Neyem - 1095 A.D.
THE cold night air bit at his nose and he yanked the thin black cotton of his face covering higher. Nighttime in the desert, even in summer, even in the city, had a sting to it that made these types of jobs miserable. He tucked his gloved hand back inside his cloak and mentally scolded himself for thinking about it. At least they had a job. Those had been scarce enough recently.
The wind kicked up a bit and sand blew in small dervishes that danced across his tiny hiding space. He thanked any being above that would listen that the sandstorms had stayed away that night. He was looking forward to finishing their task and getting to the Spitting Camel for a warm drink.
He melted into the shadows a bit further to watch for the signal. One flash. His eyes were trained just off the spot, slightly higher. His partner was already on the roof, watching. Waiting.
Patience. That was the name of their game, the way they won, and they won almost all the time. In fact, in all the years they’d been doing this, they’d only been caught twice.
That was twice too many, in Teman’s opinion, though his best friend and partner, Jasim, didn’t have the same worry he did over it. They had one more chance before they’d find themselves in the damp, dank underbelly of the city, never to see the light of day again, and Teman had no intention of ever going down there. He’d do whatever it took to stay out.
Jasim was convinced they’d never end up there. But his easygoing nature and quick humor meant he took things in stride a lot easier than Teman did, which was why it was usually up to Teman to keep them on track.
He shook his head and pushed the distracting thoughts away. Against the pale moonlight and navy sky, he could just make out Jasim’s figure moving slightly as Jasim looked for their target again. He pushed a bit farther back into the alcove and checked to make sure that the black of his cotton robes and leather boots weren’t easily seen.
He loosed the throwing knife from its sheath and readied it, his eyes once more fixed on the silhouette of his partner. A few seconds later, he made out the sharp head turn then the flash. They were coming.
He lifted the knife, still hidden by his sleeve, and readied it for the throw. His face lifted, still shrouded from his hood and covering. One dark-brown eye was covered by his hair and the other was focused on the approaching horses. There were more than there should be, and the trickle of awareness slid up his back, warning him that they should abort, but then Jasim was off the roof, landing on the last horseman, and there was no time to stop.
The throwing knife left Teman’s hand without thought, embedding itself in the front rider’s shoulder, and he toppled from the moving beast. The two behind him reigned in their mounts to avoid trampling their comrade, looking around for the attack, but Jasim had already taken the extra man on the right, and it was now up to Teman to move in and retrieve their prize before the first woke.
Except it wasn’t there.
After subduing the second man, Jasim retreated and searched his first target. Teman went through every pocket on the man he’d knocked from the horse, and still no luck.
The necklace they’d been hired to recover was not there.
Teman knew he should have listened to his instinct that the whole thing was foul, but it was too late for that now. He was still squatting over the second man when he heard the scrape of boot on sand, a sound that didn’t belong in the supposedly empty alley. He glanced over to see Jasim standing up, looking ready to run, but they were out of time.
“Step away,” the soft, deadly voice said. Teman slowly stood then straightened as he lifted his hands. The voice continued, “Good. Now turn around.” The command was unnecessary; he didn’t need to see the man to know who it was. Teman knew that voice, and would know it until his dying day. He’d run across it twice before and had hoped they’d be lucky enough to never hear it again.
Apparently their luck had run out.
He turned around, Jasim moving up next to him. The Lieutenant of the Palace Guard and Head of the City Guard stood a few short feet from him, scimitar extended.
The lieutenant had good reason to keep the point aimed at them. Teman and Jasim were well known for being able to get out of tight scrapes. They’d only been caught twice before, but they’d escaped many times. This time, however, the lieutenant was smart and brought plenty of men with him.
Which was enough to tell Teman they’d been set up. His intuition had been bugging him for the entire job, but he’d shoved it aside because they needed the money. He should have known better by now than to ignore his instinct.
“Teman ibn Basara and Jasim ibn Ganem, you’re under arrest.” The lieutenant was barely a few inches taller than Teman, but no less imposing for the fact that he was built, muscular, and, in this moment, held the power over their fates.
“On what charge?” Teman asked, hiding the nervousness he felt. They would have to talk their way out of it, because there were way too many guards to escape. Not without a murder charge on them and they’d thus far managed to avoid actual murder. Theft, assault—there was plenty of that. They’d killed in self-defense a couple of times, but they’d stopped shy of intentional, premeditated killing, and Teman had no intention of starting that now.
