A knock at the door startled Kieran awake. He bolted upright, instantly alert and confused by his surroundings. He found himself in a bed, in a strange room, with sunlight pouring through the window.
The door was already opening by the time he remembered where he was, and that he’d been sold to the kind symposiarch who told him to relax and who let him sleep in a bed.
The woman who was walking into his room now.
Gods, his room. How would he ever get used to that?
“Good morning,” she said brightly, smiling as she walked into the room. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, Domina,” he replied, still trying to get his bearings.
Charis opened the top drawer of the dresser and pulled out a dark blue tunic. “Here you go,” she said. “All of these will fit you. You’ve got socks and longer tunics for in public here in the middle drawer. Winter clothes are in the bottom, but we obviously won’t need those for awhile. Shoes are here below the dresser.”
“Yes, Domina,” he said awkwardly, taking the tunic she held out to him.
“After breakfast, I’ll take you on a tour of the house. It’s not as big as where you used to live, but it works for us.”
She flashed him a wide grin. “Besides, I love this house. I’m always happy to show it off.”
“Yes, Domina,” he said, smiling shyly.
She was actually having a conversation with him. His owner, a Spartan, a symposiarch, was having a conversation with him.
It felt odd as hell.
He wasn’t sure what to say, so he focused on changing his clothes, removing the tunic he was wearing and replacing it with the one she handed him.
She chuckled, and he looked back up to see her watching him. “You’ll get used to it soon,” she told him.
“The small talk. I can tell you’re not used to it.”
He blushed. “I’m sorry, Domina.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. I know it’s different for you. Come on, let’s go have some breakfast.”
He silently followed her through the hall and downstairs, into the dining room.
And he stopped cold when he walked in the room.
In the center of the room was a thick, heavy rectangular table. Ilya sat at the end of the table, facing them. He looked up as they walked in and flashed Kieran a warm smile. To his left sat a dark-haired man who appeared to be in his late twenties.
The chair at the opposite end of the table was empty, presumably Charis’ place. The chair to her right was empty, as well. Opposite the empty chair sat another dark-haired man, who seemed to be in his late thirties. Kieran was surprised at seeing a slave that old.
Why did Charis Athanasiadi, the most popular symposiarch in Laconia, have such an old slave? She could afford the best, the most beautiful, the youngest out there. While this man was undeniably attractive, he was definitely over 35.
Was he a pet?
Was that why he was sitting at the table with his owners?
“Come, you can sit in Rowyn’s place for now,” Charis said. “He won’t be back until tomorrow, and we’ll get you a chair this afternoon.”
She put a hand on the small of his back, gently pushing him forward. He numbly obeyed, unable to process what was happening. He didn’t know what to think as he sank down into the chair. At the same table as his owners. With two other slaves.
“I’ll do the introductions,” Charis announced as she sat in her own place at the head of the table. “You know Ilya, obviously. This is Taber, Ilya’s slave.”
Taber smiled kindly at him. “Hello,” he said softly. Kieran could only nod, still too stunned to speak.
“And this is one of my slaves, Cullen,” Charis said, gesturing to the man who sat across from Kieran.
“How’s it going?” Cullen asked casually, grinning. He had an infectious smile, and Kieran couldn’t help but return it, despite the color rising in his cheeks.
“You’ll meet Rowyn tomorrow. He had to go to Mystras for a few days.”
Kieran nodded mutely, not bothering to try to figure out why a slave would have to go to the next town over, without his owner.
“Oh, and this is Abby,” Charis declared as the door behind Cullen opened, revealing a plump, stern-faced woman with graying hair carrying a large tray.
“Cullen, don’t you dare,” she snapped, not even bothering to look at the man she was addressing. Kieran turned to see that Cullen had started to rise to his feet to help the woman.
Her harsh tone and stern expression made Kieran nervous, but Cullen chuckled, lowering himself back to his chair. He seemed unfazed by her reprimand. “One day, you’re going to surprise us all and let me help you, Miss Abby.”
“Hmph,” she scoffed as she placed a platter in front of Charis.
“Abby takes great pride in her work,” Charis explained to Kieran. “Especially her cooking. She doesn’t want anyone helping her.”
