This is a story written for the Love Has No Boundaries anthology for the M/M Romance Group on GoodReads, based on an image prompt and a "dear author" letter. It's published in a few places (and it's on Amazon for $0.99 and I'm donating all of the money to a charity for LGBT homeless youth).
The sun beat down, warming the stone of the high, white wall, and the young, hooded man who perched there. A sultry breeze blew in from the coast, flipping back Sev's dingy hood, and he closed his eyes, relishing the feeling of the light wind through his hair.
They had just arrived in Athena a few days ago— the Golden City— and already Sev was captivated by the place. He'd never imagined how beautiful such a big city could be; the dual golden towers that stood at the entrance could be seen for miles, welcoming in the procession of limousines that carried the aristocracy. Today was the opening day of the slave auction; something Sev had heard about, but had never dreamed he'd see. Although he would never be a candidate, he enjoyed watching the slow parade of wide-eyed, bright-faced young men and women heading inside to the promise of a better life. These were the fortunate few— fortunate to have been born to families who could keep them fed and cared for— fortunate to have found sponsors or parents who would pay for their safe passage once they reached the proper age— fortunate to have been born without flaw.
To Sev's back was the ghetto, and despite the brightness of the sun, the ghetto and its inhabitants seemed always in shadow. In sharp contrast to Athena's wide, white streets were the garbage-strewn pathways of the dreg's slum. Those who dwelled within were the unfortunates, the unseen; people born without name or title. Those who began life in the ghetto died in the ghetto. Sev had initially been born elsewhere, and he maintained the hope that it might mean some escape, regardless of how unlikely it seemed.
"Oi— what you doin' up there?"
Sev flinched at the sound of the familiar voice of his unfortunate guardian, Phineas, calling up to him from below.
"Get down here, mutt, you're wanted at the Palace."
Sev grabbed the wall and swung his legs over the other side. The wall was at least two stories high, but Sev had always been good at climbing. With his lithe, acrobat's body, he could scale almost anything, and manage to get into the most difficult spaces with ease. It had been for this reason alone that he'd been able to stow-away on the boat that had brought them to Athena. Phineas had been able to bribe himself aboard the leaking freighter, while Sev hid inside small a crate, only able to come out for a few hours at night over the two-week journey. But when the alternative was to be a prison laborer, Sev was willing to put up with some temporary discomfort.
Through a series of impossible twists and tumbles, Sev leapt down off the high wall, landing in a graceful crouch in the dead-end alley below. A few people stopped to watch him, but turned away when he lifted his head. Even the dregs were uncomfortable looking at him for too long.
"Oi— put your hood back on— you're scarin' the locals." Phineas clapped him on the back of the head, and Sev shook his sandy-brown hair down into his face, replacing his hood.
He followed the limping, smelly, old man back through the wide alley, past the derelicts sleeping in the sun and the dubious physics selling their cures. Around the corner, near the heavily guarded entrance to the slums, was the red door that opened to the Treasure Palace.
It was daylight yet, but on auction days like today the seedy club opened their doors early to entertain some of the wealth that might just happen to get lost and wander inside.
Today would actually be Sev's first time performing at the club. Phineas knew the owners from his travels, or so he claimed; it was difficult to know the man's half-truths from his lies. Initially, they didn't seem too fond of the man; but once Sev became part of the deal, the owners began to at least tolerate Phineas. Sev had performed as an acrobat in a gypsy circus; dancing for a few drunks was a fair price for a place to sleep and possibly something like food in his belly.
Count Demetrie Silvastrano settled back into the seat of his limousine, letting the silver-white smoke from his cigar obscure the faces of the men in front of him as he exhaled.
"It's been a long time since I've been to the auction house in Athena," said the older man to his left, Lord Walter Hammill. He had been one of Demetrie's father's most valued friends. Since the elder Silvastrano was gone, Walter fancied himself as having filled the imaginary void left in the young Count's heart since his father's death.
"I remember the day your father bought his first slave— Roger, do you remember his name?"
Roger Wendt, Demetrie's father's accountant, was a meek little man who looked like a rodent. Roger had been fortunate in that his own father had also been a successful accountant, as had his grandfather before him. It had kept his family at the lowest edge of the aristocracy; affording them a name but no benefit of title. The elder Silvastrano had done the family a favor by keeping Roger employed. He wasn't very good at anything but numbers, and too ugly to have been a pleasure slave had he not been good at that.
"Was it the girl?" Roger asked. His voice sounded like a rusted hinge, even when he wasn't sniveling.