The lieutenant smiled, an expression that made Teman’s blood run cold. “Attempted murder,” he said, and the smile widened. “And if that’s not enough, there’s theft and the contract you made for the theft.”
Teman’s eyes widened. “That was not attempted murder!” he nearly shouted. “You know perfectly well that I hit what I aim for.”
The lieutenant shrugged a shoulder. “I know no such thing,” he said with a smirk, then chuckled, making Teman’s cold blood boil. The man had seen Teman fight plenty of times and knew that to be quite true.
Teman glanced at his partner but, for once, Jasim was silent, letting him do the talking. His friend seemed to realize how serious things were.
Fighting the urge to launch his other hidden knife at the man—which would only add to their crimes and possibly get them killed—Teman gritted his teeth and forced himself to think logically. He couldn’t admit to any of it—that would guarantee the dungeons for both of them. He took a deep breath and decided to say nothing. It looked to be the safest course of action at the moment.
The lieutenant seemed to recognize that Teman wasn’t going to speak. Teman hated the look on the man’s face as he turned to his guard and ordered them to be brought along. Yet there was nothing Teman could do except bide his time and wait.
TEMAN and Jasim were taken directly to the palace instead of a holding cell, and Teman wondered if perhaps there was something honorable about their supposed danger to the city that it needed to be addressed immediately. Through a side door and along silent late-night corridors, they were unnecessarily dragged into a large room. Neither of them, up until that point, had even struggled, despite being handled rather roughly and their wrists being bound with rope. They were both well aware of their precarious position, and neither wished to make it worse.
At one end of the long room was an ornate chair, raised on a dais, with several smaller chairs surrounding it, much less decorated than the first. The large chair was empty, but in the one immediately to its right sat an even more imposing man than the lieutenant. Teman recognized him from the few times he’d seen the malik out in public: this was their ruler’s Captain of the Guard and personal bodyguard.
Teman glanced to the side at his friend, but the usual carefree expression on Jasim’s face was conspicuously missing. The import of how much trouble they were in had finally sunk in. Teman turned his attention back to the captain.
“What is their crime?” the captain asked, wasting no time. He wore the traditional black silk of the guards. The sash that encircled his waist was purple, denoting his position in the palace. The only other thing that distinguished him from the others was the gold braid around his collar, indicating his rank.
Teman watched the lieutenant stand a little straighter. “Attempted murder,” he said with a sneer.
Teman managed to suppress his shout though it was close. He was sure his face gave away his outrage, but that turned to shock with the captain’s next words. “I doubt that.”
The lieutenant blinked and straightened indignantly. He opened his mouth to argue, but the captain simply held up a hand. “These two are many things, Hakeem. Street rats, fugitives, thieves… among others.” Teman’s jaw clenched to keep his argument contained. This man held their lives in his hands. If he agreed with the attempted murder charge, they could be killed. “But they have never murdered, and they aren’t capable of it.”
He wanted to get irritated at the man’s assumption. They had, in fact, killed, but the captain was right. It was never in cold blood, never premeditated. And even though he had to admit he wasn’t sure he could kill in cold blood, the confidence the captain displayed in their ability—or lack thereof—still rankled.
“Remove their weaponry,” the captain ordered, and the lieutenant and his guards started patting them down.
There was quite a collection on the floor by the time they’d finished. Both Teman and Jasim had carried a number of throwing knives, hidden daggers in their boots, small blades hidden in their sleeves, and their short, light scimitars. There was a second dagger in Teman’s other boot and Jasim carried several other small knives in the lining of his robe, which he ended up losing because they couldn’t remove all the knives. When it was all said and done, Jasim was left in nothing but his tunic and pants. Teman had his boots as well, but that was all.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. Take the weaponry and leave us,” he said.
Hakeem bristled. “Captain….” he started.
The captain raised an eyebrow. “They’ve been disarmed. Do you doubt my ability to handle them?”
Teman actually fought the urge to smirk. The lieutenant couldn’t possibly question the captain’s abilities in front of the rest of the guards, though it was obvious he wanted to. Teman swallowed the snicker as Hakeem and his men gathered the blades and clothes and left.
The captain stood up and paced around them, taking his time looking them over. Teman wanted to squirm, fidget, or something, but he managed to resist, albeit with difficulty. He’d never liked being the center of attention, unlike Jasim, who happily took it on. Teman’s dislike of that kind of thing was partially what lured him into the shadows, deep hoods, and darker corners of the world.
