Authors: A.M. Sexton
I did my best to forget I’d ever heard it.
Four days later, Donato sent word that he was home. He requested me that evening. I was given no special instructions regarding my appearance, so I wore my own clothes as I climbed into the waiting carriage. It took longer than usual to get past the gate. The men on the lower side rocked the carriage on its wheels, catcalling me through the windows. They were angrier now, and for the first time, I was truly scared of what would happen if they decided to pry open the door and pull me out. But, eventually, they let us through. The men on the upper side checked my pass, and then we started up the hill.
The sun was low in the sky, making heavy shadows across Upper Davlova’s pristine sidewalks. The drastic conflict of light and dark matched my thoughts perfectly. I’d missed Donato in many ways, but I dreaded seeing him again. I hardly dared hope that he’d greet me with tenderness. Not tonight. Not after he’d been away, attending to whatever business he had in Davlova.
I’d never seen the upper city so empty. Usually I’d see a few servants or gardeners, but if any remained on this side of the wall, they were hidden inside. I leaned my forehead against the windowpane in the door and watched the white houses slide past. How many of them hid men like Donato? How many of them housed spoiled whores and abused slaves? How did they feel, safely ensconced here behind their wall? Did they hear the mob at the gate? Did they stop to question how it would end? Or did they assume those men would eventually get tired and simply go away?
A lone man about my age walked up the street, toward the carriage, carrying a canvas bag. I glanced at his face as he went past, wondering only if he’d bear the tattoos of nobility, or if he was a slave. But what I saw brought me up short.
He couldn’t hear me of course. Not through the carriage door. I hit my hand against the window, but he continued walking, unfazed. He was almost past the carriage now, but I was sure it was him.
“Driver, stop!” I yelled, banging harder on the top of the carriage. I threw open the door and stumbled out before we’d even come to a complete stop. “Jabin!”
He turned to face me, his eyes wide with surprise. I was taken aback, suddenly questioning my surety. This man wasn’t as thin as Jabin. He wasn’t overweight either, by any means, but he looked healthier than my clanmate ever had. A spill of sunlight fell between the buildings, spotlighting him like an actor on a stage, showing hair so clean, it shone like silk. His simple clothing was clean and in good condition. Even his eyes seemed different.
No, I realized. Not his
so much as what was behind them. Not the jaded, semi-hostile expression he’d worn for all the years I’d known him. Now, he showed an openness I’d never seen before.
This couldn’t be Jabin. Yet even as I became sure I’d made a mistake, his eyes lit up in recognition.
“Misha? Holy Goddess.” He dropped his bag on the sidewalk and held out his hand, then seemed to dismiss the idea of a handshake and pulled me into a fierce hug. “What are you doing here?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” I said as he pounded me on the back.
He let me go and stood back to look at me. “I was just fetching some things for Ms. Carrington.”
“I work for her. Supplies are getting harder to find, what with the gate being blocked and all, so we’ve been trading with other families.” He waved his hand dismissively. “But what are you doing on this side of the wall?” He looked me up and down. “And dressed like that, too!” He whistled through his teeth, then leaned closer, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “You working a con?”
“I...” I had no idea what to say. Back before he’d been arrested, before I’d ever been turned into Donato’s whore, I would have told him everything. But now, I didn’t dare. “No. Are you? I thought you were arrested?”
He shrugged. “I was. Thought for sure I was in for the camps. But then, before they took us on the boat, Ms. Carrington came in. Looked us all over and picked me out.”
“Picked you out for what?”
His eyes sparkled mischievously, and he laughed. “Seems she wanted a special assistant, if you know what I mean.” He waggled his eyebrows at me suggestively.
I blushed. Jabin had stood by in the past while I’d turned tricks, and yet this sudden confession embarrassed me for reasons I couldn’t explain. Seeing my discomfort, he stepped back a bit, his smile fading. “It’s not only that, you know. I work for her. She’s a great lady.”
A great lady who trolled the prisons, looking for boytoys? “So, she picked you out of all the other prisoners, and then hired you? Just like that? Got you out of prison?”
He shook his head. “No, not ‘just like that.’ I had to go with the others. Meet with their doctor.” He reached up to touch the spot behind his right ear, in a way that was eerily familiar. “But it was easy, and better than the auctioning block, right? That’s what they kept telling me. Better than those other poor fools.”
“Auction block? But, you mean the other prisoners? The ones going to the camps?”
He wrinkled his nose, thinking. He touched that spot again behind his ear. But then he jerked his head, shaking it quickly as if a fly were buzzing in his face, and his expression cleared. “Hey, what are we talking about that stuff for, anyway? How have you been? You look good!”
“So do you.” My head was spinning, trying to take in everything he was telling me. And more importantly, trying to figure out the bits he
telling me. “I don’t understand, though. They took you overseas to meet with a doctor? What’s wrong with the doctors here?”
He shook his head again, and for the third time since we’d begun speaking, he touched that spot behind his ear. “I don’t know what you mean. But who cares? I’m one of the lucky ones.”
“Why didn’t you get in touch with Anzhéla?”
“Anzhéla. She’s still—”
At the theatre.
That’s what I started out saying, but I broke off, suddenly unwilling to even share information that he should have known. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m great! Ms. Carrington’s really fantastic. I’m just so grateful she chose me, you know?” He looked down at the bag he’d dropped on the sidewalk, as if seeing it for the first time. “I have to get back.” He held his hand out again, and this time, he didn’t hug me. He merely shook my hand, as if we hadn’t once been brothers in a family of thieves. “It was good seeing you again, Misha.”
He picked up his bag, and I stood in stunned silence as he turned away.
