The next morning dawned bright and clear. Don stirred groggily and for a long, confused moment wondered if he was still dreaming before a fragile smile spread across his face. It wasn't a dream … he really was in this beautiful place. The morning sun cast a golden glow over the pale stone walls and beyond the open window the forest stirred, birds calling out across the mountain. For long moments he revelled in the warmth and the soft play of sunshine over his face and then realisation flooded him, a tingle of fear creeping up his spine. The slave rolled over cautiously … but he was alone in the large bed, the furs beside him undisturbed.
Relieved, he made a trip to the privy and was standing there wondering what to do when Mikey showed up with breakfast, all smiles over a tray of steaming plates. Distracted by the vacant ache in his belly, Don sat down to eat and try to follow Mikey's cheerful, rambling conversation, wondering nervously when Raphael would make an appearance. The blue-eyed slave skipped over a handful of topics before saying something that caught his attention.
'Oh, and Raph's gone.' Mikey commented suddenly around a mouthful of poached eggs. 'Leo sent him south to check on some trouble at the border, so you'll be hanging out with me all week.'
Don nodded vaguely at the anticlimax. The news unsettled him, creating an odd sense of displacement. Being near the Alpha only added to his confusion but the surroundings seemed dimmer, as if those golden eyes had taken something with them. It made no sense to him and he ate his breakfast slowly, allowing the tide of idle chatter to distract him from the uneasy sensation.
Belly full to aching once more Don found himself fading as Mike gathered up the plates. Somehow the smaller had changed his bandages and bundled him back into bed before he'd really registered what was happening. Hours later, he woke to find steaming soup and hot bread waiting for him, devouring the meal gratefully and crawling back to the safety of the furs that already smelled comforting and familiar.
The next few days passed in a warm blur. True to Mikey's words, nothing was asked of him and he was mostly left to himself with nothing to do but rest. For the first time in more years than he cared to count Don slept without fear, without the gnawing hunger he'd been accustomed to and rose only when his stomach demanded to be fed. After living on the edge of exhaustion for so long his body went into overdrive, his appetite raging back to life as it used the abundance of fresh, healthy food to fuel healing and growth. In the midst of such healing, sleep became an overwhelming, almost involuntary need and he passed most days deeply asleep. Every now and then he jerked awake, heart pounding and bleary eyed, expecting to be cuffed or screamed at for sleeping past dawn, only to drift back into peaceful slumber once the adrenalin had settled. Mike popped in and out to check on him - often with a plate of food or a warm drink but whenever Don's eyes began to droop he excused himself and disappeared to whatever tasks kept him busy.
The smaller had promised to sit down and explain Don's circumstances in more detail but Leonardo had been busy with 'unexpected business' and hadn't had time to arrange his 'papers' - whatever that meant. Don didn't mind. He very deliberately did not think about what might happen when Raphael returned and focused on each simple pleasure as it came to him which wasn't hard with Mike as his companion.
Don found himself helplessly drawn to Mike's free-spirited personality. The small terrapin was almost always smiling and bouncing with energy. There was something about him, a compelling charm that was difficult to resist, and an open honesty that tempted you to trust. He didn't understand how Mike had come through his experiences with so much innocent joy left in his spirit. If he were to believe what the blue-eyed turtle said it was largely the Clan Leader that had given him back his life and a reason to be happy, but the question remained … what would high nobility want with a battered slave? What could they possibly gain from associating with the most abused and sullied wretches in the land? Leonardo, Lord over all the Terrapin Clans with an ex-slave whore as his lover? He wanted to believe but the facts didn't match what he knew of the world, so he kept his mouth shut and waited for the truth to unravel on its own.
On the fourth day the thought of crawling back into bed only made him restless. He felt more alert and stronger than he had in years, as if the sleep and food had cleared away a lingering fog in his mind. The only problem with that was that he was left with nothing to do but think about the uncertainty of his new position and what it might mean. And yet, idling away an hour in the bathhouse left him wondering if anything in this place could possibly be worse than life under his previous owner.
