Summary: Duke Kasha is known for his wild parties and devotion to the latest fashions. But beneath his seemingly frivolous exterior, he seeks revenge on a brutish enemy officer for an unspeakable crime. Yet is Kasha going down a dark road he can never return from?
Rated: M for mature situations (sexual or otherwise)
The king was just adjusting his wig on top of his nearly bald head when there was a knock upon his door. He let out a loud grunt, and the door was opened to admit his seneschal.
"What is it?"
"Your Highness, Duke Kasha has arrived."
The king's wig slipped slightly as he groaned. Frowning in the mirror, he situated it properly on the center of his scalp. Then he turned, shooting a rather displeased look at his seneschal. The man recoiled slightly, biting his lip.
"Yes, your Majesty. He traveled light, it seems."
"Ugh, damn that fop." He inhaled deeply and composed himself. "Let Kasha know that I will see him when I am very well ready to see him. And do not let him touch anything. I think one of my silver candlesticks went missing last time my nephew was here."
The man nodded and scuttled away.
The king dressed as slowly as was appropriate. He'd grown up being waited on by attendants, but at this age he was sick of them scurrying around like rats. He was getting older, and he had no more patience for those silly manservants. They were nearly as bad as the women servants when it came to gossip.
He took his time, but it was inevitable he'd have to get going. The king had a great many nephews because his sisters had wombs as fertile as volcanic valleys, so he forgot the names of most of them. However, Kasha could not be forgotten. While most of his nephews dwindled away their time and fortunes on horses and whores, Kasha was of a very different fiber. He was just as irritating as the rest—at least the king thought so—but to the king's annoyance, Kasha also had a mind sharp as glass. Instead of wasting the money of his inheritance, he invested it. His family had been given the smallest plot of land the king had to offer (because the king had been least fond of his youngest daughter, Kasha's mother) but so far it was one of few not overrun with debt collectors. From what he heard, life on the Jentirrya estate was happy and unfettered by problems on the outside world. Kasha had even done the impossible: gotten married. Now, the woman he'd chosen was a bit on the inappropriate side, but just the fact that she was a woman at all impressed the king. Kasha even had a son, or so he said. He had not yet seen such a child.
"Uncle!" came the cry the moment the king rounded the stairs. The foyer stretched beneath him, elegant and gilded in gold. The king had always had a fine taste in both architecture and art. That had been a family trait, dating back to the beginning of their family's rule.
"Kasha," the king muttered, peering down at his nephew. He was dressed ridiculously, of course. His black boots and riding trousers were nothing to snort at, but his riding coat was blue and trimmed in gold, something hardly to be worn on a ride from the Kasha estate to here, a week-long trip. Normally. Kasha had somehow made it in four days. Kasha also wore an enormous tricorn hat with impressive blue plumes sewn into the rim. His shoulder-length black hair was curled into ringlets, understandable if it had in fact been a wig. But it wasn't. Kasha actually dedicated that much time to his hair.
"What do you want now, Kasha? I've not the patience for you. There is a war going on."
"That is exactly what I've come to speak to you about, Your Highness!" Kasha trilled, stepping forward lightly. Any fool would assume he'd been trained to walk at finishing school. The king snorted at the idea. He could hardly believe that this boy was related to his male stock, all of whom were big, muscled warrior-types.
Kasha was followed by his loyal steward, Lidagara, a man from the barbarian east, where deserts were plenty and robbers aplentier. Lidaraga's kind were used as slaves up north, but the king himself did not care for the slave business. Paying for human flesh was never an appetizing trade. No, the king would stick to exports that were most successful: wine and sheep.
"Since when do you travel so far to speak of war, Kasha? Don't you have bigger worries at your estates, such as painting or entertaining guests of questionable repute?" The king took a glass of wine that was offered to him on a platter by a servant.
"Your Highness," Kasha said in a chiding manner that reminded the king of his nanny. "I do more than host parties and paint. In fact, I do no longer paint. I stopped that a year ago. I've picked up harpsichord since then."
The king rolled his eyes as he shuffled into the dining hall, which was empty save a single servant who was sweeping up the ash by the fireplace. Sunlight filtered through the magnificent flamboyant windows, landing in intricate shapes upon the stained wooden floors. Kasha followed him, the plumes in his hat bobbing as he walked. The king noticed the delicate lace peeking out from underneath his riding coat.