“Exactly, so don’t you go getting any ideas either, little one,” she said, wagging a finger at him as she made her way to the other side of the table, to serve Ilya next. “And stay out of my kitchen.”
Kieran shrank back. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Look at that, Miss Abby,” Cullen said. “You’re scaring the children again. You’re too young and too pretty to do the wicked witch of the kitchen bit.”
She glared at him. “I have three sons quite a bit bigger than you are, and they’re not too big to be bent over my knee and spanked. The same goes for you.”
Cullen scoffed. “I’ve been trying to get you to bend me over your knee for years.”
“You’re impossible. A completely incorrigible man.”
“But I’m not boring.”
Kieran watched the exchange, not sure what to think. Abby was smaller, and slighter, than a Spartan woman. Her features were rounder and softer, her lips were smaller, and her shoulders were narrower. It was obvious that Abby was a perioeci. A free person. And Cullen was a slave. But they talked and joked as if they were equals.
He stole a glance to his owner, and was even more surprised to see her grinning at the exchange. So she didn’t disapprove of it. She didn’t disapprove of her slaves talking to a free person as if they were equals.
And this perioeci didn’t mind a slave talking to her like they were equals, either.
Well, he did still call her Miss Abby. So maybe just the title was enough, and as long as she was shown respect, she was fine with the slaves talking to her so casually.
Abby served Ilya, then went around the table, putting a plate in front of each of the three slaves. Kieran shifted uncomfortably in his seat as she put his plate down. It felt so awkward to have someone serve him. Even more awkward having a free person serve him.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said softly.
Abby paused, standing above him. “Where did you get this one?” she asked, looking to Charis.
“I don’t know the name. How bad is he?”
Charis’ expression hardened for an instant, then became somber. “I think it’ll take Kieran awhile to adjust,” she answered simply.
It was that Spartan way of speaking, of saying so much more than the few words they spoke. Abby was perioeci, but had been working for Charis long enough to hear everything Charis didn’t say.
She turned her attention back to Kieran. “Look at me,” she commanded gently. Kieran obeyed, looking up at her with wide, frightened eyes.
“Oh, you poor thing. You look like a baby deer in headlights. Don’t worry, Bambi. I’m not going to yell at you.”
“She’s not as mean as she pretends to be,” Ilya put in, grinning in between bites of his food. “Don’t let her scare you. She’s just a big old, blubbering teddy bear. Sweet as honey.”
“You, sir,” she said. “You don’t sign my paychecks. And I’m willing to bet the one who does would not be opposed to me beating you with a wooden spoon.”
“You’d win that bet,” Charis said dryly.
“There, see? She’s on my side.”
“But I can just use Taber as a human shield. He’s too sweet, you won’t beat him.”
“He likes being beaten. I’ll make an exception.”
Ilya rolled his eyes and threw his hands in the air. “I can’t win with you, woman.”
“That’s as it should be. Eat, all of you. I didn’t spend two hours on this for you to let it go cold.”
She turned on her heel and walked through the door, back to the kitchen. Charis chuckled, shaking her head as she turned her attention back to the food on her plate.
Kieran looked down at his own plate, surprised by the amount of food he saw there. Scrambled eggs, a piece of toast, and a slice of cantaloupe. It was more than he usually got on any given day.
“We’re putting you on a bland diet for a few days, with smaller amounts of food, until your system has time to adjust,” Charis said, reminding him. “Don’t worry, in a week or so you’ll have just as much food as we do.”
“Thank you, Domina.”
“Have you ever used a fork before?”
Kieran blushed, looking down at the utensils in front of him. “No, Domina.”
“How did you eat when Dryas owned you?”
“From a dog bowl. Or off the floor. Sometimes off the bottom of his shoes.”
“That fucking bastard,” Ilya growled. Kieran flinched at the force in his voice and instinctively lowered his head, folding his hands in his lap.
Charis reached over and patted his leg, silently reassuring him.
“And he’s just going to buy another one,” Ilya continued. “And treat that one just as bad. He’s not going to stop just because we took away his toy. Gods, and he’s mild compared to others.”
“Ilya,” Charis said quietly, reminding him to get control of his temper.
