OooOooO Kailin's Keeper OooOooO
The moment Lukin Paniz, commander of the King's elite militia, entered the dining hall he heard the hum of his men conversing. There seemed to be one central topic that interested them all:
"The prince is back."
"Have you heard?"
"Prince Kailin is back, have you..."
"Did you hear?"
Dusty, worn, thick-soled boots tread over the highly-polished granite floor as Lukin walked to the food service station and grabbed a plate. Men got out of the line to allow him to the front of the queue. He heaped food onto his plate, indifferent to what type of fare he picked.
He and the uniformed man ahead of him reached for the last bowl of a roasted root vegetable stew at the same time. The man pulled his hand back quickly, looking up with a mixture of awe and alarm. "D…did you want that, Commander?"
Lukin shook his head dismissively. "Go ahead, S'Av."
Payne S'Av was a second year military trainee. Slender and handsome, he had a young face that made him look more boyish than his 25 years. A faint blush flagged the trainee's golden cheeks. "No, please, it's yours, Sir." He took the bowl without taking his star-struck eyes off Lukin and held it out like an offering.
Lukin was well aware S'Av had developed a crush on him during training. It wasn't uncommon. On their world, each person was governed by a drive. Each drive was unique, but fell somewhere on a spectrum of dominance. Lukin was an indisputable dominant. Because of that, and his position of power, he attracted submissives like S'Av all the time.
He firmly and pitilessly rebuffed this one. "I do not want it, S'Av. Keep the line moving."
The handsome young man looked crestfallen.
"You should take it to V'Os." Lukin named a new, dominant trainer he knew had had an eye on S'Av for months now. "I'm sure he would appreciate the gesture."
S'Av blinked and the colour returned to his cheeks. "Do you think, Sir?"
"Get out of my way."
"Yes, Sir!" With a jump in his step, the young man hurried off in the direction of the lower benches.
Lukin turned and strode in the opposite direction, towards the back of the room.
His manner and expression inviting no conversation, in fact, his men hurried out of his way. He walked right up to the long head table reserved for the highest ranking officers. As commander of the militia, there was no higher rank in the Arathrian service, unless one was part of the royal family. Speaking of which...
Lukin dropped into his chair beside the only other man at the table, his tray landed down in front of him with a CLANK. "Your Excellency."
Prince Araz K'Or, first in line for the throne, and older brother of the young prince on everyone's lips, looked up at Lukin as he sat. "Rough day, Paniz? You look pissed enough to take on a full grown longfang."
Sandy white longfangs were a large and nasty breed of striped felines – one of several predatory animals found in the inhospitable scrubland around the capital. Lukin grunted softly. "The new recruits are klepping useless."
Leaning back in his chair indolently, Araz grinned and took a drink and asked over the rim of the lip of his canteen, "Aren't they always?"
"Never this bad. It's like some of them have never had to work a day in their lives." Lukin tore into his durpas, a traditional, bread-like slab of food.
Araz scoffed, his eyes roving over the crowded room. His long, elegant fingers plucked manageable, bite-sized pieces off his durpas. He chewed, swallowed, and then pointed out, "You forget – most of them never have. We can't all be Arlonites who were practically raised in the fields and factories."
Lukin ignored the jab about his upbringing and stabbed his fork into the grey, protein lump that passed for meat in the cafeteria.
Lukin was an Arlonite. His people were from the far north countries, they were darker and bulkier than the slender, golden Arathrians from the south. Though opinions had changed somewhat over the last few years, when Lukin had been growing up, Arlonites were universally considered lower class; good for hard, manual labour in agricultural fields, mineral mines, or metal factories, and little else.
Generally, they weren't even used for servants or slaves because of their famous independent mindedness and quick tempers – Arathrians favoured serene, gentle-spoken slaves usually from the western states to serve in their houses and businesses.
Lukin had worked on his family's farm from the time he learned to walk. When he was nine, he began working shifts at the village's metal processing plant. He was not the oldest child in the family, so would not inherent the homestead – he had accepted from early on that he would work the metal factory until he died.
But that all changed when he was 13 and the Arathrian king came north on a trade mission.
Araz K'Or, the king's first son, had accompanied his father on the mission. Araz was the same age as Lukin and he had slipped away from his keepers to explore the forests while his father had been engaged with business.
