AN: Okay so the title may not seem to make a whole lot of sense-at first. (Sorta like how "Bleach" doesn't actually make immediate sense to everyone.) So let's have a little bit of fun, shall we? The first person who can correctly tell me how the title fits into the work itself gets to decide the subject/premise of my next short. The request won't have to be detailed or specific (though that will be welcome as well). A few ideas or even random words will do. ^_^ The connection isn't super straight-forward, but it is super-specific. Good Luck!

A more fleshed out summary: Some boundaries cannot be broken, even if love is the wager. Honor & Trust. Weakness & strength. All are tested when a brothel slave falls for an Imperial General. Kego has lived as a prostitute at the Bell House under Master Learnis since he was nine. The only light in this life is the kind General Failn Akrin. Still, life is not without its trials and even after several years, there are still things they don't know about each other. Will love or boundaries and appearances prove stronger?

I should say that while this doesn't get down and dirty, it's not rated 'M' just for kicks.

"This mark here… what's it mean?"

Kego shivered as a hot mouth descended over the small, tattooed scar of an exotic, red and blue flower positioned so far up his left arm that it sat almost on his shoulder. His muscles trembled under Akrin's fiery touch, where controlled fingers moved over cool, shivering skin. Despite himself, and even his regard for Akrin, a deep, ever-frightened part of him screamed for him to try and wriggle away. However, Master Learnis taught him long ago the dangers of resistance—and even more, his heart reminded him that Akrin wasn't like the others. Only the first few moments with Akrin ever felt this way—a habit learned from other 'guests' of the Bell House. After a few more short breaths, Kego would forget his pain and his fear and fall into the strange feelings of freedom and happiness the soldier always released him into.

"It… it's… uhn…"

"What's wrong?" Akrin teased. His hot breath moved over Kego's ear as his grip tightened around the younger man's slender form. His fingers dug a little harder against Kego's already sore nipple that Akrin had never hurt. After a moment of silent taunting, Akrin's tongue snaked over the outer rim of Kego's ear to send excited shivers all throughout his body. "So hot you can't even answer?"

"Nngh…" was the extent of the pathetic response he could muster while Akrin's hands teased and tortured him with pleasure that overran pain conferred by other, careless customers. There. It was beginning… the white emptiness of peace and pleasure that only Akrin could provide.


Despite the helpless state Akrin's skilled contact imposed, Kego grew desperate to answer. He knew Akrin would never turn violent with him over anything, especially something as simple as being unable to answer while being teased. That alone, made Kego want to please the man all the more—provide exactly what Akrin wanted from him. "It's… M-master Learnis's… b-brand…" he forced.

"Brand?" Akrin prompted, his voice noticeably lower than before as his every motioned stilled.

"A m-mark… of slavery…" Kego expanded.

Kego's eyes flew wide as he registered the sudden cold blast against the bare skin of his back when Akrin withdrew. He turned, confused as to why the imperial general pulled away. Had Kego done something to displease the onyx-haired and eyed man? After all, Akrin had never pulled away from him like that before.

Akrin stood at the edge of the sleeping mat, staring down on Kego with an expression of that spoke of betrayal. Faint lines of maturity outline the frown on his lips and in his eyes. The tall soldier's fists clenched in what could be nothing less than rage as his entire body appeared more like one of the garden's concrete statues than a living, breathing man. His stance, normally strong and relaxed, strained so that all his defined muscles stood out in the yellow lamplight. That light reflected off the few deep scars that perfect body bore as testament to his profession.

"I…" Kego started, nervousness creeping into his voice. His idle hand lifted to tug his elegant, green lounge robe back up and over his shoulder as sudden embarrassment rose to strangle him. What had he done? Why did Akrin now look at him like he was somehow unclean? Kego knew he was dirty, but the gentle soldier had never before treated him as such. Why now? "I'm sorry… Forgive me."

"What are you apologizing for?" Akrin growled. His handsome face twisted into a slight scowl, the first Kego had ever seen over his distinguished features.

Kego's heart sank. Akrin sometimes grew a little over-zealous, but even when it hurt, Kego knew it wasn't out of malice or disregard. Furthermore, unlike most others, it always felt good, as well. He'd never heard that savage tone rise from the gentle man who now filled the room with anger thick enough to choke on.