Walter, on the other hand, always spoke as if he were giving a speech in an auditorium. His thick, white mustache billowed any time he said any word beginning with a P or an F.
"Ambree? Amabel? No, no… That was the boy— Aubrey."
Demetrie sighed and looked out the tinted windows. He could see them coming up on the auction house, those rows of strapping young men and dazzling women, all very well-bred and well-trained and hoping for a chance to live a life of leisure as a domestic slave, pleasure slave, or— the worst-case scenario— as a labor slave. The very fortunate ones were given an opportunity to learn to read, to write, or to dance; to entertain their Masters and hopefully be cared for until the day that they died, almost as if they were family. Some slaves, after twenty years of service and upon their Master's death, could become freedmen laborers and be able to go wherever they chose to serve, no longer bound by contracts of sale.
"Pull over." Demetrie said through the intercom to the driver as they were driving past the large iron gate that kept the west end slums sealed off from Athena's market district. Without waiting for the driver to open his door, Demetrie got out of the car.
"Demetrie, where are you going— we're nearly at the auction!" Walter stammered, sliding across the leather bench seat after him.
"It's a nice day. I want to take a walk," he said, heading towards the guards at the gate.
"B-but, you'll miss out on the best selection!" Walter sputtered.
"Then you go and pick one out for yourself. I want to walk."
Despite all the protesting, Walter and Roger followed Demetrie for a few paces as he gained privileged entry into the slums. It wasn't completely unheard of for members of the aristocracy to seek out the kinds of forbidden entertainment that only the slums could provide. There were certain decency laws in effect, though men like Demetrie were never concerned about being considered indecent.
Walter and Roger did their best to keep up, but when they began to move towards the seedier district of the ghetto both men grew quieter, trying not to draw any more attention to themselves than necessary.
"Demetrie, why are we here?" Walter whispered harshly; his eyes darted nervously towards every passing glance.
"I wanted to buy a gift for someone," Demetrie lied, stopping at one of the many booths full of strange— and likely stolen— wares.
This was the oldest section of Athena's hidden slums, close to the docks, where the fishing boats once moored, before the water became polluted enough to burn. On the other side of the high, graffiti-covered wall, the water looked sparkling and clean, although that was itself only chemical. Just like everything else, the face Athena showed to the world was unflawed, so perfect and artificial that Demetrie found it boring. The old section was far more intriguing with its unwashed streets and equally unwashed inhabitants.
Walter moved up closer to Demetrie. "Your Lordship, I'm certain if you tell me what it is you're looking for, either Roger or myself could acquire it someplace less… dangerous." The last word was a whisper as Walter flinched from an old woman offering up a fur stole that looked suspiciously like a dead alley cat.
Demetrie ignored them, his attention drawn to a toothless old dreg calling out an invitation to "come inside the Treasure Palace and be seduced by drink and dance."
"What have we here?" Demetrie mused and began to approach the barker outside the garish red door.
"Demetrie!" Walter grabbed his sleeve, and then, more quietly, "Count Silvastrano, I must object!"
Demetrie shrugged. "By all means, Walter; object away. Don't let me stop you." He brushed off the older man's hand and made his way into the dark club. "Go back to the car, I just want to get a drink."
The Treasure Palace was, as expected, a dump of epic proportions, yet somehow Demetrie felt more comfortable here. The place stunk of sweat, sex, and alcohol. Fortunately, most of the filth was hidden in shadows cast by the anemic red bulbs hanging bare from wires in the ceiling. A few lazy whores smoked hand-rolled cigarettes in a back corner. One smiled, gap-toothed, at Demetrie and scratched at the inside of her thigh.
Demetrie smiled back with a small shake of his head and found an empty booth that had an unobstructed view of the stage. Walter and Roger had reluctantly returned to the car rather than try and argue with him and risk making a scene. He'd assured them he'd only be a little while; long enough to have a drink, and then they could be on their way. Demetrie was not in the mood to buy a lovely blond slave. Even the pleasure slaves were sexually pent-up prima donnas whose flavors came only in vanilla. Demetrie's tastes always ran decidedly towards a spicier appetite.
"Ah, Sir, what can I get you?" The bartender spoke slowly, as if enunciating his words would make the rich man forget he was in a place of dregs.
"Whiskey, top shelf if you have one. Tell me, is there any entertainment this afternoon, or am I premature?"
The bartender grinned; one of his few teeth was partially black and looked like a floating crescent moon in the dim light.