It had been a hot, dry summer day and in an effort of cool off and entertain himself, Araz had waded into the lake on the outskirts of town. The young prince had not known about the sharp drop-off that occurred a dozen feet out. The water went from waist height on the young boy to at least 20 feet deep. He dropped under the surface like a rock.
Lukin had been walking home along the road that passed the lake and heard the panicked splashing. He ran for the lake and saw a flash of gold before it disappeared under the murky, dark surface. He dived into the water and swam for the last place he had seen the person. Kicking blindly under the water, Lukin dived down groped his hands around until he felt material. Underwater, he grabbed the body and hauled it towards the surface. Gasping for air and bobbing half under the surface, he pulled the body to shore. The stranger's gold coloured hair and light skin was alien. Lukin had never seen an Arathrian before. Scared but determined, Lukin pulled him from the water and up onto the rocky shore.
The golden-coloured boy wasn't breathing and Lukin worried he was dead. He pressed on the boy's chest, as he had seen a villager do once to a girl who had fallen into to water. It had forced her to spew up the water in her lungs. It seemed to help a little, water spilled over the drown boy's lips, so Lukin keep doing it.
It was then that the king and his men had shown up looking for the missing princeling. And found a filthy-looking Arlonite thug beating on the prone, soaked prince.
Defending their prince, the guards rushed Lukin. The 13-year-old Arlonite held his own against the first guard, and the second, and even managed to put up a good fight as the third guard joined the fray. But when the match became four against one, he was overpowered and brutally restrained by the guards.
With broken ribs and a smashed up face, Lukin ended up under guard in the second-rate village hospital, charged with attempted murder and treason, a crime punishable by death.
It was only after Prince Araz regained consciousness and explained what had happened that the King realized the Arlonite boy had been a saviour not an attacker; a saviour who had fought off his personal guards with shocking success.
The king had ordered Lukin be released. At 13 years-old, he would be offered a place in the king's military service.
It was the chance of a lifetime. Most boys had their position in the military bought for them. But Lukin was from a poor village and an even poorer family. He had no money to buy into service and he was an Arlonite to boot.
This was his only chance to move up in the world and he took it.
Three days later, when the king and his party moved south again – Lukin would be with them, leaving behind the only life he had ever known.
"The prince is back."
"Did you see him?"
"I heard the prince is..."
The buzz from the men in the dining hall was low and constant.
Lukin and Araz ate their food in silence.
Each moment the hum persisted, Lukin's patience wore increasingly thin. He finished eating quickly, pushing the tray back. One of the mousy cafeteria slaves came and collected it. Though Lukin couldn't be sure, her small stature and meek presence meant she was probably from one of the desert countries to the west. They were prized for their servile and docile air.
Arathria was divided into four quadrants. Lukin's homeland, Arlon, to the north. Central Arathria in the middle, where the capital and royal stronghold was located. Eimor to the east was an area made of mostly swampland and mountain populated by nomadic traders. Eimor and Arlon had some semblance of autonomy, but Westhria, the desert land to the west, was an outpost of Arathria, without their own government.
The eldest price finished as well, and he leaned back on his chair, taking a long swig from his canteen. He set the container down and enquired with deceptive ease, "Did you happen to hear –"
"I've heard." Lukin interrupted sharply.
Araz carefully schooled his features so there was no hint of amusement. "I thought you'd be pleased, after all, that's less time you will have to spend putting up with those 'klepping useless' recruits."
"No, I'll have to put up with him, and that is no better."
Lukin's first year as a recruit had been hell.
The senior officers had made it their mission to break the arrogant, unsophisticated Arlonite. His Arathrian peers had followed suit.
To say that Lukin did not fit in would be an understatement. Physically, he was very different. His black hair, darkly tanned skin, and almost black eyes stood out in a sea of blond, aquamarine eyed, light-gold skinned Arathrians. As well, Arathrians were all tall with a slender, though strong, build. Lukin was just as tall, but his muscles were heavily built, he outweighed all his peers by at least 20 kilos.
The differences were not only physical. Arathrians' temperament was naturally cool, logical, and dutiful; following a strict social order. They did not question orders from superiors; they carried them out like good little soldiers. Lukin, on the other hand, would do more than question. Lukin chaffed under other's authority. He was hot-headed and defiant. Scarcely a day went by that he was not beaten for some transgression against his superiors or for fighting with another recruit who had provoked him.
