Chapter 1: I
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.
Chapter 2: II
Charles woke to find an arm wrapped snugly around his chest. He had to shut his eyes tightly for a moment to stave off the familiar urge to squirm away in revulsion and fear. But then, abruptly, he realized he could feel the mind next to his, slumbering peacefully, and memories of last night came flooding back.
Erik playing chess with him. Erik ministering to the scrapes on his throat. Erik taking the collar off him, the first time it had been removed in four long, terrible months.
And then—Erik making love to him in the darkness. That was the only way to describe what had happened: making love. Certainly Shaw had never touched him with so much care and tenderness, and neither had anyone else. For the first time in his life, Charles understood why some people considered sex to be an intimate and precious act, almost sacred. At least, it had felt intimate and precious with Erik, stolen moments that Charles knew he would hoard like jewels in the days and weeks to come.
He shut his eyes and savored the feeling of lying in Erik’s arms, warm and comfortable. It had been a long, long time since he’d felt truly safe, but here, with Erik pressed snugly against his back, arm anchoring Charles to him, Charles felt untouchable. Protected.
It was a dangerous feeling. It made him want things he couldn’t have, things he couldn’t allow himself to think about because entertaining those ideas would only make it harder to go back to Shaw. So, reluctantly, he pulled away from Erik and sat up.
The covers fell to his waist, exposing him to the cold morning air. Over the course of the night, the fire had dimmed to sullen orange-tinged ashes. Shivering, he slipped out of the bed and began to gather his clothes off the floor. His fingers hesitated over the iron collar lying at the foot of the bed. Every instinct in him screamed for him to pick it up and throw it out the window, throw it as far away as he could get it. The thought of having to put it back on made a sob rise to his throat.
With trembling fingers, he slid on his shirt, then his trousers. Only once his eyes had stopped stinging did he turn around and smile. “Good morning.”
Erik sat up. In the dim dawn light, he was somehow even more handsome than he had been last night. Morning bleariness softened all his hard lines. “You’re leaving?”
“The king will be expecting me to attend him soon.” Charles started doing up the laces of his shirt, focusing hard on each loop so his hands wouldn’t shake and betray the fact that he wanted to hurl himself back into Erik’s arms and beg him to take him away, to hide him, to rescue him somehow. Such begging would be fruitless—there was nothing Erik could do. Even asking such a thing of him would be too much.
“Stay a few more minutes,” Erik said softly.
But Charles knew that if he did, he’d lose the courage to leave. He finished lacing his shirt and pulled on his boots. Once he was dressed, he picked up the collar and held it out to Erik. “If you would do the honors, captain.”
He managed to smile as he said it. Slowly, Erik took the collar from him and, with the same gentleness with which he’d made love to Charles last night, closed it around Charles’s throat again and sealed it.
The world went hollow around him. The silence—oh, god have mercy, the silence. In the span of one blessed night, he’d forgotten how utterly frightening it was to be alone in the world with only his thoughts for company. Erik was there, but his mind was far away, hidden behind a veil, and Charles could only touch it with enormous effort. When he tried to press deeper into Erik’s mind, his temples throbbed with pain, and he had to fall back with a gasp.
Erik’s hand was on his elbow immediately, steadying him. “Charles?”
“I’m fine.” He started to smile, then stopped when he felt his mouth tremble. “I should go.”
Erik studied him for a long moment, naked concern in his pale eyes. It was clear he didn’t want Charles to go. For a wild, thoughtless second, Charles thought Erik might ask him to run away.
Instead, Erik leaned down and kissed him lightly on the lips. “Go then. You shouldn’t keep the king waiting.”
Charles nodded. Before he could pull fully away though, Erik caught his hand and pressed something into it.
“Don’t let him win,” Erik said quietly, fiercely.
Charles opened his hand to see that Erik had given him one of the chess pieces: the black king. Clenching it tightly in his fist, he forced a smile and kissed Erik on the cheek gently, then left.
He fought to keep his mind blank on the walk back to the palace. It was a brisk morning, cold enough that a bit of frost had formed on the cobblestones in the courtyard. The morning sun would soon burn the thin layer of ice away, but for now, it crunched pleasantly under his feet, reminding him of winter mornings with Raven spent hopping through snowdrifts and cracking icicles off frozen tree branches.
They felt like memories from a lifetime ago, but it had not even been a year yet since he’d left home. By this time next year, he might very well be back in Westchester and reunited with Raven. Perhaps the king’s feelings toward Charles’s father would mellow out by then, and old grievances would be forgotten. Charles had certainly been doing his best over the last few months to make Shaw feel kindly toward the Xavier name. God only knew if he was succeeding. But if Shaw forgave Brian Xavier his past slights, if he no longer felt as if he needed a hostage to ensure the prince’s good behavior, if some new sweet young thing caught his eye…
Charles tried not to let himself dwell too long on the possibilities. Better to have no expectations at all than to be disappointed. And to hope for Shaw’s eye to fall on someone else…he felt ashamed for wishing for such a thing. He would be free, but at what cost? He’d never forgive himself if he threw some other innocent boy or girl into Shaw’s jaws to save himself.
How noble you are, he thought, cynically amused at himself. They ought to make you a saint. Saint Charles. Father would be so pleased. And Raven would laugh.
That idea brought a faint smile to his lips, but when he reached the king’s apartments, all thoughts of home fell to the wayside. The guards knew him well at this point and barely glanced his way as he opened the door. Inside, the receiving room was empty and cold. In the next room over, a handful of servants slept curled beside the hearth, along with several of Shaw’s favorite hounds. One of them got up and came over to nose at Charles’s hand, tail wagging in greeting. Charles bent to scratch its ears for a minute before reluctantly going on.
The king’s bedchamber was lit and warmed by four large braziers. By their light, Charles could see Shaw in his bed, thick furs pulled up to his shoulders, his face slack and peaceful as he slumbered.
Only he wasn’t asleep—no doubt he’d woken the instant Charles had opened the door. The king was an infamously light sleeper. Once, one of his concubines had attempted to kill him as he slept, but Shaw had heard the slightest rustle as the knife had been pulled from underneath one of the pillows, and he’d woken and beaten the would-be assassin to death. The poor boy’s blood still stained the wood floors beneath the king’s bed, or so the stories went. Charles had never seen any evidence of it.
He wondered what the king would do to him if he found out that Erik had removed Charles’s collar last night. The thought made a shiver of fear run through him.
He’ll never know, Charles told himself. You have enough to worry about already without inventing new fears.
“Is something the matter?” the king asked without opening his eyes.
“Nothing,” Charles said smoothly, pleasantly. “I was only admiring how handsome you are.”
It might have sounded obsequious coming from anyone else, but Charles had a knack for imbuing every compliment with heartfelt sincerity. He suspected it was one of the reasons why Shaw enjoyed him so much. Now the king opened his eyes and smiled. “You could admire me more closely if you joined me in bed.”
Charles smiled back. “So I could.”
He did not allow his hands to tremble as he undressed. Nor did he allow himself to hesitate as he climbed under the furs and pressed himself up against Shaw, all warm and lean and welcoming.
Shaw kissed him with bruising force, then bent his head to nuzzle at Charles’s jaw, his throat above the collar. “I was lonely without you last night, my dear.”
Charles ran his fingers through Shaw’s hair. “Surely you could have found other company, Your Majesty. Anyone would be flattered to share your bed.”
“But no one is as beautiful and sweet as you.” Shaw bit down on the junction between Charles’s neck and his shoulder, hard enough to make Charles cry out. Then he licked at the mark and ran his hand down to the curve of Charles’s ass, hitching him closer. “How was your night away with my captain? Was he kind to you, hmm?”
Charles was glad Shaw’s face was buried against his shoulder because otherwise, he would have seen the stinging tears that filled Charles’s eyes. Somehow, he managed to keep his voice light and steady. “Yes. The kindest.”
Over the next week and a half, Erik and his Lions worked to repair a crumbling section of the palace’s outer walls. Age had weakened the foundation, causing the wall to sag outwards, threatening to collapse at the slightest pressure. Under the supervision of the king’s architect, they knocked down the old wall, hauled away the debris, and brought in new stone to be laid. It was hard work, but Erik was glad for it. At least they were building for the king, not killing for him.
Some of his men grumbled, but he could tell most of them enjoyed the simple labor as much as he did. It was a welcome break from the months of warfare they’d endured in the north, followed by weeks of hard travel on the road. Here they were treated to regular meals and reliable shelter.
“And more diverse company,” Azazel added with a wicked grin, when Erik said as much.
“If only they wouldn’t run screaming at the sight of your face,” Janos replied.
“Hah! They run screaming from your lovemaking skills, that’s what they run from! You fumble like a virgin every time!”
“And how would you know that?” Allerdyce interjected.
If Azazel’s skin hadn’t already been red, he might have gone redder. Janos laughed so hard he started to wheeze.
The friendly banter kept everyone’s spirits up as they labored. Though the day was cold with the sun hidden behind a gray bank of clouds, working kept them warm. They’d all shed their cloaks and coats, and some had even stripped down to their bare chests. Erik himself was feeling uncomfortably warm in his tunic, though if he stopped and rested for too long, the chill would seep back in and force him to get moving again.
They stopped and rested for lunch, a hearty stew with tough, dry bread. As Erik was finishing his meal, a messenger ran up.
“The king is going out on a hunt and he means for you to attend him,” the girl said, panting slightly.
Erik wasn’t surprised by the summons; Shaw liked to have his favorites around him on his hunts. Leaving Janos in charge, he returned to his quarters, dressed in riding clothes, and went down to fetch his horse. Other stable hands hurried in and out, readying mounts for the king and his retinue. Erik followed them out to the courtyard and froze when he saw Charles standing there beside the king.
Of course he’d be accompanying them; he was a favorite after all. But his presence still struck Erik like a stunning blow. They hadn’t seen each other since that one night they’d shared together, and in that time, Erik had somehow forgotten how beautiful he was. Dressed all in blue with tight trousers that accentuated his legs and a tunic that hugged his slim torso, he was a sight to behold. A silver earring dangled from his right ear and glittered as he moved his head. He was smiling, by all appearances in good cheer.
God help him, Erik wanted him.
Charles turned and caught sight of him. His smile flickered. Then he looked away again and turned back to one of his companions, a red-headed boy Erik didn’t recognize.
Erik told himself it was foolish to feel hurt by that. What had he expected? Even if Charles felt something similar, he could hardly show Erik any sort of special favor. He was a lord, and Erik was a common soldier. The last thing they needed was for Shaw to realize something had happened between them.
The thought gave him pause. Had something happened between them? They had slept together, yes, but the king knew about that. He’d practically ordered it done. No, it wasn’t that Erik was afraid of him discovering.
It was the fact that Erik had lain awake every night since, thinking of Charles. It was the fact that when the king’s eyes ran possessively over Charles, Erik felt the wild urge to strike him.
It was madness, utter madness. If Erik had any sense, he’d find some other willing body to lose himself in, over and over again until memories of Charles’s skin against his faded from his mind.
But it wasn’t only lust that consumed him. It was something deeper and much more dangerous.
“Ah, Erik! There you are.” Shaw lifted a hand and motioned him over. “We’ve been waiting.”
“Your Majesty,” Erik said, bowing his head. With an effort, he kept his gaze from sliding over to Charles.
“Don’t worry,” the king said with an indulgent smile, “I won’t require you to keep up with me today. I know you’re weary from working at the wall. If you tire, you can ride in the back with Charles. He’s feeling rather tired himself.”
“Only because you wore me out quite thoroughly last night,” Charles murmured with good humor.
That drew a bright laugh out of Shaw, and he brushed a gloved finger along Charles’s cheek in a fond caress before turning to mount his horse. Erik noted that Charles was stiff as he swung onto his own horse, and when Shaw’s attention turned away from him, his easy smile faltered.
The hunting party consisted of some thirty courtiers, servants, huntsmen, dog handlers, and various other attendants. The king rode at the forefront, obviously eager to find some game. His favorites, or the ones trying to win their way into his favorites, stuck close to him and kept him comfortably occupied. No one paid much attention to Erik as he maneuvered to the back of the group where Charles and some of the slower riders brought up the rear. When he drew up alongside Charles, the young lord gave him a cool, distant look.
“Hello,” Erik said, suddenly uncertain.
“Hello, captain,” Charles replied quietly without looking at him.
For a moment, Erik was afraid that that detached mask wouldn’t crack, that he had somehow imagined the tenderness Charles had touched him with that night. Suppose he had truly been nothing more than a brief, pleasant respite for Charles? Suppose Charles had moved on from him now, thinking him to be nothing more than one more in a long line of lovers, easily forgotten?
But then Charles glanced at him and smiled helplessly, as if he couldn’t keep his mouth from curving of its own volition. He whispered, “It’s good to see you.”
Erik’s heart fluttered madly in his chest. He gripped his reins more tightly to keep from reaching out and touching Charles’s cheek, much like Shaw had minutes earlier. “You look…” He struggled to find an apt word. “…well.”
“I’m well enough.” Charles’s gaze ran over Erik slowly. “You look well yourself. I heard you Lions have been working on one of the palace walls.”
“It seems like menial labor for such highly trained soldiers.”
“We do as we are bidden. In truth, I don’t mind it. It’s honest work.”
“Ah.” Charles nodded. For a moment, they rode in silence. Then he said, “I sometimes wish I could be out there with you.”
His smile made it seem like a jest, but Erik knew he was serious. What had Shaw done to him last night? Charles was riding stiffly, and whenever they went over rocky ground, his mouth flattened. Seeing him in pain kindled a hot rage in Erik’s belly. His hands tightened around his reins before he forced them to relax again, not wanting to make his horse tense.
Instead of giving into the urge to take Charles’s hand, he said, “You wouldn’t last an hour. You’d tear up your pretty soft hands.”
Charles grinned sharply. “Don’t underestimate me, captain. I think you’ll find that I can endure more than you think.”
Are you alright? Erik wanted to ask. Did he hurt you badly? But they were too close to the others; he couldn’t risk being overheard. If only they could go back to his room where they’d had privacy, where they hadn’t needed to dance around what they truly wanted to say. He itched to touch Charles, to pull him into his arms and keep him close and safe. But he’d probably never be able to do that again. The king had gifted Charles to Erik once; the odds of him doing so again were slim to none.
“Once,” Charles said, very softly. If they hadn’t been riding side by side, Erik wouldn’t have heard it. “Once was enough.”
Erik frowned for a moment, stung. Then he realized what Charles meant, and his heart twisted in pity and helpless anger. “You deserve more than that,” he replied, his voice equally low. “More than once.”
“We don’t always get what we deserve, do we, captain?”
“No, we don’t.”
“We do the best with what we are given,” Charles said, his gaze fixed in the distance, where Shaw rode at the head of the party. “It’s all we can do.”
Erik wanted to comfort him somehow, to tell him things would be alright, but to give him false reassurance would be a cruelty. They rode in silence for several minutes until one of the young ladies riding with them asked Charles a question and he turned away to answer. Erik gazed at the pale curve of his neck above the iron collar for a brief moment before urging his horse on to catch up to the main group ahead.
They came to a river and rode alongside it for a short time until the huntsmen found a crossing shallow enough for the dogs and those of their party who were on foot. The dogs and their handlers went first, then the king and his immediate retinue, then everyone else. Even shallow as it was, the river current was still strong enough that those on foot had to fight against it to reach the opposite shore. The horses had less trouble, but there were enough slick stones underfoot to make everyone cautious when crossing.
Erik reached the other side without incident and gathered with the others to await the remaining members of their party. The king flicked his reins impatiently, already looking ahead along the forest trail. Had the huntsmen seen any sign of game yet? True winter hadn’t yet set in, but most animals would still be making themselves scarce. Wild boar was probably the most likely game this time of year, which was fortunate because the king loved boar hunting.
A shout from behind them shook Erik out of his thoughts. He turned just in time to see one of the horses slipping, its rider flailing for balance, and then the boy toppled from the saddle directly into the path of the rider behind it. The second rider—Charles, Erik saw with horror—jerked his reins to the side to avoid trampling the boy, and his horse slipped, too, and went under.
Several people screamed. Erik was off his horse and running for the riverbank before he realized what he was doing. The first boy’s horse had righted itself and was starting back the way it had come, spooked. The boy came up spluttering, fighting the current. Erik scanned the rest of the river, his heart in his throat.
Charles’s horse surfaced, kicking. Its saddle was empty.
Shaw arrived by Erik’s side. “Where is he?” he demanded sharply.
Erik couldn’t speak. He threw out his powers, searching for metal, searching for anything to grab onto—
There! A dark head broke the water, gasping for breath. Erik seized his iron collar and dragged him up, keeping his head above the current. Yanking his sword from his belt, he sent it winging over to where Charles struggled to keep himself afloat. Grab it! he thought.
Charles thrashed for a moment, then got a hand around the hilt. Erik let go of the collar and focused instead on the sword, towing Charles sideways along the current until he could get his feet underneath him and climb the rest of the way onto the bank. There he collapsed down into the reeds.
Everyone moved immediately to see to him, some out of genuine concern, some out of morbid curiosity. Erik forced himself not to run, not to outstrip Shaw in particular as they closed in on Charles. He was panting for breath and shivering, but he was conscious and seemed largely uninjured, save for a scrape on his cheek. When the king knelt down beside him, he smiled and said through chattering teeth, “You did say you wanted some excitement.”
“So I did,” Shaw laughed, “and you never seem to disappoint, my dear.” He touched Charles’s cheek. “You’re ice cold. You ought to get warmed up.”
When no one moved, Erik unpinned his cloak from his shoulders and offered it to Shaw. “Ah, here we go,” the king said, draping the cloak over Charles. “And we have the good captain to thank for saving your life, too.” He took Erik’s sword from Charles’s hand and presented it back to Erik. “I am in your debt, my dear captain. If it weren’t for your quick thinking, we might have lost him.”
Erik’s heart was still hammering in his chest, fear and adrenaline still coursing through him. He managed to keep his hands steady as he took the sword and sheathed it. “I was only doing my duty, sire.”
“Yes.” Shaw rose, frowning down at Charles. “Well, we can’t go on now. If you stay in those clothes, you’ll catch a chill, poor thing.”
Despite his words, Erik could tell he was more annoyed than concerned. He’d been so eager to have a good hunt.
Before he could think better of it, Erik said, “You needn’t cut the afternoon short. I could escort him back to the palace, Your Majesty.”
Shaw brightened. “Now there’s an idea! You wouldn’t mind missing the hunt?”
“Good man!” Shaw clapped Erik on the shoulder. “Then we’ll go on ahead. Shall I send anyone back with you?”
“No, no,” Charles said quickly. “I’d hate to deprive anyone else of their sport. The captain will provide more than enough escort, I’m sure.”
“Very well. Go get warmed up, my dear, and I’ll see you later this evening.”
Shaw caressed Charles’s cheek and then turned to swing back onto his horse. Following his lead, the rest of the party remounted and returned almost immediately to good spirits. Erik could tell they had forgotten the incident entirely before they’d even ridden out of sight.
Erik knelt beside Charles. “Are you alright?”
“Fine.” Charles smiled up at him, clutching the cloak around his shoulders. “It’s my pride that’s injured more than anything else. Thank you for fishing me out.”
“I’m sure you could have managed to swim to shore on your own. The current wasn’t that strong.”
“But still, I appreciated the help.” He looked upriver with a frown. “Has anyone checked on poor Bernard? Is he alright?”
It took Erik a moment to realize he meant the other boy who had fallen in. Erik had forgotten him entirely. “I don’t know.”
“Let’s go see if he’s alright.”
After helping Charles up, Erik kept a hand on his elbow to steady him. Together they walked back upstream to where the main party had crossed. Even with the cloak wrapped around him, Charles shivered violently, his hair dripping and his boots squelching with every step. Despite his better judgment, Erik put an arm around him and drew him close. When Charles leaned into him, he felt a wild thrill of satisfaction.
By the time they reached the crossing, the rest of the group had made their way across. Bernard sat hunched over on the bank, shaking with the cold. Someone had given him a cloak at least.
“Are you alright?” Charles asked as they neared.
Bernard blushed a deep red. Up close, Erik could see that he was even younger than Charles, perhaps fourteen or fifteen at most. “I’m so sorry. I ought to have looked—”
“There’s no way you could have known your horse would slip,” Charles told him. “Don’t trouble yourself over it; no one was hurt after all. Did someone catch your horse?”
“I have her,” said one of their companions nearby, a girl about Bernard’s age. She was a noble born by the looks of her clothing. After a moment Erik recalled her name: Katherine Pryde, the daughter of the Duke of Dorsburg. Though they’d never spoken personally, she’d been traveling with the king’s progress for nearly two years now, and everything Erik had observed about her suggested she was a sensible girl, not at all carried away by the luxuries of Shaw’s court.
She had the reins of Bernard’s mare in her hands. Erik guessed she’d been the only one with enough foresight to get a hold of the beast in the commotion.
“Good,” Charles said, patting Bernard’s shoulder comfortingly. “Let’s get you back in the saddle, and we’ll ride back to the palace together and get warmed up, alright?”
Bernard shook his head vehemently. “No, no, I’m alright to go on.”
“But you’re freezing!”
“I’m fine, really! I don’t want to miss the hunt.”
Charles frowned. “You’ll catch a cold riding all chilled through as you are.”
Bernard struggled to his feet. “It might be the last grand hunt in weeks,” he argued. “I don’t want to be sent home without having even glimpsed any game. I want to kill a boar!”
There was no chance of that—all the game would be herded toward the king and his favorites first, and there’d be nothing left for a boy like Bernard, riding at the rear of the party. Boys like him went along for the excitement and the sense of camaraderie and importance, not to actually kill.
But Erik didn’t say any of that; let the boy learn on his own, if he hadn’t already.
“Well, I’m hardly going to drag you back,” Charles sighed, clearly disapproving.
Erik couldn’t deny that he was secretly glad he and Charles would ride back to the palace alone. “You’d better hurry if you want to catch up with the rest,” he told Bernard.
With some difficulty, the boy scrambled up into his saddle and took his reins from Katherine. She huffed and said to Charles, “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“I don’t need watching over,” Bernard muttered before kicking his horse into a trot.
“See to it that he doesn’t get himself killed please, Kitty,” Charles said with another sigh.
Katherine grinned and started off after Bernard. Before long, they disappeared around the bend of the trail and the forest swallowed them up.
Charles turned back to Erik and their eyes met. The air between them felt suddenly charged with terrible and wonderful potential. They were alone again for the first time since that night.
“Shall we, captain?” Charles said quietly.
Erik nodded. “Yes.”
Charles’s horse had made it back onto the opposite shore and looked uninjured. They crossed the river again with Charles riding on Erik’s horse and Erik leading it by the reins, stepping carefully to avoid any mossy rocks. The river coursed around his thighs, freezing cold. By the time they reached the other side, his feet were going numb.
“You ought to have ridden with me,” Charles said, his tone slightly scolding as he handed Erik’s boots back to him.
“It was safer without two riders,” Erik replied.
“And now your toes are going to rot and fall off.”
“It’s hardly cold enough for frostbite.”
“It feels like it!”
Erik smiled. “You think this is cold? You ought to experience the winters in the north. The locals swim in waters as cold as this one to warm up.”
Charles shuddered. “That sounds miserable.”
“They also have a custom where you dip in the hot springs and then immediately run over and jump into ice water.”
“Why the devil would they do that?” Charles exclaimed, sounding utterly horrified.
Erik laughed. “I don’t know. It’s tradition.”
“Have you ever done it?”
“God no. We found the cold miserable enough without willingly jumping into ice.”
After he pulled his boots back on, Erik went to fetch Charles’s horse and bring it back. When he saw Charles unpinning Erik’s cloak from his shoulders, he shook his head. “You need it far more than I do.”
“You’re soaked through. I’m warm enough in my coat. Keep it.”
Charles smiled. “As you command, captain.”
He dismounted and climbed up onto his own horse. Erik swung up into the saddle and nudged his gelding back onto the trail heading back toward the palace.
“You know,” Charles said after a minute or so, “the ice water sounds horrid, but a hot spring sounds divine at the moment. Are they truly as nice as people say?”
“I suppose. Imagine a hot bath except it never gets cool, so there’s no need to heat more water and haul it in. You feel a little bit like you’re cooking in your skin, but it’s pleasant anyway, especially if the air outside is cold.”
Charles sighed. “It’s too bad we have no hot springs here.”
“Not this far south, no. But you ought to have your servants draw you a hot bath when we return. It’ll get you warmed up.”
“Yes.” Charles paused for a long moment. Then he said softly, “I wish you could join me.”
Erik drew in a sharp breath. For a second he could see it so clearly: lying in a steaming tub, Charles nestled between his legs, their bodies lazily entwined, heat surrounding them like a cocoon. He wanted it so badly he felt a physical ache.
Charles looked away. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…overstepped.”
“No,” Erik said quickly. “I…”
He stopped, knowing it would be smarter to say yes, to tell Charles that nothing could happen between them again, not unless the king wished it. Better yet, he should tell Charles that the night they spent together had been a…a dalliance, meaningless, easily forgotten. But the lie stuck in his throat.
“We can’t,” he said finally.
Charles nodded. “I know.”
“You’re a lord. I’m only a soldier.”
“That’s not your real objection.”
“You belong to the king. We both do.”
“He owns my body,” Charles said. “Not my heart.”
Erik was so shocked he couldn’t speak for a moment. Desire, he understood. It was terrible and dangerous to desire each other but not strange. But matters of the heart? That was another thing altogether.
But he couldn’t deny the way his own heart soared at the idea of owning Charles like that, and of being owned in return.
“Your heart?” he said at last, when he could speak again.
“I don’t…” Charles hesitated. Their horses climbed down a short ridge and navigated through a narrow section of the trail before he continued. “I don’t love you. Not yet. But,” his voice went very soft, “I think I could, very easily.”
