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~*~

Rebellion, treason, and turmoil. Evidence of them everywhere I looked.

Rumors, spreading all over the castle. It grated on my nerves. I didn’t have the patience for gossip or the intellect to worry over intrigues. I was a soldier, dammit.

I took the black mare I’d so recently tamed out of her stall and headed for the nearest moor. Fresh country air would clear my head.

As I thundered across the drawbridge, I saw Lord Narsus dangling his legs gracefully over the arched stone wall. He frowned, immersed in some manuscript or other, occasionally making notes in the margins. I stopped.

"Good day to you, my lord," I ventured politely.

"And to you." Narsus gave me one of his ebullient smiles. He coupled it with a knowing look—that always drove me crazy.

"And what are you doing this fine day?"

"Envying you, Darun." The scholar simpered at me, ducking his head, amber tresses obscuring half his face.

"Envying me?"

"Envying your horse, I should say." Narsus jumped down from his perch and began slowly walking toward the portcullis.

I turned in my saddle to watch him go; couldn’t help it. "My horse?"

"Looks like she’s being ridden by someone who knows how to handle her, at least." His lips curved wickedly when I squirmed and blushed.

I should have known better with Narsus. I always took his bait. His unshakable composure while speaking of such things, the careful twist of words around his razor tongue, and the mind that led me down a labyrinth of seduction—all of it enflamed and infuriated me.

Stung, I said, "Are you experiencing some problem in that field, my lord? Perhaps you should chose wiser mounts."

A slight gasp. Point goes to me, then.

I dug my spurs in deep and set off, hoping I wounded that brassy ego of his a little. Feeling momentarily triumphant, I galloped across the desert, bounding recklessly into the warm sunshine.

I could feel Narsus’ eyes trail after me . . . He’d looked . . . sad?

~*~

There’s such a sad love
Deep in your eyes
Such a pale jewel
Opened and closed

~*~

Riding remained one of my few pleasures. Despite what Narsus often suggested, I am not a barbarian. I simply cannot sit by and think about how my talents are being wasted because people judge me by my youth, think about our half-mad king and his ice queen, and think about all the battles I must inevitably fight for them. I never proclaimed myself a thinking man. I leave web-spinning to men like Narsus, and when action is needed, they leave it to me.

In some ways, I respected Narsus. He could wrap his mind around any puzzle and by the end of the evening, have everyone wrapped around his finger. He is a genius. A master strategist. And a hopeless hedonist.

Where he could have brilliance, I could at least have purity. Simplicity. Strength. And I could lord that over him, if I needed.

But those pale green eyes . . . they wouldn’t let me enjoy my triumph. I hung my head in shame. I should not have insulted him so. He complimented me, after all. Going so far as to say he envied my horse . . .

What would it be like, to ride such a man? I’d never really considered taking him as a lover.

Images of Narsus flat on his back, yielding sweetly, washed over me. He would fight me at first, of course. And he would be hard-won. Such a prize always was. But I lived for challenges like that, and he knew it. We seemed made for each other. Sage and soldier. Aristocrat and barbarian. Lover and enemy, all merging into one.

I shook my head, trying to focus my attention back on the path before me.

What if I had asked Narsus to ride with me today? I imagined him sitting in front of me, resting his head on my chest. I would smell his cologne; hold him tightly against me. Each urging of my horse would press me to him. Each jaunt would send him back into me. What would he do if I brought my hand down to cup him there?

I flushed.

What an idiot! Lusting after that courtesan! In the middle of a desert on a mare headed south, when I needed to be heading north, and back to the castle in time for my lesson with Arslan—

Arslan!

Cursing, I drove my mount, hard, back to the palace. Damn the man! Daydreaming about him had made me late!

~*~

Narsus’ eyes twinkled unmistakably. He found my tardiness amusing.

I flung myself off my saddle and gripped the leather bridle, doing my best not to show concern. If word of this got back to the king . . .

I deliberately slowed my pace and led my mare toward the stable, trying not to stare, as Narsus broke away from the noblemen clamoring for his conversation. He crossed the courtyard with ease and touched my arm.

"Go, Darun. The prince is waiting in the inner garden."

I looked at him, startled by this sudden kindness.

Narsus smiled. "I’ll brush her down and put her in her stall." Again, softness and civility from him.

"I thank you, humbly, my lord."

Narsus’ smile deepened. "Not at all. My pleasure. Perhaps she will tell me your secrets?"

"Secrets, my lord?"

"Indeed." He chuckled, stroking the thick black mane. "On how to be a wise mount?" His eyes sparkled with humor and something else, and I couldn’t help but grin.

Apparently he had taken no offense. So I had best be on my way. "My noble lord." I bowed extravagantly and spun on my heel, desperate not to keep the young prince waiting longer.

I could still feel those eyes on my back.

~*~

Within your eyes
I’ll place the skies
In your eyes

~*~

Young Arslan’s quick progress showed his dedication. He’d started training very young, but even now, he could barely lift a broadsword. Still, his spirit never let him show any signs of tiring.

Sweat streaked his brow. Straw-colored hair stubbornly clung to his forehead. I had to resist the urge to brush it back. I could not afford to show him tenderness.

As a teacher I had to be firm to be kind. He would need to get used to loneliness and toil if he were to survive battle. Much as I wanted to hold him dear, I had to keep him at bay. He already lived as my rising and setting star. If I let myself feel much more for him, I couldn’t be of any use to him.

"You are not attacking aggressively enough! Come at me like you mean to kill me, my prince."

"But, Darun . . . I could never—"

I lunged for him. "But you must!"

He blocked. A good parry. I had not attacked with any real force, however.

He simply had to learn the basics: the eight positions of sword, the three lunges of advance and retreat. He was still young yet. It was crucial he learn the technique properly, or he would suffer in all his future matches, and be an embarrassment to the king, and to me.

"When you lunge, stay straight."

"Yes, Darun."

"Use your shoulder, not your wrist."

"Yes, Darun."

He frowned too severely. Tried too hard. To please me. I stopped.

"Do you know why I am so hard on you, my prince?"

Arslan let his guard down, slumping his shoulders. "Because I am so very bad?"

"No! Because you are so very good! You are as fine as any of my men, when they were beginning! You will make a fine swordsman, Arslan . . . But you must keep practicing."

He seemed to be encouraged by this. The boy worshipped me, I could sense it. He set everything by my opinion, if I was dumb enough to express it. Perhaps I should have praised him more, but I didn’t want him to get cocky. A soldier cannot afford pride.

"I’m hard on you because I want to make you the best, Arslan." I rested a hand on his shoulder. "I want you to never know the shame of defeat . . ."

"Then how can he learn anything?" a sharp voice interjected from the gazebo. A voice I recognized instantly.

"Narsus?" I turned.

"Forgive me for interrupting your lesson, my prince. But I fear I must protest. It would appear our good Darun would have you never know defeat. But this would cripple you. If you were to learn defeat first . . ."

I watched him descend upon the boy, his manner confident yet cautious, as if revealing some great secret. “If you learned defeat, young Highness, then you would learn much about your enemy. You would be able to master him next time."

I raised an eyebrow. "There is no next time, on the battlefield, nobleman. You lose, you die."

Narsus just rolled his eyes. "Not while he has you there to protect him, surely, Darun."

Flattery. It came so easily to him. I could scarce hold back my sneer. "Thank you kindly. But I seem to recall being chosen for the boy’s tutor, and so I will teach him to wield a sword on his own."

Narsus transferred his weight from one hip to the other. Of course, he should have been chosen as the royal fencing instructor. His swordsmanship was the stuff of legend, even beyond Parse’s borders. But the prince favored me more, and I confess I considered those few hours with him precious.

"But . . ." Narsus looked down at the boy, his hand coming down to gently thread through golden hair. "He’s too young, Darun."

"Too young, Lord Narsus?"

 

"He’s not yet twelve. He’s too young to hold a weapon, to learn to kill. He’s too . . . innocent.”

I bristled. How dare he put his hands on the prince of Parse for the god’s sakes! "Jealous, lord?"

I went too far, there. I recognized that immediately.

His lips tightened almost imperceptibly as he removed his hands from Arslan’s shoulders. Narsus bowed sharply. "My prince." He turned and left, without so much as a glance back.

"Darun?" Arslan frowned up at me.

"Forgive me, my prince. Lord Narsus and I seem to anger one another, as easily as the wind blows through the trees. It was wrong of me to goad him."

"You should go and apologize." His tiny voice echoed my thoughts.

"It is a difficult matter of pride, young sire." I sighed. Even I could not fully understand what led me to be so callous.

"Then, I command you to apologize."

I looked down at the boy who would someday be my king. "I obey, Your Highness. You will excuse me? Our lesson is over for today."

~*~

I headed for the baths, anxious to wash the scent of horse and sword practice off of me. Quickly, I disrobed and marched into the poolroom, tossing my towel carelessly across a wooden bench. I dived into the scented water, reveling in the warm, oiled liquid. When I came up for air, I sputtered and choked on some water, shocked.

Not but two inches from my face was the perfectly chiseled abdomen of one quite wet, quite ravishing Narsus, waist-deep in the shallow end of the pool.

"N-Narsus?"

"Darun."