Ferona had been a difficult master, vain and bad at managing her money. As a Felidae outcast - expelled from her traditional clans for crimes he'd never discovered, she made her living on the outer rim towns with others like her. Outside of any clan ownership the Rim Towns were dangerous places run by whichever gangs were strongest. They were seedy, ugly places where slavery, prostitution, theft and smuggling thrived. Less than 24 hours after Don had been sold off the auction blocks to a fat merchant, Ferona had won Don in a bet and so he'd gone from one possible future to another in the space of a few hours. He didn't know which existence would have been more unbearable but at the time he'd been afraid of the merchants black, piggy eyes and the long yellowed teeth pushing past plump lips. Ferona in contrast, had seemed slightly exotic with her dappled, leopard spotted fur and notched ears. She owned a small shop and survived supplying cheap tallow candles and oil lamps. Don had spent most of his days locked in the tallow room with the boiling pots. In summer the job had been torture. The stink, the heat drying out his skin until his lips were cracking, the fumes and stench of boiling fat making him dizzy.
The hard-bitten feline blew most of her profit on cheap jewellery and Opias, the drug she liked to smoke that was highly addictive and ultimately toxic. That dappled fur was gradually falling out leaving her constantly scratching and looking patchy. Her interest had been piqued as male terrapin had a certain reputation for being the best pleasure slaves, but when he'd done nothing but shrink away from her drunken petting and refused to service her she had flown into a humiliated rage and beat her pleasure out of him instead. Even now the phantom memory of her paws rubbing impatiently at the hidden opening in his plastron, trying to wiggle inside and pull him out with those bony claws gave rise to sickening nausea. Unable to afford the drugs it would take to stimulate him forcibly and unwilling to humiliate herself in a second attempt, it had been the first and last time Ferona tried to rape him. Don was only grateful that his body offered some natural protection against her unwanted attention.
The memories made him shudder and scrubbing his entire body fresh and tingling had become a morning ritual bordering on near-obsession. As if he could scrub clean all the places she had touched him, hurt him.
Never again, he swore to himself, scrubbing a little harder.
He had just dried himself off when Mike swept in and announced it was time for a tour around the castle grounds.
'But you can't walk around like that without creating a scandal.' Mike told him with a crafty grin. Don flushed in shame but Mike grabbed his arm and all but dragged him back into Raph's rooms, presenting him with a medium sized chest. It was simple in design but the wood was a beautiful, natural red, lovingly polished until the timber seemed to glow.
'Open it!' Mike told him impatiently.
Don opened it carefully. Within was a gift that made him blink back tears … clothes.
Your clothes, Mikey told him, to keep no matter what. They went through the folded items. Comfortable hakama for everyday wear paired with kimono in the baggy, somewhat oversized style favoured by the terrapin - easy to move in, nice and loose over the shell. He also found some warmer winter items, soft boots and woven grass sandals, all of it in fine quality cloth in simple colours and patterns that complemented his olive skin.
'It's all fairly standard but we can get you some nicer things when we go shopping.' The smaller told him, wrinkling his snout at the plainish clothes. Don couldn't imagine anything more. The simple garments were the only thing he'd been able to call his own for a long time. That made them priceless.
Mike helped him dress, showing him how to pull the soft hakama trousers up over his tail and slip the fabric just beneath his shell. When he pulled the ties around his waist they settled in the natural apex of his bridge as it arced over his hip. A soft undershirt and heavier kimono went on next, folded in a certain, precise way and tied with a fabric belt. They felt strange, hindering his movement in new ways but the cloth felt soft against his skin and smelled clean and fresh. Such a simple thing to suddenly have and yet so precious. Privacy. Warmth. The most basic of luxuries.
'I don't know what to say … ' he whispered thickly, standing in front of the long section of mirror Mike nudged him in front of.
The terrapin staring back at him from the glass had wide, haunted brown eyes but looked so … normal. Perhaps still too slender and gaunt but the folds of fabric hid most of that. The only things left to mark his status were the bandages enfolding his wrists and the florid legacy of his last beating. Thanks to regular applications of Mike's herbal goo the bruises were healing - still tender but nowhere near as painful as they had been. He was left with the dark shadows on his skin, an impressive bloom of purples and browns that seemed all the more dramatic for his changed appearance. And when those faded … he would look like any of the servants he'd caught glimpses of during the last few days. Nobody would look at him and see a slave anymore. Don swallowed a hard lump of emotion and blinked hard.
