piece in half and handed it back to Ravi and Tor.

 

Jens stared at this with a shocked look; he got as far as "Hey, that’s—" before Lukas hit him in the back of the head. "Shut. Up," Lukas growled, glaring at him. "We don’t need trouble, you little shit." Jens turned fearful blue eyes on him. Lukas couldn’t look at those eyes. He attacked his mush in vengeful silence.

 

 


 

They were marched back to their cell afterward and locked in. Lukas diffidently tried to get the guard’s attention, "Excuse me, sir..." but the guard said nothing, just smacked the grille with his baton. Lukas jumped back. Ah well, couldn’t hurt to try. He wished he could ask someone about the sale. He flinched at a heavy grip on his shoulder, turned to see Tor. "Stefan says talk to him," he grunted, jerking his head at Jens who sat silently on his bunk. Lukas sighed and nodded. He hauled himself up to sit beside Jens.

 

"So what the hell is the problem here?"

 

Jens flinched back against the wall. "I’m sorry!"

 

"You’re right, you’re the sorriest sight I’ve ever seen. You an exek brat? What'd you do to end up with us?" Only ex-aristos were this shell-shocked on arrival.

 

"No." Jens shook his head. "Not an exek; my father's a franchise worker with CMU. And I didn't do anything."

 

"I can't believe that," Lukas scoffed. "What was it, credit fraud? Cracking?"

 

"I didn't do anything, I said!" Jens' voice cracked deeply. "It wasn't my fault. It was my father. He has a problem with gambling..."

 

Lukas stared at him. "Your father bet you?"

 

Jens nodded.

 

"Holy shit," Lukas grinned. "I thought my family fucked up. What an asshole."

 

Jens looked defensive for a moment, then shrugged. "I guess." His voice was bleak.

 

"All right, then." Lukas crossed his legs. "Do you know where you are?"

 

Jens shook his head. He rubbed at his eyes, and Lukas slapped him in the side of the head. "Cut that out. You’re at a wholesaler; they sell us in lots to retailers, who turn around and sell us for more. You’re in with the no-special-skills group, which means you have a rollicking life of janitorial work to look forward to, unless someone decides you’re interesting enough to train, which hardly ever happens so don’t get your hopes up. I don’t know when the auction is; it could be tomorrow or a few months from now. Until then you shut up and do what you’re told; you call Stefan master and everyone else sir and you probably won’t get hurt. Clear?"

 

"Yes, sir," Jens whispered, looking thoroughly terrified.

 

Lukas grimaced. "Everyone but me is sir. I’m no better than you, as far as they’re concerned. If they hear you call me sir, they’ll beat the shit out of you, and then out of me, so don’t, okay?"

 

"Okay." Jens looked so confused Lukas almost felt bad for him.

 

"You get used to it," he said, laying a hand on the kid’s knee. "Just try to relax when they do stuff to you, and it’ll get better. They’ll hurt you if you fight them, so just let them do it. It’ll end eventually."

 

Jens tried to hold it together, you could see it in his face, but his lips twisted and silent tears spilled down his cheeks. "Oh, fuck," Lukas muttered, looking around. Ravi and Tor sat on the bunk playing some kind of counting game; Stefan jerked his head up and scowled at him. He shrugged helplessly. A sound grabbed his attention—across the room, the two other guys had their fuckboy on the floor, one in each end. Lukas felt slightly sick and turned away. Jens had stopped crying and was staring horrified at them. He turned shocked eyes at Lukas. "Will they...?"

 

Lukas nodded. "Probably. Try and think of something else when it happens." Jens choked, and unreasoning anger rose in Lukas. "Christ, what did you think? You’re not going to last long if you keep freaking out over little things like this. The faster you get used to it, the better chance you have of staying the hell alive, you dumb kid. Oh God, don’t start crying again..." He flung himself down on the bunk.

 

I hate this. Why the hell did they make me do this? He’s going to screw up, and they’re going to blame me. Dammit.

Time hung heavy in their cell. Jens had stopped crying, sniffling only a little as he considered what Lukas had said. Lukas lay sprawled on the bunk in irritation. It was almost a relief when Stefan grabbed his ankle.

 

"You done up there? I want him."

 

Lukas looked at Jens, who shrank back against the wall. He nodded. "I told him. He understood. You aren't going to make trouble, are you?"

 

"No." Jens' voice was shaky. He moved slowly to the edge of the bed, slid down to the floor, and turned to face Stefan. "What do you want me to do, master?"

 

Lukas didn't want to watch. He'd seen this sort of thing often enough, and he felt sorry for the kid. Wasn't his fault his father was a damn idiot. Who bets a kid? What an ass. At least Lukas had gotten to enjoy the fruits of his mother's ill-gotten spoils before the law landed on them. Jens hadn't even gotten that much. He didn't look, but he listened, and nodded at the boy's responses. Sounded like Stefan was taking it a little easy on him, though Jens still screamed when he went in. Lukas stared at the wall and tried not to let it bother him. He wondered why it did.

 

Lukas lay sobbing in a pool of blood and piss. The big kid kicked him in the ribs again, and he moaned. "You sorry fucker," the big kid said, "you better learn to make me happy. You saw what I did to Margau when she said no."

 

The boy shuddered; he had seen. Everyone had seen. He nodded, hissed "Yes, sir," through bleeding lips. He pulled himself slowly to his knees. "What do you want me to do, sir?"

 

 


5


 

They were lined up that afternoon and taken to the courtyard. Lukas took deep breaths as they entered the fresh air. It was warm outside, and he smiled as he stretched his legs and arms, hopped up and down a few times to get the blood going. It could be worse, the whole thing could be much worse. Stefan was one of the bigger guys out here, and with Ravi and Tor backing him up, Lukas was fairly well protected. He wished he could run around the yard for a while, but he stuck close to his master. Better not to risk getting snatched; some of those slaves looked mean.

 

Jens shadowed him; he wished the kid would leave him alone, but he understood his fear. Besides, he felt unreasonably happy. He was outside, he didn't belong to the carpet factory anymore, and when the sun came out, he grinned at Jens. "Feels good, huh?"

 

Jens stared at him a minute, then gave a tentative smile. "Yeah." He winced as he took an awkward step. "Does... does it always hurt this much?"

 

"Not quite as much as the first time," Lukas assured him. "First is always the worst. You'll stretch after a while—it'll still hurt, unless they go slow, but it won't hurt as much."

 

Jens' smile was gone; he nodded. "Did I do all right?"

 

"I guess so. They didn't knock you out, right? Then you're fine."

 

He checked for Stefan, who was in conversation with a bald black guy. He edged away slightly, wondering if he could find anyone who knew about the auction. It was hard to know who to approach; he didn't know the lines of alliance here, who belonged to whom. He settled on a brown-skinned man with the beginnings of fuzz on his scalp; he must have been here at least a couple weeks.

 

"Hey," he hissed, "when is it?"

 

The guy shook his head. "Still haven't heard, sorry."

 

He looked around for someone else, and jumped when his arm was seized in a heavy grip. He turned and saw Tor, then staggered as Tor backhanded him hard, knocking him onto the concrete.

 

"Who the hell said you could socialize, fuckboy?" snapped Tor.

 

Ah no, no, I don't need this. "No one, sir," he responded. "I'm sorry, I was just trying—"

 

His words were cut off with a kick to the stomach. Oh, shit, he thought vaguely. He curled up and braced for the next blow, but when it didn't come, he looked up cautiously. Stefan stood there, hands at the ready.

 

"What happened?" he asked Tor.

 

Tor indicated Lukas contemptuously. "Found him trying to give it away."

 

"What? No!" Lukas felt a twinge of worry; an accusation like that could get him in real trouble. "Master, I wasn't, I was just asking about the auction, that's all. Shit, I'm not suicidal."

 

Stefan scowled at him, then up at Tor. "What did he say?"

 

Tor looked confused and shrugged. "Why does it matter?"

 

Stefan's fist shot out and sent him flying. "You call me sir when you speak to me, motherfucker, clear?"

 

Tor sprawled across the rough concrete; he sat up and winced as he touched his cheek. "Clear, sir." He stood and limped back to Ravi, turning to glare at Lukas when Stefan's back had turned. That glare promised Lukas a world of hurt. Suddenly the day no longer seemed so nice.

 

Lukas got up carefully, unsure whether Stefan was letting him go or not. No one descended on him. He checked his ribs; they seemed undamaged as he took a deep breath. All right then. He jumped as he felt a hand on his arm, but it was only Jens, looking at him with grave concern. "Are you okay?"

 

Okay? "Yeah, I guess so," he muttered. "Awfully close, though." Stefan wouldn't have killed him and robbed the wholesaler of a profit, but a broken arm would hurt a hell of a lot, even if it did heal eventually.

 

"Does that mean we aren't allowed to talk?" Jens looked very jumpy, as well he might.

 

"Not to other people. I think it's okay to talk to each other." Lukas sighed. "I don't know. Let's shut up for a while, okay?"

 

Jens nodded, but kept his hand on Lukas's arm. Lukas didn't shake it off. It felt good.

 


 

Six weeks. Lukas heard Stefan tell Ravi; he'd found out from the black guy. Auctions every two months; six weeks till the next. It heartened Lukas; he could survive anything for six weeks. Tor might be a bastard, but Stefan seemed fair, and as long as he kept his mouth shut and his head down he'd be fine.

 

Dinner was some gray meat product, more of the mush, and another slice of bread. Lukas and Jens got to keep half their meat and one piece of bread between them. Lukas considered taking the bread himself; he knew Jens would be too intimidated to complain, but the poor kid just looked so damn sad he didn't have the heart. Stupid, he told himself. You're going to need your strength. But he split the bread and gave Jens half. The small half.

 

Back to the cell to wait, and Lukas hung onto his bunk to stretch out his arms. He was still recovering from two days spent in the crate, and stretching was at least something to do. He had just begun on his legs when—"Hey fuckboy, get over here."

 

Lukas gave himself a mental shake and came to Stefan. "Master?"

 

"Clothes off, over the bed. Now!" barked when Lukas fumbled with the coverall's closures. He ripped one in his haste, tossed the coverall behind him, and threw himself over the bunk, clutching at the frame for support. When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, his mind automatically ran, I all alone beweep my outcast state, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, and look upon myself—he bit his lip as Stefan spread him, but the entry wasn't as rough as last night's had been, and he tried to ignore the pain from his already-damaged body, concentrating on the words—and look upon myself and curse my fate...

He ran through the poem twice more, with stops and restarts, before Stefan finished with him. His jaw clenched when Stefan called Ravi over, and he tightened his grip on the bed, but Stefan just ordered him to turn around and open his mouth, and he did, relieved. Ravi had no technique whatsoever, but Lukas found cocksucking much less hazardous to his body, even with the danger of teeth. All a question of knowing when to breathe.

 

Tor wasn't allowed any. He looked through narrowed eyes as Lukas climbed back up to his bunk. Lukas cursed quietly as his ankle hit a sharp-edged loose strut; he wiped the blood off with a finger, hoping there was no rust. Same damn foot, too. Anything else happens to it, they'll probably cut it off.

 

 


6


 

Things went much the same the next day, although it was Tor who ordered Lukas to his knees first thing in the morning. Lukas swallowed what he was given and ignored the retching sounds coming from his left. They were marched to breakfast, then back to their cell. The three other guys in their lot got busy right away; Lukas watched the show for a while until it grew repetitive, then tuned out and slouched against the wall.

 

He sneezed again from the carpet fibers, rubbing at his itching nose. He grimly pushed the broom back along the aisle, sweeping what had been clean only an hour before. Tufts of wool, acrylic, and nylon drifted above him, borne up by the currents of hot air jetted by the machines. It was sweltering and loud, but he'd grown so used to the pounding and noise that he didn't hear it anymore. One night the machines had been shut down, and he'd woken in a panic, convinced he'd gone deaf.

 

He collected his sweepings and tossed them into the incinerator, flinching back from the blast of heat. Had to be careful—one girl had lost her eyebrows when she got too close. That chore done, he picked up his vacuum brush and began sucking the dust and lint out of the machines. He worked his way back down the aisle, wondering how long it would be until dinner.

Lukas had drifted off; he started awake when he felt someone crouch down beside him. It was Jens. "Are you all right?"

 

"Sure," Lukas answered, wondering why he asked. "Um. You?" How does this conversation thing work again?

Jens gave a tiny shrug. "I'm not the one who got hurt last night."

 

"Hurt?" Lukas couldn't figure out what he meant for a second. "Oh, you mean that—oh. That wasn't hurt, that was nothing. It'll probably be you tonight."

 

Jens went a little pale, but nodded resolutely. "Okay." He looked sick, though, and Lukas gave him a half-grin.

 

"Just do what I told you, think of something else. Know any poems? Songs? Pick something you like, concentrate on it, and before you know it it's over."

 

They sat against the wall for a while, neither speaking. The other three had finished and the fuckboy limped to the toilet, scooping a handful of water and using it to wipe down his legs. Jens opened his mouth to speak to him; Lukas clapped a hand over it. "Did you learn nothing yesterday?" he asked. "If you want to talk to him, ask Stefan." Lukas rubbed his still-aching jaw.

 

"Why?" Jens asked in an aggravated whisper. "Why does he care?"

 

"Because he can. Because he's in charge. That's what happens when you win." Lukas shook his head. "Don't get so agitated, gosse, it's standard procedure."

 

"I hate it," Jens muttered.

 

Lukas nodded.

 


 

Yard time, dinner, fucking, bed. Lukas was glad for the respite. He lay on his bunk, listening as Jens tried his best to please. He knew that Jens needed to learn, and better he learn sooner. At least here they wouldn't hurt him too badly; he'd need to be in decent shape for the sale, and the other slaves knew what would happen if they permanently damaged property.

 

Still... the cries they wrung out of Jens were hard to ignore. When it was over, Jens dragged himself up to his bunk, face twisting with the effort. He curled onto his side, hugging his knees, his eyes shut. Lukas sat up and looked around for something to get his attention. He dug a bit of concrete from the crumbling wall beside his bunk and tossed it at Jens.

 

Jens didn’t move. He tossed another piece, hitting him in the face, and the boy opened his eyes. "Hey," Lukas mouthed, waving. Jens blinked at him. Lukas tried to think of something clever to say; nothing came. "Are you... all right?"

 

Jens shuddered, but gave him a wan smile and nodded. "Nothing," he mouthed.

 

Lukas smiled back and lay down.

 


 

He thought he'd go mad over the next two days. It had been hard enough waiting during transportation; now he was kept caged most of the day with nothing to do except service the three who'd taken him, and he alternated between pain and crashing boredom.

 

On the third day he gathered his courage and asked Stefan for permission to exercise. Stefan shrugged. Lukas wished he'd been brave enough to ask before, but prior experience had made him cautious. He started with push-ups, running through the routine he'd put together over the last few years. Tor glared at him from his bunk as Lukas did pull-ups on his own bunk above, and Lukas carefully dropped off and went to the next exercise. No sense in antagonizing the man any further.

 

Jens stood beside him as he ran in place. "Hey," he waved. Lukas raised an eyebrow. "Mind if I join you?" Jens questioned, picking up his knees to match Lukas's pace.

 

Lukas shrugged. "If you want." Jens ran beside him in silence. Lukas picked up the pace a bit, and Jens followed, but he had to drop out soon, panting. Lukas switched to jumping up and down, and Jens tried that too. He couldn’t keep up with Lukas, though, and he sank back onto the floor, coughing. Lukas quit jumping. "You all right?"

 

Jens grinned at him admiringly. "I’m fine. Jeez, you’re in shape!"

 

Lukas smiled, shrugging, and squatted beside him. "Yeah, well, it’s something to do. Keep it up, you’ll get better."

 

It was a couple weeks in that Lukas noticed Jens becoming more animated. He'd given him a couple tips on deepthroating, and the boy had taken to it quickly, performing his morning duties without the choking that had accompanied his earlier efforts. The tension in the cell had eased a bit, and Lukas and Jens both enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere. Lukas had hoped they might let him keep his bread as a reward for the training, but no luck. Stefan was good-humored though, and allowed them a certain amount of latitude both in the yard and in the cell.

 

"Where were you before you came here?" asked Jens one day.

 

"Factory. I don't know where it was," said Lukas, by now used to Jens starting up conversation out of nowhere. "It was hot, though. Sometimes they took us outside. There were mountains." He searched for his manners, rusty from disuse: "Where were you?"

 

"We lived in Nyskagen." Jens smirked. "And no, I've never done it in a sewage bin."

 

"What?" Lukas's expression was befuddled. "Sewage bin?"

 

"Yeah, from Dancer. You know, 'She fucked me in the sewage bin; I froze my ass in there.'"

 

There was a pause. "I think you've gone insane." Lukas edged away from Jens, and Jens pretended to bang his head on the wall in frustration.

 

"Dancer and Mignon. The horosho?"

 

Sudden comprehension burst on Lukas. "Oh, horosho. I haven't seen one in years. What's it about?"

 

"It's only the most popular program for the last five years. How could you not have seen it?"

 

"Factory. Remember?"

 

"Oh." Jens let his head fall against the wall with a touch of drama. "You're right, I'm an idiot. Of course not." He straightened up. "It's the best. Dancer's a spy and a courier, and Mignon is a low-level exek who loves her, but they can't be together because it would ruin Mignon's career, even though Dancer, it turned out, was the bastard daughter of some highmarket exek, but she's scandalous anyway, and Mignon has her hands full with working against the takeover and helping Dancer create gadgets that do incredibly mega things, and at one point she doesn't realize Dancer's working for the corp that's issuing the takeover, and—"

 

"Hey, hey, hey, slow down." Lukas could barely make sense of Jens' words, but what he heard fascinated him. "Start at the beginning. What’s her name—Mignon? What does she do?"

 

Jens kept him entertained all afternoon with the exploits of Mignon and Dancer (which, Lukas found out, was her code name, preferred to the more pedestrian Leni). They had to stop at dinnertime, but Lukas made Jens promise to tell him more the next day.

 

Jens spun the tale out for a couple weeks, and Lukas was enthralled. The storyline was repetitive enough, mostly variations on the women alternately saving each other from shadowy menaces, with a dash of sex and relationship angst. It was the details he loved, the glimpses into a way of life he barely remembered.

 

"How could she use the communit all tied up like that?"

 

"It was voice-activated. Once she got the gag off, it was easy."

 

"Please." Lukas was skeptical. "They have those?"

 

"Exeks do. We couldn’t afford one, but they’re advertised everywhere."

 

"Huh." Lukas tried to digest this. "What does Mignon’s house look like? You never told me, does she have a courtyard?"

 

Jens smiled. "No, she’s not that wealthy. Not yet. She might, though, if you quit talking and listen to the story. Something really big’s about to happen."

 

Lukas shut up and listened.

 


 

Lukas was sitting on his bunk one afternoon, waiting for yard time and running his hand over the new growth on his head. The stubble felt soft, and wasn't yet long enough to grab hold of, and the sensation was intriguing enough that it had been entertaining him for days. Jens touched his foot. "Can I come up?"

 

Lukas shrugged and nodded; Jens jumped and swung his legs onto the bed. The loose strut that annoyed Lukas caught Jens across the top of his foot; he winced in pain. "Son of a..." Lukas grinned.

 

"Watch that mouth, kid. Weren't you the one who was scared to open it a few weeks ago?"

 

Jens smiled back. "Yeah, I guess so." The smile dimmed, faded. "Yeah."

 

"What did you want?" Lukas prompted.

 

Jens shrugged. "Nothing."

 

Lukas shifted. He hadn't brought up Jens' fear to make him feel bad; it was just a joke. I'm no good at this. He cast around for a change of subject. They’d gone over Dancer and Mignon enough today, and Jens had already refused to tell him any more until tomorrow. "Hey. Want to play a game?"

 

Jens looked interested; anything that wasn't staring at the wall would be interesting. "What game?"

 

"Here, give me your hand." Lukas instructed him in the art of Fox-In-The-Spring, practicing it with him until he had it down. They began the first round, which Lukas won, then the second, which Jens won. "You little bastard," Lukas said in appreciation, "how'd you do that?" Jens showed him the trick, and Lukas worked a variation on it, and suddenly it was time to go to the yard.

 

Not a good day to be outside; it was raining and chilly, but Lukas jogged out anyway, Jens following him, and they circled the yard several times. By this time everyone knew not to mess with them; Stefan had made himself known, and no one was dumb enough to trade a grope for a broken wrist. Lukas enjoyed the freedom he was given, more than he'd been allowed in years. They ran until their lungs ached, grinning at each other as they bent over gasping by the pole, across the yard from the other slaves who'd taken shelter from the rain. Lukas's breath had just eased when Jens' eyes widened, and Lukas found himself bent almost backwards, a hand in his collar pulling it tight around his neck. He struggled for air, tried to kick at the man holding him, but saw through swimming eyes that it was Tor. He froze, allowing the man to wrench him around and grab his coverall in both fists.

 

"Sir, did I do something wrong? I'm sorry, I didn't—"

 

Tor spat on the ground. "Shut up." Lukas shut up. "I don't like you," Tor growled. "You're getting damn above yourself, and that bastard Stefan don't know what can happen when a fuckboy like you is given too much freedom." He pulled Lukas closer. "I do. And you better cut this shit out, or I’ll make you regret it."

 

"What do you want me to cut out, sir?" panted Lukas. "Just tell me."

 

"Don't try to give me orders." Tor slapped him. "I think you know." He released his hold on Lukas, who staggered but managed to keep his feet. "I don't want to see you running to Stefan about this, or there'll be trouble. And I won't be the one hurting at the end of it, understand?"

 

"I understand, sir," responded Lukas hurriedly. Tor left, joining the others from their exercise group huddling under an overhang. Lukas wiped rain from his face, wondering what Tor had meant.

 

"You all right?" asked Jens. Lukas nodded and tried not to look as concerned as he felt.

 

"It's no problem. Just a difference of opinion. Or something. Let's go hang out near Stefan, okay?"

 

"Okay," replied Jens, looking unconvinced. They jogged back to the overhang.

