Breathing was becoming more difficult with each inhalation, and Styx found it impossible to focus on anything other than gulping for air. The searing pain from his arms and the wetness he felt spreading across his chest told him that he was also losing blood quickly, but that no longer seemed important. He was going to suffocate, and that would be his end. He shut his eyes and prepared to meet his fate.
He felt strong hands lifting him from the ground and his eyes flashed open to see two men picking him up from his shoulders and his feet, carrying him over to a table that had been set on the arena floor. A man was standing next to the table, wearing a unique set of armor; a form fitting set of metal and leather. His dark eyes regarded Styx with interest and concern, and something in his look caused a spark of hope to grow in Styx; this man had every intention of saving him. Determination to survive overwhelmed his thoughts of giving in to the suffocating pressure. Survival had always been his primary focus, and now that he had hope he saw no reason to change that now.
“I need an herbalist,” Prism said to someone further away from the table as he checked the wounds on Styx’s arms, “Anyone you have on hand that has knowledge of herbs, and hopefully has some available as well.”
“Already here,” a woman’s voice replied quickly. The voice’s source moved up to stand beside the table as she asked, “What do you need?”
“Dagger root and Kingsflower,” Prism stated clearly, “with some Junjun extract.”
“Okay, we have dagger root,” the woman replied, handing a small packet to Prism, but then shook her head as she added, “but I’ve never heard of the other two.”
“Junjun is a type of bush berry that grows wild in the Kurush Mountains,” Prism explained, as he began to unwrap the packet. He wasn’t looking at the herbalist at all, focusing instead on the mortar and pestle in his hands. When the herbalist didn’t respond to his explanation he further clarified, “It’s favored by Elroks but humans can’t stand the taste.”
“Ah yes,” the herbalist replied. She pulled a small vial from her satchel and set it on the table next to Prism and explained, “It’s typically called Elrok Wine. And the Kingsflower?”
“Thorny plant with blue and gold blossoms. Has a milky sap,” Prism explained in a tone that almost sounded disinterested, or impatient. Styx couldn’t tell which, and he didn’t care. The only thing he wanted at that moment was to be able to breathe again, and the longer they kept talking, the longer it would take for him to be healed.
“Ah, of course. Different name again, but that’s for slowing progression, right?” the herbalist asked while digging through her satchel. When Prism nodded in response she retrieved another small packet from her satchel and handed it over with a smile as she said, “I’ve got plenty of that. Here you are.”
“Very good,” Prism said with a nod. He turned to the herbalist with a stare that left no room for argument as he added, “Now I’ll get them mixed together if you will please find me a Fedain.”
“A Fedain, sir?” The herbalist asked in confusion.
“You think that demonic poison is going to be cured by mundane means?” Prism returned with a raised eyebrow, then turned back to his mortar and pestle and continued, “Now, is there a Fedain nearby, or isn’t there? If not, they are both as good as dead.”
Hearing this piece of news, Styx reached out and grasped Prism’s arm as he gathered all the breath he could to gasp out, “Grim . . . gladiator . . .” He couldn’t get out any more, and the effort cost him. He felt his consciousness slipping away as his chest grew even tighter. Doing everything he could to hold on, he forced himself to keep breathing and hoped that his message was understood.
If he had the breath to sigh in relief he would have as the name was recognized by the herbalist and she said, “There’s a Fedain among the gladiators. I will go fetch him.”
“See that you do,” Prism stated firmly, watching the herbalist leave in the company of several of the guards. Then to no one in particular he muttered, “Grim. A Fedain among the gladiators . . . hmm.”
Prism continued to mix the three ingredients together, forming a paste. With care he applied half of the mixture to Styx’s wounds. Even though the treatment stung, Styx was too breathless to cry out in pain, bearing it with a sharper intake of air than his already labored efforts.
With the medicine in hand, Prism left Styx’s side and moved to Hurr who then received the same treatment. He could feel that the paste was doing something in his wounds, though his breathing was no less labored. The only difference that Styx could notice was that it was no longer getting any worse.
