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
15: Princely Destiny
“So you’re a prince,” Kennet said, his heart sinking at having to deal with yet another prince.
“I am,” Idris said with so much pride that Kennet couldn’t help but chuckle. Idris glared. “It is not a joke! I am the sole son of Princess Tahira. I will succeed her to the throne of Rudrash when I’m older, should the Gods decide that Grandfather must leave this plane, may that never happen.”
“Not laughing at you, kid,” Kennet replied. “Just amused by the whole situation. Didn’t expect that I’d wake up to a prince taking care of me. Seems like something a servant should do, you know?”
Idris snorted and glared at the door as if he’d thought the exact same thing. Kennet’s stomach rumbled loudly enough to distract Idris from his irritation. He blinked in surprise before biting his lip as if worried about doing anything other than watching Kennet. All Kennet could think was that his mother and grandfather had to be seriously imposing people to make that cocky of a kid look that nervous.
“Can you give me any of that?” Kennet asked. “At least a bite or two?”
“Mother said that I was to call her when you woke,” Idris whispered. He looked ferociously guilty about not having done so immediately. “I should go now. She said that she would take care of everything.”
“Asking a couple of questions isn’t the end of the world, kid,” Kennet said reassuringly enough that Idris shivered and nodded. “I don’t blame you for being curious about your father. Knowing your dad’s a big thing for a boy.”
To his relief, Idris brightened as if delighted to have someone agree with him. He put one hand on Kennet’s arm, making sure that it was well away from the cut that he’d pressed on earlier. Part of Kennet’s mind was busily working out which angles would be best to work on with Idris while another chunk worried about how to get free, how to get a horse, how to escape. One way or the other, Kennet was pretty sure that he was going to need to escape. Trusting anyone here was just not going to happen.
“Did you know your father?” Idris asked.
“Yeah,” Kennet said. “Bigger than me, bit broader at the shoulder. I take after my mom’s side of the family. He was a farmer.”
“How did a farmer’s son become a warrior?” Idris asked as if the sheer concept was inconceivable.
“Not from the area, kid,” Kennet chuckled. “Completely different country with completely different traditions. It’s not a big deal there.”
Idris stared at him, a fierce frown marring that childish version of King Barabbas’ face. “You are very casual to me. I am a prince. You should use my title.”
He huffed a little, crossing his arms over his chest. The fierce look wasn’t half as fierce as Idris thought that it was. Instead of looking imposing, Idris looked adorable. When Kennet chuckled instead of immediately apologizing, Idris’ eyes went wide with shock. His cheeks went bright red and he glared so ferociously that Kennet’s chuckles just got worse.
“Oh kid,” Kennet laughed, “you have no idea how cute you are.”
“I’m not cute!” Idris squawked so loudly that someone outside was guaranteed to have overheard them. He winced and looked at the tent’s flap before glaring at Kennet again. “I’m not cute. I’m a prince!”
“Believe me,” Kennet said, grinning broadly at him, “Princes are absolutely allowed to be cute. You keep it up and I’ll call you adorable, kid.”
“You are very disrespectful,” Idris complained.
“Is he now?” the woman’s voice from earlier said. “That doesn’t seem appropriate.”
“Mother!” Idris said as he jumped to his feet. “He keeps calling me cute! I’m not cute, am I?”
When Princess Tahirah came in, her expression was stern but as soon as Idris complained of being cute the sternness disappeared into amusement. She gestured for Idris to come to her side, petting his cheek and then patting his shoulder reassuringly. Her eyes weren’t very fond as she looked down at her son but they weren’t annoyed either. If anything, she seemed to be measuring Kennet’s effect on Idris.
Kennet kept his amused grin on his face as Princess Tahira raised her head to study him. It went crooked and stiff. He could see danger in the set of her shoulder, the way she stood on the balls of her feet instead of flat-footed. Her dress was loose, hiding the contours of her body but the sleeves had been rolled up to show arms corded with muscle. He would have bet that she was as good with a sword as any man he’d ever encountered. The smile slipped off Kennet’s face, wiped away by the realization that this was a princess of assassins as much as she was a princess of Rudrash.
“He’s cute,” Kennet said, shrugging as much as he could with his body restrained. He deliberately left the honorific off. “Always did think kids his age were adorable. Learning new things and starting to push beyond the boundaries their parents set.”
“I see,” Princess Tahira replied so thoughtfully that Kennet felt more sweat prickle along his spine. “Idris, leave us. I will tend to him myself.”
Despite the unhappy expression on his face, Idris nodded and bowed to her. “Yes, Mother. Shall I return to my lessons?”
“It is late, Idris,” Princess Tahira said. “Go to your bed. I shall come and check on you once I am done here.”
“Yes, Mother,” Idris sighed just like every kid everywhere who’d been sent to bed while interesting things were going on. “May the Gods bless tomorrow as they have today.”
“May your dreams be ones of joy and plenty,” Princess Tahira replied automatically while looking at Kennet.
