The fall harvest was long over and the first flurries of snow had started to appear by the time Erik and his Lions arrived in Nierhelme, the king’s winter home. Here in the south, it was warmer than the northern provinces they’d just come from, but still cold enough that Erik could see the breath pluming from his horse’s nostrils as they rode in through the lower gates of the palace. A messenger was sent ahead to inform the king of their arrival, and servants brought them cups of spiced wine to warm them up.
“Ah gods, what I wouldn’t do for a chance to bathe,” Janos muttered beside him. They’d spent so long on the road that his dark shoulder-length hair, normally meticulously brushed and tied back, was tangled and hung lankly around his face.
“You’ll have it once I’ve reported to the king,” Erik told him. Since they brought good news, Shaw would be pleased; he’d grant Erik whatever he asked for, including servants to draw hot baths for his men.
“What I wouldn’t do for a bed and someone pretty to warm it for me,” Azazel said, and everyone around him laughed and whistled in agreement.
“You’ll have to arrange that for yourself,” Erik said, to another round of laughter.
A servant came and fetched him to the feast hall where the king and his entourage were taking their dinner. Inside, it was warm and humid and smelled of sweat, ale, roasted meats, and the various unsavory odors of two hundred people crammed into a single space. Erik studied the tables he passed and noted new faces he didn’t recognize—young nobles, ranging in age from ten to twenty or so, sitting clustered together in front of Shaw’s high table. It was no secret that Shaw kept the children of those nobles he distrusted most near him, in order to ensure their parents’ obedience. There had to be fifty of them here in the hall, some of them eating and drinking heartily, others staring sullenly at their plates, quite aware of their circumstances. When Erik had last traveled with the king’s progress, he could have sworn Shaw had been keeping no more than twenty noble hostages.
Had some court intrigue occurred while he had been away in the north?
The king straightened as he approached and smiled, waving away a juggler who had been entertaining him. “Ah, so my captain returns! What news do you bring me?”
Pulling his cloak to the side, Erik knelt before him. “We spent most of the summer skirmishing with the Tulloks along the northern border, Your Majesty. After several months, we finally cornered their main army at Erida, where we defeated them and captured their prince. We’ve brought him here with us to swear fealty to you, when you have the time to see him.”
As he’d expected, Shaw’s expression lit with sharp satisfaction, and he gestured for more wine to be poured, and a cup to be brought to Erik. “I knew you would bring them to heel, Erik. It’s a shame I wasn’t there to savor the victory with you! But no matter, I’ll see this prince once dinner has concluded. Let him wait. You will come sit beside me. Come here.”
Erik wanted nothing more than to escape to the barracks with his men, but there was no disobeying the king. He went and sat beside Shaw, who had more wine and food brought out for him, stuff so rich that Erik only ate a little of it, knowing his stomach would protest later if he glutted himself.
He expected the king to interrogate him more thoroughly about what had happened in the north, the battles, their locations, the casualties on either side. Shaw loved war, and loved hearing about such things. But to his surprise, the king’s attention barely touched on him again—instead, it was focused almost entirely on the boy sitting on the king’s other side, a pale, lean youth with a pretty mouth and the most striking blue eyes Erik had ever seen. He was a young lord, that much was clear by his dress and his bearing. One of the hostages? But he sat at Shaw’s right hand, in a spot of favor.
Erik’s confusion vanished when he saw Shaw lay a hand on the boy’s thigh as he leaned in to whisper something in the boy’s ear. Ah. Shaw had always had a predilection for young dark-haired boys, and this boy was certainly beautiful. He smiled when Shaw touched him, and he gave a very charming laugh at the king’s words, but his eyes were as icy as a northern wind.
Erik wondered if Shaw knew that the boy hated him. Most likely he did, and didn’t care. After all, the boy was under his power, as helpless to defy him as Erik was.
Shaw turned away to summon a servant. The boy looked across him and met Erik’s eyes.
He was stunning. Erik felt pinned by his gaze, his breath trapped in his throat, his body frozen in a sudden tumult of surprise, amazement, pity, and longing. It was no wonder he had caught Shaw’s attention. His beauty was as good as a curse in Shaw’s court.
