They appeared instantly.
Styxx indicated Acheron with a jerk of his chin. "Put this trash on the street where it belongs."
Acheron pushed himself to his feet. "I don’t need their help. I can walk out the door on my own."
"You need clothes and money," I told him.
"He deserves nothing," my father said. "Nothing but our scorn."
Acheron’s battered face was completely stoic. "Then I am rich indeed from the abundance of that which you’ve shown me." At the door, he paused to smirk one last time at our father. "You know, it took me a long time to realize why you hate me so much." His gaze went to Styxx. "But then it’s not me you really hate, is it? What you truly despise is how badly you want to f**k your own son."
My father bellowed in anger.
With his head held high, Acheron left the room.
"How could you?" I asked Father. "I told you years ago what Estes was doing with him and you denied it. How can you blame him for this?"
My father snarled at me. "Estes didn’t do this. Acheron did it himself. Estes told me of the way he parades himself around. The way he tempts everyone. He’s a destroyer just as they said at his birth. He will not rest until he ruins every person he’s around."
I was appalled. How could a man renowned for his practical sense be so blind and stupid?
"He’s just a confused boy, Father. He needs a family."
As always, Father ignored me.
Disgusted by him and Styxx, I rushed from the room, after Acheron.
I caught up to him as he was leaving the house and pulled him to a stop. The torment and pain in his silver eyes cut through me. There was no pleading from him this time. No asking me why. As with everything else, he merely accepted this as his due.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Does it matter?"
It did to me. But I knew he wouldn’t answer.
I pulled my cloak off and wrapped it around his shoulders so that at least his nudity would be covered. I raised the cowl to shield his head and beauty, knowing it would be modest protection from the world around him.
He placed his hands over mine, then lifted my right hand to his bloodied lips and kissed the knuckles.
Without another word, he turned and left.
I stood in the doorway watching him as he walked through the crowded street and realized that he was wrong. He did have dignity. He walked down the street with all the proud bearing of a king.
May 17, 9529 BC
I was in the market square today, shopping with my maid Sera when I saw an exceptionally tall man pass by me. At first I thought it was Styxx, especially when a sudden gust of wind blew the cowl off of his head and I saw his incredibly handsome face.
But as I started to call out to him, I noticed that he wore the scarlet chiton of a prostitute-it was forbidden by law for prostitutes to appear in public wearing anything else and their heads must always be kept covered. If a practicing prostitute was caught mixing with people without that mode of dress to warn "decent" people what they were, they could be executed on sight.
Acheron quickly covered his head again as he moved through the crowd.
He looked much better than he had the last time I’d seen him. His skin was golden and tanned, and he was no longer painfully thin. His chiton covered one shoulder, leaving the other bare. An engraved golden cuff encircled his left biceps over an arm that finally had serious muscle to it.
My word, he was without a doubt the most handsome of men-even if he was my brother. I’d have to be blind not to notice.
Leaving Sera to browse over cloth, I followed after him, so grateful to find him alive and well.
But it broke my heart that he was still selling himself.
He met an attractive older woman at one of the booths who held a ring up to him.
"Does this fit?" she asked.
He handed it back to her. "I don’t want a ring, Catera. But I thank you for the thought."
She returned the ring to the vendor, then ran her hand up and down his bare arm in an intimate caress.
A lover’s caress.
He didn’t react to it at all.
"My precious Acheron," she said with a laugh. "You’re so unlike my other employees. You take only what you earn and nothing more and you tip every servant at the stew which is why they’re so kind to you. I don’t think I’ll ever understand you." She took his hand and led him through the booths. "A word of wisdom to you, akribos, you need to learn to accept gifts."
He scoffed at her words. "There’s no such thing as a gift. If I were to take that from you, sooner or later you would ask a favor from me in return. Nothing in life is ever truly given without expectation."
Catera tsked at him. "You are far too young to be so jaded. Whatever did they do to you to make you so suspicious?"
He didn’t say anything.
But in my heart, I knew the horrors of his past. Knew what had stolen his trust. No doubt I was one of the key factors that had turned him into this bitter stranger I barely recognized.
As they walked, the woman chatted endlessly, trying to entice him to notice other trinkets and such. He would only look at them silently, then turn away.
I stayed back, making sure they didn’t notice me. Not that it was difficult. Acheron kept his eyes cast down as if unwilling to look at anyone around him while Catera saw only him.
A man came up to them and pulled her aside.
Acheron wandered a few booths over while they spoke. It hurt me to watch him. To see the way the vendors curled their lips at his approach. The way "decent" people averted their eyes or looked scornfully at his clothes.
But even more horrifying than that was the way their expressions shifted the moment they saw his face. The blazing hot lust was undeniable. The intensity of it frightening.
Little did they know that but for an accident of birth and my father’s unfounded hatred, Acheron would have been their future king.
It made me seethe and at the same time, there was nothing I could do to help.
How I hated being born a woman in a world where women were barely one step up from dirt.
Catera returned to his side.
Acheron glanced to the man who was still watching them. The man’s eyes were hungry.
Acheron’s were empty. "He wanted to purchase me." It was a statement of fact as if he were more than used to it.
She laughed at that. "They all want to purchase you, akribos. If I ever wanted to sell you as a slave, no doubt I would be richer than Midas."
A shadowed pain darkened his eyes at her words. "I should go back and prepare myself for-"
"No," she said, cutting him off. "This day is yours to do with as you please. You work too hard. You can’t stay inside all the time."