 

 


7


 

Lukas kept close to Stefan when they were out in the yard, mindful of the warning. Stefan looked annoyed sometimes, but didn't say anything. Lukas kept a respectful silence and hoped that was enough to satisfy Tor. Jens stuck with him, and Lukas didn't even mind anymore. It helped to feel someone at his back, even if it was someone who would be of no help whatsoever if punishment came down.

 

Only two weeks to go, he kept telling himself. Maybe the next place will be better. It could be worse, but he didn't want to think about that.

 

Jens was doing much better. He still limped for a few hours after being screwed, but he was able to shove aside the pain and crack jokes with Lukas. He’d nicknamed Tor "the Angry Red Menace," and Lukas had had to dig his nails into his palms not to laugh out loud when Tor sent him to his knees the next morning. Jens’ mouth sometimes ran away from him, though, and on more than one occasion Stefan had smacked him around when he’d thought the kid was too flip. Jens took the punishment gamely, whispering to Lukas afterward that he would have come up with something more remarkable to say if he’d known he was going to be hit for it. He'd toughened considerably from the scared kid the guards had shoved into the cell a month previously.

 

Lukas didn't want to think about what was going to happen to Jens after the auction. He tried to detach, to tell himself it didn't matter, that the kid had learned enough in the cell to keep anyone reasonably happy, and that it wasn't his worry anyway. When that didn't help, he tried to convince himself that they'd probably be bought by the same corp—they often bought up multiple lots of unskilled workers, and the chances were good Lukas would be able to keep an eye on him. Even so, he was uneasy, and that bothered him. There's no reason to worry. No reason. Stop it.

He thought Jens might be worried too. Lukas caught him once or twice staring at him. It made him nervous; Tor might misinterpret what was going on and come down on both of them. He glared back at Jens when he did that, and Jens looked away silently. Only two weeks to go. Let's not start something with them, okay?

Tensions were rising throughout the storage facility. More fights broke out in the yard the closer auction time came; fuckboys screamed into the night as their transitory masters raped them over and over, seeking an outlet for the stress. Tempers were short, Stefan grew snappish, and Lukas watched his step carefully. Jens didn't have to be told by now to comply with orders; he kept his mouth shut and jumped eagerly to please whenever Stefan, Ravi or Tor gestured to him.

 

The guards kept a closer eye on the slaves; fights were broken up more quickly, as visible bruises tended to bring prices down, even if they were temporary. Lukas heard a rumor that a slave had been raped to death in Block C, but no public punishment had been administered that he'd heard of, so he was inclined to discount it. The mealtime atmosphere was more strained than before; conversation was lower, attitudes were edgier. Ravi took all of Lukas's food one night, glaring at him as if daring him to object. He didn't. Jens gave him what bread they left him, and he ate it, but it wasn't much and he had a difficult time falling asleep so hungry.

 

One day in the yard, with a week to go, Lukas threw caution to the wind. He needed to run, needed to let out his anxiety in the only way open to him, no matter what Tor thought of it. Only a week left to go, what's he going to do to me anyway? He didn't say a word to Jens, just began at a slow jog, and Jens trotted behind, probably glad Lukas was leading the way. No one paid attention to them, and Lukas sped up the pace. Around and around they went, legs pistoning, arms pumping fiercely, and Lukas stopped counting the laps, just ran and ran as if he could run out of this life and into the next. I'd run until I dropped dead if I believed that.

He ran until he couldn't anymore, until his run was a shambling mockery of a stride, and he ended up collapsed by the wall where Jens had dragged himself a few minutes before. They sat side by side, wheezing like old racehorses, coughing when their stabbing lungs couldn't handle a breath. Lukas felt his stomach ease a bit, and he smiled at Jens. Jens huffed in a breath and smiled back.

 

And leaned over and kissed him.

 

Lukas froze, couldn't respond for a moment. No, no, we can't do this, we're not allowed! his mind screamed, but his body wasn't paying attention, his hands were rising to cup Jens' face, and suddenly he was kissing him back, hoping he was doing it right, he'd never done it before and he'd be ashamed if he was disappointing... It felt so good, better than anything he’d experienced ever; his cock stirred and began to swell for the first time with desire rather than physical stimulation, and he was so close to Jens, inside his head almost, their tongues wrapped around each other, and for a second the world was gone, it was just the two of them and the kiss—

 

"Oh, this is very nice."

 

At the sound of the voice they jerked away from each other. Tor stood there, beaming down at them as if they'd given him a present. Which Lukas supposed they had. The kiss withered in his mouth, turning to ash, and he tried to say something, anything to diminish what was going to happen next. "Sir, please, I—" His mind blanked. He kept his expression still as Tor reached for him and hauled him to his feet.

 

"Come with me!" he snapped at Jens, who followed obediently, white-faced and silent for once, as Tor dragged Lukas back to Stefan. Stay calm, Lukas told himself. He can't kill me, not this close to the auction, can't break my arms or legs, he must know that. I’ll get a beating, nothing more. Just stay calm. Stefan looked over as Tor caught his attention; he scowled. "What is it?"

 

"Sir, I caught them going at it over by the wall. Did they get permission from you?" Tor's voice was triumphant; Lukas raced to come up with an explanation.

 

"No." Stefan's scowl deepened. He turned it on Jens. "You little pricktease, what the hell were you thinking?" Jens opened his mouth; no sound came out. Stefan thought a moment. "Break a couple fingers," he directed Tor. "The higher-ups won’t notice." Tor grinned and grabbed Jens’ hand. Jens gasped and looked like he would pass out any second.

"It was my fault, master," burst out Lukas. "I came on to him; he was trying to push me away. I'm sorry, I'm just stressed, I didn't think, I'm so sorry." I can take it better, whatever they do, I can handle it better than him, he's so damn young and they're so damn mad. Stefan stepped in front of him.

 

"That so? That was stupid, fuckboy," Stefan said deliberately.

 

Lukas nodded. "You're right, master, you're absolutely right, I'm an idiot, I wasn't thinking, I'm sorry, I swear it won't happen again."

 

"Damn straight it won't," said Tor, giving him a shake and letting him go. Lukas went to his knees at Stefan's feet. "Sir," continued Tor, "can I speak to you privately?"

 

Stefan's scowl transferred to Ravi. "Watch them," he ordered, and strode off with Tor. Ravi nodded at Stefan's back and kicked desultorily at Lukas. "Stupid. You're in a hell of a lot of trouble."

 

Lukas nodded, distracted. What the hell did I just let myself in for? How many fingers are they going to do? Shit, this is going to hurt. Don’t say a damn word, Jens, let me handle this.

The horn sounded, and the guards began rounding the slaves up. Lukas didn't dare stand without permission, but Stefan and Tor returned and gestured him up. He rose and marched with the others back to their cell. He stood by his bunk as they were locked in, and tried not to flinch as Stefan turned and unhurriedly walked up to him. His hand drew back and Lukas braced for it, but the blow was powerful enough to knock him off his feet. He hit his head on the bunk as he went down, and groaned. Stefan's foot on his chest told him to stay where he was.

 

"You are the dumbest of dumb shits I have ever run across," he said. Lukas nodded in agreement. "Shut up," said Stefan, forestalling anything Lukas might say. "I was not hard on you. I let you talk to your little friend there, I gave you the freedom of the yard, I didn't trade your asses for food or blankets or attention from another man's boy. All I asked in return was respect and loyal service. So you decided to screw with me by taking my boy without even the courtesy of asking. What do you think that tells me?"

 

Lukas licked his lips, mentally running over answers. What won’t piss him off any further? Stefan was waiting for a reply, and he forced something out. "Master, we only kissed, that was all—"

 

"It tells me you're a stupid-ass motherfucker who doesn't give a shit about how nice I am!" Stefan roared. "You're an ungrateful son of a bitch and if I broke your neck, it would be less than you deserve!" Lukas recoiled, every hair on his body standing on end. Oh shit. This is going to be really bad. Too late now, too late, just get through it. Stefan leaned down and yanked him to his feet.

 

"Strip," he ordered in a growl. "Both of you." They pulled off their clothes as fast as they could. "Face the wall, hands behind your head. Spread your fucking legs!" They obeyed, anticipating the beating of a lifetime.

 

But Stefan left them there. Went grumbling to his bunk and sprawled out, leaving them naked against the wall, waiting for punishment. Lukas cautiously shifted his weight after a few minutes, but no one seemed to notice. His arms began to tire after a little while, and his fingers were tingling. He gritted his teeth and held still. Okay, beat me already, just let me move.

The cell was quiet for a long time, and the pain in his shoulders grew until it was all Lukas could think about. Realization hit him—they aren't going to let us go, are they? They can keep us here for hours. How long can I hold still? Cold sweat trickled down his back and the cleft of his ass. He couldn't look around, couldn't check to see how Jens was doing, but he hoped urgently that the kid had enough sense to keep quiet, no matter how painful his arms got. He should have learned that by now.

 

Dinnertime came around; Lukas didn't move, and neither did Jens. When the door opened and the guard came around to motion them out, Stefan forestalled any questions. "They fucked up," he announced. "They don't eat." Apparently the guard had no problem with that, because he let the rest of them out and shut the cell door.

 

Lukas slumped against the wall; his hands came back to prickling life as he relaxed his shoulders. Why the hell did I do that? Why did I take the blame, why did he kiss me, why did I kiss him back? He couldn't understand it, couldn't understand himself. He'd spent half his life avoiding situations like this, and because some little guy kissed him, he lost all his wits? You are such a goddamn idiot. You fool. They are going to make you pay for this, so badly.

"Lukas?" came a barely controlled voice from beside him. "Lukas, I'm sorry—"

 

"Shut up," Lukas said, harsh in his gloom. "Just shut up. We're in enough trouble, we're sure as hell not allowed to talk. Let's not make it worse."

 

There was silence. Lukas called himself every name he could think of several times over.

 

 


8


 

Lukas’s stomach turned over when he heard the tramp of feet along the corridor. He straightened back up, his hands securely behind his head. He bit his lips, trying to slow his breathing, but it was no use; the panic had its teeth in him and wasn’t letting go. Just fingers. It won’t be so bad. He wished he could believe that; he’d had bones broken before. Every muscle was taut as the cell door opened and slammed shut again. He could hear Jens’ rapid breath next to him.

 

There was a presence behind him; he fought not to cringe. He stared straight ahead and prayed for this to be over, no matter what happened, just for it to end quickly. The expectation was more than he could stand. The presence gave a low chuckle. Tor. There was a sharp outcry from Jens as they yanked him away from the wall, and Lukas braced for the same treatment, but Tor’s hand on his shoulder spun him around and shoved him back against the wall. "Stay there," Tor ordered. "Don’t even fucking think about dropping your hands." Lukas couldn’t move. His eyes darted around the cell; he saw the other three on their bunks, their eyes gleaming, transfixed by the upcoming show.

 

They’d forced Jens to his knees, Ravi’s hand clenched in his inch of hair. Jens breathed shallowly, his eyes hypnotized on Stefan. Stefan looked meaningfully at Lukas. "Remember," he said, "this is because of you."

 

Ravi shoved Jens’ face into the floor, and the boy groaned through his teeth. Lukas closed his eyes, sickened, but Tor hit him in the side of the head. "Watch," he snarled. Lukas made a noise of protest but opened his eyes, fixing them on the sight in front of him.

 

Stefan went first, seizing Jens’ hips and hauling him backward onto his cock. Jens cried out, clenching his fists on nothing as Stefan shoved into him hard, pulled out and slammed in again, over and over until he came, dropping the boy onto the floor. Ravi went next, his teeth white in his dark face, his back arching over Jens’ unresisting body, then Tor, who caused what damage he could with great pleasure spread across his features. Lukas stood rigid, eyes staring down at the scene, trying desolately to think of something else—When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep—but it was impossible, he couldn’t escape this way, not with Jens weeping on the floor in front of him, with Stefan taking another turn, and Ravi, and Tor, Jens’ sobs weakening as his strength ebbed. And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries...

When the three men were finally exhausted, they picked Jens up and dumped him on his bunk. He lay curled up, whimpering, blood running freely down his legs and staining the sheets. They went to their own bunks then, and the lights went out, leaving Lukas standing alone in the dark, held immobile by Stefan’s order until he was released.

 

The new supervisor sat up, slapping Lukas on the ass. "Bet you wish you’d held still now, don’t you, boy?"

 

Lukas closed his eyes and nodded, unable to speak through the gag. His arms and legs ached from pulling on the ropes; he’d tried to hold still, had tried to take it without complaint, but the supervisor was the third one that day and he couldn’t stop himself from twisting away when the man had pushed him face about against the wall. He’d apologized, had placed his hands on the wall and offered himself immediately, but the supervisor wasn’t placated and had hauled him to his own apartment and tied him to the bed.

 

"You’re going to stay the night here," the man informed him. "Just as you are. I don’t think you’ll move next time, will you?"

 

Lukas shook his head. No, he wouldn’t move, he’d find the strength inside to do nothing. Somehow.

 


 

By morning Lukas was shivering, his hands numb behind his head. He’d listened to Jens crying all night, and hadn’t really started worrying until it stopped a few hours ago. He couldn’t move to check on him; he hoped anxiously the kid was okay, or at least alive. There had been so much blood; it stained the concrete in front of him. He couldn’t stop looking at it.

 

His heart began to race again as Stefan stirred. The man rose slowly, stretching, and stood up to check on Jens in the upper bunk, ignoring Lukas. There were noises up and down the block, as slaves awoke to another day of enforced idleness. It would be time for breakfast soon. Lukas felt too sick to be hungry. He swayed on his feet, and Stefan saw.

 

"Sit," he ordered. Lukas didn’t need to be told again; he crumpled to the floor, every muscle aching. He tried to speak, cleared his throat and tried again.

 

"Is he all right, master?"

 

"He’ll live." Stefan jerked Ravi’s blanket off. "Get up." Ravi muttered something and rose. "Get some water and clean him off." Ravi nodded, yawning, and stumped to the toilet.

 

Lukas lifted his head as the guard came for them. "Stand up," came the command, and he stood, silencing a groan. "No breakfast; you’ll stay here," said Stefan, and Lukas nodded. He glanced up to Jens’ bunk.

 

"Tor," called Stefan. Tor appeared at his shoulder. "They don’t eat this morning," said Stefan. "Neither do you. Stay here and watch them, and keep loverboy there off him."

 

Tor frowned, but said only "Yes, sir."

 

Ravi grinned. "We’ll bring you back a plate, puppy." He snickered at Tor’s growl and followed Stefan and the others out of the cell.

 

Tor turned to face Lukas as the door closed. "Back against the wall, fuckboy. Hands behind your head and no moving." Lukas obeyed, weary muscles yelping. Tor stood directly in front of him, their noses nearly touching. "I blame you," he whispered. "This is your fault." Lukas paled, but Tor was already turning away. His mouth tightened as Tor reached up and grabbed Jens’ leg, dragging him down from the bed. Don’t touch him. You’ll kill him, you bastard. Leave him alone.

Jens moaned as Tor deposited him on the floor. He tried to fend off his hands, but he was too feeble to have an effect. Tor looked at Lukas and grinned. "Keep watching." He gripped Jens’ bruised hips and shoved into him, hard.

 

Lukas stared, motionless. It'll end soon. Everything ends. Jens wailed as the assault ripped him apart. Lukas gritted his teeth and tried not to hear.

 

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

A fist shot out and sent him stumbling. "You stupid kid, they shut down the entire line because of you!" A boot caught him in the gut and he collapsed to the floor, breath coming in shallow gasps. "Do you know how much this is going to cost?" Another boot, this one to the head, and sparks flew before his eyes...

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

He flinched as Jens screamed high, as Tor wrenched his arm behind his back and yanked.

 

And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,

Jens’ rough sobs were coming steadily, and Tor’s grin was feral as he slammed into him. "Please..." Jens managed. "Sir, please..." Lukas’s heart twisted in excruciating sympathy.

 

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

"Sir, you’re going to kill him!" he burst out. Jens screamed again as Tor seized his hand and bent a finger back, snapping it.

 

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

He huddled under the sheet, one of over a hundred boys in the large room’s triple-tier bunks. He shivered at the sound of feet across the floor, the muffled cries of other boys around him, waited for the hands to find him...

Featur’d like him, like him with friends possessed,

Tor paid no attention to Lukas’s pleas, and Lukas gave up. He prayed for it to be over, for someone to return and stop this.

 

Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,

He fought Jorgen in the bathroom, cheered on by the others who were eager for blood. If he could beat him, he’d get a short respite, some respect, maybe a full night’s sleep. He seized Jorgen’s hair, pounded his face into the plumbing fixtures. Blood spurted from Jorgen’s mouth, and Lukas wiped his own blood out of his eyes so he could see it.

With what I most enjoy contented least:

Time decelerated, and Tor’s blow to Jens’ head seemed to occur in slow motion. Lukas’s eyes widened. His gut constricted. His fingers unlaced from behind his head.

 

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Tor’s attention was entirely taken by Jens’ pitiful struggles. He smiled at him, running a finger down his thigh and tasting the blood. Lukas dropped his hands and turned to his bunk. All the time in the world was his.

 

Haply, I think on thee—and then my state,

He grabbed the loose strut and pulled with every bit of strength he could muster. It wrenched from the wall as the old concrete gave way, crumbling to the floor. He didn’t hear it, turning his eyes to the sight before him.

 

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

Tor never saw the bar swinging toward him, probably didn’t feel a thing after it connected, throwing him to the floor. Lukas swung it again, his lips pulled back in a fierce grin. Blood gushed from Tor’s head; his arms reached for something, and Lukas lifted the metal bar over his head, bringing it down with all his might.

 

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

His head was light, his body was granite, and he slammed the strut into Tor’s head one final time. He felt bone crunch and give way. Jens twitched as a spray of blood splashed his cheek.

 

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings,

The strut clanged to the floor. He dropped to his knees beside Jens, drawing breath in gulps.

 

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

 


9


 

It was dark in the isolation cell. Lukas reached behind himself with bound hands to find the wall. He pulled himself backward, every move sending pain down his arms, until he could hunch in a corner of the narrow chamber.

 

He had stayed there with Jens until the guards came back to lock the slaves up. At the sight of the blood and Tor's body, their guard had slapped an alarm button on his belt and drew a taser pistol. "Against the wall!" he'd yelled, and Lukas had obeyed without a word, standing back as the reinforcements arrived and cautiously entered the cell.

 

He'd turned around when they told him to, hadn't resisted as they locked cuffs around his wrists. "I think he's dying, sir," he'd said, but he had barely heard himself and he wasn't sure if anyone had noticed.

 

A tear slipped down his face in the darkness. He tasted it. Strange. He couldn't remember the last time that had happened.

 

They hadn't beaten him, just dragged him down here to isolation and threw him in. He didn't think he'd be here long.

 

I wonder how I'll die.

He'd robbed the company. Being unskilled labor, Tor wouldn't have been terribly valuable, but then, neither was he. Plenty more where they came from. He'd be executed as a warning to the others, if nothing else.

 

Will it be today? Tomorrow?

He wrapped his fingers in the short chain behind his back and tightened his grasp.

 

Will they hang me? I didn't see a gallows.

He felt regret, and pushed it back. Nothing to regret. He was glad that bastard was dead; he wished he'd gotten him before he'd been able to hurt Jens that last time. He suspected Tor had been behind last night's rape as well, had known how it would tear at Lukas to see Jens in pain and be unable to help.

 

Maybe they'll shoot me. That would be easier. No special equipment. I wonder how long I'll feel it.

How had Tor known that? Lukas hadn't. He'd seen a multitude of rapes in his life, and all he'd felt was relief that it wasn't him. He hadn't known this would be so different.

 

I don't want to die.

If there was one thing the universe had taught him, it was that what he wanted made no difference. Doesn't matter, does it? It wasn't much of a life anyway.

He wished he could see Jens again before he died. If he was going to get himself killed, he'd like to be able to say something to him. Although he couldn't think of a thing to say. Maybe he'd just tell him not to feel bad. It's not your fault. It was my choice.

He hoped Jens had learned enough to survive on his own. It was hard, very hard, when you were used to such a different way of life. Just do what you're told and stay out of trouble. He snorted. Good advice, but he'd been a terrible example.

 

He crossed his legs and tried to get used to the idea of death.

 


 

He couldn't tell how long it had been before they came to let him out. He stood slowly, every nerve screaming, and limped out at their order. He wanted to ask them how it would be done, but he choked on the words. He'd find out soon enough, anyway.

 

The sun was high overhead as they came out into the courtyard. The light stabbed at his eyes, and he hunched to block it out. He saw rows upon rows of slaves standing there, facing the wall. And the post with the ring at the top. Shooting, then. I hope they shoot me in the head.

It felt like a dream as he walked with his guards to the post. He could hear himself breathe, felt every beat of his heart as they stopped him and unchained his hands. It’ll be over quickly, he told himself. You won't feel it. You won't feel it.

They rebound him and fastened his cuffs to the ring over his head. He went cold as they stepped away. They had chained him facing the pole.

 

Oh my God. They're going to beat me to death.

The fragile control he’d held on himself shattered. "No!" he shouted, straining at his bonds, trying to see behind him. "No, please, you can't do this! Please, not this way, not like this, I'll do anything, please don't do it this way! No, oh God no!" His cries went unheeded as preparations continued. He clutched at the chain holding his hands in place, tearing at it with his fingernails, as if he had any hope of escaping. "Please," he begged, twisting as far as he could to face them, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, please don't do this to me, just make it clean, not like this! Oh God..." moaned as he caught sight of the guard uncoiling the proton whip. He hung in his chains without hope and sobbed unreservedly as they read his crime and sentence aloud.

 

"For theft of Company profits equal to one thousand credits, the mandatory minimum punishment of fifty lashes is imposed. Sentence to be carried out immediately."

 

Stunned, Lukas barely felt the first blow, though it almost rocked him off his feet. Fifty? The second lash fell, the charged particles sizzling as the whip ripped through his skin, and he shouted in surprise and pain. He gripped the ring tightly, biting his lip as the third tore at him. The whip laid him open, flayed him raw, and each electric crack sent hideous agony spiraling throughout his body, drawing screams he'd never known he was capable of making. But his sudden, dizzying hope kept him on his feet, kept his hands firmly grasping the ring. He lost count after a time, his vision began to turn black at the edges, but he held on grimly, determined that this would not be the end, even as he sank into crackling darkness...

