PREVIOUSLY ON CANNED GOODS!
AND NOW, THE THRILLING CONCLUSION:
“On your feet, boy!”
Rough hands grabbed Lykandros by the shoulders and yanked him up. He blinked away the mist of dream and memory that hung around him. In a way, he was thankful that the beefy man with the fat fingers gripping him had bad breath. It always reminded him of where he was now, and what lay before him.
“All of you, on your feet!” the fat man bellowed. The others around Lykandros grumbled but slowly stood as much as they could in the rickety wagon. It had rained the previous night, and the cracks in the rotten wood that formed the roof of the wagon had provided only marginal protection. Lykandros shook out his hair as the armed guards checked their restraints. Then, with a yank of the chain that linked all the slaves together, they stepped out into the hazy sunlight.
Lykandros kept his face carefully neutral. Khemi was one of the last places he wanted to end up. Despite the unpopularity of Zazael among the general populace of Stygia and Kush, murdering a baron and perpetuating the loss of a season’s crop was frowned upon in both kingdoms. Few had been forthcoming with descriptions, and Lykandros was thankful that he alone was hunted for it. He’d fled north, alternating between random (some would assume panicked) routes taken the wilderness and long stretches of days patiently waiting in the shadows of civilized places. Along the way he’d tried to find some sign that his mother and Al-Fayoum had survived the night of fire and steel. While he never found anything to confirm or deny their survival, he did learn that both priests of Set and the vile Darfari had been in negotiations with Zazael for his mind-altering wine.
It certainly explained why the price on Lykandros’ head kept going up.
“Stop wool-gathering, you maggot, and march with the rest!” the slave-master sneered and smacked Lykandros on the back of the head with the handle of his mace. Lykandros staggered forward a couple steps, throwing a baleful glare over his shoulder. He had not taken had the liberty of a bath or shave in some time, and so the grime of his travels and his somewhat unkempt hair and beard kept him from being recognized. They walked through the streets of Khemi towards the square, and Lykandros closed his eyes as he caught scent of the sea. He’d been far from the ocean for quite a long time. When he’d been young, his father had taken him along on campaigns that took him across the sea. He’d always found the spray of the ocean’s waves and the incredible diversity of life he saw beneath the blue to be fascinating. But if he was recognized here, in a Stygian city near the river Styx, he’d never see the ocean again. He wouldn’t see much of anything, in fact, save the inside of a small room and the axe of his executioner.
The small raised stage had already attracted a crowd, some of Khemi’s more well-to-do citizens standing closest while poorer onlookers simply wanted to see who was going up for sale this week. Lykandros knew they were thankful they weren’t being sold off. Most of the actual buyers were Stygian, either looking for their own slaves or representing wealthier nobles who didn’t want to mingle with commoners. A few appeared to be from Kush, and still others were completely unrecognizable. Hidden behind turbans and cowls, they watched as the slaves were lined up on the hastily constructed stage.
“My ladies and lords!” roared the salesman, gesturing grandly with a hunting crop. “Today for your approval we have these fine slaves, fit and healthy, ready for a variety of tasks and obedient to the highest bidder! We welcome you to come onto our stage and inspect our wares, but please, do so without touching them overmuch, as they’re our property until you pay for them!”
Lykandros hated this part. Despite the salesman’s admonishment, most of the potential buyers had to lay their hands on the slaves, especially the older men when it came to young girls and ladies. Choking down the bile that rose in his throat, Lykandros clenched his fists and stood still. Several men and women passed in front of him, looking him over and occasionally turning his head to look for scars. Finally, a pair of figures dressed in head-to-toe beige looked him over. Their faces were concealed by their keffiyeh, but there was something familiar about their eyes.
The taller one, clearly male, stepped forward and looked at Lykandros closely. He reached behind him, and suddenly produced a sword, resting the tip of the blade on Lykandros’ cheek. The young Aquilonian didn’t flinch. The salesman made a cry of alarm.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, waving over guards.
“I am testing the boy’s courage,” the other replied, in a smooth deep voice Lykandros recognized instantly. The dark eyes from within the keffiyeh stayed fixed on Lykandros’ face, as did the clear eyes of the veiled woman standing behind him. The man spoke again, saying “What can you tell me about this sword, boy?”
“This is a sword of Acheron,” Lykandros replied without pause. “A sword of august lineage. A sword of an empire that fell long ago, but their descendants walk the earth to this day, carrying ancient nobility and strength in their blood and their bones.”
The man pulled the sword away slowly, and it disappeared behind his back. The pair turned and walked off the stage, heedless of the salesman’s protests and the guards’ incredulous stares. Lykandros wanted to go running after them, but he remained still, carefully hiding his feelings. He hadn’t come this far by being impatient.
The bidding began soon after, and when it came to Lykandros, the battle between bids was pretty furious until it came down to a large man covered in tattoos and the pair in desert garb. Finally, the desert travelers won. Again Lykandros had to hide his excitement, maintaining his patience. After the last slave was sold, they were lead from the stage and given to their new masters. Before he could talk to either of them, however, the large man made his way over to them, clearly upset.
“I am one slave short for my ship!” he spat. “If you take him out into the desert all of his muscle will go to waste! I demand you sell him to me. I’ll meet your price!”
“Let me make you a counter-offer,” the man in the keffiyeh replied. “This slave is for the amusement of my wife. She will likely be done with him in no more than an hour or two. If you can wait that long, we will sell him to you at your last bid offer.”
The slaver couldn’t believe his good fortune – not only was he getting his way with their foreigners, but he was saving money. He agreed and turned away. Hands took hold of Lykandros’ arms and pulled him towards a nearby inn. They lead him upstairs to a room and shut the door. Finally, they pulled off their flowing disguises and smiled at the young Aquilonian.