"What are you doing here?" I asked stupidly, refusing to stand up and expose my body and its embarrassing reaction to his proximity.

"I am bathing, Darun. What does it look like I’m doing?"

I suppose the comment hadn’t necessarily meant to invoke my study, but my eyes raked over him nonetheless.

"A—Ah." I cleared my throat. "I’m . . . I’m happy I found you here."

That made him raise an eyebrow. "I can’t imagine that’s so."

"Truly," I said, determined to keep conversation as simple and straightforward as I could.

"Oh? Did you come to sling another insult my way?" Narsus tossed his wet hair back over his shoulder, revealing more of that broad, sculpted chest.

I gulped. "No, my lord. It was very wrong of me. I wish to apologize—"

"Why bother, Darun? It’s very clear what you think of me. You even say so in front of the prince."

I winced. When would I ever learn self-control? Gods, how I must have wounded him. Even if it was with the truth.

Tentatively, I reached my hand out and grasped his. "Forgive me, Narsus." I brought his hand to my lips and kissed it softly. "I never meant to hurt you."

He relaxed ever so slightly. "You are forgiven," he said, as easily as if he were telling me the hour.

I bowed, relieved.

"So, Darun?"

"Hm?"

"Could I ask you a favor now?"

I stiffened. Gods only know what he would ask for. "What would you have me do, Lord Narsus?"

He smiled genuinely. "Wash my back?"

I almost fell over. "Y-yeah." I took the cloth from him and soaked it in the pool for a moment. Not really knowing where to start, I hesitated.

"Surely you’ve done as much for your fellow soldiers?" Narsus challenged quietly.

Yes, but my soldiers never made me this hard. Or this nervous. "I bathe alone," I said, trying to steer the conversation anywhere but to sex.

"Oh," Narsus said. He waited patiently; his back turned to me.

I stroked the washcloth gently across the planes of his back, surprised to find the hard curve of muscle there. In time, Narsus began to sway with each stroke, and I found I liked having him in my power. I rested my other hand on his hip, and drew him nearer, steadying him.

Brushing along his shoulder blades, I worked some of the tension out of his upper torso. He moaned softly.

"Am I doing this right?" I asked, unsure.

"Oh, yes. It feels wonderful, Darun."

"Here. Come back down into the water."

Narsus obeyed me, kneeling down. I set the cloth aside and began to massage his shoulders and neck, gently tucking his hair out of the way. He shivered.

"Are you cold?"

"No," Narsus replied, his voice husky.

"You’re trembling," I murmured, concentrating on the fine hairs that curling along the nape of his neck. Before I realized what I was doing, I brought my lips down to taste the skin there. Narsus let his head roll back, gasping slightly.

Instinctively I wrapped my arms around his chest, placing soft kisses along the back of his neck. "Narsus." I breathed in his ear.

"Darun . . ." His eyes were closed. I wanted to see them, wanted to see those pale jewels opened.

I ran my fingers through his hair and titled his head to expose more of that white throat. I sucked on it, marking him. I grew painfully hard, and Narsus melted against me. He showed no resistance, and that surprised me. I must have caught him off guard.

But then, turnabout is fair play.

Narsus suddenly spun around in my hold, stopping a bare breath away from touching our lips together. He looked deeply into my eyes before kissing me fully on the mouth

I groaned as he pressed against me, loving the feel of his soft skin flush against me. He filled me with ache. His tongue mapped my lower lip and I wanted to open to him, wanted so badly to give him entrance. But I was a warrior. I did not yield without a battle.

As abruptly as he began, Narsus withdrew completely. He left me wanton, shaking almost. I stared at his slow, sheepish smile, disbelieving.

"Thank you, Darun."

He looked so shy. What could have gone wrong? "My pleasure," I responded, not knowing what else to say.

Was he teasing me?

He rose to leave, slowly wading to the other end of the pool. I watched as rivulets of oiled water cascaded down his back and the curve of his luscious buttocks. He turned and caught me staring. I lowered my gaze to the water, abashed.

I didn’t look up again until the door shut. I stared into space for a long time, trying to figure out what I’d missed. Finally I decided it was best to dress and make ready for dinner. It would not do to be tardy twice in one day.

~*~

Dinners were always extravagant affairs in the palace of Parse. Dancers leapt about the room, twirling their brightly colored scarves. Tumblers and tricksters made fools of themselves, and the musicians played endless tunes. Ballads to Ashi, memorials to Misra, and the like. A typical Friday night reverie. It made me long for the soldier’s quarters and the simple soup and bread served there. These things always gave me a headache.

Speaking of headaches, I spotted Narsus. As usual, he was draped over some high-ranking official’s arm, making polite talk of philosophy or politics or some such drivel. Every once in a while, he’d glance at a redheaded fellow with a guitar.

As if he could sense my eyes on him, Narsus turned and leveled me with one look. The taste of his kiss, the throbbing in my groin, the need with which he left in me, came rushing back. Then he turned his head dismissively, focusing his gaze on a young, dark foreigner to his right.

No one could make me furious faster than Narsus! I wanted to stop across the room and smack him. Or kiss him, hard. He had quickly become my Achilles, and I wanted to get over him as soon as possible, if only to have my sanity back.

I strode toward him, breaking through the small crowd around him. "Your pardon, my lord, but I believe you left something unfinished."

Narsus looked quite taken aback. "Why, sir, whatever do you mean?"

I carefully kept my eyes from narrowing. "Surely you remember? I believe you were lecturing me on the benefits of defeat? I should very much like to continue this discussion. Perhaps we might have a match?"

Narsus raised both eyebrows. "Yes, Darun. I think I should like that very much. Tomorrow? A sparring bout?" His voice sounded amused, as if he were inviting a child to play.

"Where?" I grated out.

"The same court yard?"

"When?"

"Oh, let’s see. Sometime in the afternoon? I do hate to rise too early . . .”

"Of course. Your nocturnal activities must leave you fairly exhausted." I waited for the men around us to finish laughing. Narsus looked pinched. "I shall see you at the second hour." I bowed curtly and moved to take my place at the table, for dinner would start soon.

Narsus sat across from me, a few chairs down. He stared at the brocade cloth before him, subdued. Once, he looked up at me and then quickly away. I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach.

I simply didn’t understand him. One minute he was a teasing mass of sexual prowess, the next, he looked like a small, hurt boy, hiding under a mess of soft brown hair. He never rebutted any of my insinuations as to his activities, so it was the same as admitting I was right. But for someone so open about his conquests, he seemed devastated every time I mentioned them.

Narsus looked up again, this time at the king. I watched as his majesty gave the nobleman a long, serious look and Narsus seemed to forget his misery for the moment. Could he and the king be lovers?

He turned his attention to the wealthy merchant on his left and struck up a conversation, flirting boldly before introductions were through. Was he trying to pique the king’s jealousy?

I sighed. I had a headache.

~*~

His thrusts amazed me! I never dreamed he had such hidden strength. The soles of my boots slid over the sand as I fought to maintain my balance. The hot sun beat down on us. I quickly dodged his beat-attack in fourth.

I could have kissed him. Clean, sharp lunges, without mercy, lodged effectively against each repost. Perfect.

"What, nothing to say, my lord? No lecture on defeat?" I wanted him riled—his composure irked me.

"Your defeat should be enough shame for one day," he rejoined, warily watching the tip of my blade. A little nervous that I would knick him, I gathered. Vanity would be his weakness.

I came at him harder, backing us up until he stumbled, cornered in front of some ridiculous-looking topiary. Just when I thought I had him, he double disengaged and sent my sword sprawling onto the grass. He brought his blade under my chin and I glared at him, my mouth full of venom.

It was humiliating. He had his chance for revenge and I knew words from Narsus would sting as sharply as any sword.

"Why were you defeated, Darun?" Narsus quietly demanded, not moving so much as a millimeter.

I swallowed. "Because you are the better champion."

Narsus squinted. "Not so. You lost because you let your mind wander. You let yourself see only what you wanted to, and then when you saw the truth, it was too late. That is your weakness, Darun." Narsus lowered his blade. "And if you had never been defeated, you might never had known . . . until it was too late. So, you see? Defeat can be useful."

I stared at him. His maturity, his insight astonished me. "Oh."

He smiled at me. "It would indeed be a shame if you stopped learning."

I couldn’t help it. I loved him when he acted like this. When he took off his mask, when I could see the sincere Narsus, the entire world tumbled away, and I got swallowed up. I pulled him into my embrace, murmuring slightly above his lush mouth, "I never knew losing could be so sweet, Narsus."

His jade eyes flashed for a moment, and I could sense the mutual want, the need. I bent to kiss him, but he backed out of my hold, frightened. So strange . . .

"Dear minstrel! Thank the Gods you’re here to save me from this barbarian’s clutches!" Narsus gushed, attaching himself to the new musician, one called Gueive.

"Oh, Narsus? I thought he was under your sword?" Gueive grinned. I instantly knew I hated him.

Narsus drew a shaky breath and slipped into the musician’s arms. "Appearances are deceiving. Shall we go for a walk in the garden? It is such a nice day, and I want to get to know you better before I have to give our prince his painting lesson."

I snorted. Narsus, and his damned art. I gathered my sword and stalked off to the stables. A brief ride might help me shake off that strange hollow feeling.

