Retribution by HRT
The boy and the quartet of Renunciates left the lowlands at the worst season, traveling through skeletal trees standing in pools of grey Autumn litter, the fields bare furrows of dirt. Now they inched along the thin, stoney trail through stands of pine, wafting their cold turpentine perfumes. As the hawk flew, Syrtis was a day's travel from Ardais. As the tired chervine plodded, it was more than three. The peaks of the Hellers were already covered with snow, though the passage to Ardais was still clear.
Beyond the last and highest pass was a long glacial valley running many miles, dotted with squat, stone-walled cottages. The glacial stones had been gathered hundreds of years ago to make the soil more tillable, and Castle Ardais was made of the same rough and lichened rock, colored in a palate of dull greens and greys. The Ardais family had a reputation as little more than jumped-up bandits, noted for the brutality of their men, and the previous lord had murdered his wife in a drunken rage.
Mountain wildflowers greeted Danilo with their blooms, but they made a poor gift. His host, Dom Dyan Ardais, was a man as abrasive as his stones. He was also more notorious than his father, the murderous drunk. Old Dom Kyril had been locked away for decades before his death. But Dyan, the present lord, was still free to do as he pleased. Even the Regent refused to confront him, for Danvan Hastur's policies were unpopular and he badly needed Dyan's support on the Council.
“Are you sure you want to continue, vai dom?” a worried Renunciate asked Danilo.
“I have little choice, Mestra,” he replied soberly.
The quartet of Renunciates had been chosen by Lord Hastur himself, and Danilo was aware they were considered the proper escorts for children, ladies, and men who were—not men. He was a few days past his sixteenth birthday, and by the laws of Darkover he was an adult. He'd gotten along well with the Renunciates, but he knew the Regent had intended an insult. Danilo refused to acknowledge it. He was damned if he would injure the feelings of his escorts just because the Regent wished to be spiteful. Last season, Lord Hastur had sent Danilo to Corandolis tower for the training of his laran, while Regis Hastur went to Arilinn. The two had protested their parting, but their complaints were met with suspicious looks and haughty silence. The Regent was an astute man who could read youthful hearts well.
Now Lord Hastur insisted on further separation from Regis, declaring that Danilo must spend the winter with his foster-father. As heir to the Domain he must be educated in his duties at Ardais. Regis protested vehemently, saying that Danilo could not possibly be sent into the hands of THAT MAN, but his protests were ignored. Danilo had to go.
A little crowd of housefolk was waiting for them on the steps of the castle. Even this small gathering embarrassed Danilo. It was too much bother, too many eyes for a boy who had no public dignity anymore. There was no redemption for that, though Lord Ardais had made what amends he could.
Danilo knew what a proper arrival should be. His chin should be up for eye contact, his manner confident before all and friendly to all.
He could scarcely gaze away from his chervine's withers.
If he could have run back to Syrtis, given the Domain to some else, he would have. His name was already disgraced. But still worse was to be a disgraced coward. He lifted his head and raised a hand to salute the housefolk. The last face he met was the one he'd been avoiding, though he knew its features well. The lean, harsh form of Dom Ardais was framed by the castle. A sullen boy about Danilo's age stood at his side. Instantly, Danilo knew what role the boy had on the castle's staff.
“Where d'ye think the lord picked this one up? How long d'ye think he'll last?” said a carrying voice from a window.
Lord Ardais gave a start and the crowd looked about to see who had spoken, but the speaker had already vanished. The boy beside Lord Ardais, his eyes already hostile, was now glowering at Danilo with venomous hate.
Danilo's spirits drooped.
He adjusted to Ardais slowly. Winter set in the next day, dropping a snowfall so heavy that two feet of it covered the ground, and the passes shut for the winter. The ring of the Hellers closed around him like an icy fist. He spent his first week under Dyan's roof almost sick with dread. But Danilo found that someone–possibly Kennard Alton or the Regent--had given orders than Danilo was never to be left alone on the estate. No matter where he went, there was always a servant to accompany him, or the housekeeper Marta, or Ruyvan, the coridom. Even at night a guard patrolled the corridors of the sleeping quarters in front of Danilo's door, his footfalls gradually lulling the frightened boy into sleep.