The guards returned without the herbalist, but with Grim walking between them instead. The Fedain looked at Styx with alarm and hurried to his side, not looking at Prism until he had reached the table and looked over Styx’s wounds. “I’ve been apprised of the situation,” Grim said simply, looking up at Prism as he started to ask, “How may I . . . Prism?” His eyes widened more than Styx would have thought possible, and his body began to tremble, as his pale complexion somehow grew even whiter.
“Shh,” Prism shushed Grim quickly, without putting his finger to his lips. “Let’s not arouse suspicion, all right?” He walked back over to Styx and said quietly, “I could ask what the devil you’re doing still alive, but let’s just work on saving lives, shall we?”
“Understood,” Grim said with a nod as he returned his attention to Styx’s wounds. He turned his back on the guards by the arena entrance as he went on, “But I’m telling you right now, Prism. You need to get out of here as soon as you get the chance.”
“I’ve gathered that impression,” Prism muttered in annoyance, “I’m just waiting for the right opportunity.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Grim replied firmly, then he explained in a whisper, “He’s here.”
“You’ve found him?” Prism replied in surprise. With a subtle shake of his head he went on, “All right, I’ll find you when I get free, and you can tell me about it when we get out of here.”
“Very well,” Grim agreed, then gestured toward the medicated wounds and said, “I can see that you’ve already prepared the ingredients. Well done.”
“If I had known it was you who would come,” Prism admitted dryly, “I wouldn’t have requested them at all.”
Grim shook his head slightly. “It’s just as well that you did, that way we can make sure you appear useful. It will help keep them from suspecting anything,” he explained with a smirk. “Shall we do the boy first?”
“Agreed,” Prism replied, and he grasped Styx’s wrists, holding him down to the table. Though Styx expected Grim to grab his forearms as well, Grim laid both of his hands on Styx’s chest instead. Styx lurched upward involuntarily as energy coursed through him, and the sudden shock to his system was almost enough to make him pass out. It was as if his heart and lungs were both on fire, and every second that Grim’s hands remained in place on his chest Styx could literally feel the blood pumping through his veins. His heart was working overtime, and he cried out in pain as the beating became so intense he swore it was about to burst.
Though to Styx it had felt like it had taken a great deal longer, Grim removed his hands from Styx less than a minute after he had placed them there. Styx gasped several times, once again forcing air into his lungs, but this time he noted that it remained there. Whatever Grim had done to him, it had worked, and the poison had stopped. His arms were no longer in pain either, and Styx stared down at them in disbelief as he realized that his cuts had been healed. The only thing that still felt wrong was that he was thirsty and lightheaded; a result of the blood he had lost.
Wasting no time, Prism said to Grim, “All right, let’s do the other one now.” They moved in unison to Hurr’s chest, Prism once again restraining the patient while Grim placed his hands on Hurr’s chest. This time Styx was able to see the process from the outside, and he gasped as Grim’s skin began to glow with a silvery light as he focused on Hurr. Hurr’s body lurched as Styx had felt his own do, with the warrior’s face contorted in agony. All of a sudden, the glow left Grim, and Hurr’s body collapsed to the ground, motionless.
“It’s no good,” Grim said, breathing heavily, “he’s dead. We were too late. Damn. Hurr was a good man too.”
“What is going on?” Styx asked, and the two men turned toward him, regarding his interest with expressionless faces.
“You’ve been poisoned, Styx. I just healed you,” Grim explained, forcing a sad smile to his face. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Never been better,” Styx replied sarcastically, flexing his arm to make sure that nothing was out of the ordinary. He took a quick glance around the arena and noted that Kutos’ body was nowhere to be found, though a large bloodstain marked where the warrior had fallen. Styx raised his hand to his face and gasped, “Oh no. Kutos!”
“There’s nothing you could have done differently, Styx,” Grim said as he returned to Styx’s side to lay a consoling hand on his shoulder. “You have to accept that.”
“He saved my life,” Styx stammered. Until now he had been unable to process what had happened, due to the fight and the poison. He remembered bending down over the warrior’s body, but that was when his breathing problems had begun, and he had lost the ability to focus on anything else. Now he was hit with waves of guilt and remorse as he thought about what had happened.