"For whatever I did to displease you," he murmured, lowering his eyes in penitence. Akrin's sense of humor, his delicate flattery, and sweet touch were the only things Kego had to look forward to in his life. What would he do if he lost all that? He just couldn't lose Akrin's patronage. "I would never displease you on purpose. You must know that."

"You're a slave."

The blunt comment summoned tears to Kego's eyes as it stabbed through his heart. The slender youth did not require a reminder of that fact. Why did the one man who could help him forget bring it up?

"Of course," he answered. A strange thought made him lift his head ever so slightly to sneak a peek at that angry face. He pressed his lips together and furrowed his brow. "Did you not know?"

"I…" Akrin's head turned towards his right shoulder as his arms shook and his eyes pinched shut. This dropped strands of his short, black hair over his forehead since Kego's hands had previously loosed them from their typical position swept back away from Akrin's face. "No. He swore th…" Akrin's voice trailed away.

Kego swallowed hard and lowered his head again. Why did he find the fact that Akrin hadn't known he was a slave so embarrassing? No, that wasn't it. He was embarrassed because now Akrin knew. He didn't before—but now… he did. Was Akrin angry because he believed Kego hid his status?

"Never mind," Akrin growled, turning away.

Kego swung his head upwards, unable to fight the sensation of his heart crawling up his throat. Tears blurred the horrific image of Akrin gathering his remaining things after he pulled on his own deep blue, lounge robe over his perfect body—all without a single glance back to Kego.

"W-will you return?" The youth did his best to make sure his voice remained steady to hide the tears now plain on his face. There were limits even his terrified grief was not permit to cross.

"I won't."

Kego had to believe an arrow to the chest would hurt less than the frank, cold denial. Worse, the words couldn't kill him like the arrow could. "I… I see," Kego forced out. He knew voicing the remaining words that roiled in his heart would only wound him further and deepen his shame, but keeping them inside would be the ultimate betrayal of self—something he just couldn't live with. "I… I will ever regret the loss of your company. I wish you the utmost joy in your life."


So it was slavery Akrin couldn't forgive him for.

Kego closed his eyes and summoned up every remaining measure of courage he could. "Akrin… it wasn't a crime, you know," he murmured, keeping his eyes locked on his trembling, folded hands.


The snarl burned Kego's ears and twisted his heart, but hope staved off the immediate pain. At least in the asking, Akrin hadn't completed his departure. Perhaps that gave Kego a chance. "The reason I'm a slave," he continued his humble words. "I know you hold no respect for criminals… so I just wanted you to know. I didn't do anything wrong. Please, don't think ill of me."

Almost as immediate as darkness after blowing out a candle, the atmosphere in the room changed from uncomfortable and harsh to uncertain and tender. Kego heard Akrin turn from the door. The silence that followed felt simply awkward instead of painful.

"Why would you care?"

"What?" Kego dared to lift his eyes in study of Akrin's perplexed face.

Instead of anger to twist those perfect lines and angles of the man's dark face, a perplexed hope clung to his distinguished features. His ebony eyes narrowed as they burned with what looked like pain or distress. His lips turned downward as they tightened. "Why would you care if I thought that way or not?"

Kego felt his face flush. True enough, for most of his patrons he wouldn't care if they viewed him as the scum of the earth—no, that wasn't quite true. Most of his patrons already viewed him as the scum of the earth, and those few that didn't, Kego felt complete indifference towards. He wouldn't care if any one of them walked away with the claim they would never return: one less man to lie to—and with—in attempt to please and avoid the master's punishment. But Akrin… oh Failn Akrin was different…

"After all," Akrin continued, causing Kego's heart to twist in confusion at the strangled pain he detected flowing among the words. "If you're a slave, that means I'm nothing more than another man who paid your owner for the right to rape you. You couldn't have wanted the…"

"No!" Kego blurted, unable to let Akrin continue his words. Was that what bothered him? Kego's body thrust him forward, as he stretched out in a most ill-mannered way to touch Akrin's unshod feet in his desperation. The tears returned to his eyes, and he shook his head, his long, red hair falling before his face. "It wasn't like that with you!"