~*~

After a hard race through some training hurdles, I put the little black mare back in her stall and headed in to see if I could snag a bite before dinner. I found absolutely nothing of interest in the kitchen, simpering serving girls not to my taste, as I discovered long ago. I preferred the companionship of men—of my equals. I preferred a challenge.

I stole an apple, winking at the kitchen maid who caught me, and climbed the winding servant’s stairs towards the prince’s chambers. I would keep Arslan company until dinner.

Halfway up the steps, I heard their voices echoing off the slates. His voice.

"No, Your Highness. You are going at this too aggressively. Let it come to you, and it will be worth all the more."

"Yes, Narsus."

"No, Your Highness, you’re using your shoulders too much. The brush requires strokes of the wrist."

"Yes, Narsus."

I could almost hear the poor boy’s frown.

"Very good. Once you have mastered shading, I’ll teach you perspective, and that will make the flowers look real."

"What’s so great about perspective?" Arslan asked, his slender face turning toward me as I opened the door of his chambers.

"Perspective is everything," Narsus said, looking directly into my eyes. I forgot to breathe.

Narsus sat on a cushioned stool next to the boy. His hair hung over his right arm, untied. I had the urge to run my thumb across his lips.

Then I remembered we had an audience. "My prince? Am I disturbing you?" I asked, clearing my throat.

"Oh no, Darun! You could never be a bother! Please come and sit with us, and watch me paint!" Arslan beamed up at me, and Gods help me, I had to beam back.

I walked over and sat on the arm of a brocaded burgundy chair, peering at the canvas. Arslan had painted a deep violet flower petal over the light sketch of a penciled lily.

"Most impressive," I said, smiling.

"It is Lord Narsus’ sketch. He is letting me paint it," Arslan chirped at me, seeking approval.

"I see. It is as beautiful as its creator," I whispered, hazarding a glance at Narsus.

I could have sworn he blushed ever so slightly, but wouldn’t look at me. He simply took Arslan’s wrist and lifted it, brush and all, back to the canvas.

"Like this," he murmured, bringing the tiny hand down in one smooth stroke, slashing a deep indigo-blue into the middle of the petal. The petal instantly had depth and brilliance.

"Amazing!" Arslan excitedly declared. He set about mixing more of the paint on his pallet.

I nodded. "Yes. If only you could persuade Lord Narsus to continue painting flowers instead of those awful nudes—"

"What’s wrong with my nudes?" Narsus bristled, dangerously close to the edge of anger.

I grinned. "Oh, well, I’m sure nothing is wrong with your nudes. You’ve had so much study of the male body, I’m sure—"

I saw the fury flash briefly in his eyes but I couldn’t stop myself. "But Narsus, don’t you think painting naked people is a little . . . squalid?"

"Sq-squalid?" He spit the word out. "Are you saying you think the reproduction of the human body—one of the Gods’ greatest works of art—is tacky? You barbarian!"

"Narsus—" Arslan attempted, but we were both ignoring him by that point.

"Barbarian am I? At least I have the decency not to make pictures of everyone I lay with!"

A sharp slap—his palm across my cheek. So accurate it took me by surprise.

"Darun!" Arslan pleaded, rising to his feet.

I had never seen Narsus so angry. "Is this the only way to get through to you, Darun? Physical force? Are you such an animal that you need to be slapped into using the manners of a gentleman?"

"Indeed,” I said slowly, massaging my jaw. "If you are the measure of a gentleman, than I am happy to be called an animal."

Narsus looked as though he would cry. Mixed emotions flooded over me. On the one hand, his constant teasing drove me insane. On the other hand, my endless criticism no doubt affected him likewise. After all, who am I to rebuke him for his conquests? In front of Arslan no less!

"I will have you answer to me for this." Narsus’ voice fell cold and deadly.

"When?" I said, trying to keep my voice calm.

"Dawn. The training grounds." Narsus stared past me as he spoke.

His choice frightened me a little. On army training grounds, there exist no penalties for drawing blood. Or even for killing your opponent. Surely he would not?

"Narsus?" Arslan walked over to the artist, tugging on the man’s billowed sleeve. "You will not kill him?"

Narsus stared down at the boy. "Of course not, Your Highness. The training grounds are simply the most logical choice for a dual. Too many prying eyes in the castle . . ."

I scowled. "As if that ever mattered to you before—"

"Dawn," Narsus cut me off. He turned and walked out the door.

Arslan turned disapproving eyes on me, frowning. I sighed.

"You are angry at me too?" I muttered, sitting back on the arm of the chair.

Arslan walked over to me, hesitating before hurling himself into my arms. "I don’t want you to fight, Darun! You and Narsus are best friends!"

"We were. People change, Arslan." How could I make a ten-year-old understand the complicated relationship I had with Narsus, when I didn’t even understand it myself?

"I don’t want to lose either of you, Darun. No killing."

"You won’t, Your Highness." I sighed again. "It is time for dinner. Your mother is said to come tonight. Perhaps you can see her at the table?"

Mention of Arslan’s mother always easily distracted him. "Do you really think so? It must be an occasion. What outfit should I wear, do you think?"

"Green and white. It will suit your coloring. Come, I’ll pick something out for you."

"Darun?" Arslan giggled.

"What?"

"Green and white suit Narsus. I wear only blues."

"O-oh." I fumbled, ushering him toward the wardrobe. What a lot of fuss over nothing. I had to wonder why I ever agreed leave my post and come the castle . . .

~*~

I sat close to Arslan that evening, knowing the boy would be overly excited at the idea of seeing his queen. She would not talk to him, I already knew that much. So I planned to be there to cheer him up, if needed.

Across the table sat Narsus, absently stirring his soup with a golden spoon. Several men attempted conversation with him, but he looked miles away, miserable. I could have kicked myself.

"There, there, Lord Narsus," the dark-haired foreigner purred. "I fear your country’s dry climate makes them irritable. You look so depressed." His accent was thick, telling me he was not as highly bred as he would have us think.

"Not so, sir," Narsus rejoined quickly. "Simply bored to tears." He waved an elegant hand, as if to indicate the unbearable dullness of life at court.

"Perhaps you need more lively company?" he said snidely.

I would sooner trust Narsus with Gueive than this buffoon of a man.

Narsus shifted a little in his seat. "I might take you up on that offer later, sir. Perhaps a dance tomorrow at the king’s festival?" He smiled brilliantly. I could tell he faked it. Why did he persist in chasing all these men? And such unworthy men. He should belong to me, to someone who wouldn’t slobber all over him or flatter him with lies.

"Do men dance together in Parse?" The Shindran chuckled, glancing around the table.

"They do far more than dance, sir," I sneered. "Just ask Narsus."

Narsus rose walked out of the room, heading sharply for the balcony. The dark man bowed to me, as if to thank me for the opportunity, and then slinked after Narsus.

I fumed, though whether at the little sycophant, Narsus, or myself, I just wasn’t sure.

Jealousy.

I felt so jealous of Narsus. No, of all of Narsus’ other lovers. What made them more worthy of his attentions than I?

I moved to the balcony, catching a glimpse of Narsus with his head bowed close to the foreign dignitary. A kiss, no doubt.

Something in me buckled. I marched straight out to the balcony and clasped my hand firmly over the Shindran’s shoulder. "I think you better leave us, friend. I have something to discuss with Narsus." I left no room for misinterpretation.

"Parsian customs are so infuriating!" He whined, stomping off in a huff.

"That was very rude." Narsus chided.

"I know," I said casually. "It’s one of my talents."

"What is?"

"Being rude. I can’t seem to stop being rude, all over the place, especially in your presence. It must be my barbarian roots."

Narsus looked like he was debating whether he should smile or slap me. I would have taken either. Anything other than coldly standing so far away from me.

"I am an ass," I said simply. "An utter fool."

“What?"

"I let my desire for you rule my tongue. Among other things." I stalked over to him.. Narsus backed up to the edge of the balcony. "Retreat? How unlike you," I said.

Narsus gasped and almost fell over the railing. My hands came out to steady him. "Don’t worry; I’ll catch you," I whispered. I kissed his temple, drawing him in close.

"Darun!"

"Where’s the sweet and gentle Narsus I knew before? Where’s the dignity and wisdom? I worshipped you once, my lord. But you’ve changed." I ran my hands through his hair. "When did you change?"

"Into the town slut, you mean?" he asked bitterly.

"Into a tease?"

"Are you sure that’s what I am, Darun?" Narsus challenged.

"I’m sure what you are not. You are not mine. A situation I wish to rectify immediately. What will it take, Narsus?"

"Despite what you might think, Darun, I do not spread my legs for just anybody!" Narsus stiffened in my arms.

I pulled him closer, so close our lips almost touched. "What will it take, Narsus?" I repeated.

He melded to me. I could sense the hairline-fracture in his resolve. He gripped my forearms. "Oh Darun, don’t you know?"

I bent my head to kiss him. I kept it deliberately soft and gentle, brushing my lips over the corner of his mouth while I forced him to tilt his head. At any moment, he might bolt, like some nervous racehorse. I had to soothe him, to make him stay.

"Narsus. Tell me. How should I win you?"

"Darun . . .” He lifted his face to me, begging another kiss.

