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Owned and Gifted

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Vanyel eyed the manor house as if it were some kind of monster liable to gobble him up, feeling about equal amounts of reluctance and distaste.

:It's a bit late to turn back, love:, Yfandes said, with a sympathetic amusement.

He sighed, running fingers through his hair and letting Yfandes carry him a little closer to the front door. As he came within clear sight of anyone inside, he was forced to draw himself up stiffly, keeping his head high and proud. His best bet would be to come across as a prudish peacock. :I'm not trying to turn back, he protested weakly. :I'll do what Randi asked.:

***

King Randale of Valdemar gave Vanyel the sort of casual, conversational smile he hadn't actually had enough energy to manage regularly on his own. He almost always only did it for political purposes now and Vanyel was immediately on alert.

"Well, Vanyel," Randale said. He had an edge of wry, tired humor: whatever he was going to introduce, it wasn't something Vanyel was going to like. "I realize it feels as though we've only just dealt with this, but you wouldn't be able to guess what's being sent across our borders through Hardorn."

The look on his face, the reference to time, the location... Demons, Vanyel thought in horror. The answer was demons. "Are you serious? It's barely been six years since then."

Randale, too, was remembering the previous incident. "I'll need you to go, but I also need you to be careful to not repeat Stony Tor," he said, and rubbed his face with his hand, pinching the bridge of his nose with two fingers. Exhaustion rolled off him in tangible waves. "Find the wizard using Hardorn as a cover, eliminate him, her, or them, and politely leave."

"No ballads this time, then," Vanyel said, and sighed. It felt like he'd only just been back from the actual Border War for mere weeks.

"Ideally," Randale said, a touch of dryness in his worn-out voice. "We managed to turn the ballad into some nice tidy anti-Karsite propaganda, but the fact that you acted against a lord's actions to his own people without sovereign permission in an allied state is unfortunately something that's been difficult to get to go away."

Vanyel didn't argue. Randale knew why he'd done it and agreed with his reasons; the politics were just that, politics. "I'll do what I can," he said. "Have you made any arrangements?"

Randale explained and managed, through sheer force of will, to continue to the end despite the growing look of dissatisfaction on Vanyel's face.

"I understand the logic," Vanyel said finally. "Lord Krague's manor house is in the area you described. It would be a perfect base of operations. I'd prefer to stay in a tent, however..."

"I know," Randale said. "But Festil felt if you were in the area, he'd want you somewhere in official capacity, rather than... about."

Wandering the countryside causing international incidents, he meant. "Of course. I wouldn't like to be rude. But Krague is..."

"I know, Van."

"Slavery isn't right," Vanyel muttered.

The look on Randale's face was one of agreement. "But permissible in Hardorn, so long as the slaves are acquired through sale rather than capture," he said. "Any other lord would also have slaves. Krague's estates have always been just on this side of legal, according to Festil. No slaves working under the age of fifteen, and all purchased off their guardians. Your staying with Krague will also help with reparations—it'll make your actions as against the illegal enslavement of those farmers with an eye to trading across the border, rather than a political statement against Hardorn's environment."

"...He gives us a bad name," Vanyel said finally, as much explanation as he was able to muster.

Randale gave him an understanding look. "Nobody will think worse of you, Vanyel."

They would, but going into the whole dirty history of all the things that were said of him, assumed of him... there was no point. It wasn't new information, and Randale was doing him the kindness of telling him as a friend rather than a ruler. Even the effort of that kind of presentation took it out of him these days.

Vanyel put a hand over his heart and lowered his head. "I'll make it quick," he said.

***

...That had been easy to say, but even so, he was dithering reluctantly outside the man's door like a bride meeting her arranged husband for the first time.

Vanyel shook his hair out vainly, pulling airs around himself that he hadn't assumed since he was a child. I have to be good-ally-Vanyel, he reminded himself. Not stepping-on-Hardorn's-ruling-class's-toes-Vanyel. This wasn't about himself.

Yfandes snorted, and he avoided commenting back as she took him up to the gate. He was met there by a beautiful boy of around seventeen, blond hair tidily tied back, who tried to take Yfandes' show-reins.

"Thank you, but no," Vanyel told him briefly. "I'll see to Yfandes myself."

"...My lord had been expecting you inside," the boy said. He offered a hand again. "I'm not the groomsman but I can take her there as well as any."

:It's fine, Vanyel.:

:If you say so...: Vanyel didn't let his reaction show, just allowed the boy to take them. "She's a Companion, not a horse," he warned him. "Treat her like a guest, not an animal. She's as smart and aware as you or I. Perhaps more so."

:'Perhaps' indeed,: she snorted.

The boy seemed dubious, but he was hardly in a place to object. He glanced at Yfandes like he expected to be dealing with an unruly nag, but inclined his head politely regardless—if only because Vanyel was watching. "Very well, my lady," the boy said, with only a slight edge of sarcasm. "If you will follow me?"

Great start, Vanyel thought with a sigh he didn't let himself voice, and strode up to the main path to the door.

It was opened before he could reach it, and out rushed the gentleman himself. Krague was slightly shorter than Vanyel, and with a sort of stout solidness. Years of good food and drink had added extra meat to his arms and legs and a rounded belly, but it seemed like he got good exercise and outdoor sport, as he wore it more with strength than anything else, and his skin was tanned by the sun. His sandy brown hair was swept back from a tall forehead and sharp black eyes sat over a long, dominant nose. Beneath that, thin lips had drawn back in a friendly smile as he rushed forward, offering his hand to Vanyel.

"Herald Vanyel Ashkevron, is it?" Krague asked, taking his hand and shaking it rapidly. His hand was sweaty, and his eyes darted rapidly, first at Vanyel's face, then past him to scan the horizon. Despite his friendly show, something was making him nervous. "I've heard of you! You're even more beautiful than the legends would say."

Then again, perhaps it's just the legends that's making him so jumpy. Most of them do end with 'and then Vanyel called the lightning down and smote them to the earth'. Vanyel gave him a sharp, superior smile, recalling the distance he wished to put between the two of them. "It's very kind of you. Thank you for the generous offers of hospitality."

"Of course, of course. Only my best for you, Herald Vanyel," Krague said, and finally let go of his hand, gesturing behind himself. "I'll have one of my boys take your cloak, shall I?"