For a moment, Akrin stared at him in silence, his face unchanging. "But how can I believe you wouldn't say that to anyone so you don't lose a patron and get punished?"

"It's true Master Learnis would be displeased," Kego admitted as his face blushed with what he was about to say. Still, if he could possibly make Akrin understand, he would do anything. "However, ask him how many times customers have appealed to him to correct my apparent impotence. Ask him how many remedies he's tried… Even he has never been able to make me stand."

"You've never…"

"That's right," Kego answered, lowering his head further in his embarrassment. "You have ever been kind and attentive to me. Just the thought of you is enough to make me… well… Certainly at first I thought you were like the others—but that first night… you said you just wanted to get to know me a little first. You didn't even touch me. Can you imagine how much that made me love y…?"

Kego gasped and ducked down to cover his mouth. What was he saying? There was a limit to the level of honesty he was allowed. A slave just couldn't go around professing love to a free-born man of great importance in the Imperial Army—one of the four Cardinal Generals no less. Besides, even if Akrin was kind, he still came paying for services, which meant he wanted a relationship he could cut off at anytime. He didn't want attachments. If learning that Kego was a slave hadn't driven him away, something like a profession of love just might.

The young slave gasped again when he felt a warm hand move through his long, hair as another slid under his chin to lift his head. For a moment they gazed at each other in silence.

Akrin's voice held only tender encouragement as he coaxed, "Finish what you were saying."

Kego swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and pinched his tearing eyes shut, only to have the tears streak down his face. "I don't think you can know how much I love you," he whispered, "how much you existence gives me the will to live and the strength to endure."

Akrin's midnight-black eyes bore clear through Kego's soul as they flicked between the slave's ice-blue ones—part of what made him so popular at the brothel. "Is that true, Kego?" His voice was even softer than normal.

The youth's head weighed heavier against Akrin's unmoving grip as more tears streamed from his eyes. He didn't dare use his voice from the danger of it betraying him. However, he nodded, sliding his hands away from his mouth to grip Akrin's wrists as if that alone might keep the influential soldier near him forever.

Faster than Kego could think, Akrin lunged forward. Kego found himself on his back with Akrin's strong arms wrapped around him, one at his waist and the other around his neck and shoulders. Despite his surprise, he let his arms slide around the solid form of the man who once more provided that pleasant weight of warmth over him. Did this mean Akrin forgave him for his numberless faults?

"Kego," Akrin breathed in the slave's ear over and over again. "Kego…"

Kego felt himself rising in answer to the embrace, but Akrin made no move to continue where they left off. Instead, for the remainder of the night, he simply held Kego against him, breathing in his ear and against his neck. For some reason, that simple, clothed embrace felt more intimate and awkward than anything Kego had ever experienced. He could only hold onto Akrin for dear life.

Long before dawn, Akrin woke to the memories of the prior night washing over him like a choking flood. Kego was a slave. Gods, this all changed so much. What in the name of every holy entity was he to do now? Even if Akrin finally worked up his courage and folded to his ever-present desires, Kego would have no right to come away with him, even if he did desire it in return.

Akrin's heart twisted in anger and pain as he withdrew from the sleeping mat where Kego curled beside him. He'd long known of his jealous nature, and his new knowledge made him want to retch. Whenever he thought of another man touching the delicate individual whose slender body and quiet, witty conversation summoned such peace and happiness in the Akrin's heart… Oh, he wanted to cut off any hand but his own that dared.

He looked down on his fair companion through the grey, morning shadows as the lamp had long since burned away. Kego whimpered a little and curled tighter. Akrin sighed and drew the covers under Kego's chin while he bent down to brush a tender kiss over the top of his fiery head. "Sleep," he whispered, knowing that the word would be enough to set Kego at ease for a little while more.

What a fool he was. He'd only come to the Bell House all those years ago due to a lost wager between himself and one of his officers. He'd meant to accompany his socially-timid lieutenant, chat politely with one of the prostitutes, and never return. However, that very first night, this delicate star had risen in his eye and now summoned him back to the brothel whenever he had the chance. Ever since, the mornings when he woke with this gentle beauty beside him were the sweetest of his life. He'd never really been interested in prostitutes before, of either gender, and none of the other men of the Bell House had even tempted him, so he had to conclude Kego was special.

