Chapter One

THE DAY was so much hotter than it should have been—it seemed the climate grew more erratic every spring. Unless I was planning a campaign, I rarely listened to the ramblings of the Weather Weavers, but occasionally I’d admit they were right to complain about it. Today the breastplate and leggings of my dress uniform were awkward and my helmet too heavy. I could feel my long hair sticking to my scalp with sweat, and my sword belt dragged painfully at my waist. But I’d worn all of this for many years. I, of all men, had no reason to complain.

Inside the arena, the sanded floor had been brushed down and the stone steps prepared for today’s event—the Choosing for Aza City. It was a very public venue and well used. I could see how tired its decoration looked. The structure always remained dirty, despite regular scrubbing by hordes of cleaners. Construction work was habitual throughout the city, and it proved difficult to keep buildings at their best. But I saw evidence of attempts to make the arena look glamorous for this occasion. Banners and notice boards had been hung from the pillars at the side, the flags of the Households of the city flew proudly along the top wall, and there were plenty of facilities to feed, clean, and relieve the large number of visitors that flocked in today. This event had occurred annually for hundreds of years; there were few excuses for it to be less than spectacular.

Most of the Households had already arrived, settling with blankets and folded chairs, erecting sunshades for the Mistresses, preparing refreshments in case the public supplies were inadequate. Each Mistress was attended by a few of her Ladies, and most of them also had the company of soldiers from their Guard. This had often seemed ludicrous to me, for what military danger would there be during a Choosing? Everyone’s attention would be on very different things! But it was a matter of prestige. I’d always accompanied my Mistress, ever since I qualified as a Silver Captain under Bernos, the serving Gold Warrior of the time. Now I stood as a Gold Warrior myself—the highest honor there could be for a soldier, let alone a man.

The Mistresses were excited to meet each other, and high-pitched female chatter choked the air around us. It would get fiercer once the bidding began. Many of them only saw each other at these events, and although some were glad for this, others regretted it and regularly made plans to travel more to visit. Whatever their pleasure at seeing friends, however, their gazes still strayed frequently into the center of the arena, to the ring where this year’s candidates would soon appear. That was, after all, the main purpose of the day.

A couple of my Silver Captains stood at my Mistress’s side. I watched them closely, for I was currently displeased with their lack of attention to her. She may have found them interesting in bed, but I demanded far more of them than a pleasing prick. It was an honor to be chosen for today’s duty, and I expected them to anticipate their Mistress’s discomfort. She had to stand for long hours at the side of the ring with an inadequate sunshade and nothing but cooled water when the serving children came past. Today she wore a thin pale blue shift in deference to the weather, and a cloak in a light fabric. Her badge of office was a pendant around her neck. Her head was uncovered, her long dark hair caught loosely at the back of her neck with a brooch. She was no longer as young as many of her favorite Ladies, but her skin was smooth, her hair glossy with aromatic oil, and her brown eyes very bright. She was a faithful follower of the Devotions. In return, they repaid her with good health and delayed aging. That’s how things were in the city: we all benefited in many ways from the Devotions.

Just about then, she caught my eye and raised her eyebrows. She was amused at my frustration with the men. I swear the woman should have been Mistress of Magic, not of the Exchequer. She had a sharp, often wicked perception that many underestimated.

“Leave them be, Maen,” she murmured, leaning toward me from her position on the steps so that others wouldn’t hear. “They’re excited by this as well. It’s an upheaval for them, this time of year. When I ask for something, they will be speedier than the hare to fetch it, never fear.”

She’d used my personal name rather than my rank, and that was frowned on socially, though of course I wouldn’t chastise her. It was a measure of the time we had been together and the ease we had between us—and also, perhaps, her sometimes worrying tendency to chafe at the more formal requirements of her position.

“Excitement is not part of their official duty, Mistress,” I replied rather dryly.

But maybe they overheard me. The blond Justes straightened his shoulders guiltily and snagged another cup of water from a passing refreshment tray.

My Mistress smiled, unconcerned. When Justes handed her the water with the appropriate greeting and the brief but formal salute of a palm to his heart, she caught at his fingertips for a little longer than necessary. His eyes flashed with passion and pride; he would be the one she took tonight, in all probability. She liked his combination of strength and soft skin—he had the flexibility of a gymnast and the reflexes of a cat. Or so word had it in the barracks.

Mistress Luana was always interested in such things.

