Part 11: "Llewellyn"
Story Rating: Hard R/NC-17
Story Warnings explicit heterosexual and homosexual sex, slavery, violence, torture and drug use.
Story Summary Since the death of their brother the Emperor Dolmus brought the royal brothers Valentin and Cassius back to Monsilys, capital of the great Jovani Empire, Valentin has cured the boredom of court life with poppy-sap and women, while for Cassius the remedy has been ale and the result much the same. Then an ill-fated duel causes their niece the Empress to send them to Gallica to deal with a problem there, and they find themselves drawn ever more back into the world of Jovani politics: a world their brother banished them from seventeen years earlier. As Valentin veers from disaster to disaster, always running from his past and a life he would prefer to forget, Cassius is fascinated by a damaged boy he rescues from a slave brothel. Valentin's weapon is sly diplomacy, while Cassius prefers the honesty of the sword, but will either be enough to protect Jovan, and themselves?
Notes: Volumes I and II are already written; you can check them out at my website (along with Vol III as it's written), as free eBooks (Volume I and Volume II) or I will be posting them here at a rate of one chapter a week, which means Livejournal will catch up to the website in around July/August 2013. I sincerely hope you enjoy the story. :)
Cassius squeezed his eyes shut, hoping this would silence the voice.
”Brother, wake up.” Valentin shook his shoulder.
Grumbling, Cassius cracked open one bleary eye and glared at his impeccably dressed brother. “What in the name of the blessed few do you want?”
Valentin raised his eyebrows. “How much do you remember from last night?”
Rubbing his eyes, Cassius sat up. “The Sapphire, not much else.” He sighed. “I dreamed Llewellyn came back.”
Chuckling, Valentin said, “Well, the dream is expecting you to meet him at the Wanderer’s Rest in an hour.”
“Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon, he tells me his name is. When it became clear you weren’t going to be able to have a sensible discussion last night, I took you home and promised him that I would send you to his lodgings this morning.”
“He found his family?”
“Mm. I haven’t heard of kin Gwaerfon. Merchant-ish, though, from the sound of the name. Of course, he could have called himself Llewellyn Oblaikius this whole time.”
“The Sha-Penseian ambassador might have objected.” Cassius shook his head, setting it pounding. “That’s beside the point. Llewellyn is in Monsilys?”
“He is. He is expecting you. I suggest you get dressed.”
Nodding, Cassius threw back the covers and stood up. “I didn’t think he’d come back,” he said. “I took Karmin Ranno to bed.”
“Oh, one night,” said Valentin, waving it aside. “Llewellyn will understand. Don’t you dare tie yourself up in knots about it.”
The Summergate stood at the edge of the wealthy old city of Monsilys and the more pedestrian district of Summerbank. In its lee stood the inn known as the Wanderer’s Rest, and it was to here Cassius turned his steps. As he walked, he tried to push his mind back through the drunk haze to the previous night.
He remembered Valentin beckoning him over, that there had been someone to see him. He remembered seeing a neatly dressed foreign man, whose ash-brown hair was escaping a queue at the nape of his neck.
The name, “Llewellyn,” had been dragged from him as if from the depths of his being. Llewellyn had met his gaze and quirked a smile that dug into the corners of his mouth, and softened his eyelashes over his bright gray eyes.
“Prince Cassius,” he had said. “How are you?”
The room seemed to shrink and expand at once, and Cassius’ stomach had lurched. Walking down a wide avenue between old aura houses, Cassius sucked a breath in through his nose and focused on Llewellyn’s smile like a talisman.
Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon, he mouthed, trying the shapes of the words. No doubt he was mangling the accent.
As Cassius had focused his gaze on the floor in front of him, he felt Valentin’s arm come around his shoulder and leaned against his brother gratefully.
“Good evening, Llewellyn,” Valentin had said in his smoothest tone. “I must apologise for my brother. No doubt you have heard the good news about the Empress and Prince Caspar of Toqueia.”
“I have. My felicitations and best wishes to them both,” said Llewellyn, and Cassius saw his feet shuffle and shift so that they were pointing towards Cassius.
Try though he might, Cassius couldn’t call any more of that conversation to his memory. He remembered Valentin bundling him into a carriage, and then being woken that morning.
The day was cold, but the sunshine felt warm on Cassius’ shoulders as he reached the Wanderer’s Rest. He went into the taproom and found the innkeeper. “I am here to see Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon,” he said. He definitely had the emphasis wrong. He would have to ask Llewellyn to teach him how to say it correctly.
The innkeeper stepped out from behind his stand and nodded. “This way, sir.” He followed the man through the taproom and up a flight of stairs to a little parlour. Peering through the doorway, he saw Llewellyn stand up from the window box and tug on his tunic. The innkeeper shut the door, and then they were alone.
Cassius could feel the foolish smile on his face. “Llewellyn,” he said, “I am so sorry for last night.”
“Don’t be, Prince Cassius,” said Llewellyn. “Please sit.” He gestured to two chairs at a little table on which was set a light breakfast. “I thought you might be hungry.”
Consulting his stomach, Cassius said, “I’m not sure.” He stepped across the room and took the chair nearest the door, unable to stop his gaze tracking from Llewellyn’s eyes to his ear, down his neck to his tunic, seeking the hint of sharp shoulders and sleek muscle under the fabric. As Llewellyn sat, Cassius’ examination was drawn upwards again the curve of jaw and the chin with a hint of obstinacy.
When he met Llewellyn’s eyes, he discovered the same avidness there, as if Llewellyn were searching every line for any changes since he had seen Cassius last.