Akrin shook his head and moved to seat himself beside the window to begin his morning meditation. His mind needed clearing and he needed to think. He crossed his legs beneath him and rested his wrists against his knees while his eyes drifted shut.

Though detached from it, he heard the birds in the brothel gardens begin to sing as the sun crept towards the horizon and eventually above, stretching its warming light over the bare, wood floor before him. Shortly after, he heard his companion begin to stir again. Desperate fear rose in the air as Kego's actions moved towards flailing.

"Calm down," he instructed as a slight, amused smile twisted his lips. Kego was still nervous.

Almost immediately, that strange tint in the air evaporated, and Akrin listened to Kego creep over the floor towards him. After a moment of stillness, Kego deposit his head in Akrin's lap.

Akrin smiled a little as he opened his eyes to look down on shivering individuals who, at times like this, reminded him of an abandoned dog desperate for love. He lifted his hand to twine his fingers through the hip-length crimson locks spread over his leg and the floor beyond.

"I didn't mean to disturb you." Kego's tone was both penitent and hesitant, reflecting his knowledge that such a forward, intimate action could be considered rude.

That, of course, didn't matter to Akrin. Meditation served him; he did not serve it. Furthermore, he often both permitted and enjoyed when Kego would initiate or allow such contact.

"Kego, how long have you been a slave?"

Kego's eyes flew wide, and he jolted. After a moment, Akrin could feel him swallowing hard against his leg as his eyes dropped closed again. "Since I was nine—makes about eight years, I think."

For a moment, Akrin's lungs refused to function. "You… you're only seventeen?"


A twenty-six year age-difference. That blow fell almost as hard as finding out that Kego was a slave. Not only a slave, but little more than a child when they'd begun their relationship four and a half years ago. What a fool Akrin had been… The gods damn him for his blindness! He just looks young for his age my ass… he growled to himself. Why had he allowed the brothel owner's words to placate him? Granted Kego had been tall, but still he should have known. He'd obviously had doubts at the time, since he asked Learnis if Kego was really as much younger than the other Bell House residents as he'd looked. Perhaps Kego had entrenched himself in Akrin's heart far longer ago than he'd thought.

"I wonder if anything that bastard ever told me was true," he mused to himself.


"It's nothing," he dismissed the question. Learnis's lies were of little importance now. It was his fault for swallowing them. There were other things he needed to know. "Why were you made a slave?"

"I'm not sure," he answered, his voice wavering. "I wasn't—I lived with my older brother, with my cousins and my aunt. Then one day, men came and took me away. That's all I know. Master Learnis claims auntie sold me to him, but I… I won't believe if even if it's true. She loved us, and gata-Li would never have allowed it."

"Why didn't you run away?"

"Until I was twelve, I did, whenever I got the chance."

"What made you give up?"

Akrin watched a flush creep over the face he now knew didn't just look young. "Kego?" he prompted when the youth squirmed the way he did when he didn't want to answer a question. "What made you give up?"

"I… I met you. Master Learnis said he would never let me even talk to you if I ever tried to run again."

"I see." Akrin knew that it was inappropriate and selfish that such a confession should make him so very happy, and yet it did. He sighed as his thoughts turned to more serious matters. "Kego, I probably won't be able to return for a while."

"Did I do something wrong?"

Akrin sighed and his fingers pressed a little harder against Kego's head. "No. I imagine the only innocent one in all this mess has been you."

Kego lifted his head and pressed his lips together while confusion shone in his eyes. "Akrin… you didn't do anyt…"

"Don't say it," Akrin growled, turning his gaze away. He couldn't bear to hear words of justification. Regardless of what Kego thought now, and regardless of the fact that Akrin hadn't know at the time, he'd paid to have sex with a, at most, thirteen-year-old, male slave—and had continued to do so for almost five years. Nothing could change those facts. "Just don't say it."

Kego dropped his head down again. "I love you," he whispered after a moment.

"Kego, you can't mean that… You're just a boy," he murmured, his heart twisting at the thought. What sort of sick bastard did that make him?

"I'm older than most of your newest soldiers," he challenged, in the quiet voice he always used when he knew he was right but had to argue something that Akrin didn't want to admit. "If they're old enough to die for Hellestin, I'm old enough to love you."

