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
6: Talk Down
“Well, Mother would be irate, depending on the age of the child, especially if it was younger than me and Telamon,” Prince Didymos replied. He sat up and stared down into Kennet’s eyes with a frustrated frown. “Father would be shocked. But the same basic thing. He or she would be added to the family and put in the line of descent. It’s… for the love of Pensri, that’s how Father got the throne. The Queen couldn’t have children and Father was born to a servant who um, well, managed to seduce my grandfather. It’s really not that much of a problem.”
That bit of information made Kennet frown back at him. Maybe Prince Didymos was right that there was no connection. If any child would be accepted then there was no reason to attack Prince Didymos and his younger brother Telamon. But that didn’t work. Someone was quite obviously determined to kill the princes off. Whoever it was had already spent huge amounts of money trying to ensure that they died, but all the while King Barabbas and Queen Semele had been untouched. That implied that someone wanted to remove competition from the line of descent, which could only mean that somewhere there was another prince or princess who wanted the throne someday.
“This is fucking confusing, Highness,” Kennet complained after a few moments of chasing his thoughts around in circles in his head.
“Agreed,” Prince Didymos said. “I just wish I knew when it was going to end.”
“Do we have to go there again, Highness?” Kennet asked with a big grin that, as he had hoped, made Prince Didymos laugh.
“No, no need,” Prince Didymos chuckled. “Bedtime? Since there really isn’t much else to do.”
Kennet nodded. There wasn’t anything else said as Kennet watched Prince Didymos get ready for bed. When Prince Didymos came over for Kennet’s help, Kennet rolled his eyes and took over untying his sleeves. As far as Kennet was concerned, Prince Didymos shouldn’t really need it but having someone help seemed to calm Prince Didymos down.
That was worth the annoyance of picking knots out of the fiddly little laces that kept the cuffs of his sleeves shut. The pants were nearly as bad. Kennet had no idea how Prince Didymos had gotten that bad of a knot in the drawstring but getting it loose took long enough that Prince Didymos went brick red again and Kennet started growling.
Just about the time Prince Didymos finally curled up in bed in his simple night clothes, the midnight bell struck. Its mournful tone was deeper than the one back in the capital, deep enough that it echoed through the bedroom.
As always, Kennet settled down on the floor in front of the door. He wasn’t surprised when Prince Didymos rolled over to stare at him in the darkness. With the light crystals by Prince Didymos’ bed covered the room was practically pitch black. Only the light from the single window and a nearly worn out light crystal by Prince Didymos’ bed gave anything to see by.
“What, Highness?” Kennet asked.
“We could get you a bed,” Prince Didymos suggested. “Blankets.”
“Nope, I’d get tangled in them if someone attacked in the middle of the night, Highness,” Kennet said. “I’m not cold. I’m not uncomfortable. It’s fine. Go to sleep.”
“It just seems… uncomfortable down there,” Prince Didymos said in that ‘this isn’t right’ tone that always made Kennet groan.
“Highness….” Kennet allowed himself the groan once again just to make his point. He made it a nice, enthusiastic long one. “We go through this every night. I’m fine. This is okay. Quit fussing and go to sleep.”
Prince Didymos grumbled and then got out of bed. He came over and lay down on the floor next to Kennet with a fierce enough glare that Kennet could see it even in the darkness of the bare room. His bedclothes were white so his hunched shoulders and shifting legs were very obvious. Kennet made a mental note to get Prince Didymos some dark colored bedclothes so that he’d be less visible during the night.
“This is uncomfortable,” Prince Didymos complained.
“Not to me,” Kennet replied. “I’m used to it, Highness. You’re a lot more pampered than I am.”
He wasn’t surprised that Prince Didymos made a grumbling noise of objection. Over the next several moments Prince Didymos rolled onto his side facing away from Kennet, onto his back again and then onto his side so that his face was to Kennet. Rather than listen to more of Prince Didymos’ muttered complaints, Kennet reached out and pulled Prince Didymos close. His familiar daydream of a nice quiet far with rabbit hutches wasn’t going to be Kennet’s refuge tonight, not with the prince being difficult.
