Brock drank the last of the goat’s milk—there was about half a cup left now that his cubs had gulped down the rest—and leaned back against the wall as he watched his wife see to Shane’s hair. Nothing new in that: she was the hair dresser for the entire family, and Shane had been included in that circle ever since he and Brock had been cadets together.
Emma always insisted on washing the hair she was about to cut, so she had a small wooden tub up on the table. Shane was leaning over it, dunking his head when ordered, and allowing her to scrub and rinse as she deemed necessary.
“Will you need more water?” Devon called out as he sidled up to his brother.
“More wouldn’t hurt, if you two don’t mind going back to the well,” Emma answered. “Take both yokes—four more buckets should see us through to the afternoon, at least.”
Brock put his tankard down and then led his little brother outside to the shed. He picked up the first yoke, attached a bucket to the chains on either side of it, and placed it over his shoulders. Devon followed suit with the second.
“Why doesn’t Shane want me to come to the Registry?” Devon asked as soon as they were out on Pike Street.
Brock sighed. He’d been hoping that Dev wouldn’t ask. “Because the entire process is bloody well set up to humiliate the slaves. Why would he want you to witness that?”
For a moment, Dev didn’t say anything. Brock couldn’t see his face, because the cub was behind him, but he could guess that Dev was wearing that half-thoughtful, half-disgusted look that crept up on him whenever he encountered plain cruelty.
“What do they do?” he asked at last.
They had reached the public well now—it was only one block down Pike—so Brock marched to the end of the line. He turned toward his little brother, careful not to hit anyone with the yoke.
“Dev, they treat slaves like horseflesh. They strip them, mark down their scars, count their teeth—” He broke off. It was hard, he realized, to explain the ugliness and malice of the whole damned process. “And none of it’s private. I might be able to persuade them in this case, since Shane did belong to Obsidian himself and we’re supposedly keeping the fact that he’s alive quiet for a bit, but . . . .”
Devon blinked, and then his face reddened. “They do this to all slaves? Regardless of age?”
“Yes.” He grunted. “You’ve lived a sheltered life, little brother. So have your nieces and nephews. And don’t think I’m not grateful for it. My cubs have time, yet, before they find out what a fucking brutal city this is—not that the rest of the world is any better.”
Dev fell silent again. Brock watched him take a deep breath, but his face was still red when he spoke up. “Does Shane believe I’d think less of him if I—if I witnessed any of this?”
“If you want to know that, you’ll have to ask him yourself. But if I were you, I wouldn’t bring it up. I’d respect his wishes and stay home.”
Shane ran his fingers through his hair—it was still damp, but it was clean and short and it felt right again. “Thank you, Emma.”
“You’re welcome.” she reached for the small tub that still sat on the table.
“Ah, no.” He grabbed it before she could. “I doubt you should be lifting anything—”
She laughed. “In my delicate condition? You’re right, of course. I’ll let you clean up. But may I give you a piece of advice?”
He raised his eyebrows.
“If you, um, wish to get out of those clothes, even before you pick up your things, I think you’re about the same size as Devon.”
He cringed. He was wearing the same clothes he’d worn to the trial, and then to Obsidian’s Marsh—he shuddered again, remembering the feel of the dragon’s breath on him—and then to the Temple. “I didn’t think to ask Eshkeri Robin for a change of clothes, not before Brock showed up. About time, isn’t it?”
“Ah . . .”
He grinned. “Straight away, Mistress.”
She laughed again and gave him a playful shove toward the kitchen.
He nodded at Nell as he passed through her domain, but he didn’t set the tub down. He carried it up the narrow back staircase and into Devon’s bedroom instead. No point in wasting the water; he might as well treat himself to a second sponge bath.
He had stripped down to his breeches when Devon opened the door. The lad smiled appreciatively as he leaned up against the door frame. Shane almost felt himself blush. Almost.
“Like what you see?”
“Very much so,” Devon allowed his eyes to rake over him. “Unfortunately, I think I’m supposed to be dressing you, not undressing you. Need a moment to finish up your bath?”
He shrugged. “We’re adults. I don’t care if you stay.”
“I’ll pick out fresh clothes for you, then.” Devon tore his eyes away and moved toward the wardrobe. “Stockings, breeches, shirt, waistcoat—would you prefer a cravat or a neck stock?”
“Neck stock.” He stripped out of the dirty breeches. “Not many slaves wear cravats.”
“Some do: fancy butlers and footmen and such. And that Colebrant fellow, I reckon. We heard a lot about him, even at University.”
“He’s an exception. Most slaves don’t rise to that level of power. Besides, I’d rather a neck stock. They’re less trouble.”
“True enough.” Devon tossed one onto the bed, along with the other items. “Care for a frock coat?”
“No, thank you. It’s warm enough without one.” He finished sponging off as quickly as he could and then reached for the new breeches.
“Here, I’ll tie the back of them for you.” Devon moved behind him as Shane pulled them up.
“Looking for a position as a valet?”
“Ha ha. It would serve you right if Brock ordered you to take up those duties . . .”
Shane laughed as he fastened the front buttons. “I don’t think that’s likely.”
“It’s not.” Devon pulled the back laces tight. “I think we’re exactly the same size—convenient.”
“Yes. Thank you, Devon.”
Devon reached over to the bed and then handed Shane the shirt. “Why do you always call me that?”
“Call you what?”
“Devon. You never call me Dev, like the rest of the family. But you use ‘Nance’ and ‘Katie,’ so I know you don’t object to shortening names.”
Shane shrugged the shirt on. “I’m not sure. I suppose, back when you were still an annoying seventeen year old, I didn’t want to be too familiar—I didn’t want to do or say anything to encourage you.”
Devon snorted. “Thank you so much.”
“Don’t give me that tone. You were too young for me then. And your brother would have strangled me.”
“Huh. That’s true, so I’ll excuse your lack of interest at the time. But now?”
Shane reached for the waistcoat. “Now we’re getting to know each other, aren’t we?”
He turned back to Devon as he spoke, and found him smiling again—and then Shane found himself smiling back, because it was impossible not to.
He wasn’t sure which of them made the first move, but suddenly they were standing closer, and Shane saw that Devon and he were, indeed, about the same height and weight now—and that they would fit . . . .
“Shane! Get your arse down here!”
Both men rolled their eyes as Brock’s voice hollered from downstairs. Shane took a step away from Devon and toward the door, somehow sidestepping the tub. “I’ll be there straight away, Brock,” he called back. Then he swallowed and turned back to Devon.
“I’ll take care of the tub, yes.” He paused, and suddenly his smile was gone. “Shane, I—”
He sighed and shook his head. “It’s nothing. I’ll wait for you here.”