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On the Nature of Shahrizai Parties

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My cousin Imriel is an idiot.

They had offered him a Princess. Cruithne though she might be, still a Princess of the Dalriada. Neat little solution to the political problem that is Imriel’s existence. And he refused. Elua knows why.

Ysandre was in a rage, but she didn’t quite dare to banish him. Sending him out of Terre d’Ange would send him into Melisande’s grasp, and we couldn’t have that. Meanwhile his Champions of the Realm foster parents were off on some secretive world-saving venture.

So they sent him to us. The disgraced Shahrizai, taking in one of our own. It wasn’t going to help our reputation any, but no one dared to cross Ysandre on that issue.

Besides, I was grateful to have him, idiot or no.

He was delivered to us by a passel of royal guards. Not quite a prisoner, but also certainly not to be allowed free reign.

It was my uncle the Duc Faragon who technically had the honor of “hosting” my wayward cousin, but I knew Imriel best, and my uncle had already made clear that I would be friend, confidante, and chaperone. From the way Roshana and Baptiste hovered, I suspected they had received similar orders. Imriel would never have the freedom of a moment alone, and we three had been designated as his keepers.

I didn’t care about the politics of the situation. I was in no position to inherit anything more than my father’s manor, and while I felt loyalty to my Queen and country, I felt more loyalty to my family and my friend-cousin Imriel. Striding forward the moment he dismounted, I clasped him in a hug.

He hugged me back, so tight as to be almost clinging, while the guards and my family stood around awkwardly. I wasn’t having any of their nerves and aloofness. Keeping possessive hold of him, I gave the Queen’s guards a polite bow. “Thank you for delivering my cousin safely to us,” I said to them. “We will take responsibility for his care.”

Leaving the rest of the situation to my uncle, I steered Imriel safely inside. Roshana and Baptiste trailed swiftly after us.

Leading him to the guest room I had been provided, I pushed him into a chair and perched against the table immediately beside it, while Roshana dropped into the other chair and Baptiste settled worriedly on the floor.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Imriel begged, covering half his face with one hand and leaning into it dejectedly. “Please.”

“We aren’t here to judge you, cousin,” Roshana said. “Think of us as your sanctuary.”

“Are you hungry? May I fetch you anything?” Baptiste offered, but Imriel only shook his head.

We couldn’t get any more out of him, so Baptiste sent for food after all, and Roshana bullied the four of us into a game of cards. Imriel barely spoke.

It was a week before he confessed to me. Partly confessed, at least.

Once the novelty and scandal of his arrival had worn off, and Roshana and Baptiste grew bored of shadowing us constantly, they became more content to leave him in my care. I didn’t mind. It kept me from the adventures and romances I might otherwise have conducted, but I enjoyed Imriel’s company. Spoilsport though he was, he could be witty and insightful, even when he was in such a blighted mood as this one.

So I did my part to distract him with books and adventures, riding out across Kusheth in the snow as a freedom from staring at it from inside Imriel’s room. He refused to flirt or bed any of the young beauties who looked our way, so I bedded them on behalf of us both and earned scandalized smiles from him when I recounted the tales.

It was on a day such as that, when I was sated and jubilant, and Imriel was smiling with half-contained laughter, that he finally spoke.

“I told them I couldn’t love her.”

Surprised that Imriel had finally broken his vigil on the topic, I sat up and looked at him in surprise.

“That ugly?” I teased.

He kicked me. “Don’t. Please. She was gentle and good, and I couldn’t…”

“Inflict yourself upon her?”

He kicked me again, but this time there was a hesitation when his foot pulled away, as though he agreed with the jest.

I didn’t press the subject. Arranged marriages among our royalty and nobility are always questionable when it comes to Blessed Elua’s precept to Love as Thou Wilt. And yet, Imriel’s birth and his mother’s crimes put him in a position such that marrying Dorelei would have done much to reassure the nobles of the realm that he had no untoward ambitions.

As the days became weeks, my cousin remained bookish and withdrawn, but he consented to dine with the family at dinner more often than not.

It was a little over three weeks from his arrival that Imriel received a visitor.

The day was rainy, and I was half dead of boredom. Imriel was tucked on my couch with a book, and I was staring out into the dreary rain trying to think of some adventure sufficient to overcome the dullness, when my attention was caught by some ruckus at the gate.

I knew full well that it had to be a stranger, for the guards would never have stopped anyone they recognized or a messenger with clear intent. But there seemed to be some sort of hesitation over whoever it was, which interested me.

“Imri, there’s someone at the gate,” I said, in hopes of tempting him.

“Mm,” he replied, not looking up from his book.

All the more adventure for me, then.

Leaving him there, I snatched my cloak and headed downstairs, to find the gatekeepers crowded into the gatehouse and in frustrated discussion with a handsome young Caerdicci nobleman. They didn’t speak Caerdicci, and he spoke paltry D’Angeline, so there was confusion and hot tempers on all sides, and the gatehouse was even more cramped with me sticking my head in..

How fortunate that I had the authority to intervene—or at least the charisma to talk everyone into listening to me, which was almost the same thing. “What’s all this, then?” I asked in Caerdicci, laying a hand on the shoulder of one of the gatekeepers in order to calm and silence him long enough for me to interrogate our visitor.

“I’m Lucius Tadius da Lucca,” the stranger replied, handsome and auburn-haired even when wet and exhausted from travel. “I’ve come to visit my friend Imriel.”

He didn’t name any of Imriel’s titles or surnames, which I couldn’t decide whether or not to count in his favor.

“Lucius,” I repeated, reaching out to clasp his hand with a smile. “Imriel has spoken of you. His friend from Tiberium, correct?”

