“Damn it, Tom, where are you?” Stephan grabbed a ledger from his desk and threw it into his haversack. There was precious little time left. By sunset Halcrest’s soldiers would be flooding his estate. “Tom!”
“I’m here, Stephan.”
The voice came from the doorway, but Stephan didn’t turn around to see what had kept his slave. He didn’t even ask Tom if their horses were ready and waiting outside. He froze instead.
After a long moment of silence between them, Stephan found his voice. “I gave you leave years ago to call me by my first name, at least in private. But you choose today to make use of it?”
His slave didn’t answer. And, perversely, that was all the answer Stephan needed. He wasn’t sure how his mind caught up with what was happening, but somehow the truth seemed blindingly obvious now. This was no loyal servant he was dealing with.
“Should I have my sword out, Tom, when I turn around?”
Stephan closed his eyes. He could imagine Tom standing there, steeling himself to restrain or even kill his ‘master’ if necessary. He reached for his sword—but then let his hand fall. There was no point. So he breathed in deep instead, forced a smile on his face, and turned around.
Tom was standing there, filling the doorway with his height and muscle. He had made for an intimidating body guard all these years, despite a clean-shaven face that seemed oddly young and innocent. And yes, his sword was drawn, but he made no move to use it.
“Tom—is your name really Tom?”
“It is,” he answered. “Lieutenant Thomas Brooks.”
“Of Halcrest’s Bureau of Military Intelligence, I presume?”
Stephan favored him with a sweeping bow. “Well done. Sweet Goddess, you’ve kept this act up for years. I knew there was a spy in my household, but I was convinced—well, it seems I hanged an innocent slave for your crimes.”
A look of sheer anguish flashed across those doe-brown eyes of Tom’s—eyes that had always seemed at odds with his fair coloring. “You hanged him out of hand. I didn’t even have a chance to confess—”
“If you’re worth your salt as an agent, you wouldn’t have.” Stephan leaned back against his desk and folded his arms across his chest. “You’ll have to count that poor lad as a civilian casualty of this war. But don’t mind me; I’m sure you’d rather torture yourself over his fate.”
Tom didn’t answer.
Stephan snorted. “That’s what you’ve been doing these past few weeks, isn’t it? And here I thought you were as stricken as I was to watch our city lose battle after battle to Halcrest.”
Tom swallowed. “Sullane was never my city.”
“No. That’s painfully clear. So, Tom, what do you intend to do now?”
“Are you going to let me take you into custody without a fight?”
“You could have stabbed me in the back just now. Ah, but no. And it’s not just your honor, such as it is—you need me alive, don’t you?”
“So it’s the torture chambers for me. Will you have the balls to see to it yourself?”
Tom finally took a step toward him, sword still in hand. “Yes, but I’m hoping torture won’t be necessary.”
Stephan quirked an eyebrow at him. “Are you planning to fuck me into submission? It won’t work, but I’m all for trying it.”
That drew a smile from Tom. A genuine smile, as far as Stephan could tell. “I wish it would be that easy, Mas—Stephan. Now are you going to fight me or not?”
In answer, Stephan loosed his sword belt, letting his weapon clatter to the ground. “Why bother? I’ve missed my chance to flee.”
Tom nodded. “Then turn back around and behave yourself.”
Stephan snorted again, but he obeyed him. A moment later Tom was manacling his hands behind his back. Neither man spoke another word as they waited for Halcrest’s soldiers to arrive.
They meant to imprison him on his own estate. The irony of that was not lost on Stephan. Soon, no doubt, he would be taken from the comfort of his own quarters and moved to the cell below stairs. There he would await the same sort of interrogation he had subjected enemy agents to.
Perhaps they would remove the manacles once he was safely locked up. That was the best he could hope for at present.
And what of Tom? Or Lieutenant Thomas Brooks, rather. He was conferring with a captain of Halcrest’s army at present. Stephan had watched them leave the room together. Were they were taking their ease in one of his sitting rooms?
Tom would be hailed as a hero of his city now. He must be one of their most successful undercover agents. For six years he had acted the part of a loyal slave. Stephan had enough sense to be wary of him at first, but he had come to trust him with both his life and his reputation.