“He’s done that for everyone, Styx,” Grim replied, patting Styx on the shoulder, as he followed Styx’s gaze toward the spot where Kutos had fallen. “He was a good man. Instead of mourning his death, live with the life he preserved for you.”
“But it’s my fault!” Styx insisted, drawing a frown from Grim. Grim looked as if he was about to reply but he stopped as they heard the door to the arena open behind them again. They turned together to see Maxthane enter the arena, accompanied by two more guardsmen. Maxthane approached them at a jog, a look of concern on his smooth face.
As soon as Styx laid his eyes on Maxthane his guilt was replaced with anger. He knew who was to blame for the death of the men he had fought alongside. Kutos and Hurr had both died in the arena while Salidar and his cronies had watched on, caring for nothing but their amusement. Maxthane thulu’Khant was just as bad as his father.
“Is he all right? Is everything okay?” Maxthane directed his questions toward Prism, but then turned his apprehensive gaze toward Styx. Styx wasn’t sure he liked the way that Maxthane was looking at him. There was more than concern that he was showing. If Styx didn’t know better, he could have sworn that the boy was displaying signs of attraction.
“He’s fine, Master Maxthane,” Prism replied quietly, but then gestured toward Hurr’s body as he said more solemnly, “Though the other one didn’t make it.”
Salidar’s son, Prince Maxthane of The Shade, was standing in front of Styx, showing concern for his life. He had never liked drawing attention to himself, especially the attention of powerful people, and now he was in the spotlight. People in the spotlight didn’t tend to live for long. Styx vowed to himself that he would get out as quickly as possible, and when he did he would run as far away from The Shade and then Pentalus as he could. That was the only way he could see to ensure his survival.
Barely glancing in the direction of Hurr’s body, Maxthane turned his full attention to Styx. Silence lingered long enough that everyone but the prince noticed the awkwardness, and the guards started to fidget as they watched Maxthane, not knowing what to do. Grim and Prism shared a look that Styx noticed but didn’t understand, while Styx stood still and simply stared back.
“Are my services still required?” Prism asked after clearing his throat loudly enough to startle and pull Maxthane out of his stare.
“No, you may go. Thank you, Prism,” Maxthane answered with a wide smile. Then he turned his smile to Grim and bowed his head slightly as he added, “And you as well.”
Prism bowed and turned toward the same door that Maxthane had entered from, without a second glance at anyone else. Grim watched his retreating back until several guards moved to his side. The Fedain sighed as he was led away, but just before he was escorted through the double doors that led back to the gladiator cell he turned back to Styx and mouthed, “Good luck.”
Styx nodded back and Grim left the arena, leaving him alone with Maxthane and his guards. Even though he wanted to avoid conflict with his captors if he could, his anger got the better of him. In an unpleasant tone Styx asked, “I’m sorry, but what is going on exactly? You’re Maxthane thulu’Khant, Salidar’s son, correct?”
“That’s correct, though you may call me Max if you wish,” Maxthane replied with a smile and a blush, which Styx interpreted as an attempt to disarm his anger. Maxthane approached Styx and extended his hand in greeting as he continued, “And you’re Styx. I received a quick briefing on you from Dogo, yesterday.”
“What business do you have with me?” Styx replied testily, batting away the offered hand. Before he could stop himself he was shouting, “Come to finish the job that your father started? Are you going to kill me yourself?”
The sudden outburst of anger had the guards leveling their spears at Styx. They seemed uncertain if they needed to rush to defend their prince or not. Styx wasn’t the only one to notice their apprehension, and Maxthane waved at them dismissively to lower their weapons. After a brief hesitation the guards complied with the order.
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Maxthane replied with a horrified expression, and Styx almost believed him. Maxthane almost seemed hurt by the thought. “It was hard enough convincing father to save you, why would I go through all that trouble just to have you killed? No, your position here is changing, Styx.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Styx asked with a roll of his eyes. He glanced toward the double doors that led out of the arena, wondering if he could make a break for it. He had been through enough, and he didn’t want to stick around and find out what other nasty surprises the Underking and his son had in store for him.
But Styx wasn’t prepared at all for when Maxthane answered with a small smile, “You’re to become my personal servant.”