Relieved to be recognized and rescued, Lucius clasped my hand gratefully and broke into a smile in return. “Yes, I—“

“You’re soaked through,” I finished for him. “Let’s get you inside, get some hot wine in you, and then you can tell us everything.” Redirecting my smile onto the befuddled guards, I kept possession of Lucius’ hand. “I’ll take him to my uncle,” I told them in D’Angeline, before dragging Lucius back into the rain and through the courtyard to the main doors of the estate.

For the time being, I had no intention of presenting him to my uncle or my cousin, not until I got some answers of my own. There would be plenty of time for reunions and business later. For now, I had a responsibility as chaperone to find out this stranger’s intent. Besides, knowledge was a very useful tool to wield, and this was my chance to control a situation that neither my cousins nor my uncle had yet noticed.

Ordering us some food, hot mulled wine, and a fresh change of clothes in his size, I dragged my new charge into a spare bedroom that would suit my needs. I sprawled on a couch to interrogate him while he changed behind a screen, which gave me chance to regret Caerdicci modesty and my own choice of a bedroom with a privacy screen.

“Now that we can converse like civilized people,” I said, helping myself to some of the cherries while I waited for him, “you have to tell me what brings a young Caerdicci nobleman alone all the way across two countries to Kusheth.”

“Imriel is a dear friend to me,” Lucius answered from the other side of the screen. His voice was as handsome as he was, and I indulged myself in thinking of some other uses for it.

“Alone,” I repeated. “Across two countries.”

He appeared around the edge of the screen, a slight indignant blush on his cheeks. It suited him. The clothing suited him, as well, although the Shahrizai colors were a little austere for his coloring. He would have looked better in gray and burgundy, and I made a mental note to arrange for a couturier if he was to be staying. His own little bundle of possessions couldn’t hold much of a proper wardrobe, especially not the way it was looking wet and limp in a corner of the room.

“I hired an escort, and left them in Morhban,” he explained.

“Why?” I asked, making the inquiry pointed because he hadn’t answered the politer version.

“I heard that he had been disgraced,” Lucius said, sitting across from me and gratefully helping himself to the steaming wine. “I came to offer my friendship and support.”

This time I settled for merely raising a questioning brow. All the way across two countries, to Kusheth. Did he think Imriel had no friends in all Terre d’Ange?

His answer was a very pretty blush and a hasty avoidance of my gaze.

Oh. Well, wasn’t that interesting.

“Eat,” I ordered, rising to my feet. “Rest. I’ll explain the situation to my uncle and fetch Imriel. I presume you’ll be staying for at least a few weeks?”

“Yes, I…” He hesitated. There was something else he wasn’t telling me. Of course there was. “Yes.”

I could extract more information from him later, at my leisure. I wanted this situation left fully in my control, and I was very intrigued by the new information I had.

My uncle, Duc Faragon, was in his study. Since Imriel was still his guest, I kept my residence here instead of at my father’s home a few hours distant.

Letting myself in, I sprawled into one of the chairs across from him, and he arched a regal Shahrizai brow at me just the way I’d done to poor Lucius mere minutes ago.

“Uncle, Imriel has a guest. A Caerdicci nobleman by the name of Lucius Tadius da Lucca.”

“Should the name mean something to me?”

“Likely not. He was a university friend of Imriel’s. I believe that he’s harmless. I’ll take responsibility for them both.”

“Have you advised him that now is a bad time for Imriel to be receiving guests?”

I bit my knuckle, considering the situation before revealing what I knew. “I believe he’s in love with Imriel.”

Both regal Shahrizai brows went up. “Oh.”

I knew that he knew what that betokened. There was no way he couldn’t. If Imriel loved Lucius in return, and that had been the reason he’d refused Dorelei, so as not to commit heresy against Elua’s precept… that changed things.

“Very well,” he decided, as I had known he would. “Go. Investigate. Report back to me.”

I bowed deeply, without ever removing the grin from my face, and returned to my cousin Imriel, who was still innocently buried in his book.

Stealing the book, I dropped onto the end of the couch so as to sit on his feet, and pretended to read it upside-down. “Imri, tell me something.”

He leveled an annoyed glare at me. “You’re still bored, are you?”

I leveled my best Shahrizai interrogative eyebrow at him in return. “Why did you refuse Dorelei?”

His face shuttered, his annoyance strengthening as a defense. “Mavros. Leave it.”

“Do you intend to take the secret to your grave?” I asked him, playful.

He made a grab for the book. “It isn’t your concern, Mavros.”

“Just as well. I already know.”

“I find that extremely unlikely.”

“You’re in love with someone else.”

He made another grab for the book, rolling his eyes. “I am not.”

His unpracticed sincerity stunned me, and he got the book back while I was surprised. I’d expected him to blush and stammer, or to become suddenly even more defensive. Instead he’d brushed me off as if he thought I was merely aiming in the dark. I knew how love looked on a man, and my cousin Imriel—was not in love.

I suddenly had absolutely no idea how much information I did or didn’t have nor how accurate it was. “Why, then?”

“Because I did not love her, Mavros. It is that simple.”

It wasn’t. Nothing ever was, and especially not marriage to Princesses of the Dalriada.

I sigh, which doesn’t take much to force it. “It was a gambit,” I explain, because now I can’t let Imriel know that Lucius is in love with him. Not if he doesn’t already. And doesn’t this put me in an odd position, now.

“I’m aware.”

“My uncle stipulated that I was to make another effort to extract it from me before I told you.”

Imriel sat up. “Told me what?”

“About the news,” I obfuscated.

What news?”

“That depends. Why did you refuse Dorelei?”

“I am sworn to secrecy. Elua’s balls, Mavros, you are maddening.”

“How sweetly you flatter. Come, give me a hint.”

“I will not. Nor will I be baited. Keep your news.”

“As you like,” I batted my lashes martyrishly. “Although I imagine Lucius will get lonely eventually.”

He dropped the book into his lap. “Lucius?”

“Oh, do you know him? Some pretty redhead from … where was it again, La Serenissima…?”

Mavros.”

