When Sheyn, a headstrong young aristocrat, disobeys his parents and travels to the far east, he passes through Kandaar, an isolated country of strange customs. He is abducted, transformed by a mysterious ritual, and sold to a barbarian king as a pleasure slave. When the king is killed by Kashyan the Bastard, dispossessed prince of Clan Savaan, Sheyn becomes Kashyan’s possession.
The Bastard expects Sheyn—now called Pearl—to behave as an obedient pleasure slave, but compliance is not in Sheyn’s nature. Nor does Sheyn’s ordeal stop at being held captive by people he considers savages. The Red Temple covets Sheyn as a living gateway to the demon realm and plans to use him to summon the God of Death.
Kashyan loathes Sheyn, and Sheyn despises Kashyan, but when the Red Temple kidnaps Sheyn, honor compels Kashyan to rescue his slave, and he starts a war in the process. If they hope to stop the Red Monks from bringing hell to earth, Sheyn will have to accept Kashyan is more than an uncivilized brute, and Kashyan will have to admit there’s more to his Pearl than a pretty, arrogant exterior.
THE HIGH, vaulted ceiling echoed with the sounds of labored breathing, the slithering scrape of boot soles on the wooden floor, and the whistle and clash of metal striking metal. There were no drapes on the windows of the fencing gallery, and the afternoon sun streamed over the two men who sparred with slim sabers. The older man had the compact body of an acrobat, nut-brown skin, and short, graying black hair that gleamed with oil. His opponent stood a head taller, though he looked at least two decades younger. The lad was as long-limbed as a thoroughbred colt with none of a colt’s awkwardness. His pale braids caught the light like ivory as he dipped, bending his knees and spinning on his heel. He rose smoothly from his crouch, sword poised to strike, only to find his opponent waiting for him.
“And now, you’re dead.” The fencing master touched his student’s throat with the point of his saber.
“It’s your fault for growing angry and reckless and trying a technique beyond your skill. I should give you a scar to remind you to stay in control of your emotions when fighting.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“No, I wouldn’t… not quite.” The Eastron sighed and stepped back, lowering his sword. “My days of glory are over. Now Master Tezwar rests on his reputation and teaches fencing to spoiled aristocrats.”
“Are you referring to me?”
Tezwar bowed briefly. “Would I be so imprudent?”
Rosheyn Lir Merisolle, fifth of that name, called Sheyn, looked down his nose at the fencing master. “I trust not. I may have only eighteen years, but I’m counted a man. And even if I weren’t, I was born a prince of the House of Merisolle, and my bloodline goes back to the Great Division. You’re not even a citizen.”
“Your words are true. Where I am from, a man who excels at a craft, such as swordsmanship, is also given honor.”
A slight frown dragged at Sheyn’s sharply cut, delicate features. He couldn’t quite take exception to Master Tezwar’s words, but he wanted to. The swordmaster had always been mocking in his manner, and though Sheyn believed all souls were equal, it was a fact that a society had layers. He drew breath to explain the concept but then realized it was beneath him to argue with a hired man. “You needn’t bother attending me next week,” he said instead.
“May I know why you’ll be missing a lesson?”
“I’m going on a journey that will take a year at the least.”
“Where are you going?”
“I want to see the temples and libraries of Weijan.”
“That shouldn’t take a year. I’d reckon six months at the most, even if you see every book in the Utmost East. Ships these days take less than a month to make the trip. When I was a boy, you’d be lucky to do it in three.”
“I’ll be going by caravan.”
Tezwar’s eyes widened in a rare display of surprise. “Overland? Young lord, surely you know how dangerous—”
“I’m not ignorant. I’m at the top of my class at the university. I know the dangers, and I’ll make provisions for them.”
Tezwar thought a moment before he answered. “This is all I will say before I say farewell. As a student you show good form, and you have a true talent for swordsmanship. When you spar, the blade becomes a part of your hand, and you have the will to wield it. However….” He paused before he went on. “You’re headstrong, and until you learn to master yourself, you’ll never master the sword. I wish you a safe journey, though I don’t think you’ll have one.”
Sheyn sniffed. “I suppose I should thank you.”
“Only if your thanks are sincere.”
“Well, then….” Sheyn lingered a moment more and then turned on his heel.