Shaw turned back, and too late Erik tried to avert his eyes. The king smiled. “He’s beautiful, isn’t he? Prince Xavier’s son from Westchester Holding in the west.” He ran a possessive finger along the young lord’s jaw, and the boy turned into the caress dutifully. “You haven’t met him before, have you, Erik? He arrived after you went north.”
Brian Xavier’s son. So his father was one of the princes of the realm, the most powerful of houses aside from Shaw’s royal line. What had he done to anger the king enough for him to demand that Xavier’s heir be sent to attend him on his progress? Or had Xavier sent his son willingly, hoping to curry favor with the king? He certainly wouldn’t be the first, and with a son like that, he must have known he would catch Shaw’s attention.
Erik hid his distaste behind a mask of indifference. He had no taste for court intrigue, especially the current practice of whoring out one’s own children in an attempt to please the king, who had notoriously inexhaustible appetites.
“His name is Charles,” Shaw said, brushing the boy’s hair back from his forehead. “A charming creature, isn’t he? Do you want him for the night?”
Erik looked at him, startled. It wasn’t uncommon for Shaw to offer his concubines to his favorites, but normally that only applied to fellow nobles or the occasional visiting royal. Not to common born men like Erik, even if he was the captain of Shaw’s elite knights.
Shaw saw his surprise and smiled. “You’ve done well, Erik. You ought to be properly rewarded. Let the boy warm your bed tonight and send him back to me come morning.” He slapped the young lord’s cheek gently and laughed. “Try not to leave any marks, my dear captain. At least not any permanent ones.”
Charles’s face reddened, and he glanced quickly down. Leaning back in his seat, Shaw couldn’t see his expression, but Erik saw the quiet flash of rage and humiliation there. Then the boy raised his face, smiled, and said in a low, sweet voice, “I serve at your pleasure, captain.”
Shaw laughed again, this time in delight. “See, Erik? He’s exquisite.”
He forgot about Erik after that and spent the rest of the evening petting and pampering the boy, feeding him sweets from his plate, allowing him to drink from the royal goblet, a mark of great favor. Charles bore it all with a smile, and when he spoke, Erik couldn’t help but admire him. He was charming, eloquent, and witty, clearly well-raised and educated. He favored the king with flirty smiles and brief, suggestive touches that promised more. When Shaw fed him, Charles licked at his fingers, eyes fluttering closed, the picture of seduction. Shaw was absolutely mesmerized.
Erik began to wonder who was the master of this game and who was the fool.
At last the feast came to a close, and Shaw stood to take his leave. “I’ll have the prince brought to my chambers,” he said to Erik. “I’ll have his sworn loyalty soon enough. As for you, my captain…” He clasped Erik’s shoulder with a sly grin. “Don’t waste this night. He’s a rare treasure.”
He swept out of the hall, tailed by his usual train of servants, stewards, and messengers. Erik drained the rest of his wine and looked over at Charles.
“Well,” the young lord said, “shall we go, captain?”
They made their way out of the palace and walked to the barracks in the lower courtyard, where the Lions were quartered. The fresh air outside was a relief after the stifling atmosphere of the feast hall. The temperature had fallen after sunset, and Erik started to wrap his cloak more tightly around his shoulders before he realized Charles was wearing only a thin silk tunic, beautifully decorated but not at all warm.
“Here,” he said, unpinning his cloak.
Charles shot him a surprised look. After a moment, he took the cloak and wrapped it around his shoulders. “Thank you.”
“I don’t…” Erik exhaled, watching his breath plume in the night air. “We’ll go back to my room, but I don’t expect anything from you.”
“Ah.” Charles walked in silence for a moment, then said, “You have a preference for women, then.”
“What? No, I—” Erik shook his head. “No, the truth is I like men well enough. But I won’t force anyone into my bed, man or woman. I’m not like—”
Not like the king. He didn’t say it. Charles might very well be the king’s agent, sworn to report any hint of disloyalty. Even those who hated Shaw feared him.
“I’ve heard things about you, captain,” Charles said softly. “You’re a good man, so they say.”
