Captive Prince (Captive Prince #1) – C.S. Pacat

‘WE HEAR THAT your Prince,’ said Lady Jokaste, ‘keeps his own harem. These slaves will please any traditionalist, but I have asked Adrastus to prepare something special in addition, a personal gift for your Prince from the King. A gem in the rough, as it were.’ ‘His Majesty has already been so generous,’ said Councillor Guion, the Ambassador of Vere. They strolled the length of the viewing gallery. Guion had dined on mouth-watering spiced meats wrapped in grape leaves, the noon-day heat fanned away from his reclining form by attentive slaves. He felt generously willing to admit that this barbaric country had its charms. The food was rustic but the slaves were impeccable: faultlessly obedient and trained to efface and anticipate, nothing like the spoiled pets at the court of Vere. The gallery was decorated by two dozen slaves on display. All were either naked or barely clad in transparent silks. Around their necks, the slaves wore gold collars decorated with rubies and tanzanite and on their wrists golden wrist-cuffs. These were purely ornamental. The slaves knelt in demonstration of their willing submissiveness. They were to be a gift from the new King of Akielos to the Regent of Vere—a highly generous gift. The gold alone was worth a small fortune, while the slaves were surely some of the finest in Akielos.

Privately, Guion had already earmarked one of the palace slaves for his personal use, a demure youth with a beautifully slender waist and heavily lashed dark eyes. As they reached the far end of the gallery, Adrastus, the Keeper of the Royal Slaves, bowed sharply, the heels of his laced brown leather boots drawing together. ‘Ah. Here we are,’ said Lady Jokaste, smiling. They proceeded into an antechamber, and Guion’s eyes widened. Bound and under heavy guard was a male slave unlike any Guion had ever seen. Powerfully muscled and physically imposing, he was not wearing the trinket-chains that adorned the other slaves in the gallery. His restraints were real. His wrists were lashed behind his back and his legs and torso were bound with thick cords. Despite this, the force of his body looked only barely contained.

His dark eyes flashed furiously above the gag, and if you looked closely at the expensive cords that bound his torso and legs you could see the red weals where he had fought, hard, against his restraints. Guion’s pulse sped up, an almost panicked reaction. A gem in the rough? This slave was more like a wild animal, nothing like the twenty-four tame kittens who lined the hall. The sheer power of his body was barely held in check. Guion looked at Adrastus, who was hanging back, as though the slave’s presence made him nervous. ‘Are all the new slaves bound?’ asked Guion, trying to regain his composure. ‘No, just him. He, that is—’ Adrastus hesitated. ‘Yes?’ ‘He isn’t used to being handled,’ said Adrastus, with an uneasy sideways look at Lady Jokaste. ‘He hasn’t been trained.

’ ‘The Prince, we hear, enjoys a challenge,’ said Lady Jokaste. Guion tried to quell his reaction as he turned his gaze back to the slave. It was highly questionable whether this barbarous gift would appeal to the Prince, whose feelings towards the savage inhabitants of Akielos lacked warmth, to say the least. ‘Does he have a name?’ asked Guion. ‘Your Prince is, of course, free to name him whatever he likes,’ said Lady Jokaste. ‘But I believe it would greatly please the King if he were to call him “Damen.”’ Her eyes glittered. ‘Lady Jokaste,’ said Adrastus, seemingly in objection, though of course that was impossible. Guion looked from one to the other of them. He saw that he was expected to make some comment.

‘That is certainly—an interesting choice of name,’ said Guion. In fact he was appalled. ‘The King thinks so,’ said Lady Jokaste, stretching her lips slightly. They killed his slave Lykaios with the quick slice of a sword across her throat. She was a palace slave, untrained in combat and so sweetly obedient that, had he commanded it of her, she would have knelt and bared her own throat for the stroke. She was not given a chance to obey or resist. She folded soundlessly, her pale limbs lying quite still on the white marble. Beneath her, blood began slowly to spread out over the marble floor. ‘Seize him!’ said one of the soldiers that poured into the room, a man with lank brown hair. Damen might have allowed it simply out of shock, but it was in that instant that two of the soldiers lay hands on Lykaios and cut her down.

At the end of the first exchange, three of the soldiers were dead, and Damen had possession of a sword. The men facing him wavered and held back. ‘Who sent you?’ said Damen. The lank-haired soldier said, ‘The King.’ ‘Father?’ He almost lowered his sword. ‘Kastor. Your father is dead. Take him.’ Fighting came naturally to Damen, whose abilities were born of strength, natural aptitude and relentless practice. But these men had been sent against him by one who knew all of that very well, and further, was not stinting in his judgement of how many soldiers it would take to overcome a man of Damen’s calibre.

