“I don’t understand.”
Jord could feel his heart racing. He tried to read Aimeric’s expression through the dark but all he could see were shadows and outlines. This has to be a mistake. He had followed Aimeric from camp out of concern, not suspicion. The boy had not been sleeping well and sometimes he would go out for walks at night around the camp. Jord told himself it was simply the stress of the campaign getting to someone unaccustomed to warfare; he told himself Aimeric’s divided loyalties were making him anxious. Now it was turning out that they had not been very divided at all.
“Which part?” Aimeric shoots back, one hand on the reigns of his horse, the other one on his sword hilt. They were almost halfway to Ravenel now. It had taken him that long to decide to force a confrontation.
A different man, a slyer one, would have followed Aimeric until he reached his destination without revealing himself, then ridden back to camp and made report of what he had seen. But Jord had finally lost his composure and had caught up to Aimeric and confronted him. Some part of him had expected Aimeric to lie, but he had only made a couple of vague attempts before telling Jord everything.
Some part of Jord was sorry he had asked.
“I don’t understand,” he said, again. “Why? Why did you join the Prince’s Guard and pretend to love the Prince? Why are you going back now? Why—“ Why are you with me? But that last question was not something Jord could bring himself to ask. He feared the answer too much.
Aimeric still had one hand on his sword hilt but something had slackened in the set of his shoulders. “But I told you. I was always intending to go back. I was spying, Jord. I only pretended to care about Laurent because it would make me less suspicious.” He tilted his head to the side. “I did it for my family, for the South.”
“And me?” Did you pretend to care about me as well? Jord felt terribly inadequate in that moment, unable to wrap his mind around everything that had happened. He was forced to rethink everything – every moment he had known Aimeric, every second they had spent together suddenly took on a completely different light.
“No.” Cautiously, Aimeric drew his horse closer to Jord’s so that they were close enough to engage swords. “No. You were never part of the plan. You…you just…happened.”
“Just happened,” Jord said.
Aimeric was peering at him through the dark. The quarter moon was slowly sinking toward the horizon. There were only a few hours left before dawn. “I’m sorry, Jord, this was never about you.”
Jord’s instincts told him that he ought to do something. Certainly, Aimeric wouldn’t let him go back to camp now – it would ruin his plans if Jord told the Prince. “Come back with me.” He could hear the uncertainty in his voice, the plea for everything to be normal again. “No one has to know. Come back with me – it’s not too late.” If he could just make Aimeric change his mind, if he could only reach out and touch him…
“No.” There was a humorless mirth in Aimeric’s voice. “I can’t go back. I won’t go against my family and I won’t go against my country. I can’t, Jord. As much as I want to be with you, I can’t.” He was still holding on to his sword, ready to draw at any moment.
Jord couldn’t think. Every attempt he made to put the picture together into something that made sense to him only confused him more. Aimeric thought Laurent did not deserve to rule. Aimeric had been spying on them this entire time. Aimeric was going back to Ravenel to betray them.
This was never about you.
Being with Aimeric had somehow become the truest thing Jord had ever known and every fiber of his soul was screaming to not leave, to not go back.
The horses were growing restless.
“I know you have to go back to camp,” Aimeric said, suddenly looking away, leaving himself oddly vulnerable to attack. “You have a duty to report what you have seen to the Prince.”
“Will you try to stop me?”
“No. It doesn’t matter now.”
“Come back with me.”
Aimeric’s expression changed into something resembling a smile. “Why don’t you come with me? I could give you a recommendation. You think you owe Laurent because he made you Captain? I’m sure my father—“
“That’s not it!” Confusion and a terrible feeling of doom were making Jord queasy. “I have a duty to Laurent because he is the trueborn Prince. I swore an oath! Do I appreciate what he has done for me? Yes. But he wants the best for this country and ruling is his birthright. I see that you do not have confidence in him—“
“That’s putting it lightly.”
“—And I know you want to help your family, but it doesn’t have to be like this.” It doesn’t have to be without me.
Jord couldn’t imagine what Aimeric was thinking but he was obviously struggling with something. He finally took his hand off his sword and ran it through his hair. “I don’t want to do this,” Aimeric said, his voice small and quiet, so that Jord had to strain to hear even in the earie nighttime silence. “I don’t want to leave you or put you in harm’s way. These past few months—damn it, Jord. I never meant to fall for you but I have and—“ He caught himself and made a face, the same Jord had seen him make before when he made a mistake during drills or while putting up the tent. “I hate this, I hate having to choose.”
That feeling Jord could understand. He was feeling it himself, doubt filling up his lungs until it was hard to breath, an icy stone of distrust and hurt chilling the warmth that spread through his chest when he saw Aimeric make a familiar face or smile, even if bitterly. Over the last couple of weeks, he had begun to dream of what life after the campaign might be like; what peace would be like – when he and Aimeric could wake up next to each other in a bed instead of a bedroll inside a tent, when they could go riding on lazy afternoons and curl up by the fire during long winter nights with nothing on their minds other than how good the wine was and how sweet the kisses.
Perhaps, he was getting old. Obviously, Aimeric had not had such delusions.
But the dream had been so sweet that Jord was loath to give up on it. His parents had died early, he did not have siblings or even cousins he was close to. He made as good of a family as he could from his comrades in the Prince’s guard—they kept him going on the day to day. In the long run, he made his duty his faith and his purpose, but Jord was not a cold enough man to be satisfied with that. It wasn’t the same as having someone to come home to.
Jord jumped down from the saddle and took a step toward Aimeric. “Come here.” Aimeric visibly hesitated. Jord realized that he was probably thinking, it’s some kind of trap. “It’s not a trap.”
Slowly, Aimeric dismounted as well and approached, his body language screaming wariness. Jord reached out and took his hand, pulled him forward and looked down into his face. “I’m sorry,” Aimeric said. “I swear to you, everything that has happened between us was honest.”
That took him by surprise. “You…how?”
Jord sighed and shook his head. “I choose to trust you. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I don’t want to believe that these few months have been a lie. I was too happy.”
“I was happy too.” Aimeric ran a hand over his shoulder, fingering the rough fabric of his shirt, lost in his own thoughts. “What if we were to run away, Jord? Just…go somewhere where we could be together without other people getting in the way.”
“Do you want that?” It was like he was in a dream, not quite aware of what he was saying or what the implications might be. Aimeric’s words sank deep into him, ignited all his dreams and fantasies. He wanted this so badly and he could see that, despite the struggle, Aimeric wanted it too – to run away, to no longer be torn by his loyalty to people who didn’t seem to care nearly as much about him.
“I do. More than anything. Everyone has always expected everything from me while believing I wouldn’t amount to much – my father, my brothers, the—the Regent. You’re the first person to just…care about me because I’m me.” There was a hidden pain in Aimeric’s voice. It made Jord want to ask questions, it made him wonder what Aimeric’s position in his own family was like. It made him wonder what the Regent had promised Aimeric in return for his services.
It made him want to say yes, to take Aimeric far away from all of this. He’s too young. They want too much from him. For a moment, he allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy. “Where would we go, though?”
Aimeric’s shoulders tensed under his hands, as though he had not been expecting this response and was now on the verge of something very important. “To Vask. We could go to Vask.”
“Vask?” Jord almost laughed. “Why Vask? They would tear us to shreds there.”
Aimeric looked up and Jord was startled by the sudden change in his expression. At this distance, he could finally clearly make out the emotions flickering in Aimeric’s eyes and there was a feverish, delighted gleam there. “No they wouldn’t. If we go on the diplomatic roads we can avoid the mountain clans and Vask-proper is not truly that scary.”