Tezwar shook his head as he watched the tall young man sweep out of his practice room. He didn’t expect to see Rosheyn Merisolle again in this life, and despite the boy’s prickly personality, he thought it was a shame to lose him. With the right mentor, Sheyn would blossom into a formidable man, but given the way he was coddled, he’d most likely live and die as a useless ornament of the Laronese royal court. But only if he stayed in the elegant, cultured, and so very civilized city-state of Dey Larone. If Sheyn traveled to the Utmost East by caravan, he’d most likely die in the dust beside the road with a bandit’s arrow in his chest.
Swordmaster Tezwar was from Orasei, a small country below the Kurais—which Deysians called the Greiwoll—a towering range that marked the border between West and East. The only people who lived in the mountain wilderness were bandits who came down from their forts to pillage and rob travelers. And beyond that barrier was Kandaar, about which little was now known.
Tezwar had grown up hearing farfetched tales of the wild lands on the other side of the vast range of forbidding peaks. Everything he knew about Kandaar he’d learned from his uncles’ stories. Kandaar was divided into ten savage tribes at constant war with one another. Kandaari boys were given their first sword at birth and killed their first man before they were six. Kandaari men preferred the company of their horses to that of women. In Kandaar, gods and goddesses still took a personal interest in human affairs and often appeared to meddle in the lives of those who caught their interest. In Kandaar, there were eagles the size of horses, fish that could fly, and tiny dragons that were kept as pets.
Tezwar didn’t know if the stories were true or if they were tales invented by his ale-loving uncles. However, he suspected the parts about the warring tribes were true. The fact that no merchant from the trade-loving coastal nation called the Utmost East had ever traveled west into Kandaar spoke volumes about the danger. It was known that no one went to Kandaar voluntarily.
Under his breath, Tezwar spoke a charm he hadn’t thought of since he was nine. Having wished his pupil luck, he’d done all he could for him. He was too old for bodyguard work, and young Lord Merisolle was not family. After placing his saber on its wooden cradle, he donned his jacket and went to seek the company of friends.
SHEYN PAUSED outside the fencing school and unfastened the braid he wore when practicing. Shaking free his pale, waist-length locks, he crossed the university grounds, strolling over green expanses of lawn, past carefully tended trees and shrubs and the graceful buildings of creamy marble. When he returned, he would resume his studies here, but only after his journey to the mysterious lands that had fascinated him from childhood. He was going to travel to the Utmost East, to the ancient city of Weijan, and no matter what anyone said, he wasn’t going by sea. Sheyn had no wish to spend a month on a boat, and he was just as curious about Kandaar as Weijan. So he was going overland, over the Greiwoll that separated Deysia from the forgotten world beyond the Kurais wasteland.
His parents disagreed strongly with his plan. It was Lady Merisolle’s fear that he would be killed in any number of ways. His father agreed, presumably. He’d have to take his mother’s word for that, as he hadn’t spoken with his father in weeks. His mother had rallied the family against him, and even his suitor thought he was mad to consider such a route.
The thought of Aeriq Toureyn slowed Sheyn’s steps as he reached the edge of the orderly collection of colleges and academies that made up the Classical District. Instead of continuing over the bridge to Crescent Isle and the grounds of Merisolle House, he turned right at Grand Canal and entered the Garden District. Aeriq’s mansion was here, part of an enclave of young, wealthy merchants who specialized in importing exotic goods. It would be much more pleasant to have dinner with Aeriq than to eat with only the servants for diversion. A short walk brought Sheyn to the gated courtyard in front of Aeriq’s home, and he caught Aeriq returning.
“Sheyn!” Aeriq called out, his handsome face brightening as he smiled. “I’m so happy to see you. What a wonderful surprise.”
“Could we have dinner together? Both my parents are at court this month.”
“I’d like that very much. Please come in.” Aeriq pushed the gate open, and he and Sheyn crossed the courtyard to the double doors of the large house.
Sheyn hung his velvet cloak and his saber on hooks in the wood-paneled front hall and followed Aeriq to a sitting room that faced west. The setting sun struck rainbow sequins from the corners of the beveled glass windows and gilded the contours of the polished wood and rich fabrics. It was nowhere near as grand as the homes Sheyn had grown up in, but it was luxurious enough to make him feel comfortable.
“Have you been fencing?” Aeriq asked as Sheyn sat down.
“Why do you ask? And yes, I’d like something to drink.”
“I saw you had your sword with you.” Aeriq crossed the room to a table that held various bottles and glasses. He poured an inch of honey-colored liquid into a blown-glass goblet and added chilled water.
