Some four weeks later, the army was on the move, and a late winter storm in the mountain pass lent misery to the march. Shivering, Black slogged along with his arms wrapped around himself. His fur-lined boots had been long since soaked, and the waterlogged snow seemed to drag at his every step. He did not complain; the rest of the men were just as miserable, whether slave or free soldier. Only the leaders rode above it all in their vehicles.
Beside him, Black felt Rem stumble and go down to his knees. Black stopped and turned back to the boy, going against the flow of humanity to drag him up. The boy leaned against him, gasping with effort, and Black cursed under his breath. The boy was too soft for a journey such as this. He should have been left back at winter headquarters.
Rem shook with cold, misery, and exhaustion. Black wrapped his arm around the boy’s waist. “Not much farther, boy. We will make camp soon.” He certainly hoped so.
Rem seemed to gain some sort of strength from his words, though, and that was all that counted. They walked together and shared body heat as best possible.
Black could only give a sigh of relief when he saw Mailyn raise her hand and order a halt. He pulled Rem to the side, and they waited for Mailyn’s personal caravan to catch up. As it parked in the middle of the emerging encampment, they huddled on the lee side of it, trying to get out of the wind. Although not allowed to assist in the setup of the camp, they were to be no place else when she returned.
The other slaves slowly gathered, and for once there were no arguments or quarrels of status or place. They were all too miserable to care; indeed they even moved closer to each other in an effort to warm themselves.
Black hung his head into his crossed arms, trying to warm his face, and consciously relaxed his body, knowing he would be warmer that way. Gods, he hated this damn place. The knowledge that day by day they came closer to Tranaden ate at him, fed his fears. He squeezed his eyes shut more tightly, trying to force away the images in his minds of the horrors of his capture, the day his world came crashing down and his slavery had begun.
He could not shake the feeling that fate was not done with him and the fear that he would again encounter that
man. The commander. The monster that, before Jaden’s very eyes, had crushed his captain’s throat with one hand. The thought brought nothing but that irrational fear he could not seem to control.
It was a mere two days later that his fear became reality. After the descent from the chill mountains, the warm climate and rich beauty of Tranaden was a welcome relief to Mailyn’s forces. But Black kept his eyes down and his attention focused on each step that took him closer to a place he had no wish to go. His closed his eyes and heart to the lush surroundings that so pleased those around him. He could feel nothing but hatred and a quivering awareness of...something -- a sense of change that left him ill at ease.
A large contingent of Tranaden’s army and those hated machines met Mailyn’s army at the border. Black could only shudder at the sight of those soldiers’ uniforms. They were escorted to the palace with little ceremony and no talk. The palace was a formidable structure built into the side of one of the mountains so that it loomed over the valley below. Mailyn and a small contingent, including Black and Rem, were allowed within the great walls themselves.
Black shuddered as he heard the massive gates shut behind them with an audible boom
, trapping them within.
Hours later, Black could feel his mistress’s impatience from where he knelt beside her, his head down in proper submissive pose. Rem knelt, trembling, beside him, his cheek swelling from one of Mailyn’s fists -- a tangible sign of her frustration. Earlier that day, they had at last been escorted within the palace to meet with the emperor of Tranaden, where they had been kept waiting most of the day, something that was not putting Mailyn in a good frame of mind. They had just been informed that they would be attending the evening feast first and meeting with the emperor afterward.
Mailyn and Sayra silently fumed, though their faces bore no expression at all. The opulence of their surroundings seemed to do nothing to distract the two women, though Black had not been able to resist subtly eyeing the glories of the waiting room.