Vanyel almost wished he could keep it. Instead, he unclasped it, offering it over obligingly. "Thank you. I shan't need it until tomorrow, I'd imagine."

"No, no, get comfortable," Krague said, and smiled. "I promise, we do like to live it up out here, Herald Vanyel."

***

For all that Vanyel wished he could take dinner in his rooms, he took it with Krague like a good guest, and was pleased that his vain and self-assured choice of persona was not one that would be expected to carry the conversation. Instead, he drank wine slowly, eating fine food that his body was nowhere near accustomed to after his time on the border, and let Krague babble at him about inconsequentialities.

He tuned back in as Krague seemed to turn it to his business. "So you'll be heading out on some kind of wizard-hunt tomorrow, from what King Festil said? Fascinating, fascinating. I doubt you'll find much around here! I haven't seen a thing." As if he seemed the type to notice. "I'd love to see you work."

"I suggest not doing so," Vanyel said, looking coolly at Krague over his wine-cup. "It could be... unfortunate."

Krague shivered dramatically. "Havens, no. No, no, let's not do that then. But if you'll be doing that tomorrow, you'll want for a nice night tonight. Shall I call for some music?"

Music at least would mean that he wasn't expected to listen to Krague. He smiled thinly and nodded. "Please do," he said mildly. "That sounds better entertainment than some."

"Luzus, darling," Krague said, leaning over to the young blond footman who had met Vanyel at the door, "fetch Stefen for me, won't you, love? There's a good lad." He patted his rear as the boy walked away and then settled properly into his seat again, cutting a slice of meat free from the chicken he was working on. "Oh, you'll just love Stefen," he confided to Vanyel. "The prize of my collection, I swear. He's a jewel, he's a jewel. I can't even imagine how I lucked into finding him."

Ugh. "It was money, wasn't it?" Vanyel said dryly, unable to quite resist.

Krague sighed like a man smitten. "Oh, money can't possibly explain my luck here. You'll understand when you see him. I was blessed by the gods themselves with opportunity!"

Vanyel found himself feeling a bit sorry for the boy, though the thought seemed to trip over itself when Stefen walked into the room.

He carried a secondhand lute—mediocre in quality, and having seen better years. But it was particularly difficult to look at the lute. Stefen was in his late teens, probably shortly on the front side of twenty, and he was beautiful. Tousled auburn hair fell around his face, framing dark hazel eyes with a sly look to them. His delicate features hovered on the edge of being truly feminine, offset only by what looked like the most stubborn jaw that Vanyel had ever seen in his life. He looked less like a human being than a painting come to life, some terrible and beautiful angel from a church fresco.

Stefen sauntered across the room with a shocking confidence, and slung himself down in front of the fire. "If it pleases my lords?" he asked, his voice clear and low. It sounded like he'd lucked out as a musician and had managed to save his voice when it dropped.

"Play something suited to our Herald guest from Valdemar. Perhaps, what is it..." Krague snapped his fingers as he tried to recall the name. "Windrider Unchained?"

"Of course, my lord," Stefen said, winking at Krague, then fixed Vanyel in that heavy hazel gaze of his. His fingers began to pick out the courses for the introductory bars, and that clean voice rose—

He's got the Bardic Gift, Vanyel realized, as his heart nearly stopped. He's Gifted.

He was completely incapable of hiding his entrancement. A jewel indeed—but how? Why here? With his ability being wasted on this wastrel...

Vanyel almost didn't blink until the song ended, and, encouraged, Stefen launched into another traditional song from Valdemar. Vanyel's amazement was shattered, finally. Not by Stefen, but by Krague, who leaned over.

"You like him, do you?" Krague breathed. "Isn't he lovely?"

I'm slipping. Vanyel forced himself to look away. "He's fine, I suppose," he said, and the lie tasted bitter in his mouth.

***

:I know, sweetheart,: Yfandes was saying sympathetically. :But we have a problem in front of us to deal with which isn't that. Not yet, anyway.:

:It just doesn't feel right. He shouldn't be here. Can you imagine, this good without Bardic? His gift is going completely untaught and—:

A knock at his bedroom door caught him off guard, and he quieted abruptly. In his mind, Yfandes went silent as well, listening along with him as he rose.

"My lord?" That voice was familiar. Vanyel startled, then hurried over, opening the guest room's door.

Stefen stood outside. He was dressed in the same outfit he'd been wearing at dinner, a casual billowing shirt with the laces undone, untucked over his breeches, and he kept his hands open at his sides as if he expected Vanyel to anticipate an assassin.

It was just as well Stefen wasn't one. Vanyel felt completely off-guard.

"May I come in?" Stefen asked, and smiled at him.

Vanyel stepped aside, and Stefen walked in with the confidence of someone who believed he owned the place—and then kept walking, taking a seat on the guest bed and starting to pull his shirt off his head. "My lord Krague thought you might appreciate my company tonight—"

Finally, from somewhere very far away, Vanyel found his voice. "Wait," he managed. "No—stop."

Stefen went still, his eyes still looking at Vanyel over the mass of cloth, his fingers gripping the hem and exposing a smooth, slender length of torso. "I don't please my lord?"

Vanyel cursed his tongue, felt like he was keeping too many things in the air: the persona he'd put on, his awareness of Stefen's Gift, the politics of the situation. He tightened his jaw, raising his head a little. "I did not ask for this," he said.

"No, my lord," Stefen said blankly.

"Vanyel," Vanyel said.

"My lord Vanyel," Stefen corrected. He let go of the bottom of his shirt, allowed it to drift down to his hips. "Shall I have my lord Krague send another instead? He'll be pleased enough to have me back at his bedside if you dislike me."

That decided him, although what he'd do with this, he didn't know. As always, making things up on the spot, he thought ruefully. "You will not have him send another," Vanyel said sharply. "Stay, but do not disrobe."

"My lord?" Stefen's mood seemed to have tipped over to almost amused, a sparkle in his eye, the corner of his lips twisting up. "You'd prefer to have me clothed? Your legends do say you're shaych."

I should show ego, Vanyel reminded himself. Vanity. "Do you know nothing else of my legends?" he asked, as scornfully as he could manage. At least the truth made for a believing lie. "I had and lost a lifebonded. Do you think I can take pleasure in passing dalliances? And with mere children... how old are you?"