Cassius cleared his throat. “So, Valentin tells me you found your family?”
Pouring a mug of ale, Llewellyn said, “I did. I am of kin Gwaerfon. My mother’s name was Llora. She was travelling from Cambria to Alysia to marry one of my grandfather’s business associates when the ship ran into trouble and was rescued by a Sha-Pensian slave ship. They took half the crew and passengers as slaves in payment for saving the rest. My grandfather never stopped trying to learn what had happened to Llora. He knew she had been sold to Hamami, but nothing after that.” Llewellyn looked down at his hands. “I wish I could have told him how my mother died.”
“I wish you could both have been reunited with kin Gwaerfon.” Twining his hands together in his lap to stop from reaching out, Cassius said, “They welcomed you?”
“They were cautious,” said Llewellyn, “but what we each knew matched up. And,” There was a different, wistful smile on Llewellyn’s face now, “I am named for my grandfather.”
“So—why did you return to Jovan?”
Llewellyn gave him a look that said Cassius should know the answer to that question.
Cassius’ heart thudded in his chest. “How are your family?” said Llewellyn.
Biting his lip, Cassius said, “Valentin is up to his usual tricks. He has a mistress set up in the Dusk. She’s dreadfully young. Other than that, they are well, I think. Prince Caspar will be a welcome member of gens Sylvana.”
“I heard that he was supposed to marry Princess Adelais.”
Cassius smiled wryly. “Yes, well, the princess wisely chose not to stand in the way of true love.”
“Is it true love? I admire that certainty.”
Cassius thought of Adrienne’s quiet radiance, and the way Caspar’s body inclined towards hers. His chest ached a little.
Llewellyn reached out and took Cassius’ hands out of his lap. His touch was warm, and sent a bolt of energy through Cassius, leaving in its wake a pleasant pain and hair-fine trembling in all his muscles. He felt a little out of breath. “I’m not the person I was. I’m trying very hard to be someone else, someone stronger and braver, someone kin Gwaerfon will be proud to own.”
“How could they fail to be proud of you?” said Cassius after a moment of stifled silence.
“I don’t imagine it is a source of joy for most families to have a scion carrying around a slave mark, even if it has been struck off.” He shook his hair in front of his eyes and pulled his hands away, folding them in his lap. The gesture was gut-wrenchingly familiar. Then, after a long inhalation, Llewellyn put his hand up to brush his hair aside, swallowed, and said, “At any rate, I am trying to be useful. My grandfather is in shipping, and is interested in opening an office in Jovan.”
“I see,” said Cassius, and he did. Llewellyn was trying to leave his past behind him. Cassius was mixed up in Hamami, in his enslavement. In the end, Cassius had turned out to be just another master, had taken advantage of Llewellyn at Blacktower. Cassius nodded and stood up. “Would you like me to arrange for you to meet with the harbourmaster?”
Llewellyn stood too. “That would be good, thank you.” He met Cassius’ gaze and there was a bright frustration in his eyes, as if he was faced with a puzzle he couldn’t quite solve, or a gap just slightly too wide to jump.
Cassius broke the yawning silence by saying, “How are you enjoying Monsilys? Are your lodgings suitable?”
He winced at his own awkwardness, but Llewellyn straightened his shoulders and said, “It is a lovely city. I was once told that I would like it, and I find I do.”
Cassius remembered Cloud lying on a pallet in the cabin of the ship bound for Jovan, his torso wrapped around with bandages hiding the arrow wound that had almost claimed his life.
“We’re nearly home,” said Cassius, looking down at the boy.
Llewellyn smiled-a real, unselfconscious smile. “Home,” he echoed. “Will I like it?”
Cassius nodded, a lump in his throat.
“Good,” said Llewellyn sleepily. “I’ll trust you.”
“Would tomorrow suit you to see the harbourmaster?”
“I have to go to Aldis tomorrow, and later to Gerhin then Tyresine. My grandfather has asked for information on the various port towns of Jovan.”
“All right,” said Cassius. “I’ll be in touch, then.” He turned to go. “It is good to see you, Llewellyn.”
As his hand was on the door, he heard a stifled sound behind him. “Prince Cassius, I came back because I couldn’t bear to be without you,” Llewellyn said, with a hint of a rasp in his usually controlled voice. “I want to be near you, always. In whatever capacity, to be of whatever use you can find for me.” The words tumbled out over each other.
“I have to go,” said Cassius, and fled.
Valentin found him sitting on the rim of a fountain in the garden, head in his hands, shivering.
“I infer your visit with Llewellyn didn’t go well,” he said, sitting down next to Cassius
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Cassius said miserably. “I was so pleased to see him. But he told me he wanted a fresh start and I assumed that meant he didn’t love me. Then he told me he came back to Monsilys to be with me, and I panicked and ran away.”
“How do you manage to mix things up so much?” said Valentin, leaning back on his hands and looking up at the sky. As if explaining to a child, he said, “Llewellyn left because he wanted to know what sort of a man he was without the slave brand, and because he knew that you would never be able to stop thinking of him as the damaged pleasure slave if he stayed. Does that make sense?”
Cowed, Cassius nodded. Llewellyn has said as much to him, once: You’ve housed me, fed me, tumbled me, and ordered me around, all of which befits a master’s treatment of his slave. It almost makes me wish you’d left me at Hamami. At least there I understood the rules. “Damn it all,” he said.