"Still… I'm old enough to be your father."

"But you're not my father," Kego answered, his sultry voice burrowing through Akrin's doubts and shame to settle deep in his heart. Kego writhed a little, backing even closer to Akrin. "You're Akrin, and I'll love you until the day I die."

"I can see that you're still tired, Kego," Akrin soothed, unable and almost unwilling, to fight the rush of joy that swept through him in response to those words. "Sleep."


He watched the youth drift off to sleep once again, his face slipping into that relaxed innocence that Akrin never grew tired of. For a moment, he let himself wonder if Kego showed that face to anyone else.

The general sighed and lowered his head as he considered his position. Though his gut turned at the prospect, he knew he was going to have to go to that ass in the Emperor's Cabinet to seek advice and aid. Delmon would surely demand some sort of unreasonable compensation; still, even the time, energy, and effort Akrin would have to contribute would be much less than if he tried this alone. Akrin had always been a straightforward man, and while, usually, he could smell a lie or a cheating tongue a mile away, it seemed that he lost his senses when Kego was involved. Even worse, he lacked the ability to outmaneuver the cheats and the slippery, double-crossing foxes of their society. Akrin could only avoid or crush them. As Learnis was not one of his men, he had no authority to crush that particular cheating tongue, and if he meant to gain Kego, he could not avoid him. A man as sharp of Learnis saw everything that happened under his roof, and by now, he must know Kego had entrenched himself in Akrin's heart. The brothel-keeper would surely be reluctant to part with a prize that would keep one of the Emperor's Cardinal Generals crawling back to the Bell House.

"I'll get you out of here," he whispered in Kego's ear as he played with the threads of beautiful, red silk. He leaned further over to press his lips against Kego's temple. "I swear it. Wait for me."

Kego sighed in his sleep as he curled into a smaller ball. His hand stretched out in a creeping search until Akrin slipped his hand into the youth's. A gentle smile tilted those perfect lips as Kego's soft fingers tightened around Akrin's.

The days dragged by, wearing heavy on Kego's mind and spirit. Akrin said it would be a while before he returned, how long was 'a while'? In the past five years, his Imperial Duties had occasionally kept him away from the Bell House for months at a time—especially during that damned war in the north that ended only a year ago. Did that mean this time it would be even greater? How bleak.

The young entertainer's eyes began to wander around the finery of the Bell House. The silvertree-wooded walls sported drapes of silk and gold-spun linens from the far western regions of the empire, where master cloth-makers passed secrets only to their devoted apprentices even upon pain of death. The fine lounge chairs, hand-wrought settees, and lavish sitting pillows sat in such a way to resemble more a painting than a house of whores. As it was growing chilly outside, the far wall sported a grand blaze that both heated and lit the room, casting dancing shadows over all the bright and glittering surfaces.

Kego supposed he did have to be a little grateful for his life. After all, he hadn't ended up in one of the brothels in the Shen-hi District, but just the Shend. He'd heard some of the other prostitutes talking about the Shen-hi and the horrors that lived in the dirty darkness there. Thoughts of unlit brothels decorated with chains and armed guards made his skin crawl. At least here, he lived the mockery of a decent life. Master Learnis always provided wholesome food and clean water to his six slaves and ten live-in prostitutes. He punished only when provoked or disobeyed—rather than when irritated with life. Furthermore, Kego was not only allowed but required to bathe and care of himself. Yes, there were far worse situations he could have fallen into. After all, he couldn't imagine that Akrin would ever step foot in a place as foul and dirty as the harsh Shen-hi District.

Perhaps it would be better to turn his mind from Akrin…

Kego sighed as he sat back against the long lounge, waiting for one of the patrons to take an interest in him. Normally, he didn't have to wait long, but today Master Learnis teased the few guests in attendance with his newest acquisition. The men drooled like dogs over this new slave. Kego sighed as he considered the situation. The boy's hair and eyes were black like most others', but unlike most, his skin was fair—almost white—a rarity indeed. Of all the prostitutes in the Shend District, only Kego's skin was also that pale. Kego guessed the boy must have come from the northlands somewhere, just as he had.

