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  • Assassins after dark
  • The banging on the door worked its way into Haken's head like a rotten, throbbing tooth. "Alright!" he bawled out, throwing back the matted, filthy furs he slept in. Where the hell was the bitch? "The World ain't ending is it?" he said, drawing on his trousers.

    The banging got louder, like maybe the man on the other side had decided to dance on the door. "You fucking better have a Gods-cursed good reason for -", Haken said, yanking the door open. The words died on his lips when he saw Diogo and Valak.

    "Bright morning to you," Diogo said, smiling cheerily and walking past Haken. Valak followed, tall, silent and deadly.

    "Find the bitch," Diogo said to Valak.

    "Right," he said, disappearing into the darkness beyond the tiny room.

    Diogo sat on a chair, tilted it back on two legs and put his black boots up on a rickety wooden table. He looked Haken up and down, a tall thick man whose bloated belly showed the ale he packed away every night. His sleep bleary eyes were squeezed down to tiny points in the bright morning sunlight streaming in from outside. His scent filled the small room, stale liquor, piss and a nearly overpowering odor of sweat. Great oily drops rolled down the sides of his face as he stood looking at Diogo.

    There was a thud in the other room, followed by a small, yipping cry, then Valak's low, grating voice saying, "No you don't, bitch."

    Haken stood perfectly still as if to say, You're not here. This is a nightmare and soon I'll wake up and take a piss. You're nothing but a full, aching bladder, mister.

    "Your payment's late," Diogo said, looking at the sack of shit in front of him.

    "I been meaning to come by," Haken said. He licked his dry lips and tried a smile. He didn't quite make it and ended up bearing his teeth in an idiot grin instead.

    "Yeah?" Diogo said, looking him up and down.

    His dark brown assassin's eyes bore into Haken. Diogo's thickly muscled body always gave him the look of a crouched tiger, poised and ready to strike, even when he was sitting with his feet up and his arms crossed against his chest.

    Valak came back into the room, dragging a pale, frightened slave boy by the arm. He backed the frantically struggling boy into a corner and let him pull away, afraid that if he held his frail arm too tight, he would break his thin bones. The boy cowered in the far corner of the room, and looked from one man to the other with green eyes round with fear. His hair, honey brown in the shaft of sunlight that stabbed into the dank rooms, fell across his pallid face, giving him the wild look of an animal caught in a trap.

    "You hear that Valak? He's been meaning to come by," Diogo said to his friend. He'd taken out a knife and now he used it to clean his nails.

    "Right," Valak said, looking down at the boy in the corner.

    His hard, angular face, nearly lost in dark shadows, showed no emotion. In the small room, he towered over the slave boy, tall and built hard and compact somehow. He had a deadly air about him, like a cross bow always cocked and ready to deal death at a moment's notice.

    He pulled the boy from the corner, dug his long fingers into his hair and pulled his head back hard. His other hand moved eerily fast, and a knife appeared from nowhere. He pressed the cold, wickedly sharp blade to the pulse in the boy's throat, and looked at Diogo, waiting.

    The slave boy tried to pull back from the knife, but Valak paid no mind. He pulled the boy's hair tighter to keep him from cutting his own throat in panic. Unshed tears glistened in the boy's soft green eyes and hung like gems in his long lashes. Tiny desperate sounds came from the slave boy, but no words escaped his lips.

    "Where's my fucking tokens?" Diogo said, looking at the tableau of Valak and the boy.

    Diogo wasn't smiling anymore. His hard eyes had gone a cold shade, the color of freshly turned grave dirt. Haken, a one time farmer, had turned into a veteran gambler and a long term loser. He was a battle hardened veteran of every Poker table in Emyhr and far beyond. He'd spent endless summers in dark corners of shit hole taverns with whores so filthy, a man didn't know if his cock would rot after he fucked them. And he'd come to know the look in Diogo's eyes a deadman's eyes.

    He read the message in those inhumanly hard eyes with a kind of perfect clarity that spoke of death and bloody things to come. Pay me or die you fucking shit sack, those eyes said. And they would kill him too, just to make an example--especially that one holding his boy, who looked like a man itching for a reason to dig his knife into hot, steaming guts. Or maybe he'd do it for no reason at all.