“How would you know?” Jord asked, unable to suppress a smile. Aimeric’s moods had a way of transferring to him. “And even if that’s true, what would we do once we got there?”
“I know because I was fostered with the Prince of Vask for a few years as a child. He missed home so he talked about it a lot. We haven’t…been in touch for some time now, but I’m sure he will remember me. You could be a member of his household guard, I could…do something, too.” Then, in a completely different voice: “We could live.”
We could live. Jord was about to reply with something whimsical when the change in Aimeric’s tone caught up to him. “You’re…serious,” he said.
Just above a whisper: “Yes.”
“What about your family?”
Aimeric bit his lip, squaring his shoulders. “My father knows what he’s doing. I…” He was visibly fighting with himself, desperate pushing down instincts and years of ideals and raising to say what he wanted to say. Jord had always thought Aimeric was terrible at hiding his emotions only to now realize he was very good at pretending. So to be privy to Aimeric’s internal struggle at this moment was nearly overwhelming. “I’m willing to try if you are,” he said at last, a dreadful note of finality lurking at the edges of his tone.
Jord thought. He thought about the life he had built here for himself. He thought about Laurent and the vows he swore. Perhaps the Prince needed him, but he wasn’t indispensable and Laurent held no personal attachments, at least not to him. And Aimeric…
He thought of Aimeric. Thought of his daydreams about the life they could have. Tried to weigh the two against each other, imagine the future if he stayed and if he went. And found that making a decision was not impossible after all.
“Alright. Let’s go to Vask.”
They rode hard for Vask, stopping only to change horses and to catch a meal and a few hours of sleep. They stopped at off-road establishments and used false names. When they got to the mountains on the boarder to Vask, Aimeric was careful to stay on the diplomatic roads, the location of which he knew with only a few brief glances at a map. When they were stopped at the border, he spoke in rapid, if accented, Vaskian, announcing that they had diplomatic business with the Prince of Vask.
Vaskians, suspicious by nature, ordered a convoy to ride with them all the way to Skarva.
“It’s lucky my father is known as a diplomat and that my eldest brother had come here before to treat with the Prince,” Aimeric told Jord in a low voice once they had cleared the border and were on their way to the capital. “Otherwise, they would have likely had us bound or made us wait at the border while a courier was sent so Aiden could vouch for us.”
“I didn’t know you knew Vaskian,” was all Jord said, looking around the swiftly changing, unfamiliar landscape.
“Most Southerners learn Akielon—and I do know some—but I was fostered at Beauvallee with Aiden so…I suppose it was natural for me to learn Vaskian instead.”
“Why was a Vaskian Prince fostered in Vere?”
Aimeric gave him an amused look. Jord was becoming more and more used to how far removed he was from the politics of the nobility, though he had spent most of his adult life in the capital and in service to the Prince. “Vaskian Empresses often send their male relatives as ambassadors to other nations – they are well aware that men would serve them better in courts of patriarchal nations, regardless of ideologies at home – so Vaskian Princes will often be sent to neighboring countries to be fostered or live in the household of the current ambassador if the target-nation does not have a custom of fostering…”
“Do you think he’ll remember you?”
Aimeric thought about this for a moment, then nodded. “I think so. We were rather close.”
Skarva opened up before them in a flurry of vibrant color. The slanted terem and trullo roofs, distinctive in Vaskian architecture, were a sea of multicolored tiling and flags. Where Veretian ornamentation was mostly in carving and glasswork, Vaskian flamboyance was about color, richness of fabrics and the intricacy of painted-on designs.
Jord found himself looking around in wonder while Aimeric kept his gaze completely neutral. They made their way past the bazar and the cluster of embassies in the city center. Pedestrians gazed with some interest at them: two mounted men with a small convoy headed straight for the palace. Instead of being brought to the main entrance, they were showed to a small but beautifully decorated courtyard in the left wing. “Vask has a thing about separating the genders,” Aimeric explained. “The Princes have a wing to themselves. The Empress’ harem have several apartments in a pavilion on the other side of the palace – it’s closer to the Empress’ chambers there.”
Jord wasn’t sure what to expect of Prince Aiden. A part of him expected to see a large, thick-boned, muscled fellow, the sort of male physic prized most by the Vaskians. The Prince, however, was nothing like that stereotype. From the top of the stairs leading down from the Prince’s suit to the reception hall came a slender young man around Aimeric’s age. He was a striking strawberry blonde with dark grey eyes, a girl’s waist and of average height. He smiled a tentative, charming smile at his visitors and gestured in a fluid, delicate motion for his two guards – who fit Jord’s ideas of Vaskian men far better than the Prince himself – to remain at the bottom of the stairs as he came forward. In Vere, he would have been called beautiful. Here, his only benefit was likely his royal blood and associated wealth.
Aimeric said, “Do you remember me, Aiden?”
For a moment, Aiden merely looked at them, then recognition lit up his expression. “Aimeric? For heaven’s sake! Are you here on a diplomatique? Why did you not send word ahead of time?” Jord watched as they embraced like old friends, as though years of distance did not lay between them. Aiden stepped back but only to arm’s length, keeping both hands on Aimeric’s shoulders. “It’s been forever, why did you stop writing?”
“I’m not here as an envoy,” Aimeric started, a little uncertainly. “I didn’t send word because the decision to come here was…spontaneous.”
“Spontaneous,” Aiden said.
Aimeric turned and gestured for Jord to come closer. “This is Jord. We’re…he is my—“ Aimeric flushed. “Amoureux.”
“Oh!” Aiden’s expression was a mixture and mild surprise and amiability as he turned to Jord.
Jord bowed, feeling self-conscious and unsure of the protocol. “Your Highness.”
Aimeric said, taking Aiden’s hand, “I need your help.”
It turned out that Prince Aiden did not enjoy residing in state at the palace. He spent at least half of his time at his summer retreat just outside the city with a large portion of his retinue housed throughout the estate grounds. Aimeric and Jord were given their own small house. Aimeric was made part of Aiden’s attending retinue and a member of the household. Jord was given a place in the Prince’s guard.
Very slowly, life was falling into place.
A month after their arrival, Jord woke up with the sun in his eyes on the day of the Alyson Games, named after one of Vask’s most famous warrior-Empresses. He turned over to find Aimeric drowsily watching him from under half-lowered lashes.
“Morning,” Aimeric said, stretching like a small, lithe kitten, his dark curls falling over his forehead and eyes.
Jord smiled fondly and reached out to push some of Aimeric’s hair away from his face. He tangled his fingers in the thick curls and let the heal of his hand rest against Aimeric’s temple. He couldn’t stop watching the boy’s face.
“You’re staring at me.” Aimeric flushed, his skin going a golden-rose from the blush and the morning sun.
“You’re beautiful is all.”
“And you’re an old sap.” Aimeric freed himself from Jord’s hand and rolled on top of him, capturing Jord’s mouth with his. They kissed slowly, making use of the slow morning hours in a life much more leisurely than Jord was used to and far less complicated than Aimeric had ever known. Jord found his hands traveling down Aimeric’s sides to slip under his nightshirt and around his waist, holding him close. Some part of him was still afraid that this new life they were slowly starting to make for themselves was just a dream and would disappear soon.
Being in the Prince’s Guard made Jord think of Laurent. Had he escaped one duty only to swear himself to another? But no one was forcing him to be away from Aimeric here, or to implicitly participate in politics by taking sides in a bid for power. The most the Prince’s guard ever did was provide an escort, and even that typically in ceremony.
