The bed was soft and warm, but his passion was rapidly cooling. It had been mostly faked, anyway. He remembered his first time; it seemed so far away, now. Fawn had been gentle then—and many times after that, as well. Tiger had been much rougher, but rough could be good.
He looked at the bruises on his arms. Rough could be bad, too.
It had been a long year at the Evening Star House. Some of the older boys—like Rabbit, the fidgety, jumpy albino—had negotiated their way into permanent contracts with clients, escaping the brothel to live lives of less restrictive luxury. Some of them had even found real love in the men and women who "rescued" them.
New boys had arrived, too: Sparkle, a slender blond with glinting green eyes, had almost proven to be competition; Murmur, a shy, quiet brunette who seemed doomed to stay shorter than everyone else, was learning fast and made good company, when he could be dragged away from his precious books for anything other than a customer. Then there was Dart, the quick-moving, always-laughing little redhead whose spirits refused to be dampened, no matter what—even in the face of his captivity and the life he was being forced to live.
And there had been one truly dark spot, when one of them had died. Poor Ermine, an exotic boy from the southern lands with almond-shaped eyes and a curious white shock in his short jet hair, had taken sick and refused to get better. He had lain on his bed, silently suffering, throughout the ordeal, until right at the very end, when he had whispered something to Fawn, his appointed caretaker, which the young man refused to reveal to anyone. Shortly thereafter, he had gone into dreadful, wracking convulsions, coughing up blood and choking, and had managed to groan out a few twisted syllables in his native tongue before sinking back, lifeless, onto the sweaty sheets. Fawn, despite all the comfort that Tiger could give him, was so inconsolable that the two of them could not even take clients for almost a week. Lord Marl had been more furious than concerned, worried that it was something catching and that he was going to lose all of them at once.
He had learned to hate Lord Marl not only as a captor and a taskmaster, but also as an arrogant hypocrite. Along with most of the other boys and young men at the Evening Star, he grew resentful that the Lord did not partake of his own stock, instead choosing to satisfy his appetites through various trysts with giddy noblewomen, or at the brothel two streets over, which offered girls to its customers. Even though they all loathed the fraudulent nobleman and knew that their indignation was ridiculous, none of them could help being upset that he had collected what was probably the finest group of male prostitutes in the civilized world to himself, and then was completely uninterested in any of them. At least, if he had used them the way he allowed others to do, they could have been outraged at him for that, but he gave them little reason other than their bondage itself to find fault with him.
He sighed and sat up in the bed, studying the floor for an eternity before mechanically pulling on his discarded clothing. As he laced his vest, he tried to decide how he was going to occupy himself until his next client was shown in. He had regulars, now—people who came every night, or every other night, asking specifically for him. When he had realized that, self-disgust had vied with a strange sort of pride in his battered heart. Originally, he had been afraid and confused in his sudden indenture, but now—a year later—it was routine, just a job. Maybe one day, he thought, he would meet a rich baron or a wealthy countess that he could seduce into taking him away from the Evening Star, and then he could come back and buy the other boys from Lord Marl, setting all of them free.
He stood up and left his room, not bothering to smooth the disheveled sheets—he knew what his next customer of the night liked, and he always tried to please his regulars; whatever they made, Lord Marl gave them a portion back as an allowance, which they used to buy new clothes or to add books and games to the common room.
He had been getting a very big allowance, lately.
He probably had an hour, he thought. Perhaps he could play draughts with Murmur—but no, he and Dart were probably fooling around somewhere. They had taken to each other right away, as soon as both of them had come to terms with their new lives, and the little redhead could never seem to get enough. He shrugged to himself; some people were like that, he supposed.
That was when he saw her.
Lord Marl was in the common room, and the boys there were all wearing the blank looks that were customary in the presence of a new arrival, be it brother or client. At his side stood a lean woman with a black veil across the lower half of her face, her long hair pulled back in a raven queue with pins of southern jade. She wore a skirt of plain, dark blue silk, and a filmy gauze caftan of the same hue, with jingling silver bracelets at her wrists and dainty sandals on her feet and calves.
Dutifully, he slipped in to take his place, unnoticed by his brethren, in their lineup. He watched, expressionless, as eyes rimmed with kohl swept over them, one at a time, searching for something.
"See anything you like, madam?" Marl inquired, sounding artfully interested, but, truthfully, impatient to make a sale.
The woman was unmoved. "I am looking for something…specific," she responded in an authoritative tone.
"Oh, by all means, take your time," the Lord said through a brittle smile.
She seemed to reach a decision. "Do they come in pairs?" she asked, no hint of either doubt or excitement in her voice.