    The veteran gambler, turned long term loser, looked from one man to the other and wished mightily that the earth would open and swallow them both.

    "My friends," he said, in his best let's-be-reasonable voice. He smiled broadly, and this time it lit up his whole face, like sunshine coming out from clouds. He looked like the young man he used to be before he found his true calling at the bottom of a mug of ale. "I can work this out, give me time."

    "Cut the bitch," Diogo said in a low, irritated voice. He didn't look up from his work on his nails. "Make him scream."

    Valak increased the pressure on the knife ever so slightly. A drop of blood formed on the boy's throat. He was used to using knives on men, that's why what happened next took him completely by surprise.

    The slave boy went purely crazy, thrashing and screaming, begging Valak not to kill him, to please have mercy on a worthless slave boy, please. Valak was forced to drop his knife, or the boy's struggles would have cut his throat from ear to ear. Valak slapped the boy's face hard, leaving a brilliant red mark on his too pale cheek.

    "Quit it, you stupid bitch," Valak yelled into his face, "or you'll fucking kill yourself!"

    He grabbed the boy's too thin arm again, Gods, nothing's right about this bitch, he had time to think, and bent to get his knife, but the boy kicked out a scrawny leg and the knife went twirling across the warped, wooden floor. Valak looked at the boy. He wasn't stupid then, just afraid.

    Valak gave his arm a rough shake and the feel of the boy's bones just beneath his skin damped his anger. The boy grimaced in pain and cringed from the blow he expected.

    Valak did something he never did. That's what kept him alive in his line of work. He acted without thinking. Without realizing he was going to do it, he swept the boy up into his arms and slung his impossibly light weight over his shoulder like the world's lightest sack of potatoes.

    The boy immediately beat his tiny fists on Valak's back, but he was ready for that. The boy's tunic had pulled up and his naked ass stuck out over Valak's shoulder. He brought his big calloused hand down on the boy's naked ass, with not even half the force his hard, muscled arm could have given the boy. But it was enough to make the slave boy yelp and scream, until his white ass turned beet red.

    "Behave bitch, or I'll lay into you real good," Valak said in his hoarse voice.

    The boy's struggles stopped as if a switch had turned off and Diogo saw something that gave him a bad feeling in the pit of his belly. A tiny smile touched the corners of Valak's mouth. He looked from that hint of a smile on his friend's face to Haken, who stood with his mouth hanging open like a door that's come unhinged. Oh Gods, I don't need this shit, Diogo thought.

    Beads of sweat stood out on Haken's oily forehead. His hair was scattered helter-skelter from sleep, like grass grown wild. He brushed at it, as if neatness counted.

    "If you got a stash Haken, now's the time to dig it out of whatever filthy hole you got it in," Diogo said. "Down your pants, up your ass, I don't care. Get my fucking tokens. Now!"

    "I got half," Haken said, inching around Valak and the boy. "Half Diogo. I'll give you the rest come Temple Day. Someone owes me." Haken's voice was desperate and somehow whiny at the same time.

    "Nobody owes you nothing, you stinking drunk. You owe half the town and you're in hock to the other half."

    "I swear. This sailor, he'll be back in town come Temple Day. He owes me."

    Diogo dropped his feet to the floor, and let the chair slam to the ground. The sound was loud in the silence. The only other sound was the slave boy's sniveling whimpers.

    "I don't want half you lying shit sack. You got 'til Temple Day to get me all of it. Any later and I take it out of his ass," Diogo said, pointing to Haken's slave boy. "Bring the bitch, Valak."

    "Hey, wait," Haken said. "The bitch's worth five no--ten times what I owe you." He started to go after the men and his boy.

    Valak put the boy down and pushed him toward Diogo. He headed for Haken and both men met in the middle of the darkly shadowed room.

    "No!" Diogo cried out. "Valak, back off him!"