This protection was a huge relief, though Lord Ardais still scared him. He'd been avoiding his foster-father as much as possible, but the castle was deadly cold in winter and he kept running into the man by the few warm firesides. Most of the castle's rooms were shut for the winter to save fuel, Lord Ardais being a man sparing of wood, and he would speak to Danilo in a manner much too easy and assured, resting an arm along the mantel while Danilo tried to warm his freezing hands. Danilo had no earthly idea what to say to him. Lord Ardais, in contrast, never lacked for topics—or the desire to speak. He was a man who knew plenty of interesting stories and anecdotes, and he had had much experience of life. He seemed determined to impress Danilo with the latter fact. Though he displayed no improper speech or behavior towards Danilo, the lord's obvious wish to make a good impression made little headway--at first.
“It's not as if he can sleep with you,” said Garin Lanart spitefully. Garin was the boy who'd been standing by Lord Ardais' side the day Danilo had arrived. “Your whining would have the Comyn down on his head in a second. I don't know why he's showing off for you. Your looks aren't much. He must be bored at being shut-in, and your face is merely new.”
Danilo reddened and almost replied, but thought it unworthy. He didn't care that Garin was jealous. Garin had a kitchen boy named Carlo to worry about, and Danilo had heard rumors of a stable boy as well.
As for Danilo himself, he was already getting that particular look from people. Neither Dyan nor Danilo had ever explained the details of their quarrel in public, but this left too much to the imaginations of the castle's staff. First, there would be the peculiar expression once the listener realized he was talking to Lord Ardais’ adopted heir, then the dawning horror as Danilo tried to explain that it was a legitimate blood relationship since Dyan was his uncle--even on Darkover, with all its cousin marriages, uncle-nephew was too close–and the listener would start edging away, assuming the worst. Danilo was certain Dyan had heard some of the nastier rumors, but Lord Ardais showed no sign of being disturbed. Nonetheless, Danilo was stung by the gossip.
“Do not fret,” Lord Ardais told him one day. “I've heard the gossip all my life and it matters little if you are the one in charge. Command, manner, and power can turn it off like a water-tap.” He snapped his fingers. “You are my heir. Do not hesitate to punish those who offend you within these walls.”
“But I'm also a Syrtis,” Danilo replied. “My family reserves our anger for those who are dangerous to others, not merely an annoyance to ourselves.”
Dyan snorted. “Beware, then. From what I can tell, the Syrtis have many peculiar traditions, such as being disdainful of money, material possessions, and the proper care of one's estates.”
Danilo winced. Lord Ardais had been reviewing the Syrtis account books, and it was the only time Danilo had ever seen his foster-father blanch. In contrast, the Ardais were shrewd with their money, though thoroughly debauched.
During the short hours of day Danilo had lessons with a tutor, and to his dismay, Lord Ardais appointed himself instructor of music. Dyan was patient but demanding, and he soon thought enough of Danilo’s progress that he was requesting Danilo to sing and play for him in the evenings. Lord Ardais especially liked to hear love songs. Danilo, who thought he'd rather throw himself out a high window than sing a love song for the pleasure of Lord Ardais, found himself bound by his duties as a foster-son and the demands of etiquette, singing of tragic, tender, or beseeching love while Lord Ardais sat listening in the half-dark of a dying fire, his face averted and brooding.
Often, Danilo wondered how he'd ended up here, sworn to Regis Hastur but singing love songs to Dyan Ardais, and he marveled at the malice of fate. The only thing that kept the situation from utter insanity was the presence of Marta, the housekeeper. She enjoyed Danilo’s music as much as Dyan did, and the faint scrape of her knitting needles by the fire and soft words of approval, and most importantly her chaperonage, were the only things that kept Danilo from heading for the window at times. Garin used to join them in the evenings, but his off-beat finger-tappings and frequent vocal interjections infuriated Dyan so much that Lord Ardais banished the boy permanently from these listening sessions.
A few weeks spent at the castle finally convinced Danilo that he was indeed exempt from Dyan's licentiousness. However, the rest of the castle's staff was not. Nor did Lord Ardais consider it to be a breech of his oath to Danilo if his speech contained insinuations and innuendos about others. Once, at a fireside, Dyan had mentioned Regis. He'd said Regis' name in a leering sort of way, running his tongue over his lips.
Danilo flushed. He made no reply, thinking with vehemence, /If I ever have the sort of physical relationship with Regis that Dyan thinks I have–which I never would, because I would never, ever, foul what is so pure and unsullied about the feelings Regis and I have for each other that way–but if I ever did, we would not have anything like the disgusting relationship my uncle has with Garin. NEVER!/
Lord Ardais overheard the entire screed via laran, and nearly laughed his head off.