“I’m calm,” he snapped angrily. “And I’m happy that we got Kieran out of there. But that doesn’t solve the problem. I can name a dozen slave owners ten times worse than Dryas.”
As Ilya spoke, getting angrier and angrier, Taber silently set his fork down and slid out of his chair, his head disappearing under the table. A moment later, Ilya let out a frustrated groan, obviously finding it hard to stay angry.
“You use that against me far too often, you know that?” he said, looking down to his lap.
“You make it too easy,” Charis told him, not bothering to look up from her plate, or to hide the wry smile on her face.
“Oh give me more credit than that, Char. You’ve felt his mouth. Try staying focused on anything else.”
“Well, finish quickly. If Abby walks in and sees your cock in his mouth, instead of her food, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Have you met Taber, Domina?” Cullen asked. “It’s impossible not to be quick.”
As if on cue, Ilya reached under the table to grab Taber by the back of his head, shoving his cock as deep into Taber’s mouth as it would go. He moaned softly as he came.
After a moment, he released Taber. “Alright, get back up here and finish your food before it gets cold.”
Taber reappeared and sat back down in his chair, smiling triumphantly. Ilya rolled his eyes when he saw the slave’s expression.
“Gods, get that shit-eating grin off your face,” he chided playfully. “You win, you don’t need to rub it in.”
“I’m sorry, Dominus,” Taber said, in a tone that implied he wasn’t the least bit sorry.
“I think every war in history could’ve been avoided with a well-timed, wholehearted blowjob,” Cullen said.
“Because you can’t be angry while you’re mid-orgasm,” Ilya pointed out. He looked to his slave and smiled. “At least when Taber is the one giving you the orgasm.”
Taber gave a shy smile, the hint of a blush rising in his cheeks. Ilya reached over and ruffled the slave’s hair affectionately.
Kieran ate his food silently, watching the people around him. They all looked so comfortable with each other. Cullen and Taber didn’t keep their guard up the way other slaves did around their owners. They didn’t communicate with each other at all with the hidden slave language. Even the nonverbal cues.
But then again, if Ilya really was a neodamode, then they wouldn’t be able to hide anything from him, anyway. Trying would’ve been pointless.
But even with that, it just didn’t seem like they were worried. They were relaxed, and carefree, and unguarded. They spoke openly, laughed freely, and met their owners’ eyes without fear. They seemed to genuinely enjoy being in the company of their owners.
Of course, every slave appeared to enjoy the company of their owners. It’s something every helot learned from a young age. They appeared to enjoy their owners’ company, they appeared to enjoy being a slave, they appeared to enjoy all the things that were done to them. A helot could make a free man believe they loved and adored him. Even if his very presence repulsed and sickened them. There were no better actors in the world than helots.
But these two were either much better actors than Kieran had ever seen, or they weren’t acting at all.
Abby returned shortly, just as everyone was finishing up, and gathered the dishes. Charis turned to Kieran and extended her hand to him. “Come on,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll show you the house.”
“Yes, Domina,” he said, taking her outstretched hand and letting her lead him out of the dining room.
“Through that side door is the kitchen,” she said, gesturing to the second door in the dining room. “You can also get there through the living room, across the hall. There’s a breakfast nook in there, and that’s where we eat when Abby isn’t here, or if we’re hungry during the day, or whatever. Down the hall this way is the mud room, utility room, and the door at the end of the hall leads to the garage and the courtyard.”
She led him into the living room, where a large TV dominated one wall and an even larger fireplace dominated another. “Through there is the kitchen. I’ll show you that later. Right after meals is a pretty busy time for Abby, and she likes having her space. This is the living room. We have a game room through here and a formal sitting room for entertaining guests.”
She took him through to the foyer, then to the library and her study. She laughed as she left the room. “Ilya uses it more than I do, though,” she told him. “He’s so much better at all of that tedious paperwork than I am. You’d be surprised how boring running a symposium can be.”
“My fitness room is through here,” she said. “I spend far more time here than in the study.”
Upstairs, she showed him where Cullen’s, Taber’s, and Rowyn’s rooms were. Kieran was surprised to find that they each got their own room. And it appeared that there was at least one extra bedroom unused.
