He'd heard the men talking about him, making fun of him because he hadn't had a woman yet. He'd heard them laugh before he was even up the first flight of stairs. He'd stiffened his back and kept walking. He would be in the city soon, and even if his aunt was a complete harridan, it would be better than right now. Certainly better than at home, with his simpering mother who didn't care anyway and his unfair father, who had sent him here.
Vanyel sat on the bed and tugged his boots off, for lack of anything else to do. He was hungry, but he wouldn't humiliate himself by going back downstairs to his father's men and eat with them. He would rather die of hunger.
He took his jacket and gloves off and put them on the chair next to the small desk by the window. The window itself had its curtains drawn against the harsh weather outside, but there was a lit candle on the desk and a fire burning away in the fireplace, so there was plenty of light to see by.
There was a knock on the door and Vanyel startled out of his thoughts. It was probably the armsguard again, here to check that he hadn't run away. Vanyel felt his vague curiosity about the state of the room ebb away, to be replaced by the dark cloud of melancholia that had been hanging over him for the last several weeks. He padded up to the door and opened it.
"Milord," said the man on the threshold. He was holding a tray. Vanyel had assumed a place like this would only serve things like barley stew and bad beer, but he could see the dark juice of a meat stew and bright orange carrot slices under a half-covered plate. There was butter in a small jar, and a round shape that had to be bread, wrapped in a piece of cloth. It all smelled delicious.
"Milord," said the man again, and Vanyel jerked his hungry gaze away from the food to meet his eyes. "They told me downstairs that you might want your supper?" He had a soft, melodious voice and he was almost smiling, but his eyes were warm and kind, and not mocking.
Vanyel considered refusing the food, but it looked simply too good to pass by. Besides, none of his father's men were here to see him.
"You can put it on the desk," he said, stepping back to let the manservant inside. He was left standing by the door, thinking of whether to close it or not, but the servant was taking his time to put the food out, so Vanyel closed it after deciding it would look stupid to keep standing in the doorway.
The flames in the fireplace flickered with a loud noise, and Vanyel turned and walked back into the room. The servant finished setting things out, producing a cloth-wrapped flagon and setting it next to the stoneware cup at the edge of the desk. Judging by the smell, Vanyel thought it was probably hot cider.
"Would you like me to turn your bed down, milord?" the man asked, and Vanyel startled, looking up from the tempting dinner spread.
"I," he began, unsure of what was proper. He wasn't entirely certain what he should do. "That will be fine," he decided, sitting down at the desk. He could eat, and the servant would fold his things for him, maybe stoke the fire a bit, like they did for his father and mother at home.
The man smiled. It made him look younger, maybe just a few years older than Vanyel himself. "I'm Jon," he said. "Tuck in to your supper now, and I'll be here when you're done."
Vanyel ate, and the servant, Jon, busied himself with putting away Vanyel's boots and jacket and, indeed, putting some more wood on the fire. The food was good, the stew heavily flavored by some kind of tart berries he hadn't tasted before, and Vanyel found himself finishing all of it, scraping it up with buttered, warm chunks of bread. Jon finished what he was doing and stood against the wall by the desk, leaning against it, whistling under his breath. It didn't look very respectful, but Vanyel didn't mind. He poured himself another glass of cider and sat back, finished with the food.
Jon smiled again at him. "How would you like me, milord?" he asked, taking a step toward Vanyel. He unbuttoned his vest.
The realization that he had completely misjudged the situation made Vanyel freeze in his chair for a moment. A moment during which Jon came forward, almost close enough to touch him. Vanyel jerked his arm up, slopping some of the cider on the desk, to stop Jon from coming closer. Jon looked puzzled, but stopped in his tracks.
"Oh gods, did they," Vanyel stopped speaking. His thoughts were racing. The armsmen had sent up a man to lay him. And Jon had already stayed here long enough that they were going to assume they'd been right in doing so. They were probably down there right now, laughing and sniggering about the perverted freak upstairs. Vanyel set the mug down, carefully, his hand only trembling a little.
"Milord?" Jon asked softly. "If there is something in particular...?"
"No, you don't understand." Vanyel breathed out an agitated sigh. He looked away, regretting fiercely that he had shut the door, that he had let Jon stay to "turn down his bed". That was a phrasing he wouldn't forget after this. It suddenly occurred to him that the men would go back to his father after leaving him in Haven. That his father might put him in some cloistered retreat upon their report. That things could get worse. He buried his face in his hand and leaned over the desk.
"Surely it's nothing as bad as that?" Jon said and made Vanyel flinch by putting his warm open palm on Vanyel's shoulder.
Vanyel groaned. "They all think I'm less than a man already - now they'll tell my father that it's worse than that!"
"But, milord." Jon sounded concerned, and Vanyel felt tears stinging beneath his eyelids. "They don't know I'm here."
