And as we walked, what struck me most about my uncle’s home was how eerily silent it was. Not even a whisper could be heard. No one laughed. No one spoke.
Only our footsteps echoed down the long, dark corridor. Black marble stretched as far as I could see, reflecting our images back at us as we made our way through the opulence of carved nak*d statuary and exotic plants and flowers.
The servant led me to a room on the far side of the house and opened the door.
I stepped inside and hesitated as I realized it was Acheron’s bedroom. How very strange for him to admit me here without knowing I was Acheron’s sister. Then again, perhaps he did. That would explain much.
Aye, that must be it. He must have realized I looked a great deal like my brothers. Except for Acheron’s divine silver eyes, we had identical coloring.
Relaxing, I glanced about. It was an exceptionally large room with an oversized hearth. There were two settees before the stone hearth with an odd, pole structure between them. It reminded me of the punishment block, but that made no sense. Perhaps it was something unique to Atlantis. I’d heard all my life that the people here had bizarre customs.
The bed itself was rather small for a room this size, with four tall posts intricately carved into the design of a bird. On each post, the bird’s head was turned upside down so that the beaks curled outward like hooks to hold bed curtains back, yet there were no bed curtains there.
Like the foyer leading to the room, the walls were a shiny black marble that reflected my image back to me perfectly. And as I looked about, I realized there were no windows in this room at all. Nor was there a balcony. The only light came from wall sconces scattered about. It made the room very dark and sinister.
How very strange . . .
Three servants were making Acheron’s bed and a fourth woman oversaw them. The overseer was a frail woman, slight of stature who appeared around the age of forty or so.
"It’s not time," she said to the man who had led me through the house. "He’s still preparing himself."
The man curled his lip at her. "Would you have me tell Gerikos that I kept a client waiting while Acheron dawdles?"
"But he hasn’t had time to eat yet," the woman insisted. "He’s been working all morning without a single rest."
I frowned at their whispered words and behavior. Something was very wrong here. Why would my brother, a prince, be working?
The woman turned toward a door on the far side of the room.
"Wait," I said, stopping her. "I’ll get him. Where is he?"
The woman passed a fearful look to the man.
"It’s her time with him," the man said firmly. "Let the lady do as she wishes."
The older woman stood back and opened the door to an antechamber. As I stepped through, I heard her and the man gather the servants and leave.
Again, how very peculiar . . .
Hesitantly, I stepped into the room expecting to find Styxx’s twin brother. An arrogant youth who thought he knew everything about the world. An insulting, boastful man-child who was sullen and spoiled who would wonder why I was bothering him with so foolish a quest.
I was completely unprepared for what I found.
Acheron sat in a large, bathing pond alone. He had his flawless bare back to me and was bent over with his blond head against the rim as if he were too tired to sit up while he bathed himself. His long hair hung just past his shoulders and was damp, but not wet.
My heart pounding, I moved forward and noticed a strong scent of oranges in the air. A small tray of bread and cheese was set on the floor beside him, untouched.
"Acheron?" I whispered.
He froze for a moment, then rinsed his face in the water. He left the tub and quickly toweled himself dry as if completely unabashed by the fact that I had intruded on his bath.
There was an air of power that surrounded him as he toweled himself with short, quick strokes, then tossed the towel toward a small stack of them.
For an instant, I was captured by the youthful, masculine beauty of him. By the fact that he made no move to dress or cover himself. All that adorned him were gold bands. He had a thin one around his neck that held a small pendant of some sort. Thicker bands encircled each of his biceps at the top of his arm and at the crook of his elbow with another band around both wrists. A chain of smaller circles connected each band down the length of his arms. And a band of gold with a small circle attached was worn around each ankle.
As he approached me, I was stunned by what I saw. He was Styxx’s twin in physical looks and yet I saw few similarities between them.
Styxx moved fast. Mercurially.
Acheron was slow. Methodical. He was like a sultry shadow whose every movement was a poetic symphony of muscle, sinew and grace.
He was thinner than Styxx. Much thinner, as if he didn’t get enough food to eat. Even so, his muscles were extremely well shaped and honed to perfection.
He still had those eerie silver eyes, but I only glimpsed them briefly before he averted his gaze to the floor at my feet.
There was also something else. An air of hopeless resignation surrounded him. It was one I’d seen countless times from the peasants and beggars who came to collect alms from the back palace gate.
"Forgive me, my lady," he said softly, his voice strangely seductive and quiet as he spoke between clenched teeth. "I didn’t know you’d come."
His chains jingling softly in the quietness, he moved behind me like a sleek, seductive wraith. He reached around my neck and unfastened my cloak.
Stunned by his actions, I didn’t think to protest when he removed the garment and dropped it to the floor. It wasn’t until he brushed my hair back from my neck and moved to kiss the bared flesh that I bolted from him.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
He looked as puzzled as I felt, but still he kept his gaze locked on the floor before me. "I wasn’t prepped on what you paid for, my lady," he said quietly. "I assumed from your looks that you wanted me gentle. Am I wrong?"
I was completely baffled by his words as well as the fact that he continued to keep his jaw locked. Why did he speak that way? "Paid for what? Acheron, it is I. Ryssa."
He frowned as if he had no memory of my name. He reached for me again.
I stepped away and grabbed my cloak up from the floor. "I’m your sister, Acheron. Do you not know me?"
His eyes flashed angrily as he met my gaze for an instant. "I have no sister."