“I’ll go fetch him. You tidy yourself up. Your hair looks a mess.”

He glared at me. “I can’t tell if you’re jesting with me.”

“I am always jesting with you, my dearest cousin. It is the only remedy for your seriousness.” Rolling to my feet, I leaned over to kiss him, and then headed for the door.

Befuddled, he glared after me. I was pleased, at least, that he knew I would obstruct his efforts constantly if he made any effort to follow me.

Hoping that he might at least consider my advice about his hair, I returned to fetch Lucius.

Given some time to tidy himself, Lucius’ auburn hair had gained a pretty wave, and he looked a little more like a young nobleman and less like a wet cat. His hopeful expression was endearing.

“Ready?” I asked, giving him an inviting smile.

“Ready,” he said, striding across the room to meet me before he reached me and his smile faltered in confusion. “Ready for what?”

“To go see if you’re any better at making Imriel smile than I am.”

That brought his smile back, which put me in no hurry to get out of his way. I was rather tempted to see how long I could trap him in the doorway smiling at me.

Imriel was an idiot.

If I were to be passing up marriage opportunities with Cruithne princesses, I should hope by Namaah’s tits that it would be for reasons of love with Caerdicci noblemen with auburn hair and charming smiles.

“I’m ready,” Lucius assured me. He looked like he couldn’t tell whether or not he dared playfully shove me out of the way.

“Imriel,” I said again, taking a step back and then leading him down the hall and through the estate back to Imriel’s room.

Evidently pacing the room, Imriel stopped and stared at me when I stepped through the door.

I grinned cheekily at him, letting him have a moment of anticipation, and then stood aside and held the door open.

“Lucius!”

Maybe not the tone of a man in love, but at least the tone of a man happy to see his friend. Imriel strode quickly across to us, throwing his arms around Lucius in greeting.

“Lucius, it’s wonderful to see you, but what brings you here? What has happened?”

I so dearly wanted to make helpful contributions to this conversation, but I judged that I’d learn more by keeping my mouth shut and hoping they forgot my presence.

“I missed you and wished to visit. I thought to be attending your marriage, but I see that’s not to happen.”

“It’s a very long story, Lucius,” Imriel sighed. “Most of which I cannot divulge.”

Elua’s balls. That honorable streak had to be the Courcel in him. It was a terrible influence.

“It doesn’t matter. I trust your judgement, Imriel.”

I wasn’t certain I did, but it seemed that Lucius’ judgement was biased.

“Are you staying for long?”

“Until I wear out my welcome.”

Imriel looked to me, knowing that I had influence on the topic. I grinned and made a show of checking out Lucius’ rear. “He can stay as long as he likes. Don’t worry, Imriel. Your friend is welcome here.”

After that, I judged that it was my welcome that was worn, and left the two of them alone to get re-acquainted. In my room, I might mention.

I sought out Roshana, who was exchanging kisses with her chambermaid, but called me in anyway. The chambermaid in question was an excellent kisser. Taking a seat, I stretched out my legs and crossed them at the ankle, resting head in hand as I considered my cousin. “I have a challenge for you.”

Roshana was of course interested. She combed her fingertips gently through the chambermaid’s hair like a pet cat as we talked, her eyes locked on me. “Oh?”

“Imriel has a guest, some Caerdicci lordling named Lucius Tadius da Lucca, who seems to be in love with him.”

“Oh,” Roshana purred, intrigued.

“The trick is, Imriel’s not in love with him.”

“Then why—“

“Excellent question. But the challenge I had in mind was whether Imriel can fall in love with him.”

She lifted her brows loftily. “Why?”

“Because I want to know why he refused Dorelei, that’s why.”

“It isn’t my fault you can’t get Imriel to tell you,” Roshana said.

“Nor can you. Don’t pretend you haven’t tried.”

She lifted her chin a little higher.

“The youth is a dear friend of Imriel’s, and pretty, and—Elua’s Balls, Roshana, I thought you’d jump at the chance. You love playing matchmaker and Imriel needs it.”

“I’ll consider it. Are you dragging this young lordling to dinner tonight?”

“On a leash, if possible.” I bit my lip and smirked at the thought.

“Is it Imriel who’s bedding him, or you?”

I sighed. “Imriel.”

That night at dinner, I seated Imriel between Lucius and myself, so that I could prod at Imriel if he didn’t behave in a manner that I deemed fitting. Our new guest was charming and intelligent, quickly endearing himself to most of my family, while Imriel was as withdrawn and quiet as ever, and needed frequent prodding.

When the meal was finished, Lucius retired to bed, and I tagged along after Imriel to nag at him. “Your friend seems very fond of you.”

“He’s a very dear friend, Mavros, and I’m grateful for his company.”

“Am I misled or does it seem that he fancies you a little?”

Much to my triumph, Imriel blushed. “He does. Mavros, this isn’t your business.”

I followed him into his room, not to be put off. “But you don’t return the sentiment?”

He tensed his jaw and dropped his eyes, in frustration, but it wasn’t directed at me. I knew that particular color of self-loathing on Imriel. “I’m not comfortable with men, Imriel, you know that.”

“Yes,” I confirmed, understanding that the scars on my cousin’s soul were deep and frightening. “But what I want to know is whether or not you’re interested.

“It doesn’t matter,” he growled, folding his arms defensively. “I’ll never—“

“I think it matters.”

His eyes flicked over to me. “What?”

“It matters,” I explained, “if you think love is worth the risk.”

He couldn’t argue with that. I watched the muscles in his jaw working with frustration.

“Are you interested?” I repeated.

“I’m interested in women. And I feel comfortable around them.”

“Just not Dorelei.”

His face lit with fury. “Don’t you dare bring her into this.”

I took a step back, surprised by that reaction. I’d never seen rage from him on that topic before. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean...”

“Dorelei has nothing to do with this, Mavros. And neither that nor this is your concern. Now get out of my room.”

I went.