In a fatherly tone, Valentin said, “Imagine that Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon is someone you have never met. There would be nothing surprising about Lord Cassius having a friendship, or even a dalliance, with the son of a respectable Cambrian family. Learn who Llewellyn is, who he would like to be, and then perhaps you’ll stop seeing Cloud cowering in the corner of the Pleasure Garden every time he meets your eyes.
“Cloud never cowered,” said Cassius quietly. He stood up and looked towards the long windows back into the palace. “He’s going to Aldis tomorrow, and then Gerhin and Tyresine. I’ve wasted my chance.”
Valentin pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. “Go with him, you fool. I’ve a lease on a house in Aldis; you can stay there.” Cassius hovered uncertainly, until Valentin aimed a kick at his shin. “Go now, Cassius.”
Llewellyn was in the taproom in his cloak and boots when Cassius returned to the Wanderer’s Rest. His eyes widened when Cassius burst in. “Llewellyn,” he said, then checked. “Are you—going somewhere?”
“To the docks.” There was a pause. “Would you like to join me?”
“I—thank you, yes.”
They left the inn and walked through Summerbank. Cassius tugged his sleeves down over his hands and said, “When do you go to Aldis?”
“Oh, sometime tomorrow. It’s a couple of hours north, isn’t it?”
“About three,” said Cassius, “if the roads aren’t crowded. Have you arranged accommodation?”
Llewellyn tilted his head. “No, should I have?”
“Valentin tells me he has a lease on a house there. If you’re willing, we could stay there.” He bit his lip. “If you’re willing for me to come with you, I mean.”
Smiling, Llewellyn said, “Why does Lord Valentin have a house in Aldis?”
“I think Elodia—the dreadfully young mistress—likes it there. It is growing in popularity as a retreat for a certain set of wealthy aura.”
“The set with dreadfully young mistresses?”
Cassius nodded, acutely aware that Llewellyn hadn’t responded to his offer. On the edge of Summerbank, the houses began to turn into the closely-packed, leaning insulae of the docks. They kept to the wide avenue that would take them through Temple Square to the harbour. Finally, Llewellyn said, “I would be grateful of your company, Cassius.”
“Valentin would be of more use if you want to talk about shipping,” said Cassius, unable to stifle a pleased grin.
Cassius looked down, startled, as Llewellyn took his arm. “I don’t want to talk about shipping,” he said, pushing his chin out.
Aldis was a pleasant little town in a sheltered bay. It wasn’t popular as a port as it wasn’t on the mouth of a river like Tyresine and it was very close to Monsilys. But there was a small harbour with a few warehouses, and Cassius could see a couple of ships at dock. They had travelled to Aldis in a covered carriage, Llewellyn not being much of a horseman, and had spent most of the journey staring out their separate sides, but as they reached the cobbled streets of Aldis, Llewellyn had slipped his hand into Cassius’.
Cassius blurted out, “I haven’t been true to you.”
“What do you mean?”
Looking at their joined hands, Cassius said, “I thought that once you were free and found your family, you would never want to come back to Jovan, where you had been a slave. I spent the night with a boy who was the son of a village headman. I won’t say it meant nothing, because he is a good, decent man. But neither of us thought it was for more than one night, and I left the next day.”
“Karmin Ranno,” Llewellyn said, nodding. “I heard about that. And about Lord Marcellus Mereius.”
Cassius blinked. “Where did you hear?”
“Oh Cassius,” The corners of Llewellyn’s eyes crinkled as he looked over, “didn’t you realise your personal life was a popular topic of conversation in the Monsilys taverns? I even learned about myself, your exotic pleasure slave who flew the coop.” He paused, sobered. “I am sorry about Lord Marcellus. He has been banished?”
Cassius said, “Yes, but he lives. We weren’t even friends by the end.” He waved his hand across his eyes to brush away the melancholy memory. “And you? Was there anyone you met in Cambria that…” he trailed off.
Llewellyn shook his head. “I knew I was coming back to you,” he said.
Cassius tightened his grip on Llewellyn’s hand. The carriage arrived at the top of a long, walled street punctuated with brightly-painted doors. They were shown to a green door and opened it to find themselves in a large, pleasant atrium with vines climbing the walls and a fountain in the middle with couches and tables set around it.
The coachman excused himself, and a pretty brown-haired woman stepped into the atrium. “Lord Cassius, Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon, I am Bellida. May I show you to your rooms?”
They followed her through a door on the opposite side of the atrium, which led to a hallway. She was wearing a simple grey wool dress with long sleeves, and her hair was piled on top of her head. Her only jewellery was two cuff-bracelets on her wrists. She showed them to two bedrooms on opposite sides of the hallway, then excused herself.
Cassius went into his room and set down his belongings by a large open chest on the floor. Then he threw himself back on the bed and closed his eyes. I knew I was coming back to you. Cassius’ heart pounded.
Valentin had said he should think of Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon as someone he had just met. Well, he would have found Llewellyn attractive, certainly. He would have had no compunction tumbling Llewellyn if the boy had seemed interested. Cloud… Cloud had been abused and mistreated. On those nights when he had lain awake thinking of Cloud, he had fantasised about the time when the slave brand was struck off, once Llewellyn was able to make a free and meaningful choice.
So why was he hesitating?
Cassius imagined Cloud as he had first seen him, dressed in the plain, rich garb of the Pleasure Garden, his hair shorter and neatly groomed, his chin tucked to his chest, looking up at Cassius through his lashes. He shivered with desire at the memory and his insides churned with shame.
There was a knock on the door. Cassius sat up and croaked, “Come in.”