“What?” Styx exclaimed. Of all the things that could have come out of Maxthane’s mouth, he had expected that least of all. The more he let the words sink in, the angrier he became. “I think I’d rather face the pit again,” Styx admitted dryly, “Do you realize what you put us through down here? Two good men died today, so that you could have your little piece of entertainment.”
“Yes,” Maxthane answered simply. For a brief moment everything else faded from Styx’s mind except for Maxthane’s eyes. Those eyes that were filled with an intelligence that Styx had not noticed before, and which held within them not only the lust Maxthane seemed to feel for Styx, but also something else; the prince almost looked ashamed.
“Excuse me?” Styx asked with wide eyes as he took an involuntary step backward.
“Yes, I realize that,” Maxthane answered quietly but firmly. But Styx gritted his teeth as Maxthane looked away and made the excuse, “I didn’t make that call.”
“Well, prince of The Shade, one day you will,” Styx answered with a bewildered shake of his head. He took several deep breaths and closed his eyes in an attempt to bring his anger under control, but when he opened his eyes he saw Maxthane staring back at him blankly and his blood began to boil again. He growled and suggested defiantly, “Why don’t you go running back to daddy and tell him I’m not interested in serving the royal family.”
“That’s not an option,” Maxthane replied with a dangerous sparkle in his eyes as he stood tall. Although he was shorter than Styx, it appeared to Styx as if Maxthane was somehow looking down on him as he declared, “You’re coming, willingly or not.”
“Then bind me! Drag me if you must!” Styx growled, taking a threatening step toward Maxthane, causing the guards to take a step forward as well, lowering their spears at him. Styx eyed the spears cautiously, but all it took was one quick glance back at the spot where Kutos had died for his resolve to solidify. “I’m sick of playing this game, you bastard,” he spat, his spittle landing upon the sandy surface of the arena floor at Maxthane’s feet, “I refuse to be your tool.”
“Your spirit only makes you more appealing to me,” Maxthane replied unexpectedly, as he looked Styx up and down. He waved the guards forward as he turned his back to Styx and said, “Very well. Men, bring him.”
Styx spat toward Maxthane’s bare back, but the guards came in quickly and pulled him roughly to the ground, causing the spittle to land only a few inches beyond his first puddle. His arms were pulled behind his back and bound by heavy manacles, the cold metal digging into his skin as they were tightened around his wrists.
Maxthane walked toward the door with the guards escorting Styx not far behind. As Styx was led through the corridors of the complex, his mind continued to analyze his situation. In his mind he marked the corridors that they passed, building a mental map of the complex. At several points he considered making a break for it, but not knowing what awaited him—not to mention being bound and unaware of his exact position—he decided to bide his time.
Of course, there was also the possibility that it wouldn’t be as bad as he thought. The truth was that he had no idea what becoming Maxthane’s personal servant would entail. It might not even be disagreeable work. He hated himself for considering that working for the enemy might just be his best chance of survival, but with his anger no longer clouding his judgment, it was easy to admit the possibility was real. Stealing had been his main mode of survival for his entire life, and some honest labor wouldn’t kill him, and at least his boss would be someone attractive.
Where did that thought come from? Styx wondered, shaking his head. He had been ignoring the boy’s obvious physical beauty because of his anger, but he couldn’t avoid it for much longer. Maxthane was definitely attractive, and not much younger than him. Styx noticed the way Maxthane walked with a sense of purpose, and the way the muscles in his back flexed with his stride. Yes, he was definitely attracted to Maxthane; if he became his personal servant, perhaps even in the bath . . .
Styx shook his head violently, causing one of the guards to smack him. Neither the head shake nor the smack completely removed the thoughts from his head, but they distracted him enough that they were no longer in the forefront of his mind. He chided himself for thinking such things, and tried to find a spark to ignite the anger again. Anger was much safer, and familiar, than attraction.
Styx returned to evaluating his surroundings, and realized that they were entering a more opulent section of the complex. The floors were clean and the walls were adorned with blue enchanter’s lamps every thirty feet. It must have cost a fortune to have so many installed, but since Salidar was far from the first king to rule from this structure they had probably been using the same lamps for centuries, since they never lost their brightness. Styx was sure the lamps had been paid for long before he was born.