    But it was as if Diogo had said nothing. Valak grabbed Haken's shoulders and jammed his right knee viciously into the other man's crotch. Haken doubled over, screaming. Valak grabbed his hair and whispered into his ear, "Don't pay shit sack. I'll enjoy coming for you." He let him go and stood back as Haken crumbled to the floor, holding his balls and gasping for breath.

    Valak turned to the boy and grabbed his skinny arm. He bent low so he was eye to eye with the boy. "You going to fuck with me?"

    The boy shook his head back and forth slowly, watching Valak warily, like a lion that might pounce and eat him. He looked past Valak to his Master, still squirming on the floor, then tore his eyes away and looked at Valak again. The tears in his eyes slipped down his cheeks. Valak wiped the boy's wet cheeks with the back of his hand.

    "Do what I say and I won't hurt you," he told the scared boy. He picked up his knife and held it up in front of the boy. "Fuck with me, and I'll cut on you just for fun. You got me?"

    The slave boy nodded enthusiastically. Valak thought if the boy shook his head any harder, it might fall right off his body. He held out his hand and after a moment's thought, the boy took it obediently and went with Valak out into Emyhr's bright morning sunshine. Diogo marveled at that. He could have never gotten the boy to take his hand. He would have to take him by force. Just before they left, Valak gave Haken a sidelong look that Diogo knew better than he wanted to cutter's eyes. Haken was too busy writhing on the floor, trying to catch his breath, to see his coming fate in Valak's furious eyes.

    "Siri," the boy had said in a kind of "Oh Gods, I'm fucked" voice when Diogo asked his name. He sat on the floor beside Diogo's writing table in the back room of the whorehouse. It was a grotto like room, with a low ceiling, carved out of the dark stone behind the whorehouse. Two torches burned on the wall behind Diogo. The dark walls and ceiling had a fine dusting of soot from countless torches.

    Besides the massive table, the only other furniture in the room was two cherry wood straight back chairs that matched the table. The dark red wood glowed with a mellow gleam that made the stark black walls look more like a room and less like a stone crypt. Diogo slid a beat up leather pouch from a drawer, pushed aside the papers on his desk, and started rolling a smoke.

    "That shit will kill you," Valak said.

    Diogo shrugged. "If you got a point, make it." It was an old joke between them.

    Valak, who didn't hurt slave boys for the sake of it, had bought the boy a plate of sausages, bread cakes and scrambled eggs. Siri shoveled the food down his throat, with hardly a pause in his mouth, with almost alarming speed. Diogo and Valak exchanged a silent glance.

    "For the love of the crops boy, when's the last time you ate?" Valak asked.

    The boy paused a moment, a thick bread cake wrapped around a sausage that dripped oil poised at his lips, thinking. "Yesterday Sir. Master had meat last night," the boy said. "He gave me bread and gravy." His face brightened. "All the gravy." He popped the sausage and bread into his mouth, making his cheeks bulge comically.

    "Well slow down. You're not worth anything dead, you know," Valak said with a rough edge in his voice.

    His boys were used to Valak's rough ways. They knew when their Handler was mildly annoyed, and when he was about to whip some serious ass. But Siri wasn't one of his boys. A shadow of fear crossed the slave boy's pale face. The memory of Valak's cold knife pressed to his throat haunted his eyes.

    "Go on boy, eat," Valak said in a softer voice. "I'll bring you more if you gobble it all."

    The boy looked at him, unbelieving. "You would do that Sir?"

    Valak nodded. "Yeah. So slow down, I mean it."

    Diogo saw a look on his friend's face that he had come to know and dread. "No," Diogo said, making the word two syllables. He shot up his forefinger, ticking it back and forth. "Don't be thinking of it."

    "What?" Valak said, his eyes wide, his hands spread, palms up.

    "Don't be looking at him like a stray pup. Our stable's full."

    The soft stray pup look vanished from Valak's face and that hard, dangerous look that was never far, came into his eyes. Cutter's eyes, Diogo called them. That's how Valak looked when he was carving up a screaming man like a Gods- Blessed Feast Day bird.

    "Haken's scum," Valak said.

    Diogo let it go. Countless summers of friendship had taught him not to argue with those cutter's eyes.

