In the darkness of the campfires the Prince looked ethereal, fluid; like one of the spirits that lived atop the mountains and spoke only to the oracles. He moved the same way wind did, somehow rigid and indefinable all at once; a grace forcibly restrained.
Halvik watched him as they made their way toward her tents for the negotiations, his slave still behind them with her girls. Halvik had requested it and the Prince had said he would not speak for the slave on the matter, though it was apparent he was not surprised by the request. The Slave had made the right choice at least. She had yet to ascertain if the Prince was displeased by it or not.
Part of her assumed the Prince had known exactly what he was doing bringing the slave into their midst. The Prince knew their ideal, knew the beauty of the man he called slave and knew his body and face could be used to his advantage. His demeanour since the slave accepted is what gave her pause.
He wasn’t easy to read, his expression when the slave had kissed one of her girls hadn’t changed and she didn’t yet know his eyes well enough to see if anything had shifted inside. But his gaze had lingered, had followed the slave when her girls led him away toward the fires. Perhaps the reality of his plan was unexpected. Or perhaps it was just curiosity. Or something else. Something ill-defined.
They said the Crown Prince of Vere was frigid. They said he was no man at all; pretty as any woman and cunning like a fox. When they spoke of the Prince it was never as a man, it was as a problem to be solved.
It wasn’t an incorrect assumption. After all, a man who could not be moved by desire was cold, made wrong, ultimately denying his own nature and therefore his purpose. What use did a man have if they could not even accomplish this one simple thing?
He had been unmoved by the coupling fires before they retired to talk business. His pulse did not seem to even flicker; not even with all the naked flesh on display. He was unmoved and uninterested, and he did not stir even in the heavy air of the tent where incense was burning. It leant the night a hazy air that spoke of sensuality and if his pulse reacted to its heady overtones, again, he did not show it.
Halvik remembered every story she had heard about the cast-iron Prince of Vere and concluded they held more than just some merit. It presented an opportunity.
“Your slave,” she said towards the end, the concluding gambit.
“My slave,” the Prince responded, barely any inflection, a flat statement.
“I would have him,”
He had, throughout the negotiation, barely twitched a muscle. His face had remained impassive, every expression he gave was purposeful, every word calculated. But something flashed in his eyes at her words, like a shooting star there and gone again. It was interesting only for its difference.
“He is already-“
“No,” she said and the Prince let his sentence die even if his mouth remain slack, expression blanking again, giving her the impression he was simply waiting for his turn to speak, not actively listening to her “I would have him as my own, as part of our deal, give me your slave and you can keep one third of the gifts you intend to make as payment,”
Halvik already knew he was a keen haggler but his instant refusal here was new. Throughout their conversation he usually found a clever way of sidestepping no. Saying it without saying it. Not, apparently, when it involved the slave.
“Fine, one half of the gold and it’s my final offer,” she said “think about it,” she shrugged “what does a man like you want with a man such as he is?”
The Prince shifted, sitting back in his seat, contemplating her with eyes like ice at midnight; all glinting danger. His fingers flexed, curling together for a brief moment before relaxing; an action forcibly stilled.
“He has value,”
Strained. Tense, she realised. Enough to ignite her interest.
“That is obvious enough, he is a warrior, I can see why you would feel the need for appropriate recompense given he is worth ten men on the battlefield, I am sure,” she said “but you can find soldiers anywhere, what I allude to is his prowess, and I have been told you have no interest in his more overt merits, no?”
“The slave is not for sale,” he reiterated without comment. It was the most inflection she had heard from him. The most forceful his tone had been. She eyed him speculatively and flicked her gaze toward her sister Ivara, who nodded imperceptivity, curious and more than a little keen to own the slave.
“And if I said my offer hinged on it?”
The Prince blinked, holding himself perfectly still as he stared back at her, cool, collected. She imagined to him the entire world looked like a chess board. He certainly always looked like he was playing. That at least she could appreciate, even if there was little else about his character that held much merit beyond his generosity and careful displays of respect.
“Then it appears I have had a wasted trip,” he said “the slave stays with me,”
She wondered, keenly, what kind of bond they had that this Prince would put the negotiation on the line just to keep him. He was just a slave after all. Perhaps she had underestimated something in the Prince. Perhaps he could not be moved by desire but was moved in other ways.
“I’ve heard men say you are a eunuch,” she said leaning back in her seat and gesturing toward him, letting her eyes drop to his lap.
