The acid energy of the Gate lingered near Vanyel, and his body felt peculiarly numb. He wasn't sure how he'd passed through Krebain's Gate. Maybe he carried me, he thought - and the thought of being swept up in Krebain's arms confounded him. The man was alluring, yes, but the thought of being so close to him was unnerving.
He looked up into Krebain's blue-black eyes, and saw concern there in among the hunger. "It hurts you, to pass through a Gate? How strange. But we could hardly depart by any other means," and he smiled wide. "I needed to take you far, far away from them, Vanyel."
That's as I pledged. That if he left Covia alone, I'd go with him. Vanyel sought nothing else of what Krebain had promised to him - riches and revenge meant very little to him now. He only wanted the village to be safe. And it was as well if they'd Gated far away from Covia; at such distance, surely he could persuade the mage from preying on the villagers again. I'll keep him distracted.
"Where are we?" he asked. The room they were in looked like a Work Room, but not so plain as the Work Rooms that Savil or Starwind kept. The walls were covered in strange runes and pictures, and in the centre was a raised stone block with a spiral carved on its surface. The air smelt strange - almost metallic. Vanyel reached with his mind - and encounted another spell-shield not far away. So he still couldn't speak to Yfandes, even to tell her goodbye - well, hopefully the villagers would tell Savil what had happened.
Krebain threw the room's carved-oak door open grandly. "This is one of my many hideaways," he replied. He took Vanyel's arm, and Van tried not to flinch as the mage led him into a great round room with high-peaked rafters. Sunlight shone through thin window slits, scoring sharp lines across a marble floor. The room looked to be something of a parlour, something of a bedchamber; against one wall, he saw a bed strewn with sumptuous pillows.
He shivered, and wasn't sure if it was from fear or from the thought of Krebain's beauty. The mage raised his helm from his head, and white-gold hair fell around his shoulders. Vanyel wanted to touch it, see how soft it was, play with it in the sunlight, but he didn't dare move. Everything about him is so magnetically attractive...
Krebain raised a hand to his own mouth and bit the tip of his scarlet glove between his teeth. Slowly, he pulled his hand free.
Van had thought, somehow, that Krebain's theatrical costume was a masquerade and that what lay underneath could not be more peculiar than what he had seen - but he was evidently wrong. Krebain's fingers curved strangely, as if he had too many knuckles, and his nails were curved and black. That could be simple artifice - Vanyel had seen more peculiar nails gracing the hands of Court ladies - but the closer Krebain stepped to him, the less confident Vanyel was of his humanity.
And yet, the more enraptured by his beauty.
Krebain reached out a hand to caress him. A touch like cold, polished steel - scales and claws, nothing human - and he leaned into it even as part of him was frantic to draw away.
But he couldn't.
It's the pledge I made. That's why I can't stop this.
"Vanyel, rare one, pure of heart. I want to keep you that way always," Krebain whispered. "You will be my greatest treasure. Who ever knew such a beautiful man would be so willing to give himself away for others." His tonguetip slipped between his lips, hissing the final word. "Your will might be the loveliest thing about you. I'll never take it from you. Now, let me look at you," he said, and his clawed hand ran down Vanyel's neck, catching at his throat-latch. Vanyel stared at him stupidly, and he laughed. It was the most musical sound Vanyel had ever heard a human make; but then he remembered - he isn't human. A flick of that slender wrist, and Van's cloak fell down from his shoulders. "Let me look, Vanyel. Take those clothes off," Krebain urged.
The mage shook his head gently, as if he'd made some foolish mistake. "You've nought to fear, Vanyel. I won't let you feel cold. I won't let anyone else hurt you. I give you my solemn word." Something about the way he'd said it unsettled Vanyel - but he had no sense that Krebain was lying. "And you know the worth of the words of an Adept, don't you?"
"Yes," he breathed. Words could bind, could enspell.
"And you gave your word that you would be mine."
"Yes," and that was all of him - he couldn't recall any other pledge or purpose in his life.
"So it will be," Krebain smiled down at him. "Of your own will, you are my own. Your will is to serve my will in all things. And I know you very much want to show yourself to me," and his closeness and his beauty set Vanyel trembling. Yes, of course he wanted to unlace his clothes and display himself to Krebain - all he'd needed was to hear the mage's command.