“The Choosing of the Bronzemen… don’t you remember it yourself, Maen?” Her gaze met mine with an innocent expression that I knew to be contrived. I’d been in her Household for my ten years of adult life. By now I should know her character well, both as a woman and as a Mistress. “Is that all too long ago, my grown-up Gold Warrior? Too long to remember yourself as a young boy on the cusp of adulthood, desperate to impress, desperate to be chosen by a good Mistress?”

“I remember,” I said, determined to say no more unless she insisted.

“Or perhaps the memories are clearer from when you were first a Silver Captain. One of our youngest to qualify, I believe. One of our finest athletes and also our most excellent swordsman, which is indeed still the case. You stood here, like Justes and… the other one.” Her memory failed her, for she couldn’t always remember the names of all the men she called unless they became particular favorites. “You watched all the young boys, all the potential Bronzemen, full of your professional criticism, questioning whether they would be a good crop that year.”

“I wondered what Bernos would make of them,” I said. “Whether they’d make good soldiers.”

She smiled. “Whether they would be good servants in many ways, Maen! Whatever Bernos—and those before him—may have recommended, I don’t choose only on the basis of potential military skills. As I said, it’s a difficult time for the Silvers. There’ll be a new batch of these gorgeous young things in the Household. My attention will be drawn away from the Silvers themselves, along with the other Ladies’. There’ll be a time of some insecurity and frustration, until the positions have been reestablished in the Household—”

“And in the Guard itself,” I added. “For they will be soldiers first and foremost.” I took a risk, interrupting her. But she’d let me know many times that she would allow me to banter with her. I believed she enjoyed it.

She laughed softly, and Justes turned his head sharply to see if she called him, but she waved him back. She looked up into my face—I was a good head taller than her—and smiled purely for my benefit. “Did you never worry that I would tire of you, that each year I would prefer the new, soft young bodies to your fiercely toned soldier’s muscles? That you’d languish in my indifference with nothing but your barrack companions for physical relief? That my gifts would be given to others, now and for the foreseeable future?”

“I’ve never had any interest in gifts,” I said a little too sharply. I felt Justes’s gaze on me now, but he would never challenge me, his commander, in public.

Mistress Luana’s eyes softened. “I know, dear Gold Warrior. And that’s partly why you’ve been my most frequent companion, ever since you were a callow Bronze with legs that seemed too slender to hold up your finely developing torso, and that bright copper hair that would never lie still, but with a sparkle of certainty in your eye that made my choice a very easy one that day. And your loyalty and devotion has remained constant all through your years as a Silver, hasn’t it? As my most handsome and most decorated soldier, then as my most accomplished Gold, now in charge of those that followed you. And always as a fine and enthusiastic visitor to my chambers.”

“Mistress,” I murmured, disconcerted. She shouldn’t be talking this way. I wished the Choosing would begin on time today and distract her. This was the stuff she murmured in bed at night to make me blush and shift in awkwardness as she both embarrassed and stimulated me, the stuff that would then make her laugh, and me along with her, as she drew me in closer and used me as she wished. She was a generous Mistress, for she had no need to make my time so enjoyable. I was entirely at her call, like any man of her Household, regardless of my own desires. I trusted she was as selfless with all lovers, not just me and, in return, I knew my role would never be exclusive. Her comments were for the softness of the pillow, not for my own pride.

But she made me smile in return. She made me hungry for her, and so, in turn, I could satisfy her. It had been a very good ten years since my Choosing. I wondered how many other Gold Warriors could say the same.

 

“MISTRESS,” ANNOUNCED the other Silver Captain, Orven. I frowned. His voice was pitched too harshly to be acceptably polite, and his stance and behavior were still below standard. It was likely I’d have him whipped later. There were many other Households represented here today, many other Guards, and I wouldn’t have any of my men disgrace the Mistress in any way. Our standards had brought us respect throughout Aza City.

Orven coughed and amended his tone. “The Choosing is beginning. The Negotiators have entered the ring.”

There was movement all around the arena, some of the groups moving forward for a better view. The refreshment servants moved out into the aisles. Soldiers shifted their swords into a defensive position with a metallic clatter, and the conversation of the Ladies quieted. The steps were covered in a jumble of bright clothing and polished armor, simple but brilliantly colored jewelry, and badges of office glinting in the reflected sunlight. A young woman laughed particularly loudly.

The senior Negotiator marched into the central ring and waved to the applause. A voice trumpet amplified his voice, though most of the men who aspire to that role already have a fine speaking voice and can project their words easily. Negotiators are chosen by, and for, the House of Trade. They would have been through Bronzeman training themselves, though few progressed as far as Silver Captain before being taken aside for specialist training.

