Sharem. A harsh, desert land.

For those that call this miserable place their home, the skin hardened against Mother Sun, and hearts harden in order to survive.

~ o ~

Axel grimaced to himself. He hated the marketplace with a boiling passion. The day was hot and sticky and miserable enough, but it seemed to magnify when one surrounded himself with heaping clay buildings in close proximity, each of them poorly insulated and at worst, run down. The area served its purpose well enough, but the redhead made a note to himself as he passed through. As long as the builders would use his generous donations wisely, he would give them the money needed to make these repairs.

He would not be so gracious if conned this time...

"It's a beautiful day, is it not, Axel?"

The redhead scowled at his friend, as the other boy came prancing up beside him. Only Demyx could be this cheerful and lively in weather this hot.

"Of course it is. Take out the oppressive heat and it's absolutely wonderful."

The blonde didn't seem to notice his poor attitude. Or perhaps he just didn't care. As annoying as Demyx could be, Axel wouldn't spite him.

"It is rather hot," he affirmed, glancing at the sun a moment. "I'm glad I don't toil outside for a living."

Axel nodded as he watched the crowd, waiting for their bodyguard, Xaldin, to finish his purchase at a nearby stand. Though he was concerned for his people, the prince almost didn't have the care to spare on a day like this. He was too busy bewailing his own unfortunate errands.

His parents had bade him to go to the market today and find himself a new servant. Though technically slaves, the people were treated very well at the castle, even receiving small allowances and holidays. In return, they swore fealty to the king and the royal family, and served them gladly. That was life in the palace, but just outside the walls it was completely different.

A slave was lucky to be chosen by the royal family.

Once Xaldin rejoined them, they began walking again. Xaldin was a big, brawny guy; very tall and very well built. Almost ape-like. But he was a caring man, and exceedingly loyal. Combined with his remarkable strength, these qualities made him a wonderful guard, and the prince would have been proud if half his father's men possessed the same.

They approached the slave quarters and found many men out selling their "wares." Slaves at the market had to face the degradation of standing out in the heat, shoulder to shoulder, thick chains binding their wrists together. To be lowered to such a station in life was shameful in and of itself, but Axel did feel a pang of sympathy as he passed. The quality of their masters would be entirely hit or miss, leaning more to the latter in the case of likelihood.

"How about over there?" Demyx suggested, pointing down a perpendicular street where a good number of merchants were setting up. "If they're just setting up now, they should be up for a good bit of haggling, yes?"

Axel shrugged. "Why not?" He wanted out of this oppressive heat as soon as possible.

Not that haggling really mattered. As the prince, he could have just about anything he wanted, at the price he named. It had to be reasonable as decreed by law, but there was no real way of enforcing it. Axel could probably demand a slave for free if he was so inclined. But he wouldn't.

The prince squinted ahead as they walked closer. Many men, a few tall and burly like Xaldin, stood to greet them, their eyes gleaming with distrust. It didn't take much to see that they were foreign; different colored hair, and most bore wider eyes. These slaves must have been taken outside the kingdom.

Several were tan or burned, and all looked at his company disrespectfully. Axel did not miss the wide, fake grin plastered on the face of the merchant, as he stepped up in front of his wares.

"Welcome, my lord," he said amiably, though his grin showed yellowing teeth beneath his unruly facial hair. Axel took a small step back, somewhat repulsed, but maintained his composure. A heavy whip dangled from the man's belt at his side, and as he glanced at it absently, Axel could see a slight worn look to the handle.

"I am honored you would choose to visit my humble store this fine day. What can I interest you in?"

The redhead glanced along the line again, preparing to turn the man down. He had his standards, after all, and none of these men, or even the few women, seemed to fit. A vengeful servant could easily attack him, and a thin, weak servant could hardly be expected to work diligently. None of them were very appealing to look at, for that matter.

Without waiting for acknowledgment, the man said, "Do you have a preference of some kind, my lord?...Bhen, get out here, would you?"

A large man stepped out from the shade of the tent. This man was dark skinned, with grey hair and blue eyes. Another foreigner, Axel concluded silently. So many seemed to be appearing now. It wasn't terribly uncommon, but people were plenty suspicious these days, especially in light of the recent raids on the city. Desert people kept to their own with very few exceptions.

The servent walked the line of slaves, lifting arms, tilting heads, always looking at the prince for approval. Every time, Axel shook his head. None of them would do. Each had the gleam of defiance and distrust in his eye. Like the sort who would slit your throat in your sleep if given the chance.

He was just about to turn away, motioning to Demyx with a quick gesture, when a flash of gold caught his eye.

"Oi, you! Step back in the line!"

One of the slaves had crept forward, and Axel saw, to his surprise, that this one was...vastly different from the others. Small, thin, oddly pale. Messy, wavy blonde hair that stood up on one side of his head, barely camouflaging two pointy, feline ears, and in a quick rush of movement lower down, Axel saw a thin, sleek tail twitching awkwardly behind him.

The prince's eyebrows raised in interest. What a curious find.

The boy was a Neko, a foreign breed of half cat, half man that dwelled further in the south. Sharem rarely saw their kind because the Neko preferred cooler, greener places. They were uncomfortable with hot, arid climates such as this.