His jaw flexed at her words. "I don’t like being around people."
"And yet you don’t mind hav**g s*x with them. I don’t understand you."
He started away from her.
"Acheron," she said, pulling him to a stop. "I’m sorry. I just . . ." She paused and rubbed his hand. "You can’t continue on the way you do. No one sees clients from waking to sleeping, day after day without stop. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the money you make for me, but at the rate you’re going, you’ll end up dead before you’re one-and-twenty."
He gave a short, bitter laugh. "I told you, it’s what I’m used to."
"And I told you that I wouldn’t let you be hurt at my house. I take care of my people, especially those who are as popular as you are." She pressed a small purse into his hand. "Take the rest of the day and enjoy it. Go to a play. Go get drunk. Go enjoy being young while you can and I’ll see you this evening."
The woman walked away from him.
Acheron gripped the purse in his hand before he tucked it inside his robes, then he headed in the opposite direction.
Torn, I stood there debating whom to follow.
I sent my bodyguard after the woman. I knew I couldn’t meet with her openly lest someone see us together and report it to my father. So I had him invite her into a small hostel.
I paid the owner to let me into a small room in the back where I could speak to Catera without being seen.
A few minutes later, my bodyguard appeared with Catera by his side. He left us alone and went to stand guard outside the door.
"My lady," Catera said, shifting uneasily. "What can I do for you?"
"Please be seated." I indicated the chair in front of me.
Obviously nervous, she took a seat.
I softened my expression, hoping to calm her nerves. "I wanted to ask you about . . ." I hesitated at saying "my brother." Such knowledge might hurt him. "Acheron," I finished. "Where did you find him?"
She smiled knowingly. "He is handsome, is he not? But alas, he’s not for sale. If my lady is interested in purchasing his services-"
"No!" I said, shocked at her suggestion. But then I realized it wasn’t out of character for her to think that. "He . . . He reminds me of someone."
She nodded. "Yes, he’s almost identical in looks to Prince Styxx. A lot of my clientele thinks so as well. It’s been very lucrative for him."
Little did she know it was the most destructive part about my brother. "Where did you find him?" I repeated.
"Why do you want to know?"
I didn’t dare tell her the truth. "Please," I said quietly. "I can pay you whatever you wish, I just need a few questions about him answered." I pressed a dozen gold solas into her hand.
She tucked them away. "I know not where he comes from. He refuses to speak of it. But by his accent, I assume he’s Atlantean in origin."
"He came to you?"
She nodded. "He showed up at my back door several months ago. Dressed in rags and barefoot, he looked like any other beggar except that he was freshly washed and his clothes looked as if he had tried to keep them laundered. He was pale, thin and so weak from hunger that he could barely stand."
I was horrified by what she described.
"He said he was looking for work and wanted to know if I had anything he could do. I told him that I wasn’t hiring, but he’d heard from another brothel that I was looking for a new prostitute. It was all I could do not to laugh at him. I couldn’t imagine anyone paying for such a pitiful creature. My first impulse was to throw him out."
"Why didn’t you?"
"I can’t explain it. Even though he was ragged in appearance, there was something undeniable about him. Something compelling that sent heat over me. It made me want to touch him even though he was skinny and frail. Then he said the most unbelievable thing of all. He told me that if I would give him five minutes, he would give me three orgasms."
I gasped at her words.
She laughed at my expression. "I was surprised, too. I’ve been around plenty of boastful men in my time that such a claim was hardly unheard of. But I was a bit intrigued to hear that out of the mouth of someone so young. At first I thought he was like many of the young men who come to me, most of them with little to no experience, who think prostitution is an easy way to make money. They have no idea just how hard it is physically. How taxing it is spiritually. I figured he was from a farm and had come to the city to try and make it rich."
I swallowed in dread before I spoke. "You made him prove his words?"
She laughed. "My lady, at my age, I’m lucky to get three orgasms in a year. So I told him if he was as good as he said then I would hire him. What I found out was that even half-dead from starvation he was better than he claimed. I’ve been with the best and his skills are completely unrivaled."
My stomach clenched at her words. I knew only too well just how much practice he’d had. "So you took him in."
She nodded. "It’s a decision I haven’t regretted. I had no idea just how handsome he would turn out to be once he had a few meals in him and some rest. Nor that he would be so strikingly similar to Prince Styxx. I kept him for three weeks before I let him work. From the first night he was taking clients, he was so popular that we had to start a waiting list.
"If you’re interested in purchasing an hour with him, I can put you on the list, but as it stands, it’ll be at least ten weeks before there’s an opening."
I sat there stunned by her words. Stunned by what had become of the small boy I used to hold on my knee and bounce while he laughed.
What had they done to him? How could this be his life? It wasn’t fair and it made me want to cry.
"Is there any way I might speak to him privately?"
Catera looked skeptical at the suggestion. "He prefers not to speak with his clients."
"I don’t want to be a client," I told her sternly. "I happen to know him personally."
She arched a brow at that. "A friend?"
"Something like that." I said, unwilling to let her know the truth of our relationship. I pulled out more money and handed it to her. "Please. I will pay you anything if you can give me just a handful of minutes alone with him."
She debated for several heartbeats before she answered. "Very well, if you can come by my stew tonight-"
"I can’t be seen by anyone in such a place."
"I understand, but I doubt he’ll go out to meet you. He refuses to see anyone off the premises. Today is the first day since his arrival that I’ve been able to get him outside at all.