Aimeric was tense under his hands. That Jord could feel every time they kissed or made love. He was still waiting for something – possibly for news of his family. Jord tried to kiss those fears away. Aimeric’s hands were on his shoulders and at the nape of his neck. Jord pushed his hips up and felt more than heard Aimeric hum into their kiss as pleasure spread through their bodies. Then, Aimeric was pushing away from him, but only a few inches.
“Don’t you have to report in for the Prince’s escort to the Games?” Aimeric said.
“Yes, but not yet.” Jord pulled him in for another kiss. Aimeric gave a mischievous giggle and rocked his hips against Jord’s to elicit a moan of desire from him, then did it again, harder, until Jord could do nothing but buck upward to meet him with a low growl. “You’re awful.”
Aimeric laughed. The guarded expression in his eyes never quite left him but Jord had hope that they would work through that barrier as well.
“Do you think we will see men being eaten by tigers like in all the stories?” Jord asked.
“You should ask Aiden that.” He could feel Aimeric smiling against his neck.
“I couldn’t. He might find it insulting.”
Another small laugh as Aimeric dropped a kiss in the dip between his neck and shoulder. “Aiden doesn’t find much of anything insulting. But no—no tigers. Everyone in Vere says it’s a form of entertainment or sport. It’s really a form of execution for traitors.”
“Do they execute women that way too?”
A fond smile. “No.”
“We should get up.”
“We should,” Aimeric agreed without moving.
“We’ve still got…maybe a quarter of an hour?”
Aimeric gave him a sly look. “We do,” he said, and disappeared under the covers.
The first time Jord saw Aimeric in aristocratic attire, he was rather taken aback. He knew that Aimeric was of noble birth and he had seen the way men at court dress, but he had never seen Aimeric in court dress. Aimeric had only ever worn the plain clothes and armor of a rank-and-file guardsmen, shabby if practical, without flare or style. His hair had been a perpetual mess on the march, where Aimeric had had neither the means nor the desire to prepare an aristocrat’s toilette on an everyday basis. So the first time Jord saw him dressed the way he must have dressed before joining Laurent’s men made Jord stare openly to the amusement of both Aimeric and the Vaskian Prince.
They had just been put up in some temporary apartments at the palace in the Prince’s household and Jord had gone down to the armory to see about equipment for his new position. When he came back, he was informed that Aimeric was with Aiden in the private inner gardens. He found them after a few minutes of searching, standing by a fountain and immersed in a lively conversation. Aimeric turned at the sound of footsteps and Jord was forced to stop in his tracks as he suddenly found it hard to breathe.
The clothes were obviously borrowed from Aiden, with the tailoring a little too tight for Aimeric’s build. The rich velvets of Aimeric’s red jacket and cravat and the shimmering silks of his shirt were clearly Vaskian but the color scheme was in the Veretian conservative style and obviously of Aimeric’s choosing – royal red with gold trimmings and deep black leathers. The tall, slender, leather boots he wore showed off his calves and the cinched waistline of his coat with its straight tails, which covered the natural curve of his hips, gave him a classicly masculine figure with a broad chest and a narrowed waist and hipline. Aimeric’s hair was combed back, his curls brought under control with pomade and ribbon. Behind him was the glittering waterfall of the fountain and the deep green of the trees’ foliage drenched in golden sunlight.
Jord gaped. Prince Aiden, who had seemed glamourous just a moment before in soft, pastel blues with sapphires for buttons and silver lacing, did not even register now.
“He’s never seen me dressed properly,” Aimeric explained to Aiden, who was looking between them with some confusion. “Aiden let me borrow some clothes. I’ll have to get my own tailoring once my stipend starts coming in. Same for you and your wages. Aiden’s promised to sort things out by the end of the day.”
“Yes, ah,” Jord stammered, then cleared his throat, suddenly looking anywhere but at Aimeric as his body responded naturally to the sight. “Your Highness is very kind,” he managed finally.
Aiden smiled knowing at Aimeric and declared with a little more purpose than necessary, “I just remembered I must attend to some arrangements. I will leave you for now. Aimeric, it’s been so good to catch up.” In the next moment he had slipped away and Jord found himself facing Aimeric in the isolated gardens.
Aimeric came up to him and locked his hands behind Jord’s neck, eyes wide. “Did you prefer me in my soldier’s garb?” His expression was half-amused, half-petulant.
“No, no, I didn’t say that.” Jord smiled down at him, only a little embarrassed by his obvious arousal now that they were alone. “You look very, very good.”
Aimeric pressed his forehead against Jord’s, moving in so close that their breath mingled when he spoke. “Show me how good.”
That had been nearly a month ago. Since that first time, Jord had gotten used to seeing Aimeric in expensive attire. As a member of the Prince’s retinue he was given a stipend large enough to cover all basic expenses, several servants – of which Aimeric refused to use a valet – and all the fine food and clothes he wished to partake in. Jord’s wages could never cover even a quarter of that but it didn’t matter since they had been allowed to live together. Which was very kind of the Prince, Jord had to admit.
For the Games, Aimeric chose a lighter color scheme, staying with Vaskian whites and silvers – only his cravat and trimming were a deep, bloody ruby. Jord never thought too much about why Aimeric insisted on wearing reds. The color suited him, after all, but it also made Jord think of the Regent’s banners and the more he thought about that the more it bothered him. But he was loath to break their fragile peace by bringing up painful memories.
They made their way to the main estate house together, splitting up at the main gate as Aimeric went through to Aiden’s sitting room and Jord reported for duty. About half an hour later their small party was gathered in the courtyard – Aiden, five of his gentlemen in waiting, including Aimeric, and the Prince’s Guard, which would be their security escort into the city and to the Games.
They were about to leave when a courier came galloping through the inner gates, roughly brushing aside the guards posted there. Aiden squinted, concern visibly etched on his face.
The courier was waving a scroll in the air. His laboring horse had obviously been pushed to her limits in his rush to get there. “Your Highness!” he shouted before he was even halfway into the wide courtyard. “Urgent!”
“What is it?” Aiden asked as the courier dismounted, throwing the reigns to the closest guardsman without thinking.
“Redirected from the palace. News from Vere.” He handed Aiden the scroll.
Aiden tore open the seal and quickly skimmed the contents of the message. To Aimeric’s terror, he was pale when he looked up. “Get the messenger some water and let him rest a while,” he snapped to a servant who had run out from the house at the first signs of commotion in the courtyard. “Aimeric, Jord, come with me. Everyone else, stay here. I will be back soon.”
Jord and Aimeric followed Aiden inside, both nervous, though Jord realized it was probably for different reasons.
Aiden told them everything. The Regent was dead, accused of treason. Laurent was King of Vere. Laurent and Damianos of Akielos were in an alliance and both held Northern parts of Akielos and Southern parts of Vere. They were said to be involved, which, if true, meant the alliance was likely to last. Laurent was currently in Ios where the Regent’s trial and subsequent execution had taken place, but his closest allies at court back Arles had begun the ritual of swearing the court, military and the people to the new King. Otherwise, the politics was volatile. Not much else was known yet.
In the first moment, all that Jord felt was relief. Laurent was alive. Laurent had won and was the King. All that they had worked for these past few years had come to pass.
His euphoria ended the moment he looked at Aimeric.
Aimeric sat beside him on the sofa, hands folded tightly in his lap, knuckles white as he clenched his hands tighter and tighter with every passing second. He was white as a sheet and the slump of his shoulders told Jord he was desperately fighting tears.