'Thankyou,' he whispered around his closed throat.
Mikey smiled crookedly. 'Don't thank me. This is all coming out of Raph's pocket, not mine.'
Don nodded, gritting his jaw and blinking hard as he felt the fabric against his arm. It was much finer quality than he had ever seen before, but then it made sense that someone so high ranking would dress his slaves well.
Mike flashed him a smile full of approval and threaded an arm through his, leading him beyond the heavy wooden doors for the first time.
The castle was old and beyond old, carefully maintained through generations of leaders by battalions of loyal servants. Don was in awe wherever he looked, trying not to gawk even as he struggled to absorb the grandeur of the castle.
They passed rooms painted with intricate designs in golden and scarlet paints, arches and columns carved with incredible detail as turtles fought fierce battles in tangles of weapons and flowers. Gigantic vases loomed like swollen sentries in the corners, gilded with gold and large enough to hide inside, and the walls were adorned with vast tapestries portraying grand festivals, hidden treasures and blazing suns giving birth to molten dragons.
Two levels down the building came alive with activity as groups of castle servants hurried past on errands or trailed finely dressed officials moving about their business. All lurched to a halt and nodded respectfully upon seeing the two walking terrapin and it wasn't until the two had passed that hushed, excited whispers drifted back to Don's ears. He found himself clutching Mike's arm tightly and the smaller gave him a reassuring squeeze. Gradually Don settled, lulled by the way Mike ignored the activity around them, filling the tour with light chatter.
Eventually they emerged onto the ground level and Don blinked in the sudden sunlight and then stopped, his breath catching.
It was beautiful …
The castle grounds were a fortified cluster of multi-level mansions with the main clan house built against and extensively carved into the wall of the mountainside - which explained the polished stone of the bathhouse and Raphael's rooms. Out here, settled comfortably on the plateau were beautiful ancient buildings in traditional style. Wide decks encircled each structure, connected by fine gravel pathways that wound through the expansive grounds. Beneath their feet a large pond rippled out from under the timber decking into the gardens, the waters dark and dappled as fat koi stirred the lilies with lazy fins. Ancient, weatherworn statues guarded the lotus blooms and took offerings of prayer from those who used the graceful wooden bridges here and there.
Beyond, Cherry Blossoms shaded the lush grass, thick with clouds of blooms and beyond that he saw an open paved courtyard, mossy with old stones that lead down a gentle slope through the main gate - huge, heavy wooden doors hinged onto a high stone wall with a watchtower of stone built atop it. Instead of feeling ominous the walls seemed to enfold the entire plateau, protecting the timeless sense of this place from whatever may come. When his eyes followed the road down the hill he saw the city of Terra stretching out, a welcoming sight bordered on most sides by earthy green forest and nestled against a river glittering in the distance. Far to the south lay a line of green mountains looming distantly. South, where Raphael had gone.
'Home sweet home.' MIke said quietly, taking a deep breath of appreciation. He gave Don a moment to look around in awe before tugging again. 'C'mon. Lemme show you around.'
They walked slowly around the grounds, Mike pointing out various buildings and their purpose. A barracks where the Castle guards took meals and bunked. The stables, managed by legions of younger boys under the direction of the surly stable manager. A large, ornate reception hall where Clan meetings were held and more importantly the clan festivals when all the older families would attend festivities and socialise. Behind the barracks lay open training fields where terrapin warriors honed their skills on the lush grasses, sparring or performing gruelling exercises to increase their stamina and strength.
'Leo tries to get some training in with them all but he just doesn't have the time now that he's clan leader. He and Raph have their own dojo area where they practice most mornings. I'll take you to see them train sometime, it's worth it if you can handle the early mornings.' His clear grimace indicated otherwise. As Don already appreciated Mikey's love of 'sleeping in', he smiled helplessly.
Don saw one of the guards nudge his companion and point in their direction and the smile faded. For a long moment he felt an urge to turn and run. Mike just waved casually and the two guards grinned and waved back before turning back to their training.
