FERRO fought the chains as the slave-master dragged him toward the post. He didn’t care all that much about being displayed or even sold—his family would retrieve him eventually. He certainly didn’t think he could get free. His earlier antics meant that his hands were closely chained, and he wore hobbles that limited him to small, rattling steps. The god Hephaestus himself couldn’t break free. However, Ferro didn’t generally get to fight. Most times, tutors and advisors and brothers and uncles and cousins and diplomats and teachers and sword-masters and bow-masters spent entire days telling Ferro how he shouldn’t fight. It wasn’t proper for him to want anything other than what his family provided. The privilege and the duty of first family choked him like a noose every day of the week, so the slave tents were a relief more than any punishment. One day his father would learn of that, and Ferro didn’t care to think what the devious old man would come up with as a replacement punishment for Ferro’s stunts.
“Behave,” the slave-master snapped, his short crop coming down on Ferro’s leg, and the thin pants did little to dull the sting.
“Well, if you were good enough to make me do that, I wouldn’t be wearing chains, now would I?” Ferro’s smart mouth earned him a second, harder blow to his leg. “Now that’s just petty. I’m a chained slave, and you’re so offended by a word that you’d strike out.” Ferro could see his words hit their mark. The slave-master didn’t hit him again, but he did jerk on the wrist chain hard enough that Ferro’s hobbled feet couldn’t keep up. He fell to his knees on the hard-packed earth. That hurt. The slave-master looked down on him with a weary expression that Ferro recognized well-enough from his own father’s face.
“That was so much more petty than the crop,” Ferro said with a sigh as he struggled to get back on his feet. With the chains set so short, he had to struggle, but Ferro figured he had more experience in chains than any member of first family in all of history. He finally did get to his feet, and he pinned the slave-master with a cold glare. He stood a good five inches taller than the man, and weapons training had given Ferro an impressive body with shoulders that allowed him to draw the most tightly strung longbow. That was no small feat. The slave-master, on the other hand, had a slight potbelly and fat fingers that didn’t match the rest of his remarkably average body.
Ferro used his advantage, drawing himself up and moving close enough to intimidate. At least, he would have been intimidating if he hadn’t been chained hand and foot. “Thank you so much for helping me to get up,” he said, making it clear that he considered it a lack of manners. He hated it when his father used that tone on him, and the slave-master seemed equally unimpressed.
“Watch your mouth or I’ll restrain it, too,” he warned. A gag was the one threat Ferro did take seriously, and he moved to counter that threat.
“Do, and the moment the gag is off, I’ll explain to my new owner that taking actions that would exacerbate a slave’s flaws before sale is punishable by the return of the slave fee and, if the new owner wishes to return me, an additional fine to punish you for impious behavior.” Ferro gave a grim smile when those words sunk in. No one wanted to be accused of impious sales practices. The gods or the first family would intervene even if the buyer didn’t demand justice.
The slave-master narrowed his dark, piggish little eyes. “Then I’ll make sure to be scrupulously honest about how flawed you are,” he said, his voice tight. He’d hit Ferro if he had the slightest provocation, but Ferro knew when he had pushed far enough, and he went meekly to the post where the slave-master chained him with so little slack that Ferro wouldn’t even be able to sit. Ferro sighed. Maybe he’d pushed too far. It was going to be an uncomfortable wait this time.
“Comfortable?” the slave-master asked with more sarcasm than the situation really called for.
“I could use a couch, something in kid leather with a soft wool blanket,” Ferro suggested. He had a couch exactly like it in his room, but he wouldn’t see it until his father had forgiven him.
With a snort, the slave-master walked away. Ferro considered his surroundings. The tent’s fabric made the midday sun feel like twilight, and a lazy breeze wandered in through long slits along the sides. It wasn’t enough to shift the heat, and for a moment, Ferro wished he’d behaved well enough to go to the sea today. Two other slaves waited for buyers, both restrained only with the ceremonial wrist cuff and a long lead chain. A young woman with curling hair had baskets at her feet, likely samples of her crafts. A weaver woman would bring a good sale and go to a good owner. She watched with her mouth open. So she’d never seen a disobedient slave before. Ferro snorted. That sort of naiveté held no interest for him.
The man showed more potential. He’d kept his back turned during Ferro’s little fight, either to offer privacy or in silent condemnation for a mouthy slave. Ferro wondered which. Now, though, he turned and stared, his gaze unreadable. He was a man in his prime with black curled hair and amber-brown eyes. He looked a few years older than Ferro’s own thirty years, but this one had the dark tan of someone who worked outside, and that tended to age a man. He might be Ferro’s age or even younger. The muscles, the wide chest and thick arms, and even the way he held himself still spoke of battle—a soldier then. But soldiers were rarely sold. Sometimes the various parts of the family might trade, but even then, one walked carefully around a soldier. They might be slaves, but they were the army on which the family stood. The army and the gods were the defense of the land, and the family would not risk angering either.
Ferro looked at the man’s hands. Rather than the thick fingers of someone who swung a sword, he had long fingers. His only scar, a ragged white thing on his right forearm, looked less like a weapon wound than a bit of chimera-chewed flesh. However, he didn’t have the unvarnished arrogance of a monster hunter. The man endured Ferro’s gaze for some time before he crossed his arms over his chest and raised one eyebrow. That was an expression Ferro would like to master. It definitely warned others to tread carefully. Ferro could feel his cock stir, and the damn chains didn’t give him much room to hide it.
