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Out of the Cold

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“Gods, ashke,” Stefen breathed as he allowed his weight to slowly collapse onto Vanyel's back. He brushed Van's hair to one side and nuzzled his face into his lover's neck. “Every time I begin to think things can't possibly get more perfect—”

“They do.” Van nodded, enjoying the afterglow of their lovemaking with his head resting on his folded arms, making sounds of appreciation as Stef kissed a line from below Van's ear to his shoulder. “I keep waiting for something to go wrong.”

“I figure that after all we've been through, maybe the Gods owe us something good.” Stef shrugged, not caring whether the aforementioned Gods might be offended by his statement.

Van sighed into the mattress. “I wish I could believe that, ashke.”

Stef shook his head at his lover's lack of optimism. “Van, you need to learn to relax.” He punctuated his statement with a kiss and a soft nip to Van's shoulder. At least, it was intended to be a soft nip. Expecting Van to pull away from his teeth, he lost his balance when Vanyel instead leaned into the bite. In an attempt to steady himself, Stef instinctively bit down harder as his hand sought the mattress to steady himself. Tasting copper, he quickly released Van's shoulder to examine it, making a small noise of dismay. There were a few small spots where the skin had broken, and it was already starting to purple in the impressions his teeth had left. He slid down to the mattress to lay on his side next to Vanyel. “Shite, I didn't mean to do that. I'm sorry, Van. That's going to bruise something awful.”

Van's hand sought Stef's, bringing it to his lips and kissing his fingers. “Stef, it's okay. I'm okay. Really.” He turned his face away and muttered something unintelligible into the mattress.

“Um, I didn't quite catch that.”

“It was nothing. Just forget about it.” Van was still looking away, his eyes on the blank wall to their right.

“It wasn't nothing, ashke. Look at me.” He waited until Van turned to meet his gaze. “I already feel bad for hurting you like that, even if it was an accident. If there's something else, I want to know.”

Van shook his head, looking down. “Let it go, Stef. I'm okay.”

“Van. Please.”

Van glanced up, and immediately looked away again. His ears started to turn pink with embarrassment as he muttered softly “I said that I'm so okay I'd like you to do it again.”

Stef's eyebrows shot up into his hair. He'd certainly been with men who enjoyed such things, but had not expected Vanyel to be one of them. Now that he thought about it, perhaps he should have. The Herald was always so tightly wound. “Liked that, did you?”

Van nodded, his blush deepening. “But, I mean, you don't have to do—Just forget I said anything.”

“I'm not forgetting anything. You know if I wasn't interested in something I'd say so. But, ashke—“ Stef rose up on his elbow and gently trailed his fingers down Vanyel's spine, smiling as his lover shivered under his touch. “I'm very, very interested.”

He leaned down and kissed the rapidly purpling mark on Van's shoulder, hearing his lover's breath catch as his lips touched the bruise. He moved over a few inches and began to lightly nibble, Vanyel groaning in anticipation. He increased the pressure a bit, gently teasing, and heard Van mutter something softly. “What was that, lover?”

“Harder.” Van took a breath and then added softly “Please.”

“Okay. But I need you to promise to tell me if it's too much.”

Van nodded, and Stef looked at him skeptically. “Your word, Herald.”

“You have it.” Van said firmly. “But—Gods, please don't tease. I don't think I can take anymore right now.”

“Understood. No more teasing.” Stef chuckled and whispered in his ear “At least, not tonight.” He felt Vanyel shudder as Stef moved toward the spot he'd been teasing a moment ago, biting firmly and gradually increasing the pressure until he heard his lover gasp. He held on for a few moments, listening to Van's ragged breathing until Stef slowly released him. “Too much?”

“No.”

“More?”

“Gods, yes.” Van breathed, then exhaling sharply as Stef bit deeply into the flesh below his shoulder blade, hard but taking care not to pierce the skin this time. Instead of simply holding on, Stef pulled away slightly, stretching the flesh away from his lover's body until Van whimpered. Stef began to ease off when he heard Van whisper “Please don't stop.”

He bit down until he heard Van react again, running his hand gently down Van's back and feeling the tension in the muscles quivering underneath him. “Relax, ashke. Let go.” Stef kissed his shoulder softly. “I'll catch you.”

“I know.” With those words, Stef could feel Van begin to relax for the first time Stef had ever seen as the Herald closed his eyes and surrendered to the sensations.

Stef gently caressed Van's back, the soft touch a sharp contrast to moments ago. “More?”

“Please.”

Several more bruises later, Van's whimpers had turned to soft gasps. Stef came close to drawing blood and backed off at the last moment, leaving behind a red mark that quickly began to turn a deep purple. “Doing okay, lover?”

Van nodded. “My head feels a little—” He searched for a word. “Floaty? Like I've had an extra glass of wine, but different somehow.”

“I know, ashke.” Stef kissed his shoulder softly. “Want to stop?”

“No.” Van shook his head and then closed his eyes a brief sensation of vertigo overtook him. “It's strange, but—” He reached for words that slipped out of his grasp. “Nice. Nice doesn't come close—”

“It's okay. Don't worry about the words right now.” Stef smiled and brushed Van's hair back from his face. “More?”

“Yes.” Van said softly, then hesitantly added “If that's okay?”

“It's very okay, lover.”

Stef checked in with Vanyel several more times as Van's gasps turned to contented sighs. He had since moved over to Van's other side, working his way back up to his shoulder opposite of the site of the inadvertent bite that had started all this. How different his shoulders felt now, the muscles soft and supple instead of the steel cables he had felt earlier. “Still with me, Van?”

“Mhmm.” Van murmured, eyes closed.

“Can you use your words for me, ashke?”

“Mhmm.” Van responded again.

Stef smiled, his hand wandering around the marks on Vanyel's back. “Did you hear they found a purple Companion?”

“Mhmm.”

“Oh, ke'chara.” Stef gently kissed the back of Vanyel's neck. “Just rest now.” He ran his hand up and down Vanyel's back, listening as his breath slowly grew long and even. Van's hair had fallen across his face again, and Stef brushed it back, marveling at seeing his lifebonded sleep without his jaw clenched and his shoulders tight with the weight of the kingdom resting on them. Stef kissed his forehead and gently pulled Van to his chest, his own eyes closing as he listened to Vanyel's soft breathing, slipping into sleep knowing for that moment everything was right in their world.

Stef awoke as he felt Vanyel starting to stir. “How are you feeling, ke'chara?”

“Good. Rested. Like I somehow just slept for a week, but it's only been—” Van glanced out the window to see that the sun was just beginning to rise. “I have no idea. When did I fall asleep?”

Stef smiled softly. “About two candlemarks ago. About a candlemark before that was when I accidentally bit you, and you were pretty distracted after that.”

Van blinked. “That was only a candlemark? It seemed so much longer. I was half expecting to be hearing the noon bells about now.”

“Things like that can mess with your perception of time.” Stef reassured him.

“Apparently so.” Van reached up to stretch and winced as he started to feel the bruises on his back and shoulders.

“Sore, lover?”

Van nodded. “It's a good kind of sore. Like I just went ten bouts with Kayla.”

Stef chuckled, having heard stories of the old Collegium weaponmaster. “You know, if you'd told me you like some pain with your pleasure, I'd have been happy to oblige moons ago.”

Vanyel looked at him, surprised. “I didn't know. I didn't know it was something—I just knew that when you bit me like that it felt good somehow.”

Stef chuckled. “And you thought I was innocent! Yes, ke'chara. It's definitely something some people enjoy.” He rolled over and grabbed the water pitcher off the night table, filling a glass for Van. “Drink. You'll have an awful headache later if you don't.”

Vanyel took the glass and began to sip, eyeing Stef curiously as he did so. “You know a lot about whatever it was that we did.”

Stef laughed. “You know I grew up around brothels, ashke. There's not a lot that two people—Or more than two people, for that matter—Can do that would surprise me. After I came here, I met a healer trainee—” He paused for a moment. “Do you want to know that part?”

“If you don't mind telling.” Vanyel nodded.

“I don't mind telling if you don't mind hearing. You know I have no secrets from you, ke’chara.” Stef continued. “He wanted me to—Well—Like you did. He wanted me to do things that would hurt him. I'd heard of people doing that before, but I didn't understand why someone would want pain of all things. People usually want to avoid pain or be out of pain. My Gift is singing away pain. Seeking it out just didn't make any sense, and I said so.”

“And then what happened?”

“Being a healer, he explained what happens and why, like physically. And what he said made sense. I mean, I still didn't understand asking someone to hurt you, but knowing how it worked and why at least made me willing to try it.” Seeing Vanyel's curious expression, he went on. “He got really technical with lots of big Healer-type words I don’t remember, but what it amounts to is this. You know how when you get hurt, after a bit your body does something to make it not hurt so bad, so you can get on with what you need to do?” Being quite familiar with battle injuries, Vanyel nodded. “Well, what we did triggers your body to do that on purpose, and not just once. So, whatever your body does to make you feel better when you get hurt, we got your body to do over and over, so you don't just feel better, you feel really, really good. That was that 'floaty' feeling you talked about. I guess the easiest way to put it is that you get kind of drunk on stuff your body does on its own.”

“That does make sense. I had no idea that—I thought I was—” He searched for a word as Stef refilled his water glass.

“Strange, different for wanting that?” Stef supplied and Van nodded. “Not strange, ke'chara. Just really needing to put down a lot of burdens for a while, and bed games like that make it so you can't think about anything but what you're doing, and then you can't think at all.”

“Speaking from experience?” Van asked curiously.

Stef nodded. “That healer. I was really afraid I would actually—You know—Hurt him, so he offered to show me first, that pain can feel good and that it’s possible to cause it in a safe way. Still not quite sure why I let him, but yeah. I understood after that. It wasn't something I found that I needed, not like he did, but I understood why he needed it. And now, why you do.” He winked at Van. “Unlike you, ashke, I know how to relax on my own, but I’m very much into helping you forget about the world for a while. Had I really thought about it, I’d have brought it up a while ago. So, anytime you want something like that, or if you want to ever try anything else, just ask. I promise, nothing will surprise me or make me think less of you.”

Van turned away and set the water glass back down on the night table. “Stef, counting you, I've had four lovers in my life, and none were with me long enough to try anything out of the ordinary except you. I wouldn’t have a clue what else to ask for.”

Stef grinned and pulled Van down to lie next to him, curling his body around his lover’s and pressing his chest to Vanyel’s back. “Well, then, ashke—“ He whispered in Van’s ear. “We’ll just have to try everything, won’t we?”

Van smiled and wrapped his hands around Stef’s. “Stef, ashke, I—Just—” He sighed. “Just—Thank you.”

“Anytime, ke’chara.” Stef grinned and kissed the spot on Van’s shoulder that started everything. ”You know, unless you feel like explaining this to a healer or being the center of palace gossip—” Van shook his head, blushing. “You'd best make sure the bathing room is empty for the next week or so.”

Van smiled and then began to laugh, really laugh for the first time in what seemed like forever.