“There’s a guest bedroom downstairs, too,” Charis said, guessing what he was thinking. “That was one of the biggest priorities when I bought this house. I get my symposium slaves from all kinds of places, and some of them are pretty rough when I first buy them. It’s easier to keep them here while they adjust, and I didn’t want to be limited by space.”
She showed him the master bedroom, where she slept. “Ilya usually sleeps in Taber’s room,” she explained. “He often wakes up in the middle of the night, and they can get noisy.”
They left the room, walked a bit farther down the hall, then she stopped at the end, in front of a closed door. “I wanted to save this one for last,” she said, hesitating at the door. “It might be a little scary, but remember that you won’t come to any harm here.”
Kieran’s heart raced. “Yes, Domina.”
She paused just a moment more, then opened the door, stepping aside so he could see in.
Kieran looked in the room, and felt his heart plummet to his feet.
Charis stepped behind him, putting her hands on his shoulders. “Take a deep breath, love,” she murmured. “You’re alright.”
Kieran tried to obey, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. His lungs had seized up, and he felt like he was choking.
It was a large room, with a padded table and sawhorse in the center, a cage and a St. Andrew’s Cross in opposite corners, and a spanking bench beside the door. Every kind of whip, flogger, paddle, and instrument of pain he could think of hung from hooks on the walls. Cuffs, collars, chains, and rope hung from other hooks.
It was overwhelming.
But it shouldn’t have been. She was a symposiarch, after all.
She knows ways of causing pain that Dryas could never even imagine, that voice inside him said. And now she owns you.
“Come on, Kieran,” Charis urged, pulling him back. “Come on, you need to get out of this room.”
Numbly, he allowed her to pull him back out into the hallway. Her eyes narrowed with concern when she saw his face. “Kieran, you’re as white as a sheet,” she murmured. “It’s alright, I promise. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
But he couldn’t hear her over the rushing sound in his ears. The walls seemed to be closing in on him, and the floor seemed to be spinning beneath him.
“Stay here,” Charis said. She walked a bit down the hall, to a small dark box on the wall, and pressed a button. “I need Taber at the training room, alone,” she said hastily into the box. “Right now.”
She didn’t wait for a response, but hurried back to Kieran. “It’ll be alright,” she assured him.
He stumbled back against the wall, nauseous and dizzy. That little voice in his head was screaming now, screaming that what he’d suffer at the hands of this woman he’d thought was kind would be far worse than anything Dryas could’ve done to him.
And he still had 15 years. Gods, he wouldn’t survive.
He wanted to run, but his training locked his limbs, keeping him rooted in place. But even being publicly slaughtered by the Crypteia would be better than being tortured and used at the symposium for sick entertainment.
The new voice startled him, and he looked up to see Ilya’s slave, Taber, standing in front of him. Charis was nowhere to be seen.
“Come here,” Taber said gently, holding out a hand to help steady him.
Hesitantly, Kieran took it, and allowed Taber to lead him down the hall, to the older slave’s room.
“Sit down,” Taber said as he closed the door. “Tell me what’s going through your head right now.”
Kieran wrapped his arms around himself, rocking back and forth on the bed. “Fifteen years,” he whispered.
“You’re spiraling,” Taber told him. “You need to slow down, and quiet your mind. Otherwise you’ll just keep spiraling. Take a deep breath. Focus on something small.”
Taber abruptly walked to the nightstand, opened the drawer, and pulled out a short length of rope that had been tangled into an impossible knot. He tossed it on Kieran’s lap.
“Untie that,” he said. “Take your time, but untie the whole thing.”
Kieran looked up to meet Taber’s gaze, confused at the order. But this was very obviously Ilya’s pet, and it would be a good idea to do what he said, regardless of how strange it sounded.
So Kieran turned his attention to the knot, studying the tangled mess to figure out where to start.
Taber sat down at the end of the bed, watching him silently.
It was a really complicated knot, and the longer Kieran worked on it, the more of his focus it required. Finally, he took a deep breath, sighing deeply as the tension left his body.
“Feel better?” Taber asked.
Kieran sighed again, putting the rope down. “She probably knows more ways to torture someone than any two other people combined.”
Taber shrugged. “Probably.”
“And she owns me.”
“I let my guard down. She was so nice. She talked to me. She, she promised me that everything would be okay. And I let my guard down. I believed her.”