Llewellyn slipped across the threshold. They watched each other for a moment, and Cassius had the strange feeling of the image of Cloud he held in his mind’s eye superimposed over the Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon standing in front of him and merging melting into someone who made his blood sing in his veins.
Wordlessly, Cassius stood and went across the room. He put his hand on Llewellyn’s chin, tilted his head up, and kissed him.
Llewellyn made a faint noise that that sounded like, Oh, and put his hands around Cassius’ shoulders. He turned his head to the side and leaned his cheek against Cassius’ collarbone. Cassius could feel his deep breaths.
“What is it?” he said.
“That woman, Bellida. I think she’s a slave.”
Cassius went cold. He strode to the door and pulled the bell. “Why do you think that?”
Making an unhappy face, Llewellyn shrugged. “Somehow, I recognise it. I’m sorry; I know this is Valentin’s house.”
“Yes, well, you know his views on slavery as an institution.”
“Mm.” Llewellyn sounded hesitant. Cassius frowned and mentally begged the blessed few that he not find a slave brand on Bellida’s arm. Then he mentally composed a very cross letter to Valentin.
Bellida arrived in the doorway and Cassius beckoned her into the room. Llewellyn seemed to fold in on himself and stood beside Cassius, his hands tucked into the opposite sleeve. As she walked over, Cassius knew with a sinking heart that Llewellyn was right. Perhaps a freed slave, he thought desperately. “Hold out your arm, please.”
She complied without question and Cassius took her hand in his and pushed up her sleeve, mimicking the way owners and traders would have identified her mark. Once he had seen the pattern of scarring made by a brand, he released her hand.
“Where were you brought into Jovan, Bellida?” he said.
“I was bought in Baetica and shipped down the coast to Aldis,” she said, looking at the floor between them.
“Nigh two years ago, Lord Cassius.”
“Who is your owner?” Blessed few, if she belonged to Valentin he was going to strangle his brother and take the consequences.
“The owner of this house provides me for his tenants’ use.”
“Well,” Cassius crossed his arms, “thank you. You are excused.”
When Bellida was gone, Llewellyn said, “We can’t send her away.”
Nodding, Cassius said, “I know.” He sighed and pressed his thumb and middle finger to his temples. For one terrible, selfish moment, he wished Bellida gone so that he could just concentrate on Llewellyn. “I’ll make enquiries.”
“Thank you.” Llewellyn went to the door, his shoulders curled defensively and his hair in his eyes. “I should go and visit the docks.”
“All right.” Cassius didn’t offer to go with him. Somehow he knew Llewellyn wanted to be alone.
Damn it all.
When Llewellyn was gone, Cassius went to find Bellida again.”What is your master’s name?”
Bellida told him, and gave him the address of the man’s agent, a man named Gerin. After mulling it over, Cassius sat down and wrote Gerin a letter, asking him to visit at his earliest convenience. Then he pulled over a fresh piece of paper and purged his feelings to Valentin. Leaving both on table in the anteroom, he went for a walk.
Cassius sat down to dinner alone. He hadn’t seen Llewellyn since he returned, but had heard the sounds of someone moving around the house. As he sat on a couch angling his shoulders towards the fireplace, the door opened. Cassius looked up and discovered Llewellyn carrying two heavy-laden platters into the atrium. Cassius stood and waited awkwardly while Llewellyn set down his burdens. Bellida followed him with a pitcher and set it on the table.
Llewellyn sat down opposite and after a moment’s hesitation, Cassius sat as well.
“I promised myself I’d never let a slave serve me,” said Llewellyn in response to the question Cassius hadn’t asked, “not when I was in a position to serve myself.”
“Very admirable,” Cassius mumbled, ashamed of himself. What had Valentin said? He took his privilege for granted and never thought about the cost. And he thought himself righteous because he’d freed one slave.
He realised Llewellyn was watching him and forced himself to produce a smile. It felt rather queasy.
Llewellyn took a piece of bread and dipped it in olive oil. “I don’t like this place,” he said. “There is a block down near the shipyards.”
“A block?” said Cassius.
“Where masters come to inspect the slaves they’ve bought. I have no doubt they buy and sell as well; they certainly go through the motions of it. They could forge the date and place of sale easily enough with a harbourmaster willing to look the other way.”
Cassius stuck out his jaw. “We’ll put a stop to that.”
Giving him a shy smile, Llewellyn said, “I was planning on it.” He put down the half-eaten bread and moved from his couch to Cassius’. Cassius leaned back and Llewellyn put his knee on the squab and his hands on Cassius’ shoulders. “I’m sorry about earlier.”
As Llewellyn leaned close, Cassius felt himself blush. “What do you mean?”
Gray eyes met his. “You kissed me.”
Cassius reached up and put his hand on Llewellyn’s chin. Llewellyn closed his eyes and tilted his head. “Like that,” he said as Cassius drew his face down.
“I missed you,” said Cassius.
Their lips met, and parted, and met again. Llewellyn had one knee braced on the floor; the other was a warm pressure alongside Cassius’ thigh. He put his arms around Llewellyn’s waist and drew him close, breaking the kiss so he could press his lips to Llewellyn’s throat. Curly strands were escaping from their ribbon and tickling Cassius’ face. He tilted his head and inhaled deeply of the scent of Llewellyn’s hair. It was intoxicating; he wrapped his arms more tightly around the small of Llewellyn’s back, until his stomach was flush against Cassius’ chest, his head thrown back.
Llewellyn lost his balance and ended up lying across Cassius’ lap with his arms around Cassius’ shoulders. He looked, wide-eyed, at his feet, which had come within a hand span of upending the table. “Oh thank goodness,” he said.