“Aimeric,” he said softly and reached out to touch his shoulder.
Aimeric flinched away from him – a sharp, instinctive reaction which frightened and confused Jord. He looked over at Aiden for help.
“Aimeric, I’m sorry,” Aiden said. “I know your family was on the other side of this. I will try to find out how they are. I’m sure…” He paused and bit his lip. “This Prince—King Laurent will surely not purge the entire court in an attempt to gain revenge on those who opposed him.”
Jord nodded emphatically. Aimeric scoffed.
Aiden, visibly uncomfortable, said, “Come to the Games with me. The bear wrestling and spear throwing are bound to be spectacular this year. Come. It will help you take your mind off—everything.”
Aimeric stood. “I’m sorry. Please, forgive me, but if I may…I would rather not go.”
Jord opened his mouth to protest, then quickly closed it. He looked over at Aiden in panic, unsure what to do. He would have never had the nerve to ask Laurent if he could shirk his duty to stay with a visibly distraught lover, but perhaps this new Prince of his…
Aiden was one step ahead of him. “Of course, if you’re sure. I could let Jord—“
“No,” Aimeric said. “I just—I need to be alone.”
Jord returned from the Games as soon as he could, but even so it was long after dark before he made it home. The house was quiet and he took the stairs two at a time, a strange, unformulated fear tugging at his heart. Some part of him was afraid of what he might see when he got home, upstairs, to their bedchamber.
The sight that greeted him, however, was relatively peaceful. Aimeric had curled up under the blankets in his nightshirt despite the still-early hour. He had left a candle burning. His eyes were closed and he was very still, but Jord could tell by the slight puffiness of his face that he had been crying. Aimeric’s set of clothes for the next day was laid out meticulously as was his custom and Jord noticed that they were completely devoid of color – deep, unadulterated blacks. Mourning, Jord thought.
Quietly, he changed and got into bed. He reached out carefully and touched Aimeric’s shoulder. “Aimeric? Are you asleep?”
“No.” Aimeric’s voice was a half-whisper, hoarse and unnatural. Jord suppressed a wince. “How were the games?”
“I wasn’t really paying attention. I was worried about you.”
Aimeric rolled onto his back and looked up at Jord, his pupils dilated in the dim light. He looked like a lost, small child in that moment and Jord ached with the realization that he longed to help but didn’t know how to. Aimeric’s inner turmoil always seemed to be one level deeper than Jord could understand.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Jord asked tentatively.
Aimeric shook his head. “Just hold me?”
Jord nodded, eagerly. He was glad to be told what to do. Sometimes, Aimeric was a mystery to him and he welcomed the guidance. Jord blew out the candle and lay down beside Aimeric. He slid his arm around the boy and pulled him close so his chest was pressed against Aimeric’s back and he could nuzzle the soft skin at the nape of Aimeric’s neck. “I love you,” he said in the darkness, not truly expecting a reply.
“I love you, too,” Aimeric said, absently, after a moment’s pause.
A couple of days after the news came from Vere, Aimeric received a summons to the Prince.
Aiden was called away to the Capital earlier due to the stunning change in Veretian politics. While men were not generally involved in Vaskian politics, the Empress was close with her brother and often desired his support if not his council during trying times. Aiden, not expecting to stay long at the palace, took only half his guard and almost no one from his retinue.
“Perhaps, I should go with you,” Jord offered, suspiciously eyeing the unfamiliar messenger, who wore a hood which shadowed the face.
“No, it says I should come alone. I can handle myself,” Aimeric said, giving him a pacifying kiss and following the messenger out. Halfway into the city, Aimeric asked, “I’m not being taken to the Prince, am I?”
The messenger took off her hood, revealing a long braid of fiery auburn hair. “No,” she said. “You’re being taken to the Empress.”
He was led through a winding maze of hallways at the palace. The walls were decorated with colorful carpets and hangings, the stone floors a mosaic of color and strange, undefined shapes. Even after the opulence of the Veretian court, Aimeric felt a disorienting lightheadedness from the intricate, vibrant designs that crowded every inch of wall, floor and ceiling. Instead of being led to the grand throne room, Aimeric was announced and showed into a smaller reception chamber. It was similar to how Aiden had described the grand throne room, but in miniature – a domed ceiling; snakes of emerald and marble winding their way across the stone floor, their tails winding protectively around the thronal dais; long. narrow windows hung with silk curtains; and an ornate, high-backed throne for the Empress.
Aimeric, remembering his politics lessons, took a knee without looking up or making eye contact with anyone in the room.
“You may stand, Aimeric of Vere.”
Aimeric stood and allowed himself a look around. There were three other women in the room. They stood behind the throne with impassive, cool expressions. Aimeric could not tell if they were guards or councilors. They were armed, but in Vere courtiers would sometimes carry swords as part of their attire – so a councilor with a sword would not be terribly strange. The Empress herself was a beautiful woman, several years Aiden’s elder. She looked a lot like him. They had obviously inherited their coloring and figure from the same parent. Her hair was pulled up into a high, layered bun on the top of her head and the crown she wore was shaped as a half-moon tiara to fit around the elaborate hairstyle. Her gown was sleeveless, the skirt asymmetrical so that a long expanse of well-muscled leg showed on one side. She apprised Aimeric with a long, cool look.
“My brother speaks well of you. I know he has taken you into his household, which I have allowed because it is good for him to have friends.”
“You are very kind, Your Majesty,” Aimeric said. “But why am I here? Why was I told the Prince wanted me?”
“You ask a lot of question.”
Aimeric gave her a stubborn look. Everything inside him was curled in anticipation, screaming that something was wrong.
“I did not want your lover to know you were taken here. You will not tell him of our meeting.”
“I don’t wish to keep secrets from Jord.”
“That’s unfortunate for you.”
“And what if I do tell him?” For some reason, Aimeric felt a bone-deep desire to throw caution to the wind.
The Empress’ expression darkened. “Don’t forget where you are. While I would not wish to hurt my brother, your lover has no meaning to me.”
It was a clear threat. Aimeric lowered his eyes. “I will not tell him.”
There was a long, drawn-out pause as the Empress studied Aimeric and Aimeric studied the floor. “I desire your services. Specifically your Veretian contacts and knowledge. Be an…inside information adviser of sorts.”
Aimeric looked up sharply. “A spy, you mean.”
“If you would like to call it that.”
“I have no talent for spying.”
“Aiden tells me otherwise. Isn’t spying the reason you left Vere?”
“If I had been good at spying I wouldn’t have needed to leave Vere.”
Another pause in which Aimeric had a chance to consider his situation. He could say no and risk being sent out of Vask, but that was unlikely – the Empress had plans for him. She could imprison him, but Aiden would put up a fight and it would cause a scandal at court and if the Veretian ambassador got word of this it could cause an international kerfuffle. Far more likely was that she would target Jord. No. That was the one thing Aimeric could not allow. But what happened if he agreed? “What exactly is it that you would want me to do?”
The Empress’ slow smile was cold.
The ride home seemed to take forever. Frustration boiled up in Aimeric to a stifling point where he was unable to collect his thoughts. He couldn’t tell Jord what the Vaskians wanted from him but the thought of keeping secrets from Jord again was unbearable. This was what had nearly ruined them the first time. Aimeric could feel himself being sucked into the political schemes of others again and every part of him wanted to scream and fight against that.
It was all too much. He had not yet gotten over the news from Vere – the Regent’s death, his alleged treason, the uncertainty about his own family. And, of course, bloody Laurent in charge of Vere, probably busy selling it out to his Akielon lover. That was also something Jord could not understand, even had Aimeric talked to him about him.
