Conspiracies

by Paulus the Woodgnome


Author's note: This story is set some months after the events described in and is, I must admit, rather long. Apparently these stories have some sort of ambition to become a fantasy novel with spanking. Please excuse them.

The sun glittered and beat on the waters of the Grand Harbour of Pora as relentlessly as the drum beats that drifted across it from the great merchant galleys, synchronising their oar strokes as they manoeuvered in the crowded waters.

To the boy watching from the harbour mole the dance of the great ships and the flow of goods, wealth, and influence were equally fascinating. Spices from Baarik and Tarashand, wool from Merania and Troïs, linen from rainy Mhuinneacht, iron from Kabbad, tin from Bar Tanaq, paper and corn from Khem-et, gold from the mountains of Sambria. And slaves, of course, from within the Empire and without. Where would the Poran Empire be without slaves ?

The boy who watched was not a slave, although he had a master, and sometimes complained that he was treated like a slave. But on a glorious summer's day like today, with nothing to do but watch the comings and goings of the largest of the three harbours in the city that believed itself to be the greatest in the world - on a day like today, he thought himself blessed. He sat on the sunwarmed stone in his faded old blue tunic with his long legs hanging over the side, and closed his eyes in sheer sensual pleasure.

What he would like right now, he thought, was a peach; one of the large, white-fleshed peaches that grew in his master's garden, full of sweet, mouthwatering juice that would spurt out from the softly furry skin as his teeth sank into it. He could imagine it, hanging there like an amber lantern among the green leaves, could feel the weight and yielding ripeness of it in his hand, sunwarmed . . .

He opened his eyes, lifted the peach to his mouth, and bit into it.

You are getting a little too good at that, said a voice in his head. So smoothly done I almost didn't notice. See me when you get home.

The boy grinned ruefully. His master didn't often give compliments. What he did give a lot of were thrashings. He might well find himself going to the peach tree again when he got home, this time for the switch that would be applied to his backside. Not for stealing the peach - those were his to take if he wanted - but for getting caught in his exercise of Talent.

"Subtlety," Toris Clevis lant Améros would say. "If I teach you anything it has to be to use your power subtly, and never to excess. You have strength aplenty, but you must learn fine control, accuracy, and how to work with the world, and the forces in it, rather than expending twice the effort fighting nature in one of the noisy firework displays you favour."

Jehane smiled to himself. Almost didn't notice, hmm. He doubted it - he had never met another sorceror with as much sensitivity to the exercise of Talent as Clevis Améros. But he had learned so much in the months of his apprenticeship - far, far, more than in the four years he had been bound to the bumbling Garnas. And not only about the Talent. Since Clevis Améros was President of the College of Sorcerors, as well as an advisor to the Poran Emperor, Éstion, Jehane was learning a great deal about other sorts of power: politics, economics, the arts of persuading and compelling others.

He threw the peachstone into the waters of the Grand Harbour to be investigated by the hordes of tiny silver fish that darted there, stretched as langorously and unselfconsciously as a cat, and got to his feet. Rather than take the crowded and dusty Imperial Way into the centre of the city, he thought he might skirt through the narrow roads of the port quarter and climb the Kataxion Steps to the top of the Garden Hill, then walk through the leafy suburbs of the city to his master's villa. It was a longer and more energetic route, but a much more pleasant one. And to be honest, he wasn't in that much of a hurry to get home if an encounter with a peach switch was in prospect.

The very first time they had met Clevis Améros had switched him, and his bottom had borne the welts for days and days. Usually it was the leather strap, and the Poran's strong and equally leathery hands, both of which were bad enough, but he knew how his master's mind worked, and he doubted that Clevis Améros would be able to resist the symmetry of using one of the peach tree's glossy and flexible branches for the punishment. And Clevis Améros punished hard, and even though Jehane enjoyed the physical mastery of the older man, was excited by it, it would still be a painful experience.

Excited and scared in equal measure he made his way through the crowds along the waterfront, across the broad road that skirted the harbour and in through the Maritime Gate. The prospect of his forthcoming interview with his master rather pre-occupied him as he made his way through the port quarter and it was only the sudden shout that made him look up.

A chariot - a rather well-appointed chariot - was driving much too fast through the narrow lane. A young man balanced lithely in it, holding the reins of a pair of matched greys and flicking out with his horsewhip at any passers-by who seemed to be denying him the roadway. But the shout had not come from the driver, but from a woman in the doorway of one of the houses. A child, a little girl, had run out into the road and now stood, apparently paralysed in fear, in front of the onrushing horses.

Jehane acted without thinking. A thread of power to turn the horses aside, rearing and whinnying at some imaginary threat, as he dashed out into the road and scooped the child up safely, almost colliding as he did so with the mother who had also run out. He pushed the two of them into the safety of the doorway.

