Maslin’s army waited for me outside the gates.
I stood on the ramparts to watch him approach, as I always did.
Riding boldly at the head of his army, Maslin shone. He was lean and handsome, dressed in the uniform of the Queen’s Guard that he still kept and wore with honor. There were streaks of white now in his pale hair, making him look more than ever like his father, who the Skaldi had called Kilberhaar—Silverhair.
His father, who had been a traitor to the realm, although he died a hero. And now his son rode against Prince Imriel de la Courcel, co-regent of Terre d’Ange. It was a strange reflection of events, but it suited us.
There were those who did not understand this war of ours, and thought it a queer homage to his father’s treachery—or my mother’s. But ours was a quiet war, and few outside of Lombelon knew the details of it.
“Surrender, Imriel!” Maslin called, riding up to the gates fearlessly, close enough that I could see the fury and exhilaration in his eyes.
“Never!” I called back, unable to help the joyous laughter that bubbled up in my chest. “Lombelon is mine, traitor!”
“I promise you now,” he said to me, “I will take Lombelon today, and you with it.”
“I invite you to try.”
He grinned and drew his sword—a wooden practice sword, albeit a fine one—holding it aloft. His men roared.
And then they charged.
Once a year, I spent a week in Lombelon.
The rest of my weeks, I spent with Sidonie. I was happy. Ah, Elua! I was happy. After all the hardships in my life, Elua had blessed me with Sidonie, and our children. She understood what I did in Lombelon. She and Maslin had been lovers of a fashion, once.
As had Maslin and I.
There was a time that Maslin had come to rescue me, in the depths of a Vralian winter. He once told me he wished I had needed more rescuing. He would have liked me to know that every breath I drew I owed to him. Betimes I thought he still felt the same.
We had hated each other, Maslin and I. Once, I had admired him, and wanted nothing more than to be his friend. For years, we had despised each other. He hated me for having all the things that he could not, when in so many ways we were alike. As Sidonie and I were the bright mirror and the dark, so too was it with Maslin.
While we were both still little more than children, I had given Lombelon to him. It should have been his by right, and it was easy for me to part with it. But by giving it up so easily, I had made it small in his eyes, and his beloved Lombelon was no longer enough for him. He left it and joined the palace guard, bitter and ambitious.
That was a long time ago, on the far side of many trials, Vralia among them. There had been a night in Vralia where the hatred and tension between us shifted, allowing for something else that had been there all along. In Miroslas they had called us the bright angel and the dark. And one night in an inn in Gordhoz, we had found a piece of healing, although it took us years to seek that healing again.
Maslin’s army swarmed the walls of Lombelon, prepared with ladders and wearing flowers on their breasts. There were women and children in the ranks, laughing and waving their practice swords. My men fought them back and cut away their flowers, careful not to do any real injuries. Every year there were bruises, but our war was all in good sport.
It was a game for Maslin’s birthday. Every year, this was the boon he asked of me. A play-battle, where he gave command of his own estate over to me and the men I brought with me, and the town of Lombelon lay siege to us.
Betimes I had won. Maslin gave me fair odds, and I had experience at war and sieges. The first few years he had asked this of me, I had played uneasily, thinking too readily of Lucca and the dead. And yet I understood why this was necessary. It was healing, for him. There was healing in it also for me, in many ways.
Most years, Maslin won. The estate was his home, and he had the year to prepare and make plans. The advantage was very clearly his, and everyone preferred it that way. It was his birthday. He was meant to win.
My men fell back, fewer and fewer of them wearing flowers now. The ‘fallen’ sat amiably amidst the shredded petals, watching the chaos of our war and laughing.
Some of Maslin’s men had opened the gate, and the siege was all but lost. Quicker than usual, this year. But I knew it was only a matter of time until my capture.
I fought this battle in the Cassiline style, telling the hours amidst a flurry of opponents. My own flower stayed flawless on my chest, while petals rained down around me.
Cornered, I looked up and grinned to see Maslin’s adopted daughters carrying twin swords and twin scowls. Elodie and Simone, six and eight. They had lost their mother to illness, and Maslin had taken them into his own household. It had been good for him. The girls brought him joy.
“You’ll never take me alive!” I called, fighting them both at once. They were easy opponents, but I enjoyed challenging them and letting them learn from me, careful not to let them suspect they were defeated until their father appeared.