Overwhelmed by numbers, Damen could only last so long before he was taken, his arms twisted behind his back, a sword at his throat. He had then, naively, expected to be killed. Instead he was beaten, restrained and—when he fought free, doing a gratifying amount of damage for one who had no weapon—beaten again. ‘Get him out of here,’ said the lank-haired soldier, wiping the back of his hand across the thin line of blood at his temple. He was thrown into a cell. His mind, which ran along straight and candid lines, could not make sense of what was happening. ‘Take me to see my brother,’ he demanded, and the soldiers laughed and one kicked him in the stomach. ‘Your brother’s the one who gave the order,’ one of them sneered. ‘You’re lying. Kastor’s no traitor.

’ But the door of his cell slammed shut, and doubt raised its head for the first time. He had been naive, a small voice began to whisper, he hadn’t anticipated, he hadn’t seen; or perhaps he had refused to see, giving no credence to the dark rumours that seemed to disrespect the honour with which a son should treat the final days of a sick and dying father. In the morning they came for him, and understanding now all that had occurred, and wishing to meet his captor with courage and bitter pride, he allowed his arms to be lashed behind his back, submitting to rough handling and moving forward when he was propelled by a hard shove between the shoulders. When he realised where he was being taken, he began to struggle again, violently. The room was simply carved in white marble. The floor, also marble, sloped faintly, terminating at an unobtrusive carved runnel. From the ceiling hung a pair of shackles, to which Damen, forcefully resisting, was chained against his will, his arms pulled up above his head. These were the slave baths. Damen jerked against the restraints. They didn’t budge.

His wrists were already bruised. On this side of the water, a miscellany of cushions and towels were arranged in an appealing tumble. Coloured glass bottles in a variety of shapes, containing a variety of oils, glimmered like jewels amid the cushions. The water was scented, milky, and decorated with slowly drowning rose petals. All the niceties. This could not be happening, Damen felt a surge in his chest; fury, outrage and somewhere buried beneath these a new emotion that twisted and roiled in his belly. One of the soldiers immobilised him in a practised hold from behind. The other began to strip him. His garments were unpinned and drawn off swiftly. His sandals were cut from his feet.

The burn of humiliation hot as steam across his cheeks, Damen stood shackled, naked, the moist warmth of the baths curling up against his skin. The soldiers withdrew to the archway, where a figure dismissed them, his chiselled face handsome, and familiar. Adrastus was the Keeper of the Royal Slaves. His was a prestigious position that had been bestowed on him by King Theomedes. Damen was hit by a wave of anger so powerful it almost robbed him of vision. When he came back to himself he saw the way Adrastus was considering him. ‘You wouldn’t dare lay a hand on me,’ said Damen. ‘I’m under orders,’ said Adrastus, though he was holding back. ‘I’ll kill you,’ said Damen. ‘Maybe a—a woman—’ said Adrastus, backing up a step and whispering into the ear of one of the attendants, who bowed and left the room.

A slave entered a few moments later. Hand picked, she matched all that was known of Damen’s tastes. Her skin was as white as the marble of the baths, and her yellow hair was simply pinned, exposing the elegant column of her throat. Her breasts were full and swelled beneath the gauze; her pink nipples were faintly visible. Damen watched her approach with the same wariness with which he would follow the movements of an opponent on the field, though he was no stranger to being serviced by slaves. Her hand rose to the clasp at her shoulder. She exposed the curve of a breast, a slender waist, the gauze sliding down to her hips, and lower. Her garments dropped to the floor. Then she picked up a water scoop. Naked, she bathed his body, soaping and rinsing, heedless of the way the water spilled against her own skin and splashed her round breasts.

Finally she wet and soaped his hair, washing it thoroughly, finishing by rising up on her toes and tipping one of the smaller tubs of warm water over the back of his head. Like a dog, he shook it off. He looked around for Adrastus, but the Keeper of the Slaves seemed to have disappeared. The slave took up one of the coloured vials and poured some of its oil into her palm. Coating her hands, she began to work the stuff into his skin with methodical strokes, applying it everywhere. Her eyes remained downcast, even when her strokes deliberately slowed, and she moved against him. Damen’s fingers bit into his chains. ‘That’s enough,’ said Jokaste, and the slave jerked back from Damen, prostrating herself on the wet marble floor instantly. Damen, manifestly aroused, weathered Jokaste’s calmly appraising gaze. ‘I want to see my brother,’ said Damen.