"Narsus? Darun?" Our prince pushed through the curtains to find us.

"Tomorrow at dawn," I whispered. "If you win, then you may do with me as you like. If I win, then you belong to me, and me alone. Do you hear?"

He quickly nodded. I pulled away in time to scoop up Arslan and carry him—piggyback—into the hall. Narsus followed, slightly dazed. I congratulated myself, and we took our seats as the main course was served.

~*~

There’s such a fooled heart
Beating so fast
In search of new dreams
A love that will last

~*~

Dawn. Patches of amber light fell on Narsus’ hair, catching my eye, as I unsheathed my sword.

"I may remind you, my lord, of your promise to me last night?"

Narsus lifted his head, eyes solemn. "If I win then I may punish you as I like. If you win . . ." He hesitated. "Then I am yours." He looked like a timid rabbit; I could practically hear his heart pounding.

"Yes. Mine. From then to the next dawn, mine and mine alone."

He peered at me. Then nodded.

I threw my scabbard to the ground. "Begin."

I have never seen Narsus so determined to win. I knew he hated the idea of being in my power, sure as any wild horse would fight a bit. What he didn’t realize is that I had been waiting for a chance to make him mine since the day we first met, here at court all those summers ago. The Gods had finally provided me with an opportunity, and being a good soldier, I would make the most of it.

He jabbed at me, tearing a seam in my left sleeve. I lifted a brow, egging him on. Over the head, clash, clash, then a baluster, and finally his infamous double disengage. None of it fazed me.

We locked swords, and I took the chance to herald the tip of my tongue across his chin. He stumbled backwards with a gasp.

"Have you no honor, sir?" he angrily shouted at me.

"Now, now, Narsus. Let’s not be hypocrites."

"You! You scoundrel!" He came at me again.

"Scoundrel? Pot, kettle, nobleman." I raised our swords up to sixth position and went for the kill. Narsus blocked my broad swing, but not before I clipped a flaxen strand of hair from just below his left ear.

He growled. "Is this how you intend to play?" Predictably, Narsus lunged at me. His swing landed low, a bare inch from my privates. I almost squealed like a girl.

"Narsus!" My voice cracked. "There’s no need to unman me!"

Narsus smirked. "I make it a point to neuter all my animals.” He lunged for me again, and this time we locked in a death-hold. We stared deeply into each other’s eyes, a mixture of hate and need swirling over me.

"No wonder you go through so many bed warmers."

He never knew what hit him. With my left thigh I pushed him backward, my sword slicing a mean pupae. Shaken, disoriented, Narsus sprawled at my feet. My point rested at the hollow of his throat.

"I win," I said simply.

He panted, eyes wide, lovely mouth parted with shock. It took all the self-control I had not to throw myself on top of him.

"You . . . ?" He lay propped on his elbows, gaping at me.

"I win you," I stated again. I wanted to ingrain the thought into both of us. I swallowed. "You are mine until dawn, Narsus, as we agreed."

His chest heaved, and he shifted slightly to remove pressure from his bleeding elbows.

"Rise."

He got shakily to his knees and almost fell over, so I snaked my free hand around his arm. He winced as I brought him level with me.

"You are hurt?" I asked, inspecting him.

"It is nothing." His voice quavered.

I looked at him for a long time, then turned. "Come," I called over my shoulder. "There is much to do."

I wasn’t sure, at first, if Narsus would follow. But he had given his word—he had agreed to be my prize. So he followed my lead, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

~*~

"To the baths. We both need one. We spent half the day dueling and the festival is tonight, after all."

He made no small talk as he followed me, head down, to the pool. He must have thought I would hurl him onto the ground and rape or something, because he looked at me as if I were mad for suggesting a bath.

I smiled slightly. I liked keeping him off-kilter; the bewildered expression on his exquisite face amused me. I stared him directly in the eye as I peeled his tunic off and let it drop to the floor. Narsus looked totally astounded and I turned to hide my smile.

I stripped myself and calmly walked into the water. "Get in," I called out to him. I watched him remove the rest of his clothing rather reluctantly, enjoying his sudden embarrassment. The thought occurred to me that Narsus must not lose often. Or perhaps he had been used to being the one in control.

When he stood naked before me, his beauty overwhelmed me and I forgot I was supposed to be playing master for a moment. But only for a moment. "Come here," I whispered.

He got into the water, waist high, wading over to me so carefully.

"I seem to recall you like having your back washed. May I?"
I didn't really mean it as a question, and he knew better than to answer me. I would do as I wished with him. I took up a cloth and met Narsus in the middle of the pool, seeing the tension in his shoulders increase with each sloshing step.

I stood behind him, listening to his rapid breathing. He didn't know what to expect, the uncertainty both frightening and arousing. I waited until the small muscles of his neck quivered in anticipation, then slid my empty hand down his back to grasp his hip, a silent command to remain still. With my other hand, I squeezed the cloth, releasing a trickle of warm water across the crest of his shoulders. His body jerked at the sensation. I dug my fingers into his hip.

"I expect more self-control from you than that."

I continued until his back glistened, the muscles slick with water and bath oil. Then I drizzled a thin stream of water across his shoulders and onto his chest. Narsus made a small, involuntary noise. No matter how much he pretended to merely endure the process, I knew he enjoyed it

I soaped the cloth and placed it in one of his hands. "Slave," I said, knowing the word would sting his pride, "attend me."

Narsus turned, his pupils huge. Silently he ran the cloth over my chest and arms, scrubbing the dust and sweat from my tanned skin. His brows knit in concentration. I turned and let him do the same to my back. He placed a hand on my shoulder, inviting me into the water. I did so, if only to encourage him to touch me more.

Narsus surprised me. He began to work out the tension in my shoulders and upper back with his skilled artist’s hands. Then he waded quietly over to the rim of the pool and picked up a bottle of shampoo. He poured some out, smearing it around his palms, then walked back over to me. I shivered slightly as the scent of it mixed filled my nostrils. He massaged my scalp expertly.

I purred. His fingers felt so good in my hair. He could do this to me forever.

"Lean back," he whispered.

His voice startled me. I thought his silence would be his way of resisting this. I did as he asked and he cupped handfuls of water to rinse out my hair. This done, he stood behind me, awaiting new orders.

"Get some more shampoo," I spoke, not looking at him. "Get lots."

He did so and waited behind me. I turned. "Stay down in the water." He obeyed slowly, holding his hands out above the surface. "I don’t want you to catch cold," I said, assuring him.

I took his hands in mine and smeared the shampoo across my fingers. Then I worked up a lather in that tangled nest of hair. Narsus closed his eyes and leaned his head back. I supposed he hadn’t expected such treatment, but he should have known I would not have harmed or humiliated him on purpose. Then again, I had not treated him kindly of late. Perhaps he had serious doubts as to this entire arrangement.

"How does this feel?" I murmured, running my fingers along his scalp as he had done to me.

"It feels . . . nice."

"Good.” I continued to work his hair until I reached the ends. "Lie back."

He lay in the water, his hair floating like a veil around him. I ran my fingers through it, gently straightening out the tangles and working the suds out. "I love your hair, Narsus. Never cut it."

"In that case, I’ll never duel with you again." He smirked, then his face blanched, like he feared a rebuke from me.

I laughed. "Good. I don’t ever want to fight you again. You were made for war between the sheets, my friend," I whispered over the top of his lips, before I kissed him.

"Mmmm." He groaned.

I straightened and pulled him up by the hair. "You were made for me."

He wrapped his arms around my neck and brought our foreheads together. I stroked my hands down his back, helping him relax into me. I needed him to want me. He became as much my master I was his.

"Dinner. Tonight is the festival of the king’s birthday."

That snapped Narsus back to reality. "Yes, the king. I . . . We should get ready."

He started forward and I caught his arm and forced him back. "Don’t forget who owns you tonight, my friend. I’ll not have you on anyone’s arm but my own."

"Darun—"

“You promised.” I brought my finger to his lips, silencing him. "Tonight you are mine, Narsus. No arguments." I smiled as I nudged him out of the pool.

 

~*~

The king’s birthday celebration was a chaotic spectacle, and none of it held my attention for even a moment. I kept my slave on my arm all evening, not lifting my hand for a second. It thrilled me just to have him touch me, let alone to have all the court see him do it.

Narsus seemed slightly uncomfortable, but he didn’t really let it show. So much of Narsus hid behind a mask, I began to realize. We greeted everyone, made pleasantries and spoke with our young prince for a while. He was very glad we did not kill each other that morning.

The Shindran leech invited Narsus to dance but I shook my head no. Narsus looked as though he wished to speak with the man, but I would have none of it. I led him to the floor and ordered him to dance with me.

A bolero. Slow and sweet. Like my slave for the evening.

We danced, drawing many eyes, including the king’s. But I didn’t care if he disapproved. Narsus may be his lover, but tonight I would not share him with anyone, even royalty.

As our palms flushed together for turns, I ran my fingers over his hand, brushing against the back of his thumb. With every touch and glance, I reminded Narsus of what awaited him.

Only Narsus’ almost constant vigil of the dark foreigner ruined the moment. What could possibly be so enchanting about that man? He might be rich and handsome and have rank but . . . ah. Rich and handsome and has rank. Rank and riches I could never offer Narsus. Could he really be so shallow? Not the Narsus I remember. Never.