Axel couldn't help but stare. He had never seen Neko before, but he'd read about them as a child. The ears and tail caught his attention, but what held it was that delicate face, framed by a halo of soft, short blonde curls. His blue eyes were large and strangely enticing, but they looked cloudy, as if the boy was ill.

"Move back!" the merchant snapped angrily, reaching for his whip. Demyx, who had also been gaping at the strange child, yelped and jumped back as the whip cracked. It struck the Neko hard across the chest, and the boy's lips parted in a cry of pain as he staggered back a step, feebly attempting to raise his chained arms to defend himself.

"...ater...p-please..." Axel heard the soft whisper, saw the tongue peaking out to wet dry, cracked lips as the merchant scowled, raised his whip again.

"Don't speak out of turn, brat! Back in line!"

Axel's eyes narrowed in disgust, and he stepped between the slave and merchant. Disobedience from slaves was to be punished, but this was unusually cruel for such a petty offense.

"That will be all." The merchant looked angry at first, but seemed to remember his place quickly. He smiled widely at the prince, returning the heavy crop to his belt.

"Sorry you had to see that, my lord. I really hate to discipline them, but it's so difficult finding good slaves today. Let them step out, and soon they won't know what's their place..." He began to mumble a bit, but kept that sickening smile fixed in place.

Axel spared him only a moment's glance before he turned to look at the boy. The servant was beside him now, speaking low in his ear and holding the boy's head still so that he couldn't look away. Not that he seemed inclined to; the Neko looked caught between dazed and frightened. He was swaying slightly on his feet.

As soon as the servant loosened his grip and stepped away, the boy shuddered and collapsed, rattling his chains and raising a great cloud of dusty sand in his wake. The merchant barked a sharp word at his man as he took a step forward and reached for the whip again.

Xaldin caught the man's wrist before he could lower it. Axel hadn't noticed him drawing closer for most of the exchange.

"The prince has spoken," he emphasized with a not-too-gentle squeeze. The man grimaced, watching nervously as Axel knelt beside the boy.

"Pay him no mind, my lord. He's a worthless faker, mark me. That boy is more trouble than he's-"

Before he could finish, Axel leveled a glare, and the merchant thought better of it. Turning the boy slightly with a gentle hand, Axel felt a warm, clammy forehead, and frowned.

"His skin is burning." The boy was wasting away in the heat, consumed by fever. The prince felt under the rough, ragged tunic he wore and felt prominent bones against skin, and several long marks along the boy's sweat-drenched back. "Malnourished and deeply scarred to boot." Axel met the merchant's gaze coldly. "You've certainly done some damage."

"Y-You have to understand, my lord! He came with those marks, I swear! I picked him up about a month ago!"

"From a peasant village beyond the outer vale?"

"N-No! From a good friend of mine! H-He must have done it!"

"But you left them untreated. Now there is a good chance they'll be infected." Axel said, his voice calm though with a distinct bite. "Shameful." He hated to see a slave in such poor shape, neglected and in pain. But even more because it was a child. He was very pretty, too, but very delicate. The boy could stand to be fattened up a bit.

"You will give me a cloak." The man looked ready to protest, angrily, but Axel cut him to the quick. "If you value your business here, you will do as I say."

After a short pause, the merchant hung his head. There was more to risk here, should he anger the prince. Axel knew this, and was full willing to abuse it.

The merchant went to fetch a suitable cloak, and by the time he'd returned, Axel had had the servant remove the chains, and was lifting the frail boy into Xaldin's arms. He took the cloak and wrapped it to shield the boy from the unforgiving sun.

The merchant watched them hesitantly.

"So, what price can I expect for-"

"No price," Axel said curtly. "Be thankful someone is taking this slave off your hands at all. No one would dream of paying for one like him here."

Taken aback, the man's face puffed up, turning slightly red. "Neko are worth a great deal! This is theft!"

Xaldin, paying no heed to the exchange, turned and walked away. Demyx cast a worried look at the bundle in his arms, pausing only a moment before following him.

"I don't know how things are done where you come from," Axel growled, flashing the crest on the ring he wore. It gleamed in the blazing sun. "But you should learn to be grateful. That we should even allow you to sell you pitiful wares here is more than sum like you deserves."

The man advanced, brandishing a small throwing dagger, when he was halted by cold metal at his throat. The servant looked ready to intervene, but Axel shot him a warning glare and he cowed. Looking down at the merchant again, Axel drew back after a moment, sheathing the sword again.

"If you so much as put another toe out of line, I will see to it that you suffer far worse than the loss of one slave." With that, he left the man in silence, uncaring as the other slaves watched, mouths agape.

His group was waiting for him not far up the road. Demyx raised a delicate eyebrow.

"Well, that certainly was interesting. Will we be robbing more slavers of their wares today, or will this one be enough?" He glanced at the boy doubtfully, but Axel could see the underlying concern there.

The prince shrugged lightly. "He'll suffice for now." His parents wanted him to get a slave, and now he had one. The man had no desire to linger in this wretched place any longer.

It was depressing.

"Are you even sure he'll live? Sun seems to have taken her toll on him." Xaldin asked quietly, looking concerned as he brushed a few sweaty curls from the boy's face. "Poor thing. He reminds me of my little brother."

Demyx put a hand on his arm comfortingly.

"He'll be fine." Axel began walking again, nodding for the two of them to follow. "I'll make sure of it."