Over time, he learned to control his emotions, carefully presenting an outward calm. He worked harder and longer than all the others and gruellingly fought his way up the rungs.
By his 16th year he was a section leader and was even given his own sleeping quarters – rare honours for someone his age and unheard of for an Arlonite.
It was that year he would meet Kailin.
Chairs scraping the stone floor, Lukin and the crown prince got up from the table.
Stride for stride, they left the lunchroom. When Lukin veered off towards the indoor training gym, the eldest prince did the same.
"Are you looking for a sparring partner, Paniz?"
Lukin cocked a heavy, dark brow. "Are you looking for a beating, Your Excellency?"
Araz snorted, walking ahead of Lukin into the changing room while the commander held open the door for him. "At least I can trust you to give me some sport."
Unlike others, Lukin did not hold back when training with Araz or the middle prince, Axial. Lukin did not hold back with anyone, except him.
He growled, angry at himself for being distracted by thoughts of the one person he shouldn't be thinking of, and slammed his locker door open.
In the middle of the day, the change room was empty; others would be working, eating, or training in the huge outdoor arena. The tiled room was eerily still as Araz stood at a bench and stripped off his uniform. Lukin followed suit, reaching for a pair of black exercise pants.
Araz stepped into his own pair, pulling the draw string tight at his fit, narrow waist. The prince made conversation offhandedly, "I've been thinking of buying a new slave."
Lukin just grunted, pulling on a white, sleeveless gym top. "Didn't you get a new one last month?"
"Mrrr, Cretta... Lovely girl." The prince spoke matter-of-factly, pulling his shirt into place. "Selling her."
With a huff, Lukin ran a hand back through his short black hair and led the way out into the sparring gym, choosing a mat.
Both men faced off.
Araz easily matched Lukin's 6 foot 3 height, but Lukin outweighed the prince by over 25 kilos. What Araz lacked in bulk compared to the brawny Arlonite, he made up for with speed. Araz swung forward immediately, striking the first punch.
Shaking it off, Lukin circled for an opening. As he did, he continued their conversation. "What is wrong with Cretta?"
Araz grunted as Lukin slammed a fist into his side. "Getting too...emotional."
Lukin easily deflected Araz's next few blows. "Perhaps they wouldn't get too emotional if you would stop taking them to your bed."
"Never say it." Araz grinned, wiping the blood off his chin. Lukin's last hit had split his lip. "Next you'll be telling me I should bond."
Despite the many differences between their cultures, in Arathria and Arlon bonding worked the same way. A dominant took a submissive mate – for life. It had always been the way of their world; the often harsh and unforgiving climate demanded a strict, disciplined social order. Because all people were born with an innate drive – some dominant, some submissive, a few in between – it was this drive that would ultimately determine the nature of the relationships formed and who would be best suited to bond with whom.
Lukin floored Araz with a hard blow to the head. "Your father would like to see you settled and ready to take over the kingdom when the time comes. You are 34."
"Good for him." Araz shook it off the blow and took Lukin's offered hand to help him up. "And we're the same age, I might remind you. Next he'll be after his prized commander to bond."
Lukin made a sound of derision. "Not going to happen." Lukin swept Araz's legs with one of his own, following the prince to the ground and pinning him by the throat. "Do you give?"
The prince struggled and kicked, Lukin would probably have a few nice bruises by the evening. Lukin tightened his hold around the Prince's throat, cutting off most of his air. Araz finally stopped bucking and slapped the floor with a wheezed, "Give."
Lukin let him up at once and rose to his feet.
Araz panted on the floor and looked up at his loyal soldier and long-time friend. "Sore subject?"
Lukin scowled. "Quit chattering and get your lazy ass off the ground, I'm not finished kicking your royal ass yet. What sort of commander of the guard would I be if I let the crown prince get soft around the edges?"
Araz grinned, knowing he had hit a nerve. He pushed himself up, "You know, I'm not surprised, I don't think you've ever given a submissive a second glance other than to bed them, let alone considered bonding."
Prince Araz was wrong. Lukin had considered it. Just once. Just fleetingly. Years ago.