He yanked his tunic and his layers of shirts over his head, and as he shook his hair from his eyes he looked up into Krebain's wide smile. It was a relief to know that his body could bring Krebain such delight. I can make him happy. I can satisfy him, keep him from doing any more evil.
He pulled off his snowboots with shaking hands, and as he unfastened his breeches, Krebain's hands fell upon his shoulders. The strange, smooth touch of his fingers, the cold points of his claws, sent a thrill running all through him. He let Krebain steer him backwards, until his heels collided with that opulent bed. "Pure one," he murmured, pushing Vanyel down until they sat together. The palm of his hand slipped downward, spreading over Vanyel's chest. His nipple flushed hard against the touch. So gentle - so smooth and cold, like polished jade. "I see I please you," he murmured, and Vanyel felt like fire was running though his loins. Great gods, Krebain was so beautiful. "I would have you please me too."
"That is my will," he heard himself say. It is, it is. And he knew how to please a man. His hands fell to Krebain's hips, running over the tight leather of his breeches. Vanyel cupped the warm swell of him, and Krebain's lips parted at the sight of his willingness, showing his sharp teeth.
Slowly, he leaned forward and engulfed Vanyel's lips with his own.
It was slower than their first kiss, much more gentle. For all the fire it stoked inside him, Krebain's touch was as soft and numbing as snow. Vanyel could feel it spreading through him, and it was like his pledge was breathing its way into life. This was what he had sworn himself to - this pleasure, this need for Krebain's closeness.
A claw touched his chin, sliding up to his lips and pulling them a finger's-breadth apart. "One thing you must know," Krebain said lightly, as if it were nothing. "It would please me to hear you call me Master." And he laid back into the soft featherbed, opening his breeches with a flicker of his strange, dexterous hands. "Please me well, and you will be rewarded."
"Yes - master." He hesitated over the word - what am I saying? - but then he felt himself caught in its gravity. It seemed so right, to describe what Krebain was to him. "Of course, Master." The mage's dark eyes slitted thin, and Vanyel reached for his rising cock.
It was as sinfully, exquisitely sculpted as the rest of Krebain's body. Vanyel's hands shook with profane reverence as he put his hands gently to the smooth, scimitar-curve of it. I must please him well, he reminded himself, and ran his hands along its length - which was more than he'd ever seen a man to sport. Even the loose skin over it felt more wonderful than was possible, as tight as oiled snakeskin. The thickness of it made his mouth water. It's bigger than Lendel's - but I can still... Vanyel bent his head, and wrapped his mouth around the tip.
Krebain exhaled, and Vanyel felt a sudden surge of warmth and pleasure. I'm an Empath now, he thought stupidly. Moondance had, in fact, hinted to him of the benefits of being able to sense how you made someone else feel. And his master felt good - like Van had done something right - I please him - and he shifted to lick further down the thick shaft of him. That was the right thing to do. He tightened his hands about the parts of Krebain's cock that his mouth couldn't reach, and the waves of satisfaction were like sunshine between his hands. It wasn't what he'd shared with Lendel - but he couldn't think of that now.
Clawtips combed at his hair. Krebain's fingers tightened on his scalp, and he could think of nothing more. His eyes slipped closed, and he let his master tug his head up and down on the thick cock that was the centre of all pleasure. Up. Down. And tighter, further down, the head of it pushing at the back of his mouth - and he sputtered, desperate for air.
His master laughed gently. "You'll learn, lovely Vanyel." As he fought for breath, Krebain rested a hand on his cheek, and spread his fingers wide - and with a flash they raked across his face. Pain stung through him, and he cried out. "Shh," and Krebain cupped his face gently, his hands only soothing again. "A little hurt will help train you in giving pleasure." He eased Vanyel back into his place - kneeling between the mage's open legs - and as his hands pulled away again, Vanyel saw three thin lines of blood cross Krebain's palm.
Not good enough - and he fought his rising panic. He had to please Krebain. The pain of the scratches was inconsequential, but he couldn't bear the thought of disappointing his beautiful master. He bowed his head and opened his lips around Krebain's cock again, hands moving frantically in an effort to make up for his shortcomings. He took it in as deep as he dared - then back, tightening his lips, dipping his tongue into the open eye. And down again. Further this time. He felt the joy of Krebain's response, and let it pull him into the rhythm, up and down and tighter, his hands clenching with the pulse of it, and then claws tight in his hair kept him still as he tasted the first salty tears of his victory.