The stone beneath his knees was the finest marble, inlaid in places with the emperor’s crest of the wolf, reminding Black all too well of the emperor’s commander -- the Wolf of Tranaden. Gold and black marble crisscrossed the great expanse of the floor in linear patterns, softening the vastness. The dark furniture was utterly masculine and huge in its design, ornate carvings prominent on the legs. Soaring ceilings arched overhead, while snarling mythical beasts carved from black stone lined the walls; their lifelike eyes seemed to stare down at the four intruders. Guards stood around the edges of the room, silent and still as the statues. Only their breathing marked them as human at all. Huge murals of past battles towered from ceiling to floor, many of them showing past emperors, their faces filled with near madness as they faced their foes.
If intimidation was the premise of the room’s design, it had certainly worked. Black could feel Mailyn’s uneasiness, and certainly he himself felt small and insignificant beneath the evident glory of the empire as represented here.
He flinched as his mistress stroked his hair, then jerked it viciously to relieve her tension. He did not pull away, only braced himself at the pain, trying to make his tired mind think of anything else. Mailyn had been tense for days before this. He could almost smell her fear of this emperor, of his power and might and what he could do to her small mercenary company should he choose.
She had taken her temper out on Black; he bore the multiple bruises and whip marks of her frustrations. He could only pray that the coming meeting would go well, for if it did not...
Black was relieved when they were finally summoned and guided through the immense double doors to the great hall where the feast would take place.
The feast itself was loud and merry. People talked and laughed in a general atmosphere of happiness and goodwill. Music formed a pleasant backdrop and, combined with the people’s temperament, seemed at complete odds to what Black had expected of Tranaden and its court. The rumors of the emperor’s fearsome temper, his arrogance, and his madness were well circulated. The carefree attitude present in the feast hall made no sense whatsoever.
The pleasant byplay only served to irritate Mailyn further. By an announcement made earlier, Black knew the emperor was present, though he could not see him from his position on the floor. The man had not spoken as far as he could tell. That in itself made him even more mysterious and more someone to fear. Black could literally feel
the man’s presence, like an energy that pulsed against his mind.
Black swallowed hard -- thirsty and hungry in equal measure. There would be no relief of that tonight, not with Mailyn in the mood she was in. He closed his eyes, trying to work past the pangs of his stomach. He heard a small whimper beside him from Rem. It was obvious the boy was not used to such treatment. At his age he was still growing, still needing food regularly.
Mailyn petted Black gently, then jerked his head back suddenly by the hair so she could read his eyes. He kept them blank, submissive, drawing a quivering sigh of relief as the fingers in his hair loosened and he could breathe properly again. His mistress returned to eating, and he blessed the reprieve from her attentions.
There was a sudden lull in the conversations, and Mailyn and Sayra abruptly rose as though at a signal. Black and Rem obediently rose in their mistresses’ wake, following at their heels with bent heads.
As they entered a smaller, more intimate room, it became evident that Mailyn’s meeting with the emperor would finally take place. Their escort gestured for Mailyn and Sayra to seat themselves. Black and Rem knelt to each woman’s right, silent and still.
“Your Imperial Majesty, we have come to discuss trade for the right to cross your lands.” Mailyn’s voice was humble, her arrogance reined in for once.
“And what is it you offer to us?” The emperor’s voice was deep and calm, with a chill edge that demanded respect.
That voice -- it could not be. Black went rigidly still, blindly staring at the ornate mosaic floor under his knees. His mind flew back to the day of his capture and the commander’s order: “Take them to the holding area. I want them tagged and marked with the sign of the wolf.”
The realization stole his breath. Dear gods...the commander. That man had been the emperor himself. Black began to shake. He could not prevent himself from looking up, his whole body freezing in place as the emperor’s dark eyes, strangely empty of the madness Black had seen the fateful day of his capture, suddenly turned upon him.
Black could not tear his eyes away; he was paralyzed with memory and fear of what this man was, if he was a man at all. For the first time in his life, Black felt like he might pass out. Death was a presence at this man’s side -- the only thing Black feared. If he died...what of his sister? Dear gods no. His captain’s death, so simple, so effortless, danced before Black’s eyes. This man, this demon, killed without conscience and reveled in death.