 


 

Lukas awoke facedown in a haze of red mist. He tried to open his eyes, but they were stuck together, and when he tried to lift a hand to his face the movement sent shockwaves stabbing through his body. "Hold still," he heard. "I don't want you tearing the cuts open again."

 

He obeyed, wincing as he let his arm drop. I'm not dead, he thought with a rush of giddiness. Death couldn't hurt this much. A spray hissed against his arm, and he felt cool numbness creeping over his body. "You'll never heal if you don't sleep," the voice said. "Punishment is one thing, but the client wants delivery in a few days." Client? What client—the numbness spread to his head, and the world was gone.

 


 

When he came to again, he could open his eyes. He focused on a dingy green wall. Interesting. There was light, so he wasn't in isolation, which was the last thing he remembered. He tried to dredge up what had happened after the isolation cell—oh. Memory wasn't pleasant. But I'm not dead.

He turned his head and gasped—there was still pain, so much pain, but he gritted his teeth and bore it, blinking tears back. There were beds, all empty. A pair of legs came into view and his eyes darted upward. "How do you feel?" asked an impersonal voice. Lukas frowned in recognition.

 

"I'll live, I think, sir," he answered the doctor who'd processed him in. "But it hurts."

 

"It should," the doctor replied. "Idiot. What did you expect when you pulled a stunt like that?"

 

Lukas closed his eyes, remembering. "I thought they'd kill me," he whispered. His eyes flew open again. "Sir, what about Jens? Is he all right? Is he alive?"

 

"The boy from your lot? He's alive. They used him badly, but he'll heal. I fixed him up as best I could here, and he was sold at the auction yesterday." He tilted his head. "He was your lover?"

 

Lukas's eyes dropped to the floor. "No, sir," he mumbled, trying to hold back tears. I wish I could have said goodbye. Be good. Keep your mouth shut and stay out of trouble.

The doctor snorted. "Right. You have a savior complex, then? They'd have killed you ordinarily, you know."

 

Lukas knew. "Why didn't they?"

 

"They decided it would be too cruel," the doctor said. Lukas looked up at him in incredulity, and the doctor grinned. "Just kidding. Your profit is going to outweigh the loss of the poor bastard you killed by a significant margin. I guess they figured fifty lashes would be enough to discourage the rest of the sheep from trying it."

 

Lukas shook his head and grimaced as agony flared down his nerves. "Sir? I don't understand. I can't be worth that much."

 

"Normally, no." The doctor sat on a bed opposite. "But you've been sold to Bunter's. They bid high on you. I hope they won't be disappointed."

 

"Bunter's?" Lukas tried to absorb this knowledge, but it was wholly unbelievable. "Personal service? Sir, I have no experience, why would they want me?" When did they see me?

"Of course you have no experience. If you did, you wouldn't need training, would you?" The doctor shrugged. "If you really want to know, I recommended you. You impressed me as intelligent and reasonably articulate, and it seemed a shame to keep you in with the labor pool." He grinned again. "I'd never heard a slave use the word 'malfeasance' correctly."

 

Lukas had no words. This possibility had never occurred to him. The doctor continued in a lower tone, "We aren’t going to report this incident to them. You’d be smart to keep your mouth shut. They’ll ask about the whip marks; you’ll tell them it was a routine interrogation after an escape attempt by some of the slaves. That’s what’s going in your file. You won’t be implicated, and we’ll be clear."

 

"Understood, sir." And he did understand. They needed to cover their asses; no reputable place would take on a troublemaker. God, don’t let me screw this up. This was his chance—he’d never get another shot like this.

 

"Good." The doctor stood. "Behave yourself. I’d rather not see you back here." He left Lukas alone; Lukas closed his eyes, exhausted by conversation. His thoughts reeled.

 

Jens isn’t dead. But he’s gone. He tried to put it out of his mind. I can’t help him now. He’s on his own.

 

But he couldn’t stop thinking about it. I should have done something. Should have taught him more. I sat there listening to stories when I could have been helping him. He might open his mouth to the wrong guy and get his tongue sliced. He sighed deeply. Dammit, Jens...

Lukas tried to focus on the future he’d been granted. He would like to think it was a reward for his suffering, for saving Jens’ life, but he knew better. All a sacrifice got you was chained to a post. I don’t care. I’d do it again.

 

I liked him. I never knew what that would feel like. I’m not giving that up.

 

No matter what they do to me.

 


Book II: Expulsion

Joran took a deep breath, his hands going up to nervously smooth his hair. Black hair, like Sten's. Black suit, black shirt, black tie ― the color of mourning, the color of despair. He scrubbed at his dark eyes with the back of his hands, breathing in again as he strove to control his grief. It was the first time he'd left his suite in a month. It had taken three days for him to be able to leave his bed for more than the bathroom. Two more before he did more than sit in the dark. He'd spent the last six hours with icepacks on his face, trying to reduce the swelling from his eyes. The ice had reddened his fair skin, but no matter. Today was his first appearance since the death, and he would not disgrace his father's memory by displaying his emotions in public. That was for the lower classes; an exek's son knew how to control himself. He breathed deeply again, composing his face, before he opened the carved wooden door of the library.

He crossed the hardwood floor, his shoes' clicking soon muffled by the heavy antique rug. He kept his face impassive as he sank into the leather armchair across the desk from Harald Ragnirsson, his father's attorney. Harald gave him a nod. "Joran. I'm sorry the circumstances couldn't be happier. My condolences for your loss."

Joran nodded in return. "Thank you, Harald." His voice didn't shake, good for him. Control, keep it. Control was power, and he would not give it up.

Harald looked to his left. "Aerne, if you would join us?"

Aerne was across the room, facing the fireplace. He rubbed a hand through his blond hair, loosening his braid, and turned around. "Certainly, Harald." His voice was husky, but he looked perfectly normal, as if hearing his father's will read were an everyday occurrence. He sat in a chair next to Joran's, his face placid and unconcerned. Joran looked at him out of the corner of his eye, unsure if he blamed or admired him for his composure. Joran knew he gave himself away ― the clenched muscle in his jaw, the convulsive swallow as he tried to keep his face still. He willed himself to stare straight ahead, to pretend Aerne wasn't there to compete with him. He focused on Harald as he organized his papers.

"Yes, well," Harald cleared his throat and looked somewhere in between Joran and Aerne. "Are we ready?"

Aerne and Joran gave stiff nods. Harald began to read.

"I, Sten Wikmann, being of sound mind and body..." Joran tried to pay attention, but his mind wandered as Harald droned out Sten's final wishes. He eyed Aerne again. Perfect Aerne. Blond, bearded, muscular, he was everything Joran wasn't. Fifteen years older, perfectly controlled, perfectly behaved. Father's son. His real son. Son of his wife. He caught a look at Aerne again, saw Aerne's disconcerting ice-green gaze looking back. He jerked his eyes straight ahead, wondering what Harald was going on about now. Hearing his own name caught his attention. "...custody of my son Joran to be taken by my son Aerne, until Joran should reach his majority at age twenty-five. Also to my son Aerne, position of Chairman and control of all my shares of CybEngSys stock, so that he may take over the corporation. I have implicit faith that he will carry out his increased responsibilities..."

Well, Joran knew he'd be getting nothing. Father was a believer in primogeniture, keeping it all in the family, trusting the eldest to look after the rest. He assumed his allowance would continue uninterrupted, at least. Come hell or high water, it had always appeared. Father had never— the loss struck him afresh, and he couldn't keep his lips from twisting. Harald caught him and stopped speaking, staring in surprise. Aerne noticed too, raising an eyebrow sardonically at Joran. "Is there a problem, brother?"

Joran blushed, cursed himself for giving himself away. "No problem. Please continue, Harald."

"That's it, really," said Harald. "Your father didn't feel a need to make many personal bequests." He cleared his throat again, and Joran noticed he looked distinctly uncomfortable. Odd of Harald to lose face like that. "I wanted to meet with you both alone because of certain... difficulties that have come to light since your father's death." He cleared his throat again, nervously.

"After Mai's death, Sten took Anneli to his bed. You know this, of course, but there are some issues surrounding Anneli, and you, Joran."

"Me?" Joran struggled to maintain the exek mask his father would have expected to see. "I don't follow, Harald. Mother wasn't married to my father, certainly, but the distinction became irrelevant long ago."

"No, she was not married to him. Sten could not afford to ally himself to a slave."

Joran jerked at hearing the matter put so sharply. He glanced at Aerne, who looked back with an unreadable expression. His voice grew cold. "Former slave, Harald. My father freed her when I was born."

Harald's gaze dropped, he shook his head. "There is no record of that, Joran. Your mother was officially a slave at her death two years ago. I'm sorry, we've checked all the records; there's absolutely no evidence anywhere that she was freed."

Joran frowned, confused. "There must be a mistake. She told me herself, when I was young. How Father purchased her, fell in love, and freed her the day I was born. She gave him a son, and he gave her freedom. They were in love. He would not have kept her as a slave, not if he truly loved her." His voice had gone higher, but he scarcely noticed. How could you say this about my father?

Harald had recovered himself. "I'm sorry, Joran. I understand that you don't want to believe it. I wouldn’t either, were I in your place. But I'm afraid it's true. And as her son, I'm afraid you inherit her classification. Had your father married her, of course, you would have inherited from him. As a child of an officially single mother, however..." He shrugged. "I'm very sorry."

Joran's face was blank. "What does this mean, Harald?" came his voice, cold.

Aerne spoke, attracting their attention. "It's perfectly clear, brother," he said. "You're a slave. A slave like your mother." He folded his hands. "I knew this would happen one day. Father loved her, and I don't begrudge him that, but he knew better than to free her. There would be too much gossip, more than he could afford to have floating about. It could have affected business. He would never put his personal life over the corporation."

Harald looked at Joran apologetically. "He's right. For Sten, the corporation was his life. His father's life, and his father's before him. He never would have jeopardized it. Believe me, Joran, we've been searching ever since we discovered the problem three weeks ago. We hired investigators, we went through years' worth of records. It's as embarrassing for us as it is for you. But," he coughed, "we came up with nothing. I know it's a shock, and I wish there was something I could do. Your father was a good friend of mine. But the law is the law."

Joran stared straight ahead. The words echoed in his mind as his world spun around him. Impossible, this was impossible. He looked up at Harald, who shuffled his papers. "As Aerne inherited the bulk of your father's estate, aside from a few minor personal bequests, ownership of your... person... devolves to him. Unfortunately, freedom was not provided for by your father's will, so Aerne is under no custodial obligation to you. Of course, should you both work out an amicable arrangement, your classification may easily be changed."

Joran seized on that. "Changed? Yes, of course. Aerne?"

Aerne looked at him. "Yes?"

Joran's brows knitted with impatience. "Weren't you listening? This was obviously a mistake of Father's. He must have intended to free my mother, but somehow it was never accomplished. You can set it right, do what he intended." He swiped at his eyes again surreptitiously. "It's what he wanted, Aerne. Surely you can see that?"

Aerne's eyebrow quirked sardonically. "Can I, Joran? I don't know."

Joran froze. "What do you mean, brother?"

Aerne stood, shook Harald's hand. "Thank you, Harald. You've been most helpful. I appreciate your support at this trying time in our lives."

Harald, aware he was being dismissed, nodded. "Of course, Aerne. You know you can count on me if you need anything. Please contact me if there's anything I can do." He looked at Joran, dropped his gaze, and left the room quickly, clearly glad to be leaving the tension-filled atmosphere. Aerne accompanied him to the door, closed it. He turned to face Joran, who had risen from the chair.

"I asked you a question," said Joran. "What do you mean by what you said?"

Aerne sighed. "Joran. You are not a fool. What do you think?"

He couldn't mean it, Joran knew. It was unthinkable. "That's absurd. You can't enslave me. You're my brother. Father loved us both, he would be furious if he saw what you were doing. This is a mistake, how often do I need to say it? Just call Harald back and have him take care of the paperwork."

Aerne looked at Joran and shook his head slowly. "Orders, brother? You don't give orders." He sighed. "Poor lillebroder. I can understand you're shocked, so I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and explain in small words. You. Are. A. Slave. Legally. I didn't cause it. I am not enslaving you. Your mother was a slave, so are you. If Father had intended you to be free, he was perfectly capable of freeing you himself. He had nineteen years to do it. And I don't see why I should change what he found satisfactory."

Joran's confusion was lost in his anger; he was shaking. "How dare you say that! About my mother, and our father! He was a good man, he'd never condone what you're thinking of doing."

"Thinking, Joran? Doing. Or not doing, actually. Now," he ambled over to the desk, picking up a letter opener and toying with it, "I'm not planning to kick you out of your suite and send you below stairs with the others. You'll be allowed to maintain your outward position here. Only you, Harald, and I know about your new classification. No one else needs to know at this time." He looked at Joran sharply. "As long as you listen, and do what you're told." He dropped the letter opener and headed toward the door.

Joran was not about to listen. "Aerne, it's wrong, what you want to do. I know we've never been close, but God! How could you entertain this idea? It's beyond absurd, beyond ridiculous. Aerne, you're my brother!"

Aerne looked at him levelly. "Half brother." And closed the door.

 

 

 

- 2 -

 

Joran’s feet slapped the pavement angrily as he strode down the long driveway of the estate. Bastard, bloody bastard. Only it was he who was the bastard, not Aerne. He was the son of a slave, his father’s whore, who thought she was loved but who died leaving her son with nothing, not even himself. Owned, his shoes, the clothes on his back, his very soul owned by his brother whom he knew had never loved him. Never cared to see me the whole time I was growing up, never spoke to me unless he had to, never wanted anything to do with me.

His steps slowed. Could this be a trick? An attempt to get rid of him once and for all? He wouldn’t put it past Aerne, certainly. Remove the hated brother, never have that nagging reminder of his father’s love for another woman. He must have found the evidence, hidden it. Even if Father hadn’t freed Mother, he would have certainly left instructions for Joran to be freed in the event of his death. Yes. That had to be it. Aerne found the instructions, and hid or destroyed them. But Father would have hidden a copy, in a safe place… Yes, you son of a bitch, I’ll find it. And when I do, I will make you sorry. I will destroy you.

Yes, he could do it. And he knew who would help him.

 

˜ - ˜

 

He cursed Aerne again as he waited in the cold by the side of the road, in the shadow of the larch tree. Bastard had taken his aircar keys, these don’t belong to you, and I don’t want you out somewhere without my permission. Shithead. As if Joran was helpless without a vehicle. He looked up as headlights came toward him, slowed. It was Kristian, had to be. No one else was so affected as to drive an old-fashioned hundred-year-old genuine motorcar. Joran wondered where he got the parts for it.

Kristian pulled up and gestured for Joran to get in. He hurried to the other side, slid in the passenger seat. The leather warmed under his body, and he shivered as he adjusted the heat vent. "Can’t this get any warmer? It’s fucking freezing out there."

Kristian smiled. "It’s a damn sight warmer in here than it was before Karel worked on it. Took the fucker all day and all night to fix it, but it’s running now." He looked sideways at Joran. "Aircar in the shop, then? Why else would you be riding in the Poncemobile?"

Joran shrugged and grunted. He didn’t want to go into it now, not until they were all together. Kristian brushed his blond forelock out of his eyes and grinned. "What are you working on, gosse?"

"Nothing. Something to tell you, but let’s wait till we get there."

"I knew it! You’ve finally given in, you’re going to run away with me and live in my love nest. I’m irresistible, and you’ve succumbed, haven’t you?" His blue eyes sparked wickedly.

Joran laughed in spite of himself. "God, no." He shivered again. "Can’t this thing get any warmer?"

 

˜ - ˜

 

De Underkant. Lower edge. Almost off the edge of civilization, down there where the aristos went slumming and the street rats came out of their sewers to prey on them. The blue and purple of De Underkant’s neon sign reflected off the ice in the road as Kristian pulled up at the front. He and Joran got out of the car, and Kristian dropped the keys in the hands of the waiting attendant. Kristian’s high-heeled boots crunched over the slush as they descended the steps to the entrance. The club’s shabby hallway vibrated with the bass of the music in the outer room. Both boys dropped their coats on the floor, where they were picked up by a silent attendant. Neither boy paid attention to him as they eyed each other. "Nice pants, gosse," Kristian winked. Joran ran his hands down his tight leather pants, brushed his braid behind his back and grinned. "Nice outfit yourself there."

Kristian shrugged insouciantly. His outfit consisted of latex body paint, nipple rings, and fiberoptics. The threads ran under his skin, glowing green and blue. "I like to give the chickies something to stare at. Keeps them occupied." He and Joran headed for the club’s main room, passing their hands under the scanner at the door. The cover charge was deducted from their accounts, and they entered, the throbbing beat ending any hope of conversation.

Blackness, pure blackness lit occasionally by flashes of blue light. It froze the dancing mass of humanity into a series of still pictures ― there, and there, and there again. Kristian was off in an instant, writhing around the floor until he was lost in the sea of hands and bodies. Joran stood by the wall, letting the thump of the rhythm lull him, trance him out so he could forget the week’s events. Don’t think, don’t think, just feel, don’t think. He felt the tension smooth out, felt himself take deep breaths as the pounding air drained him of conscious thought.

He didn’t know how long he stood, breathing, before a hand on his shoulder brought him back. "Darling one," he heard a voice purr, "why all alone?" He opened his eyes to a seductive brunette, curls cascading down her breasts, which were emphasized by a steel-colored corset. She slid her arms around his waist and squeezed. He gasped for air. Ah, not steel-colored. Steel. She let him go, and he smiled at her.

"Katrin, I’m glad you came. I’ve missed you."

"I’m so sorry, darling boy. We all are."

He gulped as the memory of what had happened rushed back to him. "Thank you, sweet girl. It’s" ― all right? he wondered. It wasn’t all right, God no. It was all fucked up to hell, and he didn’t know what to do about it. "I need to talk to you. And Kristian. Who else is here?"

She blinked her hazel eyes slowly. It took her a minute to answer. What was she on? "We’re all here. Britte’s over there somewhere—" she waved her hand, "and Greger and Sune are at the bar. Kristian’s somewhere, I think." She looked around.

"Can you find him for me, dearest?" Joran asked. "Find them all, and meet me in the back room, all right?"

She smiled her slow smile at him and turned, swaying her full hips as she walked toward the bar. He stared as she went, feeling the first stirrings of desire since he had heard the news of his father’s death. No, no, no time for that. Business to take care of. He pressed his hands into his eyes, trying to relieve the headache the thought gave him.

 

˜ - ˜

 

"I think Aerne’s done something," Joran continued. "He and Harald together, perhaps. They’re covering it up."

Sune sat at Joran’s feet, his arms wrapped around his knees, a look of distaste on his face. "It’s just not possible. It’s not."

Greger leaned down and rapped him on the head. "Shut up, gosse. We’ve always known about his mum. It’s never been a problem, has it?"

Katrin stroked Britte’s head in her lap, as tears ran down Britte’s sharp face. "Joran, God, it makes me sick. How can he do that to you?" She wiped her face with her hand, and snuggled deeper into Katrin’s lap. Katrin said nothing, just continued stroking her friend’s dark head while she stared at Joran, a troubled look on her face.

Joran ran his hand over his face. "It’s not true," he said, trying to convince himself as much as them. "You know I’m not a… what he says. He’s arranged this somehow, to get back at me. Father loved my mother, he loved me, and it kills Aerne to think of it." He looked around at his friends. "It’s not true!"

Greger nodded. "I believe you, gosse. I’ve known you my whole life; you’re one of us, no matter what class your mother was. I knew your father. He wouldn’t have forgotten something important like this." He looked sharply at Britte and Katrin. "Right?"

Katrin’s face cleared, she nodded. "You’re right, lovely boy. Hear him?" She leaned over, wiped Britte’s face again. "Don’t worry, little girl, we’ll fix it."

Britte sat up, sniffing. Her sharp nose wrinkled. "Okay, Greger."

Greger looked at Joran intently. "What do you want us to do?"

Joran gave a cautious half-smile. "Let’s see. Either something was filed, and the two of them are hiding it, or Aerne destroyed it before Father filed it. If it was destroyed, there may not be evidence at all. It might be hidden. Or Harald may just have it, thinking I’ll believe what he tells me. Bastard."

Greger nodded. "All right, then. If it was filed, we’ll find it. Sune and I will work on that." Sune snuggled closer to Joran’s knees. "Katrin, can you and Britte talk to people? Do you know anyone in Harald’s office?"

Katrin pursed her lips, considering. "I know people, and they know people. We’ll get them to talk."

Britte sat up and brushed her flowing locks out of her face. She attempted a smile, but it didn’t reach her dark eyes. She tried to speak, but just nodded. Katrin patted her head. "Good girl."

Joran smiled at her. "Thank you, Britte." He looked over to the wall. "Kristian…"

Kristian turned, ran a hand down his face. "Joran." He shook his head.

Joran’s voice grew tight. "Kristian, please." He felt unreasoning panic grow inside. Kristian, love, don’t reject me, I need you so badly, please…

Kristian looked at him, wearing a mournful expression. It was the first real emotion most of them had seen him express. "I’m sorry, I have to… I’m sorry." He stumbled out the door, the fiberoptic patterns on his back winking in a random pattern, inappropriately cheerful. The optimistic feeling in the room evaporated. Britte pressed her thin hands to her mouth.

Joran looked away from them all, feeling sick. It’s not true, please, it’s not true, that’s not who I am, I’m not! "I guess I’d better go." He stood up, knocked over the chair as he stumbled toward the door. He felt a hand on his shoulder, stopped. Greger stood behind him.

"We’re working on it, gosse. Don’t worry, we won’t let you down."

Tears flooded Joran’s eyes as he nodded. "Thank you." His voice was husky. He was nearly knocked over when Britte barrelled into him, her small body wrapping tightly around him. "I’ll kill Aerne if he hurts you." Her voice was fierce.