"It's all right, it's all right," he soothed the screaming child and shaking woman, who just grasped the child to her like her life, tears streaming down her face as she gabbled: "Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, oh holy gods, my baby, thank you sir, thank you so much, oh, oh . . ."

A hand grasped Jehane's shoulder and spun him around as its fellow, gloved, snapped across his face with bruising force and knocked him to the ground.

Head spinning he tried to rise, but a booted foot on his shoulder pushed him back down. He looked up at the driver of the chariot, saw the whip coming but could not turn his face aside in time.

"You port gutterscum," raged the driver. "Do you have any idea how much those horses are worth ? If they're lamed or hurt by you dashing out like that and scaring them I swear I'll have your life." His face, which might otherwise have been handsome, was distorted with arrogance and rage.

Jehane raised a hand to his face, drew it away sticky with blood.

"The child . . ."

"Yours I suppose - you rabble breed like rabbits. Well what of it ? Your doxy there would have given you a dozen more." He raised his whip again, but a hand grasped his arm, an enormous hand that held him motionless without apparent effort. It was attached to an arm and body in proportion, a huge man who looked as if he might have been carved out of one of the great oak beams that braced the nearby Maritime Gate.

"Not his, sir, mine. And if you'd put your whip away I'm sure we'd all be grateful, begging your lordship's pardon."

Despite the respectful tone, the hawk-nosed face with its un-Poran and rather piratical black beard didn't look particularly respectful. Neither did the growing crowd of men and angry women behind him.

"You scum, don't you know who I am ?" Unbidden the youth's name flashed into Jehane's mind, his unique and particular ability: Altis Tréxa lant Sandoria. A Poran high aristocrat, then, a scion of one of the Noble Houses.

"No sir, but I do know that these streets weren't meant for chariots."

"I'll have the lot of you whipped," blustered the young man, but his voice wavered a little.

"P'rhaps you'd like to discuss it with the vigiles, sir. I believe they're on their way."

The youth glared at the crowd for a moment, then jumped up on the platform of his vehicle, aiming a kick in Jehane's general direction as he did so. The crowd growled, an ugly sound, and the youth's arrogant facade flickered for a moment into genuine fear. He swiftly untangled his reins, and urged his horses, quite unharmed as far as Jehane could tell, away down the road.

"Aye and good riddance to you, my lord," spat the bearded giant. A few in the crowd picked up stones as if to shy them in the direction of the departing driver, but the giant quickly shook his head. "No lads, let's not look for more trouble than we can handle. That sort can make life difficult for all of us if they really want to. Besides, this lad here needs seeing to."

He reached down and pulled Jehane effortlessly up from the dust. "Thank you, young sir. I owe you my littlun's life, I reckon."

"It was . . . anyone would have done it." Jehane blushed.

"Maybe they would've, but you did. Here, Mariam, give the child to me and see to this lad's face. And the rest of ye give us some space, show's over for the day, I reckon, don't suppose that feller will be back again in a hurry."

The child's mother came forward. Seeing her closely Jehane saw how finely featured she was, huge dark eyes lined with kohl, skin as clear and richly brown as the peatland streams of his childhood. She placed both hands delicately around his face like the wings of birds, and kissed him on the forehead.

"It is my life you have saved today," she said. "My heart and my life. Whatever I can give you in return it will not be enough." She drew him, half-heartedly protesting, into the simple room, sat him on the bed and brought water and linen to wash away, very gently, the streaks of blood, and then some dark liquid that stung when she touched it to his face.

He drew back a little.

"You must. This is ahbiil, that we use in my country to treat cuts and wounds. It will stop the wound from becoming . . ." she looked at her husband, "msihwan ?"

"Corrupted. Mariam's father was one of the finest doctors in Khem-et, you should listen to her."

"I must treat it or it may scar. So pretty a face should not carry a scar." Jehane blushed and she laughed, then applied the stinging liquid again, this time without resistance. He had his own ways of healing, of course, but the offer was well meant. After the stinging came a numbness that drew off any remaining pain.

"There. The ahbiil has stopped the bleeding and should make sure that no badness grows there. If the wound grows puffy or hot come and see me."

"Come anyway lad - you'll always be welcome in the house of Shehamon and Mariam," rumbled the giant.

"Thank you, Shehamon, Mariam. I'm Jehane."

"Then welcome Jehane, and thank you again."

"As I said, it was a thing any decent person would have done."

"There are plenty in Pora that wouldn't risk their life for their own child, let alone a stranger's," said Shehamon.

Jehane bowed his head. It was probably true from what he'd seen, but it wasn't only true of Pora. Even in the couple's native Khem-et, from what he'd heard, there were those who would not have been inclined to intervene for a mere girl.