~

A new tactic, perhaps.

I wanted to know Imriel’s secret. I wanted to see Imriel smile. I wanted to make the pretty new lordling smile. I wanted to know if Imriel could fall in love. I wanted to get my way at something.

And, most of all, because as long as Imriel was under house arrest I was effectively under house arrest, I was bored.

I had myself awoken early, and had invited Lucius to my rooms for breakfast, knowing that Imriel preferred to breakfast alone in his rooms in the morning, and then he would have to come find Lucius in my rooms. Where we would be irresistibly charming and attractive. Preferably equally irresistibly charming and attractive, but if I had to defer to Lucius’ charm and attraction in order to get Imriel to stop moping, I was willing to make that sacrifice.

“Where’s Imriel?” my new pet lordling asked as he stepped into my room.

I considered being insulted. “Being antisocial, as usual.”

Lucius smiled a little. It was just the sort of irresistible smile I had in mind. Now if only Imriel were a little more susceptible to its wiles. “That sounds like him.”

“He is an exceptionally melancholy young man,” I agreed, gesturing for Lucius to join me at the table. “It’s the Courcel side of him.”

“I see,” Lucius said, helping himself to an orange. “And what is the Shahrizai side of him?”

“His beauty, charm, wit, deviousness, and—one hopes—any skill in the bedroom.”

Lucius pressed a hand to his mouth to try to contain his laughter. “I see. All the good traits, then.”

“Precisely.”

“Do you not like the Courcels?”

“I am a devoted subject of the crown. I just happen to think that the crown could use a bit more fun.”

Lucius had given up on any attempt at not grinning shamelessly in my presence. “I think most crowns could use a bit more fun.”

“I’m glad there’s someone of sense in Caerdicca Unitas,” I said, grinning back at him. “Imriel had given me the false impression that the place was entirely dull old men with dusty books.”

“We do have more then our fair share of those. But surely he must have spoken of me.”

“He didn’t mention how attractive you were.”

“We should scold him for that.”

Now it was my turn to laugh, delighted that Lucius shared my sense of humor. “And so we shall. He did at least mention how charming you were.”

“He flatters me, then,” Lucius replied. “Almost as much as you flatter me.”

“It’s a Shahrizai skill.”

“Along with any skills in the bedroom.”

I had no idea where this banter was going, but I was enjoying it. “Mayhap not any skill.”

“Which?”

Imriel had the very poor timing to choose that moment to arrive, just as I’d opened my mouth to tantalize Lucius with a hint of the Shahrizai tastes.

“What’s all this?” Imriel asked, wandering in to stand by the table, which very conveniently for my purposes only had two chairs.

“Breakfast.”

“I wasn’t invited?”

“You hate breakfast.” I said, biting into a grape and looking as innocent as possible.

“I don’t hate breakfast.”

“You hate people.”

“Mavros,” he sighed. Why did everyone say my name with that tone of voice?

“You are welcome to sit down and dine with us,” I offered.

“I already ate.”

“Alone?”

“Will you stop trying to talk me into a corner for just one minute? I’m only half awake.”

“And as pleasant as you are when fully awake, too,” I teased, grinning widely. I could see Lucius out of the corner of my eye, trying very hard to keep a straight face.

Imriel sighed, turning his attention to Lucius in an attempt at ignoring me. “Is he harassing you?”

“He’s enlightening me about the Shahrizai nature,” Lucius said, smiling up at his friend. “Will you sit with us? I suspect Mavros is only teasing you because of how you prickle.”

“He does prickle,” I interjected. “It’s an adorable prickle.”

“Mavros.” Imriel leveled a glare at me.

Rising gracefully to my feet, I bowed and offered my chair to my cousin. Puzzled by what I was up to, he took it, and then I was free to drop to the floor and lean back against Lucius’ knees, stealing morsels from his plate.

I knew full well what I was up to. I wanted to see whether I could make Imriel jealous.

I don’t know whether or not Lucius was aware of my plan, although I suspect he was merely enjoying having someone who would banter with him. I knew I was enjoying having someone other than my cousins who would banter with me. And both of us were enjoying watching Imriel fluster.

When I tipped my head back to grin at Lucius, he couldn’t help but grin back at me. He fed me a grape and I crunched it happily, grinning wickedly over at Imriel. The next grape, I licked at Lucius’ fingers for an instant as I took it.

“You have wanted your whole life to pretend to be a Tiberian Imperator, haven’t you?” Imriel rolled his eyes at me.

“Nonsense. I didn’t know until this moment how much I enjoyed being fed grapes by handsome young Caerdicci men.”

“And you’re encouraging him,” Imriel scolded his friend.

“Shouldn’t I be?”

“You could feed him a grape,” I suggested.

Lucius smiled, holding a grape out across the table. Imriel blushed, which I counted as a triumph, but he leaned forward to take the grape from Lucius’ fingers.

“He is pretty when he blushes, isn’t he?” I commented.

Mavros!

“He is,” Lucius agreed, laughing.

“Tell me a secret,” I coaxed, smiling up at Lucius.

“Don’t,” Imriel warned.

“Anything,” Lucius replied.

“Have you ever seen him laugh?”

“I laugh all the time!” Imriel objected.

I cast him a look. “Recently?”

“It isn’t my fault if you haven’t been funny,” Imriel said, but there was a smile hovering on his lips now.

I clasped my chest as if wounded through the heart and looked to Lucius for solace. “Did you hear what he said of me?”

“I did,” Lucius said, offering me another grape.

“Have you ever met anyone so callous?”

Never.”

We turned a playfully reprimanding look on Imriel in unison, and he started laughing. It was a warm, heartfelt sound, that I hadn’t heard from him in months.

“Name of Elua, Mavros, I don’t even know what you’re on about half the time,” Imriel shook his head, smiling.

I wrapped my lips around Lucius’ fingers as he fed me another grape, lingering just long enough to make him blush. “I think you do.”

