Steaming water rained down from the shower head making Jimmy wince. The pressure was torture on the enflamed bruises that decorated his skin. Gingerly lathering the soap, he cleaned himself carefully trying to stay out of the spray as much as possible while trying not to see the purple and brown marks that kept multiplying.
It had been some time since Kenrick had been so rough with him. Shawn Martoni's disappearance had enraged his boss in a way Jimmy had never seen. He had hoped that Shawn would come around eventually and spare him Kenrick's anger or at least have it directed elsewhere. Perhaps Shawn could have made Kenrick happy enough to create some peace in the house or even end Kenrick's need of Jimmy all together. Yes, it was selfish to think that way, but Jimmy had just cause. If he'd known what he'd been getting himself into, he never would have agreed to working for Mr. Balfour in the first place.
Jimmy didn't make the best choices growing up; he was always in trouble of some kind. Being larger than the other kids, it was easy to shake them down for extra cash. As he got older, his lack of interest in authority got him involved with the wrong people and he ended up in jail for selling stolen property. He had a decent job at the time as a prep cook in a nice restaurant, but the promotion to chef was coming too slow despite his culinary skills. An eighteen month sentence was enough to have his family disown him, frustrated over an endless series of screw-ups, lose his apartment and what few friends he had.
So he started over. Unable to find much else, he found a job working the docks. It wasn't bad. Jimmy kept his head down and really tried to do right this time. He never understood what brought Kenrick Balfour there that night.
When Kenrick offered Jimmy the job to be his bodyguard, Jimmy gave his notice on the spot. The other guys joked that he'd better be careful; Balfour was probably a queer waiting to suck his cock. Jimmy just laughed it off. A good salary, a nice place to live and maybe a boss that wanted to polish your knob every so often. That didn't sound so bad. Besides, he was bigger than Kenrick; what could go wrong?
Mouth drawn tight, Jimmy ran his face under the shower spray as his hand tried futilely to dig into the tile walls. It was much easier this way to pretend he wasn't crying.
Kenrick broke him that first night like a prize stallion. When he heard the job was butler and not a bodyguard, Jimmy rebelled; he wasn't anyone's bitch. Kenrick proved otherwise. The more he fought, the harsher he was punished. When he complied, he was rewarded. He did things that night he would never have done or let anyone know he'd done.
It wasn't all a horror story. As long as Jimmy did his work to the best of his ability, Kenrick was good to him. Jimmy found he had a knack for being Kenrick's right hand man and even excelled at it. On an occasion, Kenrick even brought women to the penthouse for him. Obviously very expensive hookers and never the same one twice, but Jimmy learned quickly not to ask questions about certain things.
Sometimes it was a horror story. Kenrick was inhumanly strong. It was no effort for him to hold Jimmy down with one hand while using the other to do things that Jimmy would do well not to remember. The ever-repeating bruising lately was pure evidence of that.
What he wouldn't give for Shawn Martoni to reappear. Maybe then Kenrick would be distracted long enough for him to leave.
But where would he go? It had been made painfully clear that Kenrick would keep Jimmy for the rest of his life, and given his resources, where could he go that Kenrick couldn't find him? Jimmy was rarely allowed outside the apartment without supervision, and the last time he was out and ran late, Kenrick was only too quick to hunt him down. Even if he could escape, he couldn't tell anyone anything. Who would believe the things he'd seen? How could he face anyone if they knew what services Kenrick forced upon him when the mood struck him?
Oh, fuck. He was crying again. Kenrick hated that. Twinging bruises reminded him of the consequences.
Rubbing his face briskly, Jimmy shook off all these thoughts and memories for a facade of calm obedience. Rinsing himself clean, he turned off the water to dry himself off and get ready to prepare dinner. Kenrick didn't like to be kept waiting.
* * * *
“Och, ya daft boy! What are ye still doin' here?” Maertagh shouted. “Ye should've been on yuir way a while ago.”