"Alright then. Follow me to my study and we shall discuss this."
"Thank you, Uncle."
The king cleared his throat.
"Your Highness," Kasha corrected, bowing low. His hat toppled off his curls, and he struggled to grab it before it hit the floor. Then he trotted to catch up to his uncle. The king had never been nimble and at his age even less so, but he was still a tall, powerful man. He took one stride for every two of Kasha's.
Once in the study, the king collapsed into the chair behind his desk and peered at Kasha from beneath thick dark eyebrows.
"Well, Kasha? What is it that you want?"
Kasha put the extended fingers of both hands on the surface of the king's desk, leaning forward in a manner that could be construed as flirtatious if the king didn't know his nephew any better. "Your Highness, word has reached me about the war. It has been said that a certain colonel was captured several months ago."
The king took another sip of wine. "Colonel Rodan, yes. We were hoping his capture would lead to some rather large victories, but I fear the Milarkans have kept him as ignorant as possible. We've really put him through quite a . . . session, but he had nothing to give us, and I don't honestly believe he has much to give at all. We also captured his son along with a good twenty others from his unit. None of them are talking, and I fear they are just as ignorant." The king sighed. "This war drags on too long."
"Oh yes, I heard about his son as well."
The king peered at Kasha suspiciously. "What do you want from me?"
Kasha perched himself on top of the king's desk delicately, like a courtesan might. The king might have barked at him for such rudeness, but the sooner Kasha removed himself from this office, the better the king's day would be. He rarely ever had to deal with Kasha since he agreed to give him a strip of his own land and a nice manor house to live in. He liked to keep it that way.
"You see, Uncle, I was really hoping . . . I was hoping you could surrender the Colonel to me. Along with his son and the twenty others."
"You're mad. I'm going to have them all killed come next week."
"Wonderful! Then you clearly have no use for them. However, I can find a use for the colonel and the other men. And I do really think you'd approve, considering your rather base opinion of the Milarkans." He threw a coquettish smile at the king. "Aren't they just scum to you, Your Highness?"
"Well, I'm not sure about them being scum, but they're rife with disease. Not to mention their diets make them smell like dead fish and most of them haven't a tooth in their head after thirty. Some of them are missing fingers and toes from the bitter cold, and I always hear of some plague or scuffle that's killing off half their numbers. They clearly don't understand the simpler things in life, such as enjoying a good glass of wine whilst watching an opera. But this does not tell me why you want the colonel in the first place, Kasha."
Kasha plucked at his bottom lip with two fingers. "Yes, well, I too don't care much for the Milarkans, what with this whole 'invading our lands' nonsense they're so fond of. Now, I'm not about to insult your methods, dear King, but I have some rather nefarious ways I take care of Milarkans. Whippings and starvation are all fine and good, but I'd like to think any man who is the Colonel of an army is a proud man, and simple pain is not going to do him in. Especially when he comes from such a hard environment up north. Why, I bet starvation is just another day in the life of a Milarkan."
"Go on," the king said.
"A man like him needs to be humiliated. The Milarkans are so big on pride, you see. It is more important than food, than water, than shelter. If you remove the pride, you break them. This is what I intend for the colonel."
The king paused, then asked incredulously, "You plan to do this?"
"Uncle, while I may look like a pampered kitten, I am also quite evil. You should know this by now."
"Yes, but . . . why the colonel?"
Kasha blinked slowly. He had his mother's big doe eyes, along with her thick eyelashes. Unfortunately, he had a rather beakish nose and a long chin, which kept him from being one of the boyish beauties they kept in the theater to play female characters.
"Isn't a man allowed his secrets?" he finally answered with a coy smile.
"I'm the king. I deserve to know everything. Especially if I am handing you over a very valuable prisoner of war."
"But you said he's useless."
"For information. Not for leverage."
"I don't think the Milarkans are willing to pay to get him back. Isn't that correct?" The king was silent, and Kasha snorted in triumph. "Uncle, you have no need for him. You were just going to kill him."
"Yes, well, if I give him to you he may escape. And while he's useless as a prisoner, he's very dangerous as a soldier. They say he killed ten men before he was apprehended. He's one of the Milarkans more feared officers."
