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Endurance

Chapter Text

"Do you understand, Kell?"

The words sounded muffled, as if they'd come from far away. Kell didn't understand them at all. He had a idle thought that he should probably answer, but the words do not come. He's too tired. He'll answer later.

He's so tired.

There had been pain, for a while, a screaming agony that he only barely remembers, the sound of Athos's laughter and his white hair swinging into his face, a face spattered with blood. There had been other pain after that. Athos and Astrid looking him over, pleased as cats with cream. Astrid speaking to someone, an agreement made, shaking of hands. Then he'd been left here. 

He hung limply by his wrists, all his weight borne by delicate bones and aching shoulders. There was another ache, a deeper one, that he could not quite bear to think about. He closed his eyes, the blue and the black, tried to remember. His copper hair was plastered against his forehead with sweat, prickled the back of his neck, droplets running down his neck like tears. He should push it away, Kell thinks, but he can't. His arms would not move. The stone had gone from them and his hand felt so empty, so crawlingly empty, devoid of what it really needed.

He had killed Holland, hadn't he? Or tried to.

There had been a moment where he'd thought Holland wanted to die, would simply allow him to win this fight, and then there had been a splash of blood on the ground and a whispered Antari word that Kell did not know, ground out with rage. There were so many words that Holland knew that he never shared with Kell, seemed mildly surprised to learn Kell hadn't discovered already on his own.

There are commands you only learn from suffering, Holland had told him once, brusquely, on his way out after a visit to the Maresh royal family. Kell had been all of fourteen years old, and had still wanted nothing more in the world than Holland to show him everything he knew. It would be immoral of me to teach a child the way I was taught. Enjoy your coddled life, princeling. Learn to appreciate the things you do not know because you have never truly suffered.

The blood Holland called had become black ropes that drained his energy as soon as they touched him. He'd felt Rhy's heartbeat beneath his own, beating strong when his faltered, faltering when his pounded in his throat. Had felt, as if from across the room, Rhy call out his name. As he always did when Rhy needed him, Kell had tried to stand back up, but... he hadn't. The black ropes had tightened and Kell had fallen onto his knees.

After that, things had gone white behind his eyes. After that, the pain, Athos and Astrid laughing, the handshake. Now he was here. Where was here?

"Don't..." He mumbled, stumbling over a tongue that feels dry, too big to fit inside his mouth. His chest burned where he traded his life for Rhy's. The symbol may one day become second nature but for now he felt every moment of the responsibility. He had to live, so that Rhy could live. Kell had made a sacrifice... or forced Rhy to make one. Right now it didn't really matter, because the result is the same.

He didn't want to think about that. There was another strange pain in his back, just below his right shoulder blade, but when he tried to understand it his mind skipped away. He tried to move but chains rattled, and his wrists and ankles didn't move an inch. 

"Sssshhh," The voice from before continued, a little clearer now. "You must be thirsty. Drink." A cup of water was tipped to his mouth, and Kell didn't have the energy to fight this small piece of mercy. He drank, the water cool and clear on a throat that is so raw it burns.

Why is his throat so raw?  Oh, right, the screaming.

"Thank you," Kell said hoarsely.

"Our first lesson." The moment of mercy is gone. The cup, still half-full, is pulled away from him. "How to address me properly."

"N-no, I'm still thirsty," Kell said, and his voice cracked. His mind was coming back to him. He remembered now, remembered lying there struggling against the chains as Holland took the stone from his hand, the black stone transferring as though it had found someone more worthy to carry it. Holland's face had been a cold and empty sea as he'd stared down at him, as Kell had gradually slumped onto his side on the ground. Holland had had the stone in his hand-

Kell's eyes flew open, and he winced against a bright white light and a lance of pain through his head. "The stone! Where is the stone?"

"Sssshhh. Don't ask questions like that." He knew that voice. It was a voice he'd been hearing for most of a decade now, passionless and sharp as a knife. His heart dropped down somewhere near his toes.

Holland.

His black hair had been carefully combed to one side, letting the green and black eyes focus entirely on Kell hanging by the restraints. He wore a loose pair of black pants and heavy black boots, but his bare chest showed Athos Dane's mark, freshly carved over the old scar and still bleeding, just a little. There are drips of blood that have run down his stomach, dried, and been repainted with new blood again. 

"When you speak to me," Holland said with a voice like gravel, ominously steady, "you will show respect. 'Thank you, sir' would have been the proper way to address me. You will say please and thank you and mind your manners." Holland's mouth twisted in a dark humor. "The Danes would like you to remember your manners while you are here."

"Wh-what... H-Holland, I... where..." Kell tried to move again, twisting his head to look up above himself. His wrists are fixed by iron manacles to some kind of heavy wood. He can see blood trickling down from where the iron had cut his skin and he tried to call to it, to use it to escape, but... nothing happens. He wants to turn on Holland and the Danes and... nothing. 

"You have been marked," Holland said, perhaps reading his fear in his face. He tapped the brand on his own chest. "You have a matching one of these on your back now. Well, it's a bit different than mine. Athos carved mine into me." There was a pause. "I carved yours. I'm sorry." There's no way to tell whether he meant it or not - Holland's smile and his voice mean nothing. "You cannot hurt the Danes. You cannot escape the Danes. You cannot hurt me. You and I are tools, now, the both of us."

No. Rhy. Was Rhy still at the Sanctuary? Were his parents... were the King and Queen...

"H-Holland, what happened?"

"I won," Holland said simply, holding out both hands as though trying to turn away a compliment. "Or the Danes did, anyway." They were in a simple circular room made of dingy white brick. Holland leaned slightly back against a pale wooden table covered in steel and iron instruments, and Kell's mind refused to let him look at the things on that table at all. It was warm, and Kell heard a fire crackling somewhere behind him.

Kell's body, hung by his wrists and with his feet just barely able to rest on the floor, resembled a thin, sweaty X. He could feel rough wood digging into his back, rubbing against the carving by his shoulder blade, making him hiss through his teeth at the ache. When he looked down, he saw dried blood, rivulets of it down his legs, his...

"Holland?" Kell asked, fighting his dry throat, his thick tongue. "Where are my clothes?"

"You won't need them for now," Holland answered with a shrug of one shoulder. Was that a smug smile? "I have been given my orders."

Kell's heart pounded in his throat. "Wh-what are your orders?"

"I am to teach you how to endure." Holland tilted his head, looking at Kell with an exacting, calculating expression. His green eye was hard to look away from, even as Kell's gaze falters before the black one, feeling it clash against his own. The power is there. The magic stirs in his blood as always, but he just... can't... use it. It rises, slams into the brand carved into his back, and falls away again, roiling with the need to be brought out, to be called. 

"Endure what?"

"They were not specific." Holland smiled again, and Kell felt himself pushing back into the splintering wood against his back, as though he could sink into it and escape the expression on Holland's face. "When you want something of me, Kell, you will mind your manners. You will say 'please' and 'thank you', 'yes sir' and 'no sir'. Do you understand?"

Kell closed his eyes against the pull of the brand on his back. He is not being made to think or to feel or to want, no - this mark matches Holland's, different only in that Holland had been the one to carve it into him, was the one he was bound to obey. The magic carved into his skin will make him do. 

"I asked you a question, Kell. You will answer every question I ask you truthfully."

"Yes, sir," his voice grinds out against his will, and he chokes back a sob. He is Antari. There are only two like him left in the worlds, and his will is being subjected to the other one. Kell clenched his eyes shut until the tears ran out, ran down his face, washing away sweat he barely felt. He will not cry. He is Antari, and Lila is still out there somewhere, and Rhy is alive, and that will be enough, for now.

It had to be enough. For now.

"Good," Holland replied. "Athos Dane watched me do the carving, at his command. Sadly, I can't give you any orders that contradict his. But when he commanded me to teach you how to endure, Kell, he left a certain element of... discretion. His sister, unfortunately, took advantage of it." Holland stepped forward, the emptiness fading from his face, replaced by a rage that was infinitely more terrifying. His hair, a faded charcoal, brushed against Kell's forehead as he leaned in. Kell's black eye tried to rebel, force itself away from the black of Holland's, but they were too close and there was nowhere else to look. Kell screwed his eyes shut again, breathing in harsh pants. "I cannot order you to hurt him, or her. I cannot help you escape them, or teach you how to do it yourself. I wouldn't even if I did know. I loathe you."

"What?" Kell, confused, looked back up, only to discover Holland had come even closer, quickly jerking his head to the side to look away. 

"You are a spoiled child." Holland's voice was soft but it shook, just slightly, with very old anger. "I have watched you, princeling, live your life of luxury and mope about its constrictions. You know nothing of suffering. You know nothing of hardship. You know nothing of pain, or what it means to take what joys still exist in a life that seems devoid of them. You know none of these things."

Holland reached up, laying his palm over the mark on Kell's chest, his shared heartbeat with Rhy. "Neither does your brother." Kell felt more than heard Holland move closer, the sense of a lukewarm body next to his, neither hot nor cold. "But the two of you are about to learn."

Holland's teeth grazed the shell of his ear and Kell jerked his head back, smacking it hard into the wood of the X behind him, groaning as black stars burst behind his eyes. "Stop! What are you- ugh!" Fingers twisted into his copper hair and held him still. He pulled at his wrists and arms as hard as he could, bringing only a new ache up his shoulders and back, even as Holland's grip only tightened and tightened. "L-leave me the fuck alone!"

"I can't. I wanted to, but I can't. Kell, there is nothing more in the world right now I would like to do than let you go free, to run back to your royal family and your cloistered little life. But I have been ordered to do this to you, and I must do as I am told. I wouldn't struggle, if I were you. I know that the mark on your chest means. If you struggle, I will hurt you, and Rhy will feel it." Holland's hand still lay over his connection to Rhy, and his skin felt like the air, just a pressure with no warmth outside of itself. Faded, like his hair and his skin and all of White London. Bled nearly dry of life. "Do you understand me?"

Kell tried to fight the compulsion, but the brand against his back burned and the words were finally forced out of him. "Y... yeh… yes, s-sir."

"Good. Would you like another drink of water, Kell?"

Kell swallowed against the pain in his throat, pain he realized must have come from screaming when Holland was carving into him, a pain he does not remember and isn't sure he would want to even if he could. Holland pulled back and away from him, finally away, and Kell let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The cup of water was sitting on the table where Holland left it. His eyes strayed there, and then back to Holland. The older Antari was watching him closely, expressionless again. "Yes, sir," He said finally, softly. "Please. I would like water."

"Maybe you'll learn today's lesson faster than I thought." Holland's voice was thoughtful but he held the cup back up to Kell's lips. This is how you survive, of course; you take what mercy you are given but never forget that it comes at a price. 

It was humiliating, being forced to drink from a cup held to his lips when he cannot move his hands, but Kell had a feeling there were larger humiliations still to come. He couldn't see the use in fighting every single potential bit of mercy right from the start.

"What do you say when I do something for you?" Holland asked, his voice deceptively gentle, tilting his head again.

"Thank you, sir," Kell muttered, and let his gaze drop to the ground. 

"Good boy." Kell felt his face burn with the humiliation of the words, but he didn't look up. Instead, he watched Holland's black boots as the other man stepped closer, one step at a time, thinking about his own, narrowly built boots, made for a Red London with mild seasons, where Holland's had been built to withstand the heavy chill that had taken over his world. "Athos is not the only one who gave orders, of course. He told me to teach you to endure." Holland's hand brushed over Kell's face, grabbed his hair to hold him still. Holland leaned in again, the strange lukewarm sense of him against Kell's closed eyes, burnt like a bright red brand behind his black eye, feeling even now the way their Antari powers tried to fight each other, to clash. 

"Please stop-"

"No."

"Holland, don't touch me-"

"Tomorrow's lesson will be for you to learn that telling me to stop touching you is a mistake you will not repeat. Athos wants you to learn to endure. Astrid wants you to learn to enjoy it."

"No- no-"

Those teeth grazed along the shell of his ear again and Kell could not move, only grunted softly in the back of his throat. A bite at his earlobe, a flicker of tongue below his jaw where his pulse beat in his neck, trailing downwards, leaving a trail of wet that made Kell shiver when it met the warm air. Holland closed his mouth slowly around the spot where Kell's shoulder and neck met, first biting hard enough to draw blood. Kell gasped at the spike of pain, his body jerked forward as if to try and pull himself free. Holland began to suck at the skin and Kell swallowed against a strange mix of pain from those teeth and the more unsettling way his tongue against the bloody bite mark sent a thrill down from his neck straight between his legs. "Stop-" He whispered, but the sound of his voice had changed, and, terrified, Kell realized that Holland's tongue felt so good. "Stop-"

"No," Holland whispered against his skin, tonguing at the wound. "You will share pain with your brother, like this. Astrid Dane would like me to show to you - and him - what else you share." He lowered his head back to his neck again and Kell's head fell back against the wood, eyes staring sightlessly up at the white light somewhere in the ceiling, feeling his hips beginning to shift on their own as his cock began to harden.

"You really need to find a partner," Holland said with a hint of faded humor in his voice, looking down, before going back to his work. "This should not be this easy. I really thought I'd have to do a lot more than that-"

"Go to hell! No- no, I-... hnnnngh, stop-"

Within himself, he felt Rhy's heartbeat. Wherever he was, he must be awake by now, must feel everything Kell does, if faded, from a distance. I'm sorry, Kell thought wildly, as Holland's mouth trailed up the side of his neck, over that spot in his jaw, up to his earlobe to bite again. I'm so sorry, Rhy. 

"If it helps," Holland said, devoid of emotion, as his fingertips trailed down the center of Kell's chest, over his collarbone and slowly down his stomach, a hand moving to grab him by one hip as he sagged in the restraints, "I don't particularly want to do this either. If it were up to me, I'd rather inflict pain. At least if I'm given the choice between those two. But orders are orders." He shrugged again, that one-shouldered shrug, even as Kell fought a losing battle to regain control over his body's responses to the other Antari's touch.

"They say Antari are like different aspects of the same dark sky," Holland said thoughtfully. "That we are endlessly drawn together, by magic trying to find its way back to its home, to combine. I will be your home, now, Kell."

"Never," Kell tried to spit in Holland's face, but his mouth was still too dry. "I'll die first."

"Then Rhy will die, too," Holland replied reasonably. "Is that what you want?"

"N-no. No, sir."

"Lesson one seems to have taken hold well enough. Astrid did command that you be rewarded when you learn your lessons. I... Kell, I fucking hate her commands. Athos at least deals in pain. Astrid... Astrid is so much worse." Holland's hand found its way to the growing hardness between Kell's legs and as his fingers closed around it, Kell caught his breath at the strangeness of it, cold fingers, pale and thin. It wasn't that no one else had ever touched him before, but this... "Worse because you can guard yourself against pain. You can learn to close it off. But to mix it with this, well... she knows where we are weak. And you are very young and don't know yet how to make this empty. I think her instincts were probably correct. You are Antari, you can withstand pain. But you will be weak to this."

Holland pressed his mouth to his and Kell's eyes were wide, feeling the clash of their Antari powers, the repulsion between them, as Holland's hand began to move and his mouth pressed harder, trying to open Kell's, seeking entrance. 

"Mmmmph! Mmmmf!" Kell couldn't move his hands, couldn't pull them down to fight back. The chains rattled as he tried desperately to free himself, but nothing happened and his blood did not answer his call. Holland's hand tightened almost to the point of pain and he pulled back. "Open your mouth," He said softly, and Kell groaned as his body did as it was told without his input. Holland kissed him again, if you could call it that, pushing his tongue into Kell's mouth, his hand moving expertly, Kell's muffled protests turning into grunts and then finally, weakly, moans, hips moving, tears running out of his eyes and down his face freely.

Holland pulled back, chuckling in an empty voice. "How does your brother's heart sound?"

Rhy's heart was racing, the second pulse beside his own going even faster than his. Somewhere, Kell thinks, his brother is as trapped as he is, feeling everything he feels. Will he know what it is? Why it is? That Kell has been captured here in the Danes' palace? Or will he just think...

No. Rhy knows him better than that. 

"Fast," He says, softly. "His heart sounds fast."

"How do you feel?"

"Terrible."

Holland laughed. Holland's hand kept moving, stroking a thumb over the head slowly before taking hold of him again, and Kell's resistance to it broke down faster than he'd ever admit. The pleasure of it, of Holland's hand moving up and down him, built, the strangeness of Holland's cool fingers a counterpoint to his own sweating heat. When Kell came, against his will, every muscle tightened and his head thrown back, groaning nonsense words to nothing and no one in particular, Holland did not let go or pull away but only stepped closer, seeing Kell through to the finish of it.

When it was over, Holland looked down at the mess on his hand and the floor and smiled, just slightly, at something funny Kell couldn't even begin to fathom. "Did you enjoy that, Kell? Remember that you must answer honestly."

Kell collapsed as the shame took over him, slumping, letting his aching shoulders and arms take his weight once again. "Yes, sir," He whispered, his voice shaking, feeling tears prick his eyes again. "I did." He can feel Rhy's fear, too, somewhere deep within him, his worry. His heart is still pounding alongside Kell's own.

I hope he was still in bed. Please, to anything that might hear me, please let him have still been sleeping.

"Good. That was a reward for learning your lesson. Athos wants you to hurt and endure, just as I do. To suffer the indignity of not even belonging to the monarchy now, to be a slave's slave instead. Astrid wants you to be ashamed of enjoying it." Holland stepped back over to the table, washed off his hand in a bowl of water, and returned with a thin strap of black leather with a buckle on one end, a small ring of metal hanging from it. Kell doesn't understand what he's looking at until Holland slides the leather around his neck and fastens it. Kell's heart goes cold. He could hide this with a high-necked shirt but it's just slightly too tight, and he can feel it every time he swallows.

"Never take it off," Holland said softly. "Never again."

"She told you to put that on me?" He asked, barely breathing the words.

"Yes. And to put this on myself." Holland fastened identical black leather around his own wrist, a length of it that twined around his arm twelve or thirteen times, like a woven bracelet. "She badly wants me to have to lead you around by this. Do me a favor, Kell - don't make me do that in front of her. That would just be embarrassing for both of us. Let Astrid enjoy the symbolism. I belong to the Danes, Kell." Holland's eyes met his. "And you belong to me."

Kell stared slowly down at the ground, trying to figure out where it went so wrong. 

"Do you understand what I just said, Kell?"

"Yes, sir."

"Repeat it back to me."

"You belong to the Danes," Kell said numbly. He still felt languid, his skin a shivery mess, weak and spent. The black leather against his neck was just a little too tight, he can't stop feeling it, thinking about what it represents. He can't stop thinking about the leather wrapped around Holland's wrist the idea of Astrid watching him be led by it. He closed his eyes. 

"And?"

"And I belong to you."

"Good. Eventually they're going to discover they made a mistake, with that plan."

Kell looked up, seeing something new in Holland's eyes. Pity? Sympathy? Determination? At least, he thought, it's something other than hate or the usual vague, ill-defined contempt. "Holland, I-"

"Until then," Holland cut him off, "consider yourself a pet Antari. No different than you were before, really. But I am not as kind as the Maresh family is to those things that belong to me. Nothing's really changed about your position, Kell. You were the Maresh family's property before. Now you are mine. I apologize for your future, but try to take comfort in the fact that I now have explicit commands to teach you more Antari magic. Once they believe you'll do their bidding as well as I do, I imagine you'll even go back to running messages between the Londons with me. On a leash, of course, so to speak. Or maybe literally."

Holland went back to the table full of objects again, and Kell closed his eyes, breathing hard, trying to decide what to do next, if he could do anything at all. Lila was still... somewhere out there, being Lila. She might rescue him. She might not know how to begin. And Kell wasn't sure he could bear it if the Danes forced him to attack her.

Or if Holland did.

"Drink this," Holland commanded, holding up a small brown glass bottle, faded to something closer to beige, against his lips. Kell drinks, wincing at the metallic taste and strange, thick texture. He can feel the world starting to crumble at the edges, falling apart like glass, within a second of his first swallow. 

"Wh-what-"

"Sleep," Holland said, sounding gentle and soothing again. "I am your new home. I'll go get the guards."

The blackness, a soft and gentle, irresistible thing, crashed into Kell's mind as the drug took hold. He blinked, slowly, at Holland's back as he exited through a door Kell hadn't even realized was there. His blinks become slower. It was harder to open his eyes again each time he tried. 

Rhy's heart pulsed in time with his as the black fog finally closed over his head and Kell slept. 

Chapter Text

Kell woke up and, for a moment, everything seemed normal.

The covers had been pulled up to his chin and he luxuriated in the simple warmth of a good bed. His eyes flickered open, registering in a distracted, sleepy way that something was different, but then they closed again and he drifted back away. He had a headache; must've slept wrong, he thought, shifting around, finding a better way to lay his head against the softness of his pillow. His stomach flipped, a little queasy, and he wondered if he might be hungover. Best cure for a hangover was more sleep.

He let himself begin to drift, in that foggy half-awake in-between place in his mind, listening to his own heartbeat, Rhy's a pulse echoing his, just a beat or so behind. Sleeping, just like Kell was, sleeping so peacefully. 

"I'm glad to see you like the bed," Holland said, and Kell's eyes flew open as it all crashed back in. He scrambled to sit up, pushing back covers that he realized now were the same worn-out characoal color as Holland's hair, matching the soft sheets and the pillow cases and the ebony wood frame of the bed itself. He was wearing a thin black shirt, a button-up with a high collar that let only a glimpse of the leather band around his neck show. Kell felt himself blush furiously as he swallowed and felt the leather dig in, just slightly, into the skin of his neck. He wore soft black pants, too. All of them the same faded nothing almost-black. "Did you sleep well?"

Kell could still feel the ache of the mark on his heart, his connection to Rhy, and the one on his back, his subjugation. Bound in body, but at least, he thought, not in mind, not in soul. Wounds had healed - Antari healed fast and, unless they were forced to hurt themselves to the point that there was not enough blood for the healing, they did not scar. Holland was wearing his usual clothes, sleeves pushed back up to his elbows as though he'd been working on something, and Kell's eyes went to the multitude of scars that ran up his arms. The Danes rarely stopped hurting him before they went too far. "Yes, sir," He whispered, because it was true and because he had to answer the question. "H-Holland, is... is this your bed?"

He'd been given something to make him sleep, after Holland had... after he had... Kell had not thought he could blush any harder but discovered he had thought wrong. 

"It is," Holland confirmed. "This is my room. And yours now, I suppose. Astrid laughed for an hour at her own cleverness. It's my fault, really. I should have told the guards which one to put you in."

"Which... which one?"

Holland gestured with one arm, his motions precise and defensive, as though every movement was laced with a readiness to defend against an attack. Kell looked in the direction he was pointing, across a room made of pale white bricks, set with soft rugs along the hard wooden floor. He saw a table with four chairs in the massive space, bookshelves lining the walls, symbols along one side that Kell recognized as an Antari marking himself places to go within his own world. Along the wall next to a bookshelf was a smaller bed, with the same warm blankets and sheets. It had to be at least twenty feet from one bed to the other. Kell felt himself breathe a sigh of relief. "That bed is meant to be yours," Holland continued. "I will chain you to it."

The relief was gone, replaced by a spike of fear that had already grown too familiar. "Wh-what? No!"

"Relax," Holland said, his voice clipped. "I don't like vulnerability. I have enough forced on me as it is. It's only a safeguard for when I sleep. Besides, you'll be tired enough by the time the days end that I doubt you'll even notice."

"I don't think I could possibly get that tired," Kell muttered.

"Don't say something like that in front of the Danes, or they'll take it as a challenge," Holland replied, and Kell could have sworn there was a note of wry humor in his voice. When he looked up, though, the other man's pale, colorless face was as blank as ever. "There is water on the table. Go pour yourself a drink."

Kell slowly stood, uncertain if this was a command or not. He was thirsty, though... and the drug still pounded slightly in his temples, his thoughts a little fuzzy, tripping over themselves. His bare feet settled into a thick fur rug and he blinked, looking down. The fur was faded around the edges, but in the center of the rug... "This came from a different London," He said softly, crouching down to drag his fingers through the vibrant rust-red tipped brown fur.

Holland inclined his head slowly, walking over to the table, pulling out a chair with an audible scrape along the stone floor. "It is. The one you like to call Grey London. I brought it back."

"But that's-"

"Like you're one to talk, smuggler. I told you to pour yourself a drink. I expect my commands to be obeyed. Sit down and drink some water."

Kell stood back up, hesitating, eyes going from the chair to Holland's hands and back. Finally, he walked over to it, taking his time, trying to keep his feet on the warm rugs and not on the chill stone floor. He shivered a little - Holland didn't have a fire in the fireplace and White London was never warm anymore. He slowly sat down, leaning forward and slouching away from Holland's presence. Even without warmth, it was a tangible pressure in the air, the feeling of the older Antari behind him, still as a statue.

Kell poured himself a glass of water. Just as he went to take a drink, he felt Holland's fingers brush against the back of his neck and jerked forward, water sloshing out of the cup and spilling on the table.

"Lesson two," Holland said flatly behind him. "You will learn not to reject my touch." He grabbed Kell by the back of his head and slammed it, forehead first, down on the table. Kell saw stars burst behind his eyes and his cup fell from his hands as he tried to grab at Holland's hands to pull free. His forehead was slammed down twice more and Kell went limp, dazed, groaning as he felt blood trickling from his scalp.

Blood.

"As... as- as hasari." The wound healed as quickly as it had been made. He heard Holland chuckle, dryly, behind him. 

"Clever. Now." Holland let go and simply stood, waiting for Kell for pull himself back together. Kell put his hands on the table and slowly pushed himself back up. "When I touch you, you must not flinch, or try to pull away from it. This is not a command. You will not be forced by the mark on your back. But you must learn it nonetheless. Do you understand?"

His head ached so badly, pounding along with his heart, with Rhy's heart. Kell groaned, closing his eyes again, feeling himself sway a little in his seat. "Yes, sir. I-I understand. But I can't- I don't want to-"

Holland snorted. "What you want is irrelevant to me, princeling."

"Why are you doing this to me?" Kell asked, hearing in his voice the whine, the fear he hadn't wanted to show. 

"Because this is part of endurance, Kell." Holland used the same voice you might use to answer a question from a particularly slow child. "Enduring indignity is important, especially when you are bound to the Danes." Kell began to turn and Holland grabbed his hair again, bashing his head back into the table. Kell groaned, leaving it there this time, feeling the cool wood against his face as his head pounded. "I did not tell you to look at me. Here is the thing about Astrid, Kell; she loves to touch what belongs to her. She longs to touch you. But she hates when her touch is rejected. So I will teach you to never reject a touch, to never flinch or pull away, to never make it clear that you do not want whatever it is they have to give, whether cruelty or mercy. You must learn to endure. To pull away is to show weakness. To flinch is to give to the Danes knowledge of how they might break you."

This time, when Holland's fingertips lightly touched along his neck, trailing the leather band, one finger finding its way underneath to run along his skin, Kell forced himself to stay very, very still, teeth ground together. 

"Good," Holland said simply. "We'll try a few more things today, until I am confident that the lesson is fully learned."

"What kind of things?" Kell asked, his forehead still resting against the table. Holland's fingers found their way back up into his hair, gently this time, and Kell felt his hands clutching at the cloth of his own pants, clenching into fists around it, digging fingernails into his legs through the cloth to hold himself still. He couldn't hurt Holland. He couldn't escape the Danes. Couldn't leave this place. He could feel all the couldn't floating around him, commands carved into his body, a scar he could never remove. 

"It's probably better if you don't ask ahead of time," Holland let go of him and Kell listened to the soft thump of his boots on the stone floor, the occasional silences where he must be walking over the rugs. "Just trust me when I say that you're not going to like it. But if you do as I say... if you do not try to pull away from my touch or reject it... you will be rewarded for your obedience."

Kell felt his face reddening again, glad that his shaggy copper hair mostly hid his face, and the table did the rest. "Like you rewarded me yesterday?"

"Yes. Don't sound so resentful. I don't enjoy it any more than you do. But at least it's something pleasant. Trust me. I did not get that kind of mercy." Holland snorted, and Kell could have sworn he heard him laugh. "Even in subjugation, the world can't help but be easier on you. Kell, stand up and come here to me."

Kell flattened his palms on the table and used it to push himself up. The blood was already drying on his face from the healed first wound, and the second was more a bruise than anything else. It would heal fast enough. He turned to look Holland's way, watching the faded green eye and the black focus on him. Holland's face was expressionless, but that was normal. He was holding something bunched up in one hand. Kell took a step, still a little dizzy, and then another. 

"I didn't say walk." There was definitely a note of amusement in Holland's voice this time. "You're not a prince here, Kell."

"I wasn't a prince there, either," He snapped, putting a hand up to his head, feeling the ache of the bruise at the slightest pressure, even as it healed itself. 

"Weren't you? Crawl."

Kell hesitated, feeling the burn of the brand on his back, gritting his teeth against it. 

"Did you not understand the order, Kell?"

"I... yes, sir. I understood it. I don't want-"

"I don't care about what you want. You cannot learn to endure indignity without having to do something you don't want to do. Crawl, or I'll clip this-" He tapped two fingers against the thin, strong black leather wrapped so many times around his left wrist, "-to your collar and force you."

Kell flinched, hearing it called that for the first time, one hand going up to feel at the small metal ring that hung from the buckle on the front. Finally, he nodded, slowly, and dropped down to his hands and knees, feeling his face burn with anger and embarrassment. It took an eternity to cross the room. He kept his eyes on his hands, trying to think about what Holland had said. This was a lesson. He was supposed to learn from this - to endure indignity without showing how much it bothered him.

Holland, whatever awful thing he was doing, was trying to teach him how to survive the Danes. And this lesson on enduring indignity was probably kinder than any either of the twins would teach him.

Kell had definitely never felt less dignified than this.

He made it, finally, and stopped on his hands and knees, staring down at Holland's heavy black boots, breathing a little hard. He hadn't eaten in... what, a whole day now? Had Rhy eaten? Was he even awake yet? He'd still been sleeping when Kell and Lila had left him-

"Don't think about that." Kell hadn't realized he'd spoken out loud until he heard Holland snort.

"I don't know what you were thinking, but I'd say that's probably sound advice." Holland's fingertips brushed through his hair and Kell managed to hold still, skin crawling with the urge to pull away. He didn't, though. He held himself as still as he could, even as Holland's gentle touch became fingers through his hair, down the back of his head, over his neck, pulling slightly at the black leather band again. Kell clenched his eyes shut, curled his hands into fists on the floor, but he did not pull away. Holland crouched before him, hands roaming across his body, over and under the fabric of his shirt, that strange lukewarm touch feeling comfortingly warm compared to the room's chill air. Kell felt his stomach roil with shame and disgust and something darker, but he did not move. He did not flinch. He forced himself to stay perfectly still and accept it.

"Good," Holland said again. "You learn more quickly than I expected. Perhaps I underestimated your unwillingness to be hurt if someone isn't actively holding a knife to your brother's neck. But this is only the second thing. Get up on your knees."

Kell sat himself back, resting on his knees, laying his hands on his thighs, slowly looking up. 

He felt his face go at once white and then red as he realized Holland was undoing his own belt, slowly. "Have you done this before?" He titled his head, and that charcoal hair fell over his black eye. He slid the belt out of its loops, wrapped it around one hand. 

Kell nodded.

"Manners, Kell."

"I-I'm sorry. Yes, sir. I have." His face burned with embarrassment.

"How many times?"

"J-just once." He'd been sixteen, and wanted to see if he and Rhy were the same about men and women, or if it was only women he wanted. Even after what had happened with the other boy, someone he'd met at a festival and never seen again, he still wasn't sure. There hadn't exactly been more than one or two women, either.

And Lila Bard, a hurried kiss that probably hadn't meant anything at all.

Was she looking for him, somewhere? Was she lost in Red London? Or maybe she'd just walked away from all the inconvenience and was already gone.

Kell was a master at not knowing himself - he didn't know his past or the things he was supposed to be capable of. He didn't know his real parents or why he had been given up the way he had been. He didn't know all of the blood commands that Holland knew. He didn't know what he wanted to be or to think or to do.

Not this, though.

Not this.

"So you're no good at it, then." Holland sighed, a faint sound of disappointment. "I was hoping you would be, if I absolutely have to do this. Orders are orders." Holland undid the button at the top of his pants, and looked down at Kell, their eyes meeting as he considered. "I suppose I could teach you how to be good at it."

"Have you...?"

Holland pulled back a hand and slapped him across the face. Kell's head snapped hard to the side and he lost his balance, falling over, putting a palm up to feel at his cheek, staring up at the other Antari.

"Don't ask such stupid fucking questions," Holland said, an edge to his voice. "Of course I have. I wasn't any better than you likely are, the first time. Get back up on your knees."

Athos Dane made him do it, Kell thought. That's why he reacted that way. Probably still does.

Kell pushed himself back up. "If I... If I try to learn," He said softly, breathlessly, "will you promise to teach me something? After..."

"After your reward?" Holland suggested, and Kell felt his face flush red again. 

"After," Kell repeated, more firmly. "Or- or you could do that instead of... Will you teach me a command I don't know yet?"

"Astrid was very insistent that you receive rewards for obedience, and what sort of rewards they need to be," Holland said simply, but his mouth curled a bit in disgust. "You do realize you are genuinely selling your mouth for a blood spell." That quirk of amusement again, mixed with pity. Kell closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and nodded.

"The mark on my back..." He spoke slowly, taking his time. "I already can't say no, n-no matter what you do. I don't s-see why..."

"Why you can't get something out of it, if you have to live through it?" There was a long silence, drawn out until Kell finally looked back up at the older Antari, only to discover his smile was a little less guarded and cruel than it had been before. "Kell Maresh, I do believe there's hope for you yet," Holland said, a note of surprise in his voice. He sighed. "Do you know the spell to confine?"

Kell thought of a bird and a broken neck, and slowly nodded.

"I'll show you how to undo it. How to set them free without killing them. I will show you how to bind others the way you were bound, but with Antari power, stronger than what Astrid and Athos have done to you. But first... I want you to learn how to do this the right way. Close your eyes."

Kell did as he was told, and felt the whisper of cloth, slightly warm from Holland's skin where he'd held it bunched in his hand, going over his face. When he opened his eyes, he saw nothing but darkness and a hint of a moving shadow, feeling Holland tie the blindfold behind his head. 

"Everyone is better if they focus on the feeling, not what they see. Feel free to imagine it's your brother if you want."

"How dare you-"

"Ah, touched a nerve on that one. No wonder you say you're bad at this."

"I never said-"

"Sssshhh. Focus. Open your mouth."

Kell clenched his eyes shut behind the blindfold, and then, taking a deep breath, he slowly opened his mouth.

"Good. Bite me and I'll rip your throat out and let your brother bleed to death with you."

There was a pause, the rustle of hands on buttons and clothes, and then Kell felt it. The boy at the festival had been drunk, as had Kell, and the two of them had made up for their lack of knowledge with enthusiasm. This was cold, and something Holland did only because Astrid Dane had ordered him to. When Holland's cock brushed against his mouth, Kell couldn't help but recoil from it, tears in his eyes. Holland grabbed him by the back of the head roughly. 

"I told you. Do it right or I won't teach you the command."

Kell opened his mouth again, and felt Holland slowly pushing in. "First off, don't just try to take it all at once. You'll have to get used to it." Holland's voice was clinical, as though they were discussing the finer points of philosophy. Kell tried not to think about the fact that Holland, who hated him, had already gotten this hard before he'd ever even touched him.

He likes being the one to do this to me. Does he hate me that much?

"There you go," Holland said, his voice as expressionless as ever, his fingers twining into Kell's copper hair. "Just the tip, start there. There you go, focus on that for just a second. " It was salty and not exactly pleasant and Kell could feel his throat trying to close and cut off his air. His whole body sang at him to stand up, fight back, to run away, but the brand on his back burned and this is what Holland wanted him to do, so it was what his body would obey.

Holland apparently had not been kidding when he said he intended to teach him how to do this properly. Kell's jaw hurt from holding his mouth open before too long, and Holland's cock in his mouth was warm from his own body heat, the only thing he could taste any longer. He couldn't see anything through the blindfold, leaving the feel of Holland's cock, hard and longer than he'd expected, a solid weight in his mouth, the only sensation beyond the way his hand continued to move through Kell's hair. Holland kept up a running commentary of commands, suggestions, orders and advice, and Kell felt his body trying to follow it all, tears running down his face, having to choke back a sob when Holland pushed himself further in. 

He felt, after a while, the way Holland touched him beginning to change. The hands clenched in his hair loosened and found their way down behind his head, grazed gently over his cheekbones, went down to the leather band around his neck. Holland was leaning over him, letting out the slightest whispery sounds from the back of his throat, the occasional murmured 'good', 'again', 'take more'. Kell wasn't sure he could take it much longer, his jaw hurt so much, it-

The hands were back in his hair, suddenly tighter than ever, and Holland pushed Kell's head in against him until his nose pressed against the flat plane of his abdomen. Kell choked, scrabbling at Holland's hips, trying to push himself back.

"Ssshhh, relax your throat," Holland said, almost gently, and Kell struggled to obey. Between his legs, he felt a pressure building, something he didn't want to think about, didn't even want to acknowledge. He couldn't possibly be enjoying this. He couldn't possibly be-

Holland gripped his hair again, pushing as far into his mouth and he could go, groaning softly, a strangely young sound, some of the bitter age falling off of him in the moment. He pushed in further, further- Kell's throat burned, his jaw ached. Suddenly Holland jerked back, pulling out of Kell's mouth completely, and Kell discovered that some parts of Holland were still warm he felt a warm heat splatter across his face. He flinched, and Holland shoved him onto his back on the ground.

"You failed lesson two," Holland said, his voice ragged. Kell breathed in harsh gasps, feeling it against his face still, slowly dripping down his cheek and onto the floor, a little in his hair. "You flinched."

"I-I couldn't see, I-"

"Don't worry. We have all day. You'll have time to make it up to me. Besides, I can see that this wasn't complete agony. Stand up."

Kell stood, legs wobbling a little, his knees aching from the stone floor. He clenched his hands into fists at his sides, listening to the thump of Holland's boots as he walked a slow, slow circle around him. He heard the swish of Holland's clothing as he reached out and only barely managed to still himself when Holland's fingertips brushed between his legs, over the cloth of his pants.

"There we go," Holland said. Kell knew his expression had to be registering his disgust but he didn't move He held still, even as Holland slowly cupped him in one palm, laughing that dry, humorless laugh. "Clearly it wasn't the worst thing you've ever been taught to do, hm?"

The question had been asked, and Kell gritted his teeth against the honest answer. "No, sir. It wasn't."

"You're a quick learner. Let's move on to the next task. Go back to my bed."

Kell hesitated. "B-but you- you just-"

"Isn't your mind stuck on one track. I just want you to follow my orders blindly. Literally, in this case. You can't undo the blindfold. Go back to my bed."

Kell took a deep breath, put his hands out for balance, and tried to remember where everything had been in the room. 

"Do you think you can do it? Find your own way? Or shall I lead you?"

This is teaching me to endure indignity. He is teaching me how to survive what he lives with every day.

Kell slowly nodded. "Yes, sir. I can find my way."

I can find my way out of this.

His mouth still tasted like Holland, and Kell tried not to think about the simple fact that the taste wasn't all that bad at all.

 

Chapter Text

In the end, Kell found the bed without actually falling down. 

The blindfold still on, he took a second to think, trying to sense out his surroundings. His mind kept trying to return to what he had just done, to the feeling of Holland pushing himself into his mouth, the taste that continued to linger, the throb between his legs. He pushed it down, focused on Rhy's heartbeat next to his. Rhy hadn't woken all day, if his heart was anything to go by. How long would it take him to heal from what Kell had done? 

Maybe he would just sleep through all of this. 

"I'll teach you two commands today," Holland said from behind him. Kell, hands out for balance, had made it halfway across the second rug. He was retracing his steps by the feel of the warm rugs beneath his feet. The one closest to the table, he remembered, had been wool and slightly itchy against his toes. The next was a smooth bear rug. The next was wool again. 

Kell paused. "What?"

"Find your way back first. Then I'll tell you. I'll show you."

"Why?"

Why help me any more than you have to?

"You ask too many questions. Do as you're told."

Kell took a deep breath, tried to recenter himself. He was in the midst of the second wool rug. Kell could feel the edges of the blindfold laying against his cheeks, the knot tied tightly just behind his head. What had the rug looked like? It had had a faint, faded pattern on it, greens and grays. He tried to picture it in his mind, to remember how big it was. Rectangular, about the length of one of Kell's legs... he took one step and then another. Moved very slightly to the right, remembering that the next fur rug was just beyond it. His feet touched the cold stone floor for three footsteps, four five-

There it was. The red-tipped brown fur rug next to the bed. He knew the softness of the fur immediately. Kell put his hands out, feeling for it, relieved when he nearly stumbled into the ebony wood frame, turning slowly around in the direction Holland had been standing. "I made it. I found the bed."

"Congratulations, you completed a task I would have given a four year old," Holland said drily. "And it arguably would have taken a child less time. Sit down on the bed and don't take off the blindfold."

Kell heard his boots, the sound they made on the stone floor and the quiet when Holland walked on the rugs. He sat himself down, gently, tilting his head up slightly trying to hear, to gauge where Holland was in the room. The chair was scraped back into place against the table. Holland moved almost silently, even in the relative safety of his own room. 

Kell wondered, listening to him, where the Danes were. Why they hadn't appeared to gloat, yet. If they would send Holland to Red London to tell the Maresh family what had happened to their Antari, or if they were still looking for Rhy, if...

When Holland's fingers touched the side of his face, Kell did not move or even flinch. He closed his eyes instead, forcing himself to take deep, even breaths. If all of this was a lesson in surviving the Danes, then he could learn. He could learn to be like Holland, who never flinched at what they said or did to him or forced him to do, who endured it all and still had something in his eyes that said he hadn't given himself up fully yet. He could learn, even if this was the way Holland had to teach him.

He had to survive, so that Rhy would survive - so that the second heartbeat controlled by his would not falter.

"Good." Holland wiped away the mess on Kell's cheek. "Now, listen. This is the command you may use if you are ever in this situation again. But try not to let whoever has you know you've done it."

"This situation...?"

"The blindfold, Kell. Please try to keep up. I won't repeat myself." There was a brief silence, the gentle snnnckt of a knife. Kell felt Holland's fingers on the side of his face, drawing a symbol. "It doesn't matter where you draw it. What matters is the intent, and the will, and the words. But I want you to pay attention very carefully to me." Holland leaned over, whispering against Kell's ear, "As videre, Kell."

He felt something in the back of his eyes shift, as though a second set of eyes had opened, and Kell could see through his blindfold.

The world was darkness, still, but he could see through the shadowy dark to the objects within it. He could see the clear outline of the rugs, leading away to the table. He could see the blood dried there from Holland bashing his head in. Could see the books on the bookshelves and nearly even read their titles. He could see the wall of symbols Holland kept for going within his own London. He could see Holland's face, the vacant, faded hostility in his expression mixed with something else, something gentler. Before he realized it, Kell's hand was up in the air, as though he would reach out for him.

"You really are trying to help me," He said, softly. Holland did not move away, and Kell's fingertips brushed the side of his face. Holland did not flinch or even seem to notice.

"Whatever you have to tell yourself to keep going. What do you see, Kell?" Holland's voice was as empty as ever.

"I see... everything."

Holland smiled, faintly. "If you are ever blinded, you may use that to see. Whether in the dark or with a blindfold or... something else. Don't let them know you can do it. It doesn't count as disobeying their orders, but if they discover you know how, Athos Dane will do something stupid to ensure you no longer can."

"Holland...?" 

"Did you understand me, Kell? Why I taught you that?"

"Yes." Because even if you hate me, you hate this more, and you would see me free if you could. There was hope in that - something to be optimistic for.

"Manners, princeling."

"Yes... yes, sir."

"Better." Holland smudged the mark he'd made on Kell's skin and murmured something, unwinding the spell and leaving Kell once again in the dark. He felt Holland's fingers sliding around behind his head and kept himself still until the blindfold fell away, a simple bit of embroidered cloth, ripped at one side, as though Holland had torn it off a shirt.

Torn it off...

"Did this come from my clothes?" Kell asked, staring at a bit of colored thread at one edge, recognizing the flower pattern. "Where are my...?"

"Irrelevant. They are gone, and they were frivolous clothes anyway. Do you let your foppish brother pick them out for you?"

"He's not-" Holland only raised one charcoal eyebrow, very slowly. "Fine, he is, sort of. No, sir, I... I guess sometimes? I was more worried about my coat-"

"I have hidden your coat. It's safe. They don't know where it is. They believe you lost it before we fought."

"The… the coat's all that mattered anyway. I have no idea where I would ever find another one. Thank you."

Holland snorted. "What did I just say about manners?"

"I... thank you, sir."

"Better.  You'll see the Danes tomorrow at dinner. I was given three days to prepare you. Three lessons to learn. Manners, not to resist or reject any touch they give you, and tomorrow you'll learn to stop being such a fucking open book."

Holland's accent creeped in, just a little, around the edges, and Kell frowned, eyebrows knitting. "What?"

"Your face gives away everything you think or feel. When you think you're hiding your expressions, you're not. Not from me, and not from the Danes. Tomorrow will be... difficult." Holland patted the side of Kell's face. "For both of us. I don't enjoy hurting you, Kell."

Kell couldn't help himself. "I think you do."

Holland's face did not change, but his hand froze against Kell's face, just slightly, before he stood back up, smoothing down his own shirt and pants, snorting. "What makes you think so?"

"B-because you were hard as hell before you ever t-touched my mouth," Kell snapped, feeling like he was channeling Lila Bard, with her coarse street manners (or lack thereof). Where are you, Lila?

"Hm. Maybe I was thinking about putting the leash on you after all, did you consider that? That it isn't the pain I would enjoy?" Holland might have smiled. The change to his expression was so faint and disappeared so quickly Kell couldn't be sure he'd seen it at all.

"Go fuck yourself," Kell hissed, hearing Rhy in his voice.

"You kiss your mother with that mouth?" Holland did not chide him or force his manners back, though, and Kell thought he could see a glimmer of amusement in the other Antari's eyes.

"I don't have one," Kell said evenly, glaring up at Holland. 

"The Maresh queen will be so hurt to hear you say so."

"I think we both know I'm never going to be alone in a room with her again," Kell said, pretending that his heart didn't break at the idea, with worry and love and also relief, knowing that there would always be a reason to avoid hard conversations now, that she would never try to corner him again because it would never be safe. "I've never been her son. Not really. She'd probably be happy to hear me admit it."

 "Truly, yours is a tragic tale." Holland laid a hand atop Kell's copper hair, playing the bright strands through his pale, faded fingers. "Once they are satisfied with the lessons you've learned, you'll be sent on an errand with me. Your kingdom is safe for now, Kell Maresh. She's left the king and queen to themselves and they are none the wiser. But there is a guard, installed in their court, who will ensure there is nothing Astrid does not know, when she wants to know it. When your brother reappears, I imagine you and I will be sent to let him know that he should return to his daily life without you, waiting for her to send her orders."

"Rhy? W-why?"

"Astrid does not want her pet Antari to die. Either of them. She is the most powerful monarch of four worlds now and she knows it. She is aware of what you have done, so she will keep Rhy safe, as long as her attention on us lasts. I believe she intends to make Red London a vassal, to bleed magic back into Makt. To give us back our lives."

"It doesn't work that way. When you shut the door-"

"When you abandoned us," Holland corrected, icily.

"It doesn't work that way," Kell repeated, but his voice faltered. "You can't feed yourself by bleeding us dry."

"Maybe not. I wouldn't mind leaving a door open here or there to find out. What you call Red London might be your world to want to protect, Kell, but I could not give a damn if it must be sacrificed to save mine. I will do anything for my world." The fingers still playing through his hair tightened, and Holland forced Kell's head back, leaning in until their faces nearly touched. "I will hurt you, if that's what it takes, until you beg for me to stop or beg for more. If that's what they order me to do. I will do worse than that. Whatever it takes for my world. What will you sacrifice for?" His other hand found its way to Kell's shirt, slowly undoing the buttons, one by one.

"My brother, sir," Kell said without hesitating, keeping his hands palm-down on the bedspread, refusing to rise to Holland's bait, to push back or pull away and get himself in trouble for breaking lesson two. When Holland ran a finger from the leather band at his neck down over his chest to his navel, he only swallowed, hard, and did not move away. He could feel the blood rising in his face, beginning to pool between his legs again. "I'll sacrifice whatever it takes for Rhy."

"The worst part about you isn't that you're naïve. It's that you're so fucking noble about it. You really will, won't you?"

"Will what?"

"Do anything for your brother."

"Yes, sir. I will. I am. He would do anything for me."

There was a look on Holland's face that Kell couldn't read, something distant, as though he were thinking about something far, far away from them. The harsh lines of his face softened, just a little, with sadness. "What's that like, I wonder," He murmured to himself. "I think I used to know."

"Holland?"

The look was gone in a blink and Holland's usual faint hostility returned. "You've done well on the first half of today's time. We'll do your first reward."

"My... first?"

"It's not even lunch time yet, Kell, and you must be starving. But you're doing so well you really should be rewarded for it."

"N-no thank you, we could wait-"

Holland tilted his head and Kell froze under the weight of that single black eye, feeling his own trying to push away from it. He wondered if all Antari were like this, clashing magics. But Holland had said the Antari were always trying to find each other, to recombine a splintered well of power. "Do you get to decide if we wait, Kell?"

Kell dug his fingers into the blanket underneath his hands and dropped his eyes. "No, sir."

"Are you hungry, Kell?"

His stomach growled and Kell flushed angrily when Holland allowed the slightest mocking smile to flicker across his face. "Yes, sir."

"Then I'll get you something to eat once we're done. It won't be as flavorful as what you're used to, but you'll survive. I think we have another two or three generations of time before the animals are gone. If we can take from your London, perhaps far longer than that." Holland moved to sit beside him, sliding a companionable arm around his shoulders. Kell knew better than to look up. "I'm going to tell you what to do, Kell, and you're going to do it."

"Isn't that... sort of the point of what they put on my back?" 

"Hm. True. This would be easier if you were a woman. Or older."

"Would it?" His face reddened again, dreading what those words might mean.

There was a pause. "No, not really. Honestly it might be more difficult, because I would be more inclined to care. But I control nothing about my life, Kell… it's a bit heady to be given control over yours." Holland leaned over, faded gray hair mingling with Kell's bright copper, whispering in his ear, dragging those teeth along the thin, sensitive skin once more. "I am going to control every move you make. Unbutton your pants and touch yourself. I will tell you exactly what to do."

Kell closed his eyes, but not before he saw the truth in Holland's, that single green eye burning bright with something darker than simple interest.


 

What Rhy was having wasn't exactly a nightmare. What he was having was a death where he could not truly die. He had been pulled down into the void but had only gone so far, and now he was stuck, swimming in nothing, suffocating under its weight. He did not know how long he'd been like this. There had been snatches of sensation and wakefulness, a sharp knife's-edge pain just under his right shoulder blade that had gone on and on, an ache in his shoulders and wrists, and a strange feeling of hands touching him that his mind fled from.

No, Rhy stayed in the darkness, no matter how he tried to fight his way back.

It might have been hours. It could have been days. Then he woke up.

He swam up out of the dark to pain bursting behind his eyes, feeling as though his head had been slammed down into something hard, and he grunted at the pain. But it was a faded pain compared to his own. Kell's heart beat alongside his, pounding with fear, and adrenaline poured into Rhy where he twisted on the bed, in the dark. There were more impacts, more pain that he couldn't find a source for. Rhy saw stars dancing behind his eyes and Kell's heart pounded. His own heart met it beat for beat.

Am I even alive any longer?

He felt the impact of a slap across the face, could feel the ring on one finger of the hand that hit him, but when Rhy tried to open his eyes the room was dark and no one was there. He couldn't see. He was still in Kell's room at the London Sanctuary, still in that small wooden bed Kell had slept in when he stayed over to train when they were young. He couldn't move - his limbs did not want to work. He felt like he'd woken from the deepest sleep and he had no idea how to move like a person any longer.

Am I even a person now?

There was a pause, where the darkness tried to pull him back down.

He felt his jaw beginning to ache, a line of pain that began as a twinge and rose and rose, a scrape against the inside of his throat, a though his mouth had been forced open and something had been pushed in. At the same time, a distant pleasure tingled between his legs and Rhy groaned, softly. Everything was a fog of uncertainty but Rhy knew this feeling, he knew what was happening to Kell right now. Rhy knew this pain, although it had never been so bad for him, he'd always pulled away, to a lover's apologetic laughter, taking time to recover before going back to it.

Kell wasn't being given that option, and his heart beat so fast it was nearly one long vibration of sound. Kell was scared, Rhy thought. He was scared of what was happening, but there was still that maddening throb between his legs, Kell's own pleasure echoed in him.

I don't want to feel this. Neither does he.

He would kill them, the Dane twins. Athos must be doing this to Kell. Rhy grunted as the ache in his jaw grew worse and worse, his throat ached, trying to close around something that wasn't really there. Rhy pressed his hands against his face, trying to force the ache to go away through pressure. Suddenly it was gone, and he felt his jaw relax, felt himself begin to drift back away into the darkness.

He slept, for a while. He didn't know for how long, not exactly.

He woke to teeth grazing his ear and jumped, letting out a muffled shout at the pain that shot through his body when he tried to move. His pain, not Kell's - this was his pain. He was still knitting back together and the mark on his chest burned like hell. 

He felt a thrill of pleasure, the sense of fingers being drawn along the length of him, and felt himself rise to it. Kell's pleasure, he thought, but it was laced with shame. He felt Kell's heart beating raggedly behind his own, always a beat or so ahead. Rhy tried to get the darkness back, to fall back into it, but the pleasure held him here, thin fingertips that didn't exist in this version of London curling around a cock that had gone hard as rock. Rhy rolled onto his stomach, jamming his hands over his face, running them back through curly black hair. The fingers continued to move, not quite expertly, hesitantly, but Rhy couldn't hold back a groan as he pushed his hips hard into the bed below him.

What the fuck is happening to Kell?

There were pauses, as though Kell were being told to stop now and then before continuing. Each pause, expertly timed to just before the pleasure threatened to break in a dam over his head, was harder and harder to bear. Rhy had bitten into a pillow to keep himself silent, as the hands continued to move, building and building and then stopping again, until he thought he would go mad with a pleasure that didn't even belong to him. Rhy's hands kept wanting to stray down to touch himself but he forced himself not to. It seemed wrong, somehow, to touch himself along to Kell, a violation of what they were to each other.

Rhy kept his eyes jammed shut, bit down on the pillow, and endured as soundlessly as possible, hoping against hope no one would come to check on him.

It seemed like seconds and like an eternity before, finally, a pause did not leave Rhy twisting and wanting in the bed. Finally, finally it built and built and when Kell's orgasm hit him, an intense pulse of obliteration from all the times he'd been forced to stop before finally being allowed to finish, Rhy came as well, right into his clothes and into the bed he was lying in, moaning raggedly, muffled by the pillow, his face red with shame and tears in his eyes. He could feel Kell's heart, and he hoped Kell could sense that he was here with him, even in this.

Rhy lay there for a long time, as the bed went cold beneath him, shaking from the force of it. He couldn't seem to slide back into the dark, dreamless sleep. He couldn't feel Kell any longer, just that heartbeat. Rhy cried, eventually, not for himself but for what Kell must be going through, wherever he was. When he had cried himself out and his tears were gone, Rhy gradually unclenched hands he hadn't realized had become fists, pushing himself up to a sitting position, keeping his blankets over himself to hide what had happened. 

He leaned over, putting his head in his hands, feet on the cold stone floor.

Which was when something clattered down in front of him and Rhy looked up into the determined, angry face of Kell's strange female friend. She had dropped a box at his feet.

"How the fuck do I get to Kell?" Lila Bard asked, eyes narrowed, hair in her face. You could only tell she wasn't just a very angular, thin, pretty man by the line where her jaw met her neck, and even then you had to know what you were looking for.

Rhy groaned and put his hands back on his face. "I don't know. How did you get here?"

"I went to you. Kell showed me how... I had a necklace of yours so I came to you. How do we get Kell back?"

"I don't know. I don't know where he is."

"Well, I do," Lila snapped, and Rhy looked back up at her. She was dirty and there were dark smudges on her clothes. Dark, splattered, like...

"You're bloody," he said, lips numb.

"Oh, that," She said dismissively, rolling her eyes. "Not mine. Kell is in White London. He's with the Danes. I saw them take him in. How do I get to him?"

"I don't know," Rhy said hoarsely. "I've never... been able to-"

"No, but I can."

"You… can?"

"Yes." Lila frowned, glancing around quickly, as though Kell might perhaps have just been hiding underneath a table or a bookshelf. Rhy could still feel the aftershocks of the orgasm, the way his skin still felt like it was stretched too tightly, shivering a little just from contact with his shirt. 

"You're not Antari," Rhy said with his eyes closed.

"I'm something better," Lila said, and Rhy thought of Alucard Emery's eternal ego and half his heart broke while the other half of him wanted to laugh. "I know they've got Kell in that castle thing they live in. I need to get him out. So how do I do that?"

"How the fuck should I know?" Rhy groaned. 

"Maybe I was hoping you'd have a bright idea? Or way to sneak me into your palace so I can find some of Kell's books and see if there's anything useful in any of them?"

"There isn't. He keeps them mostly for show, I think."

"I'd like to at least try. The king and queen..." Lila trailed off, as though just now remembering she was talking about Rhy's parents. "They're worried sick about where you are. I think they seem... normal. I would ask Kell if you could go back, now, but..."

"Miss Bard," Rhy said without opening his eyes, "I would love to talk to you about this, but could you do me a favor first?" He heard only silence. "Can you step out that door, find someone, and ask them to provide me with a change of clothing and some new sheets and blankets?"

Lila Bard tilted her head, looking him over, squinting. When Rhy looked up at her, he realized one of her eyes did not narrow as effectively as the other. The difference was minute, but he saw it. "Why?"

Rhy considered telling her, just to shut her up, just to see the look on her face. Someone is touching Kell, in White London, and he cannot stop them and I cannot stop feeling it and I came all over the bed like a teenager having wet dreams. Then some shred of dignity took him over and he shook his head. "Please. Just ask."

Lila's eyes went to the door, and back to him, and finally she nodded, gruffly. "Just because you're Kell's brother," She said. "Not because you're a prince."

"I don't give a fuck what I am right now. Thank you, Miss Bard."

She went to the door with quick steps, stopping and turning when the door was open, looking back at him with a curious, analytical expression. "Call me Lila."

Then she was gone through the door and Rhy was left alone once again, feeling the tendrils of the dark wanting to drag him back down into a death he could no longer reach, feeling Kell's heart beating just ahead of his own. 

What is happening to you, Kell? What is happening to me?


 By the time he was allowed to finish, Kell was kneeling on the floor, bent over on the red-tipped brown rug, feeling the soft fur under his knees, Rhy's heart rabbit-fast alongside his own. Holland had given the orders, had controlled every motion he made, every time he touched himself it was according to Holland's specific, exact command. When Kell's breathing would start to speed up, when his body would start to shake and the sounds he made change, Holland would order him to stop, force him to wait, his hands aching to go back to himself, holding still only through immense effort and the brand on his back.

Then he would tell him to start up again. 

Holland had been the one to push him onto his knees and tell him to stay there. Holland had been the one to order him to remove his shirt. Holland had been the one to tell him what part of himself to touch and how hard and where. Kell felt like nothing at all, an empty vessel, just a puppet on strings. The longer it went on, the more vibrant Holland seemed to be, a color in his eyes and hair where before it had been faded and pale. 

Kell hoped Rhy could not feel any of this, even as he knew that he did. It almost felt like Rhy was beside him, for a while. Kell felt something like a phantom hand on his shoulder, telling him it would be all right, and he clung to that as a drowning man clings to a bit of driftwood floating on the sea.

At some point Holland told him to beg, and he was sure he had, but he couldn't remember it, not clearly - it was all mixed together with the other humiliations, words that burned in his throat alongside the sounds he made, the moans. Alongside Holland's quiet commands, the whispers that cut through everything else. Holland's hand on his head a casually possessive thing. 

At the final pause, Holland sat back, watching the shivering younger man kneeling on the floor, his hands carefully held out as ordered, groaning in frustration. Kell had nearly heard the way Holland swallowed. Felt the eyes on his back. There was a pause, the hand removed from his head, Kell ordered not to look at him. 

"It really is something," Holland said quietly with his usual lack of emotion. "Just thinking... I control everything you do now. They have taken my life away from me but given me someone else's. That's... unexpected." He crouched down in front of Kell, still fully-clothed himself, looking at Kell shirtless and with his pants undone, tilting his head just slightly. He slowly unwound the leather cord from his wrist, watching as Kell's eyes went to it, widened in fear, then narrowed in a kind of weary resignation. "Maybe I should see this as a gift. When you were a child, you once told me to look on the bright side of things. Did you ever even try to follow your own advice, princeling?"

"No, sir. That was Rhy's advice, not mine, anyway. You laughed at him."

"Did I? Here's the bright side." Kell watched the scars on Holland's arms shift as he flexed his muscles, just a little bit. Kell couldn't stand to look at the intensity in that single green eye, because he recognized the emotion, even faint and faded as all things were in White London, etched across the older man's face. "I can't make my own choices... but I can make yours."

"Th-that's the bright side?"

"Depends on your perspective, doesn't it." Holland's voice dropped slightly, low and a little hoarse. He clipped the leash onto Kell's collar, and Kell saw him smile, just a little, as Kell teared up, forced them back, shut his eyes as tightly as he could until they dried up again.

There was a whimper Kell realized only belatedly was coming from his own throat as Holland said, softly, "Beg." The feeling in Holland's green and black eyes, the expression Kell could not bear to look at, was a kind of lust.

"P-please, sir, let me... tah-touch... finish. Let me be done," Kell whispered, his entire world focused on that length of black leather clipped to his neck. "Please."

Holland smiled, again. He pulled on the leash and Kell grunted, forced forwards until he landed on his hands, on all fours on the ground like an animal. Holland took a step back and yanked on the leather again, forcing Kell to move forward, until he was crawling on the stone floor like he had earlier, only this was infinitely worse. A shivering, hard mess at the end of a leash.

"I must have made them very happy," Holland said coldly. "They've given me something to control. Nothing comes without a price, Kell."

There was a pause, a silence that drew out, and Holland moved away from him, unrolling the leather cord as he moved. At the scrape of a chair along the floor Kell looked up to see Holland sitting in the chair from earlier, watching him. He pulled on the leash and Kell moved forward, slowly, thinking of the command he'd been taught earlier. A way to see if he was blinded. And Holland had said he would teach him how to undo the confine spell, how to free a body he had taken over without killing it. Something Tieren Serense had refused to show him.

When he made it to Holland, sitting back on his knees before him, the older Antari watched him with a blank face but burning intensity in that single green eye. Their black Antari eyes met and Kell realized he did not feel the repulsion, the push away, as strongly as he had before. Instead, he felt pulled towards it, as though Holland would simply drown everything he was in the black of his eye and leave nothing behind.

"Oh, I like this," Holland said thickly, pulling on the leather cord until the band around his neck cut into his skin. "I didn't think I would, but... you may finish, Kell." He smiled. "Once you're done, thank me for it. Understand?"

Kell nodded, slowly.

"Manners, Kell."

"Yes, sir."

Chapter Text

Holland was afraid to sleep.

It had taken Kell a while to work it out, and it wasn't like he hadn't been distracted. Holland's hands had been on him nearly all day, in one form or another, or he was finding his way by magic rather than sight. He'd had to practice as videre over and over until he could will himself to see with his eyes closed no matter where he was - wearing a blindfold in a slightly lukewarm bath while he cleaned himself up, locked in a pitch-black closet hardly larger than a shoebox, or simply led around the room. Each time, he would be asked what he saw, or ordered to pick up something that he otherwise could not have seen.  

In between, Holland was always touching him, sometimes with that intense, unsettling fascination, sometimes with a sneer of faded disgust. After a while, he was able to stop having to force himself to hold still and simply... accepted it, as one more sensation that might be unwelcome, but it was just a feeling. Holland's touch wasn't all that bad, really, was it? Besides, it would end, sooner or later, and he'd have his skin to himself again for a while. Until then...

Endure. That was the whole point. Learn to endure, and wait for a chance, and learn whatever it was Holland had to teach him.

Even if it meant obeying when he was told not to button his shirt back up after his first reward. Even if it meant pretending he did not see Holland's green and black eyes focusing on the leather band around his neck, not thinking about the way his voice had sounded. Oh, I like this. 

Even if it meant putting his brother out of his mind whenever he could, except for the second heartbeat just behind his own and the occasional sense of a hand on his shoulder, a reassuring presence, someone who was with him through it all.

Kell had mostly managed to follow the rules, and by the end had even managed to guess what Holland would want him to do before he'd actually been ordered to do it twice. He couldn't tell if it made him happy or pissed off - Holland's expressions for the two emotions were similarly empty. In any case, he'd finally declared the end of the day, and called the servants to bring their dinner.

Kell wouldn't have known what time it was except for the food changing. Lunch was bread and oddly tasteless, waxy cheese, wizened apples that looked more like old rust than fruit. Dinner...

Dinner was when Kell had figured out that Holland was scared of sleep.

The older Antari had ordered a steaming dark cup of coffee brought by mindless spelled servants, blank automatons who had brought in the trays of their food with empty eyes and a shuffling step. It was then that Kell had noticed Holland's hand shook, just a little. He hadn't understood why, sitting across the table with his own dinner in front of him, staring down at it, his copper hair still a bit damp from the bath.

"Is it not familiar enough for you, princeling? Should we have asked them to grate some gold flakes on top or put a spell on it to make it dance?"

"No, sir. It's... it's fine."

"Good. Pity, we've no magic to spare for dinner tricks in Makt. Too busy dying while you gorge yourselves."

"W-we don't... It's just hard to eat when I-"

"When you what?"

"... never mind."

Holland sipped his coffee, looking at nothing in particular, a strange and distant look on his face. "If you think I'm going to ask you what you're thinking, you're wrong. I genuinely do not care."

"I don't think that. I know you don't care."

"No you don't. You think I do. You've always thought it. When we first reopened communications between our worlds, when the Danes ordered me to, you... were so fucking happy to see me. You thought I'd teach you, didn't you?"

"Of course I did. We were the only two. It just made sense that you would."

Holland chuckled drily, hardly a laugh at all. "Were you disappointed?"

"Yes. I didn't understand why you wouldn't. But you're teaching me now." Kell did not smile, but his face softened a bit in an approximation of one. "Although you'd have been a criminal if you taught me like this then."

Holland looked at him with an oddly sharp expression. "I wouldn't have hurt a child. What I'm doing now is giving you the skills to become as dead inside as I am, Kell Maresh, and I'm baiting the hook with information. I wouldn't call it teaching, or a gift. But I'll warn you - hell has a way of following you even when you're not in it." When he set the cup back down on the saucer, it rattled.

"Holland?" Kell looked up from the plate of oddly colorless fish with white sauce and potatoes he was trying manfully to eat, to see Holland's face had gone even whiter than usual, with the faintest hint of a flush the only color. "Are you-"

"Shut the fuck up." Holland's voice was ragged. He drained the rest of the steaming cup all at once, wincing slightly as the heat must have burned his throat. 

"Holland-"

"I said shut your mouth, princeling."

"I wish you'd stop calling me that."

"Isn't that what you are?" Holland sneered again, but there wasn't much feeling in it. "The aven prince? Blessed and strange? Taught by the Aven Essen himself, with the most beloved Maresh prince for a brother, given everything he ever wanted by the Maresh royals, who treat him like a son?"

Kell ground his teeth together. "They don't treat me like their son."

"Poor thing," Holland said with no pity at all. "How terrible it must be to only get almost everything you ever wanted. How awful to live in a safe place with a brother who would do anything for you. How wretched your life, following your brother in his sojourns to find men and women to bring to his bed, only to fall into your own comfortable spot at the end of the night. My heart burns. Do you know what they will call you here, when they learn about you? En med en forbandelse. Cursed one, trapped here in the castle with Astrid, Athos, and me. Trefalt forbannade. Thrice cursed, for your three masters."

If Holland thought referring to him as property would bother him, he was wrong. Kell had understood himself to be a bit of Maresh empire property for nearly his entire life. This was just a changing of hands. If he were honest with himself, he'd have admitted that Rhy was nearly the only thing about his life he would miss. "Is that what they call you?"

"No." Holland stood, pushing himself to his feet, glaring down at Kell. "They call me worse than forbandelse. I suppose we should retire... hm." He cast an uneasy glance back at his bed and that was when Kell figured it out - the way Holland had been less and less at ease as time passed, the way he kept looking at the door, the threat to chain Kell to his bed just in case. Why he had no windows inside his room, even though Kell could see newer wall where one had been bricked over. The way he had dragged the day on until Kell was nearly asleep in his food. It had to be hours after sundown by now.

"Holland, a-are you... do you not like to sleep?"

There was a chilly silence. "Eat your dinner, princeling." 

He stalked away, leaving the room and Kell alone within it. Eventually, Kell looked back down at his thoroughly unappetizing food and did the best he could to eat it. More mindless servants appeared to remove the plate and Holland's cup and saucer, left him folded sleeping pants and supplies to wash his face and clean his teeth, and Kell stared at them, wondering if they were still in there somewhere, trapped inside their own heads. When he thanked them, they did not react. 

He had known they wouldn't. He thanked them anyway. If they were still in there, he liked to think they'd appreciate the gesture. Binding was so unnatural, so wrong, that Kell fought nausea just seeing them, just thinking about the violation.

No one in Red London would ever do this to someone...

But you don't really know that, do you? You think they wouldn't. It's a crime, sure, but there are lawless places even in the Maresh empire. There are desperate people even if we don't want to admit it. White London was no different than Red, once. Would you confine one of them, or bind them to your will, if you could get back home? If Holland put a blade to Rhy's neck and ordered you to carve into someone's skin, you'd do it.

How many of the laws of how we use magic are built entirely on the privilege we have to use it well? 

Time passed.

Kell practiced as videre again, for a while. Eventually he pulled a book off of Holland's bookshelf but discovered he could barely read it - the language was nearly his own, but different, with harsher consonants and strange symbols over some of the letters that he did not understand. It took him three tries before he found one in a tongue he could read. It was a book of legends, fairy tales for children. Makt's stories were so different from his own, what he had grown up with, listening to the queen read the stories to Rhy when they went to sleep at night. Kell had never really considered that she might be reading to him, too - he was there, but not theirs, and they all knew it. All except Rhy, maybe.

He fell asleep slumped over the book, still sitting at the table. He had strange dreams, of the band around his neck and Holland pulling on the leash, the strange mix of lust and self-hatred in his eyes as he'd said, oh, I like this. 

Kell heard himself asking, muffled and far away, will you let me go back home if I wear it forever for you?

Antari are always trying to find each other, the Holland in his dream said to him. His hands had black veins on them, running up his arms, and the black of his Antari eye had begun to find its way out in tendrils to the pale, thin skin of his eyelids. Even if you go home I'll follow you. I'll burn you to ash from the inside out and burn myself besides. I can hear your blood.

I don't care, Kell said back, and meant it. When he looked down, his own hands had black veins, too. His blood called to Holland, and Holland's to him. In the back of their minds a darker voice whispered, and Kell spoke louder to drown it out. Burn me. Make me bleed and do whatever you want with the blood. I'll still wear it, for you. Just let me go home.

Do you promise you'll never take it off?

Kell stepped closer, tilting his head up, letting their black eyes meet, taking Holland's hands in his and moving them to either side of his neck, so the palms curled over the black leather around his throat. Bind it to me. I'll never take it off. 

Holland leaned down to kiss him, totally unlike the forced, painful kiss from before. This one was not exactly gentle but Kell met it and there was something electric in the kiss, he pushed it deeper, curling Holland's fingers around his throat. I trust you, he whispered into Holland's mouth as he felt the black of the magic in his veins roiling, trying to find its way into Holland, Holland's blood trying to find its way to him. Holland's black hair mingled with his copper as he growled, softly, under his breath, and dropped his hands. He picked Kell up, slamming his back into a wall, their mouths still pressed together, feeling a fire that lit him up from inside-

A hand slammed down on the table next to his head and Kell jerked awake with a cry, pushing himself back so quickly he knocked his chair over and crashed onto the floor. 

"No wonder the palace has so many guards, you are hopeless at defending yourself. It's time for bed," Holland said mildly, staring down at him, charcoal hair swept over his green eye. The black Antari eye met Kell's, and he felt it again - not a repulsion but a sense that the black eye would devour him, stain his veins, pour into his skin until he was shining black stone encased in a thin layer of flesh.

Promise never to take it off. Kell's face was red, and he was grateful for the loose fabric of his pants or he might have given away what he'd been dreaming about.

"H-Holland- I- you-"

"Surprised you? Yes, I noticed." There was a pause, Holland watching Kell with an odd wariness as he pushed himself back to his feet. "Were you reading my books?"

"J-just that one." Kell's heart beat so fast he nearly felt dizzy from it, but kept himself steady. "I was reading about this king that's supposed to come back-"

"I know that one. That's a child's tale. They don't tell you he has to die, first, until he does at the end. I love that story," He said, with a flat voice. Kell couldn't tell if he meant it or was being sarcastic. "It's time for bed, Kell. Go lay down on your stomach and put your hands up by the headboard." When Kell hesitated, Holland's eyes narrowed. "Did you hear me? Do I need to repeat myself?"

"No... no, sir." Kell hesitated before getting into the bed, thinking of Holland's threat earlier, and slowly raised his hands above his head where he lay, letting his head drop onto the pillow. Holland closed an iron cuff around his right wrist, threaded a chain through openings in the headboard, and fastened another cuff around his left. Kell couldn't move his arms more than an inch or so, and the chain rattled when he tried.

"Why are you doing this?" He asked, softly. It wasn't exactly fear - if Holland wanted him dead he would have been dead already. Exhausted resignation was what knotted his stomach as he lay here, helpless. 

"I do not appreciate vulnerability," Holland said, honestly enough, crouching next to the bed. "This way, you are more vulnerable than I am. It reassures me." When Holland ran soft, gentle fingers through his hair, it was actually a little reassuring. "Astrid likes things that belong to her. I like things that I can prepare for."

Kell let himself lean his head back, just slightly, into Holland's touch.

There was a soft exhale of breath, and then Holland shook his head. "Sometimes I wonder what Athos Dane really had me carve into you." Fingertips slid over the new scar carved into his back, already healed thanks to Antari blood, a silvery pattern now. Bound to obey Holland, who was bound to obey the Danes. A sort of gift, as well as a test. "As Dimisit, by the way."

"What?" Kell tried to twist his head to look back over his shoulder, but Holland simply forced his head back down into the pillow, held it there until he couldn't breathe and spots danced behind his eyes, then let Kell free to watch him gasp for air. 

"I didn't tell you to look at me. As Dimisit is how you end confinement. You release them, and they don't die... unless you leave it too long. If you ever get the chance to use As Tosal but want them to survive the process, you free them with As Dimisit."

"Thank you," Kell muttered into his pillow. "The Aven Essen wouldn't-"

"The Aven Essen did not - and I would argue still does not - want you to reach your full potential. A world where Antari were no longer bound by morality or constrictions would be one to frighten everyone... everyone but us." Holland's hand was in his hair again, then on his neck, a thumb gently rubbing his shoulder blade just above his mark. Kell's eyes closed, slowly. "Maybe there would be more Antari, if we simply took what we wanted and stopped worrying about what would happen to our worlds if we did. Think about the changes we could make with just two Antari who act as one. One obeying the other, of course." Fingers ran down his spine, a palm rested in the small of his back.

"I guess that would be me? The one obeying?"

"Who else? You've already got the mark, and a future monarch who would do anything to keep you safe. And all the magic in the world knows I wouldn't obey you. Do you know what you are, Kell Maresh?"

"Someone with incredibly bad luck who badly needs a haircut?"

"Not exactly. You're a temptation. They knew exactly what they were doing, binding you to me. It's a test they want me to fail, but I intend to surprise them. It's time for your second reward, Kell."

He'd forgotten about that. "W-wait-"

"Do you decide when we wait?" Some hint of the thick interest in Holland's voice remained from earlier and Kell felt the echo of his dream, closing his eyes tightly.

"No, sir." When the bed shifted as Holland climbed into it, a knee on either side of him, Kell did not try to pull away. When Holland's left hand gripped his hip while his right slid underneath, slipping his pants down his hips, he did not pull on the restraints. When Holland pressed a kiss to the leather band around his neck, he turned his head slightly to make it easier for him.

"Good. Tomorrow is going to hurt," Holland murmured, leaning over him, the feeling of his shirt against Kell's bare back, his breath against his ear. "I suggest you do your best to feel something positive while you can." Holland's hand was warm, just slightly above room temperature, as he slid his fingers over Kell's hipbone, the flat plane of his lower abdomen, and finally found what he was looking for. "Ah. You're getting to like this, aren't you?"

A silence.

"I asked you a question, Kell." His hand began to move, and Kell gritted his teeth against the flush of pleasure that licked along his nerves, raising his hips higher to make it easier for Holland to touch him even as he pushed his head down into the pillow. It pressed him up against Holland.

"Yes, sir," Kell said softly. "So... haaaah, so are you."

"How good of you to notice. We'll have to ensure you take care of it." 

Two commands. He'd learned two commands so far, and Holland had said there were more. He could endure this. Still, the faintest foggy edge of his dream kept trying to find its way in, Holland slamming him back into a wall as they kissed, Holland's hands around his neck, a thumb resting on his jaw. The feeling of the magic that met between them. There was a rushing sound, like a wave racing across the land, and Kell realized that he was hearing Holland's blood beating through his veins.


This time, Rhy had enough warning to throw everyone out of the Sanctuary room before it became obvious.

The Aven Essen had come himself with a change of clothes, Lila Bard stomping on his heels as though the whole world stood against her and she intended to bring it down, which maybe she did; in a fair fight he wouldn't have bet against her.

Rhy wasn't sure where to start. The Aven Essen knew what Kell had done well enough, and knew what it meant, but the idea of explaining what he was feeling to the elder man made Rhy's face burn with embarrassment. Not even his own, really - he was embarrassed for Kell. His brother was so private in everything, so self-contained and insistent in his loneliness, that it felt like a gross violation to even admit to someone else that Kell had a body, and that body could be forced.

And Rhy forced with it.

He'd kept himself to himself, mostly talked about the pain he'd felt while he was still drifting in the darkness, the pain in his back that had been sharp and specific, the other pains that were more general and muscular. He hadn't mentioned the pleasure, hadn't mentioned spilling himself in the sheets like a youth. He hadn't explained why he'd needed the bed and his clothes changed. But something about Tieren Serense's face, and the way he'd taken the dirty clothing and bedding out himself, told him the Aven Essen knew. 

Rhy was grateful for the sense of peacefulness and calm that Tieren carried with him, or he might have started crying like a child right there.

They'd talked about Lila returning to White London, as Kell always called it, to try and find a way in to the Danes' castle

"They think it's impenetrable," Lila Bard had said, her voice thoughtful, tapping one of her seemingly endless parade of knives against the table, listening to the click, click, click sound it made. "No castle is. No building is. I'll find a way in and a way to kill them and we'll tear Kell out of White London and bring him home." To hear the words from Lila Bard's mouth was surprisingly reassuring, and he wondered once more exactly what sort of person his brother had stumbled into. She was sharp and minced no words, said everything she thought, swore like a sailor, and had absolutely no respect for his position whatsoever.

Rhy could see why his brother had liked her so much so quickly. He badly needed someone to bring him to life, and Lila Bard was the definition of life. 

They spoke for hours, trying to make plans, working out when it would be safe for Rhy to return to the palace. His mother and father seemed to have returned to normal, and no one was sure if Astrid had simply abandoned whatever her plans were when she got Kell instead, or if there was something else coming and he would need to stay hidden until they knew what it was.

Rhy hated staying hidden. It was bad enough to be weak and magic-less, but to have to hide from the people he hoped one day to be king over was... indignity. But Tieren was right; if he reappeared right when they wanted him to, he'd be a target. They could already hold his life over Kell by simply threatening to kill Kell and let him die... he didn't want to be used as bait right there in front of him. 

So Tieren got out a bit of paper and a pen, and the three of them began to make a plan. Eventually, it didn't even feel like an insane one.

Just as he'd relaxed and actually laughed at one of Lila's jokes, laughed enough that she had looked at him as though he had two heads, he felt a stir between his legs and closed his eyes. Now, Kell, really?

Granted, he knew his brother better than Kell had ever understood, and knew that whatever was happening in White London, it wasn't Kell's idea.

"You need to leave," he said suddenly, interrupting Tieren in the middle of a sentence. "Ah. Please." The pleasure was a distant, drowsy thing, and Kell's heartbeat was still slow. He might be dreaming. 

The Aven Essen looked closely at him, then nodded and slowly stood. "Is it Kell?"

"Is what Kell? Is he hurt?" Bard's eyebrows came together furiously and Rhy wanted to laugh again, just looking at the rage in her eyes. "Is someone hurting him?"

"We should go," Tieren said gently, taking Lila by her elbow. She moved as if to pull furiously away, then looked Rhy straight in the eyes and some of the anger and the fight went out of her. 

"We'll talk more when we come back," She said firmly. "Remember, he heals fast, and they don't want him to die. They won't hurt him too badly." Rhy nodded, closing his eyes. The pleasure faded, but Rhy didn't trust it. He didn't look back at them, waiting until the door had closed on them before he let out a breath all at once. Kell's sacrifice - binding his life to Rhy's - had done so much more than Kell could possibly have understood. It was so much worse.

Just as he'd begun to think he'd made a mistake, sending them out of the room, that Kell's dream had been the end of it, Rhy felt electricity on his neck, as though he'd been kissed. The feeling of the pleasure that came with nerve endings lighting up without the mouth or the hand to cause it was the strangest sensation he'd ever experienced, that was for sure.

Rhy's eyes darted around and spotted a towel on the floor, from when he'd washed his face earlier. He stumbled trying to pick it up as he felt something like the aftermath of fingers around his hip, curling around him, stirring him back to life. He swore, a sailor's curse he'd picked up somewhere he knew his parents would have been scandalized by and Kell would have rolled his eyes at, and laid back down on the bed on his back.

The feeling of the hand began to move, expertly, a slight press of... a thumb maybe? to the tip, then slowly curling around him to move down and back up. Rhy groaned against his will, his hips moving into it, closing his eyes, trying to picture something, someone, anything to take his focus off of what he was feeling and put it directly onto the feeling itself. 

He pulled his pillow over his face to muffle himself, shifted his pants around so as not to have to ask for another pair already, and put the towel over himself. We're going to save you, Kell. If anyone can do it, your strange friend can.

He groaned again as the phantom hand became two phantom hands He could almost hear Kell's breathing, could almost feel the blood in his veins as his heartbeat sped up. It was one hand again, and the other seemed to be moving, gently, across his stomach and up his chest. Rhy surrendered himself to Kell's pleasure, and thought of Alucard Emery.

Chapter Text

Rhy began screaming about halfway through the morning.

There had been no disturbing, surreal pleasure to wake him, no sense of Kell at all beyond the heartbeat that was always one or two beats ahead of his own. Rhy had eaten with Tieren Serense, who told him Lila Bard had simply melted into the shadows some time the night before and no one had seen her since. With his usual, eternal unruffled calm, the Aven Essen had serenely said he expected she was scouting in the other London and would return when she had information to aid them in saving Kell.

Rhy had only nodded, eaten his breakfast in silence, and wondered what Kell would live through today.

He was standing in a small courtyard in the Sanctuary, wondering how long Tieren could keep him hidden here before his parents figured out where he was, when the first blow landed across his back.

Rhy fell to his knees with a shocked cry as he felt the lash across his shoulder blades, only slightly faded as it wasn't actually happening to him. He gritted his teeth against the next two blows, which came with slow, purposeful strength, just enough of a pause between each that his body badly wanted to believe they were done, were over with. Hissed gasps turned into groans and then became cries again.

Tieren Serense found him just as his choked-off cries turned into open screams.

Rhy did not remember, later, how he got back into Kell's room in the Sanctuary. He did not remember whether he walked under his own power or if Tieren carried him, or called others to do so. He did not remember being placed back in his bed. He remembered only the lash, the bright and brilliant agony of it, twisting in the bed and screaming until his throat was raw as pain was layered over pain and he could feel blood running down his back with sweat to sting in the cuts, even as he knew that Tieren Serense could see nothing but muscle and unmarked skin.

Kell's heart beat fast against his own, and Rhy had fragmented senses of his thoughts, there in the absolute worst of the pain, a sense of sorry so sorry never meant for it to be this and fear and a terrible resignation, I have to learn to endure this, and he clenched his hand tightly and felt almost like he was holding Kell's, could almost feel the trembling fingers around his own, like when they were kids and Kell would get scared or worried and Rhy would hold his hand to help him come out of it. He could hear Kell's voice screaming alongside his own, his skin felt hot with the prickle of a room that was too warm. In the midst of one lash Rhy realized he could almost feel the magic that beat in Kell's blood, rushing through his own. 

The sense that his blood was being called, that it wanted to leave him and be used, be willed into something. 

I'm here, he thought to Kell, as hard as he could, in the moments when the agony they shared brought them the closest, the points when their hearts beat in perfect time. I'm here with you, Kell, I'm here. There was a third heartbeat he could not quite feel, but sensed the blood in the other's veins, and everything in Kell wanted to find that blood and bathe in it, go under, to drown. 

The pain stopped, for a while. He knew Kell had been healed, which meant Holland was there, the other Antari must have healed the evidence of the flogging. The memory of the pain remained and Rhy did not dare leave the bed. He laid there, breathing harshly, covered in cold sweat. He could feel manacles cutting into his wrists, the ache of his shoulders telling him Kell's arms had been forced above his head, his shoulders bearing his weight. Phantom sweat stung his eye.

"Can you tell me anything, Prince Rhy?" Tieren Serense asked him, gently mopping the sweat off his forehead with a cool wet cloth. "What do you sense of him?"

Their heartbeats had diverged again, and Rhy could no longer feel Kell's thoughts flying past his own. 

"The room is too hot," he said, his voice half a groan. "Must have a fireplace. Nothing in Makt is hot, though, Kell told me before it's been cold there since the magic left."

"They've lit a fire," Tieren said thoughtfully. "The palace, then. Who else would have that much wood, to waste on a prisoner?"

"They're whipping him," Rhy muttered, rolling onto his side, fighting the urge to cry like a child at the injustice his brother was suffering. 

"We knew that," Tieren said kindly. 

"He's screaming."

"So were you."

"Holland's there. The Makt Antari. He's healed Kell, but I think..." He turned to look at Tieren, wondering if his eyes were ringed with the terror he felt. "I think he's going to do it again." Kell's heart, which had finally slowed, jumped back up to rabbit-fast again with fear, and Rhy felt an echoed adrenaline filling his own veins. 

"Do you want me to give you something so you can sleep through it?" Tieren asked, his voice soft and calm. "Would that help?"

"He'd be alone," Rhy said softly, aware that his voice had gone slightly higher, that he sounded younger. He couldn't stop himself. "Kell would be all alone in it then."

"True. But don't you think he would rather you slept than endure it with him?"

The word echoed and bounced around inside Rhy's mind. Endure. That's what Kell had thought, when their minds nearly met with the pain of their shared nerves, their shared lives. When he had almost, almost been able to speak to him. Rhy was already dead and so he could not die from it - and it would end, sooner or later, and if he could do what Kell was doing... endure... maybe he could get close enough to his mind to speak to him.

"I know he would," Rhy said, feeling his jaw set in a stubborn line. "But he's not in charge of my decisions. I won't be able to help with his rescue anyway, I can't go to the other Londons. But I can be there with him this way. Whether he likes it or not, I intend to give him someone who won't leave him to be hurt alone."

The Aven Essen sat for a moment longer, then slowly nodded. "He would be angry to hear you say such a thing," He said, gently.

"I know." Rhy felt a hint of his old smile on his face, pushed some of the mop of curly black hair out of his eyes, and looked up at Tieren. "I'd like you to give me something for the pain, but that keeps me awake so I can still be with him. Do you have anything like that?"

Tieren's eyes twinkled, just slightly, with what Rhy thought might be pride. "It's a good king who knows how to suffer with his subjects, rather than condemn them to suffer alone," He said thoughtfully. "I have just the thing."

He left, for a while, and Rhy spent the time washing some of the sweat off of his face. Kell's heart slowed and sped up in equal measures, but the whipping did not start back up again yet. He wondered what was happening to his brother, in that palace he'd described to Rhy a hundred times or more. The cold, pale twins with their glittering eyes, Holland half-faded by his dying world. Rhy had met Holland, had sort of liked him. But if he'd been the one to drag Kell back there...

I'll see him dead by my own hand, Rhy thought, and was a little startled at his own cold hatred, sparkling like a sapphire inside his mind. If he had been Antari and able to travel between worlds, he'd have left right now and seen their blood stain the lifeless world with a little more overdue death.

Tieren returned with some bitter herb mixed into a cup of water and Rhy drank it like a shot of bad whiskey, forcing it down so fast he only barely tasted the astringent taste on his tongue, coughed only a little against the intense bitterness of the aftertaste. It took only a few moments for him to feel the cool of it spreading through his limbs, and he laid back on the bed, waiting. When he felt Kell's heart pound again, he tensed.

He did not wait long before the first lash came down again.

He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and let out a harsh gasp, wondering how many lashes it would take for him to start screaming again.

I'm here, Kell. I'm here with you. I won't leave you alone.


Four times.

