Ugh, I’ve battled with this part for months, now. I’ve been stuck on the final scene, and no matter how many times I rewrote it or how many tweaks I made to it, I just couldn’t get it right.
I’m still not completely happy with it, but it occurred to me that I could fiddle around with it for another six months and not be completely happy with it. At some point, you’ve just got to let it go. I still might tweak it a bit, I’m not sure. But at least it gets the point across.
Charis held Cullen’s hand tightly as she opened her bedroom door and led him inside. Ilya, who had been sitting on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, jumped to his feet.
“Cullen,” he said, a pained look on his face.
Charis held up a discreet hand, stopping him. She closed the door and turned to Cullen.
“What do you need?” she asked softly.
He hesitated, keeping his eyes lowered, not looking at either of them. For a long moment, he was silent, completely still, and Charis began to wonder if he would answer at all.
But then, he blinked hard, his brow furrowed, and parted his lips. “I need,” he whispered haltingly. “I… I need… to be… beaten.”
“Cullen,” Charis said. “My love, you’re already upset. Beating you could cause a lot of damage.”
She pulled his face down to look at her. “It could bring up a lot of things that took you a long time to heal from.”
“I need it,” he insisted, meeting her gaze.
“She’s right, Cullen,” Ilya put in. “You’re not a masochist. You won’t enjoy it. It’ll cause more harm than good.”
“I need it,” he repeated.
“Why?” Charis asked.
He took a long, deep breath, then let it out slowly. “I need to know I can survive it,” he whispered. “I… I need to know I’m stronger than it. Stronger than the pain.”
“Cullen,” Ilya murmured.
Finally, Cullen looked up and met his gaze. “And it has to be you.”
“Cullen, that is a bad idea, for so many reasons,” Charis protested.
Ilya nodded his agreement. “I’ve never beaten you before. I’ve never really even done much more than fuck you. I don’t know you the way Charis does.”
But Cullen shook his head. “Dominus, it has to be you. You… you took my peace. You have to be the one to give it back.”
He hesitated. “And I know it’ll be just pain. I know you’ll hurt me, I… I know you’ll hurt me badly.”
“Cullen,” Charis whispered.
“But I know you won’t cause me harm. You’ll make it real, and I’ll survive it, and I’ll know that it’s not as bad in reality as it is in my head. I know I’ll be safe.”
Ilya, uncertain, looked to Charis. She studied Cullen’s face for a long time, biting her lower lip, then sighed, deciding to trust him. She turned to Ilya. “How do you want him?” she asked softly.
He looked up to the O-rings that had been drilled into the ceiling in the middle of the room. “Here,” he said. “I’ll cuff his hands to these rings.”
Charis went to the chest at the foot of the bed and opened it, pulling out a pair of padded leather cuffs. “Take your tunic off, love,” she said gently to Cullen.
She didn’t miss the way his hand shook as he unhooked the clasp at his shoulder, and once more, she was consumed with doubt. As anxious as he was already, beating him could reopen all those old wounds. It could take him months to heal from it.
Ilya saw her expression as he approached the chest. A knowing look passed between them, and he looked through the various implements of pain while Charis cuffed Cullen’s wrists and chained him to the O-rings in the ceiling. Then, she stepped back, sitting at the foot of the bed, watching him.
His face was blank, his eyes glued to the floor, his hands chained above his head, naked and trembling, he looked uncomfortably similar to the way he did the night she’d met him.
Ilya pulled her attention as he grabbed a thick, heavy leather flogger from the chest. Charis approved of the choice. It was big, heavy enough to make quite an impact, and would undoubtedly leave bruises and welts, but it wouldn’t break skin and it wouldn’t cause anything more than superficial pain.
He read the concern in her face and matched it with his own. She leveled her gaze firmly at him.
The thing she loved most about him was his ability to understand her. They could have entire conversations with nothing but looks and facial expressions.
Her expression showed that she wanted Ilya to put Cullen into subspace as quickly as possible. Ilya read it easily and showed his agreement, signaling that he would follow her lead, if she could guide him in the best way to get Cullen to subspace.
Her position at the foot of the bed was perfect. With Cullen facing her, she could see his face, she could use her knowledge and familiarity with him to read his reactions, and she could wordlessly communicate that to Ilya, who stood behind Cullen.
It was a good plan. The best way to give Cullen what he said he needed.
She took a deep breath, watching as Ilya swung the flogger through the air, getting a feel for it. That’s one advantage he had. He was very much a sadist, and Taber was very much a masochist. Which meant that Ilya had a lot of practice and experience in the field of causing pain.