I confess I barely listened to the opening speeches, the announcement of the Houses represented, the declaration of the number of young men to be viewed today, and the more amusing stories told to flatter the Ladies and to encourage attention. I only needed to know where the credits were recorded, so I could settle up and sign for any of my Mistress’s procurements and make arrangements for transport of the boys to her Household tomorrow.

I stood at attention for the Confirmation of Life—to declare “Good wishes for the city and devotion to the Queen!” Everyone did, whether or not the acolytes of the Household of Devotion were there to ensure it. For those few communal moments, there was a swell of mumbled voices around the arena: soldiers with their palms at their hearts, Ladies with heads bowed slightly. It was a proud sight.

Then the proceedings started in earnest. Mistress Luana nodded her pleasure and gestured for us to move farther to the front. She was a short, slight woman, and I knew of at least one year when she missed procuring a young man who’d caught her eye because the Mistress of Physic had stepped in front of her at the critical moment and made the successful bid. I also knew she’d taken her revenge a week later, when my intelligence had told her the Mistress of Physic was taking a trip, leaving her Household unattended for three days. Mistress Luana created a spurious reason to visit the Physic Household and had availed herself of the youth’s attentions for the whole of two long nights. She was gone back to her own Household shortly before the Mistress of Physic returned, only to find her new recruit was already initiated!

It was the normal way of things, and my Mistress gained a good deal of amusement from it, as well as sexual satisfaction. All the Bronzemen were available to any Mistress from the time of their procurement, and it would have been unthinkable rudeness to refuse a visiting Mistress the hospitality of any Bronzeman in the Household. There was plenty of this one-upmanship going around; the Mistresses enjoyed the sport, as well as the pleasures of their own Households.

But today my Mistress had a prime position at the ringside and the attention of all three of us to ensure her desires were communicated to the Negotiator.

The first hour was always the most frenzied, when the best of the youngsters were brought out to view. The Negotiator called for them with a grandiose sweep of his arm and his signature sound—a mixture between a song and the caterwauling of kitchen cats, which he’d developed as his own particular style to engage and amuse the crowds. I knew this man slightly. He’d trained under a soldier by the name of Varden, who had once been a Silver Captain alongside me. After Varden displeased my Mistress somehow, she passed him across to the Household of Trade, and he’d prospered there. I had heard they were considering him for promotion to Gold Warrior around the time of my own achievement. I had contacts with Captains in other Households, and a busy, informal channel of news flowed between us. Then the information about Varden ceased, and I never heard any more about him. Some said Varden’s history at our Household had damned him, though I never knew what his fault had been. Privately I thought he’d deserved better luck in life: he was an excellent soldier and the closest I had to a friend. I’d been unhappy to lose his company, though no one sought my opinion on it. Friendships were never a priority for soldiers, and we weren’t allowed the luxury of official favorites, like the Ladies had.

I was distracted from my inappropriate thoughts by the boys filing out from the tower structure at the north end of the arena. The holding rooms were there, plus cleaning facilities and a few Trade offices. The youths had been brought from the Central City School on the previous day, cleaned up, and instructed one more time how to behave. For some of them, it wouldn’t be their first Choosing, but that was all the more reason for them to be alert. A loud wave of noise, laughter, and admiring cries rose from the spectators at their procession into the open arena—a promise that the Choosing would be another rewarding one. The boys wore nothing but cloths folded around their narrow waists and between their legs. The Choosing is always in the warm springtime, and the lack of restrictive, cumbersome clothing kept the children calm as well as allowing the best view of their bodies.

The Negotiator passed down the line, calling out the lineage of each youth for the Mistresses to consider the worth and history of the boys’ Households. This had a significant effect on the bidding. Some Households were respected throughout Aza City, offering children both well-bred and much prized. Every child was branded with their mother’s lineage at birth and carried that mark throughout their life. It included the Household mark, and only if they were passed to another Household would there be any further mark added to their birth brand. It wasn’t an advantage to have a trail of Household marks added to your brand—it implied you were a troublesome possession.

The branding process also had more practical benefits. The Choosing was established to be a process of free trade; a Household should never take Bronzemen from their own lineage. We could all imagine the disaster if a Mistress procured her own birth son and was then unable to take him as a lover! It’d make a mockery of the whole process. Every Bronzeman had to be available for the Mistress sexually—and most would be initiated by her over the first few weeks of their time in her Household. Only then would they be available for the Ladies as well.

