Being enslaved was better than dying but only barely. Kennet did what he had to in order to survive as a slave with the knowledge that freedom would risk being found by the people who drove him into slavery. Kennet saw no reason to do anything extra for the men who bought him. They didn’t care about him and he didn’t care about them.
That was true until the royal family of Penhale purchased Kennet guard Prince Didymos. Protecting Prince Didymos from the assassins seeking to kill him dragged Kennet into the world of national politics and onwards to face an enemy that threatened to destroy not just Kennet but the whole world.
Kennet didn’t want to deal with any of it, the assassins or the magic that lurked around him but if he wanted to survive, Kennet would have to not just face down the threats surrounding them but also track the assassins back to their shadowy leader.
What he found at the source of the chaos changed Kennet in ways he could never have anticipated, taking him in all new directions. Hopefully Kennet’s new skills would be enough to let him save the world, his lovers and himself.
Artifacts of Awareness
By Meyari McFarland
“Six more attacks,” Prince Didymos complained as they made their way back to their new, much more secure, rooms in the most heavily protected part of the fortress. “Why is this happening? No one’s upset with Father’s policies. There’s no war brewing on the borders. Everything was going fine politically and personally. There’s no reason for all of these assassins to be coming out of the woodwork!”
“Don’t say it,” Kennet sighed. “It’ll happen.”
“What will?” Prince Didymos asked as he blinked at Kennet in confusion.
“Assassins coming out of the woodwork,” Kennet replied. “That’s about the only thing that hasn’t happened yet.”
Prince Didymos spluttered for a moment before laughing and shaking his head. He looked amused but the tremor in his hands was worse today than it had been a couple of days ago. Kennet already knew that he wasn’t sleeping right, was barely eating. No surprise that the stress was getting to him, all things considered. The problem was that Kennet really didn’t know what to do to help him deal with it. He was pretty sure that having the prince get sick because of stress and worry would net Kennet the same results as letting him get assassinated.
If Didymos was anyone other than a prince, Kennet would have seduced him. Kissed him senseless, pushed him back on the bed and ravished him; several good hard orgasms would probably do Prince Didymos a lot of good right about now. Unfortunately, Prince Didymos was a prince so there had to be all sorts of rules about who could court him. Besides, Kennet was a slave. There was absolutely no way that it could work in a way that kept Kennet from being beaten or killed.
And as sweet and gentle as Prince Didymos was, Kennet didn’t honestly care about him all that much. He was too good a person to pair up with Kennet, no matter what Prince Didymos had convinced himself. Kennet wouldn’t go there, wouldn’t let himself get involved even casually with someone that open and kind. Prince Didymos would fall head over heels in love and that would be a disaster waiting to happen.
He’d learned two years ago that falling in love was a stupid thing to do. Juraj had taught him how dangerous having a heart could be, even if he hadn’t know before that it was stupid. Elder Danek preyed on the weak and open hearted more than the cynical and suspicious, probably because they were easier to get at. It was his love for Juraj that had led to being a slave and being a slave had burned out any love Kennet had left in his black heart.
“Blessed Pensri, I really hope that doesn’t happen,” Prince Didymos said as the laughter slowly turned into convulsive shudders that made his teeth chatter.
“I’ll make sure you survive, Highness,” Kennet promised.
Prince Didymos didn’t seem to hear him. He stopped in the hallway a few paces away from the new suite to wrap his arms around his waist. When Kennet waved for Prince Didymos to keep going he got no response at all. A close look showed that his eyes were dilated as he stared at something only he could see.
Kennet frowned and nodded for two of guards to check the rooms. They moved to the door, scanning overhead as well as around themselves because Kennet had bellowed at them all for being fucking idiots earlier. Danger came from above just as much as straight on. Maybe it was growing up next to the Spider Mountain’s mutated creatures that made Kennet intensely aware of the need to look up but he couldn’t understand why so many of the guards failed to do the simplest of checks.
“Anything?” Kennet asked after a few seconds.
One of the guards used the scabbard of his sword to thump the walls, ceiling and floor, looking for any magical screens like the assassins had used so many times. Kennet immediately memorized his face. That one needed to be promoted. He actually had a brain.
“Nothing I can see, sir,” the guard said.
His fellow guard nodded while looking up at the top of the fortress for grapples and down towards the base of the cliff around the fortress for anyone creeping along. “All clear as far as I can see.”
“Thank fuck,” Kennet sighed. “You two, out on the balcony. Two in the hallway, another two roving and for fuck’s sake, someone make sure that no one that hasn’t been checked out has access to the stairway.”
The guards moved to take up their posts but Prince Didymos still didn’t notice or react. Rather than let the prince have his growing panic attack in the hallway, Kennet put one hand on his shoulder and firmly shoved Prince Didymos into the suite. It made Prince Didymos gasp and flail as if someone was about to stab him but it got him out of danger and into a probably secure location.