Erik felt as winded as if he’d sprinted the length of the palace walls. Don’t be a fool, he wanted to say harshly. We went to bed together once, that was all. We are barely more than strangers.
But how could he say such a thing when his own foolish heart had already let Charles in, entirely without his knowledge?
Charles gave an embarrassed smile. “Perhaps I’m being silly. Is it possible to love a man after knowing him for only one night?”
For the first time since they had ridden away from the river, Erik looked over at him directly and met his eyes. “Yes,” he said, very quietly. “I think it is.”
Charles flushed a deep red. He glanced away and then pulled his horse off the path quite abruptly, onto a small deer trail that cut east.
Startled, Erik stared after him. “Charles?” When he saw Charles didn’t mean to turn back, he followed with a frown. “Where are you…”
Charles stopped beside a thick copse and dismounted. Erik hesitated a moment before swinging down as well, curious and slightly concerned.
He had hardly gotten both feet on the ground before Charles was on him, kissing him fiercely. Surprised, Erik stumbled back against his horse, gripping Charles’s arms to steady them both. Charles’s clothes were still wet and cold, but it suddenly didn’t matter, nothing mattered except Charles’s mouth on his own, Charles’s body pressed seamlessly up against Erik’s.
Oh God, they couldn’t. They shouldn’t. But Erik let Charles lay his cloak out on the ground and he let Charles push him down and climb on top of him, kissing him almost feverishly. Erik pushed his fingers into Charles’s damp hair and pulled on it until Charles moaned softly against his mouth. He ran his hand down Charles’s side, down to his ass, and hitched him closer, closer.
Charles sat up and got his trousers open, then worked open the laces on Erik’s, too. It ought to have been too cold for Erik to respond, but Erik felt hot in his coat, sweat sliding down the back of his neck. When Charles took him in hand, Erik groaned and rocked up against Charles’s palm, biting his lip to keep quiet.
Charles leaned over and kissed him again, tongue sliding into Erik’s mouth. It was wet and filthy and it made Erik’s head spin. Charles’s palm against his cock was a little dry, but the discomfort barely registered, overridden by pleasure. After a moment, Erik got his hand down between them and guided Charles’s hand around both of their lengths, pressing them together. Charles hung his head, panting, thrusting into their clasped hands.
“Please,” he whispered, “please, please…”
His eyelashes were damp with tears. Staring up at him, Erik said helplessly, “Anything, anything you want…”
Charles came with a desperate, sharp cry, spilling over their fingers. The sensation of him twitching against Erik sent Erik over the edge, and he muffled his moans against his sleeve as his hips jerked.
Charles lay on Erik’s chest for a few minutes afterwards, a heavy, boneless weight. Erik stroked Charles’s back gently with his clean hand and pressed kisses to Charles’s temple, over and over.
Eventually, caution overcame the desire to lie here forever, Charles nestled in his arms. They were lying out in the open, shielded only by a small copse, only a short ride from the main path. If some forager or villager came through the trees searching for berries or mushrooms, if someone from the hunting party decided to ride back to the palace for whatever reason and spotted their horses standing off the trail…
“We have to go,” he said reluctantly.
Charles nodded. “I know.”
Still they lingered for another minute. Then, finally, Erik nudged Charles up. They wiped their hands with Charles’s handkerchief and cleaned themselves up as best as they could. As Charles went to fasten his trousers, Erik touched a dark bruise on his hip.
“He forgets his strength sometimes,” Charles said, staring hard down at the laces in his hands.
A hard, hot rage burned in Erik’s chest. “I wish…”
But he didn’t know how to finish. There were so many things he wished for, all of them impossible.
Charles gave him a small smile. “I know. Me too.”
Erik took up his cloak from the ground, shook it out, and wrapped it around Charles’s shoulders again. Then they remounted and returned to the trail.
The ride back to the palace took half an hour, but it passed in an eyeblink. Too soon, they were within sight of the city walls again, and Erik imagined, for an instant, seizing Charles’s hand and asking him to run. They could ride east. Erik knew the roads well; it would take only three weeks to reach the nearest border crossing, and once they were into Avaria, they could turn south to the sea. There they could find a ship crossing the sound, and from there to Liutfeld, and from there to Polina or Tsulig or—
The vision crumbled. Shaw would never let them go. He would send an army after them, and they would be dragged back and Erik would likely be executed and Charles…who knew what tortures he might invent for Charles. Even if they did manage to escape somehow, they would forever be looking over their shoulders, watching for the king’s soldiers to kick down their doors and drag them back to him. How could he damn Charles to such a life? Especially when Charles would be free anyway whenever Shaw tired of him or no longer needed him as a hostage?
“I’ve never seen the sea,” Charles said softly. “Take me there one day. Will you promise?”
Erik held back a bitter laugh. When? How? With what money? What freedom?
Did it matter?
“I promise,” he said.
They rode in through the palace gates and dismounted at the stable. Charles left his horse with a stable hand, and while Erik rubbed his own horse down, Charles stood by the stall, watching. Once he was finished, Erik walked with Charles to gates of the palace proper and stopped just outside.
“You ought to call for a bath as soon as you go in,” Erik said. “You’ve been in those wet clothes too long.”
They looked at each other for a moment. Erik wanted to kiss him, badly, but anyone walking by might see. He stepped back and said, “Have a good evening, my lord.”
Charles smiled. “Goodbye, captain.”
He went in through the door. After a minute, Erik turned and walked the long way back to the barracks.
Chapter 3: III
Please see end notes for warnings for this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Thoughts of Charles plagued Erik all throughout the next week. During the day, he kept himself occupied with working on the wall and, once that was finished, with leading his soldiers in training drills to keep their skills sharp. The physical exertion drove all distracting thoughts from his mind, and for a few blessed hours, he could focus on other things.
At night though—that was when thoughts of Charles came creeping back in. Memories of Charles as they made love—his weight on top of Erik, his soft gasps, his flushed cheeks as he neared climax—galloped through Erik’s head every night, and he had to bring himself off with his hand before he could rest comfortably. He felt like a teenager all over again, utterly unable to control his cock.
And then afterwards, once he’d cleaned himself up and gotten back into bed, memories of Charles’s smile and his clever eyes kept Erik awake for much longer. He reviewed their conversations in his head over and over again until he’d memorized every word, until he could clearly recall every one of Charles’s expressions. Every moment they’d shared was as precious as gold, knowing as he did that they couldn’t meet again.
They’d glimpsed each other several times over the last few days, but they’d never had a chance to speak. Erik had attended to the king in court a couple of times, standing by as the king dealt with petitioners or court disputes. Charles had been there, too, but he’d stood on Shaw’s other side and there had been too many people between them to risk more than a few furtive glances. Shaw had also summoned Erik to dine with them in the feast hall almost every night, but again, Erik had been too conscious of the number of eyes on them to do more than offer Charles a curt greeting.
It was agony, being forced to watch as Shaw caressed him as Erik wished he could. What was worse was Charles’s behavior: he laughed prettily at all the king’s jokes, traded flirtatious touches with him, ate obediently from the king’s fingers, and regarded him with sultry looks that made Shaw grin sharply, like a triumphant hunter in possession of a snared prize.
Eri knew Charles was only playing the game he had been thrust into, playing it well, but still, he burned with jealousy. It was moments like those, watching Charles coyly steal a drink from the royal goblet to amuse Shaw, that made Erik doubt that what they shared had been real. How could Charles speak of love and then turn around and drape himself across another man’s lap? How could he wear that mask so perfectly, so sincerely? Had the face he had shown Erik only been another façade?
But then, at times when the king’s attention wandered away, Charles’s eyes would lose their gleam and his smile would slip off, and Erik would look away, ashamed of his own thoughts. He’d committed his own fair share of disgraceful acts in the interest of survival. He’d learned to play Shaw’s game in his own way. Now he had the gall to judge Charles for doing the same thing? For suffering a kind of violence Erik had never been forced to endure?
Mama would have despaired if she could see what a cynical, insensitive man you’ve become, he thought to himself with bitter humor.
Late one evening, he left the feast hall to visit the privies and, on his way back, ran almost headfirst into Charles. Erik caught him by the arms, startled. Charles didn’t seem surprised at all; he’d clearly come looking for Erik.
“Hi,” he said, almost shyly.
Erik glanced around, his heart thumping. There was no one near, but anyone could come out of the hall at any moment. “We ought to go back in, my lord.”
Charles clutched him close. Hidden as they were in the shadows, he could risk that much. “I have to see you again,” he whispered.
Yes. I have to see you again, too. I miss you. I think of you every day and every night. It’s killing me to stay away from you.
Erik swallowed those words. Instead, he said, “We can’t.”
“We’ll be careful,” Charles insisted. “We’ll find a place to go where no one will see us. Back to the forest—”
“In the middle of winter?”
“At least he can’t watch us there.”
“Don’t you understand?” Erik gripped his arms tightly, resisting the urge to shake some sense into him. His throat tasted sour with old fear. “He can watch us anywhere. He’ll know.”
Charles paused for a long moment. Then he said, almost surprised, “You’re afraid of him.”
“Only a fool wouldn’t be.”
“Then why did you take my collar off that first night? Why did you let me—in the forest—”
“Because I can’t get enough of you,” Erik said roughly. “God help me.”
Charles smiled hopefully. “Then…”
No, Erik wanted to say. I’ll put an end to this if you won’t. It’s your head I’m protecting, as well as mine.
But he said nothing for a long minute. Evidently Charles took that as assent because he clasped Erik’s hand and kissed his knuckles. “I’ll find a way. I’ll send you a message—”
“And if he intercepts it?” Erik demanded, his pulse racing at the very idea of it.
“He won’t. I’ll be careful. And I—”
Two men staggered drunkenly from the hall, laughing. As they passed by, Erik yanked Charles deeper into the shadows. Frozen, Charles pressed up against his chest, his breath ghosting out against Erik’s neck. They held perfectly still until the men had disappeared around the corner, their voices fading into the night.
“I’ll find a way,” Charles whispered against his throat. “Wait for me.”
He stole a brief, sweet kiss. Erik hardly had the time to taste him before he slipped away, back into the hall.
Erik stood for a while longer in the darkness outside, allowing the cold night air to chase away the heat that had gathered in his belly, threatening to pool in his groin. You should have stopped him, he scolded himself. You should have told him it was over.
Was he weak for not being able to say it? For wanting Charles despite the danger, damn all the consequences?
Turning, he spotted Alex Summers walking up the slope toward him. Erik liked the boy; he was one of the most hardworking Lions, and he learned quickly. Others called him hardheaded and temperamental, but Erik had been the same at that age. Perhaps that was what made him fond of the boy.
“Janos sent me to find you,” Alex panted as he reached Erik. His breath plumed in the frigid air, painted ghostly white by the moonlight. “There’s some trouble down in town. One of the men tried to force himself on a girl, and she defended herself and it’s—well it’s ugly.”
“Is anyone hurt?”
“Only the man.” Alex grimaced. “He’s alive, at least.”
Erik gritted his teeth. It had to be one of the newer recruits; all of Erik’s soldiers knew he had absolutely no tolerance for that sort of violence. “Alright,” he said grimly, “let’s go settle this.”
In truth, he was glad to get away from the feast hall. The kiss Charles had given him still lingered on his mouth. If he’d returned to dinner, it might have driven him to do something foolish.
Is there something more foolish than agreeing to see him again? Erik wondered. In that moment, he couldn’t think of a single thing.
The morning after the feast, a courier came from the southeast bearing an urgent message for the king: the Duke Ilonis had died, and now his cousins were disputing his son’s claim on the duchy, accusing the boy of secretly being a bastard. It had come to blows between those who supported the son and those who supported the cousins, and they begged the king to come settle the line of succession with his royal authority before a civil war broke out.
After a servant had been summoned to escort the courier to the barracks so she could rest, Shaw leaned back in his seat with a frown. “Ilonis…that’s a two week journey in the summer. It’ll likely take three weeks with this snowfall.”
Charles poured him a cup of wine and set about selecting the choicest fruits from the breakfast tray to set aside for the king’s plate. He very carefully kept all traces of bitter disappointment from his voice. “It’s stopped snowing at least. Perhaps the roads will be relatively clear, especially further south.”
“Mm yes. Even so, it will take some time to arbitrate this dispute.” Shaw sipped his wine with an amused smile. “A bastard! As if! Everyone who knew Ilonis knew he was as faithful to his wife as a dog. Even after she died, he never took another wife, or even a concubine, so I hear. It’s as if his cock shriveled up and died with her.”
“You think his son is legitimate then?”
“Of course he is. His cousins want more than their fair share, that’s what this is.” With a sigh, Shaw set aside his cup and reached for the plate Charles had assembled for him. “Still, it’s my duty to hear them out. It will be a long few weeks without you, my dear.”
Charles’s heart skipped a beat. “Without me?”
The king smiled. “You don’t think me so cruel that I would force you to spend three weeks on the road in the dead of winter? Six weeks if we count the journey back. No, my dear, I’d rather keep you here. Less chance of you losing any fingers or toes to frostbite that way.”
Six weeks without Shaw. Six weeks without having to warm his bed, without having to play the coy, flirtatious, happy concubine. Charles’s head swam with disbelieving hope.
And the possibilities…
It was almost impossible to disguise his nervous excitement with a frown, but somehow, Charles managed it. “What shall I do here for so long without you, my king?”
His expression thoughtful, Shaw tugged Charles out of his seat and over into his lap. When Charles settled obediently on his thighs, he ran his hand fondly through Charles’s hair. It was a touch Charles had come to loathe, but he leaned into the king’s caress, cat-like, and made the pleased sound in the back of his throat that he knew Shaw liked.
“Yes, you will be lonely without me, won’t you, my dear?” the king mused. “You’ll have to find something to occupy yourself with. Or someone.”
Charles went absolutely still. He knew instantly he’d betrayed himself, but it was too late—Shaw chuckled. “Don’t worry, I won’t send you to keep Stryker company. I know you thought him too brutish, and I agree. But perhaps Leland? He enjoyed your company last time, and you came back with a smile.”
Or someone. He meant someone of his choosing, someone he had gifted Charles to before. He knew nothing about Erik. Charles sagged in relief.
“Do you like the idea?” Shaw asked, feeling Charles shift in his lap. “Or shall I let you choose your own companion while I’m gone?”
Erik, Charles almost said. Give me to the captain, he’ll treat me well while you’re gone.
Abruptly, he realized Shaw was testing him. Heart pounding, he swallowed those words and said instead, as sweetly as he could, “I could never choose, my king. You know I think only of you.”
Shaw kissed his throat, clearly pleased with his answer. Exhaling softly, Charles tilted his head back, giving Shaw room to lace kisses along his jaw and neck. After a minute, the king said, “Well then. I’m sure your studies will keep you busy. You have full access to my libraries, of course, and my scholars are at your disposal as well.”
Once, before Erik had come into his life, spending six weeks holed up in the royal libraries with no one but scholars for company would have been his greatest dream. Now his mind raced to figure out a place where he and Erik might meet each other without being witnessed, without being disturbed. Nowhere in the palace, that was certain. In the city? An inn? Outside the city even?
“Tell me you’re pleased,” the king murmured, biting down gently on Charles’s exposed collarbone.
“I’m grateful,” Charles replied dutifully. After a hesitation, he ran his hand through Shaw’s thick hair, fingers skimming along the golden circlet that always rested on Shaw’s brow, a symbol of his kingship. “Though of course I will miss you.”
“Of course,” Shaw said pleasantly. His broad hand stroked the line of Charles’s back and came to rest on the curve of his ass. He slapped Charles suddenly, hard, and grinned when Charles rocked forward with a gasp. “I will depart tomorrow morning if the weather holds. For now…let me say farewell to you properly, my little prince.”
There was no mistaking what he meant by that—Charles had learned the signs of Shaw’s arousal long ago: the darkening of his eyes, the possessive grin that slanted his mouth. Abandoning his half-eaten breakfast, he picked Charles up as if he weighed nothing more than a kitten and carried him away to bed.
Half the city turned out to see the king off. He rode out with his personal guard, a complement of a hundred soldiers, Lady Frost and her retinue, a handful of other favored couriers, and a dozen wagons laden with provisions for the road. Charles rode with him to the gates of the city, where Shaw gave him a kiss and a smile before bidding him farewell.
City folk and villagers from the surrounding lands lined the road outside the city, some just to get a glimpse of the king, others to try to catch the king’s attention for some petition or another. Charles sat by the gates and watched until the last of the wagons had dwindled into tiny specks in the distance. Then, nearly dizzy with anticipation, he turned and rode back to the palace.
Only a couple of servants remained in the king’s apartments, cleaning and clearing away chamber pots and leftovers from breakfast. They gave him curious looks but offered no comment as he went to his pallet on the floor beside the king’s bed (not that he ever slept there, but it was a place for him to store his belongings) and retrieved Erik’s cloak, neatly folded.
He’d kept it for so long that Erik’s scent had faded from it almost entirely. Now it was saturated with the stench of the thick, cloying perfume that the servants wafted through the apartments daily. Shaw liked the smell of it, but it had taken Charles days to reach the point where he could even tolerate it. He wondered briefly if he should ask a servant to wash the cloak before he returned it, but he was too impatient to wait.
No one stopped him as he made his way out to the courtyard. Despite the urge to run flat out all the way to the barracks, Charles kept his pace leisurely and unhurried, not wanting to draw any attention to himself. By the time he reached the soldiers’ quarters, his heart was flying in his chest, his fingertips tingling with anxious anticipation. Suppose Erik wasn’t in? Suppose he’d gone away on business for the day? Suppose…?
He turned. The young, blond soldier behind him gave him a quick, rough bow and then straightened with a curious look. “Is there something I can help you with, my lord?”
“Yes, I—” Charles cleared his throat and gave the boy a haughty look. “I was looking for the captain. Is he here?”
“He’s leading drills at the training grounds,” replied the soldier. “Would you like me to fetch him here?”
Charles considered for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t want to disturb him. Could you…” He hesitated. Would it be too strange for him to go to the training grounds himself? Would the soldiers talk if they saw him there? Would they wonder?
Not if he gave them a plausible reason for his curiosity.
“Actually, I should like to see these training grounds for myself,” he said decisively. “I’ve heard that you Lions are a fearsome lot. I’m sure your training is quite rigorous.”
The boy swelled visibly with pride. “It’s hard stuff, my lord, but we manage it fine. No one gets accepted into the Lions unless they’ve proven themselves to be the best of the best. Come on, I’ll escort you to the training grounds. I’m sure the captain won’t object to your watching.”
As they walked, the boy introduced himself as Alex Summers, younger son of a minor noble from the south. He was one of the newer recruits to the Lions, having only been inducted into their order last year. He had yet to see any combat—when the rest of the Lions had gone north for the border campaign, he’d been sick with lung fever and had been forced to stay behind—but he’d trained hard in the intervening months, and the captain was impressed with his progress. He hadn’t said as much, Alex hastened to add, but that was the impression he’d given.
“Your captain sounds like a respectable man,” Charles said. Though he was intensely curious to hear more about what Alex and the others thought of Erik, he kept his expression bland.
Alex nodded. “He is. He’s tough but fair, and he’s seen more battles than nearly anyone else in the legion. He’s not at all a tyrant either—he always listens to what we have to say. Though I suppose you’d know…well, you’ve met him before, haven’t you, sir?” When Charles glanced at him, he flushed deeply and lowered his gaze. “I’m sorry, my lord, that was inappropriate to say.”
Only in that moment did Charles realize that the Lions had perhaps a more intimate knowledge of the night he’d spent with Erik than anyone else. It was common knowledge he’d been given over to the captain as a prize, but that was all most people knew; the rest was left up to their lurid imaginations. But at least some of the Lions had to have seen Erik taking Charles up to his quarters, and though the walls of Erik’s room had offered some measure of privacy, they were by no means thick enough to block out all sound. Charles recalled trying to stifle his noises, but he knew he hadn’t succeeded entirely. Who among the Lions had overheard them? And what must they think of him now? Did they look at him and think of him only as their captain’s whore?
Charles felt his color rise at the thought. Even after becoming the king’s consort, even after enduring being passed around like a cheap trinket, he could evidently still feel humiliated.
Alex quickened his pace, ears red. “It’s just over here, my lord. Around this corner…” He hurried ahead, clearly eager to escape the awkwardness.
Charles heard the drills before he saw them: the sharp smacks of wood on wood, metal clanging, the grunts and shouts of men and women exerting themselves. When they came around the corner of the building, he saw the wide open space of the training ground, large enough that a full hundred soldiers could occupy the area without getting in each other’s way. Twenty or so Lions stood in neat rows, practicing a sword form in unison with sticks to serve as their weapons. A little ways away, another group sat polishing and caring for their swords and armor. In the center of the training ground, soldiers sparred in a circular arena enclosed by a wooden fence.
Charles spotted Erik instantly: he stood by the arena and watched as two of his men threw themselves at each other in the ring, wooden swords smacking together furiously. He had his back to them, giving Charles an excellent view of the broad line of his shoulders, the narrowness of his waist, the leanness of his figure. His heart sang; he had to resist the urge to call out Erik’s name cheerfully.
The elation lasted until he noticed the stares. As Alex led him through the training ground, soldiers paused and looked his way. Some of them seemed merely curious. Others frowned. Still others smirked and made lewd eyes at him, and when he flushed, they laughed softly and whispered amongst themselves.
You’ve survived worse than this, he reminded himself grimly. A few stares and some laughter is nothing. Some of the men the king had gifted him to had put him through worse humiliations than this.
Still, the weight of their stares made him want to shrink away. Only his own pride and the upbringing he’d received at his mother’s hands kept him walking with his chin high, his expression cool and unaffected.
“Captain,” Alex said.
“Yes?” Erik turned and saw Charles. His eyes widened.
“Lord Xavier came looking for you at the barracks,” Alex said. “I know you don’t like being disturbed during training but—”
Erik waved him away. “It’s fine, Alex.” For a moment, such fondness and naked desire suffused his expression that Charles glanced away, worried someone else might see it, too. “I was nearly done here anyway.”
When Charles looked at him again, Erik had smoothed his expression out into impersonal sternness. “Come, my lord,” he said, giving Charles a proper bow. “It’s warmer inside the guardhouse.”
And there would be fewer eyes on them, Charles thought with relief. He followed Erik into the long, squat building that sat on the southern end of the training ground. The main door let them into a square room that contained a few barrels, a desk, a chair, and two braziers to provide heat and light. Beside the desk was another door, closed.
“That leads to the training armory,” Erik explained when he saw Charles glance at it. “No one’s in there at the moment. We’re alone.”
Charles’s heart leaped. “So we are.”
For a long, breathless minute, they simply stared at each other. Charles was torn between the desire to have Erik right here in the guardhouse and the knowledge that doing so would be beyond stupid with dozens of witnesses just outside. Erik looked as if he were struggling with the same impulses.
Finally Erik said, “You brought my cloak back.”
Charles looked down, surprised; he’d forgotten he’d had it in his hands. “Yes. I’m sorry I kept it for so long.”
“I would have sent a servant to take it back to you except I wanted to see you myself. And I would have come earlier, but the king would have asked why I didn’t just send a servant and he might have thought…” Charles hesitated, then said, “But he won’t know now.”
“He could. People saw you coming here. Servants. My own men.”
“Then I’ll tell him I wanted to thank you personally for saving my life.”
Erik paced to the armory door and back, restless with agitation. “This is too dangerous. Carrying on like this under the king’s nose—it’s the height of stupidity. If he catches us—when he catches us, he’ll punish us both.”
“I don’t care,” Charles said impulsively.
Erik stopped. Anger glinted in his eyes. “You think you’ve suffered? He’ll hurt you in ways that will make you long for these days again. He’ll destroy you, inside and out, and he’ll only stop once you’ve been broken beyond repair, or once you’re dead.”
Charles refused to flinch. “I’m not afraid of what he might do to me.”
Erik laughed. It was an ugly sound. “Then you’re a fool.”
Cheeks heating, Charles thrust the cloak out. “Take it,” he said coldly. “I didn’t come here to be berated.”
For a long moment, Erik didn’t move. Then, finally, he stepped closer. Instead of taking the cloak, he reached up and cupped Charles’s jaw. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I don’t mean to be cruel. But I fear the king’s wrath.”
“As do I,” Charles admitted, his tone softening. He put his hand over Erik’s to hold it there. “I know it’s foolish to want this. But I can’t stay away from you.”
How much longer would the king hold him prisoner here? How much longer would he have to play the king’s games and undress for the king’s friends, smiling all the while? The thought of weeks to come, or months, perhaps years—he felt the endless days like a physical weight on his shoulders, threatening to crush him.
Erik was a blaze of light in all that darkness. If he could only have Erik, even if just for a few minutes at a time, he might have something to cling to when the nights grew bleak.
He wasn’t sure how much of his thoughts showed on his face, but Erik muttered, “God help me,” and kissed his forehead roughly. He took the cloak from Charles’s hands and said, “Tonight. I can get away from the barracks unseen. Can you leave the palace?”
Charles nodded eagerly. “I’ll find a way.”
“Are you sure? If anyone sees you—”
Charles put a hand to his throat. “Could you open this?”
Erik gave him a look of pure disbelief. “We’re going to attempt to carry on an affair in secret, and you want me to uncollar you and alert the whole world that something’s amiss?”
“I’m not asking you to uncollar me,” Charles said impatiently. “Can you open it, just a little? Leave it on but crack it so the circuit isn’t complete?”
Realization dawned on Erik’s face. “Yes, I suppose I could.”
Charles had never asked before because Shaw liked caressing the collar and would surely feel any cracks or breaks in the iron. But the king would not be back for weeks. With mounting excitement, Charles realized he could be free to access his abilities the entire time. No one else would be checking his collar after all. No one had any reason to suspect he might defy the king.
