A brutal war left Volos Perun with physical and emotional scars and with a reputation as a hero. Now he’s a soldier stationed at the palace, desiring Prince Berhanu while receiving only loathing in return. But when Berhanu foolishly refuses the king’s request to let Volos accompany him on a peace mission to the neighboring country, Berhanu is kidnapped and brutalized. Now Volos must risk his life as he works to save Berhanu and help his country avoid another devastating war.
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Volos was not afraid.
He had watched his family slaughtered when he was just a boy, but he had survived to grow strong. As an adult he had faced hordes of angry, sword-wielding men without backing down. He had spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war under conditions as terrible as the third hell, but he had endured and escaped and continued his life. He was certainly not frightened to have a conversation with one old man.
Not even if the old man was the king.
Captain Hiwot walked so quickly that Volos, despite his longer legs, had trouble keeping up with her. His sword swung at his hip; he hadn’t had time to adjust it properly when she came to fetch him. Still, he managed to sneak a few looks at his surroundings as he rushed by. He’d never been in this part of the castle before. The hallways here were narrow and the decorations finer but less lavish. It was a more intimate space than he was used to.READ MORE
The captain came to a halt in front of a door flanked by two guards who saluted her and gave Volos very slight nods. He knew these men, but not well. Captain Hiwot knocked firmly and opened the door even before receiving an answer. Volos followed like an obedient puppy.
He found himself in a room that was smaller than he had expected and considerably more pedestrian. The most striking feature was an oversized fireplace with roaring flames. Several padded chairs were scattered about, three battered tables supported piles of papers and scrolls, and more papers sat on overloaded shelves. Heavy curtains shrouded the single window, and as elsewhere in the castle, the floor was stone.
Two men stood near the fireplace. One of them was King Tafari. He nodded at Captain Hiwot, who bowed and quickly retreated from the room. At the same time, Volos dropped to one knee and bowed his head, waiting to be acknowledged.
“Get up,” the king said. “Formalities aren’t wanted now.”
Volos rose. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
He kept his eyes trained carefully on the floor, but he could still feel the weight of the king’s gaze— not to mention that of the other man, Prince Berhanu. The prince always looked at him with contempt and disdain, but this afternoon he looked furious as well. Volos wondered what he had done to enrage him.
“What is your name?” the king asked. He didn’t sound angry, at least.
“Volos Perun, Your Maj—”
“And is it true that you speak Kozari fluently?”
Volos snapped his head up in surprise. “I… My father was…”
“Your father was Kozari, yes. I am aware of that. But do you speak the language?”
It had been Volos’s first tongue, and although he’d had little occasion to use it for some years, he still dreamed in Kozari. “Yes, Your Maj—”
“Good.” The king turned to Prince Berhanu. “He will accompany you.”
“No,” growled the prince. “I told you. I don’t need a nursemaid.” He stood with his hands on his hips, perhaps deliberately displaying his impressive musculature. He was a couple of inches shorter than Volos but as well built.
“He’s not a nursemaid, he’s a guard. It’s not fitting for a prince to travel alone, not even under these circumstances. And it’s not safe. I won’t allow you to go unaccompanied.”
Any man but the prince would have been tried for treason for glaring at the king like that. “Fine,” Berhanu spat. “Give me a guard. But not him.”
“He can speak the language. His presence may ease your interactions with the Kozari.”
“I won’t spend days with that Kozari trash at my side!”
Volos had beaten men senseless for lesser insults. But now he stood with his face carefully blank, pretending Berhanu’s words hadn’t pierced him like poisoned arrows.
The king had gray hair and a grizzled beard and was much slighter than his son, but when he stomped close to the prince, Berhanu took a step backward. King Tafari poked him in the chest. “This man is a citizen of Wedeyta. He was born here. His mother was from one of our prominent families. And he proved his loyalty during the war. He was a hero. I’m told he saved several dozen Wedey prisoners.”
A flash of sense memory: the reek of urine, shit, and sweat; the sounds of harsh breathing and terrified screams; the taste of blood. Volos hoped neither of the men saw him flinch.
Berhanu shook his head. “I don’t care if he saved half the damn country. I won’t go with him. Surely someone else speaks Kozari. One of our own people.”