‘You have no brother,’ said Jokaste. ‘You have no family. You have no name, rank or position. By now, you should know that much at least.’ ‘Do you expect me to submit to this? To be mastered by—who—Adrastus? I’ll tear his throat out.’ ‘Yes. You would. But you won’t be serving in the palace.’ ‘Where.’ Flatly.

She gazed at him. Damen said, ‘What have you done?’ ‘Nothing,’ she said, ‘but choose between brothers.’ They had last spoken in her rooms in the palace; her hand had pressed to his arm. She looked like a painting. Her curls were coiled and perfect, and her high smooth brow and classical features were composed. Where Adrastus had held back, her delicate sandals picked their way with calm and sure steps across the wet marble towards him. He said, ‘Why keep me alive? What—need—does this satisfy? It’s neat enough, except for that. Is it—’ He bit down on it; she deliberately misunderstood his words. ‘A brother’s love? You don’t know him at all, do you. What’s a death but easy, quick.

It’s supposed to haunt you forever that the one time he beat you was the one time that mattered.’ Damen felt his face changing shape. ‘—What?’ She touched his jaw, unafraid. Her fingers were slender, white and faultlessly elegant. ‘I see why you prefer pale skin,’ she said. ‘Yours hides the bruising.’ After they locked him into the gold collar and wrist-cuffs, they painted his face. There was no taboo in Akielos regarding male nudity but the paint was the mark of a slave, and it was mortifying. He thought there was no greater humiliation than when he was thrown to the ground in front of Adrastus. Then he saw Adrastus’s face, and saw the esurient expression.

‘You look . ’ Adrastus gazed at him. Damen’s arms were bound behind his back, and further restraints had restricted his movements to little more than a hobble. Now he was sprawled on the ground at Adrastus’s feet. He drew himself up onto his knees, but was prevented from rising further by the restraining grip of his two guards. ‘If you did it for a position,’ said Damen, flat hatred in his voice, ‘you’re a fool. You’ll never advance. He can’t trust you. You’ve already betrayed for gain once.’ The blow snapped his head to one side.

Damen ran his tongue over the inside of his lip and tasted blood. ‘I did not give you permission to speak,’ said Adrastus. ‘You hit like a milk-fed catamite,’ said Damen. Adrastus took a step back, his face white. ‘Gag him,’ he said, and Damen was struggling again, in vain, against the guards. His jaw was expertly prised open, and a thickly cloth-bound iron bit forced into his mouth and swiftly tied. He could make no more than a muffled sound, but he glared at Adrastus over the gag with defiant eyes. ‘You don’t understand it yet,’ said Adrastus. ‘But you will. You’ll come to understand that what they are saying in the palace, in the taverns and in the streets is true.

You’re a slave. You’re worth nothing. Prince Damianos is dead.’ CHAPTER 1 DAMEN CAME BACK to himself in stages, his drugged limbs heavy against the silk cushions, the gold cuffs on his wrists like lead weights. His eyelids raised and lowered. The sounds he heard made no sense at first: the murmur of voices speaking Veretian. Instinct said: Get up. He gathered himself, pushing up onto his knees. Veretian voices? His muddled thoughts, arriving at this conclusion, could make nothing of it at first. His mind was harder than his body to muster.

He could not immediately remember anything after his capture, though he knew that time had passed between now and then. He was aware that at some point he had been drugged. He searched for that memory. Eventually he found it. He had tried to escape. He had been transported inside a locked wagon under heavy guard to a house on the edge of the city. He had been pulled from the wagon into a closed courtyard and . he remembered bells. The courtyard had filled with the sudden sound of bells, a cacophony of sound from the highest places in the city, carrying in the warm evening air. Bells at dusk, heralding a new King.

Theomedes is dead. All hail Kastor. At the sound of the bells, the need to escape had overwhelmed any urge to caution or subterfuge, part of the fury and grief that came upon him in waves. The starting of the horses had given him his opportunity. But he had been unarmed, and surrounded by soldiers, in a closed courtyard. The subsequent handling had not been delicate. They had thrown him into a cell deep in the bowels of the house, after which, they had drugged him. Days had bled into one another. Of the rest he recalled only brief snatches including—his stomach sank—the slap and spray of salt water: transportation aboard a ship. His head was clearing.