On getting home, Aimeric found Jord upstairs in their bedchamber in his trousers and undershirt. He was busy lighting the candles. Aimeric stopped in the doorway without announcing himself so he could watch Jord. He lingered, one shoulder leaning against the doorframe. A wave of warmth spread through his body, a stinging realization: this is home.
Suddenly aware of being watched, Jord turned toward the door, eyes alert. “You’re back,” he said, smiling tentatively. “What did the Prince want?”
“N-nothing.” Aimeric stuttered. He had forgotten to come up with an excuse. “He…he just wanted to talk.”
This wasn’t working. Aimeric strode forward and straight into Jord’s personal space. He leaned up and captured Jord’s mouth with his, kissing him long and hard, until Jord melted into him, surrendering to the kiss and wrapping his arms around Aimeric’s waist to pull him closer. “I like you like this,” Aimeric murmured when they drew back for air.
“Just…like this…in our room.” He gave a meaningful look at Jord’s tousled short hair which stuck out to all sides in its disarray and the open top-half of his shirt.
“I thought you said you liked me in uniform.” Jord’s tone was teasing. He slid one hand up to rest it against Aimeric’s shoulder blade.
“I do. But I like this too.” Aimeric kissed him again, pushing their bodies flush together. He slipped one hand into Jord’s hair and fisted it there. Jord smelled of soap and hay and Aimeric closed his eyes against the familiar feeling of Jord’s hands on his waist and back. He took control of their kiss, battling Jord’s tongue for territory, finding the soft, sensitive stop on the inside of Jord’s lower lip and running his tongue over it until he could feel Jord shiver.
“You’re enthusiastic,” Jord managed to gasp out. He sounded both please and surprised. Aimeric was maneuvering them toward the bed.
Aimeric needed him to stop talking. He wanted Jord to forget about the summons to the palace. He wanted to forget too. Forget everything.
Aimeric dropped his head and scattered a series of quick kisses over Jord’s neck, finally settling on the dip between his neck and shoulder. He undid the rest of the buttons on Jord’s shirt and slipped it off.
“Wow, slow down,” Jord murmured, running a hand through Aimeric’s hair, the gesture full of tenderness more than desire.
Aimeric knew what he was thinking: they hadn’t had sex since the news from Vere came. They had hardly spoken since then. But Aimeric was burning to get the frustration out and to make Jord forget that anything was amiss. “No,” he growled impatiently. “Now. I want you now.”
There was a flurry of motion as Jord helped him out of his cravat, coat and shirt. Aimeric, in his haste, tore a couple of buttons on the shirt, cursed, threw it aside. He pushed Jord back onto the bed and climbed onto his lap, knees on both sides of Jord’s legs. He thrust forward so his erection rubbed hard again Jord’s. They groaned in unison and Jord finally seemed more concerned with pulling Aimeric closer and devouring his mouth, exploring the familiar outlines of his body, than he was with asking questions.
Aimeric thrust forward again, enjoying the sparking electricity that spread through his body at the contact. He reached down and undid the ties on his britches, then on Jord’s, freeing their members, the skin hot and sleek under his hands.
“Your hands are cold,” Jord panted against his cheek in between kisses.
“You’re very tense.” Gently, Jord covered his wrist with one hand and squeezed, making Aimeric stop what he was doing. “Wait. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong. You worry too much,” Aimeric snapped impatiently. Jord needed to stop talking. Aimeric thrust forward so his member rubbed against Jord’s. This elicited a small, guttural sound from Jord but did not make him look less uncertain. “I want this,” Aimeric assured him.
He knew a way to make Jord shut up. Something he was good at. Something Jord knew he was good at. Aimeric slipped off Jord’s lap and onto the floor, finding a familiar spot between Jord’s legs. He looked up at Jord through his bangs. “Alright?”
Jord stared at him, whatever doubts he had battling desire. He could never resist Aimeric when he was like this – open and vulnerable on his knees, his hair a mess and his eyes wide. Finally, Jord nodded.
This Aimeric knew how to do. This he had experience with and not just with Jord. Taking Jord into his mouth had become familiar, the taste of him, the texture. Aimeric closed his eyes and concentrated on becoming in tune with Jord’s responses as he sucked him off, settling on a rhythm within moments. Jord fisted a hand in his hair, tugging gently as his muscles buckled under the fiery pleasure that spread from his groin through his abdomen and back, up his neck and ended, thrumming, at his temples. “Aim—“ he moaned, struggling to keep his eyes on Aimeric’s face, wanting to see him in every moment of this. “Aimi. God.”
Aimi. Aimi. Aimiaimiaimi.
The nickname sent a shock through Aimeric. Jord had never called him that. No one had called him that since he was a small child except—Except—
“Fuck.” Aimeric withdrew as Jord squawked in protest at the sudden loss of contact. Aimeric stood, turning away from Jord. He was reeling.
Aimi. Aimi. A memory from almost a lifetime ago: a warm smile and a hand in his hair. That nickname but by a different voice in a different room. Aimi. Aimeric shuddered, almost unaware of Jord saying his name, getting up, coming to stand beside him.
“What happened?” Jord’s voice. Jord who was so happy that Laurent had won, who did not understand what the Regent had meant to him. Who didn’t understand any of it.
“Don’t call me that,” Aimeric forced out, still refusing to look at him.
“Alright.” Confusion imitated from Jord in waves. After a long pause, Jord said, “Please talk to me, Aimeric. Something is wrong, I can feel it. You’re not talking to me and it’s driving me crazy. I can tell you’re restless and angry and I think you’re hiding something from me. Now this? Just…talk to me.”
“Are you really surprised?” Aimeric turned on him, hands fisted in the waistband of his unlaced trousers, feeling far too vulnerable. “Though perhaps you are. You’ve won. Laurent is King. You have no family to worry about. I haven’t been able to sleep since we heard.”
Awkwardly, Jord was tucking himself back in, preparing for a hard conversation. “I didn’t win anything. I’m glad Laurent is safe; I’m glad it all worked out. I know you don’t like him but trust me when I say that I know him and I know he wants the best for Vere. And trust me when I say he is not nearly as vengeful as he seems. I know you’re worried about your family, but try to not assume the worst.” Jord tried to take his hand but Aimeric stepped out of reach.
“Why shouldn’t I? He’s already killed the Regent.”
“You mean for opposing Laurent.”
“Who was the rightful heir.”
“I don’t want to argue about this!” Aimeric put both hands over his face, like a child trying to hide his feelings when they became too much to control. One word had opened up a floodgate of memories and hopes. “You don’t understand,” he said, feeling himself choke up and fighting it. ‘You don’t understand! He wasn’t just the right man to rule, he wasn’t just someone I admired. He was—he was….”
Jord’s voice was very quiet. “What?”
‘He was the first, and for a long time only, person to really notice me, to tell me I was worth it. To tell me I was the best thing to ever happen to him. You don’t know what it was like to be with him. He was the only one who called me Aimi. I…I loved him.” Aimeric forced himself to look up at Jord. Jord was staring at him, confusion slowly, painfully, giving way to something like unwilling comprehension and horror.