Once, Regis had managed to contact him. No letter could climb into the snowy mountains, and Danilo's laran could not extend so far. Neither could Regis'. Yet one night as Danilo lay in bed looking up at the hewn wooden rafters above his head, he heard a voice.
The call was plaintive.
Danilo sat up. -Who? Regis? Is that you?-
-Yes! It worked!-
-Don't tell Domna Callina. I've borrowed the circle's matrix.- The mental voice giggled.
-Regis! That's dangerous. Please don't get into trouble for me.-
-Too late, bredu. Remember Aldaran? How are you doing?-
Danilo wanted to laugh and cry, scold and embrace. His emotions were so strong that nothing could fight its way out of his mind for a moment.
-Regis, what is the matter? Your thoughts waver. Are you having trouble with the matrix? You shouldn't be using it alone.-
-I've just had a few shots of Terranan whiskey. It tastes like the burnt tree bark steepings my nurse used to give me for medicinal teas. Here, have a taste.- On the other end of the link Regis tipped back a shot glass, letting Danilo feel the burn run over his tongue.
-Blech! Bredu, are you drunk? Holy Bearer of Burdens, you're handling the tower's matrix drunk! Are you mad? Domna Callina will kill you!-
-She's downstairs and doesn't know what I'm doing. The rest of the matrix workers are drunk, too. Well, not Domna Callina.- Regis giggled again. -We've been celebrating the completion of my training, and you know it's traditional to have a few drinks. Domna Callina gave me permission to use my matrix without her supervision only two hours ago. Do not worry for me. The leronis says I am a natural keeper.-
Danilo smiled a little, though he was still worried. -You're insane.-
-Not insane. Lonely.-
Danilo bowed his head. Sober, Regis did not admit his feelings so easily.
-Do you know what I thought when we were escaping from Aldaran?-
Danilo gathered his nerve for a reply. He did not admit feelings so easily, either. -That you loved me?-
-That too,- Regis replied with comical emphasis. -But I also realized I didn't want to die a virgin. Were you thinking the same thing?-
Danilo laughed and rolled his eyes. -You are definitely drunk. I may be the grandson of Dom Kyril Ardais, but no. All I could think about was our safety. And that--I loved you as well.-
There was a mental silence. Danilo felt another whiskey burn on his tongue, and a wobbly sense of relief. Had Regis doubted him?
-No, bredu. But, we have been parted so long, and sometimes--
-Regis, do not doubt me. Never doubt me,- Danilo insisted with vehemence.
-I won't. But there's something else. I have these--things--that plague me more than they used to.-
Danilo grinned. He replied with a low, lazy thought like a warm breath to tickle an ear, -What cravings are these? Enlighten me, Dom Regis.-
For a moment Danilo was baffled. He'd never felt a mental boggle before, or been the cause of one, anyway. -Bredu?-
-You made me drop my shot glass. Zandru's Hells, what a mess. It's shattered all over the tiles. I don't know if I can sustain the link.-
Danilo let out a wry laugh. -Too drunk?-
-Too lustful. And too drunk, I admit. You're terrible to have at the other end of a matrix. I'm dying here, bredhyu. I want to see you so much.-
Danilo blushed. He'd never heard this infliction of the word before.
-Have you changed?- The voice was plaintive again.
-I'm still Danilo Syrtis, the last I remembered.-
-No. I meant physically. Could you touch your face for me? I want to remember your features.-
Danilo did so, rubbing his hands over his forehead, closed eyelids, nose, and cheeks. -Is that good enough?-
-Do you have a mirror?-
I think so. A little embarrassed, he fetched the hand mirror lying next to his hairbrush and held it up to his face.
A mental voice sighed. -I hate Dyan.-
-He has you, and I do not.-
-Regis, could we change the subject? Please remember he does not 'have me.'-
-I will obey your request, and sub--sub--change the topic. I hate your name. Danilo Syrtis-Ardais is absolutely revolting. It sounds like you’re married to Dom Dyan.-
-Oh, Lord of Light.-
-What you ought to be, and I'm explaining this in a very roundabout way, is Danilo Syrtis-Hastur! Though techni—techni--some Terran word--that wouldn't be correct. You'd be Danilo Syrtis-Ardais-Hastur! Oh, merciful Avarra, that sounds worse.-
This time Danilo laughed outright. -You are so absurd.- He was delighted by this ridiculous conversation. After weeks of enduring so many watchful and judging eyes, Regis' lightheartedness was like rain to a drought. -I've missed you, too, bre—bredhyu,- he replied bravely.