When he was ready, he looked to Charis. She nodded, and he squared off behind Cullen, winding up and bringing the flogger down hard across Cullen’s back.
The blank expression disappeared from Cullen’s face as he tensed and grimaced with the pain.
After the second swing, defiant anger flashed across his face, and Charis’ eyes flitted to Ilya.
He stopped midswing, taking a very small step backward. Once more, he wound up, and started again. But this time, it was just a little softer.
Slow, Charis thought as she looked to Ilya, knowing that he could read her thoughts on her face. Start slow.
Ilya adjusted his rhythm and intensity, working to cause just the right amount of pain. He knew that the right amount of pain would cause Cullen’s brain to release a cocktail of chemicals. Endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine.
The rush of these chemicals would cause a sort of trance, where Cullen would be hyper aware and hyper focused, the rest of the world melting away. Sensation would be heightened, pain would become pleasure.
Ilya knew how to bring about that state. He was very good at it.
When he was playing with a masochist.
Cullen was in no way a masochist. He hated pain. He feared it. It had been used as a weapon against him for so long, there was no way to undo the damage that had been done.
This was playing with fire, no doubt about it. One wrong move could send Cullen right back to his days at the symposium.
Ilya was good, but was he that good? Could he pull this off without reopening all the old wounds that Charis had spent years closing?
He paced himself, watching Charis, seeing his doubts mirrored in her eyes. She wasn’t any more thrilled about this than he was. She was right in front of Cullen, she was staring at his face. No doubt she was reliving the night they’d found him.
He remembered what she had looked like that night, the way she’d watched him, her entire body tense, her face like stone. She’d seen the pain on his face then, just as she was seeing it now.
But he knew that the Spartan in her had already shut all that down. She didn’t have time to be upset by it now. She had to make sure that Ilya knew what to do. She had to guide him. If she failed, if Ilya failed, Cullen would be the one to suffer for it.
Slowly, gradually, with Charis’ help, Ilya increased the intensity of the beating. Cullen, who had been mostly silent, began crying out with each hit.
And still, Charis urged him on. Now she knew what Cullen wanted, why he’d insisted on this. She could see the release on his face, underneath the pain. She understood what he had meant when he said he wanted to be beaten.
He cried out with every blow, squirming freely, his eyes closed, his entire world confined to that moment, in that room, with Charis in front of him and Ilya behind him. They’d done it right, Ilya had executed it perfectly. Cullen was in subspace, deep and high, the intensity of the beating driving him even deeper.
Despite the pain of the beating, she could see the stress falling from his face. He started to let go of the damage, let go of the fear, let go of the past. He wasn’t even capable of holding on to it, anymore.
By the time she finally told Ilya to stop, Cullen was trembling and panting. She rose to her feet, making a slow circle around him, examining Ilya’s handiwork with silent approval.
Cullen’s back, ass, and the backs of his thighs were red and flaming, with small welts forming. He would be bruised and sore the next day, and he was deep in subspace.
It was perfect, and Charis smiled up at Ilya, then uncuffed Cullen. Gently, they led him to the bed, and lied down on either side of him, soothing him and kissing him as he came down from the high.
But they weren’t done with him. Charis claimed his lips in a passionate kiss while Ilya kissed his way down Cullen’s body.
Cullen was soft and pliant, yielding completely to them as they stroked and kissed him. Ilya reached his waist, stopping just short of Cullen’s cock, deliberately teasing him.
And sure enough, their teasing soon elicited a soft, frustrated whine from the man between them, his cock growing under their touch. Ilya responded to the whine by wrapping his hand around Cullen’s cock, stroking slowly.
Cullen gasped, squirming, unconsciously thrusting into Ilya’s hand. Once he was completely hard, Charis grabbed his shoulders, rolling him on top of her. He gasped when he felt her guide him inside her.
His eyes shot open and he looked to her. It wasn’t often that she let him inside her. She smiled up at him reassuringly, holding him still as Ilya positioned himself behind him.
“Hold still, love,” Charis murmured, looking up at him. His eyes closed and his lips parted, gasping as Ilya pushed the head of his cock into him. Slowly, he sunk all the way to the hilt, filling Cullen completely.
Ilya held still, while Charis pulled Cullen toward her, urging him to thrust into her. As he thrust into her, he fucked himself on Ilya.
Still floating in the subspace, his skin still burning and tingling from the beating, it didn’t take long for Cullen to become overwhelmed by the sensations.