“What do you think will happen now?” Taber asked neutrally.
“Gods,” Kieran whimpered. “I don’t know. I, I can’t… I can’t even imagine the ways she’ll hurt me.”
“So you think she’ll hurt you.”
Kieran looked up to meet Taber’s gaze. “She’s a symposiarch.”
“Yes, she is.”
“She has… There’s that room.”
“The training room, yes.”
“The things in that room…”
“Are not for you,” Taber interrupted.
“Who are they for?”
“Most of the time, for Rowyn and me,” Taber explained. “I’m a masochist. I like being hit. And Rowyn likes being tied up, and sometimes being treated pretty brutally when they get deep into their sessions. Cullen isn’t a masochist, and he had it kind of rough before Domina found him, so she doesn’t hit him, and only rarely restrains him.”
“No. And she won’t hit you, either. That’s not what she does. That’s not who she is.”
“But the symposium…”
“Have you ever been to her symposium?”
“Then how do you know what happens there?”
“My former Dominus…”
Taber shook his head. “Domina is not Dryas, Kieran.”
Kieran felt a spike of adrenaline shoot down his spine. Had Taber really called him by his first name? Out loud? But he was a helot, and Dryas was Spartan nobility. Even when alone, no helot felt comfortable enough taking that risk.
But Taber had said it, as casually as if he’d been referring to another helot.
“I’m telling you,” he said, seeing Kieran’s thoughts in his expression. “She’s not like the owners you’ve been exposed to. There’s a reason her symposium is so popular. Because it’s different than the others. She doesn’t harm people. She won’t hurt you.”
Kieran took a deep breath. “I’m scared.”
“I know. It’s scary at first. Waking up one day and discovering that you’re owned by a symposiarch is scary. But you saw the way she is with us. I’ve been here for five years. Cullen has been here for three. Rowyn’s been hers for ten years, before she even graduated from agoge. She’s never mistreated any of us, in all that time. Even if you can’t trust her yet, trust us.”
“What if I can’t please her? What if I can never be as comfortable as you and Cullen?”
“Do you know where Cullen came from?”
“It was right when Domina was under a lot of pressure from nobility to expand again. She got a call from another symposiarch, who ran a popular symposium on the other side of town. He offered her a deal that seemed too good to be true. He would give her 60% ownership of his symposium if he could operate under her brand. She would’ve also gotten 33% of all his profits.”
“Is that a lot?” Kieran asked.
“For just a name? Yeah, it seemed like a lot. Dominus thought it was a great idea, but something about him just rubbed Domina the wrong way. She met him, she toured his symposium early in the day, before it opened, and everything seemed fine, but she just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. And you could just see it in her face whenever they talked about him. Something about him just didn’t seem right, and it bothered her, but she couldn’t figure out what.”
“What did she do?” Kieran asked.
“She got guest passes for herself and Dominus under a different name, and we all went to the symposium unannounced. While her symposium was open. So he had no idea she was coming, and no reason to think she’d show up when she was expected to be running her own place.”
“She took you, too?”
Taber nodded. “You know how it is. Slaves can talk when free people aren’t around. They’d be more comfortable talking to Rowyn or me about how they were treated than they would to her or Dominus. That, and slaves can often go unseen. A lot of the time, people don’t pay attention to us. We could eavesdrop and observe in a way that she couldn’t. The free people would recognize her as soon as she walked in. But no one there would know me or Rowyn.”
“I didn’t know it was permitted to bring personal slaves to a symposium.”
“Different ones have different rules. And even when it’s allowed, it’s generally not a good idea, unless it’s a symposium like Domina’s. You can’t ever be sure what to expect.”
“Was she worried that you’d be mistreated?”
“Oh, definitely. She didn’t even want to bring us, at first. She really didn’t trust the symposiarch. Rowyn was the one who convinced her that it made the best business sense. And really, we both knew that, even if something were to happen, it wouldn’t be anything we couldn’t handle. Domina and Dominus would have to stay away from us most of the time, so no one would realize we’re theirs, but we knew they’d be watching out for us.”
Kieran wasn’t sure what to think about that. They still wanted to go, even knowing that something bad happening was a legitimate possibility. They would take that risk?
