They took everything from him—even his name.
The slavers ripped him from his family—from his father, dying with a poison barb in his heart and his mother, still screaming his name even as they slit her throat.
But of course, Varin didn’t remember any of that. The memory block took care of it nicely. His earliest memory was from the age of seven, shortly after he was sold. Before then, everything was blank but after her, his life came into focus.
The first thing in his mind—his true beginning, after the void of blackness that was his first seven years of life—was watching as the nursing attendant brought the baby princess into the viewing room…
* * * * *
“You’re certain this will work? That the lad will truly function as you claim?” The tall, pinch-faced male in the rich golden cloak and ruby-tipped crown stared down from his throne at the boy with a look of mild distaste on his aristocratic features.
The boy stared back, blank-faced and silent. He was tall for his age of seven solar years but scrawny with shoulder blades that jutted up sharply under his ragged tunic. His cheekbones were high and defined and his elbows and knees were knobby. It was his eyes, however, that were truly arresting. A strange, pale bronze, like aged spirits they were—the bronze ringed in black, the same color as his unruly mop of hair. Dark brows, too heavy for his thin, pale face were drawn low over the strangely colored eyes in sullen silence.
“Absolutely, your Majesty! The Vision Kindred have been used as personal bodyguards to royals and nobility for generations.” The boy’s owner—a slaver draped in lavish purple robes from the Tegba system bowed obsequiously.
“Vision Kindred, eh?” The King sniffed. “And what makes them so bloody-damn special?”
“I’m glad you asked, your Majesty.” The slaver smiled an oily, unctuous smile the boy had already learned to distrust. “First, they have an innate ability to immediately target and exploit the weakness of any enemy. And they keep fighting no matter what because they have regenerative abilities—they can regrow a finger or a toe—even an eye—so injuries don’t stop them.”
“That’s all very well but are they good fighters?”
“Good fighters? My Lord—you’d scarce believe it—truly, it’s uncanny! A single Vision Kindred warrior can take on ten armed males and reduce them to rubble in a matter of minutes. It has to be seen to be believed!”
“Are you telling me this child is capable of bringing down ten armed males?” The doubt in the King’s eyes was clear and he drummed his fingertips on the golden arm of his throne.
“Oh no—no, not just yet, your Majesty,” the slaver said. And added quickly, “But he will once he’s grown. Yes, indeed.”
“If that’s so, then why are you trying to sell me a child?” the King demanded. “Why not bring me a warrior grown to protect my daughter?”
“Because of the second reason they’re called Vision Kindred, my Lord—they form the dream-bond when they’re young.”
“The dream-bond? Whatever is that?” The skepticism was growing on the King’s narrow face. The slaver must have sensed his rich client was losing interest because he hastened to explain.
“It’s a bond a Kindred warrior normally forms with the female he would mate with later in life,” he said quickly. “It makes him absolutely loyal and inspires protective instincts unmatched anywhere in the universe. The lad will give his life for your daughter, not just because he’s ordered to but because he’s completely and utterly devoted to her. Your Majesty—King Jerund—the Princess Brynnalla will become his entire world.”
The King frowned thoughtfully.
“The idea of a completely loyal and devoted bodyguard does appeal but her mother, Queen Isolde and I, don’t have time for an infant daughter right now as we’re trying again immediately for a son. We need a proper heir to the throne, you understand. Therefore the princess will be spending the first eighteen years of her life with the Sisters of Chastity and Obedience. No males are allowed in their convent.”
“It doesn’t matter, my Lord,” the slaver declared. “If you bind him to her, the lad will have visions of the princess. His bond to her will grow even if he never sees her in person a day in his life until she’s ready for her Presentation Day at your royal court.”
“But will she also have visions of him?” The King’s eyebrows drew low in disfavor. “I’ll not have my daughter falling in love with a slave due to some strange Kindred bond. She’ll be joined when and to whom I see fit to wed her to. An overly devoted bodyguard—”
“No, no, your Majesty!” the slaver interjected. “The bond goes only one way! The Vision Kindred form the childhood bond by exchanging drops of blood, you see. The lad will have a drop of hers but she’ll have none of his.” He grinned. “He’ll pine for her all his life, but he shall never have her. He’ll protect her like a jealous lover though he never lays a finger on her.”
“And how can you be certain he’ll never lay a finger on her?” King Jerund demanded. “If he’s spending his life pining for my daughter, logic dictates he’ll try to have her at some point.”
“Not with the failsafes we’ve installed, my Lord.” The slaver smiled proudly. “First, the pain cuff—see it there?” He nodded at the boy’s thin left wrist, encircled with a thick black band.
The King looked down for a moment, examining the plain looking cuff. “What of it?”
“Why, it’s a bio-synthetic plasti-steel organism bonded to his skin, my Lord—it’s actually alive and it’ll grow with the lad. It’ll give him a nasty shock if he ever actually lays hands on the princess—a swift deterrent to skin-to-skin contact, you can be sure of that.”