The Prince didn’t even blink, he betrayed nothing on his face. He was impassive, and impressively so, as he leant forward for the goblet on the table and drew it toward himself.
“Men say a lot of things about me,”
“You feel no desire,”
“That is what they tell me,” he said meeting her gaze unflinchingly “keeping the slave isn’t about sex,” he said plainly like a dam blocking a river before it can get flowing; curtailing her curious probing and cutting to the heart of it.
She felt the corners of her mouth lifting, regarding him through the smoke “something else then, perhaps you feel no desire with your cock but perhaps you feel it with you heart, no?”
The Prince didn’t drop her gaze, but he took a swig from his goblet. It was good wine. He hadn’t taken a drink until now.
“Is there a difference?” he asked finally
Halvik shrugged “one is but a whim, there and gone again, the other a more lingering want, you can make any cock rise, or body react, but you can’t make a heart do anything, one is not so easily denied as the other, won’t rise for just anyone,”
The Prince’s gaze seemed to sharpen, his lip curling just a little as he shifted in his seat. She did not know his nature enough to guess at what it meant. She could only assume it meant something.
“Perhaps it is a matter of control,”
The for me lingered unspoken but she heard it. All men were the same. Of course they were easily swayed. A man could be led around blind by his cock once it got hard, like a panting dog just happy to go hunting. Any man. Every man. The boy was either a liar or a fool. Or a eunuch after all. Or perhaps the stories were true and he was not like other men. Perhaps he really did not act with his cock. Something much more perilous after all then.
“Perhaps,” She conceded “with one but not the other,” she said “because even the greatest of Generals can’t command the heart for long your highness, once you start swaying you might prolong the dizziness for a time, but you cannot stop the fall,” she said
“I had best hope I don’t start swaying then,”
She quirked an eyebrow, meeting his gaze, letting him look at her the way she would not let many other men look at her. He was a curious thing. She had expected feminine. She had expected beautiful and quick. She had not expected the broadness of his shoulders or the angular jaw or the hint of something dark in his eyes. They all said beautiful like he was a woman but there was nothing feminine about him. It was a different kind of beauty; edged like a blade and soft like a sigh. He would not be moved from his stance and this she knew. She knew very well that some battles could not be won.
If Halvik pushed the Prince would respectfully back out. He wouldn’t bother her or hedge or try to demand. He wouldn’t do anything. He’d disappear again and his gifts with him as though he’d never been here. And all for the slave. Pity, he would breed well. But the gold was nothing to sniff at either she supposed.
“Very well,” she said “but I keep him tonight,” she said
The Prince took another swig of the wine, a long pull, and did not drop her gaze. When he swallowed it was audible; forcing it down.
“Fine,” he said “do we have a deal?”
She flicked her eyes to Ivara, still contemplating the Prince with something like distaste curdling her features. She nodded.
“We have a deal,” Halvik said
He did not linger. He did not take more wine. He would smoke nothing or accept no drugs. He declined with unflinching politeness, stiff with thoroughbred courtier grace and the longing of a man to be well away. If she did not know better, she could almost assume women made him uncomfortable, but she doubted it was the cause. He did not share his Uncle’s overwhelming disinterest and disregard, she was certain. If she was not, there would be no amount of gold that could move her to his cause. Raiding in Akielos on Veretian gold was one thing, risking her women in a Veretian plot was quite another.
“He is no man,” Ivara said once the flap had closed behind him and the space of heartbeats let his footsteps melt away.
“Still a boy,” Halvik responded.
Not even at his majority; a child playing at war.
“Boy,” Ivara agreed entirely unimpressed.
Halvik’s smile came naturally as she rose and they fell into step. Outside the air was heavy, thick was the acrid smell of smoke and the loud drumming and groaning that surrounded the camp fires.
They went only so far as the edges, Ivara had her eyes peeled in the darkness, ever alert. Halvik let her gaze wander toward the lone figure picking his way across the camp.
The Prince moved toward his tent, his stride taking him within kicking distance of several writhing couples and he barely spared a glance. He looked otherworldly, pale head glinting in the moonlight, footsteps soft as a Hunters. When he reached the very edge of the expanse his pace slowed, his feet dragging until he was almost pausing, head turning as though against his own will.
It was barely more than a flicker of a glance but it was enough to stop him entirely. Halvik watched, watched him shift, head turning back with a searching purpose as he changed direction and began pacing not toward his tent, but around the edges of the camp fires.