King Tafari opened his mouth, then closed it. His shoulders slumped slightly as he gave his son a long look. He turned to face Volos. “My apologies. It seems your services will not be needed in this matter. You may leave.”
Ignoring the prince’s triumphant smile, Volos bowed. “Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you.” He hoped that his failure to address the prince wasn’t taken as an unforgivable slight— but then, the prince hadn’t said a single word to him. Ever.
Captain Hiwot waited in the hallway. Perhaps she had overheard the conversation through the closed door, or perhaps she could judge the situation from Volos’s expression. She was a very perceptive woman. In either case, she motioned him back in the direction of the guards’ quarters. Then she entered the room with the king and closed the door behind her.
Whack! The wooden sword slammed into his face, delivering a jolt of pain and a fountain of blood from his nose. Volos staggered a half step backward and glared at his opponent. “You almost broke it,” he said, gingerly touching the bridge of his nose.
Seble cackled and waved the tip of her sword in his direction. “No use being vain now. It’s been broken before.”
“In battle, not in practice.” He grabbed his tunic from the floor where he’d flung it earlier and used it to wipe the blood from his face. The flow was slowing already— it had been a glancing blow— but he’d likely end up with an ugly bruise.
“And if you’d been as fuddle-headed in battle as you are today, you’d never have lived this long.”
He grunted at her, but she was right and they both knew it. If he’d been paying full attention, she never would have been able to strike him so well with her sword. He knew as well as anyone that distraction was fatal in a fight. If he and Seble had been sparring with real swords, she would have killed him with that blow. He growled at himself, gave a last swipe to his face, and tossed the wadded fabric aside. “Again,” he said, bending his knees into fighting stance.
But Seble shook her head. “I’m done with swordplay for today.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Want to wrestle instead?”
“I’m far too heavy for you. You couldn’t possibly win.”
“Who says winning is my goal?” She flashed a grin before striding to the end of the practice room to stack her sword in a cabinet. Most of the other guards had already left to wash up before lunch, although two women were restringing their bows and a man was tossing a hammer at a target. Volos rarely trained with anyone but Seble. She was shorter and lighter than he was, but then, so were most of the men. She was very quick and clever, however, and he liked to fight her because she forced him to think. She also liked to flirt, even though she must have long ago accepted that he wasn’t interested in fucking her. She probably just liked the challenge.
Abandoning his ruined tunic, Volos followed Seble out of the training room. But when she turned left toward the mess hall, he continued forward. He wasn’t hungry. He’d lost his appetite two weeks earlier, a few days after meeting with the king, and while he still forced himself to eat breakfast and dinner, he spent his lunchtimes running a circuit atop the castle walls. The guards mocked him as he sped by, but they were friendly taunts, and he simply gestured rudely in return without slowing down.
He’d have to get rid of his boots before he climbed the stairs to the rampart. The heavy footwear was fine for sparring, but he preferred to run barefoot. After he reached the dormitory and sat on his cot, he found himself frozen in the act of unlacing. The large room echoed with emptiness— eighty narrow beds neatly made, eighty locked trunks containing the worldly possessions of their owners. Volos knew what was in his trunk: several clean tunics and trousers, identical to those worn by the other guards; socks; his razor, comb, soap, and tooth-cleaner; a favorite knife in a worn leather scabbard; a few coins; a single set of plain civilian clothes. Not much to show for a lifetime, especially considering that the bulk of it wasn’t truly his.
He finished unlacing his boots and pulled them off. But instead of standing, he collapsed back onto his thin mattress and stared at the timbered ceiling. He very rarely spent time alone in this room. Usually there were seventy-nine other men and women talking, squabbling, laughing. Playing cards or dice, bragging about deeds on the battlefield or in the bedroom, complaining about the food or the drills or their pay. Even at night, the room was filled with snoring and farting. Men and women called out in their sleep. Cots squeaked and bedding rustled as people sought a bit of solo pleasure in the false solitude of the dark.
But now, Volos lay alone on his cot. His nose throbbed slightly, reminding him of his foolishness.