Sethus simply stood before the mirror in his chambers looking at the matronly housekeeper in the reflection. Her stubby hands held matching buckets, one filled with soapy water and brushes, the other with a small shovel and broom. Apparently she was planning on cleaning out the fireplace while he was out – except, he'd never left.
“The King must na be kept waiting. What's wrong?”
“King Verath has asked to meet me privately.”
She walked up behind him, sitting both buckets on the floor. “Aye, lad. And ye've known the man since you were a wee one. Why is this such a problem?”
“He asked me to meet him in his chambers.”
“What? Yuir worried the man wants to bed ye down?” Maertagh stared him down in disbelief, while the goblin couldn't bring himself to say anything.
Sethus's forehead nearly bounced off the mirror from the slap that cracked across the back of his skull. Eyes wide, he finally turned to face Maertagh.
“What was that for?”
“For bein' stupid, ye silly goblin. The King has had many years to chain ye to his bedposts if he had a right mind to do so. An' if'n he did, ye swore an oath, did ye na?”
The goblin's head lowered slightly as he nodded in agreement.
“Then you'd serve in whatever way his lordship asked and na be disagreeable about it. You've na grown up so far you've forgotten yuir station, have ye?”
“Of course not, Ma'am.”
“Then bugger off. Ye've kept him waiting long enough and I've work to be done.”
With surprising strength the dwarven maid grabbed his arms, spun him and ushered Sethus out into the hallway, brusquely closing the door behind him. It was embarrassing how easy it was. He was the Hunter Prime for pride's sake, and that little woman just bounced him out of his own quarters like a rowdy drunk in a tavern. What truly shamed him, however, was how close to home she struck. He had forgotten his station and his origins.
When word spread of the prophecy of the war with humans that would devastate the world, the high-elves sought to leave the realm. Chaos ensued. Tribes fought within themselves and rioting broke out in many villages and cities.
Sethus was just a small child when Verath, a young lord at the time, rode into his village to quell the riots and began to restore order. The preparations to go below world had been established and fear and misinformation ran rampant. Raiders from a neighboring tribe had decimated his own for the wealth of supplies and there were very few survivors. Verath personally had saved Sethus from death after a foreign goblin had slain his parents before his young eyes. The raiders had tried to. . .interfere with him when Verath stormed the building. He swore fealty to Verath, and the Orc king was so impressed with the little goblin's strength and valor, he took him in.
From that point, Sethus would live in the keep as a servant. Under the watchful eye of Maertagh, he learned the way of the household and was put to work. It was hard work he was unused to, but he swore his oath and did the job well. As a male, Sethus was taken with the hunters during the season and displayed a natural talent for the bow, knife, and tracking. As word of his skills became known, Verath had the young goblin pulled from the cleaning staff and become part of the hunting squadron within the keep.
While fine tuning his knowledge with bladed weapons, Sethus met the half-breed prince. He was younger than the goblin, but so much bigger at this age. Still a child, Rath was always domineering. Others might have regarded the prince with mixed attitudes, but Sethus never shared the sentiment; he was the only goblin allowed inside the keep at the time and understood the concept of being different.
“That sword's too big for you. You're going to hurt yourself. Try this one.”
“Thank you. Why aren't you practicing with the trainers?”
“I think they're scared of me. Why aren't you practicing with them?”
“I don't think they like goblins.”
“They treat everyone like that. I'm as big as they are anyways. When I'm older, they'll learn to respect me just like you will.”
“Why? Who are you supposed to be?”
“I'm Rath the prince, of course. Who are you?”
“Sethus. The King brought me here to live. I plan to be one of his elite.”
“Oh. You know, you're kind of small to be fighting.”
“And you're kind of white.”
“Hmm. . .you want to spar?”
They made fast friends and better comrades.
Under the watchful eye of the King and Maertagh, the pair grew into adulthood and bonded as the fiercest brothers. Rath helped Sethus practice his weapons skills; the prince's natural affinity for warfare was legendary. In return, Sethus became the prince's right hand man even as he was eventually promoted to the venerable position of Prime Hunter amongst the squadron. Rath was there right beside him as the king bestowed the honor.