-Could you run your hands over yourself again? I want to feel that you're real.-
-All right. Danilo swept his hands over his arms and torso.-
-Regis! That's--you can't possibly want—you've had too much whiskey and are not yourself.-
-On the contrary, I am perfectly myself except with lowered inhibitions.- The feeling at the other end was wistful. It was tender, treading carefully. -I DO want this, but I will not ask further.-
-Regis, I don't mean--
-You do. Don't apologize.- A sensation like a bottle being tipped back came to Danilo, and more burning wetness slid down his throat.
-Please do not drink any more. You will be sick tomorrow. I meant to say—it’s too much intimacy.-
-How can it be too much intimacy when we’ve been reading each other’s minds?- asked Regis with incredulity. -You know my innermost thoughts. I know what you feel for me. You know what I feel for you.-
-It’s a different sort of intimacy. I am used to the touching of minds. I have been doing that for years. The other touch–is completely new, and I have seen little of it that I liked or ever wanted. I’m sorry.-
-If you do not want this, will it bother you if I try it?-
Danilo looked around as if someone in the castle might have overheard the suggestion, semi-panicked at Regis' idea. -I don't know. I--
-Let your hands be mine, bredhyu. This is to touch your lips.- Regis brushed his fingers over his mouth. -This is to feel your body in its loneliness.- Regis hugged himself. -And this is to let you know that I miss you.-
Danilo was paralyzed, feeling Regis' body as if it were his own, his fingers going slowly down to Regis' waist, to the button there, undoing it. Danilo took a moment to brace himself, to stop the scream of sacrilege inside his head, then let the hand slide in--
The door of Danilo's bedroom shook under a loud knock. He startled badly.
“Dom Syrtis, do you have someone in there with you? I heard you laughing.” It was the guard's voice.
“Let me handle this, Raoul,” came the bitter tones of Lord Ardais. “It was well you summoned me. Danilo?”
With a wild look about to see that everything was in order, Danilo rose from the bed.
-Zandru's Hells,- Regis growled through the link. -I don't believe this.-
-Hush, let me deal with him.- Danilo opened the door. “It is all right, foster-father, I was having a funny dream.”
Dyan's eyes searched the chamber narrowly. “Indeed?” he said with skepticism. For a moment Lord Ardais seemed about to leave, then he suddenly lifted the drape from the bed and peered beneath the bedstead. Both the guard and Danilo goggled. So did Regis, through the link.
Dyan stood up, his face momentarily awkward. “Well then, good night.” He left before Danilo could exclaim at the intrusion.
“Thank you, Raoul,” said Danilo firmly to the guard. He shut the door on the men, irate.
Through the link came a fuming anger. -I don't believe this. By what right does he search your chamber? By what right does he even suspect you? He, above all, ought to know you are not a libertine.-
Danilo sat down on the bed. -I can't believe it, either. I'm not sure how good a telepath he is. Maybe he sensed you?-
Regis made an exasperated mental noise. -Dani? His tone grew wistful again. This is my last night at Arilinn. I will not have the tower's matrix to use after this evening, and I am not strong enough to contact you on my own without it. Please? I will not see you until the beginning of the Guards.-
Danilo hesitated, thinking. He could not stop the thought that what Regis wanted, was something Dyan had--done.
He felt Regis pull away despondently at the reflection.
-Go ahead. Try it,- Danilo said to him suddenly. -I—I'm not sure how well it will work, though.-
-Do you mean it!?-
A sudden jarring rang through the link, and the thought, -OH NO.-
-Domna Callina has just entered the room, and she's furious. Have you ever seen an angry keeper before? It's a scary sight. Domna, I can explain--
The link broke.
Danilo sent his thoughts speeding after the departing consciousness. He searched wildly with his laran, feeling for any trace of Regis. After several minutes, he gave up.
Nothing. Regis was gone. Gone until spring.
He gathered his thoughts together, racing back to his body through the castle, a blur of sleeping minds passing through his, all save one. One mind was very wide-awake, and broadcasting like a beacon.
Lord Ardais was thrusting deeply, ramming his cock into the ass of a half-dozing Garin. The boy woke further, annoyed by this sudden midnight lust. “Naotalba twist your feet! What brought this on? Get off and let me go to sleep!” snarled the boy.
Lord Ardais' reply was to shove Garin's face into the pillow, muffling his protests. The stench of hate-filled sex flooded the room, reeking like old sweat.
Disgusted, Danilo's consciousness fled the room.
Continued in Chapter 2.