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Once Duke Ariabart Tytania was safely within the confines of his apartments, he sagged against the door in heavy resignation. One by one, he pulled his fingers from his uniform gloves and dropped them casually on the entrance-way table.

He hadn’t expected Lord Idris or Lord Zalish to support him in the debriefing with Clan Lord Ajman. The defeat he suffered at the Battle of Cerebus, at the hands of that unknown, upstart, inexperienced, no-name admiral of Euria’s fleet, was humiliating enough. But to be thrown to the wolves by his kinsmen and left adrift on his own? It was beyond his ability to comprehend. Tytania’s greatness rested with a united front. This was more than he could bear.

The worst of all? That Lord Ajman had grounded him.

This wasn’t something he would get over with simple ‘reflection upon his defeat’. There were higher threads being woven, larger plans in the works and Ariabart knew he had just been shoved to the bottom tier of the political structure within his clan.

He was a war hero. A brilliant tactician and one of the premiere commanders of Tytania’s navy. He had won countless battles and commanded the shining star of the fleet, the flagship The Golden Sheep.

Now he was wingless. Fleeceless, he mused in dark humor

He moved numbly through his quarters and, with a wave of his hand, dismissed his valet who rushed in to attend him. Ariabart needed to be alone, to gather his reserves and to, quite frankly, figure out a way to put himself back on the political map.

What devastated him most were Lord Jouslain’s hard words before the meeting. Although Jouslain apologized later for them, they couldn’t have come at a worse time. Said in front of Idris and Zalish and apologized for in private, it lent credibility to the other dukes’ chastisement of Ariabart’s failure.

A sharp knock at the door brought him from his spiraling thoughts. He frowned. The valet had already gone. There was no one to answer and send whoever it was away. He was hardly in the mood for company now.

The knock was persistent and the presence beyond the wood grew heavy in the air. They would not go away, Ariabart felt that to his bones. His only hope was that it wasn’t Idris, with his beautiful countenance and cruel bearing. Forced to wipe that smug smile off the young duke’s face would be a mistake and make his position even that more tenuous.

Bracing for it, Ariabart squared his shoulders and opened the door. “Lord Jouslain,” he said.

“You seem surprised to see me, Lord Ariabart.”

“I was expecting-” Ariabart opened the door further. “It doesn’t matter. Please come in.”

“You are taking this harder than I expected if it is you answering your door and not your man.” Jouslain looked Ariabart over and lifted an eyebrow. “Is it wise to be alone now?”

Ariabart motioned Jouslain to take a seat and went to the bar, pouring two glasses of wine. “I’ve never lost a battle before, Jouslain. You know that.” Of all the dukes of the clan, Ariabart felt the closest ‘kinship’ to the young man.

While each of the four dukes entertained fancies of being named next in line for Clan Lord, there was no denying that of them all, Jouslain stood the best chance. For reasons Ariabart didn’t understand, or think too hard upon, he was glad for that. It took the pressure off him and allowed him to focus on his military career.

A career that was in tatters at the moment.

Jouslain took the wine and held it to the light. The glass swirled gently, sending the liquid in soft, circular cascades of red before he took a sip. “Something tells me you aren’t just talking about Cerebus.”

“No.” Ariabart studied his own glass before he moved to sit next to Jouslain on the couch.

“It’s not unsalvageable. His Highness seemed to have a better grasp on the situation than either Zalish or Idris, which surprised me about Zalish. He is usually more astute than that when it comes to battle tactics,” Jouslain said.

Ariabart couldn’t keep his sigh from sounding so resigned. “Perhaps because he was more intent on putting up a united front with Idris to humiliate me in front of Lord Ajman.”

“He’s always been jealous Lord Ajman gave you command of The Golden Sheep.”

“So it was obvious to you, too?” Ariabart chuckled and drank deeply from his wine glass.

Jouslain laughed with him. “It was.”

With a flick of his wrist, Ariabart finished his drink and rose to gain another. He heard movement behind him, caught by surprise when Jouslain reached around him to lower the decanter. “I don’t think getting drunk is the way to deal with what troubles you.”

Ariabart didn’t turn. He pursed his lips, biting off many angry retorts. The last thing he wanted was to alienate the one duke left in the clan who could still support him. “My fencing trainer isn’t due back for another week. My options for releasing this,” he waved his hand in frustration, “are rather slim since Lord Ajman will not allow me to leave Uraniborg.”