Erik touched the metal where it rested against Charles’s throat. “I’ll make the crack small,” he said, “as seamless as possible. Still, you must take care to keep it hidden.”
Charles was nodding before he’d finished speaking. “I will.”
After studying him for a long moment, Erik nodded, too. Charles felt a faint pressure as Erik drew his finger down the width of the collar beneath Charles’s jaw, and then—
The world flooded back to life, awash with color. Charles swayed forward with a gasp. For a few dizzying seconds, a sea of thoughts and emotions swept him away: —hungry can’t wait to get a break—keep forgetting to take care of the damn—I wish the sun would come out it’s fucking cold—wonder if that girl’s still gonna be there if I—Harald’s an idiot and—tempting fate is what it is—
Distantly, he realized he was trembling in Erik’s arms. With an effort, he pulled his awareness back from where it had expanded out over the entire training field and instead latched onto Erik’s mind, a welcome refuge in the storm. Concern swirled at the forefront of Erik’s thoughts, underlaid by currents of unease, wariness, and aching affection. Snatches of thoughts whipped past too quickly for Charles to grasp. He clung to Erik’s steady familiarity until he could remember how to build up his shields again, layering them until the chaos outside went quiet.
With a sigh, he opened his eyes and found Erik staring down at him with obvious worry—and with a touch of awe. “I felt you just now,” he said. “In my head. But the first time I took the collar off, I didn’t.”
“I didn’t want to scare you that time,” Charles admitted.
Erik’s lips twitched. “And now?”
“Now I trust you.”
A burst of complicated emotion flared across Erik’s mind: joy mixed in with pride and relief and a bit of apprehension. He held Charles close for a good minute, then pressed a kiss to his temple and released him. “You should go. If you stay much longer, people will talk.”
Charles suspected people might already be talking, but Erik was right—best not to fan the flames in any way if they could help it. Leaning up, he pressed a quick kiss to Erik’s mouth and grinned. “When will I see you tonight? And where?”
“After ten. There’s an inn in the city, the White Fawn. Do you know it?”
“I can find it.”
“It’s discreet. I’ll go early and rent a room for the night. By ten it should be crowded enough that we won’t draw much attention. The walls there are thick, and if we’re careful, we won’t be seen or heard. Wear a cloak and put your hood up. It won’t look so out of place since it’s so cold out.”
Charles’s heart galloped with anticipation and nerves. They were really doing this. Part of him wanted to blanch in terror, but even his fear of the king seemed distant and unimportant next to the fact that he was going to be with Erik again in a handful of hours. Already he was counting down the minutes.
“I’ll be there,” he promised. Now that he had his gift back, it would be child’s play to slip out of the palace unnoticed.
Erik’s answering smile was brief but lovely. “Go on then,” he said, waving Charles toward the door. “And wipe that grin off your face—it tells the whole story.”
Charles laughed and kissed him again before adopting a suitably sober expression and opening the door. The soldiers nearest to the guardhouse stared as he came out, but he ignored them and walked briskly past, resisting the urge to dip into their minds to see what they were thinking. Sometimes it was better not to know.
Alex met him halfway across the training ground and asked if he’d like an escort back to the palace, which Charles gladly accepted. The boy wasn’t bad company, and besides, walking with him distracted Charles from the soldiers’ curious looks.
A frigid wind began to pick up, but Charles hardly felt it as they made their way back to the palace. At the gates, Alex took his leave and Charles went inside, rubbing his fingers together for warmth. He almost ran headfirst into Kitty as he turned a corner and had to grip her arms with a startled laugh to steady them both.
“Charles!” She started to smile, then stopped and cocked her head in a thoughtful frown. “You seem…”
“I don’t know.” Her eyes roved over his face. “You’re red.”
“Am I?” Charles laughed again. His heart felt lighter than it had in ages. “It’s the cold.”
She gave him a disbelieving look. What else could he say though? How could he tell her he was in love, or something perilously close to it?
“Well,” she said after a moment, “I’ve been looking for you, actually. Let’s take our afternoon tea together. It’s been too long since we’ve done that.”
“Yes,” Charles agreed, not at all caring that his voice was a touch too cheerful. “Let’s do that.”
The inn wasn’t difficult to find. Once he was in the city, Charles only had to ask for directions once, and he blurred the woman’s memory of his face afterwards. It was just past ten when he found the sign painted with a leaping white fawn and pushed his way in.
Erik was right—the place was crowded, stuffy, and noisy, the perfect environment to blend into. Charles kept his hood raised as he slipped through the throng, though most of the patrons were already drunk enough that he didn’t think they’d remember him even if they saw his face. When he reached the stairs that led to the rooms, he closed his eyes and sent a tendril of thought upward. It took only a moment for him to find Erik’s now-familiar mind, brimming over with impatience, anticipation, and worry.
I’m here, he said as he took the stairs two at a time. Following Erik’s mind brought him to the door at the end of the hall, which opened before he could even raise his fist to knock. And there Erik was, dressed in a nondescript tunic and trousers, looking for all the world like any other common man from the streets. Looking perfect.
Erik pulled him inside and shut the door. “No one followed you?”
“And no one saw you?”
“No, no one.”
Charles cut him off with a kiss. Erik seemed quite happy to stop talking, his thoughts dissolving into a cloud of lust when Charles pushed him up against the wall. For several minutes, they kissed and rutted against each other, too desperate to even pause to strip their clothes off. Charles pressed his hard cock against Erik’s thigh, whining as he felt Erik’s own thick erection against his hip. He wanted Erik in him. He wanted Erik’s mouth on him. He wanted Erik to hold him down and fuck him, long and hard and deep. The possibilities made him pant shallowly against Erik’s mouth, his whole body taut with growing pleasure.
Finally, Erik pushed Charles back a step and gasped out, “Stop, stop. I’ll come at this rate.”
He was flushed and wide-eyed. He looked disheveled even with all his clothes on. Charles grinned slyly. “That is my intention.”
“Not like this,” Erik growled. “Not so early.”
“We have all night,” Charles reminded him.
“Not all night. I have to be back before dawn. It’d be best if you were back as well, in case anyone comes to call on you.”
“Even then, we have hours.”
Erik stared at him like a starving man presented with a feast. “So we do,” he said, in a low rumble that made Charles shiver with arousal.
They tumbled into bed, shedding clothing between kisses. Even the collar was tossed to the side—Erik broke it away from Charles’s neck and threw it off the bed. They kissed again, and Charles let his hands roam over Erik’s muscled back and ass and thighs, every inch he could possibly reach.
Erik had had the foresight to bring a jar of oil, and he prepared Charles with impatient efficiency. Then Charles rolled them over and climbed on top of him. When he slid down onto Erik’s cock, taking him from tip to root in one slow glide, they both groaned, eyes fluttering shut. Perfect, Erik thought fervently when he had his eyes open again. You’re perfect, so perfect.
There was such adoration in his eyes Charles could have wept. Instead, he rose up and dropped back down, reveling in the stifled moan that escaped through Erik’s gritted teeth. Erik’s fingers dug into his hips, hard enough to bruise. When Charles put his hand on Erik’s chest to steady himself, he could feel Erik’s hammering heart against his palm.
He couldn’t tease, not this time; he wanted Erik too much. He rode Erik’s cock hard until they were both shuddering and gasping, and when he felt Erik’s orgasm hit him, pleasure roaring over his mind like a tidal wave, Charles fell over the edge, too, fell into perfect, shattering bliss.
Once the initial daze of climax had faded, he found himself lying bonelessly on Erik’s chest as Erik carded his fingers slowly through his hair. A delicious, pleasurable haze blanketed both of them like a fog. Clumsily, he pressed a kiss to Erik’s shoulder and licked his lips when he tasted the drying sweat on Erik’s skin.
“Alright?” Erik asked softly.
“Mm.” Charles sighed happily. More than.
After a few minutes, Erik nudged him up. Charles winced as Erik’s soft cock slid out of him with a twinge of pain. Erik’s come trickled out as well, warm and copious against Charles’s thigh. He gathered some up on his fingers and licked them, grinning when Erik stared at him with wide eyes.
“You’re filthy,” Erik said, his tone reverent.
“You think this is filthy?” Laughing, Charles licked his fingers clean, then leaned over to give Erik a kiss. “Hardly.”
After they cleaned themselves off, Charles curled up against Erik’s side. Erik put an arm around him and nuzzled his cheek, his mind overflowing with contentment. I could stay here forever. Damn the king, damn the whole world, there’s nothing I want more than this, and him.
Charles kissed Erik’s shoulder. I know. Me too.
For a while, they drifted in drowsy satisfaction, savoring each other’s presence. Had he ever been truly happy before this? Charles wondered. Before he’d met Erik? It seemed impossible. This quiet, bright joy was entirely new to him, and he wanted to cup it in his hands like he might a fragile butterfly, to protect it from the world. Nothing had ever felt more right.
Eventually, Erik stirred and pulled away. As he went over to the chamber pot in the corner, Charles yawned and stretched out on the bed, admiring Erik’s toned backside. Years of soldiering had left him scarred and marked, but there wasn’t an inch of him that wasn’t beautiful. How lucky Charles was to have caught Erik’s interest. No doubt Erik could have anyone he desired.
Erik snorted. “You think too highly of me.”
“Not at all.”
“I’m a commoner. No lord or lady would look twice at me.”
Charles propped himself up onto an elbow. “I’m a lord.”
“Be honest. If things had been different, you wouldn’t have given me a second look. I’m a soldier, nothing more. I would have been invisible to you.”
“I highly doubt that,” Charles said with a laugh. “You’re the handsomest man I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
Erik seemed pleased by that. “Am I?”
He climbed back into bed and tugged Charles close again. Nudging a kiss against Charles’s jaw, he murmured, “Good.”
“Good? Is that all?”
“What more do you want me to say?”
“Well,” Charles said with mock haughtiness, “I paid you a compliment. Now it’s only fair that you do the same.”
Erik nipped his jaw. “Is that so?”
“Well then, my lord…” Erik mouthed at the sensitive skin under Charles’s chin, making Charles tilt his head back with a pleased gasp. “You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful, bewitching, enchanting boy I’ve ever beheld. There.” He bit down gently on the side of Charles’s neck. “Is that sufficient?”
It sounded like a line from a bad poem, but Charles loved every word. “Yes,” he purred. “For now.”
“For now.” Erik laughed. “You’re a demanding creature, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes, quite. I hope you don’t mind.”
Erik laughed again. “How could I?”
After a minute more of nuzzling at Charles’s throat, he laid his head against Charles’s shoulder, and Charles stroked his hair gently. Erik’s breath blew out against his bare skin, warm and steady. A great swell of contentment washed over Charles suddenly, filling him with pleasant languor. If only it could always be like this, just the two of them. If only he could have Erik for real, permanently, not just in these stolen, secretive moments.
“Can I ask you something?” he said after a while.
Erik turned his head sleepily. “Mm?”
“How did you come to be in the king’s service?”
He regretted his question at once: the drowsy happiness of Erik’s mind vanished like fog burned off by the sudden rays of dawn. Erik’s body went stiff against his own, and for a second, Charles was sure Erik would pull away, angry.
But he didn’t. After a long moment, he sighed and said, “It’s a long story, and a painful one.”
“I’d guessed as much. I’m sorry. You don’t need to tell me.”
Charles ran his fingers through Erik’s hair, a silent, conciliatory gesture. But after a pause, Erik began to speak, his voice so quiet Charles had to lean forward to hear. “I was born in a village by the sea on the western border between Genosha and Salia. It’s a tiny place; I doubt you’ve heard of it. We were freeholders there. My grandparents and the other settlers they came with were promised the freedom to rule over their own lands in return for cultivating it and keeping it fertile and protected from border incursions. They were beholden to no lord, only to the king. My grandparents built a farm. They raised my mother there, and then once they passed on and she married, I was raised there, too. It was a good life.”
He stopped. His mind, which had been briefly painted gold with nostalgia, morphed into the darkness of an impending thunderstorm. Charles said nothing, his throat closed up with dread.
“Shaw was new to the throne then,” Erik continued finally. “He’d seized it from his half-brother. Do you know what happened? Or are you too young to have lived it?”
“I learned about it,” Charles replied. He had been too young to have lived it; the brief, bloody civil war had ended three years before he’d been born. But his mother had drilled into him all the history and intrigues of the court, determined for him to take his own place there when he was old enough. He knew the old king had had two bastard sons from different concubines and no true, legitimate heir. If not for his untimely death in a hunting accident, he would surely have married eventually and had proper heirs. But the unfortunate fall that had broken his neck had gifted the throne to bastards.
“So you know Shaw wrested the crown from his elder brother Theorn,” Erik said.
“Yes.” Charles closed his eyes for a moment, remembering his lessons. “He was cunning; over the years, he’d quietly gathered more allies than his brother. Though Theorn had a stronger claim to the throne by right of seniority, he and his supporters were dealt resounding military defeats at Ilonis, Hargrend, and Port Savilly.” When he opened his eyes and found Erik staring up at him, he smiled. “My tutors taught me.”
“Of course they did,” Erik muttered. “Well, what was distant history for you was lived experience for me. Do you know who rules the western border between Genosha and Salia now?”
The answer sprang to Charles’s mind without effort. “Duke Teros north of the Darre River. Marquess Helten to the south.” Then he stilled as a thought struck him. “I never knew that that land used to belong to freeholders.”
“This is history your tutors wouldn’t have taught you,” Erik said, his voice cold with anger. But it wasn’t anger at Charles. “Helten didn’t always rule in the south. His holding used to be much smaller, only a tiny estate along the coast.”
“I remember. When we studied lineages, the Helten name was only attached to a minor barony.” Charles bit his lip. He could see where this was going, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it. But if Erik wanted to tell him, he would listen. “It was the king who gifted Helten with those marchlands, was it not?”
“It was. House Helten had ruled over a narrow piece of land for generations, but Lord Helten was ambitious. Over the years, he’d cultivated many allies. Even though his territory was small, his word carried weight in the king’s court. So in return for his support, Shaw promised him the lands to the west of his barony, all the way to the border. Helten had been eyeing the marchlands for years. He didn’t care that they were already owned, and had been for nearly a century.”
The bitterness in his voice made Charles hold him closer, wishing desperately he could somehow spare Erik this pain. But already Erik was slipping away from him, his mind spiraling into the darkness that shrouded his past, one Charles wasn’t sure he should touch.
“He hated my people,” Erik said. Somehow, even with the fury and grief that was beginning to cloud his thoughts, his voice remained steady. “His father had wanted to expand the Helten territory and had been fought back by the freeholders. Afterwards, we appealed to the king for protection and arbitration, and the king ruled in our favor. The younger Lord Helten had always held us responsible for his father’s shameful defeat, as if we’d been the aggressors.”
“So he hated you for that.”
“Not only for that. He also thought we were heathens.” Erik’s mouth twisted in a sneer. “Baru’chna. That’s what they called us. Do you know that that means?”
Charles didn’t recognize the language. “No.”
“Godless rats. That’s what he considered us. He hated our faith. He wanted our land, and he considered it a bonus that he was allowed—even encouraged by Shaw—to kill as many of us as he could. We couldn’t hold out against him forever, not without the king’s protection.” Erik trembled with rage. His voice dropped to a whisper. “He slaughtered my people, and Shaw let him do it.”
The pain that washed out Erik’s thoughts was so devastating Charles felt it in his bones. He couldn’t breathe through the knot in his throat. How could anyone bear this pain and still live? How could Erik have carried this agony with him all this time without Charles noticing?
He wasn’t sure how long they lay there in silence. Charles couldn’t speak; it felt wrong to. At last, Erik stirred, pushing himself up. He brushed his fingers over Charles’s cheek, and it was only then that Charles realized he was weeping.
“I’m sorry,” Charles whispered.
Erik studied him for a long moment. Then he sat himself against the head of the bed and pulled Charles into his arms. “It was a long time ago.”
“It doesn’t feel so long ago. Not to you.”
“It’s always there in my mind,” Erik admitted softly. “I will never forget it. But it’s easier to think of it now than it used to be.” He stroked Charles’s hair gently, as if Charles were the one who needed comforting. After another lengthy pause, he said, “You asked how I came to the king’s service.”
Charles hesitated. “You don’t have to…”
Erik went on as if he hadn’t heard. “Shaw gave Helten permission to do as he wished with the freeholders, but he had one condition: children with abilities weren’t to be harmed. They were to be brought to the king and sworn into his Lions, to be trained as soldiers in his army.”
He paused for a long moment, breathing shallowly against Charles’s skin. His hand on Charles’s arm tightened painfully, but Charles said nothing, only breathed softly with him.
“I tried to fight,” Erik said, his voice strangled. “But I was too weak. I was young; I hadn’t yet learned to control my powers. I was captured and sent east with my mother—”
“Yes, they took her along for insurance. To make sure I wouldn’t try to escape, or hurt anyone. They took other hostages, too, for the other children they’d captured: their parents, their friends, their brothers and sisters. It was a long, bitter march to join the king’s progress. Almost a third of us died along the way.” Erik exhaled slowly. Charles heard his next thought as clearly as if he’d spoken it aloud: Sometimes I wish I had, too.
Heart in his throat, Charles pressed a fervent kiss to Erik’s temple. Was it selfish to be glad Erik hadn’t died with the others? If so, Charles was selfish, utterly and unrepentantly. He was glad Erik was here with him, lying in his arms, warm and solid and blessedly alive.
“I’m glad I’m here, too,” Erik said quietly.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to project that.”
“It’s alright.” Erik’s grip around Charles’s arm loosened, and when he saw the reddened marks his fingers had left, he rubbed at them apologetically. “In truth, I don’t remember those days very well. Perhaps it’s better that I don’t. I do remember that the king was wintering here in Nierhelme that year. I remember they brought us all to him, one by one, and had us kneel and swear allegiance.”
“And so you came into the Lions.”
“So I did. Though…” Erik laughed harshly. “…it turns out I’m less of a lion and more of a dog.”
“What a pair we make then.” Charles had to smile, or else he felt like he might burst into tears. “You, the king’s fighting hound, and I, his bitch.”
Erik stiffened. “Don’t call yourself that.”
“What shall I call myself then?”
“Lord Xavier, for one.” Erik took his wrist and kissed it. “Heir to the principality of Westchester.” His lips brushed Charles’s palm. “Tamer of Lions.”
The tightness in Charles’s throat dissipated. Somehow, he managed a laugh. “Tamer of Lions! That’s ridiculous.”
“Yes, utterly.” Charles buried his face against Erik’s shoulder. “Utterly,” he repeated, and then followed the word with a kiss to Erik’s skin, then another. He mouthed at Erik’s throat for a moment before working his way up to his mouth. They kissed and kissed until they were both dizzy and panting with renewed arousal.
Erik lay him down and rolled on top of him, pinning him down. Charles had never seen his eyes look so soft. After a moment, he whispered, “I’ve never told anyone else what happened.”
Charles’s eyes stung with tears. What must it have cost Erik to share that story? How many terrible memories had he relived in the retelling? And yet he’d done it because Charles had asked. Because he’d trusted Charles to listen, trusted him completely.
What could Charles say to that? Nothing. Wordlessly, he drew Erik down to kiss him, and neither of them spoke again for a long, long while.
tw: towards the end of the chapter, Erik tells Charles about his past in which his people were persecuted and killed for their faith. The violence is described but not explicitly.
Chapter 4: IV
I can't believe I haven't updated this since SEPTEMBER. I'm so sorry.
So followed the most marvelous days of Erik’s life. During the days, he drilled with his soldiers, maintained general order and discipline, and oversaw equipment upgrades and repairs. During the nights, he slipped away to the city to meet Charles, sometimes at the White Fawn, sometimes in other, similarly discreet locations. Though the chances of them being recognized were low, Erik still insisted that they change rendezvouses often, just to be safe. Charles liked to tease that he was indulging in Erik’s “paranoia,” as he called it, but he never complained when Erik wanted to move their meetings to someplace new. He, too, was wary of Shaw’s spies.
Even the threat of discovery couldn’t dampen the happiness of those nights spent in each other’s arms, learning all the ways they fit together. And though of course they enjoyed each other’s bodies, the moments in between their lovemaking sessions were equally cherished.
Charles questioned Erik relentlessly, delighted to learn everything he could about him. He would scarcely wait until they’d caught their breaths before he’d pepper Erik with questions: what was his favorite color? What season did he like best? What foods did his faith forbid him to eat? Who was Erik’s God? What religious traditions did he still keep to, and could Charles help him celebrate somehow?
“And draw attention to yourself by doing so?” Erik asked dryly.
“It needn’t be anything too blatant,” Charles replied. “I know you light candles at the turn of the year. Surely we can do something like that.”
“Not always at the turn of the year. Sometimes it varies, depending on the calendar.”
Charles was fascinated to hear that Erik’s people followed a different calendar, and he made Erik explain it all to him thoroughly. Once he was sure he understood, he smiled and said, “So when will this candle-lighting be this year?”
“We call the festival Chanukyae. And I have no idea when it is this year. It’s been a long time since I’ve celebrated it, or any other holy days.”
“It’s hard, I imagine, with the king.”
Shaw followed the old gods, as most Genoshans did, and as Charles’s family did, though Charles had confessed that he wasn’t as pious as his parents would like. Perhaps that was what made it so easy for him to accept Erik’s faith; his beliefs, or lack thereof, offered no competing ideology. He was simply happy to learn about the God Erik had grown up with, the one he stubbornly refused to let go of.
“Not just the king,” Erik said. “You know most of his court denounces us as heathens, and they’ve done their damnedest to make Genosha inhospitable to my people. They think we’re mad for claiming there’s only one God.”
“If people started to turn away from the old gods, the tithes would dry up. No doubt that’s what they really fear.”
“No doubt,” Erik agreed. “Who knows if most of them even believe in the old gods. They’re just invested in keeping the priests fat and happy. It’s a matter of maintaining power, nothing more.”
“Quite cynical, isn’t it?” Charles mused. “But court business usually is.”
He rolled a bishop idly between his fingers, studying their half-finished chess game. They’d started it earlier, taken a break to make love by the windows, and were now trying to get back into the match. Erik was distracted by the lovely, pale curve of Charles’s shoulder. He’d wrapped a sheet around himself to ward off the chill—even with the fire crackling, it was still a little cold in the small, drafty room—and the corner had slipped down, exposing a swathe of creamy, freckled skin. Erik longed to press a kiss to the bony jut of Charles’s shoulder, to hear Charles gasp when Erik bit down on the gorgeous line of his throat.
“You’re being distracting,” Charles said, putting the bishop down emphatically.
“I’m being distracting?”
“I’m just sitting here!”
“Yes, looking absolutely irresistible.”
“You’re far too old to be ready for another round so soon.”
“Old!” Erik exclaimed, outraged.
Charles burst into peals of laughter. Knocking the chessboard aside, Erik tackled him down into the bed and tickled him until he shrieked. Even then he was careful to muffle his screams against his hands, and afterwards when they lay curled together panting, they stifled their laughter into the pillows to keep quiet.
Would it always be like this? Erik wondered. Creeping around like frightened mice, always taking care to stay quiet, to avoid calling any attention to themselves?
But what choice did they have? This was the only way Erik could have Charles, and he wouldn’t trade it for the world. Besides, it wouldn’t always be like this: their time together was nearly over. The king was due back at Nierhelme in a week.
Immediately Erik wished the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. Smile fading, Charles slumped down into the pillows. He looked at Erik plaintively. “Does this really have to end when he gets back?”
Erik didn’t need to answer; they both knew how impossible it would be to carry on with each other with the king back in residence. But still, Erik allowed himself to wonder for a moment if they could somehow manage it, if Charles could sneak out after Shaw had fallen asleep, if they could arrange to meet whenever the king was busy with his duties, if—
He cut off that line of thought before it could go any further. The possibilities were too dangerous to even consider.
“I was thinking,” Charles said after a moment, “we should do something special before he gets back.”
“Yes. We ought to do something normal lovers would do. Walk to the market together or see the city gardens or—”
Erik stared at him. “Are you mad?”
Charles laughed. “Hardly. Think about it: we could wear disguises and I could use my gift to turn away prying eyes. No one would know it was us.”
“What if our disguises slip? What if your concentration lapses? All it takes is for one person to recognize us, and then word will get back to the king and then…” Erik sat up, agitated. “No, it’s too dangerous.”
Charles sat up, too. “I have thought this through, you know. It won’t be half as dangerous as you think. Look, Hadrin’s Feast is at the end of the week. Everyone goes out into the streets in the gaudiest costumes imaginable, and people wear all sorts of masks and hats. It’s the perfect opportunity! We’ll blend in with the crowd. No one will possibly be able to recognize us.”
“You’re tempted though!” Charles grinned. “I can tell.”
Erik was tempted. If they wanted to go out together, as foolish as that would be, there would be no better opportunity. There was a reason why so many people got up to so much mischief during Hadrin’s Feast; it was easier to be bold when your face was covered. Truly, the likelihood of their being discovered would be slim. With those full face masks that were in fashion these days, no one would be able to see anything of them except their eyes.
Charles’s grin widened. “See! You agree with me.”
“It’s still dangerous,” Erik said gruffly. “And the king—”
“The king won’t be back until afterwards. He’ll never know.”
“And if he makes it back early?”
“He won’t,” Charles insisted. “That courier who arrived yesterday—she said the snow has been so bad, the southern roads are nearly impassable. And she was just one rider. It’ll take a large party even longer to break through.”
“And if he somehow still gets back early?”
Charles scowled. His annoyance crackled on the edge of Erik’s mind like lightning in the distance. “If you don’t want to go, just tell me. No need to invent excuses.”