Four times, Holland flogged him until he screamed, kept going until he could scream no longer, until his cries turned into hoarse animal whimpers, until blood ran down his back and pooled on the floor beneath them. Holland had stripped to the waist and the mark on his chest seemed to burn a brilliant red this morning, more wound than scar, as he walked in slow circles around Kell, letting him wait, anticipate the next blow, watching his hands clench and unclench where they hung in manacles above his head, iron chains attached to the ceiling that kept him standing, if only barely. When his legs gave out he simply hung until his shoulders burned with his own weight, and he forced himself back up to his feet to relieve the pressure only to collapse again.

Four times there were fifteen lashes. On its face the number didn't seem like all that many, but the bits of glass and metal shards embedded in the knots tore him open in ways Kell had never known he could hurt.

Four times Kell screamed until he couldn't anymore, begged for mercy, bled so freely that his feet kept slipping in the slick of it on the floor, Holland's eyes, his green and his black, burning into his body, the black Antari eye calling to him, the blood in his veins wanting only to find Holland's and be coated in the black of their magic. 

Four times, Holland paused after fifteen lashes and healed him, stepped close and swept some blood up on one finger, painted along Kell's back, let his nails scrape through the wounds as Kell tried desperately to scream again. Holland whispered, "As Hasari, Kell," into his ear and bit, just a little, along his earlobe, something Kell couldn't even feel through the pain. 

The lashes closed up, the spell helping his already quick-healing Antari blood, and still he hung limply. The memory of pain spun his mind around until he wasn't sure where he was or what was happening, only that he hurt. 

He hurt, and he wanted it to stop, and he would have given nearly anything - almost anything - to make it stop.

But Holland asked no questions.

Holland wanted nothing of him but to see him suffer.

Deep in the agony, in the worst of the pain, Kell would feel Rhy's heart match his in time and hear his brother's voice whisper to him. I'm here, Kell, I'm here with you. You're not alone. I'm here with you. He must have been hallucinating but he could nearly feel Rhy's fingers twine around his own, holding his hand like he had when they were children. He kept looking blearily around, expecting to see Rhy somehow, but there was nothing but their heartbeats and Rhy's voice inside his head.

I'm here, Kell. You're not alone. I won't leave you alone. It helped. Rhy was here. Rhy was alive and he could hear his voice, in this moment, Rhy was alive, all his pain was worth it if Rhy was alive.

He cried. He knew he did, he could feel the tears running freely, tracks in the sweat that already coated him from the heat of the fire and the pain lighting up every nerve. He cried and begged and pleaded but Holland did not waver, his expression did not change. He did not seem to enjoy it, either, not like he had the collar and the leash, which he had used to lead Kell down the hall and the stairs, past mindless guards and empty servants, to the circular room he'd first woken up in. Holland liked the collar and the leash.

This, he was merely putting up with. This was just orders.

Kell still wore the collar itself. He could still feel it dig just slightly into his skin every time he swallowed. 

The fourth time Holland healed him, the fourth time those fingernails dug through the wounds on his back and he twisted and screamed in the chains, Holland whispered into his ear, a little bitterly, "Well suffered, Kell. Now greet your king," and Kell realized that Athos Dane was in the room. He hadn't known - the room was a circle and Athos must have been behind him the whole time.

It had been hours. Hadn't it? He didn't know. His body sung with the memory of the healed pain. He heard only low footsteps, boots on the ground. He felt the pain of a cold, cold hand against the middle of his back and jerked forward, rattling the chains, groaning as his feet slipped in the blood again and his shoulders wrenched nearly out of joint. He had no energy left to scream as the pain ripped up his left shoulder and arm.

"Ssssshhhh," Athos said from behind him, pressing the cold of his fingers into the small of Kell's back, trailing a finger as he walked in a slow circle around in front of him. The king wore an expression of open delight on his face, looked more alive and real and colorful than Kell had ever seen hi. His palm was soaked in Kell's blood and he watched the white-haired, pale-eyed man began to lick it off his fingers, smiling. "There's so much power in Antari blood, isn't there? Why, Holland, you might even be able to stop scarring if we have another bountiful wine-press to utilize."

"I might," Holland replied, in a voice that suggested he didn't find it likely.

"Have you been enjoying your gift?" Athos asked, tilting his head, a bit of thin, straight white hair falling against his cheekbone. He regarded Kell with soulless smirking eyes.

"I don't like to hurt my things," Holland replied, walking away. Kell fought the urge to beg him to come back. Don't leave me alone with Athos Dane, Holland, please, I'll do anything, don't leave me alone with him.

There had been a deeper pain, when he'd first awoken with the symbol carved in. What had Athos Dane done, when they'd first brought him here? Holland had carved the mark. What else had been there? He could almost remember, like this.

Holland did not go far. Kell was exhausted from enduring the pain and watched through slitted eyes as Holland rinsed blood off the whip in the corner, carefully cleaning it. He walked behind Kell, and he heard from scraping and rustling. 

How else would they hurt him? It had been hours by now. The day must be nearly to sunset. 

"You suffer beautifully," Athos said quietly, watching his face. "Captives often suffer well, but your voice was such a song. Will you join us for dinner tonight?"

Kell blinked, wincing as sweat stung his eyes, trying to shake the wet ends of his hair out of his face so it wouldn't happen again. "A-are you... asking me?" His voice was incredulous, and hoarse, barely able to pitch above a whisper. He'd screamed his throat raw and while Holland had healed his back, his throat still burned. 

"No," Athos said with a smile, reaching out to take Kell by the chin, looking him in the eyes. "I'm not. Don't worry. I won't let anything happen to my two Antari, not now, not when we are so close to keeping the doors open. Your world could do with a bit of suffering, I think."

Holland had moved back into view, and Kell cut his eyes to look at the older Antari as he picked up a bucket of water, walking slowly over with methodical steps. He looked at Athos as he simply overturned the bucket of cold water over Kell's head.

Kell gasped and swung in the chains, crying out as it wrenched his shoulder again, sliding in the slippery mix of blood and water below his feet.

"He'll be there," Holland said in an empty voice. "We both will."

Athos laughed, his harsh barking laugh, and turned to look at Holland. "Don't be jealous, Hol. You're still my favorite."

"I'd kill not to be," Holland replied without even the slightest change in tone.

Athos snorted. "Your misfortune to be born what you are, Holland. I only use the weapons I'm given or that I can take. Clean him up. We'll see you both at dinner. Be sure he knows to behave himself. I'd hate for Astrid to undo all your hard work by taking him away from you."

Kell's mind was bleary and spinning, but he saw the way Holland's jaw tightened, imperceptibly, the way the black of his Antari eye seemed a little deeper, darker, as though drawing on a greater well within himself. He doesn't want either of them to have me.

Kell didn't know whether he should be relieved or terrified.

Athos patted Holland lightly on the side of the face, murmured something into his ear, and left the room, trailing bloody bootprints as he went.

Holland moved over to Kell, head tilted, regarding him silently for a long time. Kell tried to look up and meet his eyes, and he hoped he looked defiant. He probably just looked as exhausted and frightened as he felt. If today had been intended to teach him not to show his feelings, he had failed that test, over and over again. He had screamed every feeling he'd had, begged like a child. 

"You did fine," Holland said quietly, as though he'd known what Kell was thinking. "You told me nothing, Kell, and you never, ever offered to sell out your brother's location to free yourself. I asked."

Kell blinked. "You did?"

"I did," Holland confirmed, moving closer. He reached up, his finger's brushing along Kell's skin. Kell could think of nothing but how cool and light and healing they felt after the hot pain of the lash. Holland's hands trailed up Kell's arm until they found one of the manacles, undoing it with a soft click, and Kell hung by one arm completely, barely able to hold his own weight. "I asked and you never, ever answered. You did well."

Kell felt an absurd pride in hearing Holland say the words.

Something was wrong about that, but he was too tired, and too sore, and too scared to think about what it was.

"Let's get you somewhere where I can clean all this blood off you." Kell might have thought Holland's voice was gentle, if he hadn't just lived through being whipped into senselessness by him. The other manacle was undone and when Kell fell bonelessly forward, Holland caught him in his arms. His forehead rested against Holland's bare collarbone and he just stayed there, breathing hard. Holland's skin was so cool, lukewarm and barely heated with life, and it felt so good in a room that was burning him alive.

"H-Holland-"

"Yes, Kell?" Holland simply swept an arm under his legs and picked him bodily up, carrying him down the hall as though he weighed less than nothing. Kell wanted to struggle but he was so tired. He let his eyes close, feeling Rhy's heart beating alongside his own, remembering the sound of his voice inside his head. I won't leave you alone.

He was bathed, he thought - he couldn't quite bring himself to care. When the blood was sluiced off him by warm water there were no wounds underneath it. He had healed completely, and all that was left was a twinge, a memory of pain and of a wound that no longer existed. Holland's hands were gentle and Kell did not try to fight them, only leaned into his touch, eyes closed, needing something that wasn't pain.

He was given water to drink, Holland holding the glass to his mouth as though he were an invalid child. He drank and he was too tired to feel shame.

He was laid down not in his small bed but in Holland's larger one and he didn't have the energy to ask why. He only laid there, looking blearily up at the ceiling, feeling his blood beat desperately in his veins, trying to fill veins emptied by the lash. By suffering. By endurance.

"I did well?" He asked, and Holland's face swam into view, the other Antari looking him over without emotion. Except... there was a light in that black eye, wasn't there? Kell felt it calling to him.

He reached out and touched the side of Holland's face, brushed charcoal hair back from the black eye so he could see it better. "You did," Holland said quietly, without pushing his hand away. "You suffered well."

"I want to feel something other than pain," Kell said quietly. "I hurt so much." Rhy's heart had gone sluggish and slow. He was asleep, Kell thought. He was finally asleep. "Can you make me feel something good?"

"What are you asking for, Kell?" Holland tilted his head, and that black eye was drawing him in, pulling at his own. 

"I don't know," Kell answered honestly enough. 

"What do you want me to do?"

Kell paused, closed his eyes, turned his head away. After a second, he felt Holland's cool fingertips over his cheek, turning him back. He opened his eyes back up to see Holland's had gone intense and a little darker, with that odd mix of loathing and self-hatred and lust. "Do you want me to touch you?"

Another pause. Kell swallowed, and the collar dug into his skin. Holland's black eye would burn his own to ashes and they'd both be nothing but someone else's ambition, black veins and magic. He just wanted to feel something good, for a while, and Rhy was asleep, and far away, and he would never know Kell had asked for this.

"If I touch you, I'm going to put the leash back on, and you're going to kneel for me first. How badly do you want to feel something good, Kell? Is it that much?" Holland's eyes were a flame on his skin. "Do you still want me to touch you?"

In a whisper that was harsh from screaming for hours, Kell whispered, "Yes, sir."

 

Chapter Text

"The goblets, first." Astrid held hers out, her pale blue eyes a bright and shining mockery. She was wearing a dress the same shade as her skin, with the faintest hint of embroidery; as though it had been colorful once but all the dye had bled out, along with the life of the world she lived in. A crown of twisted silver, like branches bent around each other, rested delicately on he forehead.

Next to her, Athos only crooked an eyebrow at his goblet. He wore a high-necked white shirt and pants, his own crown matching hers. The twins, who brought suffering into the world and ruled Makt with iron fists, but who still loved one another. Looking at them made him miss Rhy with a  bitter ache. The only people Astrid and Athos trusted were each other.

Kell was beginning to understand that the only person he'd ever been able to trust was Rhy - and that only because Rhy was so open-hearted and easy to predict, because he loved his brother so much.

"Do it, Kell," Holland said flatly, watching him with that single green eye. Kell tried to ignore the way he wanted to shiver under the intensity of that gaze. Between the morning and afternoon of being beaten half to death with a whip covered in glass and spikes, the leash along with another lesson on how to use his mouth on Holland, then Holland's mouth on him, he couldn't seem to find solid ground. 

But he'd learned three new commands since he'd gotten here. There had been a third one just before dinner, while they cleaned themselves up.

As Remordat. To cause pain.

Holland had written the command on paper, had warned him never to use it on himself. 

"This was a way to torture with no wounds to die from," Holland said quietly, tapping on the written words with his index finger, watching Kell's face, still flushed as he wiped himself clean with a damp towel. "You can end it with the healing command, or you can leave it indefinitely. They'll kill themselves in the end to escape the pain. The old books talk about it. The Antari began to fade when the doors between our worlds closed, but they were distrusted long before that because of commands like that. We used to do more than walk between worlds, Kell. We were once considered a king's greatest weapon, a sign that his strength was favored by fate, his last resort."

"I don't want to torture anyone," Kell said stubbornly, looking down. Holland had never taken his clothes off, but Kell was naked except for the black band around his throat. It was part of Holland's control, he thought; part of the thing that turned that green eye dark with lust. The comparison of himself, fully clothed, with forcing Kell to wear no clothes at all.

"I know you don't." There was a touch of gentleness in Holland's voice. Maybe even something warmer than that. But when he looked up, the older Antari had his same empty, slightly hostile expression. "But you don't decide your own actions any longer. If I want you to use this command, you will."

"I know," Kell said softly. "Please don't make me."

Holland leaned over, pushing some of that copper hair away from Kell's black eye, resting his hand on the side of his face. "I hope I won't have to." Kell held himself very, very still. When Holland leaned in to kiss him, each of them still tasting faintly of the other, Kell returned it, forcing back the flip in his stomach that was nausea or fear or desire or all three in a strange, heady mix. He could hear Rhy's heart beat slightly faster alongside his, could hear the rush of blood between he and Holland, the connection of magic always trying to find its equal.

Holland had jerked back as though he'd been burned. "What the fuck was that?"

"I don't know," Kell said softly, too tired to feel ashamed of himself. Too full of the way his back had been shredded and then healed and then shredded again, too lit on fire by the memory of the pain."A thank you?"

"Don't thank me for what I'm doing to you." Holland stared at him with wide, angry eyes, and then simply walked away, throwing his clothes at him, staring down at a book he did not even pretend to read while Kell got dressed. They'd come down for dinner, Holland with the black cord wrapped around his wrist and clipped to itself, Kell with the black band of leather just peeking out from the collar of his high-necked button-up shirt, without having said another word to each other.

Until now.

"Kell," Holland said, with voice slightly edged. "Do as you are told."

"Yes, sir," Kell mumbled, his face burning red as he took one of the fine silver knives off the table in front of him and held it to his own wrist. He took a deep breath and then carved hard into the skin. If he'd been anything but Antari, it would have hurt like hell; as it was, it only pinched a little bit, the wound already trying to close nearly before he had it open enough to weep blood into Astrid's wine glass.

"Oh, you can do better than that," Astrid said in a low purr, reaching out to drag her fingernails over the gash, licking the blood off each finger in turn, watching him.

Kell fought the urge to flinch and managed to hold himself still. He looked sidelong at Holland and when the older man nodded, he cut deeper, forcing more blood out, watching the bright red of it, seeming garish in this faded colorless world. Holland, next to him, filled Athos's goblet in one smooth motion, borne from years of experience and constant practice.

"Three days with Holland and already so well-behaved," Athos Dane spoke, his voice a low, satisfied rumble. He watched Kell the way you might watch a stray dog you'd taken in off the street, never quite sure whether it would do a trick or try to gnaw your leg off. "For all you refused the gift when I first offered it to you, you've done well with it."

Astrid picked up her goblet, sipping the magic-rich blood, her eyelids fluttering a little. She held the goblet out to her brother, who took a sip himself. He smiled with the blood smeared across his lips and Kell swayed under a sudden nausea, fighting back the urge to throw up all over the two of them and their ghoulish vampiric ritual. He felt Holland's hand against his back and forced himself to steady, the wound in his arm slowly closing itself back up.

Athos Dane picked his own goblet back up and held it out. Astrid clinked hers against it, blood sloshing heavily around inside. "To our two Antari," Athos said cheerily. 

"To having more power than any monarch in any other world," Astrid said in a throaty purr.

"May every Dane have their day," They said in unison, with smiles for each other that were nearly childish with delight. 

"Må hver hund have sin herre," Athos finished, his eyes back on Kell and Holland. When Kell did not react, Athos laughed out loud. The sound was grating, like fingernails down a school chalkboard, a barking and harsh, unnatural noise. "Ah, he doesn't take the time to learn much of our language, eh? Tell him what I said, Holland."

Holland looked over at Kell and reached up, trailing a fingertip over the bit of the black band that showed through the open collar of his shirt. "'May every dog have his master'," Holland translated evenly, without expression.

Kell felt the angry flush come over his face even as he fought, hard, to try and keep it empty. Holland was right; he gave himself away too easily like this. He had to learn how to close himself up like Holland did, to have a brick wall for a face that no one could peer through and see his thoughts. 

"Aw, look, it's mad," Astrid said with bright good humor. "So what do you think of our gift to you for your seven years of service, Holland?"

"After all," Athos picked right up, as though the two of them shared a brain as well as parents. "You've served us so well."

"You've beaten..."

"... and killed..."

"... and raped, by now, I expect..."

"I haven't," Holland said tightly.

Thin distinction between what you've done so far and that, Kell thought bitterly, and tried to focus. Every time he looked at Astrid and Athos, though, all he could see was the command he'd been shown on that piece of paper. As Remordat. To cause pain.

He could have easily done that to the two of them, if only the mark on his back - and the mark on Holland's chest - would have let him. I don't want to torture anyone, he'd said, but... there were exceptions.

"All at our command. And you've done it all so very well. How's it feel inside that head these days, Holland?"

"Are you mad yet with the hate you have for us?"

Holland, through it all, only stared blankly at them with eyes that showed nothing at all. He gave them no ground, only seemed to be so far away he barely heard them at all. His hand never left the small of Kell's back. 

"Ah, you're no fun," Astrid said finally, pouting slightly as she drank more from the goblet. The blood had already begun to cool and thicken and each drink she took made Kell a little more sick to his stomach just to see. "Have a seat, Antari."

Holland pulled Kell's chair out for him, like a gentlemen with a lady at dinner, letting his fingers trail just slightly along the back of Kell's neck, just under the folded collar of his shirt, as though they were feeling for the black leather underneath. "Are you comfortable, Kell?" Fingernails scraped, just slightly, at the skin just behind one ear and Kell clenched his fingers around the cloth of his pants just under the table where they couldn't see. Sometimes Holland seemed like he was someone who felt mercy and could dole out kindness and empathy, and then he'd do something like this... Holland cleared his throat. "I asked you a question."

"I... y-yes, sir, I am," Kell muttered to the ground. The Danes laughed and he flinched at the hideous sound of it.

"Oh, Hol, what manners!" Astrid clapped her hands together, delighted. "Ah, dinner's here."

The sound of soft footsteps across the room, a muffled noise like the padding of paws. When Kell let his eyes stray that direction, he saw that the sound was so muffled because the servant bringing dinner was barefoot. His feet had to be freezing against the cold stone floor, Kell thought, and as he slowly looked up he realized it was a boy and he was shirtless, too.

Just a boy, not even quite a man, younger than Kell himself. He had the same symbol carved in his chest as Holland, as Kell. 

"Does anyone who works for you do so of their own will?" Kell asked out loud before he could stop himself.

Athos never looked away, his hungry eyes watching the boy slowly approaching them, laden down with trays he could barely balance on his own. Astrid, though, smiled, meeting Kell's eyes with her own, the glacial blue of them like a winter wolf, starving for hot blood and meat. "No. I don't trust anything that could bite back one day. How do you think we've held power this long in a place like this?"

 "He's just a child," Kell said a little numbly, as the servant slowly began to lay the plates onto the table they sat at. He didn't look all that different from anyone else in Makt, but there were shadows ringing his eyes and a set to his jaw that said either he hadn't been here long or he would be eaten alive by captivity in the end. Those eyes met Kell's only for a moment, and there was a terror in them that Kell could hardly stand. "Why would you do this to someone so young?"

"He's not that much younger than you," Athos rumbled happily. When the boy laid down his plate, he reached out and took him by the wrist. "Sixteen if I don't miss my guess, right, boy? That's the age of maturity here, he's as adult as you."

The servant did not look at him, but stilled, his hand still out as though laying down the plate, Athos's pale fingers curled around his arm. 

"He would not bow," Athos said, with sudden intensity. Under the table, Kell felt Holland's hand settle over one thigh, just resting there, a lukewarm presence that was neither warm nor cold. "I like things that will not bow to me. In the early days they did not bow, and now they all know better."

"Pity his misfortune that he was young and did not know that my brother's desires have always run to defiance rather than what someone has under their clothes," Astrid said, grinning with teeth stained red. 

Athos tilted his head, looking up at the miserable face, the shadowed eyes, the shivering skin that fought back the cold. "I took this boy who would not bow to me and I taught him how to kneel." Those eyes lolled slowly over at Kell, and his smile was as red as his sister's. "Haven't you been taught the same?"

The hand on his leg tightened in warning, and somehow Kell held back his anger and his loathing and only gave Athos an empty blank slate of expression in return. He picked up a knife and a fork and began to cut into his meat, took a slow, measured bite.

Athos, after a moment, let the servant go. "My chambers," He said, and the boy froze where he stood, having begun to walk away. "Later. Get yourself ready."

The servant was still for another breath, and then slowly nodded and walked away, shoulders hunched against the chill in the air.

"I have news for you, Kell," Astrid said brightly, beginning to eat as well, although she kept taking gulps of Kell's blood in the goblet until he was so nauseous he could eat no longer and the goblet was empty of all but a thickening residue. "News that you won't want to hear. Or maybe you will, how do I know how it is with you Maresh royals?"

"I am no royal," Kell said, swirling a bit of some gray meat around in a whitish sauce.

"Not any longer, this is true." Athos leaned over the table, watching him in silence. "Holland, you really have done excellent work. Why aren't you my head torturer?"

Holland shrugged, faintly. "Because you would rather hold that position yourself, your Highness. And because you would be disappointed in my methods."

"Fair enough," Athos said thoughtfully. "I heard the sounds he was making earlier when I passed your room. I don't suppose you're open to an audience?" Kell's head snapped up, eyes wide, and Athos burst out laughing, Astrid's high-pitched trill alongside his deeper rumble. "There's our angry Antari boy!"

"I would not," Holland answered quietly, "be open to an audience. But of course your Highness makes that decision and I must abide by it." He continued to eat, as though they were speaking of the weather, not discussing Athos watching while Holland-

"I was only joking, Kell Maresh," Athos said, leaning over to pat the side of his face. Beside him, Kell thought Holland bristled, but no hint of it showed in his expression, calm and slightly hostile as always. "Holland has been given free reign of you, and his work has gone so well I would hesitate to introduce anything new that might throw it off."

"All of this nonsense has been a distraction from my news," Astrid grumbled, a child denied her shining surprise party moment. 

How had two such childish people become such fearsome monsters? Kell thought of the servant boy who was probably making his way up to Athos's room now, to sit and wait for the king to hurt him, and shuddered. 

"What is your news?" Holland asked, in a tone that made it clear he did not give a damn.

"A messenger spoke to the Maresh king and queen today," Astrid said, leaning over the table on her elbows, watching Kell's face. Kell carefully cut another bite of meat and speared it with his fork. What did he care? He didn't belong to them any longer. He was not their Antari. As long as Rhy and Lila Bard were safe...

"A scrawny man, too tall and with too little weight for his own good, appeared in the palace today," Astrid said thoughtfully. "Wearing clothes better suited to a beggar. He had your priest beside him and asked for a private audience with the king and queen. Of course guards were in attendance, so not that private, hm?"

Kell slowly lifted the fork to his mouth.

"Rhy Maresh has been located," Astrid said in a rush. "And he is returning to the palace tomorrow."

Kell's fork clattered back onto the plate, with that bite of meat still speared at the end.

"No," he said, surprised to hear his own voice was calm. "That would be a terrible mistake."

Lila Bard, why would you let him?

Rhy must still be so weak, and with him feeling everything that Kell was going through, he... going back to the palace-

… was exactly what his foolish brother would do. And it wouldn't take the king and queen long to figure out something was terribly, horribly wrong with Rhy, not if he screamed when Kell screamed, if he...

"Wouldn't it just?" Astrid's eyes glittered. She turned to look at Holland, tapping her own fork against the plate, clink clink clink. "The Maresh prince will present himself to the king and queen just after lunchtime. Can you arrange a suitable diversion for Kell, to ensure his mind and body are, well, occupied?"

Holland only inclined his head.

"No," Kell said softly, and his voice shook this time. 

"Do you get to say no, Kell?" Holland asked, and the edge in his voice was back. Kell thought of the lash and shivered, just a little. 

"No, sir, I don't."

Rhy was the biggest fucking idiot in the Maresh Empire, and Kell promised himself he would make sure the two of them lived long enough to tell him to his face.

 As Remordat, Kell thought to himself, slowly closing his eyes. He wanted to cut himself open and cut Holland up too, bleed them both dry to have the power to give the Dane twins a pain they could never come back from. He'd never set them free. He'd never-

As Remordat. One day. 

Chapter Text

Rhy watched Kell's strange friend and thought she looked like nothing so much as a fairy-tale heroine dressed for battle.

Lila seemed totally unselfconscious, and had simply undressed from her ragged, worn-out street clothes and changed into the outfit Tieren Serense had sent up to Kell's Sanctuary bedroom. She'd washed out her hair and scrubbed at her face with brusque carelessness, as though the basic tasks of bodily hygiene were a bother she must force herself to endure in order to get what she wanted. 

In a white priest's shirt and pants, tied around her strikingly small waist, what she had of a chest bound with cloth to flatten it, she looked like nothing so much a very thin, slightly taller-then-average and very pale acolyte. Her hair that was close-cropped on one side, nearly shorn to the scalp, and flopped over her eye on one side unless she pushed it out of the way. Rhy likely would not have given her a second look, on the streets, even in the bright white clothing - but the fire in her eyes interested him very much indeed.

When he had tried to picture the sort of woman that Kell might be interested in, or who might be interested in him, this was... well, this wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind. But the longer he spoke with Lila Bard, the more he thought that perhaps this was the only sort of person that Kell should want. Lila was a spitfire and a scoundrel and belonged on some kind of scrappy pirate ship, not swanning into a royal palace to playact at being an acolyte to Tieren Serense.

If he didn't have the feeling Kell was halfway to being head-over-heels for this bony, angry young woman, he'd have been inclined to make a play for her himself. She was fasinating and strangely complicated in a way Rhy did not understand but very, very badly wanted to. Even if every time he saw her smile against her will,  sharp as a blade, he thought not of her or even of anyone like her, but of Alucard Emery's low laughter and his long fingers slid delicately around the rim of a drink. 

Lila Bard made him miss Alucard with a vengeance for reasons he could never have explained to himself. Still. He was grateful, endlessly grateful, for her help - and not just for her help, but the use of her mind. 

It had been her idea to set up the meeting at the noon hour with his mother and father, to bring along Tieren Serense with Lila when she went to ask. Between the two of them, they had managed to pinpoint and name every single person who overheard even a fragment of the conversation, from servants to guards. Tieren had come back and written down a list. Six guards, two servants - the most trusted people in the royal palace.

Lila had a theory that one of them was going to get word back to what Kell had always called White London, and Rhy and Tieren agreed with her. There had to be a reason Astrid had simply seemingly dropped whatever her plan had been before. Just having Kell wouldn't be enough for her; Rhy knew that. You didn't keep an Antari without having something you wanted to use him - or her, Rhy supposed, there had been female Antari mentioned in occasion in the history books - for. 

Rhy might have thought of it himself, if it weren't for the simple fact that he could barely think at all. Kell was further than he could ever have reached, in pain and frightened, his heartbeat sometimes as rapid as a trapped animal's, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

He had to rely on a strange woman he'd only just met to save his brother, and that hurt, but the other option was simply to stand by and let Kell suffer.

So when the morning came, Rhy tried not to watch Lila Bard dressed as she took no more notice of him than she might have a piece of furniture in the room. With Kell's life on the line, it seemed, she was singularly focused, in a way that would have frightened him had he been the target of it. Rhy himself dressed in clothes Tieren had brought back for him hesitantly, with fumbling fingers. There were no marks on him, save that single carving that linked he and his brother for life. But there were marks on Kell by now, no doubt, he thought. Last night he'd felt a blade slicing his wrist, first a glancing thing and then digging more deeply. He'd felt a hand on his leg, a thumb idly circling high up on his thigh for almost two hours until he'd gone nearly mad from it. After that, Kell's heartbeat had gradually calmed, except for the graze of teeth over an ear or the sudden pressure Rhy knew meant a kiss to his neck. Rhy had spent the whole evening on edge, waiting for another lash to fall or for more pleasure, but there had been nothing.

It'd been... peaceful. He'd felt an odd ache around his wrists shortly before midnight, fingernails scratching lightly down his back just once, but otherwise he'd downed the drink Tieren brought him to help him sleep and passed out, fallen into the velvet darkness of something like death with only the slightest tremor of panic, wondering if he might never come back. 

He did, though. He woke up with a gasp, taking in air he'd been half-convinced he'd never breathe again. 

He calmed himself as best he could, ate his breakfast with shaking hands, and tried to think of what to say to his parents when he saw them again for the first time since he should have died. How to speak to them without Kell by his side to run interference or be blamed for things that weren't his fault. Rhy had let Kell take that blame, over and over again, had used him as a shield more often than he'd care to admit. And Kell had always been willing to take it. 

Now that he was too far to speak to, Rhy found himself thinking up all sorts of wild apologies for everything he'd ever done to hurt his brother. Kell would have scoffed at any or all of them, but it would have been nice just to see his face turn red, the way it always did whenever someone looked directly at his Antari brother for too long. 

"What are you thinking about?" Lila Bard asked him, her eyes narrowed. Once again, he noticed one eye did not narrow as much as the other. It was only the slightest difference, but Rhy liked to look at pretty faces, and hers was one of the most interesting he'd ever seen. Not exactly pretty, but... striking. She caught you in her eyes and held you there, but with a kind of contempt overlaying her interest.

He hoped she wouldn't chew Kell up and spit him out. She seemed like the type, and all the earth knew that Kell would be defenseless.

"About what I'll say to Kell when I see him again," Rhy answered easily enough, buttoning up his high-necked shirt. Kell's heart beat steady alongside his own, and Rhy had already begun to search for the sense of it, taking reassurance in its simple constancy. 

"Well, get in line," Lila replied in a clipped voice. She combed out her hair with her fingers, making sure the sweep on one side covered her eye completely. "I intend to shake him until his teeth rattle for being an idiot who gets himself captured by the enemy."

Rhy couldn't help himself - he laughed out loud.

"What?" She glared at him. "What's your problem, prince?"

"Kell does that," Rhy said, grinning at her, voice warm with humor and still touched with laughter. "He combs his hair over his eye just like that. Like it's something to be ashamed of or to hide. If I were aven, I'd show the whole world, but he's frightened of himself."

Lila rolled her eyes, although one was hidden by her hair. "Kell is a man with many problems, prince, and the one I hate most is that he lives in a world like this one and hardly seems to want to enjoy it."

"Now you sound like me," Rhy said, sitting back on the bed, leaning back slightly on his palms. "I'm forever telling him to go have fun with what he is."

"What kind of face does he make when you do?" The first true smile Lila had given him, and the sparkle in her visible eye made him think even more, Ah, Kell, if you don't want her, let me try my luck. I'd love to see her smile for the mention of me like this.

"Oh, the best faces," Rhy answered cheerfully enough. "The absolute best."

When Tieren Serense returned, he and Lila were ready - at least, as ready as he could be. 

"Take me to my mother and father," Rhy said softly, to the Aven Essen's answering nod. "Let's see whether Lila missed her guess or not."


 Kell woke up when a cup of water was unceremoniously dumped on his head.

He gasped, coughing and spluttering, yanking hard on the chains he'd forgotten still locked him on the bed. The rattling of the iron brought him the rest of the way awake and he felt his heart drop to somewhere near his knees.

Holland stood over him holding the empty cup, a hint of an amused smile on his face. "Time to wake up," the older Antari said in his usual empty voice. 

"You could have just shaken my shoulder," Kell groaned, letting his head, hair soaked and dripping water, fall back onto his pillow. He shivered at the chill in the air. The fireplace was embers, long-since banked and not yet brought back to life. The stone room felt like a tomb inside a glacier to his damp skin.

"Yes, but this way is more fun."

Kell glared up at Holland as he unlocked the manacles around his wrists, slowly sitting up and pulling his knees up to his chest. "You know what you need, Holland?"

"Manners," Holland warned, but that smile was still playing across his face. He pushed Kell's hair away from his Antari eye, leaned down to kiss his forehead. Kell held himself carefully still, forcing his eyes not to close instinctively at the strangely lukewarm feeling of Holland's mouth on his skin. "Be careful where you go with this, kæreste."

"You need a hobby," Kell muttered. "That's all I was going to say. What time is it?"

"Does that matter?"

"Of course it does. They're going to bring Rhy back to our-... to his mother and father, and you're going to-"

"Sssshhh. I don't care. Time should not matter to you, Kell, it stretches away from you for the rest of your life, here. However long or short it may be, depending on how the Danes feel about you. You did not fall asleep until the small hours, so you've slept quite late today."

"How late?"

"I just told you it doesn't matter. Now get up." Holland walked away from him, dressed in his usual black, the charcoal gray of his hair still a bit damp. Kell wondered if he'd bathed this morning, letting Kell sleep a little longer.

No.

He couldn't think of Holland as someone who would show that kind of mercy, or he'd lose his mind here. If he'd bathed, if he'd taken the time to be elsewhere and leave this room quiet enough and dark enough to sleep in, it wouldn't have been for Kell's sake. 

Kell unfolded himself slowly from the bed, still shivering, goosebumps standing up on his skin. "H-how do you stand how cold it is in here?"

"I don't feel it as much as you do. You'll get used to it. Here." Holland tossed him a towel. "Strip and dry yourself off. Leave the wet clothes on your bed, I'll have the servants change out your bedding." Then he stood, leaning his back against one of the posts of his bed, crossed his arms in front of himself, and watched Kell. After a moment of silence where Kell did not move, Holland raised his eyebrow. "Well? Aren't you cold? Dry off."

"A-are you going to-"

"Yes. Do as you are told."

Kell felt all the heat left in him rush to his cheeks and, looking down to try and hide the flush with his hair, slowly took off the wet nightclothes and left them folded neatly on the bed. His wrists were red from the manacles; he must have pulled at them in his sleep, he thought. Drying himself with the towel, all he could think of was Holland's gaze on him. 

"You r-really need a hobby," Kell said softly.

There was a soft exhalation, the barest hint of sound, and when Kell's eyes snapped up, he realized he'd genuinely and truly made Holland laugh.

"Who says I don't have one? Maybe this is my hobby. You've never watched someone undress before?"

"... not like this."

"Fair point. Here." Holland tossed clothes at him without moving from his place leaning against his own bed. "Get dressed before you catch cold. The Danes don't like the sick any more than they like the defiant."

"Athos s-seems to love defiance," Kell muttered, but he was grateful for the warmth of the heavy wool sweater Holland had thrown to him as he pulled it over his head. There must still be time before Rhy was presented to the queen and king. His heart pounded in his chest with nervousness and fear and shame. He'd be the reason Rhy would be embarrassed in front of them - he had no doubt the sort of diversion the Danes had had in mind when they'd ordered Holland to keep him very, very busy around noon.

How would Rhy explain it?

What would Maxim and Emira think of him?

"Athos loves crushing defiance," Holland responded, without ever looking away. Kell slowly pulled on the soft brown pants he'd been given as well, the wool socks with a strange pattern of stripes and shapes that Kell had never seen before. All of it faintly colored - the blue of the sweater a faded robin's egg, the brown of the pants like a rabbit's fur, the blues and reds of his socks hardly a color at all. "That is not the same thing as loving the defiance itself. You... you look good in blue, Kell."

Kell froze, and felt his heart skip and start pounding again, unevenly. "What?" 

"I should always make you wear blue," Holland said thoughtfully. "It suits your hair and matches your eyes. Eye. Come here."

Kell's feet moved without him, until he stood in front of Holland, head tilted up slightly to meet his gaze. "You shouldn't say things like that to me," He said, softly. "You hate me."

"Hate is a stronger word than anything I could ever feel for you," Holland replied, lifting a hand to gently rub his thumb back and forth across Kell's cheekbone underneath his black Antari eye. "I don't hate you. I own you."

"Don't say that."

"Why? It's true. I control everything you do now. Every step you take is ordered by me." The hand slid down to the black band around his neck, Holland's fingers playing gently with the small silver ring at the front, making it clink. The sound seemed deafening in the silent room. "Everything you do, everything, I control. I control your entire life."

"For now," Kell managed, narrowing his eyes. "Only for now."

"Hm. Maybe." Holland smiled, faintly, again. "I am about to make you do a lot of undignified things, Kell Maresh."

Kell dropped his gaze, catching his breath. "But Rhy-"

"I don't give a shit about your brother, kæreste."

"What does that word mean? Kæreste?"

"Learn my language and you will understand the ways in which I mock you. You might as well - it's the only language you'll hear outside of the Court language here. And your life will be spent here in service." There was a pause. "It's eleven forty-five in the morning in your London, for the record."

Kell felt tears in his eyes. Rhy would be so shamed, in front of his own parents, because of Kell's weakness, because he hadn't been strong enough to beat Holland and he hadn't even realized it. He'd thought for sure, with the black stone...

Holland leaned over, whispering into Kell's ear. "Can I tell you something the Danes don't know, Kell Maresh?"

Kell gasped as Holland bit, gently, on his earlobe. "Y-you- what don't they know?"

Holland chuckled, dryly. "Rhy Maresh was presented to the king and queen nearly two hours ago."

Kell pulled back and for once Holland did not punish him. He stumbled away, looking up into Holland's face, searching for the lie, for the cruelty that had to be behind the sentence. "He what?"

"Your brother - or maybe that skinny twig that seems to be by his side now that this skinny twig isn't - knows Astrid has someone watching the palace. Or at least guessed at it. They arrived two hours ago by secret entrance. Your brother is currently sitting alone in his room, waiting for what I'm going to do to you."

"How do you know? B-but if he's already been presented, you don't have to-"

"You'll see how I know soon enough. And besides, we have to keep up appearances, don't we?"

"Fine. Y-yes, sir, fine, I-" Kell felt his heart leap, and wondered at the array of ways his heartbeat had changed today, what Rhy must think of its pounding. Holland had known, had known they were going early and he had kept it a secret... "Why didn't you tell the Danes? Why did you let me sleep?"

"Don't overthink it," Holland said with a shrug, but there was something in his eyes that startled Kell. "The Danes only told me to distract you at noon, and that's what I intend to do. You're going on your knees this morning. Let's see if you can do a half-decent job without me telling you what I want this time."

Kell breathed deeply, slowly looking up at Holland, then back down to the floor. "Th-thank you, sir," He said softly. 

Mercy. What did mercy mean, from someone like Holland?

"I'm holding you against your will in a palace and doing thoroughly indecent things to you day in and day out," Holland said flatly. "Don't thank me for the privilege of your captivity."

"I'm not," Kell said softly. "I'm thanking you for not being like Astrid and Athos."

"I'm not better than them. I just don't like to cage the things I own, that's all," Holland snorted, and pointed to the floor.

Kell went to his knees, Rhy's heart beating just behind his own, speeding up at his did.

Give me time, Rhy. There's something I don't understand about Holland, and I intend to figure it out.

Chapter Text

It didn't take long for a furious Astrid to decide how to punish Rhy.

Kell did not flinch as the plate shattered against the wall next to his head, only wrapped his fingers tightly around the chain between the iron manacles she'd put on him to keep his hands behind his back and tightened his grip until it hurt.

"How did he know?!" Astrid hissed at him, picking up another plate to throw. "How?!"

"Common sense?" Holland suggested, where he sat at the table where they'd eaten dinner only the night before. He was carefully drawing a symbol on the table, even as his eyes were focused entirely on the scene Astrid was making. 

The second one shattered on the other side, and this time Kell turned his head, closing his eyes as bits of porcelain bounced off the side of his face and got stuck in his hair.

"Common sense? This is your answer, Holland?" Astrid spun on him, and Kell let out a breath of relief, letting himself lean slowly back against the wall. He'd been standing with his back ramrod straight for nearly two hours, at her furious command, but she'd only just told him why. 

He was still wearing the blue sweater and brown pants Holland had given him, the simple crewneck of the sweater making sure Holland's leather around his neck was obvious and fully visible. Astrid hadn't even remarked on it - she'd been too angry, when they entered. Even though she hadn't said, Kell had known what she was angry about.

"Anyone with half a brain could tell you wouldn't stop at just trying to kill a prince," Holland said in a clipped voice, his accent stronger than usual. "Don't blame Kell Maresh for your inability to plan more than two steps ahead or expect your opponents to be able to do the same. Rhy Maresh is foppish and foolish, but he's been educated to rule one day, and you take too much for granted if you want to open the doors. Du har brug for et krigsråd, Astrid."

Astrid paused. 

Kell stared between them, hardly daring to breathe.

"Og hvad ville mit krigsråd fortælle mig?" Astrid asked the words in a low rumbling purr, stalking over to Holland like a cat after a bird she just saw in the windowsill. Kell tightened his grip on the chain, trying to remind himself that Holland was just another slaver in this faded awful place, and not someone he should worry about.

Holland stared her down with that one brilliantly green eye. Each day, Kell thought, it seemed the green was a little brighter. Or maybe he'd just never looked Holland in the eyes all that often before to notice.

He wished he knew what they were saying. Learn my language and you will know how I mock you, Holland had said before. Maybe he should try. 

Kell closed his eyes against the realization that he genuinely had all the time in the world to learn.

"Jeg tager Kell for at møde ham i hemmelighed. Jeg kan vise ham, hvad du kan få Kell til at gøre nu." Holland looked slowly over at Kell, a hint of a faded smile on his face. It was not a kind expression.

"Wait. Are you talking about me?"

"Be quiet," Astrid said without looking at him, tilting her head, intrigued. "I like your idea, Holland. My brother will like it too, I think. But... Nej. Lad os vise ham, hvad du kan gøre Kell gøre i stedet."

Nej meant no. He knew that much. And they kept saying his name. Had the last word been instead? It had almost sounded like it... Some of it was very nearly the English that they spoke in Grey London, which he knew well enough, but the language Holland and Astrid spoke wasn't the peasant street-language of Makt, and it wasn't English, either. He could almost hear bits of his own language in the strange words, too. No... this was something else, something older than those tongues. 

As though we all once spoke the same language, once upon a time, and this is the closest to it.

Whatever she had said, Holland looked uncomfortable at first, and then the smile returned. He nodded, slowly. "Whatever my queen desires," He said softly. "I don't exactly have much of a choice, do I?"

"Nej," Astrid said, turning slowly to look at Kell, a thoughtful expression on her ghostly pale face, white hair a mix of tiny braids and loose white that flowed over her shoulders. She wore a blue dress today, with hardly more color than the veins that showed through her skin. "I like them better when they have no choice but to take whatever I want to do to them." She leaned over the table, picked up a jeweled knife, and threw it.

The knife buried itself in Kell's shoulder faster than he could move and he cried out at the sudden pain, jerking at the manacles unconsciously, locking his knees to keep himself standing. He let his head fall back against the wall, breathing in gasps. Rhy's heart leapt alongside his and he could almost hear his brother breathing in time with him.

When I'm hurt, Rhy gets closer.

Kell did not see it, but Holland jerked forward just slightly, too, but then seemed to catch himself, watching Kell struggle against the cuffs around his wrists and the pain. "That was... unnecessary," He said with careful calm in his voice. He relaxed back into his chair, looking slowly away, resting his chin in his fingers. "He's going to whine about that."

 "What doesn't he whine about?" Astrid said with a casual shrug. She walked slowly over to Kell, reaching up to curl long, thin fingers weighed down with rings around the hilt of the knife. "Aren't you supposed to be teaching him not to do that any longer, Hol?"

"Teaching takes time," Holland said casually, but his posture stiffened. 

Kell fought to keep his eyes open, to look at her the way Holland did, with empty loathing, the ache spreading in his shoulder alongside the damp of his blood.

"Your teaching takes too much time, I think, Holland." Astrid slowly twisted the blade and Kell's grunt turned into a scream, pulling helplessly at his manacles. When she loosened her grip Kell simply collapsed onto the floor, falling to the side, bleeding onto the stone and bone tiles beneath him.

"Cut him too badly and that arm won't be much use to you any longer." Kell stared up at Holland through blurred vision, blinking rapidly against the tears that threatened from the ache. "Remember that I can't open all the doors by myself. I need him." Holland's expression was calm, but his hand was gripped onto the arm of his chair so tightly his knuckles were whiter than the rest of his skin.

"Don't worry, Holl. Just making sure his brother understands that I'm not happy with his little stunt today." Astrid kicked Kell in the stomach, watching him curl up and cough with a slow smile back on her face. She kicked him again, and again. Kell could only cough and sputter against it, unable even to heal himself. A kick to the head made him see stars, staring dazedly at black spots that danced around his vision.

She was wearing boots under her blue dress, with metal toes that glinted in the light as she kicked him.

As hasari. It was all about will, not so much the gestures or even the words, but his head hurt so much he couldn't pull himself together to focus.

When she leaned down to twist the knife again, behind the sound of his own guttural cry Kell heard Rhy whisper I'm here, Kell, I'm right here with you, and felt his brother's fingers close around his own. 

Don't leave me, Rhy.

I'm right here.

"You're hurting him," Holland said tightly.

"That's the idea," Astrid murmured, tilting her head so her hair fell over her face. She yanked the knife out of Kell's shoulder, smirking as he clenched his eyes shut in response, and licked the blood off of it, slowly closing her eyes at the taste. "Blood tastes sweeter with fear, don't you think?"

"I wouldn't know." Holland looked away. 

"Du elsker også at såre ham, ikke?" Astrid's laugh was almost a chuckle. "Although I suppose your way involves less bleeding." She stood herself up straight, brushing invisible wrinkles out of her dress, and stared down at Kell, sneering. "Clean up this mess, Holland. I'll give you a week to prepare for your visit. You had better be believable."

"Not a problem," Holland replied. His grip on the arm of his chair relaxed a little. "You know how good of an actor I can be, when you command it. Besides, I've always wanted to put Rhy Maresh in his place. He's hardly going to be able to stand by the time I'm done with Kell."

"Sounds lovely. If only I could watch." Astrid blew a kiss down at Kell, who only closed his eyes tightly and turned his head away, struggling to try and get his legs under him to sit back up with his hands still chained behind his back. Astrid leaned down behind him, unlocking them and pulling them away, watching as he rubbed at his wrists with his hands.

She leaned over and kissed the top of his head, taking in a deep breath. "You and Holland using the same soap. Mmmmn, what a thought. My two boys together." Kell froze, his stomach flipping with nausea and fear. "Behave well for your master, lille hund."

He was relieved, at least, to find that nausea and fear were all he felt when she touched him.

Then why was there more when it was Holland?

She stood, twirling the manacles in her hands, laughing as she walked away. Holland did not move until she was gone, only stared fixedly at Kell. When the last of her footsteps had faded, he slowly stood, moving over and helping Kell get to his feet with surprising gentleness. Kell hissed at the stab of agony up his shoulder, but managed to keep himself steady, leaning heavily against Holland to stay standing. 

The feeling of Rhy's hand on his was gone, but he had been there this time, Kell was sure of it. He hadn't made it up. Something about the connection between them, the way their lives had been tied together, came even closer when he was in pain. 

Maybe if I'm hurt enough, we could talk to each other for a while.

"As hasari," Holland murmured, drawing his finger against the wound in Kell's shoulder. It closed and he flinched at the itch of the healing skin, then looked up at Holland quickly.

"S-sorry, I didn't mean to-"

"I'll give you this one. Let's go back to my room. She's ruined your sweater." 

"I'm s-sorry for that, too-"

"No you're not. And you shouldn't be. I have more."

"What did you say to her? I couldn't understand all of it." His shoulder twinged with the memory of pain and Kell smiled, faintly, to himself. Pain like that was nothing; he lived with that every time he needed to use his magic. 

"Ah. That." Holland was smirking, an expression Kell distinctly disliked. It usually precluded him being hurt or Holland ordering him to his knees. He looked uneasily around at the hallway seeing the mindless guards who lined the wall as they walked, the equally mindless servants that drifted from job to job like ghosts with something left undone. "I'd rather that be a surprise, if you don't mind, Kell Maresh."

"I do mind."

"I don't give a damn." Holland stopped, Kell stumbling a halt with him, turning to look up at him, startled. Holland's green eye focused slowly on the bloodstain that had spread across his sweater, the memory of the wound he had healed. "Look at that. A couple of bruises, a wound I'm allowed to heal for you. A flogging that I'm ordered to undo. Even the Danes treat you with lambskin gloves."

"That was nice treatment? What is being ill-treated by them like?"

"Everything's been so fucking easy for you," Holland breathed, voice heavy with hate.

Kell stepped back and away from it, only to have Holland grab him by the arms, his grip tight enough that Kell fought back a wince. 

"Don't. Fucking. Move."

"Holland, I'm sorry, whatever they did to you-"

"Do you want to know? Would you like me to show you what they were like when it was me?"

Kell slowly shook his head, not daring to speak. 

"I thought so. Why does everything get to be easy for you, princeling? Why you?"

"I-I don't know-"

"Because... because you were born in the Maresh Empire, and I wasn't. That's it. That's all the difference there is between us." Holland laughed, but it was barely more than a breath of air, and full of anger. He let go of one arm, sliding his hand up around Kell's throat, a thumb gently moving back and forth over the band of black leather. "At least I have this over you."

"Holland," Kell breathed out softly, "I'm sorry."

"I don't give a shit about your sorry." Holland's voice was empty.

"I know."

Holland's eyes went back to his, and Kell felt the Antari in him drawing closer to Holland's black eye. His thumb found its way to Kell's cheekbone, drawing slowly across it, thoughtfully. 

"What did they do with the stone, Holland?" Kell asked softly.

"What?" Holland tilted his head. 

"The… the Black London magic. I had it in my hand. What did they do with it?"

"Who?"

"The Danes. What did they do with it? Did they-"

"They didn't do anything with it, Kell. They don't have it at all."

He caught his breath, staring up at Holland in surprise. "They didn't? Then what... wait. Holland... do you have it?"

Holland smiled, leaned in, and kissed him.

Chapter Text

Rhy did not move from his place lying on the sofa in his room with a cool, wet cloth lying over his eyes, but he could hear Lila Bard pacing the floor like a caged panther. His nerves danced, threatening to light back up at any moment if whatever was happening to Kell there in White London began to happen again. Four times in fourteen hours or so, he thought. He'd had to hide in his room, begging his parents to make up some kind of illness to justify it, because he couldn't seem to predict when Kell would be hurt - or worse - again. 

The first time, he'd been ready; they'd prepared for it, and he'd been alone. The next three times had been... angrier. The second he'd been stabbed, he remembered that much... the feeling of the blade in his shoulder twisted hard, scrabbling as Kell's heart beat in time with his to speak to him. He'd heard Kell respond, felt himself grab onto Kell's hand as strongly as if he'd really been right next to him. The third and fourth times had been... strange. Rhy thought Kell's wrists had been cut again at some point, and he'd felt how roughly Kell was being handled by whoever had him there. It had taken longer, exhausted him - and obviously Kell - more. Whoever was touching Kell had been rougher, but that had made no difference, in the end. Both of them still enjoyed it. When Kell was lost in pleasure, he was further away than ever. It was when he was in pain that Rhy could feel him close.

His wrist hurt. Kell's had been twisted at some point and both of them continued to ache.

Kell, I am so sorry that I have to feel this. I know you wish I didn't.

"Will you stop, Miss Bard? You're making me nervous," He murmured.

"No. Besides, you can't even see me."

"I don't have to. Your footsteps are so loud the servants below us must wonder when I brought home an elephant for a pet."

"Here's what we know," Lila Bard said, ignoring him. Her voice was flat and she counted the facts off on her fingers as she spoke. Her footsteps did not so much as slow. "Kell is being held captive in the palace in White London, so we have to assume he's the captive of the king and queen there. It's not for ransom, or they'd be trying to set up some kind of meeting or sending demands."

"True," Rhy murmured. "Whatever it is they have planned for my brother, they do appear to intend to keep him."

I wish I had enough magic to go tear them apart myself for you, Kell.

"We also know that they have someone watching the queen and king, because they clearly knew about the time you were supposed to be presented to your parents. But whoever it is didn't know we changed the plan. We know Maxim told his closest servant about the change to ensure the guards would be distracted, so whoever is watching them isn't him."

"And it... it isn't my parents, either." The relief in his chest was painful. He'd been so, so frightened, knowing from Lila that his parents had been... gone, before... that they would discover Astrid had simply kept them as tools. But Maxim and Emira had been terrified and furious and held him so tightly it had ached for hours afterward, and Rhy had cried in their arms like a child and been unable to explain even a little of what was happening to him. He'd left that to the Aven Essen, who had come with them, radiating his peace and calm even as Lila had stood like a glowering gargoyle to his side. "Which leaves my mother's personal maid... and the guards."

"I'd put my money on the guards," Lila said firmly. "They get days off, go into town, maybe have a bit too much to drink. It'd be easy enough to catch them up. Is your mother's maid the type to spend her days off down in town?"

Rhy snorted. "My mother's maid probably spends her days off staring at a wall waiting for her day off to be over."

"That's not very nice," Lila said, but there was a hint of amusement in her voice. He wondered what it took for Lila Bard to let her guard down and simply enjoy herself. Probably more liquor than existed in the entirety of the royal palace. She was like Kell in that way; so wrapped up in her own defenses that she didn't even know they were there any longer.

How did you get that way, Kell? We've always been kind to you.

He knew, though, didn't he? Kell had come to them a strange, shy little boy with Rhy was even younger. His mother had tried to love Kell at first, but at some point she had... taken it back. Had become distant, started pushing Kell away when he tried to hug her, stopped wanting to comfort him when he had nightmares. And Kell had been quieter and more withdrawn ever since... or at least he had with everyone but Rhy. 

Rhy, he'd still gone to in the dark when he was scared. He'd always, always been there when Kell really needed him, and he did not intend to stop now.

Even if his mother's distance had somehow built an idea in Kell that he wasn't important to anyone, encouraged him to go off alone and risk himself, always himself, and never let Rhy take a risk at all.

"I wonder if that means I could blame her for all of this," Rhy murmured to himself thoughtfully.

"Blame who for what?" Lila asked, and he groaned.

"Didn't realize I said that out loud. Ignore me."

"Not a problem. So. It's probably one of the guards. We need a way to find out, but... there could be more guards reporting to her, and if we give away that we know who it is..."

"Then Astrid might remove that guard. Permanently. From life."

"Is eloquence part of your royal training, prince?" Lila asked, finally sitting heavily down in a chair. Rhy let out a sigh of relief as her boots stopped clomping back and forth across the floor. 

"I genuinely don't know what my brother sees in you," He muttered.

"What your brother what now-"

"Never mind. We'll tread carefully. He's Antari. There's no way his life is in any danger if he's being held by royalty. He's worth too much alive to kill him without a damn good reason, and while I've heard enough of his stories about the White London rulers to have an idea of their ruthlessness, they... seem to hold tightly to whatever it is they deem valuable enough to keep."

"Kell's valuable," Lila said, resting her chin on the fingertips of one hand. Rhy snuck a look at her from under the wet cloth. Her profile was sharp-edged, the line of her nose and her mouth and her chin severe and merciless. But those wide eyes were beautiful, he thought. And there was probably a softness to her that simply needed to be brought to the surface. You just had to be willing to go diving for it.

Just like Kell.

"You two really are just the same," Rhy said with a hint of his usual rakish smile. 

Lila snorted. "Not this again."

"I see why he likes you, I really do."

"Kell doesn't-"

"We both know he does."

Lila looked at the door to his room, scowling, but he could see the color lighting her cheeks and smiled to himself. "I don't think that's a terribly important topic of conversation right now. We need to be devising a plan to bring your brother home."

"And I intend to, Miss Bard, but right now I am exhausted, slightly hungover from the drinks the Aven Essen is giving me to help me sleep, and frankly a little scared that even if my brother comes home, he may be..."

"Damaged?" Lila suggested.

"Changed," Rhy replied tightly, and slid the cloth back over his eyes. He didn't say what he was most worried about, because it wasn't any of her business to know it. That last night, during the time that he had felt the knife slicing his wrists open all mixed up with the strange and foggy pleasure of someone drawing on his back with blood he could not see, only feel, he had gotten closer to Kell's mind as their heartbeats came together.

And he had heard Kell's thoughts flying past him, fragmented and frightened, but ringed with a darker, more insistent refrain. Whatever had happened last night... he had the feeling Kell had been a much more willing participant than he had in the past. And Rhy couldn't shake the sense of that darkness clouding Kell's mind even now. There was a sense, suddenly, of a hand on his neck, fingertips trailing down his chest. Rhy made a soft sound in the back of his throat, taking the wet cloth off of his eyes and tossing it onto the floor to the side. Breath on his ear, someone whispering something to Kell. 

A pause. Rhy wondered if that was the time that it took Kell to reply.

The press of a kiss to the side of his neck, just under his jaw.

Lila Bard was still talking, but Rhy hadn't heard a word she said. He shifted, turning onto his side, pulling the heavy woven blanket down from the top of the sofa and laying it over himself. Fingernails scratched, just slightly, at the flat spot just inside of one of his hipbones and Rhy closed his eyes. "You should leave, Miss Bard." His voice was strained.

Lila, who had still been counting things off on her fingers, turned to look at him. "Why?" Before he could even open his mouth to answer, she coughed into one hand awkwardly said, "Oh right. Yes. That would be why. That's got to be what, the... third time in a day?"

"Fourth," He muttered, putting his hands up over his face. "I'm surprised Kell hasn't passed out by now."

There was a silence, and he looked up again to see if she had gone.

Lila Bard was still standing there, her eyebrows furrowed, an expression of absolute fury on her face. Rhy would not have wanted to face her in battle, he thought; not that he had any idea what a battle was like, since the Maresh Empire had been at peace since his father's youth. But Lila Bard as an opponent...

"I'd bet on you every time," He said softly, ignoring the sense of a thumb gently rubbing along his hip. "Miss Bard."

"You what?"

"If anyone's going to get him out of there, it's you. But stop looking so jealous, you'll make me sad no one thinks about me that way." 

"You?" Lila snorted, but there was the slightest hint of humor on her face. "You probably have a dozen heartbroken girls who thought they'd get to be a princess."

"And boys who thought they might get to be a prince. Let's not forget them. You know, my brother is technically a prince," Rhy pointed out. The sense of being touched went away, and he wondered if it would stop there. 

"Meaning?" The color was back in her face again, and Rhy couldn't stop himself from smiling. 

"You know exactly what I mean. You'd get to be a princess."

Lila stared at him wide-eyed, made perhaps the rudest, most vulgar gesture the prince of the Maresh Empire had ever had made to him, and spun around, stomping out and slamming his door behind her.

Rhy laughed to himself, rolling back onto his back now that he was alone. 

Somewhere else, Kell was kissed, and Rhy felt his own mouth open slightly for a partner who didn't exist here. It couldn't be Athos - Kell had said the ruler of White London was violent and cruel, not the sort to take his time with a kiss like this. Rhy grunted softly in the back of his throat, feeling hands trailing Kell's body again, flickering in and out of his own consciousness as Kell felt a thrill of pleasure from it or didn't. 

"For the love of magic, let the poor man rest," Rhy muttered. There was the sense of something pulling at his neck, of being pulled along by it. He hadn't ever felt this before, but this time something about it had thrilled Kell and Rhy's body went with him. "He has to be as tired as I am."

Just as he had begun to fall into it, to simply close his eyes and let himself feel the pleasure his brother felt, Kell's arm was twisted hard up his back until something snapped in his shoulder and Rhy let out a cry at the sudden, unexpected flash of agony. The arm was twisted harder, farther, and he felt Kell's heart trying desperately to find him, the moment when their thoughts met as the pain grew and grew-

And he heard a voice he knew very well whispering in his - in Kell's - ear, as for a moment he could sense everything Kell sensed. He was in a room that felt as cold as ice, wearing absolutely nothing. A blindfold was over his eyes, Kell was panting and breathless, something around his neck pulled hard, and his arm hurt so badly-

"Jeg hader dig ikke, lille prins. Jeg vil aldrig lade dig gå," Holland Vosijk murmured into Kell's ear. He smelled like something cold, had a scent like ice and an empty fireplace. Holland's teeth bit gently on his earlobe even as he let go of Kell's arm and Rhy felt them start to fade apart from one another as the pain did. Rhy could almost still hear him, could feel Kell's whimper in his own throat as Holland's hand went instead between his legs. Why did the pain connect them like this? What had Kell done when he had linked them together?

"Tigge mig," Holland said softly, his voice nearly gone from Rhy's mind. There was a pause. So faded it was nearly a whisper, Rhy heard Holland laugh, a dark and foggy sound, full of lust. "That means 'beg me'. Consider that lesson one in my language..."

His voice was gone. Rhy never heard Kell's response. 

He felt, though, that Kell must have done as he was told, because he felt everything that Holland did next.

Rhy curled himself up on the sofa, covered himself in the blanket until it even covered his head, and thought that perhaps it wasn't the Danes he would slaughter at all. It wasn't the strange white twins that Kell had described to him a thousand times he needed to hate.

It was Holland.

Chapter Text

“Can I ask you a question?” Kell, kneeling on the floor, did not look up. Instead, he spoke to the heavy black boots that were the only part of Holland currently in his line of sight.

“Must you?” Holland asked. He was sitting at his small table reading a book, Kell thought; he could hear the pages turning. He’d been on his knees for more than two hours and he’d had to fight his feet going numb, his shoulder still aching even though at least four hours had passed since Holland had twisted it, interrupting time he’d been forcing Kell to study his language - the better to understand the Danes, Holland had insisted, but some hint of laughter had been in his face.

The better to understand the ways in which I mock you. 

The leather lead was hooked to the ring at his neck and Holland had it wrapped around one hand, just taut enough that Kell couldn’t quite move in any direction without feeling it pull tight. At this point, Kell thought, they were headed for sundown and Holland’s usual parade of finding ways to keep himself awake until the last possible moment.

Kell’s hands were on his legs, and he was wearing a new sweater over the same soft brown pants he’d been wearing when Astrid had thrown a knife into his shoulder. The sweater was a pristine faded robin’s egg blue - the pants were the same and still had dried spots of blood Kell thought would never come out.

Who even did laundry here? He had no idea. Clothes just disappeared and reappeared folded on a chair. Some mindless servant, he thought… or the poor boy Athos had serving dinner, maybe, with the helplessly furious eyes that told Kell he’d burn out on captivity and leave nothing behind.

Did anyone miss that boy? Did he have a mother somewhere, wondering if he was alive? Then again, maybe here in Makt they all just assumed when the Danes had you, you were as good as dead already.

Holland cleared his throat. “Must you ask me a question? You should answer me, Kell.”

Kell fought back the faintest twitch of a smile, hoping his hair hid it well enough that Holland wouldn’t see. He wants me to ask. He wants to know what I’m thinking.  

“I’d like to,” Kell said, resolutely focused on Holland’s boots. “But you decide if I do,” He continued, in a softer voice, feeling the flush in his face. If Rhy saw him like this, asking permission to speak and kneeling on the floor, still thinking about the way Holland’s mouth had felt on him earlier…

Rhy probably likes this, Kell thought suddenly, wincing at the memory of young men and women he’d seen sneaking out of Rhy’s room the morning after a party, shame-faced smiles and mussed-up hair, usually still wearing a rumpled version of whatever outfit they’d worn the night before. He stopped himself before he remembered Alucard Emery, always with some smarmy quip on his way down the hall, with Kell glaring daggers into his back. Or at least he’d like it if it were a game, and not being trapped and unable to even lift a hand to defend himself.

His shoulder ached, the feeling of Holland snapping it out of joint lingering even as it had been put back and healed with a trail of Holland’s fingertips and a whisper of air against Kell’s ear. But there had been a look on Holland’s face, when he’d hurt him, something separate from the laughter and the lust that came next. 

There’s something I don’t understand.

“Fine,” Holland said finally, heavily. The boots Kell was staring at shifted and scraped lightly along the floor. Metal toes, just like the Danes - but Holland had yet to kick him like that. Don’t differentiate between your captors, Kell. You’re making pointless distinctions to try and find a savior. No one here will help you. “If you genuinely cannot help yourself… ask away.”

“Can I… look up now?”

Holland let the silence draw out between them, but Kell could hear his fingers lightly tapping on the table. Eventually, with a hint of that humor in his voice, he said softly, “Yes, Kell. Go ahead.”

“Do you enjoy hurting everyone, or is it just me?”

Holland slammed the book he’d been reading shut, and Kell fought back an instinctive flinch at the way the sound seemed impossibly loud in this silent room. Kell could see his teeth grind together. “Didn’t I tell you a few days ago not to ask stupid fucking questions, Kell?” His accent was thicker, the lilting singsong vowels and slightly softened consonants coming through. 

“Has it only been a few days?” Kell asked instead of answering him, watching Holland shift uneasily in his chair, his grip tightening a little on the leash he still held. The line grew tight between them and Kell raised his chin, feeling the band around his neck pull against his skin.

“Every week will feel like you’ve lived a lifetime, here,” Holland said quietly, staring off into space, looking at nothing at all. “I promise you that. Each week a longer life than the one before it. They collapse together into years you’ll never get back. But yes, it’s only been a few days so far.”

Years you’ll never get back. The Danes had taken over, what, seven years ago? Eight? Kell wasn’t entirely sure. He’d been young, and while Maxim and Emira had sent him off with confidence to meet the new monarchs when White London reopened to his presence, Rhy had been so worried he’d chewed off half the fingernails on his left hand waiting for Kell to come back. I know what it felt like visiting. What has it felt for Holland to live it?

“Do you like hurting me?”

Silence. Just as he’d given up on Holland answering him, he finally said, his voice gravel ground out against his will, “Sometimes.”

“... sometimes?” That wasn’t the answer he’d been hoping for - but it was better than the answer he’d feared. 

Holland took a deep breath, and for a second Kell had a wild, irrational thought that the quiet, introspective self-contained Antari would tell him everything. Then he let out the rush of air and shook his head. “Sometimes,” He repeated, more firmly. “Sometimes I enjoy nothing more than to see you frightened of me or to hear you begging me to stop.”

Kell clenched his fingers around the soft fabric of his pants. His toes were going numb again, and he shifted, trying to bring life back to them even as the sudden flush of blood made them prickle with the pain of waking up. “The other times?”

Holland seemed to be thinking something over, still tapping his fingers in a rhythm that was nearly a dance. He didn’t answer, and Kell fought the compulsion to ask the question again. That… that would probably be something Holland would consider poor manners, and Kell was trying not to cross any more lines. 

His body just flat out couldn’t take any more without some rest. 

They probably want you to stop trying to cross lines, Kell. That’s probably part of the plan.

“When it became obvious what you were, Kell, what happened to you?” Holland asked, and the way he tilted his head, curved a little to the side, made Kell think of the men in Grey London walking through clouds of tobacco smoke in a night where the fog rolled in so heavily you could hardly tell one type of cloud from another. He’d tried their tobacco, once, rolled-up leaves they’d brought from some far off nation that had become a simple fact of English life; he’d turned nearly green, coughed and sputtered, and lost his dinner in an alley so loudly someone passing by had stopped to ask if he were all right.

“I was given to the Maresh family.” With a dagger that said KL, for which they’d called him, no memories, nothing else. An impression, maybe not even that, or arms carrying him while he slept. It could have been his mother, or a slaver, and he’d never known which. 

“Yes. The Maresh family. Who raised you as their son, alongside their precious only child. When it became obvious what I was, everyone in my life began trying to kill me,” Holland said, with no more weight to his words than if he were speaking about the weather neither of them could see in this bedroom with no windows. “ Everyone , Kell. Family, friends, strangers who simply saw me walking down the street… lovers.” The tapping of his fingers paused, briefly, and then started again. “There were those in the world who watched me sleep and thought of slitting my throat for a little bit of coin.”

“Is… is that why you chain me to my bed so I can’t move?”

Holland’s expression could have cut glass. “I don’t expect your pity, lille prins, and I’d sooner spit on you than receive it. I have made the best of my circumstances, and I am going to use you against your will to drain your world of some of its magic in the hopes that it will save mine. But…”

Another, longer pause. 

“But?” Kell asked, moving a little closer to Holland if only to create some slack in the leash. 

Holland jumped slightly, as though he’d forgotten Kell was there. He looked down as Kell looked up and the two met eyes. Holland’s nearly chalk-white hand made its way to the side of his face, the slightly cool skin resting against it. Kell could not quite look away. The magic in him wanted to crawl inside of Holland’s body and melt away, combine them, fight until someone gave in and they could come together in a river of power for the strongest surviving Antari to use. 

“Sometimes I think hurting you is the only thing I enjoy anymore,” Holland said softly, taking Kell’s chin in his hand, forcing his head to tilt back until Kell’s gaze was on the ceiling. “In moments like that, when you beg me to stop, I think that I am no better than the Danes, and that maybe those dark desires are bred in Makt to poison our world. We love to hurt each other, here. Sometimes I think it’s the worst thing I have ever done, and I wish that I could take the brand off your back and send you home to your spoiled little world and its spoiled little joys.”

Kell saw the first true glimmer of hope since he’d come here, and he grasped onto it with desperately, greedy fingers. “You don’t have to take the brand off my back,” He said in a sudden rush, and when Holland let him go he moved up higher on his knees, hands on the arm of the chair Holland was sitting in. “You could let me go home anyway. You could convince the Danes to let you do it. As a... as a test, or something. Or send me as a spy.”

Bind it to me, he'd said to Holland in his dream, his voice thick with lust. I'll wear it forever for you, just let me go home.

Holland slid his hand to the top of Kell’s hair, burying his fingers into it, pulling just slightly until Kell flushed and finally looked away. “Why would I do that, when I have you here?”

“Because you’d know,” Kell said, trying to sound sincere, sure that the urgency in his voice gave his desperation away. “Because you’d know that if you called, I would come to you. No matter when you asked, I would come to you.”

“You do that now,” Holland murmured, unconvinced. “And you get your mouth on my cock much faster this way. Honestly, it’s been a decade since anyone had any part of themselves there when they weren't simultaneously cutting me open. I’m not sure I want that mouth or those hands more than five feet away from me ever again. Besides, then I'd have to wait to put my hands on you.

“Sanct,” Kell whispered. His hands and heart felt like a block of ice.

“What? Should I be more circumspect? I’m not exactly writing you a love letter, princeling.” Holland looked down at him thoughtfully, and slowly put one boot up against his shoulder, pushing on it at the same time he pulled the leash taught. “You couldn’t hear me, if you were so far from me, you know.”

“I’d still know the command when it was given.” Kell grunted as the boot pressed harder into his shoulder at the same time the collar pulled tight and cut into his skin. Just behind his heartbeat, he felt Rhy’s skip and stutter before speeding up. I want to see if he’ll let me go back to you. How much of this is he enjoying, and how much is against his will? “I’d know you wanted me to go to you.”

“That’s true. Would you come to me any time, Kell Maresh?”

“Yes,” Kell whispered. “Any time you wanted me, sir.”

“Even in the middle of the night?” The boot dropped back to the floor, but Holland yanked hard on the leash. Kell stumbled forward onto his hands, finding himself directly between Holland’s legs. There was nowhere safe to look - to look up was to see that same strange loathing and lust in Holland’s eyes and to feel himself pulled in by the magic. Looking down just meant realizing that he was probably going to be ordered to put his mouth to work again very soon, which brought the redness back to his face, nearly matching the red of his hair.

Kell decided closing his eyes was probably the safest option. “Yes, sir.”

“Even if you’re in the middle of a conversation when you feel the command to come home?”

Kell hesitated, then said slowly, “Makt isn’t my home.”

Holland snorted. “No, it isn’t. But I am. This is.” He tapped lightly on top of a visible blue vein that branched up one arm with the fingers of the other hand. Kell thought of his dream, when Holland’s veins had stood out from his skin, black-lined like cracks in porcelain, and he’d wanted nothing more than to bury himself in those hands.

“Help me open a gate,” Holland said softly. “A door. A small one, just to let a little of the magic back into my world. If you do that, I will let you see your brother.”

Kell’s heart jumped, Rhy’s beating steadily just behind. “You will?” 

This is a trap. Think it through.

“Wait,” he said, wishing he could pull back and away, somewhere where the cold smell of Holland didn’t seem to be all he could breathe. “You could just order me to.”

“And I will, if I must,” Holland replied easily, with a shrug. “But I want you to do it on your own. I don’t mind a bit of negotiation. Open the door, and I’ll let you see your brother.” There was some amusement on Holland’s face Kell didn’t quite understand. He felt like the older Antari was five steps ahead of him somehow, some way, and he wasn’t sure how to get the world back into balance. Holland pulled him to his feet, still between his legs, now looking down at a pale face that showed no more emotion than a block of ice - just the eternal bit of contempt that never seemed to leave.

“All night,” Kell said, thinking. A bit of negotiation, Holland had said. He could do that. And yet… he still felt three steps behind, desperate to figure out just where on the game board his pieces would fall. “I get to stay with Rhy all night, at least. No commands on what I must do, only that I'll stay in his rooms overnight and come back to you at dawn.”

“Your erstwhile guardians will not know you were ever there,” Holland countered. “Only Rhy. If I find out anyone else is there, guard or servant or… girl… you’ll never set foot in your London again.”

Kell swallowed, hard. Oh, Lila. Maybe Rhy will at least take you a message.

What would he even ask Rhy to say to her?

Anoshe. That would be all he could say.

“Yes, sir.” He paused, then hesitantly, tried out, “ Ja, h-herre… mestre. For dig vil… v-vil jeg.

Holland only stared up at him slightly wide-eyed, as though he’d seen a ghost. He pulled Kell down by the leash, his other hand cool against his neck, forcing him down until he had to catch himself on the arms of the chair.  

Holland’s mouth on his was hungry, demanding, electric. Kell struggled not to pull away, to try and fight it, instead pressing back, opening his mouth for Holland, pretending he did not feel his veins light up, every inch of his blood sparking inside him in its rush to find its way to another. Holland’s hand slid back up into his hair, gripping tight enough to hurt, as his mouth found its way to the side of Kell’s neck, nipping hard enough to make him grunt in the back of his throat. 

Kell felt his body respond and added that to the rapidly lengthening list of things he very much was not going to think about right now. He was going to get something he wanted - time with Rhy, time they could just talk to one another. That would be enough, for now. It had to be enough. 

Holland nipped, just the slightest bit, at his bottom lip. He tried to think about Lila but all he could see in his mind was Holland’s wide eyes at his halting attempts to use the Makt words he’d learned so far, the way his hand had shook, just slightly, as he pulled him down for the kiss. 

“I think I’ll drop if I have to again,” Kell said softly. “Please. I don’t… want to. Not again.”

Er det dit sted at sige ja eller nej, Kell? ” And Kell realized that for the first time his mind was able to translate every word. Is it your place to say yes or no, Kell?

“No, sir. I mean nej… herre.

“I’ll talk to the Danes,” Holland said against the skin of his neck, and Kell found himself unconsciously trying to pull away, Holland’s iron grip on him the only thing that held him still. But he didn’t punish him for trying, not this time. “I’ll get you a night with your brother. But you have to help me open a door. You’ll do it either way.”

“I will,” Kell said a little breathlessly. He couldn’t stop thinking about the dream he’d had when he’d fallen asleep at Holland’s table reading about the someday king, of the black spreading across half of Holland’s face and his knowledge that his own had looked just the same, the both of them criss-crossed in black veins as though someone had drawn on them with ink that blurred and spread moment by moment. He couldn’t seem to shake the image of Holland picking him up, shoving his back against the wall, kissing him with an energy that crackled with it, magic trying to find its way home-

A bite on his earlobe made him groan, unwillingly, a body exhausted by a day of nonstop attention crying out for rest. “H-holland, please-”

“Fine,” Holland said, quiet and faded, into his ear. “It’s past dinner time, anyway, and you must be hungry from all the work you’ve done today. The Danes will have already eaten. I think we can find some food without having to… make any small talk.” He smiled and unclipped the lead from Kell’s collar, suddenly pushing him back. Kell stumbled, hunching himself over, trying to hide the still-growing bulge in his pants and the redness of his face. 

“You’ll get what you want.” Holland’s voice was a little smug and he stood, brushing at his own clothing, wrapping the lead around his wrist slowly, taking his time, letting Kell watch him do it. “You should thank me for it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Kell said to the floor near Holland’s boots. His face burned, and he would get to see Rhy again - he’d get to see his brother. He was getting what he wanted… so why did he feel like Holland was the one who was going to walk away with a prize?

Holland walked past him, pausing for just a moment to lay a hand atop his head. “I like you speaking in my tongue, Kell Maresh.” He leaned in, that lukewarm skin making Kell shiver as her ran the backs of his fingers down the side of Kell’s face. “I want you to think about crying out for me in my tongue next time, with that collar around your neck that marks who you belong to. That carving on your back can’t make you think as I command, but it doesn’t have to, does it? I think you’ll think about it anyway. Sometimes I really hate hurting you, Kell Maresh. Other times…” He smiled, just the slightest curve of his lips.

“Other times you enjoy it,” Kell finished, his voice hardly more than a breath.

Holland tapped a finger against the center of Kell’s mouth, then turned away. “Other times I think that you were the best and worst gift I’ve ever been given, and I cannot wait to see your brother’s face when he sees what you’re reduced to.” There was a pause, as Holland made it to the door, where all he did was stare down at the doorknob.

Kell saw a flash of darkness, guilt and self-hatred and a depthless rage, before Holland went carefully empty again. 

Lille prins… I have had my fill of my own helplessness. I’ve never felt so drunk as I do having the chance to inflict that feeling on you. Let’s go find something to eat.”

Chapter Text

Kell was afraid to leave Holland's room.

There was something intensely humiliating about it - he hadn't been afraid of anything like this since he was a child, before he'd truly understood that the Maresh palace was his home and not just some kind of trick being played on a lonely child. Holland's room was huge, to be sure, and had plenty of space, but... Kell wanted to see more, an at the same time he didn't dare.

Holland was out running errands to the other Londons, and had left him here for days. He'd said when he returned they would go to see Rhy. He had no reason to trust Holland, no reason but his own desperate need for their to be someone he could trust here. Kell tried to keep count, but with no windows it was tough to get a sense of time. The mindless servants brought him his meals, so he'd marked down each meal on a piece of paper. The meals seemed to follow the basic rhythm of breakfast (Toast and jam, sometimes a strange little kind of fish he was pretty sure was called a herring), lunch (just bread and cheese and a bit of cold meat), and dinner (meat in a sauce - either red meat with white sauce or white meat with red sauce - and usually potatoes or some different vegetable). Assuming they were bringing his meals at the regular intervals he thought they were, it had been about six days. Sometimes there was a beer on the table when he returned from the bathroom, or a glass of wine.

His clothes for each day continued to disappear while he slept and reappear folded neatly on a chair. The Danes did not bother him, but he had the feeling that they had made some agreement with Holland not to enter his room. 

If he went out into the hallway and tried to explore this place, to find some way to escape if he could ever get the mark removed from his back... they'd find him, he was sure of it. And whatever strange truce they had with Holland, whatever deal they'd made to let Holland take him, would be forfeit if he did.

Holland hadn't said any such thing, but Kell… Kell was sure that this was a test. If he left the room, he'd prove to the Danes that Holland's version of... torture, of 'training'... hadn't worked. What if that meant they'd decide Athos would take over from here?

Kell badly wanted to leave this room. He'd been so self-contained, so private, that he hadn't realized how much he took for granted the unconscious interactions with other people that made up his day. The guards who greeted him in the hallway as a prince, Maxim and Emira at the breakfast table, Rhy's shimmering, shining smile lighting up every room and his constant running litany of conversation and flirting with anything that moved... all of that had been the people that made up his life. Even Lila Bard's smile, sharp-edged as the blade she probably had in her hand, had started to factor in to his world more than he wanted to admit. 

In here, it was silent. No one who entered this room had a mind but him. He'd been studying Holland's language for days, telling himself it was just to make it easier to live here and not at all because of the way Holland reacted with such intensity when he spoke in Maktahn. 

All he wanted was to leave this room. He was ashamed of admit that he was so frightened of the Danes - and what they would amuse themselves doing if they found him out by himself - that he didn't dare. 

At least, with Holland gone, he was not chained to his bed at night. 

Last night, he'd slept in Holland's larger bed. He'd die before he admitted to it, though. The whole bed had smelled like Holland, the strangely cold mix of a banked fireplace and something like cedar. 

He'd only slept there because he was used to the larger bed at home.

That was the only reason why.

Kell stared at the door from his place sitting at the kitchen table. All he had to do was open the door, right? If he didn't leave this hallway, the Danes would never know. This wasn't even their wing of the palace; Kell couldn't even hear the screaming until he and Holland made it halfway down towards the other wing, the one where that circular room was. Kell shuddered, thinking of Holland's empty eyes when the lash had come down on his back. 

Rhy's heart skipped, and Kell put a hand over his own, over the mark that linked them. What are you thinking, Rhy?  Rhy's heart began to race, not exactly pounding but rabbit-fast, something that wasn't quite fear but might have been rage. He was becoming very good at cataloging what a kind of heartbeat meant. 

What if Holland is with him right now?

Kell's hand over his heart slowly closed into a fist.

Please, please don't be alone with my brother right now. 

His palms began to ache right along the bottom of them, and Kell slowly held his hands up, looking at the heart and lifelines. He couldn't see anything, but as the ache grew a little worse, and a little worse, he thought that Rhy must be digging his fingernails in, his own hands fists, somewhere at home in Red London.

He'd gone to see a fortune-teller in Gray London once, when he'd thought perhaps there might be a hint of magic in Gray's otherwise lifeless river Thames. She'd been ageless and ancient at once, had held his hands and looked over them and murmured to herself. Looked up at him, her watery eyes ringed in kohl and head swathed in colorful scarves, and said softly, Your heartline is broken. Love has always been linked with loss and pain for you - and I see no change on your horizon. 

Here he was, with Rhy - the only person he genuinely loved, his brother - too far away to reach but close enough to feel his pain and worse. 

There was a knock at the door, and Kell jumped. "Who's-" His voice cracked, slightly, and he cleared his throat. "Who's there?"

There was no answer on the other side of the door, but a moment later the oddly mechanical knock came again. 

"Must be a mealtime," Kell muttered, checking his notes. The last meal had been breakfast, he thought, so it must be lunchtime. Now that he thought about it, his stomach did feel sort of empty...

He stood, walking barefoot across the floor, playing a game of trying to keep his feet on the warm rugs the whole time instead of letting them touch the frigidly cold stone. Lighting a fire in the fireplace was easy enough, with magic, but the floor never seemed to warm as much as he'd like, and he had no idea where his shoes had gone. He supposed you didn't need shoes, if you were never allowed to leave.

He opened the door, fully expecting another of the parade of mindless mechanical servants, and instead found himself staring into the very alive eyes of the strange boy that Athos kept as a slave, holding a tray with today's lunch and a stein of beer carefully balanced. 

His hair was shaggy and growing out, Kell thought. He was thin in a way that said he'd lost weight, maybe didn't eat much these days. Athos's mark had been re-carved since he'd last seen him and was a bright and angry red, a barely-healing wound that no one had bothered to bandage, least of all the boy himself. Where every other servant Kell had met was mindless, overwritten by the magic that Athos had carved into them, this boy's mind was still his own.

He couldn't be the first one like this - Athos loved suffering, Holland had said. He loved breaking defiance, but hated the broken people that resulted from his work. What had happened to the others who had not kneeled?

"Please to move," The boy said, his voice heavily accented, a little gravelly and strangely deep for how young he was. "Please to move, Herre."

"Don't call me that," Kell muttered, stepping out of the way. The boy moved past him without looking back, walking with careful grace. The stein, despite being filled to the brim, did not lose so much as a drop of the beer as he carefully set the tray down on the table. Once he had, Kell saw his shoulders shake, just slightly; it had to have been heavy, and this boy looked like nothing so much as a half-starved stray. 

"Your food for eating. I wait. I clean up for you." There was something about how he phrased the words, something beyond what Kell expected, the broken Royal tongue... it was almost careful, like...

"You know more of the Royal tongue than that," Kell said out loud. The boy spun around to look at him with wide eyes, and Kell realized the door was still standing open. He shut it carefully, moving to stand with his back to it, blocking the boy from leaving the room. "You're pretending you speak less of it than you do."

The boy's eyes flicked back and forth nervously, and he backed up until his own back bumped into the table, some of the beer in the stein lopping over the side and pooling on the silver tray. "This not true, Herre, I..."

"Don't lie to me," Kell said. Rhy's heart still pounded, his palms still ached. Wherever he was, Rhy was furiously angry, helplessly so, and Kell knew the feeling. "You don't have to lie to me. We're both prisoners."

"Prisoner?" The boy's eyebrows furrowed. "You... Antari. Not prisoner. You are like Holland."

"I'm not," Kell said softly. "I'm not like him at all." Then, hesitating, he tried, "Vi er begge fanget her. Ja?"

The boy paused, again, but something in his eyes was calculating, thoughtful. He was smarter than Athos thought he was, Kell realized. Burning alive with captivity, boiling himself to death with his anger, but... smart. "Ja." He pointed to the newly-recarved mark on his chest. Holland's had looked like that one night, and he'd told Kell that Athos liked to see them suffer the moment the spell settled in over and over again. "Athos Dane," The boy said softly. "Athos Dane did this."

Kell swallowed. He pulled the blue sweater off over his head. The boy flinched when he threw the sweater to the side, looking away, a red flush in his cheeks his face white with fear, putting his hands up as if to defend himself.

"What's wrong?" Kell blinked at him, confused. "Why are you..."

"Please don't touch me," The boy whispered, his eyes filling with tears. "I don't want to. Please."

Kell heard an echo of his own voice, that first night hanging from the chains, with Holland too close to him, surrounding him with that cold smell, and his stomach flipped hard. "Oh, Sanct, no. I'm so sorry. I won't. Don't worry, I'm sorry," He said softly, soothingly, putting his hands up, palms out. "I won't touch you, I swear. It's just to show you. I promise. I'm so sorry. I... I don't want to either. I'm so sorry."

Athos Dane has made him this frightened even of seeing someone remove their shirt. What does Athos do to them in bed? Did he do that to Holland, too? Is that why Holland always keeps his clothes on when he touches me? Did Athos make him afraid of getting undressed?

Kell caught himself, shaking his head as though shaking water out of his ears. Don't do this. Don't make Holland sympathetic. He's holding you captive and what he does to you is no better than what Athos has done to this boy. 

Except that he badly wanted to believe that even if Holland wanted to touch him, he at least had wanted to do so under better circumstances. He found himself idly wondering if Holland had ever, in his entire life, been truly gentle.

"Look. I'll just show you this." He slowly turned around, showing his back to the frightened boy, hearing his breathing start to calm even from across the room. "Holland did mine."

"Holland Vosijk," The boy said slowly. "Antari. He carve into you?"

"Yes."

"I belong to Athos." The boy spat the words more than said them. "Slave now. He saw me on the street."

"I belong to Holland," Kell replied, turning back around. There was something to this, some hint of hope that stubbornly refused to turn into a picture he could understand. He kept his hands out, trying to show how innocent he was, moving a little closer. The boy stiffened, but he did not move away, his back still to the table. He was shaking like a leaf, and Kell thought to himself that the boy had also been taught not to flinch, not to reject touch. He must have taken a risk even asking Kell not to do it, in his own mind. But if the boy had learned to hold himself still like that... he had learned in a way much harder than how Holland had taught Kell, hadn't he? Closer, Kell could see the scars that lined the boy's body, evidence of wounds unhealed. He held out his right hand. "I'm Kell."

The boy looked down at his hand as though it might turn into a venomous viper, than slowly extended his own. They shook hands, and the boy was warmer than anything else in White London so far. "Beloc," He said, hesitantly. "My name Beloc - my name is Beloc. Well met, Kell Antari." Beloc's mouth twisted with a sort of humor, and Kell wondered when exactly the boy had last smiled.

When had he last smiled, come to think of it?

"You speak Royal really well," Kell said softly.

"I am good with learning new tongues," Beloc said with a shrug. He pointed to the mark on Kell's chest, squinting in confusion, then looking up. "If the other mark is Holland, what is this one? Is this Athos?"

"No. I did that." Kell frowned, looking around to find his sweater and pick it back up off the floor, pulling it back on, suddenly self-conscious. "To save my brother's life."

"I have a brother," Beloc said quietly. "Younger."

"Mine is younger than me, too. I'm adopted."

Beloc's eyebrows furrowed. "I do not know this word, adopted."

"Ah... I had a different family. Now I have this one."

"Ah." Beloc nodded. There was more light in his face than Kell had expected there to be, just having a normal conversation with a stranger. What kindness had he even known before he was brought here to bleed for Athos's pleasure? Had anyone ever been nice to him before? Holland had said they started trying to kill him when he was a child, as soon as his Antari eye made itself known. He knew White London was vicious and wasn't safe to roam. What was it like to be born here?

This boy's world was dying. It might last another couple of generations. Maybe longer than that. But this boy, and his little brother, and every other person out there was existing in the final tortured breaths of its death. Holland wanted to keep it alive, to give these people hope, right? Opening the first door would let a tendril of magic in. If they opened enough doors, would it let White London come back to life? Would that be worth the sacrifice, if it meant people like Beloc might be able to hope for something better? If you thought about it like that, Holland made so much more sense.

Kell, you're doing that thing again where you try to make Holland better than the Danes. He literally chains you to your bed at night.

(Because he's scared of the dark and of someone stabbing him in his sleep)

He flogged you until you had more blood out of you than in, hurts you until you obey.

(on Athos's orders)

He 'rewards' obedience by forcing you to feel a pleasure you don't want.

(Astrid told him to do that)

He's going to use you to hurt the people you love.

(I'd do the same in his place)

You are going to drown in him.

(Maybe I need less air than I think. Maybe I want to drown.)

"Kell Antari?" Beloc was looking at him, blinking in confusion. 