It pounded through him. Krebain shook under his hands, and he held Vanyel down hard as seed filled the back of his mouth. "Swallow," Krebain murmured his command lightly as he relaxed his grip. Vanyel obeyed him. It was different - bitter - but he was so glad to have it, as proof that he had pleased his master.
He watched Krebain breathe deeply, and rise to his feet again - such feline, serpentine grace. "I promised I'd reward you," Krebain smiled, and Vanyel saw there was something in his hand - a thread of gold. A thin charm-chain. "Be still," Krebain commanded, and reached down Vanyel's body to take his penis in one clawed hand. Van gasped, fighting the need to lean into the rough touch - but he couldn't. That wasn't what had been asked of him. Krebain stroked him with cold clawtips, down to the base of him, cupping his balls in one hand, and Vanyel heard a soft click as the tiny chain locked into place behind them. "A gift for you," Krebain said. "I hope you like it. You certainly shouldn't try to remove it," - and no, Vanyel would never do that.
The door opened just a crack, as if the person beyond it was wary of visitors. They certainly lived off the Palace's beaten paths, in a set of rooms behind the Heraldic library that had been intended as a quiet study retreat, not as living quarters. The hallway outside had retained its austere character; none of the rich oaken panelling or fancy carving that Stef had seen in the rest of the Herald's Wing, the envy of his apprentice garret in the Bardic Collegium.
"Bard Stefen? Shavri told me to expect you." Herald-Mage Savil opened the door just wide enough for Stefen and his gittern to pass through. "Let me see if he's awake." Savil swept away from Stefen and crossed the room to knock on a very plain, very solid-looking door. "Van, we have a visitor," she called, and turned back to him. "You may as well take a seat. He'll need a moment to dress," she explained. "Vanyel doesn't like to wear clothes when he's alone. One of his habits," and she shrugged at Stef's wide eyes as if that were the least of her troubles.
Which, from all he'd heard, it might well be.
Stefen perched himself on a hard wooden chair by the hearth. He felt somewhere between intruding and mortified, but Savil appeared immune to his discomfort. Or just apathetic. He even wondered if she was enjoying watching him squirm. They'd met before, but only in passing; she was the great-aunt of his old roommate, Medren, and he'd sometimes seen her visit Randale to act as his advisor. Stef had heard she used to be part of the Council, but these days she didn't seem to do much but watch over Vanyel like a guard-dog. Not to attend to his care, which any servant could have done.
No, Medren had told him it was because Vanyel was dangerous. To himself, primarily, but not only to himself. Stef noticed, uneasily, that everything in the room he sat in was replaceable - plain linen curtains, worn furniture that was probably cast-off by someone else. Savil, too, looked more worn than her reputed years would make sense of.
She shook her head at him. "Well, I suppose I should thank you for humouring Shavri."
Savil sighed heavily. "She is the King's Own, and that gives her a duty of care toward Vanyel. Before Randale deteriorated, she tried to heal him...and she wasn't best pleased when those efforts came to nothing." Stef chewed silently at the inside of his cheek. Shavri had a tendency to stake herself on her responsibilities to others, and Randale's worse days set her bubbling with frustration. He often wondered how different she might be if she'd ever been able to have children. "Maybe he'll appreciate the music," she continued. "But I'm done expecting any miracle cures for Vanyel's mind."
Stef shrugged, trying not to show how her lack of faith stung him. "They told me that about Randale."
"Succeed at one impossible job, and they give you another one? That's the way of things for Heralds," she muttered. "His pain isn't like Randale's. So forgive me if I warn you that this is probably a fool's errand."
"Then what is it like?" Stef asked, perplexed.
"It doesn't have a physical cause. It's magical," she replied, and glanced at the door warily. "I think it's time to introduce you now. Just hold still while I shield you." She took his hands in hers, and Stefen felt a tingling sensation run all over him. Shield him from what? "Van," she called out, and walked to the very plain door. "I'd like you to meet Bard Stefen - Medren's friend." Stefen saw her wave her hand, and she opened the door slowly.
Inside, he saw solid stone, illuminated by some thin light he couldn't see. He felt oddly like he was stepping into a legend - a story he'd cut his teeth on, singing on the streets a decade ago.
The Lost One.
The newly-chosen Herald who'd vanished somewhere so deep in the Pelagirs that not even his own Companion could find him.