"But of course, madam," Marl said magnanimously, making a grand gesture that took in all the boys in the room. "Simply point them out, and you shall have them."
Immediately, she chose Tiger, but before Fawn could stand alongside his mate, she surprised everyone by waving him back down. "No," she declared firmly, "not you. Him. That one."
And she pointed straight at him.
His expression one of near-shock, Tiger was, for once, speechless. "Ice?" he protested in a stunned voice. No one, even those who had never patronized the Evening Star House before, had ever chosen to be with Tiger and not Fawn—each of them separately, yes, but one of them and a second boy, who was not the other? It was unheard of!
He was more taken aback even than Tiger was. It was almost an unspoken rule amongst them, that the fearsome redhead and the doe-eyed blond were never apart. He looked to Fawn, as if the other boy's input would have somehow made a difference.
Fawn blinked, then stood, trying to soothe the savage Tiger. "It's—it's fine, really. Isn't it? I mean, it's Ice, after all, so it's not like—I mean, really—"
"Well?" the woman was saying to Lord Marl.
Marl actually stammered a bit, himself. "It—it is rather unusual, madam. Those two older ones have never worked with anyone but each other, and no one has ever…" He trailed off as she jangled the heavy purse she held in one hand, coins clinking inside.
The Lord licked his lips. "Well, it can't possibly damage them, can it?" he conceded, his eyes following the bouncing pouch. Snapping back into his business manner, he looked sharply at Tiger. "See to it," he ordered in a tone that brooked no disobedience.
Smiling under her veil, the woman followed him back into the hall as he left the common room.
As soon as the door closed, the boys erupted into chaos. Fawn was clinging, still muttering incoherently, to Tiger, who was growling and cursing in such a state of feral apoplexy that one might almost have had difficulty telling him from his namesake.
"Why you two?" Sparkle was asking, looking back and forth between them. "You're kind of an odd pairing, aren't you? I mean, especially since you both make so much noise."
"Some people come through here with awfully strange tastes, sometimes," another boy responded. "It's not unusual."
"Easy for you to say!" a third laughed raucously. "Your specialty is tying people up and hitting them!"
"Well, yours is getting tied up, you razor-licking pile of dragon trash!"
"Shut up!" Tiger bellowed, and everyone grew instantly silent, cowed by the red-haired young man's wrath. With visible effort, he composed himself, then motioned towards his selected playmate. "Come on, then," he said heavily, disengaging himself from Fawn and handing the blond over to the care of the others. "Let's go get this over with."
Reluctantly, he followed.
The insult was compounded by the fact that Marl had given her Tiger and Fawn's room to use. Tiger sucked in his breath when he saw this, but smiled down at his companion. "Don't look like that," he said. "It isn't like you've done anything wrong; it was her choice, not yours."
The two of them entered the room, closing the door behind as the woman looked up. Tiger had already adopted his sultry strut, circling her in an approximation of a wild animal stalking prey. "So," he hissed hotly, "what's on the menu? Do you want me to go ahead and undress?" He toyed lazily with the laces of his doublet. "Or do you want to do it? Maybe you want to watch us play with each other?" The redhead pouted a little, putting his arms around the younger boy in a fashion which left no room for debating what he meant to do with him.
Joining in the act, he leaned back into the tall young man's strong embrace, running pale hands down the thighs that pressed against him. He raised his face to capture Tiger's lips with his own, hating himself a little for doing so, and was startled when the woman laughed. He jerked his head around, breaking the hug with finality and glaring at her with something akin to malice.
"My," she managed, "you two do put on a good show."
"If you're just here to mock us," Tiger spat, "your Ladyship could significantly reduce her expenses by making sport of one of the cheap hussies that work the street corners of the city outside. Jokes are free, madam—we are not."
"My apologies," she said sincerely. "I did not mean to offend; rather, I was complimenting your acting, given that your feelings for each other are quite obviously false."
"Not entirely," Tiger admitted, "but then, they're not entirely what most people assume, either."
The woman nodded. "You'll be pleased to know that I will not be requiring your services tonight—in any fashion." She chuckled at their expressions. "No, I am a happily married woman, and I love my husband. It is not for myself that I am here tonight." From within her sleeve, she drew forth a bright silver chain, a circular locket dangling off it. "Do you recognize this?" she asked seriously.
Tiger took it, turning it over and examining it closely before handing it to the raven-haired boy. "That's Fire's, isn't it?" he frowned. "You gave it to him before he left."