Moaning softly, his arms buckled, no longer able to support his weight. He collapsed on top of Charis, burying his face in her hair as Ilya took over.
The taller man drove his cock into Cullen harder, pushing Cullen into Charis with each thrust.
Cullen whimpered and trembled, clinging to Charis as Ilya fucked him. Charis put her arms around him. “Cum when you’re ready, love,” she murmured, glancing meaningfully to Ilya.
Ilya nodded, understanding her message. She wanted him to cum either at the same time or right after Cullen did.
Easy enough to do. He adjusted his position, tilting his hips as he thrust into Cullen. This position would put more direct pressure on Cullen’s prostate, making him cum more quickly.
It had the effect he was hoping for. Within a matter of minutes, Cullen’s whimpers began to get louder, his hands balled into fists.
“That’s it,” Charis whispered into his ear. “Cum for me, pet.”
Cullen cried out, his entire body tense, as the pleasure exploded through him. Gripping Charis as hard as he could, his body bucked and writhed, completely independent of conscious thought.
And when he was spent, he burrowed his face down even deeper and began to cry.
Ilya pounded madly into him, until a moment later, he moaned with his own orgasm. He quickly and silently pulled out of Cullen, looking down at the sobbing man.
Without a word, he got off the bed and turned to leave.
“No, wait,” Cullen protested, lifting his head up just enough for his words to be heard. “Stay, Dominus. Please.”
“Of course,” Ilya replied softly, lying back down on the bed. Charis turned, rolling Cullen over with her, until his body was sandwiched between theirs.
None of them spoke. Ilya and Charis simply held Cullen, comforting him.
Cullen was notorious for keeping his emotions bottled up, or outright denying their existence, preferring to deflect with humor. It took a lot to finally push him to the point of letting his feelings out.
Now that they had, they didn’t want to interrupt it.
After a few minutes, Cullen’s sobs quieted, and he lied calmly between them. Ilya stayed there a moment longer, then sat up.
“I’m going to go release the boys from the room,” he said quietly. Charis nodded, running her fingers through Cullen’s hair.
Once Ilya was gone, she pulled away just enough to be able to see Cullen’s face. “How do you feel?” she asked.
“I… I don’t know,” he answered softly. “I think good.”
Charis smiled, kissing his forehead. “You survived.”
He smiled back at her, reaching up to touch her face. The look he gave her was one of pure vulnerability, trust, and love. “I survived,” he agreed.
“You’ll be sore tomorrow.”
He chuckled softly. “I’m sore now.”
She grinned. “You’ve got some bruises forming.”
Cullen nodded, moving closer to her. He could already feel the burn of the beating moving down deep into his muscles. It would be sore for a few days, but it was a good kind of sore. It would serve to remind him that the pain of his past couldn’t hurt him.
Charis lied there with him until lunch. Then, after the meal, when Kieran, Rowyn, and Ilya were lounging in the den, she walked in.
“I’ve got to go to the agora,” she announced.
“For what?” Ilya asked.
“Hyacinthia is next week. I’ve got to arrange for the deliveries to the symposium. Rowyn, come on.”
“Yes, Domina,” Rowyn replied, rising to his feet.
Then she met Kieran’s gaze. “Do you want to come, too?” she asked.
Kieran’s heart leapt in his chest. Go with her? To the agora?
“Yes, Domina,” he answered, rising to his feet.
“Hurry, then. Go put your shoes on.”
His heart raced with excitement as he bounded up the stairs to his room.
He was going to accompany his Domina to the agora.
He’d never been to an agora before. Hell, he’d never even left the house where he lived. When he was owned by the breeder, he wasn’t allowed to leave the property, and Dryas had never even let him outside.
But now he was actually going to go out? To the agora?
He quickly pulled his shoes on and met Charis and Rowyn in the garage. “Get in,” she commanded, gesturing to the passenger side door.
“The front seat?” he asked.
His hands were shaking as he jumped in and buckled his seatbelt. He could barely contain his enthusiasm as Charis started the car and pulled out of the garage.
But then, as Charis pulled out of the front gate, the excitement turned to nervousness.
There would be people at the agora. A lot of people.
What if he got lost? What if he did something wrong?
It shouldn’t have surprised him when Charis, sensing the change in his energy, put a reassuring hand on his thigh. “It’s alright,” she told him. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Yes, Domina,” he replied.
Still, the farther they got from the house, the more nervous he got. Maybe he’d made a mistake.
He sighed. There was no going back now. He might as well find something to keep his mind off of it.
His thoughts turned to Cullen, who hadn’t come down for lunch, but stayed in Charis’ room. He hadn’t seen the man since that morning.