Erik had never thought of himself as one, not after he’d been brought under Shaw’s wing. “I follow my orders.”
“They say you have a gift for metal.”
“Yes.” Thinking to demonstrate, Erik felt around on Charles’s person for a moment and paused in surprise when he felt the iron around his neck—a collar. “You have a gift yourself.”
Perhaps Charles had felt his touch on the metal because he raised a hand to his throat. The high neck of his shirt hid the collar, but it pulsed brightly to Erik’s senses. “Yes,” he said with a thin smile.
It was something Shaw feared, if he kept Charles collared so. Erik looked at him with fresh curiosity. “What can you do?”
“I’m a mind reader.”
“Like Lady Frost?”
No wonder Shaw was wary of him. Erik had seen Frost’s power at work so he knew how much of a threat a hostile mind reader might pose to the king. The fact that Shaw had had Charles fitted for a collar only confirmed that the young lord wasn’t here of his own free will.
“When did you join the king’s progress?” Erik asked.
“Four months ago. The king traveled through Westchester at the start of the summer and bade me to go on with him to Nierhelme for the winter. Of course I couldn’t refuse his summons.”
“Of course.” Shaw would have considered such a refusal tantamount to open rebellion. Westchester might be a powerful holding, but it could never withstand the might of the king.
They entered the barracks and took the stairs up to Erik’s quarters. As captain, Erik was allotted his own room, unlike his men who slept in bunks in the long room downstairs. His chamber was small and sparsely decorated, but it was the only home he had known for nearly half his life. He loved it because it was truly his, as so few things in this world were.
Kneeling, he built up a steady fire in the hearth. The heat of the flames chased away the last of the winter chill, and when he turned back around, he found Charles unpinning his cloak and folding it neatly, his face flushed with warmth.
“Are you hungry?” Erik asked, not knowing what else to say.
Charles’s eyes glinted with amusement. “We just came from dinner.”
“So we did.” Erik glanced away, embarrassed. It had been a long while since he’d had company. Not that he was planning on bedding Charles but still.
After a moment, Charles sat down on the edge of Erik’s bed, the folded cloak in his lap. “I’m not unwilling, you know.”
Erik stared at him. “What?”
“You seem like a good man, and I wouldn’t mind. Besides, I feel as if I ought to thank you for…” Charles paused, a shadow passing over his face. It seemed like he wouldn’t finish, but then he muttered, “For granting me a reprieve tonight.”
Erik felt a pang of pity and sorrow for him. Those who were forced into the king’s bed suffered more than he could imagine. Shaw was not a kind man, and Erik had seen evidence of his callousness in bed before: bruises on his lovers, sometimes scars, and once, a pretty serving girl had disappeared from the palace altogether. Everyone had pretended she had run away, but it was common knowledge that she had been summoned to the king’s chambers that night and one way or another, he had been too rough with her. With his gift, he often forgot his own strength.
Erik studied Charles by the firelight but saw no evidence of abuse. No doubt if Shaw wanted to mark him, he’d keep any bruises or scars away from the young lord’s pretty face. Prisoner or not, Charles was the son of a powerful prince, after all. It wouldn’t do to harm him so blatantly.
Evidently taking Erik’s silence for assent, Charles began to unlace his shirt. Quickly, cheeks heating, Erik shook his head. “No, don’t.” At Charles’s confused look, he added, “It was the king who offered you to me. I did nothing, so there’s nothing to thank me for.”
Charles’s fingers hesitated on his shirt laces. “You truly don’t wish to bed me?”
“You’re beautiful,” Erik said honestly, “and perhaps under different circumstances…”
But even under different circumstances, he doubted they would ever have shared a bed, or even met. Erik was a soldier, born in a tiny village by the sea. Charles was a nobleman of high birth. Under different circumstances, Charles would likely have never even given Erik a second look.
Slowly, Charles lowered his hands. Erik couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed by the rejection. Relieved, most likely. God only knew how many times he had been forced to offer himself over the last four months.