    All this seemed to go by the boy, who went on eating without looking up at the men. Outside, seven bells rang.

    "Call them in," Diogo said. "Let's take care of this. Daylight's wasting."

    The boy spared Valak no glance when he left. Diogo sat back with the air of a man at a particularly good magic show and watched the boy stuff another tremendous bread wrapped sausage into his mouth.

    The moment the boy swallowed the last of the food, he looked afraid again. He wiped the crumbs from his soft lips and knelt between Diogo's legs looking more scared than ever. "You going to sell me off, Sir? To Tooth n' Claw?"

    The boy misread the surprise on Diogo's face and started apologizing. "I'm sorry Sir. I didn't mean any disrespect Sir. I know it's your decision Sir. Please Sir, I - "

    "What makes you say that boy?" Diogo said, studying the boy close.

    Siri squirmed under his hard gaze and shrugged and looked down at Diogo's boots. "Master's always saying he'd sell me if I was worth anything. Always says a place like Tooth n' Claw is where a useless slut like me belongs." Tears slipped from the boy's big green eyes. "Is that where you're selling me?"

    Diogo was no good at handling slaveboys. Anything he said or did made things worse. He wished like hell Valak would hurry up. "I'm not selling you anywhere boy. I'm giving you back as soon as your Master pays me."

    The boy's tears began in earnest. Gods-damn it, Diogo thought, where the fuck's Valak? "Softly boy. You'll be home before - "

    "He won't pay you," Siri shouted in a high screechy voice that grated on Diogo's ears. "He probably left town already. He'll be on the first ship out."

    "You're wrong boy," Diogo said quietly. "No one would do that to me. He'll pay, and come Temple Day you'll be back home."

    "Yeah," the slave boy said, and sat at Diogo's feet and cried into his hands.

    Valak walked in. The relief on Diogo's face was ecstasy, salvation. "They're coming," his Handler said. He was about to say more, but he caught the look on Diogo's face. "What's up?"

    Diogo told him. In a few minutes, by some magic that made Valak the best Handler Diogo knew, he had the boy smiling. It was a small smile, but it was better than anything Diogo could have done. Siri knelt at Valak's feet, fiddling with the man's trousers in a way that would have annoyed Diogo beyond all reason. He didn't know how Valak did it. Slave boys all over him all the time, with their petty nonsense this one took that, he said this, it wasn't me, he got more cake than me - bawling, laughing, noisy. He cringed inside at the thought.

    Valak watched over the whores with a savage passion that was nearly frightening. The boys adored him. They obeyed Diogo out of fear, but they followed Valak's least command out of gratitude.

    With men Valak was a murderer, a torturer and a ruthless enemy. With slave boys he was a benign God who ruled fairly and whipped ass like the Devil Man himself. Every time Diogo thought he had Valak figured out, he'd see him with some new pretty he'd bought for the whores or a silly scrap of rug they'd begged him for.

    Yet it was Valak who had talked him into the Kathara cut. The whorehouse had become rich because of it. Valak didn't seem to mind the look of fear and suffering that came into whores' eyes every night when it came time to serve. If anything, he seemed to think the horror in their eyes belonged there, that they would be somehow incomplete without it. Diogo talked a lot of shit about selling off the whores, but he knew Valak would skin him alive and boil him in oil if he sold even one of the boy whores. In the way of men whose friendship was born in the bloody brotherhood of the battlefield, the men had split the business between them without speaking of it. Diogo managed the money side, Valak managed the whores.

    His Handler was a deep one. After nearly half a lifetime of friendship, Diogo was still never sure what dark thoughts went on behind those cutter's eyes.

    The whores came trooping in, quiet and nervous, as they always were around Diogo. He leaned against his desk, watching them walk in and kneel in front of him in a half moon. He didn't know why they were so afraid of him. He rarely beat them. He left that to Valak.

    In the small room, Tashir came too close to Diogo's desk and brushed some papers off. The boy tried to save them and an inkwell went toppling to the floor, spilling across Diogo's trousers. The boy whore looked up at Diogo, horrified. He tried to clean the ink and succeeded only in making bigger stains, leaving handprints all over the trousers.