“At last I have you, traitor,” Maslin said.
The girls stopped. Elodie lowered her sword, happily waving to him, although serious little Simone kept her sword and her scowl leveled at me.
“We caught him, Papa!” Elodie crowed. I fought to contain my laughter.
“Masterfully done, Elodie,” Maslin smiled fondly at her. “Now let me finish him off.”
The girls scampered to the side, watching with wide eyes as the two of us crossed swords and fought in the courtyard.
We were near evenly matched, Maslin and I. He was a good fighter, quick and resolute, but I had been trained by one of the greatest heroes of the realm, and I had fought many harsher battles than he.
I let him win.
I think he knew that I did. The battle for the manor had already been lost, it was right that I lose this one, as well. On the times that I won the battle for the manor, I fought to win the sword fight at the end. Those fights, when I didn’t hold back, I lost one in three. It was an honor to fight with Maslin de Lombelon.
He fought well, and the battle ended with the tip of his wooden sword beneath my throat. “Imriel Shahrizai,” he said, breathless. “Drop your sword.”
I let it fall, raising my arms. Two of his men seized me, tying my hands behind my back. One of them stepped up and held a wooden sword to my throat. “Shall I kill him, my lord?”
He sounded so serious about it that I shot him an alarmed glance which made half our audience laugh.
“No, I have worse in mind for him,” Maslin said, joining in the laughter. “Take him to my chambers!”
The folk of Lombelon cheered.
I grinned, unwilling captive though I was supposed to be. To take a partner truly unwilling was heresy in Terre d’Ange, and punishable by death. Playing at it, however, was understood. We are a playful people, and I am of house Shahrizai. We understand the nuances of consent.
They took me to his bedchamber.
I could hear the celebration going on in the hall below. The main feast had been held by midday, but the battle of Lombelon deserved its own celebration. I didn’t begrudge Maslin the waiting. There was a tray of food waiting for me. I dined, taking my time and enjoying the comfort of Maslin’s chamber. When I had finished, they took the tray away, and bound my hands to the headboard of Maslin’s bed.
I closed my eyes, content. I allowed no man but Maslin to have this of me. Often Sidonie and I had played around with the sharper pleasures of love. On a few rare occasions, she had bound me, and once even lifted a lash against my skin, but neither of us found pleasure in it. With Maslin, however, this was right and good. He needed this. To a lesser extent, so did I.
My pulse leapt when I heard his step at the door, reminding me of how long it had been since I had last tasted these pleasures. A year. Too long.
Watching him from beneath my lashes, a smile curved over my lips to see the lust in his eyes. My Maslin, still that same mix of caustic honesty and hot-blooded yearning. One of my truest friends, though I rarely saw him.
He knelt on the bed at my side, leaning over to brush his lips against my jaw. “Lombelon is mine, traitor’s son. As are you.”
I shuddered at the appellation. Even after all these years, it still hurt. I had old, deep wounds in my heart, and always would.
But so did Maslin. He, too, suffered the moniker of traitor’s son. I understood why it helped him, to face those old wounds. There was healing in it, for both of us.
His hands ran over my clothed form, tracing the muscles and learning the places where those muscles had softened with age. We were both men in our prime, now. I was proud of the silver beginning to show in my own blue-black hair.
“Lombelon has always been mine,” he whispered, his hand roaming down to cup my groin.
I lifted my hips into the touch. “As have I.”
He kissed me, for that. It was not gentle. There was never anything gentle between us. Maslin’s kiss was hot and sharp, his teeth cutting at my lip and clacking against my own. He tasted of pears, with a sharp edge of brandy over the sweetness of the fruit. I loved it.
We were both panting when he broke away. I lifted my hips again, seeking the hand that no longer groped me. He saw, and laughed, pulling away and finding a knife.
I had changed into simple garments for the battle, knowing what was to come. Maslin had always loved unwrapping me like a parcel, cutting away my clothing a piece at a time. Betimes I thought there was more than a touch of Kushiel’s lineage in him, in the way he handled the knife, so that it scored a faint red line along my chest, but never left a scar.
I had scars enough, raking me from shoulder to hip. I wore them with honor.