Idris left, casting one look over his shoulder at Kennet before allowing the tent flap to fall between them. Now that he was out of the way, Kennet knew things would get more interesting. Probably more dangerous given the smooth and lethal way that Princess Tahira moved as she came closer to kneel next to Kennet’s bed. It was low enough that his head ended up about waist high compared to her, letting her look down at him and study him at her leisure.
All through the scrutiny, Kennet stayed silent. Long before he’d been a slave he’d learned the value of letting the other person start a conversation. Whatever Princess Tahira and her father were up to with Idris (and presumably Kennet), he wasn’t going to be the one to start asking questions. That would reveal entirely too much about him.
“You will survive,” Princess Tahira said, reaching out to touch his throat where a collar had once sat. “Inina’s blessings cured the poison wracking your body. You are still weak and I am afraid will continue to be so for some time.”
“No surprise there,” Kennet commented as calmly as if she hadn’t just made it clear that she knew he’d been a slave. “I was nearly dead when you found me. I hurt anyone when I struggled? I sort of remember people holding me down.”
Princess Tahira nodded, smiling a smile that was anything but approval or amusement. “You did not harm me. One of the men has a broken nose but he should not have loosened his grip on your knee. You are hungry, yes?”
“Quite,” Kennet said. “Love to get loose so I can eat some of that food. Smells good.”
The continued lack of honorifics made Princess Tahira’s eyes narrow. Instead of freeing him, she put a small pillow under his head, raising it so that he wasn’t laying completely flat. Her smile moved into something more real as Kennet glared at her for it. She tore a piece of flat bread and piled meat in a thick sauce on it, adding a sprinkling of what looked like finely chopped fruit on top. When she offered it to him, one hand cupped underneath to ensure that nothing spilled.
“Really?” Kennet asked, hearing the snarl and not caring.
“You are still weak,” Princess Tahira said, the faintly malicious smile spreading to her eyes. “I would not want you to harm yourself after working so hard to save your life.”
“And here I’d been looking forward to punching Haraldr in the nose,” Kennet said.
The sheer thought of that startled Princess Tahira into a bark of laughter. Kennet counted that as one point for him so he opened his mouth and let her feed him. The meat was spicy, hot enough to hide any drugs that she might have infused into the fruit, but the combination of spicy and sweet was good enough that he nodded approvingly and allowed her to feed him more. Maybe it was the fact that his stomach had been empty, but the food tasted better than anything he’d eaten for quite a while. Only once she’d fed him enough that his stomach stopped yelling at him did Kennet look at the juice.
“Little hot,” Kennet commented.
“We prefer our food to bite back in the Rudrash desert,” Princess Tahira said. “You handle it well.”
“Eh, always did like spicy food,” Kennet said. He sipped the juice as she held it for him. “Still be easier to feed myself, you know.”
“Perhaps,” Princess Tahira allowed while making no move to let him loose at all. “I will not risk your health. Until I am certain that your fever is completely gone it is best that you remain in bed. You do not seem the sort to stay in bed at a mere order.”
That got Kennet to laugh so one point to her. He nodded that she’d gotten that one absolutely right. Kennet would have preferred to be off the bed, out of the tent and heading back across the desert right now but that didn’t look like a possibility at the moment. Even if he couldn’t stand up without assistance, which he suspected that he couldn’t, he’d still rather be curled up with something solid at his back rather than lying strapped to a bed.
“Never have liked being helpless,” Kennet said. “But being unstrapped doesn’t mean that I’d be able to get away, you know.”
“…Idris is right,” Princess Tahira sighed, her eyes and lips going narrow again. “You are in fact quite disrespectful. Do you always refuse to acknowledge the rank of your betters?”
“I acknowledge that you’re a princess, Highness,” Kennet said and why was he saying something like that when he was tied up and helpful. “Doesn’t mean that I think you’re better than me. You were just born to a high position. Doesn’t make you automatically superior to anyone else in the world, especially me.”
Princess Tahira’s mouth dropped open in the most open expression of shock that Kennet had yet seen from her. He sighed and mentally cursed at himself, checking his reactions as his trainer had taught him for signs that he’d been drugged. No surprise, his fingertips were tingling ever so slightly and the faint pressure in his bladder was oddly distant, as if it was no longer a part of his body.
“Nice drugs,” Kennet said because he couldn’t control his damned tongue anymore. “You always drug helpless men you’ve saved from certain death or am I special somehow?”
“I am surprised that you noticed so soon,” Princess Tahira said, smirk quite firmly back in place.
“Hey, normally I have far more self-preservation than to say that sort of thing out loud,” Kennet said with a little snort of disgust. “I really hope it’s one of the ones that makes you talk a lot and then fall asleep, not another triple-damned poison.”
She smiled, sleek and dangerous in all the ways that should make Kennet’s survival instincts kick in. “Oh, no. I have no intention of killing you, Kennet. You have a very important role to play in my son’s life.”
“Heh, gotcha,” Kennet said, giving himself another point and taking one away from her. “I never told any of you my name, Highness. Thought you had to have something to do with all the damn assassins. You look like you’d make the perfect assassin queen, dangerous as death come walking and twice as beautiful. Damn, this stuff really does loosen your tongue, doesn’t it?”