Van shifted in his seat as the state dinner dragged on, tuning out the complaints of the Rethwellan ambassador on his right. Any information that was actually pertinent had been shared at the earlier council meeting, so at this point he was just nodding and making small noises of agreement. The stiff wooden backrest of his chair wasn’t doing his bruises any favors, but he found he didn’t mind. Whenever he felt a tender spot he was reminded of what he and Stef shared the night before, so the ache was surprisingly pleasant. 

:Unless you want the entire room to know what you and the bard were up to last night, you need to stop smiling, Chosen.: The amusement in Yfandes’ mind voice was almost audible.

Van choked on his wine and covered it with a cough. :How do you know I’m smiling? Last I checked you were bedding down in the Field, not lurking about in the palace!:

:I don’t need to see you to See you. You’re practically glowing, and I’ve never felt you quite this at peace with yourself. I told you the bard would be good for you.: 

Van looked up at Stef, who was quietly playing his lute in the corner behind Randale, and looked away just as quickly when Stef winked at him, blushing as red as the wine in his glass. :How many times do you need to hear that yes, you told me, and yes, you were right?:  

:Keep telling me, and I’ll let you know.:  

“Milord Herald, are you alright?” The ambassador questioned. “You’re a bit flushed.” 

“I’m fine, Ambassador.” Vanyel answered as he watched Randale rise and indicate to Stef that he was done for the evening. “It’s just a bit warm in here. I think I’ll step outside for some air. If you’ll excuse me?” Not waiting for an answer, he ducked out the door into the hall, narrowly avoiding a server carrying a tray of cherry tarts. After enjoying the cool breeze in the hallway for a moment, he doubled back through the kitchens and into the back of the hall.

Stef let the final note of the melody ring and then stood and began putting his gittern away in its case. He heard Van’s footsteps behind him and closed the case and turned toward his lover. 

“Thank you, Stef. That’s the best Randi has felt in a while. We got a lot done today. I’m going to see him and Shavri back to their chambers and I’ll head to bed myself right after.” Van looked exhausted after the long council session and even longer state dinner. 

“I thought you’d promised Savil you’d reinforce her wards tonight?” 

“Sheka.” Van cursed. “I’d forgotten. Maybe I can meet up with her in the morning instead.”

Stef shook his head. “She seemed to think it was urgent, and, well, I wouldn’t want her mad at me.”

Van sighed. “It shouldn’t take me too long. I can tie the alerts she wanted into the palace wards and reinforce everything. I think she’s jumping at shadows, and her shields are almost as good as mine are anyway, but it’ll get her off my back about it. Thank you for the reminder, lover.”

Stef nodded, slightly disappointed that his lifebonded would be out later than planned, but sharing Savil’s unease at the deaths of both Kilchas and Lissandra he understood that it was necessary.

❦ 

Chapter Text

Vanyel approached Savil’s door and sent a soft mindtouch to her, the mindspeaking equivalent of a knock. :Aunt? Still awake?:

Savil unbolted the door and stood back to let him enter. “Thank you, Van. I know you think I’m being a silly old woman, but with Kil and Lissandra’s deaths so close, I just don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

Van nodded. “Well, strengthening your wards won’t do any harm. I’ll do the same for my own if it will make you feel better.”

She nodded. “It will.”

He settled onto the floor in the middle of the room and Reached out with his mind, getting a magical feel for the rooms so he could properly attune the new wards. Everything felt calm and had the flavor of Savil’s welcoming presence, until his scan passed over the wood pile. He turned his sight on the feeling of wrongness and saw the entire pile glowing an evil green. His eyes opened and he leapt to his feet, shoving Savil behind him in a single motion. “Van— What in the—” and then she saw it.  A taste of wrongness, of evil, already inside her wards. 

Vanyel slammed his own shields up around both of them and pushed , stretching them outward and shoving the evil from the woodpile, trapping it between his shield and the wards already in place. Keeping it pinned between the two layers of protection, Vanyel approached and examined it as the creature squirmed, writhing to free itself. He found a creature that appeared loosely based on a raven, but with a toothed, hooked beak, eyes that glowed blood red, and powerful legs that ended in feet bearing knife—sharp, hand sized talons. Van shuddered as his scan determined that the creature had no digestive tract at all and was solely dependent on its master feeding it through the small link between them. This thing couldn't eat or live on its own and was made for the sole purpose of killing. 

Finding the creature was oddly not protected at all against the Herald’s mind—magic or plain brute force, he considered his course of action. A physical attack would require him to drop his shield and chanced letting the thing loose. He stuck with the indirect approach and drew on his stores of personal energy, slowly extending his shield further. He continued pressing the creature between his shield and Savil’s ward, all the while reaching into what passed for its mind and extracting every bit of information he could out of it regarding its master. All the creature knew was a sense of North, past the Forest of Wendwinter and into the Ice Wall Mountains. The thread connecting the creature and its master was too thin to follow directly; he would have to find its master through more mundane routes, but the line was enough to allow Vanyel to punish the master. 

Van smashed the thing with one hammer—blow of pure, wild mind—power. The creature screamed in agony, and as it died in the cold flames of magic, the energy backlashed up into the line Van had left open to its creator. The scream ended, the thing glowed with the power Van poured into it, then incandesced until it was too bright to look at. And still he fed the fire, until the last of it was eaten away and there was nothing left but a few wisps of white, feathery ash. 

“What in havens was that?” Savil breathed, finally able to put thoughts into words. 

“Some kind of construct. It must’ve been hiding here since before you set your wards.” Vanyel collapsed onto her settee, reaction headache from channeling so much raw power just beginning to set in.

“Gods, Van—I never would have seen it until—” Savil sat down heavily next to him. “Thank you.”

Vanyel shook his head. “Don’t thank me. I’d totally forgotten until Stef reminded me.” He admitted regretfully. I thought—” He shook his head. “I thought you were being paranoid. You were right. You were absolutely right. I’m sorry I doubted you.” He pulled her into a tight hug. “Aunt—You could’ve died. It would’ve been my fault. I’m so sorry—If it weren’t for Stef—”

She waved a hand, brushing off his concerns. “I don’t blame you. I had nothing except a gut feeling, and you came to help anyway.” She guided him down to lay on the settee, quickly heating some water with healer’s herbs for Van’s obvious headache. “You stay here and rest until you’re up to walking back to your rooms. I’ll brief the council. Do you want me to send a page to bring Stef here?”

Vanyel shook his head and then grimaced as the headache flared with his movement. “No, he’s exhausted and probably already asleep. Let him rest. I’ll make my way back to our rooms when I can see straight again. Nothing he can do here anyway.”

Savil sighed. “Van, he can be here for you. And his Gift can probably help with the pain.”

“No. He’s been using his Gift all day for Randi. I’m not going to ask more of him to help what will be cured by some tea and rest.”

“Fine.” Savil shook her head. “You’re too damn stubborn, you know that?”

Van laughed quietly, not wanting to aggravate his aching head further. “Have you met yourself, Aunt?”

Savil snorted. “Fine. Suffer. And you’re the one who will have to explain to Stefen why you didn’t send for him.” Her cape fluttered behind her as she closed the door.  Van closed his eyes and waited for sleep.

He awoke a candlemark later to the soft notes of Stef’s lute and the absence of pain where a blinding headache should be. “Stef, I’m sorry. I told Savil not to bother you.”

The Bard looked at him incredulously. “Ashke, you’re never a bother. And she didn’t send for me. I couldn’t sleep and you’d been gone awhile, and then something felt—I don't know—Wrong somehow, like you were scared or angry, and then I knew you were hurting. So I came to look for you and met Savil in the hallway. She filled me in, and I figured you needed the sleep and I’d just wait until you woke up on your own.”

“We’re going to have to go after him, Savil and me. There’s no other choice.” Van stated flatly. 

“Aren’t you needed here?”

“Stef, we’re needed everywhere.” Van replied, fatigue weighing heavy on his shoulders. “We’re the last two Herald-Mages. There hasn’t been even a trainee in years. Not even a hint of Mage-gift. They’ve had to be killing off the Gifted before they’re even Chosen. They killed Kilchas and Lissandra. They tried to kill Savil. I’m sure I’m next. We can’t let this go unanswered.” 

Stef stood and offered his hand to help Van to his feet. “Come on, ashke. There’s nothing more to do here tonight. Savil’s briefing the king and council. Nobody expects you to do anything but sleep after killing that— thing. You can talk to Randale when you wake up.”

Van nodded and allowed Stef to lead him out the door and down the hall. 

❦ 

Stef guided Van into the bathing room for a quick wash, knowing the warm water would help with the headache. He’d figured it would be empty at this late hour, but took a quick glance around to check and then bolted the door behind them. Anyone else needing a wash could bloody well find another bath chamber, and most in this wing had their own anyway. It was a mark of status that Van had always refused by claiming he was never at court long enough for it to matter, but after tonight Stef planned on insisting. 

Stef settled Van into one of the large tubs, warm water up to his neck, quickly shucked his own shirt to save it from splashes, and reached for the washcloth. As he gently washed Van, who was entirely too tired to even think about protesting that he could manage it, he felt himself begin to respond to his lover’s warm, wet body. He sent a quick thought of “Not tonight” toward the more awake portions of his anatomy, which of course ignored Stef’s opinion on the matter even though Stef was exhausted from using his Gift all day. Van was exhausted from the unexpected battle in Savil’s chamber and Stef knew full well that neither of them had the energy for much more than the comfort of the other’s presence while they slept. 

Van leaned forward so Stef could scrub his back, and Stef smiled seeing the marks from the night before. He touched the darkest bruise lightly. “Still okay here, lover?”

“Aches, but still in a good way. I rather liked the unexpected reminders throughout the day.” He blushed and looked down at his hands. 

“That’s normal, ke’chara. I was just checking in.” 

“I like—I like knowing they’re there. Knowing you put them there.” Van said softly.

“I like seeing them and knowing you wanted me to mark you like that.” He finished washing Van’s back and wrung out the washcloth, tossing it into the hamper for the pages to collect. “Do you want me to wash your hair? I know how much you love that.”

Van nodded. “If you wouldn’t mind, ashke, that sounds heavenly, though I admit it’s nicer when you’re in here with me.” 

“If I was in there with you we’d be taking a lot longer washing, I think, and I had my soak after court.” Stef grabbed some hair soap and a pitcher and sat down behind the tub. He released Van’s hair from its tie and combed through it with his fingers, pausing to massage Van’s temples along the way as the Herald closed his eyes. Reaching for the soap, he worked the lather into the Herald’s dark hair and continued the massage, seeking out all the tension he could find through the Herald’s temples and neck. “Ready for rinse?”

Van nodded and scooted up a bit in the tub so Stef could fill the pitcher from the still running tap. The Herald leaned his head back so Stef could pour from the pitcher and wash the soap away. “Is that all of it?”

“All done.” Stef confirmed, offering Van a hand to help him stand. He filled the pitcher one last time, gently rinsed the few remaining soap bubbles off his lover’s body, and wrapped him in a soft towel as he stepped out of the tub. 

“Thank you, ashke.”  