16-year-old Lukin had gotten up early to run the training course, which had been un-affectionately named the Torture Test by the trainees. He swung through the unevenly placed bars set high over his head, it was the last obstacle. He dropped off at the end and then waded through the mud to the finish line. Panting, he checked his time, 23 minutes and 17 seconds. He swore a blue-streak, 7 seconds off his best time and the course record.
He was still fuming over it when he pulled himself from the mud and saw the little boy standing half-behind a nearby bush. He was a dirty little urchin with ripped clothes and a dust streaked face. His appearance suggested he was of the servant class. Probably the wayward child of one of the servants in the royal tower. The little boy appeared to work up the courage and approached Lukin. As he got closer, Lukin noticed the boy had red-rimmed eyes and raised welts on his hands.
The boy stopped in front of Lukin and spoke, "Hi."
Lukin glared. "Go back where you belong, boy."
Blush-coloured lips pulled into a stubborn frown. "No."
The little boy stared him straight in the eye. "No." At that point, Lukin became aware that under all that the grime there were absurdly large, blue-green eyes and pale blond hair.
Undeterred, the aquamarine eyes bore into him. "Why are you such a strange colour?"
Brows drawing together, Lukin felt that familiar feeling of inadequacy rise. He grew defensive and snapped, "Where I am from, everyone is this colour."
"Oh." The little boy considered this. "I like your black eyes. Even if they are strange."
Lukin grit his teeth, "They are not strange."
"They are not blue." The boy said without guile.
Feeling ridiculous for arguing with a child, Lukin decided then to just ignore the boy. He started to walk away but the small blond followed after him. "Where are we going?"
"We are not going anywhere."
Lukin felt the boy's small hand slip into his own, tugging lightly. "Can I go on the bars like you did?"
A shiver zapped up his arm, he shook the small hand off. "No, they are not for playing."
"I want up on the bars."
"I said no." Lukin answered firmly.
"I need you to lift me up on the bars."
"Please. I want it."
Lukin was appalled to find those clear, turquoise eyes affected him.
The boy's drive would clearly be submissive. It was evident to Lukin because the child innately knew how to appeal to a dominant's hard-wired need to protect and provide. It was an ability that served submissive children well in wrapping dominant parents and siblings around their little fingers. And as an adult it would allow them to bend their bonded to their will – if the dominant bondmate was not careful. The blond boy, though obviously strong-willed, also lacked that natural attitude of posturing that all dominants seemed to acquire almost at birth.
Lukin grunted. "Fine, but just this once."
He took the boy back to the bars and lifted him up, he weighed practically nothing. Lukin steadied him until he got a grip. For a second time, Lukin noticed the welts on the hands that were so small they could barely wrap half-way around the bars. He wondered what the boy had done to deserve them. "Are you hanging on?"
"Yes, you can let me go." Lukin did. The boy swung one bar, two, and then fell off into the mud.
Lukin expected him to cry or run off.
He did neither. A determined expression crossed his face. "Again," he demanded.
Lukin considered the boy and then said, just to test what would happen, "No, you're too small to get across it. Too weak."
From beneath his muddy blond bangs, the little boy gave Lukin a look of betrayal, as if, even though they had just met, Lukin owned him something. The boy splashed through the mud to Lukin's feet and then repeated, "Again!"
Lukin lifted him up again. And again. And again. Until, finally, the boy managed to make it all the way across.
At the end, he dropped off and ran back to Lukin, smiling proudly. When he reached the Arlonite, he stopped, looking up and expecting praise. Lukin gave him a curt nod of approval.
The boy appeared satisfied with that, and latched onto his hand again, "What now?"
He didn't shake the hand off this time. He held it carefully so as to not put pressure on the thin red welts he could feel under his fingers. Lukin exhaled loudly and questioned, "Isn't someone looking for you?"
"No," the boy said decisively. "I will stay with you."
Lukin stared down at the little boy. Irrational ideas were planting in his head. He wasn't paid much, but he had saved nearly every cent he had earned over the last three years. It wasn't much...but the kid's clothes looked dirty and ripped; clearly his family had little money. Perhaps he could strike a deal, pay them a lump sum now and then monthly payments over the next few years. Lukin and his family had never been rich enough to pay for servants or buy slaves, so he had no idea their cost. But many of his fellow officers from rich families had brought servants with them. There was no rule against it.
The kid was very young, but Lukin was sure he could do some work. "How old are you?"
