And I’d stupidly thought them to be hooks for bed curtains.
"I wasn’t prepped on what you paid for. I assumed from your looks that you wanted me gentle. Am I wrong?"
Those words tore through me as I watched the woman unfasten him.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the sight of him lying there, nak*d. Injured. Bleeding.
Tears filled my eyes as I remembered him the last time I’d seen him. His plump face had been hurt, but not like this. Now his lips were split, his left eye swelling, his nose bloodied. There were red handprints and bruises forming over most of his body.
No one deserved this.
I took a step forward at the same time the far door opened. The overseer motioned me out of the room.
Terrified, I rushed to the shadows where I could hear but not be seen.
A curse rang out. "What has happened here?" I recognized Uncle Estes’s voice.
"I’m fine, Idikos," Acheron said, his voice thick and pain-filled. It sounded as if he left the bed and stumbled.
I expected my uncle to be angry at the man who’d hurt Acheron. He wasn’t. His wrath was for my brother.
"You’re worthless," Estes snarled. "Look at you. You’re not worth a lead sola like this."
"I’m fine, Idikos," Acheron insisted in a voice so obsequious it turned my stomach. "I can clean my-"
"Fetch the block and scold," Estes said, interrupting him.
I heard Acheron’s protest, but instead of words, his voice was muffled as if something prevented him from speaking.
I wanted the courage to barge into the room and tell them to stop, but I couldn’t seem to make my feet obey me. I was too horrified to move.
I listened as chains clinked and then I heard the sound of wood striking flesh.
Acheron cried out, a muffled sound of pain.
The beating dragged on and on until Acheron was finally silent. I sank to the floor, weeping for him. I held my fist to my mouth, silencing my tears as I tried to think of what I should do. How I could stop this?
Who in the world would ever believe me? Estes was my father’s most beloved brother. There was no way he’d take my word over his. None.
"Put him in the box," Estes said.
"For how long?" the other man asked.
I heard Estes’s disgusted sigh. "Even with his ability to heal quickly, it’ll be at least a day before he’s well enough to entertain again. Find Ores and make him pay us for our losses. Cancel Acheron’s appointments and leave him in there until tomorrow morning."
"What about food?" the female overseer asked.
Estes snarled, "If he can’t work, he can’t eat. He hasn’t earned his food this day."
I heard a door open and close.
"Now, where is my niece?"
"She’s in the greeting room," the man said.
"She wasn’t there when I came in."
"She said she was going into town," the overseer quickly supplied. "She’ll be back shortly, I’m sure."
"Let me know the instant she returns," Estes snarled. "Tell her Acheron is away, visiting friends."
The men left the room.
I sat there on the floor, staring at the bathing pond. Staring at the mirrored walls of this room.
How many clients had my brother entertained? How many days had he lived with what I’d just witnessed?
He’d been gone for nine years. Surely it hadn’t always been like this for him. Had it?
The very thought sickened me.
The overseer returned. I saw the horror in her eyes and wondered if I held the same look in mine.
"How long have they done this to him?" I asked.
"I’ve worked here for almost a year, my lady. It’s been going on since before I came."
I tried to think of what I should do. I was a woman. Nothing in this world of male power. My uncle wouldn’t listen to me. For that matter, my father wouldn’t listen to me.
He would never believe his brother could do such a thing. Just as I couldn’t believe the uncle whom I had always loved and adored could do such a thing.
Yet there was no denying this.
How could Estes come to our palace and sup with me and Styxx, knowing that while he was here at home, he was selling a boy who was identical to Styxx in every way, but for his eyes?
It didn’t make sense.
The only thing I knew was that I couldn’t leave Acheron here. Not like this.
"Can you get my guard to this room without being seen?" I asked her.
The maid nodded.
She left me and I waited in my corner too afraid to move.
When she returned with Boraxis, I finally found the courage to stand.
Boraxis frowned as he helped me to my feet. "Are you all right, my lady?"
I nodded numbly. "Where is Acheron?" I asked the maid.
She led me into his bedchamber.
Again I saw the bed that was still mussed and bloodied. Averting my gaze, I followed her to a door.
When she opened it, Acheron was inside, kneeling on a hard pad that had rough bumps on it so that it would bite into his knees, causing him pain. The inner room was so tiny, that I knew it had been built for no other purpose than to be a punishment for him. He was nak*d, his body bruised and bloodied. His wristbands had been joined together behind his back, but what captured my attention most was the bottoms of his feet.
They were blackened by bruises.
Now I understood the sound I’d heard. What better place to punish someone when you didn’t want their body damaged? No one would see the bottoms of his feet.
As gently as we could, the overseer and I took him from the room. There was a strange strap buckled around his head. As the maid removed it, I realized it held a large barbed ball underneath his tongue. There was fresh blood leaking from the corners of his mouth.
I cringed as she pulled it away and he hissed in pain.
"Put me back," he said between his clenched teeth as the maid freed his hands.
"No," I told him. "I’m getting you out of here."
Still he kept his teeth firmly clenched. "I’m forbidden to leave, my lady. Ever. Please, you must put me back. It’s only worse when I fight them."
My heart broke at his words. What had they done to him that he was too terrified to even attempt to leave?
He tried to return to his torture room, but I cut him off and forced him back.
"I won’t let them hurt you anymore, Acheron. I swear it. I’m taking you home."
He looked at me as if the word was alien to him. "I have to stay here," he insisted. "It’s not safe for me outside."
I ignored him and turned toward the maid. "Where are his clothes?"