Joran crumpled to the floor, sobbing. It was so hard, he didn’t know what to do, and all he wanted was for things to be okay again. Everything was so changed, and Kristian wouldn’t speak to him, and he didn’t know how he was going to survive this. His friends crowded around him, stroking his hair, hugging him, touching him. Katrin sighed. "Dear boy. It will be all right. It will be all right…"

 

 

 

- 3 -

 

Joran walked slowly up the drive. The estate glowed under the security lights, the rough-hewn stone casting odd shadows over the façade. False dawn lit the sky, and Joran sighed in exhaustion. He wanted to get back to his room, to his bed, pull the covers over his head and shut everything out. God, what a night. He could figure out what to do if he could just get about twelve hours of sleep…

He dragged himself inside, up the front staircase to his suite. He could hear the house slaves in the kitchen, beginning preparations for the day. His bed called to him, and he swung open his suite’s door.

To see Aerne sitting there.

He jerked back, surprised. He tried his best to cover it, smoothing back his hair and nodding. "Aerne. Up so early?" Voice control, very good. Keep it up, gosse, and maybe you’ll get out of this.

Aerne raised an eyebrow. "Lillebroder. What did I tell you about going out?"

Joran shrugged. "I only went to the club, like always. Figured you knew." Careful, don’t push it, you haven’t found proof yet. He walked to a chaise, dropped his coat on it, took off his shirt. "I’m tired, if you don’t mind. I want to go to bed."

Aerne sighed. "You don’t listen, do you?" Joran gasped as steel fingers closed around his neck and Aerne’s strong arm propelled him across the room to the Chippendale foyer table. Clearing off the photos and books with a sweep of his arm, he threw Joran across it. Joran’s breath left in a whuff as the edge of the table hit him in the stomach. He struggled to breathe as Aerne’s arm pressed him down. Aerne leaned on him, his voice calm. "You’ll need to learn. To listen to me. I don’t like having to repeat myself."

"Fuck you," Joran ground out, fighting to get up.

Aerne pressed harder, pulling something from his pocket. A flick of his wrist and it telescoped smoothly into a two-foot rod. "Hush now. Learn to listen."

He brought the rod down across Joran’s naked back. Joran screamed in surprise and pain. God, it hurt, and the pain scared him more than Aerne’s threats had. If it hurt this much, what would happen when ― it came down again, and he screamed louder. "Fuck! Oh fuck, Aerne, stop…"

Again, and he clenched his teeth, but the scream came out anyway. He couldn’t struggle now; it was taking all his effort to keep his knees from buckling, and when the rod hit him again, he couldn’t keep from begging. "Aerne, please, please no, CHRIST!" as the rod came down, "Aerne, I can’t take this, you have to stop, PLEASE!" the rod again, "ohGodohGodohGodohGOD…"

Nothing stopped him. The rod came down again and again, and the room echoed with the sound of Joran’s sobs. He couldn’t form words, couldn’t form thoughts, just react to the terrible pain, worse than anything he’d ever felt. His voice grew hoarse, I’m going to die, he’s going to kill me, tears mingled with snot on his face, oh Father oh God oh Aerne make it stop

The rod telescoped back in on itself. The fingers released their hold on the back of Joran’s neck, and he slid to the floor. His sobbing continued unabated as Aerne had a seat in one of the rococo chairs.

 

˜ - ˜

Joran eventually managed to bring himself under control. He looked up to see Aerne studying his nails. He flinched as Aerne focused on him. Aerne noticed and smiled. "Much better. Your attitude’s going to have to improve, lillebroder. I think we’ve made a good start this morning."

Joran dropped his eyes to the floor. His voice was rough. "I want to go to bed now."

Aerne shook his head. "Oh, no. The day’s just begun!" He rose, throwing back the curtains. Dawn’s sickly light trickled in as Aerne turned around. "There’s much to be done, and you’d better get started." He cocked his head. "Lillebroder, you look like shit."

Joran rubbed a hand over his face, wiping it off as best he could. "I suppose I must. You can’t be surprised."

Aerne shrugged. "No matter. Get cleaned up, and meet me downstairs in five minutes. No later, unless you want to try me again."

Joran swallowed as Aerne strode out of the room. He picked himself up, went to the bathroom to wash his face. He bit his lip as he saw his swollen and reddened eyes, his tearstained face. He turned around and looked over his shoulder into the mirror. His breath hissed when he saw the raw welts, the trickles of blood where the rod had broken the skin. His back was ridged and swollen ― he hissed again as he twisted to the other side. Even when Kristian was on his pain-as-pleasure kick, he’d never seen anything this bad. He knew Aerne hated him, but he’d never imagined he’d do something like this.

Aerne. Expecting him downstairs. Joran’s mind shied away from what might happen if he were late. Grabbing his shirt, he pulled it over his head, grunting as it hit the welts on his back. Ignore it, just get through this and figure out what to do later. He ran down the stairs, fighting back the fear that welled up inside him. Control. Control. Control.

Aerne was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. Joran slowed as he hit the last flight. He approached Aerne cautiously, unsure of what to say. Aerne checked his watch. "Seven minutes, Joran." He shook his head. "What did I tell you?"

Joran looked wary. "I didn’t— I thought it was a figure of speech. You know, like ‘I’ll be there in a

second.’ "

It happened so fast he didn’t see it coming. His head snapped back, the world spun for a second, and he was shaking his head to clear it while he held his burning face. He focused on Aerne, who looked at him calmly. "I always mean what I say, Joran. I suggest you pay closer attention."

The suddenness was more shocking than the pain. Joran nodded, didn’t dare speak. How did this get so fucked, so fast? Yesterday I was someone. He had to hold on, keep it together, until he found out what had gone wrong and how to fix it. It would get fixed. He had to believe that.

Aerne beckoned him into the library and sat behind the desk. He waved at a chair. "Have a seat."

Joran remained standing. Aerne lifted an eyebrow. "Sit down, or I will beat you until you can’t stand up."

The threat was real. He sat. Aerne scrolled through his appointments, made a few notes, and looked up. "Business," he indicated. "What’s on your schedule for today?"

Joran shrugged, looked uncomfortable. "Sleep, I suppose. I was going to visit Kristian this afternoon." Small chance of that happening now. He wasn’t sure he’d ever see Kristian again.

Aerne shook his head. "That’s not what I mean. What business do you have? We should wrap up your affairs. Do you have any standing appointments?"

Joran frowned. "I meet my friends twice a week downtown. That’s all I can think of."

"Amazing." Aerne sounded genuinely surprised. "When I was your age, I was head of a division. What do you do all day?"

"I— do things." Joran was defensive. "I sometimes work with Kristian, refinishing motorcars." Lie, huge lie. "I’ve been figuring out what I want to do. For God’s sake, Aerne, I only finished school last year!"

Aerne’s face was wry. "Of course. A year spent lying about and fiddling with hobbies is a wonderful base for a career."

"I…" Joran’s voice trailed off. It didn’t sound like much when Aerne said it. He couldn’t think of a response.

"It doesn’t matter," said Aerne briskly. "You’ll start work now." He waved his hand at a stack of boxes in the corner. "There. Unpack, sort, shelve."

"Excuse me?" Joran was dismayed. "Don’t you have someone for that?"

"I do. It’s you."

"It’s not. Aerne, I did well in school. I took some time off, but that doesn’t make me a fuckwit. I deserve better than to be treated like a peon."

"I don’t want to hear another word from you," Aerne said deliberately. "What you think you may or may not deserve is irrelevant. You are going to do as you were told, and" he stood, and Joran flinched in spite of himself, "you are going to do it immediately and without complaint. Is that understood?"

Joran didn’t think he could push anymore, not right now. His back was still giving off waves of pain, and he didn’t want to risk angering his brother again. He nodded, not sure if he should take "not another word" literally or not. Best not to risk it.

˜ - ˜

Lift, slice, pull. Stack. Careful not to knock over the piles he’d already made. His eyes blurred as he tried to focus on the title. He’d been at this for over seven hours; Aerne hadn’t allowed him any breaks. His stomach growled, and he tried to remember the last time he’d eaten. Breakfast yesterday? He tried to keep his mind on the job. Wondered if Aerne would keep him at this all night. The tedium was unbearable. He stacked, sorted, tried not to fall over. His shirt had stuck to the raw places on his back, and he winced every time it pulled free. Blood doesn’t come out of silk. He wanted so badly to go back in time, before this bizarre turnaround happened, before his father… Control yourself. You’re still his son, even if your brother treats you like shit. Lift the boxes, slice them open, pull out the books, sort and stack them. Please let me go to sleep. Please.

Another eight hours. Joran tried to take a rest at one point, but footsteps in the hall sent him frantically back to work. His knees were trembling when Aerne returned. "You’ll finish this tomorrow," he stated. "Go upstairs and go to bed."

Joran didn’t reply, just concentrated on getting to the door without tripping or knocking anything over. He stumbled on his way up the stairs, picked himself up and continued. He didn’t ask for food. He didn’t bother showering. He fell into bed, and his weariness and misery washed over him as he slid into sleep.

 

 

 

- 4 -

A noise penetrated Joran's dreamless sleep. He lay in bed, struggling to place it as he swam from the depths of unconsciousness. Words. Someone was talking to him. A few minutes longer, and they made sense. "Sir, please wake up. Your brother has asked that you join him at breakfast."

Joran opened his eyes to see short brown hair over a pale oval face, blue eyes peering at him through small rounded glasses. Lukas, his valet, standing beside his bed. He rolled over to get up, and hissed as his back contacted the mattress. Lukas frowned. "Sir, are you all right?"

Joran nodded. "Yes. No. I'll... need some help getting undressed." He privately cursed the necessity of asking Lukas for help. Until this situation could be resolved, he didn't want anyone to know what Aerne had done. But it wouldn't be possible to hide it from his own bodyslave; the man bathed him, for God's sake.

Lukas touched his shoulder, turned him to see his back. "Hmm, I see. We'll need some warm water. Wait here please, sir. I'll inform your brother you will be late to breakfast."

"No!" Joran surprised himself at the panic in his voice. "No, I don't want to bother him." He pulled the shirt off over his head and muffled a yell as the welts ripped open again. He breathed deeply, trying to bear the pain. "Will you get me a clean shirt, please, Lukas? I don't have time for a shower."

Lukas wisely left well enough alone and went to lay out Joran's clothes. Joran went into the bathroom to wash his face. His eyes were gritty and raw-looking; his skin was pale. He undid his tousled braid, brushed his hair, and rebraided it. He snuck another look at his back, cringing as he saw the fresh blood oozing from the marks. He started as Lukas entered the bathroom quietly.

"What time is it, Lukas? Is there time to clean this off?" He hated jumping when he thought of Aerne, but he couldn't help it.

"It's six-twenty a.m., sir. You are expected at breakfast in ten minutes. One moment." Lukas reached into a cupboard, came out with a spray bottle. "Turn around please, sir."

Joran obeyed. He felt a cool mist envelop his back; the pain receded. He breathed, amazed that he could. He looked at Lukas in the mirror. The first smile in days broke across his face. "Thank you," he breathed.

"Certainly, sir." Lukas’s face was impassive as he put the aeroskin away. "You have eight minutes left, sir. I suggest you get dressed now."

"Right." Joran was too distracted by thoughts of Aerne-vengeance to chide Lukas for being familiar. He strode back into his room and pulled the clean shirt over his head, enjoying the protection the aeroskin gave from the cloth. He skinned off the rest of his clothes. The clean underwear felt luxurious against his skin. Pants, belt, socks, shoes, tie ― a quick glance at the clock. Three minutes left. Joran took the stairs two at a time.

He entered the dining room with thirty seconds to spare. Aerne was just sitting down. He didn't bother to hide his approval of Joran’s obedience. "Very good, lillebroder. I’m pleased to see you’re on time today."

Joran fumed inside at the condescension, but held his tongue. He didn’t know what Aerne might do if he snarked back, but it wouldn’t be nice. Probably take breakfast away, and by God he was hungry. He took a seat at the end of the long table, as far away from Aerne as possible.

Bacon. He smelled bacon, and closed his mouth on a rush of saliva. The servers brought in the food ― eggs, bacon, lox, herring, muffins, toast ― and he forced himself to sit quietly, hands in his lap, until he was served and the staff left. When the door closed, he grabbed his silverware and tore into his breakfast. Starving, he was starving, and the taste nearly drove him out of his head with pleasure.

He slowed as his stomach filled. He felt infinitely better. His back felt fine, he had slept, he had eaten, and he was ready to face the world. He looked up and found Aerne’s pale green eyes focused intently on him. His stomach lurched. He reached for coffee, determined not to let Aerne get a reaction.

"You’re finished with breakfast," Aerne informed him. "Go to the library and continue yesterday’s job."

Joran felt rebellion swell in him, and his hand tightened around his mug. "I’ll go after I’ve finished my coffee."

Aerne didn’t look away, didn’t say a word. He rose and walked purposefully down the long mahogany table. Joran attempted nonchalance as he drank, but when Aerne reached his seat, he put down his cup and got up hastily. "I don’t want—" he began, but Aerne cut him off with a swift slap.

"How many times do I need to tell you?" Aerne’s tone was conversational. He slapped Joran again, who stumbled against the table. "Listen. To. Me." He slapped him once more. "I don’t want to hear—" Slap, "excuses, or explanations, or—" Slap, "any hint of bad attitude from you." Slap. "Is that clear?"

Joran tried to form words, couldn’t. He worked his jaw, trying to speak. Aerne lifted his hand again, and Joran nodded hurriedly. Aerne let his hand drop. "Get going."

Joran backed out of the room, eyes fixed on Aerne. He hastened down the hall to the library. He’d never been so scared in his life.

˜ - ˜

 

It took Joran three days to finish his assignment. Aerne allowed him breakfast and dinner, but kept him working ten to twelve hours each day. At night he was so tired he was grateful to fall into bed. He managed to project a quiet if sullen attitude, and Aerne had only hit him once, when he was late for dinner. He had stood there and taken it, then sat down and pretended that nothing had happened. He hoped nothing else would.

Aerne had gone beyond scary into truly frightening. He had forbidden Joran to use the netlink, cut off contact with his friends. He wasn’t always threatening, but even when he was cheerful his manner was chilling, like a dog that would smile as it ripped your face off. Joran had kept quiet and done as he was told for two days. It was frustrating, but he knew if he held out, his friends would come through. Then he'd make that bastard pay.

But in order to get proof, he had to see his friends. In order to see his friends, he had to be allowed to leave. And he wasn’t at all sure that Aerne would let him out. Gathering up all his courage, he approached Aerne after dinner.

"I’ve finished the books," he offered. "May I go out tonight?" He kept his eyes down, hoping Aerne would take it as submission and not shiftiness. He didn’t want Aerne to see the rage in his eyes.

Aerne frowned. "Including the boxes that were brought in yesterday?" Joran nodded. "Very well, then." Aerne waved a hand. "Have a good time. If you’re done with that, you’ll be beginning a new project tomorrow morning. I don’t want you coming to breakfast late."

"I won’t. Thank you." Joran felt hope growing in his heart. He left the room, carefully avoiding Aerne’s gaze.

He ran upstairs to change. He pulled on the leather pants again and did a couple of deep knee bends, listening to the leather creak. He felt absurdly happy at the thought of going to De Underkant again. It felt like months since he’d been out, rather than a few days. He added a net shirt and an embroidered jacket, laced up his boots, and headed back down. Where he nearly ran smack into Egon’s towering bulk.

He pulled back; Egon looked down at him with pale eyes under brush-cut pale hair. "The Chairman has ordered me to drive you into the city."

Joran shook his head. "That’s not necessary, Egon. I’ll call one of my friends to pick me up."

Egon’s face didn’t change expression. "No, sir. I will drive you into the city and wait for you there."

Joran’s voice grew frustrated. "No, Egon, I will go alone. That’s final."

"Is there a problem, Egon?" Aerne’s lazy voice came from behind Joran. Joran froze.

"No, sir. I informed Mr. Joran of your instructions."

"I see." Aerne stirred his tea. "Is there a problem then, Joran?"

"No problem." Joran knew when he was defeated. "Let’s go, Egon."

 

˜ - ˜

 

The sleek black aircar glided to a stop in front of the club. Joran got out of the back seat, feeling more conspicuous than he ever had with Kristian there. He hurried down the stairs, still feeling Egon’s eyes on him. He ran his hand under the scanner in the entryway, and his credit line shimmered in the air above. Getting low. He didn’t know where he was going to get money now. Small chance of Aerne continuing his allowance. He entered the club’s main floor, fiddling unconsciously with the chip in the web of his hand. He scanned the dancers, looking for Britte. Or Greger. Or…Kristian.

He caught sight of Sune’s lanky frame slouched by the bar. Where Sune was, Greger was close by. Joran half-ran to them, anxious beyond words to see a friendly face. It had only been three days; it felt like years.

"You’re here!" Sune grabbed him, hugged him tightly. "We’ve been coming back every night. We weren’t sure when you’d be back." Or if hung in the air between them. Joran gripped Sune hard, trying to hold back sudden tears.

"I’m okay." For now. "I…haven’t been able to use the net."

Sune nodded. "I know. We’ve all been trying to get in touch. Aerne answered last time and told Greger not to call again."

Joran gritted his teeth. Damn Aerne, damn him to hell. Sune looked uncomfortable. "We reserved the back room again. If you go there, I’ll get the others."

They all came in, Greger and Sune, Katrin, Britte. But not Kristian. Britte saw the question and hurt in Joran’s eyes. "I’m sorry," she said gently.

"Doesn’t matter," Joran said roughly. "Have you found anything?"

Katrin shook her head. "We’re working on it, dearest. We hired someone to search. If it’s there, he’ll find it. He has no connection with Aerne or Harald ― we made sure of that. We can trust him.”

"He’ll do it? He’ll fix this?" Joran’s voice was pleading. Please let it all go away. Let me be who I was.

"He will." Greger put a hand on his back, squeezed his shoulder. "It will be all right, I swear."

Joran looked around the room. Not without Kristian. He sighed deeply. "I’m sorry, I’m not very cheery right now." He blinked back tears. "Everything’s so fucked up and it’s so hard. I don’t know what to do."

"Neither do I." A voice from behind them. Everyone jerked around. Kristian stood there, looking grim. "Kristian…" Sune’s voice trailed off.

"It makes me sick," Kristian continued, walking slowly towards them. "I’ve known you all my life, Joran. Thinking of you brought this low… I can’t stand it."

Joran’s shoulders hunched. This hurt worse than anything Aerne had done to him.

"I hate it. I despise the thought." Kristian reached Joran, touched his face. "But I love you." His face twisted. "Joran, God, I’m so sorry…" His voice was lost in a sudden sob.

Joran was crying too. "Kristian, I thought you’d never speak to me again. I thought you were gone forever." I’ve lost my father, I’ve lost myself, don’t let me lose you too.

Kristian grabbed him in a fierce hug. "I’m here," he whispered. "I don’t care what you are now, I’m here."

Joran held on tightly, and the rest engulfed them. Hands stroked Joran’s hair, arms twined around him, soothing voices whispered as Joran sobbed onto Kristian’s shoulder. They all clung together, an eddy of comfort in a sea of insanity.

 

˜ - ˜

 

An hour later, a heavy knock sounded on the door. Heads looked up as the door swung open. Egon stood there, a tall, solid figure in black. "Your brother has ordered me to bring you home." His voice was implacable.

"Dammit, tell him—" Joran sighed, knowing it was useless. "Tell him I’m coming." He stood up, looking back at his friends. "I’ll come back. When I can." He followed Egon out of the room. The thought of returning home made him ill. He’d experienced the first moment of peace since his father had died, but it was over now. Time to go back.

 

 

 

- 5 -

 

"What do you mean you aren’t finished? Are you lazy, or just stupid?" Aerne’s voice was getting testy, and Joran didn’t like what that portended.

"I’m not lazy. Maybe stupid." Joran tried to keep the acid out of his voice. "I’ve been going over the figures all night, Aerne, but they don’t add up. I don’t know what this" he waved a plast "means. You won’t tell me what these expenses are, and I can’t figure it out without knowing that."

Aerne’s face was grim. He took the plast, stroked his beard while he read it again. When he put it down, his voice was deceptively mild. "Why don’t you leave this alone now? Make yourself useful; find Rurik and tell him I need to see him."

Joran looked at Aerne uncertainly, but didn’t disobey. He was glad to get out of there. Over the past month, Aerne had been growing increasingly strict. He allowed Joran to do desk work now, rather than the sorting and filing he’d kept him on earlier, but the punishments were coming more often. He’d backhanded Joran when Joran had questioned an order, and the bruise he left had discolored half of Joran’s jaw. He’d used the rod twice more for various infractions. Joran was at the point of flinching every time Aerne’s hand strayed toward his pocket.

Joran walked swiftly toward the kitchen, knowing his brother’s valet was most likely there. He generally spent his off hours flirting with the kitchenmaids. As Joran swung the door open and looked inside, he heard a laugh. Yes, that was Ingelev, so Rurik must be around somewhere.

Joran stepped into the kitchen, and the laughter died. He stood there, as uncomfortable as they were. "Aerne is looking for you, Rurik. He’s in the library." Dark-haired Rurik nodded, his full lips smoothing into a blank mask, and brushed past Joran on the way out. Joran looked at Ingelev uncertainly, who gazed back calmly. "Can I help you, sir?"

"No." Joran shook his head. She raised an eyebrow and turned her back on him. Joran swallowed a sudden cold feeling. She knows. She must have heard somehow; perhaps she heard his screams as Aerne laid into him with the rod. Maybe Lukas had said something. Does she wash the sheets? Maybe she’d seen the blood. She had to know. A slave wouldn’t give an exek a look like that, a look that said so much.

Joran withdrew, following Rurik’s echoing footsteps back to the library. He didn’t know where else to go, and he was afraid of incurring Aerne’s wrath by doing something he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to do. Got me jumping, brother. Is this what you wanted? He hated himself for being so afraid, for accepting Aerne’s rule rather than fighting back. But I don’t know what to do. All the things Father taught me, he never taught me how to survive on my own, without my status protecting me. He had to hang on. Hang on until his friends managed to rescue him, and his claim would be supported in law. I’m not a slave. Not really. I’m just doing this until I can prove it.

