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Jared Barlow tapped his patient on the shoulder. "Come on, Your Grace. I know you're awake."
Adrian of Ceila rolled over and looked up into his medical attendant's face. Younger and more personable than most of his caretakers, this one's lips were unusually easy to read. To make sure he understood, Jared signed at the same time. "His Nibs is out for the evening and Their Highnesses aren't due back until tomorrow." The Duke caught the sarcasm and returned an appreciative grin.
The attendant nodded his understanding and continued. "Now, here's the plan. Richard and I have got a really exciting video. We're going to make a great supper. While we're eating we'll run it on the library viewscreen. How does that sound? It certainly beats being stuck here eating cold mush doesn't it, little buddy?"
It sure does and it's nice to have a few days off from the monsters. Thanks Jared. I wish I had some way of telling you how much I appreciate you and Richard. Just do me a favor. Don't go jeopardizing your jobs like the others did by protesting. You'll only get thrown out of here if you do.
After five years as Philip's prisoner, Adrian still hadn't learned to accept his fate. Bitterly, he looked down at his useless hands and fingers. They'd healed into a pair of curved claws he could use in a limited fashion when no one was looking. But there was no way he'd ever sign again or punch a computer keypad. Assuming he could get near one.
Born without vocal cords, Adrian could make no sounds. He'd been able to accept that because he'd never known anything else. It was the same with hisinability to hear. At an age when most children were starting to talk, he was already proficient in sign language and lip-reading.
As soon as his parents realized how precocious their only son was, they provided him with a state of the art computer and connected him to the InterPlanetary SynoNet. That was how he met the famed scientist and inventor Zachary Fortier. Through his association with Zachary, he was soon making friends all over the InterPlanetary Synod. Not the least of these was Zachary's illustrious in-laws, who happened to be the Imperial Family of Adrian's home planet Nublis. Adrian's sharp wit and insouciant attitude toward his handicap made him a particular favorite with Nublis' brilliant and mercurial Emperor Julian de Raven and he and his parents became regular visitors to the glittering white Imperial Palace in Cyrenia.
Until he told him, Adrian had had no idea Julian had once been disabled after a flyer crash let alone that he'd spent many months in a wheelchair. Following his accident, Julian started a charitable Foundation to help disabled people all over the Synod. Funded by the Emperor's royalties from his hugely successful musical compositions, recordings and concerts the fund had assumed gigantic proportions. When Julian offered him a job coordinating the Foundation's various activities, Adrian happily accepted.
"I have enough to do with the fundraising end," said the Emperor, "and I need someone to track where the money's going." All in all, it hadn't been a bad life. Adrian had his work, his friends and a supremely happy life with his parents on Ceila. Then, in the blink of an eye, he lost it all.
Soon after Adrian's twenty-fifth birthday, he and his parents took off from Cyrenia's spaceport. It was the first leg of the journey to their island home in Nublis' beautiful South Seas. As usual, his father was piloting and Adrian was in his customary station at the back of the flyer.
He was immersed in his computer when something flicked his shoulder. His mother's face was turned toward him and she was laughing as if about to share a joke.
He never found out what it was.
Two days later he awoke in Nublis' Temple clinic with a broken leg and an ache in his heart that would never heal.
His bastard cousin was his only surviving relative. The smooth-talking Philip could be very plausible and he easily persuaded the clinic staff that the young Duke was crazed with grief and incompetent to handle his own affairs.
Because Adrian could neither talk nor hear, most of his caretakers agreed with Philip. When he argued he was perfectly competent and didn't want nor need a guardian, half the staff hadn't known how to sign. Those who did reported what he said to his cousin.
Shortly after that, Philip arrived at the clinic with an ambulance. The only doctor who sympathized with Adrian was away that day and no one else paid any attention to his frantic protests.
The morning after Adrian's return to Ceila, Philip gave the servants the day off. After drugging his breakfast coffee, he and Abigail dragged the dazed Adrian upstairs and shoved him out of his bedroom window. While he lay helpless on the stone terrace below, his cousin took a ballpeen hammer and methodically smashed every bone in his hands, finger by finger. He was careful not to break the skin or draw blood.
Through a haze of pain, Adrian had still been able to read Philip's lips but when his cousin's hammer crashed down he couldn't even scream except in his head.