A quick look around confirmed that it was still as secure as Kennet could make it. Granted, these rooms were as bare as the monk’s cells in the Monastery back home on top of Spider Mountain, but that gave less likelihood of something being spelled, drugged or trapped. All of the soft furnishings were gone, from the rugs to the curtains to the pillows on the floor. All the paintings on the wall were gone, too, after one too many assassins using paintings as a place to hide traps.
“Sit,” Kennet ordered as he maneuvered Prince Didymos to the bed.
“It’s never going to end,” Prince Didymos whispered so low that Kennet could barely hear him. “This is going to go on forever, isn’t it?”
“No, Highness, it isn’t,” Kennet said. He knelt down on one knee in front of Prince Didymos and put on his wryest smile. He couldn’t afford for Prince Didymos to shut down entirely. It was a hell of a lot harder to protect someone who wouldn’t move or react than it was someone who could take care of themselves. “Your father will either kill the people responsible and you’ll be free or you’ll die so then it’ll be over and you won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
To his relief, the less than comforting little joke made Prince Didymos squeak and then laugh for real. He reached out to cup Kennet’s cheek with one hand. It was shaking but not as badly as it had been out in the hallway. Kennet sighed inwardly as he rubbed his cheek against Prince Didymos’ hand once. More than that might encourage a thoroughly inappropriate connection in Prince Didymos’ heart but he obviously needed at least a little bit of comfort.
“You… you won’t let that happen, will you?” Prince Didymos asked. He clearly wanted to ask something else but hadn’t dared.
“Of course not, Highness,” Kennet said with the sort of bare, blunt honesty that he knew killed romantic notions quicker than poison. “You die, then I die. I like living so you’re staying alive.”
The comment did exactly what Kennet wanted. He could see the gentle hope die in Prince Didymos’ eyes. Prince Didymos turned away as he snatched back his hand so quickly that Kennet would have thought that his cheek was a hot stove. His shoulders curled inwards and a tiny whimper made it past Prince Didymos’ clenched teeth.
Despite everything, hurting Prince Didymos that way made the secret part of Kennet’s heart that still cared about people flinch. Even though everything about himself that had once loved Juraj more than life itself was now locked away deep in his heart, kept in a lockbox behind bars in a closed room in the darkest part of his soul. Once upon a time, Kennet had been equally cold to Juraj and the reaction had made Kennet apologize for weeks.
“You… wouldn’t save me?” Juraj had whispered, brown eyes wide and golden cheeks gone pale with shock. “If, if Elder Danek did try to ensnare me, you wouldn’t try to get me back? You’d kill me?”
“No, I just meant that if he already had you, Juraj,” Kennet had spluttered while flailing his hands in an attempt to calm Juraj down. “You know I couldn’t actually get you back if he’d taken your soul. I don’t have any magic and he’d get me too.”
“…You should probably go home,” was all that Juraj had said at the time. Three days of abject apologies had eventually gotten Juraj to take him back but even then Kennet had known that he was right and Juraj was wrong.
In a battle between Kennet and a mage, Kennet was always going to lose. Hell, between Kennet and the army of assassins coming at Prince Didymos, it was pretty much inevitable that Kennet was going to lose someday. He was surprised that he’d managed to live this long and could only blame his horrible luck at surviving the worst odds even when he didn’t want to.
Kennet didn’t allow the faint sorrow and regret to show when Prince Didymos turned back to him. His Alliance training master’s voice echoed in the back of his head, reinforcing Kennet’s inherent beliefs that this was stupidly impossible to hope for. Slaves didn’t get to love. They didn’t get gentleness. There was only surviving and getting as much as they could from their masters without ending up in trouble. That was the fundamental truth of slavery that Prince Didymos had never acknowledged and that Kennet could never escape.
“Of course,” Prince Didymos sighed. “This is just survival for you, nothing more.”
“Pretty much, Highness,” Kennet agreed. “It’s temporary. That’s all you have to remember. Soon enough it’ll be over one way or the other. I’ll keep doing my damndest to make sure that it’s the other poor dumb sons of bitches that die instead of us.”
“You’ve done very well at that so far,” Prince Didymos commented as if praising Kennet on learning some new dance step.
His hand dropped back to the plain bedspread as he looked away, off into the distance that he really couldn’t see given that the room had only one window and that was behind him. The little room with its equally small bathroom were perfect for keeping Prince Didymos safe even if he complained occasionally about feeling like he’d been locked up in a jail cell. Kennet’s comment that this was much more comfortable than a jail cell had only been met with a disbelieving stare.
“You’re not doing well, are you Highness?” Kennet commented after a few seconds of staring at Prince Didymos’ hopeless expression. He might have locked his heart up where it wouldn’t get hurt but he still had a heart deep inside of him. “With all the killing, I mean.”