"I'm sorry," Kell murmured. He found another sweater in one of the folded-up piles on the dresser and threw it to Beloc. "Put this on, you look like you'll freeze to death."

"Tak," Beloc said, closing his eyes in momentary pleasure when he had the sweater on. Tak, Kell knew by now, meant thank you. Tak and vær så venlig, thank you and please, had been some of the first words he'd taught himself to say. 

It was his turn to feel a bitter bit of humor. Holland wanted him to have manners. Or maybe just liked seeing him brought low.

"Would you like to have lunch with me?" Kell asked, gesturing to the second chair at the table. "Will anyone miss you?"

It had been the wrong way to ask the question. Beloc's face flushed again, and his lips pressed together in a thin line. "No one will miss me," He said finally, heavily, but Kell heard the other meaning to the words clear enough. 

"I'm sorry. I'm sure you are missed. Please eat with me." 

"I should go back..."

"Does Athos need you back?"

The boy's eyes glittered with tears and a pent-up, helpless anger that had nowhere to go. "No. Athos sleeps now while Astrid is on the throne. I like to walk the palace while he sleeps."

"Then please... eat with me."

Beloc edged slowly to the chair and sat down, tensed like he expected Kell to become violent at any second. Kell only split their food slowly into two parts, eating his half over the silver tray itself, giving Beloc his plate. He pushed the stein of beer to the center of the table. "We'll share this," He said, trying to keep his voice was gentle and soft as he could. Beloc ate hunched over defensively, one arm halfway around the plate to protect his food. An older habit, Kell thought, something he'd learned a long time before he was taken as Athos's slave.

They ate largely in companionable silence. Kell couldn't think of anything else to say, and Beloc did not seem inclined to come up with anything himself. But Kell, lonely from days spent in this room in total silence by himself, was happy just to hear another person breathing.

"Do you know about the someday king?" He asked. Beloc's head jerked up, eyes suddenly wider, his mouth full of bread and meat. He began to chew faster, as though trying to finish the bite so he could answer, and Kell actually laughed, surprised to even hear the sound coming from his own throat. "No, don't worry, I'll take that as a yes. I found this book on Holland's shelf, of childrens' stories, and it has a story about this king in it. Holland said... Holland said he liked the story. Do you?"

Beloc nodded rapidly, still trying to finish chewing.

"Here." Kell stood up, going to the shelf and pulling the book of stories off of it, laying it on the table. "Do you have your own quarters?"

Beloc finally managed to swallow the bite he'd been working on, his eyes dancing down to the book and back up. "I like the story," he said, a little shyly. "I loved the old stories. I have a room I sleep in sometimes, a room Athos gives me."

"Borrow the book," Kell said quietly. "Give you something to do with your mind. You said you speak and read Royal, right? It's in Royal, mostly, but it's... older. Royal and your tongue together."

"I think I can read it." Beloc flipped a few pages, and Kell felt his own heart warm at how the younger boy smiled at the carefully drawn illustrations. "I will look at the pictures even if I can't. But... But will Holland Antari… be mad? If Holland Antari is mad, Athos will... will punish me."

"Let me talk to Holland," Kell said softly. "You borrow the book, for a while. You should have something to think about, something good."

Beloc looked down at the book again, then slowly up at Kell through his eyelashes. When he smiled this time, Kell slowly smiled back. The expression felt strange and unfamiliar on his face, but he had made someone else have a slightly better time in this hellish palace, and that had to count for something. 

People like this don't deserve this dying world. Beloc deserves better.

If only he could remove the mark from the boy's chest. Even if he did, though, he'd only be setting Beloc free in a world determined to destroy him anyway. 

But... if he could remove that mark and bring Beloc to Red London...

No. Smuggling things is one kind of treason, smuggling people is a death sentence. They can't go through the door, the power can't stretch that far.

But...

You can't break the mark anyway. There's no power great enough to free him and get him into Red London... is there? U nless there is, in that black stone Holland is hiding from the Danes. Unless there's enough power in a piece of Black London to save a single boy's freedom and give him a new life.

Even if he could, he'd be committing the worst and most grievous crime, wouldn't he? Smuggling someone from one London into another.

You've already done that once, with Lila Bard. What's one more life changed?

"I will take the book. Tak, Kell Antari. I think I am done eating now." Beloc picked up the book, pushing the chair back slowly to stand. "Can I... keep the sweater, too?"

"Of course," Kell said, staying still. Beloc's fragile bit of joy seemed like it might shatter if he made any sudden moves. "I have more." All of them the same faded shade of blue that matched his eyes. All of them ordered by Holland. All of them with necklines low enough to show the collar Kell wore day and night, the silver ring on the front waiting for Holland to clip on the leash.

The reminder made Kell flush and look down at the table, shifting uncomfortably as his body had a reaction to the thought that Kell absolutely did not want to think about or acknowledge in any way. A low, pleasant throb began between his legs, subtle, not exactly demanding, not yet. Holland had been gone for nearly a full week, if his counts of meals were right, and Kell's connection with Rhy had made him too embarrassed to even touch himself. That was all it was, he thought. That was it.

Kell took a long drink of the beer, looking to the side, toward the empty spot in the bookshelf. He heard the soft padding of Beloc's bare feet, the sound of the door opening, and then Beloc gasped.

"What is this?" Holland asked from the doorway. He asked Beloc something in a rush of Maktahn that was too fast for Kell's rudimentary grasp of the basics to keep up with. Something accusing, Kell thought, and he looked back, standing up and quickly moving to the door. Beloc was stammering a reply, clutching the book to his chest. Holland reached out to take it.

Kell put his hand over Holland's, looking up at him. "Please. Let him have it. Please, Holland."

Holland's hand froze, still reaching for the book, and Beloc seemed to try and shrink himself smaller, hunching back over, the same frightened look he'd had when Kell had taken off his sweater earlier. "He is stealing from me." Holland's eyes danced between them, and then he relaxed, just slightly. "Oh, but he isn't stealing, is he? You're giving him things that are not yours to give."

"Please," Kell said again, softer this time. "Everyone deserves to have something good."

"Only a spoiled Maresh prince could believe that sort of absolute tripe," Holland snorted, voice dripping poison. He looked at Kell, taking his chin in his fingers. "Did you smile for him, Kell Maresh? Do you smile for those who are not me?"

"I don't smile for anyone, ever," Kell lied as smoothly as he could. 

"Hmph." He couldn't tell, from Holland's expression, whether he'd believed him. Finally, Holland looked back at Beloc, staring down at him with a cold indifference that bordered on disgust. "Get out of here," he snapped. "Take that book of children's nonsense and stay out of my sight."

Beloc sidled around him and outright ran down the hallway, book clutched to his chest. 

"You shouldn't get attached to them," Holland said, closing the door behind him, sliding off the heavy coat he was wearing. "They don't last long, none of them. You'll only hurt yourself trying to be nice."

"I'm not trying to be nice," Kell said softly. "I'm just not a monster."

"... are you saying I'm a monster?"

"Aren't you?"

Holland looked at him, and there was a moment of honest, genuine surprise on his face. Then he laughed, and Kell realized that before he'd been brought here he'd never once heard Holland laugh, but here he'd heard it twice in less than two weeks. Did Holland just laugh more at home, or... did he just laugh more with Kell?

"I'll take you to see you brother tomorrow," Holland said, unwinding a scarf from his neck as well, dropping it onto the back of the chair Beloc had been sitting in. He looked over the evidence of the shared meal, frowning slightly.

"I just wanted him to have a few minutes where he wasn't scared," Kell said softly. "I won't apologize for it unless you order me to. Even if I do, I won't mean it, not a word of it."

"I told you, Kell." Holland had a strange look on his face, something he couldn't quite read. It wasn't sadness or anger, but it wasn't anything positive either. Just... resignation, maybe. A lack of hope. "He's not the first. They burn out, after a while, or Athos tires of them."

"How many have there been?"

"... Eight, give or take. I might have forgotten one or two."

"What happens to them, when he doesn't want them any longer?"

"The first one killed herself, jumped off the highest battlement. He had ordered her not to cut herself or hang, but he forgot about jumping. The rest... a few he's killed himself, taken his knife and his pleasure too far. A couple of them still work here, the guards that have nothing left in their heads. They don't last, Kell. They're not worth trying to save."

"No one is, to you."

Holland turned to look at him, eyes narrowing. "Some of us did not have the experience of world full of kind and loving people, Kell. I don't see the point of bringing Athos Dane's anger on myself for the sake of prolonging the agony of yet another one of Athos's lovers."

Kell moved around him, sitting back down at the table's rough surface, the remains of his half-eaten half-lunch. "Is that what he calls a lover?"

"Yes."

"What does he call you? Did he call you a lover?" This was a risk, and Kell knew it. His heart pounded with fear in his throat, and he picked up a piece of the heavy rye bread, crumbling it slowly in his fingers, too frightened to see what Holland's face looked like.

"They would simply call me theirs, the both of them," Holland said finally. "The first few months after they took power are a fog of pain to me. I remember very little of it. Normally they take lovers separately, and Astrid's are mostly stupid men who don't understand what she intends to do until it is too late. Athos... he doesn't care what they are, only that they have defied him in some way. There. Are you happy with that knowledge, Kell? Do you feel enlightened by it? Do you take some dim pleasure in forcing me to relive my history for you?"

"No, sir," Kell said softly, regretting having asked. Holland hadn't been angry, answering him, but something far, far worse. "I don't." He picked up the stein of beer just to have something to look at, something to do with his hand. He could feel the second Holland's eyes were back on him, and carefully didn't look up. He took a drink, but misjudged the angle a little, beer spilling out around the sides faster than he could actually drink it, running down his chin, drops down his neck.

He lifted his hand to wipe at himself. Holland grabbed it with his own, his other hand suddenly in Kell's hair, yanking his head back. Holland leaned over him in the chair, lowered his head, and slowly ran his tongue up Kell's neck, licking up the trail of beer, tongue trailing over his chin, finally lapping at the corner of his mouth. Kell swallowed hard, the tiniest moan escaping even as he clenched his hands tightly onto the arms of the chair. 

"You spilled," Holland whispered against his ear, licking at his earlobe. Kell closed his eyes as tightly as he could, feeling the rush of blood between them, the strange almost-sound of blood in his veins, of Holland's blood rushing in time with his. 

"I'm sorry," Kell said, his voice half-strangled. The throb between his legs became something that was nearly an ache. He was hardening fast, too fast and too obviously. It had been a week, Kell thought, only a week. "I d-didn't mean to-"

"Let Beloc keep the book," Holland said, interrupting him. He let go of Kell's hair, kissed him, one hand closing slowly around his throat while the other trailed down and then closed itself over the erection Kell wanted nothing more than to hide. He moved his hand, just slightly, and Kell felt his hips try to press forward without him. Holland's mouth was lukewarm and soft and Kell opened his own for him, whimpering as their tongues brushed. "I like that you still think about other people, even after all of this. Besides, I own something better than a book of stories, don't I?" Holland whispered the question against his mouth. 

Rhy's heart had sped up with his, and Kell wondered if he was safely alone right now, in his room. He'd get to see him tomorrow,  if Holland would let him. If Holland-

"I asked you a question, Kell," Holland said softly, moving his hand again, even as his head dropped back down, first kissing gently at Kell's neck just above the collar, then biting hard enough that a flash of pain whited out the pleasure. "Don't I have something right here in my hands better than any book?" He began to suck, hard, at the skin he'd just bitten, part of his mouth on the leather of the collar and the rest on his skin.

"I-I don't kn-knooow," Kell barely managed. His hands moved, independently of him, sliding up and around Holland's neck, holding on to him. It had been a week, and Kell's body had decided a week was too long. "I don't know how you th-think of me."

Holland laughed, a breath of air against the bruising spot on his neck. His hands left Kell and he found himself whimpering, disappointed, only to have Holland simply pick him up, Kell's legs on either side of his waist, Holland's hands all he had holding him in the air. He tightened his arms around the other Antari's neck as he was carried like  child to Holland's bed. The motion of his walking pressed Kell's erection occasionally against him and he found himself moving, trying to press a little harder, breathing harshly.

When they made it to the bed, Holland paused, and snorted. "You missed me, apparently, Kell Maresh," He said softly. "You've been sleeping in my bed."

"I-I haven't," Kell lied. "I haven't-"

Holland did not drop him on the bed so much as lower the both of them down in one smooth motion, Kell lying on his back and Holland over him, pushing his sweater up to show his stomach, hands roaming up underneath it. Kell twisted helplessly as Holland sucked at the skin on the side of his neck again, the same spot. He'd have a bruise, a bruise to explain to Rhy-

I won't have to explain it, he can feel every second of this. He knows exactly what Holland is doing to me right now.

Kell felt himself tear up at the thought, trying to forget it, losing himself in the feeling of Holland beginning slowly to unbutton his pants. Don't think about Rhy, don't think about it, just feel, just for now...

"Let me tell you a secret, Kell," Holland murmured, pulling back to kiss him again. Kell couldn't help himself; he buried his hands in Holland's hair, trying to keep him close, to press the kiss longer so he wouldn't have to think about this, any of it, about how much his life had changed in so little time. The lukewarm skin made every sensation sharper, every hint of touch a knife's edge of desire. Holland's mouth was hungry on his, and Kell's thoughts fragmented and shattered under the fingers on his chest, scratching lightly over sensitive spots, Holland's tongue in his mouth, the way he pressed their hips together.

Kell's body was just nerve-endings and blood, and all of it wanted more of Holland's touch, twisted and writhed to try and get him closer, even closer. 

Holland finally took Kell's erection into his hand, thumbing slowly over the tip. Kell bucked into his hand, feeling tears in his eyes. He hated himself. He loved this. He hated it. He wanted Holland so badly it burned in his blood. He hated Holland. He loved Holland's touch. He wanted to be left alone and he wanted Holland to never, ever leave. 

"Did you miss me, Kell, while I was gone? Did you miss the leash?" Holland pulled Kell's sweater off and Kell struggled to help him, just wanting his clothing off faster. "Answer the question." A tear made it out of Kell's eyes, running down the side of his face, and Holland licked the bit of salt just before it would have run into his ear.

"Y-yes," Kell said unwillingly, more a groan than a word. "I missed you. I slept here. I m-missed-"

"I thought about you," Holland murmured into his ear. His hand began to move faster, and Kell moved with it, staring up at the ceiling, trying to think and failing and not really caring at all about that failure. All he could feel was the rumble of Holland's voice in his chest, the motion of his hand, the throbbing of the growing bruise on the side of his neck. "The whole time I was gone I thought of you. Here's my secret, Kell Maresh." He bit Kell's earlobe, gently.

"I missed you, too."

 

 

Chapter Text

Kell was walking with a very slight limp, and he refused to think about why. A hint of an ache in his lower back made him step a little more gingerly, and he’d dressed himself in the usual sweater and pants (at least new, clean pants this time) with careful slowness. 

He had more than just the bruise on the side of his neck, by now; though that was fairly impressive all on its own, Holland had left at least four more. There was a bite mark on the back of his neck, just at the spot where his hair was softest and cut so short as to be nearly shaved, another bite along his shoulder, a third on the other side of his neck from the first, and definitely one on his left hip.

“Here’s my secret, Kell Maresh. I missed you, too,” Holland, cold and indifferent, hostile Holland, had whispered to him, teeth scraping along the thin skin of his ear, and his voice had been strange and shaking. 

Kell had frozen, looking first at the ceiling and then into Holland’s eyes as the other man moved, pulling his hand away from where it had been very, very busy. Kell’s body ached to grab it and move it right back but he held himself still, forced his hands into fists where they lay back against the bed, swallowed against the ringing pleasure that still made ripples over every inch of skin. There was a flush of it that wasn’t quite his own, and Kell felt himself turn even redder as he realized Rhy must have been touching himself and stopped when he realized Holland had.

“That’s not possible.” It was all Kell could think of to say, shirtless with his pants most of the way off, puddled around his ankles over his bare feet. Holland as always fully, perfectly, impeccably dressed, even down to his boots. “You can’t miss me.”

“I shouldn’t,” Holland had agreed, and smiled at him - really smiled. There had been no hint of the contempt Kell had previously thought was permanently etched on his face in the expression. Sanct, he looks so much younger. How old is he? “But I did. I missed you being a pointlessly stubborn, scowling naive little mess of a person single day I was gone.”

“Holland, y-you… you can’t miss me.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re… you’re um...”

“Because I did this to you?”

“... right.” Kell groaned. “You said it yourself. You’re holding me prisoner and doing… things-”

“Is that just how it works with me, do you think? Is it etched on my skin alongside the binding scar, everyone I take to bed will want to kill me?” Holland’s voice was genuinely, startlingly sad.

“You took me prisoner.” Kell had absolutely no idea how he should react. This had to be a trick, some kind of strange manipulation, a lie he was being fed to keep him off-balance. Holland was holding himself up with his hands and one knee on the bed, and Kell slowly lifted his own hands to touch the side of Holland’s face. “You carved the mark in my back. You’re the reason I’m here.”

“Technically, you are. You’re supposed to be dead. Don’t blame me for your absolutely irrational ability to survive every single attempt to kill you.” 

“Holland, you carved into my skin. You don’t get to regret it now.”

“I regretted it before I ever picked up the knife. I doubt you’ll be surprised if I tell you that wasn’t my idea,” Holland said dryly, and there it was, the normal voice that Kell was used to. “I have advised them, in no particular order, to let you alone because you were so young, to let you alone because you were so ignorant, to let you alone because you were of more use to us in your own city than here in ours, and to let you alone because you would do anything for Rhy and if she had him, she could bend you to her will. You’ll see how well my advice worked out for us both.” Kell trusted the sly sarcasm far more than he could ever have trusted the shaking sincerity. “Besides which… this isn’t how I take lovers, whatever you choose to believe about me.”

“When’s the last time you had one?”

“One what?”

“You know what I’m asking. When did you last have… a… you know.” He pushed a little of Holland’s hair aside, where it was hanging over his eyes. It seemed darker, in a room where the fireplace gave off the only warm, flickering light. Had his hair been true black, once, and faded with his life in the dying London? Were babies here born with color?

Holland swallowed, and closed his eyes at the touch. “Are we counting Astrid and Athos?”

“Do they count?” He just wanted to know. He knew nothing about Holland and Holland had always, maddeningly, known nearly everything about him - especially known the things, and knowledge, he lacked. The older Antari had never shared a word or a thought that wasn’t bled dry of vulnerability. 

“I don’t want them to count, if that’s what you’re asking,” Holland said, and there was a hint - and only that, it was buried so far beneath the surface that Kell nearly missed it - of the same burning wildfire pain that had been written so openly on Beloc’s face, too. 

Holland had burned himself alive, Kell thought, at first. The Holland he knew was the ash and the husk that was left.

“Then no. They don’t count.” His arousal had, at least, finally begun to subside, and as Holland moved away, sitting next to him on the bed, Kell took a deep breath and went to push himself up to sit, too. 

Holland snorted. “Lay back down. I’m not done with you yet.” Kell’s body obeyed the order regardless of what his mind wanted, and he let his head fall back onto the soft charcoal-colored top blanket, warm from the heat coming off of his skin. Rhy’s heart beat along with his, slowing down. “It was a long time ago. You were very young, then.”

“Had I met you yet?”

Holland paused, and slowly began to unbutton his own shirt. Finally, with reluctance, he said, “Yes. You had met me. Once.”

The king before the Danes, then. Kell had been so proud of himself, that the king and queen had considered him ready to travel between Londons alone. He’d been so sure this would be the thing that let him finally begin to earn his life in the palace, to show his worth. 

Rhy had been terrified for his safety, but his mother and father had simply said they believed he would do just fine and wished him luck. Had they worried about him at all? Kell had never known the answer, and had always been too afraid to ask.

“Was it the king?”

Holland stared at him blankly and then laughed, slowly leaning over to rest his face in his hand. He laughed and laughed, a little hoarsely, as though even he didn’t remember what it sounded like for him to laugh this long, this freely.

Kell flushed and scowled at him. “It was just a guess.”

“The king. Ros… you would guess… you spoke to the man, and you really think…?” Holland’s shoulders continued to shake with laughter long after the sound subsided. “I cannot tell you how loud he would laugh, himself, to hear it. Although not for the reason you think.” Holland sat back up, looking over at him, the barest hint of the humor still in his eyes and his slightly upturned mouth. “No. It wasn’t him. He was just my friend.”

“You have friends?”

Holland’s humor turned into bitterness. “Had. I had a friend. The past tense is important.”

This was officially more than Kell had ever learned about Holland, even if he combined every single conversation they’d ever had. 

“Did you-”

“Stop. Your interrogation is distracting me.” Holland finished unbuttoning his shirt and slid it off his pale, muscular shoulders, dropping it onto the floor by the bed. When he leaned over to take off his boots, his back was roped with layers of scarring, stripes laid one atop another. The same rough stripes he would have had still showing on his own back, if Holland had not been ordered to heal them - but they had not healed Holland’s, or let him help himself. These had clearly been left to fester over weeks until they healed on their own. Then new ones were laid, and more on top of those.

Seven years of scars, as though Holland were a tree whose age could be read through looking at years of famine or flood. 

There were more littered over Holland’s body, lines and bumps, evidence of a knife that had sliced through that pale skin. Proof that even an Antari's fast-healing blood had its limits. Some of the marks were far newer than others. Holland finally stood, and when he began to unbuckle his belt, Kell swallowed against a sudden burst of tension and a jump in his heartbeat. The other man seemed to sense it and looked over at him. “What?”

“You’ve never taken all your clothes off before,” Kell said softly. “In front of me.”

“I’ve never missed you before, either.” Holland shrugged, pulling the belt through the loops, dropping it onto the floor as well. He looked down at Kell where he lay on the bed, fingers pausing over the buttons of his pants. “Besides, I promised Astrid that your brother would barely be able to stand when you next saw him, didn’t I? I don’t intend to disappoint her.” That hint of bitter pain, there and then gone. “Not this time, at least.”

Kell’s eyebrows furrowed, some bit of dread mixed with curiosity and a horribly acute anticipation prickling the hairs up on the back of his neck. He shouldn’t ask. He shouldn’t ask. He absolutely should not ask. He wasn’t going to like the answer and he should. not. ask. He shouldn’t-

“What do you mean, Rhy won’t be able to stand? What are we going to do?”

Holland shook his head slowly, disbelief written plainly across his face. “How anyone could be the beloved brother of Prince Rhy Maresh and not know the answer to that question without having to ask it…” He paused, and there was that smile again, the one Kell had no natural defenses against, the smile without hostility or anger. “You’re a surprise, kæreste.”

“I still want to know what that word means,” Kell said in a half-whisper. 

Holland, still half-wearing pants that hung low off the lines of his hips, threatening to fall off at any second, climbed up into the bed. Before Kell could really react, Holland lowered his head, pressing a kiss to the flat plane just inside Kell’s own hips. “Hm. It’s a deal. First, let’s make sure you enjoy this - and that you don’t.” His teeth just barely grazed his hip, and Kell caught his breath. “Don’t worry, princeling. Next time it won’t have to hurt, and next time I'll tell you what the word means.” Holland’s hand found its way to his other hip, thumb circling lazily, slowly, and then he bit down-

Kell winced, thinking of the bruise that had blossomed along his hipbone by morning. That wasn’t why his legs felt strangely weak and why he had to ignore an ache he wasn’t quite willing to face just yet, and the more embarrassing knowledge that Rhy felt it, too, and had enough experience to most likely know exactly what it was.

Had it hurt like that for him, too, the first time? Or… no. Kell did not want to know. He missed the life where he got to judge Rhy’s various encounters as unwise or pointless or outright risky without having to actually know how they had felt firsthand.

He pressed a hand lightly to his hip and grimaced. The thought of the bruise made him think, endlessly think, of the line that had been crossed the night before, and the thing that was most shameful of all… he’d been the one to ask Holland to cross it.

Granted, it had been part of some strange game Holland had been playing with him, that had taken what felt like hours and left him breathless and begging, and he had asked only because Holland had wanted him to, but… he had wanted to as well, hadn’t he? By the end? And Holland hadn’t actually ordered him...

No. He wasn’t going to think about what had happened or how he’d felt about it, or the way Holland had looked admitting to past lovers and giving up information about himself in a way he never had before. He wasn’t going to focus on the look in the older man’s eyes, when he finally dropped his guarded emptiness at the end when even he could no longer maintain his iron control over himself and Kell had seen something entirely new. He’d even kissed him differently and whispered into his ear in a litany of Maktahn too fast for Kell to follow.

Holland was something entirely new, something between a villain and… what? What else was he?

“Should I just carry you? Honestly, do you intend to be this pathetic all day?” Holland’s face was a closed door again this morning. He walked down the hallway, white stone on either side and below their feet, with his hands buried deep in the pockets of his coat. Kell thought his skin looked slightly flushed, his eye a little greener, his hair a little darker, than it had the night before.

Do we take magic from each other in bed, too?

No. It was just his imagination.

“I’m not pathetic.” Kell scowled, wishing he had a coat to slouch into. All he had was the sweater, and curling over himself in something so soft and pale didn’t come off as intimidating so much as just… puppy-dog sad.

“I hate to be the one to inform you, but you are very much pathetic. I’m sorry,” Holland said, in a voice that made it clear he was not sorry at all. “You enjoyed it, though, right?”

Kell scowled harder, and it somehow had even less effect on Holland’s subtly buoyant mood. “You know the answer to that question.”

“I still want to hear you say it.”

“... yes.”

Manners, Kell.”

“Yes, sir, I enjoyed it.” He ground the words out through gritted teeth, and thought it was the worst mistake of his life that he hadn’t aimed that damn metal bar through Holland’s skull instead. No good deed goes unpunished, as they said in Gray London.

“See? Was that so hard? Now I’m happy.” Holland’s expression had not changed at all, even minutely, from the blank and empty book it had been before. “Look how your words thrill me.”

“You didn’t have to do that to me-”

“I did. Astrid gives a command and I obey. But… it was my choice, the way it happened. She did not choose that for me. It was my choice to make it happen last night. She would have preferred this morning, or right there in the Maresh hallway outside his room before you went in. It was my choice that you enjoyed it, that it wasn’t just… agony.” Holland looked thoughtful, for a second, and Kell felt some of his anger waver. Was agony what it had been for him? 

Of course it was. Athos would have been…

“And you really did enjoy it. If any of the servants in this place still had their own minds, they’d have been shocked at how loud you were, don’t you think?”

All his anger came rushing back in force.

“One day I’m going to get this rune off my back and I’m going to kill you in a very slow unpleasant way,” Kell hissed, wishing he could stab Holland to death with his own hatpin or sink into the floor from shame or ideally do both at the same time. He missed his coat so badly - he could really slouch into that one, one of the coats inside his coat even had a really high collar that hid nearly all of his face from either side when he turned it up. Now that was a slouching coat…

“When you free yourself from that rune, I’d love to see you try.”

“When? Don’t you mean if I get the rune off my back?” Kell glanced over at him, some of the scowl fading from his expression. Sanct, Kell thought, why don’t I hate you?

Holland looked back, sidelong, and gave him the slightest, faintest one-sided smile.  “No,” Holland said firmly. “I don’t mean if. I mean when. You mean to tell me I have more confidence in you than you yourself do?

"I just- I-"

“Ah, my boys, pause and attend your queen a moment before you go,” A smugly trilling  female voice called as they headed for the main door out of the palace. 

You are not my queen. He closed his eyes briefly, picturing his mother’s face, eternally twisted up in some anxiety or worry - if not over Rhy, then probably because of something Rhy did, something she would eventually accuse Kell of letting him do.

Holland had frozen immediately, that smile he’d worn for Kell alone gone in an instant. He put on his emptiest expression and slowly turned to greet her, sliding into an effortlessly low bow. “Your Majesty,” Holland murmured without looking up. 

There was a pause. “Holland, your present has forgotten his manners. Remind him.”

“Kell. Bue til din dronning.” Holland snapped his fingers and Kell cleared his throat, hastily dropped into a bow himself, wincing and hissing unconsciously the constant ache spiked into real pain that ran straight up his spine.

“What’s this? Are you not well this morning, flower boy?” Astrid asked as she came closer, feigning concern. She laid her hand against his forehead as though she were a mother feeling for a fever, and her blue eyes sparkled with terrible mirth. She was wearing a loose shirt with billowing sleeves and pants tight enough to scandalize even Rhy tucked into her heavy metal-toed boots, her hair a loose white waterfall. 

Kell swallowed, hard, fighting back the urge to flinch away from her touch. He looked at Holland, who nodded, very slightly. He could have sworn the older Antari’s jaw was tight with anger.

I know I have to answer her. Why am I looking to him first?

“I am well. I merely slept poorly, your Majesty,” He said, trying to echo Holland’s emptiness. He very nearly succeeded. 

“Perhaps your bed is too small,” Astrid said thoughtfully, crossing her arms in front of herself just under her breasts. She stood, one hip jutting out, looking the two of them over like prize racehorses. Kell half-expected her to demand to check his teeth. “Holland insisted on having two in there when we told him about his present. I’ll never know why.”

“His bed was not too small last night,” Holland said flatly. “May we go, your Majesty?”

Nej. Forlad ikke endnu. Whatever do you mean, Holland?” Astrid’s viper smile widened, and Kell watched Holland realize his mistake a half-second too late.

Kell looked down and realized he was staring at what he was pretty sure was a fingerbone set into the white stone of the floor, sticking out from under the shadow of his right foot. He swallowed again, forcing back nausea, and took a step back and away from it. 

“He slept comfortably,” Holland said tightly, pulling on a pair of fingerless black gloves. “Comfortably enough, at least. May we go?”

“In his tiny bed? Who on any earth could sleep well on that? Our Kell is a prince, after all. No doubt he finds his current accommodations with a mere servant… lacking. Should we get you a larger room all to yourself, my flower boy?” She raised an eyebrow, and Kell swallowed hard.

Whether he liked it or not, Holland was the only safe person in this entire castle, save maybe that Beloc he had just met - and his room was the only safe place.

“I would prefer to stay with Holland,” Kell said softly. “If her Majesty should allow it.”

“Oooooh,” Astrid breathed out, eyes sparkling as she took his chin in her thin, cold hands, forcing his eyes up to meet hers. There were blue veins under the skin of her cheeks, spidering out from her eyelids, a large, faintly navy line running down the side of her neck. Blue with stolen magic she drank from Holland’s - from his - blood, from the blood of all the people she killed. “How scandalous. Does that mean you’ve grown… attached? Did you sleep in Mestre Holland’s bed last night, Kell Maresh?”

The rune on his back did not burn, when she was the one asking the questions - not like it did with Holland. But there was a look on her face, of delighted anticipation, that made him think she was sure he would answer against his will. He thought about simply refusing to speak, but saw Holland shift slightly, uncharacteristically nervous, and then… he knew. Kell’s heart began to pound, and Rhy’s along with it, shortly after. “Yes,” He said quietly, edging his voice with anger and embarrassment, as though the words were being spat out through his teeth. “I did.”

With his hands still chained to the headboard, underneath the warmest, softest blanket, with the incredibly uncomfortable reality of a nervous Holland barely dozing next to him, but… 

Astrid clapped her hands together with a bright and cheerful laugh, and Kell jumped at the loudness of the sound in the deathly quiet around them. “ Vidunderligt! That’s perfect! You know what that means, Holland.”

“Yes,” Holland said heavily. “It means you won the bet and Athos must give you his share of my blood for five days. I remember.”

“He’s going to be so mad, I’ll bet he spits on you,” Astrid said brightly. “Imagine how he’ll feel cutting you up without getting to drink-”

“The image is vivid in my mind as always. Your Majesty, we have three doors to open this morning, and the day will get away from us-”

“Hush. It’s early and you move on my time or not at all.” She reached out, laying her hand on the side of Holland’s face, and Kell fought back disgust at the way it seemed so like - and so unlike - the way Holland touched him. “Or did you forget that? Perhaps you’ve been given too much leeway since we brought our new boy home to stay.”

“Of course I will abide by whatever her Majesty wishes,” Holland murmured, smooth as silk. “I have always been obedient to your will-”

“Yes, ever since you lost your last battle. Are you taking him to see his brother today?”

“We are going to open doors at the river, first. I have a theory I want to test. Then we’ll go to the Maresh prince.”

Doors? He said one door, before.

“How long will my pretty boy stay gone?” Astrid looked over at him , and Kell kept himself from wincing away from the piercing blue of her gaze only through sheer willpower.

“A single night only, Astrid. He will return to me when the sun rises.”

“You will do as we agreed after you escort him?”

“What did you agree?” Kell looked between them, but both ignored him as though he were another one of the mindless guards or a statue standing in the open foyer. 

“I will do as you wish,” Holland said quietly. “You know that. You don’t need me to reassure you. There is no need for this show in front of him. He knows he is a prisoner. He knows. This childish gloating does not become you.”

“Hmph.” Astrid flashed anger that was gone as quickly as Kell had seen it. “Don’t read me so well, Holland, I don’t like it and you will regret it. Mark the spots where you open the doors. I want to know every connection between the worlds that is left open. When he comes back to you, check to see if there’s any change.”

“It will be too early to see much,” Holland said, frowning faintly. “But I can look.”

“You will. If a blade of grass turns green I want to know about it. I want to know if a matching blade of grass in his world turns white. I want to know if anything can come through the doors after they are open. Athos and I wait with our breath held to see if your theory holds true.” She moved back to Holland, pressing her body against his, tilting her head up at the much taller man, who stared impassively down at her. “You must tell me whether we save our world through infection or invasion. Ja?

Ja, min dronning.” 

She pulled him down to kiss her, and Holland put his mouth to hers mechanically, without feeling, even as one of his gloves hands slowly closed into a fist. 

It took Kell a second to realize he was staring, and he flushed and looked away. He couldn't keep from his mind thoughts of how different Holland had been the night before with him. He honestly couldn’t even remember what they’d said to each other towards the end, it had all been a rush of words that ran together and over each other, Holland's rough-edged Maktahn in his ear and all his blood rising to meet it, his own babbled Royal that might have been sheer nonsense for all the control he'd had over himself by then. All the emotion and feeling and something like passion he’d shown with Kell was gone with Astrid - he may as well have been kissing a rock.

A very dangerous rock.

Astrid pulled away, patting the side of Holland’s face affectionately. “Good boy. Give the Maresh prince my sincerest apology for his recent injuries. How… unexpectedly lovely it has been that he survived them. I do hope to see him truly in person one day.” She glanced sidelong at Kell, then turned and began to walk back into her throne room, heavy boots somehow soundless on the stone floor littered with the evidence of her slaughter.

Holland looked after her for a moment, waiting until the throne room doors slowly closed and they were alone again. Then he turned on his heel and walked away so quickly Kell had to jog a bit to keep up with him, heading down the white stone path that led from the palace entrance into White London itself.

The air was frigid out here, the constant neverending chill of Makt, and goosebumps went up on his arms under his sweater. He wanted a coat, but Holland had ignored his previous attempts to ask for one before they’d left and he doubted he’d be willing to go back inside. There were a few people out in the street, people that largely scurried away as soon as they saw the two of them. He could hear children laughing somewhere nearby, the children who had been born and raised in this bone-white death-rattle London.

It didn’t matter how bad things were, Kell thought. Children could always find a way to laugh.

Holland walked without speaking, and Kell fell into step with him and enjoyed the silence. The occasional bird called, but the morning was strikingly, unsettlingly soundless. The dirt in the streets was even pale and weak-looking. He saw a woman whispering to a man on her front steps who closed the door against them. He could have sworn the man was making a sign against the evil eye.

He heard it, finally, the whispered curse as they passed. “ Den forbandede morder. Dæmonen der dræber for dem.”

There were worse words for Holland than what they called Kell in Red London - and much, much more fear. The woman cracked her window, just slightly, and spit into the street as they passed.

“You’re not popular,” He observed, finally, following Holland down a side street. 

“That’s very true. I’m fairly sure every third person in this city knows someone I have had to execute on their command. I don’t blame them.” Holland shrugged, pulling a ring of keys out one pocket, fiddling with them trying to find the one he was looking for. “Does that bother you?”

“No. Should it?”

“No. I’ve earned their fear ten times over. It doesn’t matter to them that it wasn’t my plan, or my idea, or that I did not want to. It doesn’t really matter to me, either.”

“That’s a lie.”

Holland paused, key in hand, and turned slowly to look at him. “Pardon?”

“You just lied to me. It does matter to you. You wanted them to think better of you.”

“Kell…” Holland took in a deep breath, let it out through his nose in frustration, rubbing at the spot between his eyes with his finger and thumb. “Stop it. I answered your questions last night because I felt like it, on a whim. Stop trying to find something noble in me. I’ve long since lost all of that.”

“And here you’ve lied again,” Kell said, more softly. 

Holland glared at him with all the anger he could muster, but even that seemed faded and forced. After a second he turned and walked again, even faster this time, Kell struggling to keep up as the low ache in his back and hips flared up.

Holland found the door he was looking for, and Kell stood rubbing numb hands together. “Don’t move,” Holland snapped, and disappeared into what looked like some kind of strange empty apartment. Kell danced from foot to foot without moving from the spot, rubbing his hands together to keep warm. 

When Holland reappeared with something in his hands, Kell felt himself smiling, holding his hands out, like a child on the morning after the longest night. “You really did keep it.”

“I told you I did. Did you think I lied about that, too?”

“No, I… I guess I thought you kept it for yourself.”

“Of course I didn’t. It’s not my coat, after all. This is yours. Hold out your arms.” Kell closed his eyes and did as he was told. Holland slid his very strange coat over his arms, with maybe a little more direct touch than was strictly necessary, leaning over to brush his mouth against the bruise on the back of Kell’s neck as he turned the coat’s collar up. Like this, if he kept the coat buttoned up, the black band around his neck was nearly hidden. 

Tak, herre ,” Kell said quietly, digging his hands into his pockets. This version of the coat was a faded black and fit nicely in with White London’s look. In the bottom of the pocket, he found a stone and rubbed it with his thumb, smiling. He’d come across that stone, a particularly interesting river rock, a long time ago. 

A piece of home, in a place where he’d been allowed to keep none of it. Sometimes he wondered if the coat had a brain.

“There. Now we go open the doors, and you earn your brotherly reunion.” Holland began to walk away again.

Kell stood still, feeling the coat’s incredibly soft, age-worn leather against his palms. Finally, he said, “Holland? Can I ask you something?”

Holland paused. “What?”

“You have to do everything they say, right?”

“Yes.” The word was so flat it felt like it had dropped out of his mouth rather than been spoken at all.

“When they had you carve into me… do they think that you carved them into it, too?”

“Ah.” Holland looked away, back behind them, in the direction Kell knew would lead to the river in his own world. “You figured that out.”

“I don’t have to obey whatever they say, but… they don’t know that, do they?”

“It has been seven very long years. They sometimes let things slide. I try to take advantage when I can. You should probably start to do the same with me.”

“I did. I gave a book to a servant boy, remember?”

Holland’s mouth twitched in something that might have been a smile. “I do remember. You stole from me to feed the ignorant poor with knowledge. Because you are hopelessly-”

“Naive, and spoiled, and I’ve lived a life of privilege and wealth and haven’t suffered at all. I know. You’ve said it all before. You said it last night. But… if you get a chance, would you let me go? You would, right?”

Holland’s silence lasted an eternity, until he began to think the older Antari simply did not intend to answer him. Then he moved back to Kell, swift as a hawk, grabbed him around the shoulders, and kissed him.

Kell wanted to fight but instead simply melted into it. Holland’s mouth, usually as lukewarm as the rest of him, seemed perhaps a little warmer than it had the day before. Or maybe Kell was just colder and less able to steel himself against it.

“Don't rest your hopes on me doing the right thing,” Holland said, nuzzling against the side of his face. “I’ve been given a gift, in you, something I can… something I can control. Don’t hope. You’ll lose yourself to despair if you do that. I have seen too many in that palace fade away and all I can give you if the promise that I will try to make sure the next one isn’t you.” He looked away again. "But if I let you go… what would I control?"

Kell swallowed, one hand playing with the silver ring at the front of the black band around his throat, the other buried deep in his coat pocket, curled around that river rock. 

Holland turned away, and the air seemed colder when he was gone.

“If you find any more books you want to give to him, it's fine,” Holland said, this time without looking back or even slowing down as he walked. The streets opened back up into a wide cobblestoned lane. More people closed doors against them, children were shushed and yanked by the arm into the shadows. Even a horse snorted at Holland and flicked its tail irritably. “I really don’t mind. Go ahead."

"You… don't?" Kell blinked, and when Holland didn't answer, he grabbed at his coat sleeve. Holland put his own hand, the rough wool of the gloves and cold fingers, over Kell's, for the barest second, before he extricated himself and moved away.

"I’ve read them all a dozen times. You're right that everyone should get to have a good thing, even when their lives are dark.” Holland took a deep breath. “Just tell me first next time, ja?

Ja, herre, ” Kell said, and very nearly smiled. “You said earlier we’re going to the river?”

“We are. I’ve thought about this for years. I couldn’t open the kind of door that stays open on my own. Now I have you, and you'll help me bleed your world whether you want to or not. We’re going to do something today no Antari has done in more than three hundred years. We're going to let magic back in to my world. Besides, Kell - your world could stand to bleed.”

Dread settled like an old familiar friend over his shoulders.

I’ll get to see Rhy. I’ll get to talk to Rhy. I’ll get to hug Rhy. I’ll get to send a message to Lila Bard, and to my parents, and I’ll get to see Rhy…

“Sounds like a plan,” Kell said heavily, and kept his eyes on the ground from then on, slouched as deeply as he could into his coat.

Chapter Text

The river Sijlt flowed through the city the way that dust might move through a tomb; the water barely seemed to move, although Kell had no doubt this river was even deeper than his own. He had never liked this pale imitation of the Isle, and shivered even in the warmth of his coat just seeing the empty banks and strangely silvered trees that hugged it as it wound through the center of White London.

“I don’t like looking at it any more than you do, some days,” Holland said as if reading his thoughts. He was scanning the river with slightly narrowed eyes, hardly seeming to notice the chill that Kell couldn’t seem to shake. “But I think this will work.”

“What is ‘this’, exactly? How much of my world do you intend to bleed?”

“It’s probably better if you don’t ask that question. I’m trying to pick spots where it won’t be so noticeable. You have plenty to spare in your spoiled world. We’re only asking for the dregs.”

“To start.”

Kell watched Holland visibly fight the urge to roll his eyes. "Yes, to start. If you’d prefer, we can return to the palace and dine with their Majesties instead? Astrid will be thrilled to see your sense of principle and honor, and will no doubt reward you for it. Athos has been slavering to see me fail with you and probably has my punishment all planned out.”

Kell tried to discover if he could bury himself any more deeply into his own coat, and largely succeeded. His hand found the river rock in his pocket again, thumb rubbing at the rough stone. A bit of Red London he’d brought here without even knowing it. The tokens were no doubt in another pocket entirely… unless Holland had them hidden away, too. "Never mind. Let’s get this over with.”

“Ah, now, there’s the enthusiasm with which all our monarchs’ subjects serve them.” There and then gone, that bit of smile and wry humor. Holland walked quickly down to the banks of the river and Kell hurried after him, feeling the eyes of the people of White London on his back, burning like the rune that bound him to the killer they hated so much, the demon that served the Danes, a magician in chains they were afraid of and would have slaughtered if they could for his power.

The older Antari knelt at the edge of the river, dipping bare fingers just slightly into the icy cold water. Without the red and constant glow of magic, Kell thought, it hardly looked like a living river at all. Just dead water pushed by itself further, ever further, towards what he imagined must be an equally dead ocean. Just like Gray London’s Thames, only far, far worse.

Did they even have sea monsters any longer, in this world? Did selkies appear on the coasts up in the Ogygia? Or was the ocean bleached and broken like everything else?

“Stop goggling,” Holland said tightly. “You look like a child at a festival.”

“When have you ever seen one of those?”

“We’re lacking magic thanks to you, but we’re still human. They still had the harvest festival here when I was small. I want to build a bridge because once the first door is open, we’re going to pull the bridge back , so no one can get to them but us. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”

“You’ve been thinking about how to drain my world?”

“Of course I have. Every time I go there, every time I eat… fruit… or see the red in the air, I think about how I could take it and give it to my people. I think about how little you deserve it, after leaving us to bar the door against the magic. How these people here deserve better than what you left them-"

"That was hundreds of years ago, you can't blame me- "

"... And I get angry all over again that I can’t just take it by force. I had to wait, until…”

The silence drew out, lengthened, took on its own life between them.

“Until what?” Kell finally asked, just to break it.

“Until,” Holland said, taking a deep breath, “we could find a way to get me enough power to make a difference.”

“‘We’?”

“Yes. The Danes and I. Thank you for forcing me to spell it out, Kell, that really helps improve my mood.”

“Your mood was just fine before.”

“I wasn’t thinking about them, then. I was thinking about you.” Kell opened his mouth to reply, then slowly closed it again, staring slightly wide-eyed at Holland’s back as the older man murmured to himself thoughtfully. He brought the muddied mix of dirt and pebbles and roughened silt up, twisting the earth of it in his hands. The first magic Kell had seen that hadn’t been written in blood since he’d come here. The feeling of eyes on his back intensified, and he wondered if they would dare attack Holland openly.

Maybe not in the daylight, at least.

“You will help me build the bridge,” Holland said over his shoulder, and Kell felt himself move forward without his consent, his own hands rising to pull the earth up, too. It wasn’t hard - using the elements themselves never was, not for an Antari - although working with the dead dirt was like pushing a sick mule up a flight of stairs. It wanted nothing more than to settle back where it had come from, fought the magic in him, but even its fight was weak and faint, and he eventually succeeded in bending it to his - to Holland's - will. 

The ground began to hollow beneath their feet and Kell instinctively pulled from everywhere he could, watching it come through the air like a malevolent cloud, winding together and together until finally it took solid shape.

With the two of them working, it didn’t take all that long, maybe an hour, before an earthen bridge spanned the width of the river itself. Behind them, he could hear a low murmuring as the people of White London peeked through windows or around corners or simply stood in plain sight, watching two true magicians work easily in a world where magic was nearly always difficult. 

Other than it being across the largest river in the city, this wouldn’t even have gotten a second glance in his own London, he thought. But here, they came in droves to witness easy magic, the sort that hadn’t been seen here since their great-great grandfather’s time or longer.

Please don’t try to kill us for it.

All around them, the banks of the river had new grooves dug so deeply into the earth that a child could have fallen in. Water began to fill the hollows, pushing its way through. Kell called up some of it to twist around the earth, to freeze and bind it together even more firmly. 

“I didn’t tell you to do that,” Holland said out loud, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, well, I don’t intend to fall into a river and die of the cold. It needed to be stronger. How do you plan to make a door? You’ve nothing to write on. It’s moving water.”

“You’re not going to like it.”

“Holland, what have you done so far that I have liked?” 

“... please tell me you don’t need me to answer that question.” 

“Fine, I got it, just stop talking.” Kell felt his face go red, and tried to tell himself it was with anger. 

“Besides which,” Holland said, dropping his voice back down to its usual quiet, almost entirely suppressing the smugness in his expression, “I don’t need to write on anything. The key is to be strong enough to enforce your will without a solid surface to leave an imprint on. Any half-decent Antari can do that, if they really want to, although not quite like this. If you’d read any of my books that weren’t children's stories, you might have picked something like that up. I just... how do you know so little? Do they just not have books about us in your world, or…?”

“They have plenty.” Kell snapped. “I studied for years. I’ve read them all.”

“I think if you speak to your Aven Essen , and if he were truly honest with you, you would discover some of the books have been hidden. They don’t want you to know all you could be capable of. It’s safer, in your London, if you don’t know - you should read about Berengaria Alone. She ruled your London, a thousand years ago, and they said she had thirty Antari in her court. Have you ever heard of her?”

“I… no. I haven’t.”

“Her Antari could change the currents of the ocean to make the ships sail faster in war. They moved her castle to avoid a siege, made it and everyone in it move safely through the air. Ask your priest why you don’t know about her. In any case… this is about willpower and force, princeling. I have the will - but I’ve never been able to match the required force. Your world gives you all the force, but you lack the will.” He gestured. “On the bridge and walk to the center of the river. I’ll follow you.” Holland pulled a knife out of his coat pocket, a strange thing that looked like oblong stone. He pressed a sort of hinge on one side and the blade seemed to simply jump out with a soft snnnnckt sound.

“What is that?” Kell’s eyebrows raised so high they nearly met his hair. “What is it for?”

“They call them flick knives. I found some in a merchant’s tent in what you call Gray London years ago. Useful little things. I said get on the bridge.”

Kell went, painfully aware of the sharp little knife in Holland’s hands as the other man walked behind him. The wind seemed to sharpen as they went out over the river itself. The earthen bridge seemed solidly frozen with the bit of water he’d used until they were just at the center of it, where the water would be deepest beneath them. The bridge gave, just a little, beneath his feet, and Kell took a quick step back.

“Careful,” Holland’s voice was faded behind him, distracted, his narrowed eyes staring down the length of the river until it wound away and disappeared from sight. “If you fall, you’ll likely drown.”

“I’m already drowning,” Kell muttered, hunching his shoulders up near his chin. 

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” 

Holland grabbed him by one arm and spun him around. “I asked you a question and you answer the questions you’re asked.”

Kell closed his eyes, swallowed hard, and ground out, “I said I’m already drowning, herre , because of you. Are you happy now?”

“Yes.” Holland’s voice was soft. 

Kell’s eyes flew open but the other man had already stepped away from him, walking a little further down the bridge, then coming a little back. He slid off his coat, rolling his sleeves up, exposing the heavily scarred forearms marked with the evidence of every time the Danes had forced him to cut himself too deeply and too long. “Do you have anything from your world on you, Kell? Other than your coat. I won’t take that from you.”

“I…” Kell’s hand closed around the river rock, and he fought the compulsion to be honest. Eventually he gave up and said softly, “Yes. I do.” He pulled the heavy rock out of his pocket. Holland looked over the gently rounded stone, about the size of Kell’s palm and a softly rosy white color. 

“Even the rock has magic clinging into it. That’s perfect. Roll up the sleeves on your left hand and hold the rock in your right.”

Kell followed orders, pushing the coat sleeve up to his elbow, frowning at the faintest, silvery scars that would fade into invisibility before long, compared to the gouges still marked on Holland’s. “I still don’t see how we’re going to do-”

“Hush. You will. Hold out your other hand, palm to me, fingers up.” Holland held up one of the little knives. “This blade is sharper than it looks, so hold still.” He took Kell’s hand and cut deeply down his palm, over the bone of his hand, and all the way down his wrist to his elbow. Kell winced but managed to hold himself still and not flinch away from it, felt Rhy’s heart shudder alongside his own. 

“That’s too long, H-Holland-”

“It’s not. You’ll be fine. Let it drip onto the bridge, that’s only going to be good for us.”

Blood bubbled up and ran down in a river, dripping soundlessly into the earth below them. Kell could feel the dirt surging to it, almost, the way it coalesced around the magic in that blood. Even the ground beneath their feet would drain him dry if it could. This whole world was made of vampires.

Holland grabbed the river rock, pushing it against the wound in his palm. “Hold this as tightly as you can.”

“I feel like a puppet,” Kell muttered, doing as he was told.

“You are a puppet. Congratulations for finally noticing. Now… “ Holland was breathing a little harder, his face slightly flushed. Out here with the weak sunlight shining on him, Kell couldn’t really delude himself any longer that it had simply been imagination running away with him - Holland’s hair was definitely a little darker, his skin closer in color to Kell’s own. “Here we go.”

“What?” 

“Not now.” Holland cut his own palm just as deeply, drew the knife all the way to his elbow, in a matching line. “Let’s match force with will and see if this works.” Holland did not so much as flicker an eyelid at the pain he must have felt and Kell looked to the side, out over the water that ran to them and underneath them and out the other side. The water ran as clear as glass; even here at the center he could nearly see straight to the bottom.

There was something on Holland’s face he’d never seen before - a kind of hope - and Kell couldn’t bear to look at it. It was too much, to realize this nightmare he was living was everything Holland had dreamed about. 

Then the other Antari wrapped his own fingers around Kell's, the river rock held between them, and stepped closer, forcing the open wounds to match all the way down their arms, until blood flowed into blood.

Holland's magic felt like ice straight down his arm and Kell fought to pull away from it. Holland tightened his grip until it hurt, stepping closer, leaning in until their faces were mere inches apart. “No,” He said in a low, gravelly voice. “You stand still for this. I… Ah, that feels good.”

“It does? ” Kell ached . His veins hurt as Holland pulled the magic from them, murmuring against his ear, Maktahn he knew and didn’t know at all. Kell's head fell back and he tried to make himself keep breathing, Rhy's heartbeat stutter-skipping alongside his. He could see straight up into the flat gray nothing of the sky, hardly able to feel the warmth of the sun. His body kept trying to pull away, to free itself from the connection along their arms, only to run up against the rune carved into his back that kept him here.

"It does. My will is stronger. I feel… you . Hold still. Hold. Damn it," Holland made the softest sound in the back of his throat, his voice suddenly hoarse with something like desire. "It's… stronger."

They were bleeding into each other, and his blood was bound to obey, to submit, by the rune on his back. It felt like a lit torch held against his shoulder blade, and Kell tried to arch away from it only to crash into the warmth and solidity of Holland himself instead.

“Wh-what-”

“Sssshhhh,” Holland said softly. " Kell Maresh . Kell Antari. " Holland's voice dropped into a whisper threaded with affection. Gently, barely a brush of skin on skin, he kissed Kell's cheek. "Min kæreste.

Fuck that, I know a bedroom voice when I hear one, Rhy’s furious voice snapped inside his head, as near to him as if the thought were his own. Kell, you hate bedroom voices, you've said it a thousand times. What’s going on? 

There was nothing to mark on, nowhere to write, but Holland’s magic was bleeding into him and his bleeding into Holland’s and it wouldn’t stop . They were Antari , the wound should be closing by now, but it didn’t - it stayed open. Holland’s hand strayed back into the pocket of his coat and he brought out a small and shining black stone, held in the gloved palm of his hand.

Kell knew that stone. It had been hell on earth to talk himself into putting it down. It had been in his hand when he and Holland fought the final time, before the black ropes Holland had called up, before the rune marked him for obedience. Kell had a sudden flash of memory, losing consciousness as the stone simply dropped away, gave itself up to the stronger Antari - and gave Kell up, too. Holland closed his fingers around it, and the black began to spider up his veins.

“Holland, no, please, no...”

“Match force with will,” Holland said, maybe not to him at all. “We are not slaves to magic - magic must be slave to us.” He opened his palm and the stone stayed put where it was. He closed that hand around their already-clasped other hands. “Kell. Do the same.”

He did as he was told, his hand shaking with the effort to fight the order. When his cold bare fingers closed over Holland’s, he felt suddenly weightless, the magic pulsing in him with effortless power that he could not use - it was all Holland's, now. He looked up to meet Holland’s gaze and the green eye that met his was so brilliantly bright he could hardly stand it. He could see the faintest hint of black ringing a little wider around Holland’s Antari eye, black veins like eyelashes staining outward.

“Match force,” Holland said, as though the words took effort. “With will.” He tightened his grip. 

I’m here, Kell. Rhy's voice was stronger than it had ever been. Holland bled his magic out of him to use for his own and he burned, a wildfire in the woods that Holland controlled. Rhy's voice was thin with pain. What is happening to you?

I could help you talk to Rhy whenever you wanted, a whispering, silvery voice twined around and behind his brother's. He knew that voice. He’d been fighting the lure of that voice right up until he’d nearly killed Holland, had been so close... It’s not so hard, if you just keep me in your hands, you two. What do you want, Antari?

Kell fought to ignore it. The river, Kell tried to think back to Rhy. Tell Tieren Serense to check the river-

“Please no, Holland, please-”

Holland didn’t answer him - his eyes were far away, focused on some inner horizon. “Open the doors, Kell.”

Kell closed his eyes and, his voice shaking, obeyed.

As Orense. Åbn døren, Isle ind i Sijlt ."

I can open all the doors, the silver voice said. I could throw them all wide open and you could be together. Find the rest of me. Let me show you. Let me show you only a hint of what I can help you do to be with him.

“I’m always with my brother,” Kell murmured, not even aware he’d said the words out loud.

I am not talking about your brother.

Kell! Rhy’s voice was louder than the other, but only just. What’s wrong? I can hear someone else-

“Look." Holland's voice was hushed, insistent, just above a whisper. “Look, Kell. Look!”

Kell opened his eyes. His own hands were spidered with black now, too, but that wasn’t what Holland's startled, euphoric gaze was focused on. He tore himself free all at once from Holland’s grip, stumbling back and splattering blood across the dirt bridge as he went, the wound finally closing and the black veins returning to normal, blood-soaked river rock bouncing across the bridge and splashing almost soundlessly into the water below.

Directly below their feet, the river Sijlt ran red.

It was only a thin ribbon of it compared to the breadth of the water, hardly the width of two men laid head-to-foot, but he could see it. The red began abruptly and ran under the bridge in a thick crimson stream like fresh blood, dissolving into the larger water, pushing its way through, tinting pink for a dozen feet around it on either side.  

Magic.

He could see two more huge spaces like that, on either side, wide doors that had opened in the water thirty or forty feet back and to the side, letting the Isle flow easily into the Sijlt. Half the river, at one point, was pink with it, those tendrils stubbornly making their slow way towards the edge of the river.

“It worked,” Holland said, as though he could not quite believe it himself. He was breathing hard, putting one hand slowly up to his face, looking at the Sijlt with rapt fascination. "I could make more-"

"Holland."

The older Antari turned to look at him, and the black of his eyes was bleeding down over his cheekbone.

"Take the stone out of your hand."

Holland blinked, as though waking from a dream, and slowly looked down at his open palm, the stone still lodged in it, the black veins growing second by second.

“I have the will,” Holland said through gritted teeth. “I am stronger than my weaknesses.” With tremendous effort he managed to disengage the stone and pocketed it again, face pulling tight and wincing as the aftermath of it hit him. Kell knew that feeling - the exhaustion, dead on your feet, ready to drop - and it was worse each time you used it. Even without having directly touched it himself, he felt weakened, drained of vitality. 

How bad would it feel the next time? How many more doors did Holland want to open?

They were both exhausted, smeared with blood, and Holland's skin was back to its faded chalk-white, but it had worked.

"We did it," Holland said softly.

The doors were open.

“Sanct.” Rhy’s voice was gone from his head and so was the other, familiar temptation, and Kell looked out at the crime he had committed. "We did, didn't we?"

This was the worst thing he had ever done, and Holland was smiling more brightly and genuinely than Kell had ever seen. He grabbed Kell by the shoulders, pulling him close, threw his arms around him like they were children. “It worked! We can do it!”

“Right,” Kell said softly. Where Holland was alight with happiness, a joy that Kell had never even imagined he could feel, let alone show, Kell himself felt nothing but a dull pounding horror. Holland either did not notice or didn’t care. He slid his hands up to either side of Kell’s face, half-smearing his neck and the collar with the drying blood they were both still coated in, kissed him hard enough to hurt. 

“We did it,” Holland said again, and his smile was so brilliant Kell nearly found himself returning it out of sheer instinct. “We can wake my world back up, Kell. We can fix it." 

“By bleeding mine,” Kell whispered with numb lips.

“Only a little,” Holland said softly, and the faded blankness of his usual expression was back. He looked drawn and pinched, now that he’d put the black stone away. There were faint black veins on his hands, still, crawling up his arms, even now fading further to a charcoal gray that matched his hair, beginning slowly to disappear as he returned to normal. 

“I want to leave now,” Kell said, sick at the sight of the river. "I can't… be here."

“I promised you a reunion with your brother, didn’t I?" Holland frowned, looking at his expression, and some of the strange, unsettling affection came back to him. It cut deeper than any knife. "We should take you there. I'll take you early. I thought this would take all day, but… you’ve earned it. Tak, Kell Antari. You can't imagine what this will mean to us."

"I know what it means to us. "

"It's only a little," Holland repeated. "Like feeding the Danes."

"And do the Danes ever stop thirsting? Don't you ever worry that one day they won't be happy unless it's every drop of blood in your veins?"

Holland was silent. Then, he shook his head slowly, and his face was cold. "It's worth it, whatever the cost to you and yours. It's worth all of it to save us. You would do the same, if it were your world . Let's go."

Kell almost told him not to, almost couldn’t stand the idea of looking Rhy in the face after what he’d just done. He’d have to walk through his own London - through the palace - with the knowledge of what he was carved into his head, marked on his back. 

The red flowed beneath their feet and the air around them began to smell, very faintly, of flowers. It was damning proof that he had cut a hole in his own world to feed the Danes’ need for greater power.

No. He had not obeyed their orders, after all. This wasn't about them. He had done this to grant Holland’s wish to keep his world’s heart beating just a little longer. He'd find some way to undo it, or to keep the Danes from pushing it much further. He'd come up with something...

“Holland, I-” He thought of Rhy’s face and stopped himself. If there was anyone on any earth who would not blame him, it would be Rhy. "Yes, sir. Thank you. Let’s go.”

Maybe if he saw his brother again, he would feel less like a hollow shell, less like he should dive in to the river headfirst and let himself be pulled down into the red obscenity he’d created where it didn’t belong.

“Don’t look like that.” Holland’s hand trailed along the back of his neck, fingertips whispering through the copper hair at the nape, just above the bruise from last night. The graze of it, drifting down to the edge of the black leather, sent a glimmer of pleasure down his spine to the pit of guilt twisting his stomach. “What you did today was a good thing.”

Kell looked up from the water, into his eyes, as those fingertips circled around to trace the bruise along the side of his neck, where Holland's mouth had been for so long the night before. Holland moved slowly around him, fingers moving as he went, and Kell swallowed hard as Holland's finger and thumb closed slowly around the silver ring on the front, made it clink softly, the sound shockingly loud in his ears.

"You were good, today," Holland said softly. 

Maybe what he’d told him before was true - he was already deep under the water with these same hands pulling him down, and he'd never make it back to the surface to take another breath.

"Come," Holland ordered, dropping his hand, heading back towards the banks of the river. A darker look crossed the older man's face as he hunched into his coat, one hand in his pocket, the other in a fist down by his side. 

Kell closed his eyes against the knowledge that he was now officially a traitor to his parents’ - one day, to Rhy’s - crown, and followed him off the bridge.

Chapter Text

In Red London, a piece of the Isle became pale.

No one noticed, because the flow of the river was so immense and so lively. Well… one person noticed.

Delilah Bard, who had accepted only under protest a brand new coat, shirt, pants, and pair of shoes that Rhy had offered her to help her fit in (“you stick out like a man with seven sore thumbs, Miss Bard, please let me help you”), was sulking along the riverbanks wishing for nothing so much as the ability to be there when Kell came to see his brother. No, was allowed to see his brother, like a child or a pet being given a treat for good behavior. 

She’d kill Holland herself, if Rhy didn’t beat her to him. 

She was being kept away by Rhy's own insistent order, and Lila hated taking orders, but it was a bit hard to be in the palace if the crown prince ordered her arrested on sight, so she’d gone with only a vulgar gesture or two in protest. 

The prince that she’d more or less thrown her lot in with had been so desperate to see Kell that he hadn't even argued when Holland had found him alone in a hallway and told him the terms under which he would lay eyes on his brother again. They’d eventually spoken totally alone in Rhy’s bedroom - exactly the way Kell said this whole mess had started in the first place. 

He could have been killed, but he wasn’t, and somehow the fact that there was no attempt on his life seemed worse. That sneering queen that had worn Rhy’s body like a glove and left a string of dead behind her had won, had Kell in thrall. Plus, she’d stopped trying to kill everyone, which meant… what?

Was Kell the end goal entirely? Would she stop, if she had two magic-users who did anything she wanted?

No. There had to be more to it. Lila had heard her, using Rhy’s mouth to say terrible things to Kell and Rhy’s hands to hold the knife, and Lila had known that whatever the bitch was, she was a bitch with a plan.

Lila Bard did not appreciate that, because she wanted to be the only bitch in the room with a plan.

Especially if that plan involved Kell, whose odd mix of childish naivete and old-man judgementalism somehow fascinated her so much she’d followed him across two worlds and finally followed him into a third when he was abducted.

If Lila had been there when Holland showed back up with a smug smile and one of Kell’s necklaces in his hand to prove they truly had him, the tokens he used to travel between Londons, she’d have cut Holland to ribbons, magic powers or not. She’d have learned what she wanted to know at the edge of a knife. But no, Rhy had insisted they meet Holland’s terms. Kell was a hostage and Rhy wanted to negotiate . It was the dumbest thing she could have possibly imagined he would do.

Well, other than telling the king and queen, who… Lila was beginning to understand why Kell had kept so much from them.

But still. Kell’s brother was an idiot, or he was going about things in a way other than the way Lila would have, which in her mind made him as good as an idiot regardless.

She was furious, and also furiously in denial about how angry she was.

"It's not like I care," She muttered to herself, kicking at a small cairn of pebbles some child must have built earlier in the day, scattering them into the dirt. "I barely even know him, really. What do I know about him? What do I owe him? I’ve paid him back already for all of it. With interest. Not like he could come after me to collect." 

She’d sort of hoped he might, though.

The red glow against her skin was warm and comforting, and she felt so much more at home. It was like her own London had never belonged to her, not really. Maybe she had always been meant to end up here, with the docks a constant singsong in her mind, the grand old ships lined up along them like ladies sunning themselves along the beach. She'd already been to visit the docks three or four times in the past week, trying to convince herself to just... step on a ship and go. Kell did not need her, her gun or her knives. He was farther now than she could follow.

But there he was, no matter what she did, still ringing in her thoughts like a scowling church bell, and she could not get the idea of him forced into serving the very woman who had nearly murdered his brother out of her mind.

What was Kell’s day like, bowing and scraping and mumbling those ridiculous fancy names that queens and kings gave themselves to someone who had worn your brother’s skin and nearly killed him to capture you? What had it felt like to save Rhy only to damn himself?

The air around Lila changed. She felt goosebumps raise up along both arms and the hair on the back of her neck stood up.

She looked up sharply, hand going instinctively to slide a knife out of the hidden holster under the loose fold of her shirt. The scent of flowers seemed suddenly to strengthen until the smell of roses was so cloying it was almost sickening. The air was tense, the way it felt just before rainfall, when the clouds hung low and heavy, and Lila felt certain that any moment she would be drenched by the downpour.

But the sky was bright and sunny today, and no one around her seemed to feel anything.

She heard pebbles rattling together and looked down at her feet in the ridiculous new boots that she’d hardly had time to scratch up properly, seeing the rocks along the riverbank moving on their own, shaking back and forth, knocking into each other. She stared, dumbly, completely baffled.

A flock of birds nearby took off suddenly in a cacophony of noise, and people looked up and pointed, calling out to each other. 

The whole earth shook and Lila went down onto her hands and knees, splayed out without dignity, scrambling back up to kneel. The ground beneath her shuddered and shifted, as though the entire earth itself had simply decided to move three inches to the left. Lila snarled, digging her fingers into the dirt to hold herself still. What was this? She looked to the side and saw a ripple travel across the surface of the Isle, as though some great monster had broken the surface, only to duck back under. 

Just as she went to stand, she felt the earth shake again and decided it was better to stay down until it seemed to be over.

There was a second ripple in the water, a dozen yards behind and off to the side from the first one. 

Then a third, barely even visible. The third earthquake hardly rattled the pebbles again, and finally everything settled.

Lila looked around.

No one else had noticed anything but that flock of birds. No one was looking at the river at all. People continued to laugh and talk, walking along the banks, lovers arm in arm or parents indulgently watching children run ahead and double back. A man did magic tricks close by, not the paltry parlor nonsense from her own world, but real magic tricks. He swirled up a bit of dirt, formed it into the shape of a man, made it dance for the delight of a child who begged her parents for a coin to toss into his hat. The little dirt-man bowed, dissolved again into dry dust, reformed into a prancing cat.

No one had felt anything.

No one but her.

Someone spoke to her, and she couldn’t understand a word of it, but his eyes and voice were kind and his hand was held out in a way that made his intentions clear. He was offering to help her stand, asking her if she was all right.

Lila took his hand and stood, smiling faintly in a way that she hoped seemed grateful and mumbled a thank you, ducking her head as if a bit ashamed to have been caught tripping over herself. Then she ducked away as the man asked another question, his eyes wide as she'd spoken in the royal tongue, avoiding the light of sudden increased interest in his eyes.

She did not have time for that nonsense, that was for sure; although there might be something to be said for someone who wouldn’t expect her to talk to him too much.

Lila looked out over the Isle, where she’d seen the ripples, trying to see if she could find out what had made the change in the air and the earth shake. If she tilted her head just right and squinted her good eye, she could almost make out something… different. It reminded her of the way the air shimmered around a hot fire, almost invisible but there if you knew to look.

What was that?

A cold breeze blew from the Isle, touched the back of her neck. It felt like the slightest wisp of winter in a place that was sunny and warm. The sense of cold air traveled around to the front of her throat.

That wasn’t right at all. She needed to tell Kell, he would know what it was-

But no. Right. Kell wasn’t here.

Kell was a captive in a world that belonged to neither of them, and she was helpless to do a damn thing about it. Besides that, she couldn’t even go back to the palace - Rhy didn’t want to see her until he had had time with his brother, and the king and queen didn’t even know Kell would be there. Even if Holland had not ordered it be a secret kept from them, Lila had the feeling they wouldn’t have been told anyway.

She’d been there when Rhy and his parents were reunited. She’d seen the Queen and King of this place even she thought of as Red London be angry at Kell when they heard of his capture rather than grateful to him for looking at their dying son and immediately, without hesitation, simply handing over nearly all his strength to save him and then heading out into the darkness and try and end the threat for good.

That seemed like the sort of thing a parent should appreciate. If Kell had been her adopted changeling child, she’d have been so damn proud of him. But no - the Queen had been furious at Kell for his failure , and the King tense and far more concerned about political implications for national security , and… Lila had understood Kell, in that moment, in a way she never had before. 

Rhy’s mother had fussed and teared up and kept touching her very much living younger son as if to remind herself he was truly here, and then turned that worry and fear and love into coldness and clipped fury when Lila had made the mistake of asking what they might do to help the other son, who could very well be in terrible danger at any given moment.

There had been a half-second when the queen had looked at her and though she did not say the words, Lila read her thoughts plain as day: what are you even talking about? That boy is not my son.

Lila, for one brief second, felt nothing but relief for the reality that she hadn't had to think about parents in a long damn time.

She wanted to see Kell so badly, and the bit of her that never quite managed to drop the sentimental nonsense thoughts she so loathed in others wanted to tell him that if he had no one else, she at least had come through that door by his side because she had been fascinated by him. Fascinated, and annoyed, and angry, and interested.

But she couldn’t tell him that. He was too far away from her, and besides that, it sounded sort of stupid to say now that she'd thought about it. The sort of thing you said girlishly in one of the  novels she'd seen people reading. And she was so angry about it.

Lila leaned down, picked up a good sized rock, and took aim.

The rock skipped across the surface of the river seven times before it finally went in, and Lila smiled grimly to herself. Seven was a lucky number, or so she’d been told, once upon a time. Did lucky numbers really exist? If magic did, maybe anything was possible. 

Lila’s smile slowly faded. Did Kell know how to skip rocks? They hadn’t known each other long enough to find out. Would they let him skip rocks, in the other London, if he could? She’d been to scout the palace and seen nothing at all, no hint of him. Only the strange angry people and a castle closed up tight against intruders. 

Kell was somewhere in there, waiting to be rescued. Like a goddamn damsel in a tower.

Lila snorted. “Well, if he’s the princess,” She said out loud to no one in particular, skipping another stone. “Who is the prince who saves him?”

The rock she’d skipped went further than the last, and Lila watched, eyes widening, as the rock made the final skip and simply disappeared in midair.

She threw another one, to try and check, but it didn’t go far enough. It took five more tries before she managed that distance again, and sure enough, the rock was in the air and then was gone, as though it had… traveled. Like Kell did. Like Holland did.

Like she did, now, all on her own, as though something in her had woken up when Kell had gone away.

Lila’s eyes flicked back and forth from the rocks on the riverbank to the spot where the skipped stones had disappeared. Then, she turned sharply on her heels and began to head for the Sanctuary. 

Behind her, the river continued to flow, edging the air with a brilliant scarlet glow.

A bit of pale water, curling like a living thing, wound down for nearly half a mile until it made it to the great stone bridge that had stood since time immemorial. A clinging bit of lichen grew here, under the bridge, where the sun sometimes hit just right. The pale tendril of water lapped, just a little, against the lichen.

Where the pale water touched, the lichen bleached white and crumbled away.

No one noticed.


In White London, only a single knobby-kneed boy noticed anything different.

He was short and skinny for twelve years old, but then there had never been much food to go around, so everyone else at home was short and skinny, too. He’d shot up three inches in what passed for summer last year, though, and if there wasn’t money for food, there sure as hell wasn’t a coin to be spared on new shirts. Instead, he went around drowning in his brother’s too-big hand-me-downs instead. 

It didn’t matter. His brother didn’t need the clothes anymore. He was dead.

He wasn't exactly pretty, but had the sort of high cheekbones and angled eyes that suggested he one day would be, if he lived long enough, and brownish-blond hair that was hardly a color at all. His mama had called the color ‘bunny in the grass’, although the boy had never actually seen a living rabbit and couldn't have said if the comparison was true. 

One of his eyes was a darkly layered gray, like the way the clouds looked just before a storm, and on the other side he wore a brown leather patch with a band that went around his head to hold it on. The eyepatch was the only nice thing he had for his own, and he kept it so carefully cleaned and oiled that it gleamed, slightly, in Makt's weak sunlight.

When he was nine years old, there had been a terrible fever. 

His left eye had burned and so had his blood. He had screamed and screamed, his brother holding him down by his hands, because he’d been trying to claw open the skin on his arms so that he could let the fever out. They told him he had been screaming words in a language no one knew. They told him the water had boiled in the pitcher, the dirt under the floorboards had spiraled up into the air, the fire in the fireplace had burned for three days with no wood to feed it, there had been a breeze inside the house no one could explain. They told him he'd bent the iron poker by the fireplace with his mind, snapped it in half, buried the halves into the walls so deep they couldn't be pulled out. They told him, finally, that he had screamed that his bones were breaking, cracking, burning, that he had to bleed or he would die.

They told him that after five days of this his left eye had lost its gray, soaked through red with blood, and that after that the blood had gone old and black, until the whole eye was turning, rotting, dying into the glassy, glossy darkness that everyone knew to be afraid of - the same as the demon who served the Danes. 

At least that was what they told him, later. 

The doctor had been called for, hard-won coins spent, and the old man had cut out his eye entirely and sewn the eyelid shut with rough stitches. There had been no extra coins for a draught to help with the pain. The boy had been awake when they took his eye away.

The cutting seemed to stop the fever in its tracks, and he had worn the patch ever since.

"That should do it," his mama had whispered to the doctor, both of them sure he was asleep and did not hear. "Without the eye, he isn't one of them. That will take the magic out. It's a pity that he won't have any at all, but it's safer to have none than too much, isn't it? That curse in him can't live if the eye is gone, that's what they say. And if he doesn't have the curse, they won't come for him. They won't send the demon to take him away if he's got no magic." 

The boy had a secret.

His mama had been wrong. The curse wasn't gone at all.

In Makt, no one had magic that they did not rip from their veins (or from another’s) in a desperate scrabble for power, but magic came easily to him. It came more easily than it seemed to come to anyone else, answered his call, and he could do almost anything with it. He was terrified of it some days, and some days he couldn't imagine life without the constant thrumming knowledge that there was more to him than anyone knew. Sometimes it seemed to have its own will, and he was pretty sure everyone said magic was meant to be controlled, not meant to control you.

If he had told his parents, he thought his mother might have sold him to the Danes herself. If her one effort (and a month's wages) had not stopped the flow of magic, she might give him up to them, even knowing what they’d do to get at the magic in his blood, if it gained her a few more coins to feed his siblings and a measure of protection from the crown.

He told no one but his brother that the magic was still there, and that did not matter anymore, because his brother was gone. Once the Danes had you, death was a sure thing, and everyone knew that. His mama had said it the day she’d come home without his brother after the Danes had gone on their parade through the city. 

It was just something everyone knew. 

The dead walk in that palace , so the saying went, but they don’t come back out of it.

When the two Antari had been working, the boy had been crouched at the riverbank with the others, watching with wide-eyed fascination. He had felt the earthquakes, the shuddering movement of the very ground beneath his feet, and been startled to discover that no one else did.

The space where his eye had been, once, long ago, throbbed in a sudden flush of pain that had him curling his knees up to his chest, arms around them, unable to look away from the small figures of the men who had all the power in the world, the magic everyone else would kill for.

The air had changed, over the water, and it seemed like no one else could see it. The boy could see the pinkish glow coming from the water, thin and nearly transparent, but it was there. He had no idea what it could mean, but it was something the two men on the dirt bridge had done, and he thought to himself, in secret, that it might be something he could do, too, if he had both eyes, if he did not live in this city, if he did not live in this world.

The two Antari had gone, both too lost in thought to even see the one-eyed boy who watched them with such rapt fascination, and he had sat by the river for a long, long time afterward. Long after the rest of the people had dispersed, the skinny boy stayed at the water’s edge. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, really, but he could have sworn the air felt a little warmer, and he was always hungry for heat, here.

Gradually, he began to see it. Threads of red were winding through the water, coming from the place the two Antari had been standing over before. The boy looked on in delighted wonder at the first truly unusual thing he’d ever seen in his life. Thin tendrils slipped and slid around and over and under the regular water, like the stories about mermaids playing with sailors at sea. He could see them moving towards the shore, seemingly with purpose, in his exact direction. Not a mind, not exactly, but… a will.

The boy stared down at the water, and the red in the water seemed to stare right back, and he had the unsettling feeling that it recognized the magic that was supposed to have been cut out and wasn't. That the pulse that beat in him knew the strange water.

Some of the red water washed ashore, vaguely pinkish, and where it had touched, the dirt itself seemed darker and fresher. The boy uncurled himself and stood, suddenly wary. There was a scent in the air that he did not know and had never smelled before. It hung around him, faintly sweet. 

A warm breeze touched the back of his neck, and he could smell that sweet smell again stronger than ever. Something was growing next to his scuffed-up boot, his brother’s boots really, two sizes too big still and he had to wear three pairs of socks and still got blisters. 

Next to his boots, something small pushed up out of the dirt and began to grow. He watched a plant, a green shoot, something really truly green, slowly rise out of the dirt six inches or so from the water’s edge, grow visibly into a stem, unroll a vibrant leaf. 

He was dumbfounded and also in love with it, this new thing in his dead world, this plant that looked nothing like the scraggly yellowed crops the farmers bled with pure toil from the fields each year. The little green plant continued to grow, until it slowly opened into a flower streaked white and purple, with a bit of yellow in the center. The boy had never seen a flower before - not a real one.

He looked at the pink water, and then back at the flower stubbornly growing in the wet spot where the river had soaked in, and felt like the water had given him a gift. 

"Do you know there's magic in me?" He whispered to it. Magic might be able to hear, you couldn't know. They said it wasn't alive, but the boy could see it, the way it moved. Nothing dead could move like that, sinuous and twining and on purpose. "I never told anyone but my brother. There's magic in me, too. Is there magic in you again?"

He let one finger trace the flower petals, feeling their immense softness, the fuzzy pollen in the center where the yellow was, the little folds at the edge. The harder texture of the stem itself, slightly fuzzed with something like tiny hairs.

“This is beautiful,” He breathed out loud. “Thank you, river. Your magic is so beautiful.” He plucked the flower, pulling it right out of the ground, and then got to his feet and ran, the flower held tightly against his chest to protect it, his coat curled around it so no one else would see. 

He would take the flower to the White Tree, a huge old dead thing that still stood in a circle of stones down by the Square, and he would give it as an offering, and say his brother’s name so he would be remembered. He went every week. He was the only member of his family who did.

The water continued to lap at the river’s edge. After a few minutes, another tiny green shoot popped up a few feet away.  Then a third, and a fourth. 

It would be hours before anyone else saw. In Makt it was not safe to look too far away from yourself, or be too inclined to notice things out of the ordinary, and the river had been dead for so long that no one could ever have expected it to come back to life. The people went about their day, and the wildflowers continued to grow along the banks of the river, and for nearly a day, no one noticed.

No one but Holland Vosijk, who came back at sundown, and a single skittish boy with fire in his blood that even cutting out his black eye could not burn out, who returned over and over and over again, speaking his brother's name into the water, willing it to remember him, too.

Chapter Text

When Rhy was a child, he had gone through a period of time (blessedly short, in his own memory at least) of wanting to dress each day like one of the commoners rather than the royalty he was.

Kell had thought the whole thing absurd, although he was at the Sanctuary most of the time those days, learning the skills that would help him act as the Maresh Antari throughout the worlds. The perpetual scowl his brother had already etched into himself had only deepened with study, and his twice-weekly dinners with the royal family had made Rhy miss him fiercely. With each month that passed, it seemed more and more that  only he could find the smile on his quiet, thoughtful brother’s face.

Besides which, it felt sort of snobby to dress up all the time.

His mother and father had indulged him in it for a while, as they indulged him in nearly everything that he might want that wasn’t an outright risk or hurting anyone, before Maxim had taken him aside one afternoon, sat him down, and explained carefully that the clothing that royalty wore - or at least Maresh royalty - was not an affectation, or a bit of snobbery.

It was theater, and armor.

Gold thread showed a version of you to the world and could protect you just as easily as it marked you a target, Maxim had said softly. The clothing he wore would send a message, every day of his life, not just to his own people but to Faro and Vesk and any others who might want to see a moment of weakness.

Rhy’s clothing must make him look strong, at all times. He wanted that strength more than ever today.

He winced as he pulled on the deep blue pants he’d chosen, with gold embroidery in the shape of a twisting vine hung heavy with fruit winding up the outside on each leg, glinting in the light. He’d thrown his windows open, letting the fresh air in, while he laid out his choices on his bed.

He must look strong, today, even if he did not feel it. The ache in Kell’s lower back and the weakness in his legs was driving Rhy to worried distraction.

He was meant to feel this, he knew that; it wasn’t like it had to hurt, and someone Holland’s age must know how to manage things well enough so it didn’t. But last night, trapped alone in his room, Rhy had felt the teeth when Holland had bitten his brother, every mark he’d made that still twinged faintly on his own skin this morning. He had felt the deeper pain, heard Kell cry out as though he were right there in the room, and felt Kell’s heart pounding ahead of his. Worse than that, he’d felt the pleasure, too.

After a while the pain had faded, been buried in the pleasure. Kell had been lost in it, so far away, too far for Rhy to ever reach him. Rhy could still remember every place Holland’s hands had trailed, each time he located somewhere new that Rhy could tell had Kell arching into it to get closer, felt the sharp delight of Holland pulling Kell’s hair to yank his head back, the tongue on his throat as though it was all happening right here to him rather than a world away to his brother. He’d laid in his own huge bed in the palace, curled around himself, and tried to endure.

Then, when it was over and he had cleaned himself up as best he could, Rhy had drunk the bitter liquid from the blessed bottle the Aven Essen had given him and let himself shatter apart into the little death that he called sleep. It had kept him unconscious for only a few hours, before he’d woken with something like the aftershocks of Kell’s pleasure still ringing through him. It occurred to Rhy that the first time last night may have been just that; the first time, last night.

He had abandoned him to be alone through the rest. 

Rhy fiddled with the thin white shirt in his hands, looking over the carefully woven, beautifully soft fabric, before pulling it on over his head. 

He had not dressed until late today, because he’d been waiting for what he knew was coming, first.

The slice of the knife into his palm had made him wince and hiss in a breath at the breakfast table with his parents, but he’d covered it well by pretending to have stabbed himself accidentally with a fork. By the time the blade was cutting deeply down the inside of Kell’s arm, Rhy had figured out how to manage the pain well enough to carry on a conversation.

Then his veins began to burn.

He’d managed to sit through the end of breakfast feeling like he was on fire, a spot just above his shoulder blade burning worse than the rest, but every heartbeat felt like he was pushing fire into and out of his heart, and Rhy struggled to keep his expression the same.

He didn’t dare tell his mother and father what was happening. Instead, he’d made his excuses, blaming his ‘condition’ (the only way anyone would refer to his death, the fact that he had died, damn it, he had died and he continued to do so again and again every single night ), and made it back to his room before the burn became so strong he could not do anything else but collapse to his knees and try to talk to him.

This time, Kell had answered him. Kell’s voice, ringing in his mind, had been woven around with a different voice, a darker one, that Rhy could not quite hear and sensed could not quite hear him, either. Tell Tieren Serense to check the river.

His parents could not know that they shared pain. They could never know they shared pleasure. They could not know what he and Kell had become. If they knew, they’d resent Kell for it, and Rhy could not bear to see his brother’s heart broken by them any further.

When Tieren Serense had brought him back from the Sanctuary, Lila at his side like a malevolent ghost in the acolyte’s outfit Tieren had let her borrow, he’d been so happy to see them again. He’d loved them so sharply that it had hurt, a little boy’s love, running home to his parents after the monster in the woods chased him and dragged his brother into the dark. 

They’d been themselves, worried and loving him, and the three of them had, however briefly, had nearly all they needed in each other.

Then, he had told them about Kell - not all of it. Just that Kell had saved his life and, weakened by what it had taken out of him, had been captured and was now being held by the strange twin monarchs in what Kell called White London, that he had reason to believe Kell was now tied to them the same way Holland Vosijk was.

His mother’s worry for her erstwhile adopted son had flickered across her face, and he’d felt relief at first - relief, that she loved Kell and really did care about him, because of course she did, he was hers, wasn’t he? - and then with dawning horror, he’d listened to anger overtake the worry, bury it, and had watched his mother set herself to bury Kell with it.

"You can never be near him again without a full complement of guards," Emira had said fiercely, as though they were discussing a rabid dog and not his missing brother. “Maybe not even then. You can’t speak with him, or take any notes from him that we don’t read first. He’s not safe for you any longer.”

He’d looked to Maxim for help, but his father’s expression was a soldier's distant frown, and he began to talk about limiting who knew Kell was gone in order to keep Faro and Vesk in the dark. Maxim was calculating potential damage to the crown rather than worrying for his other son.  

They might be worried about Kell and wonder what was happening to him, but they were angrier at him for getting himself caught in the first place. They were relieved Rhy was seemingly healthy and whole, but upset with Kell for not somehow predicting Astrid’s entire plan. They were sad that they had lost the advantage of an Antari in their court, worried he might be killed, but also furious at him for complicating things by not having a fate they could plan for.

So Rhy, who was of course fairly used to keeping small secrets from his parents, had decided to keep a much, much larger one.

He pulled on the matching jacket that went with his pants, doing up the gold buttons, lined on either side with the same gold embroidery as his pants, while staring at himself in the mirror. This outfit would be his armor, today. In it, he was every inch the prince, the king-in-waiting, a man in control of a life that Rhy wasn’t entirely sure he was still living any longer.

In this outfit, he felt none of the pain in his back or the ache in his legs. He felt none of the residual burn from Kell’s veins. He was Prince Rhy of the Maresh Empire, he had been born to rule, and he would not let a single Antari 's threats scare him.

Rhy hooked a blade into a sheath on his hip, a wicked, serrated thing that he’d convinced Kell to buy for him once down in the markets. He settled a gold circlet on his head, something thin and made of a subtly twisted gold wire. It glinted in the light, just a little, peeking out here and there from around the mop of black curls that he had long used to great effect when it came to seduction.

He looked good. He looked like himself. He looked alive.

And the time to go meet Holland (and please, by the magic, please let him keep his promise to have Kell with him) had come.

His mother and father could not know he was doing this. They’d be furious at him for sneaking a puppet of Astrid’s into his own room, no matter that it was his brother, no matter that they should have seen Kell as their son, no matter that Rhy was a grown man and not a child to be shielded from the world.

He’d kept his end of the bargain. He hadn’t told anyone but Delilah Bard, and he’d sent her away, made her swear she would give him every knife she owned if he so much as saw a single one of her hairs today. 

She’d been furious, too, but she’d gone. 

“Not because you’re a prince,” She’d said, her insistent daily refrain, on her way out. “Just because you’re Kell’s brother. Do you understand?”

“I do, Miss Bard,” Rhy had said. It had been early morning and they’d had a strategy session before she left, promising to return once she knew Kell was gone the next day. “I am deeply grateful for your help to me… and not as a prince, but as Kell’s brother. Do you understand?”

“I do.” Lila’s voice had softened, for only a moment. “Will you tell him I asked after him?”

“Is… is that all you want me to tell him?”

She considered, her narrowed eyes calculating as always. Then she slowly shook her head. “I don’t even know what I would say,” She muttered, and was gone.

Rhy watched her go.

He moved the circlet just slightly, letting a little more of it gleam in the light, wishing for perhaps the ten millionth time in his life that he had some sense of magic at all. That he could have stormed White London himself with a black Antari eye and saved his brother from this.

He could not do that.

He could endure, though, and give Kell his support and his presence at his side, no matter how he had to get there.

He felt a prick of pain traveling down the back of his hand, slowly carving a circle, then a straight line through it. He looked down at his unmarked skin, and smiled, bitterly. That would be Holland’s sign, he thought.

They were waiting.

Rhy went through the palace, knowing all the spots where he wouldn’t be seen by the very guards whose lives were dedicated to following him everywhere he went, and found the secret tunnels. Even Maxim had never really used them himself, or so he said - they connected in a winding way to other places. 

The tunnel was here, largely forgotten. He and Kell had found it, used it to sneak into the city once or twice, and he had told Holland where it was so he could bring Kell here.

Rhy looked every inch the prince, and he had to hope that his armor, such as it was, would protect him today. Holland had promised nothing but an exchange, but Rhy had been nearly murdered thanks to Holland’s monarchs, and if this was their idea…

Why are you so eager to walk into the slaughter? He asked himself, taking careful steps to avoid the occasional dank puddle in the darkness. He carried a candelabra in one hand to light his way, cursing himself once more for his lack of magic, wishing this was easier.