He had even taken the traitor to his bed! Stephan shook his head. Such behavior between two men might be tolerated in a barbaric city like Halcrest, but not in a civilized place like Sullane. Stephan had risked public disgrace and humiliation for this slave.
Well, now he knew why Tom had never tried to blackmail him for favors or his freedom. The last thing Tom had wanted was to see him resign in disgrace. He needed Stephan to continue his work for Sullane’s Civic Security Agency—so he could feed as much information as possible to Halcrest’s Bureau of Military Intelligence.
Stephan almost laughed out loud. What a fool he’d been. He couldn’t have helped Tom’s cause more if he’d been an agent for Halcrest himself.
He closed his eyes, trying to block out a sudden memory of the night before last, when he had allowed Tom to take him against the wall behind the stable. There had been no time for niceties and there was too great a chance that they’d be separated as Halcrest gained more and more ground . . . .
Tom’s voice cut through his thoughts. Stephan opened his eyes, preparing himself to face his former slave and lover.
Thomas had to resist the urge to bow his head—however briefly—as his former master opened his eyes. Stephan, he realized, was still himself. He might be a prisoner of Halcrest now, and facing torture, but he still had that aristocratic disdain. It was obvious in the way his hard blue eyes sized up both Thomas and the guards behind him.
In a strange way, Thomas was glad for it.
“Come to escort me to the secure cell below stairs?” Stephan inquired.
“Will you release me from these manacles?”
“Yes. But then you’ll need to strip.”
Those hard blue eyes widened in outrage.
“I’m sorry, Stephan.” He stepped behind him, withdrew his key and undid the manacles. “But I know your penchant for keeping poison secreted on your person.”
Stephan snorted. “And, as we’ve already established, you need me alive. Very well.”
Thomas walked back to his place and watched as Stephan shrugged himself out of his frock coat, his waistcoat, and his long linen shirt. He sat down and removed his own boots next; Thomas had to squash the urge to assist him. Then Stephan stood up and, with the same quiet efficiency, reached behind himself to undo the laces of his britches. He let them fall and stepped out of them. Finally he removed his garters and stockings, leaving himself completely naked.
“Turn around, Stephan. I’m—I’m sorry, but you always taught me to be thorough.”
Stephan stared at him. It was a long, measuring look. But at length he shrugged, turned around and bent over, obligingly spreading the cheeks of his arse for Thomas’s inspection.
The whole process should have humiliated him. But when he stood up and turned around again, he regarded Thomas and the guards with a cool look, making it clear that their opinion of him was beneath his notice.
Thomas felt his cock harden. Not because of the would-be humiliation; he took no pleasure in that. And not because of Stephan’s fair, naked form—however much he admired it. No, his sudden discomfort was due entirely to that contempt Stephan showed for the lot of them. It was an act; Thomas was sure of that. But it was an act that preserved his dignity, and Thomas wanted him all the more for it.
Thomas ordered one guard to collect the discarded clothing; they would pick it apart later, searching for anything hidden. The other guard stepped forward with plain civilian garments. Thomas watched as Stephan redressed himself. Then, without another word—he didn’t trust himself to speak just now—he led his former master down to the cell.
Stephan paced his cell. Not that the cramped quarters allowed for much pacing. Worse, Tom had left him kicking his heels for at least three days now. There was no daylight down here, so he judged the passing of time by the growth of his stubble, the regular meals and the equally regular changing of guards.
He had spent the past two nights tossing and turning on the narrow cot. It was surprisingly difficult to sleep without Tom at his side. Over the past six years, he’d grown used to the man—used to the bulk that weighed down one half of the bed, to the heavy arm draped carelessly over him, to the soft snores.
But he banished those memories from his mind. He had to puzzle out his current situation. Sooner or later Tom—or some compatriot of his, if Tom lost his nerve—would come to interrogate him. The war was essentially lost now. So what information would Halcrest want?
The various codes that Sullane’s Civic Security Agency employed, of course. That went without saying. They would be useful even after the surrender. What else? Safe houses and the likely locations any scions of the royal family might flee to.
Stephan swore under his breath. If Tom really had the balls to torture him, he would prove a canny interrogator. The man had a fairly good idea of the scope of his knowledge. Stephan wouldn’t be able to feign ignorance.