“Even without the charge of attempted murder, you have reached your third chance,” the captain said, coming to a stop in front of them. “By our laws, I must punish you, and harshly. I have some leeway in what I choose,” he said, and Teman’s head snapped up in surprise. He caught Jasim’s start out of the corner of his eye, but he refused to look over, lest he give their eagerness away. “But only by so much,” the captain finished.
He turned around and walked across the room, out of their field of vision since neither dared move. The quiet of the large chamber was unnerving thanks to the fact that the soft slippers the captain wore made no sound as he walked, save the slight scrape of silk against marble. They waited impatiently for their sentence while they heard him move around, opening a cabinet and then closing its doors. They heard the sound of metal rattling, then the near-silent slippered steps as the man crossed the room again.
When he stood in front of them, he held four large rings in his hands. They were big enough to go around a man’s neck, and Teman stared at them for a moment, incomprehension clouding his mind. And then, as if a flame was put to wick, he realized what they were.
But that only succeeded in confusing him further. Because two of them were obvious—they were the heavy, blackened iron collars worn by the prisoners in the dungeons. He’d been lucky enough to never actually be down there, but he’d met a few men who’d gone and managed to escape. They’d told him plenty about it—including about the collars, cuffs, and shackles—which had only fed his determination to stay out of the place.
But the other two collars the captain held weren’t heavy iron. They were only a couple of inches wide, very thin and made of etched gold. They were hinged on one side, and on the other was a loop for a lock, with another ring below made to be hooked on to things.
And then it all clicked. Teman had heard the rumors regarding slaves the malik kept in his palace. Slavery was still a very common practice even within their own country of Neyem, though usually it was more along the lines of indentured servitude. And he’d never had it confirmed exactly what the palace slaves did, though the rumors were that they were pleasure slaves.
He’d had trouble believing it. The malik was so cold and looked so… untouchable that Teman couldn’t quite reconcile the idea of the man doing anything as warm and human as sex. Whether the malik was involved or not, the golden collar the captain was holding couldn’t be mistaken. It was most definitely a representation of palace servitude. But, what kind?
Teman looked from the collars up to the captain, raising his eyebrows. The captain met his eyes, then spoke. “I told you that I have some leeway in punishment. I have the right to toss you in the dungeon. But I think it would be a waste.” Teman wondered at the tone of voice. It seemed almost regretful at the idea of sending them down there, but Teman couldn’t figure out why this man would possibly care about them or what difference their fate would make to him.
“Instead I will offer you a choice,” the captain said, meeting first Teman’s eyes, then Jasim’s, before lifting the rings again. He held one of each type in each hand, and dropped them at their feet. “The gold collar is worn by palace slaves. You will lose your freedom one way or the other, but how you lose it is up to you.”
He turned, walked back to his chair and considered them carefully, then continued in a quiet voice. “The palace slaves are pleasure slaves. They serve the malik and the amirs, the masters and mistresses of the palace and their visitors. If you choose that, you are a slave. Your choice ends there. What they wish to do to or with you is entirely up to them. Your body will no longer belong to you; it will belong to them. When it comes to many things, you will no longer have free will.”
He paused to allow the words to sink in. Then he said simply, “Or you may take the other.”
Teman didn’t have to ask what the other was. It was a one-way trip to the dungeons and darkness, bare minimums on food, drink, and even air. And the near impossibility of escape. As a palace slave, he might well have a much better chance. He didn’t know if they were chained or locked up in any way, but he figured, one way or the other, there was a greater possibility of getting out. And, at the very least, it was likely to be better until he could try for freedom. He glanced over to see his best friend’s eyes fixed on the two collars on the floor. Jasim’s expression showed the confused jumble of thoughts that were undoubtedly mirrored on Teman’s own face.
He wanted to ask what being a pleasure slave really entailed, wanted to ask a million questions that crowded into his head, but he held his tongue. He knew enough about the alternative that, in the end, he didn’t think it really was much of a choice. He wasn’t sure why he hesitated. It wasn’t like he’d never had sex before. He’d done plenty with both genders. He’d never been attached, so that wasn’t an issue either.
And, in the end, the one thing that meant the most—his freedom—wasn’t an option either way.
His best friend looked over at him and met his eyes. Jasim nodded, Teman gave one in return, and together, they knelt down and picked up their fate.