He wasn’t sure how long he could believe it.

 

˜ - ˜

 

Joran rubbed a hand through his unbound hair, running his fingers through the tangles. He had gone through another long day, capped by a silent meal, Aerne glaring daggers at him. He’d lost his appetite halfway through the soup, but kept eating. He could easily imagine Aerne shoving his face in his food if he rejected it. He didn’t know what had Aerne so angry, but he kept his mouth shut and pretended everything was fine. If he did nothing to attract attention, he wouldn’t get hurt.

He sat on the floor staring at his bed. Huge, carved wood, damask bed curtains brushing the floor. He’d wanted a raceflyer-shaped bed once upon a time. Father had insisted he sleep in the heavy dark monstrosity instead, because it was his great-great-grandfather’s, a family heirloom. Joran had had nightmares in that large bed. He’d dreamed that the curtains flew down upon him, smothering him, choking him. He had screamed, and Father had come to comfort him, shh, shh, Joran, it was only a dream, but went away and left him alone in the dark with the curtains.

I want my father back.

He roused himself and went to the bathroom to wash his face. He studied the remnants of a bruise on his cheekbone. Aerne hadn’t touched him for days, and he almost looked normal. He wondered if he was getting the hang of this. Maybe Aerne had had his fill of tormenting him, and things would go back to normal. Joran snorted. And maybe Father Christmas will come down the chimney and give us all ponies. No use hoping for a sudden change of heart from Aerne. That sort of thing only happened in fairy tales.

The speaker in the ceiling came to life, and Joran heard his brother’s voice. "Joran. Come to the library immediately."

Joran’s mouth grew dry. “On my way,” he answered, sliding his feet back into his shoes. He ran out of the room. He wouldn’t keep Aerne waiting, not again. Down the stairs, along the great hall ― he passed a startled chambermaid, kept running, not caring how he looked. He reached the heavy library door, caught his breath, knocked, and entered.

Aerne sat at the desk. He raised his head slowly and looked at Joran with an unfathomable gaze. "Close the door."

Joran closed it behind him. He took a step towards the desk. Aerne simply sat there, watching him. He swallowed, dropping his eyes to the floor. "You wanted to see me?"

Aerne seemed to make a decision. He stood up. "Come here." Joran obeyed, moving before the desk. Aerne walked around it and stood in front of him. "Strip."

It didn’t make sense. Joran hadn’t expected this. "I don’t—"

"Are you questioning me?" Aerne’s voice was harsh.

"No," Joran said quickly, and began to unbutton his shirt. He pulled it off, kicked off his shoes and drew off his socks. Just do it, don’t think about it, just do what he says and you won’t get hurt. He unbuckled his belt, unfastened his pants, and dropped them to the floor. He stood there in his underwear. Although the air in the house was warm, he wanted to shiver. What does he want?

"I said strip." Aerne’s eyes were slightly unfocused; he over-enunciated his words as if he thought Joran couldn’t hear him. But I… oh. Joran set his teeth, slid off his underwear, and stood there naked. Aerne’s face didn’t change. "Give me your belt."

Joran started to tremble as he realized what Aerne intended. "Aerne, what did I do?" He bent over, grabbed his pants, and eased the belt out of the loops. "I’m sorry, whatever it was."

Aerne paid no attention, but held his hand out for the belt. Joran felt the panic grow as he handed it over. "Aerne, please, I’m sorry. I swear I won’t do it again, if you tell me what it was."

"Bend over the desk."

"But what did I do?" Joran’s voice was desperate. He took a step back. "Please don’t, Aerne, please. I’m sorry, I swear it won’t happen again, just tell me what I did and I’ll never do it again." He knew he was babbling, didn’t care; his whole being was focused on avoiding what was coming.

"Bend over the desk and stay there." Aerne was unforgiving. "Or I will have Egon come in and hold you down."

Joran froze. God, not that. Especially not Egon. Bad enough to suspect the slaves knew; to have them witness what was going on would be unbearable. He forced his feet to carry him to the desk; tried not to think about what he was doing as he bent over and grabbed the far edge. He clenched his jaw tightly, squeezed his eyes shut. This isn’t happening, please God, don’t let this be happening.

He heard the belt cut through the air and it bit sharply across his thigh. He screamed through his clenched teeth. Again, across his buttocks, and again. His entire body was tensed in his effort to keep still. He gripped the edge of the desk tightly as Aerne brought the belt down heavily across his back, over and over and over again. He swore, sobbed, begged Aerne to stop, but he didn’t dare let go, didn’t dare jerk away from the belt. He stopped trying to be quiet, and his cries echoed from the high ceilings. His back burned, and his legs burned, and his ass was hit again and it felt like fire. There was no more room for conscious thought, no more room for anything except pain and fire and tears. And hanging on, always hanging on and waiting for the next blow to fall…

It barely registered when Aerne dropped the belt, breathing heavily. Joran’s voice broke on his sobs, his knuckles white with the effort of staying in place. Aerne walked around the desk and sat down behind it, looking down at Joran’s hands. As Joran caught his breath, his sobs lessened. He held still, afraid to move without permission.

It came. "Get up." He stood, each movement sending waves of pain through his skin. "Look at me." He did.

"I want you to learn manners," said Aerne. Joran’s mind spun crazily, what the hell is he talking about, what do manners have to do with anything? Aerne went on, "You will not refer to me by name again. You will call me ‘sir,’ as the other slaves do, and you will not question my orders, nor any punishment I choose to give you. Is that clear?"

Other slaves. Other. Slaves. Joran didn’t trust himself to speak. He nodded. Aerne stood, strode around the desk toward Joran and swept up the belt from the floor. His hand closed on Joran’s neck, slamming him back down on the desk, and the belt flashed down once, twice, and again until Joran was screaming once more. "Is. That. Clear?" Aerne breathed viciously, punctuating each word with a slash of the belt.

"Yes! Yes, sir! Yes, sir, it’s clear, I understand, sir!" Joran gasped through fresh tears. My God, what has he done to me? Fear racked Joran, though the blows ceased when he gave Aerne the words he wanted.

The hand left his neck. "Stand up." Joran obeyed immediately. Aerne tossed the belt onto the floor. "Pick up your things." Joran bent down, gathered his clothes and shoes, stood again. "Go back to your rooms. Don’t bother getting dressed."

A wave of humiliation flooded Joran as he turned to leave. Please don’t let anyone be in the hall; please let them all have gone to bed. He had his hand on the doorknob when Aerne spoke. "Joran." He turned. "I want you down here before breakfast tomorrow."

He knew why Aerne said it, knew what he wanted. "Yes, sir," he said quietly, and left the room.

 

 

 

- 6 -

 

 

"A new shipment, lillebroder. Unpack, sort, and shelve. And be careful, some of those are extremely rare."

"Yes, sir." Bastard.

"I don’t want a repeat of last week’s debacle. I’m sure you don’t either."

"No, sir." Don’t think I won’t remember that when it comes time to pay you out.

A pause, a sardonic smile. "You should thank me, lillebroder. You’re finally learning a useful skill."

"Thank. You. Sir." I’ll show you a useful skill, you son of a bitch.

Aerne’s expression became cold. "I don’t like your tone, Joran."

Fuck you fuck you fuck you... "I apologize. Sir." Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you you fucker.

Open the box. Pull out the books. Try not to scream at the repetitiveness, the sheer boredom that looms over the day. No food until I finish. Why does he order so many at once? Son of a bitch, one day I’ll kill you.

He heard Aerne leave, his footsteps dying away down the hall. He glared at the book in his hand, longing to rip the pages out, scatter them over the room, throw the covers on the floor and jump on them. Wanting to set fire to the books, all of them. That would hurt his brother. Who would then hurt him back, make him pay in blood for all the destruction. He hurt badly enough at the moment, thank you very much. He’d never dare risk it. It might be satisfying, but it wouldn’t last long enough.

Wait. Wait until they’ve got the proof, then have Aerne arrested and charged. Then burn the damned books in front of him. Oh yes. He scratched absently at a healing welt on his upper arm.

Sort by category. By author. Stack the piles up carefully. Think about something, anything else. Kristian and Britte. Together, kissing each other, kissing me, running hands down my body and my hands on theirs... He stopped a moment to savor the image. It didn’t awaken desire in his body, but reassured him. They love me. I love them. They will always care for me.

Shift a load of books to another shelf. Make room for the new, but don’t throw out the old. Not if you want to keep your skin. I will hurt you seven times over for all the pain you’ve given me. I promise.

He had to get out, had to see his friends again before he went mad from the sameness of the days, the isolation of his life. Cut off from the net, from transportation, from the world. He hadn’t left the house in three months. I will lose my mind. I have to see them.

Open. Sort. Stack. Shelve. Hate you hate you hate you brother.

As daylight faded, a plan grew in his mind. If he finds out, he’ll kill me. But as he worked, it was all he could think of. If I can get a message to them... But that was impossible. His netlink code had been revoked, and only Aerne and Halvar had access now. Is there an access station belowstairs?

Crazy. He wouldn’t know where to begin to look, and he’d certainly get caught before he got a message out. He shied away from thinking of what the punishment might be. Think positive, gosse. This is your only chance.

Something hit him. The old unit. He knew it had been years since it was replaced, but Father never threw anything away. Aerne might not know about it. And if he remembered rightly ―

He opened a dusty wall cabinet in one of the book alcoves. My God. I can’t believe it. It was a clunky model; Father had held onto the text interface long after everyone else had given it up. All the better for Joran, he didn’t want to risk anyone hearing him. He carried it in trembling hands to an access port in the desk. He sat down, ears straining for the sound of approaching steps, and turned it on.

It seemed like hours, waiting for it to boot up. Come on come on come on. His heart was racing and his breath sped up. Finally, the login screen. His code had been revoked, but he was willing to bet... yes. Father’s code hadn’t been deleted. He’d used it in the past to access age-inappropriate files he’d been forbidden to see. When Father found out, he shook his head and grinned indulgently. God, I miss him.

He entered the message module. Kristian, love, come find me.

<Pick me up tonight by the tree. I need to see you all. Don’t answer this message.>

 

He heard someone coming down the stairs and, panicking, he ripped the old machine out of the port and ran across the room. Back in the cupboard, tried not to disturb the dust. He grabbed an armful of books from the shelf as Aerne and Halvar entered.

Aerne stared at him. "Lillebroder. What are you doing?"

Joran shrugged, tried to think of a lie. "I thought I’d make some room over here." He dropped his gaze quickly to the titles he held. "Aren’t you ordering more art history books?"

Aerne regarded him thoughtfully. "No. What gave you that impression?"

Shit! Joran’s mind raced. "I just... assumed you wanted to expand Father’s collection. We haven’t gotten any new pieces since his death," good, good, gaining ground, "and I thought you would be starting to research new acquisitions."

Glory be to God, his explanation made sense, and Aerne accepted it. "I hadn’t planned on it, but it’s an idea, certainly. Go ahead, shift what you’ve got."

"Yes, sir," Joran mumbled, hoping Halvar didn’t hear him. Aerne drew Halvar to the other end of the room, giving instructions on some matter of household maintenance. Joran drew a shuddering breath and tried to calm his pounding heart. He wouldn’t have killed me. Not really. He would beat me, but that’s nothing new. I’m okay. Okay. And tonight I’ll see them all again.

His heart sped up again. I’ll see them. Tonight.

˜ - ˜

 

Joran opened the french doors silently and padded onto the balcony. He locked the climbing cable to the railing, climbed over, and sailed noiselessly to the ground. He took off across the wet grass, heading toward the old road. Toward Kristian, and hopefully toward freedom.

He stamped his feet as he hid in the shadow of the tree. Cold, it was so cold. He remembered waiting for Kristian like this months ago. The night everything had changed. It will change again tonight. Change back. It has to.

He heard the motorcar before he saw it, and his heart leapt. It pulled up in front of him, and he dived into the back seat. "Go," he hissed. "If they’re coming after me, I want to be as far away as possible."

Kristian didn’t say a word, but laid the pedal down and roared out of there. Briefly Joran thought that might not be a good thing. Could Aerne hear the noise from inside the house? Never mind, just think about where you’re going. Going to see them all, they’re going to save me. He stuck his head up cautiously, didn’t see any pursuers. He climbed over the seat to curl up in the front by the heating vents. Kristian looked at him sideways, and they smiled. "God, I’ve missed you," said Kristian softly. "Nothing’s the same without you."

"I’ve missed you," said Joran. "So badly. Oh God, Kristian, I can’t stand it much longer. Have you heard anything? When will you know?"

Kristian smiled broadly. “Our investigator found a document. I’m not sure how he got it; he wouldn’t tell me. It’s good news ― it looks like your father did intend to fix your status before he died. He knew he didn’t..." Kristian glanced at Joran, uncertain of how to say it, "have much time left. He sent a letter to Harald."

"I knew it!" Joran pounded the dashboard. "That shitheel Harald, I’ll kill him. I knew he was in on it!" He was vindicated, and a rush of relief washed through him. It’s true. It’s all okay now. He felt dizzy, and slumped against the seat. I’m me. I’m not a slave. I’m me.

Kristian was talking again. "Greger and Sune went to an attorney a few days ago; they’re working out the case. You can stay with me until it’s all resolved." He grinned lecherously at Joran. Joran grinned back, his spirits joyful. "Dear boy, you are so lovely." Kristian stroked Joran’s face. Joran nestled into his palm. "Smile at me again."

 

˜ - ˜

 

The boys dropped the motorcar off and strode into the club. Joran felt like singing; he didn’t even bother worrying about his drab clothing. Next to Kristian’s glowing patterned skin, who would notice him anyway? The lights beat a cheerful tattoo in the air as Kristian snagged Katrin from a cloud of smoke and steered them both toward a private room.

Joran closed the door and turned to Katrin. Her smile was incandescent. "Isn’t it wonderful? Oh my darling, I knew it would be all right." Her pupils were enormous, swallowing up her irises into pools of black.

Joran hugged her tightly. "Thank you," he whispered into her chestnut hair. "Oh, thank you." He had to swallow back tears. He’d cried enough in the last few months; he didn’t want to spoil this moment.

Kristian’s arms slipped around his waist. "I want in on this," he said in a husky voice. He kissed the back of Joran’s neck.

Joran relaxed into the kiss, and the three melted to the floor. They unbuckled Katrin’s corset together as she giggled; each unbuttoned another’s clothing, dissolving from one kiss to another, lips on hands on nipples. Tongues licked their way across flesh, and hands caressed parts to attention. Joran felt overwhelming relief, freedom, and he smiled at Katrin as he bit gently into Kristian’s shoulder. Kristian mewed and ran sparkling fingers down Joran’s spine. Joran rolled over and pulled Katrin to him; he spread her legs tenderly and entered her as she squeaked with delight. Behind him he felt Kristian’s hands spreading him as well, and he arched his back and welcomed him in.

They held like that for a moment, then Kristian began the gentle rhythm that sent them slowly but inexorably to climax. Joran treasured the feeling ― Katrin’s shining eyes in front of him, Kristian’s hands caressing his nipples, the joy of simultaneously entering and being entered ― and he felt Kristian shudder into him, pushing deeply. It set off his own orgasm, and Katrin’s, in a chain reaction that had them moaning and squealing in glee.

 

˜ - ˜

 

They had barely reassembled their clothing when they heard the door open. The three looked up from the floor, eyes bright and faces flushed. Greger and Sune stood over them, somber. "Joran..." Greger began, and stopped. Sune finished. "We need to talk to you."

"So talk," Joran grinned, but he saw their expressions and his smile died. "What is it?"

"We talked to an attorney. She read the letter. She looked up the will." Sune’s voice was solemn. "She wouldn’t take the case."

Joran was taken aback. "Why not?"

"Because the letter’s not part of the will." Sune ran a hand through his hair, loosened from its braid. "The will is the final document. The letter expresses intent, but in the absence of a new will, it doesn’t control."

"What does that mean?" Kristian’s voice was cold.

"It means Joran’s screwed," burst out Greger. "The fucking bureaucrats tip him over the edge because the right fucking documents aren’t there!" He stood helplessly, anguish on his face.

"We went to see another attorney. Five more. They all said the same thing," Sune said heavily.

Katrin began to cry. "Oh God, oh God, oh God no," she wailed as Joran stood and turned his back on them, his head in his hands. Kristian reached out to him, touched him on the shoulder. "Joran…"

"Let go of me." Joran’s voice was dead. Kristian snatched his hand back. Joran turned on Katrin furiously. "Shut up, shut up, damn it! I’m fucked, I’m well and truly fucked, and you’re sitting there whining like you lost your damned stash!"

"Joran, please, we know you’re upset…" Sune fumbled for a credit transfer beam. "Here, we’ll give you money, you can get out of town before Aerne knows you’re gone—" He scanned his chip, held the beamer out to Joran.

Joran slapped his hand away. "I don’t need your fucking aristo charity." He ran out of the room, slammed the door in a rage, and weaved through the crowd on the main floor. The lights flashed colors, beams, and he pushed people out of his way, striding through the clouds of colored smoke. He couldn’t hear anything over the beat of the music as he broke through the mass and left the club.

Outside it was cold. He’d left his coat inside, but he wasn’t going to return. He tried to figure out how he’d get back. He didn’t think he had enough credit for a taxi. He thought there might be a bus, but he didn’t have the vaguest idea of where he would catch it, or where it might go. That left him one choice. He picked the direction he thought home was, and started walking.

 

˜ - ˜

 

He heard the motorcar before he saw it. He didn’t look up as Kristian pulled the car alongside. "Get in, Joran," he heard, and he shook his head and kept walking. I can’t look at you. Leave me alone.

"Joran. Get in the car before you freeze. Or I’ll come out there and freeze to death too."

Joran stopped. Stubborn git. He knew Kristian would do it, would roll around naked in a snowbank if it would get Joran inside. He gave in, walked up, got in the car. He rolled the window up ― how old is this, that it has no buttons ― and slumped against it. They rode in silence back to the estate.

When they pulled up to the drive, Kristian cut the headlights and let the car idle. He stretched his hand out toward Joran. After a moment, Joran took it and squeezed. They sat mutely together. Kristian, my love, how can I do this? How can I leave you? Kristian cleared his throat. "You can come stay with me anyway. We’ll keep working, we’ll find some way to get you out."

Joran shook his head. "It won’t work. Aerne will find me and drag me back. There’s no way he’ll let me go. It would only make everything worse." But I love you for offering. "I’d better go." He couldn’t look at Kristian as he left; he knew he would cry. He shut the car door and began trudging back toward the house. Toward hell.

 

˜ - ˜

 

He ran across the exposed area of lawn to the spot below his room. Good, the climbing cable was still there. At least one thing went right. He pulled himself up it easily, rolling over the balcony railing to stand upright. He pulled the cable back in, opened the doors to his room and stepped into the warmth. Sighing, he shut the doors and began to undress. And then he heard a sound, and he froze inside.

"Lillebroder. Welcome home."

 

 

 

- 7 -

I’m dead.

Joran stood petrified, listening. Aerne’s quiet voice came at him out of the dark. "Did you honestly believe I wouldn’t notice a message coming from Father’s account? How could you think the system wouldn’t notify me?" He chuckled, and Joran’s skin crawled. "Not to mention the perimeter alarms you set off when you left. You’re lucky I thought to disable the physical defenses; you could have been killed. Or at least seriously injured."

Joran’s voice cracked. "What perimeter alarms?" How did this get so almightily fucked up?

Aerne’s voice was dry. "Joran, sometimes I despair of you. Why do you think no one breaks into these grand estates? Fear of the police? Stupid boy, they know if they come within shouting distance, they’ll be shot. Or electrocuted, or killed in any number of entertaining ways. It could have happened to you tonight, if I hadn’t let you come back."

"So you knew I was leaving." Joran tried to keep up a brave front. "Why didn’t you come after me?"

"I knew you’d come back. Where else is there for you to go? Your friends can’t shelter you; they know better than to piss off the head of CybEngSys. And if they were too stupid to figure that out, their families would figure it out for them." Joran could hear Aerne’s smile in the darkness. "And I really can’t see you on the street, lillebroder. Not for long."

Joran’s spirits sank. He had tried so hard to avoid it, but he knew Aerne was right, knew there was no way out, never had been. He gripped the handle of the balcony door, trying to stay upright under the sudden apprehension that threatened to crush him.

Rustling behind him ― the bed curtains, he thought irrelevantly ― told him Aerne was coming. He closed his eyes, felt Aerne behind him. “Strip down,” he heard in his ear. “You thought you hurt before; just wait until I’m through with you tonight.”

A sudden burst of rage obliterated every sensible intention Joran possessed. "Fuck you, alderbroder," he breathed. Insane, I am fucking insane.

"What did you say to me?" Aerne’s voice was cold, naked steel.

"You heard me." Joran’s rage was intoxicating, making him reckless. "Fuck. You. Aerne. I know why you do this. You hate me, because Father loved me. More than he loved you. You can’t stand it, that the bastard son of a slave was dearer to him than his heir." God, it felt so good, and he knew he’d end up paying for it, but he couldn’t force himself to care. "Now he’s gone and you can take your revenge, but it won’t change anything. He’ll never love you more than me."

There was a silence for a moment, a silence in which time seemed suspended. Then there was a roar, and Aerne’s fist slammed into the side of Joran’s face. He fell, but kicked out from the floor, bringing Aerne down on top of him. He slammed his knee into Aerne’s gut, driving out his air. Aerne’s fist landed on Joran’s temple, and the world tilted.

There was no sound as they fought other than the sound of blows and grunts of pain. Joran was exultant; he didn’t care where his punches landed as long as they hurt Aerne ― he couldn’t think of consequences now; there was no room in his head for fear, just the overwhelming joy of finally fighting back. He barely felt Aerne hitting him as he sank his teeth into Aerne’s hand.

Aerne screamed at that, and slammed his fist into Joran’s solar plexus. Joran choked for air, tried to breathe as Aerne grabbed his braid, hauled him up, and backhanded him to the floor. He lay stunned and gasping.