But he might be able to bargain before the torture began. He had a wife and children to think of, after all. And even though he had been estranged from that wife for some years now—well, for assurance of his family’s safety and freedom, Stephan would be willing to part with some of his city’s secrets.
Could he trust Halcrest to keep such a bargain once they finished with him and executed him? Perhaps. They couldn’t all be dishonorable blackguards. And why not trust Tom to see to it? Surely he didn’t wish Stephan’s family any harm. Stephan could not have misjudged him to that extent.
He sighed and continued pacing.
Thomas sent two guards to fetch Stephan and then took a deep breath as he seated himself behind the desk of Stephan’s study. His study, rather, since he had been awarded Stephan’s estate in honor of his lengthy and dangerous service. A fitting prize, he supposed—although the Dragon only knew what his former master would think.
Besides, there was a more important prize at stake here.
A discrete knock at the door called him from his thoughts. “Enter,” he said.
The door opened and the guards ushered Stephan inside. He hands were manacled in front of him, as ordered.
“Sit down, Stephan,” Thomas invited, waving toward the chair in front of the desk.
Stephan raised his eyebrows, but he took the seat. There was the faintest hint of amusement in his voice as he spoke. “I see you’ve made yourself quite at home, Tom.”
“This is my home now,” Thomas replied, nodding at the guards. They withdrew to just outside the room, leaving the door ajar.
“Is it?” Stephan didn’t seem surprised. “How gratifying for you to own the home you served in. And how gratifying for—what are you? A merchant’s son, I’d wager. To own an estate like this must be quite a step up in the world. I hope you can afford enough slaves to run the place properly.”
Thomas swallowed, willing himself to keep his temper in check. Stephan’s hauteur always had this effect on him. On the one hand, he admired that cool head of his, not to mention that aristocratic indifference to his fate. And that admiration seemed to go straight to his cock. On the other—well, Stephan’s casual contempt for those of lower birth still grated on him.
“I was born to a freedman,” Thomas informed him, folding his hands on the desk. “My father rose to the merchant class, yes. Does that satisfy you?””
“Quite. Shall we turn to the matter at hand?”
Damn it. How had he let Stephan take control of this interview? “Yes,” he agreed. “First off—well, you might as well know that Sullane surrendered to Halcrest this morning. Unconditionally.”
“I see.” He didn’t sound so haughty now, even though he must have been expecting the news.
“Moreover, we have your wife and children in custody.”
Stephan didn’t show any reaction to that, so Thomas continued. “Look, despite the surrender, we expect that some Sullanites will continue to fight us. I think you can guess the information we need from you. And I think we can come to an arrangement.”
Stephan shifted in his chair, leaning back as he crossed one leg over the other. “So torture is not necessarily on the table?”
“I don’t want to torture you. I told you that already.”
“And you’re after codes, safe-houses and the like?”
“That’s a start, yes.”
“What more are you looking for?”
“Your continued cooperation.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Thomas shrugged. “I can’t work as a spy anymore, obviously. But I want you at my side when they put me behind a desk, lending me your expertise.” He paused. “I’ve never met anyone better at cracking codes, and Halcrest has other enemies apart from your city.”
“At your side? In what capacity, exactly?”
Thomas gave him a level look. “As my slave.”
Stephan snorted. “I think you’ve taken leave of your senses. Do you think me afraid to face torture or execution? You expect me to thank you, instead, for reducing me to slavery? Shall I lick your bleeding boots while I’m at it?”
“I expect you to hear me out. I have a generous offer for you.”
“Do you? What an interesting notion of generosity you dragon spawn have.”
Thomas rolled his eyes. He refused to take offense at the term ‘dragon-spawn,’ even though Stephan and his people used it as a slur against Halcrestonians. And why should he be offended? He was proud to serve the black dragon who guarded his city.
“It is generous, Stephan,” he said, keeping his tone measured. “The aftermath of this war is going to be hard on all the noble families of Sullane. And you know what your family, in particular, stands to lose. But if you agree to this, your wife and children will retain their wealth—yes, we know just how much brass you still have—their status and their freedom.”
“Their wealth apart from this estate, you mean.”
Thomas shook his head. “They’ll retain the estate too. I’ll hold it in trust for your oldest son. When he comes of age in—what? Five years?—I’ll sign it over to him.”