According to all the songs, she still wandered there, searching every spell-wracked moor and every monster-infested valley, her lonely hoofbeats crossing broken ground that no human had trod since before the Mage Wars. Those stories had haunted Stef's childhood. They had no end, so Stef had always imagined one. A joyful reunion after countless battles and adventures. Or a bittersweet tragedy, meeting again only to slip away.
But five years ago, Yfandes had found her lost Herald. And no one wanted to sing about it any more.
He startled at the sound of the door thudding closed behind him. The strange light faded, and for a second he was in total darkness. Blue light flashed near him, and a candle ignited. "I'm sorry." The voice sounded raspy, as if it were little-used. "I normally use mage-lights - saves the air, but I'm told that others find them strange."
Stef blinked, and stepped further into the gloom. To save the air? The room seemed completely sealed - he wondered if it was one of the Work Rooms that the Herald-Mages used to study spells. He'd never heard of someone living in one, though. "I, uh, I wouldn't mind that," he said. "I'm used to strange -"
Ahead of him, another candle sprang to life. Vanyel stared straight at him, as if to pierce Stefen through with his eyes.
He froze in surprise. The stories had somehow omitted to mention the Lost One's beauty.
Candlelight flickered against Vanyel's face, making his fine features into a topography of gold and shadow. Stefen fought to regain his wits - this was not what he'd prepared himself to see. He thought someone who'd been lost in a magically-twisted wilderness for over a decade and who lived as a complete recluse would look, well, mad. Or at least unkempt and sickly. Vanyel was untouched by age, or by the ordeals he'd survived; save that the candlelight caught in threads of white hair at his temples, and his clothing was, to Stef's eye (lately trained by the most vicious Court harpies in their devil-tongued salons) about twenty years out of fashion.
Yet something in those silver eyes peturbed Stef so much he could barely meet Vanyel's gaze. Still lost, the thought came to him. He's not looking at me. He's somewhere else.
He collected himself, and blinked hard. "Pleased to meet you." He held out his arms in polite greeting, and Vanyel looked down at them as if unsure what to do.
"I don't touch people," he said eventually. Stef looked aside awkwardly. Right. Mad recluse. All that gorgeousness, and he can't even hold somoene's hand? No wonder Shavri feels awful for him. Stef glanced around, but there wasn't much to see. A bed - well, a mattress - and a stack of books beside it. Two chairs and a table, even plainer than those outside. No fireplace, but he supposed it wasn't too hard for a mage to keep warm, mad or no.
He sat beside Vanyel, and fumbled with his gittern-case. "I wanted to share some music with you -"
"Medren told me about you," Vanyel said. But of course he had. That might explain Savil's annoyance, if she thought Medren was raising false hopes for his uncle - but Vanyel hardly seemed enthused. And by all accounts, Medren's calls upon his uncle were only a familial courtesy. "You play for the King," he continued.
"I have that honour," Stef said politely. He hesitated, but Medren seemed to be a point of mutual interest. "Medren told me he used to play your old lute. He said you love music -"
"I used to," Vanyel said distantly, as if he was talking about someone else.
That unsettled Stef more than anything else that had yet transpired. How would you stop loving music? He tuned his instrument in nervous silence; smalltalk didn't seem to be of use. "Well, if there's anything you'd like to request -"
"No," and Stef bit back his annoyance. No wonder Medren doesn't visit him much - doesn't he know I'm trying to help?
He wondered if he ought to admit Savil was right and just leave, but he fingered a few chords out of stubbornness. The Windrider songs had been popular enough twenty years ago - so maybe -
It was so easy, when he sang, to follow the rhythm to the depths of himself, to let the song live through him. A torrent that began from him and carried him along as it went. It let him inside people. It took their senses, and turned their hearts.
Deep enough, and it took away their pain.
Does it have to be physical? He didn't know. He didn't know how it worked, and for all the Healers' prodding and blather, neither did anyone else. No one understands how my Gift works. No one understands how to heal your pain. So I won't let anyone tell me they know I can't help you -
His last note hung in the air, and he dared to open his eyes and take a look at its effects.
Vanyel was clutching his elbows, and tears ran from his eyes. Focused, lucid eyes. He seemed to be struggling for words, lost and buried words that had never been needed between these stone walls. And Stef felt the pain coiling, trying to ebb back into him, and he didn't want to see Vanyel hurt so he began another song. And it was hard, even harder than easing Randale's pain, because Randale's senses all worked and his feelings, his reason, were right there where the song could simply use them, without this struggle to rebuild the bare instincts that channelled his music. He felt like he was stringing and tuning the instrument even while playing it. Like trying to compose music even as he sang. But the more he fought, the easier it came, the simpler it was to reach the pain and take it away.