“You wanted to know everything?” Aimeric said, flatly. “Fine.” He told Jord everything. Of what it was like to be almost thirteen and so very alone. The family he had fostered with as a child never wrote to him, Aiden was back in Vask, what friends he had at Fortaine were mourning relatives who had died in the war – the South had taken so many casualties, his own sister’s betrothed had died Marlus – his brothers and father mostly ignored him, his mother was mourning the death of her brother and two nephews. When the Regent came to Fortaine it had been like sunlight breaking through a mass of clouds. He told Jord what it was like to suddenly go from invisible to the center of attention, to feel loved and needed and wanted. He told him how he had waited for years to get that back, the letters he had written, the doubts he began to have about it ever being real as he got older. Aimeric told him what it was like to get the summons to court, to see the Regent again and be told he had not in fact been forgotten. What it was like to be entrusted with a mission of such importance and gravity and… “And then I met you and…everything changed.”
Aimeric had relayed all of this in almost a monotone, as though reading from a boring text. It was the story of his life that he knew so well, had accepted as just the thing that happens to people like him. He dressed as he spoke, then went to sit on the edge of the bed, not bothering to look at Jord who remained standing, still as though frozen on the spot. By the time he finished, Aimeric felt numb. It was all out in the open now – his first love which had probably been a lie all along. “I don’t know if he loved me. Maybe not. But I’ll never find out now, will I? It’s not that I don’t love you—I do. But he was the first time…it meant something to me.”
A long, empty silence stretched between them. Finally, Jord came to sit beside him but didn’t touch him, afraid that Aimeric would only flinch away. “It’s not your fault,” Jord said, a little tentatively. “That you believed the Regent. You were young and he used you.”
Aimeric’s head shot up, eyes full of fire. “You can’t know that.”
“Aimeric, you were a child.”
“You’re determined to take this away from me—“
“No, I’m not—I mean—I mean—I just…what he did was wrong. He used you. You said yourself that you started to feel it. It doesn’t mean you’re undesirable—that’s not what I was trying to say—it just means that he’s a bastard.”
Aimeric bit his lip hard. Blood welled under his tongue, filling his mouth with copper. “You don’t understand. I know I was young. I know he never wrote and that he sent me on a dangerous mission. But that doesn’t mean—even if he stopped caring—in that moment… You weren’t there, you don’t know what it was like.” Aimeric stood, paced across the room once, then again. Why was everyone so convinced the Regent had never cared about him? Because he had been too young? Deep inside, Aimeric had begun to suspect that he had simply been another toy for a powerful man, another pawn. But it was so hard to accept. Being with Jord had only made him fear it more. The way Jord loved him…no one had loved him like that before. Not even the Regent.
Aimeric grabbed his coat. “I’m going out. I need some air. Go to bed, I won’t be back for a while.” Jord tried to protest but Aimeric cut him off. “I’ll be fine. There’s nothing to talk about. The Regent is dead. Your King killed him. Whatever the truth was, it died with him.”
“Please, Aiden.” Aimeric hated hearing the panic in his own voice but it was slowly starting to overwhelm him. He loathed this entire situation – he was right back where he had begun, being manipulated into political plots, forced to lie to the person he loved, asked to care about the interests of his country above all else. “I came here to escape from all of this.”
Aiden spread his hands helplessly. “I’m sorry! I tried to reason with my sister, but she is set that this is the best course of action. She has Vask’s interests in mind and I can’t fight her on that.”
“But how does this help Vask!” Aiden looked around nervously and Aimeric lowered his voice. “Vask and Vere have not been at war in ages for good reason. Imagine taking supply trains over the mountains and with winter coming…”
Aiden ducked into a gazebo overgrown with vines and gestured for Aimeric to follow him. They sat on the benches, hidden from view by the low-hanging branches of the garden’s trees and the vines that snaked over the roof and hung down the sides of the structure. “You see,” Aiden began, haltingly, as though uncertain how much he ought to say. “While Vere and Akielos were at each other’s throats they kept each other busy. Neither was strong enough or had the energy to threaten Vask. However, if Laurent and the newly resurrected Damianos of Akielos truly have an alliance sealed with…well—“
“It’s hard to imagine,” Aimeric said, making a face. “Laurent is as cold as ice. Him taking a lover, not to mention loving someone. is quite a fancy.”
“Nevertheless, all of our reports confirm this version. My sister is afraid that Vere and Akielos might…unite.”
“And if they do…Akielos already has an alliance with Patras, which they are unlikely to lose. Given our history with Patras…”
“Does the Empress truly believe Vere will wage war on Vask?”
“I don’t know if they’d incite it, but I could see them supporting Patras. I could see them wanting to clear the clans from the mountains so they could have access to the minerals and resources they have to offer.”
Aimeric thought about this. It made sense. He hated that it made sense. “I’m afraid I don’t have much sway in Vere. I’m a political exile at best.”
Aiden smiled sadly. “But you know the people. You know specific people who may not be happy with this change in power. You might not even need to go into Vere itself – just leading a correspondence with a willing opposition would do us well. It’s subterfuge to—“
“Stall through the winter,” Aimeric finished, catching on. “Create chaos and unrest so that Laurent won’t be able to consolidate power until Vask has a chance to carry out a preemptive strike come spring.”
Aimeric rubbed his temples. His head was spinning. Jord would hate him if he knew Aimeric was even considering this. The idea was enticing and sweet in its own way – making Laurent’s life hell was terribly appealing. It would be his chance to avenge if not the Regent then his chance to know the truth. But… “I can’t do this, Aiden,” Aimeric said. “I can’t go against my own country. If there was one thing I have ever stayed true to, no matter who was involved, it was Vere. Not to mention that no one I love would want this.”
Aiden reached out and put a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Aimeric. But my sister will not be moved from this. And she will use Jord against you if you do not cooperate. I know you came here to find peace. I don’t know what happened to you after I left; I don’t know why you stopped writing, but I can tell that all you want is to get away from politics. I understand – I’m the same. But there’s nothing I can do.” For a few moments, they were quiet, each lost in his own tumultuous thoughts. Then Aiden said, “As for Vere…do you think it will even be Vere anymore?”
It rained the day the second messenger came. The weather had been stormy from the beginning, much like Aimeric’s mood since the first news from Vere. Jord could sense that Aimeric did not want to discuss what had happened back home. He was irritable, moody, and completely closed off. He spent more time with Aiden than he did with Jord and Jord got the distinct feeling that Aimeric was avoiding him.
Jord’s own thoughts were scrambled. He kept trying to work through Aimeric’s confession of what had happened between him and the Regent. Jord was horrified by the idea – he felt like he owed it to Aimeric to confront the truth, to accept it, work through it. Instead, he began to wake up from nightmares in which the Regent’s looming, saccharine smile dominated everything, where Aimeric had eyes only for this man who planned only to use him. In some of these dreams, Jord was tied to a stake, his hands bound tight behind his back, forced to watch. Sometimes, Jord would shout and call his name, but Aimeric would not hear him and if he turned his head, he looked right through him as thought Jord was not there at all. He woke up from these nightmares distraught and disoriented, only to find that Aimeric was still fast asleep beside him, peaceful and perfect, as though nothing had ever touched him.
He never said a word to Aimeric about the dreams, afraid that the boy would misunderstand, think that Jord was disgusted by him when all he was disgusted by was the Regent.
Aimeric hardly seemed to want to talk to him at all in the past few days. Yet, when the messenger came, not stopping at the main estate house and coming straight to them, Aimeric called him into the sitting room to listen as well and sat close to him on the sofa, so that their legs were touching.
The messenger was a Veretian diplomatic courier. “I was told I might find you here, my Lord,” he said, addressing Aimeric once they were all seated. A serving boy came in to light the fireplace, but Aimeric waved him away.
“Do you have any news of my family?” Aimeric was anxious. Jord could see it in the tense set of his shoulders and the uncompromising clench of his jaw. He was preparing himself.
