“Look at me!” I ordered the boy. For a moment, I thought he might refuse; his eyes were still staring, determinedly, at something in the middle distance. I remembered this look of his from the Choosing. But just because he didn’t see something, didn’t mean it wasn’t there. Slowly, he turned his head and looked up at me. His eyes were wide, and a deep blue, rather than the washed out, pink-rimmed look of many other fair-haired people. His forehead was high and his face rather angular, with high, sharp cheekbones—his mouth was pursed tightly shut. The skin of his neck and face bore some scars and bruises, suggesting that his life hadn’t been easy so far, but it still had the smoothness of his childhood, the delicate sensuality that would fade after long years spent outside, at work and in battle. His lips were dry, but their color was as pink as a dessert wine, and I could see their fullness as he bit at them between his teeth. It was his hair that was so striking—it was very long, longer than mine, and caught back behind his neck with a piece of cord. Loose strands fell over his forehead, teasing at the corners of his eyes, catching in his pale lashes. It was astonishing hair. I’d never seen any that shade before, as if the sun had quite bleached out any color, yet left it fine and silken.
I stared into his eyes, holding his gaze. He was angry, but there was fear in his expression as well. He knew he had no standing here, not yet. He knew he had behaved badly; he knew he was in trouble. His whole body was tense with it. Yet even as he stood there, awaiting my punishing words, he held himself proudly. His limbs were well formed and hinted at strength and agility. He was extremely attractive; I felt an uneasiness that I quickly rejected. I knew without a doubt that he could become a Favorite of my Mistress.
“You know where you are?” I asked. His eyes narrowed and he nodded. “And why you’re here?” The nod came again. This time, he straightened his body, lifting his head even more bravely. His tunic looked too small for him, like he’d had a growth spurt and outgrown it recently. It hung out from his belt in several places. His trousers were tucked into shabby, worn boots, but I could see that the legs of the garment were too short, too. He would soon receive new clothes: it wasn’t a problem.
“Are you unwilling?” was my next question. It did happen, though rarely. “You do not wish to be a Bronzeman, to accept the Training for the Service to the City?” One of the other boys snickered softly, through nerves, I assumed. I let it pass and kept my look focused on the boy in front of me.
“No.” His voice was deeper than I’d have thought for one so young and so fair-skinned. “I’m not unwilling.” He offered nothing more than that. I heard a breath indrawn sharply behind me.
“No—Sir,” I corrected him coldly. “I will remind you of that only the once.”
“No—Sir!” he snapped back. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Orven and another Silver flash glances at each other. “The man mocked me, Sir.” His voice shook slightly. “Tried to tell me I had no right to be with the others.” He flushed deeply, but his words were still clear. “He said that if I really wanted to sell my ass, I should offer to my own kind, not corrupt the blood of the Household.”
“You attacked him? Raised a hand to any of the other boys?”
“No!” He looked shocked. “Maybe I would have struck out at him, sir, but he caught me unawares with the bindings.” He lifted his arms behind his back; his shoulder muscles flexed with the effort. His brow creased with anger. “The filthy coward—”
“That’s enough!” I hissed. I drew my dagger and the boys behind me shifted uncomfortably. The blond boy never flinched, but I saw his body tense. I reached behind him and sliced away the ropes binding his wrists, watching him move his arms back down to his sides. He winced a little with pain; I could see he wanted to massage his wrists, for the marks of the ropes had cut deeply. But he stood still, bearing the discomfort in front of me. Despite my anger, I was impressed with his bravery. He would indeed become a Favorite, I thought—and maybe, one day, a brave Gold Warrior.
I turned to face the others. “Today you are boys!” I said, my voice carrying throughout the courtyard. “Today you are mine, to accept you into this Household, and to impress on you your duties and your responsibilities. But after tonight’s welcoming ceremony, you will be boys no longer. You will be Bronzemen of the House of the Exchequer!” I started to walk, slowly, in front of the line. “You think you know what this means. You think you’re special—you’re already favored. But let me tell you that everything you have a year from now, you will have earned. I will make you soldiers of the Mistress, and I will make you the best! You’ll work so hard on the training ground that your bodies will ache and a sword will seem heavier than the body of your sparring partner—and then I’ll make you carry both across the field to the barracks. You’ll learn to ride a horse as if it were an extension of your own body, until it hurts in the very bones of your ass to sit on its back, and yet you feel the loss of a limb when you dismount. You’ll learn to feel the arms that you carry as a part of your body—you’ll value them as dearly as the cock between your legs—and at the end of your days, as far more precious! You’ll learn the strategy of battle, and understand what it means to follow your Commander and support your Guard, at all times, exhausted or tired, awake or asleep. You’ll follow the daily Devotions, as we all do. You’ll learn what the City can do for you, as a member of this Household—and you will learn what you can do for the City!”
I stopped; I had every boy’s rapt attention. “And so what else do you know about Bronzemen? You hear tales that not only are they soldiers, they are lovers as well, eh?” A few eyes shifted nervously. “I told you that I will make you soldiers of the Mistress, but she will make you servants of her Household. You have the duty of servicing the Household—of pleasing it—of offering it entertainment from the drudgery of daily life. You also have the honor of giving us the future children of this City, of enabling the Mistress and her Ladies to bring forth the new generation.” I could see the glint of excitement and zeal in their eyes. I had seen this before, many times. To be a Bronzeman was a thrill beyond anything else.