And now, he hesitated to face the king because he had it in his head that he was about to become a royal consort, a position he wasn't looking to fill – ridiculous. Maertagh was right; she was always right.
Even so, Sethus hesitated before knocking once he found himself before the King's chambers.
The rap of his knuckles echoed in the hallway. Sethus looked around. The guards were stationed at either end of the corridor away from the door. The king was safely covered with the formation, but not closely. The door pulled open and Sethus was surprised to not find the servant greeting him. It was Verath himself.
The King stood wearing a pair of leather breeches that laced up the front, slightly undone at the waist. A sleeveless robe was draped over his brawny shoulders and left wide open with no shirt underneath. Even with his age, the King's chest was imposing and his frame mature and profound; this was far more relaxed than Sethus had ever seen the King. The theory over the reason for this meeting that he had just stamped out rose up and loudly.
It wasn't that Sethus wasn't awed by Verath or found him unattractive – he simply knew what it meant to be the carnal toy of the males in his family. Rath's sexual appetites were well known. Verath may have been more discreet since his rise in power, but that hunger flowed through both their veins. And Sethus swore that when the raiders killed his family and tried to rape him, he would never lie beneath another male.
“Come in, Sethus.” The king's voice rumbled politely, but Sethus couldn't help but respond like it was a command.
After all these years, Sethus had never laid eyes on the king's bed chamber. He politely sat in an armchair within the sitting area at Verath's direction and found it very odd that no servant was present to attend to them. The goblin's pulse quickened. The king walked to a side table and poured a goblet of amber liquor for each of them before offering one to his guest.
“Drink with me.” Verath took his place within the matching armchair.
Sethus's eyes swept the room. “No servant?”
“I wanted a private audience with you and would prefer to remove the servant's gossip.”
Sethus's hand shook while he downed the whiskey in one gulp. The burn through his chest and throat made him shut his eyes; he had a preference for ales and not the harsh spirits the orcs and trolls preferred. The King's quiet chuckle prompted him to open his eyes.
“Nervous, Sethus?” the king teased. “You're not here to fill my bed. Please relax.”
An anxious exhale escaped the goblin. “I'm sorry, My Lord. My imagination is stronger than I give it credit for.”
The King laughed aloud and took a drink. “Truthfully, I'd hoped that you'd have filled that position for my son after all these years.”
“I love Rath dearly but we're not compatible, My Lord. Neither one of us would be willing to submit to the other.”
“That doesn't surprise me. I know my relationship with my son has been adversarial at best, but turning his closest comrade into my bedmate would sound suspiciously like I was trying to spy on his activities. The servants talk enough without adding that kind of intrigue to the castle walls.”
“Then forgive me, My Lord. What am I here for?”
The king's visage sobered and he rose from the chair. Silently he retrieved the bottle and refilled Sethus's cup. Equally without a word, he returned to his seat.
“I cannot be king forever. Rath needs to start taking his responsibilities as heir seriously.”
“In what way?”
“He fights, carouses inns and consorts with a multitude of courtesans. He is impulsive and sometimes reckless. At some point he must be able to choose a mate since his true mate is unlikely to appear. No unmated male has ever sat upon the throne. Ever. The other night I heard about his fight with Raza. No discretion at all. How can he be ruler when he's making a mockery of his birthright?”
“Begging your pardon, Sire. When has anyone done anything but mocked his birthright?”
Verath's eyes narrowed. “Explain yourself.”
“Sire, Rath is known as the half-breed prince. The denizens of the city and even this keep either treat him with the utmost respect or they spit upon him as he walks by. No one had forgotten the queen's sins and no one forgives her son for it. Even you. You are a great and mighty king, My Lord, but I can't remember the last time you said a kind word to your own son.”