He rose.

"I have to go," he said. "I have duties."

"Aye, of course. You won't be in trouble for being late now ?"

"Not if I leave now, and not for this, no. My master is a reasonable man."

Laden with thanks and a large sweet loaf studded with fruit - the Khemtiu were as famous for their skill at baking as their skills at medicine - he made a prolonged farewell and finally exchanged the dim coolness of the little house for the glare and dust of the day.

One thing was sure - he didn't feel like climbing the 398 Kataxion Steps now. He ducked into an alleyway between two houses and after quickly scanning with his mind to check that no-one was around and watching he Opened the Way and stepped into the tree-shaded coolness of his master's gardens.

Then he was promptly and violently sick into one of the flower beds.

A hand touched his shoulder, gently.

"What's the matter ?" asked Clevis Améros. He drew in his breath as Jehane turned to him. "And what have you done to your face ?"

"I'm sorry," gasped Jehane. "About the flowers. And the face was . . ." He opened his mind to his master and showed, in a brief, bright flash, the doings of that afternoon.

"The House of Sandoria is becoming troublesome in more than one way," said Clevis Améros. The mild tone was belied by the chill in his gaze. Jehane knew that if his master ever looked at him that way he would have started making arrangements to go and live somewhere a very long way away. Like the moon, perhaps.

Jehane staggered, his head swimming. "Sorry, I don't know what's the matter with me."

"Mild concussion, and more importantly a reaction to the ahbiil you were given. The Talented react differently to a number of drugs, and Mariam had no reason to think that you were Talented or she would probably have used water of hajiiz instead."

With peevish admiration Jehane opened his mouth to ask: 'how do you know so much about everything ?' but it didn't come out. Instead he seemed to be spinning downward into darkness. The last thing he remembered was a pair of strong arms lifting him effortlessly away.

When he came to he was lying in his own bed, a linen sheet over him. Clevis Améros was sitting at the end of it, and standing by him, her hand on his shoulder, was Sarai, his other apprentice, apparently returned from whatever errand Clevis Améros had sent her on some weeks ago.

"So you've finally decided to stop lazing in bed," she said.

"You're back then," groaned Jehane. "Or is this a nightmare ?" She laughed, and Jehane grinned back. Their initially fiery relationship, driven by his insecurity and a healthy dose of mutual jealousy, had gradually eased so that most of the time now, the banter was more like the sparring of sister and brother. Most of the time. But the concern in her long hazel eyes seemed genuine, belying the off-hand tone of her comment.

"I take it," said Toris Clevis lant Améros drily, "that you are feeling better."

"Yes," said Jehane, simply.

"Good. Please avoid ahbiil in the future. Also stickweed juice, yellow poppy, and Chitayan fan-shiang, to which you will probably be equally sensitive. This morning's lesson will be postponed, but when you feel well enough to rise I will be in my study." He rose, nodded to them, and went out.

"And thank you for your concern," said Jehane, though only once he was safely gone.

"Oh it's just his way," said Sarai. "He sat with you all night, you know, until he was sure the drug was out of your system. He cares all right, but you'll never get him to admit it."

"Is that a challenge ?"

Sarai shook her head. "You must be feeling better - you're becoming impossible again. Look I have to go - I should be the other side of the world in Ntlaxan right now."

"Ntlaxan - is that where he sent you ? I suppose I shouldn't ask why."

"Ask him - he might even tell you." She bent down to kiss him goodbye.

"Yeah he might, or he might leather my arse for poking my nose in."

"That's equally likely," she agreed. "Look I have to go."

"Sarai."

"What ?"

"Thanks for coming."

She smiled again, nodded, folded the world about her and was gone, having Opened the Way to Golden Ntlaxan, a city, had the Porans known of it, to dwarf even their own. A swirl of air - and the master would leather you for that, thought Jehane - stirred the curtains in her wake.

He sighed and lay back. He thought he would just rest for a few minutes before he got up.

When he woke it was to the distant sound of the noon bells. Where had the morning gone ?

He jumped up, washed his face in a fairly perfunctory way in a basin of cold water (thanking the Gods as he had so often done that the Talented did not grow beards), ran a comb hastily though his hair, and threw on a linen tunic. Then he ran through the west wing of the house to the two bronze doors that guarded the entrance to the master's private rooms: the library, study, and the large, stone-floored room that Clevis Améros referred to as the Hall of Operations.

Only the master and his apprentices were permitted to pass these doors. Each was as high as two men, and bore a boss in the form of a lion's head with open mouth. Jehane placed his hand in the mouth, and the door opened by itself. It was rumoured that a thief had once been found in this corridor bleeding to death with his hand bitten off, but Jehane suspected that this rumour had been spread by Clevis Améros himself.