He remained on the fringes, his steps slow and careful like he was wading through mud until he was coming to a stop again. Arrested. Halvik already knew what he was looking at. But she turned her gaze anyway.
His slave made quite the picture. If she were younger, she’d be tempted herself. But she could no longer carry children and it would be a waste of him. Of his seed. Of the potential.
He was solid muscle, flexing and rippling as he moved, arms braced and bulging, halo of curls falling across his face. In the firelight he was glowing. So close to the flames his skin would be gleaming with sweat and exertion, curls dampening at the nape of his neck, the space around him humid with body heat and smoke. He moved like a man who knew his own body well, who knew how to listen to his lovers’ body. It was a feral grace, animalistic and imposing.
She had thought he would be aggressive, some of the larger ones tended to be in her experience, but not the slave. The Slave moved the way predators did, sleek and easy and confident. After all, a lion did not need to bluster and boast, a lion expected everyone around it to know exactly how dangerous it was without moving to prove it. The allure was in his quiet confidence, the perfect awareness that did not need underscoring. It was primal, inherent, and all the more obvious for it.
The girl’s mouth was open, eyes screwed shut, fingers scrabbling for purchase in the furs beneath them as the slave took her from behind, propelling her forward with every thrust. She knew the power in movement like that, knew the sound their skin would be making as they came together over and over, his hips driving against her. Into her. Hitting that spot in just the right way to have punched out groans erupting from a slack mouth, one hand curled beneath her, fingers toying against her with expert ease, making her clench from the tips of her toes, up quaking thighs, to her contracting stomach with endless pulsing pleasure.
He was glorious, gleaming everywhere and not a single imperfection in his form. Save for the skin, the gruesome mess of his back that shone like a warning. He was beautiful. A beauty worthy of its answer stood not ten feet away.
They would make an arresting sight no doubt. Marble and bronze, two different kinds of treasure. Two very different kinds of beautiful. Even she could appreciate the appeal of the two of them together.
Halvik turned her eyes back to the Prince, stood still as a statue, eyes locked on the scene and she did not doubt he saw none but him. It was in the minute shift of his chest, visible even from a distance, the way his mouth had parted slightly; a sigh unconsciously given. It was the complete and utter frozen awe, like a god could come down from the mountain peak and the Prince might still struggle to look away.
He was right. He was not a man easily swayed but swayed he had. Did he know? Or did it feel as unnatural and cumbersome and ill-defined as any new thing to him? Was he aware of why his heart beat quickened and his eyes drifted without thought? Did he know he betrayed himself so thoroughly when he thought no one was watching? It was possible he did not know. After all, if it had never been felt it could not be easily named.
He looked like a statue in earnest. Pale and flickering in the moonlit camp fires with his face set in an expression that was for the first time that evening, entirely unguarded. The slave was dismantling the high stone walls of his impervious defences. A brick-by-brick unravelling. A siege coming to an end.
It was no wonder he would not be moved to trade him. It made sense now. She didn’t even mind that he had lied to her about it. She had a feeling she was not the only one he was attempting to lie to.
“Wait here,” Halvik said, receiving an amused nod from Ivara as she left her sister to her silent sentry and shifted through the writhing throng of her people.
The Prince did not see her approach. Indeed, she doubted he saw much of anything beyond the slave. Up close his skin had a telling hue across his cheeks, eyes glassy with it, with the agonising discordant thrill of it.
And yet his hands were clenched at his sides, knuckles straining, and shoulders rigid. A denial. A scrambling defence.
Despite herself she chuckled.
“Hearts are like oceans and the harder you fight the tide, the quicker you’ll drown,”
The Prince snapped his head toward her, face eerie in the orange glow, cast half in shadow, eyes alight with embers that burned too bright for simple flame.
“Something tells me, boy, you’ve never sailed before, perhaps you can’t tell when you’re about to run aground,” she said nodding toward the slave.
A snarl curled at his lip before he thought better of it and smoothed his features out. Diluting the acid enough to meet her gaze.
“I think I’m perfectly capable of judging the danger for myself,”
Yes, she imagined he was. She imagined the inherent danger of the man they spoke about was what had kept the Prince rigid in place. But the Prince did not strike her as the kind of man to avoid danger.
“Then why are you staring at the rocks if you want so desperately to avoid them?”