Kasha waved dismissively. "His strength and military prowess are of no consequence. What does matter is his men and his son. I shall require them. They are the key. And don't look at me like that, Uncle. I have very adequate means of imprisoning them. Remember the Heraats your father exiled forty years ago? Well, their last fort was located on my land, and it seems they've left me some remains of it. It's not a very pretty dungeon, but it's plenty enough to hold twenty soldiers. I've got enough guards to man them as well."
"You don't know soldiers or war, Kasha."
"My guards do. And give me some credit, Your Highness. I am smarter than all of your other nephews, and you know it. How intelligent can this colonel be? He's a man of brute strength, not cunning."
"He is an officer."
"The Milarkans promote anyone who can hold a rifle in the proper direction."
"You said the dungeon will be for the twenty soldiers. Not the colonel?"
"Oh no. The colonel will be separate from them."
There was a short silence. The king didn't know what to think. Kasha seemed absolutely certain, but of what the king couldn't be sure. He had some plan, and to be honest, the king was not interested in it. Kasha had always been a deviant sort but never a simple-minded one. He wanted this colonel for some reason, and he would not retire until the king gave the man to him. The king thought of housing Kasha in his palace for more than a day and paled. Kasha would wreak havoc for sure. Even if he behaved himself, the king had a constant stream of foreign guests which he had to impress. Kasha was an embarrassment. The king needed him to return back to his estate, and the sooner the better.
He was going to kill the colonel anyway. Rodan had no use. Even if he escaped, what was one colonel in an army of thousands? They'd only captured him for information, not for leverage. Maybe the colonel would escape and kill Kasha. It would be a lamentable loss of course, but Kasha would have brought it upon himself. Then perhaps the king could use his estate as another vacation home, because he remembered that manor having a rather lovely lake nearby. It would be perfect for fishing.
Suddenly this idea seemed perfect.
"Very well!" The king stood and smiled, stretching out his arms. "Your request has been granted."
Kasha slipped off the desk, blinking in shock. "Just like that?"
"Just like that, dear, dear nephew." The king rounded the desk and put an arm around Kasha's narrow shoulders. "Come! We'll put some breakfast in you, hand over these Milarkans, and you'll be out of here by noon!"
"That's not him."
"Yes, my lord, it is him."
Kasha could hardly believe the starved, bearded, and lice-infested creature lying half dead on the cold stone floor was a colonel. He'd heard rumors about the colonel—everyone had—and here he'd thought the man would still retain some of his ferociousness. But all Kasha saw was a very sick, very bloodied man who could be between the ages of eighteen and sixty. With all the grime and hair covering his face, it was impossible to tell. Kasha flinched at the smell and held out his hand to Lidaraga, who presented a handkerchief immediately. Delicately, Kasha pressed the silk to his nose. It didn't make the stench much better, but the light perfume helped keep him from fainting.
"He's in a ghastly state," Kasha told the guard, frowning.
"It's all in hopes of making him talk," the guard said with a shrug. "But they don't think he knows anything. If he does, he'll never tell us."
Kasha slowly pressed the sole of his slipper against the man's shoulder, nudging him gently. The man only groaned but made no move away from Kasha's foot.
"Ugh. Pathetic." He took a deep breath. "No matter. He's in my custody now. We'll get him cleaned up when we get him back to my manor. Lidagara, can you please pick him up and pull him out of this disgusting cell? Do watch your tunic; he's probably been lying in his own urine, and your dear wife made that for you."
"What do you plan on doing with him?" the guard asked.
"None of your business." Kasha swept past him, Lidaraga dragging Colonel Rodan in tow.
They had already removed the twenty or so other soldiers. They were in varying conditions, but they'd all been given powerful herbal sedatives that Kasha's amazing apothecary woman had made for this particular occasion. He didn't want to take any chances, so he had them all chained as well when he put them in the caged wagon.
"Should I put him with the others?" Lidagara asked.
"No. He will be traveling hog-tied on the back of your own horse, Lidagara. I apologize for the inconvenience, because he does smell, but we shall give him a good wash next stream we pass. I simply don't want him seeing the others. I hope keeping him sedated the entire trip won't do too much damage?"
"We shall see," Lidagara said with a smile.
"Are we mounting up now?" one of Kasha's men asked wearily as he stalked past him.
"Yes. I wouldn't want to inconvience uncle dear any further."
"But—but—we've been traveling for days. Can't we even grab something from the kitchens—?"