The master was sitting in a curule chair in his study, reading a scroll written in a complex, jagged script that Jehane did not recognise. He looked up, and smiled.

"So, Apprentice, you are up at last."

"Yes, Master."

"Good. Tell me, is it a good thing to save a life ?"

Jehane thought before he replied. The master was inclined to express his opinions of unconsidered answers with the strap.

"I believe it must be," he said.

"So it would be right to save a criminal from just execution ?"

Jehane thought some more. "Life is not an unalloyed good," he ventured at last. "There may be circumstances where it must be given up. But I think the impulse to save life must always be good, even if sometimes necessity prevents it."

Clevis Améros nodded. "That is a valid position," he said. "But we have agreed on earlier occasions, have we not, that bad consequences may flow from actions that are in themselves good ?"

"Master - are you saying that I shouldn't have saved the child ?"

Clevis Améros looked at him.

"If you had not attempted to do so," he said, "you would no longer be my apprentice. Jehane, I am proud of what you did. You acted well. I merely wish to point out that the consequences have yet to work themselves out." He put the scroll down and lifted a wax tablet from his desk instead.

"To other matters. There will be a formal dinner in the house tonight," he said.

Jehane groaned inwardly. He hated Poran formal dinners, the rigid etiquette, the excessive number of courses, the over-elaborate sauces and presentation.

"Normally I would expect you to attend throughout," added Clevis Améros thoughtfully. "However, two of the guests tonight will be Altis Oneiris lant Sandoria and his heir, Tréxa."

"Altis Tréxa lant Sandoria ? But he was . . ."

"Yes, your acquaintance of yesterday. I expect that he is still quite vexed with you, and will make his displeasure known if he sees you. Under the circumstances it might be better that you keep out of sight. Relations between the Sandoria and the Améros are already . . . difficult, and it would not serve the Empire for them to become more so."

"Difficult ?"

"The Sandoria are a very great house. They number many emperors among their line. They feel that it is the natural order of things, a Sandoria sitting upon the Fleece. Unfortunately, Éstion of the Falaros sits there at present, a situation that they would like to change. And I support Éstion."

"They plot treason against the Emperor ?"

"Just so."

"Then why don't the Vanaraxian Guard arrest them ? Why don't you question them - as the Emperor's Truthsayer ?"

"Porans are pragmatists, boy. They use our powers, but they don't much like them. There would always be suspicion that I had somehow forced the Sandoria to false confession. As to why they haven't been arrested - answer your own question."

Jehane thought. "You need proof."

"Go on."

"You need enough proof to convince the other Noble Houses that this is a genuine plot and isn't the Emperor trying to pick them off one by one."

"Very good."

"So read their thoughts and catch them at their plots !"

"Oneiris and Tréxa and their co-conspirators and trusted servants all wear shield amulets, charged by a minor Talent in their employ. Not sophisticated, but effective enough in hiding their thoughts and preventing any influence. Many of the nobility and the merchant class do it - as I said, Porans are pragmatic about these things."

Jehane nodded. He understood the principle - a raw hum of power that hid the subtle flow of a person's thoughts. Indeed, he had come across Porans wearing such amulets often enough, though he did not seek them out. They gave him a headache.

"What will you do, master ?"

"There is always the chance that for some reason one or the other of them may lay aside their amulet, or break it. I do not have much hope of it, for Oneiris is too old a fox to be caught in such a trap, but 'when the wine flows, wisdom goes', as the saying has it."

The plan sprang fully formed into Jehane's head. He knew if he stopped to think about it he would never dare go though with it, so . . .

"There might be a chance, Master. I think I should attend the meal."

Clevis Améros frowned. "Explain."

"I should attend as your body servant, not your apprentice. And when Tréxa sees me, and tells you what I have done, you will of course be properly horrified.

The master's expression was inscrutable. Jehane faltered on.

"So, so you, er, give your miscreant 'servant' over to him for the evening, and invite him to make use of the - ah - facilities in the punishment room. And of me."

"I see what you intend. I do not like it."

"How do you evaluate Tréxa Sandoria ?"

"Arrogant and foolish. He is not nearly so cunning as his father. But you are correct in your assessment - he would enjoy inflicting pain. Quite possibly enough for him to wish to rape you or harm you badly. No, I cannot countenance it."

"Master, it is the only way you'll get him to take his clothes off while he's in distance to read. Get him sweating, get him hot, get him sufficiently excited and he might take off the amulet too."

For a moment, Clevis Améros seemed to consider the possibility.