"You're in luck— just got a dancer in from Nissim— it's a boy, but don't let that put you off. They say he has rubber bones."
"They do, do they?" Demetrie raised an eyebrow.
Much to Demetrie's annoyance, as soon as the bartender left to fill his order, a large man with a thick, grizzled beard and balding head limped over and sat down in the booth opposite him. "Name's Phineas," the man introduced himself, having only one name. Only the aristocracy could claim surnames, and this man was certainly not of his kind.
Demetrie declined the offer to shake his hand, glad that his drink had arrived so he could pay attention to picking out whatever was floating in the glass rather than looking at the old man's pock-marked face.
"I manage the boy," Phineas said, waving his arm towards the stage as if the boy in question was there. "His mother was such a beautiful ballerina. So lovely and pure, she danced like a dream…" Phineas gazed wistfully at the stage, "But she fell for the charms of a foreigner and became with child. The cad left her stranded, and in her last, dying breaths she gave birth to a foul, twisted creature. The boy was a stain left behind by his poor mother's sins!"
"Whatever happened to her being so lovely and pure?" Demetrie muttered, wiping his fingers off on his trousers once he'd successfully removed the foreign object from his whiskey. He had not come in for a story, and he was considering getting up to leave when the stage lights came up and a strange angel appeared from the darkness behind.
The boy could very well have been the son of a beautiful ballerina. He was thin, his body mostly hairless, but lean muscle bunched under his skin, revealed by form-fitting black shorts, which was all the clothing he wore. It was difficult to be certain of his age, but certainly closer to a man than a child, or at least Demetrie hoped as much.
The shape of his face resembled a narrow heart, his lips full and curved, his nose slender and straight. His eyes had the exotic slant of a foreigner, and while his right eye was a lovely copper-brown, the other was a pale green, the color of mint tea diluted with cream. Had it not been for the darker ring of his iris, it might have seemed he had no color in it at all. And it was on this side of his face that his golden-olive skin was bleached, as were the eyelashes, and edged with a lacy port-wine stain like an intricate tattoo.
Demetrie sat mesmerized as the dancer did a high pirouette, arching his spine impossibly backwards. With one leg raised behind him, he reached back and grasped the ankle, pulling it up over his shoulder. His dance was almost painful to watch, his contortions so graceful yet erotic in the fantasies they inspired. The Count's mouth suddenly felt dry as he imagined the many ways he might bend and break this lovely boy.
"How much?" Demetrie's voice was hoarse as he remained unable to tear his eyes away.
"For an hour? An evening?"
"For him. I want the boy. How much?"
Phineas cleared his throat. "Er… how about a game of cards? If you win, you can have the boy."
Demetrie knew that it was a fool's game that most men would have no chance of winning, but the more he watched the boy on stage and thought about the man before him, the more certain Demetrie became of his winning hand. "How is it played?"
"Well, there are three rounds; you bet as much or as little as you like. You draw a card from the deck, and I draw a card. If you have the higher card, you keep your wager; if I win, I take it and we start again… doubling the offer on the next round. Whoever has the high card in round three keeps all his winnings and the boy…"
Demetrie smirked at the man's ignorant gaffe. Apparently Phineas had never lost even a round in this dubious game.
"…But whoever draws the joker loses it all. Ready?"
The boy on stage went up on his hands, first spreading his legs in a wide split, then going down on his elbows and bringing his legs over his head until his toes touched the stage in front of him. Demetrie kept one eye on him and one on the deck. "Ready."
As he danced and moved through his contortions, Sev watched the exquisite man gamble with Phineas. The man was much younger than his guardian, but older than Sev; his handsome face sculpted by firm cheekbones and a squared jaw. Black hair, trimmed close to his nape, settled in silky waves along the top of his head; his eyes were just as dark, and fringed by thick lashes. His flesh was clear and pale, with a light shadow of blue beneath the skin where he shaved his beard. The clothing he wore was well-tailored, without so much as a thread out of place, and it was clean— he was clean, his scent exotic and foreign against the sour sweat of so many dregs. An aristocrat; Sev had only ever seen them by accident, and he couldn't help but wonder why such an elegant man would venture here just for a drink.
Phineas never lost this game because it was one he'd made up himself— there were several jokers in the deck and he knew exactly which cards they were. Sev had no idea that the prize they were playing for was him.
The aristocrat set down a gold coin and Sev's eyes widened. He looked again into the man's handsome face, and the man's eyes caught his, holding them as he gave Sev a smile.