Stephan gave him a thin smile. “Why are you willing to give up your new-found wealth and status?”
“Status? I could own a dozen estates like this, and I’d still be just the merchant-class son of a freedman.”
“True,” Stephan owned. “So if I’m willing to become your slave, sacrificing every shred of honor and pride, my family will escape Halcrest’s wrath and prosper. Is that the size of it?”
Stephan leaned forward. “I have a counter offer for you. I’ll give you the codes you want, and the locations of the safe-houses I’m aware of. Then you can hand me over to your executioner and let me die with honor. In exchange, you ensure that my family remains free and unmolested, and has some sort of financial security.”
Thomas had guessed this was coming. “No,” he answered. “There’s no other deal on the table. Either agree to this, Stephan, or I will personally enslave your family. They can live out their lives serving on the estate they used to own.”
Stephan leaned back again. “You’re bluffing.”
Was he? Thomas wasn’t sure. But damn it, he wouldn’t let his uncertainty show. He had tricked Stephan for six years. He could hold out a little longer.
“I’m not bluffing. This is your only chance to save them. Their continued well-being depends on you agreeing to serve me—and on you showing me every scrap of faith and loyalty you can muster.”
“Your quarrel is with me, Tom, not with my wife and children. You’re not ruthless enough to make them pawns in this.”
Thomas leaned forward. “Try me.”
“And what if I don’t give you any information? You don’t think I can withstand torture? You could end up empty-handed here, Tom. How would Halcrest’s damn Bureau feel about that?”
“I’ve already fed the Bureau more information than they ever expected. And I won’t be empty handed. I’ll own your family, remember?”
Stephan stared at him. Thomas met his gaze and held it. He needed Stephan to believe this act—if it was an act.
Finally Stephan looked away. “You have a paper for me to sign that spells out this agreement?”
Thomas didn’t show his relief. He reached for the document instead, but Stephan waived it aside with an annoyed gesture. Or as annoyed as he could manage with his hands still manacled.
“I don’t need to see the bloody thing now. I want to see my family. I want you to prove that you have them all safely in custody.”
“I’ll send for them straight away. And Stephan, I won’t keep you from them. You’ll be able to see them in the future—”
But Stephan snorted again. “They won’t want to see me after this. Nor I them. Just bring them here, please.”
Thomas opened his mouth to argue, but changed his mind. “I’ll have them here within an hour.”
Stephan was able to speak with his wife in relative privacy. The guards stood watch in the large withdrawing room, but they kept their distance. He supposed he had Tom to thank for that.
Theresa looked like the damned ice queen she was, with her blond hair powdered to a ghostly white—where had she found the powder? No one had such niceties these days. Her pale complexion, meanwhile, was made even paler by the dove gray short gown she wore over severe black petticoats.
“You look like you’re already in mourning,” he whispered to her as he nodded toward the settee.
“The whole city is in mourning,” she snapped, taking a seat. “Stephan, what’s going on? What’s going to happen to us?”
“You and the children will come out of this quite well, don’t worry.” He seated himself next to her. “The estate will be held in trust for Geoffrey until he comes of age. The girls will still be well-dowered; you’ll be able to keep those pretty hands of yours on all our money.”
“Money?” she repeated, her disbelief obvious. “Sullane’s money is worthless now—”
“I’m not as much a fool as you think me, Theresa. I deposited plenty of our brass in Halcrest’s banks when the war started. It’s safe, and you’ll be able to draw from it now without fear.”
Her mouth dropped open, but she recovered quickly enough. “I suppose I should be glad for your lack of faith in our city.”
“Just so,” he agreed. He had hated to move the money from his own city, but he had known how little chance Sullane stood against Halcrest. The well-being of his family had come first.
Theresa stared down at the manacles around his wrists and then, evidently finding them too distasteful, averted her eyes. “What about you? Are they going to execute you?”
“No. I’m too valuable to them, apparently.” Or too valuable to Tom, at any event—but he didn’t voice that.
“Will they keep you as some sort of political prisoner?”
He grunted. “Oh, my position will be far lower than that. I’m to be mere slave. As long as I behave, you and the children will prosper.”