“You want this,” he said, cutting away my breeches and laying the cold flat of the blade against my phallus, infinitely careful. “You have always wanted to lose to me. To be my captive. My whore.”
“Yes,” I breathed.
He traced the knife idly down my thigh, leaving one faint red line before he set it aside.
I had made Lombelon a gift, long ago. It wasn’t until years later that Maslin understood what he truly wanted. He wanted Lombelon, and always had, but he didn’t want it as a gift, freely given. He needed to take it. He needed to win it at sword-point.
If that sword happened to be wooden and happened to come as a package deal with the Queen’s husband in his bed, that was our business.
My Maslin. My proud, brash, uncompromising Maslin. I loved him best this way, knowing that no one else saw him like this. He took other lovers, of course, and I am sure they saw the same caring, passionate, commanding Maslin that I did, but with me he showed his pain. A traitor’s son, illegitimate, growing up as a simple laborer in the orchards of the estate he saw as rightfully his. I understood, and by sharing the pain, it was lessened.
He clasped my hips roughly, pressing messy, impatient kisses to my chest and throat until my blood burned for him. Some years he was slow and meticulous with me, drawing out our pleasure and our pain, and sometimes we were quick and desperate, the fire of desire and loathing burning between us bright enough to sear. This year he was reckless and rough, and I loved it.
“Maslin—“ I groaned, squirming against his grip and my bonds. His impatience made me impatient. Elua, I wanted him.
Casting a grin at me, he reached for the little jar of oil that sat waiting on the nightstand. I licked my lips, always surprised to find how much I wanted this. I’d never allowed it with anyone but Maslin, never wanted it with anyone else. Most of the year it never crossed my mind. But every time I found myself here, tied to Maslin’s bed, I was near ready to beg for it.
My breath caught as I parted my legs and he settled between them, pushing my thighs up so that he could see me spread and vulnerable, just for him.
“This is my birthright,” he said, slicking two fingers and pushing them inside me. I relaxed into it, my eyes closing with pleasure.
“Usurper,” he called me, with love and pain in his voice.
I didn’t respond, didn’t apologize. I’d done nothing to earn his hatred, all those years ago. Nothing but existing, and having all the things he couldn’t. I’d given him Lombelon to try and fix the wrongs done him. But it turned out all that time what he needed was me.
He lowered his head to perform the languissement on me, pushing a third finger inside. It hurt, every year, but I loved that, as well. Kushiel’s scions are all a mix of Valerian and Mandrake, each in our own way.
I shuddered and squirmed for him, caught between his mouth above me and his fingers within me, pain and pleasure blurring. “Maslin,” I gasped, but he didn’t even lift his eyes. I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to beg.
Pride warring with desire, I grit my teeth. I had never begged for anyone but Maslin, nor ever would. Even for him, it was a strain for me.
“Maslin,” I said, stubbornly keeping back the one word that would get me what we both needed.
I did need it. I needed him. He knew that. He also knew that if he waited, my need would outweigh my pride.
“Maslin, please.” My back arched off the bed, wrists straining at the ropes hard enough that I’d have bruises for a week. The plea was a release for me. Something tight inside my chest unlocked and relaxed, letting go of my pride and all my tight control. For Maslin. Only for Maslin.
His head lifted in one slow move, pale hair falling in a curtain around his face as he shifted both our bodies and pushed inside me. One quick, sharp thrust, and he was in me to the hilt, making me cry out with pain and joy.
My hips rolled up against him, pleading silently for him to move, to take me fully. Bracing himself above me with a grin, he complied.
It was good. Ah, Elua! It was good. We moved together, communicating in gasps and moans, his hands leaving dozens of marks on my hips and chest from gripping me too tightly. I murmured his name again and again, giving myself entirely to my proud, damaged Maslin.
He whispered mine only once, as he climaxed.
“Imri,” he said, voice wrought with emotion and need.
“Maslin,” I murmured in reply, head spinning as I relaxed back into the pillows, physically and emotionally drained from it.
Eyes closed, I tracked him by touch and sound as he untied my wrists and cleaned us both with a damp cloth. He’d only barely finished when he collapsed half on top of me, one arm around my waist, and fell deep asleep. As he always did. My Maslin.
I smiled, sore and content, as I wound my arms around his back. When he awoke, I thought I might return the favor.