“Such arrogance can cost you on the sale post,” the man warned. He was worried about Ferro. Oh, this could be so much fun, at least for a while. The worst part about the slave sales was always the boredom as he waited for something to happen.
Ferro shrugged. “The goal is to not get sold.”
The man’s eyebrow went up again. Despite the fact that the man was the least expressive Ferro had ever met, Ferro found he could easily read the expression of disbelief. “This is an object lesson. Someone will show up, buy me back, and offer a nice little reward for the inconvenience.” Ferro didn’t mention that it would be the major-domo of the first family. That was his secret.
“And if you’re sold before they come?”
Ferro’s grin widened. “The point is to be unsellable. And I am so very good at being bad.” Ferro looked down at the chains. “I’m also going to be sore as all Hades with chains this short, but….” Ferro shrugged.
“There’s a certain sort who doesn’t mind a slave that requires chains and whips,” the man warned.
“There is,” Ferro agreed. He'd met that sort firsthand. His father's guilt had been enough to save him from another slave sale for nearly two years. Of course, in the end, Ferro had gone back to chains. “If I attract that sort, all the better.” Ferro's smile turned cold.
The man settled back, leaning against his post. While Ferro had a lot of experience with evading questions, the silence was wearing on him. Actually, it was boring him, and Ferro did not do bored well. Leaning against his own post, his chained hands trapped between the wood and his stomach, Ferro smiled. “It's better if they choose me. Someone will be coming for me, and if some sadistic owner has chosen to break the covenant of protection between a master and slave, well, I’m one of the few who can make them pay.” Ferro remembered Petrot’s face. The first family guards had dragged him out into the courtyard of his own estate. Petrot had been some distant cousin, the husband of a fourth cousin three times removed or something. Anyway, his lineage was so tentative that Ferro couldn’t trace it, but Petrot had thought that would save him. He’d been wrong.
“Besides, I can take care of myself. The slave-master didn’t deserve more than a hard time, so I didn’t give it. But let some spawn of Medusa touch me, and they will find out how many claws I really have.”
The amused huff made it clear that the other man questioned Ferro’s sanity. Ferro had hoped for some sort of entertainment to help him pass the hours, but the man turned his back and settled down next to his post.
“So you're clearly not the disobedient, rebellious sort. What are you doing here?” A slave of his age was generally settled in at some job, and he didn’t look the sort to get sold as incompetent.
That didn't even rate a twitch from the man. He leaned the side of his head against his post and appeared to go to sleep. It was aggravating. If Ferro was hyper and trapped by his chains, he wanted someone to be miserable with him.
“So, I'm Ferro,” he said loudly. Again, the man didn't twitch. It was the woman who answered him.
“My name's Agnella,” she offered shyly.
Any port in a storm and any diversion when bored—that was Ferro’s motto. He flashed her a bright smile. “Hello, Agnella. So, first time being sold?”
She nodded slowly. “I’m nervous.”
“Nothing to be worried about, not for you, anyway. Now me? With these chains, you know they’re all going to take one look at me and run the other way.”
That earned him a look of sympathy. “You don’t have to be so aggressive.”
“Oh, I really do,” Ferro corrected her. “So, have you brought samples of all your lovely work?”
She nodded. “I hope I don’t need it.” That was confusing. Most people wanted to make sure they got bought for the sort of job they showed talent at. She opened one of the baskets and pulled out a beautifully crocheted blanket. It wasn’t up to palace standards, but it certainly showed talent.
“I would think you would want to show that off.”
“Oh, I do,” she agreed. “Only Master Theron is supposed to be coming to buy me.” Another cousin Ferro didn’t know… either that or a traveler. The travelers sometimes bought slaves, although most times slave-owners avoided selling to them since the travelers didn’t believe in slavery. Instead, they believed in letting people starve at the side of the road when times got hard. Ferro knew how ugly slavery could get when a master didn’t believe in the vengeance of the gods; Petrot had taught him that. However, the gods and Ferro’s family took their revenge, and Ferro refused to believe that it was better to turn people out to flail through life alone.
“You think he’s coming soon?”
She nodded. “He has a slave in his household, a gentle man who would often stop and talk.” She blushed. Ferro smiled kindly at her. She’d fallen in love with a slave from another household. She was the heroine of her own tale of romance. He hoped it worked out for her and that this Theron let the young lovers have their romance, at least until the love turned into hatred and someone asked to get sold off. “He’s supposed to come today.”
“May Aphrodite bless your pairing with desire and Athena with wisdom,” Ferro offered the formal blessing. Agnella blushed even more and bowed her head to hide it.
“Thank you,” she said in a tiny voice.
Well, Ferro wasn’t going to verbally toy with a woman on the eve of being with her one-true-love. That left the other man. Ferro shuffled to the side to get a better look at him. He expected him to be asleep, or feigning it more likely, but instead, two startlingly amber eyes watched him. Ferro offered up his most brilliant smile.
“We have a prospective buyer, gentlemen,” the slave-master announced as he walked in. Ferro turned and gave this new man a cold, assessing look. While there was little chance he’d buy Ferro, Ferro didn’t want the other man taken away before he could figure out exactly who he was. Ferro didn’t like riddles, not unless he had the answer. However, the other man stood and tilted his head in respect. Idiot would get bought acting like that.