Erik snorted. “I’m hardly inventing excuses. I’m concerned, that’s all.” He reached out and pressed his thumb to the corner of Charles’s frown, smoothing it out gently. “If you want to go, we’ll go. But—”
“Yes!” Charles exclaimed. The mental storm that had been gathering vanished instantly. At Erik’s raised eyebrow, he added, “I mean, yes, I’ll agree to whatever rules you’re about to lay down.”
Erik couldn’t help but laugh. “You haven’t even heard them yet.”
“I’m sure they’ll be unreasonable and too strict and irritating, but I don’t care.” Charles smiled teasingly. “Go ahead then, tell me all the ways we won’t be allowed to have fun.”
Erik huffed and squeezed Charles’s hip. “Be serious for a moment. If we’re going to do this, we need to be careful. The king might not be here, but his spies are.”
Charles heaved a sigh and settled. “Alright fine. What are the rules?”
“We will wear our masks at all times. No removing them for any reason.”
“If anyone approaches us, I’ll speak. You’ll be silent.”
“Your accent’s far more noticeable than mine,” Erik pointed out. He’d spent half his childhood in the king’s progress, after all, and over time, his accent had morphed into a general Genoshan blend. Charles’s, on the other hand, was noticeably western.
“I’m not the only westerner in the city,” Charles grumbled.
“You’ll still draw attention to yourself every time you open your mouth. And speaking of drawing attention—we won’t do anything that might draw anyone’s notice. Understand?”
“Of course. Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“I think you’re too reckless for your own good,” Erik growled, squeezing his hip again.
Charles heaved a sigh. “Do you think I want to cause trouble? I just want to walk in the streets with you. I want to hold your hand. I want to buy you sweets and throw pennies into fountains and make wishes with you.” He looked away. “All the things I’d do if I were allowed to court you properly. Is that too much to ask?”
“Court me?” Erik repeated with a laugh. He couldn’t help it—it was absurd to think of himself as being courted, he, a thirty-year-old soldier without any lands or properties to recommend him, with more scars than manners. If anything, he ought to be the one doing the courting, though if he had any sense, he’d set his sights on some pretty serving girl, someone lowborn like him. Not on a young, beautiful lordling who was the sole heir to a vast holding.
“Don’t laugh at me,” Charles muttered, blushing. “And if you run off to court some serving girl, I’ll never forgive you.”
Erik laughed. As if he had any room in his mind or heart for anyone else. “Where on earth would I find someone else to vex me the way you do?”
“Vex you!” Charles squirmed out of his hold and sat up. “And here I thought you adored me.”
“I tolerate you,” Erik said very seriously. When Charles reared back in outrage, Erik laughed again and pushed him back down, pinning him with his greater weight. He nipped Charles’s ear until he yelped. “Of course I adore you, you silly boy. How could you ever think otherwise?”
Charles practically glowed with pleasure. The warmth that spilled from his mind into Erik’s made Erik gather him close with a soft sigh and ruffle Charles’s hair affectionately. If Charles were a cat, Erik was fairly certain he’d be purring.
“So,” Charles said after a moment, nudging Erik until Erik’s knee was no longer pressed into his side. “It’s agreed then. We’ll walk through the markets and see the plays. Oh, and we can’t miss the parade, of course.”
Erik sighed, the last of his resistance crumbling away. “Yes,” he murmured against Charles’s cheek, “we’ll go wherever you’d like.”
Charles beamed and kissed him half a dozen times, each more fervent than the last. They collapsed back into the pillows, limbs tangled, chess game utterly forgotten. Charles reached down to grope Erik’s ass, then at his half-hard cock. When it stiffened in his hand, Charles grinned wickedly. “Not so old after all.”
“You’ll pay for that,” Erik growled against his mouth.
Charles fluttered his eyelashes coyly. The playful innocence in his eyes was sharply contrasted by what he was doing with his hand: having stroked Erik to full hardness, he was now thumbing at the slit of Erik’s cockhead, teasing and rubbing in a way that was designed to drive Erik mad. “Mm, yes, sir,” he said, all sweetness, “please do punish me.”
Erik squeezed his ass, hard. “Cheeky shit.”
Charles’s grin widened. “But you love me anyway.”
“Yes,” Erik breathed as Charles’s fingers wrapped around his shaft. “God help me but I do.”
Charles spent the days leading up to Hadrin’s Feast securing a costume and a mask for the festivities. He would have dearly loved to help Erik pick out a costume and a mask, too, but he couldn’t figure out a way to do so without drawing unwanted attention down on them both. Instead, he contented himself with discussing color schemes and design ideas in their evenings together, after they’d made love.
“Must it be so complicated?” Erik asked drowsily as Charles showed him yet another sketch of a delightfully garish mask adorned with feathers, beads, and bells. “I wore a simple purple mask last year. Can’t I wear it again?”
“Again!” Charles exclaimed, appalled. “No, you cannot. You must have a new mask every year.”
Erik snorted. “No one will notice if I don’t.”
“But I’ll know!”
“Yes, well—” Erik kissed the curve of Charles’s shoulder. “—not everyone is so insistent about such things. Only you silly nobles and your silly traditions.”
“You heard me.”
Charles huffed and threw his sketches aside. “Alright then. You can wear what you want and I’ll wear what I want and we’ll clash horribly and everyone will stare at us and—”
“Alright, alright.” Erik tweaked his ear. “If it’ll shut you up, I’ll wear whatever you want.”
Charles rolled his eyes. “How incredibly gallant of you.”
“We knights are known for our gallantry.”
“You will have to pay though.”
“You don’t think I can afford all those gaudy monstrosities on my salary, do you?” Erik studied Charles’s expression for a moment, then huffed. “You don’t even know what these cost, do you?”
To his chagrin, Charles had to admit that he didn’t. When it came to clothes, he always had tailors come to him and take his measurements for personalized garments, and then his steward made the necessary payments. But of course he couldn’t simply summon a tailor for Erik, nor could he command his steward to put the expenses on his account. That would raise far too many questions.
“I’ll wear my old mask,” Erik said.
“You will not,” Charles said firmly. “I’ll give you some coin. You can go find a nice mask that you like.”
“And how will I explain my sudden wealth?”
“You don’t have to buy anything extravagant.”
“Those designs you showed me earlier aren’t cheap, you know. They’ll cost some pretty silver at least.” Erik pointed at one of the scattered pages. “These are emeralds, aren’t they? That’ll cost gold right there, just for those feathers.”
“Fine,” Charles grumbled. He hadn’t anticipated that Erik would resist his plans to dress them in matching costumes. “If you’re going to be difficult about this, then you can wear your old things. At least tell me what colors you’re wearing so we can match.”
“Purple and red,” Erik replied.
“That sounds like a ghastly combination.”
“I’m quite fond of it.”
“I’ll look terrible in red. It’ll make me look so pale.”
“Red’s a regal color, isn’t it?” Erik brushed his thumb along Charles’s cheek. “And nothing could make you look any paler, believe me. You look like you haven’t seen sun in a decade.”
Charles wrinkled his nose. “How flattering.”
Erik grinned. “Don’t worry, you’re still passable, lily white skin and all.”
“Passable!” Charles glared at him, but he couldn’t muster up any real outrage. In truth, he loved it when Erik teased him. He’d endure much more than a bit of good-natured mockery if it would bring out Erik’s smile, especially that small, fond grin that seemed reserved just for him.
“Yes, passable,” Erik said, ruffling his hair until Charles squirmed away from his touch. “Anyway,” he added, gathering Charles’s sketches into a pile, “you don’t have to wear both red and purple. You could choose one.”
Charles flopped onto his back with a sigh. “I’ll figure something out. But you will let me buy you something small, won’t you? A necklace or something. It would make me so happy.” He gave Erik a pleading look.
“How can I say no to that face?” Erik muttered. “Yes, you may buy me something small. Nothing too fancy, mind you—I wouldn’t know what to do with it afterwards.”
“You could put it in your chest,” Chares suggested. “To remember me by.”
At that, they both went quiet. The king’s impending return hung over them like the shadow of the executioner’s axe. It would be agony to have to leave Erik and go back to him, to trade Erik’s gentle kisses and worshipful hands for Shaw’s possessive bites and bruises. But there was nothing else to be done. They would never be able to continue their affair with him back in the city; the risk was too tremendous to even consider it.
“Yes,” Erik said quietly, “to remember you by. Of course.” After a moment, he added, “I ought to get you something as well.”
As if I could ever forget you, Charles thought. But on the nights when the mere memory of Erik wasn’t enough, it would be nice to have something physical to hold onto. A small token to serve as proof of these beautiful, finite days they’d spent together.
“I’ll think on it,” Erik said.
Setting all thoughts of their imminent separation aside, Charles forced a smile. “Yes, but let’s not be maudlin. It’s nearly feast day—we ought to be excited and happy and all kinds of joyous.”
His face softening, Erik ruffled Charles’s hair again. “Yes, my lord. Show me those sketches again, and I’ll let you buy me one nice thing.”
“And nothing too gaudy either. I don’t want to be stared at all night.”
“Yes, good point. Only I’m allowed to stare at you.”
“Possessive,” Erik murmured, biting the sensitive curve of Charles’s ear.
Charles shivered and pressed back against him encouragingly. “What can I say? I don’t like sharing.”
“Neither do I,” Erik said lowly, an edge of hardness in his voice. Charles didn’t need his gift to know that Erik was thinking about Shaw and Stryker and all the other men whose beds Charles had shared. Unwillingly, yes, but still, the thought of anyone else laying their hands on Charles filled Erik with a hot, jealous rage.
Turning in his embrace, Charles cupped Erik’s cheek and kissed his mouth. “Don’t think about them, please. Or anyone else. It’s only us here.”
Erik’s arms tightened around them. “Not for much longer,” he said roughly. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to bear it, knowing you’re with others, not being able to be with you myself.”
Closing his eyes, Charles took a shaky breath. “I don’t know how I’ll bear it either, but I will and so must you. We’ll still see each other around, won’t we? Anytime you attend to the king, I’ll be there. You’ll see me.”
“And be forced to watch as he gropes you and toys with you,” Erik said bitterly. “Yes, what consolation.”
“Count yourself lucky that your greatest hardship is that you must watch while I endure,” Charles snapped with an unexpected surge of irritation.
Erik flinched back as if Charles had struck him. For a moment, Charles thought he might pull away entirely, stung. But after a brief hesitation, he rubbed Charles’s arm and said contritely, “I’m sorry. I have no reason to complain when you, of course, face the greater challenge.”
As quickly as it had come, the annoyance faded, and Charles burrowed back into Erik’s arms, seeking his closeness. “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to scold you. It’s just—it frightens me, the thought of going back to him. Not because I think he’ll treat me any worse than he has before, but because I’ll always be thinking of you now when I’m with him. That will make things harder.”
Erik stroked his hand up and down Charles’s back, tracing the line of his spine. It was one of Charles’s favorite caresses, if only because Shaw seldom petted him like this. “If I could trade places with you,” Erik said softly, “I would in an instant.”
Charles couldn’t help but smile at that. When Erik gave him a questioning look, Charles said, “I’m trying to imagine you in silks and draped all over in jewels and adorned with fancy hairpins, and I think you’d just look ridiculous. Not quite the picture of the perfect consort, I’m afraid. But I appreciate the thought, darling.”
Erik huffed. “Perhaps I don’t have the figure for it. Fair enough. But if I could spare you from having to go back to the king, know that I would.”
Charles was overcome with such immense love and tenderness for him that he almost felt like he could cry with it. “I know,” he said, his throat tight. “Thank you.”
Tilting his head up, he kissed Erik until the threat of tears passed. Then, leaning back, he gathered up the sketches on the bed and said as cheerily as he could, “I think rubies will do nicely, if you insist on wearing red and purple. Or diamonds.”
Erik shook his head in fond exasperation. “Whatever you wish.”
Erik had never particularly liked any of the pagan traditions most Genoshans practiced, but Hadrin’s Feast was perhaps his least favorite. Celebrating the life and mythic death of a hedonistic demigod held little appeal to him, especially when such celebrations took the form of gaudy costumes, crass jokes, and the distasteful game of chasing maidens through the streets, herding them toward fountains to try to dunk them in. One of the mercies of being sent to war was that he’d been largely excused from having to participate in these irritatingly excessive parties.
But for the first time in his life, he found himself actually impatient for the parades and carousing to begin. The sooner everyone took to the streets to celebrate, the sooner he’d be able to head to the rendezvous he and Charles had agreed upon.
Without the king in residence, there was to be no royal feast with an official guest list. Erik was thus spared from having to make an appearance in the feast hall. No doubt all the snooty nobles who believed themselves too important and special to join the revelry in the streets would amuse themselves there. Erik hoped that with the wine flowing and the entertainers putting on their shows, none of them would notice Charles’s absence.
The sun began its gradual descent toward the horizon. Shouts and laughter started up in the streets below as people poured out of their homes. With a mixture of apprehension and excitement, Erik got dressed. His costume was the same as last year’s: a silk red undershirt, purple doublet, black trousers and boots, and a flowing red cape, trimmed violet at the edges. It was a ridiculous outfit, but Erik secretly thought he pulled it off rather well.
There were two final touches to the costume: first, and most importantly, the mask that covered his entire face, almost austere in its lack of ornamentation; and then a small diamond pin in the shape of a lion, fastened to his collar. The second was Charles’s gift, the only one Erik had allowed him. The day before, Charles had presented him with an array of absurdly expensive jewels, but Erik had only accepted the lion, and only then because it was small and admittedly well made. The steel backing to the pin tingled pleasantly against Erik’s senses when he touched it, and it wasn’t gaudy enough to draw attention. He wouldn’t know what to say if anyone asked where he’d gotten it.
For a few minutes, he fussed with his appearance in front of the brass mirror, then paced around the room restlessly, wondering if they were about to commit a fatal mistake by seeing each other in public. Then the clock tower in the distance chimed the hour—seven in the evening—and it was time to go.
The evening was pleasantly cold. Already so many people were thronged in the streets that Erik had to push to get through the crowds. The raucous games and singing hadn’t truly started yet; everyone was merely jostling around to get dinner and drinks from the stalls set up on nearly every street corner. Erik slipped around them all and hurried on, away from the busiest thoroughfare where the parade would be passing by soon, away from the fountains where most revelers would congregate with their food and wine.
A couple of turns later took him into a dimly lit alley that let out into a small, circular courtyard hardly even large enough for a carriage. There was nothing here except a well in the center of the courtyard, and a few rag heaps along the walls that indicated beggars slept here.
Erik frowned. Had he gotten the instructions wrong? Or had Charles been mistaken?
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he heard footsteps behind him. Making sure his face was covered, he turned warily—and relaxed when he recognized Charles’s quick, eager stride, closing the distance between them in seconds.
“Hi, darling,” Charles purred, stepping right into Erik’s space. He lifted his mask—a heavy wooden thing, painted red all over except for gold sequins all along the cheeks and forehead, with lavish peacock feathers sprouting out of every edge like a lion’s mane—and beamed. “I missed you.”
Erik caught his wrist before he could reach for Erik’s mask, too. “You need to be more careful. We might not be alone.”
Charles frowned. “Who would be here with us?” He glanced around at the deserted courtyard. “Everyone’s out there in the streets already. It’s just us.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“Yes, I can.” Charles tapped his mask over his temple. “We’re alone.”
This time Erik didn’t stop him when he went for Erik’s mask. He smiled when he saw Erik’s face and leaned up for a kiss. Erik closed his eyes as their mouths brushed, as Charles wrapped his arms around Erik’s neck and drew him in closer, his tongue running along the seam of Erik’s lips. A surge of desire, affection, and happiness washed over them, Charles’s emotions and Erik’s twined together.
Why couldn’t it always be like this? Just the two of them, away from the eyes of the world?
Erik wasn’t sure whose thought that was, but he sighed against Charles’s mouth and drew back slightly. “We should go if you want to see the parade before it passes.”
“I’m tempted to drag you into a dark corner and have my way with you,” Charles said, grinning wickedly. “But I also want to see the parade, so you earn a reprieve, for now.”
“How merciful,” Erik said dryly.
“I hope,” Charles added, nuzzling at his jaw, “that we can sneak away a little later. You look far too handsome in that cape of yours for me to resist.”
“And you look…” Erik glanced down at Charles’s colorful ensemble: red and purple tunic and trousers with gold accents on the sleeves and hems, complete with a silver cape that draped over one shoulder. Add all that to the elaborate, gaudy mask on his head, and he was a sight to behold. “…ridiculous.”
Charles pulled away with a cry of outrage. “How dare you! I dressed to match you!”
“Yes, well, I can pull it off, but you…” Erik smirked.
“I’m hurt,” Charles sniffed, crossing his arms. Erik had never seen him look so endearingly young, pouting like a child whose toy had been taken away. “Perhaps I’ll go see the parade without you. Perhaps I’ll find a tall, handsome gentleman who likes my cape and my mask, and he’ll sweep me off my feet and we’ll go off on our merry way to an inn or a—”
Erik grabbed his hand and reeled him back in, unable to help running a possessive hand down Charles’s back. “Let’s not get carried away.”
“Oh so now you want me.”
“I always want you.” Erik kissed his nose. “Even when you look ridiculous.”
“And this after I complimented you,” Charles grumbled. “I am repaid with insults and mockery.”
“Here, perhaps this will cheer you up.”
Charles looked down at what Erik had slipped into his hand. It was a thin silver chain, each link so small and seamlessly linked together that one could hardly see where one ended and the next began.
“It’s not much,” Erik muttered. “Certainly nothing compared to the pin you gave me. But…”
“Erik…” Charles said, sounding awed. He ran his finger over the length of the chain gently. “Did you make this?”
Erik couldn’t help but smile, pleased. “There’s a clasp there so you can wear it, if you…”
“If I want to? Of course I want to!”
Charles carefully undid the clasp and slipped the chain around his wrist. He had trouble fastening it again one-handed, so Erik took his arm and clicked the clasp closed with a tug of his powers. It fit perfectly.
“It’s beautiful,” Charles said, admiring it with a smile.
Erik felt a thrill of possessiveness at the sight of his chain around Charles’s wrist—like a claim of ownership, almost. Still, ever wary, he said, “You can’t wear it after the king gets back. I’ll take it back at the end of the night.”
Frowning, Charles held his hand close to his chest, as if he expected Erik to lunge for the bracelet immediately. “No, why? If he asks, I’ll tell him it was a gift from some other lord. It’s not the first gift I’ve received, you know.”
Erik crushed the sprout of jealousy that threatened to rise up; that was hardly the point right now. Returning Charles’s frown, he said, “And if he asks you which lord? He’ll suspect it wasn’t any of his favorites; that chain is hardly the gift any self-respecting noble would pick out. It’s obviously the work of a commoner.”
“I’ll tell him someone gave it to me tonight then,” Charles said, undeterred. “There are always people tossing money and gifts into the crowds.”
“Usually only a handful of coppers and woven flowers. Nothing like this.”
Charles shot him an exasperated look. “I’ll tell him I bought it myself from one of the street merchants then. He can’t have anything to say to that, can he?” Seeing Erik’s skeptical expression, he said, “Why are you so intent on taking it back? Isn’t it mine?”
“Of course it’s yours. I’m only being cautious.” Erik flicked his ear. “As you should be.”
Scowling, Charles rubbed his ear. “I am cautious. I know the stakes. But you’re not being cautious, you’re being paranoid. The king isn’t going to be able to deduce our relationship from this little bracelet.”
Erik had to admit that Shaw most likely wouldn’t see the chain as anything other than a harmless trinket. But still, it seemed foolish to so plainly display evidence of their affair. The king was a shrewd man; even if he initially suspected nothing, he wouldn’t accept a simple answer if he detected any hint of dishonesty. Charles was brilliant and clever, but he wasn’t a practiced liar.
Charles smiled humorlessly. “Not a practiced liar? I’ve pretended to enjoy his company all this time, haven’t I? I’ve played the shy, blushing courtesan well, haven’t I?”
Erik looked away. “Yes, you have.”
Charles put a gentle hand on his face and drew his gaze back. “Then let me have this,” he said softly. “It’ll remind me of you.”
How could Erik refuse him? “Alright,” he said. Wrapping his fingers around the chain on Charles’s wrist, he sighed. “Keep it then.”
Charles’s smile softened. “Thank you. Now come on. We really are going to miss the parade at this rate.”
They lowered their masks and left the courtyard. The crowd on the main thoroughfare had swelled into the hundreds, if not thousands. As they entered the throng, Charles slipped his hand into Erik’s. Hidden by the anonymity of their masks, Erik allowed it and, after a moment, twined their fingers together more securely.
Normally, when the king was in residence, he would ride at the head of the parade surrounded by his favorite courtiers, as well as an honor guard of Lions. Behind them would come dancers, musicians, riders throwing flowers and coppers out into the crowd, other lesser nobles who hadn’t been chosen to ride in the king’s inner circle but were afforded a position in the parade anyway, by right of status. One of the more exciting attractions every year was a troupe of actors who, perched atop their long, flat wagon, reenacted the most popular scenes from Hadrin’s life: nearly dying at birth, stealing wine in his childhood, discovering his divine heritage, destroying the Daevok Wall, the incident with the six mistresses, more wine stealing, and on and on until his gloriously violent death at sea.
Most people loved it. Erik couldn’t have cared less. It seemed like something Charles would enjoy though, and sure enough, Charles let out a gasp of delight when he spotted the troupe’s wagon approaching, so laden with garlands that it was shedding petals furiously.
“Oh, look!” he exclaimed, clutching at Erik’s arm. “There’s Hadrin in his golden armor! And oh, there’s Ivera, the mother of his fourth child—she’s got the veil because she was a devout follower of Sierdre. And that’s Rendu, isn’t it, he’s got the axe—”
If it had been anyone else, Erik would have derided them for their wholehearted enthusiasm for something so tawdry. But it was Charles, so he merely nodded along and pretended to listen, enjoying Charles’s voice more than the show itself. He put his hand over Charles’s fingers on his arm and allowed himself to pretend, just for a little while, that they were nobodies, two men with no titles and no levels of rank between them, something simple and uncomplicated.
They tailed the troupe’s wagon until Charles was satisfied that they’d seen the complete show. Then, when the actors began to reset for another cycle, Charles turned to him and said, “Let’s get something to eat. I’m hungry.”
The crowd was dense behind them, nearly impassable. Erik had to subtly nudge people aside by their belts, jewelry, and coin purses to open up enough of a channel for them to slip through. Charles’s grip on his hand was firm, preventing them from being separated. When they finally made it to one of the food stalls toward the edge of the thoroughfare, Charles immediately dragged Erik over to a stall that stank of cinnamon.
“Look,” Charles marveled, peering over the dozens of sweet buns laid out on display. “They look so fresh!”
“They are fresh, laddie,” said the woman behind the counter. “Just out of the oven. One for you and one for your friend?” She glanced at Erik, who tensed—but of course she couldn’t recognize him with the mask on. “Only ten coppers for two.”
Charles inhaled audibly. “They smell heavenly. Oh, Er—E…” He stuttered, realizing his near-mistake.
“We’ll take two,” Erik said gruffly, a burst of cold adrenaline rushing through him. As he dug into his pocket for his coin purse, he snapped silently, I told you not to be careless.
Charles buffeted him with a wave of embarrassment and chagrin. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.
Of course you weren’t, Erik said with a burst of irritation.
Now Charles’s mind felt defensive, stiff. Even if I’d slipped, she probably wouldn’t even know it was you. You’re hardly the only Erik in the city.
It might be enough to raise her suspicions and then where would we be?
I could always just erase the memory from her mind, Charles sniffed. She wouldn’t even remember seeing us.
That stopped Erik in his tracks momentarily. He knew mind readers of Charles’s caliber could alter memories—he’d witnessed Lady Frost do it before, after all, and Charles’s power surpassed hers—but he hadn’t expected Charles to be so cavalier about doing so. I could always just erase the memory from her mind. As if he were doing little more than wiping chalk from a board.
Erik? Now Charles sounded uncertain.
The woman behind the stall had bagged up two sweet buns and was holding her hand out expectantly. Quickly, Erik paid her and took the bag. Her attention shifted away from them instantly; already there were four other people crowding around the stall, pointing out the buns they wanted. She didn’t give them a second look as they left.
Come on, we’d better find a quiet corner. They’d have to lift their masks slightly to eat, and Erik didn’t want to do that with many prying eyes on them. He led them to a less crowded area where the revelers less interested in the parade had congregated to drink and eat, and found an unoccupied bench to settle on. Once he was sure everyone else around them was too preoccupied to pay them much attention, he opened the bag and handed Charles one of the sweet, sticky buns.
Charles held it with both hands for a long moment, not moving to lift his mask. “What?” Erik asked. “Haven’t you ever had a sweet bun before?”
“Of course I have. It’s just…your mind felt…strange back there.” Charles hesitated. When he spoke again, his voice was smaller. “Are you afraid of me? Of what I can do?”
Erik couldn’t immediately answer, not because he wanted to lie but because he honestly hadn’t considered the question before. Charles was a mind reader, yes, and the idea of the vastness of his power would send a shiver down anyone’s spine. But his abilities were hardly his only defining feature. Factor in his kindness, his quiet strength, his sense of right and wrong, and Erik simply couldn’t fear him. Not the way he feared and hated Frost.
Charles exhaled softly. “I’m glad. I couldn’t bear the thought of you being afraid of me.”
“I’m not,” Erik said, in case Charles needed to hear it said out loud. “But,” he added before Charles could say anything else, “that doesn’t mean I like the idea of you erasing memories so…so casually.”
He could hear Charles’s frown even if he couldn’t see it. “I would only do it to protect us. You’re the one who’s so insistent that we be careful.”
“If we have to rely on your abilities to protect us, we’re not being careful enough.”
Charles was silent for a moment. Then he sighed and nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful.”
“Good. Now eat before your bun gets cold.”