“I’ll stay here for the night, if I may,” he said. “If I return to the palace, the king might…”
He might summon Charles to his chambers instead. Erik nodded. “Of course. The bed is yours. I’ll take the floor.”
“No, if you’ll give me your cloak to serve as a blanket, I will gladly take the floor,” Charles said. “I won’t put you out of your own bed.”
“As a soldier, I’m used to sleeping on the ground. I doubt you can say the same.”
“No, I can’t,” Charles admitted, “but I could learn.”
Erik snorted. “You’ll be complaining of aching all over when you wake up. No, take the bed so I’ll be spared your whining in the morning.”
“My whining! I’ll take that as a challenge!” Charles slid off the bed and sat primly on the floor. “Now will you take the bed, captain, or are we both to sleep on the floor?”
There was no forgetting he was nobility, not with that imperious look in his eye. But Erik had never been cowed by aristocratic haughtiness. He pulled the blanket from the bed, spread it out beside Charles, and sat down. “Now we’ll see how well your pride serves you in the morning when you’re stiff and in pain.”
“You’re older than I am,” Charles sniffed. “I think I’ll weather the night better than you.”
“That may be true, but I’ve spent more nights sleeping on the road than you. My experience is better than your youth.”
“Bold words, captain! We’ll see who’s right come morning, I suppose.”
Erik stretched out on his makeshift pallet, amused. “I suppose so.”
He closed his eyes, listening to the soft rustling beside him as Charles made himself comfortable. After a couple of minutes, Charles gave a low cry of surprise that made Erik start up.
“You play chess!” Charles exclaimed, pulling Erik’s board out from underneath his bed.
Erik shrugged. “What of it?”
“We ought to play a game. Where are the pieces?”
Erik paused, trying to decide if he was in the mood to entertain the young lord. He was tired from traveling and from the long, loud dinner, but he wasn’t exhausted yet. At last, deciding to humor him, Erik said, “There’s a cloth bag under the bed.”
As Charles set up the board, Erik propped himself up on an elbow and watched him. After a moment, he said, “I might not pose much of a challenge to you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I was taught by my mother. Little lords like you learn from expert tutors.”
Charles made a face. “Don’t call me little lord. And I don’t care that you didn’t learn chess from tutors—in fact, I’m delighted. Everyone at court plays with the same boring strategies, and I know how to counter them all already. I’m sure you’ll bring something fresh to the game.” He turned the board so that the white pieces faced Erik. “Well, captain? It’s your move.”
For a while, they played in silence, sizing each other up. Erik saw quickly that Charles was a skilled player, cunning and deliberate. But at times he was too careful when he ought to have been bold, and Erik captured his rook and knight in quick succession, then took the bishop Charles sacrificed to protect his king.
“See?” Charles said with a laugh when he narrowly avoided another trap. “You’ve nearly bested me three times already.”
“But you haven’t lost yet.”
“I will in four moves.”
“Three,” Erik said, moving his knight.
Charles groaned as he saw the inevitable. Shortly enough, Erik had him cornered and Charles capitulated with a rueful shake of his head. “Perhaps my father ought to have hired your mother to teach me chess.”
“You might have put up a better fight that way,” Erik agreed.
Charles laughed and began to reset the board. “Another game?”
Erik realized he was actually enjoying himself. Nodding, he gave Charles back his captured pieces and returned his own pieces back to their starting places. As Erik moved his pawns into line, Charles turned one of the knights over in his hand and caught sight of the symbol on its base. Squinting at it, he said, “Isn’t this the Magen David?”
Erik was a little surprised Charles recognized it. “Yes. My mother’s faith.”
“And yours, too.” At Erik’s puzzled frown, Charles explained, “I saw you avoiding the honeyed pork at dinner.”
Erik hadn’t realized Charles had been watching him so closely. Even Shaw, who had raised him since he was a boy, had never noticed—or at least he had never commented on—Erik’s avoidance of certain foods. “You’re more observant than you seem.”
Charles smiled. “Knowledge is its own power in the king’s court. I watch and listen when I can.”