The messenger looked uncomfortable. “I do, my Lord.” He faltered.
“Go on, speak, man,” Jord said.
“King Laurent did not bother waiting to return to Arles before making several…changes at court. Purges, you could say, of people who were particularly faithful to the Regent. There may be further trials once the King returns to Arles but for now the purges have been minimal. Your mother helped the King during his trial for which he agreed, after taking council from those closest to him—“
Damen, most likely, Jord thought.
“To treat her and her children fairly and leniently. She and your siblings are safe and well.”
Jord glanced at Aimeric, who did not look particularly relieved. He was still waiting or something. “And my father?”
“…Executed for treason.”
All the anticipatory tension seemed to leak out of Aimeric. It wasn’t relief, but something darker – a kind of twisted satisfaction at hearing what he already knew to be true. “Fortaine?” Aimeric’s tone was flat. He already knew the answer.
“Forfeited to the state.”
A flash of lightening bleached the color from the room. Aimeric closed his eyes against a rolling growl of thunder.
“Your family retains their nobility,” the messenger hurried to add.
But very little means, Jord added mentally what the messenger did not say and Aimeric knew. Without Fortaine and its lands, the family’s only possessions were their private things and any gold they currently had in their possession, which was, perhaps, a significant amount, but not something they could live off for too long.
Aimeric stood. Jord and the messenger stood with him. “Is there anything else?” Aimeric asked.
“Not…exactly.” The messenger looked flustered.
Aimeric nodded stiffly and practically ran from the room.
Jord threw a quick thank you to the messenger and followed Aimeric into the front hall. “Aimeric, wait!”
Aimeric was yanking on his riding boots. He didn’t bother looking up at Jord.
“Where are you going? Aim—Aimeric, talk to me, damn it!”
“I’m going riding.” His voice was completely void of all emotion. It frightened Jord and he reached for him despite his instincts telling him to stay back.
Aimeric avoided his hand and brushed past him. He walked out into the rain and headed to the stables. He was completely drenched in moments but did not seem to notice.
“Aimeric, wait!” Jord shouted from the porch, debating desperately with himself whether he ought to follow or not.
Aimeric ignored him.
Jord was waiting for him when Aimeric got back. He sat in the sitting room with only a couple of candles burning, his back to the door. It was still raining, though the storm was beginning to move away.
Aimeric froze in the doorway on seeing him. He was drenched, boots covered in mud, hair plastered over his forehead and eyes. He hadn’t thought Jord would still be here when he came back. There was no sign of the messenger who must have left hours ago.
“You’re back,” Jord said.
“I didn’t think you’d be—have you been here the entire time?”
“Did you go to see Aiden?”
“No. I told you I went riding. Why?”
Jord stood, hooking his thumbs in his belt, a nervous, anticipatory gesture. “You always go to see Aiden these days when you’re upset.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Aimeric pushed a swath of wet hair out of his face.
“Am I being ridiculous? You certainly don’t talk to me anymore.”
Aimeric shook his head. “Hell, Jord. You’re not jealous, are you?”
“Not quite the word.”
Jord ran a hand over his face. “We came here to be honest with each other, Aimeric. We came here to get away from everything, to be together. Now, every time I try to talk to you, you keep shutting me out. I love you but I’m tired of this. I want the truth.”
“The truth about what?” Aimeric shifted, fear and irritation equally making his posture rigid.
“Everything. Whatever it is. You need to tell me.”
Aimeric closed his eyes. “I can’t.”
“Because I was—it’s for your own good.”
“I can decide that for myself.” It was the first time Jord had ever earnestly snapped at him.
Aimeric, taken aback, retreated into a sneer. “Why do you think I’m hiding something anyway? Looking for a reason to run back to Laurent?”
“What?” – hurt and surprise. Jord took a step back.
“If I tell you, that’s exactly what you’ll do.”
For a moment, Aimeric hesitated. He studied Jord’s face, weighed his chances. One half of him was screaming that he needed to stay quiet, the other insisted that he tell Jord everything. What was the point of even going to Vask otherwise? And if Jord left? What would be the point then? He’ll find out eventually anyway. “The day I was summoned to the Prince,” Aimeric began, haltingly. “I was actually summoned to the Empress. The Vaskians want my help. With destabilizing Laurent’s government.” He told Jord the rest in the same flat tone as he had told him of what had happened between him and the Regent when he was younger.
Jord stared at him in utter disbelief. “That is…insane. Aimeric, hell, you’re not actually thinking of…doing it...are you?” Aimeric could see the distrust on Jord’s face, the uncertainty. It bit at something deep inside him. Especially since Jord was almost right – he had left earlier with every intention of going to the Empress and saying yes. He wasn’t quite certain what had stopped him.
Or perhaps he knew but was too afraid to admit it.
His hesitation broke something in Jord. “Oh for heaven’s sake, Aimeric! Do you really hate Laurent that much? So much that you would go against your own country to get revenge? Was the Regent—that sick bastard—really worth it?”
“My country? Will it even be Vere anymore, Jord? Tell me, will it? Or will we just become a province of Akielos?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“I’m being ridiculous? At least I don’t have blind faith in a Prince who has shown no interest in anything but his own power struggle!”
“Blind faith! And your faith in the Regent wasn’t blind—?“ Jord stopped, suddenly aware of what he was saying. Aimeric was looking at him, practically on the verge of tears. “Forget I said that—“
“I’m scared, Jord.” The admission came out raw, ripping through the silence between them like a whip crack of thunder. For a moment there was nothing but the sound of rain hammering away at the roof and windows. “I’m scared,” Aimeric repeated hoarsely. “I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost my home, my entire life, even a chance to find out whether the man who had once given me hope ever truly cared about me. And I think—and I think he didn’t. So I’ve lost that too. My family is in ruins. Because of me. Because I left them. My country is being taken over by our mortal enemies who, only a few years ago, waged war on us and killed people I cared about.”
Aimeric stood with his arms hanging limply at his sides, all the defiance gone from his posture. The single candle left burning in the room threw long, dark shadows over his face. He felt completely drained. “I’ve lost everything.”
“And what about me?”
Startled. That was all Aimeric felt in that moment. It wasn’t Jord’s words but the expression on his face, a deep hurt that penetrated every corner of his face.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Aimeric’s voice was hardly above a whisper. “That I will lose you. That I never truly had you.”
“I don’t understand.” It was like they were back in Vere on the road to Ravenel – desperation and confusion battling for dominance of Jord’s emotions. He took a tentative step toward Aimeric. “I left Vere for you, Aimeric. I broke my vows to be with you. You can’t truly doubt that…”
“That you love me?” Aimeric finished, smiling sadly. “I don’t know, Jord, you tell me. I’m not an easy person to be with. I’m still confused, I’m devastated over everything that has happened. You find my perspective hard to relate to—fine—“
“That doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” Jord took several more steps forward. He was now right in front of Aimeric. Aimeric did not back away. “It doesn’t mean I will leave you. I never thought this was going to be easy. We both left things behind, you more so than I. I knew that. All I’ve ever tried to do since was aimed at making you happy.”
“Everyone always says that,” Aimeric said, looking down. He was shaking, a strange, nervous compulsion he could not control. “Everyone always says things and then do the opposite.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“I...I’m not sure I trust anyone.” Aimeric swallowed, shook his head. “I think I trust you. I want to trust you.”
“I’ve never been dishonest with you. I need you to trust me and to be honest with me. That’s the only way this is ever going to work.” Jord reached for him. Aimeric flinched but did not pull away. Jord ran a hand over his shoulder and neck, cupped his check gently, said, “Look at me.”