Masks lifted just enough to expose their mouths, they ate the sweet buns and licked the sticky cinnamon off their fingers. Erik didn’t particularly enjoy cinnamon, but he was hungry and the buns were nice and warm. He gave the last piece of his to Charles, who made an appreciative noise and devoured it with relish. Then, brushing his hands off, he took Erik’s arm and leaned into his side, head on his shoulder.
“This is nice,” he murmured.
Erik reached up to tilt Charles’s mask down more securely. “What else do you want to do? It’s getting late.”
“Not that late. The parade’s probably not even over yet. And there’s still the Hunt.”
Erik had absolutely no desire to watch packs of drunken men chase women down the streets. His lip curled. “Will you be doing the chasing, or will you let men chase you?”
Charles laughed. “I’m hardly a maiden. Besides, I’m wearing silks. They’d be ruined if I were thrown into a fountain. And more to the point, I’m quite taken.” He twined their fingers together. “Aren’t I?”
By the king, Erik thought.
By you, Charles said, tonight.
Erik squeezed his hand. “Come on. Let’s walk through the square.”
Palatosun Square was the very center of the city and housed the most extensive festivities: theater shows, jugglers, exotic displays from the far reaches of the country, carnival games of all flavors, and dozens of merchants selling everything from food to masks to souvenir trinkets. The first time Erik had walked through the square on a feast day, he’d been overwhelmed by the noise, the chaos, the crush of bodies, the stink of alcohol and sweat and piss. That impression had left him with no desire to ever revisit the square except when he had to pass through it on his way to other parts of the city. But he thought Charles would want to see it.
We don’t have to stay long, Charles said. I’d just like to get a glimpse of everything.
I figured. This was Charles’s first time celebrating Hadrin’s Feast at Nierhelme, after all. Everything would be a novelty to him.
As they walked, Charles looped his arm through Erik’s and said, At home, we have most of the same traditions. We have a parade and there are plays and there’s a Hunt, too, but it’s nowhere near this elaborate. There aren’t half as many people.
This is one of the royal cities, Erik replies. They spare no expense here, especially when the king is in residence.
It’s very pretty. The scillenias are especially lovely.
Those little white and blue flowers. Charles tugged Erik to the side of the street to one of the garlands hung on a lantern hook and plucked a small, bright bloom from the bunch. He held it up to Erik, who took it slowly, taking care not to crush the delicate petals.
They only bloom during the winter, Charles said. They look fragile, but they can weather through the harshest cold without dying. They’re one of the only flowering plants that can. I’ve always loved them.
Erik had never paid much attention to flowers beyond knowing which ones were edible and which ones would kill you, but he gave the scillenia a close look, examining its five petals, its yellow core, the darker streaks along the edges of the flower. It was admittedly pretty.
He tucked it between two feathers on Charles’s mask. The blue stood out starkly against the red and gold.
Am I admittedly pretty as well? Charles teased.
You’re outright pretty, and you know it, Erik replied, tweaking his ear. Come on.
The square was horrendously crowded, packed with thousands of people. The whole city must have drained here after the parade, prepared to feast and drink and play until the Hunt officially commenced later in the evening. A steady stream of revelers poured into the square as others left, either to turn in for the night or to seek entertainment elsewhere.
Charles wasn’t the least bit intimidated by all the hubbub. Holding onto Erik’s hand, he cheerfully plunged into the throng. Their progress through the square was very slow; every ten feet or so, some new delight caught Charles’s eye and they would stop so Charles could study and admire it, or, in the case of food or drink, sample it. Erik bought them each a cup of cheap ale that made Charles splutter—“it’s so bitter,” he complained, which made Erik grin—and Charles bought them mulled wine that was so sweet Erik could hardly stand it. Then they stood and watched a bawdy play about an overly-ambitious merchant trying to woo three different women at once and failing miserably at it. Charles was laughing to the point of tears by the final curtain, and he happily threw a silver coin into the hat that passed through the crowd afterwards.
After that, they were both hungry again, so Erik bought them a simple plate of soup, bread, and chicken to share. They sat on the grass in the center of the square and ate slowly, careful not to lift their masks too high. The food was decidedly mediocre and a little cold from sitting out for too long, but Erik didn’t mind. Not with Charles sitting beside him, knee pressed to Erik’s, chattering endlessly about the things they’d seen.
“Those vases must have cost a fortune to ship over here,” he said, dipping a piece of bread into the soup. “It’s a three-month journey at least to Tsulig, and with tensions they’re having with Liutfeld, the export fees must be enormous. Twenty percent at least, I’d say. Oh, and did you see that girl who played Millessa in that play? I recognized her, she’s moved troupes, I think—she was with the Rising Opals when they came through Westchester a couple of years ago, but now she’s with the Tiersen Crowns. A very good actress, in my opinion, it’s a shame she only ever gets middling parts…”
He knew a little bit about everything, and sometimes a lot about some very specific thing, which shouldn’t have been surprising. He was a nobleman, after all, well-educated since birth. But most young nobles, Erik had noted, cared for nothing much beyond sport, simple politics, and parties. Charles’s interests ran deeper, and his opinions on some things—trade policies, for example—were surprisingly mature.
“Well,” Charles said wryly when Erik mentioned it, “I’m not just a pretty face, you know. I used to want to be a scholar. I wanted to go to the University in Waltheim.”
“Oh. Well…I suppose I still could. It’s just that this—being here in Nierhelme—it feels so…permanent.” Charles tore at the bread restlessly. “I know it won’t be forever, but it’s hard to imagine it actually ending. I don’t think I can go back to my life before like nothing ever happened.”
The thought of Charles leaving Nierhelme left a sour taste in Erik’s mouth. But Charles leaving would be a good thing. He would be free of Shaw. He would be able to resume the life he’d been forced to abandon when the king had chosen to take him as a hostage and a lover. He would never again have to share his bed unwillingly.
But Erik would likely never see him again. The thought hurt like a barbed arrow being pulled from his heart.
I’m sorry, Charles said with a wave of regret. I didn’t mean to make you sad. I shouldn’t have said anything.
“It’s alright.” Erik supposed he’d have to get used to not seeing Charles anymore long before Charles actually left the city. After all, once the king returned, they wouldn’t be able to be together like this again.
Abruptly, Charles pushed the plate away. Let’s go somewhere private.
But the Hunt—
I’m tired of all this. I want to be alone with you. Please.
Erik could no more deny him than he could stop his heart from beating. Disposing of the plate, he took Charles’s hand and led him out of the square and toward the nearest reputable inn he knew. It was jammed full, no rooms left, not even in the loft. They found the same situation at the next inn, and a third.
“Everything’s full because of the feast,” Erik said as Charles pulled him impatiently out of the third inn. People had come in from surrounding villages to celebrate, and no doubt there were more than a few people like him and Charles: lovers with no home to perch in, meeting secretly in the anonymity of a nondescript inn.
“There must be someplace we can go,” Charles huffed. “I’d settle for a haybale at this point.”
Erik laughed. “Alright, come on. I know a place across the river.”
The building was shabby, gray, and looked as if it were crumbling a little at the edges. It hardly earned the right to call itself an inn, but there it was. It was the sort of unsavory place that Erik had only set foot in to drag his men out of. There was a certain irony in bringing Charles here, he thought.
“I know I said I’d settle for a haybale,” Charles whispered, “but this is a step down from even that. At least haybales are passably clean.”
But he didn’t protest as Erik paid for a room. The proprietress didn’t even look at them, just snatched Erik’s coin from his hand and pointed them up the stairs.
The room was tiny, hardly large enough for a narrow bed and a chair. Erik shut the door and jammed the chair up against it; there was no lock.
“Cozy,” Charles said as he sat down on the bed. He tore off his mask, tossed it aside carelessly. His face was flushed and beautiful underneath, cheeks pink, eyes bright and inviting.
“If we get fleas from the bedding,” Erik said, “I am so sorry.”
Charles tugged at Erik’s hand until Erik all but fell down on top of him. “If I get fleas,” he murmured, tilting Erik’s mask up and off his head, “it shall be well worth it, my dear captain.”
That, Erik decided, was the most romantic thing he’d ever heard. He kissed Charles hard and reached for the laces of his clothes.
They made love slowly, just rocking gently against one another, skin to skin, Charles’s fingers digging imprints into Erik’s shoulders. Afterwards, they dozed quietly in each other’s arms, limbs tangled together on the tiny bed. About an hour later, they roused and made love again, more frantically this time. Erik could feel time slipping away from them like a receding tide. He pressed his face into Charles’s shoulder as he thrust into him, fighting the strange urge to sob.
When they had both finished, an awful sense of finality washed over him. Erik stayed on top of Charles for a good long while, knowing he was crushing the breath out of Charles but unable to make himself move away. Charles clutched him close and kissed his sweaty temple a dozen times over, affection fairly pouring off of him.
“I love you,” Erik said into Charles’s neck.
Charles’s whole body trembled. “I love you, too, darling,” he whispered into Erik’s hair. “I love you so much.”
Never had any words felt so useless. Did it matter that Erik loved him? He was still going back to Shaw in a matter of days. Tomorrow even, if the king’s party returned ahead of schedule.
Yes, it matters, Charles said. It matters more than nearly anything else.
Erik nuzzled at his throat. Don’t forget that then.
Too soon, they had to go. Erik wouldn’t be missed at the barracks if he failed to return; his men would no doubt assume he’d found his way into someone’s warm bed, as many of them would do after feasting and carousing all night. But Charles’s absence would certainly be noticed, if not tonight then in the morning when the servants came to rouse him, bring him breakfast, and stoke the fire. If he disappeared for a night, word would surely get back to the king.
Erik laced Charles’s shirt up slowly, memorizing every inch of him as he disappeared behind layers of clothing again. He had to resist the urge to kiss Charles’s pale throat, to bite him and leave marks, proof that Charles had been his tonight, that some part of Charles would always belong to him. But he couldn’t. Instead, he contented himself with running his powers over the silver chain on Charles’s wrist, memorizing the feel of it against Charles’s skin.
Once they were both dressed with their faces safely hidden behind their masks again, they descended to the ground floor, pushed their way through the dingy common room, and emerged into the cold night. Charles took a deep breath and laughed. “I’ve never breathed any air so rank as the air we were breathing in there.”
Erik grinned. “Welcome to the west side, my lord.”
Even with the late hour, there were still plenty of revelers celebrating in the streets. No one paid them much attention as they walked back to Palatosun Square, which still teemed with activity. They continued on to the road that led back to the palace and stopped a little ways away from the outer gate, far enough into the shadows that the sentries wouldn’t see them.
“You go in first,” Erik said. “I’ll follow.”
“Alright.” Charles took Erik’s hand and squeezed it. “If the king isn’t back tomorrow, I’ll see you again? Tomorrow night, at the White Fawn?”
It was a bad idea—it always was—but Erik nodded. If he could steal another night with Charles, he would. They might never get another chance.
“Be careful,” he said.
“I always am.” Charles lifted his mask slightly so he could kiss Erik’s knuckles. “Goodnight, darling.”
Erik brushed a hand down his spine. “Goodnight.”
He watched the sentries stop Charles at the gate for a moment before they recognized him and ushered him in. After Charles was gone, Erik lingered in the shadows of the street for a good half hour before finally making his way in himself.
Back in his room, Erik removed his mask and costume. Unfastening the diamond lion pin from his collar, he gazed at it for a long few minutes, running his finger over its tiny features. It had been a good night, he thought. For a few hours, they’d been anonymous, just two other figures in the crowd, enjoying the same sights and sounds as thousands of others. No matter what happened, Shaw couldn’t take that from them.
Erik set the pin down on his desk and went to sit down on his bed to pry off his boots. As he did so, a folded piece of paper on his pillow caught his eye.
Had a courier come while he was gone? But why would they leave a note on his pillow, of all places? And his door was always locked while he was away. How had they gotten in?
Frowning, he picked up the page and unfolded it, tilting it so he could read it by the light of the hearth fire.
When the message sank in, his weariness vanished in a flood of cold terror.
14 Ruelle Road, Kelnsday night at 8. If you hope to keep your secret quiet, come alone.
Chapter 5: V
14 Ruelle Road, Kelnsday night at 8. If you hope to keep your secret quiet, come alone.
Erik read the note half a dozen times over, hoping in vain that if he stared at it long enough, its contents would somehow change. But they didn’t. There it was, plain as day: proof that someone knew about him and Charles. Someone knew, and they wanted something.
He rose unsteadily from the bed, torn between several competing impulses. For a minute, unable to decide, he simply stood there in the middle of his room, holding that damning note.
Who could possibly have sent it? How much did they know? Why hadn’t they gone directly to the king? What did they want that Erik could give?
He resisted the urge to throw the note into the fire; maybe later, when he was steadier, he’d be able to glean something more from it. For now, he stuffed it under his pillow. Then he went to his desk, picked up the lion pin, and hesitated for a moment, deliberating.
The safest thing to do would be to destroy it. He could melt down the steel backing at least, erase any identifying features. An undecorated diamond would be much more difficult to trace back to Charles. Erik could dispose of it somewhere in secret later, toss it into the river, or bury it in a pile of refuse getting hauled out of the city. It’d be a shame—he winced, thinking of how abominably expensive the pin had to be—but it would be one fewer piece of physical evidence connecting him to Charles.
But as he ran his powers over the pin’s backing, he found he couldn’t do it. It wasn’t only a reluctance to destroy the exquisite craftsmanship, though that regret was there, too—it was a reluctance to destroy something Charles had so lovingly chosen for him. It was perhaps the only gift from Charles he would ever receive, and knowing that made him hold onto it a little more fiercely.
Sentiment. He had never been guilty of it before, but then, he had never loved anyone before. It was weak of him, but he tucked the pin into his cloak and stuffed it in the bottom drawer of his dresser. He would dispose of it later if necessary. Just…not now.
Once he’d patched his composure back together, he opened the door and went down the stairs to the bunk room that his men shared. Only one man was here now; the rest had been set free to enjoy themselves for the feast night, but unlucky Mortimer had been ill for the last three days. The bunk room door was open and faced the main door of the barracks. If anyone had come in, Mortimer must have heard.
But when Erik found him, he was snoring loudly in his bunk. He was a heavy sleeper, too, damn him, so if the messenger had taken any care at all, they could easily have slipped his notice. Still, Erik kicked the foot of the bed until Mortimer blinked awake blearily, cursing until he saw who had woken him.
“Captain,” he grumbled, only marginally more polite.
“How long have you been sleeping?” Erik demanded sharply.
“Wha…? I dunno. A couple hours maybe. What time is it?”
“Did anyone come by?”
“Did anyone come by? A courier? Anyone?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Mortimer sat up slightly, dragging a hand over his face. “Why?”
He couldn’t very well tell Mortimer that someone had broken into his quarters and left a blackmail note on his bed. Keeping his expression even, he said, “Nothing. I was wondering if the king had sent any word about his return, that’s all. Go back to sleep.”
Mortimer needed no further encouragement; he collapsed back into his pillow and was snoring again before Erik had left the room.
Returning to his quarters, Erik dug out the bottle of whiskey he kept under his bed and took a fortifying shot of it. The alcohol burned down his throat and dulled the edge of panic. His mind still raced, but the jumble of his thoughts was more manageable now. Alright, think. Think.
Kelnsday was in two days. That gave him some time to think, and plan. Erik was unfamiliar with the address, which meant it couldn’t be anywhere in the royal district or in the immediate area. He’d go tomorrow and look for this Ruelle Road, find out what was on the street and who lived nearby. If nothing else, he’d be able to see what sort of dangers the street might pose if he were to be ambushed.
But surely whoever had done this wouldn’t go through all this trouble just to kill him? They wanted him for another purpose, a thought that made Erik bristle with helpless anger. He hated not knowing who the enemy was.
Getting up, he inspected the lock on the door. It looked untouched, and when he ran his powers over it, he couldn’t tell if it had been tampered with. How had the blackmailer gotten in? There was only one window in the room, and it was hardly large enough to allow even a child to weasel through. Besides, it too was latched, and the dust on the sill was undisturbed.
The thought of someone getting into his room unseen and unnoticed, passing through locks as if they were air, made an uneasy feeling coalesce in Erik’s gut. Did this blackmailer have abilities like he did? Were they long gone now, or had Erik just missed them?
Erik pulled out the note again. The handwriting was neat but unfamiliar. An educated hand, Erik thought. A scholar, or a noble, or a scribe.
That hardly narrows it down, he thought in disgust, resisting the urge to tear the note to pieces.
Then a thought struck him, leaving him cold with fear again: was this blackmailer targeting him, or were they somehow striking at Charles through him? The threat to himself was already great enough, but if the blackmailer threatened Charles…Erik felt rage boil up in him at the thought.
There was no way to know if Charles had received a similar note, or if Charles was alright. It would be far too suspicious for Erik to visit Charles’s chambers this late at night—or any time of day, in fact—and now that Erik knew someone had been watching them, the thought of seeing Charles again sent an icy frisson of fear down his spine. No, best not to dig themselves into deeper trouble until Erik understood who had left the note and why.
He considered hiring a messenger to run a note over to Charles—there were always children in the streets willing to carry a note for a coin—but eventually decided against it. Too dangerous. If the message were intercepted or the courier questioned, the whole affair would be revealed. And if the blackmailer realized he was trying to warn Charles, would they consider it a breach of the terms of the note? Would they expose Charles and Erik to the king?
Pray God not.
After nearly an hour spent pacing back and forth across the room, Erik realized there was nothing more to be done tonight. It was late, and he was exhausted and still slightly addled with shock. In the morning, he’d be able to think more clearly. In the morning, he could begin to formulate a plan.
But try as he might, he didn’t sleep a wink that night.
7 Tornidec Circle, Auersday night at 8. If you hope to keep your secret quiet, come alone.
Charles had thrown the note into the fire minutes after he’d found it. He’d watched the edges of the paper blacken and smolder, watched as each letter had been consumed by the flames. But the message hadn’t disappeared. It had been etched indelibly in his head, every terrible word.
He hadn’t slept a single minute that night. The horrible revelation had rung through his mind over and over again like a death knell.
Someone knew about him and Erik.
The thought sent sheer terror ripping through him. He felt cold and dizzy in turns. He threw up once in the chamber pot and had to tell the servants the next morning that it was nothing, he’d only had a little too much to drink, he’d be fine…
He wasn’t sure he’d ever been further from fine in his life. The king was due to return any day now, and if he found out, if the author of this note told him everything, then Charles was as good as dead. No, Shaw would only make him wish he were dead, and what would he do to Erik? Charles was a thousand times more afraid of Erik’s fate than of his own. He was the son of a prince, but Erik was a commoner. No matter how fond Shaw was of him, Erik was expendable. Even if he weren’t, Shaw would take care to make him suffer, and Charles couldn’t bear to see him hurt, not even for a second.
Oh gods. What had they done?
This is your fault, he raged at himself. You were so stupid and selfish, you played with his life as well as your own, and it’ll be him who’ll get the worst of it now, you’ve doomed him. No matter what happens to you, his punishment will be a hundred times worse. You’ve as good as killed him with your own hands.
He wanted to sob at the thought. How could he have been so foolish? Erik had warned him, Erik had warned him…
Eventually, the storm of fear and despair left him utterly exhausted. With no more energy for terror, he felt the panic gradually subside enough for rational thought to reassert itself. Whoever knew about them hadn’t thrown them on the king’s mercy, they’d sent a note. That meant they had some vested interest in keeping the secret, at least for now. That was good, wasn’t it? That gave them time to figure out something to do, didn’t it?
He had to see Erik. He’d tell Erik about the message and then Erik would tell him what to do. Erik would know how to find the blackmailer, Erik would know how to protect them.
Heartened by the thought, Charles threw on his nondescript gray cloak, pulled up the hood, and hurried to the White Fawn that night. Erik had sealed his collar shut again, wary of the possibility of the king returning the day after the feast, so Charles couldn’t use his abilities to locate Erik in the rooms above. Instead, after a long minute of deliberation, he slid a coin across the bar top to the innkeeper to rent his own room for the night. Erik would be able to find him using the silver chain around his wrist, Charles was sure of it.
As the innkeeper accepted his coin, she glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. Was it her? Charles thought with sudden, wild panic. She must have seen them at least half a dozen times over the last few weeks, enough that she might have recognized their faces if she’d been paying attention. Had she sent the note? Or had she let the information slip to someone else who’d capitalized on the opportunity?
“You alright, laddie?” she asked, cocking her head.
He fled upstairs.
Once he was alone in the room with the door shut and locked behind him, he began to wonder if coming here had been a terrible mistake. Suppose the innkeeper did know their secret? Suppose she thought to catch them red-handed now? If she found them together and summoned witnesses, everything would be over. There’d be no hiding their affair from the king then.
He thought about leaving half a dozen times, but knowing he had to see Erik again kept him rooted to the bed. He had to tell Erik about the note. They had to come up with some sort of plan to deal with this before it destroyed them.
Outside, a distant clocktower chimed. Charles tensed automatically, anticipating Erik’s arrival. He would tell Erik everything immediately, without delay. Erik would probably be angry, and he’d want to leave, so Charles would have to convince him to stay long enough for them to develop some kind of strategy to deal with this blackmailer. And then—oh, Charles had to apologize. This was his fault, he shouldn’t have gotten so cocky—there had been times when he hadn’t put his hood up, times when he knew he’d been careless…
After a while, he got up to start a fire because the room was growing frigid. He arranged the logs in the small hearth and then went through five matches trying to get the kindling to light. When he tried a sixth time, the match burned down to his fingers, and he dropped it with a startled yelp.
Shaking his singed fingers, he sat back in frustration, feeling utterly stupid. Erik had always been the one to light the fires whenever they met, and Charles had never paid much attention to it; he’d been so much more interested in admiring Erik’s strong, lean form, particularly when it climbed on top of him.
Can’t even start a fire, Charles growled at himself, filled with derision. You really are a stupid, spoiled lordling, aren’t you?
Angry, he dragged himself back to the bed, where at least he could avoid the freezing stone floor. There he huddled for what felt like ages, until the clock struck again and he counted each beat with dread pooling in his stomach.
It occurred to him for the first time that Erik wasn’t coming.
As soon as the idea surfaced, he pushed it hastily away. Of course Erik was coming. They’d agreed to meet tonight at the White Fawn at eight o’clock. Or had Charles somehow gotten the time or place wrong? Worried, he searched through his memories and found that yes, they’d said the White Fawn, eight.
Perhaps Erik had been held up by some business. Of course he couldn’t send a message to tell Charles he’d be late. Surely he’d be here any minute now, bursting through the door in a flurry of motion, explanation at the ready…
Charles waited, and waited. When the clock struck ten, he wanted to curl up in the bed and sob messily, but instead, he pressed his palms against his eyes until they stopped stinging and forced himself to get up. He couldn’t be found here come morning. He had to be back at the palace, and if Erik wasn’t coming, then Charles had better head back now, before he was missed.
It was a long, terrible trudge back to the palace. When he at last returned to the king’s rooms and shut the door behind him, he was overcome with such horrible weariness that it was all he could do to remain standing instead of collapsing into a heap in the doorway. Only knowing that the servants would ask questions if they found him on the floor kept him moving. He went through the sitting room, the dining room, the den, and finally reached the bedroom. With cold hands, he unpinned his cloak and stowed it away, then crawled into his pallet by the king’s bed.
He lay there shivering for what felt like hours. All the thoughts racing round and round in his head chased away any chance of sleep. Someone knew he and Erik were lovers. Someone was blackmailing them. And Erik hadn’t shown up tonight. Had it been a coincidence? Not likely. Had something spooked him? Or had something happened to him?
Charles’s heart seized at the thought. Suppose whoever had sent him the note had done something to Erik? Erik might have been hurt or—or worse—and Charles might not have heard. Why would anyone think to tell him if something had happened to Shaw’s favorite captain?
He clenched fistfuls of the blanket in helpless frustration. If only he had access to his telepathy, he could reach across the city in seconds, find Erik, reassure himself that everything was fine, Erik was unhurt…But he didn’t have his telepathy, and he had no other way of contacting Erik, not without raising suspicions. Was it worth the risk though? He knew he would never be able to sleep now without knowing if Erik was alright or not.
His heart pounding, he sat up and reached for his cloak. Just as he did, the bedroom door swung open, and a servant hurried in.
“I’m sorry to wake you, milord,” she said, curtsying clumsily. She was carrying an armful of wood. “I’ve just got to build up the fire.”
Charles glanced at the hearth. A decent glow flickered from behind the grate, enough to warm most of the room, and certainly enough to reach his small pallet on the floor. “The fire’s alright as it is, Sama,” he said after a moment, a bit confused. Who had summoned her? “It’ll get too warm in here if you build it up much more.”
She set her load of wood down in front of the hearth and pulled open the grate. “Oh, but you know the king likes it hot in here,” she said apologetically. “Sorry, milord.”
Charles’s stomach dropped. He was glad Sama had her back turned to him, or else she would have seen the way he struggled to control his expression, struggled to bury his fear as deep as it would go.
“The king?” he croaked.
“Yes.” She sounded puzzled. “Haven’t you heard? He’s just returned.”
Erik was woken by a heavy thumping on his door. Blearily, he raised his head and groaned as a jolt of pain shot down his neck and back. He’d fallen asleep at his desk, he realized. The candle by his hand had spluttered out long ago; a pool of spilled, hardened wax encroached on the sheaf of papers under his arm. When he twisted around to squint at the window, he saw sunlight spilling in through the open shutters.
Another knock, this one more impatient than the first. Erik scrubbed a hand over his face, waved the lock open with his powers, and called, “Enter!”
The door swung open to reveal a young girl dressed in official courier colors. Erik straightened immediately, knowing she had to be from the palace. “Yes?”