The prince went stiff as a board as Kennet held him close. He was warm, which would have been nice back home where nights got cold. Cuddling with Juraj had been Kennet’s favorite way to warm up on cold nights, those few nights that they’d managed to spend together. Prince Didymos made him break out sweating immediately. Nighttime in Penhale was like the hottest, most humid parts of summer back home.
It took several minutes for Prince Didymos to relax. Once he did he rolled over and wrapped an arm around Kennet’s waist and put his head on Kennet’s shoulder. He wasn’t at all surprised that Prince Didymos was shaking from the closeness. This was probably the closest he been to another person since the attacks began.
“Still uncomfortable,” Prince Didymos whispered.
“To you,” Kennet murmured back. “Really doesn’t bother me. Those soft beds you have would kill my back. Can’t sleep on them.”
Prince Didymos sighed and then made Kennet’s blood freeze solid in his veins by pressing a tender, lingering kiss against the side of Kennet’s neck. A thousand different fears and worries immediately rampaged through Kennet’s mind, starting with just how much King Barabbas would hate it if his heir fell in love with a slave. He thought about pushing Prince Didymos away but before he could do more than growl Prince Didymos hugged him.
“I never have had any lovers,” Prince Didymos whispered.
Kennet jerked and turned to look at the top of Prince Didymos’ head.
“Really, not one,” Prince Didymos admitted. “I know. Everyone expects that a prince will lose his virginity quite young but…”
“No one you liked?” Kennet asked when the silence stretched long enough that he was sure Prince Didymos wouldn’t finish his sentence without prompting.
“No one I trusted,” Prince Didymos corrected. “Most of the people offering were doing it to try and get power. I mean, I could tell they actually liked me but there was always a sense of entitlement. I give you this and you give me that, you know? It was never an equal relationship, one where they wanted me just because I’m me. They always wanted power or money or something else. I’m not a fool, Kennet. I do know when people want to use me.”
Kennet thumped his head back against the floor, patting Prince Didymos’ back. He was going to hate himself for saying this but it had to be done. The last thing he could afford was a love-struck prince expecting sexual favors when there were assassins hunting for them both. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Just like the two of us.”
Predictably, Prince Didymos jerked and pulled back so that he could stare into Kennet’s face. There was just enough light to see how horrified he looked. Kennet stared back as calmly as he could when the little part of his heart that still cared was screaming at him not to be so cruel. Only after Prince Didymos’ face had crumbled into heart-broken despair and then into suspicion did Kennet pat his side.
“Highness, I’m a slave,” Kennet said. “It’s really simple. You live, I live. You die, I die. I can’t afford to be sentimental about this. I have to be on guard all the fucking time. Getting soppy in love with someone is how I ended up as a slave in the first place. I screw up and let my heart rule my brain right now and we’re both going to be dead in very short order.”
“I just…” Prince Didymos’ shoulders shook with what had to be suppressed sobs.
“You’re lonely, frightened and you can’t see any way out of this, Highness,” Kennet completed for him. “It’s messing with your heart. It’s messing with your brain. It’s really messing you’re your instincts to trust people and do things for them. Everything you thought you knew might be wrong and that’s hard to deal with no matter who you are.”
He got a sob and a little nod from the prince. Kennet nodded thoughtfully while sparing a grumpy thought to wish to everything in Inina’s blessed paradise that someone else got to do the talk-down speech. When he’d first been a slave he’d gotten it a couple of times from different trainers and some other older slaves. It was horrible to be on either side of the talk but Kennet had needed it then and Prince Didymos obviously needed it now though his version was automatically a hell of a lot more polite than the version Kennet had gotten.
“That’s normal, Highness,” Kennet said. “You’re allowed to be terrified. You’re allowed to feel like I’m the only thing in the world you can trust. You’re even allowed to get all sorts of romantic fucking notions in your head about how I’ve got a heart of gold and I just need someone to show me that I can love them. It’s bullshit but you’re allowed to think it.”
“You’re not allowed to react to it though,” Prince Didymos whispered while wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand.
“No, I’m not,” Kennet agreed. “Because it’s not true. I might have been a decent enough person a few years ago but I doubt it. I’ve always been an asshole, Highness. I’m cold. I’m calculating. I’m violent and don’t even try to deny that one. You’ve seen me fight. I take what I think I can get away with without getting in trouble over. I don’t have a heart of gold. It’s solid brass mixed with a good bit of pure black bile. I hate practically everyone around me and expect them to screw me over all the damned time.”