He nodded. Fire had been special, even amongst their little group—wild and cocksure, always ready with an impudent smile or a hungry grin. His nickname had come from his fervor: He could have steamed up the windows of a blacksmith's forge on a hot day, and he had never learned how to be quiet. Their relationship had been brief, since Fire had arrived almost three months after him and stayed only eight, but it had been intense. He closed his fingers around the locket and looked up, questioning.
The woman removed her veil. Her jaw was strong, her cheekbones high. He had seen those features somewhere else, not so long ago, although he could not place them.
"My name," she announced quietly, "is Viranda. My brother frequented this house earlier in the year, and, being quite young himself, was taken with the boy called Markas, whom you know as Fire. He originally came here on his birthday, at the behest and on the tab of a friend who still visits fairly often. Once he met your Fire, though, he was unable to stop coming back until the young man had agreed to come away with him—very reluctantly, the way I hear it."
He smiled sadly. Fire had never told anyone else his real name, the whole time he had been at the Evening Star. It had been their special secret.
"Once free of this place," Viranda continued, "Markas badgered my little brother constantly to buy other boys from your Lord Marl. My brother is well off, but as the firstborn, most of our family's considerable riches went to me, not to mention the not insignificant fortune possessed by my husband. My brother came to me, begging me to help him please his Markas, and knowing that I, in turn, placed precious few things on the list of those I would not do to make him happy. He beseeched me to speak with Markas, to learn all he could tell me of the Evening Star House, and then to come here and 'save' all whom I could." She shrugged. "And so, to make my brother happy—and because, after learning of this place, I believe it is right—I have come."
He sat back in wonder, thoughts racing through his head. Fire had almost stayed; he had not wanted to go and leave them behind—leave him behind. All of a sudden, there was a chance for them to get out, to return to the world outside. He shook his head to clear it. First his old village, and then the Evening Star; things had never gone right for him, but maybe now, thanks to Markas…he could have an actual life, could find what he was looking for when he had stumbled out of the woods and down to the gates of civilization. He felt hope blossoming inside him for the first time since that day, a year ago, when he had first caught sight of the city from the forest. He clutched the locket to his chest.
"Keep it," Viranda said, watching him. "Markas wanted me to bring it to you, specifically. That is why I chose the two of you—you, at his express request, and you—" She turned back to Tiger. "—because you are the leader."
Tiger returned her gaze warily. "What are you getting at?"
"You have been here longest."
"This winter will be my twenty-first," he agreed, "and Fawn's nineteenth. We're the oldest."
"Then you know best who should go and who should stay."
This took a moment to sink in. "You want me to decide," the tall boy started slowly, "who you should free and who you shouldn't? I can't do that!"
Viranda held up a hand in protest. "I cannot afford to buy everyone here, at least, not all at once. I have done my research thoroughly and firsthand; Marl agrees to sell his boys only under duress, and the more money the young man brings in, the more that must be offered to purchase him. According to Markas, even the least popular amongst you turns quite a profit during the course of a week, partly due to quality of service and partly because of the Evening Star House's exclusive clientele. My husband is aware of what I am doing, and the money is there, but as much as Marl will ask for even one of you, I cannot take you all. Even if I could, there would be no way to cover up such a large 'acquisition;' no matter how secret some things are kept, word will always get out, and we would come under scrutiny from others. It would be a long time before I could rescue another of your number."
Tiger was scratching the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Then, only those who could benefit most from leaving should go." He gave her a direct look. "How many are you prepared to take with you at this time?" he asked bluntly.
"I have set aside the necessary funds for at least three of you."
"Then it's settled. Dart actually seems to like it here, so he's not in danger—I don't know what he was doing before Marl found him, but it must have been either really bad or really boring. Murmur won't go without Dart, even though he probably ought to. So, you'll take Sparkle, Straps, Edge—and Ice."
He spun to look at Tiger in disbelief, but before he could frame a response, a finger was placed gently over his lips.
"You need to go," the redhead told him simply. "You shouldn't be here in the first place, and you've been here too long already. Look at me: Ten years here, and I'm not the same carefree little sprog that I was back then. I'm not the man I was supposed to be, and this isn't the right place for you to grow into one. You still have the chance to find something better, to make up for the bad hand the Fates have dealt you."
He didn't have a chance to protest before Tiger enfolded him in a rough bear hug. "You don't have a choice, anyway," he was told in a voice that was thick with emotion. "Fawn won't go anywhere without me, and I wouldn't leave without him, ever. As long as we're still here, we have an obligation to protect the others. If we can't all go, then those of us who can do the greatest good by staying would be wrong to run off."