“Domina?” he asked timidly.
“Is Cullen alright?”
She flashed him a warm smile. “Yes, love,” she answered. “He’s just fine.”
“May I ask what happened?”
Charis sighed. “Ilya needed to help undo some of the damage in Cullen’s mind.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s complicated. I mean, no helot truly has a happy childhood. They’re given the bare minimum to keep them healthy. Then, they’re either sold to symposia or to private citizens.”
“Or the State?” Kieran asked. He remembered vividly Aktaion’s constant threats to sell the young helots to the State if they could not meet his expectations.
“The State?” Charis said, surprised. “At 16? No.”
“I’m sorry, Domina. My breeder, Sir Euphemis, would often threaten to sell us to the State if he wasn’t happy with us.”
“I think every breeder says that,” Rowyn answered.
Charis shook her head. “Some people,” she grumbled. Then, she glanced to Kieran. “No, that was just a scare tactic,” she explained. “Helots owned by the State are bred very differently, and for very different things, than helots owned by private citizens. They don’t care about appearance or bloodlines. Physical size and strength are paramount. You’re my height, and you’re skinny as hell. The State wouldn’t pay a tenth of what you’re worth.”
“But they pay for helots when they turn 35.”
“Yes. They pay two hundred drachmae,” she said.
“Two hundred?” Kieran asked, incredulous.
She nodded. “Two hundred. I paid forty-five thousand for you. If I were to sell you to the State when you turn thirty-five, they would pay two hundred drachmae. That’s it.”
“Why bother at all?” Kieran wondered. “Why would the State bother buying helots for that little? What do they use the helots for?”
Charis’ jaw went tense. “We’ve gotten off topic,” she pointed out. “We were talking about Cullen. So helots have rough childhoods, and then are sold. Some are lucky, and are purchased by kind individuals or by symposia that don’t condone abuse. Cullen was not that lucky.”
“He was beaten at the symposium, right?” Kieran asked.
Charis nodded. “All of the helots there were. And they were kept in absolutely horrid living conditions. Cages no larger than dog kennels. Hardly any food. They would be forced to fight each other for water, and the members of the symposium would place bets on the combatants.”
She sighed. “It was rough. I wished I could’ve taken them all out of there.”
“What made you choose Cullen?”
“I didn’t choose him,” she corrected. “Not really. I wasn’t intending to buy any of them. I was planning to have his symposium shut down completely. But Cullen… I could see that he wasn’t fully broken.”
“He was angry,” Rowyn said softly.
“He was,” she agreed. “I’d never seen anything like that before. It was like a terrible car accident. Morbid, gruesome, and disturbing, but you just can’t look away.”
“Taber told me you stopped them.”
“Yes, I did. Completely without thinking. I was just so angry at them. I couldn’t even see straight. And when they broke through Cullen’s anger, when they beat the fight out of him, I just saw red. I could see them destroying him. Not his body, but his mind.”
She sighed. “But I was too late.”
Kieran was confused. “Too late? But you saved him.”
“He’d already spent almost 20 years there,” she said. “The kind of damage that does to someone’s mind… There’s no fixing that.”
“But you did fix it, didn’t you? I mean, he’s better now.”
“Yes, he’s better now. But as you’ve seen, it doesn’t take much to open all of that up again. Usually, when it happens, he’ll shut down for days. This time, since Ilya was the one to do it, he could help speed up that process.”
She took a deep breath. “But no one can survive that much pain, for that long, without carrying a piece of it with them for the rest of their life. It’ll always haunt them, and it always haunts Cullen.”
Kieran thought of the vibrant, cheerful, irreverent man, who always seemed to have a joke to say and a smile on his face. It was such a stark contrast to the tense, quiet, stiff man who had sat silently on the windowsill, not wanting to be touched.
And then he thought of the day Ilya had pushed Charis, and the darkness he’d seen in Cullen’s eyes. That darkness had surprised him, then. Now, he better understood where the darkness came from, and why it was there.
No one can survive that much pain, for that long, without carrying a piece of it with them for the rest of their life.
“We’re here,” Charis declared, pulling into a large parking lot. “Stay close. Rowyn and I are well known here, but you’re not, and many of these people are not accustomed to interacting with slaves.”
“Yes, Domina,” he said, getting out of the car and falling into place at her side.
They walked through the parking lot, to a large, open shopping complex. There seemed to be a main entrance, of sorts, a very wide walkway between two buildings. The entire complex was more or less rectangular, lined by buildings, with kiosks, vendors, and performers in between. It opened up in the center, revealing a large grass field, bordered by dozens of food and drink vendors.