There was almost an arch to one of Imriel’s brows in reply, although the tensing muscle in his jaw was the more familiar expression on him.

“I don’t,” Lucius said, playing idly with my braids. “Are either of you planning to tell me?”

“No,” Imriel said immediately.

I looked up at Lucius with a consoling smile. “Seems not. But perhaps I can offer some solace.”

“Don’t you dare,” Imriel warned, showing what was almost jealousy.

“By inviting you to my cousin’s party tomorrow evening,” I finished, giving Imriel a scolding glance for interrupting me when I was making perfectly innocent invitations.

“What sort of party?” Lucius asked, interested.

“Oh, food, drinks, dancing. Ordinary Shahrizai things.”

Lucius had no idea what I meant by ‘ordinary Shahrizai’ things, but Imriel certainly did. He looked ready to strangle me.

“I’d be honored,” Lucius accepted, grinning. “Imriel?”

“I can’t say I recommend Shahrizai parties,” Imriel delicately tried to warn him. “They’re very … exotic.”

“After the things I’ve seen, you think a party is going to scandalize me?” Lucius asked, amused.

“Possibly.”

“Oh, then I have to go.”

“Lucius—“ Imriel tried again.

“What my cousin is attempting to express is that Shahrizai parties involve quite a few beauties scantily clad on leashes, among other delights.”

“Absolutely must,” Lucius agreed.

Lucius—“ He was starting to say that the way he said my name.

“Excellent!” I declared. “So, which of us will be wearing the leash?”

Lucius grinned irrepressibly at me, despite the color Imriel was turning. “I’ve never worn a leash. Is it fun?”

“Plenty.”

“Of course, the better question is, who will be holding the other end?”

I arched a questioning brow at Imriel.

“Stop corrupting my friend,” Imriel said, blushing.

“He likes being corrupted,” I replied, then returned my attention to Lucius’ question. “I could go either way. Although I suppose since Imriel isn’t interested, it’ll have to be you on my leash.”

“Mavros,” Imriel growled. “You…” He looked lost for words for a sufficiently scathing insult.

I smirked back at him. “Unless you’re interested in having both of us on your leash.”

Imriel’s jaw fell open, eyes locked on mine. He was speechless for a second before his lips curved in a smirk. “Done.”

“There,” I grinned up at Lucius. “You see?”

Lucius laughed delightedly. “Imriel, will you really?”

“If Mavros will heel, how can I resist?”

~

I arranged it through my couturier, since I didn’t trust either of the other two to be able to arrange anything suitable.

I thought I might play off the old parable of Fustius, about a man who kept an angel and a devil as lovers. The parable went on to make some very moralistic points about immortal souls and the gray areas between good and evil, which I found both interesting and dull at once, but the basic concept would do quite nicely for our purposes. My couturier fussed about my demands on short notice, but he provided them, and the apparel was delivered with little time to spare.

Imriel showed up in my rooms first, wearing an austere gray tunic that buttoned up to a severe neckline. It was pure gray accented with blue-gray trim, and my couturier—who had been given Imriel’s measurements months ago, when I took it upon myself to dress my cousin for occasions—had done an admirable job of flattering the lines of Imriel’s body. He looked irresistible and untouchable at once, which I thought was very well suited.

For myself, I had a sumptuous doublet in blood-red velvet. It combined a decadent sense of vintage styles with modern sensibilities, and it was designed to be worn rakishly half-unbuttoned. To this was added a half-coronet with a stylized pair of little horns, to make me look a true devil.

“Are you making some kind of point?” Imriel asked, scowling at me.

I could see his misapprehension. If it were only the two of us as a set, we would be decadence and severity, and he would be fair to suspect me of mocking him. He would probably be right.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, lifting my brows and looking as innocent as I could.

“I’m not wearing this if you’re wearing that, Mavros. You must understand—“

The door behind him opened, revealing Lucius.

He was the gem of our little trio. Not being D’Angeline, he couldn’t match either of us for prettiness, but I’d arranged for him to outshine us both. Fitting, for an angel.

He wore a pristine white tunic in a vaguely Hellene style, which dipped in a low V down his chest, almost low enough to show his navel. It was even lower in the back, and he might have cause for alarm if it wasn’t paired with a set of tight-fitting deerskin trousers. His auburn hair was crowned with a silver coronet reminiscent of a halo.

Imriel gaped at him for several seconds longer than was strictly necessary, and then looked back at me, his scowl gone. “Fustius,” he said, surprised and impressed.

“I thought it fitting.”

“I didn’t know there were leashes in that parable.”

“Clearly you’ve never read the Shahrizai version,” I teased, rolling to my feet and opening a flat case that I’d been keeping nearby. “My Prince,” I purred, revealing the two identical black velvet collars with silver chains.

He took the case, setting it down on a table nearby and lifting out the first collar.

“Mavros,” he commanded, a rumble in his voice that I hadn’t heard before.

Surprised but very interested, I stepped to his side.

“One rule,” he said, unfastening the collar and cresting his thumb thoughtfully over the velvet before lifting his eyes to me. “No matter who touches you, you do not touch me or anyone else without permission.”

“Yes, my Prince,” I whispered, and he fastened the velvet collar around my neck, keeping the chain looped around his wrist.

This was a side of Imriel I’d never seen before. I knew there were still considerable limits to what he was willing to do, but this Imriel was confident and steady, willing to walk into a party holding two handsome men on leashes.

And then he surprised me utterly by pulling me into a kiss.

It was swift and heated, his tongue briefly ravishing my mouth before he released me. I have not often been stunned speechless, but I could only stare at him as he smiled and turned his attention to our companion.

“Lucius,” he summoned, and the Caerdicci lordling stepped forward into our space.

Gentler with him, Imriel fastened the collar carefully around his neck. I saw Lucius’ eyelashes flutter ticklishly as Imriel’s fingertips brushed over his skin, and wondered if Imriel had the experience to notice.