From the slight incline of the stone beneath his feet he felt he was being led higher, a fact that became obvious as they reached a set of stairs. This section appeared newer than the rest of the complex he had seen so far, and the stone had seen less work. Styx wondered if that meant they were now in the walls of the cavern. That would prove to be to his advantage if there were a window higher up that he could fit through. If he could get to the cavern wall, he might be able to escape by jumping. People tended to forget about his hawk tattoo until he used it, often to their dismay.
The stairs brought them to a wide landing with two wooden doors, and the group moved to the door on the right. Maxthane opened it himself, and gestured for the guards to lead Styx inside and up another flight of stairs. Styx soon found himself at the top of the staircase and being led through one more door. There he stopped and spent a moment to take in his new surroundings.
A window set in the far wall was the first thing that caught his eye, and he considered making a break for it, but one subtle tug against the grip of the guards that held him told him that he would have to wait until they were no longer around. Not to mention his bonds which would prevent him from making full use of his flight. With a silent grumble, he resumed his survey of the room. The walls were lined with fully-stocked bookshelves, giving the appearance that he was in a library, but the spacious bed in one corner of the room gave away his location. Maxthane was fidgeting as Styx looked at the bed and then up at him questioningly; this was his home, surely, but it was obvious that he rarely had guests. After all, Styx mused, who would visit the son of the Underking? Friends were not a common commodity in The Shade.
Maxthane gestured toward a small alcove to the side of the door, where a much smaller bed had been placed. The guards holding Styx led him over to the bed where he noticed a large stone block with an iron ring embedded in it. One of the guards removed the manacle from his left wrist and attached the manacle to the iron ring. Styx tested the strength of the binding instinctively and found that it didn’t move at all; without the key, he would never be able to get free. After asking for the key, Maxthane waved the guards away, and they bowed and left the chamber, leaving the two young men alone. Styx thought that Maxthane would immediately engage him in conversation, but instead he left the small alcove, fidgeting with the key as he walked away.
Styx thought about playing along. It was his best option if he wanted Maxthane to trust him enough to become vulnerable. Sadly, he had already made a show of promising that he would never cooperate. If he started acting the opposite way right off then Maxthane would know that something was up, and his chances would fade away instantly. It would take some maneuvering to get into that position, and he would have to wait for the right moment to play his hand.
It was a few minutes before Maxthane returned to the alcove, holding a tray with two cups of a reddish liquid, which he assumed was some sort of wine considering the plate of cheese that accompanied them. Styx eyed the knife that remained on the plate for slicing the cheese, but then cursed his luck as Maxthane set them down on the end table near the foot of the bed, which was out of his reach. Turning to face him, Maxthane stared at Styx as if at a loss for words.
“What are you staring at?” Styx asked testily.
“I’m sorry. I’ve never been in a situation like this,” Maxthane admitted with a shrug, “I don’t really know what to do now that I have you here.”
“You could always let me go,” Styx replied dryly.
“That isn’t going to happen. My father wouldn’t tolerate it,” Maxthane replied. “When people manage to escape the complex, he usually doesn’t hunt them down, but that doesn’t mean he simply lets people go.”
“And that’s your goal in life, huh?” Styx asked. “To become exactly like your father?”
To Styx’s surprise, Maxthane didn’t respond to the attempted insult with any anger in his voice. “I’ve honestly never thought about it,” Maxthane admitted. “He’s always been there. There’s never been much of a reason for me to think about what it’s going to be like when he’s gone.”
“Really?” Styx scoffed. “You’ve never thought about ruling when someone finally kills your old man?”
Maxthane answered with a question of his own. “Why do you think he’s going to be killed? He could die an old and wealthy king.”
“Dealing with Pentalus has a chance of drawing the attention of the Knights of the Firmament,” Styx explained, leaning back on the bed as he spoke. He found it surprisingly comfortable, and as he felt his body begin to relax he stopped talking to take in the moment. Only when he noticed Maxthane raise a questioning eyebrow did he continue. “Whatever your father’s got going right now, it has to do with Pentalus. I thought that the merchant was paying him blackmail money, but there wasn’t any gold in those sacks. What were those arrowheads for anyway?”