“You’ll do well here then.” Over the years, Erik had seen many foolish or ignorant nobles fall prey to court intrigues. Only those who understood how to navigate the ever-shifting currents of alliances, grudges, and favors stood a chance at surviving, especially in this court. Shaw seemed to take a particular pleasure in pitting his lords against each other to see what drama unfolded.
Charles’s smile turned flinty. “Well enough. As long as I have the king’s favor, I don’t have much to complain about, I suppose.”
Over the course of their chess game, Charles had gradually relaxed, his eyes filling with good humor and contentment. Now all of it vanished, and his shoulders went taut with tension again. Erik was surprised by how sorry he was to see Charles’s mask slide back on, concealing the warm, wry boy underneath.
Wanting to offer some distraction, he asked, “What else can you tell about me, just by looking?”
Rolling one of the black knights between his fingers, Charles scrutinized Erik for a long moment. His blue eyes practically glowed with firelight, beautiful and ethereal. Mesmerized, Erik found himself unable to look away.
“You’re a clean man,” Charles said. “You’ve been traveling for days, weeks even, and yet your clothes aren’t terribly dirty, and your hands are washed. Your beard’s trimmed, too, so you obviously care about your appearance.” He paused for a second, glancing around the room. “You like things to be in order. Everything in here is in its proper place, no clothes strewn about, no letters left forgotten on your desk.”
“I haven’t been here in nearly a year,” Erik pointed out.
“Yes, but you kept this place neat before you left.” Charles’s gaze completed another circuit of the room before returning to Erik. “You’re not a man given to excess. You only had a cup of wine with dinner, and you didn’t stuff yourself silly like others might.”
“I’m used to bread and cheese, not the riches of the king’s table.”
“Fair enough. But I still think you’re a man of moderation. Or at least, you have no love for the luxuries of the court.”
Erik fingered his white king, unable to decide if he was amused by Charles’s deductions or discomfited. “I was born in a village of fifty people,” he said after a moment. “The royal court might as well be a foreign country to me.”
“But you grew up here.”
“I never grew used to it.” He had never allowed himself to, though certainly Shaw would give Erik gold and fine horses and beautiful women if Erik asked. He had tried before to grant Erik tracts of land and titles, but Erik had refused it. Accepting rewards from Shaw, taking his gifts...it would be surrendering what little pride and defiance he had left. Shaw might claim to love him as a son—and he might treat Erik as generously as a beloved father might—but he was nothing more than a tyrant who considered Erik his pawn. Erik would never forget that.
Charles must have seen something in Erik’s expression because he reached across the board and touched Erik’s hand lightly. It took Erik a startled moment to realize Charles meant it as a gesture of comfort.
“You’re a prisoner here as much as I am,” Charles murmured.
Erik stiffened—those words seemed perilously close to dissent, to treachery. But who was going to report him? Certainly not Erik.
Charles’s fingers traced the line of Erik’s thumb lightly. When he took Erik’s hand into his own, Erik let him.
“You’re right-handed,” Charles said, touching the sword calluses on Erik’s palm and fingers. “You train harder than any other soldier here, and your men love you as captain.”
“You can’t tell that from looking at my hand.”
“No, but like I said, I’ve heard about you. Nearly everyone respects you, even those of my peers who believe common folk are sometimes no better than animals. You’re very popular.”
Erik grunted. “I don’t try to be.”
Charles smiled. “Perhaps that’s why.”
Something about his honest, steady gaze made Erik flush and glance down. Hoping to hide his sudden embarrassment, he took Charles’s hand and examined it. “You haven’t worked a day of hard labor in your life,” he said, touching Charles’s soft palm. There were dark, streaked ink stains on Charles’s fingers, on the back of his hand. “You’re a scholar.”
“Yes.” Charles grimaced. “I was, once. Before I was brought here.” When Erik touched one of the ink stains on his fingers questioningly, he added, “The king allows me to study sometimes, but only when I’m not...when he doesn’t want to be entertained. When he’s preoccupied with something else.”
For a moment, fury and resentment filled his eyes, made them fierce and hard, but only for a moment. Then his expression became still and unreadable again, and he sighed softly, shoulders slumping. Almost to himself, he whispered, “It does me no good to be angry.”