“I thought you said his people had regenerative abilities,” the King snapped. “What’s to stop him from simply cutting the damn thing off?”
“He’d have to cut off his own hand to get that off—the cuff’s linked into his flesh straight to the bone,” the slaver said confidently. “And while his people can regrow and recover from mild injuries such as losing eyes or toes and fingers or such, an entire hand is out of the question.”
“Well…” King Jerund looked somewhat mollified. “All right. And what’s your second failsafe?”
“The slave chip in his spine—implanted just above the cauda-equina via a locking access port, my Lord.” The slaver pointed to the boy’s narrow lower back. “It must be changed once a year or the slave dies. So if you find yourself weary of the lad…” He shrugged, his fat shoulders rolling under his purple robes. “Simply don’t change the chip. I will, of course, include a life-time supply of new chips when you purchase him.”
“If I purchase him, you mean,” the King growled, but he was eyeing the boy thoughtfully now. Clearly the slaver had made his case well.
“If. Of course I meant if,” the slaver said quickly. He shrugged again. “Of course, if you find you’d rather not purchase the new princess a completely loyal slave who can form a remote, unbreakable, one-way bond with her and protect her with his life, I know of another planet where the emperor’s favorite concubine has just given birth—”
“No, no…” King Jerund frowned and inspected the scrawny seven-year old lad once more. “Are you certain he’ll grow to be a good size?”
“His sire was nearly seven standard feet tall, my Lord,” the slaver assured him. “The Kindred are not a small species—the lad will grow to match his sire’s height and size, of a surety.”
“Well then…” The King frowned. “All right. Should I have a servant fetch a perimeter collar to keep him bound to the palace?”
“No need. He’s no memory of his folks—who are dead by the way,” the slaver said. “Or any of his people because the slave chip acts as a memory blocker as well. And after he’s bound to the princess, he’ll have no wish to go running off home anyway—even if he could remember where home is.”
“Very well.” King Jerund looked pleased. “I’ll take him. How is the bond to be formed?”
“It’s very easy, your Majesty and requires only the smallest drop of blood from your daughter’s finger…”
* * * * *
The boy who had no name frowned as he was led from the rich throne room, down a series of tunnels, and into an underground area that seemed to be all glass. As young as he was, he could already see the strengths and weaknesses of the room around him.
Glass—looks easy to break but reinforced by steel threads, the voice of some unknown instinct whispered in his head. Doors are thick iron wood and the locks are secure but look at the hinges—left lower one at the entryway is rusted. Could be broken with a blow to just the right place…
His thoughts were interrupted by two nursing attendants bustling in. One of them held a bundle wrapped in bright pink cloth. It was a baby and she was squalling unhappily—her tiny face fisted tight and almost the same pink as the swaddling around her.
The boy frowned uncertainly. Why bring him here to see this crying, weak little thing? The noise hurt his head—he didn’t like babies. They smelled.
Behind him, his Master, the slaver, spoke again to the tall, thin man with the golden crown.
“Now, King Jerund, just a drop of your daughter’s blood in here…” He held out a tiny tube filled with pale blue liquid. “And we’ll be ready to go.”
“All right. Nurse!” The tall man motioned imperiously for the attendant who was holding the baby. “Did you bring the sterile lancet? We need a drop of blood from the princess—just a little one, mind.”
The nurse pursed her lips like she wanted to ask questions but didn’t dare. Instead, she produced a thin, sharp blade and gave the baby to the other nurse to hold. Then she grasped the tiny, flailing hand and pricked the index finger of the baby’s right hand in one swift, deft move.
This pain set the princess to howling even louder. Her pinched little face went from pink to red and started turning purple under her tuft of silky black hair.
The boy frowned and took a step back. What an ugly baby! And it screamed so loudly all because they pricked its finger!
He himself had already had several painful procedures, much worse than a tiny finger-prick. The obedience cuff around his wrist gave him shocks if he didn’t obey his Master. And the chip implanted in his back had been much worse—agonizing—but no one had held him and shushed his crying as the nurse did now with the baby. Instead, he was left to lie in a corner and told to stop his whimpering or he’d be given something to whimper and cry about.
Since tears had never done him any good, the boy had learned early to hold them back. Now he felt only contempt for those who shed them.
The boy’s Master hurried to catch the single droplet that fell from the baby’s finger in the tube of blue he held. Then he shook it up, watching with a critical eye, until the mixture turned a deep, ruby red.
“There now.” He handed the tube to the boy with a stern look. “Drink, boy. Now.”
The boy who had no name knew better than to disobey. Disobedience meant a painful beating and a screaming tirade by his Master on why the boy was better off dead. Not to mention a shock from his obedience cuff. Silently, he took the tube and downed its contents, not even grimacing at the bitter-sweet flavor.