“That’s none of your concern,” Maxthane stated in a dangerous tone. His eyes flashed as if challenging Styx to press the matter, and promising that he wouldn’t like the result if he did.
“Oh, defensive are we?” Styx replied with a challenge of his own. When Maxthane didn’t back down he shrugged and said, “No matter, you didn’t answer my other question. What are you going to do when you become king down here? Assuming you don’t get yourself killed before your old man goes.”
“Honestly, I don’t want to rule,” Maxthane said as he turned and grabbed the tray, taking one of the cups and offering it to Styx. Styx took the cup and drank from it without a second thought, finding his original assumption to be correct. It was definitely wine, and very nice too, and had a pleasant fruity smell. Dehydrated as he was he took a much longer drink though he kept a fair bit in the bottom of the cup. Maxthane smiled as he noticed the action, and then took the other cup in his hands and took a sip, but his smile faded away as the cup came away from his lips. With a distant look in his eyes he explained, “I understand the need for order down here, but I can’t help but think there’s a better way than enforcing that rule with brute force.”
Styx took a long sip from his cup, swirling the liquid around in his mouth before he let it run down his throat, thinking about what Maxthane had said. Most rich people he had met were of the impression that the poor were their inferiors, and had no problem maintaining the status quo by use of force. He had misjudged Maxthane, at least if the boy was being sincere, and he hadn’t been given any reason to believe that the prince wasn’t telling the truth.
“Don’t tell me I’ve been captured by a philosopher,” Styx said at length, surprising himself by grinning. Maxthane looked at him in confusion but seeing the grin he grinned back as Styx went on, “If I wanted to endure lectures about philosophy, I would have moved to Pentalus and become a student at the university.”
“Move to Pentalus, huh?” Maxthane replied incredulously, “You’d be able to escape notice as a Shade? I think they’d be on to you in a second.” With a twinkle in his eyes he added, “Maybe if you managed to steal a good set of clothes and a bath before you went up there; but your skin is so pale, and the tattoos on your face . . . You’ve spent your entire life here, haven’t you?”
Styx took another sip of his wine as he considered the question. Maxthane seemed genuine in his interest, but there was something that bothered him about it. “I thought that Dogo gave you a briefing on me,” Styx said as he raised the cup up to his lips and paused it there. “Shouldn’t you already know the answer to that question, Max?” He took another sip and lowered the cup, watching Maxthane carefully.
Maxthane smiled at the use of the nickname. He took a sip from his own cup before setting it down on the tray. “Not even Dogo could dig up all the details of your past,” he admitted. “Where did you start out?”
“Why so much concern for a personal servant?” Styx replied with a raised eyebrow as he rolled the cup from one hand to the other. “Do you even care, or are you just trying to make me complacent?”
“No. I really care,” Maxthane insisted, “I’ve been wanting to learn about you since I first saw you by the bridge. You’re . . . intriguing.”
“Very well,” Styx replied. “I was found by Madame Godani when I was an infant. She raised me as her own, well, sort of. She raised me to be a thief and taught me how to use this,” He said pointing to the tattoo of the hawk on his cheek.
“Fau Shae Godani. So you were an Inkblade then?” Maxthane asked, and when Styx nodded in response he continued, “With her skill with enchanted tattoos I’m not surprised you use that hawk as well as you do. Do you have any others?”
Styx stared back blankly, raising the cup to his lips again, but instead of drinking he smiled wide, wiggled his eyebrows and said, “Wouldn’t you like to find out?” He laughed as Maxthane blushed and turned away.
Maxthane cleared his throat and turned back, the redness still bright in his cheeks. “So what did you mean by ‘She taught you how to use it’? Most people don’t get magical tattoos unless they already plan on using them.”
“No, the tattoo was there when she found me,” Styx replied with a shrug, “I’ve had it for as long as anyone has known me. Whoever abandoned me must have had it done to me.”
“So you were abandoned?”