There was another man who neared Volos’s strength and prowess in fighting. Prince Berhanu. He could have practiced on his own; he could have hired whomever he wanted to train with. But he seemed to prefer joining the guards. He arrived nearly every day, attired not in his royal costume but instead wearing the same plain tunic and trousers as the guards. He fought like the guards too, never sparing the force of his strength and always becoming furious if he suspected they were returning less than their full efforts. He was excellent at hand-to-hand combat and skilled with blades. The prince in combat was a fine sight indeed, especially when he took off his tunic and the sweat gleamed on his heavily muscled body. But although they were closely matched in size and skill, he refused to spar with Volos.
Volos liked to believe this was a blessing. It meant that he’d never forget himself when that solid body strained against his. He’d never be humiliated by stroking silky black hair when he ought to be wrestling, or by losing himself entirely in the heat of contact and rubbing his aching cock against his handsome partner. But no matter how many times Volos reminded himself of these things, he didn’t feel blessed. Not when the prince shot him contemptuous looks, when he deigned to notice him at all. Not when the prince muttered darkly about Kozari scum.
Although Prince Berhanu fought with barely-restrained ferocity, he was charming when he relaxed with the other soldiers. He would squat against the wall with a few other guards, sipping at a cup of water and watching others spar. He joked, laughed, and teased with the easy comfort of a comrade, and he never minded when friendly mockery was made at his expense. He even joined the troop at meals sometimes–although he certainly could have found better food at the royal table—and he’d dig into the plain, hearty fare with as much gusto as anyone else. But every bit of light banter the prince exchanged with others and every good-natured smack to another guard’s shoulder wounded Volos worse than a wooden sword ever could.
The dormitory was dark even at midday. The windows were set high in the walls, tucked under the tower’s eaves, and received direct sunlight only during a short period every day. Sometimes the vast room felt like a cocoon and sometimes like a prison. Lately it had been feeling like a tomb. But Volos had keen eyesight, so even in the dim light he could make out cobwebs among the rafters. When he was very young, his father used to tuck him in at night with folktales from his homeland. The Kozari said that the universe was spun by a spider and each of the stars was a glittering jewel caught in a vast web. “We’re all caught as well,” his father used to say as he smoothed the hair from Volos’s forehead. “Every one of us. The trick is to keep fighting to be free. We will never achieve freedom— not until the very end— but the fight can be so beautiful.”
“Liar,” Volos whispered into the empty dormitory, speaking in Kozari.
After several long minutes of listening to his own breathing, Volos sat up. It wasn’t Prince Berhanu’s hatred that had stolen his appetite and his attention. He’d become used to that hatred over the years, so much so that now he was bothered by its absence. The prince hadn’t appeared at practice for two weeks— not since the night Volos had been summoned before the king. Sometimes Berhanu missed a day or two, but he’d never been gone so long. Surely the other guards must have noticed, but nobody mentioned it and Volos hadn’t wanted to broach the subject himself. Everyone already knew that Berhanu detested him. It would kill Volos if his comrades suspected that the prince haunted Volos’s dreams, if they knew that when Volos furtively pleasured himself in the slumbering company of seventy-nine other guards, it was Prince Berhanu he was thinking of.
Volos stood, shook his head, and tucked his boots under the cot. Then he set off for the wall at a jog.
The Thieving Goose was crowded this evening, but Volos managed to snag a small table in the back. He sipped his ale slowly and watched the other patrons, nodding and waving at a few familiar faces. The Goose stood only a few yards outside the castle walls and catered mostly to off-duty guards and certain civilians who were attracted to the guards. These civilians tended to be fairly well-to-do merchants and craftsmen who added a bit of thrill and ersatz danger to their lives by dressing down and consorting with soldiers. The guards never minded. They had all grown tired of fucking each other, and any willing body was good enough.
Volos must have had a reputation, because although women liked to eye him appreciatively, it was nearly always a man who worked up the courage to sit with him. Such as the man— only a few years past boyhood, really— who grinned at him now and folded himself gracefully into an empty chair. He was very pretty. Delicately built, with honey-colored curls and cinnamon-hued skin, and green eyes twinkling with slightly predatory glee. His tunic was probably meant to look plain, but even Volos could discern the fine quality of the cloth and tailoring. “I’m Adiso,” the young man said, speaking loudly over the din.