The boys were drawn to the side, one by one, and turned slowly for the viewing. Most looked bemused, as if their instruction hadn’t prepared them for the reality of the arena. It was a large open-air structure with high, pillared walls, and the numbers attending the event grew every year. The youths saw few soldiers when they were in the school and had been protected from the adult citizens that thronged the city outside. This would be their first exposure to such a crowd. The bidding began with a chaotic process of cries from the crowd and House banners waving frantically to catch the attention of the Negotiator. Some of the youths looked frightened at the sudden swell of noise and the none-too-gentle handling of the Negotiator and his assistants. But as always some responded to the excitement, standing taller and basking in the glamour of it all.

As I did every year, I thought about the day I might see one of my Mistress’s sons in the ring, one that may have sprung from my own loins. There were still a few years to go before any would be old enough to come to a Choosing, for boys were rarely taken before eighteen. I’d never confessed this curiosity and never would. It was a shameful, private pride of my own. But that wasn’t to say I could repress it entirely. I looked around at the few Gold Warriors who had accompanied their Mistresses here today and wondered how many of them were thinking the same. It wasn’t for us to know if we’d sired a son, if it had been our seed that had been fruitful. Every child was the property of the mother and joined the central City Nursery and School within days of its birth, both male and female. The only connection a Mistress might have with her child after its assisted birth would be to see them procured by another Household within the city, hopefully one she admired. She would be thankful, then, that she’d contributed a child who would be of service to Aza City.

Was I selfish in my thoughts? I’d always tried to be a devout citizen, as taught by the school and then my trainer. And, of course, by my Mistress. Devotion to the city is everything. Service to the city is our reward. That was one of the many phrases we learned over the years, one of the many chants to express our loyalty to the city and gratitude for our life.

I gazed back at the youths in the arena. Any boy child who was not chosen would be returned to the school. There were usually a few who didn’t meet the standards, despite having been put forward. Perhaps it was unfair in some years, when the rest of the boys might be unusually fine. But they each had three chances to be procured, through attendance at three Choosings. Then, if unclaimed, they became a Remainder for the rest of their life. Remainders worked for the city, of course, but only a small proportion of them would ever serve in a Household. It was by no means a shameful fate, for most of the population was designated a Remainder. They had their own pleasures and achievements. That’s what the chants told us. Service to the city was the only way for us all, regardless of final career.

I knew all the Mistress’s sons would attend a Choosing at some stage. They were bred from those who had been chosen themselves, and this arrangement had stood for the many generations that our society had been established, ever since the first colonization here and the establishment of the cities by the Four Queens. The process usually produced very splendid specimens. It meant everyone had the opportunity to choose their Bronzemen from a central resource and enabled the strengthening of some houses, both in bloodline and in military prowess. It also calmed any inappropriate loyalties that might conflict with Devotion to the City. Since the day our race came to this planet, the system had been carefully planned and promoted by the Queens, and we would never question that.

I looked carefully over the boys today for my own purposes. My Mistress would listen to my advice, though the decision was always hers. I looked for a strong body and confidence in bearing, an awareness of growing limbs and good coordination. Some would be my soldiers; the rest would be allocated to the Household’s other two Gold Warriors for training. I was pleased Mistress Luana often allowed me to make my own choice after her initial procurement.

And she? Well, I knew that she looked for the same promise… and then she also looked for those with blond or copper hair, for I had been one myself, ten years ago. I knew that she liked a tall youngster, one with slender hips and limbs, like a young colt. She sought a look in their eyes for intelligence and wit, for she could see through the nervousness and the fear to the real potential of these boys. She wasn’t only looking for a strong and loyal Guard; she was looking for the future breeding and prestige of her Household. The Household of the Exchequer already had a fine reputation, and its boys commanded an excellent level of credit at the Choosings. She’d want to maintain that reputation.

When I looked across at her today and saw the shine in her eyes, I wanted to smile. I knew she looked for fun, as well.

 

MISTRESS LUANA had eaten the snacks that the Remainder servants brought around and was relaxing on a folding chair. Many of the Mistresses had retired to the back of the arena, once their business was concluded. She’d drunk plenty of wine, which she loved, and settled her account with the Negotiator. Many of the Mistresses had already left. Some could afford more staff in their Household than others, of course, and Mistress Luana was a member of the Queen’s Central Council, so she had additional privileges and a wealthy supply of credit. She had already chosen a fine selection of six. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality this year and was looking forward to the training of the new Bronzemen.

“There’s a sparkle in your eyes, Maen, that reminds me of the boy you were ten years ago,” she called to me happily.

Justes knelt at her side, passing the wine as she required it and reveling in the touch of her hand on his neck. I was more relaxed now. The honor of the Household didn’t seem as critical as the day wore down and the arrangements came to an end.