Putting his face close to Adrian's, Philip enunciated slowly and carefully, "This'll shut you up for good and all. Count yourself lucky I've left you your sight and I only did that because blinding you would lead to too damn many questions. You tried to commit suicide by jumping out that window and were brain-damaged by the fall. Your Grace, if you know what's good for you, you'll friggin' well go along."
While Philip held him pinioned, his wife Abigail carefully bandaged Adrian's hands with his broken fingers curled into his palms. She left them that way until they healed into a pair of discolored clublike claws.
Even now, he could scarcely bear to look at them. Whenever he did he got sick. Five years later the horror of it was still enough to wake him from a sound sleep. Drenched in icy sweat and imprisoned in a nightmare from which there was no escape, he'd lie shivering in the darkness for the rest of the night.
If Philip was bad, Abigail was worse. Adrian suspected she sat up nights dreaming of new ways to torture him and he had to admit the bitch had imagination. Until the medical attendants came on the scene, one of her favorite ploys was to blindfold him, tie his hands to the sides of the bed and leave him alone for an indefinite period of time.
Philip liked that particular torture because it didn't leave any marks. When he and Abigail needed to convince the local doctors Adrian was incontinent and out of his mind, they'd left him like that, Adrian estimated, for at least two days.
The ploy worked. By the time they released him, Adrian was raving.
Apparently to impress the watching doctors, Abigail bent solicitously over his bed. The moment she was within reach, he socked her in the mouth and had the satisfaction of watching her bleed. Given half a chance, he'd have punched Philip too. Unfortunately, by the time his cousin came anywhere near him, the doctors had Adrian in restraints.
Late that night, Philip and Abigail visited Adrian's room and he paid dearly for his flash of independence. Taking her time with the portable soldering tip she'd brought with her Abigail was careful where and how she burned him.
After that, he was considerably more tractable.
As if Abigail and Philip weren't bad enough, there was also their charming son, Abner. A hulking sixteen-year-old with bad skin, Adrian had long suspected the kid wasn't normal. With parents like his, who would be?
Abner liked to torment and kill small animals for pleasure.
When he was still on his feet, Adrian had caught him torturing a kitten and given him the pounding of his life.
Now it was Abner's turn. Less than three months after his arrival, there wasn't a dog or cat left alive in the Ducal Palace. Once he ran out of household pets, Abner turned his attention to Adrian. But unlike his mother, he showed little or no imagination. His games consisted of surreptitiously tipping Adrian out of his wheelchair, punching him when no one was looking and adding disgusting things to his food. Lately, he'd discovered an electronic device used by farmers to control their livestock. After zapping Adrian a few times all he needed to do was show him the damn thing and watch him flinch.
About the only thing you could say for Philip, reflected the Duke, was that he wasn't into torture for its own sake. What he'd done to him was strictly for the money and ever since that day on the terrace he'd let him alone.
Philip was barred from inheriting because his father never married his mother. He wouldn't go so far as to kill Adrian because then the money would stop. Adrian's father had inherited the title and estates on the old Duke's death and if Adrian were to die without an heir, the House of Ceila and its vast wealth would revert to a distant cousin.
That cousin happened to be the Emperor Julian who was no friend to Philip.
Philip's bastard status was Adrian's life insurance, or so he thought.
One day, he observed Philip discussing something with Abigail. When he read his cousin's lips he went cold all over. Philip was about to petition the Parliament for a change in the law that would enable him to inherit in the event of Adrian's death.
If the politicians were to find in Philip's favor, Adrian knew he wouldn't live for more than five minutes after his cousin reached home. Considering Abigail's and Abner's proclivities he wouldn't have an easy or pleasant death.
A gentle touch on his shoulder returned Adrian to the present. Levering his long legs over the edge of the bed, he allowed Jared to boost him into his wheelchair. Emerging into the carpeted hallway, he blinked several times to adjust his vision after the bedroom's gloom while Jared pressed the elevator button for the ground floor.
As the downstairs door opened, he looked around curiously. With Abigail's mania for redecorating he never knew what the foyer was going to look like next. This month she was apparently in some sort of jungle phase. The walls' and draperies' multi-colored brilliance actually hurt his eyes. Exotic flowering plants towered everywhere, loading the already stagnant air with their heavy scents. An immense circular aviary took up one corner of the marble-floored entrance hall and, opposite the birdcage, a built-in tropical aquarium containing hundreds of colorful darting fish reached all the way to the gilded ceiling.