The emperor’s dark eyes narrowed upon him, uncertainty in their depths. Then he leaned forward, hands clenching the arms of the throne, disbelief, then fury foremost in his expression. “Jaden,” he whispered incredulously.
The sound of that name broke Black’s frozen demeanor. He lunged to his feet to run, but a wave of the emperor’s hand had guards closing in from all directions. Jaden tried to surge past them, mindless like a trapped animal, but they wrestled him down, finally holding his sweating, gasping form against the cold marble floor. Black could dimly hear Mailyn’s angry questions, but his own harsh breaths rang in his ears, deafening him to the angry confrontation between the emperor and his mistress.
At last the guards let up on him a little, allowing him to breathe, but they remained alert and ready should he attempt another escape. Only now could Black understand what was being said.
“You come here, to my own court, and flaunt what you have stolen?” The emperor’s voice was ice itself. The tension in the room was strung taut, ready to explode at any second.
“I stole nothing. He was sold to me at the markets of Isnai. No one told me of any prior claim.” Mailyn’s voice was high-pitched and defensive. She and Sayra stood close together, hands resting lightly on weapons, their eyes flicking fearfully at the ring of stone-faced guards whose guns were already drawn and ready. “There must be some mistake.”
The emperor was silent for long moments, his anger slowly dying down to a cold calm that drew shivers from the two women. “No, I have to admit that you would not be so foolish as to bring him before me. You know all too well what I am capable of.” He slowly seated himself once more on the throne. “You have your answer. You may pass over my lands. I have my tribute.”
Mailyn gaped at him for a moment, and then her eyes flicked to where Black was securely held. Fear made his heart pound as he stared transfixed at his new owner.
“Ask me for anything else. He is --”
“Mine,” the emperor cut in, cold and sharp. His eyes narrowed. “Do not try my temper further. You are lucky I release you at all. I claim both these slaves as tribute. Do you wish to dispute that?” His hand went to rest lovingly on the gun at his side and stroked the well-worn weapon.
Mailyn obviously longed to dispute, but Sayra was no fool. No slave was worth the emperor’s wrath, and his temper was clearly on a knife-edge as it was. They were lucky to escape with only this loss. She grabbed her leader’s arm, hissing at her to remain silent. Mailyn’s lips thinned with fury she dared not express. She nodded once, casting a final agonized look at Black before she whirled on her heel and left the room with Sayra at her back.
Black watched her go, fear riding him hard so that sweat ran down his spine; the chill of it made him shiver. He struggled briefly as the guards pulled him up, fighting against the multiple hands that held him. Fury rose like a tide within him as the emperor approached, an expression of satisfaction and possession clear on that hard face. Jaden lunged, longing for a weapon, any weapon. Any sense of self-preservation seemed to suddenly flee.
“Bastard! Murderer!” Jaden spat, little caring of anything beyond that he needed to hurt this man. He needed revenge for what this man had taken from him.
His outburst brought no satisfaction. The emperor merely arched an eyebrow as if Jaden’s response intrigued rather than angered him. His long fingers came beneath Jaden’s chin and tilted his face up so that he had to meet those cold, dark eyes. What Jaden saw stirring in their depths was utterly terrifying and punctured even Jaden’s rage.
“We meet again, Jaden. This time you will
wear my mark,” the emperor said, then motioned to the guards, who chained Jaden and Rem’s hands and pulled them from the room.
Jaden’s mind was a mass of confusion, fear, and anger as guards escorted them deeper into the palace complex. Shock held him in thrall. This could not be happening; it could not. How could fate be so cruel as to give him back into the hands of the very man who had turned his life into a nightmare?
Before he would have been pleased to find any way to escape Mailyn; now he only wished to return there. In her worst mood she had never made him feel as threatened as the emperor could without even trying. His instinctual fear of what the emperor was, was tempered with confusion at his mention of marking. Had not the man sold Jaden and Yamina? For so long Jaden’s hatred had been based on that and on what he had endured that now he could not reconcile what the emperor could have meant by it.