The courier snapped her heels together and bowed smartly. “His Majesty requests your presence at dinner tonight in the Great Hall, Captain. He bade me to tell you to wear something fine. He’s brought guests.”
For a moment, the words didn’t register. His Majesty? Something fine? Guests?
Then her meaning sank in, and Erik stood abruptly. “The king is back?” he demanded. When the courier flinched back from him, he forced himself to sit back down, struggling for a measure of calm. “When did he return?”
“Last night, sir. Late.”
Last night. Last night, when he and Charles had planned on meeting again at the White Fawn. Thank God Erik had resolved not to see Charles again until this blackmailer was found and dealt with. Thank God he’d been at Ruelle Road instead yesterday, scouting it out for tonight’s meeting. If Shaw had found Charles missing and then subsequently tracked them down to the inn and found them in bed together…The very idea of it made Erik’s stomach lurch violently in terror.
He forced his attention back to the courier, who was regarding him with an impatient look. “Kinda need an answer, sir.”
The king’s request wasn’t a request. It never was. Erik said the only thing he could, which was: “Yes, I’ll be there.”
The courier vanished through the door almost before he’d finished speaking. Erik flicked the lock closed again and rubbed his hand over his face a second time, his mind racing.
Dinner would be at seven, as it always was; the king was always very particular about that. That was damned inconvenient because Erik had planned to be at Ruelle Road at seven-thirty to see if he could spot anyone familiar coming and going. Scrap that idea—the king would notice if Erik slipped out only halfway through the first course. But he would have to slip away sometime. If he missed this meeting, he didn’t even want to think of what the blackmailer might do.
And Charles…Charles would be there. Erik’s heart beat faster at the thought. Somehow he had to find a way to tell Charles about the note. He had to tell Charles they were being watched, they had to be careful, and they couldn’t see each other anymore, not until Erik had found out what was going on, and who knew. But how? Shaw would be sitting in between them. Even if his attention wandered elsewhere, Erik would have to be a fool to try to hold a secret conversation with Charles right under the king’s nose.
Several half-formed plans assembled themselves in his head. He could signal Charles to meet him outside by the privies. He could write a note and pass it to Charles at some point during the night. He could put the tiniest of cracks in Charles’s collar so they could communicate in silence, with all the world oblivious around them.
But so many things could go wrong. Someone might see them together at the privies and start to suspect something. Worse, their blackmailer might be monitoring them still, and their going off together would only add fuel to the fire. If Erik wrote a note, it might be spotted and intercepted, and more than that, a note was so limiting and inexact; Erik would rather speak to Charles face-to-face, to make sure Charles fully grasped the gravity of their situation. And as for the last thought, even if Charles was somehow prepared for Erik to break the power-suppressing circuit of his collar, he would still have to take a minute to readjust, and if he looked as ill and unsteady as he always did when his powers returned to him, surely the king would notice. Surely he’d ask what was wrong, and if Charles’s control over his abilities slipped even the slightest bit, Shaw would know.
It was too dangerous. But he had to find some way to tell Charles to be careful. And he had to find some way to weasel out of dinner early.
Come six o’clock, he hadn’t resolved the matter of speaking to Charles, but he’d thought of a way to arrange a plausible excuse. After a full afternoon of careful consideration, he finally summoned Alex to his quarters. The boy came tromping up the stairs, his expression faintly sullen; he’d been in the middle of a good dice game, he said, though immediately afterwards, he hastened to add that he wasn’t complaining, only saying.
Erik made sure the papers on his desk were fully covered before rising. “I need a favor from you, Summers.”
Eyes widening slightly, Alex snapped to attention. “Of course, sir.”
There was the reason he’d chosen Alex: the boy was rough around the edges but he was eager to please, eager to be seen as useful. It had never escaped Erik that Alex deeply admired him, though he often tried to keep it hidden, tried to seem aloof and hard. He’d do as Erik said, no questions asked.
“At seven-thirty this evening, I need you to come fetch me from the Great Hall,” Erik instructed. “Tell me something’s come up and I need to come deal with it.”
Alex looked puzzled. “Like…the time I came to get you because Tilner assaulted that girl?” he asked slowly.
“Yes. Exactly like that.”
“That’s my business, soldier,” Erik said sternly, “not yours.”
Alex’s shoulders stiffened. “I think it becomes my business if you get me involved in it. Sir.”
Erik resisted the urge to roll his eyes heavenward. That sounded like something he’d have said at seventeen as well, old enough to be a soldier, not yet mature enough to realize he oughtn’t question his captain. Though…to be fair, Erik had never grown out of that deep mistrust of his superiors either, except now his only superior was Shaw, and questioning the king was like begging for a whipping, or worse.
Perhaps he and Summers were a little too much alike.
“I can’t tell you now,” Erik said at last. “It’s something I have to deal with quietly.”
He knew that wouldn’t appease Alex, not entirely, but shutting the boy out entirely would raise his suspicions for sure. Still, Alex was silent for several seconds before he finally said, “Alright. Seven-thirty, you said?”
“You’ll tell me later?”
“Yes,” Erik said, struggling not to let his exasperation show, “I’ll tell you later.”
Alex nodded and slipped out. Turning back to his desk, Erik ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. Well, that was one problem solved. And if it turned out that he didn’t have a chance to talk to Charles at dinner, then he’d just have to find a way to get in contact with him later. The more important matter at hand was tonight’s meeting.
He pushed aside the book he’d laid over his notes to hide them. When he’d visited Ruelle Road last night, he’d carefully memorized the layout of the street, the general shape of the house, the businesses nearby, the residents in the area. It wasn’t an affluent neighborhood, but neither was it a slum. It could probably best be described as comfortable, which gave Erik little clue as to the identity of the blackmailer. The house, as far as he could tell, was privately owned. The two people he’d risked speaking to last night hadn’t been able to tell him anything about who lived there.
He knew the quickest ways out of the neighborhood. He’d marked down corners of the street to avoid, places ripe for ambush. He’d felt out the metal in the area and knew there was more than enough around to protect him if it came down to a fight. He’d prepared all that he could. Now it was a matter of counting down the minutes.
But first: dinner.
He donned his light armor: leather breastplate, pauldrons, vambraces, gloves. Then he shook out his ceremonial cloak—blood-red save for the huge golden lion stitched into the center of it—and swung it over his shoulders. It was impractically long, pooling several inches on the ground behind him. The sable fur collar was easily his least favorite detail; soft against his nape, it felt like a creature poised at his throat, threatening to strangle him.
He stood in front of the mirror and surveyed his reflection with disgust. This was what the king always meant when he instructed Erik to put on something fine. He expected Erik to come wearing the cloak Shaw had given him long ago, as much a mark of the king’s ownership as of his favor. Whenever he had guests, he dressed Erik up like a prized ornament and paraded him about, an unsubtle reminder of the military power that rested under the king’s hand, responding only to the king’s will. Erik was, as always, only a pawn in his little games.
Old, sullen anger simmered in his gut. As always, the indignity of being treated like nothing more than a particularly interesting possession grated. But there was nothing to be done about it, at least not tonight.
The evening was colder than he’d expected. On the walk to the palace, the southerly wind whipping at his back made him grudgingly glad he had the collar to protect his neck, but by the time he reached the Great Hall, it was stifling again. The heat in here was incredible; between the roaring hearths and the crush of dozens of men, women, children, and the occasional dog, the hall was sweltering. Erik wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand before making his way up to the king’s table.
“Your Majesty,” he said, bowing low as he reached the dais.
“Erik!” The king sounded cheerful. So his trip must have gone well, or else something else had put him in a good mood tonight. He gestured for Erik to rise. “It’s about time you joined us. Come, let me introduce you to our guests.”
Erik ran his gaze along the unfamiliar faces seated at the table: a middle-aged lord and his wife; their three children, none of them particularly remarkable at first glance; and a man who was very clearly not an aristocrat. He was young, probably only nineteen or twenty at the most, but already his face was ruddy and rough from years outdoors. His clothes were plainer than anything else in the hall and looked as weather-beaten as he. Erik’s curiosity was piqued; commoners were very seldom allowed to share a table with the king.
“Lord Orwen,” Shaw said, gesturing to each guest with a lazy wave of his hand. “Next to him, his charming wife Tabira, and their three lovely children. Quite handsome, are they not? And on the end there is the man of the hour, Dosson.”
Erik didn’t recognize any of their names, though he did note how Orwen and his family shrank away at the king’s attention, while Dosson puffed up like a sail catching wind. Who were they? What sort of message was Shaw sending by having them here, and who was the intended recipient?
Those questions lingered on his mind only for a few seconds before he allowed them to fade away. No matter how much thought he put into them, political spats would never make much sense to him. Most of the time, nobles squabbled over petty, insignificant matters that didn’t interest Erik in the slightest. He wouldn’t be surprised if this was another one of those inane conflicts Shaw liked to encourage to keep himself entertained.
“Of course,” the king continued, “I have no need to introduce Captain Lehnsherr, commander of my faithful Lions.”
Lady Tabira averted her eyes. Lord Orwen stared at Erik with something akin to terror. Dosson stared at him with something akin to worship.
“Come,” Shaw commanded, waving a hand at Erik. “Sit.”
Erik climbed the dais and abruptly realized that Lord Orwen was sitting on the king’s left side, where Erik was normally placed. As he paused at the top of the stairs for an uncertain moment, Shaw flicked an impatient glance at him and said more forcefully, “Sit.”
Only one person sat to the king’s right. Erik had been studiously avoiding him since he’d entered the hall, but now it was impossible not to look. Charles was dressed in a dark blue tunic with golden trim around the sleeves and the collar, which was cut low enough to expose his collarbones. A sapphire earring dangled from one earlobe, and his eyes were lined with dark kohl, making them seem even bigger and brighter than usual. His lips were glossy, wet with wine.
He was as stunning as he’d been the first time Erik had ever laid eyes on him. Forcing his expression to remain neutral, Erik crossed over to the right side of the table and took the chair beside him.
They said nothing for a long few minutes. A servant appeared and presented Erik with a plate laden with cuts of turkey, greens, potatoes, and bread. Another servant brought him a glass of wine. Once they were gone, Erik glanced at Charles out of the corner of his eye. Knife in hand, he seemed intent on carving his turkey into tiny pieces, his expression bland. He gave no indication that he’d noticed Erik at all.
Slowly, Erik picked up his own fork and knife and began to eat. Was Charles angry with him? Had something happened? Or was he finally taking Erik’s instructions to be cautious seriously?
When Charles finally did speak, his voice was so quiet that Erik nearly didn’t hear him. “Are you well, Captain?”
Was it strange that he’d missed Charles’s voice after only two days apart? Despite the blackmail note, despite the king’s return, despite everything, a warm thrill still shot through him at the sound of it. He had to resist the urge to touch Charles in some way: a caress on his hand, or his knee.
“Fine,” Erik said, hoping Charles would hear the curtness in the word and know that something was amiss.
“Ah.” Charles took a long sip of his wine. His cheeks were flushed. He held up the glass and a servant swept forward to refill it. “That’s good,” he murmured, before sipping again.
Erik eyed him more closely. “Are you well, my lord?”
“Oh, perfectly well. Yes.” Charles smiled. Now that they were face-to-face, Erik could see that it wasn’t only the kohl making his eyes seem bright; they were slightly glazed and hazy, and his breath smelled like sweet berries.
“You’re drunk,” Erik said in surprise, before he could stop himself.
“Yes. Sort of. Aren’t we all supposed to be celebrating?”
“The king’s return, of course. Here.” Charles held up his glass. “Cheers.”
Before Erik could even move to pick up his own glass, Charles downed the rest of his, then raised it again to summon a refill. When he lifted the glass to his lips, Erik couldn’t help himself; he reached out and caught Charles’s wrist. “Perhaps you should slow down.”
Charles’s pulse beat rapidly against Erik’s fingers. His arm trembled for a second before he set the glass down. After a moment too long, Erik released him, his own heart thumping.
“I…I overheard a conversation earlier,” Charles said suddenly. “One of the kitchen girls. She sounded—she was upset. She’d gone to meet her sweetheart in town last night, but he never showed up. Isn’t that terrible?”
Shocked at his audacity, Erik glanced away quickly, feeling his color rise. Don’t, he wanted to snap. Are you mad? The king is right there, he’ll hear everything.
But Charles continued. “I’m sure she was worried something might have happened to him. The streets can be dangerous at night, or so I’ve been told. Anything could have happened, and she’d have no way of knowing. Or perhaps she was worried he’d…he’d changed his mind. About being with her, I mean.”
“He hadn’t,” Erik said lowly, fiercely.
Charles’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh. Well. Then…”
Erik glanced past Charles to see that the king’s attention was held fast by Lord Orwen, who looked ill, and Lady Tabira, who seemed torn between glaring at her plate and glaring at her husband. Very quietly, Erik said, “Perhaps her sweetheart was otherwise occupied.”
“Something must have come up. Something important.”
“I knew it,” Charles breathed.
His hand twitched toward Erik’s. Erik reached for his wine quickly and leaned back, away. Chagrined, Charles picked up his fork and poked at his potatoes, but it wasn’t long before he spoke again. “Did you…did you enjoy Hadrin’s Feast? Did anything interesting happen?”
Erik glanced at him sharply. Their eyes met, and Erik knew at once that something had happened, not only to him but to Charles as well. Had he received a note himself? What had it said? Did he know who’d sent it? Or had he been approached? Was he being coerced even now?
“Nothing beyond the ordinary,” Erik said after a long moment, his thoughts racing. How could they get away to speak in private? Should they risk it?
Charles raised his hand and scratched idly at his neck beneath the iron collar. It might have been a casual movement, if not for the meaningful look he cast in Erik’s direction.
Erik shook his head. “You’re drunk,” he said lowly.
“I’m alright. And…” Charles swayed slightly forward, leaning his elbows against the table. “I am drunk.”
It took a moment for Erik to grasp his meaning. Even if he looked as unsteady as he usually did when his abilities returned to him, he could pass it off as intoxication. He’d been downing wine like water, after all. And they were sitting beside each other tonight, without the king in between them. It’d be easier for Charles to focus his powers by touching Erik.
Had it been a stroke of fortune that the king had seated Erik on his right side tonight? Or was it a trap?
In the distance, a clock began to chime. Any minute now, Alex would arrive to summon him away. There was no time for caution.
Under the table, Erik touched Charles’s thigh. Charles’s leg tensed under his hand, then tensed further when Erik gripped the iron collar with his powers and cracked it.
The tiny whimper Charles let out was swallowed immediately by the din in the hall. He leaned forward and put a hand over his eyes, shielding his expression. Then his powers slammed into Erik like a tidal wave, nearly knocking him out of his seat. It was nothing coherent, only disorienting flashes of color and emotion, joy and annoyance and hunger and fear and desire and happiness and boredom and—
And then it was gone, muted, and Charles was the only voice left in his head. Erik!
There was so much desperate relief in Charles’s voice that Erik felt a sympathetic lump rise to his throat. Swallowing hard, he made himself pick up his fork and eat to give his hands something to do, to make it seem as if their conversation had ended. But in truth, his attention was completely consumed by Charles’s presence in his head. Are you okay? What happened?
There was—someone left a note—that night after the feast when I came back—it was on my pillow by the bed—someone knows—in the king’s quarters!
Charles was sending thoughts so quickly they were tripping over one another. When Erik winced, he said, Sorry, sorry, and started again. That night after the feast, I went back to the king’s quarters and someone had left a note. They know about us! A burst of fear accompanied the thought. They said—they want me to meet them somewhere in the city. I don’t know what they want, they just gave me an address and…He frowned. Why don’t you seem surprised?
I got a note as well.
That night, on my bed. They gave me an address, too. Ruelle Road.
Oh. Oh. Charles’s brow furrowed. Mine isn’t…it’s Tournidec Circle. Tomorrow night.
I’m going to tonight.
You’re going? More fear, apprehension, disbelief. Charles wasn’t shielding at all; Erik could feel every twist and turn of his emotions with startling clarity. Is that wise? What if it’s a trap?
I’ve thought of that, but we need to play along until we figure out who’s behind this. They haven’t gone to Shaw yet, so they want something from us.
What could they want?
I don’t know. I’ll find out.
Should I come with you?
No. The note said to come alone, and besides, the king will notice if we’re both gone.
Then should I go tomorrow?
The thought of Charles going off to meet their blackmailer alone made Erik’s stomach clench. At least Erik had a soldier’s experience. If anyone attacked Charles, he’d be helpless. But Erik couldn’t discount the possibility that Charles’s meeting might shed more light on what was going on. They couldn’t pass up the chance to gather more information—or risk displeasing their blackmailer, who, at the moment, held all the power.
I don’t know, Erik said at last. It depends on what happens tonight.
How will I know what happens tonight?
I’ll find a way to reach you.
If I don’t hear from you…Charles hesitated for a second. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll go.
Erik stabbed at his turkey. I don’t like the idea of you going alone.
I don’t like the idea of you going alone either, Charles retorted. We have no idea who these people are.
A flash of red at the entrance of the hall caught Erik’s attention: Alex in his red Lions uniform, making his way through the tables toward Erik.
He’s your excuse, Charles guessed, or perhaps he simply knew, so closely entwined were their minds.
Erik squeezed Charles’s thigh beneath the table. I’ll see you later. Be careful.
Charles seized his hand and gripped it tightly. You be careful. I love you.
Erik’s chest tightened painfully. It took all he had not to pull Charles into his arms and kiss him, so full of love and fear for him that he thought he’d never be able to contain it. But all he could do was run his thumb along the back of Charles’s hand reassuringly and say, I love you, too, before pulling away.
Alex bowed low as he approached the dais and then came up beside Erik and bent over to whisper into his ear. “There’s a problem with some of the men, sir. A fight in the lower city. You’d better come.”
Erik laid down his fork and knife. “I’ll be right there.”
The king looked over curiously. “What is it, Erik?”
“Just a minor issue with some of the men,” Erik replied evenly. “Apparently there’s been a brawl in the lower city. A fight over women and drink, I imagine.”
Shaw chuckled. “Of course. What else? Alright, go. But come attend to me tomorrow afternoon. We have business to discuss. I’ll send a page to fetch you.”
Charles looked up at him. His expression was neutral once more, though his eyes burned with warmth. “Goodnight, Captain. I’m sorry you have to leave so early.”
Erik hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry as well.”
“Yes, as you ought to be,” Shaw said with amusement. “You’re depriving our dear Charles of any company. Perhaps we ought to move your chair over to the other side of the table, my dear.”
He placed a proprietary hand on the back of Charles’s neck, rubbing at the collar. Just before his fingers could brush the crack, Erik sealed it up with a lightning-quick flick of his powers. Charles let out a sharp gasp, hand flying to his head. Shaw looked at him with mild concern. “What is it, dear?”
“H-headache,” Charles stammered. “I’m afraid I drank far too much wine far too quickly.”
“Ah, yes, I noticed you were indulging rather heavily tonight.” Shaw cupped Charles’s flushed cheek and ran his thumb along Charles’s mouth. “Perhaps we’d better turn in early. I tire of tonight’s company.”
Charles lowered his eyes. “If you wish, my king.”
Erik turned away sharply. “Let’s go.”
Alex nodded and followed Erik off the dais, through the hall, and out the doors. It wasn’t until they’d left the palace behind entirely that Erik finally slowed his furious stride enough that Alex could keep pace. Panting, he said, “Well? Am I allowed to know what’s going on now?”
“Not yet.” Erik stopped, unpinned his cloak, and bundled it up. “Here. Take this back to the barracks for me.” While his leather armor was relatively nondescript, the cloak would draw unwanted attention for sure. Best to get rid of it before heading to the meeting.
“Won’t you be cold?” Alex demanded.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Well where are you going?”
“Enough questions. Go back to the barracks.”
“If it’s dangerous, you’ll need backup, won’t you? I’ll come with you.”
“Go,” Erik said sternly. When Alex’s jaw tightened stubbornly, Erik added, “When it’s time for you to know, I’ll tell you. Now go.”
When he realized no further concessions were forthcoming, Alex scowled and left. Once he’d disappeared around the corner, Erik turned and hurried west.
Ruelle Road lay in a transition zone between a rather dilapidated lower city neighborhood and a much nicer one built further up the hill. The river that cut through the city divided the more expensive houses from the slums, and Ruelle Road ran just west of the river, on the less affluent side.
Number 14 was a modest house of gray stone with a tiled roof, shuttered windows, and a small, narrow stoop leading up to a brown door. It was indistinguishable from the other houses on the street, and even after running his powers through the rooms inside, feeling out their contents, Erik hadn’t found anything out of the ordinary. Tonight he stopped in the shadows across the street and brushed his metal-sense over the house again, looking for inhabitants. Something—a necklace by the feel of it—shifted slightly. Nothing else.
Only one person then, as far as he could tell. Those were good odds.
The clocktower in the distance began to sound out the hour. Erik detached himself from the shadows, walked across the street, and went up to knock on the door.
The necklace inside rose and approached. A heavy lock slide aside, and the door cracked open to reveal a young woman with dark hair and startlingly green eyes. Erik didn’t have the chance to examine her more closely before she was gesturing him inside.
The house was dark, which gave him little opportunity to study it for clues. As he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimness, he followed the woman by the feel of her necklace. They came to a stop in what he assumed was the kitchen, judging by the stove in the corner.
“You were not followed?” she asked. She had a low, sweet voice with an accent he couldn’t immediately place.
“No,” he said.
“Take my hand.”
Erik didn’t move. “Who are you?”
“We’ll talk, but not here.”
“Then why did you tell me to come here?”
She made an impatient noise and seized his wrist. Erik had his sword halfway out of the scabbard when a blindingly bright, purple…circle materialized two steps in front of them.
Too shocked to strike, he simply stared at it in utter incomprehension. “Come on,” said the woman. “It’s a portal. Go through.”
It was a doorway, he realized with astonishment. Through it, he could see another room, this one larger and much more brightly lit, and there were people there, people staring back at him.
She gave him a shove. Weak with surprise, he didn’t resist, only stumbled through. He flinched as he did, expecting the crackling purple edges of the portal to burn him somehow, but it was like stepping through any ordinary door. One moment he was in the house on Ruelle Road, and the next, he was in another room—another house—entirely.
The woman followed him through and waved a hand. In an instant, the portal vanished, leaving no trace of its existence.
“He was alone?” asked one of the men seated at the table in the center of the room.
“Yes,” the woman behind Erik confirmed.
Erik surveyed the room, both with his eyes and with a sweep of his powers. It was a small, cramped chamber with hardly any defining features. A wooden staircase on the other end of the room led upwards to a door. Various burlap sacks lay stacked against the far wall—grain, it looked like, and other stores of food. The only furniture was the round table in the center of the room, around which sat three people, two men and a woman. None of them wore identifying markers.
The woman spoke first. “Captain. Thank you for joining us. I imagine you have questions.”
“Many,” Erik growled. “Who are you?”
She gestured to a chair. “Come sit.” When he didn’t move, she nodded. “Alright. You don’t trust us. That’s understandable. You can call me Kinross. This is Banshee—” she gestured to the redheaded man sitting beside her “—and beside him is Darwin. You’ve already met Blink.”
Erik glanced at the woman behind him. She skirted around him and moved to take one of the empty chairs around the table, leaving him standing in the corner of the room alone.
Four against one. Those odds were worse.
Erik lay his hand lightly in the hilt of his sword. “What do you want?”
“Your help,” Kinross said.
“You have a strange way of asking for it,” Erik said coldly.
“We needed your attention. And, frankly, we needed leverage.” Kinross gave him a coolly assessing look. “I’ve heard about you, Captain. You wouldn’t have heard us out willingly if we hadn’t brought you here.”
“If it puts you at ease,” Darwin added, “we have no intention of revealing your secret at this time.”
“At this time,” Erik echoed with a bite of bitter humor. “As long as I do what you want. And what is it you want?”
“We want what you want,” Kinross said. “To see the king fall.”
Erik’s heart stopped. A roaring buzz filled his ears, and a cold numbness swept through him from head to toe, rendering him unable to move, unable to think, unable to do anything but stare at the four of them in abject incredulity. To see the king fall? To see the king fall?
A hysterical laugh burst out of him. “You’re mad. You’re all mad.”
“No,” Kinross said calmly, “we aren’t.”
“We prefer to call ourselves loyalists,” Banshee said. He leaned back casually in his chair, seemingly indifferent to the fact that they were discussing treason. “Loyal to the true king, I mean.”
Erik could hardly believe what he was hearing. Every word they spoke seemed more absurd than the last. “The true king?”
“Theorn,” said Kinross.
The king’s half-brother. The only other man with a true claim to royal blood, and thus the crown.
“He hasn’t been seen in years,” Erik said slowly. After his defeat at Port Savilly, Theorn had fled east to Avaria. Shaw had sent men after him, but he’d never been found. Rumor was he’d hired a ship to take him to Liutfeld, but it had capsized on the journey and drowned every soul aboard. No one had spoken his name since. “He’s dead, more likely than not.”
“Oh, he’s quite alive,” Kinross replied, “and he wants his rightful throne. He is the elder brother, after all. His claim is stronger.”
“It doesn’t matter whose claim is stronger. Shaw commands the most powerful army in the six realms. Nothing can stand against him.”
“Theorn isn’t a fool. He’s been gathering allies in Genosha and beyond. He won’t strike until victory is certain.”
“So,” Erik said with a humorless smile, “never.” He swept his glare over each of them. “Do you hear yourselves? You want to overthrow the king? You might as well throw yourselves on your swords and be done with it. That would be a swifter and kinder death than any Shaw will give you.”
“You’re afraid,” Blink said.
“You’re fools if you aren’t,” Erik snapped. “I won’t take any part in this.”
Kinross frowned. “Are you really so loyal to him?”
Loyal. Erik gave an ugly laugh. “No. Only wise enough to know that there’s no defeating him. You.” He pointed at Blink. “Take me back.”