Lukin shrugged a little; the kid could at least clean the room, wash clothes, fetch food. He would do more work as he grew up.
Lukin was surprised at what an easy decision it was to make. He would buy this boy now and then when Lukin was older, and the kid was of age of course, the little blond would make an acceptable bondmate.
"What is your name?"
"Kai," the little boy answered, moving closer. "What's yours?"
"Lukin Paniz." He answered abruptly, "Do you have an owner?"
The boy – Kai – frowned a little. "Whadda mean? No one owns me."
That was good, Lukin decided. It would be easier to buy the boy from his family than it would be to purchase him from another owner, and the price would probably be lower that way, too.
There might be a problem with an Arlonite owning an Arathrian, but he had been taking flack from these men for years, and he would take care of the kid. He would take better care of him than his family obviously did – no more rags and welts.
An older woman came screaming from the direction of the towers, "Kailin! Kailin!"
Lukin felt the little boy stiffen and whimper softly. The small hand squeezed harder at Lukin's.
Kailin trembled faintly, "I wasn't supposed to leave the building." He looked down at himself, "And I'll be in trouble for getting messy."
The woman was coming closer and Lukin saw she carried a short rod. It matched the width of the lines on the boy's hands.
"Is she your mother?"
Kailin shook his head frantically, sending muddy blond hair flying. The boy was obviously scared of this woman.
Lukin frowned and commanded, "Don't worry."
Kailin looked up at him. "You'll protect me?"
Lukin turned away from the boy to face the furious looking woman barrelling down on them. "Yes," he informed the boy, "I've decided to keep you."
Kailin tucked in behind him, still clutching his hand.
The woman stopped in front of them and ignored Lukin entirely. She glowered down at the edge of Kailin she could see peeking out behind Lukin. She placed her hands on her hips impatiently. "Prince Kailin, come out here right this instant."
Prince Kailin? Lukin gapped in shock. Rek!
Half an hour later, Lukin woke up in the detention centre. He groaned; a throbbing in his head matched only by the piercing pain in his arm and side. Apparently, he had some broken bones, maybe a bruised kidney. "Klepping rekkers," Lukin grunted under his breath.
The woman had called the king's guard when Lukin had refused to give Kailin over to her. After all, the boy was clearly afraid of her, and the welts proved he was being roughly treated at her hands. Lukin convinced himself it was because the boy was the king's son and it was his job to serve the king. It was not because of that foolish, fleeting thought that the boy would belong to him and someday be his bondmate.
Apparently, the guards had used excessive force when coming to rescue the prince, believing Lukin was attempted to kidnap him. Rek, this was the last time he tried to save one of the royal family – if it always resulted in a inhuman beating like this. He heard the door open behind him. What was going to happen now? Would he be thrown out of the service? Worse?
He turned to face the newcomer and immediately came to attention, bowing his head respectfully. "Your High Excellency."
"Paniz." The king acknowledged him. "You may look up."
Lukin did. King Amuth K'Or was an imposing figure. Tall, broad, and heavily beaded. He was approaching 60 and white strands mixed with his shoulder-length, wheat coloured hair. He radiated with power and authority.
So much so, it took Lukin a moment to notice the small blond half-hidden behind the king. Kailin.
The king pulled Kailin out from behind him and placed a hand on his head. "My son explained to me what happened this morning."
"Yes, Sir." Lukin responded, uncertain of where this was going.
"Apparently, his keeper has been unnecessarily rough with her chastisement and my youngest did not see fit to tell me before now." The king's voice was full of censure, and the little blond shrank back a little.
Lukin had nothing to say to this.
"I suppose this is the second time I must thank you for rescuing one of my children."
Lukin was unsure of how he should respond to this; he hadn't realized the king even remembered Lukin pulling Araz from the lake all those years ago. "I was merely doing my duty, Sir."
The king nodded. "I have looked into your record. You have done better than could have been expected here."
Lukin was silent.
"I am going to transfer you to the royal guard. Kailin's guard, to be specific. He has need of a new keeper." A keeper was tasked with taking care of children, seeing to their needs and ensuring no harm came to them. The king looked down at his youngest son. "Would you like that, Kailin?"
For the first time since Lukin had met the boy, he had his first real inkling about how much trouble the innocent-looking boy could really be, for he looked right at Lukin as he answered, using Lukin's own words, "Yes, I've decided to keep him."