Viranda watched their exchange in respectful silence, and when she saw that no argument was forthcoming, she stood herself, placing a hand on the dark-haired boy's shoulder with a reassuring squeeze. "Then it is decided. Come, we have spoken long already, and even given the choices I made with you two and the amount that I paid for you both, we still have only so much time, and there is more yet of which we must speak."
It was not a truly convincing disguise to anyone that knew them, but it would fool Lord Marl, he wagered. He and Tiger had exchanged their tunic and doublet and daubed each other's scent on, but the breeches had had to stay where they were—though slender, Tiger could never have fitted into his black leather leggings, tailored for the girlish waist that gave him a near-hourglass figure. While Tiger had thrown the bedding about and gone to tell the others of their plans, he had mussed his hair and accompanied Viranda to Marl's office downstairs. Anyone audacious enough to ask why her clothing had not been disturbed would be told that she had come only to watch the two of them, tonight—not to participate.
So far, however, it had not gone well. Marl had been obstinate at first, and now he was angry. The negotiations were starting to break down, and he could do nothing but watch helplessly as Viranda grew more and more frustrated.
"All right," she purred, trying to maintain her customer's demeanor, "forget the blond, then. Let me have the two brunettes and this one, and I'll give you the blond's price into it for the three of them."
"But you haven't even met those other boys!" Marl protested for the twentieth time.
"I was assured of their skill and enthusiasm by the others, and I was simply so pleased with your merchandise that I cannot leave tonight without taking something home with me. My friends told me that you have sold young men in the past."
"I've been a fool in the past!" Marl snarled across his desk. "If people are truly willing to pay so much to own these boys, then they will pay triple to rent them. If I have the only supply in the city, why should I not charge what I want? I could double their asking rates overnight, and you folk would still pay!"
"It is the attraction of the exotic, my Lord," Viranda said primly. "You can only support so many boys here in this house, and you must get rid of old ones before there is room for any new ones. Buying a boy makes it more likely I will return here, since, once I have them home, I can learn all of their tricks and tire of them quickly. I shall have to come to you for something new."
"If you know you will tire of them, why procure them in the first place?" the false nobleman pointed out shrewdly.
"Certainly, I would use them in the interim; I have no reason to be bored until I bring my business back to your Lordship. A one-time purchase is cheaper in the long run, a guarantee that I will have my appetites satisfied. I cannot be sure that you will still have the redhead and this pale one when next I visit you."
Marl folded his arms crossly, his eyes narrowing with suspicion. "You are an enigma, madam," he asserted. "You come here for the first time tonight, saying you were referred by a friend, choose the strangest possible combination amongst the boys—after putting it off until the second member of your little set showed up—and then march into my office and ask to buy three young men with whom you have not even spoken. That, to me, reeks of deliberate planning. What are you up to?"
Viranda spluttered, at a loss. "Why—why, that's outrageous! How dare you suggest that I have come here with anything but the most honest of intentions!" She stood up, twisting a fold of her skirt in her hands, and then let it fall hopelessly, unable to leave without forever abandoning her attempt to help the boys, but unable to stay in the face of Lord Marl's accusations without confirming them.
Marl obviously took her indecisive silence as admission, for he wasted no time in hefting the heavy walking-stick that was forever at his side. Grasping its heavy handle firmly, he twisted it and drew out a long, keen rapier from its hidden sheath. Advancing on Viranda, he caught the suddenly frightened woman by the arm, apparently intent on interrogating her at sword-point.
"What's your game, woman?" he growled at her, holding the rapier threateningly.
"N-nothing!" she cried, trying to squirm away from him. "Let go of me!"
"Not till you answer me! Who sent you here? A competitor? Someone trying to buy my boys out from under me and then turn a profit reselling them? Tell me!"
As Lord Marl moved to grasp Viranda's throat, red with fury, the young man moved reflexively, trying to separate the two of them. Afraid for his own life, watching his freedom slip away before his very eyes, he jerked on Marl's velvet sleeve, dragging him backwards.
"Get off me, you little wretch!" the spurious nobleman barked, slashing at him with the slender blade. "You're in on this, aren't you? I'll deal with you after I finish with your fellow conspirator, here, count on it!"
He dodged backward, but not quickly enough. The careless swipe scraped across his soft, pale skin, and he gasped with pain. Time seemed to slow around him as he touched his throat, and he brought his fingertips away with droplets of blood smeared across them.
It was happening again, he realized as a crimson haze occluded his vision. Exactly like the last time.