Cassius laughed and said, “Perhaps we should eat that before you spill it all over the floor.”
Well, he might not be a peacock like Valentin, but Cassius could look impressive when he chose to. The next morning, he received the agent, Gerin, in the atrium in a blue and black tunic and a cloak trimmed in sable, with his chain of office and medallion around his neck and the signet ring that was his birthright as Black Prince of Caith’il Deran, a carved obsidian, on his index finger.
Llewellyn sat beside him, hands folded in his lap.
Gerin was an ordinary-looking man, who arrived wearing warm brown fur and weighed down by a satchel of documents. His eyes flickered up and down Cassius’ outfit as Cassius gestured for him to sit down opposite.
“Lord Cassius,” he mumbled, then cleared his throat. “My sincerest apologies.”
Cassius blinked. “What?”
We had a letter from Lord Valentin notifying us of your impending arrival and that your preference is not to be served by slaves. Alas, this missive arrived late yesterday evening. I will take the woman away with me, and you need not be bothered by her again.”
Llewellyn’s spine straightened and he leaned forward.
“That will not be necessary,” said Cassius. He was going to have to compose another cross letter to Valentin. “What is the slave’s provenance?”
“She was born a slave in Baetica and had only one owner, a merchant in Gatanis, until her sale to the owner of this house.”
“Are her papers in order?” Cassius summoned up Valentin’s spirit and assumed a pose of haughty disinterest.
“Of course; I will bring them around this afternoon if you wish to see them.”
Cassius inclined his head. “See that you do.”
When Gerin had gone, Llewellyn excused himself. Cassius heard his bedroom door click shut. He rolled his shoulders and tugged at his cloak, then leaned back against the back of the chaise and let out a long breath.
Last night, after dinner, Llewellyn had excused himself the same way and Cassius had let him go. Well, the boy had a right to his privacy. Cassius certainly wasn’t going to push him to do anything he didn’t want to.
Throwing his head back, Cassius looked up at the ceiling. He was just happy that Llewellyn wanted him there.
Gerin didn’t bring Bellida’s papers himself; he sent them around with a runner boy. Cassius put the provenance and bill of sale on the desk and stared at them. Llewellyn looked over his shoulder.
“How do we know if they are falsified?” said Cassius, tilting his head.
Llewellyn leaned back and pulled the bell. “We ask Bellida.”
“Of course,” said Cassius, biting his lip.
Llewellyn pointed at the harbourmaster’s mark on the provenance, on the line after Bellida’s sale in Gatanis, recording her legal importation into Jovan. “If there is illegal trading going on, he must be involved.”
Bellida arrived. “My lord,” she said, “how may I serve you?”
“We would like to ask you a few questions, if that is all right.”
“Certainly, my lord.” She clasped her hands and bowed.
Unsure how to begin, Cassius looked at Llewellyn, who stepped forward. “Bellida,” he said, “I’m a freed slave.” He pulled up his arm to show her the brand with a strike through it. “Lord Cassius bought and freed me.”
Bellida’s gaze flickered down to the mark and up again. Her expression didn’t change.
“I tell you this so that you understand why we are asking you these questions. You were bought in Baetica and then came to Jovan. Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir,” said Bellida quietly, looking at a spot somewhere over Cassius’ shoulder.
“You understand that if you were actually sold in Jovan the contract is void and the people who were involved, including your present owner, may be guilty of treason? Lord Cassius is the Empress’ uncle. He would be able to seek your freedom on behalf of the Empire.”
Bellida’s eyes widened and she looked quickly at Llewellyn. Then her lips pressed together and she said, “I was bought in Baetica, sir.”
There was tension vibrating through her frame as she stared across Cassius’ shoulders, visibly braced for another question. “Thank you, you may go,” said Cassius, sighing.
When she had left the atrium, Llewellyn stepped over to where Cassius leaned against a pillar. “I will talk to her,” he said.
“You think she’s frightened of me?” said Cassius.
“I think she was born a slave.” Llewellyn shrugged helplessly. “I think she has been powerless her whole life, abused and probably raped—although most would not call bedding a slave rape—since she was a child. I don’t think she’s frightened of you. I don’t think she trusts either of us; she’s protecting herself.”
Cassius closed his eyes. “I could never understand.” He was surprised by a hand on his shoulder and opened them to find Llewellyn standing close.
“No, you couldn’t,” he said. There was no condemnation. Then, “Thank you.”
Cassius put his head against Llewellyn’s forehead. “When I—at Blacktower—did it hurt you?” There was a lump in his throat.
For a moment, Llewellyn didn’t reply. He put his hand up against Cassius’ nape, keeping their foreheads pressed together. Then he stepped back. “I saw a soul-healer in Cambria,” he said.
Stringing from Llewellyn’s avoidance of his question, Cassius croaked, “Oh? Did he treat you with potions?”
Llewellyn shook his head. “No. Cambria gives sanctuary to runaway slaves—any blacksmith will strike off the brand without a provenance. The soul-healer finds them. She doesn’t take payment.”
“What does she do?”
Llewellyn pressed his lips together, halfway between a smile and a grimace. “She listens,” he said. “Then she tells you what she heard. She told me that I had ceased being enslaved when your brother gave me enough money to escape. She said I chose to come to you anyway, and what was I doing so far away from a man I loved more than my own freedom?”
Holding Llewellyn’s gaze as if he would drown if he blinked, Cassius managed to say, “I see.”