Fury rose with his thoughts, and once more he tried to resist, but the two guards holding his arms simply tightened their grasps and moved him briskly forward. They were not brutal in their grips, but they made it very clear that he would
keep moving. He could not dig in his feet on the marble floors, and rather than be dragged, he conceded that at the moment he had no choice. When he did, he vowed that he would try to escape. Perhaps this change of circumstances would lead to a situation where at last he could be free, could return to his country and find his beloved sister.
The thought buoyed him and kept him from totally panicking.
They entered a large, humid room, and Jaden tensed when he realized they were taking him to the bathing quarters. The guards led him to an area with hooks in the ceiling. They pulled a mechanism down and attached his manacles to it before raising it again. His hands were now held above his head, but not cruelly -- not so high as to punish but not low enough to allow him to move in any direction.
The same was done to Rem, whose terrified eyes watched the men as though he expected them to beat him at any moment. Not that Jaden was any less trepidant, but he hid it well, his jaw tight and eyes defiant. What more could the emperor do to him that had not already been done by Mailyn? Take your life, your very soul if he is the demon they say he is
, an inner voice whispered maliciously.
The guards withdrew to the entrance, some of them leaving, others standing just inside the door. Nerves on edge, Jaden and Rem waited for whatever would come. Jaden forced himself to relax, to save his strength. His shock and fury began to wear off, allowing him to think, to hope that somehow this change of circumstance could lead to better things. If he just played along and was obedient... If anger achieved nothing, then perhaps submission -- no matter how false -- could.
He dropped into a half doze, remaining only partially aware of his surroundings. He had long since perfected this technique to save his sanity when he had to kneel at Mailyn’s side for hours with nothing to do. He could hear Rem shifting from foot to foot anxiously and mused quietly to himself that he would have to teach the boy patience if he was to survive life as a slave.
Rem had been drawn into this horror, into the emperor’s hands, because of his connection to Jaden. Jaden vowed he would not allow his own behavior to put Rem into further danger, no matter what Jaden had to do. He could do this. If he offered himself, was compliant and submissive... The emperor obviously wanted him in some form or another, or he would not have claimed him. It was up to Jaden how to use that to whatever meager advantage he could.
Voices at the door made him open his eyes. His body sprang into instant tension when he saw the emperor enter; it was as though Jaden’s thoughts had conjured him.
The leader of Tranaden walked slowly and silently around Jaden, his face utterly without expression. Then without pause, he drew his knife and began to cut away his new slave’s clothing, not hastily but in slow degrees. Anticipation lit his eyes.
Jaden did not struggle when it was patently useless, but he shivered with the need to protest. He clamped his lips shut against the words he longed to fling at this old nemesis and wished he was free with a weapon in hand. Remembering his strategy to be compliant, to offer himself, Jaden forced himself to relax. He was no virgin to fear what was to come. If his submission would make the emperor gentler, would lead to a chance to escape or even take revenge, then so be it.
When at last Jaden was utterly nude, the emperor made a slower circuit, this time his fingers trailing over Jaden’s pale skin. He paused briefly at each of the marks left by Mailyn’s cruelty; some were still raw and open. A silent snarl curled his lip, making Jaden lean away, shuddering. The emperor cupped Jaden’s chin in his large calloused hands as he stared intensely into Jaden’s eyes; his frown deepened. He muttered a curse under his breath, then stepped away.
With complete disregard for the men by the door, he began the arduous process of unbuttoning his ornate uniform. The soldiers immediately turned away, respect rather than the fear Jaden would have expected showing in every line of their bodies.
Jaden’s eyes widened. Despite all his determination and all his previous experiences, he felt a shiver course through him. The uniform jacket slid to the ground, revealing a white shirt tailored tightly to a well-formed torso. The emperor slowly undid each fastening, heat rising in his eyes as he watched Jaden’s expression.