“As soon as we walked in, we all knew it was bad,” Taber continued. “The whole energy of the place felt off, and half of the helots were like zombies. The other half were crying, or screaming, or struggling, or begging to die. None of them wanted to be there. And none of the members cared. They seemed to like the fact that the helots were suffering. They got off on it.”
Taber sighed, lowering his eyes. “They brought Cullen out, naked, and tied him up in the center of the room. At first, he looked like a zombie. His face was blank, he didn’t react to anything. But when the symposiarch started beating him, he started yelling and cursing. There was so much anger there. I’d never seen anything like it before. I don’t think Domina had, either. I remember standing next to Rowyn, and I looked over to her. She was so still, unnaturally still, almost. And she was just staring. Like nothing else existed in the world, other than what was happening on that stage.
“It became a game for everyone. They wanted to break him. They wanted to beat the anger out of him. It was like he became the focus of the entire symposium. Everyone wanted to beat him.
“It took a long time, but they won. He started crying and begging them to stop. But instead of ending the game, they made it worse on him. I thought they were going to kill him. They might have, if Domina hadn’t stopped them.”
“Domina stopped them?” Kieran asked.
Taber nodded. “She was so angry. And as soon as everyone realized who she was, they looked like a bunch of scolded children. She had Dominus untie him, and told Rowyn and me to help get him to the car. She told the symposiarch she’d write him a check for Cullen, and that she’d be back the next day for his papers. She was buying him, and she didn’t give the symposiarch a choice in the matter. Everyone was too stunned to argue, and the symposiarch was too embarrassed to fight it. She bought Cullen without even knowing his name.”
“The next day, she went back for the papers, and right after, she called a reporter and publicly denounced the symposium. Of course, no one wanted to belong to a symposium denounced by Domina, so that symposiarch was out of business in a matter of weeks.”
Taber sighed heavily. “It took much longer for Cullen to heal. He was angry, he was scared, he wanted to hurt anyone who came close to him. He was more animal than man, and he tried to run away every chance he got. Domina had to keep him locked in his room or restrained at all times. Dominus thought he was beyond saving, that he just couldn’t heal from wounds that deep. But Domina never gave up on him. She said that even if she had to restrict his movements forever, she would make sure that he would never know anything but kindness and gentleness. Even when he turned 35, she refused to euthanize him or sell him.”
“What about freeing him?” Kieran asked.
But Taber shook his head. “Only the free people and the uneducated think like that. But it wouldn’t work in reality. It rarely ever does. In fact, it’s usually harder on the slaves than remaining under their owners’ power.”
“What do you mean?” Kieran asked. How could freeing a slave be harder than remaining a slave?
“Well, take Cullen. He’d been a slave all his life. He was brutally tortured for seventeen years at that symposium. What other life does he know? How would he survive on the streets? On his own? That’s the problem with freeing helots, you see. If you were freed tomorrow, you’d have to hold a job, you’d have to pay taxes, you’d have bills, you’d have to be a functioning member of society. Do you have any idea how to do any of that?”
Kieran shook his head, lowering his gaze. He’d never thought about that.
“And you’re still young. Cullen was almost 35. Imagine living with Dryas for fifteen years, spending a few months with Domina, and then being turned out on the street. You’d be completely lost. Freeing Cullen wouldn’t have helped him. It probably would’ve made it worse. Dominus suggested just putting him down.”
“Putting him down?” Kieran asked, incredulous.
“In a way, at the time, it was the kindest thing he could think of to do. Cullen didn’t seem like he was getting any better. He was just miserable all the time. There was no indication that he’d ever get better. Freeing him wasn’t an option, and selling him to the State would have just been cruel. There was no other option in Dominus’ mind. No way to take away his pain other than to just end it all.”
Kieran thought back to breakfast, the way Cullen always had some quip, the way he always had a smile behind his eyes. It was hard to imagine that man the way Taber described him.
“It took a long time, but eventually Cullen started to trust Domina. He started to trust that she wouldn’t hurt him. And he started to get more comfortable here.”
Taber leveled a steady gaze at Kieran. “The same will happen with you,” he said. “It will take time, and you’ll probably get more frustrated with yourself than she ever will be with you. But it’ll happen. You’ll be able to relax.”