“Do I have a rule?” Lucius asked, smiling at him.

“Do you need one?”

Lucius shook his head, and then received his kiss. Theirs was sweeter, and I felt like a usurper to be here watching. Lucius kissed with sweet devotion, and Imriel was hesitant and bold at once.

Merciful Elua. I felt my heart drop into my gut with want.

They were both gorgeous, sincere, and in deep need of affection. They needed each other. I just had to get them to admit that, and then leave them and go home alone.

When the kiss broke, they gazed at each other for a moment, cheeks flushed.

“If you’d rather skip the party and retire to Imriel’s room, I won’t be offended,” I offered, tilting my neck to put a little bit of tension on my leash.

Imriel smirked at me and gave my leash a gentle tug. “Heel, Mavros.”

“Yes, my Prince,” I purred, bowing to him and falling into step at his side.

Lucius mirrored me, taking Imriel’s other side, and we shared a little smile behind Imriel’s back.

He led us downstairs to the carriage, while I kept my hands carefully behind my back so as to remember not to touch. The footman opened the carriage door for us and I stepped in first, sprawling across one side of the carriage so that Lucius and Imriel were forced to share the couch on the other side. Imriel was still grinning at us both, which was a delight. It had been so long since I’d seen him happy like this.

“Will there be many guests at the party on leashes, or did you just make that up to goad Imriel into this?”

I grinned at him in reply, too delighted by both possibilities to narrow the truth down to just one.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever been to a Shahrizai party that didn’t involve at least three people on leashes,” Imriel said.

“There’s an entire subset of Shahrizai culture dedicated to it,” I explained, never more tempted to let my hands wander than now that I’d been expressly forbidden.

“I find myself enjoying Shahrizai culture,” Lucius flirted.

“Good,” I rumbled. “You look exquisite in a leash. Don’t you think, Imriel?”

“I do.” Imriel looked Lucius over with an appreciative glance, tangling one hand into his pretty red hair.

“Gods, you’ve changed,” Lucius sighed, leaning into the touch.

“Is that bad?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“I take credit for it,” I chimed in, earning a grin from Lucius and a glare from Imriel.

“I should have made it a rule for you to keep silent,” Imriel groaned.

“And then I would have found ways to express myself and drive you mad without ever saying a word.”

Imriel sighed. “You would.”

The party was a glittering affair, intimate but lovely. The ballroom was strung with lanterns, and set with a variety of soft couches and chairs around the dance floor.

Imriel led us in with our leashes in hand, oblivious to the glances and admiring commentary sent our way. That might have gotten him across the hall safely in the City of Elua, but in Kusheth he was barely through the door before Roshana intercepted him.

“Isn’t this a lovely sight! Imriel, I’m impressed.”

“Good evening, Roshana,” Imriel said, smiling. His back stayed straight and confident, and I was proud of him.

“I lost a gambit,” I explained.

“On purpose, no doubt.” She beamed at me, entertained. “Don’t try to pretend you’re not enjoying this. Imriel, darling, don’t you know you could have gagged him?”

That won a startled blush from me, although I recovered quickly. Roshana would have thought of the gag. Imriel was still a novice at these things.

Imriel just smiled, and turned his head to trace a finger along my jaw. “I’m saving that for later.”

I stared at him, speechless again.

“If you’ll excuse us, Roshana.” Imriel bowed impeccably, leading us again into the party. He chose a quiet table off to one side with couches set around it, and we settled in comfortably, me on my own couch again.

“Can we gag him later, truly?” Lucius asked, all grins. I cocked a brow at him.

“Let’s see if we survive the party, first.”

The dancers on the floor showed off a few of the prettiest and most fashionable dances from the capitol, but for the most part the dances were traditional Shahrizai things, designed to be done with one partner on a leash. Lucius watched with bright pleasure, and I considered my cousin.

“You don’t know how to dance, do you?” I asked Imriel.

“I know how to dance.”

Nodding at the floor, I smirked with him. “Not those dances. You should have let me teach you.”

“That’s out of the question.”

“Poor Lucius, you let him out to take him to a party, but don’t allow him to dance?”

“I don’t know these dances, either,” Lucius said.

“They aren’t difficult. You simply have to follow a lead.” I held my hand out to Lucius, eyes on Imriel. “May I?”

Imriel checked Lucius’ expression first, then nodded. He put the end of the leash into my hand. “One dance. You may touch as necessary for it.”

I bowed deeply. “My Prince.”

Lucius’ smile was wide, so I gave his leash a gentle tug, letting my own hang loosely around my wrist. Guiding him out onto the floor, I led him carefully through the dance, keeping it as simple as I could. He was a good dancer, although his steps were different from the common D’Angeline ones, and we managed well enough. The main responsibility was mine, to keep us in step with the other dancers and to ensure that our leashes didn’t tangle with the others. When the dance finished, I led him back to Imriel.

Shahrizai relatives came by in a constant stream to offer congratulations to either myself or Imriel, and to ask curious and pointed questions about the young lordling at our side. As the evening lengthened, our visitors became fewer as couples peeled away from the party off to private rooms elsewhere in the manor. Two of my more distant cousins gave a nod our way, and I could guess what they had in mind because they’d made such offers before.

“Lucius,” I said. “We’ve just had an offer for a private showing. Would you care to learn more about Shahrizai customs? No one will touch us—it’s only to watch.”

Lucius went near as red as his hair, glancing over at the two men I indicated and then back at me. “They offered that?”

“It adds spice to the bedchamber for some, to be watched. I happen to know it’s their favorite spice.”

Lucius looked to Imriel, interested. “May we?”

Imriel’s cheeks were also flushed, but he nodded. “If you’re certain.”