“What if I said I’d been fighting a duel?” Sheyn inquired archly.
“Duels are illegal within the city.”
Sheyn sighed as he accepted the drink from Aeriq. “Do you have one iota of romance in your soul?”
“Swordfights are romantic?”
“Don’t treat me like a child.”
“Believe me, that is not my intention at all.” Aeriq leaned close to brush his lips against the part in Sheyn’s hair.
Sheyn moved aside. “Why must you always be touching me?”
“Because I’m courting you, of course.”
“There’s more to courting than indulging in love play.”
“I know.” Aeriq held out a slim, black-lacquered box.
Sheyn’s gaze was caught by the three pearls set in a triangle, the sigil of Moon Trine, master jewelers to the ruling house. “Is that for me?”
“A token.” Aeriq shrugged. “In promise of what I’d give you were you mine.”
A pleased smile curved Sheyn’s lips as he reached for the box. When he opened the lid, the light kindled in the precious stones inside. He picked up the ring and held it before his eyes. Lustrous darqsilver had been shaped into an interlacing pattern of vines hung with dewdrops of polished reynstones. As much sculpture as jewelry, the delicate ring gleamed softly in the failing light.
“It’s beautiful,” Sheyn said.
“May I see it on you?”
Sheyn put the piece of jewelry on his finger. “It really is an exquisite piece.”
Aeriq looked over Sheyn’s shoulder at their reflection. “It suits you,” he said. “It’s almost as beautiful as you are.”
Sheyn smiled. “Now you’re being courtly.”
Aeriq took hold of Sheyn’s arm and turned him around. Looking into Sheyn’s dark eyes, he leaned in and kissed him. When Sheyn responded to the kiss instead of rebuffing him, Aeriq’s pent-up desires slipped their leash. He let his hand drift down Sheyn’s back to his round butt and squeezed as he deepened the kiss. He gently worked his fingers between the globes of Sheyn’s ass as he pressed his hardness to Sheyn’s groin.
Sheyn shuddered and closed his eyes as the past took him. He was twelve the year it happened but had the height, vocabulary, and manners of someone years older and was allowed to attend his mother’s parties. It made him feel grown-up to mingle with the dignitaries, philosophers, and artists who attended Lady Merisolle’s gatherings. He could taste the syrupy sweetness of the drink the Weijan envoy had given him. He had been so flattered that the worldly emissary from the Utmost East spoke to him as though they were equals. He was in his own home and had thought nothing of going with the man to another room. He was surprised when the Eastron pulled him behind a tapestry, but not alarmed. It wasn’t until the man pushed his face into the wall and yanked his leggings down that he realized he was in trouble. Sheyn’s nose was full of the cloying perfume of the oil in the man’s hair and the earthy musk of his sweat as he was crushed against the stone wall by the emissary’s weight. Sheyn opened his mouth to call out for help, and the man clamped a hand over the lower half of his face. Something hot and hard poked at his bunghole; he wasn’t supposed to use that word, but it fit somehow. The Eastron cursed and then spat, and the hot hardness prodded at Sheyn again. And then the worst pain he’d ever felt split him in half. It was so big that it pushed out everything else. He couldn’t move, couldn’t scream, couldn’t think. All he could do was endure in a numb limbo until it ended. The man let go of him, and he slid down to his knees.
“Tell no one of this,” the envoy said. “They’d never believe you.”
Sheyn didn’t answer. He didn’t stir or make a sound until the man was gone. Trembling violently, he got to his feet, pulled up his leggings, and slipped away to his room. Still numb, he wiped himself clean with a cloth soaked in cool water. As he stared at the red stains on the white fabric, he broke into weeping. When the storm of tears ended, he dried his face and fetched a fresh pair of leggings from his wardrobe. The stained pair was stuffed down the midden hole in his water closet, and he stuffed the incident down there with them.
Sheyn never told anyone what had happened to him behind the tapestry. At first, he wasn’t really sure what had happened, and later, he was too ashamed of his gullibility and weakness to tell anyone. He’d managed to forget about it, but it surfaced when he was under a particular kind of stress. And when it did, he relived it in vivid detail.
“Sheyn?” Aeriq said. “Are you all right?”
Sheyn pushed Aeriq away with a convulsive movement.
“Sheyn!” Aeriq recoiled from the panicked look on Sheyn’s face. “What’s wrong?”