For a moment, all was the same. Then something inside him shifted—something huge and vital that he didn’t have a name for. He closed his eyes, terror overwhelming him. What was happening? What was wrong with him?
The baby wailed again and his eyes flew open.
She looked the same, squalling in the nurse’s arms, but the boy felt something in his scrawny chest clench at her cries.
In pain—she’s in pain. They hurt her finger when they took the blood!
A fierce urge to protect the baby washed over him. He started forward, his arms outstretched, only to be stopped by a hand on his shoulder. He fought it but the big hand pinched harder.
“Let me go!” He struggled, trying to get to her. “She’s in pain! Can’t you see she’s hurting? I have to help her!”
“Impressive,” he heard the King murmur—it was his hard hand that was pinching the boy’s shoulder, holding him back. “Be still, boy—the child will cease crying presently.”
Indeed, one of the nursemaids had produced a sweet-suck which she now popped into the princess’s wailing mouth. The baby princess seemed to consider for a moment whether she wanted to keep crying or taste the delicious sweetness but eventually, the sweet-suck won. Her big, blue eyes widened and her tiny fingers unclenched as she quieted and began sucking eagerly.
“There now, see—” King Jerund frowned. “What is his name? I can’t just go on calling him ‘boy’ or ‘lad’—not if he’s to be the princess’s personal guard.”
“He has no name, your Majesty.” The slaver spread his plump, beringed hands. “It was taken from him when we implanted the slave chip and blocked his memory.”
“No name?” The King frowned at the slaver—the boy’s Master. Or now, his former Master, the boy supposed. He cared little for who thought they owned him because now he knew the truth—she owned him completely. He must protect the baby princess with his life. No matter who called themselves his Master, she was the only one who mattered.
“You can have the naming of him yourself, your Majesty,” the slaver suggested.
“Very well then.” King Jerund’s big hand suddenly spun the boy around and he found himself looking up into the royal, pinched face with its high forehead and long, hooked nose.
“Your Majesty?” he said respectfully, after a prompting look from the slaver.
“I shall give you a name, boy,” the King proclaimed. “As you will be bound to my daughter for the entirety of your life, I name you Varin which means ‘Bound One’ in the ancient tongue of my people.”
“Yes, your Majesty.” The newly christened Varin bowed low, again after a prompting glance from the slaver. “I will serve her always,” he added, hardly knowing what he was saying. “As I live for her, so shall I die for her if the Goddess wills it—that is my pledge.”
The words came bubbling up from somewhere inside Varin—he didn’t know where—but they felt right and came naturally to his lips.
“Prettily spoken.” The King nodded curtly. “Say goodbye to your little mistress, Varin—you will not see her again until her eighteenth birthday dawns.”
Freed of the constraining hand, Varin walked slowly forward to the baby, still held in the nurse’s arms. At a nod from the King, the nurse lowered the little pink bundle and allowed him a closer look at the infant.
Tentatively…tenderly, Varin reached out a single finger to stroke her soft cheek. The princess’s big blue eyes opened wide and her chubby arm flailed, reaching for him—or so it seemed. Suddenly she gripped his finger with surprising force, her little hand fisting tight around it.
“Princess,” he whispered, looking into her face. The King—her father—might say that he wouldn’t see her again for eighteen years but Varin knew the truth. He would be seeing her often in dreams and visions and he would work hard to make his body strong to protect her when they finally met again.
The baby studied him with those wide eyes, almost as though she was memorizing his face.
“Bless me!” the nurse holding her cooed. “She likes you lad! I’ve never seen an infant so mesmerized by anyone before. See how she looks at you!”
“It’s the bond,” the slaver said importantly.
King Jerund frowned. “You said it would only go one way. The princess has not had a drop of the lad’s blood. Nor will she!”
“No, but she feels his devotion just the same, your Majesty,” the slaver said quickly. “Not to worry though—she’ll never have visions or dreams of him, only he of her. Of that you may be certain.”
“Very well.” The King made a dismissive wave. “Take the princess back to her nursery—the Sisters will be coming for her soon. And as for you,” he said, looking at Varin. “It’s time to begin your training. You have much to learn if you’re to be worth the price I paid for you.”
“Yes, your Majesty.” Reluctantly, Varin nodded and pulled his finger out of the princess’s grasp. For a moment she clung to him, as though she didn’t want to let go. When he finally did get free of her, she began to wail again, spitting out the sweet-suck and screwing her tiny face up into a fist of misery.
Varin felt her pain as his own—an aching loss that filled his soul and made hot tears sting his own eyes, though he had sworn to himself never to cry again.
“Princess!” he gasped, reaching for her. But the nurse was already taking her away. He watched her go, hands fisted at his sides.
I’ll see you again, he thought. I swear I will! And the next time I see you, I’ll never let you out of my sight—not ever again.