    "I'm sorry Bahari," the boy kept saying. "Sorry."

    The boys never called Diogo by name. Bahari was from the High Speech and translated roughly to 'Great Sir' or 'Lord'.

    Diogo jerked his leg out of Tashir's reach. "Get off me bitch," he said through clenched teeth. The boy paled and shoved his hands behind his back like Diogo's trousers had caught fire.

    "Yes Sir," Tashir said miserably. "Sorry. I'm real sorry Sir, about your trousers and all." Valak watched in silence. This kind of thing always happened to Diogo around the boys. Once, a whore spilled cold soup into Diogo's lap. It had taken Valak hours to coax the boy out of hiding. He took pity on his friend, who looked ready to slap Tashir into roughly the middle of next week.

    "Tashi. To me," Valak said, snapping his fingers and pointing to the floor beside him, opposite Siri.

    The boy hurried to Valak. Anything was better than the look on Diogo's face. Even the beating Tashir knew was coming.

    "You whores, like the life I give you?" Diogo said.

    All seven of his boy whores knelt on the floor in front of his desk. He sat behind his desk. Valak sat on the opposite side of the desk in the corner, watching over his boys, as always.

    "Yes Sir," Yahsi said softly.

    "You treat us good Sir," Reya said in a soft murmur.

    The boys never spoke much above a whisper in front of Diogo.

    "You hear that Valak? My whores think I treat them good."

    "Right."

    "What about your Handler? He treat you good?"

    The boys all nodded. Taj slipped a trembling hand into Yashi's hand. Diogo leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk, trying to ignore the ink stain soaking into his trousers.

    "You're bathed, clean and fed everyday. That's more than some men in this town have."

    Taj stole a glance at Valak, who looked right back at him. The boy dropped his eyes; sorry he'd ever looked up. Valak was seriously pissed. This was bad--very bad.

    "You're all prime slave flesh," Diogo was saying. "We paid a wagon load of tokens for every one of you!" Diogo put his feet down with a hard thump that made the boy whores stiffen and huddle closer together. "You're all the kind of whores that make a man dig deep into his pockets, then sell what he don't have to fuck your ass." All the boy whores were looking down at the floor. None dared raise their eyes to him. Diogo looked at his Handler over their bent heads and winked. Siri, silent and watchful beside Valak, saw it.

    "Valak, there's one thing I don't ever do. I never force a boy to be a whore for me."

    "It's not worth it," Valak said in his low, raspy voice. He always sounded like a man on the edge of losing his voice.

    "No," Diogo went on, "I like my bitches to be happy." Diogo looked at the slave property that he and Valak owned, half and half, all of them beauties that had cost them dearly. Not one boy would fetch less than five thousand gold tokens at auction.

    "There's always Tooth n' Claw," Valak said.

    A gasp of horror passed among the boys. Taj, the slave whore closest to Diogo said softly, "Please Sir."

    "Who gave you permission to speak bitch?" Valak interrupted, his voice soft and dangerous.

    The boy cringed at the sound of Valak's voice as though he'd been slapped.

    "Tooth n' Claw, down on the docks." Diogo went on, as if Taj had said nothing. "It's the first place sailors hit to get some ass."

    "He keeps his whores chained up in the day, but I hear he takes them out every three or four moons," Valak said.

    "You think Kadiz would buy one of my whores if they weren't happy here?"

    Valak shrugged. "I don't see why not. He's always looking for fresh slave meat." He looked over at his boys. "You think they should get another chance?"

    Diogo shrugged. "That's up to you and good thing for them. If it was me, I'd sell the bitch. Teach the others not to fuck with me."

    The boy who had spilled the ink crawled to the front and knelt at Diogo's feet. "Please Bahari. It was my fault. I refused him. Don't sell me," the boy said. He cried at Diogo's feet. "Please, let me stay."

    "Why did you refuse a man?" Diogo said in a low voice that betrayed none of the anger that boiled in him.

    "I had already served four men, Sir," the boy said. He wiped tears from his eyes.

    "So you refused a man your ass?"