Stefen widened his eyes. "How old do you want me to be?"

Vanyel didn't respond, maintaining an icy stare.

For a moment, he thought it wouldn't work, that Stefen would stubbornly maintain that faux-innocent expression, but finally his gaze dropped, shoulders hunching a little. "I'm eighteen, or closely on one side or another of it," he muttered. "I haven't exactly had the privilege of a birthday celebration."

"And how did Krague acquire you?"

"Off the streets of Haven in Valdemar, my lord Vanyel." He fiddled with the bedsheet beneath him, a finger stroking down a crease to flatten it. "A few years ago. I had been offering my services on street corners when he passed by. He took a fancy to me and purchased me off my keeper." He managed another smile, though he still didn't look up. "It's been rather a step up in the world."

Vanyel fought down the distress that he could feel churning in his stomach. He was even from Haven—had been that close to Bardic. He must have played sometimes, or he wouldn't be this good now. It felt like a crime against nature that none of the Bards had passed by and heard his Gift.

"Do you like music?" Vanyel asked.

Stefen blinked, then shrugged one shoulder, finally raising his gaze to Vanyel's face again. "I don't see it much matters if I do or don't," he said. "I do, of course. It's a good feeling, performing. Oh, I mean that in every way," he added, with a wink.

Pretending not to notice the innuendo, Vanyel lifted a brow. "Would you like to play music instead?"

"What's with all the questions?" Stefen asked. "Don't tell me you run a band and are looking to recruit, my lord Herald-Mage Vanyel."

Vanyel felt himself flush a little. "You have the Bardic Gift," he said bluntly. "At any point, if you came back to Haven, all you would need to do is present yourself to the Bardic Collegium and they would accept you in for study—"

"I don't think so," Stefen said with polite finality. "Why do you care?"

It felt like Vanyel had a dangerous choice in front of himself. Pushing too much would certainly reveal his actual personality, because there was no way to really, truly encourage Stefen to make use of his Gift that wouldn't show at least a little of himself. Maintaining a persona in front of someone like Krague is simple, but I'm no trained actor. And not doing so would mean he hadn't done his best to get Stefen out of here to Bardic where he belonged, and leave him in sexual servitude.

...Put that way, the answer was actually simple. The persona didn't matter, not really. At the worst, it would reveal the truth, that its purpose was to keep Krague at arm's length. Better that than not reaching out to this boy.

Vanyel let his shoulders and expression relax and spread his hands a little in a half-shrug. "I'm Bardically Gifted myself," he said. "It's not the best or brightest of my gifts, and I don't have all three of the variants, but I know how much music means to me. You've clearly got the Gift, and the Talent to perform. Can you write music, does it come naturally?"

Stefen was staring at him a little oddly. "I can," he said. "It's my hobby."

"Share one of your songs with me," Vanyel said. "Will you sing? I've no interest in bedding you, I really don't. But if you'd like to spend time with me rather than Krague, will you share with me something you composed?"

For a moment, he thought Stefen would refuse him that. He still had the odd look on his face, weighing Vanyel in some way, and there was no doubt in Vanyel's mind that he was exceptionally perceptive.

And then he smiled again, eyes heavy-lidded, and reached up a hand to Vanyel. "Sit with me, my lord Vanyel," he said, "and you can make me sing however you like."

Despite his best intentions, Vanyel felt heat curl in his stomach. Still, he sat next to him, and didn't move any closer, keeping his arms at his side and their bodies a carefully safe distance apart.

"Please do," Vanyel said.

***

Vanyel came back to Krague's the next evening dissatisfied with the day's work. Oh, he'd found the demons alright—had caught them off guard as they followed a line of magic, and had taken care of them quickly and simply. But unexpectedly, as soon as he made a move, the line snapped, the wizard's traces vanishing before he could track them down.

That shouldn't have happened, not unless the wizard were aware of the likelihood of interference, and the thought that someone out there was that on the ball wasn't a comfortable one.

:I don't think I made any mistakes,: he noted to Yfandes.

The impression he got back was something of a concerned shrug. :No... at this point, I suppose we should just see how tomorrow goes. Anyone crossing multiple borders has to be alert. Just make sure you don't get distracted tomorrow, not if someone knows you're here now.:

:I'm not... distracted.:

:Is that so?: she asked with the pointed tone of someone keeping their opinion firmly to themselves.

He wrinkled his nose. :I'd like to delay going back there, though. Krague makes staying out here the more appealing option.:

:Oh, I'm sure you've something to look forward to.:

:Not hardly. As nice as our little musical get-together was, I'm sure Krague won't want him sent to me tonight. He'll mention I was disinterested, and that'll be that.:

Dinner went quickly. He primly and coldly begged off too much entertainment due to 'tiredness'. "I'm here to work, after all," he'd said. "I'll take an early bed tonight."

"So hard-working," Krague had sighed, leaning his chin on his hand and watching. "Like an ice prince."

Well, he was getting chills, at any rate. "Is that meant to be a compliment, Lord Krague?"

"Oh, certainly. A man like you could use a little warmth. Shall I send Stef to you again? He had nothing but praise for you last night," Krague suggested, smirking smugly.

His heart skipped slightly. Stefen hadn't told Krague after all. Had clearly acted like they'd slept together, though they'd simply spent a few hours talking before Stefen left for his own bed.

Vanyel should really refuse it. He was more or less handing Krague an obvious interest in the boy, a weak spot, even if it wasn't as Krague thought.

:Not entirely, I'm sure: Yfandes said.

:Shut up, horse.:

"Yes," he said, hating how lascivious it sounded to accept the offer even as he did so. "You've something lovely in him."

"Don't I? I don't know what I'd do without him," Krague sighed.

And sure enough, he'd barely settled back into the guest chamber when there was a knock on the door. A quick touch of his mind showed that it was indeed Stefen. Vanyel hurried over, opening the door, looking at him.

Stefen had brought his lute and a bemused expression. "Good evening, my lord Vanyel," he said, tone light. "May I come in?"

"Please do," Vanyel said. He stepped aside, shutting the door behind and making sure it was latched. He didn't think Stefen would be willingly used as a distraction of any kind to lead into an attack, but he didn't survive on the border without at least a little paranoia.