“You’ve chosen well, Mistress.” I smiled. “As you always do. I’ll arrange the transport for them to the Household tomorrow.”

“Sir.” Orven moved hesitantly beside me. He looked very remorseful for his earlier inattention. For Devotions’ sake, perhaps I wouldn’t have him beaten. Perhaps I needed to make allowances for this being his first Choosing as a Silver. Mistress Luana told me occasionally that I was too harsh with my men, and I was definitely guilty of that with Orven. Something about him sat uncomfortably with me, and I found it difficult to trust his motives at all times. That was a dangerous weakness in a soldier of my Guard.

“Sir, there are still some boys in the ring.”

I glanced at Mistress Luana, who was looking back into the ring. It looked like they’d forgotten a last batch of youngsters. The Negotiator’s assistants looked flustered and embarrassed—a Choosing wasn’t usually such a disjointed event. But they wouldn’t want to miss the chance of having these last few chosen, and to avoid waiting another year to put them forward. There were low, angry discussions, out of earshot of most of the crowd, and the harsh sound of a slap on someone’s head. The dirt floor of the ring had been well and truly scuffed, the Negotiator’s voice was a little hoarse, and the sun, although lower now, still beaded sweat on everyone’s brow. It had been a tiring day.

Then the decision was made, the final boys pushed forward and arranged for viewing. There were five of them on show, standing in a line, the matching sets of bare toes turned inward nervously, their hair glossy with their own sweat and the fresh washing. Two of them clenched their fists at their sides, shaking a little; two others looked angry they’d been left until last, when many of the best Households had already left the arena. The fifth one stood a little way apart, a tall, white-blond boy with a broad shoulder span and pale skin. His chest and stomach already showed good muscle definition. The cloth on his groin was a little grayer than that of the others, his hair a little less shining. But he stood steadily, his body well balanced, and he exuded an air of challenge none of the others had, almost as if he were hostile to this whole event. I found that an unusual—and ungrateful—attitude.

But he was the only one who caught my eye.

“Maen.” The Mistress’s breath brushed my ear. Her voice sounded sly. “You seem entranced. Is it that blond child on the end?”

I made some murmur of protest. I was merely interested in an uncommon specimen, I assured her. I listened to the lineage announcement and heard the ripple of scorn around the remaining audience. The fifth boy was a Remainder child—he had no Household lineage at all! It was a rare situation. The Remainder children were bred for the Utilities and other support functions within the city, in a calculated program controlled by the Mistresses and the Central Council so as to protect their numbers and match the available resources. The male children could theoretically be considered at a Choosing, but the Remainders had largely withdrawn from the event in past years. They rarely contributed specimens fine enough to be attractive. A Choosing wants only the best, only the strongest, only the most handsome.

This boy was all of those things! He had every right to be here at the Choosing, and a better right than any my Mistress had chosen so far today.

What was I thinking? That this boy was the best-looking candidate I had seen during the three years since I’d been promoted to Gold Warrior? That was exactly how I felt.

My pulse pounded in my head and my mouth was dry. He looked as bone thin and immature and basically unformed as all the rest, but there was something about him that shouted to my senses, alerting every intuition I had. It was so strong, I almost imagined he could sense my stare, that he would look up and meet my gaze. But the arena was wide, and our position was still some way back. He continued to stare into the middle distance, his eyes dark and fierce. He focused on none of us.

“Do you want him, Maen?” Mistress Luana’s voice was serious now.

“Yes, Mistress,” I said before I realized I was speaking aloud. “You must choose him. For the Household.”

She raised her eyebrows, probably at my insolence in presuming to tell her what to do. My past history with her didn’t allow a complete disregard for protocol. “The decision is already made, Gold Warrior. He is mine. I bid while your eyes boggled and your tongue tried to lick life back into your dry lips. You know what a fondness I have for blonds.” Her laugh was soft, but it didn’t sound as carefree as before. I looked at her and couldn’t read her expression. It was easy for people to see her slight, feminine beauty and forget her sharp intelligence. I didn’t want to be accused of that myself.

“Settle with the Negotiator,” she said curtly. “Justes will see me back to my carriage.”

I nodded, wondering why my throat was so tight. Surely it was from the dust and the heat. Then my Mistress seemed to relent a little, and she touched my hip as she turned to leave the arena.

“Come to me later, Maen,” she murmured. “Come at midnight. I will have worn the Silver boy out by then.” She looked up at me, her questioning gaze belying her vulgar jokes. “Come to me tonight, Maen. I need you.”