"Mount up!" Kasha snapped, then swept away, Lidagara following him with Rodan slung over his massive shoulder. Kasha stopped and took his horse Lydia from the footservant holding her. Lydia was a finely built mare, bred to race but hoarded as a treasure in Kasha's stables. She was blood bay with three white socks and a blaze of medium width. Though fiery and often temperamental, she and Kasha had come to an understanding. Kasha would not allow anyone else to ride her, and he only permitted one stable hand to work with her.
He blew her a kiss. "Oh dear Lydia, we're going now, I promise. Don't fret." Kasha motioned at the nearby stablehand who came forward with a stool. Lydia was taller than most horses, an inconvenience for Kasha but one he was willing to tolerate.
Lidagara roughly slung Rodan's limp body over the back of his saddle. He rode a thick blue roan plow horse he'd bought from a local farmer. Perhaps it was the royal blood in Kasha that resented anything that didn't come with a pedigree, but either way, Kasha never failed to remind Lidagara that he'd buy him a proper stallion to ride. But Lidagara was very insistent on keeping his ugly blue roan draft horse, and Kasha had such difficulty arguing with Lidagara. He was enormous and barbaric, simply breathtaking, even though he was ten years Kasha's elder. Also, Lidagara could skin a rabbit in under thirty seconds, another reason Kasha avoided conflict with him.
The king didn't come out to say goodbye, nor did anyone else in the family, and Kasha was not distraught. He didn't much care for his relatives. They were all so stuffy, looking down their noses at anything deemed too "indecent" for their delicate tastes. Kasha's own mother, being highly religious, had dressed herself like a nun. When Kasha would go out at night with his chums wearing a pink surcoat, all he received was her scorn.
"I suppose we should be moving out then, eh, Lidagara?"
"Whatever you'd like."
"Let's hope we don't have to return until the king croaks."
Kasha rode separately from the guards who pulled the wagon with his newly acquired prisoners. They were traveling different routes, so as to keep the colonel from knowing where his men were going. Only Lidagara, a manservant, and two guards travelled with Kasha. Kasha avoided large groups of military due to their tendency to be monsters. His own guards made him nervous, but Lidagara would keep him safe.
Kasha stood on a rock overlooking a medium-sized stream, watching Lidagara dunk Rodan repeatedly in the water. Both men were nude, Lidagara because he had no clothes he wanted damp, and Rodan because there wasn't much of a point. His clothing was infested with lice and coated in urine anyway. Kasha ordered it thrown away.
"What would you like to dress him in then?" Lidagara asked after he'd dragged a sleepy-eyed Rodan to the shore. Without the dirt, Kasha could get a better look at him. He looked to be around the age of thirty-five, a scar running along his left temple. There was a small chunk missing from his right ear, two nails missing from either hand, and a great deal of scarring built along his back, where the king's men must have beaten him. He was very pale in places where the sun didn't touch, but freckled and tanned along his arms and face.
"We can leave him naked. This weather is rather warm. He'll be fine."
"Should I cut this hair?" Lidagara asked. He used Rodan's blond locks to pull the colonel's head back. Rodan's eyes opened, but they were foggy and unfocused. Kasha would have to give him more sleeping potion when they returned to camp.
"Yes, all his hair. Everywhere. I'm sure all sorts of critters are living in it."
Lidagara went to work. Kasha, bored, went back to camp to find some tidbit to nibble. When he returned, Rodan's head was bare. He looked younger now and less war-weary, but Kasha's age prediction didn't waver. He grabbed Rodan's jaw and examined his face. He was a handsome man, in a brutish, Milarkan kind of way. His nose was large and crooked, probably broken from some brawl. He actually had teeth, which surprised Kasha. He'd heard Milarkan men lost their teeth early. The colonel's eyes were light, something he'd only seen on the performers that sometimes wandered down from the north out of desperation. He rather liked them, as clouded as they were.
"What do you think?" Kasha asked.
"I think you should be wary of him. Once he really wakes up, he could raise hell."
"I'm sure he's no competition against you."
Lidagara raised a pierced eyebrow.
"I don't know. This one looks like a fighter."
"Well, I certainly hope so, after all those rumors and such. But I don't plan on fighting him. That would be silly. No, I'll give him good enough reason to behave himself." Kasha petted a now unconscious Rodan affectionately.
"I hope you know what you're doing."
"I've been waiting for this for a very long time. I'm ready for it."
Lidagara nodded gravely, then reached down to pick Rodan out of the dirt.