"No," he said at last. "It is a tempting - and a brave - offer, but it is too chancy. If you could get him to remove the amulet, I agree, you could soulbind him, read him, and throw him out with whatever false and twisted memories would keep him happy. But the risks are too great. I value you above ten thousand Sandorias and their plots. Emperors come and go, but you are the first Namer in 1500 years, and you have the potential, the potential only, mind you, to be one of the great Mages of the age. You are not to expose yourself to true harm, either of body or mind. That is my firm command."

"Yes, Master," said Jehane, lowering his head.

* * *

The torches flared outside the Villa Améros, reeking of pine resin, as the Sandoria rode up. Eroanos, the master's majordomo, greeted them personally at the door, and led them to the anteroom with its sparkling mosaics and skilfully painted  walls where Clevis Améros was greeting his guests.

"My Lord Sandoria, Heir of Sandoria, greetings and welcome to the House of Améros."

"My Lord Truthsayer," said Oneiris Sandoria, with a gracious and guarded nod of his head. Oneiris Sandoria was an impressive man: tall and lean, with bright, dark eyes and features remarkably unlined for his sixty-five years. A formidable opponent. Even his greeting was both warning to the rest of his party and subtle point scoring. Not "my Lord Améros", but "my Lord Truthsayer". Not a noble of Pora, but the Emperor's servant.

A servant came forward with a dish of water scented with jasmine so that the guests might wash their hands of the dust of travel. Tréxa's eyes widened.

"You !" he gasped.

Everyone turned at the tone. Clevis Améros's expression did not change, but the servant boy paled. If Tréxa does not remove every inch of your hide, said the voice in his head, be sure that I will for disobeying me.

I won't risk myself. If anything happens that I can't handle I'll Open the Way and get out of there, all right ?

The dice are thrown, said Clevis Améros. I must use what weapons come to my hand. "Is there a problem, Heir of Sandoria ?"

"This, this brat of yours nearly broke my neck and the legs of a pair of matched desert stallions yesterday. And then he dared to threaten me, me, a scion of a Noble House."

Clevis Améros frowned.

"I am distressed to hear it. Boy, is this true ?"

"It was an accident," said Jehane sullenly. "And I never threatened anyone."

"So it is true. Heir of Sandoria, I can only apologise. The boy is regrettably as stupid and disobedient as he is pretty. I shall see that he is suitably punished." He shook his head, half turned away, then as if struck by a sudden thought, turned back. "Unless it would please you to deal with him yourself ? You would be most welcome to make use of the facilities here to punish him. Perhaps you can induce him to a more willing service."

An evil grin lit Tréxa's handsome features. "It would be a pleasure," he said.

"Then come. I shall have the boy prepared for you in the Hall of Chastisement while we dine, then when we old men are discussing tedious matters over the honey cake you may go and work off your dinner." He ushered them away, pausing to speak to one of the other servants as he did so.

Two of the brawnier manservants took Jehane down to a large room well way from the main part of the house. It was not a cheery place. The more extreme punishments that could legally be used on slaves - the whips with teeth of bone or metal that tore the flesh, the racks and branding irons and knives - were not permitted in this household, but the walls held rows of straps and ferulæ of various lengths and weights, paddles of leather and wood, canes and rods. There was also a couch, a wooden chair, and the hiquola, the "little horse", a curved wooden frame over which the person to be punished could be bent, his arms and legs spread and fastened to leather cuffs in the corners, his buttocks raised and helpless. To Jehane's alarm, it was to this, once they had stripped him of his tunic and loincloth, that they brought him.

"You must really have pissed the master off, boy," said one of the men as they cuffed him. "I don't think he's had anyone ride the little horse since young Kallidas stole the best linens to sell in the Thieves' Market." Then they left him, lying there face down, to contemplate his fate, shivering a little although the room was stuffy and overheated.

It was a long wait. What had seemed a feasible plan in hot blood and the light of day seemed complete folly by the flickering oil lamps in this room dedicated to pain and punishment. Half a dozen times he trembled on the edge of Opening the Way and escaping - to his room, to the other side of world, to anywhere. Yet something held him back. Pride, determination, the wish to aid his master and bring the hateful young Sandoria down. Something of all of these, perhaps.

A very long wait. And yet, when he heard approaching footsteps, it seemed all too short.

The door opened, and Tréxa Sandoria, flushed with wine and delicious anticipation, stepped into the room. A sigh of pleasure escaped at the sight that greeted him: the limber young man spread out in the warm lamplight, naked, waiting helplessly to be punished.

"This," he said, "is going to be fun." He ran an experienced eye over the implements on the walls. "Yes," he repeated, "this is going to be fun. Not for you, slave boy. You're going to hate it. But I shall enjoy every minute of it."

"Please, my lord . . ."

A slap across his buttocks, hard enough to leave a red handprint clearly outlined.