Although she hadn't touched the glittering chandeliers or the naked gods and goddesses sporting on the ceiling's painted clouds, the delicate murals Adrian had loved since his childhood were gone forever. They'd been a particular favorite of his mother's and when he saw Abigail's vandalism he wanted to punch her all over again.
Jared touched his shoulder. "You're lucky you can't hear. Those screeches are absolutely deafening." Adrian grinned. If that were the case, the birds and jungle theme wouldn't last long. Philip would see to that.
"Her ladyship has jungle sounds piped in as well. Oh, Your Grace, you don't know what you're missing. She's hired a uniformed keeper for the fish and some expensive expert from the university to look after the birds. The cage door was accidentally left open the other day and half the damn things took off into the countryside. I don't know who was squawking louder, her ladyship, the expert, the housemaids or the birds. They were special miniature parrots that cost over three thousand credits apiece, and at least fifty of 'em escaped." Hmm. I wonder if my fortune's going to survive Abigail's misadventures in decorating. So that's why the bitch is skimping on my food. She's economizing. Yeah, right. Well, lead on Jared. And I don't give a damn what you guys fixed for supper, just so it's real food for a change.
The Duke had just finished an excellent meal and was thoroughly enjoying the video when a light flickered through the library's sheer curtains. As it played along the wall, Jared ran to the window. "Hell and damn, they're home early. Come on, Richard, let's get him back to his room. We can clear this up later. Here, Adrian, take this beer. Hide it for now and you can have it as soon as you're safely in bed. If we meet Their Highnesses in the hall we'll tell 'em we had you out for some fresh air." When Adrian grabbed the icy flask in his right claw and whipped it under the rug covering his knees, Jared shook his head. If he's brain damaged, I'm a monkey's uncle. He understands everything that's going on and then some. There ought to be a law protecting people like him and I'd report it if it would do any good. But the authorities wouldn't do a damn thing to help him. I'd just lose my job, and then where would he be? That high-flown cousin of his is in cahoots with the lawyers, and the doctors on this island are so blind, they can't see their friggin' noses in front of their faces. Anyone with half a brain can see that his hands weren't smashed in any accident and if those aren't burn scars on him I'm a Nublian Princess.
Before they could get Adrian into the elevator, Philip came marching through the front door. "Abigail. You're going to have to do something about those damn birds. I can't hear myself think." He strode across the foyer with a huge smile on his face. His graying blunt-cut hair flopped over his forehead and his black eyes sparkled with good humor. "My dear boy. How good to see you. Abigail, my love, look here. His attendants brought Adrian downstairs and he's admiring what you've done to the foyer." Uh oh, thought Adrian when Abigail's sharp blue eyes fastened on his. She's going to make me pay. Well, for your information, lady, this decor stinks. In case you hadn't noticed we're already on a tropical island. As for importing all this damned stuff, you've got one hell of a nerve doing it at my expense, you miserable overblown witch.
Almost as if he'd read Adrian's thoughts, his cousin chuckled. "My dear, I don't think our cousin likes what you've done. Maybe you should have asked permission first. This is, after all, his house." His breath redolent of wine and garlic, Philip stuck his face closer to Adrian's. "Isn't that right, Your Grace?" The young Duke calmly returned his gaze. You come one step nearer and I'll brain you with this beer. No. Scratch that. Bad idea. He'll wonder where I got it and that'll lead to all sorts of embarrassing questions.
Finally, Philip straightened up. "Well. I have good news for you, little cousin, and believe me, this calls for a celebration." Adrian closed his eyes. Oh, no. The courts have ruled in his favor and I'm dead meat.
Someone touched his cheek. When he opened his eyes again. Philip was still smiling. "My dear Adrian. I bring you a personal invitation from the Emperor Julian himself to attend the fiftieth anniversary of his coronation. What do you think of that?" Adrian blinked. You've got to be kidding. Even for you, this one's really off the wall. But of course, what was I thinking? When it comes to social climbing, you two imbeciles wrote the book. Hah. Invitations to Julian's Jubilee gatherings are going to be harder to come by than a marriage into the Imperial Succession and you must have just found out you can't get anywhere without me. Oooh, this has really got to be frosting Abigail's cookies. Well, well, well. Tell me more, my dear cousin. If I play my cards right, who knows? My life might actually be worth living again.
Copyright © 2001 by Kate Saundby