A harsh sadness fell over the King's features. “He reminds me of her, you know. I see her in him. No matter how powerful a warrior he is, Rath will always be a painful reminder of our history.”
Verath turned away from Sethus slightly, which gave him pause. The basest male, the King never wavered or averted his eyes to anyone. There was never any question that he was in power; it exuded from him. Now, the King cringed as his eyes glazed in reflection.
“Did I ever tell you how I met the Queen? I would never have chosen her. In spite of her beauty and grace, she was always too far above the savage races. She would never have chosen me either. Neither one of us had a choice.
“I met her at a summit in Therathiel, the high-elves' chief city. I overheard Damhsaedroma complaining about the dirty orcs and trolls fouling the city. Arrogant bitch. I was prepared to tell her what I thought of her when our eyes met and I realized we were true mates. She knew. I could see it in her eyes. I had never wanted a female as badly as I wanted her at that moment. It took everything I had not to throw her down on the table and spread her legs in front of her elders.
“Through the meeting her rudeness became especially acute; her venom was particularly aimed at me. Even though my body fought me, I managed to walk away from her. I did not want to be bound to the hateful shrew any more than she wanted to be bound to me.
“I locked my door to my chambers that night. I tossed and turned unable to rest. It was very unfair. We spend our lives hoping that fate will bring us the one person that will unite our souls and I wanted to reject mine. I didn't want my true mate. I was repeating those words when the door opened itself.”
A growl escaped the King as a lusty smile erupted. “She was a porcelain goddess breathing like a wanton treasure that I couldn't resist. The coupling was angry and heated. She burned me with her magic as I pressed bruises into her milky flesh. It was primal and glorious.”
And as fast as it appeared, the smile was gone.
“It did not, however, improve our opinion of each other. But after we joined, we couldn't bear to be separated even if we resented one another. By tradition, she became my queen and left her homelands to join me in mine. She never forgave me for that.”
“What's it like to be true mated? To be joined? It's so rare to find these days.”
“I'd only heard tales about how the gods show you the one soul they have made exclusively for you. Before you join, there is this irresistible pull that makes you willing to do nearly anything to touch and be one with them. After, your souls twine and you become one. You can hear their thoughts and feelings at all times. You can sense their presence without seeing them. When you join them in bed you can feel their pleasure echoing with your own. It should have been a joyous thing.”
“She still resented you?”
“Yes. Because we could hear the anger between us even as we pleasured ourselves like rutting animals. We hated each other and were bound together in some cruel joke the gods played on us. The birth of Rath did little to appease that although she doted on him. She wanted to expand his mystic heritage and branded him with her power. She sent him to mages when he was little to foster his skills but I believe he had too much of his father in him. She was very disappointed.” A soft, rumbling chuckle rolled through the room.
“When the high-elves left our world, Damhsaedroma wished to go with them. She hated our land and begged the elders. They rejected her because she was mated and had a child. She was very distraught.
“I'm not sure if she went mad before or after her theft of the magic. Her crimes were so heinous I was forced to chain my own true mate in the Great Hall. I was King after all; I had my duty. Killing her might have driven me mad as well. I've heard tales of what happens when a mate dies and you experience it in your heart and soul. There was already a mad Queen. The realm could not afford a mad King as well.”
“Can you still hear her?”
“No. Her bindings have buried our connection but not freed me. Others have served my needs but I will never know the joys of love again. From the day her imprisonment began, I had my child to remind me of the aching void in my chest.
“That's not his fault, My Lord.”
“I had my duties to perform. Our people went below ground and someone had to guide them and prevent it all from drowning in chaos. Being King is not about indulging your vices. It's about ruling wisely in spite of them. Rath needs to be worthy of his station. My failings as a father are irrelevant.”
“What are you asking me for?”
“I would be grateful if you would speak to Rath on the subject or at least steer him on a path better suited to his future. He listens to you. I highly doubt he will take any suggestions from me to heart.”
“Are you asking me to report back regularly on his whereabouts? I would not wish to betray my brother that way.”