The sheer possessive force in the man’s eyes spoke to something in Jaden. Jaden jerked his head back, shocked at his own thoughts. There was nothing to admire in this man, if he was even a man.
The shirt slid to the floor, the movement causing the emperor’s broad shoulders to flex. Muscle coated his chest, rippling with each motion of those powerful arms, and led down to a narrow waist and ridged stomach. Next, the emperor removed his boots with a grace Jaden could only envy. Jaden felt his breath catch as his captor’s fingers began to work on the laces of those tight breeches, then pushed the sleek silk down lean hips.
Jaden drew a deep breath. Galen -- once a fellow slave and mentor in Mailyn’s harem -- had been the only one to breach his body, and that had been with some small degree of caring that had grown into true friendship. This man felt none of that, and his brutality was near legendary. If Jaden’s ruse of compliance was to hold true, he would need to participate, would he not? Jaden flexed his hands helplessly in their bindings, wishing he were free of the bonds so he could offer to touch the emperor, soothe the beast. Or did his new master wish only a body, like Mailyn had?
The emperor shed the last piece of clothing, drawing Jaden’s attention back to him. The man was a gorgeous dark brown all over. Various scars served as testimony to the fact that he was as much warrior as political leader. As an example, his high-boned face, sharp and aristocratic, was marred only by that scar on his right jawline. Long black hair fell to midback, thick and lush. At the moment, his eyes were clear of the madness Jaden remembered from their previous encounter; their color fluctuated from rich mahogany to almost black as his moods shifted. He was tall and intimidating, standing almost a good foot higher than Jaden, who had never felt short amongst other men.
But it was the sheer presence of the man that intimidated the most: his cold demeanor, the sense of power that literally came off him in waves. Jaden could only stare at him as prey watches a predator, waiting for the strike yet admiring the sheer beauty of the beast. He swallowed with difficulty as his eyes fell to the emperor’s shaft, its impressive length proud and thick in its excitement, its tip already shining with moisture. Heavy balls hung low beneath it, already drawing up in anticipation of what was to come.
Oh gods... He had to convince the man to take him gently. Jaden flushed deeply and turned his face away, a mixture of anger, fear, and a certain unthinkable arousal thrumming through his veins. The emperor lowered the mechanism above his head and released his chained wrists from it, though they were still bound together.
“Come,” he ordered, and Jaden did not resist. The guards were close at hand, and resistance at this point would be foolish. He could only hope compliance would appease the man and reduce the level of whatever torture he had planned. That it would be sexual was apparent by his captor’s touches, but he could survive that. Hehoped.
He cast a last look over his shoulder at Rem. The boy was shaking as he watched Jaden being taken away, fearing he was next, no doubt.
The emperor led Jaden by the chain between his wrists, and as long as Jaden followed, he did nothing that could be construed as cruel. They passed within a low archway and into the bathing rooms. Moisture was heavy in the air and redolent with the scents of oils and soaps. Without pause, the emperor headed for the nearest, largest of the baths and took Jaden down the ornate marble steps that led into the steaming waters.
Jaden caught his breath at the heat of it and almost balked, but the emperor’s pull was insistent. He complied, reluctantly stepping deeper into the water. He hissed a little as the heat rose high enough to encase his balls and shaft, the sensitive skin cringing.
The middle of the bath deepened to his waist. Then as they neared the other side, the level of water went back down to his hips. Swallowing with difficulty, Jaden watched as the emperor attached his manacles to a ring and chain embedded in the ornate edging that adorned the bath.
Once assured that Jaden was properly secured, the emperor turned to him with an expression that caused Jaden to shiver. “So you are angry, little one.” A faint smile tilted the emperor’s lips, though there was little true humor in his expression. “You will learn to curb that. You will learn to obey; there is that within me that does not tolerate disobedience, rebellion. You would do well to remember that.”