Oh well, if the patrons busied themselves fighting over the newest addition, it meant they ignored him, which suited the young slave just fine. After that heated and emotional exchange with Akrin, every night without him grew more painful and every submission that was not to him became as torture. Even his more patient patrons seemed to grow exasperated. Quiet Lord Geston hit him only two days prior for being 'unresponsive'.

Kego brushed the hair from his pale eyes, when something caught his attention. The eleven other entertainers slated to work tonight looked as pleased with the situation and indifferent towards the boy as he felt. The six that worked would get paid regardless, and the five other slaves wouldn't have to endure.

His eyes traveled back to the child. As far as Kego knew, he was the only one who'd ever served at the Bell House before reaching adulthood. Did that mean Kego was some sort of trial and Learnis was now thinking of establishing a collection of boys as well as the adult entertainers? Or maybe was it just Northern boys he found profitable.

Kego frowned as he increased his attention. Though it wasn't obvious, Kego saw Master Learnis's grip kept the child from bolting. Worse, the slight tremor of the boy's lounge robe betrayed his shaking. Kego's apathy washed away, leaving room only for guilt and a stab of pain. Had he really sunk so low that he would be grateful a child distracted the guests? Master Learnis had certainly 'trained' the boy already, but still, Kego remembered the absolute agony of those first few months even after his degrading training—and then the hatred, disgust, and pain in the years before he finally met Akrin.

The slave threw himself to his feet after regaining his composure. Making a scene wouldn't serve his purpose. Despite the disgust crawling through his gut, he knew what he had to do. He steadied his nerves and sighed as he glided towards the group of guests.

His hand slid over the hip and then down and inwards of the man he came to first. "I'm jealous," he lied as he craned his neck and pouted his lips. "You said that I was your favorite. And you…" He passed old man Jathrin and reached up to caress Lathle's neck and jaw, "You said you couldn't imagine anyone feeling better than me." His turned to the minister of trade. "You claimed that if it wasn't me you wouldn't even be aroused." Kego slunk towards the last of the four men to wrap his arms around the tall man's neck. "I believed you when you said you'd only be satisfied with me."

Kego released him and drew back to walk away. He glanced over his shoulder, bare of the robe that slipped down, in what he knew to be one of the most seductive poses in his arsenal. "I'm hurt to know that you've all lied to me."

"It's not like that," Jathrin blurted. "It's just…"

"He's prettier than me," Kego cut him off forcing tears to his entrancing, blue eyes. Of course, the tears came from the thought of this utter betrayal towards Akrin, but those beasts would never know. "He's younger than me. You're all going to throw me away for some inexperienced, half-grown brat." His lips pressed together in another pout. "I see you are all fickle as jay-birds."

"Kego!" the minister of trade interrupted as he broke away from the group to approach. "Jathrin just said it's not like that."

"And how can I believe it?" he murmured craning his head back as he leaned against Lord Mathr. One of his hands strayed between the man's legs to remind him just how experienced Kego was.

He was grateful Lord Mathr was the first to fall before him. Of all four of the men, Lord Mathr would be the one to hurt an inexperienced child the most. If the boy could avoid Mathr as his first patron, Kego would be a least comforted. He was grateful that he'd never played the seducer before as it now improved his chances of winning them over with this new act.

"How can we prove it?" Batra growled, running his hand through his hair.

Kego pouted a little more and rested the side of his head against Mathr's chest as he looked back to the group and then to his owner. "Master Learnis," he cooed. "Won't you, just once, let me take on more than one customer? I can't believe them unless they all show me tonight."

"Now don't be selfish, my pet," Master Learnis answered in a patronizing voice, though hunger and laughter swarmed behind his eyes. "None of these men will want to pay the additional price."

"Additional price?" Lathle inquired.

"Of course," Master Learnis answered. "Because it is so much more tiring and potentially damaging to my flowers, entertaining more than one guest carries the additional charge of one-hundred wegs."

Kego could have screamed at that moment. Of course it wasn't true, but Master Learnis's greed and his easy pick-up of the situation could ruin everything. Kego would just have to try harder.

"See?" he whimpered when he felt them all drawing back a little. "I'm not even worth a measly one-hundred wegs to you jay-birds."

He pushed away from Mathr and reached up to rub the water from his eyes. "I understand. Go play with the new t…"

"I'll pay it!" Jathrin blurted.