Princess Tahira laughed. It was a strangely honest, wild and free in ways that her body language didn’t reflect. She moved the tray of food off to the side, shifting position so that she sat on the edge of the bed next to Kennet. Her fingers settled along his neck, checking the pulse and then nodding approval that it met whatever it was supposed to be. The touch of her fingers felt cold, like ice, narrowing down the drug she’d used on him. Only a couple of tongue-loosening drugs caused a rise in body temperature like that.
There weren’t all that many that it could be. Kennet thought that it might be tititan, in which case she had about half an hour before he passed out for another twelve hours or so. If it was leladi then he’d stay awake and answering questions for another hour or so before throwing up everything she’d fed him and then passing out. Given that he couldn’t see a bucket anywhere it was probably tititan.
“Is there a problem?” Princess Tahira asked while checking the cut on his arm.
“Just looking for a bucket,” Kennet said.
“And you need one why?”
“Hey, the bladder is full,” Kennet replied. Substituting one truth for another might help him hide his Alliance training for a while longer. “Granted this drug’s making me forget that little fact but it’s not going to go away. I assume you have a plan for taking care of that little issue? You really can’t keep me tied up forever, you know.”
The continued lack of a title obviously annoyed her. She was less than gentle as she rebandaged his arm and actually deliberately tugged against the bandage on his side. He gave her the hiss of pain but didn’t comment on how petty that was. His flat refusal to use titles was considerably pettier and besides, he was tied up and at her mercy. That wound appeared to be doing well. He barely felt her fingers probing at the edges of it. After a moment Kennet frowned and raised his head to blink at his belly. The movement of his head made the room spin, confirming titian as what he’d been drugged with. It must have been in the juice. The fruit wouldn’t have masked it well enough.
“That’s more healed than it should be,” Kennet said, eyes shut against the swirling of the room.
“I have some small talent for Blood Magic,” Princess Tahira said while rewrapping his wound. “You should not have any ill effects from this one or the other cut on your cheek. The arm was in a more difficult location and the poison was quite different. That will take more effort to heal.”
“Blood Magic,” Kennet repeated.
“But of course,” Princess Tahira said. “How else may a mage heal?”
He laughed, too deeply into the drug’s thrall by now to do anything but. It came out tortured and strange, full of fear and disgust. Just the sound of his laugh revealed too much but Kennet didn’t think he would ever be able to react another way when Blood Magic was discussed.
Princess Tahira stared at him, most of her masks falling so that he could see the surprise and confusion in her eyes. When she reached out to lay her hand against his cheek Kennet jerked his head away and to hell with preventing the dizziness.
“Don’t,” Kennet ordered, begged, said, he didn’t know and didn’t care. “Just don’t. Don’t touch me.”
“You fear Blood Mages,” Princess Tahira whispered, hand still suspended in the air close to his face. She pulled it back slowly.
“I know what you could do if the mood struck you, Highness,” Kennet said. “I’ve seen how Blood Mages can work, how they can take the body and soul, twist them into something else. I’ve felt their power crawling along my spine, worming its way into my mind. I don’t like mages but Blood Mages are the worst.”
Princess Tahira stood, glaring down at him as if he’d personally insulted her. It took Kennet a moment to realize that yeah, he really had. He didn’t apologize or take it back. If anything, he let the fear and loathing of Blood Magic show even more than it had before. Whatever his expression was, it seemed to get through to Princess Tahira that he was damn serious about it.
She knelt by his side once more, staring at him. Her carefully controlled expression was gone, replaced by minute twitches of her eyes and mouth as she studied him. He started cursing as he felt magic creep over his body, caress his face and start to slide into his mind. Kennet jerked at the straps holding him down. It hurt like hell to move his arm, to flex his stomach, but he didn’t care.
No. No more magic sliding into his brain. No more submitting quietly when all he wanted was to run away or kill someone. Elder Danek’s oily voice and too bright eyes stood in his head, mixing with the magic that she poured over him and the drug starting to drag him to sleep to create the feeling that he was back home in their village.
“No, no, no, no, no, no!” Kennet panted.
He struggled harder and more desperately because he couldn’t go back. He wouldn’t go back. No matter what it took he would never, ever go back to that life. Being a slave was better than that. Being dead was better. Princess Tahira said something but the panic running through him was too strong for him to listen to her. Her face hung over him as hands pressed down on his chest. Kennet could see her mouth moving, see the expression go sharp and then alarmed.
Kennet jerked as she slapped him hard enough to make his ears ring.
“No!” Kennet shouted.
Her hand wrapped around his throat, applying pressure to block the blood to his brain. Kennet couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. The magic was gone but the panic continued until blackness welled up and swallowed him whole. The last thing he heard was Princess Tahira’s voice, low and serious just above his ear.
“Whoever that was,” her voice said, “he is not here. I am. You will do as you are told or those tortures will be as nothing by comparison. You will not threaten our plans for my son.”
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