“No, Sethus. I have too much respect for your bond with Rath.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
“Tell me, Sethus, what is your opinion of Rath's new pet? It has been a long time since any of us were in the presence of a human.”
“I was suspicious at first, like you. But he's grown on me. He's intelligent and seems honestly attached to Rath. I can't see how giving Rath something to care for would be a bad thing.”
The king's eyes narrowed so slightly that Sethus almost didn't notice. “Rath spends a great deal of time with his new pet. More than I expected. Is there anything I need to know?”
“I have seen nothing that would give me reason to suspect anything inappropriate.” A small pang of guilt stung the goblin's chest. It wasn't truly a lie. He hadn't seen anything but he knew things.
The day after the incident with Raza, which Sethus was very aware of, Rath and Puppy emerged from his quarters with the prince's scent all over his pet. Given their proximity to each other and the way the prince kept in constant reach of Puppy, Rath's scent always lingered but this time his pet had the essence of sex all over him. Sethus had followed Rath through enough brothels over the years to be very familiar with it. It wasn't proof, but surely would raise eyebrows. Either way, Sethus could not risk betraying his best friend, even with his oath to the King.
The King's quiet scrutiny weighed upon him. It had not gone unnoticed that Verath had just moments ago claimed he was not looking to spy upon the prince but his question did that very thing. Unless there was some possible threat to the realm by Puppy's presence, he saw no need to complicate the lives of the royal family any more than they already were.
“Very well.” Verath stood and motioned towards the door. Their audience was clearly over. “Thank you for seeing me, Sethus. I hope you will be kind enough to keep this conversation between us.”
“Of course, My Lord.”
“I don't mean to be so abrupt, but the wench coming who will be the very thing you were so worried about, will be here very soon.” A sly smirk hooked the older male's mouth as the door closed with Sethus left in the hallway.
A strange sense of relief and unease crept through Sethus's chest. Hopefully this kind of meeting with the King would not become a habit. He didn't need to test the validity of his loyalty to either member of the crown. Even so, the King was correct; Rath would have to perform his duty at some point as sole heir. But he didn't want to be Verath's spy over the Prince.
It was better not to think of it now.
A chill came over the goblin. The word drifted ethereal without a sound. He spun looking for its source, the hallway still clear of anyone.
Sethus. I need you.
A whisper meant only for him? This time he could feel it drawing him, its silver shimmer tickling the base of his skull. He turned down the hall and followed its siren call.
Come to me, Sethus.
His footsteps quickened as he traversed the hallways and worked down several flights of stairs. It wasn't a compulsion that drove him, rather the curiosity of the ethereal request. The voice was beautiful and otherworldly and drew him unerringly to his destination:
The front door to the Great Hall.
The guards were nowhere to be found. Sethus had lived in the keep virtually his whole life and had never seen a moment where this portal was unmanned. A flare of caution came over him as he reached to his empty hip for his sword. Of course, no one attends an audience with royalty wearing a weapon. He felt required to proceed but wished he was armed.
I need to speak with you, Sethus. Your weapon would be useless against me.
The soft echo was right. With a deep breath, Sethus reached for the door, somehow not surprised that the door was unlocked. He edged inside and steeled himself for the meeting he'd never expected in his life.
Sethus had heard the stories. The chained queen in the middle of the room, her aura illuminating the darkness and chilling the vast hall. No one ever managed to convey the sense of dread that painted his spine as he took his first look upon the damned woman. Meeting with the King had intimidated him, but this was something far worse. A sword or bow would have given him great comfort.
“It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Sethus, friend of my son,” Damhsaedroma chimed, her voice a choir of echoes.
Sethus stilled the nervousness in his breast. “Where are your guards?”
“Chasing whispers.” She raised her hands and displayed her shackles. “I can work so very little these days. It takes all my effort to perform these small charms. This mask drowns out the world around me but for the most minor glimpses. So there isn't much time. They won't be gone for long.”