Vanyel shifted back in the chair, into Jon's hand and the warmth of his body, where he was standing close. He turned his face to look up at him. "What? Father's armsmen didn't send you?"
Jon kept his hand on Vanyel's shoulder. "No. They sent a girl named Milena, for your father's coin. They were talking about how it would make you a man. But I heard the way they were laughing about it and didn't think it very fair. They meant to shame you. I came instead." Then he looked hesitant. "If you would like, milord, Milena can tell them she bedded you. She doesn't mind."
Vanyel turned his body toward Jon, pushing the chair back with his weight. "I don't understand. But you asked..."
"I can call for the girl if you'd rather," Jon said, dropping his hand from Vanyel's shoulder. "They paid quite handsomely."
Vanyel felt his face grow hot. He stood up. "No!" he said. "No, I didn't mean." He took a breath, trying to calm himself and looked back at Jon. "I don't want the girl. I don't want any girls. But, I misunderstood. It's not necessary for you to..." He waved his hand, not wanting to say it.
"Oh but milord, it would be no hardship." Jon was smiling again and stepped a bit closer.
Vanyel backed up a step. "I don't," he began, holding up a hand, but caught himself. He had been about to tell a lie, but he didn't need to lie to this man. "I don't require anything of you." That sounded better, more composed, and surely Jon would understand.
Jon tilted his head to one side, looking at him for a moment. Jon's eyes looked warm and piercing all at the same time. "How about a compromise, milord? I wouldn't want to take all those coins having done nothing to earn them."
"You brought me food and straightened my clothes," Vanyel said. He felt a bit breathless, suddenly, and he tried to hide it, the way he knew he couldn't hide the color in his face. Although maybe Jon would think it to be the heat of the stoked fire.
"One kiss." Jon held out his hand. His dark eyes shone with some feeling Vanyel had a hard time deciphering.
Vanyel swallowed. Surely it would be sordid to have his first kiss with a tavern boy, and one who was getting paid for it too? But Jon didn't look as Vanyel had imagined people like him would look. He didn't dress in sheer silks for one thing, and he wore no paint on his face. He hadn't said anything crude. He did have a slight lisp, but so did one of the knights in training back home, and no one was trying to bed him for coin.
Vanyel reached out and took Jon's hand. It was soft and warm, and Jon was still smiling at him as he pulled Vanyel closer.
"You are beautiful, milord," Jon said, stroking his thumb over Vanyel's cheekbone.
Vanyel found it very hard to look Jon in the eyes, so close. "You don't have to say that," he whispered.
"I'm not saying anything that isn't true," Jon said. Vanyel could feel Jon's breath against his face and he closed his eyes, feeling a little afraid that Jon would do nothing but laugh at him, but still excited and hopeful.
The first featherlight touch of Jon's lips against his made Vanyel gasp and startle back. Jon put his hand around the back of Vanyel's neck, though, and stopped him from going anywhere.
"Just relax," Jon murmured, "relax and enjoy it." Then he kissed Vanyel again, with a firmer touch this time.
It felt both alien and intimate, and not like anything Vanyel had imagined when he had thought about kissing. The slide of Jon's lips against his tickled, but in a way that made him want more, and when Jon swiped his tongue against Vanyel's upper lip, he couldn't help but make a sound from the unexpected zing that reverberated all through him. He suddenly noticed he was gripping Jon's arms hard and let go, embarrassed.
"Don't worry," Jon told him. "Here." He took Vanyel's arms and pulled them around himself, placing one of Vanyel's arms around his waist and the other around his neck. "I don't mind it if you hold on to me," he said.
Then he kissed Vanyel again.
"There, milord," Jon said when he finally stepped back, and his smile was full of laughter, but it was not laughter at Vanyel's expense, and it made Vanyel feel warm and in better spirits than he had for a long time. "That was not so bad now, was it?"
Vanyel felt his face rearranging itself into a barely remembered genuine smile and Jon's eyes widened.
"That is a sweet smile you have there." He shook his head slightly. "You will make a man very happy some day."
Vanyel kept smiling. "But not you," he said, not even making it a question.
"Nah, you're bound for bigger and better things, I can tell." Then he grinned. "Not that I'm not plenty big and good myself, you know."
Vanyel felt oddly happy, standing here further from home than he had ever been, bantering with a handsome man whom he had just kissed. Or been kissed by. It was all quite strange, but his day seemed to be ending much brighter than it had dawned.
"Thank you, Jon," he said, suddenly determined that this man should know how much better he had made him feel about himself. "I won't forget you."
Jon pursed his mouth as if he did not quite believe him. "You'll be on to Haven in the morning," he said. "But maybe I'll see you again somewhere. I've been called Jon Walker. I don't care to stay in one place for too long."
"Maybe you will," Vanyel replied.