“But… the emotion and the act are two different things, Cassius. My heart is yours. My body… remembers. For most of the first twenty-six years of my life, I was nothing more than the act. I existed for the act. I was trained in, and then I was used for, the act. Sometimes… the most oppressive feeling comes over me, and I think I am worthless and should never have dared to think I could be anything more than a pleasure slave. The soul-healer said it wouldn’t always be like that. But it is taking longer than I hoped.” He tilted his head apologetically.
“Just tell me how I can help,” said Cassius, the words emerging from some primal part of him. Maiming was too good for King Adder of Sha-Pensei. He should have killed the bastard.
Llewellyn stepped close and pressed his cheek against Cassius’ collarbone, warm and solid. His head still spinning from Llewellyn’s speech, Cassius forced himself to stay still, not to wrap his arms around Llewellyn’s waist. “Thank you for your patience,” said Llewellyn, the words humming against Cassius’ chest.
Cassius walked down to the docks, his mind full of what Llewellyn had told him. He had no doubt it had been difficult to say, and he was so proud of Llewellyn’s determination that his past would not dictate his future.
I could be more like that, thought Cassius.
He quickly found the place Llewellyn had spoken of, where a block stood in a cleared dirt arena. Cassius supposed it might be used for showing livestock, but what creature could be convinced to step up onto that narrow stump, Cassius couldn’t imagine.
The harbourmaster was an unpleasant individual, slightly cross-eyed, missing most of his teeth, and dressed in a stained tunic that seemed like it might once have been expensive. Cassius introduced himself as Llewellyn kin Gwaerfon’s business partner.
The harbourmaster shrugged. “Tell you what I told him, then. Aldis is a small port; not much throughput, not much storage. Much better to go through Monsilys or Tyresine.”
Cassius blinked. “Doesn’t your wage depend on the port’s use?” he said.
“Oh yes, but I don’t want to be doing you an ill turn, see,” said the harbourmaster. “Say I tell you Aldis is a safe port, the lord extracts low tithe, and the road to Monsilys is good year-round? All I get out of that is a dissatisfied merchant who can’t find a warehouse for five thousand bolts of cloth. What am I to tell him then?” He shrugged and reached for a tankard. “We mostly take shipments bound for the imperial province, which can be put on wagons the day they arrive. Will that suit your Cambrian merchant?”
“No,” said Cassius, “I suppose not.”
Smugly, the harbourmaster said, “Like I told your partner, then.”
Returning to the villa, Cassius caught Bellida in the hallway. She immediately effaced herself and tried to shuffle away. “Wait,” said Cassius, “please.”
“How may I help you, my lord?”
Cassius thought of what Llewellyn had said. “You know my brother, Lord Valentin Sylvanus, I think?”
Bellida nodded. Her hair slid over her shoulders to hide her face, a gesture heartbreakingly familiar to Cassius.
“I imagine he…” Cassius sought for words, “expected you to perform intimate services for him.” He put his hand up. “You don’t have to tell me. I only want to say, if that was the case, I am so sincerely sorry. I want you to know that I would never do that to you. You are safe with me. I will protect you and I will do what I can to see you freed.”
Bellida pressed her lips together and tucked her hair behind her ear. She looked up at him, through her lashes.
Cassius brushed his hand across his jaw, feeling the first hint of stubble. “I know freedom is only the first step.”
She moistened her lips. “I was sold in Baetica,” she said, scarcely above a whisper, “and brought to Jovan. I was put on the block in Aldis and sold again, for twice the price I fetched in Baetica. My master warned me that if I ever told anyone, he would have me flogged and cut out my tongue.” She had her weight forward on the balls of her feet, waiting for his reaction.
“Thank you for telling me, Bellida,” said Cassius.
He went to find Llewellyn, who was sitting in an armchair in his room, reading. “Bellida was sold in Aldis,” said Cassius.
Setting his book aside, Llewellyn said, “How do you know?”
Cassius felt a smile stretching his lips wide. “She told me,” he said. The smile was gone as quickly as it came. “I asked her whether Valentin had taken her to bed. I apologised if he had.”
Llewellyn beckoned him over. When they were close enough to touch, Llewellyn put his hands around Cassius’ waist. “You and your apologies,” he said.
“You can’t deny this one was necessary.”
“It was, although it should have come from Lord Valentin.”
“One day, perhaps. At any rate, Bellida told me she was brought to Aldis and sold to her current master here. I will call the legionaries to arrest the harbourmaster.”
“Mm,” said Llewellyn. He stepped away and looked out the window. “Have you thought about the consequences of getting legionaries involved?”
Cassius frowned. “What do you mean?”
“It is not inconceivable that any official investigation of illegal slaving in Aldis will reveal Lord Valentin’s involvement.”
“No, he—” Cassius stopped. “I will write to him in the morning.”
If Cassius hadn’t been lying awake, he wouldn’t have heard the soft click of a door and then light footfalls down the hallway. He got up and went across the hallway, knocking lightly on Llewellyn’s door. There was no reply, so he opened it and confirmed his suspicion that the room was empty.
Wherever Llewellyn had gone, he hadn’t wanted Cassius’ company.
Jogging back into his room and across to the chest, Cassius tugged on shirt, tunic, hose and boots. Grabbing a dark woollen cloak, he hurried out into the night.
There was no sign of Llewellyn by the time Cassius stepped out onto the street, but he barely paused before turning towards the road that led down to the docks. The way was dark and deserted; he passed a procession of torchbearers and litters filled with rowdy argenta, but was otherwise alone.
Alternating jogging and walking, he was two thirds of the way to the docks when he saw a cloaked silhouette moving quietly ahead of him. He slowed his pace, and followed Llewellyn to the harbourmaster’s house.