“You won’t hear any more?” Kinross asked.
“Not another word.” Already he’d heard too much. The very idea of what they were planning here, what they wanted him to participate in, made some deep, instinctive part of him quiver with terror. The things Shaw could do to him…the pain he could inflict…
Kinross’s eyes darkened in resignation. “So. It’s come to this.” She leaned forward and folded her hands on the table. “If you help us, the king will never find out about you and Lord Xavier. If you don’t…”
Erik smiled. He couldn’t help it. She thought she’d cornered him against a cliff, but she didn’t know that he’d rather leap than face the plot she was trying to make him a party to.
“If the king found out about me and Lord Xavier,” Erik said softly, grimly, “the penalty I would pay would pale in comparison to what would happen to me if the king discovered I had engaged in treason against him and his throne. So your threat holds no power against me.”
“And Lord Xavier?” Kinross asked. Her tone held no hint of frustration, only a calm consideration. “You would be willing to let him suffer?”
The thought of what might await Charles if Shaw uncovered their affair was the only thing in the world that could make Erik consider, even for a second, Kinross’s offer. But no. Shaw had too firm a grip on Erik’s leash. He had designed Erik’s prison too well.
“Better that he suffer,” Erik said with difficulty, “than be killed.”
“I will be interested to see if he is of the same opinion.”
Erik shot her a scathing look. “No. You will not meet him tomorrow night. You will never contact him again. And if you say anything about us, then I will tell the king about you. I will tell him about Theorn, about these supposed loyalists of his, about your little coup. It will be over for you as much as for me. Do you understand?”
To her credit, she seemed not at all cowed. The others exchanged wary looks and Banshee paled a shade, but if there was any fear in Kinross, she showed none of it. “I see,” she said. “Then our negotiation has ended.”
Blink rose and, with a gesture, opened a shimmering portal on the wall behind Erik. Judging by the darkness that lay beyond it, he guessed it would return him to the house on Ruelle Road.
As he turned toward the portal, Kinross stood. “If you happen to change your mind—”
The remainder of the sentence was lost to him; he’d already stepped through.
“You seem distracted tonight, my dear.” Shaw’s teeth dug into Charles’s shoulder, not hard enough to truly hurt but enough to make Charles wince. “What is it?”
With an effort, Charles forced away the anxious thoughts that had been plaguing him all night long. He couldn’t afford to dwell on whether or not Erik was alright, not while he lay in the king’s arms. Sharing Shaw’s bed was like walking a tightrope; he had to keep his balance and play his part perfectly, or else risk falling.
“Nothing important,” he murmured, turning onto his back to smile up at the king. “I’m only a little tired, is all.”
“Tired yourself out while I was away, did you?”
Don’t react. Don’t react. Smile. Laugh.
He smiled, then let it turn into a soft laugh. “I suppose my stamina’s not what it used to be. I used to be able to sit in a library from dawn to dusk and never get up even once. Now my back aches from sitting after a while, and half a day of reading leaves me so sleepy.”
“You’re far too young for back aches,” Shaw said in amusement. His hand trailed down Charles’s flank and came to rest on his hip. “I’m glad you found something to divert yourself with while I was gone though. I was worried you’d get bored.”
“Oh, it was quite boring without you here,” Charles replied, tracing a scar on Shaw’s upper arm. “But the books kept me occupied well enough.”
“Efram said you were reading about birds. Tell me about them.”
He should have known the head librarian would take note of his reading choices to report to Shaw later. Thank the gods Charles had had the foresight to spend his days holed up in the royal libraries as expected, instead of lying about thinking about Erik, as he’d wanted to do. He’d made sure Efram had seen him come and go so there’d be no question about how he was spending his days.
His nights, however—no one had monitored him then. It had been safe then to sneak away to see Erik.
Or so he’d thought. But obviously someone must have seen them, and now they wanted something and if Charles and Erik couldn’t deliver, they’d tell the king and the king would know—
He doesn’t know yet, Charles told himself firmly, but keep letting your mind wander and he’ll soon find out.
He pushed all thoughts of Erik and the blackmailer through a door in the back of his mind and locked it. Then he dug for memories of the books he’d perused in the last few weeks.
“Well I read a very interesting study on the Avarian falcon,” he said thoughtfully. “A group of researchers wrote a thesis on the natural migratory patterns of the bird in the wild, and when they mapped the routes out from year to year, they found quite intriguing results. For example, the birds always skirt around this one patch of land that’s totally flat, not at all impassable, but the researchers think it’s old instinct from when there used to be some sort of obstacle there, like a mountain.”
Shaw chuckled. “It never fails to amaze me how you find such things interesting. Studying the migratory patterns of birds! How dull.”
“I imagine most things are dull to you,” Charles said reasonably. “You’re the king—your time is always occupied with splendid things.”
“Splendid things like you.” Shaw’s hand slipped further down to grip Charles’s ass and hitch him close. His cock, half-hard again already, slid wetly against Charles’s thigh. “You are a marvel, my dear. I can never get enough of you.”
Charles allowed a couple of kisses before he twisted over onto his front. Shaw liked to have him like this, and Charles preferred it, too—with his back to Shaw, he could bury his face in a pillow and close his eyes until it was over. This time when Shaw finished, he didn’t pull away, just laid himself down on top of Charles and pressed him into the bed.
“Mmm,” Shaw hummed into his ear, very nearly a purr. “I missed you more than I thought I would. Those nights were far too lonely without you by my side. I’ll have to take you with me the next time I travel.”
Charles kept his eyes closed and focused hard on the silk beneath his cheek. “You flatter me, my king.”
“No more than you deserve. But…” Shaw’s finger ran along the collar at Charles’s nape. “Tomorrow I’ll need something else from you.”
Charles’s eyes shot open. “What?”
“Our friend Lord Orwen has been keeping something from me. Normally Lady Frost would make short work of him, but since she’s not here, I’ll need your assistance. What do you say, hmm?”
This was the first time since he’d put the collar on Charles that Shaw had suggested he might allow it to come off. Charles’s heart pounded in eager anticipation for several seconds before he remembered that this was no gift—the king wanted something from him, from his abilities.
“What would you have me do?”
“Go into his head and find what I want to know. That’s all.” Shaw stroked Charles’s shoulder gently. “It shouldn’t be difficult for you. Lady Frost has told me that your mind is far more powerful than hers.”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“Don’t doubt yourself, my dear.”
Charles didn’t argue. It wasn’t as if he had any choice in the matter anyway; he would do as the king commanded.
He wasn’t particularly curious, but it would be wise, he thought, to get a sense of how difficult the information might be to ferret out. So, after a moment of thought, he asked, “What great secret is Lord Orwen keeping?”
“One I’ve been searching for for many years,” Shaw murmured, the words hot and fervent against Charles’s neck. “The location of my brother, Theorn.”
Chapter 6: VI
The following morning, a page arrived at Erik’s door to summon him to attend to the king. Erik dressed, pulled on a warm cloak, and followed the boy back to the palace. Instead of leading him to one of the king’s parlors or his receiving rooms, the page guided him to one of the upper courtyards and then vanished with a quick bow.
Eyeing the assembly already gathered in the courtyard, Erik realized he was one of the last to arrive. For what, he had no idea yet. A few of Shaw’s close advisors were in attendance, as well as Lord Orwen and his family, and the boy from last night, Dosson. A good number of other lords and ladies lined the edges of the courtyard, huddled in their furs as they waited.
They were here to watch, Erik thought. Dread began to pool in his gut. The anticipation in the air was nearly palpable—as was Lord Orwen’s obvious terror. He was pale as a sheet, and the arm he had clasped around his wife was trembling. She stood tall, her expression unreadable, but her hands clenched tightly in her skirts betrayed her fear. Behind them, their three children pressed in close, like lambs that had scented danger on the air.
An unbearably tense few minutes passed mostly in silence. A few young lords by the wall snickered quietly amongst themselves, either oblivious or indifferent to the tension in the air. Erik remained by the entrance of the courtyard, more certain with every passing second that he wasn’t going to like what was about to happen.
Then the king appeared, and all noise ceased instantly. He strode into the courtyard with a smile and clapped when he spotted Orwen and his family clustered tightly in the center of the crowd. “Lord Orwen! I’m pleased to see you. I trust that you and your family had a restful evening?”
“Y-yes,” Orwen stuttered. “Very restful, thank you.”
“Good, good. I’m sorry to have pulled you from your beds so early. Unfortunately the business I have with you is quite pressing, not a moment to waste.” Shaw turned to address the rest of the crowd. “Good morning, all. I’m sure many of you have heard the rumors already, but if you haven’t, allow me to introduce our friends here. This fine man is Lord Orwen of Kelletch Castle. His estate lies near the southern border in a small valley. It’s quite isolated and easily overlooked. It’s no wonder that my brother Theorn chose to take refuge there.”
A murmur swept through the crowd, half-excited, half-confused. Erik leaned back against the stone wall behind him, scarcely breathing.
“Yes,” Shaw drawled, “he’s alive. I’ve known it for years, but he’s thwarted my efforts to find him. Until now, that is. Dosson, come forth.”
The boy stepped forward, chin lifted high. His eyes gleamed with pride, and when Shaw clapped him on the shoulder and drew him close, his gaze brightened even further.
“This boy did what my spies could not.” Shaw turned him, presenting him to the crowd. “Tell them what you did, lad.”
For the first time, Dosson looked uncertain. “I…I’m a stable hand. I worked in…in Lord Orwen’s stable.” He darted a quick look at the king, who nodded for him to continue. More steadily, he went on. “I saw Theorn. I heard them speak his name. And I knew…I knew…” He licked his lips nervously. “He was a traitor. I knew it. And I’d heard of the reward and so I…I came here. I knew the king would want to know.”
“So I did,” Shaw said, squeezing his shoulder. “And a reward you shall receive. Kneel.”
Dosson fell gracelessly to his knees.
Shaw drew his sword and touched it to the boy’s shoulder. “Dosson, son of Duvin, do you swear fealty to me?”
“Y-yes, Your Majesty.”
“Do you swear to serve me faithfully every day of your life until you are released, either by my word or by death?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Then I hereby bestow on you the title of Lion. Rise, soldier.”
Dosson climbed unsteadily to his feet, his expression brimming over with pride. Erik stared at him in distaste. It wasn’t the first time he’d been given a soldier he didn’t like, but this one seemed particularly unpleasant. His blind adoration of the king was plain as day. If there was anything Erik couldn’t stand, it was a sycophant.
“Step aside,” Shaw said, brushing Dosson away. His voice was pitched to carry over the crowd. “Now that you’ve seen what awaits those who are loyal to me, let us see what happens to those who are not.”
“Please!” Orwen burst out. “I—I’ve told you everything I know! I swear it!”
Shaw studied him impassively. Only those who knew him well, Erik thought, could see the glee in his eyes. He delighted in these sorts of displays, like a cruel child delighted in picking the legs off helpless insects. Erik could only watch, sick apprehension washing over him.
“Not everything, I think,” Shaw said. “But you needn’t say anything more, my dear Orwen. I have other ways of learning what you know.”
He made a gesture, and a figure detached itself from the line of other nobles. Charles, Erik realized with a ripple of shock. Had he been here the whole time? What was he doing here?
The answer soon became apparent: Shaw summoned one of his attendants forward, took the helmet the man was holding, and slid it over his head. Erik recognized it instantly as the helmet Shaw had once used to protect himself from Frost, before she’d earned his trust. Then he pulled a key from his pocket and slotted it into the lock on Charles’s collar.
A wave of mental pressure flooded over the crowd as soon as Shaw lifted the collar away. Charles swayed but kept his footing, his mouth pinched into a firm line.
Without thinking, Erik called out to him. Charles? Charles!
But it was as if he hadn’t heard; Charles only looked at Shaw, a faint sheen of sweat on his brow. Though the king wasn’t much taller than he was, Charles still seemed oddly small and vulnerable standing beside him, like a dove beside an eagle. The smudge of kohl under his left eye looked like a bruise.
“Now,” the king said, setting his hand on Orwen’s thin shoulder, “let’s see what you really know.”
Charles closed his eyes. Orwen let out a soft whimper. Then his face slackened, and he went still.
Utter silence filled the courtyard. Not even the young lords sniggering to themselves earlier had the gall to break it. Erik stood frozen by the wall, his eyes pinned on Charles, on every minute flicker of his expression. Whenever Frost dug through someone’s head, she clearly relished the opportunity to display her power, but there was no showiness in the way Charles used his abilities, no theater. A tiny crease appeared between his brows, and his mouth flattened—that was all.
It wasn’t long before the king grew impatient. “Well?”
Charles opened his eyes. His expression wan, he said, “He doesn’t know much, Your Majesty. I don’t think—”
“What does he know?”
“Only a few insignificant details—”
The king’s voice sharpened. “I’ll determine what’s significant and what isn’t.”
Tell him what he wants to know, Charles, Erik thought, hands clenched into tight fists. Don’t play any games with him.
After a long pause, Charles said softly, “He last saw Theorn a fortnight ago. He passed through Lord Orwen’s estate and stayed for five nights. That’s all.”
“Well,” Shaw mused, “that’s hardly insignificant, my dear.”
Erik winced even as Charles did. “Forgive me, sire,” Charles murmured, bowing his head low. Though his voice was quiet, each word carried easily through the apprehensive silence of the courtyard. “I...I merely thought…I was only trying to…”
Shaw let him stammer for a moment longer before cutting him off with a wave of his hand. “No need for forgiveness, my dear. I know you have a soft heart. Unfortunately, Lord Orwen deserves none of your mercy, or mine.”
He tightened his grip around Orwen’s shoulder until the sharp snap of broken bone echoed through the courtyard, followed by Orwen’s agonized cry. Crumpling to his knees, Orwen gasped for air. Behind him, his wife clutched their children close, shielding them from the sight. Erik had to admire her resolve—her stoic expression never wavered. The only hint of her anxiety was the force with which she gripped her children.
“Take him away,” Shaw ordered. As guards came forward to seize Orwen by the arms, the king raised his voice. “Lord Orwen will be publicly executed at dawn in two days’ time. Let it be known that this is what becomes of traitors. Any who sympathize with my brother or his allies shall meet the same fate.”
As he was hauled away, Orwen stuttered out desperate pleas that were rendered nearly unintelligible by his tears. Lady Tabira went with considerable more dignity; beside her, the king’s soldiers seemed more like an honor guard than gaolers.
Low murmurs broke out among the nobles as they began to disperse, understanding that the morning’s show had concluded. Ignoring them, Erik pushed forward through the crowd, his eyes on Charles. When Shaw had broken Orwen’s shoulder, Charles had gone white. Now he swayed slightly on his feet, his eyes glazed. The king had turned away to address Dosson, who was grinning with delight at his attention. Only Erik noticed the way Charles’s brows furrowed in pain.
He stopped at the edge of the crowd, hesitant to draw attention to himself or Charles. But then Charles took a step and staggered, and without thinking, Erik leaped forward to grab his arm and steady him.
Charles stiffened, and for a moment, it seemed like he might pull away. But then he sagged into Erik’s chest like all the strength had gone out of him at once. Holding him close, Erik could feel each of Charles’s shallow, ragged breaths against his neck. When he realized Charles was trembling, he put his hand automatically between Charles’s shoulder blades, trying to soothe him.
Charles? he thought tentatively.
Charles’s mind pressed against his own. Instead of Charles’s usual clarity, Erik found a tangled mess of emotion: fear, pain, anger, guilt. Underneath that ran a current of relief: ErikErikErik.
Erik pulled him closer. I’m right here. Are you alright?
I felt his pain, Charles whispered. And I…I sold him out. There’s a rebellion, Erik, one I’ve never even heard about and I’ve…I’ve sold them out, too. I shouldn’t have—maybe I could have—
You did what you had to, Erik said firmly. He shuddered to think of what Shaw might have done if Charles had tried to lie. You couldn’t have done anything else.
I should have—he was in so much pain—
Suddenly Charles went rigid in his arms. Before Erik could ask what was the matter, Charles pulled away, wiping discreetly at his eyes before turning. When Erik realized the king was gazing at them with interest, a chill rolled down his spine. How long had he been watching? How much had he seen?
Half a dozen flimsy excuses surged to Erik’s lips, but in the time it took for them to form, Charles had already stepped back over to Shaw and leaned in against him. “Are you quite done talking to that boy, sire? I needed you.”
Shaw didn’t wrap his arm around Charles like he normally would when Charles cozied up to him. Instead, he continued to look at Erik. “Needed me, hmm? It seemed the captain was attending to your needs quite well.”
“Only because you seemed preoccupied.” Charles cast a glance at Dosson, who looked disgruntled to have lost the king’s attention. “Though I don’t begrudge you, of course—the boy did you a great service.”
After an eternity of silence, Shaw reached up and ran a hand down Charles’s spine, tucking him closer. Erik didn’t dare allow himself to relax entirely, but his shoulders dropped slightly, no longer braced for a fight.
“What did you need me for, hmm?” Shaw asked, his gaze lifting from Erik at last.
“When you broke Lord Orwen’s shoulder, my king,” Charles murmured. “The pain left me rather faint.”
Shaw raised an eyebrow. “You felt that?”
“Interesting. Very interesting. Though of course, I am sorry you suffered as he did.”
“Thankfully,” Charles added, lowering his eyes, “the captain caught me before I cracked my skull open on a flagstone.”
The king glanced back at Erik. “It seems we must thank the good captain for saving you once again. He seems to be making a habit of that.”
“I was only doing my duty,” Erik replied, backing up a step. He hoped he was managing to keep his expression neutral, despite his fear of the king’s judgment, and the sudden, hot jealousy that welled up at the sight of Charles in his arms.
“And doing it well,” Shaw said, “as you always do. Glad as I am that you saved poor Charles here from injury, I actually summoned you here to meet our new friend.” He gestured at Dosson. “Come forward, boy. Meet your captain.”
Dosson gave Erik a long look before lowering himself to a knee. “Sir.”
Erik scrutinized him. Working in a stable had given the boy broad, muscular shoulders, strong arms, and legs like tree trunks. Though he was already taller than Erik by a good few inches, he was lanky in a way that suggested he still had some growing to do. Given some training, he’d be a formidable soldier, physically intimidating if nothing else. He had potential. If not for the fact that his loyalty clearly lay with the king, Erik might have approved of him.
“Report to the barracks,” Erik said gruffly. “Find Summers, tell him I sent you. He’ll get you a bunk and a hot meal. You start training tomorrow.”
Dosson nodded eagerly. “Yes, sir.” He shot a furtive glance at Shaw, who nodded. Only then did he duck into a couple of quick bows before scurrying from the courtyard.
Once he was gone, Shaw said to Erik, “Be good to him. I like him.”
“And you, my dear…” Shaw stroked Charles’s hair back from his forehead. “You don’t look too well. Perhaps you’d better lie down.”
“I think that’d be for the best,” Charles said weakly. Erik couldn’t tell if his exhaustion was real or feigned. If the latter, Charles’s playacting was a marvel.
“Shall I have someone escort you? I don’t want you collapsing in a hallway somewhere.”
“I think I can manage on my own, my king, though I thank you.”
“Still, you look a bit unsteady, my dear. Erik, if you would be so good as to see him back to bed?”
Erik restrained a startled flinch. While the two of them had been speaking, he’d been trying to devise a way to speak discreetly to Charles, only long enough to tell him about the rebels, about what Kinross had offered—or threatened, more like it. And now this—was it a trap? A test?
Before he could decide, Charles said quickly, “That would be much appreciated. Only,” he added with a shy look in Erik’s direction, “if you are not too busy, Captain?”
Erik swallowed. “No.”
Shaw nodded his approval. “Very good. And ah, before you go, don’t forget.”
He held up the iron collar. The dread that twisted across Charles’s face was plain as day, both to Erik and to Shaw, who tutted and said, “I know, my dear, I know. But I haven’t got the patience to wear this helmet day and night, and though I am so very fond of you, it’s a precaution that must be taken.”
“Of course,” Charles demurred. “It might not be comfortable, but I understand its necessity.”
Shaw smiled. “That’s what I love about you: you’re always so very reasonable.”
Without ceremony, he slid the collar back around Charles’s neck and locked it shut. Erik felt the metal seal together, felt the circuit reactivate. As soon as it reasserted its power over him, Charles closed his eyes and exhaled sharply, not unlike the sound Erik had heard men make when stabbed.
Then he straightened, opened his eyes, and put on a smile so forced that it wouldn’t have fooled a child. “Well,” he said, his voice surprisingly steady, “shall we go?”
Shaw pressed a firm kiss to his forehead and released him. “Go on. I’ll see you later for dinner.”
“Ah,” Charles said, “I was hoping to take dinner with Lady Katherine tonight, if you will allow it. She’s invited me out to the city.”
“To the city?” The king’s eyebrow ticked upward. “What on earth would you be eating out there?”
“I’m not sure. But she told me she’s quite charmed by a few of the street vendors. She mentioned Polinian barbecue…?”
“Well if you wanted Polinian barbecue, you had only to ask. We could serve it here just as well. But,” the king mused, “I suppose part of the appeal of those street vendors is the adventure of going out into the city. I remember enjoying that myself when I was younger.” He smiled. “Go on then. Enjoy the sights.”
Charles bowed low. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
With that, they were dismissed. Erik waited until they had left the courtyard far behind and had reached a less crowded area of the palace before leaning in and muttering, “What were you thinking?”
“He might have let your lie slide back there, but how long before he figures out you and Lady Katherine never really had dinner together? All he has to do is ask her!”
“And he can,” Charles said calmly. “I already asked Kitty to cover for me earlier, and she agreed.”
“How do you know you can trust her?” Erik growled, angry and uneasy at the thought of Charles involving others. Even when their secret had been contained between the two of them, it had obviously been impossible to hide forever. Now Lady Katherine knew? She might be among the more sensible nobles of the king’s court, but that was by no means an indication of her trustworthiness.
“She’s my friend,” Charles replied. “I know her. She won’t tell a soul. And besides, I didn’t tell her everything, just that I needed an excuse to get out of the palace tonight.”
“And you don’t think she’ll be curious?” Erik demanded. “She’ll pry.”
“She won’t press too hard if I ask her not to.”
If I ask her not to. God help them both.
“It doesn’t matter,” Erik said lowly. “You’re not going tonight.”
Charles shot him a startled look. “I’m not?”
“But…what about the letter? What about—”
“There’s nothing they can say to you tonight worth hearing.”
Now Charles stopped. “What happened last night? What did they want?”
Erik stopped as well and glanced both ways up and down the hall before seizing Charles’s arm and propelling him into an empty alcove nearby. He swept their surroundings with his powers, searching for any movement. When he was satisfied they were alone, he said, “It’ll be easier to show you.”
Charles’s hand flew up to his throat. “Of course. Yeah.” He tilted his head back.
Taking his arm, Erik eased the collar open. He realized too late that he’d forgotten to brace himself; they both staggered as Charles’s mind roared across Erik’s, thoughts and feelings colliding like debris swept up in floodwaters. Fear, nausea, pain, and anxiety slammed into him, and he fell heavily back against the wall behind him, legs going weak. But underneath that initial wave was joy and relief—joy at having access to his abilities again, relief at being here, in Erik’s arms where he was safe.
The pressure in his head lifted abruptly. Sorry, Charles whispered. I didn’t mean to do that.
It’s alright. Should I…Erik hesitated, unsure of how to proceed.
Just think about last night, Charles suggested. It’ll bring the memories to the surface, and I can go through them. It’ll be quick.
Erik had never shared memories before, so he had no idea what to expect. Closing his eyes, he summoned to mind his recollections of the night before, starting from when he’d left the feast, then to when he’d parted ways with Alex, then when he’d arrived at the house on Ruelle Road and—
“Oh,” Charles said heavily.
Erik opened his eyes. “You saw?”
“Everything? That quickly?”
For a moment, he didn’t say anything more. His expression was unreadable, and even with their minds still entangled, Erik couldn’t decipher his reaction. After a long silence, Erik said, “You saw my answer then.”
“I did,” Charles said slowly, “but for the life of me, I can’t understand why you would refuse them.”
Erik exhaled softly. “I should have known you’d say that.” Charles was young and naïve. He was easily seduced by the promises of rebellion.
A flash of anger not his own shot through Erik’s mind. Charles drew back, stung. “Naïve?” he said coldly, lowly. “Need I remind you that I’ve suffered at the king’s hands, too? I know just as well as you what it means to fear him. But if there’s a chance—”
“There’s no chance,” Erik said harshly. “He’ll crush this thing before it even begins. Did you forget what happened to Orwen not half an hour ago? Have you forgotten what will happen to him in two days?”
Charles flushed. Still, he didn’t look away. “Isn’t that all the more reason to try—”
“Don’t say it,” Erik hissed.
Doesn’t that give us all the more reason to try to take Shaw down? Charles continued boldly. To prevent these sorts of injustices from happening?
You think what’s happening to Orwen is injustice? The same punishment would befall any traitor, in any country.
It isn’t justice Shaw’s after, it’s satisfaction for his own sick cruelty. Charles’s eyes glinted fiercely. You and I both know that, don’t try to deny it. It isn’t the law that rules here, it’s the king’s whim. Don’t you think that’s wrong?
Erik released Charles’s arm before he could give in to the urge to shake some sense into him. At times like these, it was impossible to forget how young Charles was. For all his cleverness and composure, he could be so frustratingly foolish in some ways. The king had inflicted horrors on him, Erik could never deny that, but Charles still lived a cossetted life here in the heart of the king’s court. He had none of the hard experience that had been beaten into Erik.
“Wrong,” he echoed. A choked, ugly laugh forced its way from his throat. “What does it matter if it’s wrong?”
Charles took a step back. He looked at Erik as if he had never seen him before. “Are you really so terrified of him that you’d allow his reign to continue uncontested? You wouldn’t even entertain the idea of ending this nightmare for the both of us?”