“In case you haven’t noticed, I like taking care of you, ke’chara. It makes me happy when you let me do it."  Stef took the towel when Van was finished drying off and then passed him a clean robe, sufficient for modesty for the walk two doors down the corridor to their chambers in the Herald’s wing. 

Stef brought him straight to their rooms and sat him down in the low chair at the desk in the corner and pressed another cup of the bitter tea into his lover’s hands. Feeling his hands shaking, Van set the cup down quickly on the desk before it could spill. “Gods, Stef, if you hadn’t reminded me that thing could’ve—”

Stef picked up Vanyel’s hairbrush and began to gently comb through the Herald’s hair with a conditioning oil, speaking softly as he worked, the calming tone of his voice backed by a small push from his Gift. “But I did, and it didn’t, ashke. You’ve got so much on your plate that you can’t be expected to remember everything. Savil’s fine, you’re fine, and that—Whatever it is—Is dead.” 

Feeling his body begin to settle, Vanyel reached again for the teacup. “You know I know what you’re doing.”

“Of course. Is it working?” Van could hear the grin in the Bard’s voice.

“Yes. Thank you.” 

Stef took his time brushing his lover’s hair, humming a soothing tune as Van finished his tea. The Herald set his empty cup back on the desk and Stef could see his eyes beginning to slip closed. 

“What did I do to deserve you, ashke?” Van asked softly.

He set the brush down on the desk and settled his hands on his lover’s shoulders, the warmth of his hands lightly soothing the tension from the Herald’s body. “I keep asking myself the same question, ke’chara.” Stef plaited Van’s still damp hair into a loose braid and secured it with a bit of leather at the end. “Come on. To bed with you before you fall over.” Van nodded and allowed Stef to gently lead him by the hand, settling down on the bed without bothering to dress. He settled down with his head on the pillow as the bard left his own clothing in a pile next to the bed, snuffed the candle and wrapped his warm body around Van’s chilled one. 

Chapter Text

By the time Stef awoke that morning, Vanyel was dressed and pulling on his boots. The Herald looked at Stef as he stretched and rubbed his eyes. “Sorry if I woke you, ashke. I’ll be having breakfast with the council, so you’re on your own until court this afternoon, if Randi is even up for that.” 

Van quickly brushed his hair and tied it back with a bit of white leather. As he set his brush down he looked longingly at the empty bed space next to the bard, still warm from when he’d left it moments before. He bent down and gave the bard a quick kiss. He began to move away when Stef caught his hand and brought it to his lips. 

“I wish you could stay a few more minutes.” Stef shook his head as Vanyel opened his mouth to speak. “No, ashke, don’t apologize. I knew your duty would always be first long before we started sharing blankets. Doesn’t stop me from wishing I could hold you longer, is all.”

Van’s thumb caressed the back of Stef’s hand. “I wish you could too, lover.”

Stef kissed the back of Van’s hand again quickly and then reluctantly let go. “Now go, before I give in to the temptation to try to persuade you to stay.”

❦ 

Vanyel returned to their rooms late in the evening after attempting and failing to soak away the day’s stress with a bath. Stef was already seated in his usual chair by the fire, softly strumming his gittern. “So what did the council say about that thing in Savil’s room?”

“They agreed with me that we need to go find whoever sent it. I’ll be leaving in a few days, after we wrap up the negotiations with Rethwellan.” 

“Alone?” Stef set aside the gittern and stood, concerned.

“No. Savil, Andrel, and Tran too. Whoever sent that thing was strong. Maybe too strong. He’s too much of a threat for this to be a solo mission. If one of us can’t take him, we probably won’t get a second chance.” 

“I’m going with you.” Stefen said flatly.

“Stef, you can’t. I need you to be here.” Van crossed the room and took his hands. “I need to know you’re safe.”

Stef shook his head. “Van, think. He’s killed two Herald-Mages and tried to kill a third inside the castle! I’m at more risk being here alone than I am with you!” 

“Stefen—”

Stef raised a hand and cut him off. “I’m going. I won’t slow you down. Andy is going, and he’s not a Herald, so you’re already not traveling Companion speed. And you couldn’t in this weather anyway.” He put both hands on Vanyel’s shoulders. “Vanyel Ashkevron. I am going. If you don’t let me ride with you, I’ll follow an hour behind. You know I will.” He pulled the Herald close. “I love you and I’m following you. I don’t care what happens to me, as long as I can be with you.”

“What about Randale?” Van asked.

“I’m not in love with Randale.” Stef replied defensively. “There’s a half-dozen healers who can pain block now. He doesn’t need me specifically anymore. But I need you, Van. We need each other.”

Vanyel’s arms came up and slowly closed around Stefen. “I guess we do, at that.” he said in a whisper, and held Stef so tightly the Bard could hardly breathe.

“Will you let me come with you now?” he asked when he was certain Van wasn’t going to let go of him anytime soon.

“You’re not going to give up, are you?”

Stef shook his head. “No. I already told you that.”

“You’re right. You’re probably safer with me.” Vanyel acquiesced. “But I need you to promise me that you’ll run at the first sign of trouble. You’re not a fighter, Stef. And if I lost you—”

“I promise.” Stef breathed into his ear. “Unlike you Heralds, I value my skin. I won’t risk it doing something stupid.” He reached between them and unlaced Van’s tunic, sliding it from his shoulders, and then ridding him of his shirt with equal efficiency as Van toed his boots off under the desk. “It’s late. Ready for bed?”

Van nodded and stood, sliding his arms around Stef. “Bed, yes. Sleep, no. Gods only know when we’ll have a bed again.”

“So we’d best take advantage of having it tonight.” Stef grinned and the pair soon found themselves in the bedchamber divesting themselves of their remaining clothing. Laying facing each other on the bed, Stef kissed down Vanyel’s neck to his shoulder, his tongue finding the sore spots he’d left behind during their last time together. “How’s your back, ke’chara?” 

“Sore, but good, if that makes any sense.” 

Stef nodded. “It does.” He ran his hand down the Herald’s back, smiling as Van arched into his touch. “There’s something about seeing those bruises and knowing I put them there that makes me want you even more.”

Van laughed. “Marking your territory?”

“Nothing as crude as that.” Stef scoffed as his hand traced the path of bruises he had left behind. “Just remembering what you looked like the moment you decided to just give in and let it happen. Knowing you trust me to just let me take care of you. It’s a heady feeling, ashke.

Van leaned into Stef’s shoulder and asked softly “Do you think— Maybe—“

Stef groaned as Van abandoned the question and began kissing his neck. “‘Course we can. But—” Van looked up. “Not tonight. Not giving you bruises on top of bruises. Let those fade some first.” Seeing the look of disappointment flash across Van’s face, he added “But there are plenty of other bed games we could try instead.”

“Such as?” Van asked curiously.

Stef rolled over and yanked the drawstring out of the pair of pants he’d left laying on the floor and wrapped it playfully around Van’s wrist, giving the Herald a questioning look. “Tying your hands to the headboard so you can’t distract me and then pleasuring you until you scream?”

Van laughed softly. “I’m not really one to scream, lover, but you’re welcome to try.”

Stef kissed the inside of each wrist as he bound them loosely and secured the tie to the bedframe. “That sounds like a challenge, ashke.” 

 ❦ 

He screamed. And whimpered. And begged before Stef was through with him. The bard pulled out every pleasure trick he’d ever learned and a few he’d only heard tales of to bring his lover right to the edge, stopping it all just before his bondmate could climax. His fingers danced over Van’s skin, playing his partner as easily as his lute. 

Van’s body was humming with desire before Stef had even finished securing his hands. The bard started touching him agonizingly slowly, softly running his fingers down Van’s chest and caressing a nipple as Van watched him curiously. The Herald inhaled sharply as Stef replaced his fingers with his lips and tongue, and then teeth, gently worrying at the hardened nub as his lover squirmed beneath him. He snaked one hand down Van’s body and began stroking his cock, softly at first, and harder as the Herald began to move with his rhythm. At the moment just before the point of no return, Stef drew away, smiling at Van’s groan of frustration. Watching as the Herald’s breathing began to calm, he reached down and began again, repeating the cycle until Van was writhing beneath him as if he’d lose his mind if Stef didn’t let him finish. 

“Oh gods— Stef, please!” Vanyel groaned as Stef pulled away, leaving his lover’s hips thrusting helplessly into the air. 

“Please what?” Stef asked coyly, fingers returning to toy with Van’s nipples. 

“Please—“ Van gasped as Stef pinched his nipples firmly. “Milord?” He offered hesitantly. 

“I’m hardly nobility, ke’chara, but if you insist.” Stef chuckled softly. His hand slipped back down and wrapped around Van’s cock. “I like that, but I was actually asking you to elaborate on what exactly you were asking me for, lover. How am I to know if you don’t tell me?” 

Van’s head fell back against the pillow in frustration and Stef gave him an evil grin. “Not ready to say yet, hmm? That’s okay. You will be.” The Herald gasped half in pleasure and half in desperate need as his lover took his entire length into his mouth in one smooth motion. 

Stef simply held still as Van’s body arched upward, the Herald’s movements becoming more ragged as his urgency increased. Pulling back, he smiled at Van’s unsated wail. “Not yet, ke’chara. Not until you tell me what you need.” 

“Stef—“ Vanyel strained against the tie securing his wrists. “You know— Don’t make me say—“ His words caught in his throat as Stef’s tongue worked over and behind his sack. 

“Ah, so I’m back to Stef now, am I?” Stef slid his arms under Vanyel’s thighs, raising the Herald’s lower body to a more comfortable position. “Perhaps I can persuade you to elevate my rank once more?”

Van felt certain that if it was not for the tie binding him to the bed he would have hit the ceiling at the first touch of his lover’s tongue at his hole. “Gods— What are— You don’t have to— Oh gods!” He moaned and thrashed as Stef probed and licked, his tongue thoroughly distracting Van from noticing as he reached behind the Herald and grasped the salve they’d tucked away conveniently under the pillow. With one hand he deftly thumbed the cork off the vial and slicked his fingers. 

His tongue slowly moved upward as Van whimpered in protest at the loss of the intense sensation, the whimpers turning to inaudible cries as Stef slid one finger inside, followed quickly by a second, and then ran his tongue up the length of Van’s cock, softly licking the tip. His lips enveloped the tip as Van thrust upwards into the bard’s mouth and then back onto the fingers that had found just the right spot, his body desperately seeking completion. “Oh gods— Ashke— Please—“

Stef abruptly pulled his fingers away as his lifemate helplessly strained toward him. The bard looked down at his lifemate fighting against his bonds, tears of frustration beginning to gather in his eyes. “Gods, you’re beautiful like this.” He murmured half to himself. “Did you want to say something?”

“Damn it, Stef! Fuck me! Please!”

“Of course, ke’chara.” Stef smiled and softly brushed away the tears that had escaped the Herald’s eyes. “All you had to do was ask.” 

Van’s hands grasped the bars on the headboard as Stef lifted the Herald’s legs up to rest on the bard’s shoulders and entered him in one slow, deep stroke. Van’s eyes widened with the penetration and then slid closed as Stef moved inside him. 