"You speak when I tell you, slave boy, not before. The Améros may tolerate lippy slaves, but the Sandoria know how to keep discipline in their households."

Jehane bit his tongue on an angry retort. The heir of Sandoria ran an assessing hand over the taut young body, cupped the firm buttocks then slid two fingers into the cleft to probe roughly at the young anus.

"Hmm, nice and tight," he added. He moved around to pull Jehane's head back, laughing outright at the expression on the other's face.

"Oh yes, I shall enjoy breaking you. Suck on this." He thrust the same two fingers into Jehane's mouth. Reluctantly the youth sucked at them, choking a little as Tréxa thrust them deeper into his mouth.

"There's a good little slave boy. Do what I tell you and maybe, just maybe, I won't punish you quite as hard as I'm intending." This close the buzzing drone of Tréxa's amulet was unmistakable, like a cloud of angry bees in Jehane's head. It made it hard to concentrate. He shook his head to try to clear it, but Tréxa mistook it for a negative.

"No ? No to what ? You don't want me to go easy on you ? Very well then, I'll give you what you deserve." He walked over to the wall. "Now, how shall we start, I wonder ? The ferula, perhaps. Or the strap, maybe. Or perhaps - yes, this seems very nice. We'll try this." He took down a glossily polished paddle, about two hands in length, and swished it experimentally through the air a few times. "Yes, an excellent choice."

SMACK. The impact seemed to knock the breath from Jehane's body. There was perhaps half a second of stunned numbness before his outraged nerves awoke in fire. Tréxa waited with practiced anticipation for the pain to reach a crescendo before the heavy wood, driven by an athlete's muscles, came down again. The sickly saltiness of blood filled Jehane's mouth where he had bitten his lip in an effort to keep from screaming.

He realised his mistake at once. The master's beatings were painful, but they were driven by care, not by malice. There was no intent in them to do serious harm, only to warn or instruct. This was different. This was intended to crush him. Frantically he tried to calm his thoughts long enough to Open the Way and escape, using, as Clevis Améros had taught him, the image of a dancing candle flame gradually becoming still.

The candle winked out in a white surge of pain, as a grunt of raw agony was forced from his lips by another blow, and another in quick succession.

"Yes, boy, that hurts, doesn't it ?" gloated Tréxa. "You'll hurt a great deal more before I've finished with you, I promise. You'll beg to do anything I want." He brought the heavy wood down again, watched the tendons in the youth's neck cord and spasm with the effort to bear the pain. The pale buttocks were marked with deep scarlet blotches, centred with white where the outraged skin had begun to blister. Curved and presented as they were they seemed like some luscious, full fruit coming to ripeness. Tréxa intended to eat deep of it.

He ran a hand over the sensual curve of one cheek, felt the heat of the beating simmering beneath the skin. His fingers curved, dug cruelly into the sore flesh until the boy writhed and whimpered.

"Oh yes," he breathed. "Coming along nicely. Another ten with this one for warm up, and then we'll see how you like the ferula."

The brutal implement slammed into the waiting flesh again. Red and white fire danced in Jehane's head, agony and helpless fury, and the wood came down again . . .

There was a splintering noise, and Tréxa cursed.

"Useless Améros crap," he spat. "I suppose this hasn't even been used for years. Look at it, split right down the middle." He threw the shattered pieces of the paddle into the corner of the room.

Then he strutted around to the front of the little horse, lifted Jehane's head by the hair.

"Looks like you'll have to take extra with the ferula then, won't you boy ? A fine old Poran implement." He smiled, his eyes a little glassy with drink and the pleasure of having the other youth so totally in his power. Leaning forward he fastened his mouth on Jehane's, kissed him long and savagely until, despite himself, Jehane responded.

Tréxa broke away.

"Oh yes, coming along nicely," he said again, his malicious good humour apparently restored. He sauntered around to reach between Jehane's helplessly parted thighs and grasp his balls. The grip slowly tightened but before the deep sickening ache could become unendurable Tréxa released him.

"Maybe later," he muttered, half to himself. He sauntered over to the wall. The lamplight shone on his golden skin. He was beautiful, Jehane thought. But the beauty stopped at his skin. What lived inside was ugly, deformed by cruelty and arrogance.

Tréxa took down a heavy ferula, a short strap about two hands in length and two finger widths across except at the end where it swelled into a circle rather less in diameter than Jehane's palm, pierced with a central hole. It was made from a dense black material that Jehane did not recognise, heavier and a little more flexible than leather of the same thickness would have been.

"This is more like it," said Tréxa. "We'll see how impertinent you are after a good thrashing with this."

It didn't look so bad, Jehane thought. He'd been punished with leather straps longer than that.

Unnh ! The ferula connected in a burning explosion of pain. Thud ! The pain blossomed somewhere else and joined it. A helpless involuntary moan escaped him.