Aimeric looked up.
“I made my choices in Vere. When I said I would run away with you, I meant it. All I wanted—all I want—is to live a quiet, happy life with you. There is nothing I want more. No one, not Laurent, not anyone but you could give that to me. I will never lie to you and I will never leave.”
Aimeric’s tremblingly turned into a sob. He chocked it back, swallowed hard and stepped forward into Jord’s arms. “I’m sorry,” he said against Jord’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to be a part of the Vaskian plot. I don’t even want revenge on Laurent. Not really. More than anything, I want to forget. More than anything, I just want to be with you.”
Jord held him close, not caring at all that Aimeric was all wet and that his own shirt was slowly soaking through. “We can do that,” he said softly, pressing his cheek to Aimeric’s temple. “We can do that. I promise you.”
“I believe you.” Aimeric pulled away just enough to look up into Jord’s face. “Do you forgive me? For doubting you, for keeping secrets again? I won’t do it anymore, I swear. I swear.”
“Of course I forgive you.” Jord cupped his face and kissed him gently. He felt Aimeric melt into his embrace, completely trusting and relaxed for the first time since they left Vere.
Outside, the rain had stopped.
“You don’t have a lot of time,” Aiden said, taking out a leather purse that looked full to burst and an envelope with the Prince’s personal seal. He set both items on the table in front of Jord and Aimeric. It was dark outside, clear but still wet from the previous night’s downpour. “You ought to leave tonight. There is enough gold here to get you to the Eastern Bay, pay for passage to Grafschtum and a couple of days there.”
“We have some money too,” Aimeric said.
“This is a letter of introduction and recommendation to Prince Friedrich of Grafschtum.” Aiden indicated the sealed envelope. “I’ve asked him to assist you in settling in. Friedrich appreciates a good soldier, so work shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
“Thank you, Aiden. You’ve been a blessing, truly.”
Aiden came around the table to stand in front of Aimeric. They looked at each other for a long time before Aiden finally said, “When we were children, you always wanted people to notice you and it never ended well.”
Aimeric groaned good naturedly. “Let’s not.”
“No, I’m serious. You had so much ambition -- it always baffled me because I never had any at all. But it wasn’t about winning or being best to you. It was about someone noticing – Lord Artois, your father, that one time Prince Auguste came…”
Aimeric looked away. He could feel Jord subtly watching him from the corner of his eye. He had already told Jord more about himself than he would ever consider revealing to anyone else. And Aiden—Aiden didn’t know about the Regent.
“But more often than not,” Aiden continued, “you didn’t get anywhere near what you wanted. But it never stopped you. So…to see you now willingly trying to get as far away from everyone and everything that could possibly garner you attention or importance—I don’t know what happened, Aimeric. You don’t talk to me the same way you used to; I imagine you must have stopped writing for a reason. But whatever it is, it must have been important.”
“It wasn’t about you. Life has just been…complicated lately.”
Aiden’s expression lingered somewhere between fondness and melancholy. “Maybe if you’re happy in Grafschtum you’ll start writing again.”
“I’d like that.” They embraced one last time. “We should go,” Aimeric said to Jord.
“Go on and make sure the horses are ready. I’ll be right there with our things,” Jord said. Aimeric scooped up the purse and letter from the table and went outside. Jord turned to Aiden. “Your Highness, I—I want you to know that Aimeric thinks very well of you, and I’m sorry that we’ve used your hospitality without giving anything in return.”
“No, it’s nothing,” Aiden said. “I rarely get much excitement around here.” He bit his lip and looked toward the door. “Take care of him, Jord. He loves you. I can see it every time he talks about you.”
Jord never blushed but he couldn’t help the small, bashful smile that came over him. “I know. He’s just…he’s lost everything he ever knew. Starting over for him is hard.”
“It’s probably best that you get as far away from this part of the world as possible, then. Did Aimeric dismiss your servants?”
“Yes, as soon as you sent reply that you would help us leave.”
“Good. Ride hard for the coast. I will go to the palace and try to stall my sister, but I won’t be able to give you more than a day’s head start.”
“Will she be angry at you for getting involved?”
“I’ll insist I didn’t know. She won’t believe me but she’ll have no proof to the contrary.” Aiden’s smile grew mischievous and Jord returned it. “Go. Go now.”
The Eastern Bay docks were crowded. Merchants and ship crewmen bustled back and forth loading cargo and preparing for their journey. Aimeric tilted his head up to soak in the warmth of the afternoon sun. He breathed in deep the unfamiliar smell of the sea – salty and fresh. It smelled like freedom.
Jord was talking to the Captain of a ship headed for Grafschtum, negotiating their fair. Several docks down, another ship was preparing to sail. She was smaller than most of the other ships but leaner, probably faster. Desdemona was written in large, ornate letter on her side. “Excuse me,” Aimeric called to a passing sailor. “Do you know where that ship is going?” He pointed to the Desdemona.
“Her? She’s off to Kotalina. Merchant ship she is, but I think they take passengers for a pretty penny.”
“Kotalina? Isn’t that--?”
“The Free City, aye.”
“I didn’t know they traded here.”
“Rarely,” the sailor said with a shrug. “They’ve got fast ships but they can’t weather storms too big. This is probably the last voyage their merchants will brave until next summer.”
Aimeric hummed thoughtfully and leaned back against the pier railing. After a few moments, Jord came to join him. “Well, I think I managed to get us a decent price,” Jord said cheerfully. He followed Aimeric’s gaze. “That’s an odd-looking ship.”
“Kotalinian,” Aimeric said.
Jord slipped an arm around his waist. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking…say, Jord…what if we could go to a place where there were no princes? So far away that no one would know us at all. So far away that this part of the world was only somewhere the bravest, most desperate merchants visited. Somewhere where we could truly start over.”
“Where is that?”
Aimeric nodded at the Desdemona. “Kotalina. It’s what’s called a Free City. A Republic. They don’t have a royal family – no king or prince or regent. They have a chancellor and a council that makes the laws and such, but those people are elected every few years by votes.”
“Yes. People go the city center and cast votes. The most popular candidates take positions on the council and these elections are held every few years. I don’t know much about it but…that’s the gist.”
“Sounds odd,” Jord said. “Regular people are allowed to decide who governs?”
“I suppose?” Aimeric gave him a wistful smile. “I’m sure there are intrigues and politics anyway, but…no oaths? No heirs to protect with your life? If you lose an election you simply go do something else – you don’t die. And it’s so far away…we could start all over. For real.”
Jord, cautious as always, looked uncertain. “What about Grafschtum? Aiden’s recommendation letter? We don’t know anything or anyone in Kotalina.”
“Aiden gave us more than enough gold. If we’re frugal we can make it last for a while until we find something to do. I’m sure even a Free City needs a military.”
Jord looked out at the ships, then back at Aimeric. He saw the hope on Aimeric’s face, took in a deep breath of the salty ocean air, and nodded. “You’re always dragging me off on adventures.”
“Hopefully, this is the last time,” Aimeric says, and linked his arm through Jord’s.
As the Desdemona set sail for the free city of Kotalina in the late afternoon, two figures stood on its upper deck, looking out into the broad expanse of ocean before them. One was a man in his thirties, with short cropped hair and a soldier’s build and posture. The other man was younger and slighter with sharp, aristocratic features and longish, dark curls blowing haphazardly in the breeze.
They had their arms comfortably around each other and were perfectly, blissfully, happy.