The Prince squared his jaw, lifted his chin but he did not respond.
“Does he know?” she asked.
She couldn’t imagine the Slave would not know. No man with a body or a face such as his could fail to recognise the influence of such charms on those around him.
“There is nothing to know,” he said but his voice was the least certain she had heard it and he knew it too. His expression flickered, an aborted snort, a wry shake of his head like he believed himself as much as she did.
“If you want him, go and get him,” She said and perhaps despite himself the Prince tilted his head, blinking at her, mouth set like he was trapping words on his tongue. But there was something in his eyes. Something wild, not in the way that the winds were wild, or the sea, but something darker, the way beasts are.
“You mistake me,” he said one pointedly raised eyebrow giving at least the impression of condescension.
She raised one in turn. She imagined this boy was used to an aura of specific intimidation. He played it well. But Halvik had no love for scripts. Besides, she did not make mistakes. Especially not with green young men who thought they knew about the world from their books and their ledgers. He could play pretend from the safety of his own world, but this was her world, and here in the firelight he was as perfectly transparent as fine Veretian glass.
She was worldly enough, for example, to understand the Veretian rhythm, the Veretian art of speaking between words in guises and half-truths.
“Perhaps I did mistake you,” she said “perhaps you can’t do it, perhaps you are waiting for him to take it, then you can close your eyes and pretend you tried to stop him, that you didn’t have a choice,”
It did not flicker like a candle, like a star winking out of existence. It flashed in his eyes the way that thunder did, entire expression roaring for a blink and no more. He did not move, chest stilling as he straightened and the tension climbed back into his frame.
“What is it about me that makes you think I would tolerate someone laying a finger on me without my express permission?” he said, voice tight. Forced.
Halvik laughed, a sharp bark that surprised her and she shook her head, watching the flash in his gaze again, anger warring with confusion. Idiot boy. The slave already had his permission. He just didn’t want to say it.
“You would slit a man from collar to cock for it, I have no doubt,” she said and watched something come loose in his posture “and if I know that, I imagine the slave does too,”
She did not need to turn to see the slave to see a cross work of intricate lines, like the braiding of the complex lacing at the Prince’s throat made a gruesome echo at the slaves back. She saw the Prince’s hand with certainty. Idly, she wondered just what the slave had done to warrant it. They looked relatively new, not yet faded to the shiny pink of old scars, still raised and tight and harsh.
“Child, in this world no one ever hands you anything,” she said and the Prince tipped his chin up, this he already knew “take what you can, when you can, close your fist around it and hold on or it’ll slip through your fingers like smoke,” she said
The Prince didn’t respond, just turned his eyes away from her, dancing back to the slave. He was with a different girl now and she looked equally as pleased as the last one. The rapture was hypnotic and still Halvik found her eyes on the Prince instead.
She noted the sway of his throat, the way his gaze did not falter, the colour in his cheeks and the way his chest was moving. Slow and deep. Purposeful. Controlled. He was an odd creature.
“You are not as I expected,” she said
He looked surprised by her words and the amusement in his eyes was brief but pleased.
“I will assume you mean that as a compliment,” he said with a wry twist to his mouth.
“Thank you,” he said haltingly “for your hospitality and-“
“Yes, yes,” she said waving off his practiced diplomacy “your slave looks like he could fuck all night, if you don’t go to him now, he will likely fuck himself dry in your absence and you will find yourself disappointed upon his return,”
The Prince looked faintly amused again but when his eyes flickered back to the slave, she saw the walls draw up as his chin did.
“I wonder how I will stand such crushing disappointment,” he said
“With anticipation,” she said and he snapped his brow down, expression unimpressed as she let her gaze settle on the picture the slave made, huge and sinuous and carved to perfection “and no small amount of fear,”
“The only thing I am anticipating is my Uncle’s end,” he said “and I have learned fear is best faced head on,”
“Of course,” she nodded but she could not keep the smile from her tone “so why are you still standing here?”
The Prince did not respond except to start pointedly back toward his tent. Idiot boy.
He gave himself away. It was the way he had turned, the way he all but ran away from her, from the fires, from him. Perhaps this was one fear he wasn’t ready to face. After all, people did not run from that which did not scare them.
He would face it eventually. His departure from the fires had echoed with the same promise of the first falling pebble on a mountainside. And the Prince was nothing if not a landslide of a man; once the first stone tumbled the mountain would follow. There would be no in-between.