'They're just recruits in training. Most of them are sons of local families, but alot of them were sent by their villages from further out. They work here and send money back to their communities, find wives and when they get to a certain age move back to take over their family farms and local businesses.'
'What if they don't want to be warriors?' Don asked softly.
Mike shrugged. 'Most of them do - training in the Terran capital is a load more exciting to these village boys than staying on the farms and working the rice fields.' He smiled a little sadly. 'In the end they get a taste of battle and realise it's not as glorious as they thought it would be and by the time their service is up they're happy to go back to a quieter life, get married and raise some kids. They take their experience back to the villages and help keep an eye on things. And if they really don't want to be here we can help them find jobs in town.' He turned them back down one of the gravel pathways and they walked casually. 'Raph's done it for at least a handful that I know of. Not everyone is suited for battle and he can't afford to have men he can't rely on at his back.'
Don blinked, relaxing. Everything was so … fair. Everyone had a purpose, fitting somewhere into this intricate network. Nothing seemed forced, most people seemed to benefit from their situation or have options if they didn't. It was inspiring, tempting that little kernel of hope that kept trying to bloom since he got here, and yet he couldn't help but wonder where he fit in with all of this. Would he be given the same options? These men were born and raised in Terra, they had families to back them and any number of opportunities. Don had nothing but what he had already been given. What was expected of him as a slave of such powerful people? Don already understood that politics beyond his knowledge were part of this place. On the surface everything seemed to run smoothly, but beneath it he knew were the real rules that governed lives. What choices did he really have?
On the way back to the main castle Mikey showed Don the kitchens where all the meals were prepared. Don was surprised to find them a heavily guarded area. Chefs spun knives at high speed while dumplings steamed and ramen simmered in savoury soups. Mike stole them each a dumpling, braving the chefs cranky stream of obscenities to grin at Don and drag them both out of range of a brandished cleaver.
Don flinched at the curses that followed them, understanding the implications if not the exact words. 'Is it really okay to make him so angry?'
Mike stuffed the dumpling in his mouth rebelliously and gave a few chews before hissing and blowing steam off his tongue.
'He already got his revenge. Besides he's a chef, they were born that way.' He muttered sulkily, eyes watering.
They finished eating their savoury, meaty snacks in the dojo, a large room lined with tatami mats where weapons of all size and description sat in racks against the walls. It reminded him a little of Raphael's rooms. It was built at the back of the main castle in a huge, well lit room on the ground floor. Golden light streamed through light shoji screens which opened onto a semicircular private courtyard carved into the side of the mountain. An explosion of ferns continued from the edges of the paved stones to climb up the dark stone walls of the mountain creating a shaded grotto. Mike pointed out a small pond at the far end of the grotto. Next to the water was an ancient, worn stone covered in moss and wax drippings.
'Leo loves to meditate here.' Mike told him. 'He says in the peace and quiet he can be at one with "The bones of the mountain".' He made a face. 'Whatever that means. Most of the time this place is empty unless they're training.'
'Do you train too?' Don asked curiously.
'When I can drag him out of bed.' An amused voice answered in perfect common.
They both turned with a start to find the Clan leader standing in the dojo doorway, a faint smile on his face.
'Well you insist on training so early.' Mike huffed.
'That depends entirely on whether your idea of early is before breakfast or after midday, Michelangelo.'
Mike snorted and mimicked Leo's tone. 'That depends entirely on whether your idea of breakfast is at regular hours or before the suns even up, Leonardo.'
Leonardo's eyes flashed with amusement but Don stared at the leader in shock.
'You … you speak common?' he blurted.
Leonardo nodded, coming to stand beside them as Don shot his blue-eyed companion an uncertain glance.
Mike hedged. 'Uh, I never actually said Leo didn't speak common. I said most Terrans don't.'
Leonardo seemed to understand.
'My father, Hamato Yoshi, always said that it's a leader's responsibility to know as much about his people as he can. When I was young he made a point of including common in my education since so many of us have been scattered across the world.' He explained.
Don averted his eyes. 'Then … your brother can speak it too?' he hedged carefully.
Leonardo's smile faded a little. 'Raphael hasn't had the same education as myself. He knows a few words but until you begin to re-learn Terran I'm afraid the two of you will have a hard time communicating. Mikey can help you get started on that later today.'
