Oriel stirred on the bed, obviously hearing me. His eyes slid half open, his gaze catching the reflection of my lamp, the pupils luminous in the dimmed room.
“Get up,” I said sharply.
He struggled up to a sitting position, glancing around to see where I had brought him. He rubbed the back of his hand across his face in a sleepy gesture, and I felt that strange frisson again.
“Are you recovered?” I asked abruptly.
His eyes hooded briefly, and he nodded. He swung his legs slowly over the side of the deep mattress. “Thank you for allowing me to rest,” he said softly. “They only see your arrogance and aggression. You hide your compassion well.”
“You sound like a memory-caller at the fairground stalls,” I snapped. “Trite, cheap talk. Or do you expect some payment for it? You can have the lick of my whip around your shriveled balls, if you like.”
He didn’t flinch, a slim, half-bare figure swamped by the plump comfort of my fleeced covers. “I know that’s your way. You use crudeness and cruelty to intimidate them all. To keep people away from you.” His voice was a little sluggish but still absorbing. “You’re respected in your work, but they’re all scared of you. They obey you without question. They accept your lies as truth.”
“Lies?” My heart beat a little faster. “I prefer to call it diplomacy, fool, and you’ll watch that tongue, or I’ll slash it off for sport and let the servants season the supper broth with it!”
He shook his head, eyes wide. “No, not the lies of politics, of your work. I meant the lies to yourself, the lies about your love for your mother, about your loneliness, about the loss of your younger brother—”
I struck him then, and the slap of the blow reverberated around the room. He cried out and slid off the bed on to the floor, scrambling with hands and knees to keep his balance.
“How dare you talk about me with such familiarity!” I growled. “Who gave you that right?”
“You did,” he gasped. “You spoke to me, sir! Your sadness, your anger. I can’t deny it. The connection’s rarely been so strong. I didn’t know any better than to say it.”
I bent down to him, wrenching his head back again. There was a red, shining weal on his face made by my hand. His pupils were dilated, and he was panting slightly. “Is this how you inspire people to connect with you, Oriel? With violence?”
“Sometimes,” he whispered. His gaze met mine, a braver resistance than any of my servants had ever shown after such a blow from me. “They do what they want. As a child, they often struck me. Now I’m older…. Sometimes they use me instead.”
I grimaced. “Is that what the captain did? Saved you from the common soldiers only to use you himself? What kind of protection is that?”
“It’s how I serve.” His voice was teasing at my nerves again, yet the tone was steady and almost unemotional.
I didn’t often feel so lost in a situation, let alone admit it aloud. “You’re a ridiculous mystery, Oriel! You describe yourself as a helpless, passive victim, used by your masters sexually and otherwise and still following like a household dog, begging for more abuse. Yet your eyes show strength you shouldn’t have.” I looked back down on them, which was perhaps my greatest mistake. But I couldn’t help myself. I felt drawn into his weird, disorienting gaze. Even as I felt unfamiliar shame at losing my temper with him, I wanted the touch again. Far from finding him insipid and disinteresting, I now felt the strongest flame of desire that I’d ever known flaring suddenly to life inside me.
He drew in a deep gasp as if he’d felt it too. I let go of his hair and forced myself upright again. For a moment I was frozen there above his kneeling form, trying to regain control over my feelings. My trousers tightened across my groin, and my fingertips brushed lightly across the flat muscles of my belly, tormenting the goose bumps that sprang in response. My body ached, fiercely.
I groaned. “Is this your magic working on me?”
“It comes from you,” he whispered. His face was level with my groin, his hands fisted gently at his sides. He dropped his gaze away from mine and turned instead to my arousal, straining against the fine cloth. “I can only respond. Let me serve you.” With gentle but confident hands, he teased down the fabric, letting my cock spring out to blessed freedom. I tried to remember when I’d last been swollen so hotly, so swiftly….