Sheyn caught his breath. “Why must you always be pawing at me?”
“Why do I have to keep answering that question?” Aeriq sighed. “I’ve been courting you for six months, and a bit of affection is not out of the bounds of propriety.”
“I’m well aware that you’ve been on my heels since I came of age.”
“Must you put it like that? I’ve wanted you as my partner since I first saw you. While I waited for you to come of age, I built up my personal fortune so I could woo you properly. As soon as it was fitting, I requested an audience with your parents and declared my intention. I—”
“Do you imagine for a moment that my parents would allow me to become bonded to a jumped-up smuggler’s get?” Sheyn continued, ignoring the stunned look on Aeriq’s face. “My mother has found your donations to her causes very useful, but you’ll never be anything to her but a source of funds. As for my father, on the rare occasions he mentions you, he refers to you as ‘that trader.’ I myself find you a very useful diversion.”
“Your words are painful, as you intended, but—” Aeriq swallowed. “I know you don’t mean them. Why don’t you tell me who you’re really angry with?”
“I’m angry with everyone who thinks they know what’s best for me.”
“Did you fight with your parents?”
“If you must know, they’ve forbidden me to travel by caravan.”
“Good,” Aeriq said, and then paused. “I know I don’t usually agree with them, but I think they’re right in this case.”
“Yes, I know you do.”
“Honestly, why do you insist on taking this route? You can have the use of any of my ships.”
“I get seasick. You know that.”
“You can design a personal cabin, and I’ll have the ship outfitted any way you like.”
“I’m not spending my trip puking, no matter how nice the cabin is.”
“At least wait until I can go with you.”
“I want to go alone.” Sheyn reached into his cloak pocket. “And don’t worry,” he said, holding up a voucher for a berth on a passenger ship. “Despite my protests, I’ve given in.”
“When do you leave?” Aeriq asked, greatly relieved.
“In three days’ time. I couldn’t make arrangements any faster.”
“We should have a party to send you off with good wishes.”
“That sounds very nice. Shall I leave it to you?”
“It would please me if you’d let me host the party for you.”
“Just don’t invite my parents. I’ll have dinner with them before I leave.”
“I doubt they’d attend a party at my house.”
“True.” Sheyn took off the ring. “I should go now.”
“You can stay the night if you like.”
“I don’t like.” Sheyn put the piece of jewelry carefully back in its box and slipped the box into an inner pocket. “But I’ll see you tomorrow evening, and we can talk about the party.” He offered his cheek for a kiss.
Aeriq kissed Sheyn’s cheek and stood aside to let him walk out the door. He smiled fondly as he indulged in watching his beloved, who had no equal for beauty in his eyes. He loved the shining cape of pale hair that fell to Sheyn’s waist, his willowy frame, and the haughty carriage that proclaimed his royal blood faster than he could. As though he owned each patch of ground he stepped on, Sheyn strode out of sight, and Aeriq called to the servants to lock up for the night.
Sheyn went directly to the Eastern Coach Station, where he dropped his voucher in a rubbish bin. He approached an agent and purchased a seat on the next passenger carriage leaving Dey Larone. After shopping for a weatherproof oilskin bag and a few essentials to go in it, it was time to leave. He boarded the coach and rode out of Dey Larone, alone and unencumbered as he had planned. He supposed that Aeriq and his family would be upset he’d tricked them, but he didn’t spare much sympathy for them. They’d simply have to accept that he was an adult and that he made his own decisions about his life. Meanwhile, he had a three days’ journey ahead. He would travel through marshes, green meadows, and tame forests. The road would take him past Dey Larone’s sister city-states of Dey Danys and Dey Phorynt, across the countries of rolling hills, orchards, and planted fields that fed the people of the Protectorate, and thence to the rocky rising lands and desert plains of the buffer states. Sitting back against the well-padded seat, he daydreamed about the adventures that awaited him beyond the Deysian Protectorate.
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Connie Bailey is a Luddite who can’t live without her computer. She’s an acrophobic who loves to fly, a fault-finding pessimist who, nonetheless, is always surprised when something bad happens, and an antisocialite who loves her friends like family. She’s held a number of jobs in many disparate arenas to put food on the table, but writing is the occupation that feeds her soul.
Connie lives with her ultralight designer husband and Ickle the Wonder Whippet at a small grass-strip airfield halfway between Disney World and Busch Gardens. Logic and reality have had little to do with her life, and she likes it that way.