"Narsus?"

"Hm?"

I simply looked at him, waiting, until he met my gaze.

"Oh, sorry, Darun. There’s been . . . much on my mind . . . I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it. To ask your advice . . ."

"My advice? Since when do you go looking for that?"

"Be serious."

"I am serious. What is the matter?" I frowned.

"Darun, could you be . . . could you be the kind of man I could turn to in times of need?" The dance led us in a brief circle and then he was back in my arms.

"Are you in trouble?" I asked, suddenly nervous.

"No, not me. I . . .”

"Narsus?" Another circle. Damn this dancing business anyway. Gentry had the stupidest customs sometimes. I wanted to take Narsus aside and ask him what was wrong and how I could help.

"It’s just that lately—"

"Ah! Here they are! Narsus! Darun!" the king bellowed. "Come and congratulate me on being old."

We both stopped, Narsus staring at me with sad, cool eyes. What troubled my nobleman?

"Sire?" I heard myself say sullenly.

"You are not yet old, your Majesty. Merely another year wise." Narsus smoothed over everything with his charm.

"Ah, Narsus, I do not like flattery . . . unless it is directed at me!" The king chuckled.

"Surely you have qualities enough to exceed flattery, my liege." Narsus smiled, though I knew it meant nothing.

"Oh Narsus, your tongue is worth its weight in silver. Why not put it to good use and play it upon our good Shindran’s ear. I’m sure there’s much to say . . . "

The king nodded to that insufferable little sycophant on the dance floor and Narsus bowed dutifully. I wondered what the hell it all meant.

Glancing apologetically at me, Narsus left to attend to the southerner, while the king condescendingly nodded and resumed his position next to the queen. I sat down at the table next to the redheaded minstrel, Gueive, because there was little else to do. I didn’t fancy dancing with anyone else.

Gueive passed me a slag of ale and I gulped it down. He passed me another, smiling knowingly. I changed my opinion of this man. I liked him exceedingly.

"Love is an earthquake of tiny shivers through a man’s soul," he murmured under his breath, his eyes far away. “It is not love if it is not madness.”

He made no other comment, which was fine by me. I kept my eye on Narsus, who talked animatedly with the dark-haired man. I gulped the rest of my drink, sulking.

About half an hour later, Narsus came back to me, a little keyed up.

"I’m sorry, Darun. I didn’t mean to stay so long away."

"You looked busy," I said coldly.

Narsus placed a hand on my arm. "I’m not busy any longer. I’m yours, until dawn, if I remember correctly."

That certainly jolted me out of my gloom. "You remember correctly."

Narsus nodded and licked his lips.

"Let’s go," I started.

"But the king!"

"The king can have a grand enough birthday in our absence, Narsus. I want you. Now." I stood up, taking Narsus by the wrist and yanking him toward the door. No one noticed as we made our way out.

He trailed along behind me, pulling slightly back, but not enough to break free. I quickened my pace, reaching the stairs and taking two at a time.

"Sweet Misra!" Narsus complained.

I chuckled. "Better start praying to Ashi," I commented dryly. I could hear Narsus swallow sharply behind me.

When we got to my room, servants had already lit the night candle. I pulled Narsus to me and kicked the door shut. My arms went about him instinctively. "Now. Then. Narsus. Do you want to tell me what kind of trouble you’re in?" I murmured, about to capture his mouth in a kiss.

He shook his head no.

"No? You don’t want to tell me?"

"It’s . . . nothing. It’s not a problem anymore. Darun."

I drew him closer. "Good. You know you can always come to me, if you needed me, Narsus," I whispered.

"Darun—" he breathed into my neck.

"Do you need me, Narsus? As much as I need you?" I bent him to me then, forcing him back with a slow, branding kiss. It left him weak in the knees and he clung to me, as I clung to my control.

"Darun," he said again as he nuzzled the underside of my jaw, pressing close against me. I braced against the hum in my veins.

"Undress me," I whispered, not sure why we were being so quiet, but sensing that the moment was fragile.

Narsus sighed and began to unbutton my black tunic, his hand deftly pushing the material away from my chest. He placed little hungry kisses on my pectorals, and I dipped my head back as he licked my throat. My hands tangled in his hair.

"Uhn. Keep going."

Narsus stepped behind me and pulled my shirt down past my elbows, then over my wrists, letting the it slide to the floor. He leaned into me from behind and wrapped his slender hands around my stomach. I covered his hands for a moment, then moved them to the top of my pants.

Shakily, he unclasped the drawstring and smoothed the garment over my hips. I stepped out of them effortlessly, keeping my back to Narsus. Ever so slowly, I turned and stood before him, naked, waiting.

He gaped. I couldn’t help myself but smile. When he caught me, he rolled his eyes. I reached out a hand and opened the gossamer, almost see-through tunic he had wrapped around his torso. It fell open easily once I tugged his green sash off.

I placed the belt on the bed. "We’ll need that for later," I stated, noticing the darkening of his eyes at the suggestion.

I trailed two fingers down his chest, swirling tiny patterns over his abdomen. I undid his pants, barely brushing over his pelvis, then loosened the material until it crumpled to the floor. Narsus stood before me, naked but for the shirt that folded at his elbows, a god before a zealot.

"Lie on the bed."

His breathing quickened; he walked to the bed, then gently sprawled over my mattress, face down. I puzzled at that.

I moved closer to the bed and drew a divan up under me. "You must truly think me a barbarian if you believe I would pounce on you like that," I chastened.

Narsus twitched and sat up slightly.

"That’s it. Sit up on your knees. Good. Let me see you." I let my eyes travel over the rounded curves of his buttocks, the muscles at the backs of his thighs. He turned.

He hands were placed modestly over his crotch; at my nod, he revealed his slender, semi-erect cock. I wanted to wrap my lips around it until he screamed with pleasure. But I kept myself in check. I had him till dawn. I would take my time. And maybe afterwards he would consider me worthy enough to become my lover.

"There is nothing that I see that does not please me," I told him.

He blushed! I could not bear modesty from Narsus.

"Touch yourself," I commanded.

"Darun?"

"Touch your face."

Narsus brought his hands to his face and lightly stroked his hair back, a little unsure. He ran his fingers through his hair, closing his eyes.

"Open your eyes."

He did so reluctantly.

"Look straight at me."

Gods, I wanted him.

"Chest."

Narsus raked his fingers along his throat for a moment before descending to brush over his pectorals. He continued to stare at me as he touched his nipples.

"Yes," I said breathlessly.

He toyed with them until they were hard, the sight making me so aroused that I wanted to stroke myself, but I concentrated on him instead.

"Keep going."

Narsus started to enjoy this exhibition now. He had almost no hesitation as he gripped his penis and stroked it evenly, biting his lip to keep from moaning.

"Eyes on me," I reminded him sternly.

Narsus pinned me with his gaze and pumped himself. I watched him as he began to stroke more roughly, moaning, and bring his hips forward to feel it more.

I inhaled sharply. "Stop."

He looked wounded. Perhaps he thought I would deny him release until dawn? He didn’t trust me at all. I would have to earn that, I supposed.

I got up off the divan and walked over to the bed, stroking the back of my knuckles across his check. "Move up to the head of the bed, and then lie down. On your back," I teased, smacking him playfully on the behind.

He jumped a little and spread out on the sheets as I had ordered.

I took the green silk sash from the foot of the bed and twined it around my right hand. Slowly, I rubbed my cloth-covered hand over his legs, delighting in the shaky breaths it drew from him. I made tiny silken swirls across his upper thighs, mercilessly avoiding his twitching cock, running the cool material up over his left side and neck, instead.

I unraveled the sash and took both of Narsus’ hands in mine, twining his wrists together with ease. He stirred a little, trepid, but I ignored him and tied his arms to my headboard. Then I leaned over him, careful not to touch him anywhere.

"Who owns you tonight, Narsus?"

He licked his lips. Defiance flashed in his eyes. "No one?"

Ah. Here lay my Narsus. I grinned like a lion before a gazelle. "Looks like I’ll have to remind you otherwise," I murmured.

I brought my head down, closed my eyes, and tenderly bit at his lips. I sucked and licked his mouth, never truly kissing him, instead making him lean up for the pressure I knew he craved. I ran my forefinger down across his cheek, letting it slide down his chest. He moaned.

"Hmmm. Narsus."

"Da—Darun."

"Yes?" I asked distractedly between taking swipes with my tongue.

I raked my teeth along his abdomen, mapping and marking my new territory. He moaned and arched his back to me. I smiled and worked him lower.

The tip of my tongue delved into his navel and he tensed, stifling a cry. Soon I had him panting. I looked up at him then, anxious to see his face. He licked his lips.

"Who owns you tonight, Narsus?"

Sweat broke out on his brow. "No," he whispered.

"Who?"

His eyes looked huge in the candlelight. "Darun . . ." he pleaded.

"Still need a reminder?"

With no further prelude, I took his cock into my mouth, letting it slide all the way to the back of my throat.

"Ahhh!" Narsus cried, pushing his hips off the bed. He began struggling against the sash bond, furiously attempting to get free. I pushed him back down, wickedly satisfied.