Aerne stood over him, panting; his tone was ugly and menacing. "That was a mistake, Joran. You will pay many times over for that." He yanked Joran to his feet, wrapped his braid around his hand, and pulled him out the door and down the stairs. Joran struggled to keep his feet as Aerne dragged him along. Aerne spoke fiercely. "You think I’ve been hard on you; you’re going to see hard. I’ll show you hard."

Joran swore as he missed a step and fell, yanking at the hair clutched in Aerne’s hand. "Aerne, please, please let me go!" The euphoria of the fight had vanished; Joran had never seen his brother furious before, and he was filled with dread as he realized what he’d done.

Aerne continued as if Joran had said nothing. "You’re a fucking dead man, lillebroder, you hear me? Dead! Think you can lay your filthy slave hands on me and not pay for it? You’re going to fucking well pay!" His voice grew louder and louder as he hauled Joran down the great hall, until he was screaming as he threw the boy through the kitchen doorway. Aerne dragged him across the room and shoved him faceup onto the heavy wooden countertop. His left hand closed around Joran’s throat, his eyes manic as he scrabbled for something with his right hand. Joran fought with him, striking at his steel grip. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe as his eyes fixed on the cleaver Aerne raised in the air. It seemed to hang there for a moment, and Joran managed to croak out "No!" as Aerne brought it down hard.

Aerne let his grip relax and Joran fell to the floor. They both stared at the slowly unraveling braid of hair Aerne held in his hand. Joran’s head felt oddly light, and he struggled not to be sick as he felt a rush of cool air on the back of his neck.

A sudden sound caught Aerne’s attention, and Joran looked up to see Halvar standing in the glow of the kitchen lights, his normally neat graying hair mussed with sleep. Behind him stood other members of the household ― Lukas, Rurik, Tekla, Gudrun ― roused by the shouts of the brothers. Halvar, normally the soul of composure, looked astounded at the sight before him.

Aerne’s voice was deceptively calm, belied by his stare fixed on Joran’s face. He swiped at the blood trickling from his nose. "Halvar. I’m glad you’re here. I have a job for you." Joran was unable to look away from Aerne’s flat gaze.

"Certainly, sir." Halvar’s voice gave no hint as to the confusion and uncertainty that must have been behind it.

Aerne’s eyes never wavered from Joran’s. "I want you to take charge of my brother." He spat the last word. "He is not to come abovestairs. He is not to leave the house. I do not want to see him until he has learned how to behave. I want you to teach him to be useful, and I want it done in the shortest possible time, is that understood?"

"Understood, sir," came Halvar’s quiet voice. "May I request a clarification, sir?"

"Go ahead," said Aerne mildly, stare tight on his brother.

"How short a time are you envisioning, sir?"

"Just—" Aerne broke away and looked at Halvar. "Just have him ready when I call for him."

Halvar bowed his head in acknowledgment. "Yes, sir. Will that be all you require, sir?"

Aerne suddenly looked very tired. "That’s all, Halvar. You may send the others to bed." He looked at Joran’s braid in his hand for a second, dropped it on the floor and left the room. Joran stared after him, and for a minute there was no sound other than the rustle of feet as the other slaves returned to their rooms.

Joran looked around to see Halvar looking at him with a strange expression. Suddenly his stomach lurched, he couldn’t hold it back any longer, and he leaned over and vomited. He braced himself with his hands, the ragged ends of his hair falling over his face as he heaved again and again, finally bringing up nothing but bile. He sank back, trembling and exhausted.

A bucket clattered to the floor beside him. "Clean it up," said Halvar. "There’s a rag in the sink."

Joran couldn’t even think of protesting at this point. He picked up the bucket and went to the sink. He squeezed the rag in his hands as the bucket filled. His pants were soaked, and he realized he’d pissed himself in his terror. This only added to the humiliation as he returned to mop up the floor under Halvar’s watchful eye. He couldn’t look up, couldn’t look Halvar in the face as he wiped up the last of it. What do I do now? He was afraid to ask, afraid to say anything.

"Good enough. You can do the whole floor tomorrow." Halvar’s voice was matter of fact. "Right now you need to bathe. I don’t want you messing up our sheets."

Joran got to his feet. "I— I don’t know where..."

"Follow me." Halvar was brusque. Joran followed him down the hall and into a tiny utilitarian bathroom containing a showerhead, a toilet, and a sink. "Soap and shampoo are in the dispenser," Halvar told him. "You have five minutes of waterflow; don’t waste them." He left the bathroom, closed the door. The water started.

Joran stripped quickly and stepped under the lukewarm spray. The soap felt harsh and drying on his skin as he scrubbed at his legs and chest. When he spread the shampoo in his hair, he felt a jolt of shock. It’s gone, how can it all be gone? He didn’t remember ever having hair this short. His trembling started again as the shampoo rinsed out of his hair, flowed down the drain. He wished the water were warmer; he felt so cold inside. He stood under the spray until it shut off.

There was a set of four towels on the wall; he took one and wrapped it around his waist. The ends of his hair dripped water down his chest. What next? Where do I go? He hesitantly opened the door to see Halvar standing before him.

"This way," said Halvar, and led him down the hall to a nearby room. Halvar opened the door and gestured him inside. It was fairly spartan ― an iron bed against the wall, a table, a lamp, a chest of drawers. “This is my room. You may sleep here for what’s left of the night. Tomorrow we’ll discuss what’s to be done with you."

Joran looked at him in confusion. "But where will you sleep?"

Halvar’s smile was crooked. "I’m not going to sleep. Go to bed." He shut off the light and closed the door.

Joran dropped the towel and huddled under the covers. Cold, he was so cold, he felt he could never get warm. He couldn’t stop shaking. Were you going to kill me, brother? In the darkness he was beyond alone, and the cries tore out of his throat. "Father, Father, how could you? How could you let him have me like this? Oh God, please help me, please..." He wept long after the tears had been used up, curled in the bed that shook with his sobbing. Finally he drifted into an exhausted sleep. He dreamed of Kristian.

 

 

 

- 8 -

 

The sound of pounding on the door woke Joran from a restless doze. He shrank back into the bedclothes as the overhead light flicked on. "Wake up," came a familiar voice. "Halvar wants to see you immediately."

It’s all true. Memory rushed back over him, and he felt cold inside. What’s going to happen to me?

He started to get out of bed, realized he was naked, and sat back down. Rurik came all the way into the room. "You’d better hurry; you don’t keep Halvar waiting." He looked at Joran, tilted his head. "What’s the problem?"

"I don’t have any clothes," said Joran softly. He didn’t want to complain and piss anyone off, didn’t want to screw things up further, but it was cold and as far as he knew, nudity wasn’t the norm down here.

"Ah." Rurik dashed out of the room, returned in thirty seconds with a pair of pajama pants. "These are mine. Pull in the drawstring and roll them up, and they should be fine."

Joran bit his lip and took the pants. "Thank you." He pulled them on; they were far too big for him, but he did as he had been told and managed to make them fit. He stood, uncertainly looking at Rurik for further instructions.

"Halvar is in his office. This way." Rurik took off down the hall and Joran followed. The slate floor chilled his bare feet as they hurried through the labyrinthine corridors. Joran had had no idea the house was this extensive belowstairs. He didn’t think he could find his way back, not without a map.

Rurik knocked on a door that looked like every other door they’d passed. He opened it, his manner suddenly formal. "Sir, here he is." He ushered Joran in. "Is there anything else I can do, sir?"

Halvar shook his head. "Thank you Rurik, you may go."

"Thank you, sir." Rurik closed the door quietly as Joran stood in front of Halvar’s desk, not daring to move without being told.

Halvar indicated a hard chair in front of Joran. “Sit down.” Joran obeyed. Halvar ran a hand through his short hair, rubbed his clean-shaven chin. He looked tired ― of course he is, he’s been awake since two this morning ― as he studied Joran. He took in a deep breath, sighed. Joran watched his face nervously.

"I certainly never expected to deal with a situation like this," Halvar finally said. Joran couldn’t think of a reply. Neither did I? "The Chairman was most emphatic. You’re a problem, Joran. My problem, unfortunately."

Joran twisted his hands in his lap and waited. Halvar stood up and began pacing behind his desk. "I don’t have time to spend educating you, so I’m going to tell you this once. Remember it. I am sir, and you will address me so. The other men in the household are also sir. You will do whatever they or I tell you. I want to hear no complaints from you, none whatsoever." He ran a hand through his hair again. "The women of the household are— no, you will not call them anything. You are not to speak to them. If they order you to do something, you will do it without a word. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Joran whispered.

"You will not speak to anyone unless they speak to you first. If you have a question, ask for permission to speak. If you break a rule, you will be beaten. If you become troublesome, I will recommend to the Chairman that you be sold. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," answered Joran. "May... may I ask a question, sir?"

"Ask."

"What should I do if I get sick again?"

Halvar sighed again. "If you are ill, come see me. If I decide you are too ill to work, you will receive medical care. If I decide you are not too ill, you will be punished for shirking. Anything else?"

Is this really happening? What are you going to do to me? When did my life become such a nightmare? Joran shook his head. "No, sir."

Halvar gestured to the door. "Go. Find Egon. Tell him you are to begin by scrubbing the kitchen floor, and ask him for any further orders."

"Yes, sir." Joran got up and opened the door. Before he could leave, he felt Halvar’s hand on his shoulder. He turned, and Halvar’s hand crashed into his face. "First lesson," said Halvar through the ringing in his ears, "you always inquire if there is anything else you can do before you leave a superior’s presence. If the answer is no, you thank him and leave. If it is yes, you thank him and get to it. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir." Joran fought to get the words through his aching jaw. Halvar let his shoulder go and gave him a small push toward the door. Joran flinched. "Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?"

Halvar nodded. "Better. No, you can go."

"Thank you, sir," said Joran. He stumbled through the door, remembering to close it carefully. He rubbed his cheek as he looked down the hallway. How the hell do I get back?

˜ - ˜

 

Rurik found him wandering by the kitchen storerooms. "Where have you been? You missed breakfast," the dark man informed him cheerily.

Joran swallowed. "I got lost. Sir." God, I’m hungry. Please don’t let him hit me.

Rurik smirked. "It’s confusing down here, that’s sure. Where are you going?"

"I’m looking for Egon, sir." Calling his brother’s valet "sir" was one of the more difficult things he’d ever had to do. He wasn’t about to tell Rurik he was looking for orders.

"What for?"

Great. "Halvar told me to ask him for orders. Sir." Let me sink through the floor and rest in the earth, let me dissolve and disappear.

"Oh, he did?" Rurik’s face altered subtly. "You’d better get there, then. Back that way," he indicated the hall behind Joran, "turn left at the end, then take the first right. The kitchen is on the left."

"Thank you, sir." Oh no God, I don’t want to do this. "Can I do anything else for you, sir?"

Rurik looked startled, then grinned. "No, gosse. Get going."

"Thank you, sir." Joran swallowed his humiliation and hurried back down the hall. Make this stop, dear God, how can I get used to this?

˜ - ˜

 

He found Egon in the kitchen, finishing breakfast. Gudrun, the cook and housekeeper, was busily dictating the day’s schedule to her housemaids, while the kitchenmaids cleaned the table and began preparing the abovestairs breakfast. Joran’s stomach growled as he approached Egon. Ask permission first. If Egon hits me, I’m going down. "Excuse me, sir, may I interrupt?"

The large man raised his eyebrows, his mouth full, and nodded at Joran. Joran swallowed, his mouth watering from the breakfast aromas. "Halvar told me to tell you that I’m to scrub the kitchen floor, then ask you for further orders." I want to die.

Egon shrugged and swallowed. "What do you need from me, then? Get to it."

Joran hated asking. "I don’t know how, sir."

Egon frowned, his attention caught. "When did you get here?" He reached out, pulled on a strand of Joran’s uneven hair. "I know you. You’re supposed to be upstairs. What are you doing down here?"

I can’t stand it. "I’m... not allowed abovestairs anymore. Sir." Did he miss last night’s show? Apparently.

Egon shook his head. "You’re a son. The old Chairman’s son."

Joran’s mouth twisted. "I’m Anneli’s son."

Egon sat still, letting that sink in. "Ah." He drained the last of his coffee. "Well, then." He heaved himself out of his chair as Ingelev grabbed his plate and mug off the table. "Cleaning supplies are here." He led Joran down another hallway and opened a door. The light flicked on, and Joran blinked at the array of shelves covered with cleansers, the buckets and mops lining the walls, the cloths, sponges, and brushes. Egon picked up a bottle seemingly at random. "This is for the floors. Never use anything else." He handed it to Joran and indicated the rest of the room. "Get a bucket and a brush. Fill the bucket at the spout. Add three capfuls of this. Begin in the hallway; don’t do the kitchen until after breakfast is served. When you finish this hall and the kitchen, begin the other corridor. I’ll come get you when you’re done."

"Yes, sir," muttered Joran. Egon left, and Joran picked up a bucket. A day of scrubbing floors. I suppose it beats organizing those damned books. He sighed and hitched up his pants. He wished he had a shirt. He wished he hadn’t taken off his shoes in his room upstairs last night. Shoes would have been nice. Of course, if he was wishing for shoes, he might as well wish himself out of this whole damned mess. Don’t think about it. It only hurts. Scrub the floors and shut the hell up. Where’s a brush?

˜ - ˜

 

His back ached as he picked up the bucket and moved it further down the hall. He’d spent hours on these floors, and it didn’t seem like he’d ever finish. He got back down on his hands and knees, wincing as they contacted the slate flagstones again. Swishing the brush through the bucket, he slapped it on the floor and began to scrub once more. The repetitive motions lulled his mind, and his thoughts wandered.

Less than twenty-four hours ago, I was on my way out.

Less than twenty-four hours ago, I had sex with Katrin and Kristian.

Less than twenty-four hours ago, I had a life.

He remembered the feel of their hands as they caressed him, the joy in his heart as he entered and was entered, the ecstatic oneness as the three of them joined and for that brief time they were together, not alone.

I’m alone.

I have no one.

I have nothing.

He didn’t dare think about the future, about whether he’d see them again. He didn’t want to hope, but he couldn’t suppress it. It was all he had. He tried not to think about what his life had been like, what it promised to be from now on. It was too frightening. His stomach knotted, and he stopped for a minute, concentrating on crushing the panic that welled up inside him. What am I? Who am I? I don’t know how to be this person; I don’t want to be this person...

His knees hurt, his wrists hurt, and he dipped the brush again and pushed it into the floor. He hoped he’d get to have dinner. He didn’t care what it would be, just that he could eat it. His stomach hurt with tension, hunger, and fear. He bit his lip to keep it from trembling. I’m not going to cry. I’m sick of crying.

Hours went by; he was well on his way down the second corridor when footsteps made him look up. Ingelev stood there; she tucked a strand of her short ash-blond hair behind her ear. "Dinner is always at six," she informed him. "Put the bucket away; you don’t want to be late."

Don’t speak to her, he reminded himself. He stood, his back cracking, and picked up the bucket, following her back to the cleaning supplies. "I’m not going to lead you all over the place," she said as he emptied the bucket and put everything away. "You’ll have to learn your way around quickly."

Fine by me, if someone would fucking tell me where things are. He jerked his head in a nod, hoping that wasn’t against the rules, and followed her back to the kitchen.

Everyone was there ― Gudrun and Tekla were laying platters of meat on the long table, where Lukas, Egon, and Rurik were already seated. The three chambermaids, whose names Joran had never known, flew in giggling. They claimed seats around Ingelev. Joran uncertainly pulled out a chair between Egon and Rurik. No one said anything, so he sat, waiting to find out what came next. Tekla set the rolls on the table and took her own seat, followed by Gudrun who sat at the foot of the table. Halvar came in just as the clock struck six, and stood at his chair. He bowed his head, and everyone else at the table followed suit.

"Send your blessing upon all those who work in this household, and make them all ever-thankful for their daily bread, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, amen."

"Amen," chorused the slaves, and they began passing the food. There was no talking as they served themselves. Joran cautiously reached for a potato, and oh miracle, no one frowned at him or hit him. He was starving, and added food to his plate until he couldn’t fit any more. At the head of the table, Halvar cleared his throat. "Attention, please."

Everyone laid down their utensils and turned to him. Halvar indicated Joran. "For those of you who do not know our newest member, this is Joran. He is being trained for service." The chambermaids giggled quietly, and Joran flushed. "He is not allowed to speak to any of the women, but he will follow orders from any of you. If he does not, please see me." Halvar began to eat again, and the rest of the household followed suit. The chambermaids began talking quietly among themselves, and Lukas asked Halvar a question. Ingelev took advantage of the chatter to lean over and whisper to Joran. "It’s true, then? Your brother really made you a slave? And you’re below all of us?" Her eyes danced with malicious glee.

Joran looked away, unable to respond. Her mocking laugh hurt his ears. He dug into his food, his cheeks red. You don’t have to rub my face in it, Ingelev. He focused on eating. He shoved it in as fast as he could, not certain when he’d be getting any more. Besides, eating meant he didn’t have to look at anyone.

 

˜ - ˜

 

After dinner, two of the maids went upstairs to serve the Chairman his dinner. Joran was put to work washing dishes, while Tekla and Ingelev cleared the table. Gudrun sat sipping coffee, taking the opportunity to relax. Ingelev brought a stack of plates over to the sink where Joran stood, and eyed his work critically. "That’s terrible," she said. "You aren’t getting them nearly clean enough. Do it again."

Joran glared at the sink. You couldn’t have spoken to me like that yesterday. He picked up a skillet he’d just washed and dipped it back in. Scrubbed it with the sponge, rinsed it off. Ingelev shook her head. "No, no, do it again."

There’s nothing left on it! Damn it, you bitch… He couldn’t protest, couldn’t say or do anything. No complaining, do what you’re told, how long do I have left to go? He scowled and shoved it back underwater. I can’t even argue with her without getting the shit beat out of me. He scrubbed harder, ignoring her inquisitive gray eyes over his shoulder.

"Leave him alone, Ingelev," came Gudrun’s mild voice. Ingelev gave him a wicked smile and flounced away. I officially hate her now. Joran set the skillet aside and started on the plates.

 

˜ - ˜

 

It was late when Joran finished the last of the pots and pans. The dishes were in the cycler, humming away happily. Gudrun came up to inspect his work. "Hmm, passable," she muttered, twisting a strand of her gray-blond hair. Joran let out a sigh of relief. Thank you, thank you, don’t make me do them again and I’ll love you forever. Gudrun seemed to be aware of his thoughts; a small smile creased her worn, pale face. "You can go to bed."

Joran gritted his teeth. I wish. That people. Would stop telling me to go places I don’t know how to get to. He stepped away from the sink and looked around, wishing for Rurik, Egon, even Halvar, someone he could speak to. No one. God, he felt such a fool.

Gudrun noticed his frustration. "You’ve never been there, have you?" Joran gave an embarrassed shake of his head. "Down the hall on the left, turn left, last door on the right."

Joran wished he could thank her. This was the first real kindness he’d received, and he couldn’t say a word. He looked at her and smiled, and she smiled back. Sudden tears stabbed at his eyes, and he blinked them back as he turned and left. He hadn’t expected anyone to be nice.

He found the room without a problem. The lights came on as he entered, and he looked around. Three beds, identical to Halvar’s, each stood in a corner of the room. Each bed had a small table beside it. Joran was aghast. We all sleep in one room? He shook his head, chiding himself for stupidity; how likely was it that slaves got their own suites of rooms? Okay fine, but how am I going to get to sleep with three other people around? A closet by the door held a built-in set of drawers; several sets of uniforms hung beside it. There was a cot on one of the walls. Joran figured it must be for him; they wouldn’t have had time to get him a bed. If he even rated a bed. His spirits sank lower.

His thoughts were interrupted by Egon’s entrance. "These are yours," he informed him, shoving a pile of clothing at Joran. Joran almost dropped them. "You get the bottom drawer. Put them away."

"Yes, sir," Joran mumbled, his voice feeling rusty. He went to the closet and knelt on the floor. Underwear, thank God. Pajamas. Shoes! They were a far cry from his stylish knee boots, but even if they were dourly practical, they’d keep his feet off the stone floors.

He held up the uniforms doubtfully. Two sets. A collarless, long-sleeved shirt and a loose pair of pants, both in the same dull gray shade. They didn’t look nearly as sharp as the other slaves’ black suits, but then if he wasn’t seen abovestairs, he didn’t need to look good, did he? Stupid to get upset about clothes when there’s so much else worse. At least I’ll be warm. He hung them up, looked questioningly back at Egon. "Can I change now, sir?"

Egon shrugged. "Do whatever you like." His eyes never left Joran. Joran sighed inwardly and stripped out of the pajama pants he’d been wearing all day. They’d gotten soaked several times when he’d knocked the bucket or splashed himself. He put on a pair of white boxers, an undershirt, and a pair of pajama bottoms from his own drawer, blue and white striped pants that fit surprisingly well. He went back to his cot to sit down, but Egon caught him halfway and dug hard fingers into his shoulder. Joran gasped as the nerve came alive with pain.

"Pick those up," growled Egon, "fold them, and put them on Rurik’s bed. It’s not polite to leave them on the floor." He emphasized the last by digging further into Joran's shoulder, eliciting a whimper of pain.

"Yessir, I’msorrysirI’lldothatrightnow..." Egon let go and Joran scuttled back to the closet. Stupid stupid stupid, what were you thinking? Force of habit, I always leave my clothes on the floor. He folded the pants, put them on the bed Egon pointed to, and went back to his cot, sitting against the wall and drawing his knees to his chest. He rubbed his shoulder unobtrusively.

Egon began preparing for bed, and in walked Lukas. Joran shrank against the wall. He hadn’t had to see Lukas all day, hadn’t had to speak to him. I never hit him. Never hurt him. There’s nothing for him to get vengeance for. He wanted to believe that, but couldn’t. Lukas had belonged to him since he was fourteen; he’d treated him like a particularly useful piece of furniture. The thought of calling Lukas "sir" made bile rise in his throat. Maybe Lukas would just ignore him. He hoped.