With a few easy-going strides, Stefen made it to the bed and sprawled back comfortably, plucking a couple of strings. "Judging from last night, I assumed you'd like to make some beautiful music with me," he said suggestively, and flicked his gaze up at Vanyel.

Vanyel's breath caught. The candlelight toyed with Stefen's features, made his expression hard to read, but he could Feel Stefen clearly. Stefen wanted him, was attracted to him.

It reminded him of his tendency to draw admirers without even noticing. Yfandes had chided him for it more than once. Not this time, he thought, almost in apology to Stefen. He'd make sure Stefen was aware of how platonic his intentions were.

Either way, it couldn't hurt to have him here. Perhaps he could convince Stefen to leave this place. But whether or not he did, every evening he spent entertaining Vanyel chastely was at least an evening where he wasn't with Krague.

"I would," he replied, a little belatedly. "If you aren't overworked and tired, that is. I know performance can take it out of a person."

Stefen's fingers plucked out a simple melody, a backdrop to his conversation. "It's not too bad. I do have household chores and so on, but I'm more or less the leader around here these days, so I delegate well enough and spare my hands."

"That's good," Vanyel said genuinely. He held up his own damaged hand. "I broke my arm when I was younger and never quite got full feeling back. Back then, music was everything to me, so it was devastating."

"Everything, huh. Must have been before you became a Herald-Mage?"

Their gazes met again, and suddenly, inexplicably, Vanyel's heart ached. His eyes stung and breath caught. He couldn't explain the impulse; it could only be Stefen's question, the reminder of those simple times when he was with 'Lendel. Suddenly he felt like he was back there again, and shook his head to clear it. He was alone, and this boy certainly wasn't 'Lendel.

"It was," he said simply.

"Mm." Stefen looked down at his fingering briefly, watching himself pluck the courses of strings and make them ring out. "Old Berte used to threaten to break my hands when she wanted me to behave. Oh, that was way back, though, when acting a cripple would get me more takings off the streets than using my body any other way... Well, that never happened. I'm not so bad at getting my way when I need it."

Vanyel imagined that must be the case. Stefen was so beautiful right now, his expression soft and nostalgic, long lean lines of his body sprawled out, blocked only by the curve of the lute resting against his body. The image invited another, of something else resting against his body. This boy... "The Bardic Gift is particularly good at that," he said pointedly.

Stefen's fingers stilled on the lute, and he looked at Vanyel. "You noticed that."

"You don't need to manipulate me to be desirable, Stefen," he said. "But it won't happen."

Slowly, Stefen began to pluck out the melody again. This time, there was no additional power behind it, no attempts to pluck Vanyel's heart along with the strings. Even so, he looked almost too appealing. "Do I disgust you?" he asked slowly.

"Disgust...?" Vanyel blinked. "What? No..."

"My past as a whore. My present as a slave," Stefen said. "And I've no interest in changing that, I think I made that clear enough. I've had so many partners, and I make love with no love all the time. Are you disgusted by that?" His voice was almost more curious than anything else, just questioning, but there was something hesitant about him.

Vanyel wet his lips, then came over, nudging Stefen to move over so he could talk to him properly. Stefen did, though not very far, his thigh a warmth against Vanyel's own.

"You don't disgust me," Vanyel said. "Let me say that clearly first. You're beautiful and talented and while I feel like I haven't got to know who you are, what I've seen is charming."

"But—"

"But as a Herald, I..." It was so hard to explain these things to non-Heralds. He remembered again, viscerally, how it felt when 'Lendel had tried to explain it to him. How little sense it had made, how far away he'd felt from the concept. "I have a need to try to do good. To try to leave the world a better place than I found it. Slavery is abhorrent. Slaves are not. Slaves are people dealing with a difficult circumstance however they can. But the idea that any person can control another's life so completely, can wield that much power over everything in how they live..."

Stefen watched him like he was trying to understand, trying to take it in. "So because I'm a slave, you can't be interested in me. You can want to free me, but not accept what I'm offering?"

"It's not that," Vanyel said, hesitantly. "Yes, I mean, I'd love to see you free. But you've made it clear that the things I've suggested don't appeal, even if I don't understand why. Even so, I can't have a relationship without it being one of equals. I've rejected others for only being drawn to me for my legends, for offering themselves in some kind of hero-worship. And slavery is... we can't speak to each other as equals. You're here because your master thought you could be an appealing bribe to me. Even if you want to be here, that's the structure of this."

Stefen sighed and his fingers stilled. "Oh, well, there's no helping that then. Here, take this."

"What—?"

Smiling again, though it seemed a little dimmed, Stefen offered him the lute. "This you will do with me," he said in a light tone. "So show me a thing or two. Perhaps you can sing one of those ballads about yourself that earns you that hero-worship."

"Oh, please no," Vanyel said with horror.

"Mm, yes, that's what I want to hear! Will you do it?" Stefen's grin widened, and he leaned over the lute, almost into Vanyel's face. "Surely you won't reject me over this?"

Vanyel groaned, taking the lute. "You're determined to see me blush one way or another, aren't you?"

Stefen reclined into Van's bed, tucking his hands behind his head. "I certainly am," he said, and waited for him to play.

***

After three more days of unsuccessful hunting, Vanyel finally found more demons—or rather, the demons found him. They got the jump on him and Yfandes in a surprise attack, and while he fought them off successfully, both were a little worse for the wear by the time they limped back to Krague's manor.

And he still hadn't managed to track down the wizard who had summoned them.

Vanyel took care of Yfandes' injuries before he went inside himself. As soon as he entered, however, Krague was on him, cooing concern and hovering around him, wrenching an arm forward to get look at a wound there, frowning down at Vanyel's injured calf.

"No good, no good," Krague said. "Look at you bleeding on the floor like this."

"I am sure it'll wash out," Vanyel said, not terribly impressed.

"Yes, yes, of course," Krague said. "Wilfen, dear boy, please get him some bandages."

I can see where that would go. "Yes, fetch them—I will bandage myself in my room. I dislike being a poor guest," he added, lying through his teeth, "but can you have dinner brought up to my room tonight, Lord Krague? I would prefer some peace and quiet."