It hurt unbelievably. The weight and flexibility of the ferula combined both bruising force and savage sting.

"Ah, not so keen on that, are you boy ?" sneered Tréxa.

"Please sir . . ."

"Oh I am pleased," said Tréxa. "I'll be even more pleased when I hear you screaming and begging."

"I beg you . . ."

"Oh, not yet. We've only just started. Those horses now cost our house 40 gold staters apiece. So maybe after 80 lashes I'll let you beg me for mercy and for the honour of pleasuring me. A nice solid Sandoria cock up your arse instead of that flabby old man of yours, you'd like that wouldn't you, to have a real man up there ?"

"He's more of a man than you'll ever be," hissed a voice. With surprise Jehane realised that it was his.

Tréxa's expression soured from triumphant gloating to something uglier. He shook his head.

"You just lost your only chance, boy. I'm going to punish you until you've no skin left between your back and your knees. Then I'll cut your balls off and shove them up your arse on my knifepoint."

"No, my master . . ."

"You're a slave. Your master gave you to me to punish. I don't suppose he'll be too happy if I kill you, but the Sandoria can afford your bloodprice, however much you cost."

"I'm not . . ." A slave, he was going to say, but Tréxa didn't give him the chance to finish. The ferula came down again and again, fast and agonising. The pain was astonishing and the blows fell everywhere - bruising his back, raising short, involuntary screams as it attacked the tender inner skin of his thighs, savaging the crown and sides of his buttocks. He felt a stickiness trickle down him, realised that the skin was broken and it was his blood. The liquid only made the blows hurt worse.

It was like being bathed in fire. He writhed and struggled against the straps but they had been well secured and he could scarcely move. His sobs and cries were full-blown screams now. Any thought of using Talent was washed away in the agony.

I'm going to die here, he realised, in a lucid moment. Tréxa is out of control. He's really going to kill me. The thoughts were washed away as a blow at the back of his knee brought the sickening snap of tendons rupturing.

As if prompted by the white flare of pain, something suddenly happened in his head. It was as if the pain was . . . not gone, for he was still aware of it, but far away. Far below him. He was expanding, filling the room, the house, the city.

Everything was a pattern. It was all connected, and he could read those connections as easily as the scrolls in the library. This, he somehow understood, was the greater Talent of which the Namer's talent was but the smallest fraction. Here was the pattern Jehane, which was a part of the bigger pattern in which he now resided. There was the pattern Tréxa, the pattern Oneiris. He could see the coldness and will to power in the man, how it had shaped and corrupted the youth. He could see - not hear, but read as if the words were written on the world around them - the conversations between them, the other conversations that formed a grey spiderweb of plots around the older man.

It was all clear to him. But it was unimportant. This petty plotting was such a small part of the greater pattern that turned the world. He was still expanding, like an outward breath. Now, now, he was as great as the world. He held its pattern in him for a moment, shining and intricate like the source of all beauty . . .

. . . and then it was slipping from his grasp. He wasn't great enough to hold that pattern. Not yet. Maybe not ever. And the loss of it was a pain deeper and bitterer by far than anything that he had felt that evening. He heard his physical body cry out, a cry of loss and despair, as he plummeted back towards it.

There was just a moment to pull on the threads of the pattern as he fell, to pull at that part of the pattern that most intimately wound with his, like a silent call.

"Ah, yes, yes, now you aren't so insolent," breathed Tréxa, misunderstanding the source of the cry. His face was flushed, not just with the effort of beating Jehane, but with lust. He pulled up his tunic, revealing a swollen erection that jumped to his racing heartbeats. He forced the bloodied, swollen buttocks apart and thrust brutally at the exposed anus, impaling the youth.

Jehane screamed again hoarsely. He was not completely innocent, but it had been a while, and he had never been taken so savagely, with no concern, with nothing but sweat and his own blood as lubrication. He felt something tear, deep in him. It hurt, even through the other pain.

The door to the room shivered into cinders. A man stood there outlined by light. Flame danced around his fingers, trickled harmlessly up his bared arms where his toga had been thrown back.

"What is going on here ?" asked Clevis Améros. His voice was low, icy, controlled. It raised the hair on the heads of all those who heard it.

Tréxa must have heard his own death in it. He withdrew immediately, cowered back without even trying to pull his bloody tunic down over his rapidly shrinking manhood.

"Father," he called, seeing Oneiris among the half dozen or so figures behind Clevis Améros. "Don't let the witch kill me."

"I asked," repeated Clevis Améros, "what was going on here. I will not ask a third time, heir of Sandoria."