My thoughts whirled as I tried to make sense of this. This wasn’t the boy who wrote letters to me virtually every day, the boy who told me of his days of leisure.
"How can you say that after all the gifts and letters I’ve sent you?"
His face relaxed as if he finally understood. "Ah, this a game you wish to play with me, my lady. You wish me to be your brother."
I glared at him in frustration. "No, Acheron, this isn’t a game. You are my brother and I write to you almost every day and you, in turn, write to me."
I could sense he wanted to look at me and yet he didn’t.
"I’m illiterate, my lady. I won’t be able to play your game that way."
The door behind me swung open. A short, round man wearing a long Atlantean formesta robe came through it. He was reading from a parchment and not paying attention to us.
"Acheron, why aren’t you in your . . ." his voice trailed off as he looked up to see me.
His gaze narrowed dangerously.
"What is this?" he growled. He turned angry eyes to Acheron who took two steps back. "Are you taking clients without notifying me?"
I saw the fear on Acheron’s face.
"No, despotis," Acheron said using the Atlantean term for master. "I would never do such."
Fury curled the man’s lips. He grabbed Acheron by the hair and forced him to his knees on the hard, stone floor. "What is she doing here then? Are you giving yourself away for free?"
"No, despotis," Acheron said, clenching his fists as if trying not to reach up and touch the man who was wrenching his hair. "Please. I swear I’ve done nothing wrong."
"Let him go!" I grabbed the man’s hand and tried to force him away from my brother. "How dare you assault a prince! I shall have your head for this!"
The man laughed in my face. "He’s no prince. Are you, Acheron?"
"No, despotis. I am nothing."
The man called for his guards to escort me out.
They came immediately into the room to take me.
"I will not go," I told him. I spun on the guards and gave them my haughtiest glare. "I am the Princess Ryssa of the House of Arikles of Didymos. I demand to see my Uncle Estes. Right. Now."
For the first time, I saw reservation enter the man’s eyes. "Forgive me, Princess," he said, his tone less than apologetic. "I will have you taken to your uncle’s greeting room."
He nodded to the guards.
Appalled by his arrogance, I turned to leave. In the black marble, I saw him whisper something to Acheron.
Acheron’s face paled. "Idikos promised I wouldn’t have to see him anymore."
The man yanked on Acheron’s hair. "You will do as you’re told. Now get up and prepare yourself."
The guards closed the door and forced me from the room. They led me back through the house until we came to a small greeting room that was bare save for three small settees.
I didn’t know or understand what was going on here. Had anyone ever touched me or Styxx the way that man had touched Acheron, my father would have had them instantly killed.
No one was allowed to speak to us with anything less than respect and reverence.
"Where’s my uncle?" I asked the guards as they started to withdraw.
"He’s in town, Highness. He’ll be back shortly."
"Send for him. Now."
The guard inclined his head to me, then closed the door.
I’d only been there a short time when a secret door opened beside the hearth. It was the overseer who’d been in Acheron’s room when I first arrived, the older woman who’d been concerned for his welfare.
"Your highness?" she asked hesitantly. "Is it really you?"
It was then I realized who she must be. "You’re the one who wrote asking me to visit?"
I breathed in relief. Finally someone who could explain. "What’s going on here?"
The woman drew a deep, ragged breath as if what she was about to say hurt her deeply. "They sell your brother, my lady. They do things to him that no one should have to suffer."
My stomach shrank at her words. "What do you mean?"
She twisted her hands in the sleeve of her dress. "How old are you, my lady?"
"Three and twenty."
"Are you a maiden?"
I was offended that she would dare ask such an intimate question. "That is not your concern."
"Forgive me, my lady. I meant no offense. I’m merely trying to see if you will understand what they do to him. Do you know what a tsoulus is?"
"Of course, I . . ." Absolute horror consumed me. It was an Atlantean term that had no real Greek translation, but I knew the word. They were young men and women trained as sexual slaves for the wealthy and noble. Unlike prostitutes and others of that ilk, they were very carefully trained and sequestered from an early age.
The same age my brother had been when they took him away from home.
"Acheron is a tsoulus?"
My head reeled. This couldn’t be. "You lie."
She shook her head no. "It’s why I told you to come, my lady. I knew you wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it for yourself."
And I still didn’t believe it. It wasn’t possible. "My uncle would never allow such."
"Your uncle is the one who sells him. What do you think paid for this house?"
I felt sick with the news and still part of me denied what was truly obvious. "I don’t believe you."
"Then come, if you dare, and see for yourself."
I didn’t want to and yet I followed her into the back passageways of the house. We walked endlessly until we reached the antechamber where Acheron had been bathing.
She held her finger to her lips to caution me to silence.
It was then I heard them. I might be virgin, but I wasn’t naive. I had overheard others copulating at the parties my father forbade me to attend.
But worse than the sounds of pleasure were the cries of pain I heard from my brother. The man was hurting Acheron and he was taking great pleasure in the pain he caused him.
I started for the door only to find the woman in my way.
She spoke in a low, deadly tone. "Stop them, my lady, and your brother will suffer in ways you cannot imagine."
Her whispered words went through me. My soul screamed out for me to stop this. But the woman had been right about everything so far. She knew my brother and uncle far better than I did.
The last thing I wanted was to see him hurt more.
Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, there was silence.
I heard heavy footsteps cross the bedchamber, then the door opened and closed.
Stunned, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move.
The maid opened the door to his room to show Acheron chained to the bed by those circles. The ones at his wrists and ankles had been slid onto the bird beaks that decorated the four posts.