Not to be out done, Batra joined in, leaving only miserly Lathle and harsh Mathr to agree. Of course, Kego knew Lathle would agree, because even less than he could stand parting with his coin could he stand to be outdone. This left only Mathr, who Kego knew didn't like backing down from a challenge. Kego pouted a little harder while his hand brushed up and down ever so slightly. The slave watched the action tip the scales in Mathr's eyes. He knew the thought of those three getting to touch Kego, who currently pleased him, was what did the trick.

"Fine, but I get first shot," he growled gripping Kego's thin upper arms.

Kego smiled and nodded. He glanced back at the boy who gazed at him with wide, eyes and a half-parted mouth. Tears glittered along the rim of those astonished eyes and his hands clenched together just before his chest.

"Sorry to steal your first customers, pipsqueak," he called, and though his words were cold, he hoped the warmth in his eyes would speak louder as he tilted his head ever so slightly to the side. "Try to hedge your disappointment when you're alone tonight."

Without further exchange, Kego turned to lead his train of salivating dogs to one of the larger chambers upstairs. As he began to ascend the stairs, his sharp ears caught part of the quiet conversation between his master and the newest 'flower'.

"It seems a little competition was all that boy needed to bloom," the master laughed. "I hope you paid close attention, because if you're ever going to have anything you want, you'll have to learn to play the customers just as well."

Kego groaned even before he fully woke. Gods, he just wanted to roll over and fall back into the empty darkness. The sound of dripping water broke through his haze before something cool and wet moved over his forehead and then down each cheek in turn.

"Are you awake?" The delicate voice and concerned question pulled him from the darkness with greater pull than even the comforting cool of the cloth.

Kego kept his eyes pinched shut but nodded. "You the new slave?"


"I hope you'll forgive last night's interference," he murmured, moving to sit up. He only accomplishing shifting upwards to lean against his left hip and elbow. His right hand lifted to his mouth to help him fight the wave of pain-induced nausea.

"My first night was put off, I'd forgive anyone almost anything for that," the boy whispered, almost as if he knew the pain shooting behind Kego's closed eyes. "My name's Rendali."

Kego forced one of his eyes open. So he was from the north country. "Pale child, eh?" he asked. "Fits. I'm Kego."

"That's not your name," the boy asserted. His dark eyes lacked any doubt as his passive expression betrayed nothing of his thoughts to Kego.

Kego blinked at him. "What?"

"Your name. No one of the Snow Tribes would name their child 'Kego', even if they didn't like them. It's too ominous."

Kego couldn't help but chuckle as he lost the determination to sit upright and so flopped down again, this time on his stomach. "Maybe a parent wouldn't name their child such," he agreed, "but an uninformed aunt from the south might."

"I see," Rendali answered. "What's your real name then?"

"I don't know," he murmured. "What time is it?"

"Shortly after midday."

Only a few hours then before he had to start over. He sighed and gripped the pillow tighter. "How did you end up here? How old are you anyway?"

Rendali giggled a little and Kego opened his eyes to find the click he'd heard was Rendali setting down a clay tumbler, hopefully filled with water. "Eleven," he answered. "I was born to serve the chief's first son in any way he should need. Lord Jaithrain was a kind master and always treated me well—never even once did he attempt to… with me… Several months ago, raiders entered our village. Spoils and all that."

"I see." So that was why he seemed so mature and yet still inexperienced. The personal servants of authority had no time to be naïve or childish in the north.

"How did you become a slave?"

"I'm not sure," Kego answered as he forced himself to sit all the way up, despite the sharp pain in his backside. He hoped his tone conveyed the fact he considered that line of the conversation ended. It had been extraordinary when he shared his past with even Akrin; he couldn't do it again so soon.

"You did it for me, didn't you?"


"Last night," Rendali answered as he moved behind Kego to begin brushing out the long, crimson locks, no doubt in terrible disarray from last night's torture—there was no other word for what he endured. "When you took the four away… It was for me."

Kego sighed. "Yes."

"Thank you."

"It was right."

"Uhm… may I call you gata-Ke?"

Kego smiled a little to himself. For some reason the designation of older brother by the slender waif behind him swelled his chest with honor. "That'd be nice, Ren."