His mother and father might abandon Kell to this, but Rhy never would. There was one person in this royal fucking family who loved Kell, and he would do anything to prove it. 

You don’t know that they don’t love him, He told himself, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice and failing miserably. Perhaps they were just caught off guard, distracted.  

Rhy's head was high and his steps measured as he walked down a secret tunnel, with the city vibrant and active above his head, to meet a man who might very well put a knife between his ribs. Granted, Rhy was less worried about that outcome than he might have been before, since he was pretty sure that thanks to Kell, it wouldn’t kill him.

Thanks to Kell, Rhy was fairly certain he could not die, maybe not at all, maybe only at Kell’s hand. 

Tieren Serense had not known - there were no records of this in any of his books, he’d said. Only that he worried Holland would use Kell to find out the limits of what his brother had done.

He had made it just to the halfway point, where they had agreed to meet, when he heard Holland’s voice in the dark. “Stop where you are.” His accent had always sounded melodic to Rhy before, sort of attractive in a sing-songing way.  The sound of that accent in his head, that language in Kell’s ear as his brother's arm had been wrenched the wrong way and the spike of pain had crashed Rhy into him, had torn away any positive feelings he’d had about it before.

He hated Holland’s voice, now. 

Rhy came to a stop, setting the candelabra down on the ground and putting his empty hands in the air to show that he would not attack.

“Turn around,” Holland said, still invisible. Rhy could feel the hair on his neck and his arms standing, the sense of Kell overwhelming him. His brother was close. He was here. Holland had really and truly brought him, after all.

Rhy turned in a slow circle as he was ordered. “Can I put my hands down, now?” He asked, trying to sound coolly bored, fighting the fury that threatened to pound his heart right out of his chest. “You’ll see I am harmless, Holland.”

“You have never been any such thing, Prince Rhy,” Holland said, and stepped out of the dark, into the small bit of warmth and light provided by Rhy's candles. 

The White London Antari looked as though he’d gone three rounds in the sparring ring with a very angry bear. There was blood on his hands, dried and flaking off of him and utterly ignored. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and Rhy could see more dried blood smeared so thickly across him that it had completely hidden any hint of the skin underneath. There were dark circles under his eyes and that black hair seemed strange, coarser than it had been, where it swept across his forehead and down over his black eye. The green eye was bloodshot and pink around the edges.

“What is that on you? Where is Kell?” His voice was strong and sure and certain, and Rhy congratulated himself on sounding like the grown man he was, rather than a frightened boy. “Holland, where is my brother?”

“Silly child. It's our blood, of course. He is here. Does anyone know where you are right now?” Now that he listened, he could indeed hear Kell’s breathing, harsh, somewhere in the dark behind them. He knew Kell better than anyone, and he was no doubt leaning against the wall, curled over himself, arms crossed. Rhy could see it, even as the darkness hid the actual man from view. 

“No. I followed your orders. No one knows where I am right now, and no one will see Kell while he is here but me. I will return him to you at dawn tomorrow, in this same spot. Yes?”

“I will call to him when I am ready,” Holland said softly, turning slightly so his face was in profile to Rhy, reaching into the dark behind him, hand out. “He will know. Kell. Now."

Kell stepped out into the light as well, his head angled down like a shy suitor at a party, and Rhy felt his world shift beneath him. It had been one thing to feel his heartbeat - it was another to have the certainty of seeing Kell alive.

“He won’t speak until I tell him to,” Holland said quietly. He did not smile, or gloat, merely stated the facts. It was worse than gloating could ever have been. “He can’t move another step without my permission. This is the message from my queen: Kell belongs to Makt, now, and is Maresh no longer. He obeys our orders and ours alone. His magic is ours. His... body is ours. It is a sign of our respect for your empire that we let you borrow him. If you break our terms, he will never return again, and we will ensure his remaining life is a very long agony. My queen bids you good health and apologizes for the… misunderstanding."

“Quite the misunderstanding, considering she possessed me and made me kill myself,” Rhy said flatly.

“And yet you stand before me, alive enough to argue with a monarch who is not even here,” Holland replied with a shrug. “Do you understand my queen’s message?”

“I understand,” Rhy said in a dark voice, and he had never wanted to murder a single living soul more than he wanted to murder Holland Vosijk.

Kell looked terrible. His hair seemed a little faded, as if just living in White London for less than a fortnight had begun to drain on him, and there was a subdued air about him that Rhy had never seen before. He was as blood-spattered as Holland and looked even more exhausted. 

There was even blood smeared across his face, flaked off for the most part, leaving only the slightest smears behind, clearly from fingers on his face. He was wearing his coat, at least, but underneath that Rhy could see a strange blue sweater that wasn’t his, brown pants in a style Kell would never have touched, heavy boots like Holland’s. And around his neck...

Rhy’s vision went white, and he had to force his hand not to go to the knife on his hip. “What is that?” He asked, in a voice that dripped like poison in the space between them.

Kell's face turned as red as his hair and he looked away. His hands moved up to raise the collar on his coat to hide it, but Holland, standing next to him, said with calm confidence, " Nej , Kell. Let it show."

Kell's hands dropped back down to his sides and he turned his eyes back to the ground. Rhy felt the sudden ache in his own palms as Kell's hands clenched into fists so hard his fingernails dug deeply into skin.

The empty look on Holland's face never changed. Rhy could not shake the feeling that even this moment, lording his helplessness over him, was not something Holland was particularly enjoying, but just another thing that had been ordered by that white queen, the one that had put him on like an old coat and used him as a puppet.

The black-haired Antari reached up one hand, sliding a finger into a silver ring that hung off the front of the black band around Kell’s neck, using it to pull Kell, stumbling over his own feet, a couple of steps forward. “Why ask, prince? You know exactly what it is.” He held up one pale, scarred forearm, and smiled thinly as Rhy took in the thin black leather cord wrapped again and again around his wrist and understood what that was immediately, too.

“I will dedicate my life to your utter extermination for what you've done to him,” Rhy hissed. He took a step forward. "Take that message to your bitch queen. Tell her turning my brother into… this… is signing her death warrant, and I intend to make it messy.”

Holland tsked, softly. "Threats, against her Majesty? Perhaps I should simply cancel the visit entirely. I’m sure my bitch queen would be happy to see her pretty new pet Antari return to her so soon."

Rhy, for a moment, wondered if he could throw his knife faster than Holland could react. Then he took in a deep calming breath and stepped back, putting the space back between them, raising his hands again. “Fine. You win. Just let him come over to me.”

“Kneel, first.”

Kell’s head whipped up to glare at Holland, and Rhy watched some wordless communication pass between them, all rage on Kell’s side and a sort of patronizing affection on Holland’s, a look that made Rhy feel sick just to see. Just as Rhy had begun to bend his knees, prepared to drop to the dirty, muddy ground beneath his feet if that was what Holland required, Holland sighed, waving one hand dismissively. “Never mind. Don't give me that look, Kell. He can stand." 

Rhy locked his knees again, letting out a breath of relief. He would kneel to anyone, for Kell - kneeling meant nothing, in the end, he was still the prince and Holland was still a common murderer in league with base evil - but it sort of undid the whole point of clothes-as-armor if he got his knees all damp and dirty.

Tak, Herre Holland, ” Kell said, sounding hoarse. “Jeg vil vende tilbage til dig.

Holland and Kell kept staring at each other, and Rhy felt suddenly as though he shouldn’t be there, that he was the third party in some dark, unsettling moment that needed only the two of them. Holland slid a hand behind Kell's neck, pulled him close, and kissed him. Even as Kell stiffened and his face burned red with embarrassment, the pleasure of it spread warmly across Rhy as well. He put his fingertips to his own mouth, swallowing back the mix of disgust and electricity that lit up his nerve-endings as though the kiss were being done to him.

Why couldn’t it have just been pain that we shared? Why did it have to be this, too?

Then Holland smiled, a strange and gentle expression, head slightly tilted, his eyes going to Rhy and then back. That son of a bitch did that on purpose just to see me feel it. Jeg ved, kæreste, ” Holland said softly to Kell. “You saw what we can do today.” Then he stepped back and away, half-covered in darkness, out of the thin circle of light provided by Rhy’s candles. “Go to your brother, Kell," he said, and his voice was already softer as he walked back the way he had come. "Speak freely. I’ll see you when the sun has risen higher than the horizon.” 

Kell stood there, tense and shaking so much Rhy could see it in the flickering candlelight, waiting for the sound of Holland’s footsteps to fade completely. Then he turned and stepped forward into Rhy’s open arms and began to cry.

Rhy wasn’t even sure what to do. Kell had not cried in so long Rhy hadn’t even remembered what it sounded like, and he found himself patting him awkwardly on the back as though they were strangers at a party. At first it was the slightest sniffling, then a sort of choked-off sound, and finally it turned into a quiet sobbing that Rhy could barely stand. He closed his arms fully around him, and stared back down the darkness the way Holland had gone.

“Ssssshhh, it’s all right, I’m here, Kell, I’m here. Please stop, you know I’m no good at this, I don’t… I don’t know how to deal with this sort of thing very well, I...” Kell’s arms only tightened around him as he sobbed against his shoulder, smearing dried blood and tears across the thick, richly luxurious cloth. 

Rhy tried not to ask himself how he would explain this to the maids. Maybe he'd just throw the whole outfit in the fireplace.

Kell's grip on Rhy was so tight it hurt, but at least it hurt the both of them, and Rhy didn’t care, regardless. He would have done anything to give Kell a safe place to cry. He might be the only person in four worlds who seemed to love his brother, but he could make that love be enough, or die trying.

Well, die again trying . Or nearly die, but even more so this time.

“Rhy, I did something terrible,” Kell said, muffled, into his shoulder, his fingers bunched into Rhy’s shirt, and Rhy slid one hand up and behind his head, over his hair, pulling him even closer. They stood in the flickering dimness in the tunnel, and he hoped Holland could still hear every fucking sound torn from his brother’s throat. 

“Yeah, I know, I feel everything you do,” Rhy said softly. “I’m so sorry, Kell. I can help with that pain, by the way. I’ve got some stuff in the bathroom for it, the first time is sometimes-”

“Please don’t ever say anything about that ever again.” Kell’s voice was muffled and Rhy stifled a laugh.

“Fine. Let’s go back to my room and at least get you into a hot bath, Kell, you smell like old blood."

Kell snort-laughed without looking up, and Rhy felt himself smile, just slightly. “That's because I'm covered in it. He just brought me right here. What I did was so much worse than that, though, I just-”

“I don’t need to know, not right now. Whatever you’ve done doesn’t matter.”

“Really?”

“Really. Not to me, anyway. We'll get you cleaned up and into some other clothes, and then we can talk about it, all right? We have all the afternoon and evening. Mother and Father think I'm sick because of the whole not-exactly-alive thing, I’ve sent off all the guards claiming I want to be alone, and I’ve done everything that rat bastard asked me, so no one knows you’re here.” Well, except Lila. But she was probably off knifing someone out of sheer boredom elsewhere, anyway - spending the money she thought he hadn’t noticed her stealing on her way out. “We’ll figure it out, Kell. We’ve always figured everything out.”

He had never been the brother to comfort, not really; it had always been Kell holding him after scraped knees, or bonked heads, or another failure at magic. It had been Kell he’d run to after Alucard had gone - had been in bed with him one night, he thought head over heels in love with him, and then just… disappeared without a word and left Rhy nursing a broken heart. He’d spent those first few weeks spending as much time weeping in Kell’s room as in his own.

The last time he'd been the one to hold Kell like this, they were very small. It had been back when Kell still snuck in to his room each night scared he would wake up somewhere else, far away, with no one who cared.

“A bath actually sounds good,” Kell said softly, rubbing at the side of his face, clearing away his own tears, dropping back into the careful self-control that Rhy loved and hated in equal measures, the hallmark of his brother. Always a frown on his face, always hunched over to make himself seem shorter, lost in thought.

If he had died for real, he wouldn't have seen that scowl again. That sent a cold splash of water down Rhy’s spine. He would have lost that eternal perpetual frown on his brother’s face entirely. And if he fucked up even a single move of this complicated dance Holland was leading him on, he might still never see it again. 

He pulled Kell tighter just one more time, hugged him until he was crushing both their ribcages at the pressure, and finally let him go. 

“Thank you for saving me,” Rhy said softly. He did not add, but I’m not sure you should have, and I die again every night, and I sort of hate being alive.

Kell looked at him, tears that he hadn’t yet shed still standing in his eyes, clear in the blue and invisible in the black except that it made the Antari eye shine like glass. “Thank you for not hating me." There was more Kell did not say, too, and Rhy knew him well enough to know what it was anyway. Thank you for not hating me, but I’ve decided to hate myself.

“Some of it’s not so bad, really," Rhy said, trying on a wry smile. "Gives me a great excuse to drink myself stupid." When Kell’s face softened, only slightly, into a less-serious-frown and not his usual very-serious-frown, Rhy’s smile widened. “Ha. Made you do that thing you do when you don’t want to smile. Let’s go home, Kell.” He turned away, and Kell fell in step beside him.

His heart broke only a little when he heard Kell whisper, "I don't think this is home anymore."

Chapter Text

When the sun was setting and Makt was lit with a dim and reddish glow, one of the Antari returned alone. Holland Vosijk’s expression had not changed, and neither had the set of his shoulders or the dried blood flaking off his coat. 

His skin was pale and there were dark shadows under his eyes that showed the toll using the black stone had taken on him. He could have slept for days, but it had taken him nearly all the daylight left to finish Astrid's scouting mission in Arnes, and he still had to report to the twin monarchs before he could safely sleep.

Report to them, and do one more thing besides. 

No one bothered him - he knew they would not dare. There were places even Holland’s safety was not guaranteed in this hostile, grasping, starving city, but here by the river, out in the open, with all the elements he might need to defend himself… here, they would leave him be.

He was in no hurry. He should be, and he knew it - he knew that taking his time like this was a risk. They might not believe him when he said his scouting mission had taken longer than he expected. They might punish him for his insolence, for not running home like a child called indoors at sundown to wash up for supper. But perhaps they would believe him, and he wanted these few minutes to himself.

He would have to share his victory with the two people he hated most in the world.

“It should have been my victory alone,” Holland said out loud, to himself or to the Sijlt, he wasn’t sure which. “Mine and Kell’s. Our accomplishment. We did this, the two of us. We are the proof of what our kind can do. Antari could remake all the worlds, if there were enough of us.”

And just two would be enough to remake his.

He did not want to tell them. He didn’t want them to pretend his ideas had been their own, that his hard work was theirs. He’d studied for years, hunted down old histories long forgotten, to see if what he dreamed of could be done. He didn’t want them to gloat over turning Kell into a weapon against his own indulged, rich and rotted world. He had done that. 

Granted, he never could have tested this theory at all if it hadn’t been for Astrid’s ridiculous possession plan in the first place. He had needed Kell to be weak, and distracted, and the time had never once been right, not until that final fight. If Kell had been at full strength, rather than laboring under the weight of carrying two heartbeats for the first time, Holland could not have caught him. 

He might hate them - and he did, he did hate them, Astrid most of all...  but if his world was saved, he would have to acknowledge that the Danes were the reason he had been able to save it. They might go down as heroes in history books if this worked, and while that grated on Holland, he would gladly accept the lie and even tell it himself. 

He would have to acknowledge, too, that their choice to give him Kell as a test had played out almost exactly as they’d hoped it would. Kell Maresh was a key he could turn in a lock to open many, many doors, the one thing in this hell that was his.

They might have made a mistake in forgetting to insist their own names be added into the rune on Kell’s back, but the gift itself… 

If it was a test, Holland thought he was passing it, if only just. If it was a trap, to get him too lost in Kell, to get him to trip up or give something away, he might fall for that, too, because he could not get Kell Maresh, spoiled prince and dour child, someone he had spent literal years doing his absolute best to avoid having any substantive conversation with, out of his mind. 

Kell as possession, a thing forced to obey. Holland had given in to the cruelty and the anger, the jealous rage he fought back every time he entered the world of Arnes, treated Kell as a representative of everything he did not have. It had been petty and small and cruel, but he’d felt a smug satisfaction in seeing arrogant, self-pitying little Kell afraid of him, truly afraid, and trapped. He’d enjoyed watching Kell learn not to flinch or pull away from him no matter what kind of touch he was subjected to, watching him learn to tailor his own touch to what Holland wanted. It had felt so good to do to someone else what had been done to him… at least at first. It had made him feel like he was in control, at least of this tiny little thing, for the first time in seven years. To know there was no pain Athos might inflict on him that he could not turn on Kell had felt… like a comfort.

It had not been noble. It had been a base cruelty, the kind of thing he might have abhorred if he'd been born anywhere but here. He had been enjoying the feeling of crushing someone’s spirit - his own was so shattered it only wanted to drag someone else down with him. Kell Maresh had seemed the perfect choice. It had felt so good. But… did it still?

He pictured Kell, not as object, but as the man in his bed, arms wrapped around his neck. He’d called him ‘sweetheart’ in his own language at first as a way to mock him but Holland wasn’t sure who he was mocking any longer, Kell or himself. He hadn’t felt this way, awkward and uncertain of his own desires, since he was barely out of boyhood. In bed he’d had to hurt him, the first time, Astrid had insisted on it… but the second, he had been more careful, and Kell had risen to every single touch like a man grasping at a floating board after a shipwreck. Holland had been startled when Kell had drawn nails down his back over his scars, then apologized for hurting him, of all things. 

"I cannot believe you," He had said, unable to stop himself from laughing, a soft and gentle laughter that hardly even sounded like his own voice any longer. "Are you apologizing to me when I'm doing this to you?" Kell had actually laughed, a little, too. He’d seen him as a man, then.

It would make it more difficult to hurt him.

Then there was Kell as broken boy, the way he’d drawn into himself, slouched over to seem smaller, pale lips pressed into a thin line, when they’d stepped off that dirt bridge. He had not spoken from the moment they stepped back into dry land until he’d brought him to meet his brother, and Holland had listened to the sound of his careful, even breathing as he walked. It was a sound he knew very well from the last seven years of his own life; the sound of a grown man fighting not to collapse under the weight of his own failures. 

Kell as brother, a traitor to country, king, and family, running to Rhy for some kind of absolution as soon as Holland had given him permission to step forward. 

Kell as a man who had shown almost no tears except for the very first day, and later when he was delirious under the lash, weeping in his brother’s arms. Kell’s pain and shame had been so loud that the sound of his voice was a blow on Holland’s back as he walked away. He heard it long after he should have been far enough that he didn’t. He heard it now, still.

It had seemed the righteous plan. Bleed the world that had stolen magic from everyone else by shutting them away from it. His own world had been the one to make the greatest sacrifice, had begged for help and been ignored… and when they had finished closing the doors against the rampant world, and those sacrifices had been made, it had been Kell’s world that stood alone and abandoned them. They simply used them as a buffer, letting them dry up and blow away to keep themselves safe.

Hollowing out one of their Antari - the only other Antari in existence, as far as anyone knew - until he was a puppet with a pulse had seemed… poetic justice, when they had stood by while Holland’s world became hollow, too.

Did it still feel righteous? Did he still think following the Danes’ orders was only giving an arrogant little weasel what he deserved? Or was he just a petty villain with no greater purpose?

Why had he been born damned to this, while Kell Maresh would one day be the power behind the throne held by a brother who adored him?

Holland’s own brother had tried to kill him for the power in his eye, and yet he knew Kell had traded his life for a prince who wasn’t even his flesh and blood. That same prince was so loyal to his own Antari that he had met an enemy’s private magician alone not once but twice, knowing Holland could have attacked him at any moment and he would have been just shy of utterly defenseless, just on the promise of getting to look Kell in the face again. 

Whatever had been done to Kell - whatever he might do to him from here on out - what was shared between the two brothers was not something that could ever be shattered.

That had been Astrid’s mistake, after all. She had thought to use Rhy against Kell, without understanding that when his brother’s life might be at stake, Kell did not preserve himself. He would never think of his own safety -  only ask for forgiveness after he stood bloody in a circle of corpses and knew Rhy was safe. 

Holland was jealous of that sort of certainty, and angry at him for having it when Holland had never had a single person he loved who didn’t drop dead or turn on him in the end. No brother would have given his life for him. 

No, Holland stood alone, and always had, and he had wanted Kell to suffer alone beside him. But…

He cut off his thoughts before he could let himself waver any further. None of this, this compassion and the other weaknesses he indulged himself in standing here by the river, could be allowed to change his course of action. He had to be stronger than they were, have the willpower to stare Kell in the face  and keep hurting him, always hurting him, until his world was safe.

The flowers wavered, slightly, in the warm breeze that had begun to blow off the river. It was only an occasional thing, but he could feel it, and closed his eyes, the slight scent of roses in the air. No one here would even know what it was, would they? Not until real roses grew. Not until they had touched, and smelled, the true thing.

Even Holland was thinking of it as Kell’s scent first, and having to remind himself it was flowers.

He crouched down, looking over the little crowd of wildflowers that had popped up on the riverbank. He chose one ringed with pale blue petals for Kell’s eye, another edged in purple for royalty, a third that was red for the blood that had run between them. He told himself it was only a cynical joke.

He left the rest to keep growing where they were, at least until the others in this city noticed and no doubt shredded them trying to find the hints of magic inside. It didn’t matter - more would grow. 

For the first time in his entire life, Holland felt certain there would be more flowers by morning. 

Kell, neither man nor object nor boy nor key, but Kell as weapon, pure Antari with a rune carved deep on his back, subjugated, controlled, and with commands whispered continually into his mind that he could never refuse or deny.

Holland would give him all the Antari blood spells, and in the secret hopes for the future he kept inside, he would wield Kell to build a connected world.

The Danes wanted a connected world. They intended to rule it. In the temptations and the futures the black stone suggested, when he held it, Holland had seen how perhaps it didn’t need to be the Danes who ruled it at all. 

Even the black stone's promises did not know what Holland truly intended. No one would have believed him if he had tried to tell them. If his luck held, no one would find out until it was too late.

Holland closed his eyes, briefly, took in a deep breath, and looked down at the pinkish tinge of the water. “I have the will,” He said out loud, to the river or to himself. “I have the will to do this and remain myself. Magic does not control me. I control magic. I control an Antari. He belongs to me. I do not belong to him.

The water lapped at the shore, perhaps a little darker than it had been a moment ago. Or perhaps it was just his eyes playing tricks on him.

Holland knew what he was doing was wrong - he wasn’t so devoid of morality as to think otherwise. But saving an entire world was worth the destruction of one man’s life, or his soul… it was worth two lives, or a hundred, or more.

It has to be worth it. It cannot matter that it will eat him alive, and that I will give the order for him to burn himself to ash for me and he will never be able to stop himself from obeying. When he has burned himself up and has nothing and no one left, I will keep the ruins of him by my side and Kell will never leave. Where would he go? He will be a traitor to his world and a savior to mine and he'll hate himself... but I will be the home he can go to.

It cannot matter, no matter what it does to him. 

I will be his home.

It has to be worth it.

I can be his home.

My world cannot be made to die because I was too weak to hurt him.

I will force him to call me home.

Holland turned and began walking back to the white palace to give the king and queen the best news of their lives. He had no doubt they would be pleased; this was everything the three of them had been working for since Astrid had first met Kell and decided she wanted the boy for her own, and Holland had realized that he might be able to find out if his theories about how to save the world were true.

Athos and Astrid would be happy, and maybe… maybe he would feel safe going to sleep tonight.

Holland twirled the flowers  in his hands and allowed himself a pleased smile. He could see, a dozen yards away, a boy crouching by the edge of the river, hands buried up to the wrists in the water, apparently unafraid of its coldness or changing colors. The boy was speaking, but his voice didn’t carry well enough to hear what he said. The skinny thing couldn't have been more than twelve, fourteen at most, and was dressed in ill-fitting rags with a patch over one eye. 

Holland watched him, and after a second the boy looked up, as though he’d felt the weight of the older man’s gaze. When their eyes met, Holland felt something… odd. A sort of clicking, a feeling that seemed like the sound two stones knocking into each other when kicked. 

The boy at first raised one hand and opened his mouth as if to call a greeting, then seemed to realize who he was looking at and leapt to his feet, turning and running hell for leather back into the dubious safety of the city streets.

Safer than being near him, he supposed.

What was a child doing with his hands in the water? And why was he missing an eye?

Probably one of the plague survivors. It passed through, periodically, hitting children most often, striking hardest those with no money for medicine and no magic to fight it, as though the magic had not only rejected this world but also punished it, endlessly, eternally punished it for having the temerity to want to be master and not slave. 

It left damaged children who were never truly healthy again, sometimes weakened the mind. That would explain, he thought, the boy talking to the water. He might simply have gotten lost in the sickness and never come all the way back.

He’d be a useless child, but only because he lived in a world that was bleached bone and ambition, with no room for poetry or softness or mercy. If he had no magic, the child would not survive all that long.

He walked away, headed back towards the white palace, thinking about the boy’s thin face, his own childhood and the nights he had gone to bed hungry, over and over again, drinking cup after cup of water to try and fill the emptiness that otherwise gnawed at him. 

When this was done, Holland would personally see to it that no child in Makt would suffer the plague again. No child need go to bed hungry, if there was enough magic to feed them. When this was over, his people would be healthy and strong again. There would be poetry again, and art, and all those things that had been lost in the constant, eternal, gnawing hunger for a magic that had abandoned them. 

He was going to resurrect a dead world, no matter what sort of monsters he must serve. No matter that he must be a monster himself. 

No matter that he must force Kell into the mold of monster, too.

This dying world had taken a deep breath today, and Holland Vosijk would do whatever it took to wake it up.

Chapter Text

The guards, those same mindless eyeless suits of armor that he had seen every day since the Danes had taken power, opened the grand, arched doors to let him in. The sun was at his back, and the whole front of the white palace was bathed in its final glow. The seat of power in Makt looked like it was bleeding or on fire, and Holland wasn’t particularly appreciative of the sun’s tortured metaphor for his own life.

But he had real flowers in his hand, flowers that had grown along the banks of a river that could feed the ground once again. They felt so delicate, as though he could crush them without ever meaning to, and so he kept his grip loose and reverent. But there was still a scent to them, like Kell and not like him at all - the smell of his world. 

He headed past the entryway, the guards opening the doors before him as he went, and Holland did not even spare them a glance. The throne room doors were thrown open before him, and, clad all in black, Holland walked into the lifeless white room to greet his king and queen.

As though they’d known how he would look and dressed with a special eye for the theatrics of the occasion, Astrid and Athos were both clad in white themselves today. They might have been statutes if it weren’t for the faintest little flush of color in their skin, the brilliance of their eyes and the black veins, and the matching smiles they wore.

The pale Antari wearing all black knelt before the black-veined monarchs in their royal white, and he stayed on his knees until Astrid gestured with a hand coated in jeweled rings for him to rise, keeping the flowers held just behind his back. “Your Majesties.”

“My darling Antari ,” Astrid greeted him cheerfully, sitting at the long table with dinner laid out in front of her. “We’re so happy to see you’ve returned. Come and eat with us. We’ve just sat down.”

Where she was sitting up straight, Athos lounged back in his own chair with one leg flung over the arm of it, staring at Holland with a cruel smile and intensely focused gaze, and Holland fought the old instinctive urge to shift with discomfort. Athos loved discomfort; it was like dropping chum in the water to lure in a shark.

“Missed you, Hol,” Athos murmured, his voice warm and lilting with seduction. “You were gone oh so long this time. I thought of you constantly. You know this palace hardly feels like home without our Holland there. Feels like it’s been ages since we spent some time together.”

“Shouldn't have gone to sleep,” Athos murmured with that same sweet seductive voice, watching Holland hang bonelessly in the same chains Kell would be locked in years later, his back a bloody mess yet again, throat painfully raw. "You're too irresistible to ignore when you sleep. I just couldn’t help myself.”

Athos brought the whip down again and Holland’s voice was too gone to truly scream - all he could do was let out a cracked and hoarse wail. He always started out trying to hold it back - but in the end, he always lost to the pain. “You know how to make it stop, by now, don’t you? I can stop hurting you any time you wish. It’s all up to you, Hol. All you have to do is beg me to-"

Holland shook himself. “My apologies that I was gone so long,” He said as carefully as he could, keeping his voice smooth and even, ignoring the way his heart raced at the memory. “I have scouted new locations, as you asked, for potential points of entry. I have located five places with potential that would be difficult for the Maresh royals to defend quickly enough, and one that would strike a blow to the city’s morale more than anything else.”

 “Did you escort our darling flower boy successfully?” Astrid picked up her goblet, holding it out to him. Without thinking, Holland shoved the flowers into his coat pocket, hoping they would not be too crushed, and pulled out the flick knife. He stepped forward and emptied a vein for her to drink. He was already weak and tired, but it wasn’t like she would have cared if he had tried to protest. 

“I did,” Holland said in a clipped voice. “But that’s not important.”

Athos laughed, holding his goblet out as well. Then he stopped, and looked at Astrid. "Oh, I suppose it's all yours, tonight, since I lost the bet." 

"Go ahead, Athos, love," Astrid said, her voice oddly gentle. "Your strength is mine, after all, and you need your strength."

"Thank you, dear heart," Athos said, with a sweet smile reserved only for her. “Your strength is mine, too.”

Holland tried to ignore the bitterness. He must have his strength and I must run empty?

When Holland cut his other arm, Athos reached out with his free hand, holding Holland’s forearm just below his elbow, letting his thumb trail the muscles as Holland clenched a fist and cut deeper to help the blood flow faster. “What is important, then? You’ve interrupted our dinner, Hol.”

“Bad manners , Holland,” Astrid said with her mouth full of blood. “You know how I hate bad manners.”

Holland watched Athos’s goblet fill with his own blood, ignoring the feel of the hand on his arm, knowing better than to try and pull away. If he flinched, or jerked his arm back, or even frowned, Athos would be interested in what happened if he pushed a little further. He waited, instead, with an empty face and blank eyes, for Athos to become bored and end the touch on his own.

After another long moment, Athos snorted at him and sat back, sipping from his goblet, closing his eyes at the rich red heat already fading to cool. “So? What was so important that you could not let us finish our dinner?" A bit of red slopped out of his cup, ran down the side, dripped onto the pure white on his pant leg. Athos did not even look down to notice.

Holland had seen those white clothes spattered with more blood than that, of course, and often it was even still his own. He did not miss a beat or even bat an eyelash. “I brought you something.” He pulled the flowers, only slightly worse for the wear, out of his pocket and laid them on the table in the center between the twins.

“What is this?” Astrid looked down at them and back up at him, her eyes narrowing, trying to find out his game. “What are you showing us?”

“Flowers,” Holland said simply.

“Yes, we gathered that.” Athos rolled his eyes. “ Why are you showing them to us? We know Arnes has flowers, Holland. If this is all you have for us, we really must eat our dinner so we can punish you for wasting our time-”

“Not from Arnes,” Holland said, and even saying it to them , he had real pride in his voice. He had done this, he and Kell. They had done it together. “They’re from here. I just picked them at the river.”

The twins looked with confusion down at the three flowers - red, blue, and purple - laid out before them. "Flowers like this?" Astrid asked, her voice hushed like the voices of the churchgoers in King George's London. "From here?"

“Are you telling us that it worked ? ” Athos’’s voice was… awed. All the careless predatory stare was gone, and he had never looked so young as he did with one hand hesitantly reaching out to touch a stem, as though it might crumble away to dust when he did. "Your little theory about the river… worked ?”

“It worked,” Holland confirmed, looking between them in turn. Even though it was them, and he hated them, he could not stop himself from answering their growing smiles. “It worked, your Majesties. It’s true. I just needed another Antari, like I thought.”

Another Antari , and the black stone currently hidden in his secret apartment in the city, the stone he had told them he hadn’t found, and they had mercifully believed and had not pressed him to see if he was honest. He could lie to them, now and then, when they were too weak or distracted for their usual instincts to sniff him out.

“Oh, by the blood of the earth, how wonderful, ” Astrid breathed, tears standing in her eyes, slowly putting her hands up over her mouth. She reached out, let her fingertips rest atop one petal, petting along its soft edges. “Holland, how perfect . This is perfect.” Her voice shook with tears. You could almost forget she was a monster. “This was the doors over the river we talked about?"

"Yes, Astrid. They're out in the center of the water, and a bit of Arnes's water is flowing into ours now."

"A good start," Athos said, grudging respect for Holland in his voice for perhaps the first time. "Could you open one on land?”

“Of course,” Holland said smoothly. He watched Athos pick up the purple flower, close his eyes, take in its scent. Don't, he thought irrationally. It's too close to his smell. " It’d be easier, even, since we could write on something solid, though we won’t get the magic coming to us with the kind of strength we do over the water. I have scouted out five more good spots throughout their city and just outside it. I could have ten more doors open in six months, if you’ll give us time to rest between." If no one from Kell’s world tries to stop us.

If they were writing on walls or trees, they wouldn’t need the black stone, he thought. It would be easier if he didn’t have to risk the promises the black stone made every time he touched it. They were too sharply sweet, those promises. Too perfectly tailored to his dreams. They told him too much about the thoughts he never let himself acknowledge.

“You couldn’t do it by yourself, before,” Athos said, head tilting, watching Holland closely. 

“I needed another Antari’s power. Kell is strong.”

"We are stronger," Astrid said pointedly. She dug one of her fingernails slowly into the red flower's petals until she tore it. 

"Stronger and smarter," Athos agreed. He picked up the blue flower, leaned over, and tucked the stem of it behind Astrid's ear. When she turned to him and laughed, swatting at his hand playfully, some of the harsh aggression that marked Athos's every waking moment softened. "Looks good," he said. "I always told you you looked best in blue."

"You did, didn't you?" She smiled at him, and Holland wondered if fate was punishing him by forcing him to watch this sweet nonsense between two people who had bled him nearly dry. Sibling devotion was the hallmark of his day, it seemed, and it was sickening to watch. First Prince Rhy and Kell, now this. "You’re always so sweet to me. Even when we were children. I have always liked being your big sister, Athos."

"Hardly the eldest," Athos snorted. “We’re twins.”

"Older by three and a half minutes," Astrid said defensively. "It counts."

Holland closed his eyes. Exhaustion beat behind his temples alongside his pulse and he still had more to do before he could sleep. Even then, he'd be up at dawn to collect Kell again. "Your majesties, if I am no longer required-"

"Ah, right." Athos grinned at him. "You're still here. Forgot about you, Hol, you're always so quiet."

"Always has been," Astrid said. She watched him, canny and shrewd as a hawk watching for the movement of mice in a field. “I want to open more doors right away. Tomorrow. Flower boy comes back tomorrow, right? Get him right back out there-”

“Patience, for now. It was difficult and tiring to open the doors, and we don't know how effective they will be yet. Let’s see if more grows here than flowers. We'll open the doors one at a time, keep Kell strung along with visits to his brother, and it will keep the Maresh prince too worried about losing access to him to do anything no matter what he knows. Keep watching the palace just in case he should crack under the pressure. I need six months or so - you’ve waited years, another few months shouldn’t be hard. If anything changes, we can always use Kell as a weapon against his own family. Just be patient , Astrid."

Arrogance, Holland,” Athos said thoughtfully, still looking over the flowers. “Are you king now? Do you decide what we do and when?"

Holland's whole body went cold. "Of course not, your Majesty."

"So why do you presume such a tone with my sister? Is it your pride talking? Do you think we’re so pleased with what you’ve done that we’ll let it slide? Did I not carve your arrogance deep enough into your skin to bleed it out?"

Holland kept his expression carefully neutral. "I-..." His voice cracked, and he cursed his own weakness as Athos smiled, pleased. "I'm sorry. My apologies to you both. I did not mean to forget my place, I have allowed myself to be too distracted by my accomplishments today - accomplishments that of course belong to you both, not me." Coward, coward, you coward. Why don't you keep pushing until they kill you? Why do you always give in? "But… I will admit I was hoping you would be happy enough to reward me.”

“You’ve already got your little pet,” Athos said in a throaty voice, one that sent an awful lurch through Holland’s stomach. Don't make him interested in you - be a blank wall. “What more could we give you?”

“I want your servant boy, your Majesty," Holland said to Athos, meeting his eyes evenly. "If you would be so generous. Just for tonight, now, but maybe again in the future." There was no change in his expression. 

“You what? ” Astrid and Athos spoke in unison, staring at him with identical expressions of surprise.

Silver crashed to the floor in a shock of clanging and bashing from the corner, and all three of them turned as one to look at Beloc, who had stopped, wide-eyed, a pile of dropped cutlery and plates at his feet. He was still wearing the blue sweater Kell had given him.

“This is unexpected,” Astrid murmured, eyes dancing from Holland to Beloc, but a smile was beginning to curve her pale lips. She pushed some hair back from her face and watched him, the tip of her stained red tongue flicking out like a viper scenting the air. “Oh, my sweet Hol. Today is truly wonderful for us all, isn’t it? What leads you to ask for such a gift?”

“Kell is gone, and I have need of company to celebrate,” Holland said tightly, looking away from them both, as though the admission pained him. He made himself think of Kell, last night, the weight and warmth of his arms around his neck, and he even managed the slightest smile, hoping they would think it was for something else. 

“No,” Beloc said, voice echoing off the stone walls. “No! I don’t want to go with him!"

“Quiet,” Athos said with a smirk, never looking away from Holland. He took in a deep breath, eyes half-lidded, and Holland knew that expression far too well. He saw it in every nightmare. “Would you rather go with me? Have I been too kind to you?”

Beloc’s mouth snapped shut, and he shook his head wildly. 

“That’s what I thought. Clean up the mess you made. No one gives a damn what you think. You're not even human any longer. No one cares for you and no one ever will. Just like Holland, here." 

No one but Kell, Holland thought. No one but Kell seems to give a damn about these lost causes.

Beloc went automatically to follow orders, and Holland watched his teeth grind together in anger. He knew that look. He’d made it himself a hundred times or more, until everything had run together, until there was too much pain, too many kinds of it, for him to keep reacting anew to each one. Eventually, he’d learned how to stop showing anything at all. 

“Why him?” Athos frowned over at Beloc, eyes narrowed. “He’s hardly much to look at.”

“I don’t care how he looks,” Holland said. He’d spent the whole day rehearsing his lines for these questions, and he was gratified that his voice came out perfectly smooth, without even a waver. “I care that he cannot say no if you tell him he can’t, no matter what I ask him to do.”

Astrid watched Beloc, who was cleaning up the fallen silver with jittery, frightened motions, piling it up on the side table he’d clearly been heading for in the first place, his hands shaking so badly the plates rattled together as he tried to lay them out. “So now you’ve had a taste and you can’t hold back, is that it?”

Holland only inclined his head, very slightly. 

Athos laughed, looking to his sister. “I told you he’d understand us better if we gave him one of his own.”

I am not like you. I can do this without being like you. I must hurt him but I will not be like you.

“You did say so, that’s true,” Astrid replied. “Who’d have guessed our poor, dear, repressed little Holland would wake up to his own desires if we just gave him a Kell Maresh to play with?”

I would. I guessed that.”

“Oh, do shut up, Athos. I grow tired of you being right about things. Let him have the boy." She waved her hand dismissively. "Holland did us a service today. Besides, you’ve already started tiring of him. Find yourself a new creature, I do hate to see my beloved brother bored. Get a woman this time.” She sipped Holland’s blood from her goblet, staring up towards the ceiling with a dreamy smile on her face. “I always like it when you bring home women.”

“The women scream louder,” Athos said pointedly.

“I know,” Astrid breathed. “They bleed better, too.”

“Fair point.” Athos looked lazily over at Beloc, snapping his fingers as though the boy were a puppy and not a full-grown man by Makt’s standards. “Beloc. Come to me.” Beloc moved over to him with leaden steps, each one forced from him, teeth gritted. There was a terrible anger in his wide eyes, an anger he could do nothing with, helpless to so much as lift a hand to defend himself. “You will attend to Master Holland’s needs this evening.” He tapped on Beloc’s lower lip with one finger, then slid his hand to the side around his cheek, letting his thumb rub over the lip as well. Holland made himself watch, feeling the ghost of sensation over his own mouth, the memory of the way his fear fed Athos more than any true meal ever could.

“Holland will let you know what he wants you to do. I don’t expect you to refuse a single command from him, no matter how… undignified… they may be. If he wants you from here on out, you go with him, day or night, until I say otherwise. Your body is mine, and his, and Astrid’s if she wants you.” He turned, speaking to Beloc while watching Holland. “If you have my mark on you, your body is never your own, but mine. Is that clear?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Beloc said softly. Athos smiled, without looking away from Holland, and held out his hand. Beloc took it, pressing his forehead to it in a low bow, before looking up at Holland with a face full of frightened rage. 

"My thanks to you both,” Holland said, going down on his knee again until Astrid bade him rise. “I will return him to you by dawn.”

“Don’t bother,” Athos drawled, and kept his hand out. Holland took it, pushing back instinctive distaste, pressing his lips briefly to the back of Athos's black-veined hand. “Astrid’s right. I’m tired of him. You can kill him if you want.”

Beloc let out a gasp of air.

“I’m not going to kill him.”

“Then send him to his room in the morning and put him on full-time kitchen duty. Have him muck the stables, I don’t care. Just get him out of my sight.” He tilted his head, some glint of interest lighting up again. “Before I change my mind.”

No , Athos. You promised a woman,” Astrid pouted. “A woman this time. You can’t start up with him again already.”

“I didn’t actually promise anything ,” Athos said sweetly back.

"But I like the women…"

“May I go?” Holland asked, struggling to keep the annoyance out of his voice. The worst part of being enslaved to them sometimes was just having to listen to them babble at each other. 

“Oh, you want to go already? Good work today, Holland. We’ll convene a war council once you have five doorways open. It’s time to discuss invasion.”

“Or infection,” Astrid suggested. “I have a lot of ideas about how we might manage to effect a surrender from the Maresh royals. Keep them alive, at least for a while, for sport. The prince is precious , after all, and you know I prefer subjugation to a massacre, little brother.”

“I’m sure you do,” Athos said tiredly. “But a massacre is always the simpler and more efficient choice. Kill enough people and those left can be subjugated."

"Subjugate early and have more to rule," Astrid countered. "And a pretty pretty prince. We could keep him. You liked the painting of him Holland brought back, remember? Plus, I took a few good looks in the mirror when I was wearing him, I promise, Athos my love, he is just the type you like.”

"Mmmmn, I did like that painting. He looked like the sort who tries not to scream."

"Bet you could make him," Astrid said in a challenging time, eyebrow raising.

Athos rolled his eyes and waved one hand. "Of course I could. I can make anyone scream. It’s a point of personal pride. I still say we should kill the prince.”

“I want to keep him.

Athos frowned at Astrid, thoughtfully, and then sighed. “Must you always have your way, Astrid?”

“Three and half minutes older,” Astrid reminded him, three fingers in the air. “And I say we keep him.

Holland did not dare speak up again to interrupt them, but cleared his throat.

Athos glanced his direction. “Begone, Holland. This does not concern you.”

You can't get Rhy Maresh. I will have Kell warn him. You can’t get him here. I need him right where he is.

Holland turned on his heel and walked away, leaving Athos twirling a flower in one hand and Astrid poking at the flower behind her ear, drinking his blood greedily, some of it running out the corners of her mouth and over her chin. They were still arguing over whether to kill the Maresh prince or keep him as a pet when Holland and the servant boy left the throne room.

He took Beloc out of the dining room and up the stairs to his wing of the palace, the wing of empty rooms. Once upon a time, they said, the east wing in a royal palace would have been for dignitaries from other nations, guests, nobles who lived here full-time. The west wing would be where the royals lived, and the higher-up aristocracy, when there had been any wealth to speak of. Now the west wing was the Danes and the east was just Holland.

He was walking so quickly the boy had to jog to keep up with him, face set into blankness. He opened the door to his room and gestured coldly. “Go in,” He commanded, his voice harsh, watching a strangely thin suit of armor pass him in the hall. It nodded at him as though the empty corpse inside still had a mind to greet. 

Beloc stumbled in ahead of him, hugging himself, his fingers clutching the fabric of his sweater the same way Kell did when he was trying not to show fear. 

Kell thinks you and I deserve a better life than what we've been given. He thinks mercy is more than prolonging the length of the pain. His world has been kind, and ours has not, and which of us is right, in the end? 

Holland closed the door behind them and carefully latched it shut. Only then did he turn to look, really look, at the frightened half-grown creature he’d just managed to saddle himself with for the night. The boy fixed his expression into an anger that shook constantly into fear and back to defiance again.

Holland sighed. He was so damn tired, but he’d promised himself he would do this before he slept, so here it was. “Beloc, is it?”

The boy slowly nodded. 

"Did he give you that to wear?”

“Wh-what? Who-”

“Kell. The man that is staying in here with me. Did he call it a gift, when he gave you a sweater I had given to him?"

"He just said I could have it. He d-didn't mind. I didn't ask, he just said-"

"Enough. It wasn't his to give, now, was it? Everything in this room belongs to me, including him. You should have asked me if you wanted to take clothing from my room."

“But he said-”

“You should have asked me. Do you understand?”

Beloc slowly nodded, that angry fire in his eyes as he began to pull the sweater off over his head. A flash of pale stomach mottled with bruises and Holland closed his eyes, briefly, as his hands shook.

"Oh, Hol," Athos said, tsking softly. "I thought you Antari were supposed to heal fast "

"We do," Holland said, his voice and eyes already learning to be empty. "You hurt me too much."

"Enough," Athos said with perfect gentleness. He tilted his head and smiled, lovingly, tracing the outline of a bruise across Holland's stomach with one finger.

Holland did not flinch.

"I hurt you enough," Athos murmured. "Go show my sister what art I have made of you."

Holland knew exactly what the boy expected would happen next. At least this time, Holland thought, he could pleasantly surprise him.

Holland snorted, leaning his back against the door, crossing his arms. "Keep it on. I don’t need it back."

Beloc dropped his hands, looking up at Holland, confused. "... Holland Antari ?"

“Do you speak his tongue, Beloc? You did so well enough with my Kell, didn’t you?”

“I… do.”

“Good. Where did you learn it?”

“I don’t. I didn’t. My mama…” He trailed off, and then swallowed, hard. “My mama has a little magic, did you know that?”

Holland took a deep breath and closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb. “Please elaborate on how this is relevant to my question, boy, and do so quickly. And don’t you dare turn it into a damn story.”

Beloc leaned back against the table and lifted up one foot, turning it so Holland could see the underside. On the bottom of his heel there was a circular scar with intricate ink inside it, a mark like a tattoo, stretched and a bit faded with time and growth. Holland stared at it, then slowly looked back up into Beloc’s eyes. “You have a language rune. Not translation. This is pure language. Those are hard to get."

“I pretend I don’t,” Beloc said softly. “I pretend I don't know anything. No one ever looks at my feet. I’ve had it a long time. I don’t know why. Everyone in my family has always gotten them, since the doors closed, they said. My mother put it on me. My brother has one, too, he’s good with tongues.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother.” He hadn’t known anything about this pathetic boy who had simply appeared one day, bloody and half-broken from Athos’s first tortures. He had never so much as asked his name. He hadn’t cared enough to know; he was long since used to the poor creatures Athos brought home to destroy.

If he intended to save a world, though, the first step might be to start caring more about the people in it.

Kell cares so bloody fucking much about things.

Beloc dropped his foot back on the ground suddenly wary. “He’s younger. I used to help him, people try to hurt him because of his eyes."

"His eyes?" Holland felt a dim flicker of sympathy underneath his layers of cynicism. I used to be that child, learning to run and climb and hide when I was too young to fight - Alox trying to defend me when he could, having to learn not to kill when the magic came. I ended up a killer anyway. "What is wrong with his eyes?"

"He only has one. His other one… turned."

Now that was interesting. Holland leaned over, looking at him more closely. "It turned . That’s what you’re saying? It turned? Those are your exact words?"

Beloc's eyes widened under the scrutiny and danced away from his. "He used to be sick.” Beloc scowled down at the ground. “He had a fever, is all, no matter what you think. It was just a fever that took his eye."

“Fevers do not turn eyes. Especially not just one."

Beloc looked up at him, that defiance back in his face. “This one did.”

Holland thought of the boy by the river. Had he looked a bit like the one standing in front of him? “Take my advice, Beloc - keep your answers to questions as short as possible. Those who elaborate unnecessarily will give away the idea that there is something they are trying to hide.”

“I’m not trying to hide anything,” Beloc said, and his voice shook so hard he barely got out the words.

“You might also want to practice never doing that again. You are lying to me. What color did it turn?” There had been a click, when he looked at the younger boy earlier. A sense of two things that should not meet facing each other. Holland had never expected to find another one. In Kell's London, maybe... not here

No. Damn it, no, not now, not like this. If I see him for what he is, I will be bound to bring him back to the Danes. They'll keep him as a slave I must train or kill him for the power in his blood. It took me weeks to talk them out of doing that to Kell after he first came here alone as a boy, I must keep them from this, too. I must not see him for what he is. Not until this is done and they are gone and I've given the throne to the new king. “Wait. Don't answer. Don't ever tell me what color his eye turned. I can't know."

See, Kell Maresh, I can care about lost causes, too.

“Do you read it as well?"

“Read what?”

“Kell's tongue.”

"... A little, yes. Well enough. The rune is less good for reading."

"What did Kell tell you about the world he comes from?”

“N-nothing,” Beloc stammered, confused. He couldn’t keep up with Holland, but no doubt the malnourishment had to do with that. The boy looked half-starved, drowning even in a sweater meant for Kell’s thin frame. Probably Athos only let him eat his own leftovers - Holland had seen him do that to the others, before. No one could think well while so hungry. “We didn’t talk about that. He was… trying to help me.”

Holland sighed, and then pointed to a chair. “I know. He's an idiot. You don’t have to remind me. Sit down.” The boy obeyed mechanically, folding his hands in his lap, staring down at the table as though waiting for the blow. Holland watched him for a long moment and then walked over to his bookshelves, skimming his fingers along the their leather-bound spines until he found what he was looking for. The book he pulled out was bound in a bright red leather, the color of fresh oxblood when they plowed the fields in the spring. 

He dropped the heavy book with a thud in front of the boy, watching him jump with surprise. “So he told you nothing about Arnes, did he? About the world he came from?”

“No, sir,” Beloc said softly, but he leaned over, looking at the cover of the book with interest.

Holland did not smile, but his voice was softer and a little kinder. “How would you like to learn about it?”

Beloc blinked, then looked up at him, then back at the book. “But you told his majesty-”

“I told him I wanted your company for the evening, and I did not lie. I did not tell him what I intended to do with you while I had you. I am going to bathe, and while I am gone I want you to start reading this book and take some notes for me. It’s a book on Kell Antari’s world. When I return, I will take notes, too, and we can start putting together a more complete picture."

The fear began to leave the boy’s eyes, and he hesitantly reached out, turning the book’s cover, looking at the writing on the very first page, notes Holland had once scribbled to himself in light, faded ink, years and years ago. 

The need for sleep still beat at the back of his mind, but he had work to do tonight, and it would go faster with help. Beloc might not be able to understand that he would be part of the plan to destroy one world to feed another, but he could understand research if it meant learning about someone who had been kind. He could send Beloc back to his room when he was finally ready to give in and pass out and pray to nothing that he did not have nightmares.

"Would you like to help me read more about him and where he is from? What it's like there, what the people look and act like? Who they are?"

Their weaknesses, the places we must strike hardest, the other spots that require a softer touch?

“Yes,” Beloc said softly. “I want to learn everything about Kell Antari .”

“You’re in luck tonight, Beloc,” Holland said heavily, pulling out another book. “I want to learn everything about Kell Antari too.”

How much more can I be the cause of your worst nightmares before you stop trying to see me as good?

No book could answer that, and he could never ask Kell directly, for the sake of all the other things he might find himself saying, too.

 I lied when I said I did not want to know you. I never minded you as much as I claimed. I regret that I must hurt you to save my world, and I never thought I would regret that.

I want you to tell me… I want you to say-

Holland made himself head for the bath before he could finish the thought.

Chapter Text

Kell cried again in the bathtub.

Luckily, Rhy wasn’t actually in there, and Kell was careful, making sure it was while the water ran out of the pipes and the sound was loud enough to drown him out. He curled himself into the smallest ball he could, put his hands over his face, and wept bitter tears into the hot bath that stung against wounds he didn’t want to acknowledge. He had stopped crying like this so long ago, when he was kid, before he’d ever even been sent across worlds for the first time. It felt like  weakness, to cry as a grown man, but he could not stop himself, and it seemed to shake something loose within him.

It had been one thing while he was in it, too overwhelmed by trying to adjust and endure and survive to let himself rest, but now it was quiet, and he was not in any particular danger, and the tears came whether he wanted them to or not.

The water tinged pink after a while, the gentle bar in his hands already seeming like an alien luxury compared to Makt’s harsh, lye-based soap. He let the first round of water out so it wouldn’t make a ring, then ran more, refilled the tub, and wept for a little while longer. Then he soaked until he knew the flush would be out of his face and his eyes were dry. 

The magic spelled into the pipes would keep the water hot for as long as he needed it, so he took his time. Every moment he sat in this bathtub was one less moment with Rhy before he must return himself to Holland in the morning, but he couldn’t help it. Sitting here in the beautifully wrought claw-foot tub, a gift from Emira to Rhy years ago that had been crafted by a master metal artisan, made him feel like he could almost have crossed the doors that connected their rooms, laid down in his own bed, and been safely home.

But that wasn’t how it was.

Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he was looking at a future where Makt was his home - if home could be a horror that you were terrified to face but which pulled you inexorably, irresistibly back.

Either home was Makt, with all its blood and the Danes in their thrones, or it was Holland, watching him with unsettling intensity, the constant touch he'd learned to accept and started to think about even here, even now, even alone.

Kell shifted uncomfortably in the warm water. For just a second, he forgot that he couldn't, that he shouldn't , and let his fingers slide under the water against his own skin, closing his eyes and picturing Holland's hands on him, the way he’d whispered Jeg vil være dit hjem -

"Don't do that!" Rhy banged on the door, his voice a little strangled-sounding. "I can feel that , you know! Not a good time!"

The blood rushed to Kell's face so fast he felt light-headed and let himself sink under the water in embarrassment. By the time he left the bath, his body - and his face - was mostly back under control.

The only thing he did not take off was the black leather around his neck. He couldn’t take it off, his hands would not let him. Holland had forgotten to undo the command to leave it on, or perhaps had left it in place on purpose. Kell’s attempts to find even a temporary freedom from the feeling of it circling his neck ran up against obedience, and obedience won. 

Instead, he did the best he could to wash underneath it and over it, and felt a strange warmth as it… dried itself as soon as it was clean. Had Holland made this, with him in mind? Or maybe there were places, in Holland’s world, to buy things like this if you used the kind of magic the Danes did and might have need of it.

Sanct, what an awful world Holland was so hell-bent on saving.

He shouldn’t have come back here. It would only be harder to return to Makt after this. But he had wanted to see Rhy again… and he could not go without Holland’s permission.

He understood, truly understood, why these spells were punishable by death if used in his own London. This was hell. He was in hell , and Holland had let him walk out for a little while, and he would be here just long for hell to be even worse when he returned to it.

He soaked until, finally, he felt at least a little cleaner than he had before. Rhy had left him his own sleeping shirt and pants, the soft, finely-woven cloth in a plain gray he had insisted on and Rhy had rolled his eyes and declared dowdy (“ not everyone needs their sleepwear to be fashionable, Rhy, some of us just genuinely want to sleep in it,”, Kell remembered himself saying in absolute exasperation ), and he dressed in them with a sigh of something like contentment, however brief. 

When he emerged from the bathing room with his hair still wet, toweling it a bit dryer, Rhy looked up from his place sitting in a plush chair and said cheerfully, as though absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had happened, “There, better?”

“Better,” Kell said with a nod, tossing the damp towel into a small basket. “ Much better.”

“Everyone feels better after a bath, I say. I mean, my favorite type of bath usually has more than one person in it, but a regular bath is good, too.”

“Rhy, there isn’t a damn thing on earth you don’t enjoy better with at least one more person involved.”

“That’s not true!”

“Name one.”

Rhy frowned, sitting back, tapping his mouth with his finger in thought. “Um… drinking when I’m sad?”

“You’ve dragged me along with you every time. Try again.”

“Drinking when I’m angry?”

“Nope. You make me go do that with you, too.”

“Well, you’re just such a damn expert on being scowly about things.”

“I am not, ” Kell protested. He was scowling.

“Fine. You win. I can’t think of any just now. I’ll get back to you on it. But I know there’s something…”

“Take your time. I suppose I’ll be sleeping on your sofa tonight?” He eyed the extra pillows and folded-up blankets Rhy had already put there.

“I think it might be a risk to try your room, sorry. I’ve seen our mother go in there once or twice.”

“You have?” He hadn’t even thought about that, that Emira might… miss him, not just as property but as a person. 

“Yes.” Rhy frowned at him, as though he were considering elaborating, and then only shook his head. “I’ve seen her. So I thought you could just stay with me tonight.”

“That works. This’ll be comfortable enough - better than the sofa in my room, anyway.”

“Good thing I had that sofa bought precisely for sleeping on,” Rhy grinned at him, and Kell could have just stared at his face forever, committing the winsome smile and black curls and dark skin to memory, something to keep with him and remind him of what he was living for the next time Holland took a whip to his back.

Or Athos did.

Kell swallowed against the flutter of fear, trying not to show it - not that it mattered, since Rhy would feel his heartbeat change, anyway. Rather than meet his brother’s eyes, he tilted his head back to look up at Rhy’s ceiling, where there had been animals painted when he had first come to stay with the royal family. He could still see the faintest outlines of them and the forest scenes, through the plain paint Rhy had eventually insisted on. His first few nights here, he’d snuck into Rhy’s room at night just to watch the way the light from the candles and the fireplace flickered over them and made the bears seem to dance. 

Kell had never asked for anything to be painted on his walls, or ceiling - he had been happy just to see what they put on Rhy’s. 

“You’ve still got that black thing on you,” Rhy said, his voice dropping slightly into something darker, angrier. “Take it off, Kell.”

Kell hesitated, then shook his head slowly. He laid down on his back on the couch, flinging an arm over his eyes. “I can’t, Rhy.”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I mean that I can’t . He won’t let me. If he won’t let me, I can’t.” The words came out harsher than he’d intended them to, and he tried to find the energy to apologize for it, but no apologies came. “I can’t disobey any order I’m given if it involves an action.”

“Sanct. Really?”

“Really. I’m just glad actions are all he controls. Do me a favor, Rhy. When you become king, try to come up with a punishment worse than death for using magic like this.”

“Was it his idea to put that thing on you?”

“I think it was… hers .”

There was a pause, but Kell felt Rhy’s heart speed up. “Hers? You mean…”

“Astrid. The one who…” He trailed off, thinking of Astrid speaking with Rhy’s voice, wearing Rhy’s skin, but with a smile on Rhy’s face that looked nothing like him at all. “This is a test for Holland, too.”

“Is he… passing?”

Kell snorted. “With flying fucking colors, probably.” Rhy laughed to himself, and Kelll heard the absolutely familiar and unmistakable sound of Rhy pouring himself a drink. He held out one hand without opening his eyes, and after a moment the cool solidity of a glass settled into it. He rolled onto his side and sipped, feeling the heat of it burn down his throat in the best way. Rhy poured himself a glass and sat heavily down at the chair again, across from him.

The two brothers held their glasses out to each other in a sort of bitter toast, and then knocked back everything in their cups in matching identical motions. 

“Does anyone know I’m here?” Kell asked. He couldn’t decide if he wanted the answer to be yes or no.

“Just your odd friend,” Rhy said with a shrug. “Miss Bard. I couldn’t not tell her, she’s always hanging around me these days. Holland must know about her, because he was very specific that I was not to let any woman in this room while you were here - or maybe he was just jealous. ” Rhy’s mouth twisted in anger, and Kell wanted to get out of this whole mess if only to never see that cynical, dark expression on his brother’s face again. “Let’s be frank, there’s literally no other woman I can think of you’d give a damn about.”

Lila hangs around you? Lila Bard? ” Kell frowned, staring down into his drink, wondering if Rhy had drugged it with something to make him hallucinate. “Lila Bard doesn’t hang around anything but blades or coin.”

“I have an abundance of both, and I've no doubt she's ‘accidentally walked off with’ at least a couple of each, but that’s not why. She’s decided to save you. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and I must admit I’m a bit… unprepared to withstand her determination. And her swearing ,” Rhy said with genuine admiration. “She’s terribly unladylike, mad as a hornet basically all the time, and barges in on me whenever she feels like with no mind as to whether or not I actually want her there.” Rhy grinned again, and this time Kell actually smiled back. “I like this one, Kell.”

“Don’t get any ideas, Rhy. She’s as like to stab you as anything else, and she doesn’t think much of royalty.”

“Even if I were so inclined, she’s only here for you .” Rhy’s grin faded, went serious, and he dragged a fingertip around the rim of his glass, looking over at the window open to the evening air. The red glow of the Isle lit the sky as always, and this was home. This was really and truly home , no matter what Holland said. "She wouldn't speak twice to me if I weren't your brother, as she is constantly reminding me."

In the beat of his blood, Kell could still feel the rune on his back, not so much pain as a simple physical knowledge that somewhere, in a different world, was the person who had carved this into him, the one he would have to return to. It was only a matter of time.

I am your home now, Holland had said the first day they'd had him. He’d said it last night, too, over and over in Maktahn murmured against his neck, and the feeling of his mouth had lit Kell on fire. 

Just thinking about him lit Kell up again. He could feel the sudden rush of blood, and not just to his face, either, at the memory. Sanct, you’ve let yourself get twisted fast, He thought. He carefully crossed his legs where he sat, hoping Rhy would be polite enough to let the fiction that he didn’t know exactly how Kell’s body was reacting to a private thought stand. He could see Rhy shifting, too, and the two of them looked at anything but each other.

“I find that singularly hard to believe,” Kell said dryly, but his voice shook, just a little. Think about something that isn’t Holland. Don’t think about him when you’re talking about her. “Lila Bard isn’t anywhere for anyone, let alone me.”

“Well, it’s your right to be an idiot about this and I won’t stop you,” Rhy shrugged, clearly relieved to keep talking and distract himself from Kell’s feelings. “You’ve always been wrecked with women and I’ve frankly given up trying to fix you."

"Can't give up what you never started, Rhy. And I’m fairly sure I’ve been a wreck with everyone."

"As I was saying, that woman is here for you. She won’t leave me the hell alone until we rescue you, she spends every waking moment scouting, planning, plotting, or scheming, and she told me herself to tell you she asked about you.”

All thoughts of Holland dropped out of his mind from sheer surprise. Kell shot up on the sofa, nearly spilling his drink as he scrambled to look up. “She did? Lila said that? What did she say - tell me exactly what she said.”

“Just that. That she wanted you to know she asked.” Rhy’s grin had a note of I told you so . “Were you hoping for more?”

“No, I-... no.” Kell sat back, letting out a breath. He knew Rhy would feel the way his heart beat just a little bit faster. After a second, he smiled down into his empty glass. “That sounds like her,” He said quietly. “Just tell her I was glad to hear she thought of me, will you?”

Rhy stared at him for a long moment in silence, then snorted and got back to his feet. “That’s it?”

“I… don’t know what else I would say. We’ve only just met, and-” And kissed the once, and she’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met but I don’t think she’d say the same about me. Would she?

“You’re both hopeless, and you probably deserve each other.”

“I don’t deserve her,” Kell said faintly. “I'm covered in his marks. I’ve never even had those before.”

“Oh, you have so,” Rhy said with exasperation. “Don’t try to lie about that to the brother who had to help you learn how to hide them. And they say I’m dramatic.”

“Even if I did see her, what would I say? ‘Hello, Lila, I’m so glad to see you again, and by the way, would you like to hear how my going off alone like a moron got me locked up with that man we both knew I never really wanted to fight and now I can’t say no when he-’”

“Stop it.” Rhy’s voice could have put out a fire. Kell’s eyes jerked up, startled; he’d so rarely heard all good humor drop from Rhy that he wasn’t even sure how to react to it, at first. “I did not agree to the terms of a two-bit piece of shit like Holland Vosijk - promise him my silence and my complicity , at least indirectly, in the crime he has committed against my crown and my, my heart by taking you - so that you could come back here just to feel sorry for yourself. You forget that I can feel everything he does to you, and I know you. I know how this is going to go.”

“You do?”

“I do. You’ll do that thing where you start thinking yourself in big circles, naming all the ways you’re a problem that needs solved and not a person who can’t be, because people are not problems . You don’t get to blame yourself this time, because I will slap the shit out of you if you try.”

Kell swallowed, and the silence drew out between them for a long, long time. 

Eventually, Rhy sighed. “Do you want another drink?”

Sanct , yes.” He closed his eyes, grateful to Rhy in ways he could never have verbalized, even to himself. “The drinks there are all mead or beer… or this wine that’s so sweet I feel like it coats my teeth. They’ve got a taste for the sweet, there. Which is strange, because they don’t ever eat dessert. Holland said something about seeing fruit here and it making him angry…"

“Holland drinks sweet wine?” Rhy paused before taking the empty glass from Kell’s hands. “He’s always asked for dry when we offered him anything.” He poured them each a fuller glass this time. 

“Probably the only place he can get it, because I haven’t seen any when I’m there. In any case, I’ve missed Arnesian liquor. Although maybe the weather in Makt will change, now, and be better for growing…” Kell trailed off. "Anything."

"Why? Is it a new season over there?"

"Sort of." He looked over at Rhy, expression bleak. “When I told you Holland made me do something-"

“Kell.” Rhy’s voice was flat, and he tapped at the side of his chest, over the mark that bound them. “I don't need you to tell me what he's done to you. I know.

“Not that.” Kell closed his eyes, so acutely embarrassed and ashamed that it felt like a physical pain, so sharp and real he was certain Rhy could feel that, too. He took a deep breath. "Do you remember the story of how they shut the doors between worlds, so that only Antari can ever cross again?"

"One world died by magic, one world cut themselves off from it, our world kept the magic, and Holland’s world… I don’t remember. They just lost it, right?"

"They had to fight the Black London magic, Rhy. All by themselves."

“Right, because we had to make the choice to close the doors and shut them off, too.”

“... did we?”

“We had to protect ourselves.” Rhy’s expression was distant, no doubt recalling frustrated tutors who had attempted to teach him history while he stared dreamily out the window. “We didn’t know if they’d win, the magic that came from the dead world had thoughts, it had a will .”

“So does ours, it just doesn’t want to take over. The point is that we left them there. And they closed the doors on their own, but… they don’t work with magic, now, they own it. They call themselves masters and magic a slave. They bleed it out of themselves. They cut it out. They burn it out.” He thought of the fire and ice burning through his veins when Holland took control, the way he’d had warring impulses to pull away and run and also wanted just as strongly to melt into him and anchor himself to the calm and solid center of a black storm that would devour him entirely. "The magic is leaving them, and their world will die when it’s gone, but… we can bring it back."

Rhy stared at him, eyes slightly wide. "You can?"

"We did. "

"You did?"

“Holland and I,” He said carefully, “did something Holland thinks is wonderful.” He began to explain what had happened over the river.

Rhy at first looked directly at him with growing concern and anger, then gradually his gaze slid away to the window and the reddish glow of the night sky in London, the magic that barreled through the Isle and fed this part of the world. His expression settled into a kind of intense concentration.

It looked no different to him, Kell was sure of it. But he’d been able to sense that the glow was a little less, as they’d walked here. He could tell that something was wrong. 

“I felt it, when you did it,” Rhy said thoughtfully. “I didn’t know that was what it was, but… I felt it.  So that’s why you wanted me to tell the Aven Essen to check the river.” Rhy took a drink and leaned forward, elbows resting on his legs, eyes still on the window. “So what you did, opening the- the doors, as you call them… you’re sending magic into Holland’s world? To feed it?”

“Yes,” Kell said softly. “Not much, yet, but I know he wants to do more. And you have to know that I’m going to help him.”

“Of course you are,” Rhy said, mildly, without a shred of blame or anger in his voice. Kell let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “You can’t not help him, right?”

“Right.” 

Rhy frowned, swirling the liquid around in his glass idly. “I didn’t know anyone could open the doors again. I thought-”

“So did I. I don’t even think Holland knew it would work, to be honest, but it did. We opened three right over the river, and I saw our water flowing red into theirs.”

“Will it cause any real harm? I know, it’s the wrong thing to do, but… Maybe Holland has a point.”

“Sanct, Rhy! You just called him a two-bit piece of shit!”

“I know I did, but he’s a two-bit piece of shit trying to do something he thinks is noble. Hear me out. You’ve said before the people there are desperate, they’re starving. Maybe a little magic isn’t so much to lose, if it’s helping people. I know Mother and Father wouldn’t like it, but what if separating the worlds is the problem? What if we connect them again, and make life better for Holland’s London? What if we helped them, instead of what we’ve been doing, which is precisely nothing at all?” Rhy sat back, unconsciously straightening his spine, and Kell thought he looked like nothing so much as what he was; the crown prince, the king-in-waiting. 

“They don’t know how to stop, Rhy. They’ll use whatever we give them up and want more. They don’t know how to stop before they use too much. They don’t know how to use magic without breaking themselves or each other. Holland won’t know when to stop.”

“Are you certain of that?”

Kell looked away. “No. But I know he won’t stop with me.”

“No. But....”

“What?”

Rhy only shook his head, still staring out the window at the faint red glow from the Isle, the warm breeze blowing gently into his room. “I can’t believe I’m trying to figure out how to help him save people, with the way he’s treated you. With the way he helps them.

“He’s got a mark on his chest just like the one on my back, Rhy. Holland doesn’t choose any more than I do.”

“Don’t defend him, Kell. You always do this.”

“Do what?”

“Try to make Holland Vosijk something more than what he is. You always have.” Rhy held up a hand before Kell could argue. “So you’ve opened three doors over the Isle. What harm might that do, long term?”

“The Isle can take it; it’s got more magic than you could ever siphon away with doors that small. But those aren’t the only doors they’re going to open. After a while, it’ll be enough to notice here, too. Anything that goes into Makt isn’t here. That’s magic we’re losing - that we’ve already lost. Plus, the ones we open on land…” Kell knocked back the rest of the second drink. The muscles in his shoulders and back were beginning to relax with the liquor’s gentle warmth, and he felt the pleasant buzz beginning in the back of his mind. “People could walk through those, I think. People, kings and queens, soldiers…”

“Oh.” Rhy paused, and then his eyes widened. “ Oh.”

“Exactly.” 

“I have to tell Father-” Rhy caught himself and groaned, frustrated, putting his hand up over his face. “But if I tell him, whoever that bitch has watching us will know he knows. Lila thinks it’s one of the guards reporting back to them somehow. Plus, if they find out I told anyone… Holland won’t let you come back, ever - and he’ll probably hurt you to get back at me for it. Plus plus, they’ll ramp things up if they know we know and probably move much faster than we can plan for. Plus plus plus , whatever he has you doing, we won’t learn anymore until it happens. But he said if I meet his terms, you could come when he lets you, and one of his terms was not letting anyone know-”

Kell blinked a few times. “Rhy, you’re not seriously thinking about not telling-”

“Of course I am. I’m already hip deep in things I don’t tell them, what’s a little more? What can Mother and Father even do? They’re not going to do anything to save you because they’ve no idea how… and whether they like it or not, I intend to. I don’t know how yet, so we’ll have to play along. Lila and I have a sort of idea, but-”

“What idea? Lila? Lila’s ideas all involve stabbing someone.”

“This one does, too, for what it’s worth, but it’s stabbing the right someone, so I’ve decided to support it.”

“You could lock me up,” Kell said, thinking. “Tell… tell them what I’ve done. They’d call me a traitor and lock me away so I can’t use the magic, and then Holland couldn’t get to me.”

“I could do that,” Rhy said, slowly. “I won’t, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re not a traitor, not really, and I don’t think a prison cell would keep him away. Do you, Kell? Do you really think putting you in a prison cell would keep Holland from taking you back to open more of those things?” Kell thought of the joy in Holland’s face, the open and honest joy, when the doors were opened… and he slowly shook his head. “Exactly. If he wants you, our bars won’t stop him, and I’m worried he might see anyone we had to guard you as collateral damage.”

“You’re right.” Kell put his face in his hands. “He’d kill them to get to me, even if he didn’t want to, because they’d tell him to. Or he’d tell me to kill them, and I…”

“And you would. You’d have to. We have to think. Look, Kell, this… this is a dance.”

Kell stared at him, blankly. “It’s a what.”

“A dance. We have to figure out the next steps before the person leading does, or we’ll stumble. So what are the next steps? Who’s leading us? Holland?”

“Astrid and Athos are leading - Holland’s dancing, too, in this… really thin hypothetical. He’s leading me, and don’t you dare make a joke about it, but… he’s not leading the dance itself. Opening more doors… that’s all I know. I don’t know what they want after that, other than...”

“What?”

“Astrid wants more. That’s all she is - a craving to have more. If they have any further plan, I don’t know it.”

“Will Holland tell you?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Find out. Spy for me.”

Kell snorted. “Nearly all of what I see is the inside of Holland’s bedroom or the Danes’ dining table. I’m not sure how a detailed description of kneeling on Holland’s bearskin rug is going to help us defend against Astrid and Athos Dane.”

“Well… no.” Even Rhy blushed, just a little, that time. “But he took you to the river, right? And he’ll have to take you to these other places where he wants to open the, um, the doors. Right?” Rhy’s eyes had lit up and Kell found himself wanting to smile at the way he could see Rhy’s wheels turning in his mind. 

“Right.”

“So… spy for me, and tell me the steps so I can stay ahead of them. We need a way to communicate. You can tell me in person, if he means it about that, and other than that…” Rhy closed his eyes, thinking. “When he hurts you, I can hear you, and kind of… sense what’s happening to you, where you are, what you’re doing.”

“I know. You talk to me, sometimes.” Kell hesitated. He took a deep breath, fingers grasping onto the fabric of his pants, and then forced the words out all in a rush. “Thanks, for that, by the way.”

“I try not to leave you alone in it.” There was another silence, but this one was less filled with awkward unspoken anger and more with awkward unspoken love. “When we can feel each other, just start talking to me as fast as you can,” Rhy set his glass down on the side table with an audible ‘smack’. “Just keep telling me things until the connection is lost. I’ll try to remember it and write it down. We can share information that way, and Holland won’t ever know - which means they won’t know, either.”

Kell nodded. “That’s a really good idea, Rhy.” He was about to make another suggestion when they heard a sound outside Rhy’s door.

“Rhy?” Emira called from the other side, muffled. “Are you decent? I need to speak with you.”

Rhy and Kell looked at each other, then slowly back to the door.

“Rhy?” Emira’s voice shook, just slightly. “You’re all right, aren’t you?”

"I thought you told them to stay away tonight,” Kell snapped. His heart dropped. He couldn’t see her so soon, or at all, not with what he’d done.

“I did , but why don’t you name the last time either of them actually listened to me about that sort of thing.” Rhy, with grace and speed that spoke of a good many nights spent rapidly hiding someone’s presence from prying family members, grabbed Kell’s empty glass right out of his hand, shoved it under a throw pillow in the corner of the sofa, and yelled over his shoulder, “Give me a second, Mother, I’m stark naked and it’s terribly embarrassing for everyone involved!”

There was a pause.

Then, Emira said hesitantly, “Exactly how many people are involved, Rhy? I thought you were sick!”

“No, I… I just meant it would embarrass you and I!” Rhy gestured off to the side and Kell stared at him, baffled. Rhy gestured again, but more emphatically this time. 

Kell only shook his head in confusion. 

“Get in my fucking wardrobe , you dunce,” Rhy growled in a voice just above a whisper. “Haven’t you ever hidden someone from Mother and Father before?!”

“No, I haven’t! I don’t sneak people in and out of my room!”

“Well, you should learn to try it sometime!” Rhy whisper-hissed in the exact same tone he might have said well you should go to hell, you idiot. “It’s really very exciting and romantic!” Rhy grabbed Kell by one arm and all but shoved him into a wardrobe, slamming the doors shut so fast he nearly hit him with them. He grabbed the towel from the basket, jammed it under the throw pillow with Kell’s empty glass, his eyes bouncing all over the room, trying to find any more evidence. The pillows and blankets he’d left out he just tossed onto his actual bed, hoping Emira wouldn’t notice if he closed the canopy. “Just wait a moment, Mother! Getting dressed now!” He threw himself into the bathroom with absolute abandon, sweeping up Kell’s bloody clothes and his coat into his arms, then ran back out, threw open the wardrobe doors, and flung Kell’s clothes right into his face.

“Did you hide him like this?!” Kell hissed at him, scrambling to grab everything.

“Of course I did,” Rhy hissed right back. “Probably about twelve times, and most of those I was hiding him from you! Because you’re like this about him!” 

“Well I was right about him, wasn’t I?”

“First off, now is not the time for this, and secondly, I’m still not entirely convinced of that!”  He slammed the doors shut in his face again, took a deep breath, and turned around, walking with royal dignity to the door.

He unlocked and opened it, leaning on the door frame, trying to look absolutely casual and totally unruffled.

Emira’s quizzical, worried expression greeted him as he opened the door to her. “Oh,” She said, a bit faintly. “Are you all right? You seem… sweaty.”

Rhy blinked at her, twice, and then said weakly, “Clammy. It’s a fever.” She put her hand up against his forehead, and he sighed. “ Was a fever, Mother. It’s gone now. Also, I’m no longer a child and I know how to handle it.”

“I… I know that. Good,” Emira said, a little gently. “Ah… may I come in, Rhy? I wanted to speak with you.”

“Of course, Mother.” Rhy stood to the side, gesturing her in, then trying to subtly block her from sitting on the couch half-stuffed with all the different signs that someone else had been in the room. “What did you want to talk about?”

“I…” Emira’s hands worried at each other, and she looked around her son’s bedroom, looking just about anywhere but directly at his eyes. She took a seat in the armchair, and finally looked up at him. “I wanted to talk to you about… lowering your expectations when it comes to Kell.”

Rhy blinked, trying not to look at the wardrobe, where his brother was definitely going to hear every single pointed, awful, well-meaning, insensitive thing she said.

Sanct.

Chapter Text

“Mother, I don’t think this is the best time-”

“There’s never a good time for this sort of conversation,” Emira said, her voice its usual slightly shattered sharpness, her hands worrying at each other in her lap, twisting and turning the rings on her fingers. “About Kell… we won’t be announcing he’s missing, not yet. We had a hard enough time explaining your absence, and your father and I’s… well.” She sighed and looked down at one particular ring, with a sapphire set in it the same color as Kell’s eye. “We’ll be putting together a method of explanation that will be less frightening to the people than simply letting them know he’s been stolen, but we’ll also need to make it known to the guards that if he is seen, he should be… mistrusted, as his intentions may not be his own.”

“He would never hurt us.”

“If what you say is true,” Emira said quietly, “the poor boy may not have much of a choice.”

“He has precisely none. I trust him anyway.” Rhy’s voice was clipped. I know you can hear me, Kell, so try to believe me, too. This is not your fault. If anything, it is mine for taking the necklace from Holland in the first place. I can’t believe I was so stupid, that I thought Holland might actually like me .

It’s obvious that it was never me in the first place, isn’t it? 

“Rhy, it’s important that we are united in ensuring that we give ourselves some breathing room before it is common knowledge that our Antari has… been absconded with.”

“Kell. Not ‘our Antari ’. You mean Kell. And that seems fair. I don’t see why this could not have waited until the morning.” Rhy tried to keep the edge out of his voice, and mostly succeeded, but he caught himself glancing towards the wardrobe, praying to all the magic that had never seen fit to rest in him that Emira would not - would not - say anything about Kell she would not tell him to his face.

Emira looked at him, smiled just a little. “That isn’t all this is about. Kell came to stay with us a long time ago, and I know that you were very lonely, all by yourself in this big castle… I know that you liked him very much right away-”

“Oh, Mother, please let’s don’t. I am a grown man and that was a long time ago.”

“Just let me say this, Rhy,” Emira said, and her voice shook the way it always did, as though she lived in fear that the next time she spoke would be the last. Rhy had been four years old when he’d first realized that more often than not he would be expected to comfort her and not the other way around, and normally the sense of himself as half her son and half her parent did not bother him overmuch. Tonight, though, he wasn’t sure he could handle holding Kell up in his darkness and also being there for her. “Kell was a very lonely child too. I’m glad that you became such fast friends. But… in matters like this, it’s not your friendship you need to consider, Rhy, but your place as prince.”

“Kell and I are not friends. We are brothers .” Kell’s heart was pounding one beat ahead of his own, and Rhy could nearly feel the adrenaline in his veins secondhand. He fought to keep his own voice steady and calm. “ Kell’s place as prince must be considered, too. If I were… absconded with- no, when I was stolen, because if you’ll recall it actually happened to me once before, you were prepared to muster resources and find me, no matter what it took.”

Emira paused. He watched her consider her words, move from twisting her rings to picking at the skin around her fingernails. Next, she’ll start to twirl her hair in her fingers. Finally, she said quietly, “I remember, Rhy.”

“And what did it take to find me, Mother?”

She knew what he wanted her to say. Instead, she rubbed the sapphire in her ring with her thumb and was silent.

“It took Kell. Kell brought me home. I woke up and he was- he was covered in blood, Mother. He had nightmares for weeks, and you never went to him. I had to go to him, and I was having nightmares, too, but you came to me to help with mine, didn’t you? Not his, though. He threw up every meal until Tieren Serense spoke to him about it. He wrecked himself for me, and that was only the first time, it’s what he does. So if you think I won’t do the same for him-”

Rhy, had had the faintest sense of a hand grasping his, and his death bleeding into the hand that held him and pulled him up from the suffocating nothing, breath from the hand bleeding back, filling his lungs, Kell’s voice begging him to live. 

Rhy had done what he always did when Kell called his name; he tried to go to him.

“But you are the prince,” Emira said, a little helplessly.

“And so is he.”

“Please, my love, you know the title is largely honorary. I know that you two are close-”

“Brothers usually are.” Rhy poured himself a third drink. He hadn’t even felt the first two, not really, and he badly wished he could just be drunk and have this whole thing be easier than this.

“Right,” Emira said, a little more carefully this time. Sure enough, he watched her fingers start pulling at a bit of hair, right on schedule. He fought the urge to reassure her, tell her what she needed to hear. Not this time. Not with Kell right there listening to it all. “Rhy, you must understand that if what you’ve been told about what happened to him is true-”

“Which it is.”

“Stop interrupting me, Rhy, it’s rude. I’ve raised you with better manners than that. All I’m trying to say is that you need to understand that we have no way to remove such a rune. They last until... well.” She sighed, and for a moment, there was such a true and honest worry for Kell that Rhy wondered if maybe this would end better than he had expected. There was love in that worry, for his brother. “Until the one who carved it dies - or I suppose the person would laid it could remove it, although I’ve never heard of it being done.”

“Have Tieren Serense look into it. I’d be willing to break our laws to carve it into those Danes’ bodies to force them to remove his mark. I’d cut off parts of Holland until he gives up and tells me how to do it himself.”

“Rhy, never say such a thing. That would violate our most sacred laws, and a prince would never so directly involve himself in such a thing. Your father has already asked the Aven Essen to look for some sort of releasing spell. He has six priests researching down in the historical texts. If there is any way, he will find it, Rhy, I promise. Your father and I… we don’t want to lose Kell.”

“I don’t want to lose him, either,” Rhy said, a little softly. “I couldn’t bear it.”

Emira shifted, uncomfortably. “Yes, we know. The mark on your chest makes Kell’s current predicament a unique weakness for you-”

“Not because of that, Mother. Because he’s Kell. I can’t lose him.” He paused. “I’d be losing myself. He’s as much me as I am, since long before he saved my life.”

When he heard Kell calling for him, Rhy, drowning in death, had pushed himself back up above the water.

“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Emira said, and her voice dropped to an odd, fearful whisper. 

“What? That I care about him? What should I say, Mother? All you and Father care about is whether or not anyone knows, not what it does to him while he’s there. What sort of things do you think happen to someone under a compulsion spell? What sort of tortures? They could be doing anything to him, making him do anything to himself-" He felt his face flush and hoped his mother thought it was in anger. I get to feel every time Holland touches him. What do you think of that, Mother? Would you worry, or just be angry with him for having to enjoy it because it means I do, too? Would you even care if I told you he thinks I don’t know he cried in the bath? "Don’t you think someone should give a damn?” He shouldn’t be saying this with Kell hidden in the wardrobe, but Emira’s anxiousness had always been able to get under his skin, and today was no different. 

“You forget yourself.” Emira moved on to fidgeting with the necklace around her neck, twisting the chain back and forth. He’d seen that one before, too. If he pushed her much further, she’d end up biting off all her nails. He knew all the tiny little mannerisms his mother used to keep her fears in check by heart. “Of course we give a…  a damn. We have always cared for Kell, you know that.”

“How?”

“Pardon?”

“In what way do you care for him?” Shut up, Rhy, he can hear every fucking word she says. He couldn’t cut it off, though, could not stop himself. He was losing precious minutes with Kell, and he wanted him out here on the sofa where Rhy could make him laugh and watch him read incredibly boring books and keep him up until the small hours just to store all of it up, every furrowed brow and vaguely annoyed rejoinder, not knowing when he’d next get the chance to see him again. 

“As… as a very dear part of the royal household, of course. You know that. We’ve always felt he was a part of the family-”

“No you haven’t.” For the love of all things, Rhy, stop. talking.

“I beg your pardon?” Emira said, but this time her voice was icy and she had definitely heard him.

“The way you care about a useful sword is not the same as the way you care about a son.”

She met his eyes this time, and hers were watery with tears unshed, but her hands stopped their constant nervous dance and her jaw was set. “Of course we care about Kell as a person.”

But not as much as we care about you.

The words hung in the air between them, and Rhy felt his grip tighten around his drink. He let the moment draw out, trying to calm himself, and when he spoke again his voice was even colder than hers. “Let me explain myself to you. Kell nearly died trying to save me. Then, after he nearly died saving me for the second fucking time in my life, he got back up. He went back out there so he could try to save all of you, all of us , all at once . You’ve done an excellent job raising a son, Mother, but it wasn’t me. No, you did a wondrous job bringing Kell up to be completely unable to save himself because you’ve taught him every day of his life to kill himself, over and over again, for me. ” 

Emira’s face was ashen. “Rhy-”

“I mislike having a brother who must think of himself as a tool, Mother, and I mislike even more that he must think of himself as a tool made to wear itself to nothing. When I came home, you were happy to see me, but you were angry when you learned he was captured. Were you angry at me, too, or did you just feel worry? Why can’t you just be worried about him? Why do you have to be angry?”

“Rhy, your father and I are very grateful for everything Kell has done for us, we truly are, you must understand that. But-”

“Don’t ‘but’ me, Mother.”

“Watch your tone with me, young man,” Emira snapped at him, and Rhy had always felt some small mean gratification when he could break her cold shell and bring out the hotter anger in her. “We are grateful, but there are larger concerns now. Kell has put us all at terrible risk through his irresponsibility and his behavior. When the other kingdoms find out what has happened here, there could be concerns about our strength as rulers.”

“When ‘what’ happened here, exactly? What?”

“Rhy... “ She trailed off, and when he did not change his hard expression, finally Emira sighed. “When they find out our Antari is gone, of course. That we could not protect our son, and neither could the strongest magic in our world. That our Antari is now in the hands of monarchs that we must consider may be truly enemies to our empire. We will have to admit to it eventually, although your father believes he can hide that the Antari is gone for at least a month or so-”

“No.” Rhy slammed his glass down so hard it cracked up one side, not quite all the way through, and a thin drip of liquor began to push out to run onto the side table, over the side, dripping quietly onto the floor. “When they find out my brother is gone, you mean. The other prince .”

Kell’s heart was a hammer in Rhy’s chest, and he had never been so angry as he was knowing that this was one more weight on Kell’s shoulders. 

“I know you care for him, Rhy… but… just, the loss is grievous and we will do anything we reasonably can to locate him and bring him home, but… this is not the same as if we had lost you.”

Rhy stared at her, his eyes wide and white-ringed. When he spoke, his voice was soft, and he stood like a dark statue in the center of his well-lit room, with the red-tinged sunset light coming in through the window and lighting his skin like burnished bronze. “Get out of my room. Now.”

“Rhy, I am your mother, you do not get to order me around like a servant-”

“I’m not ordering you like a servant. I’d be more polite to the servants, because they at least treat my brother and I the same. Get out of my room, Mother, because anyone who comes in here is only welcome if they acknowledge Kell as what he is, and has always been, and will always be. He is my brother, and I love him more than I have ever loved anything. If you will not act to save him, then I will.

Emira threw her hands in the air, standing up, with the air of long-suffering that he hated most in her. “How, Rhy?”

“I don’t know that part yet, but you trust that I am working on it!”

“You’ve no magic to wield! What will you bring against this other world? How would you even get there to find him?”

Rhy smiled, and it was one of the first times in his life that a smile on Rhy’s face held no kindness whatsoever. “Perhaps I’ll walk right through a door,” He said.

There was a thump and a snort of absolute and total oh no you fucking won’t from inside the wardrobe, but luckily Emira was too distracted to notice. 

“Rhy, I’ve never seen you like this before,” Emira said tightly, with an air of wounded pride, but he knew her. He knew his mother better than she understood, and part of him despaired knowing he had hurt her. But a larger part of him was too busy worrying about Kell to have much space to spare for her hurt feelings. “I do not appreciate it. I don’t want this sort of attitude at breakfast.”

“I’ll see if I can reign it in before that. Leave me be tonight, Mother. I have a rescue to plan, since clearly I am the only one interested in it.”