I saw, out of the corner of my eye, that the blond boy was also staring at me, listening carefully. I wasn’t quite sure what the expression was in his eyes; it was excitement of a different kind, I thought. “All of you—you belong to your Mistress now, and you’ll do whatever she asks. That’s not a request; that’s now your life! You will obey at any time. With no complaint. And when you’ve given service to the Lady who has Called you, then you’ll return to the barracks, and I will likely put you on dawn duty just because I feel it’s character building. So you will learn to answer to me, as well, with just as much punctuality, cleanliness, and your full attention. If at any time,” I said, my voice rather deceptively gentle now, “you displease my Mistress, she can have you whipped or punished in whatever way she chooses. Never doubt that! And it’s likely that I, or one of my Captains, will carry out that punishment.”
I stopped talking for a moment and shifted my sword as if to make it more comfortable on my hip. But I saw their eyes slide warily over my uniform, over my weapons. They saw my strength, and they probably saw a hard glint in my eye. A few of them murmured, a few nodded—it was as if they were already respectful of their role, already eager to respond to me as their Trainer. I was pleased with this initial reaction.
My voice calmed again. “You’ll curse me. You’ll likely hate me. And then you’ll learn the ways of a soldier and of a man in the Service of the City. And be proud to honor that. Remember that! We are all soldiers, the same as you. We are all in the Service of the City. We ask nothing more.”
Like a well rehearsed chorus, my Captains cried the Devotion. “Devotion to the City is everything—Service to the City is our Reward!” The boys stared at them, eyes wide and chests heaving slightly with shallow breaths. A few managed to stutter out the Devotion, or at least the final words of it. I nodded, pleased enough with the morning’s show of obedience. The rest of the day would be given over to settling the new personnel in, getting them clothes and measuring them for a set of arms, and feeding them up with a couple of good meals. They’d be shown the stables and where they’d help with the mucking out and the cleaning of the barracks. It was important that their first taste of life in the Household was one of obedience and an awareness of their obligatory duties, for this would become their life. Then, as the afternoon wore on, they would be taken to the guest rooms and washed and prepared for the evening feast.
There’d be other people to prepare them then—other skills to be discussed, other knowledge to be learned. My Mistress had hired one of the Instructors from the House of Physic, but one who had more knowledge of the human body than just its practical workings. He’d been a Bronzeman himself, and then a Silver Captain in the House of the Exchequer, albeit for a brief time, and not in my Guard. We occasionally passed Captains to other roles within the House and the City itself. When specialist skills were found or an aptitude recognized, the men were retrained and moved out of the life of a soldier.
The Bronzemen wouldn’t all be Called on their first night in the Household—but there would be none left as virgins by the end of the week.
I walked back to stand at the edge of the yard with Fremer, watching the boys file past. I put out a hand, stopping the final child, the blond boy. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Dax,” he said. Just the single word. It was a sharp name—a Remainder name.
“Dax…” I said slowly, swallowing his continuing disrespect toward me. Seemed the lesson had not yet been learned. I wondered how long it would take him to submit to the discipline of the Guard; I had not thought him stupid. “The driver was an ignorant fool, but you were no better. There will be far worse to face in your life than a few cruel words, and I expect you to remember your duties better than you have today. You’ll behave like the rest of the Bronzemen—you’ll earn your position with something other than good looks and a boy’s promise. Do you hear me?”
“But I’m not like the rest of them,” he said. Beside me, Grien drew in a sharp breath. The remark was astonishingly insolent. I had no idea what possessed the boy to challenge me, yet again. My hand was controlled, but it was fast—I slapped him, just once, across the head and hard enough to make him rock back on his heels, gasping. I had not held back either my strength or my anger.
My words were harsh, spat out for him alone. “Tomorrow you’ll be a Bronzeman, though that gives you no other rights in the Household of your Mistress. But today, you’re a loose-tongued, insubordinate child, and one who is a guest of the garrison!” I grasped his shaking chin and forced his head up to look me in the eye. Tears of pain and shock shone at the edges of his wide eyes. “Look at me, boy! I am in charge of that garrison. I am in charge of what happens to you now, not your liberal school tutors, not some coarse lackey, and least of all you, yourself. By tomorrow, you’ll learn that you have no rights in any place except what you earn here—and you’ll show the appropriate gratitude for merely having a life that can give service.”
I shook him loose and turned to Grien. My heart was tight in my chest, from my anger and disgust. “For the troubles this child has caused, and the insubordination, he will be punished.”
“Sir—”Grien began, almost as if he meant to question me. A look at my face dissuaded him.
“Thrash him, Grien. Five lashes, only for I’d not want him totally incapacitated for tonight’s attendance.” Grien hesitated for a moment as the boy’s body slumped in front of me, trembling with shock. Then the Silver Captain stepped forward and took the boy’s arm.
“Do it now,” I said coldly. “We have plenty of other work to do today.”