The light was failing, but before he passed out of his brilliant spotlight, I spotted them: two, strange, nearly-bald patches, about the size of small coins, behind his right ear, like the ones Frey bore from his implants.
Like the ones I was sure Ayo had hidden beneath his golden curls.
That hadn’t been just any doctor. It had been a surgeon of the Guild.
The encounter with Jabin left me shaken. How had he ended up with an implant, and what had he meant about the “others”?
I didn’t even notice when the carriage stopped moving. It wasn’t until the driver opened the door and pointedly cleared his throat that I realized we’d arrived.
It was time for me to face Donato.
The sympathetic look on the butler’s face told me everything I needed to know. I went up the stairs to my room as if walking to the gallows. I thought of the sedatives I’d hidden between the mattresses so long ago. I had a feeling I’d want one tonight.
I let myself into the room. Donato wasn’t there yet, but his slave was. I was both thrilled to see him, and terrified of what it meant that he was here. A length of fine silk rope lay coiled on the bed.
“I hate it when he ties me up,” Ayo said quietly, seeing the direction of my gaze.
My heart began to pound in fear. I turned to face him. “I’ve been worried about you.”
“Because...” Wasn’t it obvious? “Because I care about you.”
The words seemed to light him up, like he was a light bulb and I’d flicked one of the electric switches on Donato’s wall. His smiled filled his entire face. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen him look happy. I held my hand out to him and he came quickly into my arms.
It was hard to hold him and not respond to him physically. He was wearing nothing but his usual simple shift, and he felt so small and fragile against me. I held him tight and buried my face in his hair.
“I’d hoped he’d leave you out of it.”
He tilted his face up to mine. “I don’t mind, because it means I get to be with you.”
I shook my head. “No. Not like this.”
He put a soft finger over my lips to silence me. “Kiss me. Please.”
It was risky. I knew that. Donato might barge in at any moment, but I didn’t care. All I cared about was Ayo, here in my arms, so sweet and innocent and lost. He was shy, yet not hesitant. His lips parted under mine and he pulled me closer, urging me in. He made quiet sounds, little more than sighs. He put his arms around my neck. He was trembling, but he kissed me as if I were air and he’d been waiting to breathe.
When he finally pulled away, we were both panting. I stared down into his strangely hued eyes, seeing nothing but trust.
I couldn’t betray that.
“I have something to tell you.”
I took a deep breath and blurted it out. “I may know your trigger word.” His eyes went wide. I rushed forward, desperate to tell him the full truth before Donato arrived. “The thing is, I don’t know that it will trigger an orgasm.”
“What else could it be?”
“The translation was confusing. We’re only guessing but...”
“I don’t care what it is. Just say it.”
“Ayo, listen. The word, it could be translated to mean ‘death.’”
He blinked as the full meaning of my words became clear. “A kill switch?”
“That’s our guess, yes.”
I watched him carefully, hoping I’d see fear. Or dismay. But what I saw in his eyes was worse. It was hope.
“You understand what I’m telling you? You could die.”
His eyes filled with tears. He grabbed handfuls of my shirt and hung on to me as if I were the only thing keeping him on his feet. “Then in the name of the Goddess, Misha, say it.
It was the only thing he wanted, and yet how could I grant it, knowing it might kill him?
It turned out I didn’t have to decide, because right at that moment, Donato walked in. His hands were tight fists at his sides, his jaw tight with anger, his eyes so full of hatred that I flinched away. The sight of Ayo standing so near brought him up short. Suspicion darkened his already stormy expression.
“What the fuck is going on in here?”
Ayo instinctively moved away from me. I stepped in front of him, hoping to shield him from Donato’s anger, as if I could save him from whatever was ahead of us. “Nothing, sir. We were waiting for you—”
He punched me. Not a backhand like he’d done so many times in the past. This was a true punch. It came so hard and so fast, I was on the floor before I even realized what had happened.
“I didn’t tell you to speak.”
He hit me again, from his position standing above me. The blow made my head spin and my ears ring. I tried to stand, but the ceiling seemed to have changed places with the floor. I couldn’t distinguish up from down, and I fell again, feeling as if the whole world had been turned on its side and shaken. Donato kicked me in the ribs, driving the air from my lungs. I heard Ayo sob.
“Fucking worthless whore,” Donato sneered. He grabbed my wrist and dragged me across the carpet. The motion made my stomach turn, and I fought to keep from vomiting. I was relieved when we quit moving, but then he yanked roughly on one of my arms. Something tightened around my wrist. I shook my head, trying to clear my vision. The movement made my head pound as if he’d struck me again, but I managed to see what was happening.
He was tying me to one of the posts at the foot of the bed.
Panic caused me to try to pull away. “No!”
He turned and backhanded me again. Not nearly as hard as the last hit, but enough to take away whatever fight I’d had. I hung there, lying half on the bed, half on the floor while he cinched the rope tighter, securing both my hands to the bedpost. “You won’t question me again, if you know what’s good for you,” he said again. “After dealing with those dirty bitch slaves for three days, you think I have the patience for your squeamishness?” When he was done, he struck me again. It knocked my head back. I tasted blood. “You’ll keep your mouth shut, unless I order you to open it!”
I was tied, utterly powerless, and in the face of his rage, I did the only thing I could think of. I appealed to the side of him I knew existed, even if it wasn’t evident at the moment. “Miguel,” I pleaded. “I love you. Please. Don’t let the beast lead.”
Possibly the biggest mistake I’d ever live to make.
“Shut up!” He hit me again. “Shut up, you stupid fucking whore!” And again. And again. I tried to roll away but fell from the bed. My bound arms brought me up short, straining in their sockets. I couldn’t quite sit on the floor with my hands tied, so I hung there as he kicked me in the ribs, hard enough to take my breath away for a second time.