I nibbled at his cockhead, lapping his salty precome. "Such a gorgeous cock, my little slave," I praised him, stabbing my tongue into his slit.

"Ah! Ah!" Narsus’ screwed his eyes shut and panted harshly.

"Who owns you tonight, Narsus?"

"Never . . .”

Ah. A challenge. I slipped the tip of his prick past lips, and sucked as powerfully as I could. "Mmmm," I hummed.

"Da—Darun! Oh, Darun!"

I roughly licked him, stroking his shaft from tip to base. Then I cupped his balls and watched as he whined and pressed his hips up to me. I could sense his impending orgasm, so I backed off.

Narsus whimpered. "Don’t tease me."

At this, I lifted my head and raised an eyebrow.

"Please . . ."

Something in the way Narsus asked pleased sounded so desperate. I couldn’t bear those sad eyes. I am so weak, when it comes to him.

I kissed him, pressing my mouth firmly to his, coaxing it open and then stroking my tongue deep inside. He moaned and leaned up to me, so I covered him with my full weight. This seemed to appease him greatly.

"Pleased?" I couldn’t help asking.

"Hmmm. I love your body over me. Makes me feel so safe," he said absently. He rocked up to me almost imperceptibly.

I licked his throat and ear, but paused to ask, "Safe from what, Narsus?"

"Darun," he whined, turning his head to give me better access. “Talk later.”

I blew across the shell of his ear. Narsus shuddered.

I began to suck on his neck, somehow sensing this would be a weak spot for him. Narsus did not disappoint. He arched back and sutured himself to my mouth.

"I want you, Narsus. I want to taste what all your other lovers have. Hold nothing back from me tonight!"

I began to rock my hips down to him, our throbbing pricks sliding against each other. "Oh, Ashi, Narsus, open your legs," I moaned into his ear.

Narsus spread his thighs slightly, and I nestled between them, bringing his right leg up to my hipbone. Then I began humping him in earnest.

"Oh, Darun." I loved it, each time he called my name.

I mapped every vein and fold of his cock, the head of which glistened with precome. I took my index finger and smeared it around his cockhead. He groaned, watching me do it to him.

I spread his legs wider, and made a snug tunnel with my palms, giving Narsus a heated look, before I lowered my head to flick my tongue over his leaking tip. Narsus shook his head back and forth now, humping his hips off the bed to get more of himself into my mouth.

I wanted to be a kind master. So I took him all the way in and sucked him as best as I knew how. I loved his scent; loved the way he fit. Eventually, I untied him and Narsus snaked his arms around me instantly. He clawed my back and pressed me down against him.

He turned us over and slid down my body, nuzzling my right thigh. Panting, I sat up on my elbows and stroked my knuckles down his cheek. When he ghosted his tongue over my cock, I knew that I wouldn’t last much longer.

"Wait here," I said, pained.

~*~

Within your heart
I’ll place the moon
Within your heart

~*~

I got up and went to a nightstand, removing the salve I kept for sore muscles from training and riding. I set the stuff by the bed, and then Narsus pulled me down over top of him and kissed me deeply.

I couldn’t bring myself to stop him; playing master and slave no longer interested me. I wanted Narsus in my bed, not some mindless sex servant.

”You’ll have to teach me . . . what you like,” Narsus whispered as he explored me with his hands. I arched into his caress.

I brought his right hand down to my cock and held his wrist as he jerked me across his palm. I groaned. Narsus tugged on my flesh with sincere enthusiasm.

"How is this?" he asked me.

"Harder," I said through gritted teeth.. "Uhhh . . ." became the most intelligible thing I could say after that.

I felt myself getting too close; I stopped him.

"What now, master mine?" Narsus said as he kissed my temple.

"Now I take you good and properly, my beautiful slave." I coated my fingers liberally with the salve.

Narsus watched me as I brought my hand to his hardness and gently rubbed.

"Cold!" he cried.

"Not for long," I smiled as I gripped his slender flesh and worked him faster. It didn’t take long before the salve heated up under the friction. He whimpered and his head fell to my chest.

"Narsus. Take some."

He spread it on his right hand, then stroked my cock. Never taking my eyes from his, I slipped my left hand around his waist and brushed two fingers over his delicate entrance.

I took my time, stretching him. Narsus must have usually been on top, because his ass was tight. He gripped me greedily, thrusting back on my fingers, and that was it. I couldn’t wait anymore.

I took my erection in hand and guided Narsus to sit atop me. "Go at your own pace," I granted him.

He climbed onto me, impaling himself so quickly that we both yelped. Narsus clung to my shoulders, burying his head into the crook of my neck. He sobbed softly.

"Shhh. Shhh. Uhm. Gods, but you feel good . . ." I held him there for several minutes, stroking his hair down to its tips.

Narsus smiled shyly and began to move off of me, coming back down more carefully. I watched the knotted muscles of his tawny thighs as he fucked himself on my prick. After several shallow thrusts I needed something more.

I rolled us over until and I lifted one of his legs to my shoulder. I moved slowly in, slowly out, resisting the urge to pound into him. I knew I was big and thick, and I feared I might tear him. He already looked like I was torturing him.

"Narsus, are you all right? Does it hurt?"

Narsus nodded that he felt all right. "Don’t stop," he begged. "More . . . more, Darun!"

I kissed him, stroking deeply inside of him. "You owns you tonight, Narsus?"

"You know I’m yours,” he said in a throaty whisper.

A strange rawness crashed over me. I drilled into him, loving his moans and gasps for more. Like me, the more heated and frenzied, the more he wanted it. His grip on me became fantastically tight, and I jabbed my cock deeply, finding his prostate.

Narsus lifted both his legs and hooked them behind me. His hands gripped the straining muscles of my lower back, pulling me farther into him.

The bed shook. Narsus started moaning so loudly . . . I reached my hand down and stroked him in time with each thrust, trying to stave off his howls with a kiss.

He came, screaming. I choked as his ass milked orgasm from me, collapsing in his arms. He curled around me.

I breathed in the faint scent of his hair, which surrounded us both. We traded languorous kisses. Carefully, I pulled out of him, wincing with him when I noticed a good deal of blood. He must be extremely sensitive.

"Are you all right?” I asked softly as I wiped him clean with a cloth.

"Yes. Oh, yes." Narsus nuzzled his pillow contentedly.

I lied back down scooping him up in my arms. He rested his head on my shoulder, and twined his long legs around mine. I pulled the covers over us, and nestled in. He sighed happily.

I knew right then, that I loved him. Had always loved him. Always would love him. Someday, I would have the courage to say it. For now, I held him to me and rested. Soon I would take him again, and we would go on like this until long after the candle burned out.

~*~

I awoke to a cold and empty bed. That stung.

Had I been just another conquest to him?

I bounded out of bed, fueled by wounded pride. I shuffled into my clothes and flew out of my room. I didn’t know quite where to begin.

He was not in his room. Whose room could he be in? Maybe the stables? I walked down the stairs and checked the kitchen. Wenches and servants. I walked across the courtyard, wondering if he was in whatever trouble he’d been talking about last night. Had he been caught up in something dangerous? Or had he run off to keep the king’s bed warm?

I was close to panic when I rounded the corner and there he was—

He stood in the hallway in front of Ashi’s temple door, locked in an embrace with the dark-haired Shindran! I walked down the hall, glaring at them. When he saw me his eyes widened. I marched over to them, watching Narsus tense with each step I took. If I could have murdered him with my eyes, I just might have. Instead I coolly walked right past him, as if he meant nothing to me at all.

~*~

The afternoon sun scorched the back of my neck. I pushed Arslan hard. I drove him back with sharp lunges, sending my sword in random, arching thrusts. It felt so good to just let the hate flow through my arm.

How could he? How could he beg me to make love to him all night, and then exit my room—sheets not even cold—and drape himself onto that-that-that bloody leech!

Suddenly Arslan fell on the ground with little cry.

"My liege!” I flung my weapon down and rushed forward.

Arslan bled! His left arm was cut ever so slightly just below the elbow.

"Oh, my liege!"

Arslan looked up at me. "You . . . hurt me . . ." he said, utterly mesmerized.

I dropped to my knees. "For—forgive me, Arslan. I would never knowingly cause you pain!"

"I know that. You’ve not been yourself lately," Arslan said, trying to comfort me, which only made me feel worse.

"Arslan, I have no excuse. I am so unworthy of being your tutor."

"Darun?" Arslan lifted my head from his shoulder and planted the softest kiss on my lips. "I trust you, Darun," Arslan whispered.

Arslan. Sweet Arslan. I knew I would love him until the day I died. I wanted to tell him so, but I couldn’t find my voice. I hugged him tight, then set him back on the ground and inspected the wound. It wasn’t deep but it bled a bit. I stripped off a part of my sleeve and bandaged him up.

"Your pardon, Your Highness. I fear I need some time alone to sort through some things . . . You will be all right if we stop for today?"

He nodded, looking wiser than his years would permit me to believe. "Hurry back, Darun. Tonight is the epic play Narsus composed for father’s birthday!"

I grimaced, wanting nothing more than to never set eyes on that harlot again. But Arslan looked at me with this pleading expression. How could I refuse him anything? "Yes, my prince. I will sit beside you, if you wish."