A tug on his arm turned him to face Jouslain. Their proximity violated personal space and Ariabart could see the wide pupils in Jouslian’s violet eyes. Lust couldn’t have been more obvious if came with flashing letters. It fed into Ariabart’s tumultuous emotional state. The heat between their bodies rose noticeably and his breath quickened with a sharp inhale.

Social decorum dictated that men of their social standing kept a physical distance between them. The reasoning was a tangle of varied and complex rules Ariabart followed but never liked. Standing this close, however, brought into sharp relief his physical reaction to Jouslain. It spiked through his body with a sharp pang that radiated from his solar plexus and made it quite easy for him to drop through the pretenses of propriety.

Jouslain wound the long lock of Ariabart's hair around one gloved finger. "There are other ways to release tension, Ariabart," he whispered.

Ariabart's lips parted in response. Nothing came but the impulse to breathe in Jouslain's intoxicating presence. A visceral pang shot through him again. The aching throb of wanting to move, to do something, anything, was a very real sensation under his skin. The reaction was automatic and without thought and he pressed their mouths together, hard and desperate.

Dry, red wine flavored their kiss, cool over his tongue until warmed by Jouslain’s reaction. One hand pulled on his uniform jacket, holding him fast. Ariabart didn’t need to be held fast. Something broke within him and spilled upward to flood his chest in a very primal grip.

Presence of mind slowly asserted itself and Ariabart pulled away with heavy reluctance. There was no hiding the flush to his cheeks or the desire that was surely rolling off his body in waves, because the matching tension of need pulsed through him.

He searched Jouslain’s eyes, gauged every nuance of his expression. It was important that he didn’t misread the situation, even if his body screamed for him to throw caution to the wind.

The corners of Jouslain's wine-stained lips lifted in a smile. He tugged on Ariabart's hair and pulled until their mouths touched again. A simple knee-lift had Jouslain rubbing his thigh against Ariabart’s erection and they swallowed a soft murmur of approval between them.

There was no misreading that.

Ariabart lost himself in the hungry kiss. The feelings of frustration mounted further. Impotence over his situation clawed at him, dragging long, raking furrows in his patience. Jouslain wanted this; he needed this and suddenly the long trek across the living room floor to his bedroom was the length of a light year, complicating his desires and needs into one tangled knot.

Clothing shed along the way, Jouslain was in control and saw that no obstacles barred them from further action until they were at his bedroom door.

The silly notion that Ariabart should close the door flittered through his desire-drunk mind. He lived alone. He had just given his valet the day off. Who could interfere? Jouslain read the situation clearly and broke their kiss long enough to hook his boot on the door. It slammed shut with such force that it ricocheted through his body in time with the smashing tattoo of his heart.

They separated long enough to rid the final impediments to bare skin. Caught for a moment, Ariabart took the time to rake his gaze down Jouslain’s body.

All soldiers within the clan, even when acting as diplomats, took care of themselves. Their uniforms gave them the protective coloration they relied on when dealing outside the clan. Even within the ‘family’, it helped to establish their niches, especially when vying for position of favor with Lord Ajman.

For Ariabart’s part, his uniform was a function of military roles and his political might within the royal navy. The same could be said of Lord Zalish, also a military man. Lord Idris wore his as a cruel seduction, a beautiful peacock who used his protective coloration to throw off his prey, right before the devastating blow.

Of them all, Jouslain appeared the most at home in his uniforms; a natural extension of the ease with which he carried himself. Truly worthy of the next clan leader.

Now, he was out of uniform in the most carnal sense and he still held the same command and presence. His hands held that to the true with how skillfully they moved over Ariabart’s body and pulled all manner of lascivious sounds from his mouth.

“I do hope you have something, Ariabart,” Jouslain whispered against his chest. A wet tongue flicked at his nipple and he jerked from the sensational shock that pounded through him. The wicked way Jouslain’s mouth moved over his skin, Ariabart was seriously starting to question his control, and that ‘something’ wouldn’t be of much use if Jouslain kept that up.

“The bedside table,” Ariabart managed to respond. The thick desire that drenched his voice surprised him.

Jouslain’s answering smile said he heard it as well. He picked up the bottle and inspected it just as he had the wine. “Just like a soldier. Always prepared.”

“Ah, well…” There was no real good reply to that. Usually so busy with his duties, Ariabart had little time to seek out bed partners. He had the occasional tryst with the other officers when in space but it was nothing that spilled over to shore leave, save a fast trip to the red light district when there was time. It left him to his own devices to see to pressing needs of the body when home for longer lengths of time.