She spun around, her hand up, and Rhy thought dumbly she’s never hit me before. In the end she didn’t. All that happened was that she put a hand up to his face, and looked up into his eyes, and hers were full of tears, and love. “You cannot always be the knights riding helter-skelter into the night to save each other,” She said, softly. “My heart cannot take it. He was meant to be there for you, Rhy, not-”

“He would do it for me, every time,” Rhy said, but his voice was gentler now, too. “You taught him to. So I will do it for him. You must have known that when you brought him home. You must have known that I would never want any other brother but him.”

Rhy, don’t die, please-

I can hear you

“We have never faced a threat like this,” Emira said softly. “You must be prepared for it to be a tougher battle than any other.”

“I am.”

"You may not have a path to win it."

"I don't care."

“You don’t even have a real set of armor.

“Then ask Father to have one made as quickly as possible, because I may have need of it.” He stared her down, looking right into his mother’s eyes. There was a line here he was about to cross. He had almost gone too far with his mother, almost torn himself fully apart from her. 

“You haven’t the magic to take this one on, Rhy.”

“And you both have all you could ever want and more, and yet here you are telling me to lower my expectations as though you expect he will die there, and you intend to do nothing.”

She did not answer him, but her expression told him every terrible truth he had never wanted to know about what his mother was thinking.

Thank all the world that Kell cannot see her face.

“Mother… please just go.” He wished that just this once his mother would listen to him, really listen, and hear what was underneath the words and not just the words themselves. “I will figure something out, and you can sit in your room and worry about me while I do, but you cannot stop me from loving him.”

“We would never ask you not to care about him, Rhy, but you are the crown prince, and even if Kell is in danger, you must be prepared to-”

“What? Declare my brother a justifiable loss?

“Of course not.” Emira’s face was ash-pale, and he fought twin urges to apologize and beg her forgiveness and the stronger urge to keep talking, louder and louder, until she would stop. “We grieve Kell’s loss as much as anyone else.”

“Kell isn’t gone yet , Mother. I can do this myself if I need to.”

“You can’t go there and bring him back like a lost puppy, Rhy. If he’s working against our crown…”

“He would never.”

“Is this because of that acolyte? The one who keeps coming from the Sanctuary to see you? Did she make you think that you must do this alone?”

“She makes me think nothing, Mother,” Rhy said, gently. “She’s only an acolyte sent by Tieren Serense to check on the mark on my chest and ensure that my condition is stable. We don’t talk about Kell at all.” The lie came out smooth and believable, as most of his lies did.

“Fine. Let the priests do their work, Rhy. Let them see if they find some way to take the rune off of him. If they do, then we can discuss… such things as saving. Kell has been our Antari , and he is a very dear boy, I do understand your worry for him. While it’s true he is a part of our family, in way, you have to understand...” She held out her hands, a little helplessly. She spoke with gentleness. “He’s not our son, Rhy.”

Sanct, no, Mother, please don’t do this, he’s right there-

Emira took a deep breath. “He’s not our son, and he’s not really your brother.”

Rhy felt his chest constrict as two hearts stopped, just for a second, at the words.

It's my fault, it's all my fault, you'll die because of me

I’m coming back to you

“Mother…” Rhy’s voice cracked, just slightly. “I did not know I could hate you.”

“Rhy! Don’t say such things.” Her hand was over her mouth, and the tears began to spill down her face. She stood, and Rhy steeled himself. It hurt like hell not to go to her and apologize, take everything he said back, do whatever it took to help his mother calm down and feel better again.

It was what she wanted, though. She was standing there waiting for him to take it back, to comfort her, to skip the argument and go straight to reconciliation. He knew her so well. She always wanted her son or her husband to take it back, and Rhy was too busy having to pretend he did not see Kell’s tears to care about hers right now. 

He loved her, she was his mother and he loved her with all that heady overwhelming certainty of any little boy reaching out for his mother’s hand. But he was done telling her what she wanted to hear, not while his brother was hidden six feet away and needed to hear something else, something more.  

“Please leave.” He did not look at her, and his voice was perfectly calm. “Please, please leave. I will not discuss Kell with you again, you or my father, unless the two of you are willing to treat him as my brother, because that is what he is. Whether or not you will admit to it, you have another son, and he is in pain and he is trapped there with those fiends and I am going to damn well save him.

“Rhy…” She stared at him a moment longer, as if willing him to give up and lose this moment, lose to her, but Rhy stood strong and made himself as tall as he could. After a long silence, she said softly, “You are not yourself.”

“I am entirely myself,” Rhy snapped. “How did you think this conversation would go?”

“I thought I could speak reason to you, and you…” She trailed off. “I thought you would understand that the crown must take precedence. I see that I was wrong.” Emira swallowed, hard, and he saw her twist her fingers into her necklace again. “I see that you will not listen to reason when it comes to him.”

“I will not say it again, Mother, so I want you to truly listen. If you came here to ask me to choose between your advice and rescuing my brother - if you want me to choose between you and him - you will not like the choice I make.” Rhy’s voice was cold, and even in his own mind seemed older, stronger, the voice of the man he had grown into and not the son she still saw when she looked at him. “There is no choice you can give me where Kell is an option where I will not choose him, each and every time.” 

Emira opened her mouth as though she would say something, then simply turned and walked away. He followed her right up to the doorway, and once she was in the hallway he slammed the door behind her so hard it rattled on the hinges. He hadn’t done that since he was sixteen years old, and nothing had ever felt so good.

He stood, breathing hard, hearing the wardrobe doors slowly open back up behind him, the sound of footsteps along the floor. Kell put a hand on his shoulder and he slowly turned around.

Kell tilted his head, his face utterly calm and impassive. It was the face Rhy hated most, when Kell retreated into himself. Clean red hair hanging just low enough to block out the black eye, the blue one clear and focused on him and a little… empty. 

Rhy threw his arms around him and pulled him close, and felt Kell, stiff as a board, gradually soften and finally return the embrace. “I love you,” Rhy said desperately. “You’re my brother. You’re my best friend.”

Do you know that I heard you calling when I was dead? Do you know I heard you call my name?

“Should we pour more drinks?” Kell asked, gently pulling away, and his voice did not waver. 

“Kell, I’m so sorry-”

“It’s fine,” Kell said with a shrug. “I’ve heard most of that before, you know. And what I haven’t heard before… I knew it anyway.”

Rhy reeled with the understanding that Kell was so calm because he hadn’t been surprised by a single thing she’d said.

“You’re worth more than the blood in your veins, Kell,” Rhy said. His own voice shook, and he wondered for a moment who was comforting who.

“Thank you for saying that,” Kell said quietly, and moved away from him, pulling the blankets and pillows back out from where he’d hidden them behind the canopy of his bed, tossing them onto the sofa. 

Rhy knew his family. He knew that all of them were immensely talented at speaking half a thought, and letting the other half rest unsaid. Hearing Emira protest that Kell wasn’t really her son, when she and Kell both shared a habit of hiding from a fear rather than speaking it out loud and facing it , was a bitter humor. 

Rhy had spent nearly his entire life translating for them to each other, filling in the sentences they didn’t say, reading their silences as well as their gestures. It was exhausting and he hated it, but he’d been doing it for so long that he knew every single thing his parents and his brother wouldn’t say before they even went silent.

He knew the unsaid half of Kell’s sentence. I don’t believe you.

“I think I’ll sneak back over to my room and grab a book,” Kell said thoughtfully. “Holland mostly has me studying his language now - he, um-” Kell flushed again, one hand closing tightly into a fist and then opening again. “-he likes when I speak Maktahn to him. It's the only thing I've seen him really care about so far. I’m learning it fast, but I could stand to read… literally anything else. Oh, and I’ll take another book back, there’s this servant boy I want to help. I say boy, but he’s sixteen, in Makt’s that’s full grown, according to Athos…” Kell trailed off, and a dark shadow passed over the calm expression. Rhy felt Kell’s heart skip in his chest, beat a little faster, and thought it must be fear. “Never mind. He, um.” Kell cleared his throat. “He likes children’s stories and history, I thought I'd get one of the first books Tieren gave me when I moved into the Sanctuary, on the old wars.”

“They’re your books,” Rhy said, shrugging. “You can take them wherever you want. Who’s this servant boy? Kell… have you made a friend? I didn’t know you could make those! I'm so proud of you!”

“Oh, shut it, Rhy,” Kell snapped, but the frown on his face was less decidedly frown-like, and Rhy knew it was as close as he’d get, for now, to a smile. “Hang on, let me grab the books and I’ll tell you about him.” His calm now was worse than his tears had been back down in the tunnel. Kell had always lived largely within his own head, but this way of wrapping himself up like this was painful to witness. 

"Go ahead,” Rhy said, gently. “I’ll wait here for you.” 

Kell paused, thinking, and then turned to look at him. “I just thought of what I want you to say to Lila Bard when you see her.”

"Oh?”

“Yes. Tell her I asked about her-”

“Oh, Kell, come on. It’s this sort of thing that’s why you’re so bad with girls, you know.”

“Wait, you dolt, I’m not done. Tell her I asked about her, and that if she can get me out of this, I’ll buy her the biggest ship I can find… as long as she agrees to name it after me.” Kell flickered a faint smile. He paused, with the door that connected their rooms open, and looked back at him.

The emptiness left his face, for a moment, and Rhy was surprised to see not misery or hurt or hate but simply love. “You’re my brother, too,” Kell said softly, and ducked through the door.  

Rhy sat down on the chair his mother had just left, staring out the window at the faintly glowing red night sky. 

Please, Rhy, don’t die, you can’t die, this is my fault, it's all my fault

He still heard Kell's voice in his sleep.

Rhy kept his eyes on the red glow of the Isle against the night sky.

When you need me, Kell, I will always stand back up for you. 

Chapter Text

The sun was just cresting the horizon as Kell answered Holland’s call.

The rune on his back pushed him forward, not down into the secret tunnels like he’d expected but right out in the open, walking right down the street. Anyone could have seen him like this; anyone could have recognized him for who he was and raised the alarm. Kell’s heart pounded with the twin desires to be recognized, and arrested, and stopped from hurting his world any more - and the other, darker desire, not carved into his skin but marked on him in a wholly different way.

He wanted to go back to Holland. He and Rhy’s final conversation… he had to prove him wrong, or right, one way or another. And he wouldn’t know without going back.

The rune pushed him on. He could feel it under his skin, in his bones, the compulsion to return as the early rays scattered the red glow from the Isle with flecks of light. It should have been unpleasant, or painful; if it had been either of those things he’d have been able to handle it better.

Instead, it was just a whisper, a voice in his ear and a sense of a hand pressed gently against his back, moving him forward, pushing him on. He had the books in his arms, a book on Antari history for him, a book of Arnesian war stories for Beloc. The voice whispered come home, kæreste, come home, come home to me.

Kell, whose knowledge of bone and body spells had largely been stopped at ‘they are illegal, the most absolute violation, and never ever use them’, had always thought they were endless agony until you did what you were told. He’d read about the way they felt, and it had always been about pressure, and pain. He had never known the compulsion did not have to hurt.

No wonder this was illegal in Red London. He could go mad from the soft voice in his skull that wouldn’t stop. He could imagine what anyone would do to get their bones to stop singing like this. Holland was right, when Kell had first woken up. Pain you could steel yourself against. This was so much worse.

His body was just following orders; it was harder for him to explain why he wanted to see him. The rune, after all, did not make him think or feel or want - he was doing that on his own.

This early, no one was really out. Only a few people wandered the streets, making their way towards the docks to head out on the fishing boats. Kell saw the baker that made those little sweet buns with crossed icing that Rhy loved so much and ducked himself down an alley, trying to ensure no one recognized him.

He hardly looked like himself, wearing the blue sweater and brown pants, the heavy boots that had never been his style, his coat folded over one arm in the warm air, a hat pulled down low with his hair pushed under it to make it less obvious. 

Come home, come home, come home.

“I’m coming, damn it. I liked it better when it burned,” Kell muttered, but of course he hadn’t. He had only been able to separate it better, then, cut the pain off and put it in its own place, associate that with Holland and with Rhy coming closer to him. The soft whispers, the low voice, those were much harder to handle.

It was the difference between the man who had hit him on Athos’s orders and the one who had stopped, in the middle of following Astrid’s, to laugh when Kell had assumed his past lover had been that king he’d only met once. It was the difference between the man that had made him beg for water and laughed at his fear the first day when he’d woken up, and the one that hugged him when they opened the doors over the Isle, in full view of the people watching, with that expression of open and honest joy on his face.

He could handle the first man; the second one was too close to what he’d always hoped Holland would turn out to be.

“I know you’re strong, Kell.” Rhy had sighed, blown some of his dark curls out of his eyes, watching Kell stare at himself in the mirror in the dimly lit room, waiting for the sun to rise. He sat up and the two brothers winced in unison as the motion made their shared hangover that much worse. “I just think that you should be careful. You've always had a soft spot for him."

Kell froze. He could see his brother in the mirror’s reflection behind him, his gentle good humor there as always, but a hint of concern and an understanding that was nearly pity. Kell bristled against it. “Who?”

"You know who."

"I haven't had a weakness for Holland, of all people!"

"I didn't call it a weakness. But… you’ve always looked at him and seen that it could be you. Always wanted him to treat you differently.”

This time, Kell did not protest. He only stared at himself, at the sweater Holland had given him to wear, mentioned the color matching his eye. That Holland had given it that much thought was incomprehensible to him, and he couldn’t decide if he hated the idea of having been on his mind, or if it was… well, if it would have been sort of sweet if the words had come from anyone else.

Had any girl ever noticed his eye color? Had the boy back at the festival seen both his eyes? Or had everyone always been more focused on the power in the black one, or on using Kell as a way to get closer to Rhy? 

Lila Bard didn't - but then maybe she'd just seen him as a way to be somewhere else. 

No. 

If that were true, she'd have taken the opening to leave when he went missing. She wouldn't stay because she felt obligated. No, Lila Bard was never anywhere other than precisely where she wanted to be.

Which meant she wanted to be here trying to rescue him. Kell, who had never had even one person show all that much interest in him before (unless you counted the hangers-on, the girls and boys who'd just wanted to be alone with a prince), was a little unsure what to do with the idea of one person planning a dashing rescue mission while the man she wanted to rescue him from could turn his skin and nerves into light and lightning.

“I don’t care about Holland,” Kell finally said, his voice as flat as he could make it, but the words didn’t quite ring true. 

“Don’t lie to me, I know you too well for that. You used to have this idea that you'd get him out of there and he'd be grateful, want to be friends.”

“You’ve seen where those ideas have gotten me,” Kell snapped, but closed his eyes. "Besides, I'm a grown man now and I don't feel that way any longer." They were running out of time before he had to go back, and being rude and angry with his brother was not how he wanted those last moments to go.

“Yes, you do. Holland didn’t kidnap you on his own,” Rhy pointed out. “He follows orders just the way you do, and I know you’re thinking that, too. You always thought you’d find some way to free him and he’d warm up to you and, I don’t know, you could sit around arguing about books and philosophy and ethics and brooding handsomely at each other the way you always dreamed. You spent days mooning over him the first time, when the last King before these two sent you away empty-handed."

"I did not moon over Holland Vosijk!"

"You did, you wrote his name on your papers over and over again. You didn’t even spell it right.”

“I did so, the J is mostly silent. How did you know about that?!”

“I stole your stuff all the time back then. You never talked about the Sanctuary, it was the only way I knew what you were up to over there!”

“You should have left my things alone, Rhy.”

“And you should stop having a fatal soft spot for people with a tragic history and a great jawline.” 

“I’m sorry, I should what? ! Are you suggesting-”

Rhy rolled his eyes. “You heard me and you know exactly what I am suggesting. Besides, that’s not the point. You wrote his name on your things. Even I didn't do that with Luc!"

"That smug arse was later, and you absolutely did, the tutor saw you writing Rhy Emery in your study books when you were seventeen. Why would you take his name, Rhy? You’re the fucking prince!”

“Hmph.” Rhy’s sparkling smile lit up his face. “In my defense, I was going through a short-lived phase where I had romantic dreams about running away with him to live like lovestruck commoners in the countryside.”

The anger in Kell died instantly, replaced by a vast well of baffled irritation. “You did?”

“Yes.” Rhy’s eyes went slightly distant, the way they always did when Alucard Emery came up in conversation, and the hint of affection on his face was enough to bring up the old pointless, helpless fury. One day he’d find out where Emery had gone and kill him for hurting Rhy in ways Kell had not been able to guard against or fix. “We were going to have a farm, with chickens and a cat and… goats.”

“With goats? Are you stark raving mad? ”

“I was seventeen when we fell for each other, Kell,” Rhy said, a little sadly. “Of course I was stark raving mad for him.”

I still am. The words hung between them, unspoken, and Kell did not think there were any deaths inventive enough for the arse that had broken his brother’s heart and not even had the grace to do so to his face.

“Besides,” Rhy continued, all his bright cheer right back like a mask he could take off and put on at will. “I will happily admit that I was mooning over Luc. What’s your excuse for pretending you didn’t do the same with Holland?”

“I was… I was still mostly a child, and I just hadn’t met one of us before. I did not moon . And anyway, I'm not mooning now. I'm a captive. He gives me orders and I have to obey them." As if in agreement, the whispered command had begun, sing-song like a lullabye, in the back of his mind. He swallowed hard against the gentle sweetness of Holland’s voice. "I don't think we have time for this conversation, and I cannot tell you how thankful I am for that."

“I’m sorry. I love you, Kell. You’re my brother, through and through, and I’m sending you back into a den of hungry wolves and that scares me. Just… try to remember… you can’t save him.”

“I’d prefer it if he’d try to save me ,” Kell muttered. "Sometimes I think he actually likes me, and he's just pretending not to-"

Rhy cleared his throat, and Kell realized a half-second too late what he’d said. His head jerked up and he glared at Rhy, damning his pale skin once again for flushing so much more easily than Rhy’s ever had. 

“Oh, shut it, Rhy! I’m not mooning!”

“Even if we deal with the Danes, Kell, even if Lila and I’s half-arsed plan works, I… we need to think about the possibility that Holland-”

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Kell interrupted him, squaring his shoulders. “If the time comes, I’ll deal with him myself.”

“You can’t hurt him.” Rhy’s eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t mean because of the rune. I mean I don’t think you can.”

“I’ve fought him a half-dozen times.”

His brother shrugged. "That was different. If it's just you you're fighting for, Kell, could you hurt him?"

Kell thought of asking Holland if he’d let him go, if he could. Kell pressed his fingertips against his own mouth, thinking. Holland had kissed him with a sense of desperation, and his words had been a little cracked.

“Don't rest your hopes on me doing the right thing,” Holland had whispered, nuzzling the side of his face, his skin feeling almost warm in the cold outside air in Makt. 

But what Holland meant, Kell had discovered, was more in what he didn’t say than what he did.

“I think he wants to do the right thing,” Kell said finally, softly. “I think he’s always wanted to do the right thing. His right thing just isn’t the same as mine.”

“That doesn’t make what he’s doing any better, and it sure as hell won’t save you from a dagger to your neck… our necks, really.”

“But what if we made the right thing the same?”

“What?”

“I can’t explain it. I need to go, he’s calling me. Rhy, if when I get back he wants-”

“Do you want me to stay awake? To be with you for it?” Rhy, mercifully, did not look right at him when he asked. “Because otherwise I’m going to drink this thing Tieren Serense gave me and try to be very much unconscious for at least the rest of the day." He shuddered, with a look of horrified disgust on his face. "Sanct, I hate sleep."

"What? Why? You used to sleep for half the day when they’d let you."

“I’ll tell you once you’re not… living there.” Rhy stared at him for a long time, then set his jaw and looked away. "Do you want me to stay awake? I will, if you want me to."

“Go ahead and sleep,” Kell said quietly. 

“I’ll take Lila your message,” Rhy said, picking up a cold wet cloth he’d had sitting on the side table and laying it over his eyes, sitting back to rest. Kell could almost feel the coolness as it soothed the pounding hurt behind both their eyes. “But you might want to ask yourself whether or not you really want me to give it to her.”

“Of course I do."

"Even if you're thinking about Holland Vosijk right now?"

“Oh, Sanct. Rhy, I-"

"What? Aren’t you? Thinking about him?" 

Kell glared at him and stayed silent.

"Huh. You're more like me than I thought."

"I feel like that's not a compliment."

"Of course it is. I'm amazing. If you're sure you want to see Miss Bard-"

"I do," Kell said. He wished he was wearing his coat so he could jam his hands in his pockets or slouch or do… something, but all he could do was sigh. “I want to tell her a lot of things. I want to see her look at me with her mouth all twisted up trying not to smile. I want to make her glare at me and push me around.”

Rhy was silent, but the cloth over his eyes shifted slightly and Kell knew exactly what sort of face he was making.

“Not like that. Your mind is trash. I… just want to see her, Rhy.”

“Then I’ll make sure we sneak her in soon and Holland doesn’t find out,” Rhy said, with a smile. “I’m an expert at sneaking girls into my room, after all.”

“Don’t forget the boys, Rhy.”

“Never, the boys are always so much more worried about getting caught, it’s sweet. The girls, though…” Rhy let out a breath, and Kell smiled. Some things never changed. “Oh, Kell, the girls are wicked.”

Kell, moving to the door that connected their rooms, ready to go into his private space and travel into London proper, paused briefly. He said over his shoulder, “Lila Bard definitely is,” and left Rhy sitting on the couch with cloth over his eyes and a smile on his face.

He knew where Holland was, and he headed for the water without hesitating, hunched into himself. He looked at no one, and hoped they did not see the black band around his neck for what it was. Rhy had, but Rhy knew what had happened to him. Maybe people on the street would just think choker-style necklaces were an up-and-coming trend, Kell thought to himself a little desperately.

That was, if they noticed him at all in the dimness, while they went through their own everyday routines. If anyone saw him any longer.

They didn’t know he was gone, did they? He’d seen no signs advertising a missing Antari. He’d seen nothing calling for his arrest. The king and queen had things wrapped up tightly, it seemed, and he didn’t know if he was relieved that they were clearly back to themselves or angry that they cared so little they wouldn’t even let the people know he was gone.

Holland was leaning against a wall, a brick building next to the river. He was wearing his usual parade of black and slightly less black, and Kell nearly caught his breath as the voice in his head suddenly became so loud he could hear nothing else, not even his own thoughts. Every bone in his body pushed him forward.

Come home, kæreste, come home, come home.

Kell walked up to him like a man walking into hell, his head high and the coat still folded over his arm. He dared any of the people wandering the streets so early to look up and see his black eye, know him for what he was, go running back to the castle to let them know their Antari was here where he shouldn’t be.

But if no one knew he was missing, no one would know he wasn’t supposed to be here except his parents… and the guards, maybe.

"You were supposed to call me to the tunnel," Kell said sharply. "Not out in the open like this."

“I like how your hair looks in the sunlight," Holland said with a shrug, a thin smile on his face when Kell flushed and looked away. "And I think what you meant to say was good morning.” Holland raised his head, looking up at him with the one brilliant green eye, the black seeming more like a shadow along his face. “Did you sleep well?”

“I hardly slept at all,” Kell said softly. Holland’s voice in his head, the compulsion pushing him along, was thankfully silent now. “Compulsion runes should be illegal. Bone and body magic should be illegal.”

“It is, here.”

“It should be illegal in Makt, too, and you know it.”

“I think it might actually be. But…” Holland spread his hands wide, shrugging. “The Danes’ word is law. They have always simply done what they want. Those who carve runes like theirs are usually the kinds of men who don’t care much what’s legal and what isn’t.”

“It feels-” 

“I know.” Holland looked away from him, over towards the red glow of the river. “Please trust I know exactly how it feels. How else would Astrid and Athos hold power, if they didn’t do it by something like this?”

“Holland, when you call me-”

“I know, I said. I know how it feels.” There was a pause, and then Holland’s eyes were back on him, thoughtful, considering. The empty face with the barest hint of hostility, and Kell relaxed at the familiarity. “So why didn’t you sleep? Too busy getting drunk with your brother?”

“We didn’t-”

“Yes you did. You’re hungover. You think I can’t tell?” Holland looked him over, and Kell felt himself flush again under the scrutiny. They said those with red hair turned red in the face more easily, too, and Kell himself was walking proof that it was true. "You cleaned your clothes." Holland's eyes narrowed. "I told you not to tell-"

"I didn't!" Kell put his hands up in an I'm-innocent gesture. "I didn’t, sir, I swear. I washed them myself. In the bathtub."

Holland raised one eyebrow in an absolutely perfect arch.

"And dried them with some fire I made. I swear I did."

Holland's eyebrow did not lower.

Kell turned around, wondering how many levels of embarrassment he could feel in the span of five minutes. "Look, you can see where I burned it. I was… very drunk. So... yes, I'm hungover."

Holland snorted, and when Kell looked up, he could have sworn he was suppressing a laugh. "Your brother didn't want to come see you off? He couldn’t think up anymore pointless empty threats to level against our queen?"

"She’s not my queen, and I asked him not to."

“Probably a wise plan. And yes. She is. Look, Kell." Holland gestured towards the Isle. 

Kell turned, feeling Holland slowly slide his arms around him from behind, staring towards the river. He swallowed against the feeling of the older Antari resting his chin on his left shoulder, the sudden brush of lips against his neck. His skin prickled everywhere he could feel the press of Holland against him. "What are you doing?"

"Making you incredibly uncomfortable," Holland said softly, nuzzling into Kell's hair. He only tightened his arms and Kell stood, stiff, heart in his throat. "Are you going to try and stop me?"

"No."

"Good. Do you want me to stop?"

Kell thought it was safer, for his own mind at least, if he didn't speak or even think an answer.

Holland took in a deep breath. "Can you feel it, Kell?"

He wanted to answer, all I can feel is your arms around me, but that sounded trite and ridiculous, not angry or mean like he'd want it to, and he’d rather die than have anyone ever know he’d thought it. And besides… he could. He could feel that the Isle was just a little less than it had been. No doubt Tieren Serense and his priests would be able to feel it, too, once Rhy told them to look - and eventually they’d take what had happened to the king and queen, and Kell would be revealed for the traitor he was.

“I can.”

“Don’t sound so guilty. I made you do it, didn’t I?” The arms around him tightened, just slightly, and then he pulled away, walking away from Kell down an alley. “When it’s all over, you can blame me.”

“I already do.”

“Good. Come.” Holland didn’t look back, trusting that Kell would be on his heels. Kell, ashamed of himself for having ever thought Holland was going to let him win the fight, kept his head down and his eyes on the backs of Holland’s boots.

Behind him, the sound of the Isle, the constant nonstop flowing water, thundered by. The sun began to shine directly on the water, lighting it up into millions of red diamonds. Kell wondered if he could have seen the Sijlt’s dead water filtering in, if he’d looked from the right angle.

The Isle was a little less, and Kell was the reason, and who knew what would happen with the Sijlt’s water here? Magic did not have thoughts, not like people did, but it had a will . Kell had made spells work before by essentially begging the magic to listen. It could have an intention . Magic had balanced with Kell’s world, and rejected Holland’s, and magic reflected the world it was in. 

If the magic of a cruel place found itself in a softer one, what would it do?

Holland stopped in front of a blank wall, pulling out his knife, cutting his arm easily and without hesitation, drawing the symbol on the wall. Kell watched him, thinking of the scars that ran up and down the heavily muscled forearms. To scar like that, you had to cut an Antari so deeply their skin could not keep up, and keep cutting until the blood gave up healing and focused entirely on keeping Holland alive.

Holland had never had a choice, had he? From the first letter he’d brought himself from the Danes to Maxim and Emira, he’d been under compulsion, following orders he loathed, with those white twins breathing down his neck. At the first visit Kell had made, when the old king was still alive, Holland had been a brilliant spark in Kell’s eyes, everything he’d ever wanted to be. Kell had tried to joke, to pretend at power he didn't totally grasp yet, defend himself against the judgement  and derision on their faces. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Holland for days, Rhy hadn’t been wrong about that.

About the way their eyes felt when they met, the click of two rocks together, the spark inside his head. 

He hadn't been wrong either that Kell had once thought maybe when he grew a little older Holland would want to know him.

That version of Holland, the man who had looked at him with an obvious disdain for Arnes and the abandonment its existence represented, had sent Kell away empty-handed. Kell had told himself he’d come back later to see him again, to learn more about how to have the kind of power Holland had, but he’d never managed to muster up the courage. He’d been too nervous at the idea of seeing him again.

It's nice to meet someone like me.

I'm not like you at all.

Then, the Danes came. The next time he saw Holland, the broad-shouldered powerful Antari was pale, shadowed, and withdrawn. He’d been limping, that first time he'd come to Arnes after the Danes took over, and Kell had never known Antari could be hurt badly enough to limp and still be standing at all. 

Kell had known he was tortured and compelled but he'd never understood it, not really. He did now.

I could have tried to rescue him, but I never did. I told myself it wasn’t my business and I looked away. I could have tried...

Who knows if I could have saved him? I never even tried.

That's what we are, in Arnes. We see the suffering worlds and ignore them. We don't want to see. We never even try.

Holland finished drawing the symbol and turned, holding his hand out to Kell. He was wearing those odd fingerless gloves, and as Kell put his hand into Holland’s, he could feel the leather and wool scratch against his skin. “I have something I want to show you,” Holland said with an odd light to his eyes, a light that reminded him of the Holland he had been so dazzled by when he was younger. “I want to show you what we did, together.”

“I saw it,” Kell said uneasily. “I saw it yesterday. I don’t want to look at it again. Can’t we just go back-”

“No. You haven’t seen it, not really. You have to see it now.” Kell swallowed against a sudden nervous lump in his throat.

He can’t save me. As long as what we’re doing helps his world, he doesn’t want to - not me or even himself.

Holland turned back to the wall, putting his free hand out, speaking the words. “ As Travars, ” Kell echoed him, a half-beat behind, and the two of them stepped through. Rhy’s heart was already beating more slowly within his chest; he must have already taken Tieren Serense's concoction and gone to sleep. In the twist of forever-and-not-at-all that was traveling between worlds, Kell thought-

He is going to be inhumanly smug when I finally admit he’s right about me.

They stepped out into Makt, the whole world suddenly gone pale and wan around them. The weak yellow sun shone down without much warmth, and Kell pulled his coat on to guard against the chill. “We can just go back to the palace-”

“No,” Holland said softly. “No. Go to the water and look.”

“Holland, I don’t want to.”

“But I do. So go.”

In Makt, the buildings were clustered further back from the river than they were in Arnes. He could hear people, and frowned as they came out of the alley into a crowd. Kell had been in White London enough times to know that a crowd here was usually a sign that someone was bleeding or already dead.

“Why are they here?”

“To look at the river. To look at what you did.” He put a hand against Kell’s back, moving forward alongside him, as the people moved aside. Kell walked tense with his shoulders nearly up to his chin, waiting for the attack, for the people to fall on them and try to suck the magic out of their skin. Makt’s people only watched the two of them, whispering behind their hands, mothers pulling children back but without the spitting insults they’d heard before.

The look was different now. It was the way the people at home looked at him when he walked, a little frightened but still impressed, and happy that he was their Antari . Or that he had been, he guessed.

He heard one whisper to another, in Maktahn he largely understood even through the rough, thicker accents of the common people, " Praise the Danes for bringing the demons to heel."

Did they think we were demons before? Or do they think that because of what the Danes make Holland do?

Kell stepped forward with Holland’s hand still at his back. He stared at the river Sijlt, the dead water he’d seen a hundred times before, and at first he thought he might be hallucinating.

The river was running faintly pink across its entire breadth, glowing very faintly, and the air had the slightest hint of something sweet.

Kell stared, mouth hanging open, at a riverbank absolutely covered in wildflowers.

Chapter Text

There were so many flowers.

He couldn’t even have counted them. They grew in patches, a riot of morning glories and daisies and flowers he couldn’t even name. Some of them were only as tall as his ankles, some of the flowers clung to vines that climbed what he could have sworn were sapling trees that hadn’t even been there the day before. One of the saplings even had small pears wearing down its weak, thin branches. The wildflowers began about forty feet down from the place he and Holland had opened the doors and continued along the riverbanks on both sides until the river curved and was out of his sight.

The city was drab, and dreary, and half the water was clear to the bottom and dead. The people were pale and drawn and sharp-eyed, as like to cut each other to bits as to show an ounce of compassion. But the river was suddenly lined with flowers, and Kell could see the color of the ground had changed as the water soaked into it, bit by bit. Back up by the road it had been a grayish dirt studded with bits of ash, drifting like snow from a thousand meager chimneys to rest.

Next to the river, it was a rich brown. Even the texture had changed.

“What the hell is this?” His voice came out a whisper. He saw a man cutting his own wrist, then dipping the open wound into the water, calling excitedly over his shoulder to gesture others forward. The man turned around, and with some visible effort raised dirt straight from the ground, formed it into a ball, and let it drop again. Another man pushed him to the side to get at the water, too, and it rapidly turned into a fistfight.

“Magic.” Holland’s voice was hushed. “They started growing after I took you to your brother yesterday, and they haven’t stopped. Someone saw a redbird fly by this morning. I’ve only ever seen birds a handful of times, no one's seen a redbird in decades. I don't know where they went, Kell, but magic is bringing them back."

Holland pulled him forward and he went with him, not even thinking to resist, allowing himself to be led. Every flower growing here, he thought, was one more flower that would not grow back home. Every bird or animal was stolen. Kell’s world was full of flowers - but how many could they stand to lose?

“These all grew… over one night?”

“One night.” There was a gentleness in his face, and Kell thought, for the first time, that maybe Holland was the sort of person who used to laugh, and the laughter had drained out of him with time. “Can you imagine what will happen in a week? Or two? Or in a month when we’ve opened more doors? In a year?"

Kell felt a sick lurch in his stomach. A year? Months and months afraid to leave Holland's room without him and half-afraid of being with him, too? Months of time in that white throne room, cutting his wrist to quench the thirst of killers? 

A year of dodging Athos's interest and Astrid's sharp, focused gaze?

A year seemed an impossibly long time to live in hell, and Holland had been there for seven.

Sanct, why did we never even think about finding a way to save him?

Velsignet, ” The people around them were saying, almost chanting, as though he and Holland were something more than human, or less. “ Velsignet, dæmonerne er velsignet.

“What are they saying, Holland? I don’t know that word-”

“Blessed,” Holland said simply. “They are calling us blessed.”

Directly over the river, starting directly over the doors, the sky was a thin thread of bright and brilliant blue. It turned gray and weak again further down, but it was blue over the Sijlt, and the Sijlt was nearly totally pink from bank to bank. Sometime last night, it must have begun to glow, if only faintly, perhaps so faintly you could hardly tell at all.

Kell was a thief and a smuggler and now a traitor for sure. He had stolen magic from one place to give to another, and these people were calling him - he and Holland, the man who had carved obedience into his shoulder blade on the orders of a monstrous king and queen - blessed.

The world reeled around him and only Holland’s hand, steady against his back, kept him standing. “I’m not blessed.” His voice was a mumble.

“But the world can be,” Holland murmured.

Aven, aven, my beautiful boy, an old voice sang in the back of his mind, warm arms that had held him before he was given away. Sold? He didn't know.

“I’ve done something terrible.” Kell couldn’t stop the words. 

“No, we’ve done something wonderful. Look at what you did, Kell. Look at what we did. ” Holland picked a flower and held it out to him. Even as he pulled it from the ground, another green shoot popped up to take its place, unfurling new leaves, a new flower bud already beginning to open. He took it with numb fingertips, looking at the blue petals, tilting his head. He’d seen flowers just like this back home; they were called something, some name he couldn’t quite recall, and flower-sellers sold them in heavy bunches to children who’d resell them for a copper or two further in the city. “Magic can come back to us. This is why we have to open the doors, do you see?”

Kell stared at the flower. “I…” His voice trailed off before he could finish the thought. When he saw this - the parade of flowers, the happy people looking hopeful, the look on Holland's face - he could almost say yes. 

The petals were not as blue as the sky, something a little pale, faded. He twirled the stem slowly in his hands, watching the petals circle around. Then he looked up at the river. How much can Arnes lose before they notice?

“It’s the same as your eye,” Holland said quietly, and Kell’s gaze jerked up suddenly to meet his. The people were still watching them, and Holland had moved back, just slightly, a careful distance. “The flower is. All the blue flowers look like that, like you.”

He should say something - protest - point out that what they were doing was wrong. But all he could see was a version of Holland he’d never truly believed existed. 

Holland Vosijk was happy.

There were children playing by the water’s edge, splashing the pinkish water at each other, laughing. Children always laugh, he thought dumbly, no matter how terrible the world, no matter how dark. But this world was less dark for them than it had been yesterday, wasn’t it? And Kell’s was a little dimmer in return. The glow of the Isle had seemed nearly the same, only a little darker, but… how many doors could they open? What if-

One of the children threw up her arms and a spray of pink water arced over her head before falling back to the river. The crowd let out a hushed gasp and then cheered, but Kell had seen that the girl was not the one who had done it - there was a boy, not quite adolescent, just at the edge of the crowd. It had been the boy who had moved his mouth just slightly and gestured, and the water had answered his call. Kell had never seen magic used in Makt that didn't have to be forced out with blood.

But Kell could see the boy's arms, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows, and there were no scars there, no markings, no symbols carved in to try and force thin magic out through his skin. Nothing carved in him at all. He did not seem to struggle. This was effortless for him. The magic worked through him, an extension of his thoughts, and Kell watched his profile as he looked at the girl and made the water dance around her again.

No one seemed to know it was him. No one was looking at the boy but Kell.

And Holland.

"Going to get his brains bashed in or worse if he doesn't take care," Holland muttered. 

Maybe magic never really rejected them. Maybe it really was our fault for blocking them off when Black London had to be closed. We murdered a world, but it didn’t have the grace to die quickly. 

“What if there’s not enough magic for both worlds?” He asked, and his voice was hoarse. “Holland, what if there isn’t enough?”

Holland tilted his head, thoughtfully, then reached out and took the flower back out of Kell’s hand. “Then mine will survive,” He said gently, and tucked the flower behind Kell’s ear. “We will master your magic and your people. And you will be here with me.”

"Holland," Kell said, putting his hand up to touch the flower at his ear. "You can't master it. You have to balance-"

"Unmastered magic once ate a world. Your balance is a slow rot, and you’ll end up like them one day if you keep trying to be friends with it."

"Your mastery was a fast death. You’ll end up like them, just without any magic at all, because you’ll all be dead.”

"You are magic's master or its slave, Kell, and I am tired of slavery." Holland's eyes narrowed. 

"Then why do you enjoy having one?"

He felt a rush of pride at reducing Holland to speechlessness. "I… don't."

"Don't lie to me. You forget who you're talking to . Your name is on my back. "

"That wasn’t my idea.”

“No, but you’ve enjoyed it well enough, haven’t you?”

“No, it's… it's the having control over something- anything - not..." Holland's voice trailed off, and Kell smiled grimly when he looked away. 

There was a hush from the crowd. In a single smooth motion, Holland plucked the flower away from Kell’s ear, turned around, and went down on one knee on the ground. He grabbed Kell by the hand and pulled him down, too.

Kell had so often been with Rhy and Maxim and Emira that he was more used to being bowed to than to bowing, but by the time the Danes made their way through the parting crowd, he was down on one knee, too, clutching his books to his chest with one arm, fear a cold snake coiled around his stomach.

The king and queen were on pure white horses, surrounded by their mindless guards on every side, at least two dozen of them. The horses were gigantic, shaggy-haired war horses that were more common here than the sleek purebred creatures Kell had grown up riding. These were warhorses built to ride into battle, and the Danes seemed perfectly suited for them, in saddles that were wrought of fine soft leather.

Athos dismounted first, tossing the reins to a guard, who caught them in one hand but otherwise was frozen and empty. He wore a fur-lined cloak that he slid off and tossed to a different guard, never looking, simply assuming, knowing his will would be done. He was wearing a heavy golden crown on his head, and even the crown had faded into a pale gold that was nearly silver. His blue eyes sparkled with mirth.

He held out a hand to Astrid, riding sidesaddle, who took it with a smile and slid off her own horse with consummate grace. She wore a white dress that was cut to show off her pale shoulders, fitting snugly at the waist and flowing like liquid to the ground. The skirt slid up, just enough, for Kell to see she was wearing pants underneath. Her own crown sparkled in the faint sunlight with faded gemstones. The black veins on their hands and around their eyes stood out more than ever this morning, and Kell wondered who they had had to drink the night before. 

Then he looked at Holland’s pale face and knew the answer to that question without ever needing to ask.

“Holland Vosijk,” Astrid said warmly, bidding them to rise. She spoke with genuine affection, as though they were all old friends. Holland looked back at her, emotionless as a mountain, as she kissed each side of his face in turn. “Kell Antari. ”  Kell held himself still at the freezing brush of her lips against one cheek and then the other. “My brother and I have come to witness the rebirth of our kingdom.” She turned and looked to the crowd, holding up one hand. Air blew up around her, blowing multi-colored flower petals in a spiral around here whipping her carefully braided hair. The crowd went silent.

“Always the dramatics, Astrid,” Holland muttered at Kell’s side.

Astrid turned and began speaking to the crowd, and Kell stared wide-eyed at the change in her. Speaking to her people, she was still terrifying, but something in her was warmer, maternal, welcoming. Her voice, sharp as a knife, was melodic and fluid now. He didn't try to really listen; he knew what she was saying, in the end.

He’d seen Maxim give speeches like this - hell, he’d seen Rhy give speeches like this, the people following with rapturous eyes. These people might be scared of Astrid, but they followed her words with that same awed reverence. She had cut her way to the throne and killed the king already there, but that was the way of things in Makt, and now...

“If the harvests improve and there’s magic in the river,” Holland murmured, “Astrid will be the queen they bow to.”

“And Athos?” Kell kept his lips from moving as much as he could. Neither of the monarchs noticed; their attention was solely on the crowd. Astrid continued to speak while Athos stood to her side, one hand on the sword at his hip, loose white hair gently blown by the warm breeze coming off the Sijlt, every inch the warrior king. Even Kell might have been fooled if he couldn’t still remember the feeling of Athos dragging cold fingers through the blood on his back, the pleased smile on his face, half-lidded eyes dark with a lust for something much worse than pleasure.

“Athos would not be king if Astrid were not queen,” Holland said softly. “He has too little control over his own darkness without her influence. But they will bow to him, too. They'll tell themselves the missing fell in the river, or wandered off on the cold. As long as there's food and magic, they'll forgive him anything."

“You’re giving them more power. They’ll never be taken down if they can do this, bring this with them. If they can bring magic back, we’ll be trapped here forever-”

“I know,” Holland said, and his voice was empty. “You forget. From the moment they laid the rune into my chest, I’ve never expected I wouldn’t be.” He paused, turning his head to meet Kell’s eyes. “It’s worth it, Kell.”

“Is it?” Kell fought the mix of clashing Antari powers and the desire to simply melt into Holland’s. “Is it worth it to be ground under their heels forever? Is this all you were meant for?”

Holland leaned over a little, and their fingers just barely brushed. Holland’s were cold as ice in the chill air. “If it saves my world, it has to be.”

Kell had plenty of magic, the force to remake things. But… Holland had the power and knowledge he didn't, and the willpower to do whatever it took.

“Match force with will,” Kell said softly. “Right? I'm force, you're will."

“Right. I need you… in order to do this, I need you.” Holland looked back, settling his face back into empty boredom just as Athos turned to look at them. Kell struggled to empty his expression, too, heart pounding, and Athos smiled at them both before he turned back to the crowd. When Astrid finished her speech, with a tremor in her voice that suggested, with careful planning, that she was overcome by emotion and could speak no more, Athos stepped up and spoke, briefly. 

The crowd cheered at whatever he said, and Kell felt sick. He looked to the side, and blinked with surprise as he saw the boy who had called the water earlier watching him from the edge of the crowd, a bundle of bright flowers in his hands, a solemn expression on his face. He'd been looking the other way before, but Kell could see now he had an eyepatch. A flash of red caught Kell's eye and he realized the boy had cut himself across the wrist, just slightly, with a tiny little knife. When he did... 

The boy had magic in him, really in him, not given by the river, the kind of magic people in Arnes took for granted. No, even more than that. Kell could feel, as their eyes met, a simple click. Stones knocking into each other. He knew it immediately; it was the way he’d felt when he was young and looked right at Holland.

You're like me. We are like each other. There is another one in the world.

The boy turned and pushed back into the crowd and was gone. “Holland, did you see-” Kell moved to follow him, curiosity overtaking common sense.

“No,” Holland snapped with real anger, grabbing onto his arm with a steel grip. “And if you are smart, you didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, either. Just another child burned up by the plague. Don’t you dare go after him. Don’t you dare let them notice you saw him.”

“But I was sure he was-"

“My orders are to bring anyone I verify as Antari to them immediately.” Holland’s voice was so low even Kell could barely hear him. Their heads were nearly touching, Holland’s black hair brushing against his forehead as he leaned in close. “If I get too close to him, I’ll have to drag him before their throne whether I want to or not. Do you know what they will do to a child Antari? How they would twist him? When you first came to see them-” Holland’s voice caught, shaking, anger layered over guilt and regret and fear. All the pain and defiance, all the rage he so carefully schooled out of himself, was laid bare. "Athos didn’t even want to use… this.” He tapped on his own chest, over the mark they both knew was hidden under his shirt. “He practiced.”

“Practiced?”

“Cutting the tendons to keep someone from ever running again.”

“... when you say he practiced, do you mean…”

“Yes. He practiced on people.” Holland closed his eyes, took a deep breath, opened them again. His expression was faded and empty again. “I buried them. I always bury them.”

“Those people… because of me ?” He’d been the cause of murders he hadn’t even known about. Kell’s whole body felt cold and hot all at once with guilt and self-loathing. He’d sat at their table, drank their offered wine, with Holland standing by the wall watching him, knowing there were people who’d been slaughtered just to give Athos a greater knowledge on how to hurt him.

Then he’d left, stumbling home drunk through the streets of Makt until he reached the wall he needed to travel through, and Holland must have watched him go - had probably tailed him, knowing the Danes, been ordered to track him to the exact wall he used - knowing he’d buried those people with his own hands, and Kell didn’t know and would never think to ask or even care what happened when he wasn't there.

“Astrid is the only reason you can still walk. She wanted you older. You’re color and life and breathe magic like I bleed it. They want all of us, any of us they find, forever. And if they get him, they will order us to hurt him until he learns . Do you understand what they will make us do to teach a child like us?"

Kell swallowed, remembering Holland's insistence, when Kell was younger and had begged him to teach him the commands he knew and Kell didn’t, that he would never ever have taught a child through suffering, the way he had learned. “I understand. That’s why you refused to teach me.” 

“One reason. I wanted you to be too ignorant to be of interest to her. Also, I find children immensely annoying.”

“I was hardly a child.

“You were all of fifteen at most, Kell. The third time you rolled your eyes at me I’d have melted you into a wall. Listen to me - I saw nothing , and neither did you. Nothing. Just another part of the crowd. I will not force a child to live like us because of what I've done."

“But you’ll force me?”

Holland looked away. “Yes.”

“What if you needed him to save your world, too?”

“Then I’d do whatever it took,” Holland hissed, in a sudden flash of anger. Or… was that guilt? “I’d drag him before them myself and hand him over to Athos, if it would save this world. Your world can afford weak people, but mine can’t. But we don’t, Kell, we don’t need him, or anyone else but you and I.”

“There has to be a different way to do this. A way that doesn’t mean… what we’ve done. We can figure this out-”

“You’ll be enough. I only have to hurt you. ” Holland put cold fingers up to the side of his face, apparently unaware of the crowd any longer. Kell heard a hiss and some whispered words he didn’t know. “I only have to hurt us .” That was guilt, another emotion Kell hadn’t even thought Holland Vosijk could have any longer, once upon a time. 

“What do you mean, us?

"Whatever monster you think I am, this isn’t what I wanted my life to be either, you know." Holland dropped his hand just as Athos turned to look at them, and Kell realized they’d been caught with their heads together, Holland’s expression one of anger and urgency, his own worry and fear.

 Athos smiled brightly, flashing teeth the same white as his skin, the black veins around his eyes crinkling a little. “Welcome back, Kell Antari, ” Athos said cheerfully, thick accent sing-songing the words with morbid good cheer, walking over to them. Astrid looked on, serene and regal as Emira on her best days, but with an aura of cruelty in the air around her that never quite left. “Or I should say welcome home, shouldn’t I? Have you come to see your handiwork?” He reached out, grazing the side of Kell's face with his knuckles, chuckling when Kell managed, barely, not to reject the touch. His stomach dropped with fear and flipped in a sudden nausea. He could hear the crowd talking, the word for ‘demon’ he had heard them use for Holland, and thought they were talking about this, the look that must be written across his face at Athos’s awful touch.

Their voices were disgusted - and envious.

In a world like this, do they hate this moment because he is a degenerate monster who keeps us for the joy of causing pain, or do they love him for having power like ours so utterly under his control?

“H-Holland brought me." Kell found himself unconsciously shifting closer to the older Antari , as though Holland could ever have protected him from this. As though he would have.

Wouldn’t he? Wasn’t that why he hadn’t carved their names in, too? Or had that just been petty defiance for its own sake, and nothing to do with Kell at all?

"Holland's very proud of himself," Athos said mildly. "And of you. He seems to think quite highly of you." Athos pressed his thumb against Kell’s lower lip, looking at the slight dip he’d made in the skin. Kell felt his stomach heave and closed his eyes. The hand holding the books clutched as tightly as it could, while his other hand slowly closed into a fist. He could hear Holland’s breathing beside him, and tried to focus on it. His face burned to be touched like this in front of a crowd. 

Someone spat in their direction, and Kell heard a shouted curse. He didn’t understand the words, but the tone told him enough.  Athos jerked his head minutely, with only the slightest darkening of the humor in his eyes, and two guards broke from the ranks of the mindless, dragging the offending man away.

The crowd quieted after that. 

Kell wondered if the boy with the eyepatch was still in the crowd, watching. Wondered what he had done with the line of blood welling up on his arm.

“Oh, look at that,” Athos said, gently. "He’s a dead man, now. Not right away, of course. They never die right away.” His thumb rubbed back and forth on Kell’s bottom lip, slowly. Kell felt frozen in his line of sight. “Oh, pretty thing. You can’t hide how much you want to fight back. Not from me.” He tilted his head, smiling kindly, pushing his thumb slowly past Kell’s lips. His skin felt like ice. He pressed it down on his tongue and Kell nearly gagged as the taste of copper and iron flooded his mouth. “What if you bit me? I want you to. I want you to fight me, just like Holland used to try and fight me.” He leaned in just a little more closely, pushing down harder. Kell jerked his head down, just trying to lessen the pressure. Athos chuckled. “Look at you bow your head to me. Good boy, but I wish you weren’t so good."

"You can't beat obedience out of him, Athos," Astrid said warmly. Thankfully she moved no closer; Kell thought his heart would give out if it pounded any harder than this.

"Mmmn, no, sadly not. But I could make him art."

"I do love the colors you coax from skin," Astrid said a little softly. "But is now the time?"

"All times are the time."

"Words only, for now," Astrid chided gently. "We can create art later, dear heart."

"As you wish," Athos murmured, without a hint of anger or unhappiness. "Whatever you want, Astrid, always."

"Whatever you want," Astrid replied with a voice full of warmth and love and light.

They're monsters, Kell thought, and they love each other so much.

Kell could only stare sullenly at a spot somewhere in the center of Athos’s chest. The thumb pushed further into his mouth, pulling at the side of it just slightly, daring him to try and free himself. He closed his eyes, trying to pretend he was not shaking with fear, that he was braver than this. Cold fingers closed along the side of his face, fingertips resting just against the angle of his jaw.

“Well?” Athos said softly. “Shall we see if you suffer as well as my Holland? Shall we see if it takes you less time to start screaming? I have no plans this evening and I have always wanted to get to know you better. We never know the nature of a man so well as we do when they are screaming for mercy underneath us."

Holland stepped between them, smoothly and with no expression, moving with a careful deliberation. “Please don’t do this,” He said softly, reaching up to put a hand on Athos's arm and push it gently down. “People are watching. Please. Please, Athos. Not to him. Not in front of everyone.” Kell stared at the back of his head with dull shock. Sanct, he actually would protect me from them if he could.

Athos raised an eyebrow, dropping his hand back to his side. He glanced at the crowd, then back to Holland, but his expression had shifted just slightly, gone uneasy and uncertain. “You think they’ll turn on me?”

“No.” Holland’s voice was mild, unoffended, respectful. “Not today, not with the river. But I think you might encourage them to think about it. Your tastes are already legend here. Don't remind them of what has happened to their missing family members."

“But he's mine ."

"Kell is not yours." Holland's voice was low. “That was not the agreement we made.”

"Sadly, no. I suppose he is yours, instead. A true pity, he’s wasted on you. But my sister was very insistent, and Astrid must always have her way, hm?" Those soullessly cruel eyes were back on Kell, but Athos kept his distance this time. "What is he like, Hol? Does he fight you?

Holland swallowed, hard. “No.”

“Too bad.” Athos clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Is skin with no scars even worth the touching? Does he at least make sounds worth hearing?"

“I don’t want to talk about this,” Holland said quietly, shifting his posture just a little to block Kell as much as he could. 

“When have we ever given a damn what you wanted to talk about?”

“Athos.” Holland’s voice was still calm, but Kell could hear it begin to waver, just a little. “The crowd.”

“I don’t care what they know,” Athos said softly, stepping closer. “It’s just a testament to the power we have, isn’t it? That even our Antari must submit.”

“Athos, stop it. This isn’t becoming of a king-...” Holland’s voice faltered as Athos’s smile dropped and his face went cold, the blue eyes suddenly inhuman and angry. “My apologies, your Majesty. I was impertinent.”

“Damn straight. Astrid has always been soft on you, letting you mouth off like you’re part of us. She's always had a soft spot for you. But you know better with me , don’t you?”

Holland’s jaw was a grim line. “Yes. I do. If I could take Kell back-”

“Don’t you want to bask in the adoration of the crowds?” Athos leaned down to pluck a flower, watching with fascination as another grew immediately, rapidly, to fill its place. “I know I do. I’ve always been a fan of basking. My sister and I will be taking a ride through the city to see our adoring subjects. Much more adoring this morning, I should say, than they were the day before… thanks to the two of you. You should come with us. Take credit where it’s due, after all.” He dropped the flower, crushed it under one of his boots into the ground. 

“But it was your idea, your Majesty,” Holland’s hand slid press lightly against Kell’s back. At least one person here did not actively want to hurt him all the time. His mouth still tasted like metal.

“Was it?” Athos blinked, puzzled. 

“Of course,” Holland said smoothly. “That is what all the crowds will say, and every history book ever written about it. It’s what I will say. It was your idea - not mine, or Astrid’s. Yours.” He paused. “You’ll be remembered as a king of true power and vision, her equal in every way, and my name will never be mentioned at all. Antari are just weapons, after all. Who names a weapon? May we take our leave, your Majesty? This is your victory to enjoy, not ours, and neither of us slept much last night.”

Athos smiled at him, but it was a darker-edged thing. “Oh, Holland.” He put a hand on his shoulder, slowly closing until his fingernails were digging into Holland’s coat, thumb rubbing against the cloth in affectionate circles. Holland only stared back, right into his eyes, with an expression of absolute emptiness, nearly as mindless-seeming as the guards in their armor. Kell wondered how long it had taken Holland to look at him like that, without fear, but with nothing else, either. “You always know just what to say to a man, don’t you?”

“You taught me what you wanted to hear.”

“I adore you, Hol. I’m so glad we left you alive,” Athos chuckled, patting Holland’s shoulder once, and then turned, looking out over the newly pink river. “Go.”

Astrid shared a look of consummate satisfaction with Athos and went back to speaking with members of the crowd that had pressed forward to see them more closely. The two of them, the shining white twins with their giant warhorses and horde of guards standing at perfect attention, looked like something out of a painting. The king and queen of Makt, black-veined and cruel, keepers of demons who brought magic back to the world.

Someone was probably going to write a song about this.

Holland had always walked quickly, and Kell had always had to nearly jog to keep up with him. That was no different today, except that Kell was already hurrying, trying to get away from them - and the crowd of worshipful citizens celebrating the wildflowers stolen from the Isle - as quickly as he could.

By the river, the shining white twins celebrated the rebirth of a world surrounded by vicious, happy people; and the two Antari who had actually caused it to happen moved through the empty streets and alleyways, unnoticed.

They made it about halfway back before Holland stopped, took a deep breath, and shoved Kell up against a wall in an alley. 

“H-Hol-” He didn’t get the word out before Holland’s mouth was on his, hands dropping to slide up underneath his sweater, fingers like ice against his stomach, sliding around his back, trailing over his spine. He gripped more tightly onto the two books he’d brought back with him, closing his eyes, trying to pull back. “Nnngh- Holland, stop-

“Do you get to decide when we stop?” Holland asked in a whisper. 

“No, no- I-... no sir-” 

“No.” Holland didn’t let go, but he pulled back, some inward battle written across his face. “You don’t. I do. We did it, Kell, you and I can remake the world, and if I have to let the two of them have it, they can, I just- I'm so tired-” Holland kissed him again, and this time it was harder to try and pull away, and Kell just gave up, melted into it, tried not to think about the cold brick wall at his back and the warming fingers against his spine pushing his hips closer to Holland’s.

“We need to go back to the-”

“They can have the crowds,” Holland breathed into his ear. “I never wanted to be king, I just wanted everything to wake back up. It has to be worth it.” Kell exhaled, softly, at the feeling of the rush of warm air against his skin, glad that Rhy’s heart was still slow and steady, that his brother was asleep and had taken whatever it was Tieren had given him to keep him there. He wouldn't know, this time. This time, Kell didn’t have to worry about who could feel him giving in. “I just wanted the world to wake up, that’s all.” .

Kell dropped the books he'd been gripping, hearing them thump to the ground. He closed his eyes, letting his own hands press forward to feel Holland’s stomach, the lukewarm skin peppered with old and new scars, ribs that he could feel as a kind of ripple up his sides, more visible than they should have been for someone as tall and muscular as Holland. Somehow, it was easier every time he touched him. “Please… let me go. I don't want to learn to live like this.” He let his hands linger on the old striped scars layered on Holland’s back, trailed fingers back around to the front, slid one hand down slowly over the front of his pants.

Holland took in a quick breath. Kell could feel him hardening under his hand.

He wouldn’t have to think if he did this, which meant he wouldn’t have to feel guilty, or know that Rhy was feeling everything alongside him, or know anything at all but Holland’s touch. He was starting to understand why Rhy sought new people out when he was feeling sad about Luc again.

“I can’t let you go. I have orders.” It was all Holland said, but Kell was learning to read between the lines. I can’t wasn’t the same as I don’t want to. 

"Then just stop hurting me," Kell said, biting down hard on his lower lip when Holland's hand found its way to him, too. "You don't need to do that to have control over me." 

“If they decide to look too long at you, I want you to withstand it. Mercy just makes it worse. You can't learn to trust someone. It will be your death, if you trust me. There’s no kindness left here. I'm as bad as they are. I'm worse."

“That’s not true ,” Kell said, and tried to get Holland to look him in the eyes again. “You stepped in front of me, back there.” He slid one hand up over the symbol carved into Holland’s chest. “No one’s too far gone.”

“I just want you to tell me-” Holland’s voice caught, their faces an inch apart, before he kissed him again. Kell opened his mouth for Holland’s, wishing he was warmer, loving that he was cold.

“Tell you what?” He whispered, their mouths still brushing, shivering in a way that had nothing to do with the chill in the air.

“Tell me-” Holland trailed his mouth down his neck, tongue over the nearly-healed bruise he’d made, and Kell groaned, pushing forward into the grip of his hand, the pressure of his mouth. His own hand tightened, and he felt the faint vibration against his neck when Holland hummed, softly, in appreciation.

There as a faint cheer from down by the river, and Kell had to stop thinking. If he didn’t he’d never be able to get Emira’s voice out of his head saying he is not our son and he’s not really your brother, the look on Rhy’s face when he’d seen the band around his neck, how it had felt to walk through his own streets knowing he was a traitor and it wasn’t home anymore... the people at the river declaring him blessed… the way the Isle was dimming, and it wouldn’t be too much longer before Tieren Serense told Maxim what Kell had done-

Just stop thinking so much. Drown it out. 

“Tell you what?”

“Tell me,” Holland murmured, pressing a kiss to his forehead, “that I’m not hopeless. You said I wanted to be noble, before, that I wanted them to think better of me than what I am."

Holland’s free hand went under his shirt, gripping onto his shoulder blade, one cold palm pressed into the rune he’d carved into Kell’s skin, while the other moved, slowly, over him. “Is that a… haaaah, an order, sir?” Kell whispered, arching his back as Holland bit, just slightly, at his earlobe, stretched between the sparks that lit everywhere he touched him.

“No." Holland nuzzled against the side of his face, sought his mouth again. "It’s a question.”

You can’t save him from himself, Rhy had said. In the moment, back in Rhy's room, he'd believed him. But here was Holland, hands on him, with a shaking voice and guilt in his eyes, asking if there was still hope. He was going to drown in that black eye, or in the green one, and he wasn’t sure which and he wasn’t sure he cared.

I just want to stop thinking for a while. 

“I don't know,” He said softly. “All I know is that I still want to save you."

Holland stared at him, with the same look of unsettling intensity he’d had when Kell had first spoken Maktahn to him, and then he pulled away. He had the knife out before Kell could even react, carving into his own arm without blinking, drawing a symbol on the wall. Kell scrambled to gather the books back up, aching in the core of himself to be touched again, touched more .

“Wh-where- where are we going?”

“My room,” Holland said, and pushed Kell through the wall ahead of him. The twist of travel, of being stuck somewhere for eternity and for a fraction of a second at the same time, was much shorter when you were in the same world.

He stumbled forward to a rush of warmth and a flickering fireplace already blazing, books open on Holland’s table and a pile of papers there as well covered in writing, as though he’d been up all night. By the time he turned around Holland was already on him. He all but tore the books out of Kell’s hands, letting them fall to the floor with a clatter. He still had the knife in one hand. Kell started to back away and Holland said, softly, “Stand still.”

Kell froze, crashing into the rune on his back, his feet unwilling - unable - to move.

Beklager . I didn’t mean that to be an order.” Holland tilted his head. “I can’t always tell what is and what isn’t.” He moved up, expression deceptively calm as he yanked Kell’s coat off one-handed, letting it drop carelessly to the floor, walking slowly around behind him in a circle.

He glared at Kell's sweater as though it had offended him. "Take it off," he snapped, and Kell pulled it over his head, body moving automatically to follow the order. “I hate that I give a damn about you. I regret that I’m hurting you .” Holland took a shaking breath, put his hands over his face, then dropped them again. “If this is Astrid’s idea to make it so they can ruin me again, it's working... jeg er i helvede … Tell me I can still be saved, princeling. I don’t give a damn what they think about me. Do you think there’s anything left?”

“I-... Holland, I-” The older man forced him backwards until he tripped over himself and fell, managing to catch himself so he was sitting on the bed, feet on the floor, his hands up as though he could have defended himself. Holland took his own coat off, staring intently at Kell, his own breathing harshly audible even over the sound of the crackling fireplace.

“I don’t care if you’re lying. Tell me it’s not too late. Tell me this isn’t it.”

“It’s not too late,” Kell whispered as Holland took one of his hands and kissed the inside of his palm, and he couldn't keep his eyes off the knife.

“Tell me that if I damn us both doing this, it will have been worth it. That all the pain was worth it for the chance to wake Makt up.”

I think he’s always wanted to do the right thing.

Kell hesitated. “I can’t tell you that.” Then he stared, eyes wide, as Holland dropped to his knees in front of him, sliding his arms around his waist, leaning his forehead against Kell’s chest. He swallowed, put his arms around him, and slowly leaned over, until he could smell the slight soap-smell of Holland’s hair. 

“What can you tell me?” Holland asked against his skin, and Kell was so tired of thinking .

He pulled back, tilting Holland’s face up to look at him. Their Antari eyes met like firestarters, clicking together, a spark he could feel under his skin. “You are worth saving,” Kell said quietly, and this time it was Kell who kissed him, and Holland who hesitated before answering it. 

It was Kell that let his hands drop as he pulled back, staring into Holland’s eyes as he unbuttoned the black shirt and gently pushed it off his shoulders. He ran fingertips over the symbol carved over his heart, feeling the scars that healed fast thanks to Antari blood smoother than the rest of his skin. He slid fingers over his muscled shoulders, to the top of the lines of scarring on his back, down his arms. One of his hands gently unwound the black leather cord he still wore like a bracelet. He hesitated, looking up at Holland, his heart pounding with what he genuinely hoped was fear, but thought might be something else entirely. “Do you want-”

“No. Not today.” 

Kell, with a sigh of relief, dropped the cord onto the floor.

Holland said hoarsely, “Say it again." It wasn't an order. It was a plea. 

You can’t save him, Rhy had said, but Rhy didn't know everything.

“You can still be saved.” 

Warm hands slid up his sides and then back down to grip onto his hips, over the cloth of his pants, as Holland quickly undid the buttons and began to slide them down, moving to lean over him, pushing him onto his back on the bed. The kiss was gentle, still a little hesitant. Kell opened his mouth and Holland’s tongue was soft against his, everything around him smelled like the woods in the cold. “H-Holland, please-”

Holland fumbled at his own belt one-handed, uncharacteristically clumsy, trying to undo the buttons of his pants without looking away from Kell’s eyes. The knife lay next to them on the bed, blade out, glinting in the warm yellow light. “Again.”

“I want to save you.” 

The older man’s green eye bored into his, the black one its usual glossy well, clashing against his own. Kell reached up, wanting to touch his face, only for Holland to sit back, a knee on either side of him, grabbing his hands, forcing his wrists together and his arms above his head with one hand while the other fumbled out the knife and slashed a cut across his own wrist. A bright red line of blood welled up and Kell stared, wide-eyed. “Did you know Antari can feel each other better like this?" Holland asked in a voice just shy of a growl. “Say it again .” 

“Hah… how many more times do you need to hear it?”

“Until I believe it.” He cut Kell’s wrist, too, and the flash of pain was hardly noticeable against every other sensation. For a half-second, Kell was afraid; before, at the bridge, it had hurt to feel his power pulled out of him. This time, Holland forced their wrists together and Kell’s arm jerked as lightning raced up through his blood, but instead of magic being stolen, it… blended. He cried out at a feeling that wasn’t exactly pain, arching his back against the other man’s cool skin, pressing their hips together instinctively, hearing his own low hum at the pleasure, the pressure. He jerked his wrists, trying to pull his hands free, but Holland’s grip was too tight.  

"Let yourself bleed into me," Holland murmured. "Here's a new one for you, min kæreste. " He leaned down, until their mouths just brushed. "I have my own word for it, but you would say As Convenit."

The sound Kell made at the sudden race of pleasure through his blood was barely human, twisting underneath Holland's slowly warming weight. 

The next kiss was harder, lasted longer, left Kell breathless at the end of it, as much from the way his nerves were electric and his pulse beat in time with Holland’s as from the growing warmth of his mouth, the gentle pressure of his tongue and hips. Rhy’s heartbeat was still slow and steady, and Kell said a silent prayer of thanks to no god at all that he was sleeping, that he didn't feel this terrible wonderful thing Holland had set free in his blood.

"Th-that's a command? " He said, and while the words were a question, his voice sounded more like begging.

" Antari kept some things for themselves," Holland replied, the way his hands and shoulders shook a little the only giveaway that he felt it, too. "I found it in just one book."

"I… I want to touch-" Kell wrenched his hands free, sliding one arm around behind Holland's neck while the other hand moved over the scarred chest, the muscles of his stomach, around the bone of his hip. He could hear himself, half-whimpering, making sounds that weren’t quite moans, Holland’s harsh uneven breathing in his ear.

“Go ahead,” Holland murmured, a smile in his voice. “Save me, Kell.”

 “W-... will you save me?"

There was a silence, and at first Kell thought Holland wouldn’t answer at all. Then, in a soft, slightly shaking voice, he said, “Not from me .”

When Holland’s mouth met his this time, the wildfire in bones and shared blood caught, and Kell burned.

Chapter Text

He couldn't bear to make him move.

Kell was sleeping in his bed. Holland should have chained him up, or moved him to his own bed, or… something. This was a risk. Holland was too vulnerable already; his every single breath was a vulnerability, a weakness Athos could take from him at any time. 

Coward, why don’t you make him? Stand up to him. Push him too far and let yourself be the next stone in the garden. At least you could stop, then.

At least this all could stop.

He took a deep breath, sitting up at the side of the bed, pulling on his pants as he watched Kell sleep. No. If he was gone, Kell would be trapped here alone. They’d figure out quickly that their names weren’t on him, Kell wasn’t a great liar even on a good day, and they’d turn on him using all the magic they’d bled from them both.

Why did he care?

Coward. You want to die but you won't take a step out of line. You won't leave him behind. Why not? He left you, a hundred times, never even asked you if there was anything he could do.

So why not let him suffer alone too?

The cut in his wrist was only a thin pink line, now. This one wouldn’t scar. Kell had an identical pink line across his own, perfectly visible where he’d curled his hand up next to his head. Holland frowned, studying the image. Kell slept curled on his side, turning his tall, lanky body into something smaller and less obtrusive even in a large bed. He slept with his hands up against his face, blankets pooled around his waist, copper hair tumbled over his eyes. It wouldn’t be difficult to pick up the manacles still attached to Kell’s bed, bring them over here, and close them quickly, probably without even waking him.

Then Holland could sleep, too. Then he’d be safe. 

Well.

Safer than if he didn’t.

Kell’s hair fell across his forehead, still damp with sweat, and Holland fought an urge, a faded feeling he’d thought he’d never have again, to reach over and push the hair back, tuck it behind an ear. It had been different hair, and a different face, and a vastly different body, but the feeling had been the same. It had been so long since he’d even thought of her, really…

He swallowed against the vision of the last person he’d shared a bed with. 

Very different bed, that. Hardly large enough for the two of them, the wood rickety and old and leaning hard to one side, and half the time Holland found his arm hanging off and knuckles grazing the floor by morning. They hadn’t minded, though, the two of them. 

“Just keeps us closer,” Talya said with a face full of laughter. She was always laughing, at home, but kept a face like stone in the street where laughter might make you a target. He’d felt like he was being let in on some magnificent secret, that he was as much the center of her world as she had been of his.

Kell talked in his sleep; his brows furrowed even when he was unconscious, like he could barely stop scowling long enough to rest, and he mumbled constantly. Holland couldn’t quite hear him well enough to know if he was saying any true words. He could have leaned in closer, to listen.

He didn’t dare.

Talya used to sleep like that, curled on her side like a cat. She’d talked in her sleep, too, nonsense syllables and half-sentences. He’d leaned in, to listen to her. Sometimes she’d say his name, and he thought she must speak to him in her sleep and wondered what she said. 

Talya had been a bright and shining, smiling light, even in her sleep. He’d thought he was so lucky, to have her. So lucky to have found someone in Makt who was good.

He used to curl around her, fooling himself with the idea that he was strong, that his magic could protect her, keep her safe in a vicious city, in a dying world. She’d pushed her back into his chest and he’d felt every second of it, the curve of her spine, her warmth and her sweetness. Sometimes he’d wake her up, kiss the back of her neck until she laughed herself awake, pushing him away… or sometimes she’d roll over and pull him closer, in for the kiss, for more than that. He could still have described every detail of her body and the way she felt so soft and curved and warm under his fingers. He could still remember the way it felt when she arched her back when he moved in her, when he’d touched her the way he’d touched his own magic; with reverence and joy.

Then she tried to kill you.

Every moment with her had been a countdown to loss. He just hadn’t known it yet. He’d thought finding love in Makt was a kind of strength, but… it was just another vulnerability. Talya was a risk he’d taken. So was attempting friendship - rebuilding, renewal - with Ros Vortalis. He’d been singing in the dark, trying to convince himself there was a future.

Ros Vortalis had been his friend, and his king, and the reason he was a victim and a slave now. He’d been Ros’s secret weapon, and he’d become so willingly enough for him, made himself infamous enough that Athos and Astrid wanted him broken, not dead, because his subjugation would be proof of their control of Makt in a way nothing else would. 

Ros had been his friend - brash and bold and aggressive, laughing with him over dinner, strategizing. He'd been kind to Holland, in his way. Then he was dead.

The twins had come and turned the dead king's secret weapon into a demon the people of Makt feared and hated in equal measure. They did not pity him, when they saw him in the streets. They would not pity Kell, either, even if Athos had shoved him to the ground right in the city square for all to see. 

 Astrid and Athos had only made them more sure of the thing they’d already thought; that Antari were monsters who must be forced to serve on their knees or bled dry for the magic in their blood, with no middle ground.

No one in Makt protested the rune on his chest. No one stood in his defense. They all thought it was no more than his kind deserved. They’d think it was no more than Kell deserved. 

You are magic's slave or its master, and we are both.

“You had a future,” He muttered to Kell, or to himself. “Once. Didn’t you?"

It's nice, he heard the memory of a barely adolescent Kell saying, to meet someone like me.

Holland wondered what might have changed if Ros hadn't sent him away. If he had just… talked to the boy, tried to build an alliance between Antari. If he had, maybe he would have had someone who might risk themselves to help him, instead of making polite conversation with the monsters who ruled his body and his life while he stood to the side, helpless and furious.

I'm not like you.

Arrogance. Athos always said that was his sin - he had been arrogant. Athos had made him list his sins, once, while he cut them into his back, and arrogance had been the one he'd been told to say, over and over again, until Athos was done.

He pushed himself up and moved, keeping his feet on the rugs to make as little noise as possible, to the bookshelf. There was one book in particular he was looking for, a wide blue tome, and he slid it out as carefully and soundlessly as he could.

Why was he trying not to wake Kell up?

He was exhausted. Holland barely slept, and having Kell here hadn’t exactly helped. He always slept with half his mind awake and waiting for Athos to appear, as he once had whenever Holland’s body finally gave out and demanded rest.

For the first two years, there had been others he'd seen from time to time, but Holland had been Athos's particular favorite. For the first two years, every attempt to sleep ended in misery.

"Wake up," Athos would be whispering, hand soft as lambswool against his face. "Did you think you could rest? You don't rest until I'm ready. I have something new to try on you."

Athos had never stopped having something new.

It hadn’t happened in a couple of years, but he never stopped expecting it. And he never slept in a room with another person in it. Even with Kell chained up he barely dozed. 

This was getting ridiculous. He should wake him up, put him into his own bed, chain him up to ensure it would be safe, and then sleep himself. They could sleep for hours, the whole day if they wanted; the Danes would be too busy gloating out in the streets to bother him. 

He shouldn’t have let Kell fall asleep in the bed in the first place. 

Holland slid the bottle of brown liquor carefully out of the hollowed-out place in the book, pouring himself a glass of good Scottish whiskey from King George’s London. He sipped it, letting the fire burn down his throat, warm his body, relax shoulders that were constantly tensed against the possibility of attack.

It wasn’t like he had let him fall asleep on purpose . Kell had laid on his side after he’d cleaned up, running his fingers back and forth over the cut that had bound them together, looking off at the wall, his eyes a thousand miles away. Holland himself had just been… distracted, lost in his own thoughts, lying on his back with his hands behind his head, fingers interlocked. Staring up at the ceiling, wondering when he’d last touched someone of his own volition.

Did this count? He’d never have touched Kell on his own, after all, not without the Danes’ prodding. He’d deliberately avoided touching Kell, as much as he conceivably could, the entire time he’d known him. He’d avoided speaking to him - only knew anything about his life at all because the Danes had an insatiable curiosity about it. 

Holland was wrapped in so many layers of constriction that he wouldn’t even know how to begin cutting himself free. He had relied on rigid self-control for so long.

He hadn’t wanted to know Kell, because he’d wanted to know him so very badly, and Holland had learned that he should never be so arrogant as to believe he could have anything he wanted.

Someone like me.

Risk. Vulnerability. If he’d let himself know him, he’d dwell on the life Kell was living that Holland had been denied. 

Well. He’d taken that life away from Kell, and he felt no better than before. Except… Kell made it a little better, didn’t he?

I should have tried to help you before, Kell had said earlier, his hands on either side of Holland's face, Holland’s own hands pressed palm-first into the bed on either side of him, holding himself up, breathing hard with the rhythm of it. His blue eye had been distant and focused at once, locked on Holland's own eyes, the melting of their magics together and the lightning that raced up their nerves from the command keeping both of them moving. I should have tried and I didn’t, I’m so sorry. I shou-shouldn't…. have- haaaaah, have… just watched you suffering, Sanct, yes-

Can you not apologize to me every time I’m in you? Holland had asked dryly. It ruins the moment. He 'd been rewarded with a breathless laugh.

That was the most frightening part, too: Kell's laugh had felt so good to hear. It had felt like a reward.

He’d been thinking about it, while he stared at the ceiling, trying to decide if, maybe, he’d just… misjudged Kell entirely. 

At some point, he’d realized Kell’s breathing had gone slow, deep and even, and looked over to see that he had fallen asleep, the rune on his shoulder blade standing out in stark relief against pale skin, blankets pooled down around his waist. He could have reached out and traced the rune without even moving in the bed.

He didn’t.

Instead, he told himself over and over to wake Kell up, and then, because he was a coward at heart, he didn’t do that at all.

Now he stood in his room, the one place Athos and Astrid never came to any longer, the one sanctuary they gave him, drinking because there was a man in his bed he couldn’t bear to move.

Arrogance, to believe he was worth saving.

Arrogance, to believe that Kell would even want to.

Arrogance, to think he could let his guard down even for a moment, even like this, even with him.

Arrogance was his sin, and Athos had branded him with it until he wasn't arrogant any longer.

Talya had picked him up like a stray dog, linked her arm in his. Had it just been for protection? He didn’t know; maybe she had loved him, in her own way, until something else had come along she thought she could love more.

Or maybe she’d been planning to kill him from the moment they’d met.

You are still worth saving.

Arrogance was Kell's sin, too; the arrogance to believe there was anything left in Holland to save.

Holland set the empty glass down a little more loudly than he’d intended, and winced at the crack of the glass against the wood, looking quickly to see if it woke Kell up, then cursing himself for giving a damn whether or not it did.

This had been a gift, true, but it’d been a gift Astrid had given herself. He’d made of himself a careful emptiness, and Astrid, clever queen, had known he was not entirely a ghost. She had known that he had never really learned his lesson. 

He’d thought he could do this to Kell and feel nothing at all; how had Astrid known he would have a weakness for Kell Maresh and his idiocy and his naivete, his compassion and that way he had of tilting his head when he wanted you to know he was listening

Mercy prolongs the pain. Kindness makes hell last longer. Gentleness is a prelude to violence. Holland had learned every lesson Astrid and Athos had to teach him. They’d written them on his skin, after all, with fingers and lips, whips and blades, worse than that.

Alox had taught him. Talya had taught him. Never trust anyone. Never let it be said that Holland Vosijk did not learn his lessons. Except, apparently, for the lesson he should have learned not to give a damn about Kell Maresh.

Holland slid the book back into the shelf, carefully hiding the liquor away, pausing with his hand still resting on the spine. He closed his eyes. He’d intended this to destroy Kell, to crack him apart, to let him take his revenge on a whole world by wrecking one thin, frowning man. He’d intended to send him back to Rhy shattered more each time, until there was nothing left but the empty hollow husk, just like Holland himself. He was going to create wreckage in the shape of a man.

Instead it was going to wreck him.

A hand to your face will hold a knife soon enough. I thought I would take his softness and turn him into the stone that I am, but I think I am skin again instead.

He should walk over to the bed, throw Kell out of it. He should be violent, show him that there was no kindness that did not turn to cruelty. 

Astrid, after all, was often gentle. She knew how to hurt in worse ways than Athos's simple, obvious tortures.

He should teach Kell not to trust, ensure he knew that there was no one he could rely on, not here. Teach him that he should never, ever be arrogant enough to believe he deserved any kindness at all.

After all, there had been people in this castle once that he had known, and they had thought him kind. Those they had had him slaughter, laughing as his hand obeyed their commands and he cried bitter tears that mixed with the blood already smeared across his face.

Those people had trusted him.

He should find all his annoyance and his rage at the life Kell had been given and did not appreciate and use it. He should find that pettiness inside himself and tell Kell not to be so fucking arrogant

And be to Kell what Athos had been to him? Was he that ruined?

Holland closed his eyes, feeling himself sway a little on his feet.

He should kick him out of the bed, at least, so that he could get some fucking sleep.

Instead, Holland sighed, let his hand drop from the bookshelf, and made his silent way back, picking up one of the books he and Beloc had been working their way through on his way. He settled into the bed as carefully as possible. 

Why am I trying not to wake him up?

The light in the room was the same as always, tiny magical lights that he kept that still worked even in Makt’s weakness. They seemed a little brighter today, but that might just have been wishful thinking.

The next doors we open should be in the Silver Wood.

He frowned.

Why? Because it's where magic began to die, or because I want him to see it?

He opened the book to a spot he’d marked, and began reading. The crackle of the fireplace, chasing off only a little of Makt’s eternal chill, was the only sound aside from Kell’s slow, even breathing. He was holding a pillow in his sleep the way children hold stuffed animals. Holland had had one, himself; Alox had found it somewhere, a beaten-up rabbit he’d slept with every night until…

When? He didn’t know. At some point he’d put the rabbit down and never picked it up again. 

Kell rolled over in his sleep, and Holland stared wide-eyed as, without waking, Kell threw an arm across Holland’s lap where he sat with his back against the headboard. He did not move; he didn’t even breathe. He only held the book out in front of him and looked down at the pale arm, unscarred, that had let itself curve over his stomach and hips.

“S’all right,” Kell mumbled. “Bring it next week. Meet you there. Hol's coming to see them.” Then he settled back into deeper sleep, his hand tightening only slightly along the edge of Holland’s left hip. The weight of his arm was warm and not unwelcome. Holland hadn’t had anyone touch him like this, casually in their sleep, in more than ten years.

Not since Talya.

He’d met a woman or two, during his time with Ros Vortalis, women interested in what he was or in getting to know someone with his kind of power. But they’d never stayed. He’d never let anyone stay the night, not since Talya. And once Ros was dead and he served the twins, he’d never had anything you could call a lover… unless you counted Athos and Astrid.

Which he didn’t, or didn’t want to. 

I want to know you better.

Holland should move his arm, at least. Move his arm and the rest of him besides, kick him out of the bed and back into his own. Let him mumble nonsense to himself, Holland had no patience for it. Instead, he carefully positioned the book so he could read without disturbing Kell and felt himself, slowly, relax. 

Perhaps he had the patience for it after all.

He wasn’t sure when he fell asleep. Only that at some point the words began to blur and run together, and he went to put the book down, and the next thing he knew the book was on the floor next to the bed and he was lying on his back. Kell’s arm had gone from resting over his hips to curled over his chest, breathing warmly into his neck.

“I shouldn’t do this,” Holland said to himself, hearing the heavy exhaustion in each syllable. “It’s a risk.”

Kell shifted a little. “Ssshhhh,” He said softly, and Holland wondered who he thought he was talking to. “Sssshhh, don’t wake up. Don’t wake up. Still dark.” 

Holland closed his eyes tightly against a feeling that had stopped being familiar a long time ago, the simple weight of someone's arm. If this was a game Astrid was playing, he was losing. Athos would sniff it out; he always did. They would find new ways to hurt him.

They always found new ways to hurt him.

Kindness makes hell last longer. Being brave is just being too stupid to die. 

Kell pulled away from him, rolling onto his other side. Holland let his eyes flicker open and could see the curve of his spine, could nearly see the knobs of bone under the skin. The rune he’d carved over his shoulder blade was a thin, light scar mixed with the dark ink that never faded. There was still a faint and faded bruise above the black leather band around his neck.

Holland, moving with absolute care, shifted onto his right side on the bed. He reached out with one hand, slowly undoing the buckle, and pulled off the black leather band entirely. He let it drop somewhere in the bed, shifted very slightly closer.

"Vær venlig ikke at dræbe mig i min søvn ,” Holland whispered, and with memories of someone else in his mind, he let himself move until Kell’s back was against his chest. 

He should remember that all of this was meant to be teaching him how to endure an endless hell in Athos and Astrid’s hands, and kindness could only do the opposite. He should remember that this had been meant to break the gentleness out of him, to turn him into hard rock like Holland himself, another statue, just one that hadn’t realized it was dead yet. He should recall that it had been one small way to take control in a life in which he had no control at all. He should remember that he had loathed Kell from the first day they’d met. He should remember that-

You are worth saving. I still want to save you.

Kell pushed back against him, just slightly, and some of his hair was soft against Holland’s face with the constant smell of roses that he carried with him everywhere. 

Holland closed his eyes and kissed the back of Kell’s neck, just below the bruise he’d left, in a space of skin newly freed from underneath the leather. Kell murmured something appreciative without waking up, and when Holland carefully slid an arm over him, Kell shifted even closer.

“Please don’t kill me,” Holland said in Kell’s language this time, in the barest whisper. He couldn’t, of course; the rune on his back made sure he couldn’t lift a hand against him. But the old fear still beat inside him. “Please don’t kill me in my sleep.” 

Why do you even care if you live? Haven’t you spent years wishing they’d just take your last breath and let you die already?

“S’all right,” Kell mumbled again. “S’fine, go sleep. Go sleep. I’m here.”

“Who are you talking to?” Holland whispered.

To his surprise, Kell actually answered him. “You.” The rumbled word came from so deep within him that Holland thought it was still just part of his dream.

Holland closed his eyes, his heart pounding, but exhaustion was beating fear and he could feel his mind starting to drift, surrounded by the smell of roses and the scent of Kell’s sweat and skin.

Fuck, Holland thought blearily. I shouldn’t do this.

If this was Astrid’s game, he had lost it already, because he did not want to die. 

“I’m not going to be the last person you care about, you know,” Talya teased, letting her fingertips trail over his bare chest as they lay next to each other. There wasn’t any money for firewood, so they were under the blankets as much for warmth as for time together, but they’d made the most of it.

“You’re the only person I care about,” Holland answered, cheerfully, letting his fingers tangle in her hair. “Who else is worth a damn?”

“Oh, Holland,” She’d laughed. She was always laughing, as if keeping her face so solemn and menacing in the world was such hard work that she had to let all her merriment out the moment they came in the door. “Hol, my love, I’m not the only one worth knowing.” Had there been darkness in her eyes? Had there ever been a warning he should have been watching for?

Had she tried to warn him?

“I think you are.”

“You saved me,” Talya said thoughtfully, gently. She rolled onto her side, nearly touching the wall, and Holland shifted to hold her. “You saved me. Things were so hard before you.”

He had laughed, that soft and husky laugh she loved, and whispered in her ear. “Something is hard right now.”

She’d groaned at the terrible joke, and swatted at him, and they’d laughed together. 

“Thank you for saving me,” She said softly, and he’d looked into her eyes and been so deeply in love that it burned in his blood. He would have done anything for her. Later, he would very nearly die for her, because of her, but in this moment he could never have imagined she could hurt him.

She had been loving, and gentle, and… kind. It had made everything that came after so much worse, that she had been so kind, that he had loved her. 

“I will always want to save you,” Holland had whispered to her, watching her eyes slowly close as she fell asleep. His blood beat with magic that was always ready to answer his call; he was the strongest magician in Makt, maybe in his world. 

He could protect her. He could keep her safe.

He’d just never known, until it was too late, that she was the one he needed protection from.

Holland lay with the other Antari’s skinny back to his chest, his arm over Kell, listening to him mumble nonsense to himself. 

"Here is my sin, Kell Maresh." He whispered his confession against the warmth of Kell's bare neck, letting his mouth move against the soft skin, the scent of roses in his hair. Let his arm tighten around him, just a little, let his palm rest against the warmth of his chest. "When I am with you, I do not want to die." He kissed his neck again, up into his hair. Kell, tense even in his sleep, relaxed into him. 

"Here is your sin," Holland continued, and he could barely get the words out around a throat that threatened to close up. He could barely speak. He buried his face into Kell's hair, then, hid in the red and the roses. "Here is your sin," He repeated, fighting against a heat that burned his eyes, something else he hadn't felt in years and years.

"You look at me like I deserve to live."

Chapter Text

Kell was walking in the woods.

He hadn’t ever gone to the woods far outside of London; he wasn’t really allowed to leave. They’d never phrased it that way, of course, but it held true all the same. He could go between worlds, but he couldn’t leave his own city, except if Rhy went to visit the hunting grounds just outside and those manicured, polished trees hardly counted at all.

In his dream, though, that’s where he was, and it seemed perfectly natural to be there.

The trees stretched above his head, the canopies not quite meeting, with lines of sky like blood vessels curving where the leaves rustled in the breeze. There was sun - a good and warm yellow sun - shining through these cracks and he ducked in and out of sunlight and shadow as he walked. The path, such as it was, was just a bare bit of dirt that wound around tree trunks, and sometimes he felt like he was making it up as he went along. 

The trees pushed in on all sides, and Kell knew that if he left the path, he would be lost. It was too dark, in the shadows, to find his way.

He’d never even heard of woods like these, not once in his entire life… or at least not once in the life he could remember.

Aven, the wind rattled through the leaves. He knew the voice, a little, like a song half-remembered . Blessed and strange. My beautiful boy, aven.

You’re not our son, called Emira, a swallow sitting on a branch nearby . Next to it, another swallow chirped, you were never his brother.

Traitor, growled something larger, in a deep voice, in the dark beyond the path, and Kell flinched at Maxim’s low, angry voice. You’ll never come home now.

You’ve betrayed us, an owl called, somewhere deeper still. Tieren Serense, his voice twisted with hate.

A raven sat on a branch staring at him. He paused and met its eyes. Him? It asked in Lila’s voice. He tried to kill you at least twice, I only tried the once. Him?

Kell? He could hear Rhy calling him, his voice a little panicked. It wasn’t Rhy’s voice, though; or it was, but it wasn’t Rhy now. He could hear, in that voice, the younger Rhy that had been abducted, had gone missing, that Kell had hunted down. He had nightmares where Rhy still had that voice.