"Hmm, of course," Krague said, gaze shifting over him. "Do you want Stef again? I can have him bring up your meal. Though I suppose you'd rather he not come, not if you want some peace and quiet—"

Vanyel lifted a hand. "No, send him. His company will do me good," he said, skin crawling a little with how he was sure Krague would take it.

Krague laughed, tone light. "Oh dear. I will of course do so, honored guest. I fear you're going to steal his heart away from me! Stef is my favorite, you know, he's my darling, but anything for an ally, and King Festil had ordered I entertain you."

Vanyel looked at him silently.

"Oh, yes, of course I'll have him sent up," Krague said again, somewhat strained. "I'm sure Stef will help you sleep off the pain."

He could hardly get away quickly enough, waiting by the guest room door to take the bandages from Krague's Wilfen. Once he received them, he shut it again before anyone other than Stefen might try to come in and monopolize his time. If he were occupied, Stefen might be turned away.

When a rap on the door came again—low, as if whoever was there was kicking the door instead of knocking properly—he used a quick mindtouch to assure himself it was Stef before hobbling over to get it. Stefen came in with a smile, then almost fumbled the tray he was carrying.

"Oh—you're hurt!" he said. "What happened?"

"A bit of an unpleasant encounter with demons," Vanyel said. "Can you put that down there?"

Stefen put it on the dresser obligingly, then stepped back quickly. "I'll be right back," he said, and darted out again.

That wasn't exactly as expected. Vanyel hesitated, staring after him, then sat by the tray and began to eat.

It wasn't long before Stefen returned again, carrying his lute. "I couldn't carry both it and the tray at the same time," he said apologetically. "Shall I play as you eat?"

"If it's no trouble," Vanyel said, relief washing over him. He still wants my company, at least. Demon-slayer or not. "Don't put yourself out."

"It's no trouble," Stefen assured him with a quick smile, and took a seat to play.

Vanyel let the music wash over him as he ate, slowly relaxing. The food was good, and Stefen's presence along with the song was relaxing. He was hardly in any pain any more—

No... that's not it. I'm not in any pain any more...!

The realization startled him. That shouldn't be possible. Relaxation could help a lot, but over the years he'd gained a fairly accurate assessment of his own injuries and the impacts thereof. He frowned to himself, focusing his Mage Sight on himself, then on Stefen, whose brow was furrowed in concentration—

"You have a Wild Talent?!" Vanyel burst out.

Stefen's fingers missed their mark with a twang, and Vanyel concentrated, feeling the pain slowly start to creep back in. It wasn't fully back yet, not at all, but it was absolutely tied to the music.

"Is that what it's called?" Stefen asked.

"You—how long have you been able to do this?" Immediately, a dozen applications sprung to his mind. Randi...

Slightly uncomfortable, Stefen shrugged. "My whole life," he said. "I used to sing old Berte's hangovers away so she'd be a bit more tolerable. It takes a bit of focus but... what? What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?"

Vanyel swallowed. His own injuries meant little to him. They weren't too bad, and he'd had plenty worse. But this ability...

He reached over, taking Stefen's hands in his own. He didn't think to brace himself in any way and was startled by the nearly electric jolt between them, a tingle of skin on skin that made his heart race. Stefen drew a sharp breath in, staring at him. Vanyel had to fight to not stare back. What's even come over me...

But he pushed through it. "Stefen," he said, gently and carefully. "There are a lot of people you could help with this."

"...I know that..."

"I have... I have a very good friend back home. He's a very powerful Herald," Vanyel said, still gentle. It wasn't a lie, technically. "But he's very unwell. A chronic illness has been affecting him for years, and he no longer has any pain-free moments. If you came back, I'm sure he would make sure your life was comfortable."

Stefen looked down. "Vanyel, I..."

Since Stefen didn't seem to notice the lack of proper address, Vanyel did his best to keep him from realizing, and pushed on. "Bardic by itself would be comfortable for you, even if you didn't have a talent like this. The king pays the Bards' schooling, and, after graduation, their salaries. Food is free in the Collegium. You could see if this talent can be taught to other Bards too. The food isn't as good or the rooms as luxurious as this household, but..."

After a moment, Stefen tugged his hands back. "I appreciate it," he said. "But, I'm... comfortable here, Vanyel. Maybe Bardic would beat the streets; maybe it wouldn't. I don't know, but I do know this place does. I never go hungry, and I never want for anything. I have chores and... duties, but Krague lets me do more or less whatever I want."

"Will it last?" Vanyel asked softly. "I haven't seen any slave here much older than twenty. If you lose his interest, then what?"

"I won't lose his interest," Stefen said, a hard, cynical edge in his voice. "Krague fancies himself in love with me, and I can manipulate him easily enough. I make sure he's good to me—and keep him acting nice to the others, too. I keep his attention on me and off them, and in return I'm his favorite pet and live in the lap of luxury. I'm sure I can keep that from changing. He's wrapped around my finger."

It's not a good use of his Gift, but in this situation, I can hardly judge him. Of course Stefen would do whatever was necessary to make a better life for himself.

"I see," Vanyel said. He tried to swallow his disappointment. However talented Stefen was, however many gifts and talents he'd been blessed with, they were his to use or not as he saw fit. Forcing him to leave a situation he's content with would make me the worst kind of person. He's got few enough choices in his life. Still... "I do think Bardic would be good for you. You'd get to learn, and I'd like to see you grow and flourish. But I understand. I won't push any further."

"Grow, huh." Stefen seemed to gather himself again, smirked at Vanyel. "I've offered to let you see that often enough."

Vanyel sighed, amused despite himself. "Stefen..."

"Besides, you're a Herald. All those ballads have you traveling all over the world. Would you even be around to see me grow if I wanted to?" Stefen's tone was cynical, dry.

"I'd try to be," Vanyel said.

***

Several more days passed, with his task still unsuccessful. He hunted uselessly, though at least his injuries, already mild, faded into a background annoyance.

Dinner was none too pleasant either, but the evenings were good. Stefen visited, and Vanyel taught him more songs, just enjoying what time they had together. Stefen seemed to have relaxed a little after Vanyel stopped bringing up Bardic and his Gift. He'd fluster a little, tuck hair back, and shyly ask Vanyel about himself. What it was like in Haven among the upper class, what it was like to have a Companion, his hobbies, his past. He even asked more about his 'friend, the one who's sick', and Vanyel had to rein in his tongue and talk carefully.