“Stef— Oh gods— Don’t stop. Milord, please don’t stop.” Van managed to gasp. The Herald’s unintelligible moans mixing with pleas and his lover’s name as Stef drove him inexorably again toward the edge that had tortured him all evening. “Please, Milord.”

Stef’s hand wrapped tightly around his lover’s cock as the bard drove into him hard, finally pushing him over the edge as the Herald’s cries echoed through their chamber.

❦ 

Van slowly came back to himself, his breathing still ragged. He opened his eyes to see Stef gazing down at him in the dim light, the candle had burned out without his notice leaving only the glow of the embers remaining in the hearth. The bard brushed Van’s hair out of his face and kissed his forehead. “How do you feel, ke’chara?”  

“No words.” Van managed. 

Stef smiled as he gently cleaned his lover with a damp cloth. “Good. Though you may want to revise your earlier statement about not being one to scream, ashke. My ears are still ringing.”

Van blushed and looked away. Stef shook his head. “Still shy? After you begged me to fuck you? There’s no need for that.” The bard extended a finger and tipped Van’s chin up, forcing the Herald to meet his gaze. “You were perfect.”

Vanyel’s blush deepened. “Thank you. Milord.” 

“Promoted again, am I? I must have done something right.” He smiled as Van nodded. He reached for the nightstand and grabbed his boot knife. “Let’s get you out of this, hmm?” 

Stef sliced through the ties holding Van’s wrists and freed him from the headboard and set the knife down on the table. He started to hand his lifemate a cup of water, pulling it back when Van reached for it with trembling hands. “No, let me help you, ashke. You’re shaking.” He held the cup and Van drank deeply. When the cup was empty, Stef set it aside and rubbed his hands up and down Van’s arms, feeling the Herald still slightly shivering. “Doing okay?” 

“When you cut me free, it felt— I felt— I don’t know how to explain.” Van said softly.

“A little anxiety?” Stef offered and Van nodded. “That happens sometimes, ke’chara. Symbolism, I guess. When you let me tie you, you gave control of the situation to me. When I cut the rope, you understood I was giving it back and maybe you weren’t quite ready for that?”

“It was just overwhelming. Still is a bit, I think.”

“I’m sorry, Van. I should’ve said something first. I didn’t think.” Stef took Van’s wrists firmly in his hands. “I will always be here for you and take care of you as much as I’m able. As much as you want me to. I swear it. We’re lifebonded, ashke. There’s no tie stronger than that. You’re safe with me, Van.”  

Van let out a slow breath. “Thank you.”

Stef held on until he felt Van’s hands stop shaking. “Are you okay if I let go of your wrists? I’ll wait as long as you need me to.”

The Herald closed his eyes, feeling Stef’s presence wash over him, letting it ground him. “I’m okay now.”

Stef kissed the inside of each wrist as he released him. “I’ll remember to keep transitions less abrupt if we do this again.”

“If?” Van chuckled as Stef pulled him down to lay beside him. 

“When, then.” Stef amended, tucking a lock of Van’s hair behind the Herald’s ear. “Sleep now, ke’chara. We can talk more in the morning.”

Exhausted, the Herald used the last of his strength to roll over and bury his head in Stef’s warm shoulder, wrapping his arm around the bard’s chest. “Love you.”

 “I love you too, Van.” He whispered back into the darkness, holding him close. “So much.” 

❦ 

Chapter Text

“Well, someone’s certainly going to notice that.” Stef said matter-of-factly as he watched his bondmate dress for the day. 

“What?” Van asked, looking around. 

Stef sighed. “C’mere.” He walked Van over to the mirror. “Put your hand up to your head like you just did.” 

Vanyel obliged, and blushed scarlet when he saw that his cuff slipped down and revealed purple and black bruises around his wrist. “Sheka. I have council! How in the havens am I going to hide this?” 

“Let’s stop by Healer’s then. Get it fixed before breakfast.”

Van held back, looking around nervously. “Stef, a healer? What if they want to know what happened? What if they say something? What if they report you?”

Stef rolled his eyes. “Really, ashke, do you trust me that little? I know someone there who will take one look at your wrists, know exactly what happened, and fix it without breathing a word to anyone else.”

“You’re sure?” Trepidation still quavered in Van’s voice. “Stef, this cannot get out.”

“Remember when I told you about learning all about that stuff? Remember who taught me?” Stef reminded.

“A —Healer trainee.” Van smiled.

“Yes. His name’s Aydin. He’s back from circuit and teaching this term. Should be early enough to catch him before classes.” Stef placed a reassuring hand on Vanyel’s shoulder. “He won’t tell anyone. He’s my friend, and besides that, I’ve got way more dirt on him than he would ever have on you. If he reported me, he’d have to report himself and at least a half-dozen others. He’ll understand. I promise. Now come with me. Just keep your hands down.” Stef led him out the door of their rooms, into the quad, and up the steps into the Healer’s Collegium, gently tugging Van by the arm into the building. 

Knocking on a door in the back corner of the building, Stef greeted a man in healer’s greens. He was a few years older than Stef and ushered them inside to the sitting room he was using as an office. “Stef! I was wondering when you’d stop by to say hello! It’s been too long!” He and Stef grasped forearms in greeting, and the healer pulled the bard into a tight hug. 

Stef returned the embrace and stepped back, motioning to Van. “Aydin, there’s someone I’d like you to meet, and we need a favor. This is Vanyel. He’s my—” Stef turned to Van “How would you put it, ashke?”   

“Lifebonded.” Vanyel supplied, to Stef’s surprise. Seeing Stef’s shocked expression at the acknowledgement of their bond in front of someone who was a stranger to the Herald, Van shrugged as if to say it’s not like he won’t know a lot more about our relationship in two seconds anyway.

The healer’s eyes widened, instantly putting together the name with the Whites. Quickly moving on without giving the healer time to process that Herald-Mage Vanyel Demonsbane was standing in his chambers and was apparently lifebonded to his old lover, Stef added to Van “Van, this is Aydin, my healer friend I was telling you about. Show him. It’s okay, I promise. It won’t leave this room.”

Aydin nodded. “Of course. You have my absolute discretion.” 

Sighing, Van reluctantly pulled back his cuffs and exposed his wrists. Stef obviously trusted this healer, so Van would have to also. “Um—I need someone to fix this.” 

Seeing the bruises ringing Van’s wrist, Aydin smiled knowingly and looked at Stef. “Got a bit too enthusiastic, did you.” Stef opened his mouth to respond and Aydin held up a hand. “That wasn’t a question.” He turned to Vanyel and motioned him to the settee. Van took a seat as directed, and Aydin sat down next to him, holding his hands out. “Let’s see those wrists.”

Van placed his wrists in the healer’s hands. “Thank you. I can’t have anyone at Council see this.” He looked far more at ease than Stef had expected, probably largely thanks to the healer’s matter-of-fact attitude. 

Aydin chuckled. “Happens to the best of us.” The healer scanned him briefly and looked up with a raised eyebrow. “Shall I fix the other bruises as well?”

Feeling the slight ache of the marks on his back, Vanyel blushed and looked away, shaking his head. “No. I—I’d like to keep those.” 

Aydin nodded. “Of course. And now, what you came for.” The healer took Vanyel’s wrists in his hands and closed his eyes as Van felt the light tingle of the Healing gift and watched the marks fade from angry black and purple to green to yellow, finally disappearing entirely. “If something doesn’t feel right, you need to let your partner know. Intentional pain is one thing, but unintentional is not the same and can cause injury. If there is too much pressure or pain where there shouldn’t be, you must speak. Stef is not an empath. He won’t know these things unless you tell him.”

“I didn’t even feel it until this morning.” Van chuckled wryly as the bells chimed from the clock tower. “I do have Council soon.”

“Just one moment, and then you can run off to whatever needs doing.” Aydin ducked into the rear room of his chambers, and after some rummaging around, returned holding a book, which he pressed into Stef’s hands. “Keep this. I memorized the important bits long ago.” 

“What do you think, ashke? Look like fun?” Stef held up the book. “‘A Guide to Decorative Knots.’ And if I know Aydin—And I do, there’s going to be some notes added about the best uses for those.” 

Van’s only answer was a blush to the tips of his ears and a mumble about council.

“You’d best be off then. Wonderful to meet you, Herald Vanyel!”  The healer ushered the herald out the door.  He caught Stef by the arm “Stefen, one moment please. There is something we need to discuss.” 

Stef turned to Van. “Go on. I’ll see you this afternoon at court.”

Aydin closed the heavy door and leaned back against the thick wood. “A lifebond?” The Healer looked at his friend incredulously. “You? And Vanyel? You’re telling me that you’re not only bedding the most powerful mage in the history of Velgarth, who’s had so many songs and stories told that he’s more legend than man, who hasn’t had a known partner in decades, but you’ve lifebonded to him?!

Stef nodded. “It’s quite the story, and pretty much only the heraldic circle and a few close friends and relatives know, so please keep it under wraps. Van is afraid it might put me in danger, that I could be a way to get to him. Were it left to me, all of Haven would know, but I understand his concern.”

“It does sound like one to take seriously. You have my word on my absolute discretion.” 

“Thank you.”

The healer chuckled. “I know I’m supposed to be teaching this term, and I’m not quite sure how I expected today to go, but explaining bed game safety to Vanyel Demonsbane certainly was not on the list.”

Stef smiled and shook his head. “My lifemate surprises me more every day.”

“Now sit. There are things we need to discuss.” The healer motioned for Stef to sit in the chair nearby and the bard’s smile turned to rueful concern.

“I’m in for a lecture, aren’t I?”

The healer nodded, amused. “Sit.”

Stef sat.

❦ 

“We need to talk.” Stef stated the moment Vanyel entered their chambers that evening. 

Vanyel blinked. “I haven’t had that many relationships, but even I know any conversation that starts that way usually isn’t a good one.”

Stef shook his head. “Nothing like that. Just a serious topic I’ve been thinking about and I owe you an apology.”

Van dropped his satchel where he stood and moved to sit next to his lifebonded. “Unless you’ve done something I don’t know about—“

Stef laughed mirthlessly. “No, lover. You were definitely there.”

“Is this about last night? Stef, last night was—Incredible isn’t a strong enough word.” Van protested. “I’m usually the one overthinking things and worrying, not you.”

“I’m not overthinking. I just want you to understand what happened. I wasn’t intending to take things as far as I did, not nearly as far. My plan was to tie you, make you squirm a little, and let you go. But when you called me ‘milord’ and I—I realized that you actually really wanted to give me control—It kind of got to me.” Stef took Vanyel’s hand, gently running his fingers over the inside of the Herald’s wrist. “You got injured because I tied you for what I was planning, not what I ended up doing. I got an earful from Aydin for letting that happen, and he was right. When you—” He fumbled for words. “When you submit to me, it’s my responsibility to keep you safe, and I didn’t do that. I’m sorry.” 

“Forgiven.” Van said instantly. “It wasn’t on purpose, and if I notice something doesn’t seem quite right, I’ll do my best to say something.”

“Thank you, ashke.” Stef kissed the inside of Van’s wrist and returned the hand to the Herald’s lap. “There’s something else, too. I think you enjoyed it and the end result worked out—”

Van nodded and started to speak, stopping when Stef held up his hand.