Sev felt color rise to his cheeks, and he smiled as well— something he had rarely done in his life.
"You know," Demetrie said, fingering his card before casting it, "when I was twenty, I traveled to Nissim with my father." His voice was low, as if carrying on a casual conversation with Phineas, though his eyes continually sought out Sev. He cast his card, a two of clubs, and Phineas beat it with a queen of hearts. Demetrie sighed and shook his head, then pulled out two more coins, placing them where he'd set the first one, now on Phineas' side. He drew another card, turning it through his fingers as he spoke.
"Nissim's business district is not the sort of place that would hold the attention span of a brash young man for very long, and so I wandered to Low Town, hoping to find a tavern where I might be a little more… entertained."
Again, Demetrie cast his card, and again, he shook his head when he lost. Briefly his eyes darted to Sev, who did a slow, standing backbend, grabbing his ankles and turning to the side, a maneuver that made Demetrie wonder if he was seducing him on purpose, or truly oblivious of his effect.
Demetrie's gaze moved along the arch of Sev's body, and his tongue played behind his top teeth. No, obviously the boy was following a practiced script meant to distract so that Phineas could manipulate the game.
"I never made it to the bar… there was a circus in the square. Really just a bunch of gypsies, but there was this peculiar little boy, doing the most amazing things with his body, and in between acts, I watched him pick several pockets faster and more nimbly than a monkey."
"Mmph," Phineas said, paying no attention to what the man was saying as he focused on the four gold coins now lying beside his three.
"I never really thought very much about it again until now, you see. Recently, about two weeks ago, a business associate of mine in Nissim suffered a break-in. An old man and a young contortionist were nearly apprehended for the burglary— the old man had actually taken a bullet to the leg; yet, somehow they escaped. And I was just thinking what an unlikely story that might seem, if I hadn't once seen that little circus boy with my own eyes."
Demetrie drew his card and smiled at it, then slowly laid it down. It was the joker. Phineas made a quick grab for the money but Demetrie snatched up his wrist and held it, his fingers wrapped around it so tightly that they squeezed the color out of the old man's dirty skin.
It was then that Phineas realized what the other man had been saying. "Okay— fine— take your money back!" Phineas growled, still trying to seem threatening, though it was a pitiful attempt.
"That won't stop me from telling the authorities that I have found the fugitives from Nissim… Or perhaps I should simply mention the reward to any of the upstanding citizens outside?"
The old man's eyes bugged. "What do you want?" His voice was high and hoarse.
"I've told you. Him." Demetrie pointed at Sev who dropped onto his back and sat up blinking stupidly.
"The boy? No— I won't…"
"I'm willing to let you keep the gold you have there. If you refuse you'll be headed to a labor camp and I'll take your boy anyway… unless you think you can outrun the guards."
Phineas ground his rotten teeth. "I want more."
Demetrie raised an eyebrow. "How much more?"
"Make it fifteen— no, twenty."
Demetrie kicked Phineas in his bad leg. The old man coughed and his face went white.
"You're hardly in a position to bargain, dreg, but since I'm feeling benevolent, I'll make it ten."
"Fine." Phineas' voice was barely a squeak as beads of sweat blossomed on his forehead.
Demetrie let go of the old man and stood up, dusting off his pants and he tossed him a few more coins. As a last consideration, he reached down and snatched up the deck of cards, tucking them into his vest, before holding his hand out to the boy still sitting dumbfounded on stage.
"Come with me, I'm taking you home."
Sev walked quietly beside the man who held him by a hand at the back of his neck. Even if he weren't slouching, Sev's head would have only reached about the height of one of the man's broad shoulders.
At the gate, the guards called the man "Lordship" and allowed him to take Sev out without so much as one question asked. Sev couldn't help but wonder if it was something he had done many times before.
"Demetrie, really! Your father would not approve!" An older man gasped, his white mustache puffing, as they arrived at a black stretch limo.
Demetrie. Sev looked up at the man who held him. The name sounded exotic, offering whispers of dark promises and deep passions. Sev wondered how much of either he might come to know in this man's company. He blushed and lowered his gaze as Demetrie's stormy eyes met his own. After a moment, Demetrie's attention shifted briefly to the older man, as if he'd only just noticed they weren't alone.
"My father is dead, Walter. Take it up with him if you like."
Sev had little time to process the cool delivery of this information before he was sent scrambling into the car by a brush of Demetrie's hand on his backside.