Adiso’s gaze sharpened slightly at the foreign name, but he didn’t appear surprised. No doubt he’d heard of Volos already. There were those who sought him out specifically because he was half Kozari. They liked the hint of exoticism, perhaps, or maybe it added to his allure as an almost-ruffian. Not like Prince Berhanu, who was— No. Not Prince Berhanu, whom Volos shouldn’t even be thinking about.
“I’d like to buy you a drink,” said Adiso.
“I already have one.”
“I’ll buy you another.”
Volos sighed and rubbed his face, wincing a little due to his sore nose. He’d thought the bruise might prove off-putting, but apparently not. “Why don’t we just go somewhere and fuck?”
A wide grin bloomed on Adiso’s face. “I should have known you’d be a man of action.” He stood. “I’ll get us a room upstairs. Come on.”
The ale at the Goose wasn’t bad and the location was handy, but the upstairs rooms were the main draw: cheap by the hour and reasonably clean, not to mention conveniently close. The civilians who came to the Goose certainly wouldn’t be eager to bring a guard back to their fancy houses, and trysts inside the barracks were impractical.
A few people hooted as Volos followed Adiso to the shadowed exit in a corner of the room, but Adiso walked jauntily and Volos ignored the catcalls. No doubt some of his colleagues would ask him later for details about the pretty youth he’d bedded, but Volos was rarely willing to share. Sometimes these brief assignations felt more like a duty than a conquest or diversion.
The stairs were right outside the door. They hugged the exterior of the building tightly, as if emulating all the would-be lovers who’d passed that way. The old man on the stool at the upstairs landing was missing a leg and an eye, and his face was terribly scarred. He’d been a soldier once, according to rumors, a fighter in some war nearly forgotten now. He held out his hand expectantly. “Two coppers,” he croaked.
Volos had a few coins in his purse, but he let Adiso pay. Adiso’s purse was probably always full.
“Seven,” said the old man as he handed Adiso a folded white cloth.
Ten identical doors lined the hallway, five on either side. Most were closed, and Volos heard grunts and laughter as he walked by. But the door with the large black 7 painted on it was ajar, and he trailed Adiso inside. The wooden floor and walls were unpainted and unadorned, and there was a tiny uncurtained window. The only furniture was a cot somewhat wider than the one on which Volos slept. Its mattress was very thin, but then, it wasn’t meant to be slept on.
With a little flourish, Adiso spread the cloth over the mattress. Then he pulled a small object from his purse and held it up with a rakish grin. “Olive oil with frankincense. Expensive, but so much nicer than plain oil, don’t you think?”
Volos shrugged. There were plenty of times when he would have been grateful for plain oil but made do with saliva instead. And then there were the months in captivity, when he hadn’t even been granted— He didn’t want to think about that.
Apparently undaunted by Volos’s lack of enthusiasm, Adiso tossed him the little glass vial. Volos uncorked it and took a sniff. Nice, he supposed. And Adiso was nice too, because now he’d kicked off his sandals and stripped off his clothes, standing naked and already erect. He was thin, with neither muscle nor fat padding his bones, and his body was nearly hairless save for the curls at his groin. He wasn’t really Volos’s type— something Volos had known from the start. But Adiso was willing and he was there, and that was enough.
“I’d like to see what’s beneath your clothing,” said Adiso. So Volos pulled off his tunic, and Adiso’s eyes grew round and shiny. When Volos finished undressing, Adiso licked his lips. “Gorgeous,” he purred before closing the distance between them and dropping to his knees.
Just as some wealthy citizens like Adiso got a thrill out of bedding guards, some of the guards got excited over rich men and women kneeling before them like this. It was a little game of sorts, with each side play-acting their roles. Nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t what Volos yearned for. In fact, given his choice, he preferred to be the one on his knees, tasting another man, feeling him deep in his throat or experiencing the burn of hot flesh in his ass. But he’d learned some time ago that it wasn’t what men like Adiso wanted from him. They saw him standing there— bulky, battle-scarred, a little foreign— and stirred at the pretense of being taken by a brute.
Tonight, Volos gave Adiso what he wanted. And Adiso must have been satisfied, because instead of hurriedly dressing and scurrying back to his home, he nestled against Volos on the uncomfortable bed, one thin leg thrown over Volos’s heavy ones. They waited for their breathing and heartbeats to even out.