He tripped over a knob of wood growing up out of the path that he hadn’t seen, falling onto his hands and knees with a painful hiss. There was blood on the path. There was so much blood, he was in it nearly up to his wrists.

None of it was his.

Kell, where are you? Help me!

As he always did when Rhy called, Kell got back up.

Palms bloody, knees soaked through with red, he staggered forward. 

The voice calling his name became a wordless scream of pain, and Kell began to run, but the faster he ran the more it seemed he was standing still. He was breathing in pants, his lungs burning for want of air, when he heard Athos’s rumbling laughter, deceptively warm.

Traitor, shrieked a great black bird from branches high above him. Did it make your heart beat faster? Was it worth it? Did it make you feel alive, you spoiled child, taking trinkets between worlds? Are you glad you brought the reason for Rhy’s death through the worlds with you?

What will you do? A flock of crows huddled together, cawing at him, dozens of them with their awful eyes fixed on him, heads tilted to the side. Will you save him or damn him or both or none? 

Rhy’s pain continued, ringing through from everywhere and nowhere, and Kell did not know where to turn. Athos continued to laugh, and whenever he laughed, Rhy’s scream seemed to stretch itself higher, wrenched with even greater agony than it had been before.

Look at the gift the gods have given us, a great white wolf with blue eyes growled in Astrid’s voice, padding out of the woods. Another one came from the other direction, identical to the first in every way.

The gods saw fit to give us a man to cut and bleed, the second wolf said. There was a flash of Athos in its face, and Kell could have sworn it laughed. 

Kell Antari, they said together, moving closer, as Rhy’s scream cut off into a terrible silence, and Kell could not feel his heartbeat any longer. The king is dead. Long live the king. 

The king is dead-

Rhy was lying on the ground, and he was young, all elbows and knees, already starting to show the signs of the handsome man he would grow into. Kell had seen this version of Rhy before, unconscious, not breathing, and his heart constricted with panic. Rhy’s eyes opened and he pushed himself up, looking up at Kell with horror on his face. Is it yours?

Kell looked down. He had no wounds, his skin was perfectly unmarred, but there was so much blood. Rhy, I-

Rhy scrambled away from him, pushing himself to his feet. Is it yours, Kell? Is it all yours? In life, Rhy had looked at him with a fear that had been for him, on his behalf, fear and love. Now, Rhy’s eyes were cold and glittering, afraid of him, full of hatred, as if he were staring at a monster wearing his brother’s face.

I don’t know, Kell cried out, despairing. I don’t know whose it is, I don’t know!

Rhy ran away from him, into the woods, into the darkness. 

Rhy! Come back!

Kell? 

He spun around, staring at Holland Vosijk, who stood on the path, with his hands out in offering, palms facing the sky. Holland’s hair was pitch black, pure as night, and his green eye was so brilliant he could hardly stand to see it. The black of his Antari eye ran down his cheekbone like tears, staining everything it touched, dripping magic into the earth where it spread like malevolent flame, blackening the forest into dead stone around him.

Magic sparked between them, and Kell felt his blood called to move even before Holland spoke. Come here, He said, and in his voice was a recognition and an understanding. Holland was holding a hand out to him, and Kell wanted to take the hand so badly it hurt.

I'm covered in blood, I've done something bad. What did I do, Holland?

I don’t mind the blood, Holland said softly. I know what you’ll do. I’ve done all those things, too. 

Forbandet, called a bluebird.

Damned, crooned a mourning dove.

Holland smiled at him, really and truly smiled, with that hint in his face of the man who had once been given, at least for a while, to laughter. Min kæreste , you’ve done so well , He said, softly, and Kell reached out to take his hands, unsurprised in the way of dreams to notice the blood on his hands was gone. We can bear each other’s weight. Holland’s grip was warm, and strong, and he pulled Kell to him, irresistibly to him. 

I’ve made awful choices, too. 

The black of his eye dripped onto Kell’s hands, onto his face as they kissed and Holland’s mouth was a warmth and a heat against his. The drops felt like the fire in his veins when Holland mixed up their blood, the command he’d given, the lick of pleasure like lightning. 

He saw the black veins spider out, moving up his arms, the power that could give him anything, whispering in his ear. Forget your brother, power whispered. Save a world and stand above it. Forget a family; what do you need but a master? What do you need but Holland?

Rhy needs me. His own voice sounded strange, off-key somehow. I have to go find him.

Nej, Holland said tenderly . The whole world needs you. I need you.

Trefalt forbandelse, the wolves behind him said. They circled around he and Holland, blue eyes focused on them, lips pulled back from sharp teeth, a low snarl coming from their throats. Three times cursed, for your three masters.

Let me go, He said softly. Let me go and I’ll come back, I swear I would come back. You don’t need the mark to control me, you can have the power over me you want, just let me go to him. I’ll stay with you, just let me save him now.

The king is dead, and you smell like roses, Astrid said gently, and he felt her fingertips whisper along the back of his neck, saw her suddenly on his right side, loose white hair a glimmering curtain that fell against the side of his face, sliding an arm around his waist from behind. She leaned in, turning his head to face her, tilting up his chin with fingers as unyielding as stone. She kissed him and her lips were made of ice, he was frozen. He could not move, could not pull away. Her tongue was cut glass and his mouth was full of blood. He could not move-

Holland, help me-

Long live the king, and our Antari on their knees, Athos said from his left, arm around his shoulders, a heavy weight he couldn’t resist. Athos took his chin away from Astrid's grip and turned his gaze to him, and Kell felt terror at the delight and joy and hate that roiled in Athos's eyes. His kiss was rougher, it was meant to hurt and to bruise, biting at his lower lip. He drank Kell’s blood like wine, smeared wetly across white lips, his face flushed a grayish blue like a corpse long past its prime. The king is dead.

Astrid’s cold hand slid across his lower back, while Athos’s hand trailed the waistline of his pants along his hips, and the trees above him were black and broken, shining stone. Astrid’s voice was heavy with a cruel joy. Long live the king.

Kell fought back a surge of disgust that nearly made him dizzy. 

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Please help me,  Kell begged, shamelessly, holding his hands out. Please save me, Holland, help me, please-

I’ll save you, Holland said quietly, bringing Kell’s hands slowly to his lips, pulling him away from the twin monarchs and back against him, the solidity of something real inside a nightmare, a hell, from everything but me.

I'm damned, he heard, but the voice this time was his own. Holland kissed him again, and his mouth was warm, and Kell melted into him, and their wrists were pushed together, the blood was one and the river ran red through the woods.

Let him have all of you, power whispered. Let him have it all.

Yes. Let him have all of me. 

As Convinit, Holland said gently, and Kell cried out at the lick of pleasure like flame, burning him from the inside out. We are combined. 

No, Kell whispered. Wait. This isn't what I want, wait- 

Kell, Holland said, and his voice was… different, more urgent, and Kell felt himself shaking-

“Kell. Wake up.”

Kell’s eyes opened in a rush and he took in a sudden breath, grabbing desperately at the first thing he could find, holding onto Holland’s bare shoulders, fingertips grazing the very top of the old layers of scars on his back. Lukewarm skin, slightly paler than it should be, drained and faded by living in a world that constantly sought to melt life away. 

"You're awake now, you're awake, shush," Holland's voice was deep and a little warmer than usual, a little worried.

“Help me-” Kell’s voice shook, blurred with sleep and fear, and he threw his arms around Holland’s neck, hardly aware of himself or anything at all beyond the horror of Rhy running away and the wolves circling, burying his head into the crook of Holland’s neck.

“Ssshhhh,” Holland said. Kell could feel his every muscle was tense, but he did not pull away, and after a long moment his hand moved slowly up into Kell’s hair. Even from Holland, the touch was a comfort, and Kell felt himself relax into it. “You’re awake now. You were talking in your sleep.” He paused, opened his mouth as if to say something more, thought better of it, and then finally just said, “It was troublesome.”

"I used to have nightmares all the time." He closed his eyes, pressing his face into Holland’s neck, trying to shake the sense of the nightmare, the way it clung to him in wisps and shadows. It was already fading; he remembered the woods and the wolves closing in, and Rhy calling him… "What did I say?"

Rhy’s heart beat alongside his own, a little fast, probably just from feeling Kell’s fear, his own heart pounding. But it was there, it beat strongly, it was there and Rhy was alive. 

“You said ‘the king is dead, long live the king’,” Holland said, uncomfortably taking Kell’s arms from around his neck, pulling away and sitting with his back against the headboard. “And your brother’s name. And mine. The rest of it…” He waved one hand in the air and shrugged. “Nonsense words. Screaming the way you scream in your sleep, with no sound.”

Kell made himself sit up, too, frowning as he realized he must have fallen asleep in Holland’s bed. He put his hands up, curled over his neck, and pulled his knees up to his chest, trying to think. “How long was I asleep?”

“I don’t know,” Holland said, voice flat as always. He looked away, and Kell watched his eyes travel slowly across the room. One hand went to rub at a spot along the side of his neck where Kell’s arm had been a moment before. “I was also asleep.”

“But you never sleep.” Kell frowned, trying to think, letting his hair fall over his face. “And you didn’t chain me up first.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Holland said in a clipped voice, sliding out of the bed entirely. He was already wearing pants and Kell watched the muscles shifting in his scarred back as he stretched his arms over his head, then leaned over to pick up a book that had fallen onto the fur rug.

Had he ever paid attention the way someone’s back looked when it moved before? Holland’s would be different than everyone else’s he knew, with the lines of scarring layered over each other, as though Athos had been trying to paint and accidentally picked up a whip instead of a brush. 

Something about his neck was bothering him. Kell frowned, running his fingers back and forth over the skin, trying to figure it out. He went to clink the silver ring at his neck, already a habit he’d picked up when thinking, only to have his fingers grasp at nothing at all. He looked up at Holland eyes wide. “You took it off.”

Holland paused, for the barest second, but it was long enough for Kell to catch a twitch at the corner of his mouth that could have been a smile. He didn’t look back as he walked over to his table and sat down, heavily, in one of the chairs, his back to Kell now. “I told you,” He said quietly. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

Kell threw the blankets aside, standing up himself, face burning red as he realized he was still naked, even redder as he took in the washbasin and water pitcher on the side table, with a cloth still soaking in the water from earlier, and the day crashed back into him like running straight into a wall.

I still want to save you. He’d said that to him, when he was trying to drown out the weight of walking away from Rhy, what he’d done, the happy faces of the people he’d handed stolen magic to. Rhy was right. He was a fucking idiot.

He moved around the bed, pulling his pants on when he found them, hardly able to button them up. His legs felt weak and shaky, but the pain he’d expected wasn’t there. His hand hesitated over the blue sweater, then finally picked it up. 

“Which was it?” Kell asked. He slid the sweater over his head, and wasn’t looking as Holland carefully watched the muscles of his stomach and chest shift as he pulled it on. By the time he’d looked back up, Holland was looking away again.

“Which was what?” Holland asked tiredly as Kell dropped into the chair across from him, stretching his legs out in front of him, trying to slouch. The chair did not make slouching easy, but Kell was an expert at slouching in any and all circumstances, and he found a way.

“Which was your mistake, I mean?” 

Holland raised one eyebrow in a perfect arch, and Kell wondered if he would teach him how to do that, because it was incredibly impressive. “I don’t understand the question.”

“Was your mistake putting it on me, or taking it off?”

Holland snorted, and this time Kell saw the smile before he banished it. “That remains to be seen. I’ll put it back on before we leave the room, so don’t get used to it.”

“Because she has to see me with it on or because you want to?”

Holland didn’t answer, this time. He only picked up a book from the stack on the table, opened it up, and began reading. Kell frowned, tilted his head far to the side, trying to read the title. Then he blinked and looked up. “Hey, I’ve read that book.”

“Have you?” Holland didn’t look up from the page.

“Well… skimmed it. Our tutor liked it. Rhy’s grandfather is in that book.” He’s not our son , Emira’s voice whispered, and Kell swallowed, hard. He’d never thought he was their son, and he’d always known they didn’t see him that way, no matter what Rhy thought.

“Hmph.” It was all Holland said, and Kell relaxed a little, picking up another book himself.

“Wait. This is one of our books, too. Why are you…” He scanned over the rest of the books on the table, the piles of paper covered with notes written in Maktahn. Half the handwriting he could tell was Holland’s, his harsh angles and half-formed vowels. The other half was nearly chicken scratches, as though the person struggled with writing but was manfully doing their best. “These are all books about us. What is this?”

“Research,” Holland said mildly. “I’m reading. And I’ll have you know that half these books are on royal protocol, standards for kingship, and military strategies. Leave me be.”

“Why are you researching Arnes? Why are you reading about becoming king?” Panic began to flutter in his chest, panic and a resigned understanding. He knew. He knew why . “One world isn’t going to be enough for them, is it?”

“No,” Holland said quietly. He still hadn’t looked up, but some of the annoyance had dropped out of his voice. “One of anything is never enough for them. Perhaps they’ll simply split the thrones and put one on each.” He frowned, thoughtfully. “That might actually be the best case scenario. Your brother might survive that plan.”

“They-” His voice caught, and he curled one hand into a fist, trying to calm it back to nothing, to emptiness. “They'll take over? Do we know that for certain?” He had to tell Rhy. He’d thought about it, he’d thought it was a possibility, he’d even tried to tell Rhy it was possible, but to have it confirmed was something else entirely. Astrid hadn’t been able to walk through the worlds herself; she’d had to take Rhy over with a charm, travel without traveling. She’d been weak, that way.

But to walk into a world where she could simply pull magic from the air, not from someone’s blood, with all their talent at twisting the bones and bodies and wills of the ones they capture... Astrid would be stronger than ever.

Holland hesitated, then finally looked up at him. His green eye was faded and dark, and Kell thought of the Holland in his dream, brilliantly colored and full of all the life and the flush to his skin that he lacked here in the world. 

Is that how I see him, in my dreams? As the version of him he’d be if he’d only grown up in Arnes instead of here? Would we be the same, only switched, if our birthplaces had been switched, too? Would I have been the one to bring Holland here wrapped in black ropes to present to my king and queen?

“You don’t need me to tell you what they’re going to do,” Holland said quietly. “Do you?”

The king is dead, Astrid’s voice whispered with thick delight in his ear, and Kell shuddered at this last memory of his nightmare.

“No. I guess I don’t. Can I tell Rhy-”

“No,” Holland said quickly, almost too quickly. “Absolutely not. You will not breathe a single spoken word to him about it.”

"But… why not?"

“Why do you think?” Holland asked, tilting his head.

“I don’t know. I never know what you’re thinking, you never tell anyone.”

“Right now I’m thinking that you look like someone gave you a hell of a roll in bed and you should probably comb your hair,” Holland said mildly, and the slightest smile began at the corner of his mouth when Kell scowled and threw his hands up, trying to push his hair down into some semblance of neatness.

There was a knock at the door, and Holland swept himself to his feet, letting the book fall back onto the table. “Ah. I thought he might be here soon.”

“Who?” Kell stared down at the pile of papers. There was an empty glass on the table, too, with a few drops of what looked like brown liquor still left at the bottom. 

Holland didn’t answer him. The door opened, and Kell heard a familiar voice. “ God eftermiddag , Holland Antari, ” The voice said, softly. “ Skal jeg starte igen? Er han tilbage?

Ja, ” Holland replied, and Kell sat up in surprise at the gentle note in his voice. “ Royal protokol denne gang, hvis du ikke har noget imod. Det er en anmodning, ikke en ordre. Vælg din egen.

“Holland, what-” Kell stood and turned around, only to have a short, skinny teenager come barreling into him, throwing arms around him.

“Kell Antari! You are back!” 

“Beloc?” Kell at first just kept his hands out as though it were an attack he were defending against and not a hug, wide-eyed with panic, and looked up at Holland. “What the-”

“It seems,” Holland said mildly as he closed the door, “that we have picked up a stray. You know what they say about stray animals, Kell. When you feed them, they never leave.”

“Thank you for having Holland Antari look after me,” Beloc said brightly.

“For having Holland do what?

“Ssshhhh,” Holland said, putting one finger to his lips. “He kept asking why, so I told him it was your idea.”

Kell was pretty sure he was still asleep, because none of this could possibly actually be happening. Kell finally, uneasily, let his arms close around the younger boy, looking up to Holland for some kind of help.

Holland mouthed better you than me and went back to the table.

“Beloc,” Kell said softly, gently extricating himself. “You don’t need to do that. Good morning.”

“It’s mid-afternoon,” Beloc said, puzzled. “And I… it’s safe to, here. Holland Antari said it’s safe here.” Holland coughed politely. “Safer than anywhere else,” Beloc corrected himself.

“It’s mid-afternoon? ” Kell put a hand up over his face, groaning. “We slept all day.”

Holland snorted. “We definitely weren’t sleeping for the first two hours or so.” Kell spun around, but Holland’s expression was perfectly empty and blank in return. Whether or not that had been meant as an innuendo, a joke ( had he ever heard Holland tell a joke like that? ), was impossible to tell from his dry voice and the absolute nothing on his face.

"Two hours, Holland?"

This time, he definitely saw Holland smile. 

“I told Herre Holland I would come back to read more today.”  Beloc wandered over to the table, sitting down and looking over the papers and books. He grabbed at some of the ones covered in chicken scratch writing and Kell suddenly realized who had been writing with Holland the night before, when he was drinking with Rhy and trying to feel normal again.

The strange sort of puppydog adoration he looked at Holland with made Kell uneasy. It felt like he’d looked through a mirror and seen a different world, a different Holland. A better one, maybe. Or the same Holland, playing some sort of trick on Beloc, something horrible game.

But that wasn't who Holland seemed to be, was it?

“What happened while I was gone?”

“I told you,” Holland said with a shrug. He handed Beloc a book, and Kell watched him pick up a thin pencil and open the book to a marked page. Kell caught a glimpse of the leather-bound spine. It was a history book, something Kell had also seen in his tutor’s arms before, something on the succession rights of kings. “I picked up a stray who turned out to have quite the interest in educating himself, and it turns out I have an interest in his education."

“Why?”

Holland's expression shifted to something inward, softening, and Kell saw something in the look in his green eye that was terrifying and made him want to see it again. “Lost causes, I guess.”

“What?”

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

“But what about Athos? Won’t he...” Kell swallowed hard against the shiver of fear up his spine. “Won’t he come here looking for him?” Please don’t let him come in here.

“Athos and Astrid do not enter this hallway. I doubt they’ll start now.”

“Min konge tires of me,” Beloc said without looking at him, and his voice was just above a whisper. “When he tires of us… Holland Antari asked if I would help him, so I don’t...” He paused, and where his finger was marking a line of words, Kell saw his hand trembling. “So I am not moved out into the garden. Min konge will find someone new, now.”

“You… asked Beloc to help you ?

Holland frowned, a slight furrow between his brows that Kell felt a wild, irrational urge to smooth out with his fingers. “Yes. Do you think me incapable of asking?”

“I… of course not. It’s just...  Athos is bringing home someone new?”

“That is what he does, yes.” Holland’s voice was quiet, and even, but Kell saw Beloc’s shoulders hunch over the book he was looking at, carefully making notes on. “He finds one. He tires of them. I bury them in the garden, or sometimes he has a new statue. He finds another.”

“He would have-”

“Yes.” Holland’s voice was clipped this time. “But they were pleased with us, so they allowed me to have him.”

“To have him? "

“Stop it. You’re the only one I have that way, and you’re a grown man.” Holland looked back at his book, but Kell could see annoyance and something like defensiveness on his face. “Do you think me that much like Athos?”

“No. I don’t.” Why are you trying to reassure him? “I know you’re better than he is.” He watched Holland’s shoulders relax, just a little. Why is he reassured? “I was just confused, I thought you… you know.”

“You thought I what?” 

“I thought you... hated everyone.”

Holland actually laughed, a dry sound, like he was still rusty at feeling spontaneous humor. “It seems that I have discovered two entire people in the world who I do not dislike,” He said evenly.

“Beloc and… who else?”

Holland looked back up, staring at him with open disbelief. “Kell… “ He sighed, exasperated. “How is it you can wield magic like a second skin but you have no idea what I just said to you?”

Kell frowned, reddening, no closer to the answer to the question than he had been before. “Look, I-”

“Go take a bath.” Kell felt the rune on his back light up at the command, the hint of a pressure against his back that threatened to become a blow if he defied it. “Clean yourself, and then come back here. Beloc and I have work to do before we are expected at dinner.” Holland frowned down at the inside of his own wrist, looking at a faint pink mark there. “I believe we will be the beverages.”

Kell shuddered, and let his hand turn the door handle without him. He stepped out into the cold hallway, where a thin mindless guard stood watching the door. It nodded at him, just a single incline of the head and back, and he nodded back. 

He always nodded at them, or said thank you, or waved. Even if nothing was left. Even if they didn’t ever know. 

He padded soundlessly to the bathing room down the hall, the stone floor freezing underneath his bare feet, and wondered if the people down by the river had torn every single flower out of the ground by now, or if they would let them keep growing.

He felt like he was dreaming, because there was no way Holland Vosijk would show mercy to some boy Athos had brought here to die. There just wasn’t any way. Holland didn’t give a damn about anyone specific, only the world at large. Holland had said it himself, he didn’t care about the ones Athos kept here. He didn’t care who he had to sacrifice to wake his world back up. He didn’t care about anyone, because what was the point, here?

What changed? What made Holland Vosijk decide to care? Who was the other person he did not dislike?


"He's an idiot," Holland said out loud as soon as Kell was gone.

But he's your idiot, for now. Your idiot, who seems disinclined to let you wallow in your own self-pity.

Beloc looked up at Holland. “ I found something, ” He said, switching to Maktahn now that Kell was out of the room. “ I think it’s what you asked me to look for. It’s about what they used to when the king died, back before. Do you want to read it? There’s a lot of words I don’t know.

No, ” Holland replied, but his eyes were on the door where Kell had gone, thoughtful. He leaned slowly on one hand, wondering how long it would take him. “ Take some notes, and try to memorize it yourself. You can ask me about words, if you want. ” He tapped his fingers on the table, then smiled, very slightly.

Kell had had a nightmare, and when he’d woken up, he’d clung to Holland to bring himself back to the world. If this was Astrid’s game, he was losing, but perhaps he didn’t mind… at least for now.

There was someone else losing the game with him.

“Interesting,” Holland said out loud, as much about himself as Kell, and then his eyes went back to his book. They had a month to prepare for the next step and start Kell training on improving his combat magics. He had a month here with Kell before he would send him back, a month he intended to use wisely.

I don’t think I can bear to fully break him, Holland thought, keeping even his own thoughts distant and cold as best he could. Warmer thoughts threatened constantly to break in but he shut them down. Kindness was its own cruelty, after all, and even thinking like this was a risk he'd been trained out of through torture. I don’t think I’m going to be the hell I hoped to be. They’re going to sniff it out. They’re going to see.

I will use him to wake up my world, but I don't want to break him. Can I have both? The gods laugh at arrogance, Athos always says, and isn't it the height of arrogance to think I can wield him like a weapon but still keep him looking at me like that?

He tapped one finger on the table idly, rereading the same paragraph over and over, senselessly. None of the words meant a thing to him. They just floated on paper, while he thought about Kell’s face.

If they realize that I cannot break him, they will take him from me.

I cannot let them realize what they've done.

I cannot let Kell break.

I will have both.

Chapter Text

This dinner, like all the others, began with Kell bleeding into a golden goblet while Athos held onto his arm. It began with carefully not looking at Holland as he did the same for Astrid. It began with Kell telling himself he would be silent, and behave himself, and just get through it.

“There is a warrant out for your immediate arrest,” Astrid said cheerfully when he and Holland had finished their near-nightly losing parts of themselves to feed the Danes’ endless thirst, gesturing to the chairs on the other side of their long dining room table. She sat at the head, Athos lounging just to her right, mindless servants laying plates of food down in front of them. 

White meat with red sauce tonight, Kell noted, and wondered what kind of animal the meat came from. He’d only seen maybe four or five chickens altogether since he’d come to live here, and he knew there were pigs somewhere...

“Took longer than I thought it would,” Kell said, keeping his voice stubbornly calm, hesitantly moving to sit with one hand clutching a napkin, pressed against his wrist to staunch the bleeding. He looked over his shoulder, just barely, as Holland pulled his chair out for him. 

It had been three weeks since he’d come back, followed Holland’s voice in his head and gone back to hell. Which meant… Kell tried to count the days, and thought that meant a little more than a month here, total. 

He winced as he sat, feeling a bruise light up his ribcage. He’d been training. Holland was teaching him to hone his combat magic alongside the new blood commands, and Holland’s way of teaching was not easy or kind, but it worked. Kell felt himself getting stronger, felt the magic come ever more easily and more totally under his control. 

Three weeks of training until he could barely stand, fighting shadowy opponents or Holland himself, the two of them beating each other to shreds with magic until one or the other was victorious. Once, Kell had done so well - had come so close to really doing damage - the rune in his back had lit on fire, knocked him onto his knees with the force of a blow, and kept him there until Holland let him rise. 

He could not truly hurt Holland, and he’d come so close.

Three weeks sitting here most nights with twin statues of malevolence that were so happy with him, cutting himself over and over for them, watching the red of his own blood smear across their deathly-pale lips.

Three weeks of sleeping (and not sleeping) in Holland’s bed, trying to figure out what was happening behind an empty, quiet face that sometimes lit with rage or fear or, occasionally, a sweetness he had never in his life thought he would see. Three weeks of Holland whispering As Convenit in his ear, binding their wrists together as they bled and burned into and out of each other. 

Three weeks. A little more than a month since he'd come here.

It felt like an eternity and like no time at all.

Kell trailed a fingertip on the wooden tabletop, listening to Holland take his seat beside him, casually elegant as always. 

“Oh, they knew what you did weeks ago,” Astrid said, flashing white teeth smeared pinkish-red in a smile as she sipped from her goblet. She had two thick braids twining back along the sides of her head but her hair was otherwise loose. Her shirt was cut low enough that he could see the black veins spreading down her neck and collarbone, fading as they traveled until the black was gone somewhere around her breastbone, just where the cloth began. “They’ve been trying to keep it under wraps, but oh dear, rumors do spread quickly, don’t they?”

“Especially when they’re spread by guards compelled to spread them,” Athos said, his blue eyes focused wholly on Kell, watching him with fascinated curiosity. “Treason doesn’t take much compelling, though, does it? That’s a bit of gossip everyone wants to hear.”

“Prince Kell, traitor to the crown,” Astrid mused. “Kidnapped and captive, stealing magic from his own people, ground under my heel forever. What a beautiful fucking story. I make my lovers tell it to me before I go to sleep.”

Kell looked away, staring down at his plate as the servant set it in front of him. Was the sauce redder than it had been before? Did the bit of greenery on the side actually look green? “I’ve never seen any of your lovers.”

“Oh, I don’t let them out until I’m done with them,” She said airily, and she and Athos shared a smile. Kell, swallowing hard, thought uncomfortably of the black leather still wrapped around his neck.

The good soil, the deep brown that the water had soaked into, had traveled further and further away from the riverbank each day. They’d stopped stealing handfuls of flowers, the people of Makt, and started to trust that the magic would be there in the river when they wanted it. Pale, and thin, not a hundredth so strong as it was in Arnes, but there.

Holland made him go to the river to see it, and Kell didn’t fight it, if only because it was at the river where Holland got that look on his face most often, the one where you could see who he had been, before the Danes had twisted him.

“How’s it feel?” Astrid asked, quietly, with a brilliant interest shining in her eyes, bringing him back to the reality of the conversation. Kell didn’t look up at her, only cut his meat, ate a bite of it carefully. Holland sat silently beside him, and he knew if he looked, his face would show nothing at all.

“You know how it feels,” Kell muttered around a bite of what he hoped was pork that definitely tasted better than it would have when he first came here.

Either the food was getting better, thanks to the magic that continued to spread from the Sijlt, or he was just getting used to it.

“Oh, I do, I do, but I want to hear you say it,” Astrid said in a low rumble, not quite a purr.

“It feels terrible,” Kell ground out, reaching out to take his glass of wine, swallowing too much too quickly in an attempt to quiet the other things he wanted to say, coughing as some of it went down the wrong way. Athos laughed at him, and Astrid smiled.

Holland leaned over as though he were going to put a hand on Kell’s back. His eyes flicked briefly to the Danes and he sat back again, but it was too late. Kell saw their smiles change as they recognized the motion for what it was.

Holland looked back down at his food. 

He knew what Holland was thinking. It’s worth it, it has to be worth it, waking the world up and saving my people is worth it. It was all he said, some days, convincing himself as much as Kell. Sometimes said with hands on his hair while he was kneeling on the floor next to the bed, sometimes flung at him during training alongside magic that ripped his skin bloody but forced him always back to his feet to defend himself and attack again, sometimes hovering over a book on how to destroy his own country that Holland ordered him to take notes on.

Holland was half-cruel and half-kind, half-gentle and half-cold, and Kell could not keep his mind straight around it any longer. He was the man who begged to be told he could be saved and the man who sometimes glared at him as though all of this were his fault and his alone. He was the man who mostly took off the collar now as soon as they were back in his room and the man who sometimes told Kell to keep it on. He was both of those men, combined, and Kell could not balance it.

Holland was magic’s master and its slave, both at once, and Kell was terrified of turning into him and wanted him, and he could not separate the two.

He had been right; this was worse than pain.

Astrid and Athos fell into cheerful, casual conversation while they ate, and Kell listened to the scrape of silverware on plates, watched out of the corner of his eye Holland taking occasional bites, hardly eating at all, sitting there in absolute silence. As though he were just another mindless guard. 

Which Holland would he see tonight, when they were done here? 

“When will you open the next doors?” Astrid asked, sitting back to watch the two of them. Her eyes were sharp, where Athos was sometimes blurred. She was always watching, never distracted, never turned away. 

“Two days,” Holland said quietly. “I will visit the Maresh prince in the morning-”

"No," Astrid said with a smirk. "Let it catch him out unawares. Let's see what he does." Holland only inclined his head.

Kell looked up quickly, but Holland wasn’t looking at him. He hadn’t known; Holland hadn’t mentioned anything about it. He’d have to tell Rhy. He’d have to tell him, so he’d know to be ‘sick’ again, to make some excuse. He couldn't let it be a surprise or something Maxim and Emira might find out.

Which meant he’d have to get hurt, and not just a little. He'd have to get hurt badly enough to speak to Rhy again, and he didn’t want any of them to know he could talk to Rhy, so he couldn’t exactly ask.

Although the look on Athos’s face made him think that if Kell asked to be hurt, at least one person here would be glad to do it.

“Where?” Astrid was speaking to Holland, but her eyes slowly moved to Kell’s face instead, looking him over thoughtfully. 

“The Silver Wood,” Holland said simply. “It seemed a fitting place.”

Astrid snorted. “You would think that. Fine. You will return to us after you take our pretty flower boy to his brother. Will you open three again?”

“Five,” Holland said. His tone was mild and blank. “We have something to write on there. It will be easier.”

"Good. Then we’ll convene our war council afterward, while our little Kell is busy with his brother.” Astrid smiled, slowly, her blue eyes resting on Kell’s face. He could almost feel the weight of her stare. “Then we’ll discuss how we will introduce ourselves to the Arnesian empire. I still say infection.”

“Compromise idea,” Athos said, twirling a bit of meat on his fork through the air, blue eyes focused entirely on Kell’s face. “I say we massacre them all but let you keep the prince as a pet anyway.”

Kell looked up. “Let her what?

“Oh, you don’t like that, do you?” Athos grinned at him. 

“Don’t worry, ” Astrid said soothingly. “I leave fewer external scars on my men than my brother does, and it’s not like a political marriage would be completely unfamiliar as a concept.”

“She leaves a lot more internal ones, though. Plus, this compromise means we get to share. I’ve heard from Holland the Maresh prince is particularly libertine.” 

“Athos, where the hell did you even learn that word?” Astrid laughed, and the sound was like shattered bells, and Kell felt his grip slowly tightening around his fork until the metal slowly bent in half.

A world that creates kings and queens like this is not a world that deserves to be saved, Kell thought, protective rage at the thought of Rhy in the same position he’d found himself in coiling around his heart and beginning to drown out the fear. He could have killed them all, every single person in Makt, without reservation, if it would keep Rhy from this.

Then he thought of Beloc diligently staying awake to research for Holland, not on command but just to have something to do, the way he looked like an entirely different person in Holland’s room than he had tiptoeing around the dinner table serving them, how the shadows were already leaving his eyes and his ribs were filling out. How Kell had caught him singing to himself the other day.

He thought of the boy with the eyepatch down by the river, throwing water into the air to make a little girl happy in a city where he could still be torn apart if they realized it was him… but the boy had taken the risk, just to make a little girl smile.

He thought of the little girl from the kitchens he caught Beloc speaking with sometimes, who looked at them with nervousness but also with wide-eyed innocence. The girl Beloc was reading the Arnesian stories to at night.

Red London had left a world to die, once upon a time, and this was what happened to a world like that; it turned inward, ate itself, made people like Astrid and Athos Dane. But… it also had made people like Beloc, who could be hard and cynical and hurt in one moment and then hug him so tightly he could barely breathe and eat all the food on the table in the next.

A world like this also made people like Holland, single-minded and determined, who would do whatever it took to make something - anything - better.

“Of course we can share,” Astrid soothed. Those blue eyes flickered his direction, then back to Athos. “There’s enough of Rhy Maresh for both of us.”

Kell swallowed, hard, trying to guard himself against the protective rage that threatened to spill out of his mouth in words he would regret. She was baiting him, and he could tell. He looked back down at his food, moving it around on his plate, suddenly not hungry any longer. She was just trying to get him to say something, to move out of line, to give them an excuse. 

Astrid kept talking, Holland occasionally answering her when it seemed like an answer was required, and Kell was so focused on trying to look like he didn’t care that he didn’t realize Athos had stood up and moved around the table - not until two large, cold hands dropped onto his shoulders. 

“What are you thinking?” Athos asked. His thumbs were pushing, just slightly, against the back of Kell’s neck, right where his neck connected with it, in a way that ached.

“Nothing your Majesty,” Kell whispered. He heard Holland’s chair scrape. “I am trying very hard to think nothing.”

“My king-” Holland started.

“Shut up,” Athos said without any particular unhappiness, rubbing his thumbs in small circles. “I’m talking to our Kell Antari, aren’t I? Sit in your chair and stay quiet, Holland.”

Silence.

Whichever Holland he is tonight, he can’t save you from them.

“Athos, what are you up to?” Astrid asked, and her voice was thick and sweet, like rot and honey. 

“Mmmn, nothing,” Athos said, deliberately pressing his thumbs in until pain spiked up Kell’s neck and down his spine and he grunted, the bent fork clattering onto the plate. “Are you thinking about your brother, Kell? Whether or not we’ll let him live? I promise you we will, once we’ve bled dry his mother and father right before his eyes and seen what magic their deaths taste like-”

Kell growled and jerked away, pushing his chair back so hard he nearly knocked Athos over, standing and spinning around to glare at him. “Don’t you dare-

“Kell, no,” Holland said softly, but Kell could see from the smile on Athos’s face that he’d made a huge mistake. “Apologize,” Holland said, with all the force of an order, and Kell felt the rune in his back push, just a little, against him.

“I… I’m sorry, your Majesty,” Kell said, closing his eyes tightly and bowing his head. Don’t let him know his name isn’t in the rune. Don’t let him know.

“I’ll forgive you if you smile for me,” Athos said, and Kell looked up, confused. “Go on, flower boy.”

The face Kell made was more of a grimace, he was sure, but Athos seemed content with it. He stepped forward, until he was so close Kell could feel the cold coming off of him in waves, black veins spidering away from his eyes, making their way down his cheeks, darker than ever with Kell’s blood.

“Hold still,” He said, and Kell forced himself to freeze, to pretend that he was working against an order he’d been given and failing to fight it, as Athos reached out black-veined hands to pull his mouth to the side, tilting his head, looking closely.

I have enough magic to murder you both if I can attack before you realize I’m not bound to you, but I can’t fight Holland, and he can't fight you.

"You have such lovely white teeth," Athos said, in a tone of consummate gentleness. Kell held himself as still as he could, but something in his face must have given him away, because Athos's smile widened. 

Astrid sat back, taking a long drink of the blood in her goblet, and watched. Holland turned away.

"Such pretty white teeth,” Athos continued, letting his thumb graze across them. “Like little white marbles. It's a shame they're not on the outside of you where more people can see them. I like teeth. I like the sound they make when I take them out." Athos snapped his teeth together with a click and chuckled, a warm rumble deep within his chest. His blue eyes continued to bore into Kell's. 

Holland stared down at his plate. “Athos, this isn’t necessary.” He pushed his own chair back and stood, moving towards them.

“I decide what’s necessary. Stay where you are, Hol. Not another step."

Holland froze. 

He can’t save you from them.

"There, see? No one is going to help you. Holland is helpless. Even if you could leave, everyone out there thinks you’re a monster I’ve tamed. Everyone. Even if you went back home today, even if I put you out there, they’d arrest you for treason." Athos leaned over, slowly dragging his tongue up the side of Kell's face. It was lukewarm, a little cold, like everything in Makt. He heard a hiss from where Holland stood, hardly a sound at all. 

But he wants to save me.

The wet against the air made him shiver, and this time he couldn't stop himself; he gagged at the awful feeling of cold air against Athos's saliva across his cheekbone. "Oh, you poor thing,” Athos said soothingly. “It’s just too bad I didn't get to take you first. They say redheads are firebrands in bed and I think we all know it’d be your first time with a real man." 

“H-Holland-”

“Doesn’t count,” Athos interrupted smoothly. He looked over his shoulder at Astrid, who still sat watching him with an indulgent smile on her face, arms crossed in front of her, as though he were simply stopping to pet a dog during a walk. "Didn't I have a redhead once before?"

"Hm," Astrid said thoughtfully, tapping a finger on her arm. "You know, I can't recall. I feel like you did, but... Holland?"

"Yes," Holland said flatly. He leaned slowly back against the table crossing his arms in front of himself, his green and black eyes still focused entirely on Kell’s face. He had no expression, but something burned in his eye, a fury that he could not unleash, not here, not on them. "There was a redhead."

"Man or woman?"

"Woman."

“What was her name?”

“I don’t know.” Holland closed his eyes, briefly. “I stopped caring by then.”

"There you go," Astrid said cheerfully. "There was a redhead. What happened to her?"

Astrid and Athos were silent for a long moment, looking at each other, both of them clearly baffled. Finally, Astrid sighed. “Honestly. You’d think we would remember your lovers, Athos. Holland?"

"You cut her hands off when she broke free and hit you trying to escape." Holland's voice did not waver, even as a new wave of disgust washed over Kell, turned his skin cold and shivering. "She died from blood loss."

"I forgot about that." Athos tilted his head, a nostalgic, sad sort of smile on his face, flashing white teeth in a white face, his blue eyes and the black veins spidering out from them like eyelashes drawing Kell's terrified fascination, the only things he could see. He stepped back and Kell looked down, trying to back away, but in a flash Athos was gripping his throat instead. Kell tried to remember what Holland had taught him; don’t resist, don’t reject, just stand still. Block out your face and your eyes. Be a wall.

Be nothing. Be empty.

The grip around his neck tightened, cutting off his air, and all those thoughts were gone. Kell’s hands jerked up, gripping onto his wrist, clawing at him, trying to get him to loosen his grip. “L-let g-g-go-” He gasped.

"Put your hands down," Athos said softly, a command that Kell's rune did not force him to obey.

"Kell-" Holland said in warning, and it took every ounce of willpower he had but Kell managed to make his hands drop. Every instinct screamed at him to protect himself as he gasped in shallow breaths, the cold fingers at his throat warming rapidly with contact against his body. Don't let him know. Don't let him figure it out, save it for when you need it most. 

White spots danced around the corners of his vision. Athos's thumbs slid back and forth over the edge of the black leather band. "I like this," Athos said gently. "I'd have made it iron, though, a weight you never stop feeling, for as long as I allowed you to live.” He leaned in, gently, and kissed Kell’s forehead, grazed his mouth across his cheek.

With Holland it was all a confused mess of desire and fear, and more often the former than the latter these days. With Athos… Kell felt his stomach heave again, fighting the urge to either vomit right down the front of his clothing or pull himself free. There was no desire here. What Athos wanted from him wasn’t time in bed, not really, but his fear.

Athos wanted him to be afraid for his life, to be terrified, to scream. Holland had taught him; Athos wanted you to defy him, to fight back, so that he could punish you for it, force you to obey. Athos drank defiance and spit it back in your face. 

Holland had taught him what to do, but he couldn’t breathe, and he couldn’t remember what Holland had said any longer.

Athos leaned over to whisper into his ear. “Do you think I’ll get to put an iron collar on your brother, when we force him to his knees for us, so that everyone can see? How heavy should I make it?” His grip loosened, just slightly, and Kell dropped onto the floor like a stone, coughing. “When we parade him in chains through his own city streets, should that be all I let him wear?”

“Go to hell, you miserable fucking bastard.” The angry words, in a hoarse painful voice, were out before he could stop himself. He could hear Holland’s disappointed sigh even from here. “You’ll never touch my fucking brother. I’ll tear you the fuck apart before you touch him; I killed the last people who tried and I can kill you, too-”

“Kell, no -” Holland snapped.

“Let him talk,” Athos said gently. “Let’s hear what he has to say.”

"He's surrounded by guards, even if you did make it in there. Three times as many since your stupidity before. You'll never get close enough. You’ll never get your hands on my brother and even if you did, I would spend the rest of my life tearing your skin to shreds with my fingernails to get my revenge.”

“Such a visual,” Athos murmured. He grabbed Kell by the hair, twisting it hard enough that he hissed at the flash of pain, and flung him onto the floor. He landed hard on his side, and the impact hurt enough that, for just a half-second, he felt Rhy with him.

Then gone.

Damn it, hurt me. Hurt me so I can talk to him. Hurt me.

"Tsk, tsk, Hol," Athos murmured, kicking him hard in the stomach. Kell grunted, curling around himself, and looked up at him through a haze of hatred so pure it felt like a blade inside him, hardly a man, just a blurry monster. “Someone hasn’t learned his lessons.”

Someone is pushing him too far,” Holland said blandly, without moving. Astrid gracefully pushed back her chair and moved around the table to stand next to him, slowly sliding an arm around Holland’s waist, leaning her head against his shoulder. His jaw tightened, just slightly, but otherwise he didn’t react.

"Let's watch, Holland," She said quietly, turning her body slightly towards him, putting her other hand over his chest. “Just stay still.” 

Kell jerked his head free of Athos's grip, scrambling back on the ground, trying to think. "You're petty," He snapped. "Petty and small. Hardly a man, you're sure as hell not fit to be king."

There was a flare of white around Athos's blue eyes.

"That wasn't wise," Astrid murmured.

Kell couldn’t hurt them. Not unless Holland let him. The only reason he could hurt them was also the biggest reason he couldn’t. 

"Is that defiance? ” Athos asked, seemingly idly, moving towards him with slow, languid movements, like a big cat stalking prey. “How insulting. You know, I like when they have some fight in them. What you’re giving me tonight is a gift." 

“You have me,” Kell snapped. “You have the doors opening. You have all the power now. Why not leave my family alone?”

“They left us alone, didn’t they?” Astrid said in an airy, carefree voice. “Left us alone to fight back the magic that could have killed us. Left us alone to fade . All I wanted was to open some doors, Kell. That’s all we really wanted - to take back what you stole from us.”

“That wasn’t us! That wasn’t Rhy, or his family!”

“Doesn’t matter,” Athos said, still moving towards him. “You stole from our world. It’s time we repaid the favor.”

“I need him to open the doors tomorrow,” Holland said, an edge to his voice that hadn’t been there before. “Damn it, I can’t do it without him, Athos! Don’t touch him!” He caught himself, cut his voice off at the end of the word, but it was too late.

Athos paused, slowly turning to look at Holland. “Getting attached, Vosijk? Give me the lead.”

“Nothing with permanent consequences, Athos,” Astrid said in warning,  letting go of Holland, watching as his body obeyed the order even as his mouth was a grim line and his eyes flashed fire. He unwound the black leather cord from his wrist and handed it to Athos, who patted him on the side of the face gently.

"Good man, Holl. Now go pick up my whip." Over his shoulder to Astrid, he said, "Every kind of pain has permanent consequences, if you make it deep enough. Kell. Kneel." 

Holland closed his eyes, just slightly, fingers slowly tightening around the gilded, engraved handle with the death’s head on the end, walking over to them with the end of the whip trailing with an audible scrape. "Kneel,” He said, softly.

Kell’s body did as it was commanded. He went to his knees as gracefully as he could while Athos moved slowly in front of him, smiling a thin-lipped smile that never reached his glacial eyes. He leaned over, tilting Kell's chin up. "You're not going to like this. Close your eyes and put your forehead on the floor."

There was the rounded top of a skull digging into his forehead as he curled over himself.

 Kell was tensed, waiting for the first blow, and jerked in surprise when he felt Athos kneel behind him. There was a ice in the air all around him as he bent his whole body over Kell’s back, gripping onto his hair and forcing his forehead into the floor so hard it ached.

Everything Holland had ever said about not fighting back dropped out of his head. He began to struggle, trying to get out of the grip that only tightened and tightened, the sudden and horrified realization that Athos was enjoying this.

"Fight me," Athos murmured in an excited rush, like a child pointing out the first season's snow. "Fight back. Defy me. Argue with me. Tell me I'll never get near him, tell me I'm a monster. Tell me you’d rather die than lie on your back in my bed.”

"Do you really need the reassurance?" Kell managed, but his voice was faint and thin, and he tried to push back against Athos’s terrible weight.

Athos leaned over to push his nose against Kell's hair, taking in a deep breath. "Oh, you smell wonderful. Could I keep your hair, when you're dead?"

"Wh-when I'm-"

"Ssshhh, not anytime soon. I like to keep things from my lovers. Astrid calls them tokens."

"He has dozens," Astrid said languidly. “From all of them, even the ones he finds out in the streets and never brings home. A whole room full.”

“Hair,” Athos breathed out against his ear. “And teeth. Fingernails. Bones. Ooooh, I know what yours would be.” He licked Kell’s earlobe, slowly. Kell jerked his head to the side with a cry and Athos bashed it back down. The world was a mess of black spots dancing and a sudden pain, a smear of red against the pure white stone.

“Haaaaaah, ow, fuck, ow-”

“Kell, stop-” Holland’s voice was tight and strained. “Just go still. It’s easier if you go still-”

“Sssshhh, Hol, you’ll get your turn in just a second,” Astrid’s voice said, warm and lilting. “I won’t let him go far, tonight. This one is still yours to wound."

“For you,” Athos slid his hands slowly down Kell’s arms, until he rested his palms over Kell’s hands where they pressed into the floor, ice-block fingers placed carefully over his. “I want to cut off your finger and keep the bone on a necklace, make you kiss it before I tie you down each night. Let it dangle in your face while I fuck you bloody. What do you think about that?”

If there was an answer to a sentence like that, Kell couldn’t think of it. All he could feel was Athos’s cold skin and a crawling disgust and repulsion, his own helplessness. 

“Which would you choose?” Athos’s voice was a low rumble he could feel right through his clothing. He was going to throw up all over the floor. They’d be angrier, then. They’d be so angry if he threw up on the floor, he couldn’t, he had to stop his stomach from flipping. Kell groaned against the nausea, managing to keep himself still this time. “Would you rather wear your own finger on a cord or let me put an iron collar on your brother’s pretty neck?”

“Cut off my fucking hand,” Kell said hoarsely. “My legs. Fuck me, if you want to, I don’t care. Whatever you want, just leave him alone.”

There was a pause. Then Athos stood, and the ice cold of him was gone as quickly as it had come. Kell curled himself into the smallest ball he could on the stone and bone floor, gasping, his mouth a mess of sour bile and the metallic taste of Athos’s skin. 

Athos yanked his head back up so violently he nearly fell to the side. “Oh, we’re not done just yet,” He said quietly. There was blood running down Kell’s face from the wound in his forehead, he could feel it running in cool drops down his nose, his cheek. “I want you to understand something, Antari.” He clipped the black lead into the silver ring on his collar. “I hold the leash.”

He yanked it hard, pulling all the slack tight and jerking Kell forward to catch himself on his hands. 

“Who is your king, Kell Antari?

“Kell,” Holland said in warning, but he didn’t care. If he was going to die here on their throne room floor, he could at least die being brave, not just stupid.

Kell ground his teeth teeth, glaring up at Athos, blinking hard as a little red got in his eye. He could hear Holland breathing behind him, and beyond that the lowest chuckle from Astrid. “Maxim Maresh is my king,” He hissed, sitting back up on his knees, grabbing at the lead with both hands. 

“You idiot ,” Holland said in a whisper.

Athos watched him for a long, drawn-out moment, then looked up. “Astrid, can I-”

“No,” She said from somewhere behind Kell. “Holland cannot open the doors without him. Plus… look at our poor Holl. He’s so sad about all this.”

Athos smiled, and Kell felt his heart drop. “Twenty lashes,” He said to Holland. “With all your strength. While I hold the leash."

“Your Majesty,” Holland said tightly. “I need him.”

“I’m starting to think you genuinely do. That is a mistake, and I will show you why. Ten lashes for defiance. Five for arrogance. And five…” Kell didn’t see Holland's face but he heard him suck in his breath. “The last five are just for your sake, Holl, for your attachment . When we're done, return to your room and clean him up.”

“The doors-”

“He’ll have enough blood left to open them. It’s only twenty lashes, after all. The last time I gave you twenty, you went to see the Maresh family the very next day. Kell will have a whole day to recover.” He stood above Kell, looking down at him, and said, "Count them out loud. For every count you miss, you'll get one more. Do you understand?"

Kell's heart pounded in his chest, and he slowly nodded.

"Begin." Athos stared down at him, watching his face when the first blow hit. Crack , then the whistle of air, then the lance of hot pain up his back, and he grunted.

There was a pause. "Count it, Kell," Holland snapped. "For the gods' sake, count the fucking lashes. "

"O-one," Kell gasped. Athos jerked on the lead and Kell glared up at him.

"Who is your king?"

Kell ground his teeth together. "Maxim Maresh," He hissed. 

Athos looked up, sharing a look with Holland. "Let's try again, shall we? I feel like he doesn't quite understand what we're trying to do."

Another crack, another whistle, another blow. Kell jerked forward, catching himself with his hands, letting out a cry. "Two!"

"No," Athos said mildly. "One. Say it."

"Oh, Sanct… one." His back was on fire, he could feel blood soaking through the cloth of his sweater, the air on the open wound where the cloth had outright torn. 

Kell? Rhy. His brother. He could hear him. I’m here, Kell. You’re not alone. I’m here.

"Who is your king?"

Kell looked back up, gritting his teeth in a snarl, a mess of red smeared across his face. His head was still bleeding. “Maxim. Fucking. Maresh .”

He started trying to tell Rhy everything he could think of in the spaces between lashes, when he could think - and knew that all Rhy could feel was the pain when the whip came down.

They started over five times before Kell gave up and gave Athos the answer he wanted. After that he counted the lashes in breathy high-pitched groans, Athos's grip on the lead pulled tighter and tighter, his smile widening. A few drops of blood had spattered across his pure white outfit, his hands, his face. He came closer, and closer, and finally he knelt right in front of Kell, holding him by the leash with one hand and his chin with the other, Kell’s eyes forced up to meet his as he screamed in pain, Athos’s face only a few inches away from his own.

Tears mixed with the blood from his head wound, and he sobbed helplessly, Athos’s grip on his chin the only thing holding him up on his knees.

Athos smiled at him as warmly as if they were exchanging Solstice gifts, his thumb stroking back and forth across his face, the lead pulled as tight as it would go. “Good,” He said soothingly, after Kell had counted seventeen. “Almost done. Who is your king?”

“Y-y-y-y…” Kell coughed, but coughing lit up his back and he cried out helplessly. HIs voice was nearly gone.

“Take your time,” Athos said in a sweet voice. “Holland, hold.”

Holland was breathing in harsh pants behind him, and Kell heard the whip slap against the floor as he let his arm drop. 

“Who. Is. Your. King?” Athos murmured.

“Y-you,” Kell groaned.

“Who holds your leash?” 

“You… do.” Athos let go of him and Kell collapsed forward, bonelessly, onto the floor. The lead dropped to the ground and Athos stood, looking down at his blood-spattered clothing with a white-toothed grin. 

“Holland, finish the final three.” Holland grunted with the effort of raising the whip again, and the last three lashes passed with Kell lying on the ground half-conscious, jerking against the pain but almost too far away now to even feel it.

“Good. Clean him up. You can do… whatever it is you do to heal him tomorrow afternoon. I want him to feel every single lash until then. Understood?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Holland said evenly, but his voice had the slightest jagged edge.

“Good. I will return before dawn.”

“Where are you going?” Astrid asked. She hadn’t moved, not once, the whole time. She hadn’t even made a sound. But her voice now was thick low and heavy with a terrible joy.

There was a pause, and the sound of Athos’s heavy boots walking away. “I’m leaving. Going to find someone. You wanted me to bring home a woman this time?”

“Bring back a redhead,” Astrid said brightly. “Don’t care what kind. Bring back a redhead for both of us. We’ll call them Kell until they're dead.” Astrid walked away as well, and Kell, his mind a ringing smear of pain, listened to the sound of her boots until it faded and tried not to care that he was responsible for yet another death in Makt simply by virtue of existing.

A cool, comforting hand settled onto his shoulder. Kell couldn’t even move, couldn’t turn. He just kept the side of his face resting on the cool stone floor. “H-Holland-”

“Ssshhhh,” Holland murmured, reaching up to run fingers through his hair, the feeling totally different than when Athos touched him. He swallowed, eyes closed, wishing he could sink into the cool floor. “Sssshhhh, it’s all right, Kell, it’s over. They’re gone.”

“I c-can’t-”

“I know. I’ll move you.” A pause. The hand moved to feel across his forehead, to trail along his cheekbone, and when it made it to his mouth, Kell pressed his lips against the backs of Holland’s fingers, drifting in a sea of pain and blood. Everything was red and white and black and green…

Holland pulled his hand back, then sighed. “I’m sorry. I did not want to do that.”

“S-save me-”

Holland leaned over and kissed his hair, gently. "Don't break.”

When he picked him up, settling him into his arms with his head tucked under his chin and against his shoulder, Kell's long, tall, lanky body oddly comfortable being held, hel was conscious long enough to think that it was strange how little Holland cared that he was covering himself in blood - then that, considering how long he'd killed for them, it wasn't strange at all.

Then Holland shifted back to his feet and every wound in his back lit with new fire. Kell let out a strangled groan and everything went black.

Chapter Text

For a while, things were oddly hazy. His mind was a circle of pain, his back was being held against a bonfire of agony he could not escape. Rhy's heart was slow for a while, likely drugged into sleep, and when it wasn't slow he and Rhy spoke to each other in snatches of thought that came and went.

He was delirious with the ache; he had no idea what he said, or what Rhy said back. He just knew he felt his brother's hand around his and the familiar voice like a second set of thoughts beside his own. 

He woke up to the sound of his own ragged half-whispered cries as something pressed against the wounds, the sound of Holland’s murmuring low voice, his hand in the fingerless gloves he always seemed to wear gripping tightly onto Kell’s own.

“I made a mistake,” Holland said, but that might have been a fever-dream. Everyone makes mistakes. Behind Holland’s voice there was something else, an answer to a question he had asked but he couldn't remember the question any longer. Kell tried to say something to him but things went black again. 

When Holland was there Kell could smell him, forests in winter, and he closed his eyes tightly against tears. 

Holland might have held his hand for longer. He might have heard him say, “I’m sorry,” in a voice that he had never heard him use before. But he might not. Kell could barely hear anything over the sound of his own breathing, loud as a shout, his own whimpers every time his back was touched.

The last time, Holland had healed him right away, each time. This time, Kell was left to float in and out of consciousness, waking to pain and sleeping to pain and waking to pain again.

Time passed like that. It could have been minutes or hours, he couldn’t tell. Holland left, he thought, or at least his hand was empty again. He slept.

He came awake as a spike of pure cold agony lit up his back right at the bottom of his spine, where the lowest lashes had hit, and he dug his fingernails into the cloth of Holland’s pillow, the smell of him, and groaned into it, muffled. "N-no, please…"

“Sssshhhhh,” Said a soft voice. “Relax. It will feel better.” The feeling of something against his lower back was cold as ice and as much as it hurt, it felt better, too. Kell let out a soft ‘haaaaaaah’, trying to push his stomach somehow further into the bed, escape the coldness and the pressure.

“Sssshhh, Kell Antari. I will soothe.” The voice began to sing, a low tenor that cracked on the highest notes, the sound of a boy whose voice had nearly changed into a man’s. “ Solen er så rød, mor... ”A pause, and then the press and the pain again. “ Og skoven bli'r så sort . Nu er solen død, mor, og dagen gået bort...

“Stop, please stop, it hurts…”

Nej, herr. I am washing your back. Our king has changed his mind and you must be cleaned or the wounds could turn. Hold still.”

“... Beloc?” His voice was a painful whisper and he turned his head to the side, just a little. Even that made pain ripple up his back and he sucked air in through his teeth. Beloc was sitting next to him in the bed, legs crossed with a wide, shallow white ceramic bowl full of pinkish water in his lap, a wet cloth in one hand, wringing water out of it into the bowl. He had a bit of cloth tied over his forehead, pushing his hair back and away from his eyes.

Next to him, sitting cross-legged as well, was the little servant girl from the kitchens, the one he read bedtime stories to sometimes from the books Holland let him take. She watched Kell with wide eyes that were fearless, unafraid, unsurprised by his condition. She was holding a small cloudy blue bottle that she poured into the water Beloc washed him with.

Kell coughed, and then cried out at the pain of it. The girl did not flinch, or even look away. “Wh… Who is-”

"This is Nasi. She knows what to do better than I do, she helped me before.”

“I d-didn’t know…” I didn’t know there was no one but a little girl to help you live through this.

Who would there have been, though? Before he’d come here, Holland hadn’t even cared enough to know Beloc’s name.

Something that Kell had not understood before suddenly clicked into place in his mind.

Holland chose to care because I did.

Nasi ,” Beloc said quietly in Maktahn, leaning over to gently press the cool wet cloth against his back again. This time the wound went numb, blissfully numb, and Kell sighed in relief. “ This is Kell Antari. You’ve seen him before. He lives with Holland Antari now.

Pleased to meet you ,” the little girl said, with absolutely no change in expression and a soft, slightly sweet voice. “ I always wash up Beloc and put on his bandages after he is with the king .”

“That is the saddest damn thing I’ve ever heard,” Kell mumbled into Holland’s pillow. In Maktahn, he asked a little haltingly, “ What are you, eight?

“I am old enough to help,” The little girl said defensively, her wide dark eyes narrowing on his just a little. “ No one else will help Beloc, but the king and queen don’t hurt me, so I can.

“Wh-why don’t they-”

“Ssshhhhhh,” Beloc replied, all seriousness, his dark eyes focused on Kell’s back. “If you talk, you will make yourself hurt more. There is something in this water for the pain. You will be able to walk to the Silver Wood with Holland Antari tomorrow but you will not walk fast. Nasi.” He turned to the girl, looking a little over his shoulder. “Nasi, bring me more clear water, ja?” The little girl nodded once and Kell didn’t see her go, but he heard Holland’s door open and close.

“Holland? Where-”

“Holland Antari attends our king and queen,” Beloc said quietly, then hummed a little to himself, cleaning the lashes on Kell’s back with careful, delicate movements. “It is morning and they requested him at breakfast.” The numbness began to spread, and Kell felt himself go a little limp just from exhaustion, closing his eyes, listening as Beloc began to sing again. “ Ræven går derude, mor, vi låser vores gang. Kom, sæt dig ved min side, mor, og syng en lille sang…”

Kell drifted away for a while, then, to the sound of Beloc singing. For a while he opened his eyes and saw Holland asleep beside him in the bed, dozing, his fingers twitching in his sleep just a few inches from Kell’s face. Holland was still fully dressed. Of course he was, it had to be lunchtime or something like that. Why was Holland here and asleep? Had he been up all night?

Kell had no energy even to let him know he was awake. All he did was watch Holland’s face, closed eyes and slack mouth, chest rising and falling slowly. For once, Holland did not have the hardness and the pain that followed him everywhere he went.

Kell slept again, for a while, with confused dreams of Holland’s scarred-up wrists and his back and how it had felt to run his hands over those scars and feel the odd silk-soft feel of them, the way Holland shuddered when he touched him there, and not in pain.

Whatever was in the water kept him numb, until it didn’t, and he always woke up for that, but when he cried out for help Beloc was back and Holland was gone again. 

“You don’t have to d-do this,” Kell hissed once, as the wet cloth pressed against the wounds on top of his back. They’d lashed right over the rune Holland had carved into him, but it didn’t matter - those marks were deeper than skin or bone, they went right through to the soul. The rune, the curse, carved into his back buzzed in his mind, always right there at the back reminding him that if Holland gave an order, his body would obey.

“I do it anyway,” Beloc replied, calmly. “No one else alive here but Holland Antari is as good at taking a lash as I am. So no one is better at knowing how to help the pain, don’t you think?” There was the slightest hint of a smile on his face, a flash of slightly crooked teeth in laughter, and Kell wondered, not for the first time, what adamantine the people of Makt were made of, that they could smile and joke about being tortured.

“Beloc, I want to-...” Kell groaned as the cloth pressed a little too hard. At some point they’d stripped his clothes off, he was naked in Holland’s bed with blankets only up to cover his hips, and he wondered if he'd gotten the bed bloody. If it was, did Holland even care? “I want to take you to my home, my world. You’d be… safer there.”

“Makt is my home,” Beloc replied, but his hand stilled, just for a second, where it was on Kell’s back. “I am safe with Holland Antari.

“No, you’re n-no-...” Kell gritted his teeth to bite back the noise he wanted to make, shifting just a little, trying to find a more comfortable way to lay down. “Arnes is safer. You could live there and no one would-... would hurt you, there.” 

“Makt is my home,” Beloc repeated. “I am with Holland Antari and Kell Antari now. I go where you go. I live where you live. When you are hurt, I will be there to help.”

“Beloc, we’re not…” We’re not friends, he almost said, but that wasn’t exactly true, was it? He’d spent a month now getting to know the teenager who practically lived in Holland’s room, reading the endless books on Arnes and war and politics he was given. “We’re not safe for you. If they order us-”

“Then I am not safe for you either.” Beloc tapped at the left side of his chest, just over his heart. “I have one, too, remember?”

“Ha.” It wasn’t a laugh so much as an exhalation of air. “You should leave and come with me if I ever go home.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Holland Antari is here.”

“What if I took him, too? What if I took Holland home?”

Beloc paused. “Still, I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“My family is still here, somewhere.” Beloc swallowed, hard, and began washing Kell’s back again. The water grew less pink and awful each time he did it, Kell’s Antari blood working hard to heal the wounds as fast as it could. “My brother. I could not leave my brother here alone.”

Kell closed his eyes, feeling tears at the corners. That, at least, he understood. “Where is Holland now?”

“He walks the city.

“To see the river?”

Nej. He walks because he is angry.”

“Angry at what?”

Beloc hesitated. “He is angry that he is always hurting you. He is angry that he doesn’t want to, and angry that they know.”

“Know what?”

Silence.

“Beloc, what do they know?”

Beloc continued cleaning his back, the gentle numbness from the bowl spreading. Kell realized Nasi hadn’t been around in a while, the little girl, how long had she been gone? How long had he slept? “That is Holland Antari’s question to answer, not mine.” 

Kell was drifting before Beloc had even stopped speaking, feeling the coolness of the wet cloth and whatever medicine it was soaked in spreading through his muscles, thinking he must have misheard.

What question?

He could only think of one.

Who is your king?

Kell jumped at the memory of the voice, of Athos’s expression, of the icy blue eyes boring into his, black veins like eyelashes and tears spreading away along his face. He’d lasted five lashes before he gave up, and Kell thought… he thought that was longer than anyone in that room had thought he’d last.

Maxim Maresh is my king, he thought sleepily, as Beloc began to sing again. 

Himlen er så stor, mor, med klare stjerner på, hvem monstro der bor, mor, på stjernen i det blå?” Beloc’s voice was so soft, and whatever numbed his back also made him so sleepy. Kell closed his eyes again, let himself drift away, Rhy’s heart beating against his own, just a half-step behind. “ Tror du det er drenge, mor - der kigger ned på mig? Og tror du de har senge, mor - og sover li'som mig?” 

What is my home?

No, that wasn’t the right question.

Arnes is my home. Maxim Maresh is my king, and whatever my hands do at Holland’s command, I am not a traitor to my crown. I would never turn against Rhy. I am Kell Maresh and I will go home one day. And I will take Holland with me. I will take him with me and bring out the man who used to laugh again.

He swallowed, drifting away again, trying to keep himself awake to think. But what if home is a who and not a where?

If that was the question, was the answer still Rhy?

Or was it Holland?


That woman had come through the wall again today.

The boy had noticed her before, someone who did not belong, and had trailed her throughout the city. The woman had shortish dark hair, where most of the people in Makt were lighter-haired or no-color-haired. She was thin but not starving, wore unfamiliar men’s clothing most of the time with a hat pulled low on her head.

Plus, you know, she stepped out of a wall, which kind of gave away that she was one of them, one of the demons, but she did not serve the Danes.

She always went to the palace where the Danes lived, where his brother had died, but she never went in. She walked around the edges of the great white walls that shut the twin monarchs off from the world, peered in through the bars of the front gate at the garden of white corpses held in. She tested places to climb, or simply listened, for an hour or more sometimes. Waiting to hear something, but the boy did not know what.

She had seen him, he knew that, but she hadn’t said anything.

He followed her when she came out of the wall, wherever she went, and followed her when she went back in. Of course, he didn’t try to go, too - everyone knew you couldn’t go through walls unless you were one of them.

They had cut the them out when they cut out his eye. Even if the magic hadn’t gone, even if he kept it to himself and mostly tried to stay out on the streets all day so his mama wouldn’t learn about the magic, the demon part of him was gone. It was gone.

Even if they had looked at him, the demons, and he had thought in one terrified moment that they would come for him. But then the Makt one had grabbed the one from the other world, and they had looked away from him to argue in low voices he couldn’t hear, and he had let himself fade into the crowd and be unseen.

The thing was, he wanted to try to go through the door in the wall so badly. He could see it, if he squinted, a design drawn in old blood that had nearly faded, the edges of it just his size, just his shape. He could almost imagine what it would feel like to go through and find himself somewhere else after.

The woman cut herself to open it, said something to herself in the strange flat language she spoke, the language the lit up the rune on the bottom of his foot to understand it. Is that all he had to do? Cut himself and say something?

There was a pulse in his blood that did not belong to him, the magic always beating hard just under his own heartbeat. Waiting. Wanting. 

This is not all you are.

The boy did not know what it wanted, except for when he looked at the symbol drawn on the wall, so faded it was nearly nothing. Then he knew.

His blood wanted to be a demon.

His blood wanted to go through the wall.

His blood wanted to know what the demons who served the Danes knew, to be like them but free, to have all the power and the will to use it besides… like the woman who came through the wall and who seemed to serve no one at all.

Today, the woman walked the city through the morning, briskly, ignoring him even though the boy knew she was aware of him. He heard coughing from some houses they passed, the plague victims who weren’t going to heal or maybe they would, it was a coin toss, you never knew. Some houses were boarded up.

But less people were dying, now that the doors were open over the river. With magic in the world, the plague season was beginning to lift, at least in the city. They said someone’s garden had actually started growing the medicine plants again.

He followed her to the riverbank, stayed hidden behind a hedge while she went down to pick a bouquet of flowers and eat a pear off the pear tree. No one bothered her, not this early. Only a few people were out, and they kept a wide berth. He’d seen her attacked once, the woman, and seen her take out four men with knives before he could do more than open his mouth to yell.

We could be like that, his blood whispered. We could be that strong. He had always felt something else, something with a will and a want, inside his blood. Something that had tried to kill him rather than be in him, but ever since the river the will had grown stronger, more like thought.

He watched her stare at the river for a long time, muttering to herself. Then she turned to head in his direction, and he ducked back to stay unseen, dropping onto the ground behind the hedge, leaves in his hair. She stomped up to him, stood just a few feet away in silence, and then finally sighed, tossed an uneaten pear where he could see it, and walked away.

He snatched up the pear and pushed himself to his feet, trailing her without hiding this time. He followed her back to the wall, watched her go through and disappear into another world on the other side. He wanted to go through so badly, and see what the other worlds were like. They couldn’t be worse than this one, could they?

We could do that, said a voice in his blood, not in words exactly, just in truth. We could go through the wall, if we knew how. We could be that, too. If only we knew how. We could be what they are.

“Could be what?” He whispered out loud, but he knew the answer.

We could be demons, too.

“I don’t want to be a demon.”

We could be like them, Toska, and then you could have revenge for what they did to him. 

“I miss him,” The boy said softly. No one but the blood said his name any longer. No one ever really had but his brother; even Mama just called him ‘boy’ or, since his brother had died, mostly nothing at all. “I miss him.”

Then do something about it. 

“What can I do?”

Learn to be what we are, and when you have slaughtered them and they die under our hands you stand over their corpses and scream that it is because Beloc is dead.


“Captain! Wake up!”

Alucard Emery, dignified captain of the Night Spire and somewhat disinherited and exiled Arnesian nobleman, had been drooling in his drunken sleep with his hat pulled down over his face.

He jerked awake in his chair with a shout, hat falling off, one hand smacking wildly into the air and knocking over a half-full glass of wine, where it fell directly on top of his hat and then began to soak into it. “Oh, for the saints’ sakes,” He muttered, rubbing at his forehead, feeling the hangover pounding in his temples. “What is it, Stross?! Last I checked, the crew was on shore for three days. Did you just miss my sparkling company?”

Stross burst in like the hounds of hell were on his heels. “The prince is gone!”

Luc blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Prince Kell! We’ve just had word from Arnes. There was some kind of attack on the princes. Prince Kell is missing.”

There it was, the old worry… worry for someone he hadn’t seen in years and would, in all likelihood, never see again. He’d long since braced himself against that simple fact. He’d long since accepted that even if they met, it would be as privateer and royal, leagues apart, that Rhy would likely be married and settled down, have started a family like he’d always wanted… and Alucard Emery would be a story he told at parties sometimes, maybe. “What about Rhy?”

“I think you mean Prince Rhy,” Stross corrected, but his tone was gentle and Luc didn’t have the energy to snap at him for it. “He is still there. The aven vares is gone. We’ve just had word from Arnes.”

“Kell is gone? That’s impossible. He’d never leave Rhy’s side. Wait. We’re weeks out from Arnes by sea, how long ago-”

“Month or so,” Stross said, finally stepping into the captain’s cabin. He took in Luc, still wearing yesterday’s dirty clothes, spilled wine on the half-smashed hat on the floor, and one empty bottle lying on its side while a second stood still half-full. He sighed. “Captain…”

“Later, Stross, you can judge me for my slovenly appearance and general drunkenness later. When the crew’s on leave, I indulge myself on occasion in a bit of manly brooding, just me and the cat.” As if in response, there was a faint meow from the corner where his bed was. “Not now, Esa. Tell me what you’ve heard from Arnes.” He paused. “Because we’re good Arnesian citizens.”

“We’re not good-”

“Just,” Alucard said, holding up one finger to cut Stross off. “... tell me, Stross.”

“Apparently they’ve hidden it, but my cousin’s stepsister’s husband’s brother has a friend in the King’s Own Guard who says the two princes disappeared some time back, were gone for nearly a week, and Prince Rhy came back alone and… different.”

Luc felt cold all down his arms, building in his chest. Rhy. I should have been there. I don’t know how or for what reason but I should have. “Different how?”

“No one will say. They say he screams, sometimes for hours, but with no wounds on him. They've heard him crying out in pain at night but he turns anyone who tries to go in away. The Sanctuary has an acolyte with him all the time now. But in any case, he came back alone, and Prince Kell hasn’t been seen since. The guard told my cousin’s stepsister’s husband’s brother-”

“Just use his name , Stross, please, that is way too confusing to repeat.”

“He told Trell that the prince has just been declared a traitor to the crown. They’re going to arrest him on sight if he’s seen in London. He could get death for treason."

Luc blinked, rubbed at his forehead, blinked again. “Now I know that’s impossible. Am I still drunk?”

“Almost certainly, but it’s true. And… listen to this, Captain. The prince-”

“Rhy?”

“No, the other one. Prince Kell is opening the doors again.”

Luc frowned. “What doors? Speak plain, Stross.”

“The doors. The ones they closed.” When Luc continued to stare at him blankly, Stross sighed. “They’re opening the doors between worlds, Captain. The ones they closed way back when. Right in London. They opened one in the Isle.”

Who did?

“The people from the other London… and Prince Kell.”

“That’s im-bloody-fucking- possible.

“Impossible or not, they did it. The water’s gone clear for a bit in the middle, Trell says the Sanctuary is in a panic over it. The king and queen must be mad with anger that Prince Kell has turned on the crown.”

“But that’s im-”

“I know,” Stross said with a shrug. “But that’s what I heard from Trell.”

Alucard swallowed, and let every single bit of common sense tell him that what he was about to do was stupid. Then he put on his best smile, picked up his hat, and shook some of the drops of wine off of it onto the floor. “Sanct, I need a new hat. You know what that means, Stross?”

Esa took a graceful leap from the bed to the floor, trotted over, and started licking up the spilled wine.

Stross sighed, rubbing at the medallion on the necklace he always wore. “It means we’re loyal citizens and we’re going back to ask if there is any way we can help?”

“Not at all,” Luc said brightly, wincing when even his own voice was too loud and cheerful for his hangover. “It means the one and only reason I’m legally banned from Arnes was just declared a traitor to the crown, and I’m fairly certain that means he can’t do shit to stop me.”

Kell would die before he’d do anything to hurt Rhy, or leave him alone. He’d die before he turned on his brother. He’d die before he’d open the doors and let who knows what in to attack us. Kell’s a bastard and a son of a bitch but he’d never, ever turn against Rhy.

So what is Kell doing? If he’d die before he’d turn on Arnes, what is worse than death?

“Stross,” Luc said with a grin, “Go round up the crew. I’ll give ‘em extra leave once we get there, but we’re heading back to Arnes. I’ve a mind to reintroduce myself to my prince.”

“To your-”

The prince.” Luc winced. “Reintroduce myself to the prince.”

He just had to hope Rhy hadn’t changed too much while he was gone.

"Stross… let's go home."

Chapter Text

“I’m going to kill him,” Lila Bard growled, throwing the knife. At least the acolyte’s clothing she still wore to the palace in order to carry on the deceit that she was here to check on Rhy’s health didn’t constrict her motion. It spun through the air and hit the target with a dull thud, right in the center. She smiled, grimly, to herself and pulled the knife out again, having to brace one foot against the wall. She’d buried it deeper this time.

“Yes, well, get in line,” Rhy said in a thin voice from where he sat in a small wooden chair in the mostly dark training room, trying to look relaxed, staring up at the ceiling with a thoughtful look on his face and occasionally shifting with discomfort and pain. “You’re by no means the first, and I think I get to call first choice on this one, don’t you?”

“Probably Kell does,” Lila muttered, backing up to fifteen paces, then throwing the knife again. Thunk. A bit off from the center this time. She frowned, eyebrows furrowing. Not good enough. When the time came, every single throw would have to be perfect, she couldn’t lose because an inch or two. 

There wasn’t any way the priests had found to take off the mark on Kell, which meant they’d probably have to commit a few murders.

Every single throw - every thrust, or parry - every single thing she did would have to be perfect.

“Probably,” Rhy said heavily, “but he won’t."

“Kell's a handsome idiot.” Lila snorted, yanking the knife back out, backing up again. “You screamed yourself hoarse last night because of him. You nearly passed out at supper.” Twenty paces this time. Twenty-five times, altogether, Rhy had felt the lash come down on Kell, heard him being forced to count them out, one by one. Rhy had even, for just a second, seen through Kell's eyes as he was forced to stare into the focused blue of Athos Dane taking pleasure from his pain.

"He's not an idiot ," Rhy said defensively, but he didn't move from his seat. She knew his back still ached, waves that came and went as the pain relief they'd given Kell in White London wore off. Rhy had thrown up his breakfast, he'd barely kept his composure at the table with his parents, and every time his expression went distant in a way that told her the two brothers were close enough to speak. "He's just… Kell. He has never liked violence. He cares about people when he shouldn't, even when they hurt him. Even when they turn their backs on him." Lila glanced over at him, confused at first. 

Then she saw the look on Rhy's face, a mixture of sadness and guilt and defiance, and she understood. Because they’ve declared him a traitor and will arrest him on sight. Because no one seems to grasp that Kell can only do what he’s told except for Tieren Serense, and oddly, the king isn’t listening to him.

"So you're saying he's a nice handsome idiot. I thought as much when I met him, you know. Sometimes violence is how the work gets done." She flipped the knife in her hands, giving him her cheeriest smile.

Rhy snorted. "Watch your words, that nice idiot is still my brother." Rhy groaned, rubbing at his temples with one hand. "He's never had any sense when it comes to that man. Even with what's happened to him, I know he'd stand up to argue for better than what Vosijk deserves. Even with what he does -"

"If anyone whipped me bloody, I’d have their guts tied on my thighs for garters.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Rhy coughed, but Lila knew by now when Rhy’s cough was really a noble politely pretending not to laugh. “Thank you for the incredibly specific mental image, Miss Bard.”

“I wouldn’t, really,” Lila said, warming up to the thought. “That’d be gross. Blood dripping down your legs all day. Although it's not like women aren't well acquainted with that sort of thing. Guts'd be worse than that. Do you even know what’s in your guts? I’d have to clean them first, and I'm sure by the time I was done the moment would be lost."

Rhy’s polite coughing had turned into outright laughter, warm and deep-voiced, hitched with pain, and she was gratified to see him flash white teeth in a smile as he leaned over, laughter bouncing off the walls around them. “Please stop! No one needs to think about that!”

“They’d be an awful color, too,” Lila continued as though she hadn’t heard him. She lined herself up with the target, narrowing her eyes just slightly. “Everyone reads the anatomy books and thinks they’re a pretty pinky scarlet but they’re really not, you know? I’ve seen guts coming out of a man.” She tried to make the words sound hard, as if she’d been responsible and didn’t care at all. What she’d actually seen was the aftermath of a bar fight gone bad, and the poor sod’s inside bits had spilled out of him in the dim British night, tinted with smoky fog and barely lit by the lamps outside the Stone’s Throw. Barron had had a snit about that one. 

Lila had thrown up in an alley at the sight and the smell and it'd been a solid two days before she'd eaten again, but she'd die before she admitted to that. “So I’d have to buy all new clothes to match my ugly dead-guy garters. And tell me this, prince, where in God’s green earth am I going to find clothing to match a man’s intestinal quality?”

Rhy’s laughter took on a hysterical, breathless sound.

"Do they have tailors for that? Clothing specifically designed to complement the colors of the lower intestine?" 

"Please, stop- my ribs hurt!"

Lila threw the knife with a vicious, victorious grin. It embedded right over the target’s painted-on heart. "Better your ribs than your back, yeah, Highness? Imagine me swanning up like a lady, all, 'Hallo, tailor, have you trousers colored to match this man's internal organs?' Or someone's internal organs, anyway, I wouldn't bring the corpse with me. That would just be rude."

Rhy gasped, and she turned to look at him. He was dressed in his own clothes for the sparring ring, a simple red shirt and pants, though he had yet to pick up a sword or even make an attempt. He’d brought her down here, shown her an array of twenty differently-sized knives carefully laid out on a strip of velvet, and told her to show him what she could do, claiming he was simply bored and could use the entertainment.

She was starting to warm up to Rhy Maresh, even if he was lying, and she knew he was actually just lonely and guilty and in pain.

Whatever life he lived these days, she imagined that without Kell it was very different than it had been before. She had the feeling everyone around him was worried about the time he was spending absolutely alone, waiting for a feeling or a sound or a sign from Kell.

Last night he'd finally gotten one, and it had been a hell of a whipping. Rhy had started screaming at dinner, right in front of his parents. Panicked, they'd called to the Sanctuary for help. Tieren Serense had gone with Lila and a bottle of something to knock Rhy out. When they'd gotten there it was still going on, and Rhy didn't seem to know which one of the two of them he was - he kept counting the lashes, talking to someone who wasn't there.

He'd woken up still hurting, had stayed in bed until early afternoon. Even now, he was walking carefully and gingerly, his shining smile fixed like a mask.

But he'd cried, last night, and she'd heard him. Lila had sat around and waited, holding his hand until he fell asleep, eventually sleeping on his couch, bringing him his morning tea while he told her he and Kell had been talking, during the worst of it. He'd told her there were twenty-five lashes altogether.

Lila was going mad cooped up in a single city in a world full of magic waiting to be explored, but so far she couldn’t walk away. Not if there was a chance. Not without a ship, or at least some concept of how to get one. 

Not until she had helped Rhy to save him. But first, her mission was to cheer him up.

“Miss Bard, you will be the death of me."

“I think we’ve already mastered being the death of you,” She said brightly, trying not to think about how happy she was that she'd cheered him up. “I shot you in the leg, remember? In my London it might not be a killing wound, but you’d be as like to lose the leg as anything else. They'd give you a peg. You'd be the peg-leg prince!"

"I'd be the most stunningly handsome peg leg prince in the world,” Rhy said with that brilliant gorgeous smile. Lila could see what everyone saw in him. She’d gone with him on a walk to the market (trailed by a full complement of guards who did not even try to be unobtrusive, as though the king and queen were certain Kell would jump out from behind a bush to stab his brother at any time) and seen the way he could charm any and everyone but her. 

Even Lila could be charmed - just not quite as far. And Rhy had never really tried to turn it on her. She was grateful for that - she'd have hated to turn the knife on him to get him to stop.

He was smiling at her, still. “But you know, you apologized for that. And you seemed very sincere.”

“Sincerest apology I’ve ever given, that’s for sure. Trust me, I would not have shot you if you weren’t a stone-cold demon woman threatening Kell at the time. Are you sure you don’t want to try a throw, prince?”

“In a bit,” Rhy replied, putting both hands up in front of him. “I don’t have much energy. I was… up early. Or up late. However you want to phrase it.” Discomfort flashed across his face, and Lila thought, not for the first time, but Rhy’s face was made for his wide smile, not for uncertainty or worry or… this. “But you should get your chance. You’ve been a great help and comfort to me, since Kell left.”

“Was taken,” Lila said sharply.

“Right, was taken. I thought… what could I give someone like you?”

“Knives and a good place to stick them,” Lila said helpfully. "What more could any girl want?"

“I am absolutely excellent at thank-you gifts, which of course I already knew, so I got you both of those things."

Lila looked thoughtfully back at the target, pausing. She took a breath, and then said softly, “Or you could get me a ship.”

Rhy shook his head. “That’s meant to be Kell’s thank-you present if you can help me effect his rescue. You know that. I gave you his message.”

“Of course,” She said smoothly. “But what if-”

“There is no ‘what if’, Miss Bard.” Some of the cheerfulness on Rhy’s face faded. His expression went hard and oddly watchful. “There can be no ‘what if’, for me. There can only be ‘when’. Kell is a slave because I took something from Holland Vosijk, because I was so… stupid . My parents branded the wrong son a traitor. I must rescue him. I cannot think of 'what ifs'." Lila turned away, narrowing her eyes, throwing a second knife without taking the first one out. 

It hit the wood inches to the left, right at the top of the target’s shoulder. Useless. Any good opponent - and the bastard that had bested Kell was definitely that - would simply pull the knife out and keep fighting. Lila snorted and stalked over to yank both knives back out to start again.

“It’s been nearly three weeks since he went back from his last visit,” Lila said, trying to keep the edge out of her voice. “Have you heard much from him?”

“A little. More last night than ever before. I think he trains, too. I feel the blows.” Rhy rubbed at his jaw, wincing slightly. “I think he’s sparring, every day, I assume with Holland, who it must be said is not particularly gentle about it.” Rhy’s voice was quiet and careful and even. He was… faded, when he spoke like this. Lila had met a bright and sparkling prince first, and a gleefully furious witch wearing the prince’s skin, but this Rhy she’d gotten to know in the month since Kell had first gone missing was different than both of those.

Rhy put on the sparkle like a costume, wore it for his parents and Tieren Serense and his guards, accepted the concerns of his friends with grace and aplomb and no small amount of charm and flirtation, then lapsed into this odd quiet intensity when he was alone. The quiet sat heavily on his shoulders, as though it were a shirt that did not fit, but he put on and off the mask of cheer and light and joy as such second-nature that it was startling to see both faces. It had occurred to Lila, with the discomfort that came with knowing something about someone that they did not want you to know, that Rhy was lying to everyone around him all of the time.

Except that he didn’t lie to her.

We are going to get Kell back, and we’re the only two people in Arnes who think we can do it.

“You said he told you what happens next last night?” She tried to keep her voice as casual as possible, careless, as though it didn’t matter to her. Kell had promised he would buy her a ship, though, if she rescued him. And he’d been thinking of her, even there, even with what he was living through.

She was uncomfortable with that, and wanted to run from it, but something about being here, seeing Rhy struggling to figure out what to do next and how to save a brother he could barely speak to and couldn’t find, made her want to stay.

Rhy was a good person, and Lila had seen those so rarely, it was like getting too close to a diamond. She felt an uneasy urge to leave him alone in this and a simultaneous desire to wrap him up and keep him safe.

“Yes.” Rhy picked at an imaginary spot on his pants, and Lila felt an odd sort of feeling she couldn’t quite define, unsettling and unpleasant. 

She frowned down at the blade in her hand when  it occurred to her that she was sorry for ruining his good mood. Feeling sorry for doing something that affected someone else’s feelings was not an emotion Lila Bard was prepared to feel, definitely not for a spoiled rich prince, even if he was Kell’s brother. Even if he’d turned out to be a very decent sort of person, for a prince. 

Even if, in her most nervous moments, she was worried they might turn into friends.

She took very careful aim. This time, the knife hit the heart. “What did he say?”

“They're opening doors tomorrow, so I should see him later in the day. Assuming Holland keeps his word.”

“Do you think he’ll lie?” Why wouldn’t he? Lila thought bitterly. He’d already taken Kell captive, forced him to live in that white palace that he never, ever left. She went there nearly every day, watching flowers grow along the banks of their river, trees that had been saplings one day half-grown the next and full grown a week later.

She’d seen people doing magic in the street, a vicious and spiteful kind of power that turned to softness in their hands, as though the magic itself were trying to teach them to change. As though it were offering them a choice.

Lila had a growing uneasy feeling that there was a will behind the pink in the river, something that wasn’t malevolent but that did not give a damn about any of them at all and had some larger purpose.

On top of that, she kept seeing the same gangly-looking boy watching her, a street urchin in too-big clothes with a patch on one eye. He turned up everywhere she went, lingering around corners, hiding in bushes, looking too much like Lila herself had, once upon a time. Someone who scraped their way through life and would be lucky to make it to adulthood.

A boy that she looked at and clicked up against in a way that made her uncomfortable.

When Lila was uncomfortable, she was angry.

Lila Bard did not like being watched, and she hated being followed even more than that, but so far she hadn’t been able to bring herself to say anything or threaten him. She'd even thrown him a stupid pear to eat because she could see in his face that he was hungry, like she had been. Hungry in a way that went deeper than her stomach; hungry for something better than this.

Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she could hear Barron saying something about mercy and doing good turns. Next time, she told herself. Next time she’d stick a knife in his face and see if that chased him off. Barron’s belief in good turns had gotten him killed, after all.

If only she could understand a fucking word any of those people in the other London said so she would know how to threaten the boy properly.

“I don’t think he’ll lie.” Rhy looked older, and tired, these days. He claimed he had trouble sleeping even on good nights, and she could see it in the shadows under his eyes, the way his cheekbones had hollowed just a little. 

She still went to see Rhy nearly every day, out of some strange sense of obligation - something she couldn’t define and was frightened of and so the thought was best ignored. 

Rhy’s exhaustion, of course, was as much from feeling everything Kell did with no way to stop it as it was from the way he seemed so rarely to give in to sleep these days. She tried not to wonder what Kell felt from Rhy. He had a reputation so widespread even Lila knew it by now, and there had been more than one of those visiting ‘friends’ who had made offers to stay with him. Lila didn’t know if he refused them all, or even if he should.

She didn’t understand how any of it worked; only that they were linked, and Rhy was haunted by Kell’s captivity, as though Kell’s ghost were trapped under his skin, in his nerves, in his blood. As though Kell was already dead and just hadn’t moved on.

Lila’s grip tightened on the handle of her knife until her fingers and palm ached. Being with the quiet version of Rhy brought thoughts like this to the surface, thoughts she hated. Lila Bard did not think poetic things about ghosts, or dwell on the misfortunes of people she’d only known for a few days before their lives had gone all to hell. 

She swallowed against the uncomfortable knowledge that she was changing, and not in a way she liked. “Do you think Kell’s a spy? Do you think he forces him to tell him everything that you talk about?”

“I’ve no doubt, but that’s not the plan I mean.” Rhy stood up with effort, wincing a little and putting a hand against his ribcage. Kell must have a bruise there along with the lashes on his back. Rhy said they kicked him first, Lila thought idly, the flutter of anger barely noticeable compared to all the rest of the fury she carried around with her these days. Rhy stepped over the table to look down at the shining knives himself, picking up the plainest one, although considering it was a knife that belonged to a prince, ‘plain’ wasn’t exactly how Lila would have described it.

“What plan, then?”

Rhy took the knife in his grip, and looked over at her, eyebrows raising slightly. She smiled, moving closer to show him how to grip it right for throwing. Rhy watched her hands move carefully, echoing their motions, taking a few practice swings, wincing a little as Kell's pain nipped at every movement. She moved carefully out of the way. He nodded, pulled his arm back, and threw the knife.