Kieran sighed. He couldn’t imagine ever being comfortable around the intimidating woman.
That night, he sat in Rowyn’s seat again, and was again taken aback by the amount of food he was given, and the way Cullen and Taber seemed so at ease. The entire day had been spent trying to figure Charis out, trying to figure out what was expected of him, and growing increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t.
Charis noticed the exhaustion in his eyes. “Kieran? Are you alright?”
Kieran blushed, unnerved by the fact that she could see through his neutral façade. “Yes, Domina,” he replied quietly.
But she didn’t accept his answer. “What’s wrong?” she pressed.
And again, Kieran’s heart jumped. He’d lied to her, and she knew about it. She could punish him severely for such a thing.
“I’m sorry, Domina,” he murmured. “I think I’m just tired.”
She stared at him for a moment, studying him, then nodded, her expression making it clear that she knew he wasn’t telling the whole truth, but that she would accept his answer.
“Alright, love,” she said gently. “Why don’t you go ahead and go on to bed. Get some rest, alright?”
“Yes, Domina,” he replied, rising to his feet to obey her. He couldn’t help but be relieved. The idea of being alone, in his room, in a comfortable, warm bed, appealed to him.
He made his way into the hallway, then paused when he heard his name spoken in a tone they apparently didn’t think he could hear. Without thinking, he pressed against the wall in the hallway, listening to his conversation.
“We’ve got to do something with him, Charis,” Ilya said. “We can’t keep adopting strays. We’re going to run out of room.”
Charis scoffed. “This morning you were about to fly into a rage because of the way he was treated there. Now you’re implying we shouldn’t have taken him?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” Ilya told her. “But we also have to acknowledge that we can’t save them all. We just don’t have the room.”
“I’m happy to hear any alternative you may have.”
“Domina, what if you train him for the symposium?”
Kieran gasped at the voice that was neither Charis’ nor Ilya’s. It was Cullen’s. A slave, interjecting in an argument between his owners? Gods, what was he thinking?
“Or you could sell him to Lord Alexandris,” Cullen continued. Kieran didn’t miss the distinct lack of fear, or shouted reprimand. “He’s looking for another pleasure slave, isn’t he?”
“He is,” Ilya answered in a tone that wasn’t the least bit hostile, not even the least bit annoyed that the slave had spoken out of turn.
“He always says how great the slaves at the symposium are. I bet he’d pay a lot for him.”
“We don’t know how to train abused slaves for resale,” Ilya pointed out.
“You figured it out with me,” Cullen countered. Kieran felt his heart leap into his throat. Now he was actually arguing with his Dominus. “Domina figured it out with Rowyn when she was just a teenager. She could do it. And you could sell him to Lord Alexandris.”
There was a brief pause. “It’s not a hateful idea,” Charis relented. “Galen’s been looking for awhile, now. Kieran could be a good match for him. But before we can even consider that, we need to focus on getting Kieran past the abuse. No matter what happens, that has to come first. I’m not going to allow him to be sold, even to someone like Galen, until he’s able to handle it.”
Kieran’s heart plummeted from his throat to his toes, and he felt as if the breath had been knocked out of him.
Sold? They were talking about selling him?
But he’d only just gotten there! He still didn’t even have a hope of getting his bearings yet, and they were going to sell him?
Cruelty hurts worse when you’ve known kindness, that bitter voice inside him said.
The room started spinning, and the walls started closing in on him. He momentarily lost his balance and stumbled against the small end table beside him.
Silence came from the room, and in the hallway, the only sound Kieran could hear was the pounding of his heart.
A moment later, Cullen appeared in the hallway. “Well, hi,” he said cheerfully. “Come on in here.”
He didn’t give Kieran the chance to protest, instead taking him firmly by the arm and pulling him back into the room, where he saw Charis, Ilya, and Taber staring at him.
Oh gods, he had not only eavesdropped on a private conversation, but he’d disobeyed a direct order from his owner. Now their kindness would surely stop, and the only one he could blame for it was himself.
Panic-stricken, he dropped to his knees, pressing his forehead to the floor, trembling and shaking.