"He doesn’t have any, my lady. He doesn’t need any for what they use him for."
I winced at her words.
"So be it." I wrapped him in my cloak and with Boraxis’s help, we took him from the house even while Acheron protested every step of the way. My legs and hands were shaking in fear that we would be discovered any moment by Estes or one of his servants.
Luckily the maid knew every back way through the house and out to the street.
Somehow, we made it to a rented enclosed herio behind the house. Boraxis got up on top to ride with the driver while Acheron and I rode inside. Alone.
I didn’t really breathe again until Estes’s house had faded and we were outside the city walls, across the bridge and on the road that would eventually take us to the docks.
Acheron sat in the corner, looking outside through the small windows and saying nothing.
His eyes were dead. Lifeless. As if he’d seen one horror too many.
"Do you need a doctor?" I asked.
He shook his head no.
I wanted to soothe and comfort him, but wasn’t sure if anything on this earth could do that.
We rode in complete silence until we reached a small village. The driver changed horses while we entered a small home to wait. I rented a room from an older woman so that we could wash and rest in peace.
Boraxis somehow found or bought Acheron clothes. They were somewhat small for him and rough in texture, but he didn’t complain. He merely took them and dressed himself inside the rented room.
I noticed Acheron had a limp as he came out of the room to where I waited in the narrow hallway. My heart ached at the thought of his walking on his bruised feet and yet he still said no words of complaint.
"Come, Acheron, we should eat while we can."
Panic flared in his eyes. It was instantly followed by a look of resignation.
"What’s wrong?" I asked.
He didn’t respond. He merely pulled the cowl of his cloak over his head as if to shield himself from the world. With his head held low and his arms wrapped around himself, he followed me to the small dining room below.
I headed for a table in the back, near the hearth.
"Who do I have to pay for the food?" Acheron asked quietly, his face completely shielded by his cowl.
I looked up at him with a frown. "You have money?"
He looked as baffled by my question as I was by his.
"If he can’t work, he can’t eat. He hasn’t earned his food this day." My stomach shrank as I remembered what Estes had said. Tears choked me.
He thought I wanted him to . . .
"I will pay for our food, Acheron, with money."
The relief on his face tugged even more at my heart.
I sat down. Acheron moved around the table and knelt on the floor to my right, just behind me.
I scowled at him over my shoulder. "What are you doing?"
"Forgive me, my lady. I meant no offense to you." He scooted back on his knees several more inches.
Completely flabbergasted, I turned around to stare at him. "Why are you on the floor?"
He looked immediately disappointed. "I shall wait for you in the room."
He moved to leave.
"Wait," I said, taking his arm. "Aren’t you hungry? I was told you hadn’t eaten."
"I am hungry," he said simply from between his clenched teeth.
Again he knelt on the floor.
What was he doing? "Acheron, why are you on the floor and not sitting at the table with me?"
His look was empty, unassuming. "Whores don’t sit at tables with decent people."
His voice was steady as if he were merely repeating something that had been said so often it no longer had any meaning to him.
But the words cut through me.
"You’re not a whore, Acheron."
He didn’t argue verbally, but I could see the denial in his pale, swirling eyes.
I reached out to touch his face. He stiffened ever so slightly.
I dropped my hand. "Come," I said softly. "Sit at the table with me."
He did as I told him, but looked terribly uncomfortable, as if he feared someone would wrench him up by his hair at any moment. Over and over, he pulled at the cowl as if to protect himself.
It was then I realized the second way to punish someone when you didn’t want any visible marks. The head. How many times had they wrenched his hair?
A servant came to take our orders.
"What would you like, Acheron?"
"My will is your will, Idika."
Idika. An Atlantean word that a slave used for his owner.
"Have you no preference?"
He shook his head.
I ordered our food and watched him. He kept his gaze on the floor, his arms locked around his body.
When he moved to cough, I caught sight of something strange in his mouth.
"What is that?" I asked.
He glanced up at me, then looked down. "What is what, Idika?" he asked, again with his jaw clenched.
"I’m your sister, Acheron, you may call me Ryssa."
He didn’t respond.
Sighing, I returned to my original question. "What is in your mouth? Let me see your tongue."
He obligingly parted his lips. The entire line down the center of his tongue was pierced and studded with small gold balls that shimmered in the light. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.
"What is that?" I asked, frowning.
Acheron closed his mouth and by the way he moved his lips and jaw, I could tell he was rubbing the balls against the roof of his mouth. "Erotiki sfairi."
"I don’t understand that term."
"Sex balls, Idika. It makes my licks more stimulating to those I service."
I couldn’t have been more surprised had he slapped me. He was nonchalant about something that was taboo in the world I knew.
"Do they hurt?" I couldn’t believe I was asking this question.
He shook his head. "I just have to be careful not to let them strike my teeth lest they break them."
So that was why he kept his jaw clenched when he spoke.
"It’s a wonder you can speak at all."
"No one pays a whore to use his tongue to speak, Idika."
"You are not a whore!" Several heads turned, making me realize I had spoken louder than I meant to.
My cheeks burned, but there was no embarrassment on Acheron’s face. He merely accepted it as if he were nothing more and deserved nothing better.
"You are a prince, Acheron. A prince."
"Then why did you throw me out?"
His question startled me. Not just the words themselves, but the heartfelt pain in his voice as he spoke them.
"What do you mean?"
"Idikos told me what was said by all of you."
Idikos. The masculine form of the word a slave used for his owner.