It clanged off the wall a good three feet to the right.

“Well, you’re absolutely terrible at this,” Lila said brightly. “If you break that knife, do you have to pay for a new one, or do they just give it to you?”

“They give it to me. The weapons forge at the back belongs to the royal family. Besides, I know I’m terrible at it. That’s why you’re here, Miss Bard. I want you to train me to fight.”

“I think you have a fencing master for that, I saw him yesterday-”

“Not fencing. I don’t want to learn to be elegant, Miss Bard. I am already so. I know how to fight for show. I want to learn to fight for real. I want to learn how to fight like they do down in the alleys and in the streets in your home, where there’s no magic to rely on.” He turned to look at her, and the intensity in his face made Lila take a step back out of sheer self-defense. You could lose yourself to a handsome face that looked at you with such complete and total focus, even if it’s a little terrifying, even if I know it’s Kell he’s focused on, not me.  

Handsome faces on a mission were a particular weakness for many women (and, she’d realized living here, more than a few men), and she could see how you could have your knees go weak when someone like Rhy looked at you like that.

Thankfully, Lila Bard was immune to handsome faces.

Then why are you lingering here just because there’s a handsome prince locked in a tower and no available princess to fight the dragon or wake him with a kiss?

“Here,” Rhy was saying, “there’s an assumption of magic, or at least that my guards will be there to use theirs. But I don’t have any magic of my own, you see. Not enough to count, at least. And I plan to walk right into their nightmare world. They will hurt him to try and stop me, so I need to know how to fight through pain to save my brother. Kell has always been the better brother at handling injuries and pain, it comes with what he is, but when I go to their palace to murder them I will need to know how to push through anything they might do to him."

“Rhy, that’s a really fucking stupid idea.”

He glared at her. “Don’t. You sound like my mother, with more interesting language.”

“At least promise I can go with you.”

The glare faded. “Oh. That’s not what I thought you meant. I just think we’re going to have to get ahead of it, because I feel like… I feel like we’re going to run out of time if all I do is wait.”

“Because of Holland’s nefarious plan?”

“It’s not really his plan,” Rhy said dryly. “Or so Kell would say. As if I give a good goddamn.”

Lila’s eyebrows went nearly to her hairline. “Your Highness, have you been learning to swear from me? I’m scandalized. I’m shocked. And literally no one else you swear to here would understand what a goddamn even is.

Rhy laughed, that flash of white teeth again, and Lila felt something in her shoulders relax. Good God, she thought, he needs a friend, and I am the wrong person for the job, but I think I’m stuck with it. Kell would not want me to walk away from him.

Then stop giving a fuck what Kell wants, Lila. He’s not yours. You have no obligation to him.

None but those you make.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know where the door will open this time, I have to hope he can tell me… during it. He told me something called the Silver Wood, but that… that doesn’t mean anything to me. I hardly hear three words a day from him, and I don’t…” Rhy picked up another knife, his voice ragged and a look of pain in his eyes that Lila could not stand to look right at any longer. “I don’t know what to do. ” 

He threw it without aiming.

Lila Bard stared in shock as it thunked right into the center of the target’s wooden head. She opened her mouth, let it hang open, and then said in a strangled voice, “That’s got to be beginner’s luck.”

“Or I’ve just got better aim when I’m so angry I can barely move.” Rhy moved past her, and she watched him have to brace himself to pull the knife out as well. “I don’t think the doors are the nefarious part, either. You know what the nefarious fucking plan is, Miss Bard? The thing I can’t defend against, the plan I cannot affect, because I cannot bear it?”

Language, your Highness.” She flashed him a smile as mean as a snarl, and he smiled back, manfully trying to echo her expression. Too bad, she thought, that Rhy Maresh didn’t have a mean bone in his body. “What’s his plan, then, if you know it already?”

“Their plan. I think Kell’s probably right that it wasn’t Holland’s idea. Nothing ever is, that empty barrel does nothing of his own volition. They'll send Kell here whenever he starts to waver or fight back, push against the limits they’ve given him. Holland knows I won’t refuse, he knows I could never force Kell to be alone in his nightmares, I’ve never left him to them before and I can’t start now. I've always been the one to pull him out." Rhy’s face had gone dark, and Lila took a step back, watching him with wary, narrowed eyes. 

Rhy gripped the knife so hard his knuckles went ashen underneath the dark of his skin. His mouth was a grim line, and she saw for a second a man to be feared, a man who might learn to be ruthless. “He’ll spend a night in my room, and it’ll take an hour or so to get him back to acting like himself and he’ll hide his feelings from me, like he always has. Then it’ll be over and he’ll go back to Holland fucking Vosijk - ” He threw another knife, and this one hit the stomach.

“That’s a dying wound,” Lila said faintly, but Rhy did not seem to hear her, yanking the knife back out with a vicious strength, letting out a grunt of pain and effort. “Man’s guts’ll spill out, that way, you can’t put ‘em back once they’re out.”

“He’ll go back,” Rhy continued as if she hadn’t spoken, despairing, voice breaking mid word. “He’ll go when he’s called, he’ll go right back there away from me, and he’ll do… whatever Holland wants, whatever they want, because he has to but also because he’s hoping… just hoping… that if he does, they’ll let him come see me again. Each time he does what they want, it’ll kill him a little more. And one day, if I can’t save him in time, there won’t be any Kell left to kill." As he spoke, his voice became louder and louder, until his final words were a shout, his deep voice just shy of a furious scream. "Just a redheaded slave in Holland Vosijk’s goddamn fucking bed, on his knees, doing their bidding and wearing Holland fucking Vosijk’s empty fucking face, on a leash like a dog! And it's all my fault! That is Astrid Dane’s nefarious plan!”

The third knife buried itself in the target’s chest so deeply Lila wasn’t actually sure they could pull it out.

She wondered to herself if anger could be a kind of magic, if rage could be an element, if the desire to protect and defend and revenge could be a power all its own. If it was, then Rhy was not so devoid of magic after all. 

“How would you even know this?” Lila put up a hand and Rhy stepped back, breathing hard, a sheen of sweat across his forehead she could see glinting in the dim light. “You don’t know any of their minds, hardly even Kell’s.” She moved over to the target, but the knife would not budge and eventually she just left it and turned back to him. 

Rhy’s hair hung sweat-soaked over his dark, shadowed eyes. Like this, in this moment, lit up with anger on Kell’s behalf and too far away to help, he was a frightening man. She could see his death in him, like this, and the way he was tethered to life by the thin thread of Kell’s will. Somewhere out in the hall a full complement of guards waited for him to leave, to escort him back to his room. This version of Rhy, though, would need no escort.

Lila had no idea what to do, so she did nothing.

Rhy snorted, wiping at his forehead. “I know it because Holland told me so, the first time he came to offer me a visit from Kell. He told me that was what she had decided. She wanted him to tell me, Miss Bard. Holland's command was to ensure I knew exactly what they were about to do. That they’d take Kell and burn him out inside with shame until there was nothing left, but if I was good - if I kept her little secret - I would get to watch him turn to ash, and make it take longer, so that I could hold out hope to save him." His jaw trembled, his eyes glittered, but Rhy Maresh did not cry. " That was Astrid Dane’s idea of mercy . I agreed to it anyway, knowing I am only going to hurt him worse. Sanct, Miss Bard, I agreed to stand by and force him to tear himself apart to come back to me over and over because my other option was to never see him again-” Rhy leaned over, putting his hands on his thighs, head down, curly black hair hiding his face from her. His shoulders shook.

Lila Bard did not comfort the afflicted, did not give compassion to the sad. She only stood there, awkward as a deer in central London, waiting for the silence and for Rhy’s feelings to end.

After a long silence, Rhy straightened himself back up, and his face was calm again. There were no telltale signs of tears, none of the frightening anger. He smiled at her, and it was a gentle and kind expression. “My apologies, Miss Bard. I sometimes find it difficult to regulate my emotions these days. I just don’t hear enough from Kell, it… makes me think too much.”

“You don’t hear much? I thought you said when he hurts him-”

“He hasn’t,” Rhy said tightly, looking away from her. “Been causing him very much pain. It has to be significant for us to speak. Last night was the first significant pain in some time."

“That’s good, right? That he hasn’t been hurting him?” Lila couldn’t shake the dread in her chest, dread mixed with a slow, simmering fury. She laid the knives Rhy had thrown carefully out on the velvet, lining them back up just so. Missing only one, the one still stuck in the target. She’d have to see if he’d let her take one or two of these, they were absolutely beautiful bits of craftsmanship.

“I did not say that,” Rhy said heavily. “He hurts him, every day. But he’s not causing him physical pain.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in. “What do you mean?”

“Please don’t make me tell you what happens to Kell - and to me - every day,” Rhy said carefully. “He would not want me to tell you.” 

He looked away from her. She had known Kell was in Holland's bed, but… there is something else Rhy is not telling me about it.

A kind of haze took over her vision. She did not blush; Lila Bard was not a delicate lady, and never had been. She had no obligations to Kell Maresh, and he had none to her. She hadn’t really known him at all, and Lila wasn’t one to think a person must be tied to just one other. She had no intentions to box herself in that way, anyway.

What bothered Lila was not that he was in bed with someone else, but that the someone else was holding him captive . What bothered her was the idea that he didn’t want to be there. Lila had seen women with men they did not truly want to be with; you didn’t live on the streets of London and spend a fair amount of time by the docks without seeing a few in that position.

But - and she did not want to look any closer at this thought than the surface - she did not want that to happen to Kell Maresh. Even more, she worried about the opposite - what it might mean if he did want to be there.

“I see,” She said, the words clipped off at the ends. She picked up a knife, spun around, and threw without a second thought.

This time, she got the center of the head, too, right between Holland Vosijk’s pretty green and solid black eyes. In her mind’s eye, she could see the blood start to pool up as he collapsed to the ground, finally dead, and Kell finally free.

Would Kell kiss her again, if she freed him?

She blinked, and the target was plain wood again. 

“I’ll show you how to fight,” She said over her shoulder, and saw Rhy smile. “I’ll show you how to fight without magic, and one day we’ll stand right in front of him and we won’t hesitate.”

Rhy was quiet for a moment, and then he said softly, “What if Kell asks us to?”

She blinked, looking over. “What?”

“What if he asks us to hesitate?”

“... do you think he will?”

Rhy paused, then shook himself. “Never mind. We’ll talk about it later. Show me something I don’t already know how to do.”

Lila turned, appraising him. Rhy was muscular, and he had the basics down, but all his fighting was careful and elegant and trained to look like royalty. Rhy knew how to fight in very specific circumstances, and had probably been taught how to command an army that would fight for him, but if he’d been attacked in a dark alley without Kell alongside him she wouldn’t have liked his chances.

She took the knife out of the target, laid it back on the velvet, taking one more moment to appreciate the beautiful knives laid out in a row. These lethal painted ladies begging you to step inside their door.

She let one fingertip trail the gilded hilt of her particular favorite.

“That one’s Kell’s,” Rhy said from beside her, looking over them as well. “I keep it, these days. It’s not his good one, his secret one, but it’s one my father gave him for his eighteenth birthday. He never uses it, says he’s not much for knives, but I think… I think he just wanted it somewhere safe. He hardly ever takes a gift. Mother and Father don't give him all that many."

“Go to the sparring circle,” Lila said with careful, casual lack of feeling in her voice. “We’ll start with how to take down someone who attacks you from behind. You might get bruised up.”

“Good. I might as well return the favor to Kell, I’m tired of taking his bruises without even getting the skills to go with them." Rhy swallowed. "Good thing they're giving him something for the pain, I can barely stand."

God damn am I going to enjoy killing Holland Vosijk.

"Should we hold off, then?"

"No. He wouldn't want me to. He would want me to train."

“I won’t go easy on you,” She warned.

“I don’t want you to. Will you stay with me tonight, Miss Bard?"

"What?" She blinked, looking at his oddly shy, nervous expression. This was not flirtation, the sparkling prince and his winsome smile. This was a lonely, scared, sad man.

"Please. Nothing will happen, I just… need someone to drink and be sad with tonight, because Kell will need me to be better than that tomorrow."

She hesitated. "Yes. I will. Now let’s get started, your Highness.”

“Stop calling me that. Just call me Rhy. We’re friends now.”

She looked up at him, and he smiled at her. Something in Lila softened at the same time the rest of her went hard and angry at the vulnerability. “Are we friends?”

“We have Kell between us, don’t we? Anyone Kell gives a damn for is a friend of mine.” He turned away, and she saw it again: the hint of a ruthless man, a potential for cruelty that sat uncomfortably on a face meant for kindness. “Except for the one person.”

Lila didn’t ask him to elaborate. She knew exactly who he meant.

Rhy was going to absolutely slaughter Holland Vosijk, if Kell didn’t stop him.

But what would Rhy do if he did?

Chapter Text

“You want to take my boy with you?” Athos asked, lounging in his throne with one leg thrown over the side, lazily cleaning his fingernails with a surprisingly large knife. He was wearing his smaller circlet crown over hair that hung loose to his shoulders, tilted hard to one side in a rakish sort of way so that the twisted pale and silvered gold metal sat neatly atop one white eyebrow.

Not your boy, Beloc thought, anger simmering in his veins - but he didn’t dare say it, would never have dared to say it. Not yours at all.

Astrid was sleeping, for now, and Athos sat alone, perfectly at ease in a palace protected by an army of the Mindless and with the magic he might need to defend himself waiting at his fingertips. His whip, with its skull-ended handle, was carefully wound and hung off one hip.

If there was any one thing in this castle that Athos truly cared for, other than his sister, it was that whip. Beloc felt sick at the sight of it; the gods knew he’d seen it unwound often enough.

“Yes,” Holland Antari replied coolly, his voice level and even and without the slightest hint of emotion in it. Beloc saw him move, subtly putting himself between Beloc, Kell Antari , and Athos, and was so grateful, once again, for the way Holland had changed since Kell had come here. “I would like to take Beloc . If Your Majesty allows it, of course.”

"Hm. I always forget he has a name, it’s not like he needs one. All he needs to know is how to scream mine." Athos's veins were dark this morning, crawling black across his face and down his neck, spidering out from his eyes. He wore pure white from head to toe, and seemed more like a statue from the garden than the king of Makt.

"He's a child," Kell ground out hoarsely where he stood, half-standing, half-leaning on Beloc. "How dare you, you fucking monster-"

"Oh, shut up," Athos said, smirking down at him, but he didn’t move - he was in a good mood today, and his smile never faded for a moment. "We've been over this already, haven't we? He is a grown man here. Women are married at his age to men of mine often enough. Do you need more lashes to learn to hold your tongue, or did I satisfy you well enough with the pain my Holland gave?"

Kell went silent, but Beloc could feel him trembling beside him, and not with fear - but fury.

"Good boy. That's what I thought." The bright blue in his eyes, the faint red flush of good humor along his cheekbones, and the deep black of his veins told Beloc he'd found someone new last night. He should have felt sad for them, whatever poor person had taken his place in Athos’s chambers and that circular room, but all Beloc felt was a relief sharp enough to draw blood. He didn't care about whoever Athos had found at all.

Athos flicked blue eyes at the three who stood in front of him, focus moving from one to the next, thoughtfully, before finally landing on Beloc himself.

"You haven't left this place since I brought you here, have you, my seng varmere?" The tone was soft and nearly sweet, the way Holland sometimes spoke to Kell when he forgot he was pretending not to care about the other Antari , and Beloc felt himself flush with shame and anger at the words. He let his hair swing over his eyes and stared down at the ground so Athos wouldn’t see the expression on his face. 

He was no one's bed warmer, or at least he hadn't wanted to be. He'd planned to run away with his brother when he turned eighteen, go to the countryside, maybe meet a nice girl out there and start a family. He'd heard rumors of better places, places that were dying more slowly than here, places where people were kinder than London, less likely to steal his brother's magic or kill him for it.

There had to be somewhere better than this.

" Nej, your Majesty," Beloc said to his own feet. Kell Antari leaned heavily against him, his desperate, panting breaths nearly as loud as anyone's spoken words. Kell, he thought, had never been flogged before; or at least not flogged in a way that he was forced to live with. "I was chosen to serve you here alone."

Even if he had somehow made it out to the countryside, he couldn’t have spoken to a girl or anything. He could never be a da, not after this, not with the knowing he had under his skin now. Beloc wasn't sure he could have stood to be near a girl, let alone married to one.

Maybe he could be like Holland Antari , though, who had cold eyes and nothing in his face and who was so, so strong where Beloc was weak - but who he had seen still run fingers through Kell's hair when he slept or smile when he thought Kell wasn't looking, who sometimes sent Beloc out of the room with an odd catch to his voice, the way Beloc had once thought he might speak to girls.

He could be like that, if he stayed beside him. Beloc badly wanted to be half as strong as Holland Vosijk was, to have even a little of his way of keeping himself together, unmoved and unmoving.

Athos chuckled, in his low, deep way, a laughter Beloc knew too well and ground his teeth against. "Warming someone else's bed suits you," the king said, a little teasingly, as if they were all old friends here. "Holland must be a gentler lord to you than I ever was. I daresay you did not like my games so much."

Kell squeezed his shoulder with one hand and whispered, ‘ strength’ in his strange flat language, and Beloc used the feeling to brace himself.  

He could be like Holland, who told the king what he wanted to hear and whose face never moved to show his anger. That was strength, Beloc thought, true strength - Holland Antari had learned to never show a thing, and Beloc prayed he’d learn that one day, too.

"His Majesty's games are to my liking well enough," Beloc replied, keeping his eyes down, trying to echo the way he thought Holland would say it . When he pretended he was Holland, the words came more easily. "Your Majesty said I should obey Holland Antari’s orders and I do.”

"Good answer, if a boring one."

Beloc tried not to be visibly relieved. A bored king was a king that lost interest, a king that looked away from you. A bored Athos meant an Athos that did not look too closely to search Beloc's brown eyes for defiance. A bored Athos would hurt someone else instead of him, and Beloc didn’t care about anyone here but the two Antari and Nasi.

"Do you treat him well, Holland?" Athos asked, with real curiosity. "Is that the trick to him? To Kell? Is kindness the key to breaking them?"

"I am neither kind nor unkind," Holland replied, as if discussing a particularly uninteresting bit of weather. “Kell is being broken by his circumstances; I only aid the process. And you broke the boy long ago, and you broke me longer ago than that.” Beloc didn’t flinch, but he did move just a little, so as much of him was behind Kell as possible. That wasn’t hard, since Kell could barely stand thanks to the whiplashes that still occasionally bled through the bandages on his back, and Beloc was currently the only reason he was upright at all. “I don’t recall there being any particular trick to it.”

"All horses break if you put the right bit in their mouths, hm, Holl?" Athos grinned, a flash of white teeth in a whiter face. "Or…" He glanced at Kell Antari and Beloc tightened his grip on the injured man, wishing for nothing more from life than the ability to jam Athos's knife right up his own ass one day. "... perhaps I might say any horse may be broken to ride when you correctly use the crop?"

"Of course you may say that." Holland did not so much as flicker an eyelash in response, with only the faintest hint of disgusted emphasis on you . "While I am grateful that you gave him to me, I have need of him outside the castle. May we take him with us today?"

“Hm. You want him to carry our little red setter puppy?” Athos gestured with the knife, pointing it right at Kell, who didn’t even look up, his red hair a startling shock of color compared to everyone else in the bright white room. He’d healed some, the magic in his blood helping him along more quickly than others, but his face was pale and sweaty and his eyes were glazed from the drink Nasi had given him to help with the pain. Beloc had hooked an arm under his shoulders to hold him up where he stood.

Though Beloc was much shorter, a month of eating with Holland and Kell had filled him out again and he was strong enough to keep Kell standing and help him walk. He could be useful to the two Antari, and if he was useful, they would keep him around and he wouldn’t have to worry about ending up one of the Mindless if Athos or Astrid thought of him again. Being useful to them kept him busy, and it showed them he could earn his keep, that he was grateful.

He had to show them he was grateful, so they wouldn't get bored of him and forget him.

He knew he was useful to Holland - he had him reading all the time now, and Beloc’s head was stuffed near to aching with information on kings and courts and battles that he only barely understood.

It was important to Holland, though, so Beloc did his best to learn it, to take detailed notes, and to wonder what it was Holland would do with them. Whatever it was… it seemed to worry Kell, but they didn’t talk about it, and no one told Beloc to stop.

“I am uncertain as to whether we will make it to the Silver Wood without his help,” Holland said, and Beloc could see how carefully he chose his words. "Since you decided not to allow me to heal Kell-"

"What good is a man without scars?" Athos said with a shrug. "I have used Kell’s mistakes to give him a gift, you see, make a man of him. Only children are without scars. The boy is more a man than the puppy is." He smirked, a sneer of thin white lips. “I made sure of it.”

"You don't get to choose not to play the game, boy," Athos said with his demon's smile, holding the metal with one end in the fire. Beloc knew what was coming, knew the white and orange and red the end of the iron poker would be when he pulled it back out. Knew what it felt like against his skin. 

Knowing never stopped the fear. 

"Your choice ended when you chose not to kneel to me. Now it is my choice to teach you… and I want to teach you with a game."

Someone will kill you one day and take your place, Beloc thought as he looked at his king, and I hope I’m there to spit on your corpse, and I hope Holland and Kell are, too. I hope they drag you through the streets pulled by horses until you've no skin left. I hope-

"Be that as it may,” Holland replied, “I do not want to carry him myself. I can’t risk the loss of energy if we’re to open five doors today. You bled him too much, and I don’t know how much help he’ll be.”

"He'll be fine." Athos tapped the blade of the knife against the arm of his throne, and for a moment the ‘tink, tink’ of the metal on the stone was the only sound in the room except for Kell’s harsh, loud breathing. 

“Kell,” Athos said, dropping the sweet and loving tone, now all ice and steel.

“Your Majesty,” Kell said, in a low voice like gravel, without even raising his head.

Athos leaned slowly forward, eyes absolutely focused, with the look of a hawk that has spotted an injured rabbit in an open field. Then he stood, stepping carefully down the dais. He was outnumbered, to be sure, and totally unthreatened by that. Not a single one of the three of them could raise a hand against him and he knew it.

Beloc thought of what he might look like drawn and quartered and nearly smiled.

Athos slid the knife so the point was just under Kell’s chin, lifting it slightly. Holland stood to the side, watching impassively, but Beloc knew his empty careless face for the lie it was - he had seen Holland's expression when he had first brought Kell, carried in his arms, back to the room. There had been so much blood, but Beloc was used to that, and it wasn't the blood that had frightened him, but the cold, clean hatred and seething fury that shone from Holland's wide green eye like a jewel. For a few moments, Holland had forgotten to hide himself, and Beloc had seen that underneath his empty face there was a man who could truly love causing pain.

Athos lifted Kell’s chin until their gazes met. “Who is your king, lille prins ? Where is your home?"

Kell looked up from under his eyelashes, blazing hate and rage in those blue eyes, and for a second Beloc worried he wouldn’t do what Athos wanted and he’d just get himself hurt even worse. Nasi’s potions and salves could only do so much. Holland must have worried, too, because even though his expression never changed, he could see the older man stiffen and his jaw tighten to a straight line. 

Then, hesitantly and in a voice that was strained, Kell said, “Athos Dane is my king. Makt is my home now."

Athos took in a breath, hardly a sound at all, but Beloc saw the way he flushed, just the slightest bit, the way his blue eyes widened as he drank in Kell’s defeat and pain and his fear of being hurt any worse. Beloc knew that face very, very well, could see Athos's free hand twitch, just a little, with how much he wanted to touch Kell and held back only because, in the end, even Athos Dane deferred to Astrid.

Good, Kell Antari, Beloc thought with pure adoration. Say what he wants to hear now and keep your thoughts inside your head. Kell had a harder time, but he was learning, and it was his kindness Beloc had felt first. He didn’t want to lose him. He wanted to be strong like Holland, but he wanted to be kind like Kell.

“Good.” Athos said in a slightly hoarse voice.  “You have my permission to take the boy to the Silver Wood, Holland. When the doors are open, Astrid wants Kell deposited into his brother’s care for the night.”

“Of course, your Majesty.” 

“Hm. Boy.” The knife was under his chin now, and Beloc looked up, freezing under the weight of Athos’s stare, the pinprick pupils in madness-brightened eyes. He had never hated anyone more. 

“Y-yes, your Majesty.”

“You will return when Holland says your task is completed. Consider yourself blessed by the gods,” Athos said in a low rumble, so close - too close - and Beloc shivered. “You were never meant to go anywhere but to fertilize my Astrid's garden when I tired of you. This is a blessing.” 

“Yes,” Beloc could only manage the word in a whisper. “It is." He was blessed for having Kell Antari show up, he thought, to change everything about the grinding hell of his life and make it bearable again. Blessed that Holland Antari had a use for him, a reason to keep him around and out of the sight of his king and queen. Blessed by the gods because he would walk out of these white walls alive, even if it was just once, just for a little while. Holland had told him none of the other ones Athos brought home had ever left again.

Beloc had spent long hours staring at the tops of the battlements, thinking about the first woman, the story he’d heard about how she had jumped to escape Athos. He’d been so jealous, especially on the days he could barely walk for the pain and still must do his work. Beloc had been so jealous of her for figuring out the cage Athos had not yet fully built, for finding a way out that robbed Athos of the final victory.

There had been no such way out for him - Beloc’s life had narrowed to suffering and the hope that eventually Athos would tire of it and let him die.

He had something better than that, now.

Athos looked him over for one more long, awful, drawn-out moment before he moved back up the dais and relaxed back into his throne, straightening the crown a little on his head. “Get out. My sister should be awake by the time you return and we have much to discuss. I expect good news."

Holland inclined his head only slightly. “I expect to bring some. Come, Beloc. Kell."

They left, Holland at the front and Kell and Beloc behind, and as they went through the grand doorway out into the courtyard under the weak yellow sun, the Mindless on either side, Beloc heard Kell Antari whispering to himself, "Maxim Maresh is my king, I am not a traitor, this is not my home," over and over again in a low desperate voice.

Beloc thought it sounded like Kell was praying.


The walk was slow.

Holland led them to an alley first, where he ducked into a small door. Beloc and Kell waited outside, and Beloc looked around the streets that had once been as familiar to him as breathing as though he'd never seen them before.

There was a vaguely pinkish light in the air around the Sijlt, where the doors the Antari had opened continued to spill hundreds of thousands of gallons of magic, minute after minute, into a nearly-lifeless world. 

The sky above the Sijlt was the same blue as Kell's eyes, and when you stood close enough even the sunlight felt warmer. Beloc could see a flood of flowers waving in the breeze that blew through the river doors, people picking them here or there, small crowds that came just to feel the warmth of another world.

There were a few people on small boats trying to go through them, but the river flowed too rapidly through and pushed them back and away, as though the magic itself were telling them not yet.

Kell had done his best to walk alongside him, forcing one foot in front of the other with his back and posture straight, letting his magic settle around him so heavily Beloc could feel it like a weighty brush of feathers against his skin, but his face stayed pale as snow and his eyes glittered with the pain and effort. He kept one hand on Beloc's shoulder as they walked, and sometimes his grip tightened until it hurt - but Beloc's life had been condensed into little more than different kinds of pain and this hardly counted at all. He was happy to help Kell Antari , who had not wanted to hurt him and brought him books and gave him clothes and showed Holland how to see him, too.

Beloc heard a strange sound like a whistle off to the side and jumped, heart in his throat, wondering if it was some kind of signal, people planning an attack. His hand had already moved to the small knife Holland had given him to wear by the time he turned to look.

He saw not a person but a bright red bird with an odd little tuft on top of its head and a band of black around its beak watching them. It fluttered wings and called out again, a little song that Beloc had never heard before in his life.

He'd never seen a bird that wasn't just a little brown sparrow, and even those were tiny and starving and mostly tossed into soup pots if you could catch them these days.

"Cardinal," Kell said in a rasp, following his gaze. "Or… you call them redbirds, I think. Probably flew through at the Sijlt. We have them." 

"Redbirds are real?" Beloc asked in a hush, staring upwards where the bird rested on an iron railing, watching them with as much curiosity as Beloc felt for it. "I thought they were just from faerie stories!"

Kell paused, and gave Beloc an odd look - not pity, not exactly. More a sort of dismayed sadness. " Nej ," he said finally. "They're real." 

"Indeed," Holland said, coming back out of the door with something in one hand that he deposited in his pocket and a strange Gray coat folded over the other arm. "My research indicates we once had more redbirds than Arnes did. Well, it wasn't called Arnes, then. Before you abandoned us to die. "

"How many times do I have to point out that that was three hundred years ago and not my personal decision?" There was a note of humor and affection in Kell's voice, and Beloc looked between them. Neither man was smiling, but both of their faces had relaxed in a way that suggested if they had been any other people, they would have been.

In Makt what he saw here between them was wrong - against the law. But Beloc had been in Athos Dane's grasp too long to care what was illegal when you compared it to what was kind.

"At least ten more,” Holland said dryly. “You know, there are places in King George's world where the redbirds are messengers of the gods."

"They only have the one god, there," Kell said doubtfully. "The one-in-three."

"King George does." Holland shrugged. "There are places outside of London that feel differently."

"Have you been to those places?" Beloc asked, wondering at how awe-inspiring their lives must be, to walk between worlds so easily. The things they had seen, that Beloc would never see.

"No," Holland and Kell said simultaneously. 

Kell sighed. "I am not allowed."

"I never had the chance," Holland said. He moved up, draping the soft gray coat over Kell's shoulders. "Don't try to put your arms through," He said, gently. "It'll pull at the bandages too much."

"I guess you'd know," Kell said, and they stopped and looked at each other for a second in silence. He glanced down at his own shoulder, then back up into Holland's eyes. "Tak, herre. I know you stayed with me, before."

"I was also the one to whip you in the first place," Holland said, and his hand was still on Kell's shoulder, lingered there too long, fingers curled around the soft gray fabric of the coat. "You have a disturbing habit of thanking me for the things I do to you.”

“You want me to. Can I stay longer, this time? With Rhy?”

“You are always so eager to run back to him.” Holland lifted a hand, briefly, to touch the side of Kell’s face with his fingers.

“Should I not be?” Kell shook his head, hair falling over his eye, hiding the black Antari eye from view. He stepped away from Holland, a little, and then hissed as the movement made an ache run up his spine. “He’s my brother.

Holland snorted. “And I am your prison. I am the one who hurts you. Of course you would run from me.”

"I’m not running from you. I can tell the difference between when you enjoy it and you don't." 

"What is the difference?" 

"Before?” Kell looked away. “I don’t know. Lately I think it’s whether or not I do."

“That’s absurd.” Holland pulled his hand away.

“It was absurd. If you want so badly to be my home, Holland, it is not so absurd now.”

“That’s not what I meant when I said-”

“What did you mean?” Kell had moved closer, their faces only inches apart. Beloc tried to disappear into a wall, feeling like he'd walked in on something he shouldn't have, even though he'd been standing here the whole time. “What did you want, when you said that?”

“Something under my control,” Holland said, and Beloc blinked, surprised that he’d even answered. “That’s what I wanted. I haven’t had any in so long-”

“You have that. I am that.” Kell, standing straight despite the effort it had to take, took Holland’s hand and put it to his throat, over the black leather band with the silver ring he wore there all the time, the band Beloc tried not to think about; although he’d seen one before, after all. “I am bound to you. You don’t need this to prove it, and you know that whenever you call I’ll come to you, I'll crawl on my fucking knees if that's what you tell me to do. I've crawled before. Please.”

Holland only looked at him, and the weight of their magic in the air around them was nearly a physical thing. They sparked against and alongside each other, and he could almost see it, not just in their Antari eyes but under their skin. They were rivers, oceans of power in and of themselves, and standing here with the two of them felt like standing on the shore and watching a storm blow in off the sea.

Vær så venlig, herre? ” Kell let his hand tighten over Holland’s, around his throat. “Just until the afternoon?”

"Will you crawl without being commanded to?" Holland asked, and his voice was low.

"You know I will," Kell said, and then they seemed to remember him at the same moment. Both of them flinched nearly in unison, pulling back and away from each other. Beloc hid a laugh behind a cough and his hand, wondering just how naive they thought he was even having suffered here, that they had thought he didn’t already know what the leather around Kell’s neck meant.

Holland simply stepped away. "Let's get walking. It will take some time to reach the woods, especially with you moving so slow, Kell. And if you're to see your brother today we had better get this done quickly. I’ll give you until the afternoon.”

Kell let out a breath all at once. “ Tak, Herre Holland. Tak.

“Stop. thanking. me,” Holland snapped over his shoulder, and walked so fast that Beloc and Kell couldn’t possibly keep up with him. 

Beloc had never seen so many out in the streets this early in the day, and he tried to bury himself in Kell’s too-big sweater as they walked, feeling the eyes that followed them. He could hear the whispers, that the demons were on the move, but the whispers did not have quite the loathing and fear he’d always heard when Holland was in the streets before.

Beloc had cursed at him himself, once or twice. He wondered if Holland Antari remembered, or if there had been so many people who spat hatred to Holland (the hate that they could not show the Danes themselves) that they had all run together in the end. 

He could feel the eyes on him, too - wondering at him, at the nothing-special walking with the demons, just another Maktahn boy. They couldn’t see Athos’s mark, since he wore Kell’s sweater. They didn’t know him for what he was. They only saw him now, walking with the Antari but not one of them.

He felt like a ghost in his own city, like someone already dead. 

The longer they walked, the more of Kell’s weight ended up on him and the slower they went. Kell never asked to stop, though, never said a word. He only set his jaw, narrowed the blue eyes that were so unlike the blue of the Danes, and kept walking with his hand gripped as tightly as it would get on Beloc’s shoulder.

He wanted to be like them - like Holland, who could give the Danes what they wanted and still stand strong and tall in front of them, and like Kell, who kept walking no matter how badly his back must hurt. 

He wanted to be kind like Kell, who had seen Beloc’s fear and given him clothes and books and food - and like Holland, who had stayed with Kell while Beloc cleaned his back for hours and who knew how to use kindness as a comfort and a weapon, both.

Beloc, who had grown up in a world where you killed anyone weaker than you to get at whatever dregs of magic they might still have in their blood, and who had successfully hidden his little brother from that world right up until he’d refused to kneel to Athos Dane, might never be able to use magic like the two of them, but he could learn the other things they knew.

They went further from the center of the city than Beloc had ever been, and the world around him grew more and more unfamiliar. He had never seen the Silver Wood, although he’d heard about it in the faerie stories and the stories about the past. He’d read about it in the book Kell had given him, the story of the Someday King. 

The Silver Wood was just a grove of petrified trees that still stood, never decaying, never losing the stonelike leaves that still hung, pale as the Sijlt, from their branches. It was where the magic made its last stand in Makt, and where it chose to die when the doors were closed. It was the first place where Makt had been left totally, utterly alone.

In the stories, the few surviving Maktahn Antari ( of course the land was called something else back then, and had had a very different royalty) had been the ones to truly understand what the Silver Wood represented, what it meant. Nearly all of them had died closing the doors against the darkness of the rampant, wild magic in the other London, and those that were left had bled into the river in the wood here for days, trying to convince the magic not to leave them.

Beloc knew the stories, but he had never seen the woods for himself.

Holland stopped in a small clearing in the midst of the trees, looking around, more relaxed than Beloc had ever seen him before. He looked like a man coming home at the end of a long day, throwing his coat on a chair (a tree stump, in truth, where Holland threw his coat without looking, as though he’d known right where it would be from long experience). He looked like a prince, or king, of the woods. Even wearing all black, he looked like he belonged here, like if he sat down the trees would simply grow around him and fold him into them.

Like the trees were a family that had been waiting for Holland to come home.

Reading too many books, Beloc thought, but when he looked to the side at Kell Antari’s face, he saw that Kell was staring at Holland, too. 

“Sanct,” Kell said under his breath, and even Beloc could barely hear him. Kell just watched as the older Antari rolled up his sleeves to show the scars on his arms, digging a knife out of his coat’s pocket, not looking at them. Kell’s fingers tightened on Beloc’s shoulder, and Beloc watched his throat move as he swallowed hard. “Saints, I’m damned with him, aren’t I?”

That was one more thing Beloc wanted - to have the sort of power over someone else that Holland Antari had over Kell even when he wasn’t giving orders.

Holland glanced over to them, one green eye and one black one. “Take a seat. This could take a while.”

Kell frowned. “Don’t you need me over there? To do…” His face reddened, and Beloc was genuinely surprised he had enough blood left in him to blush. “To open the doors?”

“You’ve lost a tremendous amount of blood,” Holland said in a flat voice. “You can barely stand. I don’t want to see you lose anymore. I can do this myself.”

“But you told them you needed me-”

Holland dragged the knife down his wrist, and Beloc watched the blood well up. The sense of magic in the air, a wilder, more terrible magic than any Beloc had ever felt in his own skin, was such a weight he could barely breathe. 

“I do,” Holland acknowledged, using his own blood to draw on the trunks of the trees around him. “But you have lost too much, and I will not be the monster who bleeds you further.” He paused, then made a final stripe of blood on the trunk of a tree. “Not today. Not when I have a choice.”

He took something out of his coat pocket, held it in his hands. Beloc watched black veins spider up his arm, listened to Holland take a deep breath. 

“Holland, no-”

“Do you get to say no, Kell?” When Holland turned to look at them, there was black running out of his Antari eye like tears, and his hair and green eye seemed suddenly brighter than they had ever been. He looked down at himself and smiled, slowly, and it was not a smile Beloc knew.

There was a whisper through the trees, as if a breeze rustled the leaves, but nothing moved. The sound was almost like a voice, a voice that Beloc could not quite hear.

“I-... no, sir,” Kell whispered. He squeezed Beloc’s shoulder once more, and then pushed himself forward, walking towards Holland with slow, dragging steps but a straight back and no sign of fear. “But you can’t keep using that. It’s harder to put it down every time, isn’t it?”

“Are you going to stop me?” Holland’s hair was black and his one eye was green but the black veins and the sudden twist of cruelty in his face made him look exactly like Astrid and Athos Dane.

Kell stood in front of him, and when he let the gray coat slide off to the ground, Beloc could see red spots widening on the back of his sweater where he was bleeding through his bandages and the cloth had gotten stuck with the blood. “Will you let me if I try?”

Holland laughed.

For the first time since Kell Antari had come here, Beloc was afraid of Holland Vosijk.

Chapter Text

Holland Antari laughed, and while Beloc had not heard him laugh very often, he knew immediately that something about his laugh now was wrong.

The black of his demon's eye ran down his face like obsidian tears, and Beloc took one step back and then another. The silvered trees around him seemed to tremble, almost - he could hear the leaves clinking against each other like tiny stones. 

Holland didn't look at him, though - all his attention, with one focused green eye and the faintest sneering smile, was on Kell.

"What will you do?" Holland asked, tilting his head, and the direction of the obsidian changed a little, ran to the side down his neck like a vein, an artery. Black veins spiderwebbed up his visible arm, where he had an iron grip on something Beloc could not quite see in one hand. "How would you stop me, kæreste ? What will you try?"

"I don't suppose just asking you to let me help would work?" Beloc could see the red stains on Kell's back, but his voice didn't waver at all in asking the question.

“What part of your body will you ask with?” Holland replied, and the laughter he barked at Kell’s reaction didn’t sound like him at all.

“That depends on who’s asking me,” Kell said, but his voice was a little fainter this time. “Is it Holland Vosijk, or Vitari?

Holland went very still, slowly looking right at him, one eyebrow raising in a perfect arch. That’s another thing Beloc wants to learn how to do - either both his eyebrows move or neither of them do. “ Magt, ” Holland said with a tone of frustrated, pressed-upon patience. “ Vitari is your word. I am in control, Kell.”

“Are you? Or is that what it’s telling you? Let me help you, Holland. We don’t need it if we have the two of us.”

 They had changed, in the month Kell Antari had been here, the both of them - but neither of them seemed to know that at all. A month ago, Beloc thought, Kell would not have tried to stop Holland from doing it himself - and Holland wouldn't have cared if Kell was hurt.

Kell reached out one hand, and Holland backed away from him, frowning, eyes narrowing, the blood still running from the open cut along his arm, dripping into the underbrush around them. Beloc heard the leaves rustle, again, a voice he couldn’t quite understand, nearly audible. The Silver Wood, he thought, really was a place where magic could nearly step through, a perfect place for it to die. 

"I would love to understand why you give a damn,” Holland said, gripping the stone in his hand even tighter. He looked around at the trees, chose one to step up to, and put his free hand against the pattern he’d already drawn in blood. “ Åben-

“Stop!” Kell lunged forward this time, grabbing onto him, white knuckles gripping the heavily muscled forearm. His face was pale and his teeth gritted against how badly his back must hurt, but he moved so fast. “Damn it, Holland, let me help you!

“You have already taken five lashes meant for me!” Holland snapped back, ripping his arm free of Kell’s grip so violently that Kell stumbled and fell backwards, looking up at him from the ground with narrowed, furious eyes. “You will no doubt take more!”

“Those lashes were to punish me ,” Kell said, half-sitting, half-lying on his side. “For losing my temper in front of him, for not being docile while he and his sister talked about my brother."

“Five of them were to punish me, ” Holland said in a voice like a snarl. “For my sins. For hiding it from them.”

“Hide what?” Kell blinked.

“My attachment to you. ” Kell flinched at the words, spat with furious anger, but Holland did not seem to notice. “Those should have been stripes laid on my scars! You like so much to feel my back, Kell? You love to run your hands over them well enough. All of these scars are scars I’ve earned, you spoiled child, with my arrogance! ” Holland made a sound not quite like bitter laughter. “I have lost-... so much, and done so much, and I’d closed it all off so well-”

“You’re not a martyr, Holland,” Kell said firmly, moving to push himself back to his feet, stumbling to the side but staying up. "You've made plenty of shit choices all on your own, haven’t you?" Beloc had not thought his face could be any paler, but as he straightened his back, he nearly went gray.

Beloc moved slowly behind a tree, staring as the air crackled around them, spat and hissed, the whispering rustle through the trees seeming less like the wind and more than an half-heard angry shout.

“I know I’m not a martyr,” Holland said calmly, the tremor that had been in his voice gone as if it had never been. He looked down at his hand, and then back to Kell, hesitating. “I’m a monster.”

“Not that, either,” Kell said, taking a step closer. This time, Holland didn’t back away. “Not a monster, not a martyr.”

“So then what?”

“A man, that’s all, with no control and no choice.” Kell looked around at the bloody trees, with the symbols written on them in rapidly drying, browning blood from Holland’s arm. “Let me help you open the doors.”

“Why? You hate this. I bleed your world to save mine - and I’m giving you the chance to lay that at my feet and not your own.”

“Because you’ll burn up doing it yourself,” Kell said, and his voice dropped, just a little, the way he spoke to Holland when they thought Beloc wasn’t listening. “The Antari who closed the doors died, Holland. It’ll use you up opening them alone. What’s left of you, after?”

“Probably just a husk. If I die, you’re free to go,” Holland pointed out, and Beloc watched black drip off his fingertips onto the ground, and where it fell the grass burst into a vibrance he could hardly stand to look at, it hurt his eyes to try and focus on it. “Aren’t you?”

Kell paused. “I didn’t think about that.” Then one hand closed into a fist. “I… can’t let you do that, though.”

“What?”

“I said, I can’t let you die.” He swallowed. There was an odd look on Kell Antari’s face, something torn and tortured. “I can’t. Even if it would let me go home.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know, because-”

“If it were Athos, you’d let him die,” Holland said reasonably enough.

“Athos Dane isn’t you. My brother was right, min tryllekunstner.

There was a moment where Beloc thought Holland had turned to stone, he was so still not even a single grayish-black hair moved on his head. “What was he right about?”

“Let me bear your weight, Holland.”

“I’m not making you take responsibility for this, Kell, not this time. You don’t have to choose to hurt your world, just this once. You can go back to your brother and tell him it wasn’t you, that I opened the wound all on my own to bleed them. Go tell your king and queen you are innocent of all charges. Maybe one day they’ll catch me and you can watch them put me to death in the square.”

“I wouldn’t let them and I’m not innocent, all of this happened because of me in the first place,” Kell said, faintly. “I am twisting, here, every day, but I was twisted before. If I stand here and watch you burn up with that rock… I can't do that.” Kell looked down at his own hands, then slowly back up into Holland’s face. He smiled, a distant expression, as if looking far beyond the Silver Wood and into some other forest. 

“Kell-”

“I’ve made awful choices, too.” He stepped closer, and this time Holland did not back away, only watched him warily as Kell lifted one of his hands, linking a finger through the silver ring that hung off the leather band that Kell always wore around his neck when he wasn’t in their room. He let it clink, and even with the rattling of the leaves in the trees and the furious whisper Beloc could still hear it, the sound traveled right to his hiding place. “You want to give the orders, and make the choices, and see me obey commands because it means you got to give them? You want to have control?

“Yes,” Holland said hoarsely, the word drawn out of him against his will, a confession made in shame. 

Kell tilted his head, letting his red hair fall over his black Antari eye, and the smile on his face was thin and hard and cynical, a look that wasn’t like the Kell Antari Beloc knew at all. “Then give me your knife.”

Drip, drip, drip went Holland’s blood into the grass, and where it fell, tiny sprays of white flowers began to rise from the earth. One blade at a time, the Silver Wood whispered life, a fragile life that would fade soon enough without more magic to feed it. Even as Beloc looked the little white flowers began to wilt and droop to the ground.

Still, Beloc could move no closer. The feeling of their Antari magic was strange and wild, a well that ran deeper than thought. It was like when he had climbed the stairs in the north tower one day and stood at the top, staring down, feeling the ground below begging him to jump and the mark on his chest holding him still, torn between the command to suffer and live and wishing he could die.

Beloc had felt magic like this only once before in his life, when his little brother’s fever had been at its worst and the screaming had gone on and on and on while Toska fought with the magic that had found itself in his blood. The magic in Toska had chanted, “ Bones and blood and brains and break, I have waited and waited for you, ” as Beloc had watched, helpless and frightened.

Standing near his brother had felt like sticking both hands in a bonfire and begging not to be burned. Standing near Kell and Holland was different, but still felt like some kind of terrible wall about to be breached. Like Beloc was Berengaria Alone in the books Holland had him reading, standing with her two dozen Antari at the front gate of her city while the enemy’s army approached to break down the walls. 

Holland and Kell were magic itself, it lived incarnate in them, and Beloc, who had been raised to covet that kind of power, found himself afraid of it.

“My knife…?” Holland glanced down at his own coat pocket, then back up at Kell. 

“Give me the knife, Holland,” Kell said quietly. “I would get one out of my coat - I know there’s at least one knife in the blue one - but I’m a little afraid that if I lean over I won’t be able to stand back up again. I have lost a lot of blood and I am about to lose quite a bit more. Luckily I’m fairly sure Rhy won’t feel any worse than he feels already, since - Sanct, my back is on fire right now.”

“Kell-”

“Give me the knife,” Kell said again, more insistently, and took another step closer, hand out. He paused, looked over at Holland sidelong, and then said softly, “What did you tell me before? Match force with will.”

Holland didn’t say anything, but the white flared just a little around his single faded green eye. Then Beloc watched him dig his free hand into one pocket and pull out the little knife he kept on him all the time. 

Kell rolled up one sleeve of his sweater, and Beloc wondered once again at Kell’s total lack of scars on his arms - just a couple of cuts where he’d been feeding the Danes - but otherwise no sign of any place he had had to dig too deeply to pull magic out.

By comparison, Holland’s arms were striped with them, and Beloc’s own arms were marked in circles around his wrists and up his arms with tiny symbols from times he’d worked to pull a little magic out to defend himself in a fight.

Kell flicked the blade out as he took it and dragged it all the way down one arm, jaw locked, showing no sign of if it hurt him or not. “You want to be in control? ” 

He stared into Holland’s eyes, and moved a little closer, and then a little closer again. Beloc thought there were two kinds of control; the kind Holland thought of and wanted, and the kind Kell already had.

“Give me your hand,” Kell said, knees locked, standing at his full height so he actually looked down a little at Holland. The other Antari only watched him, looking a little stricken, and slowly wrapped the hand holding the strange object around Kell’s, pressed their arms together until the bloody cuts matched from start to finish.

Kell hissed through his teeth. Beloc felt the spark in the air as their magic met and watched Kell start to fall, knees buckling towards the ground. Holland caught him by an arm around his back, making him cry out at the pressure against the bandaged, bloody stripes, and the blade dropped into the grass, abandoned. 

Where it landed, the grass shivered green and a single blue flower bloomed.

“Ah… haaaah, that hurts,” Kell muttered. “Promise me you’ll order me to start thinking things through first.”

“I would, but I doubt you could even be compelled to do that,” Holland said a little wryly, and the two men stared at each other with expressions Beloc could not read. 

“I… ah, Holland, we have to do this fast, I’m…” Kell’s face went white and Holland held him tightly, seemingly unaware of the way Kell’s blood soaked through his sweater and smeared on the arm of Holland’s coat. 

“You don’t have to do this,” Holland said, as faint black trails began to make their way out from Kell’s hand, spreading over his wrist. Beloc watched tiny black veins make their way out from his Antari eye.

Now he could hear the voice in the trees, strong enough to be understood, as loud as a whisper right in his ear. Let him have all of you. Who needs a family when you could save a world? Antari are water, and isn’t running water always trying to find itself?

“Kell, you do not have to do this, ” Holland repeated, a little desperately, but Kell smiled at him, bleary and pained. He reached up with his free hand and laid it against the side of Holland’s face. The older Antari closed his eyes.

“I’m not going to let you kill yourself for me,” Kell said quietly, and Beloc thought he would have liked to have someone talk to him in a voice like that, someday, if he could ever stand to let anyone touch him ever again.

“Maybe you should.”

“Maybe. But I’m still not going to. Rhy was right about me.”

“What?”

Kell only shook his head, and took a deep breath. “ As… As Convenit. ” 

He threw his head back and let out a half-human, half-animal scream that echoed through the trees. Beloc flinched as the black veins spidered up his arm all at once, and black began to run from his Antari eye like tears, like blood.

The Silver Wood shook around them, and Beloc felt the ground rise under his feet like someone shaking out a dusty rug, knocking him to his hands and knees. He scrambled back up, peeking around the tree, trying to keep its solidity between himself and the two Antari.

“Kell...” Holland groaned his name like a prayer, bending forward even as Kell’s knees finally buckled completely and he held him standing only by the arm around his back. 

“Gods preserve me” Beloc thought he had whispered the words, but his voice must have been just a little too loud. 

Holland’s head snapped to the side and looked right at him , and Beloc saw something feral in Holland Antari. This was not the man who helped him learn new words he’d never read before or who watched Kell when his back was turned with the faintest half-smile that disappeared as soon as the other man turned back to him.

This was someone entirely different, someone who could - who did - enjoy causing pain. This was someone more frightening than Athos Dane could ever have been, because he had the power to match the ambition that lit up his eyes. Without the mark on his chest, he could have killed a hundred others happily if he’d ever wanted to be king. 

There were stories, about Holland Antari, when he stood at the right hand of the king before. That he had tortured people for his king, then, but of his own free will and not because he was forced to.

That Antari was the one looking at him now. He could have crushed Beloc’s bones with a thought and a little bit of blood, and Beloc could see, again, the Holland that had always looked right through him when he served dinner, who hadn’t even bothered to learn his name. He saw the man who served the Danes and who would have seen Beloc’s death as simple inconvenience when he had to bury him.

“Get out of here, Beloc,” Holland hissed, and something else twisted around his voice, an echo of the way Toska had sounded during the worst of the fever. He turned to look back at Kell, and the woods shook again, the roll of the earth under his feet. This time, Beloc kept himself standing, but only just.

Is this all you ever wanted? The odd, inhuman voice murmured around them. The thread of power that connected Holland and Kell was a kind of poison, Beloc thought, was magic turned inward until it corrupted. Is this truly it? Your needs are so simple, Holland Vosijk. Here I thought you wanted a kingdom, but it was only this?

“Stop,” Holland said out loud, in a strangled voice.

What power wasted in a man who wants only to be seen.

Kell groaned, again, and it wasn’t quite in pain and it wasn’t quite not pain and Beloc wondered if Kell even knew what he felt, in the moment. “ Control it! ” Kell hissed. “I can’t-.... Control me, saints damn you! Make it stop talking!”

And all you want is someone who won’t enslave you with obligation, someone who wants you for who you are and not what you are. I can give that to you...

The trees were shaking around them, and Beloc shrank away from the one he’d been hiding behind. He’d heard the Antari called demons his whole life, but he had never seen it written on them so clearly as he did right now. 

And you, child…

The power had seen him.

What do you want? There is something in that castle waiting for me, and if you find it, I can give you everything you ever wanted...

Beloc felt something in his mind, something that lit it on fire. It was a fire that would burn him alive and he couldn’t quite stand against it. He swallowed, frozen, as the magic that was about to burst out of the stone that Holland and Kell held between them looked at him.

“Beloc,” Holland said in his strange thin voice. “You’re dismissed. Get the fuck out of here. Now!”

No, child. Stay.

Beloc didn’t need the mark on his chest to spur him on. He turned and ran.

“As Orense, ” He heard Kell Antari say, in his strange language for magic, the one language that Beloc’s rune couldn’t keep up with, couldn’t turn into something he knew. Because it wasn’t made for him, he thought. He had never been meant to touch it, let alone understand it.

Åbn Dørene, ” Holland said, and those words Beloc knew. Open the doors.

He made it just out of the grove before there was a crack in the earth and the sky that echoed everywhere, the sound like like Athos Dane’s whip if it had been wielded by the gods. He closed his eyes and braced himself just as he was hit from behind, with the force of a blow, as though a grown man had simply slammed full-force into his back. 

He collapsed onto his stomach in the gray dirt, ears ringing, dizzy. He didn’t know how long he laid there until he could stand to move, finally rolling over to try and look up but his vision was blurry, and all he could hear was the screaming whistle of wind.

Except that he couldn’t feel any wind.

Beloc groaned, sitting up slowly, and when he looked up at the Silver Wood his eyes widened, because he wasn’t looking at the Silver Wood at all.

He was looking at a young forest, new and vibrant and alive. 

The bark of the trees was made up of rich browns and reds, there were green leaves on the trees that shivered a little. The underbrush was covered, absolutely coated in those tiny white flowers, with little drops of red on each petal, hardly even visible. Beloc stared up and thought he’d never seen trees like this before, trees that were so real. 

He pushed himself to his feet, backing slowly up, looking up and up and up into the canopy. The edges seemed to shimmer, a little, like staring right into a fire, and he could feel the magic and the power here, the deep well that Kell and Holland Antari held between them. 

When he stepped a little to the side, he could see straight to the center of the grove, where Holland and Kell still stood holding onto each other, could hear Kell making strange ‘haaaaaaah, haaaah’ sounds out loud, wordless exhalations, his eyes wide and staring straight up at the sky as Holland held him.

He could still hear Holland talking, although he couldn’t understand the words. 

On the other side of the two Antari, the earth was gone.

There was a crack that ran straight across, just a little too large for a man to jump. The trees there had fallen in, one of them laid across it like a bridge, apparently torn out just before the magic because its bark was still silvered and stonelike and dead. On the other side of that crack the trees were abruptly gone, and instead there was a small hill with a stone bench. Below the hill, Beloc saw rolling fields and a fenced-in pasture full of fuzzy white sheep. He’d seen drawings of sheep in storybooks, he’d never seen a live one in person before.

He could hear, faintly, the sound of their baaaas traveling to him.

They didn’t deserve those sheep, Beloc thought with an old anger, thinking of the way that world had been able to thrive while his own had faded more every years… until now. They’d stolen his London’s magic and kept it for themselves, and Makt deserved to take it back.

For just one moment, he wished - genuinely wished - he would have the chance to see Astrid and Athos Dane ride their soldiers through and take it all away from them.

Holland and Kell hadn’t cracked the door a little, like they had over the Sijlt. They’d ripped the door right off the hinges, a shift in worlds that ran straight to the center of the earth, and Beloc could feel the warm breath of a living world blowing gently on his face. 

I see you, child, the magic they still held in their hands whispered. There is more of me to find. You’ll help me, won’t you? Let me show you what I can give you.

Beloc turned around and walked away from that voice as fast as he could. The scramble for a little more power, a little more magic, had made up his entire life. He’d seen so many people bled to death in the streets to pull the magic from their veins. He’d seen the bodies staked out so they could take what was left before the earth took it back. He’d seen Astrid and Athos Dane come to London as wraiths and rule as monsters that lived on Holland Vosijk’s blood and their own ambition.

Living in the white castle and seeing the way magic crackled and lit Athos up and urged on the worst parts of him to bleed what little Beloc had out of him, too…

Beloc had learned to be afraid of what too much magic could do. 

He would never use magic again that he didn’t have to use to survive, because in his bones lived the knowledge of how Athos Dane used magic, and Beloc would never, ever allow himself to be anything like that.

He made his way back into the city, picked through the streets, keeping the white battlements always in his vision, feeling his heart drop as he moved further and further back towards his prison. He had to go back - he’d been told when he was dismissed he had to go back, and the mark on his chest was an incessant reminder that he had no choices here.

He had just rounded a corner and moved into the wide central street that went through what passed for a Maktahn market and straight to the castle when he felt eyes on him.

Må guderne redde mig fra spøgelser ,” a familiar, frightened voice said nearby, and Beloc froze. 

May the gods save me from ghosts.

His heart burned, and it wasn’t Athos Dane’s mark at all, but a deeper wound than the king of Makt could ever have made. 

At first he couldn’t make himself turn around, because there was no way it could be real. There were tortures that didn’t involve the needles under his fingernails or the whip or the rack, worse tortures than any of those. 

They had shown him the scrying glass, over and over, forced him to look at the things he missed and would never see again. They had made him look and look until the images meant nothing to him, until he didn’t believe them any longer, until all the defiance had been bled from him through his tears.

Look at this, bedwarmer, Athos had said the first time, hands gripping the back of his hair, forcing him to stare down into the mirror as it changed and twisted their faces into someone else, into his mama and his brother, his father, the other little ones that had died from the plagues or the years with no food.

Then finally, it settled, on Toska. Is this what you miss most? This scrap of fabric and bone? This is what you dream about? Athos laughed at him, and back then Beloc still flinched whenever he laughed, tried to pull away, but the hand in his hair was too tight and her hand on his neck kept him still.

Look at him, child. Astrid had been on the other side, bored and restless. It had been her idea for them to entertain themselves this way. Is this the thing you’ll never see again?

Don’t be so cruel, Athos had said to her lovingly. He’ll die eventually, maybe they can meet again at the end of the world.

You’ve barely had him a week and already you want him to die? That may be the fastest yet.

Beloc’s tears had fallen onto the scrying glass, drops like rain over Toska’s cheeks. No, sister, Athos had said, watching him with absolute focus as he drew his lips back from his teeth in a snarl to keep himself from crying. Athos had smiled, let one finger run slowly down the side of his face, let his thumb feel over Beloc’s throat, the breath hitching hard as he tried to keep the sobs inside. Look at this. He’s not ready to die just yet. What else do you think we could do to make him make that face?

They didn’t show him the scrying glass anymore, because it had stopped meaning anything to look at the images of people he would never see again, it had stopped being real. He had believed them, in the end, when they said it would never be real. 

Beloc turned, and they were wrong, the queen and king who ruled his life.

They were wrong.

The boy staring at him with one terrified wide eye had maybe grown just a bit in the months he’d been gone, and was draped in clothes that were too big for him, pants tied with rope around his skinny waist and his shirt hanging off his shoulders.

That’s my shirt, Beloc thought with dull surprise. I would have thought they’d sell all my things.

His hair was too long since Beloc was no longer helping him to cut it, but the eyepatch was well-oiled and well-kept and the stormcloud gray eye looked right into his, glittering with unshed tears, wide and terrified.

“Toska?”

“B-Beloc, you’re dead.” Toska was so small, he thought. His little brother was so skinny and so small and so scared. “Are you a spirit? Have you come to take me to the dark world?”

“No. I… I’m not dead. I’m not a spirit.” I’m the boy who serves dinner and warms the king’s bed and his rack and lets him practice his whip. I’m the one who stays up learning for Holland and I’m the one Kell saved, and I’m not dead, and neither are you, and…

And you’re real.  

“I’m, um.” He rubbed the knuckles of one hand, where he had old defensive scars from the times he’d tried, pointlessly, to fight back when Athos allowed him to. “I serve the king.”

“Y-you… you have scars on your face,” Toska said softly. 

“Yes.” What else could he say? “He cut me. This is the first time they’ve let me leave.”

Toska was very still, a statue of a boy. “But you’re not a spirit?”

“No, Toska. I’m not a spirit.”

Toska stood still for a long moment and then he simply launched himself forward and Beloc barely caught him in his arms. The both of them tumbled and fell into the dirt, clutching onto each other, fingers gripped so tight it hurt. Beloc felt the brush of his brother’s hair against his face for the first time since the morning he’d gone with his mother to see the royals ride through the streets.

“Beloc,” Toska breathed the word out loud like a blessing, and Beloc felt a sob choke in his throat. Toska was so thin, all skin and bones, and he felt like he would shatter if he held any tighter than this but he couldn’t let go. “Beloc, Beloc, Beloc-”

“It’s me,” Beloc said softly. Toska’s fingers clutched at the fabric of the sweater Beloc always wore now, digging into the fine blue wool. “It’s me.”

Even here, in the heart of London’s streets, he could feel that the breeze was warming, blowing down from the open door in the Silver Wood, breathing magic and life into the air. 

A bright blue bird with a black beak and black-tipped wings alighted on a fencepost nearby and began to sing. 

“Beloc,” Toska whispered again, and Beloc felt magic inside his little brother, the same demon’s fire that lit up Holland and Kell, but this magic would not - could not - hurt him. Instead it spread around them, and they were in the center of the river together, with magic flowing on either side. People were beginning to take notice, turning to look back the way Beloc had come, feeling the difference in the wind.

Nearby, a gnarled leafless twisted tree in someone’s front yard had a single green bud begin to form at the end of one branch.

“Beloc,” Toska said, pulling back to take his face in both hands, his eye searching all over, memorizing him. “You’re real, you’re really here, you’re alive…”

“I’m here,” Beloc said out loud, and smiled, hoping Toska wouldn’t look too long at the scars on his jaw or the way he was missing a couple of teeth towards the back. “Let go of me, fjollet barn, you make it hard to hug you like this.”

Toska grinned at him. “You’re alive, ” He said, brightly.

Beloc smiled back. “You’re real, ” He replied.

The mark on his chest began, just slightly, to burn with the need to go back to the white castle.

Chapter Text

Rhy walked back to his rooms feeling like warmed-over death. 

He was not in pain any longer; the ache of the lashes on Kell's back, the feeling of the bandages stuck to what was left of his skin, had simply faded all at once, right at the end of training with Lila, after… after something he was currently trying not to think about, and he and Lila were steadfastly pretending he hadn't experienced right in front of her.

He'd heard the whispered Antari command, loud as a shout where it stretched between their minds - then a lick of pleasure up his arm and into his core that was so intense Rhy had fallen to his knees, had keened with it, nearly wailed. When Lila had tried to grab his arm to help him back up, the feel of her hands had been too much for his overwhelmed skin to take.

He'd grabbed at her, tried to pull her to him, trapped inside a blind cage of the pleasure his brother was drowning in and searching for some way to let it out. 

She had jerked back, spat a curse at him, and slapped him hard across the face.

It was the right thing to do - it broke him out of Kell long enough to scramble away from her, curl over himself with his arms wrapped around his stomach and his forehead pressed to the floor, and endure - but even if his back no longer hurt, his face did.

There had been a crack right as she hit him, something deeper and louder than simple palm on skin. Kell had been pulled so far from him by what he had done, but Rhy had known immediately what that sound was, even his magic-less body had felt it shudder through the world around him. He just didn’t know where Kell had done it.

At least his back felt better.

At least there was that.

He should try to be optimistic, really - it meant Kell had been healed, if the pain from the lashes was so thoroughly absent. Instead, Rhy felt disgust at himself and at Kell alongside creeping unease, a sense of impending danger he couldn't shake.

Every time a door opens between worlds, we’re closer to whatever that bitch has planned for us - and Miss Bard is right… Astrid Dane has a plan.

There had been a folio of plays Kell had brought back from King George's London, once. He'd disobeyed orders and gone to a theater, spent hours longer than he was supposed to lingering in the streets afterward. He’d come home damp from the fog, droplets still shaking out of his red hair and standing on the black coat he'd come back in, a sense of mist shining on his skin.

Damp, a little drunk, and in awe of the play he’d gone to see that night on a whim. Rhy had thought, looking at him, that he could have brought a girl home so easily if he could only look at women the way he had looked after seeing that play.

Now, Rhy thought uneasily that it was the same way Kell looked at Lila Bard… and had looked at Holland Vosijk during his visits with correspondence for the king and queen, when Holland’s back was turned and he thought no one saw it.

Kell had picked up the folio somewhere after, in a little shop by the theater, he said. He'd brought it home right under their parents' noses, had had it hidden against his ribs between his coat and his shirt even as he gave them the letter from King George, and he and Rhy had taken turns reading the different parts out loud to one another by flickering candlelight, losing themselves in the darkness and poetry of it.

Back then, Rhy hadn't realized the extent of his brother’s smuggling. Honestly, bringing back a bit of pen and paper had seemed harmless… until he thought now about how each little thing had gently escalated to the next, until it nearly got him killed and landed Kell a captive in another world.

There had been a line in one of the plays - something wicked this way comes. 

Rhy felt a prickling at the back of his neck, goosebumps running up his arms. Those words kept circling round and round his thoughts as he and Lila made their slow way back through the back halls, where the only people to see him were the guards.

Something wicked this way comes, and her name is Astrid Dane.

Rhy had felt Kell make a choice . He had been in so much pain that whole day that Rhy had been right there with him, forcing himself to train with Lila even as he and Kell spoke in snatches of shared thought. Kell had gone silent, sometime after they reached the little patch of trees, just after the two of them had simultaneously watched Holland throw his coat over a tree stump. He’d felt Kell’s heart stutter, skip a beat, and then…

Then his brother had stopped speaking to him. 

He’d been in the back of Kell’s mind begging him not to do it before he’d ever taken Holland’s strange little knife. For the first time since they had realized how close to each other pain brought them, Kell had simply ignored him entirely , had pushed his voice away.

Which he had to admit was very like his brother, to do something pointlessly, selfishly his own version of noble without thinking through the consequences even as everyone around him told him not to, but that didn't make Rhy any less angry or scared now.

Kell had cracked apart the wall between worlds, somewhere outside of London proper, and Rhy was furiously afraid for him, afraid of him. He walked with clipped steps, without his usual smile, and without any idea what to do next.

If Holland told the truth, he and Kell would arrive soon. Rhy wanted to see him, wanted it so badly, so he could punch his brother in the face or hug him until he came back to himself or both at once.

Lila Bard was right on his heels, not even dressed as a Sanctuary acolyte and instead in comfortable dark training clothes, glaring at anyone and everyone who so much as looked his way. Something about the set of her jaw and the flashing fire in her eyes made even his closest guards keep their distance, and Rhy had never been so thankful for personal space, as he wavered a little on his feet, still feeling a bit of weakness in his legs.

Lila, thank the saints, had said nothing. She had only kept her distance, still guarding him from anyone else who might try to come in, while Rhy experienced his brother’s skin stretched between the blood command he himself had given and Holland’s hands, his mouth, and more than that, right on the floor of a forest lit up with new life.

And when he had stood back up, with flushed face and his eyes on the ground, she had looked at him without judgement and simply said, “Well, that’s over now. Let’s clean up, we’re both a right mess.”

Then she’d thrown one of the towels they used to wipe sweat during training at him, and he’d been able to meet her warm brown eyes, the one just slightly lighter than the other, without shame and without fear.

Kell, why? What did I feel, in the air and under my skin? What did I nearly do because of you? I heard your voice - Holland Vosijk did not order you to do that. You made yourself feel it, you chose to give him your blood and make us both give him your body after.

I know you heard me, damn it.

A guard cleared his throat as they passed, opening his mouth as though he would speak. As Lila shot him a furious glare, he stiffened and was silent again.

"Sanct, you're a true miracle," Rhy said to her with a sidelong smile, hardly a hint of his usual good cheer. He relaxed, a little, when she gave him a small smile back.

"Good of you to notice, Highness," she said with just the barest hint of dry humor. As close as she came to saying I forgive you , that smile. No wonder Kell couldn’t stop thinking about her; Lila Bard was a creature who could have taught him to act with spontaneity and confidence and all the saints knew his brother could use a bit more of both.

He hadn't meant to grab her, and Rhy had never been one to try and take a single second of what hadn’t been freely given. What was under his skin had been so wild, and run so deep, and taken him over so completely… He'd never experienced it before when he hadn’t had time to get himself safely alone, where he hadn’t had the warning of Kell and Holland already in bed.

Every other time, it had been the result of a slow build, something he could plan and prepare for. This time, it had erupted out of the pain, fed by some dark voice that whispered promises in his ear. The feeling had taken him over, twisted Kell’s blood and his magic and his self around Holland’s control, and Rhy - too far for him to hear, too far to hear him - had felt it shriek through his veins like a fire.

What had happened had been like the difference between a slow symphony and a sudden blood-curdling scream.

What had come after had taken any sense of Kell, except for his nerve endings, away from Rhy completely. By the time he'd returned to his senses, Kell's heart had been slowing. Now it was nearly quiet, just a constant beat ahead of his own.

What in the name of the saints did you do, Kell Maresh?

But of course, he already knew the answer to that. He hoped Holland Vosijk was enjoying this, because Rhy Maresh certainly wasn't.

The two guards stationed in front of his bedroom door looked at him, looked at Lila, and stepped silently aside to let them in. Of all the friends he'd ever had, Lila Bard was the prickliest, the hardest to know. She reminded him of Luc, just a little - not in anything she said or did, but in the sense of restlessness. She was always moving, shifting, thinking the way Luc had.

It's been years, Rhy. You only think of him so much now because it's easier to see his face when Kell is-

No. He would not entertain the thought. Instead, Rhy kept his attention focused on Lila's thin smile as they closed the door on the guards.

He wondered if he could make a face like that himself, and doubted it; he’d always simply failed whenever he tried to look mean. It seemed to come effortlessly to Lila Bard, however, and he found himself the tiniest bit jealous.

"There," Lila said, clapping her hands together like the chief butler preparing to give the servants their orders. "Not a peep out of a single one."

"I bow before your scowling greatness," Rhy said a little teasingly, and was rewarded with a smile a fraction warmer than it had been before. "I'm considering bringing you on as my personal bodyguard. Kell did the trick of scaring people off before, but currently that position is open to interested applicants. Can’t say you’re not qualified."

"Are you suggesting you'll start paying me to hang around you?" She raised an eyebrow. The room was dark - balcony doors closed and curtains pulled. The air was a bit stifling and stuffy, as they'd been down in the training room nearly all day. Rhy moved over to them, pulling the curtains apart, letting the bright afternoon sun shine through. Soon enough it’d move to gold tinged orange with the red from the Isle. 

He looked out at his city, and thought to himself it was weaker than it had been the day before. They would be penned in, day by day, hemmed in by the doors as they opened - and with no Antari, there was no way to close them off, no way to shield themselves from whatever Astrid Dane intended to bring through.

"I might as well. You've been robbing me blind whenever you think I'm not looking, anyway."

Lila didn't even have the grace to look ashamed. "Not like you can't spare the coin, not if you leave it just lying around. Honestly, you’re lucky all your servants like you."

Rhy adored her.

He stopped by an old music box, winding the little knob and setting it to sing, absently humming along with the strange, unearthly chime and melody. The box was made of a bonelike ivory, intricately carved with flowers and twisting vines. When you opened it, a tiny king with a scepter popped up, and he spun slowly in a circle, scepter held high in the air as though announcing a victory, while the music played.

"What's that?" She cocked her head, in a way that made him think of the little birds his mother had sometimes kept when he was younger. Trilling little finches that lived in cages; they had been gifts from a land somewhere over the seas. 

"Ah. My brother and I each received one for our sixteenth birthdays. I don't really recall who sent them. Kell was so busy with Sanctuary lessons, he and I used to agree we'd listen to the music at the same time each night. It made us feel closer. His has a little Antari in it, I think. Or a magician, anyway."

"Hm. Well, you're definitely close now," Lila said. When he jerked his head to look at her, she shrugged. “I mean, you genuinely could not get much closer to him, right?”

“On the contrary, Miss Bard,” Rhy said a little wistfully. “I don’t think we could be further apart than we are right now.”

Lila snorted. “Does taking on the job of your bodyguard mean I have to listen to you be melancholy about it? If so, I respectfully decline. I’ve only room in my life for one person who won’t shut up about his own problems, and we’re in the process of rescuing him.

“Ha!” Rhy grinned at her, flashing all his bright white teeth.

When she frowned back at him, eyebrows furrowing in suspicion, he only smiled wider. “What? Why did you laugh?”

“Because you said you have room in your life for him.”

Lila scowled, but her face went red, and Rhy thought again, I can see why Kell is so taken with you. “I’m taking your bathing room over to clean up.”

“That’s not a problem, Miss Bard. I have access to two right now.” He gestured at the door set into the wall at the back of the room that connected his room with Kell’s. “I’ll give you some privacy.”

Lila tilted her head at him, a bit of dark, blunt-cut hair falling over one eye. “I feel like we’ve moved beyond the need for that.”

"That we have," he answered dryly, feeling the heat in his own face, thinking of himself on the training room floor just trying to stay silent. "Although I find myself wishing my brother had less embarrassing hobbies."

"Don't be embarrassed," Lila said with a one-shouldered shrug, turning to head for the bathing room, pulling her shirt off without a hint of self-consciousness as she went. There were strips of cloth wrapped around her chest, binding it lightly down. She’d told him it was easier to fight that way, if you wrapped correctly, and he’d wondered, not for the first time, what sort of life she’d been living in the smoggy London she’d come from. "You forget, Highness-"

"I told you to call me Rhy."

" Rhy. You forget that I'm street trash from the docks." She stuck her head back out to shoot him a wicked smile. "I've seen men lose themselves like that before. Well. Not exactly like that. Usually there was a slattern involved."

"A… what? I don't know that word."

"Think about it. I'll bet you can guess. You go wash up in Kell's room, I'm going to take a truly disgusting amount of time in here just because I can." She hesitated, then added, "You’re getting better. In the ring. If it weren’t for what happened at the end, I think you’d have gotten a good hit on my right side."

“Yes, well, it was good of you not to stab me when it did,” Rhy said, giving her his brilliant smile, putting it on as easily as he wore his perfectly tailored clothing, as easily as he might wear his crown.

“Yes,” Lila said thoughtfully. “It was good of me.” Then she closed the bathing room door firmly against him, and Rhy moved with a sigh towards the door that connected his room with Kell's.

He still felt shivery, skin stretched too thin, but she was right; he was getting stronger, getting better. They were working on fighting through Kell’s pain, on teaching Rhy to get back up even when he could feel Kell in agony somewhere else. He was still no good at the actual fight, but a couple of days of hard work had him standing back up a little more quickly each time she knocked him down.

He could fight through it, he just had to learn to put it somewhere else, to lock it up with all the knowledge of what he was, a dead man walking, where he locked everything away now. If he did that - if he succeeded - Kell’s pain was nothing but a distraction, an inconvenience, and no matter how it hurt, he could make his body understand that it wasn’t really real .

The pain brought them closer together, and it was the pleasure that drove them apart. It was pleasure Kell had called to himself, the last thing Rhy had heard from him before the crack and the knowledge, as deep in his bones as if he’d been standing right there, that somewhere just outside of London the door stood wide open for anyone to cross, right in the middle of…

Of where? He hadn’t seen where it was, exactly, but a door like that wasn’t subtle. It would be spotted soon enough, and then Rhy would have to look in his father’s face and lie, because if he didn’t, he’d have to tell him the truth - that he was bringing the traitor to the crown here, right to his rooms, and he had no intentions of stopping.

He left the curtains closed in Kell’s room, left it dark, and crossed the space with muscle memory that meant he stepped deftly around each obstacle without even really noticing it was there. The tiny magic-fueled light in the bathroom lit to a warm yellow and he stripped his own clothing off, letting it drop to the side.

The bath, when he settled into it, felt like absolute heaven. 

Rhy let his head dip beneath the water long enough to soak his hair, felt the heat gently relaxing all his muscles. He felt nothing from Kell but his heartbeat, and thought he must be sleeping somewhere. 

He held his breath until his lungs burned, until he must breathe or open his mouth to take in water, and then let his head burst back up into the air, keeping his eyes closed, resting his head against the rim of the tub, arms up over its sides. 

He didn’t know how long he stayed in the tub, only that the water had cooled by the time he got out to dry himself off. He’d left the door to his own room cracked open, and could hear Lila singing to herself, some song from her own London that Rhy did not recognize.

But the standing toast

that pleased the most,

Was 'The wind that blows,

The Ship that goes,

And the lass that loves a sailor!'

“Sanct, I forgot to bring clothes in here,” Rhy muttered as he exited, towel wrapped loosely around his waist. He couldn’t very well put his training clothes back on, sweaty and worse - he couldn’t even bear the thought. “Well…” His eyes slowly trailed over the room and landed on Kell’s own wardrobe and dresser, shoved haphazardly next to each other with absolutely no sense of aesthetics. 

That’s what you got for letting Kell decorate his own room, really. 

He was standing at Kell’s wardrobe, pulling out a shirt to wear and trying to decide how ridiculous he’d look traipsing around in Kell’s too-long pants until he was able to grab a pair of his own, when he heard a noise behind him.

It was the softest sound, the tiniest scrape and shift of cloth, but all the hairs on his neck stood on end and Rhy spun around, the towel at his waist dropping forgotten to the floor.

Holland Vosijk, a shadow of pale skin and black hair and clothing, was laying an unconscious Kell gently down in his own bed behind them, in the midst of pressing a kiss to his lips.

Rhy felt the flutter of it across his own mouth as, even with eyes closed, even in his sleep, Kell kissed back.

At Rhy’s movement, Holland quickly jerked away in surprise and looked up, one hand already out and magic shifting the objects in the room around Rhy, prepared for a fight. Except… Holland’s hand shook.

Holland looked profoundly, immensely, horribly exhausted. Even with his empty expression, there were dark circles under his eyes, and he seemed even more faded than he had been before. Even in the dim near-darkness, Rhy could see that Holland was largely upright through sheer determination and little more.

“What in the name of magic are you doing here?” Rhy demanded with all his royal arrogance. “You’re meant to give me a warning first!” He kept his voice low enough not to catch the attention of the guards outside, and unfortunately that meant Lila couldn’t hear him, either.

Kell shifted in his sleep, eyebrows furrowing, and Holland laid a hand across his forehead. 

“Don’t you fucking touch him,” Rhy snapped.

Holland slowly pulled his hand back and his eyes travelled down Rhy’s body, one charcoal eyebrow arching perfectly in a sort of patronizing amusement. He asked in a deep-voiced murmur, "Is this how you usually greet guests?"

“What?” Rhy glanced down, remembering all at once that he’d just come from the bath. The towel was in a puddle at his feet and he stood nude in front of a man he wanted only to kill. Determined not to let Holland win this one, Rhy simply lifted his head back up, chin high, and tried to make his smile as mean as Lila Bard’s. “Is that how long you usually stare at the nakedness of bigger men than you?”

Naked or clothed, he was the crown prince of Arnes, heir to the throne, and he was better than Holland Vosijk. But he didn’t mind being a little petty about it.

If only he had some magic or armor or anything to defend himself from an attack.

“You flatter yourself,” Holland said mildly, without any obvious embarrassment, only the barest edge of annoyance to his tone. “I suppose your brother should be the one to let you know which of us is the… better man.”

Rhy blinked, and he felt his haughty arrogance shake away from surprise. “Did… you just make a joke?”

Holland smiled, the faintest bit, in a way he had not smiled before. “I learn from your brother as much as he learns from me.”

“Kell doesn’t tell jokes either,” Rhy pointed out, taking a step closer before remembering, once again, that he was naked and largely defenseless and that would be a very stupid thing to do. “He doesn’t smile in front of anyone but me.”

“Hm. Does he not?” Holland shrugged. “He smiles often enough with me .”

“I’m not having this argument with you. I will not be accused of petty jealousy over my brother’s captor.

“Did I accuse you of being jealous?” Holland tilted his head. “I have brought you your brother. You should thank me if you don’t want me to take him away again.” Holland and Rhy met eyes with an even hostility between them, and Holland smiled without humor. “All it takes is a command.”

“My gratitude to you for meeting the bare minimum of the agreement your queen made with me. How pathetic, to hold a lover only through magical command,” Rhy said with absolute, arch coldness. He heard Lila’s singing stop. Sanct, it took you long enough. Grab a knife. Grab ten.

“Is that all I hold him with?” Holland asked, and some of the aggression was gone, replaced with a genuine, sad curiosity that Rhy refused to think about. “I don’t really know any longer.”

“Leave him and go. You know he’ll go back to you when you call him. You’ve wrecked him enough for one day, I imagine.” Rhy thought of himself, a ball on his knees on the training room floor, trying not to groan out loud as Lila pretended not to hear him. “You’ve wrecked us both enough for today.”

Holland straightened his spine, and Rhy was struck again by the tiredness that was written in every line of his face. When he looked down at Kell, his brother looked tired, too; tired in an otherworldly way, exhausted down to the marrow of his bones. “Come here, Rhy Maresh.”

“No.”

Holland sighed, a sound that seemed to go on and on, an exhalation that came from the center of him. “Come. Here. Or I will take your brother with me.”

Rhy swallowed, hard. “Can I cover myself first?”

The quirk at the corner of Holland’s mouth might have been a smile. “No.”

Rhy moved with reluctance, Kell’s shirt still crumpled hard between his hands, until he stood next to the Makt Antari - one of the so fully clothed that only his neck, head, and fingers were visible, and the other naked and feeling every inch of his vulnerability. “Leave,” He said, and his voice was strong and even; a prince’s voice, a king’s.

“In a moment.” Holland moved forward, and Rhy jerked back, but Holland Vosijk grabbed him by the shoulder and whispered, “Throw the music boxes away,” right into his ear.

“What?” At first, Rhy thought he must have heard incorrectly, and he blinked, wide-eyed, into Holland’s green-and-black eyes. 

“Throw the music boxes away,” Holland repeated, without raising his voice. 

“Why?” He saw, out of the corner of his eye, Lila shifting into the open doorway, pushing the door open just a bit more. Rhy shook his head at her, imperceptibly, and she glared at him, knives in both hands, wearing one of Rhy’s shirts hurriedly tossed over her head and nothing else, covered only to her mid-thighs.

“Because they have been listening to you - to everything you do, and say, and feel, with everyone you’ve had in here, since you turned sixteen years old.” Holland tilted his head, and Rhy met his gaze.

“Why tell me this?” Rhy asked in the same low whisper.

“Because,” Holland said, one hand on his shoulder. Rhy’s skin crawled but he didn’t move. The three of them stood in ridiculous tableau - Lila hidden in a doorway and Holland and Rhy here by the bed, so close to Kell he could nearly touch him. “When I need you, I will need her not to know what you are going to do. Throw the music boxes away.”

Holland’s green eye glanced to the side, and his black eye shifted a little, and Rhy thought he’d been fully aware of Lila’s presence the entire time. 

“I won’t do anything you ask of me,” Rhy said with a sneer, and Holland’s grip tightened, just a little, until Rhy winced at the bite of his worn fingernails into exposed skin.

“Trust me. You’ll want to. I intend to save him, Rhy Maresh.” Then Holland pulled back, looked over at Lila, and frowned. “You.”

Lila looked evenly at him, one leg slightly behind the other, poised to throw the knives. “Me.”

"You seem to appear everywhere I go," Holland said, without any particular rancor. 

"And you seem to be fucking up lives everywhere go," Lila replied. She lifted one of the knives, settling back onto her right foot, glaring right at him. 

"Oh no," Holland said in a flat voice. "How terrifying. I believe I shall faint."

“Shut up. Don’t throw, Lila,” Rhy said, putting one hand up. “You won’t kill him, and he’ll take Kell.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Holland replied casually, but it was clear keeping up the tone took some effort. “He wants to be here, so I brought him here. We have a deal, he and I.” He leaned back in close, pitching his voice for Rhy alone. "Do you know what he promises, prince?"

"I don't know, and I don't care - I'll feel it soon enough, won't I?"

Holland's head tilted a little in surprise, and while he didn't smile this time, there was that flicker of amusement again at the corner of his mouth. "Yes. You will. Your brother wanted to be here, so I brought him. I would rather he be with me but I keep my promises."

“Kell’s told me before, Holland - what you mean and what you say are often two different things entirely. I'm sure your promises have plenty of loopholes to ensure you keep the upper hand.”

There was a pause, and Holland looked them over thoughtfully. “Perhaps the two of you know me better than I've given you credit for. I’ll take my leave, prince. Remember what I said.”

“What did he say?” Lila asked, and Rhy shook his head again, lips pressed together, eyes straying to Kell’s music box, closed and silent on a small table in the sitting area by the fireplace. 

It’s been listening to me since I was sixteen? She’s been listening to me? To the both of us?

Rhy thought of all the things he’d done in his room, the people he’d brought back, all his nights tangled up with Luc, and felt… humiliated. Astrid Dane had been listening to every breathy ‘I love you’, every promise they’d made that Luc had broken? Had she heard every night he cried himself to sleep after Luc just up and left, the letter he’d received from Luc’s family detailing his wish to escape ‘unwelcome royal obligation’?

Astrid Dane had heard all of it? Had she heard Kell practicing his magic in here, pacing back and forth while he memorized the commands? Had she heard him come back talking about the girls he had liked and stepped on accidentally at dances? Had she laughed?

“Holland.” Rhy reached out to grab him by the arm, and Holland slowly turned back to him. “I’m going to kill her,” Rhy whispered softly. “Her, her bastard brother, and you. I'll walk up one day when you don't expect it and I’ll bash in every stone in that castle.”

Holland swallowed, but something brightened in his single green eye. “I’m counting on it,” He replied, using one hand to gently extricate himself from Rhy’s grip. “Although perhaps you’ll reconsider the necessity of my death when it’s time. I have,” He said, glancing over at Kell, “recently acquired a desire to live.” 

“You don’t get to live because of Kell,” Rhy said in a low, deadly voice. "You don't deserve him as your reason to live, you piece of shit."

“What if he wants to be my reason?” Holland asked, mildly. He patted Rhy on the side of the face, then seemed to catch himself at it, staring at his hand as though he'd burnt himself. Then he simply turned, ignoring Rhy’s mouth open in the process of coming up with some kind of snappy retort, and walked right out the door.

Lila was on his heels, peeking her head out only to pull it back, blinking. “The guards are all gone,” She said, confused. “And he’s gone, too. How did he do that?

Rhy stood still, staring down at his hands, trying to understand.

Lila came back over to him, and the two looked at each other. Kell shifted around on the bed, and when they turned to look, his eyes were open, blinking blue and black at the two of them, gradually focusing. He put one hand up to his head.

“Rhy? Lila? Where…” His voice trailed off, and then an entirely new expression shifted over his face. He pushed himself up onto one arm and looked at them with a sort of patient, resigned sadness that said he’d expected nothing more, in the end, than what he saw - that he deserved nothing more. It wasn’t angry, or jealous, or even really very upset.

It was an expression that said merely, I should have known.

“Why do you look like that?”

Kell’s eyes dropped and then went back up to his, and Rhy swallowed as he realized.

“Oh, Sanct,” he said out loud.

“Oh, shit, ” Lila echoed. “Oh, Kell, no.”

He was naked as the day he’d been born, and Lila was standing next to him wearing one of his shirts and nothing else, and the both of them were obviously still damp from a bath.

At that moment, there was a pounding on the door, and all three of them jumped.

"Prince Rhy! Are you in here? You weren't in your room!" He recognized the young guard's voice - Hastra, or something like that? Nice, young, looked more like a priest than part of the military. Rhy had been enjoying having a new guard who was actually nice to look at it. 

He put one finger up to Kell - wait a second - and cracked the door, looking into Hastra's worried face. "I am here. What do you need of me?"

"Your father requires your immediate presence, you and your... um, companion." Hastra's voice broke, just a little, on the last word, and Rhy fought back a smile at the innocence written across his face. 

"I am currently indisposed," Rhy said evenly, but Hastra shook his head, eyes wide.

"Your presence is required, prince," Hastra insisted, his voice a little shaky. "Please. They've reported a door opened up at the Three Farms and the king wants you to ride out with him to view it. Immediately."

Rhy swallowed, hard. "I will dress and be out momentarily. We both will." He closed the door in Hastra's face, turning slowly around. "Lila, we have to go."

"Lock the door," Kell said flatly, and rolled over, grabbing a pillow and arranging it under his head, closing his eyes again. "I need to sleep anyway. We'll talk when you get back."

"Kell, I-"

"I said, let's talk when you get back. I'm... I'm too tired right now. I'm not angry, Rhy, I'm just... tired." 

Rhy and Lila stood, staring at Kell's back, dotted with dried blood through his blue sweater. Then, as though they'd come to the decision together, the two of them simply went back through the door into Rhy's room in silence.

"I don't owe him anything," Lila said, but her voice was strange distant and distracted.

"I owe him a punch to the face," Rhy replied, jerking a riding shirt and pants out of his wardrobe. "He'll listen to us just fine once he's had some sleep. Let's go see the damage he did today."

Chapter Text

The door was huge, and Rhy could see that something was wrong long before they ever made it to the hill. When he’d gone down to see the Isle, there was only the faintest change, a sense of a cloudy sky instead of a clear one, the fading of the glow, a bit of chill wind that might ruffle your hair.

If he hadn’t known this land so well, he might have thought there was simply a little grove of trees, but it was a grove of trees where trees were not supposed to be. 