“Let me finish. We both enjoyed it, and that’s a good thing, ashke, but we haven’t talked about what you’re okay with.” Stef said softly. “I knew I was pushing a limit last night, way more than I should have, way more than I’d planned to, and I knew I didn’t have your permission to do that.” 

“But I gave you permission.” Van said, looking more confused. 

“You gave me your okay to tie you and to give you pleasure.”

Van nodded. “And you did.”

“But I didn’t have your okay to force you to talk to me, to tell me what you wanted.” Seeing the Herald wanting to say something, he gestured again for Van to wait. “Still my turn. I don’t want to skip anything and I’ve been rehearsing this in my head. I know asking me for something specific in bed isn’t something you want to do. It’s not even something I’m sure you can do unless you don’t have any other options. You drop hints and hope I pick up on them. Coming right out and saying it is not something you’re okay with doing. I pushed boundaries I didn’t have your permission for, and that wasn’t right, and I’m sorry.”

“Stef, do you really think you forced me to do anything? Do you even think you could? I never asked you to stop. In fact, I distinctly recall asking you not to stop.” Van pointed out.

“Would you be okay with that happening again? I mean, without the bruised wrists?” 

Van blushed. “Maybe.” He offered hesitantly. “I think so. The—reward—was worth it.”

Stef smiled. “Good to know, ashke, because I loved hearing you beg me to fuck you. Seeing you like that—Knowing you wanted me that much—Gods, it was beautiful. Still, we need to talk about things like that before, not when I’ve got you wound up to the point of tears where you’d say almost anything. Expecting that you’d stop things then isn’t fair.” 

Van’s only response was to turn a deeper shade of scarlet and look down at his hands. 

“Van, look at me. This is important.” Stef reached out and gently tipped Van’s face up. “You can say no. You can change your mind. Always. Even right in the middle. About anything, no matter how far things have gone, and I won’t be upset or mad or anything like that. I need to know that you understand that if you ask me to stop, I will.” Stef said, more intensely than he’d really intended. “You’ve gotta know that.”

“Stef, are you okay with what we’ve been doing?” Van grasped his hand urgently. 

“As long as it’s something you want.” He covered Van’s hand with his. “Ashke, I don’t want you doing anything you don’t want to just because you think it’s what I want. Bed games are fine, they’re good, as long as they stay games. As long as you really want to keep playing and know it’s okay to stop anytime you want to.” 

“I do. I like what’s been happening. It’s—intense, but it’s good. This week, even with everything with Savil, with Rethwellan, I’m feeling better than I have in a long time. Maybe ever.” Van admitted. 

“I just—I had some time to think today and I remembered something you told me about Tylendel. About how you always followed his lead, even against your better judgment. I’ve gotta know that this—“ He waved his hand between them. “That what we’re doing isn’t like that. That if you give me control that you know it’s always yours to take back, whenever you want to.”

“Gods, Stef. What we have is nothing like it was with ‘Lendel.” Van shook his head. “I’ve grown up a lot in eighteen years, ashke. If things go too far or somewhere I don’t want, I’ll say so. I’ve had a lot of practice saying ‘no’ since I was sixteen, lover. I know I can, and I know you’ll listen if I do. And I promise I will if I need to.” 

Stef let out a slow breath. “Good.”

Van slipped an arm around his shoulders. “Are we okay?”

“Yeah. We’re good now.” Stef nodded. “I’m curious, though—whatever possessed you to start calling me ‘milord’ in the first place anyway?”

Van shrugged. “I didn’t really think about it. It just seemed like I needed to say something and I couldn’t say what you wanted me to and, well, lords are the lowest rank Heralds have to start bowing to, and it just fit.” He paused and then added hesitantly “Was it—okay?”

“It was very okay, lover. You’re very welcome to keep doing that whenever you want to.” 

“Let’s get some rest, ashke.” He stood and extended his hand down to Stef. The bard accepted the help to his feet and allowed Van to lead him to bed, the Herald snuffing out the candles with a wave as they went. 

Stef curled up with his head on Van’s shoulder, letting the Herald hold him. Van stroked the bard’s arm, soothing caresses that slowly turned heated. Stef kissed him below the ear whispering “Are you starting something, ke'chara?”

“Only if you want to help me finish it.” Van whispered back. “Milord?”

“Gods, yes. I’m all yours.” Stef answered, rolling Van over to press him into the mattress. “And you’re mine.”

 

Chapter Text

When Van walked into their rooms that evening after court, he found a note propped prominently on the table with an ornate “V” on the front, and the back sealed with Stef’s thumbprint in wax. He made a mental note to himself to requisition at least a standard Bardic seal for Stef. He certainly had the status to use that. He looked quizzically at the sealed note, wondering why Stef would bother sealing a note to his lifebonded in their own chambers, but moments after breaking the seal and unfolding the letter he understood. 

Ke’chara~

It looked like council would go late, so I’m taking supper with Medren. I shouldn’t be out too long. In the meantime, I’ve left you a little exercise that I would like very much if you could complete. I am very aware that you would probably rather face an army of demons than have a frank discussion about your desires and preferences for our possible future activities in the bedchamber, but we do need to discuss it, so I am hoping this will make things a bit easier for you and allow me to better direct the conversation. 

I’ve written a short list of activities that are common in bed games, and I would like you to rank them as follows:


5. I would like to try this very much. 

4. I think I might like to try this. 

3. I don’t know or need more information about this before I decide. 

2.  This does not interest me, but I would be willing to try it if you want me to. 

1.  This is something I might think about but should remain only a fantasy.

0. No. I do not want to do this. 

If you would like to add any comments, please feel free. And, before you start thinking I want to try all these ideas, there are some things that are twos, ones, and zeros for me listed too. The point of this isn’t for you to agree to everything to please me. It’s just to help us talk about what interests us and what doesn’t. I have already written down my own answers, but as I do not want to influence your choices, I will share mine with you when you’re done with yours. 

Thank you for helping me keep you safe and happy. 

All my love, always. 

~S~

Van smiled, shaking his head at both his lifemate’s creativity and audacity. Leave it to Stef to find a way for Van to communicate his fantasies without the Bard even being in the room. He turned to the next sheet of parchment and found Stef’s list, and his eyes widened as he skimmed the text. He took a breath, picked up a quill, and began to read carefully. 

 

1. Spanking/Striking you on your thighs/ass with my hand or an object such as a crop or my belt. 

 

Van considered that for a moment. Hitting one’s lover was generally frowned upon, but so was biting hard enough to bruise and tying someone up, but he’d certainly enjoyed both of those. He quickly marked a four next to the item and moved on.

 

2. Tying or otherwise binding you to limit your ability to move, or simply commanding you to remain still while I do all sorts of filthy things to your body. 

 

Thinking back on their play two nights ago, he immediately marked a five and moved to the next item, blushing despite knowing nobody was watching. 

 

3. Biting, clamping, pinching, or otherwise causing discomfort or pain above the waist. 

 

Van shivered as he thought about that first night when Stef had bitten him and that wonderful, floaty feeling of pure bliss that followed. He marked that a five, and then noticed that Stef had made a note in the margin.  3a. Same, but below the waist. 

Van paused. This answer was not so straightforward. He instinctively wanted to mark a zero. After all, a man doesn’t generally want to hurt in certain locations, but he paused, remembering that a week ago he wouldn’t have thought he would want Stef to bind him or bite him but now he wanted that badly. Wavering, he marked it as a three and a half. Interested, but needing to know more. 

 

4. Having me control your ability to climax, either through withdrawing stimulation or denying permission. 

 

He thought about how desperate he’d felt when Stef brought him to the edge time and again and how good it felt when he was finally allowed to finish, and moved to mark a five, but then reconsidered. He would enjoy that over an evening, but he wouldn’t want to need permission outside of their games if he just wanted a moment of release. His answer to this would depend on how far Stef intended to take it. He marked a range of three to five, trying to indicate he was very interested but they needed to discuss it also. 

 

5. Verbal humiliation or degradation, calling you names like “whore” or “slut”, saying cruel things, and demeaning you as part of the game.

 

Van wrote a two. He didn’t want to hear those things from his lover, but if Stef really wanted to say them, he could handle it. As that thought crossed his mind he realized he was lying to himself. If Stef said cruel things to him, even as a game of pretend, Van knew his mind would bring them up out of context and start to convince himself that Stef had really meant it. That game was not one that would stay a game for Vanyel, and wasn’t anything he wanted to fantasize about. He crossed out his two and wrote in a zero. 

 

6. Pretend force. No doesn’t mean no, and stop doesn’t mean stop. We pick a different cue for this, and if you ask me to stop, I don’t unless you give the signal indicating you really do want to stop. 

 

Van marked a two there. It wasn’t something he felt he would enjoy specifically, but as long as another word really meant stop, he could do this if Stef wanted to play that way. 

 

7. Having to verbalize, ask, or beg for what you want or need. 

 

Stef had been right. Talking plainly about sex embarrassed him badly. But he also thought about that moment the other night when he had asked, when Stef drove him to such desperation that asking wasn’t the worst option, and how it felt to just say it because he either had to beg Stef to fuck him or lose his mind if he didn’t. Van shivered with more than just remembered arousal as he replayed that night in his mind and marked a four, and then crossed it out and wrote a five. In that moment of speaking plainly about his desires he had felt so unburdened, and he had most certainly enjoyed the process that had brought him to that point, as frustrating as it had been in moments, and he jotted down a brief comment to that effect. He knew Stef had been right. Writing it down came much easier to him than speaking did.

 

8. Exhibitionism, taking a small risk that we might be seen or playing a game between us in the open where others might, but would not likely, notice. 

 

The idea of trysting with Stef in the grottoes near the river sent a shiver down Vanyel’s spine, but given the risks of his political position, he quickly concluded that these things would remain firmly in the category of fantasy and quickly marked a one and moved on.

 

9. Kneeling, refraining from eye contact, sitting on the floor at my feet, or otherwise acting in a submissive or deferential manner, either when I ask you to or of your own volition because you want to. 

 

Instantly, the image of himself naked, kneeling in front of Stef flashed into his mind and his body flushed with desire. His mind wandered to the thought of sitting on a floor pillow nearby as Stef worked on a new composition and simply enjoying the Bard’s company, and he wrote a five. 

He read the final item on the list and his eyes widened as he found himself squirming in his chair, breeches suddenly uncomfortably snug. 

 

10. Being physically rough and/or forceful with you during sex.

 

Stef was usually very gentle and loving in bed, making sure with his touch that Van knew exactly how much he was cherished. However, he had seen a fire in the Bard’s eyes that spoke of a passion that Van had only seen glimpses of, most recently the night Stef had bound his hands. It was always quickly reined in by Stef, who Van guessed was probably worried about frightening him off somehow. It was something he thought he very much wanted to experience more of, but he had no idea how to ask his bondmate to just shove him down on the bed and take him. Van settled quickly on a five, and after a quick pause, drew two bold lines under the number before he could talk himself out of it. 