Taking care with our chains, he led us after the amorous couple, to a cozy bedroom where a set of couches was set against one wall, and the bed along the other. Imriel settled on the couch, holding out his arm for Lucius to settle against him. I sat more gingerly beside him, careful not to touch, until Imriel pulled me over against him.

Surprised, I relaxed against him, enjoying the feeling of my head on his shoulder. I wasn’t accustomed to letting others take control, but in Imriel’s case I was enjoying it.

I was proud of them both, for watching with lazy interest as the lovers played. One of them bound the other, and then performed the languissement upon him, but when the floggers came out, Imriel tensed, and after a few strikes he was rising to his feet.

“Forgive us,” I said, knowing that when Imriel’s scars were nudged we needed to make a quick exit. “The hour is late. We thank you for your showing.”

“Thank you, truly,” Lucius echoed, and then we were headed out the door and back to the carriage.

“I’m sorry,” Imriel said, as the carriage door shut behind us. His breath was coming quickly, and his eyes were wild.

“Imriel,” I said, clasping my hand on his arm in disregard of the rule. “Focus. Be here with us.”

I gave Lucius’ chain a light jangle, trying to tempt Imriel with the end. “Focus,” I repeated. “Lucius needs you.”

Imriel pulled his hand back from it. “I’ll hurt you.”

“Imriel,” Lucius said, surprised.

“Lucius,” I said, beckoning him to my side of the carriage and my arms. “He needs space.”

He looked to Imriel, unsure, before obeying me and coming to my side. I petted his hair gently, letting the two ends of our leashes dangle off the side of my thigh in order to make clear that they were still—now and always—offered to him. Imriel kept his eyes to the side, unfocused and away from us, as if even a glance might inspire memory.

I petted my fingers through Lucius’ hair to calm him and myself, starting to tell some child’s story about a legendary Shahrizai trickster.

When we got home, Imriel pulled away from us, heading toward his room.

“Imriel,” I called, and he paused. I held out a hand toward him, pleading. “Come, share a bed.”

“Go without me, Mavros. Take him. You’ll make a better job at it than I ever would.”

Imriel!” Lucius said, sharper than my tone had been. We both stared at him.

Taking up the end of my leash and his own, Lucius took a step forward. “Imriel, you idiot. Do you not see what Mavros did?”

Imriel’s head tilted in confusion. As—to be honest—did mine.

Lucius held up the leashes on a fingertip, offered out toward Imriel. “He offered you both of us. He still is, as far as I can tell. Anything you need or want. Comfort, love, sex. He made you an offer you couldn’t resist, because you were jealous of the thought of not having us both. I saw it. Don’t you dare martyr yourself saying that I’m better off without you. Either of you.”

Either—“ I started to object to being included in with Imriel on the island of idiots, but Lucius silenced me with a lopsided smile.

“I saw the look on your face after he kissed me, Mavros. Don’t try.”

I didn’t.

“Open invitation, Imriel,” he repeated, still holding up the leashes.

Imriel stared at us. “I cannot—“

“Argue later, I beg of you. I’m tired, Imriel, please. Share a bed.”

Imriel took a few cautious steps forward, laying his hand over Lucius’ and reaching his other hand out to clasp my cheek. “I’ll hurt you. You don’t understand. There’s a darkness inside me.”

“Life hurts, cousin,” I said, still a little bit stunned. “Love especially. It’s worth the risk.”

“Please, Imriel,” Lucius begged.

He stepped forward into our arms, and we immediately wrapped around him, fitting three of us together as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

I couldn’t help the way my grip tightened around them. I wanted to keep them. I wanted to be allowed to have this. I’d known Lucius mere days, but he was right. I’d be heartbroken if the two of them closed me out of their bed.

Besides, I suspected my cousin was too much of a fool to manage without my help.

“Bed,” I suggested, giving them both a tug. Lucius made an affirmative noise, and Imriel merely let himself be tugged along, but I could accept that.

We made our way to my room and stripped out of our outer layers of clothes. I could tell that there would be no lovemaking tonight, not when everyone’s emotions were feeling raw. Never letting Imriel out of my reach, I got him into my bed, with myself at his front and Lucius at his back. A few shudders went through him from the intensity of the memory and emotion within him, but that didn’t bother me.

Lucius met my eyes over Imriel’s shoulder and smiled, clasping my hand so that our entwined fingers rested on Imriel’s hip.

“You don’t—“ I whispered, trying to let him out of including me in this. I didn’t deserve it.

“Shut up, Mavros,” Lucius said, giving my hand a warm squeeze and closing his eyes with a smile.

I couldn’t help but smile at that, closing my eyes and settling down to rest.

~

Imriel woke us both with a start that almost knocked Lucius out of bed and had fingers at my throat.

Staying completely relaxed as best I could while my pulse thudded with the rush of adrenaline, I waited until Imriel’s eyes cleared and his fingers relaxed.

“Mavros,” he breathed, eyes widening in horror. He pulled away from me, moving to get off the bed, but I grabbed him and flattened him down on his back, using my weight to keep him there.

“Lucius,” I said, keeping my eyes on Imriel’s.

“Here,” he said, crouched by our side.

Imriel was tense beneath me, but not struggling. I knew that his usual protestations were just beneath the surface, and the only reason that they hadn’t emerged was because he was so surprised by my reaction.

“I want you to kiss him,” I said.

“Mavros,” Imriel whispered in objection. But Lucius trusted me, and leaned between us in order to claim Imriel’s lips with a soft kiss.

Imriel didn’t fight it, so I let go of him, sitting back a little bit to watch them kiss.

Straddling Imriel’s lap as I was, my view was primarily of Lucius’ back and hair, but from the little sounds Lucius was making, I could guess that Imriel had started to reciprocate. Smirking fondly, I could resist running light fingers over Lucius’ bare skin, which made him gasp and start to laugh.

“What—?” Imriel asked, befuddled. I did it again.