He smiled beatifically at me. "Of course I wish."

I bowed and stalked off deeper into the garden. I didn’t really care where I went—I just had to get somewhere secluded, before I completely snapped. I found a small clearing with one lone tree, its branches twisting low to the ground. I threw myself upon the lowest bow and came as close to crying as I’d ever been since the day I became a solider.

The leaves rustled. To my surprise, a light hand came to rest on my shoulder.

"Darun?" a gentle voice called to me.

I lifted my head and eyes to see Narsus standing before me, his lavender tunic clinging slightly. I wrenched myself away from him with a disgusted sound.

"Darun, what’s the matter?" Narsus asked, distressed.

I stared at him, furious. "I was . . . so angry with you . . . that I hurt . . . I hurt Prince Ars—" I couldn’t finish I was so upset.

Narsus drew forward. "What do you mean you hurt the prince?!"

"He’ll be all right. I nicked him in a fencing lesson. He said he still trust me.” I snickered. “Don’t worry; he’ll grow out of it.”

"Darun!" Narsus whispered.

"Look, Narsus! Are you happy? Look at what you’ve reduced me to!"

"Darun, what are you talking about? What has happened? Is it because I left you this morning? I did not wish to wake you—"

"Oh no! You wouldn’t want to delay meeting that Shindran any moment longer! What’s the matter, Narsus? Didn’t I screw you enough last night? Were you afraid you wouldn’t get fucked hard enough if you waited in my chambers? So you went to him? Or was the king’s bed full and you were feeling left out? Was the royal door locked, Narsus?"

Narsus drew back as if I had burned him.

"Darun, do you really believe—?"

"Don’t play wounded innocent with me. I saw you with him, you . . . you whore," I whispered, glaring at him with utter contempt.

Narsus drew up and opened his mouth to yell, but he just stood there, frozen. His eyes began to brim with tears. The reaction seemed so unlike Narsus that I staggered, stunned. I watched him run out of the garden and inside the palace.

~*~

That evening everyone gathered in the palace theatre to see the play that Narsus had written for the king. Had it not been for Arslan, I would have given my notice as royal guard that night, and ridden back to camp where I belonged. But Arslan was the closest thing I had to a friend or real family.

He looked up at me, squeezing my hand, and said, "I am sure tonight’s performance will be brilliant, Darun. Father says Narsus is a genius with words . . ."

"Yes," I replied flatly. I absently wondered if Narsus said the same things to the king that he’s said to me last night.
Don’t stop, I need you . . . You know I belong to you.

"Darun?" Arslan asked when I gripped his hand harshly.

I let go immediately. "It’s nothing, Your Highness. Look, the play is about to begin."

The musicians began to play. Narsus had written an epic of Parse in honor of the king’s birthday. It had been complicated, with long speeches, dance, and song. I felt determined to hate every second of it. But just like its author, the work captured my fascination wholly.

The actors were all right, I suppose. I am, as Narsus so often reminds me, not a connoisseur of the arts. The plot intrigued me, however. Narsus retold many of the legends of Parse, interweaving them through chorus and dance, as well as brief scenes between the acting troupes. One particular story worried me, however.

A knight and lady fair were clearly in love, although they didn’t realize it, and things developed rather nicely in their romance. That is, until the villain, an evil prince from one of Parse’s rivaling countries, threatened to have the knight killed if the lady refused to marry him.

Wishing to protect her love, she agreed and they were wed. The knight believed she had betrayed his affections for the riches of a ruler, and he publicly humiliated her. She grieved for days. The villain, angry at the knight’s slander, ordered his guards to murder him, but the lady jumped in and saved him at the last minute. She died in his arms, confessing her love even then. Many of the ladies in the audience cried.

That was not a familiar fairytale of Parse.

I scanned the audience for Narsus, but couldn’t find him. I looked to the highest box, spotting His Majesty, who looked intently at Arslan.

Why did he stare so at the boy? Nothing kind or inquisitive about the king’s gaze, that was for sure. It made me uneasy. Something felt hideously wrong.

As the play drew to a close, with a spectacular rendition of one of Parse’s victory battles over the southern border tribes, someone screamed.

Arslan and I looked up so see the queen shriek as an arrow hit her opera box’s railing. Instinctively, I drew my sword and looked for the assassin.

Across the room, I saw Gueive with a drawn bow and arrow. I prepared to throw my sword at him, but he was too fast; his arrow shot a man hiding up in the rafters.

The assassin fell to the floor, his black hair and dark skin unmistakable in origin. It was a Shindran.

In the box seats across from ours, I saw Narsus grappling with the sycophant Shindran he’d been kissing this morning. Arslan drew in a sharp breath as the man shoved Narsus’ head against the golden railing. I could see blood drip down Narsus’ face.

The man raised a dagger to Narsus’ throat, intent to kill obvious. I didn’t even realize that I’d hurled my sword at him until my hand felt empty. I missed, lodging the weapon into his leg. He pulled the blade away and began limping off.

"Stop him!” I shouted to the guards. “He’s getting away!”

Narsus raised his head, now covered in red blood. He frowned at me, and then suddenly his pale eyes widened. He threw himself over the box seat railing and ran towards me.

Time seemed to slow.

I felt Arslan cower beside me and a strong gust of air overhead. I turned to see another assassin, clad in the black garb of Shindra, raise his sword to cleave Arslan in two.

Stepping in front of the prince, I prepared to throw my dagger, when suddenly Narsus flew between us and lifted his hands to the lowering sword blade.

The weapon pierced into the flesh between Narsus’ shoulder and neck, warm blood gushing down my arms and across my face as he fell back onto me. I let my dagger fly; it lodged in the assassin’s right eye and he fell to the floor, screaming.

Gueive and his swift arrows took care of the rest of the rats in the rafters, though no one saw where the Shindran dignitary had escaped.

Seeing that Arslan had been unharmed and the kind and queen were still alive, I knelt on the floor beside Narsus.

He did not move. He seemed so young, his face slack and white. I gently nudged him over onto his back and lowered my head to listen for his heartbeat. Not that I could have heard anything over the rush in my ears, but I had to keep busy and not fall apart.

Narsus’ slender hands came up to thread through my hair, keeping me against him, and he petted me gently as he struggled for breath. I lifted my face slightly to look up at him, but I did not remove my head from his trembling hands.

"Darun," he whispered.

"Narsus! Hold on! The physicians—"

Narsus’ body wracked with coughs; blood trickled down his chin.

"Oh, Narsus . . .What happened?" I said, more to myself than to him.

"Shindra . . . assassinate the pri. . . spying . . . Darun . . . I tried . . . in trouble . . .” I could only make out every other word, he was gasping so much.

I had no idea what he was trying to tell me, and I didn’t care at that moment. I leaned over him, trying to speak soothingly. "Shhh. Shhh, now. Everything is all right. You can tell me later.”

Narsus clawed at me, his eyes brimming with tears. “I’m not . . .whor. . .”

"Just hold on, Narsus . . ."

"The . . . king," he whispered, stroking a shaking hand down the side of my face. He passed out; my hands were slick from all the blood.

~*~

As the pain sweeps through
Makes no sense for you
Every thrill is gone
Wasn’t too much fun at all
~*~

"Narsus!" Arslan wailed.

"Be still, my son. It was for the greater good." I turned to see the king tower over us.

"Father, how can you—"

I grappled Narsus closer to me and stood up, carrying him toward the theatre’s main exit. "Physicians. Now. Tell them to meet me in Narsus’ quarters!" I barked orders at the king without any consideration.

Time was of the essence. I raced toward his chambers, using the servant’s passageways and shortcuts along the way. When I got to his room, I gently placed him on the bed. He didn’t even groan. "Don’t leave me, Narsus."

Trying to school my breathing back to normal, I searched for a cloth and basin and began swiping the blood out of his eyes. The gash on his forehead did not seem so very deep, but the wound in his chest . . .

I carefully unbuttoned his tunic. Blood stained my fingers. I suppose battle had made me used to the sensation. But this was truly horrifying. Where were those damned doctors?

I pressed down on the wound, and watched as Narsus pursed his lips in pain, then went deathly still.

"Narsus! Damn you! Hold on!"

I was afraid. My last words to my best friend and lover had not been ‘I love you,’ or even, ‘I care for you,’ but the cold accusation: ‘whore.’ He would die thinking I truly believed that of him. I could not bear it.

I touched my forehead to his and said, " Do not go where I cannot follow!"

Then the door erupted and physicians and nursemaids were shouting over each other and moving things about the room. They shuffled me out before I could even protest.

It was good that they did; I would have just been in the way. There were assassins in the palace and I had left Arslan and the king unattended. Granted, they had their guards, fat lot of good it did them, but, my place was by Arslan’s side.

Still, I couldn’t move away from the door.

Minutes passed, and the king and his entourage of bodyguards actually came to me.

"Sir Darun," he said coldly. "How is our lord?"

"I do not know, sire," I replied in a quiet voice. "No one has opened the door since I was shoved through it."

"I see. Well. Everything has its time."

Boldly, I stood before the king. "Your Majesty. I wish to know the full course of events. No one has told me of what has occurred."

"Isn’t that painfully obvious?"