“Seems that way,” Styx nodded. “Madame Godani found me in the Upper Shade while returning from a heist in Pentalus. Someone had left me there, probably because they didn’t want a child. The Shade is a wonderful place to put things that no one wants.”
“That’s terrible. I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Maxthane replied.
“Hey, I don’t need your pity,” Styx said defensively, “I was living just fine until Dogo brought me here.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Maxthane replied. He put his cup back down on the tray and picked up the plate of cheese. He raised it toward Styx and offered, “Do you want any?”
“I suppose it can’t hurt,” Styx agreed setting his cup down on top of the stone block that his manacles were attached to. He received a warm grin in return as Maxthane took a seat on the bed next to him, then proceeded to carve the cheese with the knife. As soon as he had a piece cut off he handed it to Styx.
Styx reached for the cheese and then grasped Maxthane’s wrist instead, pulling Maxthane onto the bed as he lunged for the knife in Maxthane’s other hand. He wrestled it from Maxthane’s grip, and in a quick series of motions Styx had Maxthane down on his back with the knife pressed to his throat as he contemplated his next move. He regarded with curiosity the cheese that now lay scattered across the floor, a symbol of the generosity of his host, which he had just discarded. His grip softened on the knife as he realized he wouldn’t be able to kill Maxthane now; he had gotten too close to Maxthane, even though they had spent so little time together. Killing him was the furthest thing from his mind, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t still bargain with Maxthane’s life in order to get out. The first thing he needed was the key.
“All right, you let me go, and I’ll let you live,” Styx growled, though his heart wasn’t in it. Now that he was so close to Maxthane physically, he could feel Maxthane’s heart pounding, and smell the sweet scent of his clean skin. The palm of Styx’s hand as it rested against the skin of Maxthane’s neck felt the softness of that skin, and Styx momentarily lost his focus as he stared into Maxthane’s eyes.
“You’re going to kill me?” Maxthane asked incredulously, though Styx wasn’t sure if the disbelief was genuine or just bravado. He decided on bravado when Maxthane added, “I think my father would go against his usual rule of letting escapees go if you killed me. He would hunt you down.”
“Maybe you’re right, but let’s remember who has the advantage here,” Styx replied evenly, pressing the knife a little harder. He winced involuntarily as he drew blood. He pulled the knife back a little ways, keeping it away from deepening the wound.
The wince was not lost on Maxthane, who replied quickly, “You couldn’t kill me anyway, Styx. You’re not a killer. Have you ever killed before?”
“No, but I have to survive,” Styx answered coldly, his determination returning, “no matter what it takes.”
“I can’t free you,” Maxthane admitted, seeing Styx’s growing resolve, “I don’t have the key on me. You would have to let me go in order for me to get it.”
“I saw the guard hand it to you,” Styx insisted, his pulse beginning to quicken.
“I put it down when I retrieved the wine and cheese,” Maxthane explained, his eyes pleading.
“Dammit!” Styx shouted, pulling the knife away. Hopelessness flooded back into him, and in his frustration he threw the cheese knife away from him to clatter against the stone floor. There was no way out. He was stuck here until he fulfilled his penance, whatever that might be.
Maxthane sat up and kissed him deeply. At first Styx recoiled, his eyes wide and his hands reached up to push Maxthane back, but as Maxthane pressed in further, Styx responded to his instincts and kissed back. Styx reached down with both of his arms and pulled Maxthane into him, allowing his hands to explore Maxthane’s naked back, feeling the smoothness of his pale skin and drinking in his scent. Maxthane responded by grasping Styx’s face between his hands and laying his forearms on the other boy’s chest. Maxthane continued to kiss Styx passionately, reveling in the feeling of Styx’s lips against his own. When they finally parted for air, Styx eyed Maxthane with a mixture of suspicion and confusion.
“What the hell was that?” Styx demanded. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling, as he had just ridden through a number of emotions in quick succession. From comfort, to determination, to hopelessness, but then Maxthane’s kiss had brought him to a completely different place. For some reason the hopelessness had dematerialized, and had been replaced by a sense of longing. A longing for what, he couldn’t determine, but he was definitely confused.