Maxim and Rhy, on powerful chargers bred especially for use by the royal family and surrounded by a small cavalcade of mounted guards, rode with grace out of London and into the countryside, heads held high, Maxim wearing the smaller, lighter crown he wore for public travel when he wanted the people to see him and Rhy with the circlet of gold that marked him the prince.

 Lila Bard bumped awkwardly along behind, glaring daggers at everything in sight (“ What part of 'London street trash down by the docks' made you think I’d ever ridden a horse before, Rhy Maresh?!”). They came to the top of a small rise just outside of London proper, where the city's congestion opened up to wide, sprawling pastures and fields. 

Rhy had been out here fairly often - the royal hunting grounds in the old woods were out this way. When he thought about it, this was about as far as Kell had ever been out of London - the Three Farms.

It was a lot more than three farms, obviously (these fields weren’t referred to as the Breadbasket of London for no reason, after all), but supposedly it had been called the Three Farms since the doors between worlds were open, when the name referenced three small farmhouses that backed up to each other, each one in a different world. A farm in Black London, a farm in Red London, and a farm in White London had all existed in the same space, owned by a single large family that had lived simultaneously in all the worlds. They'd kept a door in a central courtyard, moving between worlds like Rhy moved between rooms.

The farmhouse for Gray London, set apart, had been a stone’s throw away (and housed the black sheep brother of the family, so the legend went), so it’d missed out on being part of the name. Personally, Rhy thought Four Farms sounded better than Three.

Now, there was just the one farmhouse where three had once been all together. Same family, though. Rhy wondered if the other farmhouses were still there, or if they’d been overrun by time and the lack of connection. Tieren Serense thought everything in Black London must be dead - the rampant magic had turned to murder - and Rhy wondered if the family had escaped in time, or if there was a ruined farmhouse in Black London with nothing inside but bones.

You’re getting morbid, Rhy Maresh, he told himself, trying to shake it. That’s what comes of being a corpse, after all; it makes your sympathies turn to the rest of the dead and not the living .

Ah, Kell would hate hearing him think like this.

The faint baaaaaah of sheep was a constant backdrop to the pounding of horses' hooves and Lila Bard's muttered curses every time she was jostled like a sack of potatoes on the patient, gentle gelding they'd given her to ride.

She was in her white acolyte's outfit again, keeping up an increasingly thin pretense of being sent by Tieren Serense to watch out for Rhy’s health. No one seemed to question that she had come from the Sanctuary, but at this point, it was likely Kell wasn’t the only person assuming he and Lila Bard were lovers. 

Maxim had begun to look at her with that cautious, thoughtful, piercing look he gave everyone who courted Rhy, but what his father saw in Lila must not have been completely unwelcome, because he hadn’t said a word to try and stop it - and he had specifically requested she come along with them today.

Maxim had never held back on his opinions of Rhy's lovers before… although he supposed he'd never shared much about the only one he'd ever felt seriously about. Emira had liked Alucard, with reservations - his family was in line for the throne and she'd feared any show of friendship or affection would only encourage their ambition - and it'd seemed easier and safer if they kept their time together to the private hallways and Kell's disapproving willingness to keep a secret.

At least until Alucard Emery had decided he was no longer interested in Rhy’s ‘unwelcome royal obligations’.

Maxim, though, seemed to like Lila - or at least didn't actively dislike her.

Maxim saw strength in her, most likely, a level of determination and focus that Rhy lacked. Rhy was a young prince raised entirely in peacetime, untried and untested, soft. He looked like a prince with no war under his belt, no time spent soldiering like Maxim had at his age.

Indeed, Rhy Maresh looked exactly like what he was; a prince meant to charm and talk his way out of problems, not fight. But still, he held the reins with one hand and let his other drift to the dagger he’d begun wearing on his hip, a wicked, serrated thing that Lila had chosen for him.

You don’t have to be good at knives to kill with this , Lila had said with perfect seriousness as she helped him strap it on. You just have to twist your wrist.

What Maxim saw in Lila was ferocity bred from fire, and probably he thought she’d make a good enough partner for his son, if only for the moment and not for marriage.

Too bad that no matter what apparently everyone on earth thought, Rhy had no intentions of being anything but Lila Bard’s friend - and even that depended heavily on whether or not she allowed him to be.

Rhy wore close-fitting, thick-knit riding pants and a red shirt, while Lila was in the Sanctuary whites. They could not have been more different from one another in appearance, but in one way they were exactly the same; both of them wore a scowl and thought about the unhappy Antari they'd left behind. 

Rhy had tried to speak to him one more time before they’d gone, but found Kell had locked the door that connected their rooms. He couldn’t get in to try and explain, Kell hadn’t answered when he knocked, and he hadn’t dared call out to him for fear the guards waiting for he and Lila to finish dressing would hear. 

Rhy was furious , and embarrassed, and above both of those things, he was hurt.

He can't possibly think that I would do that to him, Rhy thought as they slowed their horses to a walk. He's just tired. Once he's had some sleep, he'll realize it was just a mistake, just a misunderstanding. He knows me. He’s known me nearly all our lives, he should know I’d never ever hurt him like that. He has to know it wasn’t what it looked like, he has to.

Of course, the last time Kell had caught Rhy naked with someone Kell had feelings for, it had been exactly what it looked like. 

Rhy had been sixteen and a half, Kell two years older, and they hadn’t spoken for nine straight days, the absolute longest they’d ever gone back then. Rhy had ended up breaking into his room when he was out by making one of the guards unwind the perfectly normal metal magic Kell had used to lock the door and filled Kell’s room with books from his favorite bookshop by way of apology.

That was different, Rhy thought with stubborn self-righteousness. He hadn't even told me he liked Brenna. How was I supposed to know not to take her to bed? He should know I'd never touch anyone he told me he felt for.

Except that… except that, down in the training room, if Lila had not slapped him, he would have. He’d been ready to take her right there on the dusty, sandy floor just to get the screaming need from Kell's command out from under his skin.

 If Lila Bard had been anything other than what she was, he didn’t know what would have happened between them.

Not my fault. Kell did something, used that spell Holland Vosijk uses on him in bed and it… it did something to us, let Holland use Kell, wield his power like a whip. Rhy winced at the comparison. Or like a sword. He made a choice and the consequences are not my fault.

Rhy twitched a rueful, slightly bitter smile. It didn’t matter what it was, all of it could somehow be laid at his brother’s feet, was that it? Safer, and easier, and more comfortable to simply blame Kell for anything and everything, when he was not here to raise a voice in his own defense. 

Well, Rhy thought, they say you turn into your parents as you get older, and here I’ve become my mother, blaming Kell on pure instinct alone. What an excellent brother I have turned out to be.

Granted, this was technically Kell's fault…

Rhy sat up straight all at once as he realized one simple truth that hadn't even occurred to him - that that was exactly what his brother was thinking, too. He thought Rhy and Lila had slept together because of his command.

He wasn't mad at Rhy… he was mad at himself.

When we get back, we'll explain, and he'll see. He'll see that we're only building a friendship and he can't blame himself for something that didn't happen.

They stopped their horses just in front of the monstrosity, the tear in the fabric of the world, that Kell had opened at the Three Farms. The first thing Rhy thought was that the pretty view from this little hill had been ruined, but of course it hadn’t been; instead he’d been given an equally lovely view of something else entirely.

Rhy stood on a grassy knoll, a bit of lavender and wildflowers beneath his horse’s hooves. A stone bench to the side, and rolling pastures and fields to the edge of the old woods, miles ahead, or to London behind him.

Ahead of him, there was a wound. The earth had been torn apart, created a crack that dropped down and down and down into endless darkness. It ran nearly sixty feet across, the whole breadth of the top of the hill, was too wide for even the horses to jump, but not by much. Looking through, he could see another crack on the other side, more darkness.

He thought of Lila telling him about feeling the doors open over the Isle, the way the earth had shook and rumbled under her feet even as no one else seemed to notice.

Rhy wondered if there was a crack below the Isle, too, if water was flowing into it, making its way down to whatever there was below the ground.

On the other side of the jagged holes in the ground that no one could cross, there stood a storybook forest, trees taller than the tear itself that ran for the length of the crack and then simply disappeared abruptly, cut off like a child might cut with scissors, to show the rolling hills of Arnes again. He could hear birds singing from the woods, nestled in the branches, birdsong he recognized. Kell has said he’s never heard a bird sing there. Do they have birds like ours, or have our birds gone over to them?

The bark of the trees was an oddly vibrant shade of reddish brown, a color he’d never seen on a tree before. The almost obscenely green leaves rustled in a breeze that Rhy felt, chilly air wafting out from Makt to ruffle his hair against his forehead, bringing goosebumps up on his arms under his sleeves.

On one side, a beautiful Arnesian afternoon with a clear blue sky. On the other, the Maktahn forest, light dimmed and weak already, and the barest hint of heavy dark clouds Rhy could see through the edges of the tree canopy.

That cold wind bit into the skin of his face, but still he saw flowers that did not wilt on the forest floor, a cloud of white that rippled gently.

Flowers fed by magic.

Kell and Holland Vosijk did this.

Tiny white flakes blew out of the tear, and at first Rhy thought he was looking at snow, but a bit landed in his hair and when he reached up to touch it, it crumbled warm under his fingertips and smelled like coal.

Ash. 

It was ash, from a freezing city that was no doubt somewhere behind Rhy, in its own world, with fires built in thousands of woodstoves and fireplaces, ash floating in the air so thickly it was indistinguishable from weather, so thick it blew all the way here to wind back through the door.

It felt like winter, in Makt, very late winter when you’re too far from the Isle and the days become miserable with cold - but that couldn’t be possible. The seasons were the same between the worlds, Kell had said when it was summer here, it was summer there, too.

And yet Makt felt so frozen, like a Veskan tomb.

This is why they want to open the doors, Rhy thought, and remembered his conversation with Kell about it again. This is what Holland wants to fix. I would do the same, if our people lived like this. Wouldn't anyone?

If we were the ones dying, I'd take Holland Vosijk prisoner in a heartbeat to save us.

Maxim sat staring into those woods, silent for a long time as Lila’s horse gradually made its way up to them. Lila wasn’t even holding the reins at this point - she had apparently decided to simply drape herself over the poor gelding’s neck and hope for the best. 

“I hate you,” Lila muttered, but Rhy didn’t think she was talking to the horse. It flicked an ear back her direction and seemed to try to slow its gait to be more comforatble for her.

“They’ve opened two of these?” Maxim asked out loud, more to himself than to Isra, who sat on her horse to his left, looking with narrowed eyes into the strange foreign forest that sat so oddly in the midst of the hill.

“Technically,” Isra said heavily, “They have opened four doors now.”

“Four?” Maxim straightened up even more, and the sun glinted off the breastplate he wore, more comfortable in his armor, even if only partial armor, than he’d ever been in casual clothing. “But I thought it was only the Isle and here.”

“Only two locations, ” Isra said without turning away from the forest. “There are three large doors open over the river, and this is the fourth and largest of all. Your Majesty… the Antari are getting stronger."

Maxim was silent again. Rhy chanced a look at his father, trying to keep it sidelong so it wouldn’t be too obvious, and saw the grim set of Maxim’s jaw beneath his clipped beard, the cold iron of his eyes. “Kell did this,” Maxim said finally, and in it Rhy heard a terrible hurt, a father’s feeling of betrayal. “ Kell did this to us, Rhy.”

“He was commanded,” Rhy said, lying through his teeth with an ease and perfect believability he’d honed over an entire lifetime spent telling them what they wanted to hear. After all, he had been commanded the first time - but today, he had chosen. He had chosen to do it, and only Rhy and Lila Bard knew that. He saw Lila's gaze on him and steadfastly ignored it. "He’s a slave there, Father.”

“I know.” Maxim’s voice was heavy, and Rhy could see it, finally, the thing he always sought and so rarely found in either of his parents; genuine regret alongside fear and worry for his brother.

Maxim was worried for Kell, and thank the saints, it was worry that stood alone and was not mixed with anger. “I undertook some study of Maktahn-style magic, prior to my ascendency to the throne. It wasn’t required, it just seemed… like a good idea at the time, to know everything I could about the forbidden magics that Makt embraces. Tieren Serense and I spent hours looking over books that explained the hows and whys of it. I know what it does to a person, and I know how it is done.” His father swallowed. “What I did not know then, I know now - I have spent hours reading about it since he left-”

“Was taken,” Rhy corrected, and heard Lila Bard snort behind him.

“Was taken,” Maxim acknowledged. “I know, at least a little, what sort of ordeal Kell underwent. Rhy, I… I know we are not always fair to him. I know that declaring him a traitor was not fair to him , but it had to be done. His actions have been treasonous, regardless of motivation, and I needed all of London to be on guard in case he is ordered to do something worse than simply use magic on a hill."

Rhy thought of the carving on Kell’s back, the slash-and-circle mark with Holland’s blood in the ink that never faded. He thought of listening to Kell's heart stutter-skip as he cried in the bath, trying to hide it, the way he had wept in Kell's arms in those tunnels, as Rhy listened to Holland's footsteps fade. 

He’s already done worse, and he’s becoming worse every time he does it.

He though of the band of black leather around Kell's neck with that little silver ring, of Holland sliding a finger into that circle to pull him closer, of the warmth across his own mouth when Holland kissed Kell in front of him, just to prove a point, just to watch Rhy’s face light up with helpless fury - and his own certainty that the whole show had been on the orders of Holland’s bitch queen. “He’s in hell, Father. My brother is in hell. "

Holland is a slave, too. He is also in hell.

Hell corrupts, and Holland has corrupted my brother.

And every second I keep Astrid Dane’s little secret, I am being corrupted, too. I am also complicit in whatever she is going to do, because otherwise he is alone, with only Holland's voice in his ear, whispering whatever blasphemies to him it takes to fool Kell into doing - being - what he wants.

Does Holland lie and pretend to care about him? Is that all it takes? Does he simply tell him he’s the only one who understands? Is Kell so starved for love that he’s fallen for it?

Is Holland so evil that he’d twist him apart that way?

Maxim was talking, and Rhy struggled to focus on his words, still thinking of the awful resignation on Kell's face when he'd seen Lila and Rhy naked and half-dressed and looking like lovers.

I should have known , that face had said. I deserve nothing else.

No. No, Kell’s expression had been one of self- loathing, it had said, I did this.

"-know that, too," Maxim was saying, "but I cannot risk what could happen if he roams unnoticed and unrestrained through our streets, Rhy. What if they tell him to start killing? What if they order him to kill you?

“He wouldn’t,” Rhy said through gritted teeth. “Even with that spell, he’d find a way not to.”

That, at least, Rhy believed wholeheartedly.

Maxim sighed. “He’ll be safer in the prisons if we catch him, and so will our people. Slave or not, he must be held responsible for his actions. We must all face responsibility for the actions we undertake, no matter the circumstances." Maxim took in a deep breath. "Emira always worried-"

"Please don't," Rhy said tightly. "Please don't tell me what Mother always thought of him. I have heard enough of that from the woman herself."

"Your mother has never found it easy to speak her fears aloud," Maxim said tenderly. "Often she means well but struggles to phrase her words, and they come out barbed when she meant them to be wrapped in velvet."

"A dagger in the heart still wounds, no matter how soft the cloth it is wrapped in."

"You must be more fair to her, Rhy."

"I have always been fair to her, and she to me." Rhy set his jaw. "It is Kell she cannot seem to keep from tearing down, Kell she only ever wanted for what he could do for me. She never wanted him for who he was, or cared all that much to know. She has always torn him down whenever he tried to build himself up, made sure he can only see himself as a shadow."

"Rhy… she tried to know him, I promise you, but she was afraid of what she might learn."

"What she might learn? What, that Kell liked to help me climb trees? That he had nightmares about losing me, night after night, for years after the abduction? That he likes the other London's game called chess?”

“I hate chess,” Lila muttered. “I’m awful at it.”

“Would she learn that he's still no good with a bow even after years of practice and our fencing master told him to his face he would never fence worth a damn if he didn’t stop always falling back on his magic? What is there in that to be afraid of? What about Kell is remotely frightening?"

His eye, of course. The fact that Kell was a well of power that had been turned to Arnesian purposes, but that had just been a matter of luck. Emira had not seen it, but in her mind she must have thought of what Kell had looked like nearly bathed in his own blood to save Rhy’s life.

Twice, now. Twice, now, Kell had nearly killed himself to save Rhy, and he was a man with fearsome power but also still a boy in need of a mother - and Rhy had watched her give that to him and then take it away, as though no love for Kell could be anything but conditional.

Rhy felt his grip tighten, just a little, on the reins. 

Maybe that is the lie Holland tells him; that love is merely conditional, he has gone too far for us to follow, and only another Antari can understand him now. 

No. He might have been shown my parents love him only with conditions - he may not trust that Lila can love him at all, they barely know each other - but he knows me. He knows there is absolutely nothing he could do that could change the fact that he is my brother, and I love him.

"I understand your feelings,” Maxim replied, looking uneasily at the guards, all of whom were pretending with mighty sincerity to have heard absolutely nothing that had just been said. “It's not my place to tell you more. You must ask your mother yourself. Even seeing him the first time, we hesitated, to be honest. If it weren't for the weakness it would create if another kingdom bought him…"

"He's not property," Rhy snapped.

"Legally, Rhy, he is exactly that."

Lila took in a breath, audible enough that Rhy glanced back at her, shaking his head. For once, Lila Bard held her tongue - but he could see on her face what it cost her.

"I don't care about legality . He's a man, and free. Or he should be - free to choose who he serves or if he serves at all. When I am king, Father, my very first act will be to declare my brother free of his obligations to me, free of your legalities , and make the Antari full citizens capable of mapping their own futures, should any more be found. Then I will send Kell out with my blessing to go any damn place he wants.”

Maxim paused, carefully considering his words. "The Antari are a dangerous blessing," he said finally. "They are too dangerous to simply allow to walk freely. The laws around the Antari were created after the rampant magic was held back, because the Antari were the ones who woke it up in the first place.”

“What?”

Antari sought more power than they already had, and they infected the magic with the desire for more, and more, and more. The Antari are not like everyone else. Magic lives in their minds as much as their blood. You think us cruel, Rhy, but consider that Faro and Vesk and many other countries might have used him more roughly, or treated him worse."

"They might have treated him better. "

"I doubt that. We have always considered the possibility that Kell would fall into hands other than ours and be… compelled to serve, or tricked - especially when he was a boy, when his loyalty to us was more… malleable. But I never thought…"

"We never thought the doors could be reopened," Isra finished after the pause drew out. “When we considered the options we would have if Kell were to find himself working for another crown, we never thought another world would take him - if they did, how could they use him in a way that could ever hurt us? These two-” She gestured to the tear in the world, the glimpse into Makt. “They already have their own Antari. We were prepared to declare Kell's loss, if we had to, but…"

"His loss? " Lila snorted. "Royalty is the same everywhere."

“But you did not count on the ambition of the king and queen in Makt. You did not know that they are never satisfied,” Rhy said with certainty, drawing surprised looks from his father and Isra, both. Lila cleared her throat just behind him, but Rhy decided to push a little further. “Listen to me. We were all pawns in her plan to steal my brother, but… she's not done. She has him now, and still it is not enough to sate her. She wants more.”

“Obviously. She wants to open doors, to let the magic in to her world, right?” Isra frowned. “It’s not hers to take.”

“No,” Rhy said flatly. “She doesn’t just want magic. She wants Arnes ."

He’d been thinking about it for weeks, ever since he’d had the first conversation with Holland where he’d been offered the chance to watch his brother slowly fade away under her command. And each time he thought about it, he was more and more certain that Astrid intended far more than she’d admitted to.

“We've thought about her reasons,” Maxim said, nodding, but there was a hint of pride in his face that warmed Rhy, beat back some of the isolation he’d felt ever since the mark on his chest set him apart, made him hide himself away to ensure no one saw what being part of Kell had done to him. “A potential war is one outcome we are looking into.”

“They couldn’t come here before,” Isra said thoughtfully, scratching at her chin, looking into the woods. As if to emphasize her point, a strange little swallow, bleached of color and nearly gray, flew right through the door and landed in the grass off to the side of them, pecking at the earth. "Now they can."

“Not yet they can’t, Isra," Maxim said, squinting at the gash in the ground, the torn-up earth that separated them from the door. “You can’t see the door from the other side, only this one, and this is so deep and so far across they couldn't do much with it…”

Did Kell make that, too? Rhy wondered. Did he tear the earth up to buy us some time? Was that part of his choice, to make the door but also to make it impossible for the Danes to cross it? I’ll ask him, when we talk, when I get back.

He must be deeply asleep by now; it’d taken them half an hour or so just to dress, another half-hour to get saddled and up in the horses, and nearly an hour to ride this far out from central London. When they got back, that exhaustion would be gone from Kell’s face, and he’d be ready to listen.

“I am uncertain how to defend against this, Rhy,” Maxim said finally, and Rhy heard Isra let out a rush of air at the admission. “I’ve done the same reading on the doors that you have done. I know no more about them than you do. They were never supposed to be opened again, it was meant to be an impossibility. We have no defense against this, without Kell."

"Only arms," Rhys said thoughtfully. Sanct, if he had to fight Kell…

He wouldn't. They couldn't. If they fought, both or neither of them would die, and no in-between.

"If they open a door large enough to effect an invasion, our army will meet them, but until then I am at a loss. All I can do is be strong for my people, which means… which means ordering Kell’s arrest if he’s seen. It will mean locking him away from his own power and keeping him in prison until we know what to do. The people must see that I will arrest a traitor, even… even if it's him. I have to put the good of Arnes above him, Rhy. You understand why."

I do, and I am doing the opposite, and which of us is in the right? I don’t know any longer. 

“He’s a slave, Father. Do we put slaves to death for what they are forced to do?”

"Yes," Isra said evenly, "if their crimes are heinous enough."

“Even slaves have methods of defiance,” Maxim replied, and Rhy felt his eyebrows nearly touch his hairline. You can’t possibly be suggesting he should kill himself first - as if he even could, unless they let him. “I miss him too, Rhy. I know that we’ve had our difficulties-”

“You’ve both been awful to him,” Rhy said heavily, with honesty brought on by a month of feeling Kell’s pain and pleasure, of being exhausted by it, of his creeping sense of himself as a corpse that had been animated by some rough, unskilled hand. He was just too tired to dance around it any longer. “You’ve been awful to him in ways he can’t fight, in ways other people don’t see. I’m tired of lying about it, Father.”

Maxim looked as though he would protest, then slumped a little in the saddle. “Perhaps we have been. Perhaps we bear some responsibility for this.”

“You tied him to me so he would only fly for you. Now your tame hawk is in a different monarch's cage and they've clipped his wings and you blame him for it.”

“No. I only hold him responsible for his actions. He is a grown man, Rhy, and we must all stand and see the consequences of the choices we make… even those we did not want to.” Maxim sighed. “Even those that seemed like the best idea at the time.”

“You’re right. We should.” Rhy hesitated, then swallowed, hard. “The people on the other side of that door would probably say that this is to hold us responsible for our choices.”

“What choices?”

“To close the doors and leave them to this in the first place.”

Maxim snorted, derision etching the lines in his face even deeper. “That was a choice made by others in a time of dire need. There was no other option, Rhy.”

Lila cleared her throat. “We… don’t know that, do we?”

All three of them turned to look at her, the false Sanctuary acolyte sitting up straight on her horse, looking between all of them with narrowed eyes that dared them to mock her contribution. 

“What do you mean?” Isra asked, straightening her back, her warhorse shifting from hoof to hoof with nervous energy.

“The doors to one London had to close, sure,” Lila said, and her eyes were on the forest, on the cold world just beyond it. “But did we have to shut them all?

We, she said. She played the part well, when she wanted to; even her voice had changed - shy and peaceful, a lie given away by the way her Royal was strong and natural and oddly-accented, her jaw never seemed to soften, and her eyes remained narrowed and defensive. 

“I don’t understand.” Maxim did not cut her off or ask her to stop, but instead considered her with that odd look of calculation he got sometimes, when he was trying to truly see into someone, to test their mettle without them knowing simply by examination.

“Why didn’t you-... we just help them?” Lila gestured at the woods, as the ash flakes continued to drift through and land on the grass, on their horses’ manes, on the stone bench that sat just off to the side. H o w many fires are burning in Maktahn London tonight, when our windows here are open in the hopes of catching a cool breeze? “Stand with them to close the doors the harmful magic came through, and then keep them open for the rest? Why did everyone else have to lose the magic?”

Her voice was a little jagged at the end, a little angry, and Rhy - who knew her for what she was - knew what she was really asking. Why did I grow up in a world without any of this, and you take it for granted?

“We didn’t know if they would succeed,” Maxim replied. “You should know this, it’s in every Arnesian education.”

“Yes, but…” Lila was fighting to keep her mild acolyte's voice, to maintain the peaceful expression she wore and the lie they had built to explain her constant presence by his side. If Rhy had spent the past month learning from her to be sharper, harder, and more capable of defending himself, then Lila had been learning how to put on a charming lie from him. “Wouldn’t we have been more certain of success if we had helped them? Instead of just… watching them fight and die and then leaving them trapped there?"

“Perhaps,” Maxim conceded. “There have been many books written about the ethics of the choice that was made. It was the best of many bad choices-"

" Was it?"

"-... but that was a long time ago. They just live with their world, and we with ours."

“Easy to say when our world is the one with magic,” Rhy said, shooting Lila a grateful smile while his father’s gaze was still on her. He could see her twitch a smile back, against her will. “But kicking a bit of snow doesn’t always end with giving yourself cold toes, does it?”

“What?” Isra blinked at him.

“Sometimes,” Rhy said patiently, “it ends with an avalanche. What we did… it made them into this, didn’t it? We saved ourselves from the rampant magic but we did it by sacrificing people who couldn't possibly have known what we would make them give up. They’re dying, there, bit by bit, because of our choice. A wounded animal will bite even a helping hand, won’t it?”

Maxim looked back at him, eyes narrowed. “We did not hunt them-”

“We put their legs in a trap, gave them a grievous injury, and left them to die,” Rhy said firmly, never looking away from his father’s gaze. He could feel Lila watching them, silent for now, curious eyes bouncing from one face to the next as though watching a game. “That they bite back should come as no surprise; frankly, I find myself wondering what took them so long. They bled out until there were people who figured out that they could bleed us, too. I suppose they needed a monarch that wanted revenge. They needed-”

“Monarchs who never stop wanting more ,” Lila finished. "Greedy buggers who knew how to snare someone like Kell but who thought one wasn’t enough, they wanted the other one, too. And now they have Kell.”

“Right.”

“Now they have Kell,” Maxim agreed, nodding slowly, thoughtfully. “And if I take your meaning correctly, my son, you think they mean to ruin us, too."

“No, not ruin us,” Rhy said slowly. “Based on what Kell has said, um, before… I don’t think they mean to kill us. I think they mean to have us. "

Maxim's eyebrows furrowed. "I don't follow."

Rhy only shook his head, lost trying to find the words for the certainty that had begun to nag at him, that Astrid had deeper plans than a simple death for Arnes - and deeper plans for him. He did not believe that she wanted him to die at all any longer.

He looked away from his father, then, staring into the woods. Somewhere beyond this strange forest, there was a white castle. Kell had talked about it so many times, how you could see the great pale battlements, like skeletal fingers, from everywhere in London. 

Somewhere there was a garden of statues of the dead. 

Somewhere, there was Holland Vosijk and Astrid and Athos Dane in their white room on their white thrones. 

Somewhere beyond this view, he could almost see the people who had turned his brother’s life into a nightmare.

Just behind him and in another world entirely, there was a city full of people with too little to eat and no warmth to their sun. There was a city full of people who turned on each other to survive because Rhy’s world had abandoned them when they were most desperate for help, left them to fester for centuries.

Kell was right, Rhy thought. We must deal with the ruin we made, or we must face responsibility for it.

We must reckon with a world of rubble.

He heard hoofbeats behind him and blinked, turning to look as Maxim put a hand up to his eyes like a visor to get a better look.

It was one of the guards who oversaw the dovecote, riding hell for leather straight for them with her horse kicking clods of dirt up as it went. 

She slowed as she came up close, her horse breathing heavily from the fast ride, “Your Majesty King Maxim - ah, your Highness the Crown Prince - we’ve had a message come in for your eyes only.” She swallowed. “There is a message for each of you.”

“A message?” Rhy blinked, confused. “For me?”

And for his August Majesty,” The guard said, trotting forward a little with a folded bit of paper. “It came in by messenger pigeon.”

“We only use the pigeons with the navy and privateers,” Maxim said with a puzzled, concerned frown, nudging his own horse forward to take the paper from her hand. She dug another bit of folded paper out to hold out to Rhy. 

“This one is for you alone, Your Highness.” 

Maxim looked at the message he had been given, then slowly looked up to meet his son’s deep brown eyes. “They’ve spotted a Veskan vessel headed for us. Just one, and it’s flying its flag nice and high. So… not an attack, then.”

“Why would a Veskan ship come here?” Isra wondered out loud. “Why now?”

Maxim sat back on his horse, as natural as breathing for him, and looked down at the rolling pastures and back towards London, the red glow of the Isle visible even from here, lighting the sky with the reassuring warmth Rhy had known for his whole life. “Rhy, you’ll want to read yours,” He said finally. 

“Why?” 

“Because these messages are from the captain of the Night Spire. Alucard Emery sent this."

Rhy felt his heart nearly stop, a wash of awful cold straight down his spine married to a warm spike of anticipation ( he’s thought of me! He sent a message just for me! He hasn’t forgotten me! ) that made him feel all of seventeen again, young and in love and too stupid to see that Alucard had just been having a bit of fun.

Maxim raised one eyebrow, just the barest bit, and of course Rhy should have known that his father would know everything. 

So does Astrid Dane - she heard every single time you brought him to bed, all the silly nonsense things you said, and she laughed at you while planning to steal your brother.

“Alucard Emery?” Lila wrinkled her nose. “That’s… a lot of name for one man.”

“He’s a lot of man,” Isra said, with a perfectly serious, solemn face. "A lot of loud, annoying man."

"Now Isra, it's been years," Maxim said mildly.

"I'll bet you my entire set of armor the years have made him worse. "

Rhy sat staring at the note in his hand, unfolded, his eyes focusing and unfocusing on the words in that familiar scrawled handwriting. His penmanship sure hadn’t improved since he’d been gone, Rhy thought, with a wry affection he knew Kell would be furious to see. He’d have known this handwriting anywhere; after all, he still had plenty of notes Luc had written him stashed in a box he’d hidden from Kell after Luc left.

Luc had written only:

I come to beg a private audience with my prince. Turn me away if you will, but I’ll still count myself the luckier to see your face when you refuse me.

Assuming, of course, that you can refuse me. I don’t know that you’ve ever been able to before.

Rhy blushed to the roots of his hair, grateful for the dark skin that hid most of it from the view of the others. He carefully folded the note up, as small as he could make it, and slid it into a pocket. 

“What does he say?” Maxim asked, but there was a hint of amusement in his voice.

“Merely that he would wish to speak with me,” Rhy said, and his voice cracked and he fought back the urge to swear like Lila Bard did.

“Majesty?" Isra said, doubtfully. “Emery’s disinherited. He’s not recognized at court.”

“Oh, is he not?” Maxim asked. If he hadn’t know his father so well, Rhy would have sworn he winked. “I suppose I won’t receive him in the throne room, then, and neither shall my son. You’ll have to work that out elsewhere, I suppose.”

Rhy stared at his father as though he’d seen a ghost. Was this change in Maxim simply because Rhy had died and returned? Was it because Kell was gone? Was he trying to make Lila Bard jealous? 

Isra shot an uneasy look at some of the guards around them. “He’s not even allowed to step foot on-”

“Kell did that,” Rhy said quickly. “And Kell is gone.” Sorry, Kell. “ We’ll rescind the order. What can be the harm in it? I’m guarded at all times, and besides that, I’ll ensure we’re safe. I’ll… I’ll have Miss Bard with me, won’t I?” He gestured to Lila, smiling his most brilliant, shining, charm-everyone-into-doing-what-I-want smile.

“Now wait a second-” Lila started, her eyes darting around from one of them to the next.

“I can live with that,” Maxim said amiably. He looked over his shoulder at the tear in the worlds, and some of the humor bled out of him. “I will be convening a council to deliberate over what actions to take if more doors are opened and they attack directly. Isra, I think Rhy is correct when he says he thinks that Maktahn king and queen have designs on Arnes itself.”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Isra said, her eyes on Rhy, considering him in a wholly new light, and Rhy straightened his back a little, smiling at her. He liked that new look on her face - looking at him like he was the king-in-waiting and not just a prince.

Rhy winced as he felt a slice of pain along his wrist. Must’ve bent his wrist against something wrong… 

No, wait. He looked down at his wrist, perfectly unmarred, but still aching as though he’d just drawn a blade along it. “Oh, no.”

“What?” Lila asked. 

“I just felt-” He glanced up at his father, over at Isra, the circle of guards around them. “I feel ill, Father. My, um. My condition. May I be dismissed?”

Maxim frowned, concern lighting along his face. “Do you need to dismount your horse and rest, Rhy?”

“No, no… I’ll be fine. I need to get back to my room and I’ll have a lie down there. Miss Bard, would you accompany me-”

“Of course,” Lila said smoothly. “I’ll need to administer the medicine to ensure a correct dosage.”

“If you’ll give me leave…?” Rhy let his voice trailed a little bit, matching his father’s worried gaze with his own. His wrist continued to sting, just a little, the faint and faded way that pain felt to the Antari when it did not dig too deep.

No no no no no.

Kell could not be doing this. He couldn’t.

Maxim finally nodded, and Rhy and Lila took off, Rhy riding with the ease and grace that came of years of riding lessons and time in the saddle, Lila gripped white-knuckled to her horse’s mane, occasionally letting out terrified ‘whoop’s of excitement and fear as they galloped along back into the city.

It took too long to get back, and by the time they had left the horses at the stables and raced up the back stairs of the palace, Rhy’s wrist had long since stopped hurting. Even as he walked into his room still dusty and smelling of horses, he felt the brush of a kiss against his lips and Kell’s heart pounding, the sense of him digging fingernails into his palms against touch he did not want. 

He knew what he would find, but still he had to look. The door to Kell’s room opened easily enough, and he stepped through with a sinking stomach and the brush of a cold, cold hand against the back of Kell’s neck. 

Lila Bard was right on his heels, her expression set in a scowl but with a hint of nervous worry that gave away that Lila definitely felt the same echo of concern he did. Of course, Lila didn’t know for sure - Rhy did.

They came through the door together, and both of them swore loudly in two completely different languages. 

Kell’s room was empty. He was gone.

Chapter Text

As with so many things in his life, it was really his own fault.

Kell flipped up the collar of his coat - a heavy black one this time, made of thick wool - trying to find some protection from Makt's chill air. The clouds rumbled low and ominous overhead, weighing as heavily as his footsteps. He could see the vaguest pink glow against the underside of the cloud by the Sijlt, see three large patches where Arnes's golden late-afternoon sun was showing through.

He did not go to see the flowers. He couldn't stand the sight of them, not today.

Ash floated through the air around him from the fires in all the London woodstoves and fireplaces, and he felt the occasional brush of a flake softly against his face.

People watched him as he walked, groups on streetcorners or from behind drawn curtains. Once upon a time, they had hung out their doors to try and call him closer, beckoned him, wanted to steal his magic by any means. 

Now, he could see them making a bit of fire to warm themselves, using air to clean off a doorstep. They did not ignore him, but they whispered, " Dæmon," as he passed. "Tak, Dæmon af Kongen Athos."

They thanked him. They called him King Athos's Demon. Kell tried to pull his collar up even higher to hide his face, held the two books he'd brought back for Beloc closer.

I'm Holland's demon if I'm anyone's, he thought, but that made his face go red and was somehow even worse.  

He shouldn't have left the room. He should have waited for Rhy, to tell him he wasn't upset or mad at him, only at himself for not thinking, for never thinking about how it would affect others before he did something that seemed right at the time. Besides, he had no claim on her. No one could claim someone like Lila Bard.

He had no claim on her, but - he found the fingers of one hand moving up to clink the silver ring at his throat - there was someone who had a claim on him, and he didn't deserve Lila, not marked for Holland, not like this.

Still. He'd thought maybe he could forget that for just a while, for a few hours, for a few minutes at least. That she'd let him forget it, even if he couldn't take the evidence of it off, even if he'd seen her eyes drop to the collar around his neck before she'd said Oh, Kell. 

He hadn't seen Lila Bard in so long. He'd been so looking forward to it, in a vague and undefined nervous way, looking forward to seeing her brown eyes focused entirely on him. Looking forward to seeing if she might let him kiss her again, just… seeing her would have been enough.

He'd have been happy just to listen to her, her sharp voice and the way she would flash a smile like sunlight off a blade. She made him nervous in a way he wanted to feel again.

Nervous like he'd been as a boy, the first time he'd tilted his head just so to smile at someone, been terrified they'd look away.

Lila Bard was terrifying, and he wanted to be terrified. He'd wanted so, so much to see her again - if she could stand him, knowing as she surely did that he was covered in Holland, smelled like him, could still feel his hands on his skin.

He'd wanted to see her - he'd been so sure it would be something to hold onto - and when he did see her, she was flushed and damp and wearing nothing but his brother's shirt, looking down at him lying in bed with a collar he couldn't take off.

It was his own fault.

He'd known she and Rhy were spending time together, getting to know each other better, and it wasn't like Kell hadn't stood in Rhy's shadows long enough to see him charm men and women without even realizing he'd done so.

He wasn't angry. He couldn't be, not at Rhy, not for long. Not at her, either. 

It was his own fault - he'd given the command to combine he and Holland without remembering it would affect Rhy, too, that Lila would likely be there.

He'd been the one not considering - because he couldn't really bear to - that a month apart from Lila would wear away whatever it was he'd thought had sparked between them.

His brother was always with her now, training when he trained with Holland. He'd felt the blows, felt Rhy getting stronger. They'd be good for each other, anyway. He knew Lila could protect Rhy, at least.

It made it a little easier to serve in White London, knowing that Lila Bard would be by his brother's side. 

Each step closer to the white castle was a heavier one and harder to take. The great white battlements grew and grew as he walked, until they sliced apart the clouds and called him in, beckoning him past the garden of the dead, statues of the traitors and challengers and champions who had thought they could bring down the Danes.

Kell had no such ambitions. He never had. He'd been content to let Holland suffer here, since he had a comfortable home.

And now he knelt before the white throne alongside him, and this was the home he returned to.

He moved up the wide white steps to the grand doors, the Mindless watching him through dark visors closed low. He didn't even know if they still had eyes.

He wasn't sure he could have kept his sanity if they didn't.

 He shouldn't have left - he should turn around right now and go back, the Danes would never know, Holland would never know.

No, he would. He'd know. 

He should turn around.

He should turn around, go back to Rhy, and tell him he was sorry. 

Kell turned away from the throne room, sliding the coat off and folding it over one arm, heading for the kitchens. He felt like metal dredged up from a shipwreck, rusted over and crumbling. He needed something to eat. He needed to sleep , and then he'd ask Holland again, and Holland would let him have more time.

He was sure of it.

He would go back. He could apologize to Rhy for leaving, his brother would forgive him like he always did. He'd apologize to them both, and there was still plenty of time-

He heard the crack echo down the hall and his head jerked up, eyes widening. He pushed the kitchen door open to find the Mindless cook frozen in the corner, blank eyes staring at nothing like a puppet with cut strings, while Astrid Dane, in a shirt and skintight pants both identical shades of our white, stood with her back to him looking down at Beloc.

Her hand was still up - Beloc's face was red on one side, with a slice across his cheekbone where she'd cut him with one of her rings, a coiled serpent with emerald eyes and sharp fangs, its tiny head smeared with the boy's blood.

There was a broken plate on the floor, a mess of buttered brown bread and some sort of cheese. A cup was overturned on its side, dripping sweet mead. 

"You are lying," Astrid Dane said in a low and deadly voice. "You are lying, sang varmere, and I do not suffer my brother's forgotten lying whore to live."

"What is he lying about?" Kell asked, keeping his voice calm, careless and even, only through supreme effort. 

Astrid, to her credit, showed no sign of surprise. She turned around to look up at him as though she'd known he was there all along. A thin silvered circlet held a faded black stone that settled in the center of her forehead. "Antari. Is that how you greet your queen?"

Kell licked his lips, setting the books down on the preparation table next to him, going down to one knee without waiting to be commanded, lowering his head. "My apologies," he said, softly.

"That is not what I meant, although I always appreciate the sight of a handsome man on his knees for me."

He looked up, confused, and she smiled, a thin cruel expression devoid of affection, and tapped one long white finger against her lips. 

He stood, and for a second he thought he just… couldn't. He couldn't, not with the sense of Holland's kiss still on him, not with the image of Lila Bard's mussed-up dark hair wearing Rhy's nightshirt still on his mind.

As always, the Danes were not interested in what he would do, only in what they could make him do. 

There was nothing to force him to obey her but fear and the knowledge that if he gave away Holland's secret, it would give up the single advantage they might have to find a way out of this.

So he stepped forward, let her slide her fingers into his red hair, leaned down to feel the press of her soft, ice-cold lips on his as he tightened his hands into fists until it hurt, wondering if Rhy felt it, too, if this counted as pleasure they shared. "Your Majesty," he murmured into her mouth, and felt the shiver go straight through her.

"Good boy." She said it in a heavy breath of air, pulling back from him only reluctantly, letting a finger curl into the ring at his throat. "You have excellent timing, my flower boy."

Not yours, Kell thought. Not yours. His. Holland's.

"My brother's whore has been too spoiled by Holland's generosity," Astrid said languidly, the cold coming from her in waves where she stood next to Kell. 

He would have killed her here and now, but Holland's rune on his back would not let him. Holland had given the command that he could not hurt them while he still had on the bloody cross, that first day. 

Holland would have to take it back, rescind the order, and what he was waiting for, Kell didn't know.

I shouldn't have left.

If you'd stayed, she would have killed Beloc before you came back.

What do you want more? Time to drink with your brother or time to step in and save Beloc? When it was Holland, you chose to turn your back every single time. 

"In what way does he lie?" Kell kept his voice as light as he could. The two of them looked at Beloc, who had not moved, his whole body trembling visibly with the need to get away but unable to go unless Astrid allowed it. 

"I did not lie, " Beloc ground out, a trickle of red running down from the cut on his face like a tear. His voice was shaking, but whether that was the fear or the anger talking, Kell didn’t know. Stay angry, Beloc. "I did not lie to her Majesty. I do not - I cannot - lie to my queen."

"Be silent," Astrid said, "until you are spoken to. Put your eyes on the floor, sang varmere. "

Kell all at once loved Beloc for the defiance still in his gaze, in his mind, even as his body bowed under the order and obeyed.

Maybe we are friends, he thought. Or family. My family has never been about shared blood, after all.

How strong the people in this world were, stronger than Red London. Even Beloc, a boy who had been dragged away from his family and thrown into the worst sort of slavery could still smile when he read a story he liked or thought of a joke.

That same boy, covered in the scars of what Athos had done to him, came running into Holland's room to hug him. Beloc, who had washed the blood from Kell's back and who still ate with one arm instinctively curled around his plate, had steel under his sweetness.

"There is magic in this room," Astrid said, sliding a cold, cold hand up and around the back of Kell's neck. "Magic that doesn't belong here. Magic I want to drink. He tells me he doesn't feel it. Isn't that the lie you are telling, træl?"

"I feel nothing I have not felt before." Beloc mumbled the words to the floor. "I told my queen, I am the only one with a mind in this room when she entered it."

"Can't you feel it, flower boy? Can't you feel that he is lying?" She moved in front of him, leaning her back against his chest, the ice of her nearly overwhelming. At the same time she pulled his head down until his lips brushed her shoulder, against the thick knit cloth of her white shirt. 

Disgust and fear, a sick drop to his stomach - that was all he felt with her. Thank the saints he felt none of the desire that wrapped him up in Holland.

There was magic here, and far more than Beloc had on his own. Kell could feel it, half-trained and laced with fear, so thick it was nearly a physical presence alongside them.

It felt like his own had, once upon a time, before he'd learned how to use it, to control it, when power had burbled and boiled in his veins, wanting out. Beloc didn’t have magic like this; his was weak, a hint of metal-magic that he could barely call on to control a blade even when he bled. She was right. Beloc was lying - or rather, telling half-truths, the only kind of lie he could still tell. He was hiding something... and he'd been ready for Astrid to kill him rather than admit to it.

Kell swallowed against the lump in his throat, and then he said out loud, “It’s mine.”

Beloc visibly jumped in surprise. 

“It’s yours? ” The queen raised one delicate silver-white eyebrow, pulling away and looking up at him with her head slightly tilted. 

“Yes.”

"You cannot lie to me."

Yes I can.

"I was trying to take the rune off my back," Kell said, as if admitting to a sin. Behind him, Beloc looked up through the curtain of his hair and Kell saw his eyes dance to the side to the door to the servant’s staircase and then back, nervously. "I thought there wasn’t any chance you would come here and catch me at it, and besides, it’s not like the cook could tell.” 

He gestured to the cook, still standing bonelessly in the corner, waiting to be told to get back to work, nothing behind her watery gray eyes.

"This doesn't feel like your magic," Astrid said, a note of doubt in her voice. But she thought he could not lie to her, and Kell looked at her with an empty face he thought Holland would have been truly proud of.

“I’ve never used bone magic before,” Kell said, and that was true enough - it was forbidden, the worst kind of illegal, a death sentence to compel another person to do your will. All the books on compulsion magic were kept locked away in the Sanctuary, and Tieren Serense wore the key to the vault around his neck at all times. “I’ve never even learned it. No one in Arnes but healers knows anything about bone magic, and even they… they can’t use it like this. I don’t know what I’m doing - that’s what you feel.”

His heart was pounding, bashing against his ribs, and Rhy’s beat nearly in time. Believe me, his heartbeat begged. Believe me, believe me, believe me.

"Only a weak world would not let the strong rise." She looked up at him for another long moment, and then moved past him into the doorway. “Come with me, flower boy.” Beloc was forgotten, just like that, and Kell shot him the faintest hint of a smile as he turned to follow her. 

He heard Beloc whisper, “Tak, ” and it was worth it; it had been worth it to come back early, to have seen Rhy and Lila like that, if only because he’d come back in time for Beloc.

He saw the door to the servant’s staircase begin to creak open and Beloc turning to face it just before he closed the kitchen door behind him. 

What - who - is he hiding in there?

“Why aren’t you in Arnes?” Astrid asked, her boots stepping swiftly and silently. His own seemed deafeningly loud by comparison. “You opened a door today; Holland has already made his report and been dismissed. You should be in your own world, not trying to do impossible things here.”

Being alone with Astrid Dane was like walking into a viper’s nest naked, standing with your arms out and praying it would not bite. 

Kell had no gods to pray to, and he would have been too tired to pray if he had any.

“I chose to return early,” He said honestly. He wanted nothing but sleep now - he had the beginnings of a headache from how badly he wanted to sleep, the pressure that felt like his mind was being compressed to a single need.

But she wanted him to walk with her, and so he did, fighting the urge to simply lay down on the stone floor right here.

“Your brother will be heartbroken,” Astrid said, and for a half-second she even sounded like she cared. They moved into the grand throne room, Kell trailing her like the red setter puppy Athos had called him, coat still folded over his arm. “How could you do such a thing to him, when he gives up so much to see you?”

Kell stopped, not sure he'd even heard her correctly. “What does he give up?”

Astrid looked at him over her shoulder as she moved up to her throne, resting a hand on the white stone arm of it. Lying there, untouched since she had last been here, was a small blade with a hilt wrapped in cloth-of-gold. “Nothing just yet. Soon enough, much more. Come here. Bleed for me.”

He climbed the stairs to the throne himself, then hesitated. “You have no goblet."

“I won’t need one. You walk like a different man than you did this morning. Holland tells me that your back healed when the doors opened.”

“The wounds closed,” Kell replied carefully. “But...” Holland had pulled his sweater off over his head and the bandages had been pulled with it, stuck to the cloth by dried blood. The two of them were drowning in each other and in the power that had opened the door, the black stone held in a shared grip, magic combined along with blood and nerves. The black magic had gone back and forth between them, smeared like paint across face and neck and chest, sinking under their skin like stones slipping under the water. Kell’s mind and his mouth and his will were too lost in Holland’s to separate and he had no idea what sounds he had made, he hadn’t been thinking of anything but the way his skin was on fire everywhere the other Antari’s fingers traced. 

Holland had turned Kell over, almost roughly but not quite, the side of his face pressed into the soft bed of flowers underneath, looking at the back of one hand and seeing veins that were pure black against pale skin. His hand looked carved and not real, and the magic in the black stone whispered that he could have this, be this, feel this forever. That was when they’d realized there was no pain, and Holland had looked at Kell’s back, really looked, and- 

Kell cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably as even remembering made him feel the stirrings of it again. “It healed the wounds, but I am scarred now.”

Vitari did that - and magic does nothing without a balance, a cost. Especially here.

“Good. Athos will appreciate that, and if you had not, I would order you whipped again. My brother likes to see the evidence of his artistry.” She smiled, wistfully, an expression of pure and genuine love - the way he hoped Rhy smiled when thinking of him, although with fewer shared corpses. “I deny my brother nothing he wants. Pick up the knife, Kell.”

He could not hurt her and any disobedience would last only as long as it took them to figure out he wasn’t bound to their orders, only Holland’s. He reached out to take the knife where it laid, still, on the arm of her throne, only to have her fingers close slowly around his other wrist and hold it.

She looked right into his eyes. “I don’t suppose I need to hurt you to make you kneel to me now,” She said in a low, husky voice, not quite a contented rumble. She and Athos were very nearly identical when she pulled her hair back like this, wore a shirt that fit so loosely. 

“No,” He replied, and held very, very still. He’d stood like this before. He’d been free, then - or as free as he’d ever been, as property of the Arnesian monarchy - and they’d kept him for drinks and then let him leave, sent him stumbling drunk through the streets of Maktahn London and watched him go. 

Sanct, he was tired. 

"You don’t need to hurt me," He said softly. "Not anymore."

“And yet,” She replied, “I want to. Why do you leave your brother alone when you had a chance to see him again? Kneel.”

He went down on both knees, looking up at her sitting on her throne, waiting as she held his wrist in fingers that never, ever warmed to match his heat. What lie could he tell that would be believable? “My brother would struggle to hide me, this time,” He said quietly.

“Because of the girl who all but lives in his room now?”

“What?” He looked up, eyes widening, to catch the amused smile on her face. He thought of Rhy, in the garden when they were children, sing-songing I know something you don’t know. The look on her face was just the same. “What girl?”

“Delilah Bard.” She let one finger move, fingernail just barely scratching, at the inside of his wrist. “He calls her Miss Bard, or just Lila. Isn't that the scrap of a thing who shot me when I wore your brother? I thought her voice sounded familiar. I’ve heard so many of the sounds she makes by now…”

“Yes.” He was too surprised to lie to her. “Y-you don’t hear… but I would know if they had-”

“Would you?” Astrid asked, raising her eyebrow. She was so good at that. His head pounded with exhaustion and for a second, Kell doubted himself - would he know? “I know what you and your brother share. If he wanted to hide it from you, all he would have to do is wait until you’re… busy with my Holland, hm?”

“I-...” His voice trailed off, as her finger continued to scratch, the barest bit at the unmarked skin, the faintly-visible dark blue veins on the inside of his wrist. “No. I would still know…”

Wouldn’t he? 

Except that when he’d spoken the command to combine with Holland earlier, Rhy and Lila had clearly slept together, and Kell hadn’t felt it - he’d been too far under the water with Holland, too completely subsumed under his control, and he hadn’t felt a thing from Rhy until afterward. Not even his heartbeat.

And they used As Convenit in bed all the time, he and Holland - because Holland wanted control and Kell was tired of trying to hold onto it.

“No,” Kell said, trying to make his voice firm. This was a game, and he was exhausted, bone-tired, of losing to the twins. “I won’t believe you. Not when it’s my brother-”

“Did he deny it, then?” She looked genuinely curious.

Kell hesitated. “No, but he didn’t have time-”

“You gave him none, because you did not want to hear him lie. Isn't that true?"

Rhy had looked embarrassed, and unhappy, and Lila’s face had been bright red. Astrid was right - he hadn’t exactly asked, but they hadn’t denied it, either, and Rhy had seemed so eager to get out of his room when the guard came to the door…

"It's not true," Kell repeated, but his voice - and resolve - had weakened.

“Would you like proof?” Astrid asked.

“How could you possibly have proof of that?” His heart was beating hard, and Rhy’s beat alongside it. He was so tired , and something about being so tired made it harder to push back at her. He wanted to know, and he didn’t. He had no claim on Lila Bard, she was not obligated to wait for him. But until today he hadn’t thought Rhy ever could, and now he knew that As Convenit affected his brother as strongly as it did him…

“I’ve been listening for years. I was listening today.” Astrid smiled at him, all sympathy and concern for him. “I just thought I wouldn’t get to tell you until tomorrow night. I was hoping to have Athos and Holland for an audience, but we can do this alone just as well.” She snapped her fingers without looking away from Kell’s eyes, holding his warmer blue and solid black with her own glacial ice-chip color. From the corner of his eye he saw a servant enter. “Bring me the lytteenhed.

The servant turned and left, and neither Kell nor Astrid had ever looked at them for a moment. “Cut yourself, Kell,” Astrid said softly. “I think I’d like a drink while we wait.”

“But how will you-”

“We needn’t dirty a glass, flower boy. Just cut.”

This at least was easy; a blade across the wrist to bring forth a bit of blood was nearly second nature to Antari, and his gaze never even dropped. His knees were beginning to hurt on the stone dais but he held himself there, watching the line of red well up under the blade, obscenely vibrant in faded Makt.

Astrid quickly pulled his wrist to her mouth and simply pressed her lips to it. Kell’s stomach heaved at the feel of her tongue against his skin, cold as ice, hard as glass. He thought of his dream, of his mouth filling with blood that she drank when she kissed him and then her brother turning his bleeding mouth to his, and closed his eyes as hard as he could against a sudden sense of unreality, against the feel of magic and life draining from him into her. 

He was so tired, and this only made it worse. He had lost so much blood and used so much magic in the past few days, and he had so little of each left to give.

When she was done, she pulled back and away, and Kell didn't even bother to try and find something to staunch the blood. He just let it run onto the white stone.

She didn't seem to mind, only glanced down at it, a smile slowly curving her lips, and moved one boot out to press into the droplets, smearing red across the floor. "A little blood to join the bones," She murmured.

The servant returned, some object held in one hand. Astrid took it from his hand and showed it to Kell - a perfect sphere with a single rune carved into its top. "The lytteenhed. A listener. When linked up to a sister device, you can listen and save the words for later. You've had one for years now and never knew."

"You planted a listening device in my room?" Kell's eyes widened and he stared at it in horror. "For… for how long? How?"

"Years," She said, and her eyes were a brilliant light he could not stand.

"How many?"

Fuck. Had she heard him talking to Rhy? Had she listened when he returned from White London drunk or half-drunk and complained about them to Rhy, when he… talked about Holland? Had she heard him alone in his room at night, sometimes, murmuring the name of the person he imagined?

"Unimportant. I planted one in Rhy's room, too. Listen." She pressed her finger to the top of the rune, and Kell saw blood from her finger, a darker red than true blood, nearly black and thick as oil, slowly fill it up.

He's gone, Kell heard Rhy's voice say heavily, clear as if his brother stood right next to him. He's gone, and I never got the chance to tell him.

Kell jerked forward instinctively. "Wh-what-"

"Ssshhhhh," Astrid said, eyes twinkling in awful merriment. 

Still think he's not an idiot? Lila's voice was a knife, and Kell stared into the sphere as though if he looked hard enough, he might see her, too. He ran away from us. Goddamn coward.

Silence yourself before you ever again slander Kell or curse him. He didn't run from us. Let me tell you something about my brother, Rhy said, all but snapping the words. He has always excelled at running away from himself most of all.

He should have let us tell him. He could hear Lila pacing, hear her clipped walk back and forth, voice fading and growing louder as she moved. I would feel better if he knew.

I know, but it's too late for that, isn't it?

I suppose. The fucking idiot. If he'd just let us explain it to him-

Well, he didn't. The sound of liquor being poured into a glass. A pause. A second glass. So what do we do now?

I don't know. I don't give a damn, I don't owe him anything. We were barely friends, let alone-

I know, Miss Bard, but he is my brother and I let him down today.

You didn't. 

I did. One does not need to intend harm to inflict it. No matter our intentions, when he saw us, he was hurt. He left because he didn't know what to do with that pain. The pain I caused him.

What do you mean?

A pause. Do you have siblings, Miss Bard?

Lila. And no, I don't, Your Highness.

Please, Lila. I am Rhy to you.

The tender affection in Rhy's voice was a lance through Kell's sluggish brain. His heart had slowed to a dull thud, knocking around the inside of him. "None of this is proof," he protested, although the words came out a little empty.

"And yet you know the truth without needing it spelled out, don't you?" Her voice was low and melodic. She wasn't the snake - she was the snake charmer.

"The truth?"

My brother means the world to me, Lila. I can't stand the idea that I have caused him pain, even if I didn't mean to.

We did nothing wrong, Rhy.

He doesn't think we did. He thinks he did something wrong, because to Kell Maresh there is no bad outcome that cannot be laid at his feet.

That's a shit way to go through life.

Welcome to life as prince and property of the crown of Arnes. Rhy's voice was bitter. He's been well-educated in the art of blaming himself.

"You are to blame, after all."

We didn't do anything we haven't been doing, Rhy. Nothing changed today!

I know, Lila. How can I possibly apologize? He can't hear me unless he's in physical pain and it could be days-

"You can hear him?" Astrid asked, and he saw new interest light up her eyes. "When you feel pain?"

"No, that's-"

Sanct.

"Interesting." She pressed her finger back to the top of the little sphere and Lila's voice cut off halfway through an answer Kell never heard. "How much do you hear? Words? Thoughts? Environmental sounds?"

"Nothing! I don't hear-"

"Ah, and now who is lying to his queen?" Astrid held out her hand and he gave her the knife, staring at her with dawning horror. "Does he hear what others say, too? Will he hear me?"

"Y-you- he doesn't hear anything-" Rhy's heart sped up alongside his as Astrid slowly turned his hand over so his palm faced the sky.

"Pain," She mused, trailing the point of the knife in little circles around his palm, not quite cutting. "Pain, and pleasure, and… words. You share all three." 

She jammed the blade of the knife straight through his hand with no warning and Kell heard his own voice echo as he cried out, bouncing off the high stone walls, slamming back into his mind like rocks.

She pulled him to her even as she twisted the knife, her grip on him too strong, inhumanly strong. Pain laced up his arm like a current of lightning and Rhy's heart beat with his in perfect time.

He could hear Rhy scream alongside him in his safe world. He heard an exclamation - maybe Emira? Was that her voice? Was it dinner already in Arnes?

I miss you, Kell thought wildly, wishing the only mother he'd ever known, or at least could remember knowing, could hear him. I'm so sorry I did this to him, I'm so sorry, I'm so so sorry, you wanted me to die for him and I couldn't even do that right-

Astrid leaned over and bit down on Kell's earlobe, hard enough to hurt, the flash of me pain was nothing compared to the rest. In a throaty, seductive voice, she said, "Do you enjoy a bit of pain, Prince? I am altering the offer I made you. The next time you see your brother will be the first time you see me… and I intend to test your… limits. Tell your father that he can stare into the doors all he wants, he'll never see the one I'm coming through."

She smiled at Kell, and he thought he had made a grave mistake in planning for Athos's violence but forgetting that Astrid loved to break her toys, too. "Do you think he heard that?" 

When Kell did not answer right away, she twisted the knife again. 

"I asked you if you thought he heard me ."

"Y-y-yes, he heard, Sanct, he heard-"

“Good,” Astrid said softly. She pursed her lips in a mockery of sympathy. “Your poor hand. Holland will be so upset that I've hurt you. My beautiful cursed man, he has fallen so hard for you."

"He's w-what?"

"Shush, flower boy. We'll be speeding things up a bit from here on out. You won't go home until I am ready for my grand debut , as they say in your London. That's plenty of time for the two of you, isn't it?" She pulled the knife out with a flourish and Kell's own blood spattered across his face. He flinched, and she kicked him square in the chest with her heavy boot, sending him flying backwards, head smacking hard into the stone floor.

He laid there, head spinning, struggling to move, listening with growing dread as she stood and walked, with deliberate slowness, until she stood beside him.

Holland's order burned - he didn't have to obey but he couldn't hurt her, not yet.

Not yet.

Astrid kicked him hard in the stomach and he curled over himself, coughing in airless gasps. " That is for keeping secrets from me."

She walked in a circle. Her voice was breathless with an ecstasy that bordered on obscene lust.

Her boot connected with his back and he put his hands up over his head, just trying to cover what he could, even as she kicked a third time at his shoulder. " Those are for trying to take my Holland's mark off!" Her voice was nearly a moan.

More circling.

Another kick. Another and another. "This is for every time I let you walk away when I could have had you." He couldn't breathe, his throat felt closed up with fear, and Rhy's fingers were gripped onto his like steel.

I love you, he thought desperately to his brother, pouring all of himself into it, every drop of who he was, what he and Rhy were to each other. I love you and you're my brother and this is all my fault, that you must feel this, too. 

I love you, too, Kell. Rhy's voice was strong. The metal-toed boot connected with his injured hand where he'd curled it over to protect his hand and he groaned, not even able to find the air to scream. I never did anything with Lila, I swear, she slapped me-

I don't care, Rhy, you don't have to say that, you don't, I love you, I'm so sorry-

"Gods be praised, " Astrid said, pausing, sounding like a woman who had met her match in bed and not one kicking the life out of a man on the floor of her throne room. "I haven't had such fun in years. "

Brothers first before anything else, Kell.

Brothers first, Rhy.

"Get up," Astrid said imperiously, and Kell dragged himself slowly to his feet, hunched until he was nearly her height, staring at the ground. He could have counted on fewer fingers the parts of him that weren't in pain.

She moved up to him, taking his chin in her hand. He hadn't realized his lip was busted until she licked the blood from the cut, cold saliva stinging the wound. "You're beautiful," She said softly. "I like my lovers bleeding."

"I am not your lover," Kell replied. His voice was weaker, more strangled with pain, than he wanted it to be. 

"No. You are my possession."

"I'm Holland's," he countered, and tried on a thin, mean smile that only wavered a little as it pulled the cut in his busted lip. "Not yours."

" Hm . Are you grateful for his small mercies, Kell?" 

"Does that matter?"

"Do you want him?"

"You know the answer. This was all your plan, wasn't it?"

" Nej, lille prins. This was Holland's plan, too."

"What?" 

"Ask him," she breathed, "what he said when I offered to give you to him. Ask him what he wanted to do with you. You're dismissed, flower boy."

He pulled away from her grip, turned, and walked with dragging steps out of the throne room, body struggling to start healing with so little blood left. His ribs lit up with every breath, stabbing pains mostly on his left side. His hand would scar, it was still dripping as he walked, a pat pat pat sound that matched his steps.

What is a man without scars? Athos was right. I have been soft. Holland endured this for seven years and I haven't even lived it for one.

" As Hasari ," he tried, but the magic would not come. He had nothing left.

If Holland wasn't awake he would wake him up. To be healed, yes, but also he wanted nothing more than to be dragged under to the place where he didn't think again, and there was only one person here who could give that to him.

Rhy be damned - he was already feeling his pain. Might as well give him something else, too. Right now, he didn't care. He just wanted to wake Holland up and ask was she lying when she said you've fallen for me? Was she lying when she said that doing this to me was your plan, too?

Did they force you to take me to be hurt, or did you want me like this from the start?

Do you actually like me?

He didn't know what he wanted the answer to be.

He saw Beloc lingering in the shadows by the stairs and turned the full force of his bruised face on the boy, the blood dripping to the floor. Beloc didn't flinch, but then he wouldn't, would he? He'd seen worse in the mirror and still smiled when offered kindness.

"Don't go to Holland's room tonight," Kell said wearily. "Not until tomorrow evening. I left some books for you in the kitchen. I want to talk to you but... I need him tonight. Understood?"

Beloc only nodded, and Kell began climbing the stairs, still clutching his very peculiar coat.

Chapter Text

Talya hadn't even noticed his eye at first, she told him later. The first thing she had noticed, when she caught sight of the dark-haired man reaching for a stein of the juniper mead at the Scorched Bone (back when juniper berries were easier to get ahold of, before you could only buy them for medicine, and even then at a price higher than most could pay), was his sleeve riding up, just a little, revealing a perfectly unscarred, heavily muscled forearm and wrist.

“I’d never seen a grown man without trapping scars before,” She told him, lying next to him in the little bed that barely fit them both, the bed that had been his favorite place on earth right up until he’d lost her.

Until she tried to kill him, but that hadn’t happened yet, and he didn’t want to think about it.

His hair had been darker, then; he was younger. In Makt you faded with time, and age, and use of what little magic might naturally run through your veins. Although Holland’s well of magic never ran dry, the rest of the world still leeched the color from him, minute by minute, breath by breath. As though his world were trying to save itself by consuming the people who lived in it.

He would fade faster once the Danes got ahold of him. Here, with Talya, his hair had been not quite as black as when he was a child, but still darker than nearly everyone else he'd ever met.

What the world took from them wasn't enough. One life could never be enough, no matter whose life it was - and neither could thousands of lives. This world was still dying, and Holland’s most unrealistic dream was that he might grow old in it.

Her hair fell in a curtain across him, brushing his chest, and he smiled, lifting a hand to cup the side of her face with his palm. “I thought I was being careful,” He said, a little teasingly. “But you found me out, sure enough.”

“I did, but I’ve always had sharp eyes - you should’ve asked my mumma, when she still lived. She’d’ve told you.” Talya’s smile - and the light in her eyes - never faded. She reached out to ruffle his hair, mussing it up, ignoring his half-hearted protest. “Sharp enough to catch out the handsome underneath that mop, me.”

“Sharp enough to catch sight of the eye, anyway,” He countered, and she shrugged, lazily. The room for once wasn’t cold - maybe it was summer, he wasn’t sure any longer. The seasons grew colder every year, but for a while when he was young, it had seemed like they were closer to what he’d read about in old books, where some months were truly warm and only a few had the bone-deep freeze Makt often took for granted as eternal.

Cold all year, and growing colder.

“I did see the eye,” She admitted finally. “I did see it and know it for what it was. We’ve all heard about the demons-”

“Antari,” He said softly. “Magt-users. Don’t call me a demon, Tal. I get that often enough in the street, I hate to hear the word from you.”

“Sorry. I forget you don’t like that, I’ve never heard your kind called anything else, really. Ooooh, my papa would have had quite the fit to see me shacking up with one, hm?” She chuckled at the thought, a dreamy look in her dark eyes. “My mumma saw the last one, when she was still alive.”

“When your mother was still alive?”

“Ja. Mumma and the de-... the Antari, both. Fearsome as a wild bear, she always said, and nearly feral for being hated and hunted. I don’t know what a bear looks like, but it must be frightening for her to have said it.”

“I’ve seen a bear,” He said, and when she jerked upright to look down at him in surprise, he laughed. “Don’t make that face. I just meant that I saw a drawing of a bear in a book. They’re like big dogs, sort of. But with these sort of odd small heads and… almost hands.” He waggled his fingers before her face, and she grabbed his hand and kissed the tips, thumb forefinger middle ring and pinkie, one by one. He watched with hitched breath as she bit, just the slightest gentle bit, on his thumb.

Kell bit his thumb like that, sometimes, and it lit up every nerve in his arm until he couldn’t stop himself from making sounds while the black-and-blue eyes fixed on his, watching his reaction, learning him even after he’d stopped commanding him to.

Wait. There wasn’t any Kell, yet. 

There wasn’t any boy with serious halting book-learned Maktahn that hardly sounded like his language at all, there wasn’t any spoiled rich rotten prince to stare at his slavery with indifference, there wasn’t a Kell beaten and battered on the ground before him, wrapped in chains of magic, to be brought before the Danes. There wasn’t yet a screaming younger man twisting under the knife and the ink as he carved obedience into him with Athos breathing on his neck. There was no Kell kneeling before him with his head tilted back, blindfolded with torn strips of his own clothing and his mouth open, shivering in a way he thought Holland didn’t notice.

There wasn’t a Kell yet to wrap arms around his neck and moan into his ear, You are still worth saving.

All of that came later. 

Here, in this moment, there had been Talya, and the love he had felt for her… and she had never loved him at all, had she?

“Do you know what I thought when I first saw you?” She said brightly. “At the Bone? Do you know my very - my absolute first - thought about you, Holl?”

“Was it ‘that man badly needs a shave’?” He grinned when she threw her head back and laughed; the sight of her bared throat when she did that made him want to kiss it, to grab her by the hair and pull her back down to him. He settled for poking the end of her nose with his finger.

She laughed and swatted his hand away “Stop that, you silly thing! And no, I didn’t notice you needed a shave until you kissed me later. The first thing I thought was, ‘he looks so strong’, and that’s Yggrad’s honest truth, that is.”

“You must have been so disappointed when you got to know me and realized I wasn’t strong at all.” 

“You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met, you fool,” She said with a snort, and when he rolled his eyes, the laughter left her face and for a moment she was serious. He blinked at her red hair and warm, light blue eyes, the faintest hint of freckles but only a hint. Freckles he’d made a study of with lips and fingers and tongue. “Holland, you are . You’ve been through so much already and you still wanted to love me, you still trust me. You’re worth saving, don’t you think? I still want to save you.”

He swallowed, feeling an odd sense that something was wrong - Talya didn't have red hair, did she? No, and her eyes weren't blue, either - but in this tiny two-room apartment with Talya’s warm body lying flush against his, her hand sliding over his chest to wrap around his side, leaning in to kiss him, it was hard to figure out not only what was wrong, but to even convince himself he should care.


Each step Kell took up the stairs woke up a new pain He catalogued them as he went, teeth ground together to keep himself from making so much as a sound. Astrid was still down in the throne room listening, he had no doubt of it, gloating over the sprays of blood smeared around the floor, the droplets that trailed his slow limping walk out of the room, around the corner, to the stairs that went up to the wing that Holland had lived in alone until they’d made him a slave.

If he made a sound, she would hear and have something else to gloat about.

So Kell pressed one hand to his bruised rib to try and quiet some of the ache with pressure, took a deep breath and winced against the spike of pain that caused, and forced himself up the next step in silence.

Is it still worth it? He asked himself, going up one more step. Are you still glad that you came back early? 

He had to cough, and he didn’t dare, because there wasn’t a muscle or bone he might need to use for coughing that wasn’t bruised or broken. She had aimed her kicks too well. How many people had she kicked, that she knew how to aim like that even when she’d been half-mad with… desire? The simple joy of causing pain to someone who could not fight back? Sheer fucking madness?

They were mad, the both of them, and he’d lied to save Beloc’s skin only to sacrifice his own.

Was it worth it, Kell? Do you enjoy becoming a whipping boy for some servant you’ve only known for a month?  Rhy felt all that, you know. I hope you felt noble making Rhy live through that. You're only supposed to care about Rhy. Beloc won’t live much longer anyway, what good does it do to draw it out like this?

That was unfair. That was unfair, and unkind, and Kell was a coward for even thinking something like that. That was Emira talking, the endless cycling around Rhy, around what Rhy needed, protecting Rhy, never ever ever letting himself look away from his brother to see if anyone else might need help, too.

Rhy wasn't made of porcelain, and Kell wasn't heartless.

“Only a bastard would wish a boy dead to save himself a beating,” Kell muttered. He had to pause, a little light-headed, wishing he had any magic left to heal himself - or at least the usual amount of blood. His heart was pounding trying to pump what thin liquid was left through his body, and he nearly missed the next step.

He coughed, and the pain that lanced along his ribs made him grab out for a railing, find nothing, fall forward and catch himself on the stone steps, where he stayed, giving himself a chance to rest.

A snapped rib, probably. He’d have bruises across his stomach by morning. His head pounded, his hand was still dripping blood from the cut on his wrist and the open wound through his palm where she’d driven the knife. 

He didn’t care about the spilled blood. The Mindless servants would find it soon enough, and wipe it clean. They’d work diligently and quickly and never know they had done it because they were Mindless and knew nothing, absolutely nothing, at all.

Unless of course they did - he didn’t know. 

Maybe they were trapped behind those empty lifeless eyes, placid slightly-open mouths. Maybe someone was in there screaming let me out . Maybe she had a whole army of them standing silent and still in a barracks somewhere waiting to be called out, waiting and waiting and waiting in perfect silence and screaming inside themselves, endlessly, forever.

He couldn’t just stay here on the steps, it was making him too morbid, he was thinking too much. At least he wasn’t bleeding into his eyes this time; if Astrid had a thing for his ribs, Athos loved to see him with blood on his face.

One day Athos won’t care any longer about this thing they’ve decided with Holland, and he’ll lick the blood off your face himself. At least I have that; at least I’m not in the king’s bed, at least there’s that mercy.

“Piss-poor state of things, when you’re just grateful your captivity isn’t as bad as it could be,” Kell said to himself, just to make a sound, just for there to be some sort of sound .

He should have remembered she had a metal plate affixed to the front of all her boots. 

He made it up the stairs, finally, breathing in quick shallow breaths that made him dizzy, but at least they didn’t hurt. Rhy’s heart was just beside his, as always, and he closed his eyes to focus on the feeling. How quickly he’d gotten used to having two hearts to hear at all times; he was starting to wonder if he could remember life without knowing so immediately that his brother was all right, would always be all right, as long as Kell was.

As the pain flashed in and out, so did Rhy’s presence, the sense of a brother who stood by his side. 

If she had been too angry, you could have put him at risk. Just to help Beloc? Just for the sake of a Maktahn servant boy? You put Rhy’s safety at risk just for a White London slave who could’ve lived and died without you ever knowing his name, if it hadn’t been for this?

Was it worth it?

Shut the fuck up, Mother. It was.

The further he walked from the throne room, the slower he moved. Finally, finally he made it to Holland’s door, and he swayed just a little on his feet. He was exhausted, and in pain, and still bleeding. 

His magic was gone; he’d used it all up, and what he hadn’t used, Vitari had taken in exchange for the new, silk-soft scars lining his back, just like Holland’s. Holland called it Magt, but it was Vitari, and Vitari had given him a gift of healing but it hadn’t been a gift… it’d been a trade. New skin in exchange for nearly every bit of magic he'd had left in his body, and he could feel it returning so slowly he could have screamed.

He needed to sleep so badly. 

The door to Holland’s room opened easily under his hands, and Kell frowned, eyebrows furrowing. Holland always locked the door, even if it wouldn’t do any good, even if Athos would simply open the lock and enter anyway. Even though no one came in uninvited any longer.

Except today.

Kell stepped through, and felt himself relax, relieved to be the closest he would ever be to safe in this world. He looked around at the familiar piles of books on the table, at the empty glass Holland had left after he must’ve had a drink when he made it back.

His own bed along the wall, hardly used anymore; Holland mostly chained his wrists up to his bed, and he barely even noticed the manacles, slept with them on as easily as he’d ever slept in his bed back home.

Holland was asleep in his bed, his shirt on the floor in a rumpled mess along with his pants, boots set neatly next to the footboard. He could see his back, the top line of the scars just above the warm fur blankets. Charcoal hair against ash-black pillows.

Kell stared down at him, watching the slow movement of his back as he breathed, listening to the deep exhale, the nearly-silent inhale. How many times had he fallen asleep next to Holland, and he’d never heard him breathe like this?

He’d never seen Holland actually deeply asleep before.

How exhausted he must be, to sleep at all - how tired down to his bones, to sleep so soundly even when someone else was in the room, to not even shift around. Kell stepped closer, and closer, and finally leaned over, craning his head the slightest bit, to see the look of absolute peaceful serenity on a face that he had never seen express anything but contempt or sadness - or standing by the river and watching the world slowly come back to life, a kind of weary joy.

Kell reached out one hand as if to touch his shoulder, then pulled it back.

How many times had Holland collapsed here, only to be woken up by a king with a new torture for him to suffer through? 

Did Athos simply say his name, or did Holland come awake to a cold hand over his mouth, a voice in his ear, a mouth on his neck giving an order a sleeping body would obey without his consent?

How many times had he been woken from a dead sleep like that before Holland taught himself not to sleep, only to doze and jolt to sudden consciousness whenever anyone else so much as breathed in?

“I’m sorry,” Kell whispered, and Holland didn’t even move.

How long had he watched Kell come here and make nice with the monster that gave him no quarter, that cut and whipped and burned and bled him even when all he wanted was rest? There were visits he’d made when Holland looked tired, times when he’d come limping into the Maresh palace with a tightness in his jaw, an arm held tenderly against his side - once with an unconcealed black eye?

"I'm so fucking sorry."

I did nothing, and told myself it wasn’t my world, it wasn’t my business. I told myself Rhy was more important, I shouldn’t risk Rhy, I shouldn’t try to help because this world was not worth saving.

Just like with Beloc.

But I came back in time for him, and I can still save you, can't I?

No one is too far gone to save.

Astrid had told him to ask Holland what he had said when she offered Kell up as a gift, but he could imagine. He’d hate someone who simply watched him suffer, too. He’d have felt the rage and contempt he’d seen so often hiding in Holland’s empty face, would have wanted to turn that anger into some kind of revenge, however slight and small.

He could ask, and learn when Holland had learned to hate him. Had it been right from the start, when he was fourteen and Holland had snapped I am not like you and he’d nearly cried that night because he’d been so, so excited at the idea that there was another Antari to talk to? Had it been later, the first visit he’d made to the Danes, the first time they’d talked him into drinking too much wine and laughed like ghouls with Holland’s blood smeared on their teeth?

Had it been when he had looked away from the injuries, closed his eyes to the pain Holland was in, when he had gone on living bright and spoiled and smiling with Rhy?

He could wake him up right now and demand answers, knowledge, information.

He could ask, but that was Astrid’s game - to try and turn them on each other to make this hell an even colder one.

Kell was done playing her games. 

She rigged them, she cheated, and his only defense was to do the thing he had always been best at - choosing not to know. He was so tired, and he had no magic left, and he didn’t care what Holland had said, back then.

All that mattered was that the first time he’d left for any length of time, Holland had whispered I missed you, too, into his ear. What mattered was that he’d woken up to a nightmare and Holland had held onto him, even if just for a second, while he came back to the waking world, to life. What mattered was that he’d tried to open a door on his own, knowing the magic would boil in his veins and be corrupted, because he didn’t want Kell to be hurt anymore.

That was all the answer he needed as to what Holland thought of him.

Coming back early was worth it, to save Beloc from another beating or worse - and it was worth it to see what you look like, Holland Vosijk, when you stop trying to build a wall around yourself against the world.

Kell wandered away, pulling the sweater off as he went, tossing the bloodied blue thing to the floor, using his boot to sort of wipe up the occasional drip of blood with it. He found the gauze in a roll on the bookshelf where Holland kept it, the gauze and the little folded bits of faded cloth. It took a while, but gradually he managed to bandage himself, wrapping the gauze around and around and around up to his elbow, over the squares of cloth that pressed against the wounds to hopefully help them close.

Astrid’s brand of affection, he thought bitterly. He wondered if her lovers lived any longer than her brother’s did. 

He glanced one more time over his shoulder at Holland’s back. He still hadn’t even moved. He might be afraid of sleep, but even he had not been able to hold it off after opening the doors. If the king came now, Holland might not even wake up until Athos stood right next to him, whip unfurled, the slow scrape of it along the floor like a snake’s hiss.

Kell swallowed, then turned and walked over to the door. He slumped slowly back until he sat on the floor with his back against the door’s ancient, smooth-soft woodgrain. He pulled his knees to his chest, draped his arms across them, and slowly let his head drop forward, red hair falling over his eyes as they closed, letting his forehead gradually come to rest on his uninjured wrist. 

He was so tired, but he could guard the door, still. He could at least be an obstacle to slow the mad king down, make a racket, give Holland time to wake up and brace himself for the next round of hell, and the next, and the next. 

The older Antari in the other bed feared sleeping because he’d been taught to be terrified of the idea of someone coming in through that door when he wasn’t ready, wasn’t prepared to be hurt. 

Well, if they wanted to get to Holland, they would have to go through Kell.


“When I took you home,” Talya said, still smiling, but he couldn’t take his eyes off her red hair, the blue eyes, the freckles that settled, pale and barely-there, just along the bridge of her nose and up her cheekbones. “When I took you home the first night, I didn’t think you’d be any good.”

“That’s not exactly a compliment on my bed manners,” He said dryly, and earned himself a playful swat. He laughed, pulled her close, kissed his favorite freckle, the darkest one just below her eye-

Shouldn’t that eye be a different color? Wasn’t one blue and one black?

No. That was someone else, he didn’t know who, someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else. A person he didn’t know yet, blood that he hadn’t yet felt run alongside his like a river.

“I don’t mean it as an insult. I just mean… I’d been with men before,” She said, almost wistfully. “None of them could protect me for long, and none of them gave a damn about me in bed. But you did. You were so…”

“Kind?” He suggested when her voice simply trailed to silence.

“Yes, that. But also you were afraid of me, and no one had ever been afraid of me before.” 

“Afraid of you?” His eyebrows knit together, and she smoothed at them with one finger, and there, for just a second one of her eyes was just like his own, a solid black stone in her face. Then it was gone and they were both blue again. “Your eyes-”

“Ssshhhh,” She said gently. “You were. You were so afraid to be hurt - to be vulnerable. But after a while, you forgot to be afraid.”

“I was distracted, somewhat,” He murmured, and kissed into the side of her neck, let his tongue flick out, let his teeth graze her earlobe. She shivered, and he bit again, a little harder this time.

“No, Holl, I’m not the one who likes that,” She said, and pushed herself away, just a little. “Can’t you keep us straight?”

“What?”

“Never mind. You stopped being afraid, and I knew you could keep me safe, Holl. I’ve always been good at surviving, me, you ask my mumma and she’d tell you that. I was always the one who could find the safest spot in a squall. For a while, you… you were the safest place in the world for me.”

‘For a while?”

“Then you weren’t, any longer.” The smile still played at the corners of her mouth but it had gone wistful, a bit sad. “But for a while we were wonderful, Holl, you and I. For a while I thought you and I would ride out the storm together.”

He struggled to swim up out of sleep, and he thought he hadn’t slept like this in years. Had it been minutes? Hours? Days? 

He was so warm, underneath his blankets, and he was never warm. 

He heard a soft thump from somewhere else in the room and Holland’s mind went from lazily sleep-drunk to totally, completely awake in a split second and he sat up in bed, pushing himself up on his hands to stare at the door, where the noise had come from.

Kell Maresh was lying on his side on the floor in front of the door, had clearly simply passed out and fallen over like that, a graceless heap of bones and blood and skin.

Hvad fanden?” He said out loud, just barely above a whisper. “Kell? Min kæreste?” 

He was meant to be in the other London with his brother, fulfilling the agreement they’d made. Holland had genuinely hoped to simply sleep for the entire next day until it was time to call him back home. But here he was, lying shirtless on his side like a guard dog, curled up with his legs nearly to his chest and his left wrist out with palm facing up, wrapped clumsily in bandages he’d clearly put on himself one-handed. 

In fact, he hadn’t even put the roll of gauze away, it was still out - had rolled and fallen off the table, and a line of gauze trailed halfway to where Kell was currently lying.

Holland sighed, feeling exhausted still, and so old. 

It took him longer just to walk over to Kell than he’d expected, than it should have. He crouched down in front of him, feeling the ache in his bones that came with simply being so tired. He used to be able to shake off a sleepless night, he thought to himself, but every year it seemed a little harder, and a little harder still.

Talya’s face was still there when he closed his eyes, and as he crouched down next to the young Antari, it was clear the blue of her eyes in the dream, the red hair and the freckles, had been Kell’s and not hers. He could see his favorite freckle now, the one just a little darker than the other, just under his black eye.

Holland reached out and let his thumb graze the skin there, press just the slightest bit into that bit of brown skin within the pale.

Kell shifted, pulling his legs closer to himself, the fingers on his left hand twitching, and Holland jerked his hand back.

“Go sleep,” Kell mumbled, eyes cracking open just barely, then closing again. “I’ll be here. I’m here, Holl. Go back to sleep.”

“You’re meant to be in Arnes.” His voice was not as hard or emotionless as he would want it to be. It felt like he was looking at Talya as much as at Kell. “Why are you here? What happened?”

This close, he could see the bruises blossoming along his ribs, at his temple, could see a bit of red blood seeping through the bandage at his wrist and in his palm. For now the bruises were just beginning, but by tomorrow (today? How long had he slept?) they’d be ugly indeed. 

He knew the work of Astrid’s boots when he saw it; after all, his own ribs had looked like that more than once. 

“I came back,” Kell said, this time without even trying to open his eyes. There was a cut along his lip, right in the center, where it had been split. “I didn’t listen to Rhy when he said he didn’t, and I came back.”

Holland raised one eyebrow, slowly, but he kept silent. He could imagine well enough what Kell’s brother had been claiming not to have done - the prince had stood up to him stark naked, after all, and he’d seen the narrow-eyed girl wearing a man’s shirt and nothing else. Holland may not have had much experience in life that hadn’t involved violence, but he knew enough to know what he’d been looking at.

He did have to admit he’d been vaguely impressed by Rhy, defenseless and wearing nothing at all, managing to nonetheless appear completely unafraid.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kell said heavily. “It doesn’t. Go back to sleep.” The eyes opened again, a little more this time, and Kell smiled up at him, then winced as the motion hurt his lip. “I can watch the door for you.”

“You should come to bed, Kell,” Holland said, and he blinked in surprise at the gentleness in his own voice. “I don’t need you to guard the door.”

Kell shook his head. “I don’t want to wear the chains. Just let me sleep here.”

Holland hesitated, then slowly put out a hand and pushed a bit of red hair away from Kell’s eyes. “Don’t wear the chains, then.”

“What?” Black and blue eyes looking up at him in confusion, not Talya but Kell. Not a dream about what used to be, but the here and now. “I want you to feel safe-”

“I’m not afraid of you.” He let his fingers play over the black leather around Kell’s throat, finding the buckle at the back. He watched Kell close his eyes and swallow against the feeling as Holland unbuckled it and pulled it off of him. 

“You don’t like it, though,” Kell said softly, but he pushed himself up on one elbow and when Holland stood and held out his hand, Kell took it and used it to pull himself up, although Holland caught the wince and hiss of pain through his teeth. “You don’t like-”

“Vulnerability,” Holland finished for him. “You're right, but you could hardly fight a sparrow in your current state. I think I’m safe enough.”

I think I want someone in the bed with me, because I couldn’t stand to dream of her again and wake up alone.

“I should have tried to save you,” Kell muttered, letting Holland help him across the room ( why was he helping him, anyway? ), sliding into the bed already half-asleep. “I should have. There are books, in the Sanctuary, on bone magic, I should have demanded Tieren show me, I should have ordered him to let me know how to help you, and I never… I never even thought of it.”

There were books on bone magic in Arnes? On what Athos had done to him?

Holland went briefly very still standing next to the bed, and then he climbed back in himself. Kell was lying on his side with his back to him, and he could see the new scars from earlier, lashes across his back. He let his fingertips trace along one, wondering if his own scars felt like this to Kell’s fingers.

“I’ve been so fucking selfish, ” Kell groaned, the words just barely breathed out loud. “My whole world has. And there were people like Beloc here the whole time, people like Beloc and people like you, and we just left you to die. They teach us all we had to do it, but did we?”

“No,” Holland said quietly. “You didn’t.”

“But there are people like them, too.” Kell paused. “Would there be people like them, if we hadn’t?”

Holland said nothing, only trailed his fingers back and forth along the twenty-five new lines that ran from just under Kell’s neck to the lowest part of his spine. Some were barely there - they’d been little more than weals, welts rising from the skin, and newly-healed by the black stone they had held between them, the marks were already faded. In the center, where stripes had overlaid, the wounds had been deeper, and those scars were a bright and angry red. 

Five of those lines should have been his - he’d earned them by giving it away, giving away even the slightest hint that he had stopped hating Kell Maresh and… whatever it was he felt, it was something else entirely.

He’d earned five stripes for forgetting not to care - for the arrogance of assuming it mattered if he did - but Kell had been the one to take them.

“I don’t know what to do,” Kell said, softly, voice just slightly slurred.

“Sleep, Kell,” Holland said into his ear, kissing at the back of his neck from the nape to his shoulders, feeling Kell shiver just a little against him as he settled back. He bit at his earlobe, just a little, let his teeth just scrape the skin. “Right, you’re the one who likes that…”

“What?” Kell groaned, softly, but he didn’t pull away, or flinch. Holland swallowed against a mix of being pleased he’d learned so well to let himself be touched and self-loathing that he’d ever taught him that at all. “I can’t, I- it would hurt so much. Please...”

“I know. Just sleep. That’s all I want you to do. Sleep, for now. No chains. No collar. Just me.”

Do you ever let anyone actually know you? Talya had said the first night he’d met her, before she’d simply taken him by the arm and led him back to her home. 

Never, he’d replied, half-drunk and smiling as they stumbled home in the dark. For once he hadn’t been worried about the eyes that trailed along behind them, the whispered voices as they felt his magic in the air. I never let anyone know me.

Oh, how utterly dramatic. Are you even a real person? No one talks like that. Have you considered trying it out, sweet man?

Trying what out?

Letting someone know you, of course. Talya’s door had been hard against his back when she pushed him up against it, even as it opened and they all but fell inside, laughing and laughing at each other, laughing and finding their way to the bed, finding their way to each other. You might decide you like it, you know. You might want me to know you.

No one can really know me, he’d shrugged, but she’d been pulling his shirt off and the motion had sort of gotten the cloth stuck at his elbows, which had made them both laugh even harder