Erik knew exactly how he was feeling. He had grappled with those same thoughts when he was younger, when he had first been forced into the king’s Lions. He squeezed Charles’s hand and said quietly, “Anger serves a purpose. Anger can keep you alive sometimes when nothing else does.”
Charles glanced up at him, looking almost surprised that Erik had answered. After a few seconds, he sighed again and squeezed Erik’s hand in return. “Perhaps you’re right. But anger doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m afraid.”
Charles had to consider that for a moment. Eventually he said, “Sadness.” After a pause, he added heavily, “Despair.”
Erik knew in that moment that Charles would never survive in Shaw’s court as long as Erik himself had. He might know how to play court games, he might know how best to please the king to avoid his wrath, but he couldn’t go on like this forever. He might not even be able to go on like this for very much longer.
And yet, what was there to do? What Shaw wanted, he got, and if he wanted the young Lord Xavier, then he would have him. Charles would have to endure, and only when Shaw tired of him would he finally be free.
If Shaw tired of him. He had not tired of Erik all these long years.
“Don’t worry, captain,” Charles said wryly. Had he seen something in Erik’s expression? “I won’t do anything rash. And I know I won’t be here forever. Eventually the king will let me go home, and all of this—” He waved a hand in the direction of the palace, far beyond the gray stone walls of Erik’s room. “—will be nothing more than a distant memory.”
Erik glanced away, not wanting Charles to see his helpless rage and envy. At least Charles had a home to go back to. He might not be able to survive the king’s court forever, but he wasn’t destined to be here forever. But for Erik, there would be no leaving, and even if there was, he would have nowhere to go.
“I’m sorry.” Charles pulled his hand away, and when Erik looked at him, he seemed almost self-conscious. “I didn’t mean to cause you pain.”
“I felt your anger,” Charles said softly. “Your sorrow. I didn’t mean to remind you of what you lost.”
“You felt...” It took Erik a moment to realize what he meant, and when he did, he straightened and ran his powers over the iron collar. There were no cracks, no weaknesses; the lock had not broken. “How? The collar...”
For a second, Charles hesitated. Then he gave an ironic smile and reached up to touch the collar. “It dampens my abilities, but it doesn’t suppress them entirely.”
It was the same for Erik: the collar made it damnably difficult for him to touch and manipulate metal, but he could still sense it and sometimes, when he focused all his strength, he could still pull small objects to him. But that meant Charles was at least as powerful as Erik. He was certainly more powerful than Lady Frost, Shaw’s favored adviser.
Did Shaw know? he wondered.
After a moment, he realized Charles was watching him warily, gauging his reaction. So that answered that question—he wouldn’t be so wary if the breadth of his gift was common knowledge.
“I won’t tell the king,” Erik said.
“I didn’t think you would,” Charles replied, but there was obvious relief in his voice.
He touched the collar again and winced, and Erik remembered suddenly that the metal chafed when worn for days at a time. Getting up, he went over to the chest at the foot of his bed, found his small medical kit, and brought it back over. “Let me see.”
Charles stared up at him in surprise. “What?”
“Tilt your head up.” Erik sat down beside him and, when Charles didn’t move quickly enough, took Charles’s chin and tilted it up gently. His skin was rubbed raw at the edges of the collar, reddened but not yet bleeding. Still, it looked painful. Erik rose, took a washcloth and wet it, and came back to dab gently at the circular wounds. Charles winced in pain but sat obediently still, head tipped back.
“How long have you had this on?” Erik asked.
“Since I joined the king’s progress,” Charles replied. “As soon as I left Westchester with him, he put it on me.”
“Then you’ve been wearing it for months.”
“Yes.” Charles gave him a strained smile. “I try not to think about it.”
Erik cleaned the chafe wounds around the collar as best as he could, murmuring soft apologies whenever Charles flinched. After a silence, he said quietly, “I remember when the king had me wear a collar much like this one. He would leave it on for weeks, months sometimes. He would only take it off during my training. Eventually, when he was feeling generous, he would let me go without it for a few days at a time, but he always put it back on.”
“What changed?” Charles asked softly, watching him with those intent blue eyes.