The goblin hoped she was being honest. Unclear whether she could still hear his thoughts, he tried to still his mind. Her chains appeared intact. He'd heard rumors that her full power could not be completely contained. It appeared to be true.
“Come closer, goblin.”
Sethus stiffened. “No, My Lady. I will keep my distance, thank you very much.”
“Come closer or I won't tell you why you're here.” Her voice sounded like a teasing little girl, so unlike the elegant high-elf she was born to be. Her madness was leaking. Adding in the metal blindfold, this whole meeting was nothing short of disturbing.
“Then I'll leave. You called for me. You obviously need me more than I need you.”
The childish pout she wore suddenly vanished into something stern and ancient. “I've seen the future, child.”
“Then you don't know me as well as you think you do. I don't care.” Sethus had had his fill of fortune tellers and truth-sayers. He grew up amidst that in the marketplace. It seemed you could find one by simply tossing a coin onto the ground anywhere in the city. They were all false and greedy.
Damhsaedroma was something different. Her power would be the rare mystic that might actually be true. If their time was truly limited as she said, he didn't have time for her games. A lot of effort had gone into drawing him down into the Great Hall. He turned away and began to head for the door. Surely the Queen wouldn't allow him to leave without spilling her secret?
“It's about Rath.”
The goblin stopped. That's what he wanted to hear. Sethus looked over his shoulder to keep a wary eye on her.
“You're the Mad Queen. Everything you say is highly suspect.”
She giggled softly. “Then it won't harm you to listen to my ramblings.”
“Why are you telling me? What makes me so special?”
“Because you're his favorite.” A devilish grin spread across her ruby lips. “Or you were, before he found a new pet.”
Sethus's eyes narrowed. “What does Puppy have to do with anything?”
“Have we touched a tender spot?” she mused.
“Not really. Just a common subject of conversation.”
The Queen began softly laughing to herself, somehow lost in her wayward thoughts. Suddenly distracted, she began dancing, drifting subtly in a circle, as much as her shackles would allow. The ancient metal scraped a sobering melody against the stone floor. It was a shame that a noble of such power had been addled by that same power, her moods flowing back and forth in the tide of her thinkings.
“The hourglass is spending itself, My Lady.”
She stopped suddenly, her voice a solemn hymn. “The human pet is the key.”
“The key to what?” Sethus attempted to appear uninterested as his eyes followed the shimmer of her aura upon the wall, but she had his complete attention. If nothing else, he wanted to provoke her into speaking out loud.
“To Rath's ruin.”
Sethus chuckled. “How? He has no power here. He's weaker than everyone around him and his station doesn't get much lower. That seems unlikely.”
“When it happens, Rath will be forever changed. Once that occurs, his little Puppy must be sent home or all is lost.”
“When what happens?”
The Queen seemed to ignore him as she slowly pirouetted. Ever so slowly, she lay down on the floor, languidly stretching her limbs as her robe and stark hair pillowed around her. She purred to herself as if she basked in the non-existent sunlight.
“Time is fleeting, little goblin. Fly away before you're caught. Even the King will not appreciate you being found having a lovely conversation with me. As you said, 'the hourglass is spending itself.'”
For the second time today, he had been dismissed by a royal family member. Sethus knew the Queen was correct; the guards could not find him here. Without a word, he turned and carefully exited, making sure he was unseen by anyone until he was finally back in a common hallway. No one seemed wise of his activities as he worked his way back to his quarters.
The Queen's lyrical words rang in his ears, having a similar quality to all the marketplace fortune tellers he'd ever known. Nothing was straightforward, nothing was clear. Speaking in riddles and incomplete ideas, she had done little more than irritate him. If it could be true that she still possessed the Sight, her words should be heeded with caution; but she was mad. How much of her prophecies were nothing more than a way to entertain herself in her captivity?
Sethus refused to live paranoid inside his own home. The Queen could not be trusted. He would pay attention to Rath and his Puppy, but only if to prove the insane woman wrong.