Llewellyn paced the long wall of the house and stopped in front of the door. He leaned close to the doorknob, and after a moment it swung open and Llewellyn slipped inside. Cassius dove forward to catch it before it latched and when he stepped through, he found himself at the point of a dagger. Llewellyn’s eyes glittered in the semi-darkness as he lowered it and frowned at Cassius.
Raising his eyebrows, Cassius made an after you gesture and received a grimace in return. They slipped through the silent house, the moonlight showing rich furnishings cast about without regard for their value. This was a man who had wealth and no understanding what to do with it.
The harbourmaster’s bed was gilded and draped with damask. Cassius went to the banked fire and lit a taper, which he used to light the torches in sconces around the wall. Llewellyn went to the bed and stood, looking down between the drapes. When Cassius went over, he saw that Llewellyn was looking not at the harbourmaster, but at a naked girl who slept beside him, held under a heavy arm. Her hand was outstretched, and the torchlight fell on the white, scarred flesh of her inner arm.
Llewellyn released a long breath and Cassius realised he had drawn his dagger. He put a hand on Llewellyn’s arm and drew him back. “What are you planning?” he whispered.
“To kill him,” said Llewellyn without emotion.
Cassius dropped his hand. “He should face justice.”
“Justice.” There was a bitter lilt to the word.
Cassius stepped close to the bed and shook the harbourmaster hard. He roused with a snort and blinked, then levered himself to sit up. The slave girl startled awake.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Llewellyn.
“I’m not bloody afraid,” said the harbourmaster. “Who in the name of the damned few are you?”
“Not you, you imbecile,” said Llewellyn. He went around the bed and held out his hand to the slave girl.
The harbourmaster drew the furs up to his shoulders. “You two,” he said, pointing. “Get out of my house.”
Llewellyn was still holding his hand out. With the other hand, he drew up his sleeve. She looked at the brand for a moment, then gathered a blanket around herself and crawled out of the bed. “We can’t let you leave this room yet,” said Llewellyn quietly, “but I promise you are safe and as soon as can be arranged, you will be free.”
The harbourmaster had seen the brand as well. “Who are you?”
Cassius tilted his head. “I am Cassius Nero,” he said. “I suggest you get dressed.”
Gaping, the harbourmaster climbed out of bed and wrapped himself in a robe. His hands were shaking.
Llewellyn gestured with his dagger towards a chair near the fire.”Sit.” When this was done, he said, “I understand that you have been bringing slaves into Jovan and selling them here in Aldis.”
Cassius, perceiving his role in this interrogation, rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. “I suggest you tell the truth.”
“There are several aura who bring slaves into Jovan though Aldis,” said the harbourmaster, “but only those sold legally in Covenant lands.”
“Liar.” Llewellyn put his dagger to the man’s throat. “It matters little. Tell me one thing: who are the men who bring slaves through this port? Legally, if you say so.”
“Many men do so,” said the harbourmaster, flicking an uncomfortable glance at Cassius.
“I cannot keep track.”
The dagger pressed against the fleshy part of his neck. “You told me yourself that this is a port with little throughput, that most men favoured Monsilys and Tyresine. Who are the aura who use this port for slaves?”
“Llewellyn, these things are for the magistrate and the Empress,” said Cassius.
“This man will never testify,” said Llewellyn, “except to me.”
“Don’t bloody your hands,” said Cassius, stepping forward. “If you must imagine him dead, imagine him crucified on the Imperial way.”
“Lord Cassius…” said the harbourmaster.
Llewellyn lowered the dagger. He threw his head back and breathed deeply through his nose. “Who is the leader?”
The harbourmaster grimaced. “If I tell you, will you let me go?”
“Yes,” said Llewellyn.
“Lord Bracchus Platinus.”
“Damn it,” muttered Cassius.
Llewellyn nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and plunged the dagger into the harbourmaster’s throat. Blood began to flow immediately, and the harbourmaster coughed and slumped.
Cassius pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead. “Well, that’s done,” he muttered. “Come on.”
The slave girl had stood watching. Llewellyn turned to her. “Come with us, please,” he said.
“I won’t betray you,” she said, “but I would rather stay here. There are others in this house.”
Llewellyn shook his head. “You should all flee before the legionaries arrive. If you wish it, send word to the Wanderer’s Rest in Monsilys of your whereabouts.”
They walked through the streets side by side. It was close to dawn, and the sky had begun to lighten. There were more people around now, bakers and butchers with their carts climbing the steep streets of the town.
“Why do you protect Valentin?” said Cassius.
“I don’t know,” said Llewellyn. He paused. “Because he is your brother.”
“You do think he was involved, then.”
“The harbourmaster will never tell it if he was. Perhaps you should ask Valentin.”
Cassius set his jaw. “I will.” He turned to Llewellyn to catch a terribly tired, sad expression.
“Don’t tell me what he says, please,” said Llewellyn. “I don’t want to know.” He wiped his hand across his face.
They returned to Monsilys the next day. Although Cassius offered, Llewellyn refused to allow him to help with the process of freeing the slaves and finding them employment.
When they reached the Summergate, and Cassius said, “Will you come to dinner at the palace?”
Llewellyn nodded. They clasped hands briefly and parted.
As Cassius travelled on towards the Palace, he felt a frown settle on his brow. Leaving the carriage in the courtyard, he went looking for his brother. He found Valentin in a sitting room, cradling a cup of wine and reading a letter. He set it aside and stood when he saw Cassius.