Nor did he have the time to respond before Jouslain’s mouth was on his again and any cogent thoughts about anything fell beneath the assault.

There was nothing awkward about how they fell into bed, or how the linens tangled into disarray. No push or pull for dominance, it was as natural as breathing. Ariabart needed this, needed to have control, needed to drive the action and the motion, to take back what was stripped from him. Jouslain picked this up without negotiation, closing Ariabart’s fingers around the bottle and giving a gentle push. “It’s been a while for me,” was the only thing he said before relaxing against the mattress.

The bottle lost somewhere amongst the sheets when Ariabart finished, he guided Jouslain to his knees and entered him with measured precision. Mindful of Jouslain’s comfort, his fingers reflexively clenched and flexed on the narrow hips to pull them until their bodies met.

Ariabart leaned over Jouslain, braced on one hand and pressed his lips to one shoulder blade. It was a ground to connect them, even as their bodies warmed together through the slow cadence of his thrusts; used to gauge how quickly Jouslain would accept his intrusion.

With only a soft sigh to go by and the dipping of Jouslain’s head when he lowered to rest on crossed wrists, Ariabart proceeded without hesitation.

Restraint finally broke within and Ariabart released the last locks on his reserve. The fury with which they came together stole his breath, and that Jouslain took the energetic thrusts without complaint allowed the frustration to win free and find expression.

Sweat soaked his hair and pooled along Jouslain’s spine, giving their bodies a slick sheen in the soft yellow light of his bedroom. It eased the furor between them, their bodies colliding with increasing intensity until the pulsing roar of blood in Ariabart’s ears drowned out all other sounds.

He might have heard Jouslain’s warnings about being close, or perhaps it was just instinctive to take the young duke’s cock in hand and jacked him off with the same furious, pounding energy that overtook his sensibilities.

When his orgasm hit, it crashed against him – a blindside slamming force that jackknifed his body and he locked into non-movement. He emptied into the spasming body beneath him, a blessed, gracious release that sapped him of the pent up worry that had settled heavily over his shoulders. With every throb he felt it dissipate, leaving behind the velutinous curtain of languid satiation draped across his limbs.

Vaguely, he could feel the heated expression over his fingers and the throbbing that slipped along his palm. It brought him to ground again, amid their heaving breaths. He felt Jouslain’s thighs quivering against his.

They stayed like they were, each man trying to find their center until their legs and arms could no longer hold them up. Jouslain reached behind and placed a warm hand on Ariabart’s hip. His fingers dug into flesh and he started slowly to ease down onto the bed until Ariabart was certain of his intentions and went easily with him.

At the last moment, he tipped them to their sides and spooned Jouslain, arms wrapped around him in a tight embrace. His lips sought the sweaty neck and he kissed lightly from spine to jaw, seeking silent forgiveness.

Jouslain’s fingers combed through his damp hair and pulled his head closer, turning to kiss Ariabart. Lingering and gentle, there was no rush or hurry in the touch of their mouths. Just the equally silent acceptance of what had happened between them. He pulled away and pressed his lips to Ariabart’s temple. “Now, you will stop worrying and we will figure out a way for you to gain Lord Ajman’s favor again.”

Too exhausted to argue, Ariabart nodded and settled comfortably behind Jouslain. He counted the deep breaths he took to force further relaxation and lost count before double digits as he slipped into a deep sleep.

***

Francia refreshed Lord Jouslain’s drink from the pitcher and took up her place again. His lordship was reflective and quiet and had been unusually so since he’d returned from his meeting with the Duke Ariabart. He stared out over the estate grounds as the sun slowly sank beneath the Uraniborg horizon, chin resting on his hand and as unmoving as the statuary that graced the halls of his residence.

She finally could brook the silence no longer. “Did the meeting go well with his lordship?”

“Yes,” came the noncommittal reply.

“Can the situation be salvaged, my lord?”

“Perhaps. It’s still uncertain,” he said after another long silence. Jouslain shifted in his seat and transferred from one arm of the chair to the other, falling back into his thoughtful repose. Finally, he broke from his thoughts. “Yes. It can.” He gave Francia a small smile. “It will take patience to wait until the proper moment, but yes.”

To see him finally out of his dark state, Francia’s expression brightened. “I’m sure you will be able to help him.”

“Let’s hope he has the patience to wait it out.” He stood and strode briskly away from the pavilion, as if he’d always been in motion. “I have something to investigate. I’ll be in my study. No disturbances until dinner, Francia.”

She bowed demurely as he passed. “Yes, my lord.”