“He’s tickling me,” Lucius explained, laughing and kissing Imriel again. Lucius moaned beautifully into the kiss, and I couldn’t resist letting my hands wander lower, clasping his ass through his underthings and giving it a squeeze.

“Imriel,” Lucius said between kisses, casting a grin over his shoulder at me. “Your cousin is molesting me.”

I swatted his arse, then returned to tickling him. “Says the greedy Caerdicci lordling who isn’t content with one Shahrizai in his bed.”

Lucius dissolved into laughter as my tickling intensified, clinging to Imriel and twitching. “Ah! Imriel, save me!”

Laughing also, Imriel’s arms came up around Lucius to clasp him close, the last of the night terrors dissolving away as the three of us laughed. When I let him go, I dropped down next to Imriel, giggling alongside them until the laughter passed and we lay panting on the bed together.

“I’m for sex,” I suggested, starting to nibble at Imriel’s ear, which started him laughing tiredly again. “Anyone else?”

“Gods, yes,” Lucius rumbled, helping me by nuzzling at Imriel’s throat. “Imriel, I would like very much to be fucked. Please, may I?”

Imriel groaned with lust. “Ah, Elua, what did I do to deserve the two of you? I’ll never be able to keep up.”

“I think,” I whispered in Imriel’s ear, “that Lucius would look very pretty with your cock in his mouth and mine in his ass.”

Groaning again, Imriel’s hand came up to wind tightly into my hair. “Yes. How can I resist you? Yes.”

“Yes what?” Lucius asked, looking us with puzzled excitement.

“Yes, Imriel would like to find out how good you are with your mouth,” I said, leaning over to kiss him with a wide grin. “And I’ll see to your request.”

Releasing them both, I got up, digging through a drawer next to the bed to find the bottle of oil that I required. “Strip him, but don’t touch,” I ordered, setting the bottle on the tabletop as I stripped out of my own underthings.

Imriel stayed put, letting me give the orders and lifting his hips so that Lucius could strip him. Tossing the clothing aside, Lucius hovered over Imriel so that his breath tickled the skin of Imriel’s phallus, but he was careful not to touch.

“Now yourself,” I said, opening the little bottle and pouring some of the oil over my fingers.

Lucius obeyed immediately, kicking off his undergarments and then resuming his position on all fours, above Imriel but not touching. “Exquisite,” I murmured, moving to stand behind Lucius. “Now you may touch any part of Imriel you like except his shaft.”

“Mavros, you bastard,” Imriel groaned, but Lucius just laughed and started brushing light, playful kisses over Imriel’s belly and hips.

Pleased by how playful and sweet he was, I slid one finger into him with very little warning, savoring the little yelp of surprise and lust that it got, followed by deep moans as I moved that finger gently in and out of his body.

“Oh, Elua,” Imriel said, reaching up to wind his hands into Lucius’ hair, which was right where I wanted him. I wanted Imriel to see this, and to feel like he was a part of it, without ever feeling he was at risk of hurting anyone.

I added a second finger, twisting them inside Lucius until I found the spot that made him arch and moan.

“Gods, Imri, he’s so tight,” I purred, fucking my fingers into Lucius at a pace just intense enough to keep Lucius moaning and whimpering for more, never letting him have enough coherence to string words together. “He feels so hot and tight inside, and he’s all ours. See how he writhes, eager for it.”

“Mavros, please, fuck me,” Lucius managed to beg, pressing his face against Imriel’s hip and whimpering.

“Not yet, beautiful. I want you nice and relaxed for me.”

“Mavros,” Lucius whimpered, and then moaned again as I added a third finger.

“You evil tease,” Imriel rumbled, unable to take his eyes off of Lucius even as they both complained at me for my care.

“Wait,” I ordered, removing my fingers and lining myself up instead. Lucius’ breath caught in anticipation, and I slid just the head of my cock inside, enjoying the little noise he made. “Now,” I said, using all of my self-control to hold still and not rut into that tight heat. “Touch him.”

Lucius moaned, instantly wrapping his hands around the base of Imriel’s phallus and lowering his mouth over it.

I leaned forward slowly, sinking into him with meticulous patience while he wrung gasps and moans out of Imriel. I was feeling a little jealous of Lucius’ talents, with the noises Imriel was making, but I wouldn’t have given up my place for the world.

“Beautiful,” I praised them, settling in to the hilt and just holding there while Lucius bobbed his head down Imriel’s length. I wanted to just enjoy this and let Lucius show off a few minutes more before I started to thrust.

Slowly, I rolled my hips forward, making Lucius moan beneath me and distracting him from his task. Imriel’s hands stayed intimately twined through Lucius’ hair, keeping him close. I could see Imriel fighting to keep himself still, and my cousin had far more self control than I did. For my part, I let myself start to enjoy the little yelps Lucius made as I snapped my hips forward into him, distracting him fully from his task and making him moan wetly around Imriel’s cock.

I was willing to be patient, and kept rutting hard against his prostate, not letting myself come, until Lucius cried out and bucked beneath me, coming untouched. I fucked him through it, more gentle now, until Lucius sagged beneath me, exhausted and spent.

“Go on, love,” I murmured, helping lift Lucius up to cuddle against Imriel’s side. Grinning up at Imriel, I knelt between his legs, lowering my head to finish the task that Lucius had started. Imriel’s moans were of a different register for my mouth than for Lucius’, but no less loud. I could see Lucius’ eyes on me, grin wide and content as he watched the show, until Imriel shuddered and came down my throat.

“That was incredible,” Lucius murmured to me, leaning over to kiss me as I crawled up to Imriel’s other side. “What about you, Mavros?”

I grinned at him, ruffling his pretty auburn hair. “Don’t worry about me. I’m just waiting for you to recover so that we can go again.”

Imriel laughed, pulling me close. “You’re incorrigible.”

“Possibly. Are you planning to keep me anyway?”

“Possibly,” Imriel echoed, hugging us both close as we drifted back off to sleep.