“It is good to see you again, Lykandros,” Al-Fayoum said, clapping the boy on the shoulder. “Though the beard is an interesting change.”
“It does nothing for you,” Cassandra declared, drawing a dagger and sitting her son down. “It’ll have to come off.”
“How did you find me?” he asked them, as his mother carefully shaved his beard.
“It was difficult,” Al-Fayoum admitted. “You did a very good job of keeping would-be assassins and bounty hunters off your trail. It tended to throw us off, as well, especially considering we didn’t start looking for you until the last full moon. When you got caught by the slave-owner, however, we had an easier time and were able to put together a plan to liberate you.”
“Wait,” Lykandros said, brows furrowing. “If you’re liberating me, why are you selling me to the fat mariner too lazy to row his own oars?”
Al-Fayoum laughed. Cassandra turned her son’s face and started shaving the other side.
“Because breaking free of a caravan when surrounded by armed guards is extremely difficult,” she told him, scraping the sharp blade against his skin. “Finding the opportunity you need to be free aboard a ship at sea is less so, especially when this ship is heading north, away from both Stygia and Kush.”
“That fat man is Cimmerian,” Al-Fayoum added, “as much as Cassandra would like to deny the fact. His ship’s route north takes him very close to the Aquilonian shore. Close enough for a man to swim, if he finds a way out of his shackles at the right moment.”
“We know how strong you are,” Cassandra concluded, regarding his shaved face with approval. “And you’ve proven your cunning. Now all you need to do is be patient a little while longer, and you’ll see Aquilonia again.”
Lykandros nodded, and got to his feet. “When will I see you again?”
“We’ve found a place of our own on the coast in Argos,” his mother replied, cleaning her dagger on the bedspread. “Find us there, should you survive all of this.”
Al-Fayoum reached for his clothing, and then paused, thinking. “When did you eat last, Lykandros?”
“A couple days ago,” Lykandros said with a shrug. Cassandra shook her head.
“You need to keep your strength up,” she admonished, in a motherly fashion. Lykandros smiled sheepishly and took his mother’s hand.
“I’m glad I got to see you again. And I will survive this, mother. I owe Astonidas that much – to survive all of these trials and return to Aquilonia, not as a refugee, but as a conqueror, just like him.”
Cassandra seemed to swell with pride as Al-Fayoum made preparations to leave. “I’ll send a servant up with some food,” he told the Aquilonian teen, “and when you’re refreshed, the boatman will be waiting for you.”
“You’ve done well, taking care of my mother,” was Lykandros’ reply, “and you’d best continue to do so.”
“Oh, he will,” Cassandra laughed, “or I’ll roast him on a spit!”
The laughter was infectious, and had Lykandros smiling long after they left. He sat on the bed and looked out over the city. Presently there was a knock on the door, and a young serving girl slipped in with a tray of hot fresh food. She looked at Lykandros with doe-like eyes and rested the tray before him, settling on her knees on the opposite end of the bed. He ate quickly, not realizing until after the first bite how truly hungry he was. When he was finished, the girl moved the tray and continued to look at Lykandros.
“The man from the desert said I was to give you whatever you desire,” she told him, her voice breathy and somewhat frightened. She put the tray on the floor and Lykandros saw that others had left bruises on her sides and back, her flesh exposed by the simple and somewhat insubstantial garment she wore. He took hold of her shoulders and smiled at her.
“I desire to see so pretty a girl smile,” he instructed, “and I don’t have to cause her pain to feel pleasure, myself. I won’t make you do anything you don’t want, and I will show you kindness where other men have shown you cruelty. My savagery is for the battlefield, not the bedchamber.”
She did indeed smile at his words, and slipped out of her garment. While he wasn’t savage, he wasn’t entirely gentle either, and he took the girl with a desperate passion and hungry desire. If this was to be his last act as a free man, he wanted to make the most of it. She in turn was happy to be with a man who didn’t treat her like an animal or something without feelings, and she pleasured him every way she knew how. When it was all over, she lay naked on the bed, utterly spent, as Lykandros pulled his threadbare trousers back up and tied the drawstring. The Stygian serving girl watched him dress, and ran her fingers over the scars on his back, evidence of more than one lash.
“Will you come back?” she asked him, and he turned to look at her.
“If I ever had a reason to, it would be for someone like you. But my home is not here. And I must be patient to reach that place. Perhaps when I do, when I am truly free again, I will seek you out. But remember this: you are who you are. Nobody else defines you.” He raised her chin with his hand. “Others may lay claim to your body, but your mind, your heart and your soul are all yours. Protect them as a tigress protects her cubs, and lash out with your claws at anyone who dares attempt to take them away from you.”
Tears in her eyes, she nodded. He kissed her forehead and walked out the door. In his mind, he appreciated the girl and her charms, but her lack of strength did not sit well with him. He could never truly respect, let alone love, a woman who did not have the strength to fight back against abuse. While some would never have the strength to truly defend themselves, and would rely on people like him, everyone had ways of fighting back. He hoped his words would stick with her.
“There you are, boy,” the boatman said as he stood impatiently outside the inn. He grabbed Lykandros by the hair and slapped irons on his wrists, chaining him to some of his other purchases. “Now, march to the docks, the lot of you!”
Lykandros looked out over the city. On the other side of the square, a pair of figures in beige desert traveling clothes looked on as he was pushed towards the docks. He turned his head away and allowed himself a smile.
Still some considered him a boy. But when he reached the Aquilonian shore, Lykandros would be a man.