As his quill scratched the last line onto the page, the door to their rooms opened. Van jumped, turning in his chair toward the door, the quill skipping across the parchment and sending a spray of ink across the page, his sleeve, and onto the desk. 

“Sorry, ashke.” Stef entered the room and set his gittern down next to the door. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s alright. I was—Preoccupied.” Van stammered, blushing even though Stef had been the one to provide him the list in the first place.

Stef glanced at the paper under the Herald’s hand. “Did you see something you like?” 

Blushing to the tips of his ears, Van looked away and nodded.

“Are you going to let me see?” Stef asked gently, a note of amusement in his voice at his lover’s shyness.

In response, Van slid the page a few inches toward Stef. He stepped forward and Van shifted his knees apart to allow his lover closer to the desk. Stef stepped in, closer than what was actually required, pressing his body close to Van’s as he teased the parchment gently out from under his lifemate’s hand. Van turned to cuddle close to Stef’s body, hiding his blush in the folds of his lover’s tunic. Stef’s hand dropped down to rest on Van’s head, fingers running softly through his hair as he skimmed the page. The shift in position brought their bodies closer together and Stef smiled at the feel of his bondmate‘s arousal through their clothing. “I think you saw something you like. I think you saw something you really like. Am I right?” 

Van’s head nodded slightly under Stefen’s hand as he skimmed the parchment. 

“Do you want to talk to me about it now?” Stef asked softly.

Van shook his head, still not looking up. 

“Not sure what to say?”

A nod. 

“Talk later then? You can read my answers first.”

“Okay.” 

“Did you eat supper?”

Another nod. “Yes.”

“Do you want to just go to bed?”

A nod. “Yes.”

“To sleep?”

A pause, followed by a quick head shake and a soft whisper. “No… Not just yet.”

Stef grinned and reached for Van’s hands, tugging the Herald gently to his feet and into Stef’s arms. Pulling his bondmate close, the Bard whispered into his ear “Do you want me to fuck you?”

“Yes.”

Stefen pressed him against the wall of the suite, hands sliding under the ink stained tunic and lips grazing his neck. “Do you want me to fuck you hard?”

“Yes.” Van’s head fell softly back against the wall. “Please.”

Pinning his bondmate firmly against the grey stone, Stefen trailed kisses up Van’s throat, his lips brushed softly past his cheek as he breathed “Do you want me to fuck you right through the damn mattress?” 

“Gods yes!” Vanyel gasped as the Bard bit his ear sharply. 

Stef pulled back slightly, smiling softly at his lover. “In case you somehow haven’t realized, that’s a five for me too.” Van nodded and, somehow still embarrassed, quickly glanced away. Stefen touched a finger under his chin and gently brought his eyes back to look at him. “Ke’chara. Do I have your attention?”

“Always.” Van breathed. 

“You want to stop or slow down, you let me know. Understood?”

“Yes.” He leaned forward, lips grazing Stef’s ear. “Milord.”

Stefen’s left arm wrapped tightly around Van’s waist, his right hand behind his lifemate’s neck as he spun them around and down onto the bed. He yanked the shirt over Van’s head and made the same quick work of the rest of the Herald’s clothing, tossing it haphazardly behind him. Grabbing Van’s shoulder, he rolled his bondmate over onto his stomach. He grabbed the pot of salve, slicked his fingers and pressed them against Van’s hole. “Do you want this?” He said roughly. “You want this? Tell me. I want to hear you say it.”

“Yes.” Van nodded and whispered almost inaudibly “Yes, I want it. Please, milord.” 

Stef slid his fingers inside of him, prepping Van as quickly as he could safely while he wrestled open his breeches with his other hand. He let them fall to his ankles and grabbed Van at the waist. He tugged his lover roughly toward the edge of the bed until he could bend him over the edge with his feet on the floor, a pillow shoved under his hips and his arms folded under his head. Standing behind him, Stef pressed into him, leaning forward to push him into the mattress with his forearm firmly across Van’s upper back. The Bard’s hand fisted into his lover’s hair and twisted, pulling Van’s head back as he slid in all the way in one smooth stroke and paused to ask “Okay?”

“Gods yes.” Van pushed back against him. “Milord.”

“I’ve wanted to fuck you like this for so long.” Stef groaned, releasing Van’s hair and grabbing his hips as he slammed into him hard and fast. “Did you think about this? Imagine me doing this to you?”

Van’s eyes slid closed, the feeling of Stef inside him almost completely overwhelming him. “Yes.” 

“How long? How long have you wanted me to take you this way? Fantasized about it?” Stef asked roughly.

“Since—” Van gasped and moaned softly as Stef slid into him again, unable to stop the confession from tumbling from his lips. “Since the first time you had dinner with me here.”

Stef’s hand fisted in Van’s hair again, his breath hot in his lover’s ear. “Did you touch yourself? After you sent me away?”

“No.” Van shook his head. “Wouldn’t let myself.” He gasped as Stef moved just right inside him. “Not—Not that night.”

“Not that night? Really?” Stef questioned, slightly amused. “Which night, then?”

Van bit his lip, torn between his embarrassment and the overwhelming urge to just surrender and tell his bondmate everything, self-consciousness be damned. He cried out as Stef withdrew almost completely and then slid back in slowly, teasing to let his lover know that he wouldn’t be getting what Stef knew they both wanted until he had an answer.

“Which night?” Stef tightened his grip on Van’s hair as his nails left crescents on his lover’s hip. “Tell me.”

“The hot springs.” Van whispered. “Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t stop—Couldn’t stop wanting you.” He managed, the sensations of Stef inside him and the slight pain in his scalp and hip twisting together inside him, turning into something that was somehow more.

“Gods.” Stef murmured. “You weren’t the only one.” His mind flashed back to that night. They’d been naked, steam rising around them, and Stef had dared to reach out a hand and run a finger down Van’s arm. It was the first time they’d touched without Vanyel pulling away. Stef had felt him shiver under his hand, and was slowly leaning in for a kiss when they’d been interrupted by a group of Herald trainees seeking a soak. “I wanted to bend you over the edge of the pool and fuck you into next week. Exactly like this.” Stef increased the speed and force of his thrusts until Van screamed his climax into the blankets and Stef followed him over the edge. 

Legs not quite able to hold him, Stef let his weight collapse onto Van’s back. “You’ve got me seeing stars, ke’chara.” 

“Same.” Vanyel breathed. “Stef, that was—“

“Enjoy yourself?”

Van chuckled softly. “Isn’t that obvious?”

“Yes. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear it anyway.” Stef kissed the top of his shoulder lightly. 

“Yes. Gods, Stef, you didn’t even have to touch me—“ 

Van could hear the smile in his lover’s voice as he replied “Bit of a mess?” Stef reached for the ink stained shirt and gently wiped them both clean, a hand on Van’s hip turning him over so Stef could remove the last of it. 

Van blinked in surprise. “You’ve still got your shirt on.”

Stef laughed aloud at that. “Lover, I’ve still got my boots on!”

Both of them finally naked and laying side by side in bed with a light blanket over them to ward off the chill, Van asked softly “Why did we never do that before? Like that?”

Stef shrugged. “Lots of reasons. Didn’t want to scare you, for one. It wasn’t easy getting you into my bed, lover. I wasn’t about to spook you back out of it. Didn’t quite know how to bring it up, for another. But mostly, because the only ways I have to tell you I love you are my words and my body, and I’m still more than a little afraid you don’t totally believe the words. I don’t want you to feel used. I want you to feel like you’re important to me, to feel like you’re loved, because you are.” He rolled onto his side and trailed a hand down his lover’s chest. “You know I’ve had a lot of sex before, but Van—“ His voice faltered a bit. “The only person I’ve ever made love to is you. I’m still learning how that works.”

“I like it when you’re—Forceful like that. I love when you’re gentle too, when it’s about making love, but when you’re rougher and it’s about just connecting physically, what we just did makes me feel like you really want to bed me, and not just because we’re lifebonded.”

Stef laughed at that. “Lover, I wanted you for months. Probably years. I tried every seduction trick I’d ever learned because I wanted to bed you so badly. You know that. I was bloody celibate because I wanted you so much, but only you. I wanted you so much I thought I was going to lose my mind and the only relief I was getting was from my own hand. As frustrating as it was for me at the time, I’m glad you didn’t give in right away. I could tell you wanted to, which is why I kept trying, but in the time I spent chasing you I got the chance to fall in love with you. Not the you from the stories. You. The real you. I’ll always want to make love and show you how much I love you, but now that I know this is something you like, I’ll most definitely be showing you how much I want to fuck you, too.”

Van smiled. “I’m looking forward to that.” He loved how easy their conversation was after sex. He felt more able to be open emotionally after connecting physically with his lifemate. They always seemed to have their most intimate conversations naked. 

“I’m glad you showed me your list tonight. Thank you for trusting me with that. Whenever you want to see my answers, the parchment is in the drawer of your night table.” He chuckled as Van immediately rolled over and opened the drawer. “Pass me yours as long as you’re over there. I just skimmed straight to the bottom when I saw you’d underlined something.” 

Van picked up his own list from where Stef had left it on the night table and passed it to his lifemate, along with a cup of water. Stef took the cup gratefully and downed half of it in one gulp. 

Filling his own cup, Van settled down to read. Stef had made notes next to his numbers, probably not knowing whether Van would be reading it alone or with the Bard nearby. 

1. Spanking/Striking you on your thighs/ass with my hand or an object such as a crop or my belt.

I like this idea, Ashke. Different tools will let me play with your senses in different ways. A belt can leave welts, or just a soft smack. A crop can leave a fiery, burning stripe or can just feel like a tickle. If we could get hold of a flogger, I think you might really enjoy that.  I’d love to take you back to that “floaty” place where you can drop all your troubles and just exist with me for a while. This is a 5 for me, but regardless of how I rank something, if you aren’t comfortable trying something, we won’t. This one will take a lot of communication to get right. 

2. Tying or otherwise binding you to limit your ability to move, or simply commanding you to remain still while I do all sorts of filthy things to your body.

This is also a five for me. Watching the way you reacted to having your hands bound was incredibly erotic. I would love to tie you properly and take my time touching you and torturing you with pleasure or pain while you’d just have to let me. Unless you asked me to stop, of course, but I would be doing my damndest to make sure stopping is the last thing you’d want of me in that moment. 

3. Biting, clamping, pinching, or otherwise causing discomfort or pain above the waist. 

You really seemed to enjoy this, and I’d love to give you more of it and see what other things we can try. Five. 

3a. Same, but below the waist. 

If you want to go there I’m happy to take you, but I need to do some more research on how to do it safely. This is a three right now. 

4. Having me control your ability to climax, either through withdrawing stimulation or denying permission. 

Five. Seeing you so desperate and wanton is probably the most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on. I would love to see you like that again. 

5. Verbal humiliation or degradation, calling you names like “whore” or “slut”, saying cruel things, and demeaning you as part of the game.

Zero. I have played this game before when I was asked to. While I will happily tell you all the filthy things I want to do to your body in explicit detail, I will never degrade you for wanting me to do them. It is a fairly popular bed game, but it does nothing for me personally, and even if it did, this is not a game I will ever play with you. I don’t feel it would be good for you, or even safe for you, so even if this is a five on your list, we will not be doing this. 