Her mouth dropped open again—but she recovered once more, even quicker this time.
Stephan could work out her thoughts perfectly. With a political prisoner for a husband, she would have had to play the role of the stalwart, long-suffering wife. At least in public. But an enslaved husband was considered legally dead; she could remarry after a suitable period of mourning.
Stephan took a deep breath. “Don’t marry that fool cousin of mine you’ve been carrying on with,” he advised. “Find some dragon spawn noble who will fall for your charms instead.”
She looked outraged, even as she kept her voice to a harsh whisper. “Stephan, I would never let a dragon spawn touch me—”
“You will if you have as much sense as I think you do. And you’ll marry our children into Halcrest’s nobility too, if you can possibly manage it.”
She didn’t answer him, but he knew the message was sinking in. She would find it easier than he had to sacrifice her loyalty to her city for the sake of her family’s advancement.
Theresa stood up abruptly. “I’ll send the children in to say their goodbyes. I’m sorry, Stephan. And for their sake, please—”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll cooperate with my new master. You’ll all remain safe.”
Once his family had departed, the guards led Stephan back to his study. Or Tom’s study, rather—at least for the time being. Tom was waiting there, still seated behind the desk, his blond head already buried in paper work.
Stephan managed a sardonic grin as he resumed his seat. “You look like a Sullanite, you know. Few dragon spawn have our fair coloring.”
Tom shrugged. “My parents were slaves, remember? Perhaps my ancestors were from Sullane, or somewhere up north, originally.” He paused to look up at Stephan. “But don’t think for a second that I’m not a true dragon spawn.”
“I won’t make that mistake, believe me.”
Tom’s eyes softened. “You’ve seen your family. Will you sign this paper?”
“I will. And will you undo these damn manacles? I can’t very well slit your throat—not with you and Halcrest holding all the cards.”
Tom passed him the paper. “I’ll undo them as soon as you sign. Then we can go straight to work.”
Stephan perused the document. Once he was satisfied, he picked up a quill pen, dipped it in ink, and fixed his name to the page.
“There,” he said, pushing the paper back.
Tom looked over his signature and then nodded. “Come here,” he ordered.
The casual command grated on Stephan, but he set down the pen, stood up and walked around the desk to him. Tom withdrew a key from his waistcoat, undid the lock, and removed the manacles. Stephan watched as he set them to the side of the desk.
He turned to go back to his seat, but Tom caught him by the wrist. The touch seemed to ignite something in them both, and it was a long moment before Tom spoke.
“Don’t think, Stephan, that I won’t harm your family if you double cross me.” His voice was regretful and hesitant, yet there was a note of determination beneath it. “I—I won’t kill them, but I will take their freedom away—after I lay your back open with a whip. And if you do cut my throat . . . .”
“I know,” Stephan said calmly.
Tom stood up. Despite everything, Stephan felt the familiar thrill at the way the man towered over him. And then Tom was leaning down and—with a gentleness that should have been foreign to such a big man—brushing Stephan’s lips with his own.
They went no further than that. Tom just took a deep breath and, releasing his wrist, said, “You might despise me now, but—but I still expect your company in bed.”
Stephan managed a slight smile. “I’d have been insulted if you had no further use for me there.”
Tom snorted and sat down again. “I need you to explain the coding in this correspondence,” he said, reaching into the pile of papers.
Stephan took that as permission to resume his seat. As he sat down, however, he wondered if Tom knew how tenuous his hold over his family was. If Theresa managed to marry a dragon spawn noble—and Stephan had absolute faith in her beauty, breeding and ambition—Tom’s threat to enslave them would no longer carry any weight. He could hardly enslave or otherwise harm the wife and step children of a noble of his own city.
But Stephan wasn’t about to point that out to him. For now he would play the rôle of an obedient, devoted slave. Perhaps part of that act would even be sincere; he had long had a weakness where Tom was concerned.
And when Theresa was successful—yes, what then? Stephan couldn’t let himself think that far ahead. There were too many variables along the way.
But one thing was clear. Sooner or later he would teach his new master that the rules of this game between them were always subject to change.
© 2013, Jennifer R. Moss, All Rights Reserved
Special Note: I originally posted this story under my pen name, Miri Thompson, on LiveJournal and Ao3.