“Brother, how was Aldis? I do apologise for the mix-up with the slave girl.”
“Was that her name?”
“It was. Were you aware that she was brought to Jovan illegally?”
Valentin widened his eyes. “Oh dear, really? Of course I wasn’t aware of that. Well, the Empress will free her. Where is she?”
“She is safe. We uncovered a ring of illegal slaving. The harbourmaster gave us the identity of the leader.”
“Who is the blackguard?”
Cassius watched him closely. “Lord Bracchus Platinus.”
Setting down his cup, Valentin said, “Oh, I see.
“The harbourmaster is dead.”
Valentin raised his eyes to Cassius’, something unreadable in them. “You killed him?”
“Were there any witnesses?” Valentin’s gaze was intent.
“A slave girl. She won’t betray us.”
“Where is she now?”
“Llewellyn may know. I do not.”
Valentin frowned. “Well, when you do locate her, I can find her a place at Whitefields.”
“So she is available for your use when you should visit home?” Cassius crossed his arms.
Valentin straightened his shoulders and looked at Cassius, his mouth set. “So in the not inconceivable event that she does decide to betray you both, the only people she will be able to tell will be my people.” He picked up his wine glass and sat down, turning his head away from Cassius, an offended set to his shoulders. “I will speak to Bracchus.”
Cassius looked at the floor. Then he tucked his chin in and said with quiet vehemence, “Valentin, are you involved in this? Because if you are, I swear to the blessed few, I will ruin you.”
There was a long silence. Valentin looked into the fire and Cassius could only see his silhouette. “How can you think it of me?” he said eventually. “I condemn it wholeheartedly. Slavery under the covenant is one thing; trading slaves on our shore would, I think, be treason under the Empress’ dictum.”
“I would call it so.” Cassius looked at him closely.
“My cousin walks that dangerous road alone, I swear it.”
“I hope you are not lying,” said Cassius.
Cassius and Llewellyn ate dinner in a little dining room in a dusty wing of the palace, which had no redeeming virtue except being close to the kitchen, which meant their food arrived while it was still hot. Cassius opened his mouth to report Valentin’s denial, then thought of Llewellyn’s face. Don’t tell me what he says.
“Will you stay?” he said.
Llewellyn flicked him a quick, shy nod. “If you wish it.”
Shaking his head, Cassius said, “No, only if you wish it.”
He got a wry smile. “I admit I do.”
After dinner, they went to Cassius’ room and played a few desultory hands of cards. When Llewellyn smothered a yawn, Cassius realised he was exhausted too. They had barely slept the night before.
He set his cards aside. Llewellyn watched him as he came around the table and knelt by his chair. He tilted his head, and Llewellyn lowered his so their lips touched and put his hand at the back of Cassius’ neck. They stood together and Llewellyn backed Cassius towards the bed, until they both fell onto it.
They lay side by side, Llewellyn’s arm across Cassius’ hip, and breathed each other’s air.
“Is this all right?” Cassius murmured.
Eyes closed, Llewellyn nodded, as Cassius’ hand slid between them. He put his palm against Llewellyn’s cock and tilted his hand, and Llewellyn bucked and pressed their hips together. Llewellyn’s nose pressed against Cassius’ neck, his breath coming in hot gusts. Cassius pulled back and worked at the fastenings on Llewellyn’s breeches until he could get his hand inside. He wrapped his hand around Llewellyn’s cock and slid it up and down. Llewellyn gasped and buried his face against Cassius’ collarbone.
The angle was awkward. Cassius growled with frustration and rolled away, pushing Llewellyn until he lay against the headboard. He settled between Llewellyn’s legs as the boy watched him dreamily. His breeches splayed open like a gateway, and Cassius pulled the laces aside to reveal Llewellyn’s cock, lying hard and pink against his hip.
“I’d….” Cassius swallowed. “…like to put my mouth on you.” He rested his hand on Llewellyn’s hip and felt the hair-fine trembling under his skin. “I thought it might be something that… you wouldn’t mind so much.”
A smile broke across Llewellyn’s face like the rising sun. He put one hand under Cassius’ chin and nodded, then reached up and wrapped both hands around the slats of the headboard.
Cassius took this for permission. He lifted Llewellyn’s cock and curled his hand around the base, and pressed the other against Llewellyn’s hip to keep him still. Although he had received this service many times himself, Cassius was not particularly in the habit of giving it. He thought Llewellyn’s masters might have been the same. He suspected that mighty lords did not usually kneel in front of their pleasure slaves.
After breathing in and out slowly, he ran his tongue up the length, feeling the heat, the soft flesh and the hardness beneath. Llewellyn bucked against his hand. “Again,” he gasped.
Cassius looked up, watched the blush suffuse Llewellyn’s chest and neck. His heart was pounding, sending all his blood south. He tilted his hips against the blankets, trying to get some relief as he ducked up and down.
Llewellyn’s head was thrown back and he was gripping the headboard white-knuckled. “Oh gods-—Cassius,” he said, “I… I—” Cassius pulled away just in time to watch his release. When it was done and Llewellyn had stopped shaking with spent pleasure, Cassius climbed off the bed and limped to the washstand, bringing back a wet cloth, which he used to wipe down Llewellyn’s stomach.
Llewellyn reached for him, said, “Thank you.”
Cassius settled beside him. “Was that all right?” he said.
“It was wonderful,” said Llewellyn. They shrugged off boots and breeches, tunics and shirts and climbed under the covers. Although the night was cold, they were warm, and Cassius slept without waking until morning.