    The boy nodded, twisted the front of his tunic into a bunch. "It hurts so much Bahari," he said in a small voice.

    "No one gives a fuck how much it hurts you whore," Valak said in that same soft voice. "You pissed me off bitch, that voice said. I'm going to whip you raw!"

    Tashir said nothing. It was safer to keep your mouth shut when Valak sounded like that.

    "I hand picked--all of you!" Diogo swore. He leaned back against his desk. The boy at his feet took hold of his leg and wet his trousers with his tears, getting ink all over his tunic. Diogo let him stay like that, ignoring him. If he touched Tashir right now, he might beat his stupid face in. "I give you privileges most whores wouldn't dream of. In the day, you have the run of the whorehouse. You go out on the back balcony, instead of being locked in downstairs. On Festival Days, you eat sweetmeats. You don't have to kneel when I come in a room. You bitches live good here."

    Diogo leaned down and grabbed the front of Tashir's ink stained tunic. "You see this tunic?" He shook the boy and let him go. "I have to pay for another one. You're whores," he yelled at them. "That's why we bought you. I'm generous. I tell you only four men a night. But if a man wants your ass, how dare any one of you refuse!

    "Sir, please," Tashir said.

    "Shut the fuck up!" Diogo shouted into the boy's face. Spit flew from his lips and landed on Tashir's cheeks.

    You cost tokens last night bitch," Valak said to Tashir. "I'm giving that man your ass tonight, free." The boy hung his head and cried into his ink stained hands.

    Diogo saw the mess and threw his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "Whatever you do to them Valak, make sure you welt their whore asses good."

    "I'll leave good marks," Valak said. "You done with them?" Diogo nodded."Go downstairs and bathe," Valak said. "I'll be down."

    The boys all rose to their feet and hurried out as fast as they could without running. Siri looked up at Valak, unsure what he should do. "Go with them," Valak said. The boy followed after the whores, running to catch up to them. Valak closed the door behind him and turned back to Diogo. A smile surfaced on his hard face.

    "Tooth n' Claw. I wouldn't let you sell a rabid dog into that slime pit."

    "No. But they don't know that," Diogo said. He sat at his desk and pressed his tented fingers to his temples. "Refusing a man." He shook his head. "Who bought Tashir, you or me?"

    "Doesn't matter," Valak said. "He's a good bitch. I'll take care of it before they go to sleep." The laughter left Valak's face. "What happened last night?"

    "You sure they're gone?" Diogo said. He looked at the door the whores had left partly open.

    Valak nodded. "I'm sure. No bitch wants to be near me right now."

    "I told them about Nehad."

    "And?"

    "You sound like Balir. And nothing! We'll meet again in two days. If a miracle doesn't fall out of the sky, we'll be out of time."

    Diogo put his feet up again. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

    "You think Jaseer knows about Lessel yet?" Valak said.

    "I'm sure his watchdog already told him," Diogo said without opening his eyes.

    Valak paced the tiny room. His long legs covered the small open space between the dark walls in three or four steps. Before Emyhr, Diogo and Valak had been what Diogo called purveyors of information. Sometimes powerful men needed information. Or needed things done. Things they couldn't risk getting dirty with.

    That's where Diogo and Valak came in. Diogo negotiated the deals and Valak handled the blood work. Diogo softened up men with words that conjured such horrors that men fell to their knees, begging to tell anything, give up any friend, yield any secret. The men who didn't succumb to Diogo's words, faced Valak's knife. His talent was carving up men like a roast of meat, one screaming piece at a time.

    Between the two of them, they had made a fortune, selling their talents to the rich and powerful. Eight summers ago, the two friends came to Emyhr and pooled their riches and bought Black Horse and the whores. In two summers, they made all their tokens back. The whorehouse had made them rich. The gambling in the back room made them even richer. Now they were businessmen by day and assassins after dark.

    Diogo opened his eyes and watched Valak pace the room. He had known his friend for too long not to know that something was eating at him. "Something on your mind?" Diogo said.

    Valak turned to him. "Why'd you kill Lessel? I thought yesterday was just for talk."