And every time he paused, he felt the whole thing unravel again.
He was exhausted when Savil came for him, his trance disrupted by her shaking at his shoulders. Vanyel had hunched himself against the wall, candlelight shining on the tear-streaks that ran down his cheeks. Stef tried to stand, and it was fortunate that Savil was there to catch him. His energy was so spent he didn't even know how he'd still been playing.
"Thank you," Vanyel whispered. He stretched out a hand, then pulled it back as if he'd reached too close to a fire.
"My pleasure," wavered Stef tiredly. He looked back as he let Savil lead him out - Vanyel's head had dropped into his folded arms, and the candle beside him went out. What had he done? What had he brought into Vanyel's peculiar, constrained life?
The room looked like a prison cell, Stef realised.
Krebain had been away from him. That was the worst, most frightening experience in Vanyel's world now, something darker than the twisted night sky outside. He had no purpose, no will, beyond his choice to serve Krebain. Only the hope of seeing his master again had kept him sane through the barren nights of his absence. Krebain had to leave him sometimes, he knew - so many important matters demanded his attention. Often, it was merely for a few hours, and Vanyel would sleep them away dreamlessly. But this time, their parting had been longer - days of nothingness, no touches, no pleasure and no pain, no one paying any heed to him save for the dull-eyed servants who bathed him and brought him food.
When Krebain returned, not even the searing pain of the Gate-energy stopped Vanyel from throwing himself at his master's feet. He apologised immediately, kissing his master's boots and pleading his forgiveness for his neediness. He begged for another chance to please him. If he were to please his master enough, perhaps he'd not be left alone again?
Krebain was weary and in need of satisfaction, and Vanyel immediately offered his mouth for the mage's pleasure. The taste of his master's cock, salt-smooth, the bitter musk of him, the strange softness of his hair, immediately made him feel whole again. He'd felt so bereft, so purposeless without Krebain. He existed to serve his master's will. It seemed very strange to think that he'd ever dreamed of anything more than this service, when this was what truly fulfilled him. Had he really once cared about choosing nice clothes? Now he wore nothing but his master's generosities. The gold chain around his penis that claimed it as Krebain's possession. The heavy, jewelled ornament that Krebain had placed in his ass to stretch and tease him, to keep his body ready for his master's use.
His body was so very needy; as he knelt low with the taste of Krebain in his mouth, prostrating himself, his cock brushed a slick liquid kiss on the marble floor. Touching it without his master's permission was worse than unthinkable - the chain that bound its base would allow him no release save at Krebain's word. Not only that, but Krebain would know should he try, and would punish him with pain and torments and touches to make him needier, a purgatory of denial. Thus Vanyel was trained and guided by his master's great power. His yearning for release would only make him love his master more.
"Vanyel," Krebain crooned, "Your mouth has been both skilled and willing today." He nodded his thanks for the praise - truly, his lips were too tired to form words. "I would like to see you find your pleasure with my cock deep inside you."
He trembled with gratitude. Such a reward - for Krebain to fuck him and to allow him release - was a rare thing, and Vanyel was hardly worthy of it. He smiled up at his master in anticipation. "I will, of course, need you to be very willing with me. There is something you have yet to offer me," and his teeth spread hungrily.
Vanyel flinched, confused. But he'd give anything to his master. "I - I apologise. Whatever you have need of -"
"I need your magical power, pure one. You do nothing with it, and never could. You will let me drain it from you."
But of course - of course his power belonged to Krebain - but the thought wrenched at him. Hadn't his power once - was it once used to help someone? Someone weak, who didn't matter - if they mattered, I would be able to remember. Only Krebain matters. But this was something deeply his - somehow more personal than even his body. He instinctively knew that to allow Krebain to take the magical power in his reserves was to remove part of who he was.
Yet - why shouldn't Krebain do that? His master was right - that power was was wasted inside Vanyel, and would be better used to serve his master's glory. It's just another barrier I have, that I shouldn't have. I didn't understand the first time he whipped me, either, but now I know how that's for my own good.
"Yes, master," he said. As he always said. And he bowed his head to kiss Krebain's feet again, as his master liked him to do when he offered something.