:I'm a little worried, sweetheart,: Yfandes said, at that time.

Vanyel had just kept smiling at Stefen. :I'm not going to let anything slip about Randi.:

:Not what I'm worried about.:

On the fourth day after, his daily hunt turned out to be particularly fruitless—he'd catch glimpses of magic and follow it to dead ends. It felt like he was being toyed with. He went back tired and irritable and saw the way Krague was watching him, thin lips tight and displeased.

Of course. From his perspective, he's been kindly sharing his favorite slave, and I've been fucking him every night without so much as a by-your-leave. Vanyel frowned slightly. He didn't want to drop his persona, and he felt like he'd rather bite his tongue off than actually apologize to this man or to leave Stefen with him, but he didn't want to aggravate things. Stefen made it clear he could manage things on his own, but that doesn't make this more pleasant.

"I'm rather tired today," he said, looking down his nose at Krague. "I'll simply retire tonight. Don't send anyone."

Krague seemed relieved. "Oh! Oh, good, good. Well, don't let me keep you."

But by the time he got to his room, Stefen was already there. Vanyel stopped in the doorway, wide-eyed.

Stefen smiled at him shyly, sitting up straighter on the edge of the bed. "I thought you'd never get back," he said. "I just came right up here after dinner—"

Then again, one more evening wouldn't hurt anything. Vanyel thought. :He's rather energizing, isn't he,: he projected to Yfandes. :One sight of his face and I've perked right up.:

:Van, when you're done here, you won't be able to linger.:

There was a good deal of sympathy sent with her words, but despite that, it hurt unexpectedly. But then, he'd made a friend here. Of course it would. :I know,: he said. :It's fine, 'Fandes.:

"Vanyel? Is that okay?"

"It's fine," Vanyel said. He came to join Stefen, reaching for the lute Stefen had placed next to him. Better to have small moments in life than nothing at all. "It's perfect."

 

***

The next day, Krague didn't join him for breakfast. It suited Vanyel fine, though he couldn't help but wonder if Stefen choosing to go to his room uninvited might not have displeased the man too much. Hard to care if it did, though I worry that he might take it out on his slaves. Still, Vanyel had seen no sign of such things, no bruises on any of the help, and Stefen at no point had expressed any concern over it.

He put the thought from his mind and he and Yfandes rode out to hunt. There, it seemed his luck had somehow changed, or perhaps his frustrating attempts to track the demons had done some good:

The Karsite wizard attacked him first.

It was a trap, certainly. But days of fruitless searching, in combination with when the demons got the jump on him, had put him back into a level of alertness not unlike his recent time on the border. He fought back swiftly, first taking down the demons, then targeting the wizard with with bolts, aiming to stun—and finally succeeding.

He didn't have much time to Truth Spell him, despite his best efforts. He barely got two answers from him: the confirmation that the wizard was indeed from Karse and that no others had been using this area to send demons across. And then, abruptly, the wizard died, with no fuss or drama. His heart just stopped.

A failsafe, Vanyel thought, annoyed. Wouldn't be the first time. It made him suspicious, though. Clearly this wizard had known something that he or whoever commanded him wouldn't have wanted known.

Still, he'd heard enough. This mission was over.

:Sweetheart...: Yfandes came over and nuzzled his hair.

He raised a hand to run it over her neck. :It's fine. I won't give you any cause to say 'I told you so'. This is what I came to do, so I'll get my things and head out.:

She didn't answer, just sighed heavily and nudged him with her nose.

Despite his firm answer, his heart was heavy as he returned to Krague's manor. He dismounted, but didn't take Yfandes to the stables. "I won't be long," he told Luzus. "I'll just get my things and say farewell to your master."

"I can get your things," Luzus said, almost too quickly. Krague was waiting for this. He must have hoped it would be over soon... "I'll tell my master you're leaving."

"Er, yes," Vanyel said. "Do you know if Stefen is busy?"

Luzus's gaze flicked between Vanyel and the house briefly. "Yes, m'lord," he said. "Krague had a long task list for him today. I believe he's polishing silver right now."

If that's punishment, it's not so bad, Vanyel thought, watching Luzus trot into the house. Then again, as Stefen said, he had Krague wrapped around his finger.

Krague came out shortly after, wringing his hands. Though Vanyel expected him to look only too pleased at the news that Vanyel would be leaving, he looked even unhappier than before. His lips were drawn down in a grimace, sweat trickling down his brow, and he flicked his gaze between Vanyel and the horizon once more.

Afraid of me, knowing I took that wizard down? Or just having a bad day?

"So you succeeded," Krague said, forcing an obvious smile on his face. "How lovely, how lucky for you. Well, I should have realized! You're Herald-Mage Vanyel, after all. Was it an easy battle, or something magnificent?"

Vanyel frowned at him. "It was successful, and I've taken no further injuries. That's all you need to know."

"Oh, don't spare the details. Did you capture the wizard? Torture him for information for your king?" Krague sounded deeply invested. "Or did he die honorably in combat? Oh, I've hosted you this long, I need to know how it turned out!"

Through sheer force of will, Vanyel kept from wrinkling his nose. What a disgusting sycophant. "Anything I learned is for my king's ears only, though I thank you for the hospitality."

Luzus carried Vanyel's bags down then, and Vanyel took them from him, fastening the packs to Yfandes.

"Of course, of course. Just doing my duty as well," Krague said.

"I'll be heading off then," Vanyel said. "My thanks once more to you and to your king." And then, because he couldn't seem to stop his heart from aching, "Do send your boy Stefen out. I grew somewhat fond of him during my time here and I'd enjoy the chance to say farewell."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Krague said, smiling unapologetically. "I had to send him out of the house today on some errands. I'm afraid that won't be possible."

Luzus glanced at him, then back at Vanyel with a very minute shrug. Vanyel met his gaze to show he acknowledged it, and then Luzus half-turned, glancing toward a window—

Vanyel followed his gaze, saw a silhouette in there. After a moment, it raised its hand.

I can't wave back. His stomach felt heavy, and his chest hurt at the thought, a regret he thought he might carry with him for some time to come.