Children played in the field, practicing gymnastics or sparring. People sat in the grass, having a picnic, or simply enjoying the sun.
The place was massive, and intimidating.
It was crowded, loud, and everything seemed to be moving so fast. Children dashed in front of Kieran, their parents calling after them. People bumped into him, or stared at him as they walked by.
He realized that he and Rowyn were the only ones he could see that wore slave tunics. No wonder some of the people stared at him. But the way they stared made him uncomfortable, and he instinctively moved closer to his owner.
Charis didn’t seem bothered by the crowd at all. She walked confidently through, smiling at the people who called her name.
She certainly was well known there, by both vendors and the general public. People moved out of the way for her, vendors greeted her, citizens smiled at her, everyone seemed to know her.
But then again, Kieran supposed he shouldn’t really be surprised by that. Long before the night she bought him, he knew the name Charis Athanasiadi. It made sense that others would know her name, as well.
“Rissa!” a voice called loudly.
Kieran was surprised when both Charis and Rowyn stopped immediately, scanning the crowd for the source of the voice. He realized that Rissa must have been a nickname used by a close friend. There could be no other reason Charis would’ve stopped for it. Especially when everyone else who had called out to her received a polite wave and warm smile, but she’d kept walking.
It didn’t take her long to find the source. And when she did, a bright smile broke out on her face.
“Meta!” she cried, hurrying to the other side of the walkway.
A beautiful woman with long, auburn hair smiled back at her, and hugged her tightly.
Kieran couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when he noticed the man standing quietly behind Meta, wearing a slave tunic and holding a wine glass.
At least there was another slave there.
The man greeted Rowyn with a hug, then gave a small smile and nodded to Kieran. Kieran blushed, then nodded back, moving closer to Charis.
“Oh!” Meta exclaimed, pulling away from Charis as she noticed Kieran. “Is this Kieran? He’s pretty!”
Charis chuckled, putting a hand on the small of Kieran’s back, gently pushing him forward. “Yes, this is Kieran,” she said. “Kieran, this is Lady Meta Tsaldari. She’s my oldest friend.”
“It’s a pleasure, my Lady,” Kieran murmured, blushing madly.
“Oh, he’s adorable, Charis,” Meta said, grinning. “Look how cute he is when he blushes!”
Kieran didn’t think it possible, but his face flamed even hotter, and he lowered his gaze, smiling shyly.
“Well, Kieran, this is my slave, Cavan,” Meta said, taking the wine glass from him and sipping from it.
“Hi,” Kieran whispered, his voice barely audible.
Meta laughed. “Absolutely adorable. The shy ones always are. Rowyn, darling, it’s so good to see you.”
“Likewise, my Lady,” he returned easily. Kieran was stunned by how comfortable and at ease Rowyn was in the presence of Spartan nobility.
“Where are Alessa and Alec?” Charis asked.
“Oh, they’re at home, with Nikolai. I wanted some time to myself, for a change.”
Charis grinned playfully. “Trouble in paradise?”
“No, not at all,” Meta answered, taking another sip. “Motherhood is great fun. It’s just that I could never do it sober.”
Charis laughed, and Meta glanced around. “Where’s Ilya?” she asked.
“He’s at home, too. With the others.”
“Good, come drink with me. We’ll let the men stay home and babysit.”
“I wish,” Charis replied. “I’ve got to organize some deliveries for Hyacinthia.”
“Can’t Elan handle that? Or Corinne?”
“Corinne is still training,” Charis explained. “And this is only her second festival. Elan is the only one who knows what we need, and a few of the newer vendors aren’t comfortable dealing with him yet.”
Meta rolled her eyes. “Seriously? Again? I swear, as much as the perioikoi bitch about us owning slaves, they sure as hell never want to interact with them at any level. Or acknowledge any sort of authority or autonomy in them.”
She turned and looked up to the dark-haired slave behind her. “How many times have you dealt with that now with the kids?” she asked him. “Two? Three?”
“Seems like more than that, Domina,” he answered.
Meta rolled her eyes again. “Alessa and Alec started preschool last month,” she explained to Charis. “I have him on the list as an authorized guardian. I signed for him when I enrolled the kids in the school. I checked with the office manager, to make sure there would be no issue if he needed to come pick them up. Nikolai and I work late all the time, so Cavan has the authority to come and pick them up. Which I explained to them. I used really small words. I even brought him with me, so they’d know his face, as well as his name. But do you think it matters? Of course not.”