Krebain grasped his arm, clawed nails digging hard into Vanyel's flesh. The touch stoked his need - he understood now why he needed to be hurt, why both pain and pleasure were gifts from Krebain that brought fulfilment. "Then come here. I'll make this easy for you," and he pulled Vanyel to their bed. He knew what that meant now, and sure enough, his golden cuffs were in Krebain's hands. They were so masterfully made - completely unbreakable, but so delicate in appearance, cast in fine gold and threaded with the dark pearls of Lake Evendim, spun from the gritty remnants of magical warfare. Only the most beautiful things would adorn a body that served Krebain. It was an honour to wear these shackels, he knew, and he was hardly worthy of it.
Vanyel knelt, and held out his arms in offering. Krebain bound his wrists, and curled the chain between them in his fists. Vanyel crawled obediently toward him, and his master fixed the chain to its hook at the head of the bed. Vanyel bent his head in gratitude for the kindness; it was a lot easier to accept new honours from his master if he was bound.
He remained still with his bound arms before him as he heard Krebain undress, and he felt the mage's fingertips tracing his shoulderblades, travelling his spine. Following that press of his nails, Vanyel felt a dark inner touch, raking against the base personal shields that protected his magical reserves. He felt ashamed, knowing it was truly wrong and disobedient of him to keep such shields when he knew he should always be naked before his master. Krebain's thighs wrapped around his own, and Vanyel tried to pull down those last protective walls, to let Krebain deep inside of him into all that's left all that's still safe all that remembers -
Vanyel's body jerked hard - the kind shackles all that kept him in place between his master's thighs. It was as if he had been pushing against a heavy door that kept pushing back. Inside him, tendrils of Krebain's energy lapped demandingly at that edge, and he felt his master's hand combing through his hair, gathering it together. "Be willing," the mage whispered in his ear. "You will be rewarded, should you be willing," and Krebain tugged at the jewelled ornament, its girth stretching Vanyel wide, left him gaping and empty. He felt the head of Krebain's cock - the cock that blessed and defined him - resting at his opening, and oh gods, this time it's oiled.
He daren't let his master down.
It was only a disobedient instinct. Just something else to un-learn. Like when he'd first made himself swallow Krebain's cock without gagging. If he wasn't able to please Krebain, how worthless would he be? He clenched his bound hands, and leaned his will against the door inside again.
No no NO! and Vanyel felt the shield crack -
He shuddered violently in his bonds, and his master's claw tightened in his hair, holding and hurting him. The rush of Krebain's energy passed through him, and the mutinous sanctuary inside of him fell numb and silent. Empty. Gaping open -
Krebain thrust into him, and pulled his head back.
His vision went black. He shrieked, arched and taut in Krebain's hands, nothing mattering any more except the cock impaled deep inside him, pounding the place where he needed it so badly. Filling the stretched, wanting hole, completing him. And all the heat and fire in him was worth nothing, less than nothing, next to the feeling that Krebain wanted him, wanted to take him and use him and ravage him.
His master relaxed his grip on Van's hair, and his head sagged against his bonds. Two hands at his hips, digging deep and furious as Krebain used him. If he'd been needy before, he was desperate now, swollen and dripping against his own thighs. And somewhere deep in the core of him, draining, Krebain's claws rending and taking, engulfing him, leaving him with nothing -
- as nothing -
He couldn't see, couldn't think. Could only give himself up to the deep, hard fucking that wracked his entire body. Krebain hissed in his ear, a sound that meant he was nearing release. "Take what you've earned, slut," and he pulled Vanyel back at the hips, wrenching him against his bonds as his master's permission shook through him, shattered his will to hold back. His whole body clenched tight, and the force of his climax pulsed all through him, thrumming through his throat, his ears, even his hands, everything in him spilling hot from his cock.
Krebain's arms wrapped around him, pushing him down, and Vanyel cried out as his master's pleasure overtook him.
He breathed deep, slowly feeling his body relax. He was so tired. Even as he lay, pliant, under his master's body, he felt like he was trying to support himself on something that wasn't there any more. Something he'd needed. No, all he needed was Krebain.
Krebain slipped out of him, and lay against Vanyel's shoulder. His master felt - bright and warm, like the sun through their windows. Made greater, by Vanyel's meagre offerings. He knew he'd given something - it had mattered once - it only mattered now it belonged to Krebain, as it should - he didn't know why it had ever troubled him. But the seed that covered him - his own on his belly, his master's seeping from his gaping hole - felt like evidence. Proof that Krebain truly wanted him, was truly pleased by him. That he was deserving of Krebain's cock.