"I beg Your Majesty to indulge me."

"Indeed. We suppose, Darun, that we can trust you with this truth, considering all that has happened between us. Where shall we start?" The king narrowed his eyes.

"We discovered a plot amongst our allies in the south. We intercepted a courier several weeks ago. Vital information was placed in our hands, and we used it to our full advantage. Our southern brothers believed their correspondence to be genuine and we used that to unravel their plans for war. However, our royal advisor, Lord Narsus, suggested that the enemy would do better to simply assassinate our family and claim the throne as aid to our people. We therefore entrusted Narsus to unravel this attempt on our head, and so he did. In the most convenient manner possible. He seduced all of the possible candidates for assassins, narrowing them down to the minstrel, the Shindran, and a merchant from across the sea."

"I see," I said, dismayed. "He got into their heads by bedding them."

The king frowned. "You do our good advisor no credit, Darun! He is wholly untouched."

"Un—untouched my liege?"

"Are you deliberately being simple, Darun? Do you think I would ask Narsus to sell himself in such a low born matter?

My legs gave out from under me.

~*~

But I’ll be there for you
As the world falls down

~*~

I couldn’t breathe.

Narsus. A virgin in my bed. Narsus. Whom I had called whore. Who bled as I took him beneath my sheets. Who now lay, wounded, in his chambers, alone, all for the sake of his king and country, at the sacrifice of his reputation, possibly even his life.

"Sir Darun? You seem ill. What troubles you, lad?" The king reached out to lend me a hand.

I didn’t take it.

I was too busy passing out.

~*~

When I came to, I lay in my own chambers, still in my clothes, which were caked with dried blood. I rose slowly to a sitting position.

Narsus!

Pulling myself together, I bolted for his wing, pushing past perplexed servants, and ran into his chambers. "Narsus?"

A healer turned. "You should not be in here young man," he said sternly.

"Go fuck yourself," I said, beyond caring.

He chuckled. "Ah. I see. His lover. It must be."

I contemplated running him through. "How is he?" I asked instead.

"We have patched the wound. It is a very good stitch. I doubt there will be much of a scar. Assuming he lives through the blood loss. But there is little any of us can do with that, but pray to the Gods. And hope that fever doesn’t set in." The man turned and wiped some of his instruments clean.

I looked over at Narsus, moving closer. "Why didn’t you tell me, Narsus? None of this makes sense. The whole world has fallen down!" I cried.

"Please, young man. If you are going to stay, try to remain quiet and let him get some rest. Here, sit in this chair, and watch over him this night, sir." The doctor pushed a chair up to Narsus’ bedside and then placed a few more vials on the nightstand and turned to leave. I realized the late hour.

"The prince? Sir, know you anything of our prince?"

"No, sir. I have been operating on your friend here all night. Though I assume if there were bad news, it would have reached us by now."

"Ah. So, you saved Narsus. I am indebted to you, sir."

"Thank me when he wakes, Sir Darun." With that, the healer left .

The room was dark and cold. I sat perfectly still.

I breathed when Narsus did, stirred when he did, and stared at him, willing his eyes to open. I could see sweat break out on his brow; tremors started beneath the blanket. Fever. Perhaps the blade had been poisoned and it was hopeless after all. But I couldn’t believe it would end like this. Not like this. Not before his twentieth year!

I sat close to him cupping his hand in mine. His fingers were cold, lifeless.

I cringed to think of the countless insults he bore from me, in order to maintain his cover as the—what did he call it? Town slut. Forsaking everything—even his honorable reputation—Narsus saved our king and the young prince.

You saw only what you wanted to see. You did not see the truth until it was too late. That is your weakness.

I shuddered, just now realizing what Narsus had tried to tell me.

Perspective is everything.

Oh Gods!

I had repeatedly chastised him in public, even in Arslan’s presence! I had defeated him and made him my slave. I ravished him and then called him a whore for it! And even so, he’d saved my life.

Choking, I rested my forehead on his hipbone.

“Darun.”

He was dreaming. Dreaming of me.

I ran back of my knuckles across his cheek, down his chin and throat, pausing at the teeth marks still imprinted on his neck. Yesterday, the world was so solid underneath my feet. And now nothing remained certain but my love for this man, whom I watched slowly die.

~*~

I awoke with a pain in my neck. Gentle fingers ran through my hair, massaging my scalp. I looked up to see a pale, sickly Narsus smile weakly at me.

"Narsus!" I breathed.

He blinked and nodded his head ever so slightly.

"You’re awake!"

Narsus regarded me silently, too drained to speak.

"Do you feel all right? Is there anything I can do for your comfort?"

"No, Darun," he whispered. "But stay with me a little?"

"I’m not about to leave you, Narsus," I promised most emphatically.

He raised a cynical eyebrow, and I smiled to see my old Narsus back. "Narsus, can you ever forgive me? I so horribly misjudged you! Can you—"

He raised two fingers to my lips, and then his hand fell back to his side, limp with exhaustion.

"They say," he began, laboring to breathe, "that I am a genius. But, I believe I have fallen in love with a fool . . . which makes me . . . an even greater fool."

"I love you, too, you sneaky prick. Promise me you won’t die."

"Someday, Darun," he gasped, "but not today."

I crawled into bed with him and nestled in close. I stroked his tresses and murmured to him, "I’m going to make it up to you, Narsus. I’ll make you so happy."

I kissed his eyelids as they fluttered shut and he fell back asleep.

~*~

I’ll spin you moments of gold
I’ll send you Valentine evenings
Filled where strangers can love
And losing the path

~*~

As the sun started to slink behind the mountains, Narsus stirred within my grasp. I looked down at him, to see his bright, glassy eyes fixed on me.

"What are you doing?" I murmured.

"I’m looking at you," he stated simply.

"How do you feel?" I asked, blinking away some ridiculous tears.

"Like I have been stabbed with a sword."

"I have been called a vigorous lover by some, but you go too far." I smiled softly.

Narsus chuckled, but his eyes held little mirth. "Have you had many other lovers?" he asked curiously.

"Only one that counted."

"Oh." Narsus drew a nervous breath. "Where are they now?"

I swallowed. "Right here."

Narsus mouthed the word ‘yours’ even as he closed his eyes and fell back asleep. The sleeping potion the doctors had given him was strong, and I was thankful, because his wound would cause him pain for several days yet.

The chamber door squeaked open slightly. Arslan’s head popped in. "Darun?"

"Yes, my prince?" I responded warmly, happy to see he was all right, but . . . "Where are your guards?"

"I sneaked out just to see if Narsus was all right. Father said he couldn’t be bothered to look today, and I wanted to know!"

I frowned, displeased with both pieces of information.

Arslan stuck his head further in the room. "How is he?"

"I am well, Your Highness." Narsus answered with closed eyes. Sounded anything but well, however. I could tell the prince had not been convinced.

"Come here, Arslan," I bade him gently. "Come see for yourself."

Arslan crept into the chamber and padded to Narsus’ side of the bed to inspect him. "You look very white," he observed.

"Then, shall we make Darun take us . . . on a picnic soon . . . so that I may sit in the sun?” Narsus struggled to stay awake, but his eyes were dropping.

~*~

Between the stars
I’ll lay my love
Between the stars

~*~

I took pity on them both. "Say, Arslan? Would you care to join us for a nap?"

The boy brightened. "You mean it?"

"Of course. Draw the blinds shut and then hop in here with us," I said, only slightly aware that I just offered to nap with the future monarch of all Parse.

Curtains closed to keep out the chill of evening, the room was very dark.

"Now, be gentle,” I told him. “Narsus is still very, very sore."

"Yes, very sore. Darun has been a great pain in my ass." Narsus smiled lazily at Darun, his eyes twinkling.

“Narsus, you were the one that told me punning is a sin,” I chided softly. He just chuckled.

Arslan crept between us, spooning tightly against me and nuzzling into Narsus’ open arms. He yawned, and Narsus followed suit, and I had to laugh softly at the picture they both made. It warmed my heart.

Narsus smiled slightly as I placed my hand on his hip and gave him a reassuring squeeze. He coughed and winced. My head shot up for a moment.

~*~

As the pain sweeps through
Makes no sense for you
Every thrill is gone
Wasn’t too much fun at all
But I’ll be there for you

~*~

I placed my hand under Narsus’ chin and forced him to look at me. After a while, the spasm of pain subsided. Narsus remained so still, that Arslan slept on, unawares.

"I love you," I murmured.

"I love you too," he whispered back.

I buried my nose into Arslan’s hair, more content in that moment than in any other of my life. Everyone I loved was safe in my arms, and as soon as they were both well and strong, I would find that Shindran bastard torture him in creative ways.

Strange, what can change a man’s entire world. It isn’t fortunes, battles, conquests or even betrayals. It is perspective.

~*~

As the world falls down
Makes no sense at all
Makes no sense to fall
Falling
Falling in love

~*~

I know that I belong to them both. I was made for them. I fell completely and utterly in love with them. They had become my world.

~*~

As the world falls down
Falling
Falling
Falling in love . . .
~ As the world falls down ~

 

~*~

 

In loving memory of Shiozawa Kaneto, the voice actor for Narsus, Iason, Prince Diamond, and many others. (5/10/00)