“I want you, Styx. I need you, actually,” Maxthane admitted as he pulled away, his eyes moist. “I can’t explain it, but when I saw you come close to dying today, it was as unbearable as if I were the one dying. I think we’re connected.”
“Connected?” Styx echoed. “Let me tell you the problem I see here,” Styx began. The high from their physical exchange was fading quickly, and his anger from earlier was beginning to return. “Your father had me captured, and thrown into a pit to fight a monster, a literal monster! I watched two good men die today, and you did too. Why didn’t you save Kutos?” His eyes flashed dangerously as his voice began to rise in volume. “Was he not connected enough for you? If you think that just because you used your influence to save my life, spared me from the arena, and kissed me that I’m going to suddenly forgive you and your father, you’re incredibly naïve.”
“Is there nothing I can do to prove that I am not my father?” Maxthane snapped. His whole body was shaking as he stood up and turned away. When he finally turned back his eyes were furious, “I know that he can be a tyrant, I understand that, really. What can I do about it? As you pointed out, I’m his son and I’m expected to follow orders, and one day follow in his footsteps. Do you think he would let me protest every time he threw someone in the pit?” He looked away and paused briefly before muttering, “He’d just end up throwing me in there too!”
“Maybe that’s exactly what you need; a little perspective to teach you how the world actually works,” Styx replied. He reached for the cup of wine and downed the rest of it before suggesting with a smirk, “Why don’t you ask your daddy dearest to put you in with the fighters? I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!”
“Why are you acting like this?” Maxthane asked with a glare, “I’m trying to save your life!”
“My life ended the moment that Dogo captured me. I’m just biding my time as I wait to escape, Max, and then I might just be able to begin to live again,” Styx explained, juggling the empty wine cup in his hands as he avoided meeting Maxthane’s gaze. “You can keep me as your servant, I’ll even play along until you’re no longer paying attention, and then I’ll leave at the first chance I get.”
Maxthane left the alcove, glancing back once and hesitating before walking away. Styx watched him leave, his eyes never leaving the beautiful youth who served as his captor. It didn’t matter that he felt the connection Maxthane had spoken about, Styx was still a prisoner, and he wasn’t going to enjoy it. With a growl he threw the empty cup against the wall, the ceramic shattering loudly.
Maxthane returned as the pieces of ceramic scattered across the floor. He looked at the broken pieces and then back at Styx, his features unreadable. Then he raised his right hand, which was holding the key to the manacles. To Styx’s surprise, he handed it over and said, “Here. There’s nothing else I can do to prove it to you.” With a shake of his head and a helpless expression he went on, “I wish you’d stay, but I can see that you won’t be happy here. Just promise me you’ll come back one day, and that you’ll stay alive.”
“Max . . .” Styx began, at a complete loss for words. Instead of trying to convert his emotions into speech he nodded as he took the key and added simply, “Thank you. I didn’t expect this.”
Maxthane nodded as Styx unlocked the manacles and stood up, rubbing his wrist. Taking one last look at Maxthane, Styx turned and headed toward the window cut into the wall of the room. Taking a deep breath, he reached up for the rocky ledge to pull himself up, but stopped when Maxthane spoke again.
“One last thing,” Maxthane said, causing Styx to turn around. As he did, Maxthane pulled him into an embrace and kissed him deeply. And, like the first time it had happened, it came as a complete surprise, but this time, Styx didn’t pull away at all. He kissed back just as passionately. This time when he pulled away, he wasn’t confused at all about what had happened. He had definitely felt something there; the connection that Maxthane had mentioned earlier.
“What was that for?” Styx asked.
“Because I know you felt it,” Maxthane stated firmly, “Even if you don’t want to admit it. Come back to me, Styx.”
Despite Max’s pleading eyes, Styx couldn’t make that deal. All he knew then was that he had to escape. Survival was the most important thing. It always was. “Max,” Styx said quietly, “I’m not one to make promises, I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Maxthane replied with a firm nod and a half-hearted smile, “I’ll see you again; I know it.”
Styx turned around and leapt out of the window. As he glided into the darkness he whispered, “I promise. Whatever happens, I’ll come back for you.”
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