Adiso trailed a fingertip across an indentation on Volos’s chest. “Where did you get this one?”
“Guna, I think.”
“Was it a sword?”
“No. Just a knife.” A knife could be as deadly as any sword, though. He’d taken lives enough in close combat with nothing but a short blade.
Adiso’s eyes glittered in the lantern light. “It must be so exciting to be in a real battle.”
This wasn’t the first time Volos had heard those words, and he knew what Adiso wanted in response: a few fine tales of adventure and bravery, stories he could embroider a little before boasting to his friends about the savage he’d bedded.
But Volos wasn’t in the mood to lie. “It’s not exciting. It’s… terrifying. Confusing. Everyone’s screaming like they’re in the third hell, everything’s moving so quickly while your own body seems so slow. The air reeks of shit and blood and…” He trailed off and didn’t try to meet Adiso’s eyes.
“Why do you do it then?”
Maybe at one time, the answer would have come easily to Volos. Vengeance. Patriotism. Valor. But now those words would only taste bitter on his tongue. “What else would I do?” he replied, a response not far from the truth.
“What about your parents? Couldn’t they give you a profession of some kind?”
“Ah,” said Adiso, probably guessing— incorrectly— that Volos’s family was poor. “Well, it’s not so bad, really. You got to see something of the world. And life in the castle’s pretty posh, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” said Volos, thinking of his narrow cot in the crowded dormitory, of his pitifully small trunk only half-full of possessions. “Not so bad.”
He might have drifted off after that. The heat of another body against his was pleasant, and Adiso’s fingertips soothed him. But a knock rattled the door. “Time’s up. Two more coppers or get out,” called the old man from the hallway.
Adiso sighed. “We’ll be out in a minute,” he yelled back. He rolled out of bed and began to dress, wincing slightly at the discomfort he must have felt in his ass. But when Volos was dressed and standing there somewhat awkwardly, Adiso smiled at him. “Want that drink now?”
The angry little knot deep in Volos’s chest loosened a bit and he smiled back. “Just one. I have early watch tomorrow.”
“And I have to help my parents with a new shipment of Vuorian tea— which is even more boring and tedious than it sounds.”
They chuckled when they passed room four and heard a woman loudly urging her lover in the foulest terms imaginable. Downstairs, they had a tankard of ale together, and afterward in the darkness of the street, Adiso pulled Volos down for a hard little kiss. “Stay safe, warrior,” Adiso said.
“Best of luck battling the Vuorian tea.”
Long after they’d gone their separate ways, Volos could still hear Adiso’s soft laughter.
“Volos. Come with me.”
Captain Hiwot knew better than to stand close to his cot when she woke him. That was fortunate, because if she’d been within reach, he would have struck her when he leapt to his feet. His body always awakened before his brain, and when he was startled, his body launched into full defensive mode. The reflex had saved his life multiple times during the war. He’d once become fully alert only to discover a bloodied sword in his hand and a severed head at his feet, the man’s still-twitching body next to it. He’d been enormously relieved to find that the man was an enemy instead of one of his fellow soldiers.
Now, Volos blinked for a moment at the lamp the captain held, then hastily pulled on his trousers and tunic. He lifted his sword from its hook beside the bed and belted it around his waist. Running his fingers through his unruly hair, he hurried after her.
“What is it?” he asked as they descended the stairs from the dormitory to the ground floor.
“The king,” she answered.
Volos knew that if the king were in danger, the whole dormitory would have been awakened. But just as he let go of that thought, his breath almost stopped. “But… I look like I just woke up. My uniform…”
“He doesn’t want you for a beauty contest. Just hurry.”
“What does he want me for?” Volos rushed to keep up.
“He’ll tell you that himself.”
The king waited in the same crowded room as before, but this time the fire was barely more than glowing coals. Before Volos could even drop to his knee, King Tafari stopped him with a gesture. “I’m sorry to wake you,” said the king.
Volos was nearly speechless with astonishment. “I… I… I’m at your service anytime, Your Majesty.”
“Good.” The king stepped closer, and a nearby lantern illuminated his face. He looked older than Volos remembered, and tired, with dark circles under his eyes. “I want to apologize first for my son’s behavior the last time we met. He was unconscionably rude.”