“This… It’s insane, all of it,” Prince Didymos complained in a tone that was more hopeless than angry. “Penhale is peaceful. We’re not enemies of any of our neighbors. We’re not rich in resources so there’s little reason to invade. My family is well liked. There’s just no reason for all of these assassination attempts.”
“Only thing that makes sense to me is that someone’s trying to overthrow your father, Highness,” Kennet agreed as he shifted position to take a bit of pressure off his knee. He didn’t stand up. His knee hurt a little from the stone floor but looming over Prince Didymos wasn’t going to calm him down. A panicked or depressed prince was harder to protect than a relatively calm one. “Except that the attacks aren’t really against him. They’re against you and your brother. Maybe there’s an illegitimate son out there who wants to knock you out of the way?”
It made sense to Kennet. Bastard prince trying to kill the ones standing in his way to get at the throne was a pretty normal thing back home in the Empire. No one here had suggested it where Kennet could hear but he’d put that down as people being discreet about offending Prince Didymos.
Prince Didymos shook his head no so firmly that Kennet wondered if he was wrong about that assumption. From the expression on Prince Didymos’ face his suggestion was completely ridiculous. Maybe it was.
Kennet didn’t know King Barabbas well enough to know how faithful he was to Queen Semele. From what little he’d seen, nobility were more than willing to stick their cocks anywhere they could get away with putting them and to hell with anyone who complained about being on the receiving end of it. A few bastards wouldn’t surprise him at all but maybe King Barabbas actually was as pious and faithful as people claimed he was.
“Father only ever had one lover before marrying Mother,” Prince Didymos said. “They haven’t seen each other for years, longer than I’ve been alive, so no. It couldn’t be another son or a daughter, for that matter. Father wouldn’t cheat on Mother. They love each other too much.”
Instead of saying it firmly while meeting Kennet’s eyes, Prince Didymos looked away, one hand clutched to his chest as if to protect himself from something. There was enough doubt in his eyes and the downward pull of Prince Didymos’ eyebrows that Kennet inwardly nodded. There might not be official notice of an affair but someone had gotten into King Barabbas’ silk pants at some point after his marriage.
Kennet decided that he wasn’t going to comment on Prince Didymos’ avoidance. Yeah, it was nice to think that your parents loved each other so much that no one could ever come between them but it was a dream. Frankly, Kennet was inclined to think that he probably hit the nail on the head with a vengeful, murderous bastard prince out there plotting their doom, but forcing Prince Didymos to accept it wasn’t a good idea. Kennet could still be beaten if he got too uppity with Prince Didymos on things that weren’t directly related to his survival.
“What would happen if you sired a bastard somewhere?” Kennet asked. He grinned at the shocked horror on Prince Didymos’ face. “Come on. You had pretty young things rubbing up all the time before this stuff happened. Don’t tell me you didn’t at least think about taking some of them up on it.”
He laughed out loud at the way Prince Didymos blushed. It wasn’t a little blush staining his cheeks. No, Prince Didymos blushed so hard that his whole face went brick red. His ears started glowing. Even his neck went red from the force of his blush. Kennet’s laughter didn’t seem to help. After a moment of squirming, spluttering silence from Prince Didymos, the prince groaned and flopped dramatically back on the bed. When Kennet patted Prince Didymos’ knee, the prince put his hands over his face.
“I can’t believe you said that,” Prince Didymos whined behind his hands.
“Hey, you’re older than I am, Highness,” Kennet said. “I don’t think that you’ve taken an oath of celibacy or anything. Have you?”
“No, no oath,” Prince Didymos sighed. He let his hands drop away from his face but he stared at the blank white ceiling instead of looking at Kennet. “And no, I don’t have any illegitimate children.”
“But what would happen if you did have one, Highness?” Kennet asked. “Seriously. I’m curious. Not everywhere handles bastard children like you guys do here.”
“Point,” Prince Didymos said, nodding while staring at the ceiling. “Um, basically, the child would be brought forward and spells would be done to confirm his or her true parentage. If it was actually my child then he or she would be brought into the royal family. Given that I don’t have any heirs yet he or she would become my heir.”
“And if it was King Barabbas’ kid?” Kennet asked because that really was the only thing that made sense. “That make any difference?”
Prince Didymos frowned so fiercely that Kennet would have thought that he was trying to glare a hole through the roof. The suggestion of a little brother or sister that he didn’t know obviously bothered Prince Didymos because he huffed and thumped the plain blankets on his bed as if he wanted to smack Kennet for even bringing it up. Kennet waited, not moving or talking. He really should leave it alone but somewhere there was a reason for all of this and Kennet wanted the attacks to stop before they both ended up dead.
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