His head was clearing for the first time in—how long? How long since his capture? How long since the bells had rung? How long had he allowed this to go on? A surge of will drove Damen from his knees onto his feet. He must protect his household, his people. He took a step. A chain rattled. The tiled floor slid under his feet, dizzily; his vision swam. He struck out for support and steadied himself, one shoulder against the wall. With an effort of will, he did not slide back down it. Holding himself upright, he forced the dizziness back. Where was he? He made his hazy mind take inventory of himself and his surroundings. He was dressed in the brief garments of an Akielon slave, and from head to toe he was clean.

He supposed this meant he had been tended, though his mind could supply him with no memory of it happening. He retained the gold collar and the gold cuffs on his wrists. His collar was chained to an iron link in the floor by means of a chain and a lock. Thin hysteria threatened for a moment: he smelled faintly of roses. As for the room, everywhere he looked his eyes were assaulted with ornamentation. The walls were overrun by decoration. The wooden doors were delicate as a screen and carved with a repeated design that included gaps in the wood; through them you could glimpse shadowy impressions of what lay on the other side. The windows were similarly screened. Even the floor tiles were parti-coloured and arranged in a geometric pattern. Everything gave the impression of patterns within patterns, the twisty creations of the Veretian mind.

It came together then, suddenly—Veretian voices—the humiliating presentation to Councillor Guion, ‘Are all the new slaves bound?’—the ship—and its destination. This was Vere. Damen stared around himself in horror. He was in the heart of enemy territory, hundreds of miles from home. It didn’t make sense. He was breathing, without holes, and had not suffered the regrettable accident he might have expected. The Veretian people had good reason to hate Prince Damianos of Akielos. Why was he still alive? The sound of a bolt being thrown back jerked his attention to the door. Two men strode into the room. Watching them warily, Damen indistinctly recognised the first as a Veretian handler from the ship.

The second was a stranger: dark-haired, bearded, wearing Veretian clothing, with silver rings on each of the three joints of every finger. ‘This is the slave that is being presented to the Prince?’ said the ringed man. The handler nodded. ‘You say he’s dangerous. What is he? A prisoner of war? A criminal?’ The handler shrugged a, Who knows? ‘Keep him chained.’ ‘Don’t be foolish. We can’t keep him chained forever.’ Damen could feel the ringed man’s gaze lingering on him. The next words were almost admiring. ‘Look at him.

Even the Prince is going to have his hands full.’ ‘Aboard the ship, when he made trouble, he was drugged,’ said the handler. ‘I see.’ The man’s gaze turned critical. ‘Gag him and shorten the chain for the Prince’s viewing. And arrange an appropriate escort. If he makes trouble, do whatever you have to.’ He spoke with dismissive words, as though Damen was of minimal importance to him, no more than a task on a checklist. It was dawning on Damen, through the clearing drug-haze, that his captors did not know the identity of their slave. A prisoner of war.

A criminal. He let out a careful breath. He must stay quiet, inconspicuous. Enough presence of mind had returned to him to know that as Prince Damianos he would be unlikely to last a night alive in Vere. Better by far to be thought a nameless slave. He allowed the handling. He had judged the exits, and the quality of the guards in his escort. The quality of the guards was less significant than the quality of the chain around his neck. His arms were lashed behind his back and he was gagged, the collar chain shortened to only nine links, so that even kneeling, his head was bowed, and he could barely look up. Guards took up position on either side of him, and on either side of the doors, which he faced.

He had time then to feel the expectant silence of the room, and the tightening string of heartbeats in his chest. There was a sudden flurry of activity, voices and footsteps approaching. The Prince’s viewing. The Regent of Vere held the throne for his nephew, the Crown Prince. Damen knew almost nothing about the Prince except that he was the younger of two sons. The older brother and former heir, Damen well knew, was dead. A scattering of courtiers was entering the room. The courtiers were nondescript except for one: a young man with an astonishingly lovely face—the kind of face that would have earned a small fortune on the slave-block in Akielos. Damen’s attention caught and held. The young man had yellow hair, blue eyes and very fair skin.

The dark blue of his severe, hardlaced clothing was too harsh for his fair colouring, and stood in stark contrast to the overly ornate style of the rooms. Unlike the courtiers who trailed in his wake, he wore no jewellery, not even rings on his fingers. As he approached, Damen saw that the expression that sat on the lovely face was arrogant and unpleasant. Damen knew the type. Self-absorbed and self-serving, raised to overestimate his own worth, and indulge in petty tyrannies over others. Spoilt. ‘I hear the King of Akielos has sent me a gift,’ said the young man, who was Laurent, Prince of Vere.

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