“There is no ending it,” Erik snarled. “You think this is the first time someone has tried? You think that I’ve never thought of defying him?” He yanked up the hem of his shirt to bare his midriff. Charles’s eyes flicked to the network of scars there, ones Erik had allowed him to idly examine in bed a dozen times over. But he had never told Charles where they had come from. “He did this to me,” Erik said harshly. “I was a child. I tried to escape three times before I was twelve. After the last attempt, he made sure I never tried again.”
Charles’s gaze, which had been angry only a few seconds ago, was full of pain now. “Erik…”
“What they want, others have tried,” Erik said coldly, staring hard past Charles’s ear at the rough stone wall of the alcove. “They’ve never succeeded. He has spies. He has safeguards in place. No plot against him has ever gotten even close to touching him, and you can guess what happens to the traitors.”
Charles swallowed. “I understand—”
Charles stepped back toward him. “You’re right, I don’t. Not the way you do. But I understand enough to know that we can’t continue like this. And we shouldn’t have to, not if there’s even the slightest chance of changing things. Not just for us but for everyone. Think about it—we’re not the only ones suffering. What of his other political hostages? What of his constant wars? And—”
Metal moving on the periphery of Erik’s senses made him surge forward, slapping a hand over Charles’s mouth. Charles’s eyes widened. Be quiet, Erik thought, and as soon as Charles nodded, he took his hand away and straightened, mind racing for an excuse.
No need, Charles told him. They won’t see us.
Erik shot him a questioning glance. Charles closed his eyes, brows furrowed in concentration.
A group of young squires rushed past, laughing and shoving at each other. Erik tensed, waiting for one of them to gaze curiously at the shallow alcove in which he and Charles were poorly hidden, but they didn’t slow or stop. One of them looked briefly at the alcove, but his eyes passed right over Erik and went on without pause. Within a moment, they had disappeared around the bend in the hall, none the wiser.
Opening his eyes, Charles put a hand to his head with a grimace.
“Are you alright?” Erik asked quietly.
“Just the same headache. Nothing a little rest won’t fix.”
Erik studied him for a long moment, then sighed. “Come on. We should go before someone realizes I’ve been gone too long.”
Charles looked as if he wanted to argue, but eventually he nodded. As they stepped out of the alcove, he muttered, “We aren’t finished discussing this though.”
“I can’t imagine there’s much more to discuss,” Erik said coolly, his concern for Charles morphing rapidly back into irritation. How could Charles not see how foolhardy it was to try to seize the throne out from under Shaw? To even talk about it? Was it because he was too young to have remembered the brutality with which Shaw had put down anyone who might have disputed his claim when he had first come to power? Was it because he had been too far removed from the king’s court to have heard about the handful of rebellions Shaw had crushed over the last decade of his reign? Each of them had been snuffed out with no more effort than it would take to extinguish a candle. This—Kinross’s campaign—would end in the same way, bloodied heads on stakes and all.
Charles didn’t speak again until they had passed through the common halls and into the residential wing where traffic was much lighter. The two guards at the entryway offered deferential nods as they passed but otherwise took no notice of them. Once they were far out of earshot, Charles said softly, “There’s something else holding you back. Something you’re not telling me. I can feel it.”
Erik’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t pry in my head.”
“I’m not. You’re thinking about it while also trying not to think about it. It’s hard not to notice that.”
Wall, Erik thought automatically. Tall, broad, thick, impenetrable steel wall.
Charles flinched, hand flying again to his head. The tiny, pained noise that escaped his lips softened Erik’s anger immediately. “Charles?”
When he reached out, Charles shied back, his gaze newly icy in a way Erik had never seen it before. “If you didn’t want me in your head,” he said, sounding wounded, “you could have asked me to leave.”
Erik winced. “I didn’t mean to do that. It was—instinct.”
“No one can build a mental wall like that on instinct.”
“I…Frost taught me a basic ward. Not,” he added quickly, seeing Charles tense, “because I wanted her to. The king instructed all his closest advisers to learn the technique. He’s wary about enemy spies stealing state secrets from our heads.”
“I’m not an enemy spy.”
“I know.” Guilty, Erik held up both hands. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt you badly?”
Charles drew himself up stiffly, every inch the young, arrogant, prideful lordling he was born to be. Gone was the warmth that always filled his eyes around Erik. “It was a surprise, that was all.”
But Charles was already walking on ahead, his quick stride clearly indicating that he was finished with the conversation. Erik ground his teeth and followed, torn between feeling sorry that he had hurt Charles and justifiably protective of his own secrets. He was more open with Charles than he had ever been with anyone else, but that didn’t mean he wanted Charles to know everything. Some things Erik preferred to keep close to his own heart, and no one else’s.
The guards stationed at the front doors of the king’s apartments straightened at Charles’s approach. “My lord,” said one of them, bending at the waist in a deep bow. To Erik, he bowed his head. “Captain.”
“Hello, Markus,” Charles said. “Hello, Balion.”
“Back so early?” Markus asked, scratching his forehead.
“I’m not feeling well, I’m afraid. The captain graciously agreed to escort me back here to make sure I didn’t trip down a flight of stairs and break my neck.”
Markus kissed his first knuckle superstitiously. “Gods forbid.”
“I hope the illness passes quickly,” Balion said. He pushed one door open and stepped aside as it swung wide. “Markus and I are on hand to fetch anything you need.”
“And I’m deeply grateful for your kindness.” Charles gestured to Erik. “Captain, come inside for a moment and take a drink. It’ll be a long walk back, and it would be in poor form to send you back thirsty.”
Erik hesitated a moment, then nodded. There was no impropriety in accepting as long as he stayed only a few minutes.
Once the doors had shut, shielding them from the guards’ eyes and ears, the friendliness vanished from Charles’s expression. He looked weary and distant as he tilted his head back. “Seal it. Then you can go.”
Erik bristled at the casual command in his voice. “I thought we weren’t finished talking.”
“You made it quite clear that there’s nothing more either of us can say.”
“Look,” Erik growled, cheeks heating. The apology felt clumsy on his tongue, but he forced it out anyway. “I’m sorry I shut you out like that. When I thought of you looking in my head and seeing things I didn’t want you to see…It scared me. And I reacted badly. But it was an accident, nothing more.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself. I’m very used to being told I’m not welcome like that.” Charles’s eyes flicked up to Erik’s forehead. “In there. So there’s no need to apologize.”
His chilly tone roused Erik’s temper. If Charles no longer wished to talk, then neither did Erik. He raised his hand and, seeing Charles brace himself, flicked the collar shut. When pain flashed across Charles’s face, Erik tamped down on the instinct to reach out to him.
“If that’s all,” Erik said, “I’ll take my leave.”
Erik strode toward the doors, fully intending on stalking out in cold silence, but at the last second, reluctant concern brought him to a stop. “Tonight,” he said, keeping his voice even with an effort. “Don’t go.”
“Whether or not I decide to go is my own business, Captain.”
Erik whirled back to face him. “It’ll be dangerous,” he snapped. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. This isn’t a game, Charles.”
Charles’s eyes blazed. “You’re right, it isn’t. And I’m not a child, so I’ll thank you not to treat me like one. I know it’ll be dangerous but,” he lifted his chin, “I’m not a coward.”
The icy fury that swept through Erik left him momentarily breathless. It wasn’t until Charles stepped back, eyes wide, that Erik realized that all the metal in the vicinity was rattling, rising, singing in tune with his rage. For a moment, he let the power course through him, felt every piece of metal around him turn toward him like servants looking to their master for instruction. He felt powerful, utterly dominant—and utterly cold with the knowledge that all of this was nothing in the face of the king’s control.
He unclenched his fists. The metal around him settled back into their places, still once more.
“He has my mother,” he said tonelessly. The words felt strange in his mouth and sounded even stranger to his own ears. He had never said them aloud before.
Charles’s eyes widened even further. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“If I’m a coward for wanting to keep her safe,” Erik said lowly, “then so be it.”
He couldn’t tell if the dull pounding of blood in his head was rage or fear or old, helpless grief. With a trembling hand, he opened the door and let himself out.
At seven-thirty, Kitty came to collect Charles for dinner. For the past hour, he’d been alternating between fussing at his clothes and pacing the king’s apartments with an abundance of nervous energy, his thoughts tangled together in a knot of confusion and indecision. Luckily the king had had other business to attend to so he was gone for the night; otherwise, Charles didn’t think it would have been possible for him to hide the anxiety gnawing ceaselessly at him.
Erik’s mother was alive. Shaw had Erik’s mother. And there was a secret rebellion underway, intent on deposing Shaw and installing his brother Theorn in his place. But the king knew about Theorn, knew he wasn’t dead, and now, with what he had learned from Lord Orwen, he was one step closer to destroying his brother again, permanently this time. The rebellion had to be warned, didn’t they? They had to know that Shaw knew about Theorn. But Erik didn’t want Charles to meet with them. But if Charles didn’t meet with them, what of the blackmail? Should they risk it? Could Charles risk it, in good conscience?
It was almost too much to take in at once. Charles grappled with these thoughts all afternoon, trying to conjure up some grand solution, or at least some helpful detail that he’d missed before, something they could use to their advantage. But by the time Kitty’s knock came at the door, he was no closer to answers than he had been hours ago.
“Good evening,” she said, curtsying impatiently as he opened the door. When she straightened, her eyes widened as she took in the sight of him. “Good gods. You look awful.”
Charles managed a wan smile. “Do I? It’s been a trying day.”
Kitty touched his arm, her eyes filled with sympathy. “This morning was…It was terrible. It was bad enough watching from the crowd; I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been for you.”
If only that were the only thing on his mind, Charles thought. At this point, Lord Orwen’s fate was, regrettably, the least of his worries.
“Let’s not talk about it,” Charles said, patting her hand on his arm. “Shall we go?”
“Oh yes. I hope you’re hungry.”
As they made their way out of the palace and through the royal courtyards, Kitty made several attempts to prod him into conversation. Charles could only offer halfhearted replies, distracted by the same questions that had been filling his mind to bursting all afternoon. What exactly had the rebels told Erik? What had their offer been? How did they know about his affair with Charles, and what were they planning on doing with the information? Did they know about Erik’s mother? Did they even care?
“You’re far away tonight,” Kitty remarked.
Charles came out of his reverie with a blink and was surprised to find that they’d already left the palace’s outer gates behind and were on the road into the city proper. When he looked over at Kitty, he realized she’d been watching him for some time. At least she didn’t seem upset by his inattention, only…thoughtful.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just—preoccupied.”
“Just…” Charles sighed heavily. “More things than I can explain right now.”
Kitty took his hand. “Charles, you know I’m your friend, right?”
Charles squeezed her fingers. “Of course. Probably my only friend here, if we’re being honest.”
She smiled. “Yes. And you know you can trust me, right?”
“Yes.” He eyed her warily. “Where is this going?”
“I just want you to remember that,” Kitty said. Before he could ask what she meant by that, she tugged him down the street, pace quickening. “Now come on.”
“Hold on,” he protested. “I’m not—we’re not actually getting dinner, you remember—”
“Yes, I remember. I’m covering for you.”
“Yes, and I—I really should get going—”
“To your secret rendezvous that you can’t tell me anything about, and that you made me swear not to question.”
After a moment of trying to figure out why her tone was so brisk and why she was dragging him onward so insistently, he said hesitantly, “Yes…?”
“Trust me,” she said, tightening her grip on his hand. “Come on.”
It had to be nearly eight o’clock. If he didn’t get going soon, there was no way he’d make it to Tornidec Circle on time. But when he tried to pull away from Kitty again, she held onto him stubbornly and towed him along like a wayward child. Bemused, he followed her down one long boulevard, then another. But when the city bells began to chime out the eighth hour, he halted in a panic. “Kitty, wait.” Digging in his heels, he yanked his hand from hers. “I have to go.”
“You…” Something in her voice made him pause and look more closely at her, frowning. “What?”
A strange solemnity had settled over Kitty’s expression. After a long moment, she gestured down the street. “We’re almost there.”
In the last couple of minutes or so, they’d crossed into the lower city. Soon after Charles had received the blackmail note, he’d found a city map in the library and carefully memorized the way to Tornidec Circle. He hadn’t recognized the street name, so he’d known it had to be in one of the numerous, cramped lower districts where most commoners lived. Now, after taking stock of where they were, he realized with a shock that Tornidec Circle was close, five minutes away at most.
But how had Kitty known that?
At his stunned silence, she gave him a small, gentle smile. “Come on. I’ll explain everything once we’re there.”
“Just trust me.”
Too astonished for words, he followed in dazed silence. It wasn’t until they’d reached the address and Kitty took a key out of the folds of her dress that he realized he was wholly unprepared if she was leading him into a trap. He hadn’t thought to bring a weapon, not even a knife.
“Come on,” Kitty said, opening the door. When he remained rooted on the steps outside, she gave him a patient look. “I promise it’s not an ambush.”
“What is it then?”
“With whom? You?” Despite the evidence staring him right in the face, he couldn’t make himself believe that she was involved with this. She was his friend. She wouldn’t have done this to him. She couldn’t have.
“Not just me,” Kitty said. “A few friends of mine have been wanting to talk to you.”
“And you couldn’t have simply asked me?” Charles said, swallowing back a slightly hysterical laugh. “I would have accepted an invitation to tea as usual, you know.”
“They’re not our normal sort of friends, Charles.”
Of course not. They were the sort of friends who left cryptic notes on people’s pillows and blackmailed them to gain their cooperation. They were the sort of friends who plotted coups. Those sort of friends.
The clatter of wheels against stone drew their attention: down the street, a man with a donkey cart trundled slowly their way. Eyeing him warily, Kitty gestured to Charles. “Inside. Please.”
If one of Shaw’s spies happened to spot them here, that would raise questions, and the subsequent inquiry wouldn’t end well for either of them. Pushing back his misgivings, Charles stepped into the house after her and watched as she shut and locked the door.
“Now,” Kitty said, “let’s go.”
A woman appeared at the end of the hall so abruptly that it startled a curse out of Charles. She was tall, slender, and wore her dark hair pulled back in a tight braid. After a moment, Charles recognized her as the woman from Erik’s memories, the one who had drawn the portals.
She scanned Charles over with bright, unnaturally green eyes, then fixed her gaze on Kitty. “You were not followed?”
“Not that I noticed.”
She drew a circle in the air with her hand, and a blazing ring of purple light flickered to life in midair. Despite having seen this twice already in Erik’s memories, Charles was still astounded. Kitty took his arm and towed him closer, and when they neared, he saw that there was another room beyond the ring. He ought to have been able to see the woman and the rest of the hallway on the other side, but instead, amazingly, he found himself staring into an entirely different chamber: the one Erik had met the rebels in just last night.
“Go on through,” Kitty said, giving Charles a gentle push toward the other room. “It won’t hurt you. I’ll be right behind you.”
Erik had done the same thing and he’d been fine, Charles told himself. They wanted to talk, was all.
Taking a deep breath, he stepped through.
Though he’d braced himself, the transition from room to room was painless and immediate. Kitty followed on his heels, then the other woman, Blink. Once they were all through, she waved her hand again, dismissing the portal as easily as she’d summoned it.
At the round table in the center of the room sat the same three rebels Erik had met last night. The woman, Kinross, stood as she saw Charles. “Lord Xavier. It’s good to see you. I trust your journey here was uneventful?”
“Quite,” Charles said, studying her warily. She looked only about Erik’s age, thirty perhaps. Not the grizzled old rebel commander he might have expected to lead these sorts of negotiations. He supposed she might only be the leader of this small sect of rebels, one that answered to a greater authority, some centralized power that ran the whole thing. After all, it couldn’t just be the four of them—five, if you counted Kitty.
“My name is Kinross,” said the woman, “and this is—”
“Banshee,” Charles interrupted. “And Darwin. Yes, I know.”
They all tensed. When he realized that he’d put them on edge, he held up both hands and explained, “Er—Captain Lehnsherr told me. I’m not a—a spy or anything.”
Kinross’s mouth twitched in amusement. Her hand, which had jumped up to the hilt of her sword, returned to tap the table in front of her. “Of course not. We’ve been watching you, my lord. We think you’re in a position to be of some use to us. How much did Captain Lehnsherr tell you?”
“Everything.” Charles had combed through Erik’s memories thoroughly, absorbing every word, every detail. He’d needed the foreknowledge to steady him a little, to give him courage going into tonight.
Kinross nodded. “So you know who we are and what we want.”
“You want to depose Shaw and install his brother Theorn to the throne.”
“We want to return the throne to the rightful king,” Kinross said, a gentle correction. “The crown is Theorn’s birthright, and it’s time he reclaimed it.”
It was the most blatant expression of treachery Charles had ever heard in his life. As one of the king’s sworn nobles, he should have been repulsed. He should have repudiated them. He should have been making mental plans to report them to the king as soon as he returned.
But he wasn’t. His heart hammered with fear, uncertainty, disbelief, and—it took him a moment to realize—not an insignificant measure of hope.
Erik had said a rebellion was impossible. Foolhardy. But the king had spent years instilling enough fear into Erik to paralyze him with it. He couldn’t imagine a world without Shaw. But Charles could.
Walking forward, he slid out one of the empty chairs at the table and sat down. “Alright. I want to hear more.” He glanced at Kitty. “I would especially like to know what role you’re playing in all this.”
Kitty joined them at the table and nodded earnestly. “Of course. I’ll tell you everything. We’ll tell you everything.”
“We’ll tell you enough,” Kinross said. “You must understand that we have no way of knowing where your loyalties truly lie, so forgive us if we’re circumspect to start out with.”
There wasn’t much room left to be circumspect, Charles thought. They’d already outright declared their intention to overthrow the king. That was enough to warrant their execution if Charles testified against them. But he nodded anyway. “Alright.”
“Theorn has spent the last ten years gathering allies,” Kinross said, “both here and abroad. He has many friends, some of them in very high places. For years, he’s been building his campaign to return to Genosha and retake the throne, and soon he’ll be ready to challenge Shaw openly. In the meantime, he’s stationed us in Nierhelme to keep us close to the king. We’re a branch of his intelligence network.”
“Yes. And soldiers, and recruiters. We’re always scouting for allies, particularly those who have access to the king.”
“That’s how I met them,” Kitty said. “They contacted me nearly a year ago. They knew my family had ties to Theorn—my father and uncles supported him back during the war of succession.”
Charles nodded slowly. He vaguely knew the history: the Prydes had sworn allegiance to Shaw once the war was over, but they had never become one of the houses of the king’s inner circle. Shaw had never forgotten any of the families who had supported his brother; they were relegated to a second tier, while those families who had backed Shaw in the war of succession were richly rewarded for their loyalty. The fact that the king had kept Kitty with him these last two years only served to emphasize how little he trusted the Prydes.
It had been no great gamble for the rebels, then, to assume that Kitty might sympathize with their cause. But it must still have been an enormous risk to approach her directly.
“They didn’t want anything from me right away,” Kitty said. “Only my support. I’ll admit, I was as skeptical as you probably are now, but I’ve seen the work they do. Do you remember when that dam broke last spring?”
“I heard of it. In the southern farmlands, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Flooded the whole plain, ruined everything. Shaw sent enough aid to appease his southern lords but not nearly enough to help the poor farmers who’d lost everything. But Theorn did.” She glanced at Kinross. “He had his allies send food and supplies by the cartload. Hundreds of pounds of it. A lot of those people would have starved without that assistance.”
Charles frowned. “I didn’t hear about that.”
“It wasn’t a grand procession or anything. And you know most of the southern lords have reason to keep silent about it.”
Because most of the southern lords had supported Theorn in the war, and they were no doubt grateful for the assistance; otherwise they might have had to empty their own coffers to try to feed and shelter their displaced tenants. Kitty’s father, the Duke of Dorsburg, was included among that number, which, Charles supposed, explained how she knew all of this in the first place.
“So that’s why you support him,” Charles said.
Kitty’s dark eyes glinted fiercely. “He’s not even king, and he’s already done more for his people than Shaw ever has. If I can do anything to help him, then I consider it an obligation to try.”
“And your father?”
She hesitated for a second. “He doesn’t know. I haven’t told him yet. But I know he’d approve, and I know once Theorn’s back, my father will swear loyalty to him again. He’s never liked Shaw, even if he did bend knee to him once.”
So Theorn had won over House Pryde, which was no small matter. Dorsburg was a powerful province, one of the largest in the south. Securing their allegiance would help sway the other southern lords as well. And sending the aid after the flood had been clever—not only had Theorn gained the appreciation of the southern lords, but he’d also won the gratitude of the commoners in the area. If—or when—he marched an army through the farmlands, he’d find a warm welcome, or at least men and women who would think twice before raising a sword against him.
What other allies had Theorn cultivated over the years? Which other lords and ladies of Shaw’s court had been approached?
“I suppose you’re here now to be a friendly face,” Charles said to Kitty after a long moment. “To convince me that this is all a good idea.”
“Something like that.” She reached out and laid a hand over his. “I never meant to deceive you, Charles. I never meant to bring you into this at all but…well, when Kinross asked if you might be open to helping us, I had to say yes. I know you’re not fond of the king, and neither is your father. I knew you’d join us if we gave you good reason to.”
The realization struck Charles like a blow to the ear. Heart pounding, he pulled his hand back from hers, winded with the revelation. “You’re the one who delivered that note. You’re the one who told them about Erik and me.”
He wanted her to say no. He wanted to hear a shocked denial so he would know it wasn’t true, but she only averted her eyes.
“To be fair,” Kinross interjected, “she only told us about your relationship with the captain. It was our idea to use it as leverage.”
“You knew?” Charles asked numbly.
Kitty nodded. “I’ve seen the way you look at each other, Charles. And I…I might have followed you one night when you left the palace.”
“Only as far as the inn!” Kitty hastened to add. “I saw you go in and then the captain arrived a few minutes later and—I swear I went home after that!”
Charles’s face burned—with embarrassment or anger, he wasn’t sure. Kitty had spied on him. She’d passed along his secret to strangers to use as weapon against him. She’d conspired to put both him and Erik in a position to be labeled as traitors to the throne. He could scarcely breathe for a moment through the tightness in his chest.
Whatever she saw in his face made her own expression crumple. “Oh Charles. I didn’t mean—I’m so sorry. If there had been any other way—”
He managed to find his voice. “There was. You could have spoken to me. You could have asked me.”
“I didn’t know if you’d…I wasn’t sure you’d listen.”
“We were friends.”
Kitty drew back as if he’d slapped her. “We are friends,” she said, her voice very small. “I thought.”
Before Charles could reply, Kinross said, “Even if she had wanted to talk to you, we wouldn’t have allowed it. Too risky. It was safer this way.”
“Threatening me was safer,” Charles said, eyes narrowed. He glanced at Kitty. “Would you have let them go through with it? If I had said no, would you have let them tell the king about me and Erik?”
“I…” Kitty looked down at her hands. “Honestly, I never thought it would get that far. I thought you’d say yes.”
“No,” Kinross said, “he didn’t. But I’m hoping you might be able to give us a different answer.”
“Because you’ll expose us if I don’t.” Charles grinned humorlessly. “You don’t seem to be leaving me much of a choice.”
Kinross leaned forward, hands folded on the table. “Lord Xavier, let me be frank. I believe you and I are in a position to help each other. Leave aside the business of the note for a moment, and think about what this could mean for you. Once Theorn returns, you won’t be bound to his court like you’ve been bound to Shaw’s. You’ll be free to go home if you wish. Your family will be free of Shaw’s scrutiny. And you and the captain will be free to love each other. Wouldn’t that be ideal? No more hiding?”
Charles swallowed hard. Even knowing that her words were calculated to put pressure on his weaknesses didn’t lessen their impact. To be free of Shaw, to never again be forced to endure his touch, to never again be tossed at other men like a toy to be shared—and to be able to go home, back to Westchester, back to Raven—and, perhaps most tantalizing of all, to be able to love Erik freely, without fear, without reservations…He wanted all of it so badly he ached.
No matter how they had brought him here, no matter how they’d planned on demanding his cooperation, he couldn’t deny that their goals seemed, for the moment, aligned. Unlike Erik, he couldn’t say no. Not yet.
“What do you want from me?” he asked quietly.
Kinross’s eyes flashed with triumph. When she spoke again though, her voice remained steady and restrained. “Nothing for now. Continue as you have been. Forgive me if this seems crass, but you’re the king’s favorite, Lord Xavier. We need you to keep it that way.”
Charles smiled bitterly. “Keep playing his happy whore then. I can do that.”
Kinross nodded. He was abruptly relieved she didn't react to his words; her pity would have been far worse. “We’ll contact you when we have further instructions. I trust I don’t have to tell you not to speak of this meeting to anyone.” She paused. “Even Captain Lehnsherr.”
“Good. Then we are agreed.” She stood.
Charles remained seated. A plan began to take shape in his mind. He had leverage himself, didn’t he? After all, if they had gone to these lengths to bring him to the table, they needed him as much as he needed them.
He looked up. “I want guarantees.”
Kinross’s eyebrow ticked up. “Name them.”
“Captain Lehnsherr is not to be harmed.”
“I can’t guarantee that. If he fights against us—”
“Captain Lehnsherr is not to be harmed,” Charles said, infusing his voice with steel. “If it comes to a point where he stands in Theorn’s way, then I will handle him. But otherwise, he will be left alone. That is nonnegotiable.”
There was a long pause. Kinross exchanged a glance with her companions, who both nodded slowly. Finally, she met Charles’s gaze again and nodded as well. “Fine. Anything else?”
“You said you’re a part of Theorn’s intelligence network. I want you to find someone for me.”
“Who is it?”
“Captain Lehnsherr’s mother,” Charles said. “I want you to find her. And then we’re going to rescue her.”