“I grew older.” Erik smiled bitterly. “I learned to obey.”
Not wanting Charles to see the way his face twisted in old anger, Erik went to put the washcloth back in the basin on the table in the corner and took a moment to bring his temper back under control. When he thought he could speak again without shaking, he returned to Charles’s side and took out the ointment in the medical kit. “This will help soothe your skin.”
It was difficult to smear the salve on with the collar in the way, but Erik went slowly and carefully. After a minute, Charles said, “You could take the collar off.” At Erik’s startled look, he added quickly, “Just until the salve’s all on. Then you can put it back on me.”
No, Erik wanted to say. He’ll know and he’ll hurt you for defying him. He’ll hurt me.
But that was the initial fear instinct, beaten into him after years of living under Shaw’s thumb. How could Shaw possibly know? They were alone in Erik’s room, which was private and secure. And he would only take the collar off briefly, for a few minutes at most.
Then he thought: could he trust Charles not to use his gift to hurt him? He was surprised to find that the answer was yes. He never trusted easily, and yet somehow he trusted Charles. They were kindred spirits here, trapped in a prison of the king’s making. What could Charles gain from hurting him?
But suppose he used his powers to slip away? Suppose he escaped? It wouldn’t take long for Shaw to figure out what had happened, and then he would punish Erik for his part in Charles’s escape. There was no question about that.
Charles touched Erik’s jaw lightly. His eyes were gentle. “I would never do anything to hurt you, Erik. You’re a good man, and I would never forgive myself if I caused you grief, not after the kindness you’ve shown me tonight.”
Erik closed his eyes for a moment, savoring Charles’s unexpected touch. Then, a bit unsteadily, he took a hold of the collar and teased the metal lock open, opening the clasp. The collar came away in his hands.
Charles shuddered, his eyes shut. When he swayed, Erik put a hand on his elbow to steady him. For a long minute, Charles said nothing, only breathed shallowly through his nose. Erik felt no hint of his power, not even a whisper.
Then Charles opened his eyes and smiled brilliantly at him. Erik nearly had to sit down, stunned by the new intensity in his gaze. He hadn’t realized the Charles he had seen before had been muted; this Charles was vivid and vibrant in the way the collared Charles wasn’t. Erik felt his vitality almost as a physical force, pressing against Erik’s skin like the promise of lightning. Some instinctive part of him was afraid. The greater part of him was awed.
He understood better than ever why the king had taken Charles from Westchester. With his gift crackling around him, Charles was enthralling. Irresistible. Dangerous and beautiful all at once, like a storm.
Charles laughed softly. “Are you sure you’re a soldier, not a poet?”
Had he overheard Erik’s thoughts? Erik hadn’t even sensed him.
“You wouldn’t notice me unless I let you,” Charles told him. “Or unless you had some training in resisting mind readers.”
“Whenever Frost goes in my head, I feel it all too well.”
“Most likely because she wants you to.” Charles’s mouth thinned. “She’s not nearly as careful as I am.”
Erik had no trouble believing that. He feared and hated Frost nearly as much as he feared and hated Shaw. She was cunning, cold, and calculating; one could never be entirely sure of her intentions. She had been loyal to the king for as long as Erik could remember, but she always gave off the impression that should a better opportunity arise, she would abandon Shaw in a heartbeat. The king, wily as he was, was perfectly aware of this. Why else would he treat her so sweetly? Not because of any real affection between them—Erik didn’t believe Shaw was capable of such emotion.
“I am nothing like her,” Charles said.
“No, you’re not.” Erik tossed the collar aside and went back to applying the salve to Charles’s throat, careful where his skin looked the most sensitive. Once he was done, he asked, “How does that feel?”
“It burned a little bit at the beginning, but it feels good now. Cool.”
“Good. Be still for a few minutes to let it dry completely, and then you can move around.”
After returning the medical kit to the chest, Erik came back over and sat down beside Charles again. When he noticed Charles shiver, he took the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders. For the first time, he realized how thin Charles was, which seemed strange, given how richly the king must be feeding him every night. But then again, Erik had seen men wither away from stress and anguish as much as from starvation.