6. Pretend force. No doesn’t mean no, and stop doesn’t mean stop. We pick a different cue for this, and if you ask me to stop, I don’t unless you give the signal indicating you really do want to stop. 

Zero. This is another very common bed game, but it is not one I will play. Like I told you the other night, with me ‘no’ will always mean no, and ‘stop’ will always mean stop. I need the reassurance that you really want to keep playing, and will ask you yes or no questions to check in and confirm that for myself. I never want my partner to pretend he isn’t enjoying what I’m doing to him. 

7. Making you verbalize, ask, or beg for what you want or need. 

This is a five for me, because you do it so little, and hearing you ask me for what you want lets me know you really want it. Even outside of a game, I want you to know that if there is something you’d like me to do or try with you that you can’t bring yourself to ask me about, you can always leave me a note. The communication itself is far more important than the method, and if you need to write something down or use any other way in order to tell me, please do. 

8. Exhibitionism, taking a small risk that we might be seen or playing a game between us in the open where others might, but would not likely, notice. 

This is a four for me, but I would imagine it’s much lower ranked on your list. If we were ever in a situation outside and far from anyone else, I would love to take you on a picnic away from everyone and make love to you on the blanket as we watched the moon rise, but I understand if that needs to just stay a fantasy. 

9. Kneeling, refraining from eye contact, sitting on the floor at my feet, or otherwise acting in a submissive or deferential manner, either when I ask you to or of your own volition because you want to. 

Five. I can’t say that the idea of you kneeling before me and putting that talented tongue of yours to a better use than negotiating treaties hasn’t featured in more than one of my fantasies, and I would most definitely enjoy that if you wanted to do it, but what I would really love is if you would use this as a physical signal to let me know you need to let go of some responsibility and just let me take care of you for a while. I do love taking care of you, and I love it when you let me, and I know how hard it is for you to ask, and I’m hoping this could make it easier for you. 

10. Being physically rough and/or forceful with you during sex.

Five. I hope I don’t frighten you with this one. I love making love to you, ashke, but sometimes I just want to pin you between my body and the wall and fuck you straight through the rock to show you how much I want you. If this isn’t something you’d care to explore, please be assured that I am more than happy with making love to you sweetly every night if that’s your desire. 

Just to be perfectly clear, I love you, I love what we do together, and I am thrilled with everything we have and do together right now. I’m not trying to pressure you in any way, and even if your list is straight zeros, I will not be disappointed in the slightest. 

Yours always,

~S~

Van set the letter down on his night table and turned to Stef and kissed him sweetly. “Just when I think I couldn’t possibly love you more, you go and do something like writing that.” He gestured to the letter.

“Happy?” The Bard smiled. 

“Very.” Van tucked his head into Stef’s shoulder and snuffed the candle with a thought. 

 

Chapter Text

“NO!” Van screamed as he sat bolt upright in bed, awakened from a deep sleep. 

“Ashke?” Stef reached for his arm. “What’s wrong?”

And then he heard the bell. 

Van was out of bed in an instant, throwing on a fresh tunic and pants, not even bothering to put on his boots. He was dressed as the Bell rang its final, ominous clang and was two steps from the door when Stef caught him by the arm. “Van. What happened?” 

“Stef—“ Before the Herald could respond further, the Bell began again and Stef knew.  

“I’m coming with you.” The Bard pulled on his clothes quickly and headed for the door, grabbing his lute as an afterthought. 

They ran through the corridors and to the royal suite, where the double doors were already wide open. Van and Stef entered and were followed immediately by Savil, Andrel, and Tantras. Andrel waved a hand and dismissed the two healers who were hovering near the door. The men left as quickly and quietly as they could. 

Van opened the door to the bedchamber, and the group found Randale and Shavri curled in each other’s embrace, the pain gone from their faces.Jisa stood at their bedside, clad only in her shift and shivering as Treven tried to offer what comfort he could. Upon seeing Van, Jisa flew across the room and into his arms. “Father!” She buried her head into his shoulder. “I didn’t get to say goodbye, Papa Van. Treven woke me when he felt it through the web. We got here too late.” 

He kissed the top of her head. “I’m so sorry, pet.” Van held her tightly as she cried and glanced up. Upon seeing the shocked faces of Andrel and Tran, he Sent :Yes. She’s my daughter. I’ll explain later if I must. Randi was her papa, and that’s what we need to focus on.:

Jisa looked at her parents and whispered “They’re together. That’s what matters.”

Stef found himself a quiet corner and pulled out his lute. Randale and Shavri had been his friends too, but he decided firmly that he would do his own grieving later. He softly plucked a simple, quiet melody and thought of his own good memories of them. He couldn’t heal the grief in the room, but he could make it feel just a little less sharp, help everyone to breathe and handle the details that needed to be handled immediately. There would be space for more tears in a while. 

Van stepped forward and slid the king’s signet ring off Randale’s finger. He turned to Treven. “As we are currently without a King’s Own, as First Herald-Mage the traditional Herald’s duties in this matter fall to me. The king is dead.” He knelt before Treven. “Long live the King.” 

The others in the room, even Jisa, followed suit and knelt, echoing “Long live the King.” 

Vanyel slid the King’s Signet onto Treven’s finger. “Your majesty.”

Looking stunned, Treven stared at the ring for a moment and then looked around the room and realized he was the only one standing. “Rise. Please.” Swallowing around the lump in his throat, the new king stood as regally as he could possibly manage barefoot in his nightclothes with uncombed hair, and asked “Herald-Mage Vanyel. Until such time as a King’s Own Herald is Chosen, I ask you to assume the office of Acting King’s Own. Do you accept?”

Vanyel nodded. “Yes, my king. It would be an honor.” 

Andrel cleared his throat and motioned to the window, where a sea of white surrounded the tower in the Field. “Um—If we have finished with the formalities, the Heralds and Companions are gathering at the Bell. It would do you good to join them. The healers will handle things here for now.” 

Jisa kissed each of her parents softly on their foreheads and whispered her goodbyes. She looked to Treven. “Go on. The Heralds need to see you. I’ll be okay.”

Van shook his head. “You’re coming with us, of course. They’ll need to see you too.” He turned to Stef. “You’re also more than welcome, ashke. You gave Randi, gave all of us, so much relief these last few months.”

Stef nodded and silently moved to his bondmate’s side. 

As the group moved to the door, Andrel called after them “Shoes and cloaks, the lot of you. I’ll not have you freezing off fingers and toes.” Taking the indistinct grumbling as assent, he turned away and summoned a page to carry a message to Healers Collegium. 

Wordlessly, the group moved solemnly down the hall towards the door outside, making brief stops by their chambers so everyone could don warm clothing and shoes. The group was unsurprisingly met by five companions as soon as they stepped out the door. Yfandes, Kellan, Delian, Eren, and Taver. 

Treven’s companion turned to the young king, and then Treven turned to Jisa in surprise. “Eren says you’re to ride.” The Companion knelt in the snow covered grass and motioned impatiently at Jisa. Looking confused, she climbed onto the Companion’s bare back as Yfandes turned to stare at Van with an impatient look. 

:I refuse to kneel in the muck. Chosen, help the Bard onto my back.:

Tantras, Savil, and Van followed behind them as they walked to the Field. Tran looked to Vanyel and cocked his head at Jisa and Stef. “What’s that all about?”

“Nobody can say they don’t belong with us at the Bell if they arrive Companion-back.” Van stated. “All of us know Jisa belongs, and that Stef is—With me, but some of the newer Heralds might not, and Stef won’t care but it would hurt Jisa if she heard them questioning her right to be there. Taver won’t carry anyone until he’s Chosen again, and by custom that won’t be until after the coronation, but I’ll be surprised if he leaves her side. They‘ve both lost family tonight.” 

Tran nodded. “Makes sense.” He looked at Jisa again. :She’s really yours?

Van nodded. :Randi and Shavri asked me a favor. Randi couldn’t father a child and Shavri desperately wanted a baby. They asked for help and I agreed. Jisa figured it out for herself a few years back. I’m sure she won’t want it widely known. She doesn’t realize what she said.: 

Tran nodded. :I’d figured it was something like that. Wow. You have a kid.:

Van had to chuckle at that despite the grief still eating into his soul. :Actually, I have four.: 

“Four?!” 

:Similar situations. A set of Hawkbrother twins, a boy and girl, and a girl being raised by two of Lissa’s shaych shieldmaidens. They all have parents. Parents who are not me.:

:Except Jisa.: 

Van nodded. :Randi will always be her papa, but I’ll be whatever she needs me to be.:

Chapter Text

Stef could count the moments he’d seen Vanyel over the last fortnight on ten fingers. Probably five, now that he thought about it. Since the night at the Bell, the Herald had thrown himself into work and barely stopped to breathe, much less eat or sleep. As King’s Own, he was handling all the major coronation details, writing missives to their foreign allies, and Mindspeaking other Heralds in the border regions to relay news, their planned trek to the North postponed until after the coronation. 

Well after supper, Stef reclined in their empty suite reading by firelight. He had removed his boots and hose hours ago, but had left the doublet on to ward off the chill in the room. He’d lit a reading lantern, but the fire was bright enough that he’d left it forgotten on the night table. The door to the suite opened softly and Van almost stumbled into the room, dropping his satchel with a soft thunk as he bolted the door behind him. He saw Stef half laying on the settee with his feet up on the cushions and without thought, Van crossed the few paces to his lifemate and sank to his knees on the rug, cheek resting against the bard’s thigh. 

His book forgotten on his lap, Stef’s hand went instantly to the top of Van’s head, stroking his hair. “Hello, ke’chara. I’m glad you’re here. Did you eat supper?”

Van nodded. “Tran brought me something.” Sensing Stef’s next question he added “And watched me eat it.”

“Thank you for taking care of yourself.” Stef smiled at him softly. “What do you need, ke’chara? Pleasure? Pain? Or just to be held?”

“I don’t know.” Van whispered. 

“Stay there.” Stef stroked his cheek softly. “Close your eyes and put your hands on your knees. The only thing you are to do right now is breathe and think about what you need. I’m going to finish reading this passage and then I’ll ask you again, and I expect you to have an answer for me.”

“Yes, milord.” Vanyel did as instructed, closing his eyes and leaning his temple against the warmth of Stef’s leg, breathing deeply. Seemingly absentmindedly but actually quite deliberately, Stef’s hand returned to stroking Van’s hair as he turned pages with the other, not actually reading anything but his lifemate’s body. He could feel the tension radiating from Vanyel’s back and shoulders; his neck was so tense Stef was sure he had a headache. He was fairly certain about what his lifemate needed in this moment, but he needed to know that Van knew it too. 

Minutes passed until Stef saw Van’s shoulders dip in an inaudible sigh of acceptance. Stef waited another moment to let his lover’s mind settle, and then spoke. “What do you need, ke’chara? Pleasure?”

“No, milord.” Vanyel responded softly. 

“Comfort?”

“No, milord.” Came the even quieter whisper. 

“Do you want me to hurt you?” The question came just as evenly as the others. 