Something inside him reached out, driving malicious tendrils into the world around him, seeking that dark power off which it could feed. Thick and viscous, the energy filled him as his soul tapped into it; his vision became unnaturally clear, and everything became an outline, a wire frame drawn in bright, stabbing lines of colors—red, white, blue, purple, orange, green, brown, silver, gold, and black…so much black, leaking outward from him into the other colors, diluting and erasing them, casting all into shadow. He felt his body go rigid, then limp, and he started to sag towards the floor, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
And Lord Marl looked full into the face of death itself.
Up he came, almost lunging out of his seeming collapse, driving his hand, clawlike, into Marl's chest. Flesh blackened, bone became ash, and blood turned to ice as he drove into his tormentor's body, ripping free with a sickening, wet tearing sound. He clenched his fist around the heart it held, which rapidly desiccated into ebony dust that streamed down towards the floor. He heard Viranda screaming, and Lord Marl gurgling and coughing, but he could not see anything—it was all black, black, black.
The moaning susurration in his ears, the wailing song that reached up to him from the depths of innermost being, urged him onward, refused to be satisfied with a single death. Even as Marl lay dying, scratching ineffectually at the carpeted floor that was rapidly staining with his own fluids, the boy turned towards Viranda, his long, black hair lifting in a freezing-cold, charnelhouse wind. She kept screaming as she encountered the wall, pressing into it as though she might push through to safety, and closed her eyes, turning her face away—it was more horrible to watch his jerky, unnatural movements than to see the destruction he wrought. Each time his foot hit the floor, a searing line of fire oozed out in all directions, charring the fine rug to cinders and scorching the still-twitching corpse nearby. The reek of burning flesh joined the smell of fresh earth in the chilly, too-thick air of the office.
Then the door burst open, and Tiger barreled into the room. He froze as soon as he saw Marl, looking sharply at the twitching, ghoulishly grinning young man in the center of the room. Fawn and the other older boys behind him all stopped, covering noses and mouths to filter out the stench of old ice and corpse-rot that poured forth.
"Ice!" he shouted, fear battling concern for dominance in his tone.
Ironically, it was the fear that saved him. He had never heard fear in Tiger's voice before, and it drove a red-hot spike deep into his soul. Somewhere within himself, he desperately tried to stop it, to end the carnage, to pull back from the brink. He could feel himself slipping, as though there was a razor-thin wire suspended over a bottomless pit, and he was teetering precariously thereupon.
Crying out his denial, willing himself not to plunge into that darkness—it would be so easy, the voices whispered—he brought himself up short.
Tiger was frozen, his teeth ground together and his eyes squeezed shut in preparation to receive the impact he expected, but the blow never came. When he ventured a look, his expression quickly became one of horror. Behind the struggling boy, the room was fighting a battle of its own—apparently, with reality. From between the boards of the walls, floor, and ceiling, blood welled upward, running in thick rivulets to pool in burbling puddles, through which inhuman faces bubbled and disappeared in endless cycles. The furniture trembled and danced across the carpet, and the half-burnt, ravaged cadaver of Lord Marl lurched to its feet all at once, its joints at unnatural angles, and stumbled towards them.
His fist was a shadow's breadth from Tiger's nose, shaking uncontrollably as he attempted to master whatever force it was that possessed him. All the power in that surely fatal blow had to go somewhere, and when it failed to exit his body, he could feel parts of himself nearly rupture. Blood leaked from beneath his fingernails, ran out of his ears and from between his lips; scarlet tears coursed down his cheeks, from eyes aglow with acidic green light. Twisted bruises spiraled up his outstretched arm as the palsy grew more pronounced, and his tender skin split in a branching pattern, spurting more ruby fluid that froze as it struck the quaking floor, and yet ate downward, sizzling into the wood and the stone beneath it.
There was a violent concussion that rocked the building as he flew backward, propelled away from Tiger by the blast. He slammed into the gory wall, and stars replaced the midnight of his wavering vision. As he slid downward, he saw the shattered Lord Marl, dead for the second time in as many minutes, smashed across the desk, saw Viranda run, sobbing, into the arms of Fawn, who stood open-mouthed with a look of utter shock. The younger boys were there now, outside in the hall, peeking round and being shoved to safety repeatedly by their older brethren. Tiger had fallen against the doorframe, clutching the jamb for support, and shook his head groggily before turning to make certain Fawn was unharmed.
As the scene dissolved into red mist, he thought he could make out the redhead coming towards him, bending downward, calling out, but the sounds of the others—Fawn's tearful cries, Viranda, her composure mostly recovered, murmuring urgently—were hollow, sepulchral, distant. He tried to smile, to show them that it was all right, that he was going to be fine, but that strange night fell upon him once more, and he felt his body, a dead weight, falling to the side, as the blackness filled his sight.
And then he knew no more.