    "What? Sorry you missed out on it? I probably didn't carve him up as neat and pretty as you," Diogo shrugged, "but he gave me what I needed."

    "Where does that get us?" Valak said. "Jaseer will be so mad, he'll be cross-eyed."

    "When you're on the battlefield, what's the best way to distract your enemy?" Diogo said.

    Valak stared at the wall, thinking. "Get him off balance. Hurt him, piss him off, make him - " he stopped. Diogo put his legs down, waiting for him to finish. "Make him so mad he can't see straight," Valak said.

    "Angry men make mistakes," Diogo said. He yawned and stretched. "I need some sleep. Lessel yesterday, the catacombs last night, Haken this morning. I've been working like a bitch my friend."

    "You think Haken will pay?" Back to that. "The bitch said he already left town, ran out on us."

    "That's too bad," Valak said, sounding genuinely disappointed. "I was looking forward to slicing off a couple fingers."

    "What's he done to you?" Diogo said, although he knew his friend well enough to know the answer.

    Valak looked at Diogo like he'd turned suddenly stupid. "Did you see how he kept his bitch? The boy dirty, hungry and whip marks all over his back. What could a scared boy like that do to deserve scars on his back? Fucking drunk. Coward."

    "If he ran out, we'll sell the boy at - "

    But Valak didn't let Diogo finish. "No," he said.

    "Valak, our stable's full. He's a worthless whore scared, skinny and all scarred up. We can't - "

    "I said no!" Valak looked his friend in the eye.

    "Be it," Diogo said, giving up. There was no use arguing with Valak when he looked at you like that. "But he belongs to you, not the business. I don't want any part of him."

    "Agreed," Valak said.

    Diogo stifled another yawn. "I'm going. Don't beat them too bad, I need them in the whorehouse tonight."

    "I know how to take care of my boys," Valak said quietly.


    "You got a name?" Yahsi said to Siri when the boys got downstairs.

    "Forget his fucking name. Hurry up," Taj said. His voice was tinged with hysteria. "Don't let him come down here and find us standing around flapping our lips at the new bitch. We're already in it for thirty lashes."

    "He never gives us thirty," Reya said, pushing his curly brown hair back from the tawny skin of his smooth face.

    Taj whirled on the boy. "Shut up! He will if he hears you!"

    The door opened and Valak walked into the slave quarters. Taj looked around at him, frozen in the act of taking off his tunic. Some of the other boys were already bathing. They all froze, their eyes riveted on Valak.

    Reya's confidence crumbled like wet sand. Had Valak heard him? Oh Gods, please don't let it be. Fourteen pair of eyes watched Valak take off his tunic. He only did that when he planned to work up a sweat. His lean, muscled chest sloped down to his flat belly, ridged with muscle.

    "Finish bathing," he said. "Take a bath Siri."

    The slave quarters was basically a big square hole that had been carved out of the stone underneath the whorehouse. Valak had let the whores put up silks on the black walls and he'd bought them cushions that added bright splashes of color that did nothing to push back the gloom of the stone darkness the boys lived in.

    Candles, lit by the whores when they came down, burned around the room, making more shadow than light. The room glowed with a soft yellow light that showed the nervous strain on the boys' faces as they went about bathing.

    In one corner of the room, three round holes had been scooped out of the floor so long ago that the stone was worn smooth with age. A pump stood on the edge of each round hole. The baths were filled with cold water and the boys bathed quietly, taking turns. Bath time was usually noisy, filled with gossip from the night before and the boys' laughter. But today they were quiet and solemn. They shot quick glances across the room at Valak, as if they hoped he'd disappear like a bad dream.

    The far corner of the stone room, opposite the door, was the Devotion Corner. A life size statue of Zah Nar stood there. A stone slave boy knelt on all fours, on a stone altar, in front of Zah Nar. The God's hands were clamped down tight on the boy's hips, caught in the act of thrusting his great stone cock into the slave boy's ass. The muscles in his arms flexed, standing out in thick cords of strain. The boy's mouth was stretched into a scream of agony. His face was a study in pain and fear. "To Suffer is to Serve"



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