Don dropped his eyes feeling oddly relieved to know the golden eyed Alpha had not been pretending.
The Clan Leader placed a reassuring hand on Don's shoulder. 'It was not our intent to deceive you,' he said quietly. 'You had been through so much, we simply wished to give you some time to adjust.' He smiled gently. 'You seem much stronger already. The rest has clearly done you good.'
Don found himself relaxing despite himself at the honest kindness in Leonardo's dark eyes, the confident quiet of his voice. In combination with the Alphas scent - similar to Raphael's with those messages of health and virility, yet unique in its own right he began to feel the first stirrings that perhaps there really was no reason to be afraid.
'Walk with me?' The Leader asked.
Don nodded helplessly, caught in the strange spell of these powerful people in this powerful place. Mike stayed glued to Don's side as Leo led them through the private gardens behind the castle, walking slowly so Don could look around as they moved. A few levels above, the castle almost seemed to curve backwards to join with the cliff wall, creating this space beneath that was constantly shaded. A giant, sheltered arch against the stone of the mountain wall. Ferns, moss and ancient Willows still clung to the rock with stubborn, knotted trunks, their gnarled branches creating tunnels of draping tendrils over the gravel paths.
'The castle is beautiful.' Don offered hesitantly, gaining some courage.
Leo nodded, looking up at the carved roof terraces with their crouching dragon statues and lotus blossom plaques.
'It was built almost a thousand years ago when the first clans decided to settle here. They united the terrapin families and became the first true leaders of our people.'
Don's curiosity and respect flourished. That all this could have been built so long ago. Everything was so lovingly tended, time had done nothing but settle this place more firmly into the hills until it had become part of the land itself, a place of age and strength and great beauty. Feeling suddenly overwhelmed again, he stumbled on the path and must have looked as out-of-place as he felt because suddenly Mikey was gripping his arm with a worried smile. Why was he here amongst these people? Their wealth boggled the mind, their power scared him. From the slave of a candle merchant to .. to what?
'Donnie?' Mike asked softly.
Leo turned back in concern and now they were looking at him, their eyes meeting above his head as he struggled to speak, the words finally emerging as a faint whisper.
'Why am I here? I don't - I don't understand. I'm nothing. I'm nobody. What do you want from me?'
Leo's gaze was compassionate. 'My brother and I have dedicated our lives to trying to end slavery, and yet for every step forward we seem to take two steps back. Those who slip through the cracks end up like you and your family and no matter how many we save there are those we will never be able to free from their bondage.' he paused, clearly troubled. 'But sometimes … sometimes we stumble upon one of the few we failed to protect from our enemies and there's a chance to make it right.'
Don stared at him, trying to reconcile Leonardo's clear regret with his fear that this was ultimately a terrible game. The Clan Leader seemed to sense his confusion and gave a faintly sad smile that did nothing to hide the shadows in his eyes.
'Let me show you.'
He waited for Don's awkward nod of assent and then turned. They stepped onto the great timber boardwalks and Mike took the lead as Leo walked by Don's side, speaking softly.
'Many years ago, my father decided to make a stand against slavery. The Great Council of the Allied Clans had only recently been formed; Sapien, Terrapin, Felidae, Leporidae - the ancient Samurai clans of the Rabbits, among many others. He lobbied to make anti-slavery a condition of the alliance. Unfortunately, he couldn't get many of the Clans to agree. Too many of them had made slavery part of their economy and come to rely on free labour. To completely ban the practice would have crippled them and so rather than become enemies of these nations, who were in all other ways peaceful, we formed the Bondage Agreements.'
Don knew about the allied clans. Essentially it was a treaty encouraging peace and trade between the different races. To attack a member of the alliance invited swift retribution from the full force of the allied clans. It helped maintain stability by pooling the power and resources of the many to protect the weaker clans who might have suffered regular attack without their affiliations with the alliance.
A 'Bondage Agreement' was something he'd never heard before.
They paused as Mike slid open a large rice paper door and led them inside.