“Yes.” Van swallowed audibly. “Please, milord.” 

“Shall I improvise, or do you have something particular in mind?”  

“Something in mind, milord.” Van closed his eyes again, finding it easier to speak to Stef without looking at him. 

Finding the communication to be more important than the eye contact, Stef let that slide. “Tell me what it is.” It was spoken softly, but clearly not a request. 

Van took a shaky breath. “In your note, milord—“ He hesitated and then forged ahead. “You’d mentioned your belt?”

“Is that what you want?” 

“Yes, milord.” A whisper so soft it was almost inaudible

Stef leaned over, brushing his lips close to Vanyel’s ear. “Have you been thinking about it since you read my letter? Wanting to hear the crack as I bring it down? To feel it burn as it kisses your skin?”

Van shivered. “Yes, milord.”

“And to see me wear it in court after and all you can do is look at it and remember how it made you hurt so bad but somehow felt so—“ Stef kissed him softly just below his ear. “Damn—“ Another kiss. “ Good?”

“Gods—“ The tension running through Van’s body was almost tangible. “Yes, milord.”

“And if you find it to be too much, what will you do?” 

“I will ask you to stop, milord. You have my word.” 

Stef closed his book with an audible snap, smiling as he saw his lover startle at the sound. “Stand up, strip, and kneel next to the bed.” 

“Yes, milord.” 

Van shucked his clothing efficiently, placing it in the laundry bin and waited, kneeling, on the rug next to the bed. Stef joined him and unbuckled the thick leather belt right at Van’s eye level. He tossed it on the bed, the buckle clinking against the decorative metal end tip as it bounced softly on the mattress. 

“Do you want me to bind your hands?”

“Please, milord.” Van’s voice quavered only slightly. Stef was sure anyone not knowing him as well wouldn’t have noticed. 

Stef collected a bag from the lower drawer of the night table. Reaching in, he pulled out a set of black leather cuffs, lined with soft wool. “A little cliche, but these should prevent any more visits to Healer’s.”

Van silently offered both hands, wrists up, and Stef secured each gently with a cuff. “On the bed. Face down.” 

The belt jingled again as Van moved to comply. Stef took the moment to toss his own doublet and shirt over the back of a nearby chair.

“Grab the headboard.” 

He complied as Stef secured the cuffs, running a length of rope from the attachment points to the sturdiest part of the headboard, leaving a bit of slack for movement and comfort. 

“How does that feel?”

“Good, milord.”

“Look at me.”

Van rolled slightly so he could see his lifemate. 

“What do you do if it’s too much? Or you want to stop for any reason?” Stef asked again. 

“I ask you to stop, milord.”

Stef kissed his lips sweetly . “I love you, ke’chara.”

“I love you, milord.”  Van responded softly. 

Stef picked up the belt and doubled it over, holding both metal ends in his hand. The leather was one thing, but the metal could cause a lot more damage than he was intending to inflict. It certainly wasn’t his first time belting a man’s ass, but he tested the weight anyway. He aimed for a chair cushion and then his own forearm and palm a few times, gauging the reach and intensity and then turned back to his lifemate. “Try not to tense. We’ll start out slow and light.” He trailed his fingertips from the nape of Van’s neck, down his back and over the curve of his ass. You have beautiful skin, ke’chara.” Unable to resist, he slapped one inviting cheek with his bare hand. “It turns such a lovely shade of red.” He rubbed his hand over the palm print, soothing the sting. “Ready?”

“Yes.” Van breathed, exhaling sharply as Stef brought the belt down across his ass. 

Stef wielded the belt rhythmically, slow but steady, and building ever so slightly. He stretched out the warm-up longer than he ordinarily would have and smiled when he saw his bondmate lifting his pinkened ass up slightly to meet the strokes. “Harder now?”

Van nodded. “Please, milord.”

Stef delivered five smacks with more force and then backed off ever so slightly, keeping the rhythm steady. Van mumbled something into the mattress, still moving into the belt as it crossed his flesh.  “What was that, ke’chara?”

“More.” He strained against the cuffs. 

“I’ll decide if and when you get that.” He lightened his strokes a touch more to make his point and Van groaned in frustration. Stef ignored his bondmate’s wordless pleas and struggles, the fall of the belt remaining constant until he saw what he was waiting for. Van’s body relaxed into the mattress, no longer fighting the restraints or seeking more sensation, just waiting and accepting what Stef wanted to give. 

“There you go, ke’chara. Just let me take care of you. You look beautiful like this. Do you know that?”  He smiled at his bondmate, not expecting an answer. “Shall we continue?”

“Please—” His whispered plea ended in a gasp as the Bard put his wrist into the next stroke. “Yes—”

Blow after blow rained down in increasing intensity, leaving pink stripes behind as Van took several shuddering breaths, tears in his eyes. A tear escaped down his cheek and glistened in the lamplight. Stef paused in concern. “Still want to keep going?”

“Yes, please.” Van nodded almost imperceptibly. “Please, milord?” 

Hearing his bondmate’s voice shaking but certain, Stef nodded. He now knew exactly where his lover was asking to be taken. “You will let me know if that changes.”  

He brought the belt down hard, once, twice, and again as red welts rose up in its wake until Vanyel’s breathing gave way to silent weeping, his tears dripping onto the mattress below. Stef hesitated for a brief moment and felt the touch of Van’s mind against his own, not with a demand but a soft request backed with desperation. :More? Please?:  

Stef granted the wish without hesitation as Van’s silent tears became audible, racking sobs. His entire body shook with the emotional release as Stef watched stripe after stripe turn white then glowing red. 

A few of the welts began to seep blood as the marks crossed each other, and Stef dropped the belt to the floor. He caressed Van’s back, running one hand up and down softly as he reached with the other for the rope binding Van’s cuffs to the headboard. “All done now. You were so good, ke’chara. So very good. I know that was hard. I’m proud of you. I’m going to untie you, but we’ll leave the cuffs on for now. Understand?”  

Van nodded, still sobbing as his body began to shiver. Stef gave the tail of the rope a sharp yank and the knot came free. He tossed the rope to the side and gathered his lifemate into his arms, pulled the blanket up and curled his body protectively around his lifemate’s, his hand caressing Van’s back in a gentle rhythm. “You’re safe here. I’ve got you.” He dropped a sweet kiss onto Van’s forehead. “I’ve got you.”

Stef held him as the fire died to nothing, whispering sweet nonsense in the warm cocoon of their blankets until the tears and shivers gave way to needed, peaceful sleep.

A few candlemarks later, Stef felt Van begin to stir and was instantly awake himself, turning up the flame on the lantern and gently stroking Van’s arm as he became aware again. “Can you drink some water for me, ke’chara?”  

Vanyel nodded, and Stef pressed a cup into his hands, helping to keep it steady as his bondmate drank deeply. “Thank you. I mean—Not just for the water—I don’t know what happened. I’m sorry for—”

“I do know what happened, and you have nothing to be sorry for, ke’chara.” Stef took the empty cup from Van’s hands and returned it to the table. “I knew what you needed from the moment you knelt for me, and I wanted to give it to you.” He kissed Van’s forehead again. “Thank you for trusting me. How are you feeling?”

“Better.” He smiled self-consciously. “More than a little—raw, but better.”

“Raw in more ways than one, I’ll bet.” Stef looked down at him affectionately. “Can you roll over for me? I need to clean a few of those welts.”

Van complied, hiding his face in his folded arms as Stef grabbed Van’s saddlebag from under the bed and dug for the first aid kit he knew the Herald kept there. He dabbed some witch hazel on the worst areas as Van hissed with the sting. “Want me to take the ache away?”

“No.” Van murmured into the mattress. “I want to feel it.” 

“I figured you’d say that, but thought I ought to offer anyway. He finished up quickly, stowed the kit away, and settled back into bed. Van cuddled up into his shoulder, and Stef reached for his hand, sliding a finger gently under the cuff still buckled around Vanyel’s wrist to check the tightness again, fairly certain he already knew the answer to his next question. “Want these off?”

Van shook his head. “Can I keep them a while longer, milord?”

“Of course, ke’chara.” Stef kissed his lips softly. “We can leave them for the morning.”

Van buried his face in Stef’s chest, content to hide from the world a while longer.

“Do I even want to know how you got these?” Vanyel asked as Stef unbuckled the cuffs when they woke in the morning. 

“Bought ‘em. Easy enough, if you know where to go.” Van shot him a concerned look. “Don’t worry. I was careful.” He shrugged. “Oim quite sure, milord, that tha prop’ytor wouldna hae thunk ‘at ‘is majesty’s bard’d ‘e lookin’ ‘en talkin’ rough ‘en spottin’ molly’ouse chits ta se’tle tha fee fer brothel ‘ack.” 

“I have half a mind to tell the palace spymaster you can do that!” Van burst out laughing. “But I have to admit that I don’t have any idea what you just said!”

Stef grinned. “I said that I’m sure that the shopkeeper wouldn’t think that the king’s bard would be scruffy, speaking street cant, and paying for equipment used in brothels with tokens from a shaych bar.”

“I would hope not!” Van grinned. “And I’m not asking where you got the tokens.” 

Stef shrugged. “Bottom of my old lute bag. I did have a life before I met you, lover.”

Van smiled “You have no idea how grateful I am that you did!”

Stef’s expression became serious. “Ke’chara, we do need to talk about what happened last night.”

“I’m sorry, Stef—I wasn’t thinking. I shouldn’t have used mindspeech without your permission.”

“Bloody hells, Van! You think I give a rat’s arse about that?” Stef took both of Van’s hands in his own. “You communicated with me. You did what I told you to do. When you got to the point where you couldn’t say it aloud, you said it in the best way you could.” He tightened his grip on Van’s hands. “You always have permission to tell me what you need, if you want to let me know something, do it. Write it down. Speak it. Talk in my head. It’s all fine, and I’ll be pleased you’re doing it at all. Van—“ Stef searched his mind for the right words. “What I wanted to talk about is what you did to yourself to get so emotionally tied in knots that you begged me to beat the tears out of you?” 

“I didn’t do anything.” 

Stef looked at him disbelievingly. 

“Really. I didn’t do anything.” Van let his head flop back onto the pillow. “That was the problem. I was hoping that if I just kept busy and didn’t think too much about it, that the—The pain of losing Randi, that it’d just become something I got used to. So I threw myself into looking after Jisa at the Bell so I wouldn’t—I didn’t want to start crying because it felt like I’d never stop.  Then I just started doing everything I could, even if it should’ve been delegated, just to stay busy. And the more I tried not to think about it, the more I couldn’t not think about it.”

“Van, ke’chara, is that the first time you’ve cried since Randi died?” Stef asked softly, brushing Van’s hair off his forehead. 

The Herald nodded. “I miss him, Stef. Shavri, too.”

“What was he like? I mean before he got sick?” 

“I have so many stories. There was this one time, before he met Shavri, before he was even Heir. He was still the Queen’s grandson, and just wanted to go out for a drink, so he decided we would get dressed up in guard’s uniforms—” Vanyel dove into telling the story, and soon both Bard and Herald had dissolved into fits of laughter on the bed.