“Wait, they wouldn’t let Cavan take the kids?”
“Three times, now!” Meta exclaimed. “At least! He’s had to call me, and I’ve had to call the office and chew every single one of them a new asshole. And it’s a perioeci run school! Remember at agoge, when we were kids, and Ilya would come to pick me up for festivals and holidays? That was never an issue. Father put him on the list, and they never tried to stop him. They’d just ask for his ID card, and that was it. Spartans never have an issue with helots making decisions or having authority. Only the perioikoi do. Oh, but we’re the ones mistreating helots. Because that’s a thing that makes sense.”
Charis shrugged. “It’s frustrating as hell. But I’ve only been having trouble with two of the vendors. And I think, once Hyacinthia is over, it’ll sort of sink in for them that Elan can handle all of that stuff. I put him in charge for a reason.”
“That’s exactly my point,” Meta said. “Like, I put Cavan in charge for a reason. I gave him the authority to pick up the kids for a reason. Ugh, I just have to make it through another year, and then they’ll go to agoge, and it’ll be run by Spartans, and we won’t have any of these ridiculous problems. Are any of your vendors run by Spartans?”
“A couple of them are owned by Spartans,” Charis answered. “But the ones making the deliveries are perioikoi.”
Meta shook her head. “It’s all just nonsense,” she said, taking another drink of her wine.
“You’ll get no argument from me, there. Are you going to be here for awhile?”
“I’m not sure. I think we might go catch a movie. I’m desperate to see something that doesn’t have dancing penguins in it.”
Charis laughed. “Take advantage of the opportunity, then. I’ve got to go. I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”
Meta nodded. “Tomorrow.”
They hugged once more, then Charis led Kieran and Rowyn away, back through the crowds.
After a moment, she stopped at one of the buildings. “Here, we are,” she said.
Kieran hurried to open the door for her, and they walked inside.
The first thing Kieran noticed was the smell. It was amazing! Sweet and inviting, chocolate and cinnamon.
Then, he noticed the tables and chairs set throughout the front of the store. Many people were sitting there, drinking out of steaming cups or eating off of delicate black and white plates. Even more were standing in two lines on either side of the store. The place was crowded, the lines were long, but it was surprisingly quiet and relaxing. Nothing like the crowds outside.
The front counter ran the whole length of the store. On one side, there was a menu with many drinks and food items that could be ordered and eaten there. On the other side was a large display shelf, with more types of chocolate than Kieran even knew existed.
Charis walked to the front of the store, where an aging perioeci man stood, assisting his employees as needed. But he stopped when he saw Charis approach.
“Lady Athanasiadi!” he greeted cheerfully.
Charis smiled warmly as she approached. “Hello, Darren. How’ve you been?”
“Wonderful! Just wonderful! But please, how may I help you? Are you here about your order?”
Kieran stopped listening, his eyes fixated on the countless varieties of chocolate on display. All different colors, shapes, textures, it was amazing. He couldn’t help but wonder if it tasted as good as it looked. If it tasted as good as the store smelled.
“Kieran?” Charis asked, startling him out of his thoughts. He looked up, then blushed when he saw both Charis and Darren watching him. “Have you ever had chocolate before?”
“Lord Roubanis never allowed me to eat anything other than his leftovers.”
She cursed. “Fucking bastard,” she growled. “Well, you’re not with him anymore. Go ahead and pick something.”
She gestured to the display shelves. “Pick something. Anything you want.”
Kieran looked to the shelves, suddenly overwhelmed by how many different kinds there were. How was he supposed to pick?
“Start simple,” Rowyn suggested quietly. “Something plain.”
Kieran looked up to the older man and saw the soft, knowing smile, and immediately realized that Rowyn had once been in this exact position. He knew exactly what Kieran was thinking.
He nodded, grateful to Rowyn for the guidance, and made his choice.
Charis opened her purse to pay, but Darren waved her off.
“No, no charge,” he said.
“Darren, you have to let me pay you.”
“It’s his first,” Darren pointed out. “His first is special.”
Charis smiled, then closed her purse. “Thank you. Should we go to the back?”
“Yes, absolutely. Come to my office. We’ll talk business.”
She turned to Rowyn. “Stay close,” she said. “You can go outside if you want, but don’t go far.”
And with that, she walked behind the counter and followed Darren out of sight.
And Kieran suddenly realized that he and Rowyn, two helots, were left unattended in a public place.
He looked around. Most of the people in the store seemed to be trying very hard not to stare at them. None of them seemed to be guarding them or supervising them.