So he just bowed, a stiff gesture he pretended was aimed at Krague, then turned to mount up on Yfandes.

When he glanced back, the silhouette was gone.

***

Vanyel still wasn't quite over it a full month and a half after returning to Haven. But things were otherwise well. Randale had taken the news of the wizard's defeat with pleasure and—of yet, anyway, and hopefully permanently—there was no more news of demons coming that way.

It's almost strange how hard I've taken it. His life was one that by nature came with lots of meetings and partings. His fellow Heralds took to the field for years at a time—if they ever returned. Vanyel's dead friends well outweighed the living, and of the living ones, his absent friends well outweighed the present.

He sighed and reached for a bottle of wine, uncorking it and pouring himself a cup, then pondered picking up a songbook. His time out at Krague's had at least reminded him how out of practice he'd become on the border.

Before he could even decide, his thoughts began to drift again. Perhaps it's just that there was no real closure there. Not that he always got closure for everything and everyone else, but he tended to be more aware of the circumstances before he got into them. He hadn't been prepared to befriend any of Krague's slaves. If anything, he'd prepared for the opposite. Knowing he wouldn't be able to act on it, he'd intended to keep himself at arm's length.

Again, Vanyel sighed, shaking his head and trying to dismiss the depressing thoughts before he could sink into them fully. He raised his cup to his lips and was about to sip when a knock came at his door.

The cadence was familiar.

He almost choked. It was impossible; he was reading too much into it. A brief touch of his mind found an equally familiar person, though, and he sloshed wine as he slammed his cup down, springing to his feet and dashing to the door.

Stefen smiled at him awkwardly as it opened. He was wearing the brown that was one of the colors both Herald and Bard trainees wore, and lifted a hand in greeting. "Hello," he said.

Vanyel gaped. "What... how?" Even seeing him in front of me, I can't believe it. "Stefen?!"

"Who else?" Stefen glanced past him. "Nice room. Cozy. Can I come in?"

Numbly, Vanyel stepped aside. "You left."

"I did! Headed for the border, found some border guards, and did as you said," Stefen said easily, as if he hadn't been arguing against it all that time, as if he hadn't rejected Vanyel's offers to help. "Told them that a Bard let me know I was Gifted, and I wanted to get to Haven. Figured it wasn't exactly a lie. I got sent along with a messenger when it was time for them to report in, and showed myself to Bardic this morning. I would have come to you sooner, but they decided to settle me in there first and I couldn't get away."

Vanyel stared at him. "Why... how? You were so certain... Did he hurt you? After you came to me."

"What? No, not that. If I was going to come here I'd damn well do it because I'd decided I wanted to, not because someone told me to," Stefen said. His smile faded. "He didn't hurt me. He actually blamed you instead... he was really angry that you'd seduced me. I reassured him." He drew a breath. "...Vanyel, listen, there's something..."

Swallowing, Vanyel made his way back to his seat and sank down into it. He felt almost light-headed. I'm so relieved I'm dizzy, after the way that whole thing was eating at me... "What is it...?"

"There's something I need to tell you," Stefen said, and his smile was gone entirely now, expression very serious. "But before I do, I need your promise for something."

"If I can promise," Vanyel said.

Slowly, Stefen said, "I'm sure Krague will replace me with some other kid, if things remain as they are. And like I said, that's better than the streets, but it's still some child being picked up to be a noble's sexual plaything." He shrugged a shoulder, as if it didn't much matter to him one way or another, but his brows were furrowed. "But even that'd be better than if I tell you what I want to, because Krague will definitely be removed from power and his household disbanded. And I don't want them to end up on the streets."

"You want me to try to find a way to keep that from happening?"

Stefen's troubled hazel eyes met Vanyel's concerned silver ones. "...Vanyel, I've got evidence that Krague was conspiring cross-border with Karse. And I'll give it to you, but... I protected that household, I told you before. Now I'm not. I want to make sure they're cared for. Whatever negotiation your king makes with King Festil... I want the boys safe, freed, offered food and housing in Valdemar. Everything you offered me with the Bards, but for them. They're not lucky like I am, they can't just have it given to them because they've got some Gift. If I don't do something, they'll never have a choice other than being owned."

Vanyel stared at him. He's perfect. The thought rose completely involuntarily and flustered him, because it's not like he could say perfect at what, exactly. But Stefen's wonderful. He hadn't wanted to leave, but came all this way...

"You left even though it'd put yourself at risk...?"

Stefen's gaze flicked down. "It seemed like the right thing to do," he muttered. And then, anxiously. "Look, I thought about it, and I want to be around you and help your friend and all that, but they have to come first. So that's my price. Do we have a deal?"

He took a moment to compose himself after Stefen's offhand comment. He wants to be around me... "I'll do what I can," Vanyel said. I could easily get the information from him otherwise, but why would I, with a wonderful price like that? He felt almost overwhelmed by how hard Stefen was trying to help his fellow slaves. Former, Vanyel reminded himself. "I'll take the information right to Randi—to Randale. I'll tell him what you said, and I'll push for it. I believe... no, I'm sure he can get Festil to agree to send them here as freed men. Festil has no investment in a handful of slaves, and every investment in not having a traitor violating his borders."

Stefen searched his face, then seemed to light up all at once, beaming. He came to sit on the bed, gazing at Vanyel. "In that case, I'll explain. As I said, he blamed you, I reassured him that I still 'loved' him and acted like you'd just seduced me." Stefen made actual quotes in the air at the word loved, then shrugged at the look on Vanyel's face. "Hey, I do what I must to get by. Anyway, he vented. He'd tried to have the wizard kill you, he said, and couldn't believe it was unsuccessful. Obviously, that made me a bit suspicious. I searched the house and managed to find a contract; he was making a pretty penny for every day the wizard worked in his territory." Stefen began to dig in his pocket.

"You brought that with you when you ran for the border," Vanyel breathed. A sense of deep satisfaction and amazement curled inside him.

"Of course," Stefen said smugly. "I figured if demons could sneak across, one skinny slave could manage."

"You're wonderful," Vanyel said, and had the pleasure of seeing Stefen go pink. He held out a hand. "I need that. I have to take this to Randi right away. Okay?"

Stefen nodded after a moment and produced a single folded piece of parchment. "Okay. ...I mean, you promised."