Again, Volos didn’t know what to say. He could hardly argue that Prince Berhanu hadn’t been rude, and the king would think him an idiot if he claimed not to have noticed. He settled on an untruth. “Thank you, sir. But it’s not important.”
“Treating others as they deserve to be treated is always important. But you’re right. It’s not the most pressing matter at the moment.”
The lantern flame fluttered slightly as a door in the dark corner of the room opened, then shut. Someone stepped closer, and for a brief moment Volos’s heart stuttered in his chest. But then the man came close enough to be seen properly, and Volos realized that while there was a definite resemblance, the newcomer was not Prince Berhanu. This man was far less muscular and several years older, his dark hair shot through with many strands of gray. He looked nearly as haggard as the king.
The king made a small gesture with his hands. “Chide, this is Volos Perun. He’s a member of our guard.”
Chide— more formally, Crown Prince Chidehu— nodded. “I’ve seen him around the castle, I believe.”
Unsure of the proper etiquette, Volos executed a clumsy bow. He was used to royalty ignoring him, not conversing with him. “At your service, Your Highness.”
“You’re half Kozari.”
“I… yes, sir. But my mother—”
“I know. And my father has told me that my brother was inexcusably ill-mannered to you.”
Was the entire royal family intent on apologizing for Berhanu? “I believe the prince dislikes Kozari.”
Chidehu’s answering laugh held no humor, and his face twisted so bitterly that Volos thought he might even cry. “Two of our brothers were slaughtered by Kozari during the war. One was a soldier but the other— Faraju— was only a child. But perhaps you knew that already.”
Volos gave a cautious nod. “Yes, sir. And I’m sorry for your loss.”
The king made a small noise deep in his throat. “I understand you lost your own family to the Kozari.”
The sharp pang never dulled, not even decades later. Even before the war had begun, Volos’s father— an ardent advocate for peace— had been forced to flee Kozar. He hadn’t been safe in Wedeyta, though. Kozari assassins had tracked him down eventually. While Volos hid in terror inside a cupboard, the men had murdered everyone. They’d likely have sought out Volos and killed him too, but a neighbor had been visiting at the time— a sweet boy who was friends with one of Volos’s sisters— and the assassins had mistaken the child for Volos.
“Yes, sir,” Volos said evenly. “My parents and my siblings.”
“How do you feel about the Kozari?” asked Prince Chidehu.
“I don’t…” Volos scratched at his hair. “I killed a lot of them during the war.”
“And… it didn’t bring my family back to life.” Did admitting this amount to treason?
“It never does,” the king replied sadly. Then his gaze sharpened. “How far does your loyalty to the crown go?”
“As far as it needs to.” Volos’s heart began to pound heavily, although he wasn’t sure why.
“You’ve risked your life in service to this country. Would you do it again?”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“I… I took an oath, sir.”
The king continued to stare at him. “An oath is only words.”
“No, it’s—” Volos stopped himself. Took a deep breath. The ground beneath him now felt more dangerous than any battlefield. “I beg your pardon, Your Majesty. But to me, an oath is much more than that. My promise is… apart from my sword, it’s the only thing of value I possess. And even the best sword can be replaced. My… my integrity cannot.”
It was an honest answer, and perhaps also the right one, because something in the king’s eyes softened slightly, and he nodded. But he wasn’t through with the interrogation. “Captain Hiwot informs me that Berhanu’s display in this room was hardly the first time he’s treated you with… scorn.”
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I’ve tried to behave respectfully toward him, and—”
“Yes. Your captain tells me this as well. She says your restraint has been quite admirable, in fact.”
Another shift of the floor beneath him. Volos wished he had something to hold on to for balance. “Thank you, sir.”
“Volos Perun, does your loyalty to the crown extend to Prince Berhanu? Would you risk your life for him as well?”
“Yes, sir,” Volos answered immediately, even though his tongue was thick.
King Tafari and Prince Chidehu exchanged a very long look, clearly having a silent conversation. Perhaps they reached an agreement, because they both turned to him at once.
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” said Chidehu. “Because you may very well end up dying on my brother’s behalf.”
Kim donates all royalties from this book (ebook and audio versions) to Doctors Without Borders.