Kieran felt a thick pressure in his chest as he realized that none of them would try to stop them from running away.
But running away, the thing every helot dreams of, suddenly seemed less attractive than it had in the past.
Because now, he was owned by Charis, who was kind to him and treated him like a person.
Like a man.
Of course, it was extremely risky for a helot to make any kind of escape attempt, and basically unheard of for a helot to make it to Epirus from so far south. Chances are, they wouldn’t make it. They’d be caught and brutally, publicly slaughtered.
And now that he was with Charis, was it really worth that risk? Would he be better off staying with her?
And if he was better off staying with her, what are the chances that she would keep him? What if she sold him right back to someone like Dryas?
What if he never got another opportunity like this?
He glanced over to see that Rowyn was standing very still, watching him with a peculiar look on his face.
Waiting, Kieran realized, to see if he would decide to run.
But why wasn’t Rowyn running?
Ah, but that was obvious, Kieran knew the answer before his mind had even finished formulating the question.
Rowyn had belonged to Charis for ten years. Any fears or worries about being sold were likely long gone. It obviously wasn’t worth the risk for him.
“Well?” Rowyn asked expectantly.
The question caught Kieran off-guard. “Well, what?”
“What have you decided? Are you going to try to run or not?”
He didn’t bother lowering his voice or trying to hide his words. He spoke in his regular speaking voice, and a number of patrons and employees within earshot turned to watch them.
Kieran felt the blood rushing in his ears. “No,” he answered quietly, almost ashamed.
What kind of helot passed up an opportunity like this one?
What was wrong with him?
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Rowyn said suddenly, as if he’d heard Kieran’s thoughts. “Come on, let’s go outside.”
Dumbly, Kieran followed the older man, his fingers shaking and his heart pounding at the thought of being outside, in a public place, unrestrained and unsupervised.
And yet, even though all reason and common sense screamed at him to run, he stayed by Rowyn’s side.
“Not the tables,” Rowyn said, leading Kieran past a cluster of picnic tables. “Just opens the door for too much trouble if someone else decides they want to sit there. We’ll find a spot on the grass.”
Kieran nodded, glancing toward the entrance of the agora as they walked out into the clearing, picking a spot in clear sight of the chocolate shop and far enough out of the way that they wouldn’t be bothered.
“You’re hating yourself for not running,” Rowyn declared as he settled down on the grass. “Aren’t you?”
“It feels so strange,” Kieran admitted, sitting down and pulling a blade of grass from the ground. “I feel like I should want to run, but I don’t.”
“Domina has that effect.”
“But there’s no guarantee I’m still going to belong to Domina tomorrow.”
“No, there isn’t. You already know her well enough, though, to know that even if she sells you, she’s going to make sure you go to someone like her.”
“Right, but how many people are like her?”
“You just met Lady Tsaldari,” Rowyn pointed out. “Do you think she’s cruel to Cavan?”
“No, but she’s Domina’s best friend.”
“All of Domina’s friends are like that. All of the members of her symposium are like that.”
Kieran looked up to Rowyn. “They are?”
Rowyn grinned. “Do you know why her symposium became so exclusive and popular?” he asked. “The secret to her success?”
“What is it?”
“She only grants membership to people who don’t beat or abuse their slaves,” Rowyn explained. “People who are kind, and compassionate, and good. Who, as she says, bring honor to the Spartan race. And she’s unique among symposiarchs because she was already wealthy when she started. So she didn’t need members. She could afford to say no to anyone she wanted.”
Rowyn leaned forward. “It was the only symposium where money didn’t matter. A wealthy Spartan who didn’t fit her ideals couldn’t buy their way in. Money made no difference. You don’t get much more arrogant than a wealthy Spartan, and arrogant people don’t like being told no. The first time she told a Spartan nobleman he couldn’t join, she sealed her success.”
Kieran thought of an entire symposium full of people who didn’t beat slaves. What would it feel like to be in a room of people that he didn’t have to fear?
“Domina is very used to saying no,” Rowyn continued. “If she sells you, she will say no to anyone that she doesn’t think would be a perfect fit. She won’t let anyone she doesn’t trust have you.”
“Still,” Kieran said, fiddling nervously with his blade of grass. “It feels like I should want to run.”
“Well, sure,” Rowyn replied. “You’ve spent your entire life fantasizing about it. And this is the first time you’ve ever been left alone like this. Of course you’ll entertain the idea. And of course you’ve been conditioned to want to do it.”
“Do you ever feel it?”