Don followed and stopped. Books and scrolls, wall to wall and overflowing on various shelves in orderly chaos. Boxes filled with more scrolls, stacks of paperwork on polished wooden desks, ink wells and the smell of parchment with a faint dusty tang. A number of scribes worked diligently at one end of the room, standing and bowing respectfully at the clan leaders sudden appearance. He acknowledged them with a dignified nod and lifted his hand inviting Don further into the room.
'These are the Terran archives.' The leader said.
'And this is a Bondage Agreement. Actually it's yours.' Mike finished, picking up a sheaf of papers on the closest desk and passing it to Don. The script was delicately inked, the top layer written in Terran and while some of the symbols looked vaguely familiar he had no hope of reading it. Beneath it was a copy written in Common.
'Do you need us to read it to you?' Leonardo asked.
Don hesitated and then decided to take a risk. 'I can read common. I taught myself from things in my Master- my last Master's house.' Anything to take your mind off the stench of boiling fat in the long hours.
'That's something at least - most of the slaves that come through have forgotten all their Terran and never learned to read in either language.' Mike nudged him in encouragement and Don began to read. They waited patiently while he read … and then re-read in confusion.
He could hardly believe it. Don looked up from Mike to the Clan Leaders steady gaze with wide eyes, needing confirmation.
'Is this real?'
'Yup.' Mike grinned. 'Basically, you'll serve two years with Raph. While you're with him you'll have everything you need provided for. Clothes, food, medicine. At the end of the two years you're 'officially free' and you'll get wages for the two years served plus help finding somewhere to live if you want it. Hopefully you'll have some idea of what you want to do by the time the two years is up. If not, you can always stay on longer until you figure it out - lots do.'
'Why would you go to all this trouble?' he asked in disbelief, his voice hitching. Paying slaves? Giving them skills and then freeing them?
Leonardo moved to the desk and gently plucked the document from Don's grip. He then took a feathered pen from the inkwell and signed his name at the bottom of both documents.
'The first slaves my father freed were brought here and released without any thought given to what they would do with themselves.' he explained. 'It was an oversight that caused much suffering. Those who had no other skills couldn't earn the money to improve their situation and so they turned to what they knew. Prostitution, thieving and other activities. We quickly recognised that just freeing people wasn't enough. We needed to give them back some of what had been taken - which means rebuilding a life, not just saving one.'
Don understood but he felt numb with shock. Mike indicated a second signature, more slashy and less elegant than the first. 'That's Raph's as your 'Sponsor', Master - whatever you wanna call him. You just have to sign next to his to say you agree.' he paused. 'Unless you really don't want to serve under him … then we can find you someone else.' the expression in his eyes clearly indicated that he would be nuts to even consider it.
Don tried to accept what they were telling him, stunned by the power of the document. Just a sheet of paper … yet it had the power to secure his freedom. Did the written word really have this much strength? It was intoxicating … and it brought with it the realisation that in this world he could have a life … could learn and accomplish things …could dream of a future. Sudden desperate hope infused him with the need for this to be real and he gripped the pen Mike handed him with tight fingers.
The quill shivered as his hands trembled, hovering over the parchment … just by signing his entire world would change. For two years he could stay … longer if he needed and then he would be free to go and do whatever he wanted. Nobody had ever offered him a chance at a better life, let alone one with this much freedom. He stared at the rough inky scrawl that was Raphael's signature, signed with foresight some time before the Alpha had left days ago. The emerald turtle had taken him from a soulless existence, fed him, clothed him and given more careful consideration to Don's well being in the handful of hours they'd known each other than he'd had in his entire life. Slowly and carefully the olive slave wrote out his full name next to the the rough scrawl of his new Master.
Mike handed him a second copy to sign and Don did so shakily. The smaller turtle smiled as he read Don's signature and took the pen from him.
'I don't know what to say - I don't know how … I never expected -.' Don gripped the desk unsteadily. 'I have to thank him.' he said hoarsely as Mike squeezed his shoulder with a happy grin.
Leonardo took the signed documents, giving them a final look before carefully rolling one of the copies and tying it with a white ribbon. His eyes were very, very serious as he handed it back to Don, but then he smiled and in that gentle gaze Don suddenly knew that everything would be alright.
'Welcome home ... Donatello.'