As if in answer to Joran’s prayers, Lukas changed for bed, flopped down and stared at the ceiling. He never even looked at Joran. The knot in Joran’s stomach eased a bit. All three sat in silence for several minutes, until Rurik’s noisy entrance.

"Finally done, whew, the Chairman’s in a foul mood tonight." Rurik grinned and wiped a smear of blood away from the corner of his wide mouth. "Lucky to get out of there with my hide intact. So," he looked at Egon and Lukas, "shall we shoot for it?"

Egon gave a slow smile; Lukas shrugged. "I don’t want to be first," he said, still looking at the ceiling. "Between you two."

"Excellent, a fifty-fifty shot," Rurik grinned. Egon stood up and they faced each other. Lukas counted off. "One, two, three, shoot!"

Egon held out a fist, Rurik a flat palm. "Yes!" Rurik cheered. "Egon, you dumb bastard, you always choose rock." Egon shrugged phlegmatically and sat back on his bed. Rurik turned his attention to Joran. Joran, who was already uneasy, drew his knees up tighter. No, no, no, please don’t let this be what I think, it isn’t fair, please don’t let him do that…

"Come on, gosse, stand up and strip. We want to see you."

Lukas has seen me a million times, he’ll tell you whatever you want to know. Out loud he said, "Sir, please don’t make me do this. Please. I don’t," his voice grew higher, "I don’t want to do it, please…"

Rurik looked amused, until he reached out and grabbed the back of Joran’s neck. "It makes no difference what you want, gosse. You’re under our orders, you’ll do as you’re told, or I’ll report to Halvar you’re being disruptive." He pulled Joran to the middle of the room. "Strip off. Don’t make me tell you again, or I’ll have to punish you. And you’ll like that much less."

Yesterday I could have gone to bed quietly… Joran pulled off the undershirt, skinned the pants and boxers off his legs, and tossed everything onto his cot. He stood naked in the middle of the room, trying to think of anything other than where he was.

"Stand feet shoulder width apart, hands behind your neck," Rurik commanded. He didn’t sound so casual now. Joran obeyed, his muscles tense. Rurik walked around him, behind him, studying him up and down. Joran’s mind cringed. "Nice ass," commented Rurik. "You’ve got good muscles, gosse. Not too big, nice and long." He felt the back of Joran’s thigh, and Joran shuddered.

"Hold still," Rurik snapped, slapping him on the ass. Joran tightened his fingers together on the back of his neck and tried not to move. Rurik ran his hand down Joran’s belly. Joran’s face and chest grew red as Rurik ran a finger down the strip of hair past his navel and tugged on his curls. "Not too bad here, either." Joran closed his eyes and tried desperately to be stone.

Abruptly the room was plunged into darkness. Rurik cursed. "I thought we had more time, dammit. Ah well." Joran felt a hand close in his hair. "This way." The hand yanked his hair hard, and Joran bit his lip and went with it. Rurik pushed him onto the bed and climbed in. "Hope you don’t need much sleep, gosse," he breathed in Joran’s ear, "because you won’t be getting it tonight."

Joran’s breath came faster. I don’t want to. I don’t want to. Kristian, save me. He whimpered in protest as Rurik’s mouth descended on his, Rurik’s tongue pushed hard into his mouth. Rurik laughed in his throat as he bit Joran’s lips. "Pretty boy," he whispered, "think you’re better than all of us? Not anymore." He reached down and grabbed Joran’s balls, squeezed. Joran moaned. "You belong to us now. You’ll do what we say, and you’ll thank us for it."

I won’t. I won’t. I won’t. Oh God, don’t make me.

The hand closed tighter around his balls. "Thank me, Joran."

Joran groaned out loud. "Ah…ah… thank you, sir."

"Good." The hand relaxed and Joran’s breath whooshed out of him. "Roll over now. Spread your legs and raise your hips up."

I can’t. I can’t do this.

Feeling ill, Joran turned over. His legs were paralyzed. Rurik’s hand reached in between them and pinched his balls hard. "Ow!" Joran cried, and shot his legs apart before he could think. He lifted his hips, anxious to avoid further pain.

"Much better," grinned Rurik in the dark. Joran ground his face against the bed, the ignominy choking him. He heard the soft chuk of a lotion dispenser and flinched as two fingers rubbed cream in between his cheeks. The fingers worked the cream into his entrance, stretching him open. Joran’s tears began to flow in earnest as the fingers left him and he felt the head of Rurik’s cock positioned at his opening. Oh please no, please, pleasepleasepleaseno

The slave pushed into Joran slowly, allowing his asshole to stretch further. Joran groaned, digging his fingers into the bed. It didn’t hurt badly; he was hardly a virgin. But the sense of degradation was entirely new; he’d never expected or wanted this, and he squirmed as Rurik thrust into him again and again, slowly, stretching out the moment until Joran felt like howling. He screamed into the mattress, stifling his outcries when he heard snickers coming from across the room. He’d forgotten that Egon and Lukas were in the room with them, and he burned with shame at what they were hearing.

Rurik’s thrusts sped up, and he began gasping and swearing. "That’s right, fuckboy, fucking aristo pricktease, take it, take it all, damn, that’s sweet, yeah, good, good, gooooood…" His groans overrode Joran’s as he pushed deep inside, climaxing inside of him. He froze for a minute, pushed twice more, then withdrew. Joran gasped for air as Rurik rolled off him. Rurik lay panting on the bed; he threw an arm around Joran. "Pretty good there, gosse."

Joran edged back toward the wall. He wanted to get up, but didn’t have the nerve to move without being told. Fall asleep now. You’re tired, sleep, ignore me, sleep. He relaxed as Rurik’s breathing slowed, and when Rurik muttered something and rolled over, he eased out from underneath his arm and began to climb over him.

"Where are you going, gosse?" Rurik’s voice came at him out of the darkness and he jumped.

"I… figured you were finished," Joran mumbled. "Sir," he added hastily.

"I told you you wouldn’t be getting much sleep," Rurik chided him. "I’m a stallion!"

A loud snort of laughter came from across the room.

"Shut up, Lukas," Rurik called. "This boy’s going to get the night of his life."

Joran lay back down as Rurik straddled him again. He prayed for death.

 

 

- 9 -

The next morning, Joran was roused by a buzzer and a harsh light in his face. Still half asleep, he flailed for the alarm clock, but his hand contacted someone’s chest. He blinked his eyes open to see Rurik’s grinning face hovering over him. "Hello, lover."

Memory and shame washed over him and he closed his eyes again. Rurik slapped his thigh and he jumped. "Better get up, gosse, breakfast in twenty." Rurik bounced out of bed, naked, and dashed to the closet. Joran rolled out more slowly, wincing at the dull ache in his lower body. Rurik had taken full advantage of his presence in his bed; the number of times he’d mounted Joran blurred, but Joran knew it had to be at least four or five.

He ducked his head, not looking at anyone else as he went to his cot to reclaim his underclothes. He couldn’t face them, not after what they heard last night. He tried not to remember the laughter coming out of the darkness.

Think about something else. Anything else. It didn’t happen. At least it was warm. He’d half frozen in the night, once Rurik took most of the covers. His limbs were aching too, a reward for all the physical labor he’d had to do the day before.

Joran followed Rurik to the bathroom, trying to memorize the route. He needed to know where the bathroom was, if nothing else. When it was his turn, he used the facilities and brushed his teeth. He caught sight of his face in the mirror and was shocked. His face was pale, paler than he remembered, and his deep brown eyes seemed huge and bruised. There was a cut on his forehead he didn’t remember getting. And his hair ― his hair, formerly so long and glossy, fell around his face in jagged dark chunks. I look like a scarecrow.

A thumping knock on the bathroom door made him jump, and he scurried out, not looking at Egon as he went down the hall toward where he thought the kitchen was.

The kitchen was bustling again with early-morning activity. Tekla brushed past Joran and gave him a quick smile, flipping her dark hair out of her eyes and placing a bowl of scrambled eggs on the table. He tried to give an answering smile to her back, but couldn’t force anything more than a grimace. His hips ached, his shoulders and elbows ached, and he wanted more sleep. He rubbed surreptitiously at his eyes, and waited until he saw Rurik and Lukas come to the table before he took a seat himself.

Ingelev set a loaf of bread on the table and sat beside Joran. He looked at her, startled. She raised a pointed blond eyebrow and looked back with equanimity. "How are you feeling today?" she asked him. "I don’t suppose the boys let you sleep much, did they?" She laughed. It was not a nice laugh. Joran looked down at his plate, his face burning. Leave me alone, damn it. I don’t need this from you.

He was saved by Halvar’s arrival. The rest of the slaves sat quickly, and all bowed their heads when Halvar began grace. "Send your blessing upon all those who work in this household, and make them—"

"Ow!" Joran had felt a sudden sharp kick on his ankle, and his exclamation of pain brought the words to a sudden halt. Heads flew up around the table, looking at him. Halvar’s eyes were cold. He bowed his head and finished, "—and make them all ever-thankful for their daily bread, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, amen." Halvar took his seat and spoke again. "Egon, please take Joran some distance down the hall and impress upon him the importance of remaining silent during grace."

"Yes, sir." Egon stood and motioned to Joran.

"But sir, she—" Joran tried to explain but was cut short by Halvar’s upraised hand.

"Joran. You were told not to speak unless spoken to. Egon?"

"I’ll take care of it, sir." Joran’s legs felt like water; his breath came short. "Will that be all, sir?" asked Egon.

"Yes, thank you, Egon." Halvar sipped his coffee. Joran pushed his chair back and left the room behind Egon. His stomach felt cold. He followed down the hall on trembling legs.

He’d been afraid of Egon when he was a small boy. The man’s height and his intimidating silent stare had terrified him, and when he spoke, Joran had run screaming from the deep voice. As he grew older, his fear had lessened, but he still remained nervous around the big man even though, as the Chairman’s son, Joran could give orders and be obeyed. Today his fear was back with a vengeance. He felt the kind of terror he hadn’t felt since he was a child and saw monsters in the closet.

Egon pushed open a storeroom door and gestured him inside. The room was large, with walls of old wood, lined with empty shelves and cupboards. The door shut with a thud of doom. Joran’s arms were crossed in front of him; he held onto himself tightly, afraid he might start screaming from sheer dread.

"Take off your shirt," Egon rumbled. Joran was dizzy with fear, but forced his nerveless fingers to grip the hem of his shirt and pull it over his head. He clutched it, waiting for orders.

Egon unbuckled the belt from around his waist and wrapped the buckle end around his hand twice. Joran’s heart iced. "Get down. Hands and knees."

That part wasn’t hard; his knees were about to collapse as it was. He stepped to the center of the room, clenching his teeth to bite back hysterical begging. He dropped his shirt on the floor and went down on his knees, then to his hands. The skin on his back prickled in awful anticipation. He closed his eyes. Oh God, get me through this.

The first blow laid a stripe of pain along his shoulders; the second across the middle of his back. He clenched his jaw, determined not to scream. If he started screaming in this room with Egon, he didn’t know if he’d ever stop. The third strike made him bite his lip, whimpering. He focused on the stone beneath his hands, trying to imagine the pain flowing through him and into it, but Egon brought the belt down hard, and his visualization broke under the fire on his skin.

By the eighth stroke, he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He cried out, trying to restrain it at first, hoping no one else would hear. When the twelfth stroke blazed into him, he screamed wordlessly. The belt wrapped around his chest and tore at his ribs; it struck across earlier welts and ripped the skin open. He couldn’t keep count of the blows anymore, and his elbows buckled as the belt rained down over and over again. He pressed his head into the stone, tightening his hands into fists, desperate for something to hang onto to help him through the beating.

He flinched, expecting the belt to come down again, but there was nothing. He tried to still his sobs as Egon spoke again. "That was thirty. Get up on your hands. You get twelve more for speaking without permission."

No, no, please, I can’t, I can’t get up… In despair, he pushed himself back up, his head hung low. The belt whistled through the air and across his back again, and he tried to keep his screams inside, but he couldn’t. The pain filled him and crackled across his back and shoulders. His vision strobed with colors, and he heard himself begging as Egon wielded the strap with ruthless efficiency. "Please, sir, please, I’m sorry, please sir, no more, I’m sorry, please oh God please!"

When it ended again, his throat felt raw and tears dripped from his chin. "Get up," Egon said, and he did, his body shaking with the aftereffects of pain and fear. "Thank me," Egon instructed. "Always say thank you."

"Thank you, sir." His voice was hoarse, but he was proud he could get it out. He bent down to pick up his shirt, put it on with a hiss as it hit the bloody welts. He tried to ignore the pain, but it made his legs rubbery as he and Egon walked back to the kitchen.

"It’s finished, sir," Egon reported to Halvar, who nodded. "Thank you, Egon. Joran, you may have a seat."

"Thank you, sir," whispered Joran as he went back to his place. He swiped at his nose with the back of his hand, not looking up. He didn’t know if the faces of the other slaves held pity or satisfaction. He didn’t want to know.

 

˜ - ˜

 

After another full day of scrubbing floors, Joran’s entire body hurt. He could barely take a step without crying out. He hobbled back to the kitchen at dinnertime, and managed to get through it without incident. Ingelev stayed away from him, thank God, leaving him to scrub pots and pans in peace. When Gudrun approved his work, he went to the room he shared, wanting only to fall into bed and sleep for a week.

He did not get his wish. Egon was there waiting for him. "My turn," he growled softly. Joran’s mind went blank as he stared at the man. How, how can he expect this? I can’t do this. But oh God ― as Egon raised a hand ― I can’t take another beating, either. "What should I do, sir?" he asked, surprising himself with the meekness in his voice.

"On your knees," commanded Egon, and he obeyed. Egon unzipped. "No teeth," he warned. "Or I’ll beat you again."

"Yes, sir," Joran mumbled as he caught sight of the cock. It was huge, like the man himself, and it was already fully hard. Joran’s mind rebelled, but he forced himself to place his hands on Egon’s hips, open his mouth, and take the head inside. Egon had no patience for licking or any other form of foreplay; he simply took hold of Joran’s hair, and with as much efficiency as he’d shown earlier, proceeded to rape his mouth. Joran choked as the cock battered against the back of his throat; he’d never learned to suppress his gag reflex, and his jaw muscles ached as he gagged. Egon ignored Joran’s distress, thrusting himself in and out at an even speed.

The man is a machine; how long can he go on? Joran thought, giddy with lack of oxygen. His back still hurt, and he kept his lips drawn tight over his teeth, anxious to avoid another beating. It has to end sometime. He has to finish. But Egon’s cock never faltered, and Joran’s hands dug into Egon’s iron hips as he struggled to maintain his balance on his knees.

At length, Egon groaned, and his cock jetted semen into Joran’s bruised mouth. Joran swallowed, gagging on the taste but afraid to spit it out. Egon fell back on the bed and grinned. "Good job."

"Thank you, sir," Joran responded, swallowing again to rid himself of the taste. He pushed himself up and noticed that Lukas and Rurik had come in while Egon was busy. He tried not to picture what they must have seen. He cleared his throat. "Will there be anything else, sir?"

Egon waved a hand. "Go to bed."

Bed. Despite everything, Joran felt a rush of gratitude to Egon. "Thank you, sir." He changed into pajamas and slipped under the covers as the lights went out. His back hurt, his jaw hurt, but he fell asleep almost immediately.

 

˜ - ˜

 

Joran spent the next day under Gudrun’s orders; the Chairman was having company for dinner and they were busier than usual in the kitchen. He ground spices, stirred sauces, washed mountains of pots and pans, sent loads of dishes through the cycler. It was almost pleasant, even if he couldn’t speak. He had never been in such a warm, comfortable place. Gudrun ran her kitchen with efficient kindness; she didn’t get angry even when Joran mistakenly ground up green peppercorns instead of pink. "Do the pink ones now; we’ll use the green up in something else," she said briskly. Joran liked this much better than scrubbing floors, even if it meant he had to work with Ingelev, who sniped at him whenever she could. Tekla, at least, was nice. She didn’t say much, but she smiled at him when she saw him. He never knew how good a smile could feel.

There was no time for the regular dinner; everyone just snatched what they could when they could. Halvar was upstairs, overseeing the meal. Joran looked at Gudrun inquisitively before picking up food ― if she nodded, he ate it, if she shook her head, he left it alone. The knots inside him loosened as he worked into the night. It was the first time in months he felt almost relaxed. Tekla joined him wiping down the counters, and he grinned at her. He snapped his cloth with a flourish at a spot, and she giggled. For a moment, he was happy.

But Ingelev saw what happened, and strode up to them. Joran’s happiness died as she glared at them. She swept Tekla against her in a deep kiss. "Ingelev…" Tekla protested, with a smile that said she didn’t really mind. Ingelev kissed her again.

Joran stared, surprised. Ingelev broke off the kiss and looked at him. "Don’t you have work to do?" she asked pointedly.

Joran got the point. He scowled down at the counter and scrubbed at the stains.

 

˜ - ˜

 

When the kitchen was spotless, Gudrun sent them all to bed. Joran’s stomach twisted as he left the bathroom and approached his room. Only Lukas left. What’s he going to do to me? He bit his lip as he opened the door and saw all three inside.

Lukas didn’t even look in his direction as Joran slunk to the dresser and changed for bed. He couldn’t hope he’d get a night to himself, but his heart sank when he turned around and saw Lukas standing there. "Come," said Lukas briefly, and Joran dropped his eyes and followed him back to his bed. Lukas got under the covers, beckoned Joran in. Hopeless and resigned, Joran obeyed. The lights snapped out.

Joran flinched as Lukas curled next to him, sliding a hand under his shirt and around his waist. He waited helplessly for the order to take the shirt off, take off his pants, kneel and be violated in a hundred different ways, each worse than the last because this man had been Joran’s slave and had to want revenge for that. But Lukas sighed and merely pulled him closer. Lukas’s breathing slowed and his arm relaxed.

Joran didn’t want to wake him, but the burden of hope made him feel faint. "Sir?" he whispered.

"What?" Lukas grunted.

"Aren’t—" Joran’s back twinged at the thought of speaking first, and he hastily amended his question. "May I speak?"

Lukas’s arm tightened around him. "No. This is all I want from you. Shut up and go to sleep."

The shock of relief left Joran weak, and he let it pull him into slumber.

 

 

 

- 10 -

Several weeks went by, and Joran tried his best to stay out of trouble. His entire reason for being had shrunk to the avoidance of pain. He bent over for Rurik when he had to, knelt in front of Egon when he was told, tried not to think about what he was doing and for whom he was doing it. He scrubbed floors in a haze, washed dishes and countertops and didn’t speak unless someone spoke to him first.

He was miserable.

The one small bright spot was the time he spent with Lukas. Lukas didn’t hurt him, didn’t hold him down and fuck him senseless, didn’t even speak to him. Whenever it was Lukas’s turn, he took Joran into his bed, curled around him, and fell asleep. Joran treasured these nights; he pretended he was cared for and loved, and for a little while he could relax. He didn’t know why Lukas did it, didn’t ask after that first night. He was just grateful for it.

Scrub floors.

Wash dishes.

Shine shoes ― oh there’s something new, that’s enjoyable ―

Kneel down.

Bend over.

Am I useful yet, alderbroder?

Don’t speak.

Don’t complain.

Don’t struggle.

Don’t hope.

 

˜ - ˜

 

He didn’t know afterwards what had possessed him. What the hell had he been thinking? He’d put up with her before, always ignored her taunts, her little pinches and slaps and needling remarks that hit straight to his core. Maybe it all built up inside. He didn’t know.

It happened at dinner. It would. In front of Halvar and the entire household. Of course. Joran sat quietly, eating vegetables, Ingelev beside him. He’d given up trying to understand her hatred; he just accepted it and tried to let it go.

"Did they fuck you again last night?"

Shut up, bitch.

"I bet you like it hard, don’t you?"

Shut up. Shut up. Let me pretend no one else knows.

"Do you spread for them like a whore?"

Shut up shut up shut UP!

Whispered. "Are they better at it than your brother?"

"For God’s sake leave me alone, woman!"

For a moment, Joran didn’t even realize he’d said it out loud. It was only when he saw the shocked looks on everyone’s faces, the thunderclouds in Halvar’s eyes, that he knew what he’d done. Oh God… He wanted to explain, but he knew that only made things worse. He sat motionless, waiting for the hammer to fall.

"Joran," Halvar said mildly.

Joran’s mouth was dry. "Yes, sir?"

"What did I tell you about speaking to the women?"

"That— " Joran swallowed. "That I’m not to speak to them, sir."

"What did I tell you about speaking at all?"

Joran was near tears already. "That I’m not to speak without permission, sir."

"Do you have any excuse for this outburst?"

"No, sir." He bit down the fear.

"Apologize."

"I’m very sorry, sir. Everyone."

"Get up." Joran did. "You’re finished with dinner. Go to your room and wait."

"Yes, sir." Joran cursed himself with every step. Stupid, stupid, stupid fucking asshole. How could you be so God -damned stupid? He shut the door and threw himself on his cot. I’m toast, I’m so fucking dead. He remembered Halvar’s threat to sell him if he gave trouble. He wouldn’t sell me for this, would he? He grew cold.

Aerne might sell him. That would get him out of his hair once and for all, wouldn’t it? He’d never seriously thought of being sold before, but now the idea hit him with a horror he’d never experienced before. This is my home. I can’t leave. This is where I grew up, where I was loved. What if I never see it again? He thrust down rising panic. Aerne wouldn’t sell him just for this. He hadn’t given much trouble, had been polite and obeyed orders. It was just a mistake, just one mistake ― among several, his mind reminded him ― and it wasn’t that serious, was it? Was it? Oh God.

He curled into a miserable ball on his cot. He hadn’t thought any place would be worse than where he was, but now he clung to his position with prayer in his heart. He could survive here, he knew he could, but the world outside was huge and terrifying and who knew what could happen to him out there? He could be sold to a whorehouse and raped until he died. He could be sent to a mining colony and never see the light of day again. The thoughts kept coming, each worse than the last, until he thought he’d scream from the sheer pressure of waiting. It was a relief when Halvar opened the door.