“Even me?” Prince Didymos asked as if he’d just taken a knife to the side.
“Of course,” Kennet said. “You’re a prince. I’m a slave. Fact of the matter is you’ll be free sometime soon. The assassination attempts will end and you’ll get to go back to your normal life. Your friends will be able to be close to you again. Your father’s going to find you a wife or husband or consort or what the fuck ever. You’ll have kids and everything. This, all of this,” Kennet gestured towards the empty, barren room and by implication the series of assassination attempts that had caused it to be this way, “will go away.”
Prince Didymos nodded. He curled around himself, pulling his knees up and hugging them tightly. For a long moment he rested his head on his knees. Kennet could hear how hard he was breathing, little pants that were just this side of pained moans. It made Kennet feel like the biggest monster the world had ever seen, like he’d just kicked a puppy that wanted to play with him, but there wasn’t much of a choice. Only once Prince Didymos lifted his head again did Kennet pat his elbow.
“And once it all goes back to normal for you, I’ll still be a slave, Highness,” Kennet finished. “You don’t fall in love with slaves, not because we’re not human. We are, no matter who denies it. You don’t fall in love with us because we can’t ever love you back. Ever. You’re my way to survive a while longer, my way to good food and hopefully better duties. All I want from you?”
“Is freedom or at least an easy job,” Prince Didymos whispered. “I could ask Father to free you. I could.”
Tears crept down his cheeks but he wasn’t sobbing so Kennet nodded.
“Doesn’t mean I’d stay once I actually was free, Highness,” Kennet said. “You’re a good person. You’re one of the best people I’ve ever met. I’m not the sort of person you really need to make you happy and I know you wouldn’t make me happy if I was free and involved with you. All you have to do is keep surviving and everything will be okay in the end.”
“Go back to bed?” Prince Didymos whispered, more tears creeping down his cheeks.
“You got it in one, Highness,” Kennet said. “And try and sleep, will you? You’re hard to protect when you’re stumbling around because you’re sleep deprived.”
That, thank all the fucking Gods, made Prince Didymos laugh. He nodded and climbed back into bed without going for a kiss or a hug or anything that might change the relationship between them. Kennet was incredibly relieved that Prince Didymos curled up with his back to Kennet. To his surprise, Prince Didymos’ breathing dropped into the slow deep tempo of sleep almost immediately. He must have been completely exhausted. Kennet, on the other hand, lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling for entirely too long. He could hear his first trainer shouting at him even now.
“You little piece of shit! You’re not allowed to be terrified because I haven’t told you that you get to be terrified. You’re not allowed to feel like I’m the only thing in the world you can trust. I’m the least Gods-damned trustworthy person you will ever meet! You’re sure as hell not allowed to get all sorts of romantic notions in your head about how I’ve got a heart of gold and I just need someone to show me that I can love them. It’s bullshit and I’ll tell you why it’s bullshit boy.”
Kennet cringed away from the memory of his first trainer’s furious expression. He did his best not to breathe too hard. Waking Prince Didymos up would only make things harder. Adding to the prince’s confusion was the last thing he wanted.
“I’m the biggest bastard you’ll ever meet and my job is to break your spirit. You will do exactly what you’re told, when you’re told to do it. You will not question. You will not whine. You will not do any Gods-damned thing you’re not explicitly told to do, including fucking shitting and pissing! You are a thing, boy, and that is all you will ever be. Get your thick head wrapped around it or I’ll call in the mages to rip your fucking soul out of you.”
The same anger that had carried him through living under Elder Danek’s thumb, that had driven him to hide his personality and lingering shreds of freedom throughout his Alliance training, surged up. Kennet glared at the ceiling, almost hoping for an attack now. He’d seen so many of the other slaves in training with him literally broken to the point that they wouldn’t move for hours on end without permission. It should have terrified him. Instead it infuriated Kennet.
“Not me,” Kennet whispered, with only a glance over at Prince Didymos’ back when he stirred in his sleep. “I’ll never break. Not for them. Not for Juraj. Not for anyone. Not even for you, Highness.”
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