"I - I - he, this slave, he was insolent, I - I got a bit carried away that's all. He's just, it's just - you should be more firm with your slaves, Améros, he was damned insolent. He insulted the Sandoria. He should pay for that."

"It would seem that he has paid indeed," said Clevis Améros. He came forward to kneel by Jehane's head.

Jehane, said the silent voice, forgive me. I was angry with you and I allowed this despite my own better judgement. The Sandoria will regret this.

Master, it was my fault, not yours. I thought I could do this without getting hurt. I got what I asked for. I made this happen.

NO ! "No," said Clevis Améros aloud.

He stood up, spun on Tréxa and Oneiris, who had entered the room to stand beside his son.

"You have exceeded yourself, Tréxa lant Sandoria," he said. "You have offended against the hospitality of this house and against the law."

"Come, Améros, you forget yourself," said Oneiris. "You asked my son to punish the slave, and my son has said that he was insolent - or do you accuse him of lying ? For insolence to a Noble House such as ours we would be entitled to demand a slaveboy's life - my son has done considerably less than that."

"It is you who forget to whom you speak, my lord," said Clevis Améros. "Men cannot lie to me. Did the boy insult the house of Sandoria ?"

"No, but he insulted me." Tréxa's jaw dropped open in horror as he heard the words come from his own mouth. Clearly he had never experienced the Truthsayer's power before.

"That is not quite the same thing. What did he say ?"

Tréxa clamped his lips shut as if to keep any more revelations sealed within, but the words burst out despite his efforts. "That you were more of a man than I'd ever be."

Clevis Améros raised an eyebrow at Oneiris. "The matter would appear to be less clear cut than you have presented it, my lord."

Oneiris looked at Clevis Améros as a man might at a snake. "Witchery," he hissed. "You could have made the boy say anything." He swallowed, seemed to collect himself.

"I admit," he said, "Tréxa may have gone a little far. It was wrong of Tréxa to take the boy by force as he did when he was not our property. Perhaps you would care to sell the boy to us as soiled goods. What do you say to 10 staters ?"

Clevis Améros shook his head.

"You retain some affection for the boy ? Very well then, let me make you a gift of his price - name it, within reason."

"You misunderstand me, my lord. I cannot sell you the boy, nor name his price."

"Come, don't be unreasonable, man. Why ever not ?"

"Because he is not a slave. He is a freeborn citizen, and my adopted son."

There was silence in the chamber save for the faint crackling of the torches. Tréxa went white.

The sentence for the rape of a citizen was castration and impalement outside the city wall.

"This was a trap, Améros," blustered Oneiris. "There's no way my son could have known . . . I won't let you take him from me."

"Not even the Sandoria are above the law, my lord. And ignorance is no excuse."

"We shall see, witch. Who knows what foul sorceries may have been used to befuddle him ? I will not watch my son die to please you. Come, boy." He swept from the room.

"Go with them, Eroanos, the rest of you, and see that the party of the Sandoria leave with appropriate honour. I would not wish it said that the Améros did not know the laws of hospitality." The stress on the family name was faint but unmistakable.

The majordomo nodded graciously and made to leave. At the door he paused.

"My lord - will the boy be all right ?" Reassured by his master's nod, he bowed and went about his duties.

Once they were alone Clevis Améros gestured once, impatiently. The straps on the hiquola sizzled and crumbled to dust. He knelt again beside the youth.

"Oh Jehane . . ."

Jehane tried to rise, but a crescendo of pain forced him to bite back a scream.

No, don't move. And don't try to talk aloud. Where does it hurt ?

Everywhere. Is it bad ?

Pretty bad, conceded Clevis Améros. Your back, bottom and thighs are very badly cut and welted, but I'm more concerned that he may have done you some damage internally when he raped you. You're bleeding there.

I feel dizzy.

Loss of blood, and a reaction to what you've been through. Jehane, I'm so sorry.

Please don't. It confuses me, having you apologise to me. Usually it's the other way around. Although it seems that both ways I end up with a sore arse.

And usually well deserved. I am going to have to call on a lot of power to heal you, Jehane. I think it would be safer if you slept.

The master's mind blew through his like a warm summer wind, sweet with new mown hay and the scent of resin under the pines whose swaying branches rocked him to sleep.

Hey, wait, Jehane wanted to say, I have to tell you about the patterns, about what the Sandoria are plotting. But the drowsy hum of bees in the gardens lulled him irresistably downwards into a sunspangled shade, downwards . . .

Just before sleep took him a sudden memory of what he had heard through the pain of that final confrontation jumped to prominence. Son ? Your adopted son ? Why did you say that ?

Because I have made you so. The documents were signed months ago. Sleep now and heal, my son . . .

His last, faint memory before the blessed, pain-free dark was of Clevis Améros stroking his hair.


Text copyright © 2003

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