Rowyn hesitated suddenly, lowering his gaze. “Sometimes.”
That hit Kieran like a hammer to his chest. Even Rowyn, who had been with Charis for ten years, who seemed to have the most unshakeable faith in her, still had his doubts?
“It’s not what you think,” Rowyn said quickly when he noticed Kieran’s expression. “Of course I trust her. But I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“You think she’ll sell you to the State?”
Rowyn furrowed his brow. “Sell me to the… Why do you think she’d do that?”
“That’s what happens, isn’t it? When helots turn 35?”
“You think that automatically happens? That all slaves are just automatically sold when they turn 35?”
Rowyn let out a long sigh, and suddenly looked very sad. “No,” he murmured. “That’s not what’s supposed to happen. It’s not what usually happens.”
“Then what happens?”
He gestured to himself. “You’re looking at it. Domina still loves me and cares for me, and I still love her and serve her. I have value to her, both as a helot and as a man.”
“For how long, though?”
“Ten years and counting.”
“But you fear that she’ll eventually get tired of you?”
“Of course not,” he snapped, the hint of an edge to his voice. It was the same edge Kieran had heard when he’d been angry with Ilya.
Kieran lowered his head in surrender, letting the subject drop. Obviously, he’d touched on something deep.
But Rowyn took a deep breath, consciously letting go of the tension. “No, I’m not worried about that,” he said quietly.
“I’m 46,” Rowyn said. “I’ve still got time, but eventually I’m going to get older. My health isn’t always going to be great. And eventually, my medical bills are going to exceed what her insurance will cover.”
“Then she’ll pay for it herself.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Eventually it’ll become a bad thing,” he explained. “She’ll keep paying long after she should let me go. She’ll bankrupt herself before deciding to put me down.”
“You’re worried that she won’t kill you?”
Rowyn shrugged. “Everyone dies eventually. I’m not going to live forever. I’m going to get old. My body will start shutting down. One day, it’ll just be my time to go. I don’t want her to go broke trying to keep me here. After everything she’s done for me, I’m not going to be that kind of burden on her. I’ll try to run before it ever gets to that point.”
“But if you’re old and sick, how far do you think you’ll get?”
“Not far at all. I know I’ll be caught. The point is that I’ll be executed immediately, and Domina won’t ever have to make the decision to put me down.”
Kieran didn’t know what to think about that. Rowyn was going to try to escape to protect his owner? What did that even look like?
“Stop looking at me like I’m insane,” Rowyn chided, smiling. “I’m not the only one. Almost a quarter of all escape attempts are old or sick slaves who would rather be executed than watch their owners lose everything to keep them alive.”
Kieran’s jaw dropped. “You’re not serious.”
But Rowyn nodded. “The world you know is not the world that most people live in. Most people don’t hurt slaves for fun. Most people don’t kill us or send us off to be tortured when we turn 35. And Domina and her friends are far from the only good people out there.”
“Not everyone is lucky enough to be owned by a good person,” Kieran pointed out.
To his surprise, Rowyn laughed. “You think I’m not intimately familiar with that concept?”
“You certainly seem pretty lucky.”
“How old am I, Kieran?”
“And how long have I been owned by Domina?”
“So how old was I when she bought me?”
Kieran didn’t know why that hadn’t occurred to him before. “You were already 35 when Domina bought you?”
“I was 36.”
“Who owned you before that?”
“Someone unpleasant. It doesn’t matter. The point is that you’ve only been exposed to a very narrow way of seeing things. The reality is much bigger.”
“So you’re okay with being her slave?” Kieran challenged. “You’re totally happy with it?”
Rowyn shrugged. “Is anyone ever really happy being a slave?” he asked. “Then again, is anyone ever really happy? Your former Dominus isn’t a slave. Would you say he’s happy?”
Kieran shook his head.
“Exactly,” Rowyn continued. “Freedom does not guarantee happiness. No, my current situation isn’t perfect. But I’m owned by a beautiful, kind, intelligent woman who loves me and respects me. I’m in a position where I can make a real difference in the lives of other helots. How many people get to say that, Kieran? Spartan, helot, perioeci, how many get to actually do something that matters? That makes me happy. Domina makes me happy. Cullen, Taber, Elan, the symposium, everyone who lives and works there, they all make me happy.”
“But,” Kieran whispered. “But you’re still just her slave, Rowyn. That’s all you’ll ever be.”
Rowyn nodded. “You’re right. That’s all the world will ever see me as.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“I am. Because she’s my world, and to her, I’ve never been just a slave.”