Joran jumped to his feet and stood with his head bowed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other three men walk in. Halvar closed the door behind them. "Look at me," he commanded. Joran looked up into Halvar’s cold blue eyes. There was no pity, no softness in them, and he quailed at what was coming.

"I think," said Halvar, "that you have not fully realized your position here. You’re still rebelling against what’s become of you. You think that someone will swoop in and save you, and that things will return to normal." Joran wanted to protest, but Halvar continued inexorably. "They will not. You will not be leaving this place, not until you die or are sold. You are at the bottom of the chain here, and you will by God act accordingly. Is that clearly understood?"

Yes, sir," Joran answered. What else could he say?

"Your superiors," Halvar indicated the other three, "are going to make sure you understand." He turned to them. "No bones broken."

"Yes, sir," Egon answered as Halvar left them. Joran felt trapped. Halvar hadn’t said he would be sold, so he was slightly reassured, but the feeling was rapidly dissipating as the three moved closer to him.

Rurik spoke for them. "Strip." There was no humor in his voice now, no hidden joke. Just a hardness that scared Joran out of any attempt to speak. He pulled off his clothes rapidly, trying to project a meek attitude. See, I’m obeying. I’m good. Don’t hurt me.

Rurik pointed to the floor. "Down." Joran got down on his hands and knees, but Rurik shook his head. "All the way down."

Joran lay flat on the floor. "Hands behind your neck," Rurik ordered, and he laced his fingers behind his neck. I’m being good, see? No fighting here. He heard Egon’s belt unbuckle and winced. Not again. He gripped his neck tightly and tensed as he heard the belt cut through the air.

He writhed on the floor, unable to hold still as the belt sliced into him again and again. His breath was harsh in his ears, and he grunted in pain each time it came down. You only have yourself to blame, his brain told him. This wouldn’t be happening if you kept your damned mouth shut. A blow caught him in the head, and he howled. "Quit moving," said Egon, "and your head won’t get in the way."

Joran forced himself to lie straight, his body tight as Egon resumed. Blood trickled down his ear, down his arm; he bit on a groan and squeezed his hands together. Please let it end. Please let it end. Please ― he howled again as the belt wrapped around a thigh, snapping its tip on the sensitive inner skin. He gasped for breath as the blows stopped. It’s over. It’s over. No, there’s no way it’s over yet.

Egon stepped back, coiling the belt. Joran turned his head to see, and Rurik stepped up. "Eyes down!" he snapped. Joran quickly obeyed, rested his forehead on the floor. He flinched as he heard a snick. He knew that sound, had dreaded that sound before…

He screamed as Rurik brought the rod down across his buttocks. "Oh God," Joran moaned. Not that, not that, not that, not that… "God!" he shrieked again as the rod cut into his thighs. He rocked back and forth, trying to absorb the pain without breaking position. The rod was cruel and gave him no mercy. His tears puddled on the stone floor and he wrapped his fingers in his hair and pulled, trying to hang onto something. The rod bit into his back, his ass, his thighs, his calves, again and again; he screamed and screamed, past caring if anyone heard.

Rurik finished; the only sound in the room was Joran’s gulping sobs. "Your turn, Lukas," said Rurik, giving way to the third man. No, no more, Joran pleaded in his mind, please Lukas, don’t. He didn’t look up, just squeezed his eyes shut as something else whistled toward him. It hit across his calf, and his eyes and mouth opened wide, trying desperately to handle the stinging searing pain of the thin line burned into his skin. He couldn’t think, could only react as the chain tore into him, up and down his body. His shrieks turned harsh and he clutched his hands together at his neck as if hanging onto his life. Blood roared in his ears until he couldn’t hear his own voice anymore; his vision had narrowed to a small point and all he knew was that he was on fire and had to hold position until the end of time.

He couldn’t tell when the beating stopped or when his senses returned. The next thing he felt was a hand in his hair, pulling him up. It’s really over, he thought dizzily, and tried to stand like the hand wanted him to.

But it wasn’t over. He was dragged over to his cot by the hair; he stumbled on his knees over the flagstones and collapsed when they threw his upper body over the cot. He didn’t know what was happening until he felt his knees kicked apart and his hips lifted. "Oh God," he had time to moan, and then he felt the first thrust in.

There was no time to prepare; it was sheer agony. He knew it was Rurik, could tell by the rhythm, but it was harder than he’d ever done before, and the raping pulled a cry of pain and despair out of Joran that stretched on and on.

Rurik pulled Joran’s head up by the hair. "Who’s in charge here?" he hissed in his ear, thrusting away.

"You are, sir," he groaned, surprised he still had words.

"Who are you?"

"I’m nothing, sir!"

"Damn right." Rurik let Joran’s head fall and fucked harder and faster, pulling Joran’s hips back against his pelvis. Joran endured, moaning wordlessly until Rurik swore and came, filling him with semen.

Joran felt him leave, heard a thump behind him and knew it wasn’t done. It was Egon who unzipped his trousers, separated Joran’s cheeks calmly, and took his turn. It’s going to be too big ran panicked through Joran’s mind, borne out by Egon’s violent entry. Joran tried to scream, but his voice had grown hoarse and his cry was barely audible. Egon’s powerful bulk lifted him off the floor, slamming his knees back down as he pulled back. Joran bit something and let the cries come out through his teeth as his body was jerked up and down in time with Egon’s rhythm. Please stop. Please stop. Please stop.

Egon let out a low, guttural cry, came, and pulled out. Joran’s lower body slumped on the floor, leaking fluids. He couldn’t move, couldn’t protest as Lukas pulled him back to his knees. But Lukas wouldn’t hurt him, Lukas never hurt him. He clung to the thin thread of hope that Lukas would make it stop, that Lukas loved him.

Something inside him broke as Lukas spread him and entered him. His asshole was so sore after Egon that the invasion hurt more than anything had so far. He was beyond screaming, beyond crying, beyond rational thought. All he felt was betrayed as Lukas fucked him, betrayed and abandoned. "Give me your hands," ordered Lukas, and with a dry sob, Joran hopelessly offered up his hands behind his back. Lukas took both wrists and held them pinned as he rode Joran brutally. Joran closed his eyes. He gave up, let Lukas use him like the nobody he was. There was no pride left, no dignity, nothing but blood and sweat and pain and the knowledge that he was worth nothing, nothing at all.

 

 

 

- 11 -

 

Joran’s awareness came back with voices. Voices above him. He couldn’t understand them, but it didn’t seem to matter. He floated for a while on the voices, moving up through consciousness, until he could make them out.

"Did he fight back at all?" Halvar.

"No, sir." Rurik. "He behaved admirably, took it very well. Never even begged us to stop."

Took what? He saw pictures in his mind, pulsing colors, and closed the door. Never mind, I don’t think I want to know.

"Is this what you wanted?" Halvar again. Joran thought he might be speaking to him, and tried to dredge up words to respond. He heard a sob overhead, a soft "No, sir," and gave up his quest. It was far better to lie here anyway. He wasn’t sure, but he thought pain might follow any reply he would make. No, better not to risk it. Just lie still, and let the voices take you away…

 

˜ - ˜

 

He came to later, feeling something at his lips. Water. Oh, water, that was good, he didn’t know how much he wanted water until he had some. He opened crusted eyelids and saw Tekla beside him. She smiled, put a finger to her lips, and gave him another sip. Oh, it was good, and he wanted to thank her, but he wasn’t allowed, and he sighed and closed his eyes and slipped away again…

 

˜ - ˜

 

He awoke, hearing someone call his name. He struggled back through layers of consciousness, knowing the voice expected an answer. He turned his head, blinked, saw Halvar’s lined face. "Joran," Halvar said again.

"Yes…sir?" He couldn’t quite make his voice work right; it was cracking in odd ways, at once deeper and higher than he expected.

"Do you think you’ve learned your lesson?"

That lesson, oh God yes. Never want that again. "Yes, sir, thank you, sir." Always say thank you.

Halvar nodded. "There’s someone here to see you." He ushered the person into Joran’s limited field of vision.

Ingelev. Good Christ. Why couldn’t she leave him alone? His eyes filled with tears, and he blinked them onto the mattress.

"Are you… all right?" Her voice was softer than he remembered. He closed his eyes at such a bizarre question. Look at me. What do you think?

She knelt down beside him. "I’m so sorry," she whispered. "I’m so, so sorry."

That he did not expect. "Halvar made me listen," she went on. "He stood with me outside the door and we heard everything. He told me what they were doing to you. I could hear you screaming…" He opened his eyes and saw tears running down her face. "I didn’t know, I swear, I didn’t know that would happen. I didn’t know they’d hurt you so much."

She’d heard. His humiliation was complete. She had listened to every blow, every order, every cry and moan that was dragged out of him. She knew every detail of his punishment, and he hated her. He hadn’t known it was possible to feel anger again. He didn’t care about her regrets, her sorrow. Nothing was allowed him, not one shred of dignity or privacy, why should he care if she felt badly now? He swallowed, looked past her. "Sir?"

"You can speak," said Halvar.

"Sir, can you ask her please to go away and leave me alone?" He realized how it sounded, quickly added, "If that’s all right. No disrespect meant, sir, to either of you." He winced and groaned as he felt pain radiate down his body.

"It’s all right, Joran. Go to sleep."

"Yes, sir," he answered, already drifting away again.

 

˜ - ˜

 

Joran lay in bed, facedown, for three days while he healed. From neck to ankles, his skin was covered in cuts, welts, and bruises. His rectal muscles had torn under the assault, and there were tears in the inner lining. The cuts scabbed over quickly, but the other damage took longer to repair. Halvar had a doctor come check him over on the first day, and Joran had to listen to Halvar explain what happened. He didn’t want to relive it, but he couldn’t stop himself hearing.

On the fourth day, he was able to get up for meals. He hobbled in for breakfast, looking down; he didn’t want to see anyone’s face. He knew they all knew, but he didn’t want to see it. He sat down carefully, his head bowed, his hands folded in front of him. Halvar said grace and the food was passed. Joran took some eggs and filled his mug with coffee. He chewed carefully, taking his time. He flinched at a too-loud voice as he flashed back to the bedroom ― Who’s in charge here? He wrapped his shaking hands around his coffee mug and drank, trying to steady his nerves. He felt a touch on his shoulder and choked. He looked up to see concern in Lukas’s blue eyes. "How are you feeling, gosse?"

It took a second for Joran to comprehend it. He stuttered as he tried to answer. “I’m ― I’m ― I’m fine, thank you, sir.” Don’t talk to me. Don’t make me talk, sir, please, he begged with his eyes. Lukas squeezed his shoulder and he cringed. "I’m sorry, sir, I’m sorry, very sorry, sir, please…"

Lukas looked confused. "Oh. No, no, don’t, you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m sorry, I forgot for a minute."

Now Joran was confused at the apology. "Sir?"

Lukas shook his head. "Never mind. Eat."

"Yes, sir." Joran concentrated on his food again. He hoped no one else would speak to him, and no one did.

 

˜ - ˜

 

Halvar put him back to work after another day. Back to washing dishes, scrubbing floors on his hands and knees. He lost himself in the zen of work, and entire days passed almost without his awareness. He answered when he had to. Everyone pretty much left him alone, as long as he was doing his job.

His small island of peace was eventually shattered. He had changed clothes one night and was about to fall into bed when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He spun around in panic. It was Lukas, gripping him firmly. Joran fell to his knees, shaking, terrified. Words poured out of him in a flood. “I’msorry,sirI’msorryverysorrypleasesirI’msorry ― ”

"Shush." Lukas shook his shoulder and tried to pull him up. Joran cringed back into a ball, still babbling. Lukas got his hands under Joran’s arms and dragged him to Lukas’s bed, repeating "Shhh, shh, I’m not going to hurt you, it’s all right, shhhh." He pulled Joran into bed as the lights shut off. Joran grew more hysterical and thrashed out blindly, struggling to get out, his words lost between shrieking sobs. His heel caught Lukas in the knee, hard. Lukas muttered a curse, wrapped his arms and legs around Joran to hold him still and spoke in a calm voice. "It’s all right, Joran, it’s all right, we’re just going to lie here like we did before, just lie still, that’s all, no one’s going to hurt you, shhhh, shhhh, quiet Joran, let’s both lie still and be quiet." Some of what he said got through to Joran, who abruptly ceased struggling and lay quietly, his breath harsh and rapid. Lukas continued the soothing voice. "Shhh, shhh, it’s all right, it’s all right, we’re just going to lie here together, it’s all right…"

Joran’s breathing slowed as Lukas went on talking nonsense to him; his shudders grew more infrequent and finally stopped. Lukas loosened his hold, and Joran sighed. There was quiet for a while, and then "Sir?"

"You can speak." Lukas stroked his hair.

"Did I hurt you, sir?"

Lukas smiled in the dark. "No, gosse, you didn’t hurt me."

Joran swallowed, had to ask. "Are you going to punish me again, sir?"

Lukas took a deep breath, let it out. "Have you done anything to be punished for?"

"I fought you, sir." Joran’s voice broke on a sob. He started to shake again.

"Hey, hey, hey there." Lukas’s arms wrapped around him again. "No, gosse, it’s all right, I understand and I’m not going to punish you. Just calm down."

Joran shook, biting his lip, his breath coming in hitching gasps. "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I’m sorry— "

"For God’s sake," came Rurik’s irate voice from across the room, "shut the kid up."

This made Joran shake harder, and Lukas swore. "You shut up, Rurik, and let me deal with this. Halvar put me in charge. Don’t get in my way."

"Fine, fine." Rurik sounded tired. "But the Chairman isn’t going to like it if I fuck up in the morning from lack of sleep."

"Then don’t fuck up." Lukas turned his attention back to Joran and tried to calm him again. "Shhh, shhh, Joran, shut it down, let’s just relax, okay? No one’s going to punish you tonight, I promise."

"Yes, sir," came Joran’s voice in a harsh gasp. He tried to still his body like he was told. Gradually his trembling died away and he settled down. He rested quietly, at last working up the courage to speak again. "Sir?"

"Yes?" Lukas’s voice was soft.

Joran discarded what he was going to say, thought of something else, rejected that too. He decided on "Why?"

Lukas shifted position and Joran tensed. Lukas’s arms tightened and Joran eased off. "Why what?" Lukas asked.

"Why… sir?"

Lukas laughed softly. "Okay, fine, why sir what? What do you want to know?"

"Why. Why I’m not going to be punished tonight for fighting you, when two weeks ago I got the beating of my life for speaking at dinner." He tried to control his breathing. "I don’t understand the rules, sir, I don’t always know what’s okay and what isn’t. I’m sorry if I’m speaking out of turn; I know what I said at dinner was wrong, I know I deserved what I got, but ― “

"Shut up," said Lukas, and Joran stopped in midsentence. "You got what you needed, not necessarily what you deserved."

Joran was lost. "Sir?"

"Listen to me. Do you remember what the Chairman said when he brought you down here?"

"He said a lot of things," Joran mumbled, and felt Lukas’s laugh rumble against him.

"He did at that. Do you remember what he said to Halvar?"

"Yes, sir." Joran was quiet for a second. "He told him to make me ready for when he called. He wouldn’t give him a specific time."

"So what does that mean for you?" Lukas’s voice was gentle, leading him to the conclusion.

Joran followed. "Halvar has to make sure I’m ready. Fast."

"Exactly." Lukas’s hand stroked Joran’s hair, keeping him calm. "He doesn’t want to anger the Chairman. No one wants that. So he needs to break you as quickly as possible."

"Break me, sir?"

Lukas sighed. "How do you feel about me, Joran?"

"Sir?"

"You can be honest, I won’t punish you for whatever you say. How do you feel about me?"

"I ― ” Joran hesitated. “I’m ― afraid of you, sir.” A tremble ran through him.

"Understandable." Lukas continued stroking him. "How about Egon, and Rurik? Are you afraid of them?"

"Yes, sir, yes, I am."

"Are you afraid of Halvar?"

"Yes, sir," this so fervently Lukas smiled again.

"What else do you feel about us?"

“Sir, I don’t ― I don’t understand. What else should I feel?”

Lukas made his voice tolerant. "Are you angry with me? Or with Egon, or Rurik, or Halvar?"

Joran was quiet, quiet for a long time. "No, sir," he said softly.

"Are you angry with Ingelev?"

This time the pause was longer. "Not anymore, sir."

"Why not?"

“I ― don’t know, sir. I’m not.”

"You were the son of the old Chairman. You grew up privileged, an aristo exek child, with no responsibilities or cares. Now you’re here with us. And we hurt you, we hurt you badly. That doesn’t outrage you? That doesn’t make you angry?"

"No, sir. I’m too afraid of you to be angry, I think. And I’m not an exek. Not anymore." He felt tears prick at his eyes. "I suppose I never was." I’m nothing, sir. Nothing, remember? He curled his legs up and whispered it, so faint Lukas could hardly hear. "I’m nothing."

"Exactly." Lukas caressed the back of Joran’s head. "Halvar needed to make you realize that, and quickly, if he wanted to save himself. The Chairman is not a patient man. If Halvar wants to avoid being sent to one of the corp’s satellites to do scutwork in the corridors, he needs to keep him happy. That means you need to be broken. You need to be ready when the Chairman wants you. We’ll all suffer if you aren’t."

Joran was silent. Lukas tapped him on the head. "Are you awake, gosse?"

"Yes, sir." Joran fell silent again.

"Tell me what you’re thinking."

"I’m not thinking, sir."

"Don’t lie to me, gosse. Tell me."

"I’m not angry, sir."

"You’re not."

"No, sir." A breath. "I know Aerne. I’m scared of him too."

Lukas propped himself up on an elbow. "Then you understand. Did I answer your question?"

Joran let out his breath. He nodded slowly. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Good." Lukas brushed Joran’s ragged hair back from his forehead. "Will you go to sleep now? No more falling apart?"

"I can’t promise anything," Joran said, "except that I’ll go to sleep, sir."

"Good enough." Lukas lay back down. He tightened his arm around Joran, and Joran gradually relaxed back into Lukas’s chest. They slept.

 

 


Book III: Redemption

My dear Jens,

Another letter. It’s been so long, I’m not sure why I still do this. But I

remain hopeful that writing will help sort everything out. God knows I could

use some help with that.

Everything has changed entirely since I last wrote. The entire household is

in upheaval. Sten died a few months ago of a brain tumor. Aerne’s now the Chairman,

and he’s more volatile than I expected, although he’s not what I’d call abusive.

Not to most of us, at least. He’s a very angry man, or at least takes care to

appear that way.

It’s Joran who’s received the brunt of his anger. Sten always seemed like he

loved Joran, but if he did, why didn’t he free him? He had to have known Joran

was still technically a slave, even with Sten as his father. It was cruel, Jens,

too cruel. He died, and left Joran to his brother’s mercy. Which is not, as

you can imagine, extensive. The rivalry between those two was never obvious,

but it could be seen if you knew where to look.

Aerne beat him regularly for a while. Joran tried to keep it a secret, but

I knew that pattern of blood on the sheets. And screams carry, with ceilings

this high. I didn’t know he’d be able to hold out so long. It took about three

months for Aerne to tire of the game.

Then he gave him to us. Told us to train him, teach him to obey, and have him

ready to serve. We were left with a scared, spoiled aristo brat who had never

worked a day in his life. Halvar laid out the rules for him, then told me I

was in charge. "Break him," he said. "Do it fast. We don’t know how long the

Chairman will wait."

What could I do? I obeyed. I became one of them. To save my own damnable hide,

I engineered the kid’s collapse.

I set him at mindless work, and had him repeat it day after day. We didn’t

allow him to speak to the women at all, cutting him off from even the society

down here. He had to feel alone. Besides, I knew Gudrun and Tekla would be kind.

And kindness would not make my job easier. I had to do it. I had to.

He was able to keep himself together for too long, even though I had Rurik

and Egon raping him almost every night. We treated it as a joke; I knew laughter

would kill his dignity far quicker than cruelty. It did. I could see how miserable

he was. But he still held out. He’s stronger than I ever realized.

I’d tried every other, gentler means to break him. I had no other choice. It

had to be done.

Ingelev, the bitch, gave us the excuse. I knew she was tormenting Joran as

only she can, with those little whispers and comments that manage to cut where

it hurts the most. I didn’t stop her; I figured it was another weapon in the

arsenal. He demonstrated enormous self-control for almost two months, managed

to keep mute no matter what she said. But it built up, and he finally exploded.

All he did was say one thing to her. But that broke the rules, and that

was enough. We beat the shit out of him, and he lay there and just took

it, lay there crying and screaming but held still like I didn’t learn to do

for years. God, the crying. I don’t know how he held so still.

And then we raped him. All of us. I’d stayed out of it until then; I’d told

Halvar Joran needed someone he thought he could depend on. Maybe that was why

I had to do it. I’d held him at night, comforted him as best I could, and then

I held him down and crushed his psyche to bits. I knew it would work. I learned

from the best.

Oh God, Jens. How did I come to this? More than anyone, I know how it feels.

It was necessary, I know; it will make everything else much easier for him to

take, and it will train him for whatever’s ultimately out there. But when I

see that look of terror when I touch him, that silent begging in his eyes …

it hurts. I never thought I’d end up in this role. I can tell myself over and

over that it’s a kindness in the end, that it prepares him to survive, but that

doesn’t change what I’m doing. Or that it’s me doing it.

He’s a mess. And he still depends on me, dammit; the kid likes me.

How? I’m so damn harsh with him. He should hate me. Were I him, I would. I think

Gudrun and Tekla already do.

Egon didn’t like it either, but what Halvar wants, Egon delivers. It must be

nice for things to be so simple. Of course, none of this has seemed to bother

Rurik. Sex is sex for him, whether his partner wants it or not, and he never

gets enough. I figured that would make it easy. For him, I guess it was.

I would like to think the hard part is over, but it isn’t. He’s of no use to

anyone broken into pieces. Much as I’d like to end this, I can’t. He needs the

structure of discipline right now; he can’t be rebuilt if I leave him with nothing

to stand on.

God. I wish you were here. I wish you could make me smile like you used to

do. I wish you could at least read this letter. I wish I knew where to find

you.

Lukas

 

Continued

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