"I'll be back," Vanyel said, taking it. His fingers brushed Stefen's, warm and gentle. Stefen's chin tilted up, and his fingers pressed to Vanyel's in return, a firm, arm grasp. Vanyel's heart seemed to stutter. For a moment, he couldn't bring himself to let go, gazing at Stefen. "...Don't go anywhere."

He found Randale resting, and while he hated to bother him, he called his name. Randale stiffened, straightening, and Vanyel remembered Stefen's ability again. He'd already said that he wanted to help Vanyel's friend. I have to make sure Randi is okay with it, but...

He brandished the paper as he approached. "Randi, I've got two things for you," he said. "One's a big headache, but I hope the other will be considerably less pain."

***

It took several hours. He explained things to Randale, and after they discussed quickly, they brought in the Ambassador from Hardorn, and got things underway.

And only then could he head back, a little sorry that he'd left Stefen waiting all that time.

:He's amazing, 'Fandes,: he thought at her as he strode through the palace. :All that talk about wanting to protect his own comforts, and he still put others ahead of himself.

:At least he won't lack for comforts here either,: she agreed. A warm relief came with the thought.

Vanyel flushed a little. :You're as happy as I am, I'd swear.:

:I'd thought it rather a shame if you two met and had to part again.: Her tone was light and teasing. :Glad the boy had some good sense and solved that where you couldn't. I like him.:

:Surprised you aren't saying I just don't have good sense.:

:That goes for granted, beloved.

Vanyel made it back to his rooms, and dropped the conversation without retorting. He opened the door, taking a step in, and stopped himself before he could call out.

Stefen was sleeping on his bed, curled on his side, expression soft. The sight made a sudden lump rise in Vanyel's throat, and he swallowed hard around it. Stefen seemed sweet, almost innocent, and utterly worn out from his endeavours. Vanyel thought he should go over and pull the blankets over him, but couldn't seem to bring himself to move.

Light from the lamps in the hallway poured in, and a moment later, Stefen stirred, rubbing his eyes and pushing himself up on one arm. "...It went okay...?"

Vanyel managed to find his voice again, a little disappointed. "...I think so. Everything's set in motion, anyway." He came over and sat on the bed next to him, reaching to brush some of Stefen's hair out of his eyes.

Stefen's breath caught, and he licked his lips, a gesture Vanyel couldn't help but notice. "...You don't think I'm untrustworthy...?"

Untrustworthy? "What? Why?"

"A snitch. If I'd snitch on my master, who wouldn't I snitch on...?"

Vanyel kept touching his hair, kept stroking it. "Is that what you were worrying about while I was out there...? No, Stefen. No. We think you're amazing. You did an incredible thing. The King's as proud of you as I am."

Stefen drew another sharp breath, eyes widening, and sat up fully. It put the two of them close, almost too close; Vanyel could feel Stefen's breath on his face. I should move away.

He didn't.

Instead, Stefen moved in.

His lips were soft, warm, and Vanyel could taste just a hint of wine on his mouth. He must have drank my cup to calm his nerves. He wasn't drunk, though, Vanyel was sure of that. Stefen's mouth was steady, and Vanyel parted his lips slightly, let Stefen kiss him for a long few moments. He fought not to kiss back. It wouldn't be right. I can't take advantage of him like everyone else—

He Felt Stefen's sudden despair, his disappointment, wash over him. Abruptly, Vanyel realized that Stefen had no idea of his thoughts right now. He just thought he was being rejected again, that no matter what he'd done, he was disgusting to Vanyel in some way.

Vanyel slid his fingers into Stefen's hair and kissed back. He caught at Stefen's lips with his own, met his tongue. Stefen had stilled briefly, but his breath hitched, and he began to kiss Vanyel again, almost frantic. They clung to each other, Vanyel's fingers tight in Stefen's hair, Stefen's fingers kneading his shoulders, mouths meeting and parting, no sound in the room but the wetness of their lips, the quick gasps of air between it.

I have to slow down. It felt like if he let himself get carried away he'd go too far, he might never stop. He tensed a little to pull back.

But before he could, Stefen did, slowly. "Sorry," Stefen breathed, longing in his voice. "Just a kiss. You with your memories of your lifebonded and all. No passing dalliances for you, of course."

Vanyel's heart ached suddenly. He tried to find the words to gently turn Stefen down and couldn't. Didn't want to. He wanted, if anything, more. Not just kissing. I want him. All of him. But he's so young still—no, he's experienced. Too experienced perhaps, abused and—still, he came here. He chose this. He said outright, that he wouldn't do it because I told him to. I don't think anyone is more tired of jumping to someone else's decisions than he is... Still, though. I don't want to rush into things, not so immediately off the back of all of that...

He slid his fingers through that tousled auburn hair, stroking it, and just tried to explain, honestly and hoarsely. "...I just want to get to know you better," he said. "I want to hear about everything as you learn, as you train. I want to talk to you about everything without worrying about any listening ears. I want to see all sides of you. But for now, just a kiss. Alright?" It felt almost heady to say.

Stefen swallowed audibly. "You really will seduce me with that type of talk."

I want to. But he pulled himself up and smiled. "Not so easily, I hope," he said. "But stay a little longer?"

"Vanyel...?"

"We can talk about your plans from here. Just... spend time with me." He cast his eyes around himself and saw a deck of cards. "Do you know how to play Hinds and Hounds?"

Stefen widened his eyes with a playful and blatantly false naivety. "Why no, Herald Vanyel—but I'd love to learn."

Vanyel laughed out loud, heart leaping. "You're a menace, aren't you."

"I'd thought you'd figured that out already."

I'm happy. It was a strange thought, but he wouldn't argue with it. He picked up the deck of cards, and took down a second cup. "Alright, we'll play and I'll lose. Some more wine?"

Stefen's cheeks colored a little, as if he hadn't expected Vanyel to realize. "Please," he said. "I think it's only right if I make at least a few bad decisions on my first day as a free man."

"I'll call for a second bottle then," Vanyel said, and pulled the rope to ring for a servant, then poured the rest of the current bottle into their two cups. He picked up his own. "To freedom and futures?" he suggested.

Stefen burst into a dazzling smile. "I'll toast to that," he said, and they did.