The room was warm to him, but the fire had died down a bit and looked as if it could use another log, so he got up and stoked it until it was roaring again. “There,” he said, almost uncomfortable from the heat now, “are you warm?”
When he turned back around, Charles was crying silently. Alarmed, Erik dropped the poker and hurried back to him, kneeling by his side. “Charles?”
“I’m alright,” Charles said tremulously, wiping at his eyes. He gave a wet laugh and ducked his head. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...I really wasn’t planning on embarrassing myself like this.”
Erik had no idea what was wrong with him. After a minute of helpless indecision, he placed a tentative hand on Charles’s knee, trying to comfort him. Charles looked up, his blue eyes glistening with tears. And then, all of a sudden, he leaned forward and kissed Erik’s mouth.
His lips were soft and uncertain and tasted of salt and a hint of the rose wine from dinner. Erik froze.
After a moment—too brief a moment—Charles pulled back, his face red. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“No, it’s...” Erik had to sit down then, his legs weak. He raised a hand to touch his lips, stunned.
“It’s just...” Charles drew his knees up to his chest and half-hid his face in them. His voice was a muffled whisper. “You’ve been so kind to me tonight. No one’s been so kind to me in so long.” He wiped his eyes with a corner of the blanket and laughed, his voice hitching. “I suppose you’ve found my weakness. Show me a little kindness, and I’m yours.”
I’m yours. The words struck Erik like a bolt of lightning. Thinking of Charles as his was dangerous. Impossible. Charles belonged to the king, and the king did not share, not in any way that mattered.
And yet, Erik found himself abruptly consumed by an unfamiliar, desperate yearning. He had the ridiculous urge to take Charles into his arms and tell him that he was safe now, that Erik wouldn’t let anything happen to him. But how could he promise that? He was only a soldier. He had nothing of real value to offer.
“Nothing?” Charles turned his head to look over at Erik. His eyes were red-rimmed and still damp, but he’d wrestled the tears under control. “You underestimate yourself, captain.”
“The king’s protection is far better than mine,” Erik told him, “and as for protection from the king...I can’t give you that.”
Charles’s answering smile was small and wan. ”No one can. But...you could give me something different.”
“What?” For one wild, reckless second, Erik almost said, Anything you ask.
Erik wanted to, badly. But he was afraid of his own longing. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to stop touching Charles if he started now.
“Why?” he asked instead. “Haven’t you had enough of being bedded by strangers?”
“Are we strangers?” Charles replied. “I think after tonight, you will know me better than almost anyone else in court. Certainly better than Shaw. And...I wasn’t willing, with them. I am willing with you.”
“Why? Because I played chess with you and gave you blankets?”
“Because you’re a good man,” Charles said quietly, “and you’ve treated me with far more kindness and respect than any other man Shaw has given me to.”
The pain in his voice pierced Erik’s heart like a lance. How many times had the king offered Charles to one of his favorites over the last few months? How many times had Charles been forced into a bed as if he were a whore, not the nobly-born son of a great lord? Erik normally took some mean satisfaction in seeing haughty aristocrats brought low, but not like this. Not with Charles.
“Come here,” Erik said roughly.
Charles came and seated himself neatly in Erik’s lap, a heavy, welcome weight. After a beat of hesitation, Erik kissed him once, then again, then a third time, each kiss longer and more thorough than the last. It had been months since Erik had last taken a lover, and as he remembered suddenly what it was like to hold a warm, willing partner in his arms, his body awoke all at once.
Eyes closed, Charles smiled into the kiss and ground down gently on the growing hardness in Erik’s trousers. Erik groaned and clutched him closer, nearly overcome with a flood of lust. He wanted to take Charles and throw him down onto the bed and strip him bare. He wanted to suck on Charles’s cock and finger him open until he was mad with pleasure and came with Erik’s name on his lips. He wanted to rut into Charles until he came again, until they both came, until Charles was utterly spent and dazed with sated desire.
Charles moaned against his mouth. Yes, he said into Erik’s mind. Yes, take me to bed.
It was as good as an order. Erik could do nothing but obey.