An eternity seemed to pass, and then, he felt a hand on him. Out of habit, he flinched violently, but the touch was gentle. The voice that called his name was equally gentle, but that did nothing but frighten him more.
“Kieran?” Charis said softly. “Look at me.”
Whimpering, Kieran forced his reluctant body to obey. All he wanted to do was stay there, on the floor, in that position, and wait for the beating to start. He didn’t want to look at her, he didn’t want to move, he didn’t want to see more of the kindness he didn’t deserve.
But his training overrode his reluctance, and he lifted his eyes to hers. There was no anger in her face as she watched him.
“Why didn’t you do as you were told?” she asked quietly.
Her question, with that soft, gentle tone, with all the confusion of the last two days, finally pushed him to his breaking point. Unable to keep her gaze, he collapsed again, abandoning the proper apology position and curling up in a fetal position on the floor. He didn’t even bother trying to keep the sobs in.
But the gentle hand never left him, and never lost its gentleness.
“Come on, love,” she said softly. “Stand up. Let’s go to your room.”
So she can punish you, the bitter voice sneered.
But he’d already disobeyed her once. Disobeying her a second time would make the punishment all the more terrible. His body acted without conscious thought, fueled by the fear of what was coming and what would make it worse.
Numbly, he allowed her to lead him to his room. Once inside, she closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed, pulling him to sit at her feet.
His heart was racing. What was she going to do to him? How was she going to hurt him? Gods, what was she going to do?
Desperate to do anything he could to ease the pain he knew was coming, he nuzzled her knee, moving quickly up her thigh, hoping that if he could reach her before she stopped him, he could distract her from the punishment.
“No, Kieran,” she said softly, a firm hand on his head.
And panic seized him. How was he supposed to enrich her life if she wouldn’t let him service her? How was he supposed to prove himself to be valuable to her?
She was going to sell him, and he’d have to go through all of this, all over again. He couldn’t handle it. He didn’t know what she wanted from him, he didn’t know how to serve her, he didn’t know how to make her happy.
Slaves who failed at making their owners happy were cruelly, brutally, savagely beaten. Or put down.
“Please, Domina,” he begged, clinging to her leg. “Please, please. I… I can’t… Please, Domina, I need…”
“Shh,” she murmured caressing his face. “It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you. You’re safe.”
For a long few minutes, he did nothing but cling to her, his head in her lap, crying. He didn’t bother trying to hide his feelings or regulate his emotions. He didn’t bother trying to censor himself. Somehow, he just couldn’t make himself care anymore.
For a long few minutes, she sat there, silently, gently caressing him, running her fingers through his hair. She didn’t speak, she didn’t try to silence him, she didn’t discourage his sobbing. She simply waited. And when he had cried himself out, she pulled him up on the bed beside her.
“You’re scared, Kieran,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “You’re terrified.”
It wasn’t a question, and he couldn’t deny it. More than that, he didn’t want to deny it anymore.
“Yes, Domina,” he whispered, unable to meet her gaze.
Despite the fear, he laughed. Why?
He had a million reasons to be afraid, and not one to calm his heart.
“You’ve gone through a lot of change in the last couple of days,” she said calmly. “Change is frightening. You’re not even used to us yet, and already we’re talking about selling you to someone else. It’s scary, isn’t it?”
“Come here, lie down with me.”
She leaned back, pulling him to lie down beside her. Gently, she took him into her arms.
“I can’t imagine what it feels like to live through what you’re living through,” she murmured, kissing his forehead. “I know it’s got to be hard to trust someone who owns you. Who has that kind of power over you. I can’t imagine what that must feel like.”
Sighing, he nuzzled closer to her, wanting to feel the intimacy she offered. Wanting to feel closeness to someone without being afraid of what they’d do to him.
“You’re going to be alright,” she continued. “I’m going to keep you safe. I’m going to teach you how to let go of the fear. You don’t have to live with it, Kieran. You just have to be taught how to let it go.”
He closed his eyes, burrowing his face in her neck. The warmth of her body was so comforting, so reassuring. That bitter voice inside him was still screaming, shouting about how much more her cruelty would hurt after such gentle kindness, but he was just too tired to care.
Spending every waking moment trying to figure out his new owners was exhausting.
Within minutes, he was asleep.