Proof that he was worth nothing more.
(there is nothing else).
Stef had come to look forward to visiting Vanyel in a way he couldn't define. Exhausting though his efforts were, there was something dreamlike, almost indulgent about singing to the Lost One in his hidden cell. He could sing what he liked; Vanyel didn't mind his tastes. He'd begun from the old songs, things he thought Vanyel would be familiar with from childhood, and had moved on to modern variants, even some of his own songs. Nothing about the ongoing war.
He's changing, Stef thought, as their eyes caught in the low candlelight. More focused. I almost think he's glad to see me. They'd even talked a little last time; questions about Vanyel's childhood passion for music met only with confusion and silence, but simple technicalities - which version of Windrider Unchained he preferred, whether he knew the Kettlesmith variant - were allowed.
There were few greetings between them. Even the eye contact was something of a novelty. "Any requests?" he asked, as always, fumbling his lute from its case. Not his favourite twelve-stringed gittern today, but he had his reasons for that.
Vanyel shook his head - as always - and then hesitated. "I liked the one you sang yesterday about Sunsinger and Shadowdancer."
Stef decided not to tell him that he'd not been there in two days. He'd gathered that Vanyel wasn't best aware of time - and who would be, in this silent hole? Vanyel hardly seemed uncomfortable with his surroundings, but the Work Room made Stef feel stifled by silence on every side; the ceiling was as low as you'd find in a slum tenement, not far over Vanyel's head, and all six faces of the room were formed from thick stone. "You flatter me," he replied instead. "I wrote that one."
Vanyel's eyes widened. "I shouldn't be surprised. It fits your range so perfectly." He frowned, as he was wont to when trying to remember things. "Mine was lower, back then. I remember...after my voice broke, I couldn't sing Herald Nasha's Lament any more."
"That happened to Medren," Stef grinned. "He came up with a variant that works for him - I'll try to remember where it starts -"
"I don't sing," and Vanyel's voice wavered. "It's been years since..." He curled his hands, and Stefen wondered at a pain that drove away thought, drove away song. He always recognised pain - he didn't know whether it was part of his Gift, or due to years of carefully watching Berte for signals, but no one could hide it from him. There was enough of it in the world that he'd long ago grown hard to it; if he'd paid heed to every little ache and scrape, there'd be none of him left. There's a reason I concealed this Gift for years, and only let it show once I was sure I'd be well repaid for it. Without the prospect of reward, not even Breda's headaches had particularly concerned him.
But he couldn't think of leaving Vanyel in pain.
I'm spending too much time around Heralds. Either that, or Shavri's guilt is getting to me. Stefen played the opening notes of the song Vanyel had requested - the one he was more often told was too gloomy for good company - and let his Gift flow through the music. It is helping him. I see more and more of him every time I come in here. It's getting easier to reach his pain. And hells, if I can give him even a moment of peace and enjoyment - doesn't he deserve that, after so many lost years? That's not pity, exactly. I spent plenty of years struggling and suffering too. That's when music first came to matter so much to me.
As the songs went by, he saw the tension drain out of Vanyel's posture. I feel like I'm tuning him, every time. Turning a peg, listening out until he reaches the right key - the place where he and the music understand each other. That first time, he fought me the whole way, but now...he's yearning to escape from pain.
At the end of the song, Stef set his fingers against the catgut lute-strings to still them. Enough of me indulging myself. It's about time he indulged me instead. "I had an idea," he said, and he set his lute on the table between them. "When did you last play?"
Vanyel was silent so long that Stef wasn't sure he'd understood the question. "I...my memory's not good. I tried. When I came home. It hurt," and he flinched.
Stef surpressed a shiver at the odd sense of loss in Vanyel's voice. He tapped the lute's belly gently. "You said you used to love music." You still do, he added to himself. "I won't let it hurt you - I'll sing while you play. We can take it slowly. I brought a few music books," and he gestured to the case he'd set on the floor.
"I'm not sure I remember," said Vanyel slowly.
"Try her. Your fingers do." I'm sure you can do this. I'm quite sure.
Vanyel glanced at his hands as if they'd done him some wrong. He took the lute with some hesitance, but his fingers immediately found the right grip. He plucked a note - then a scale, which Stefen followed with his voice, an octave below.
No pain. I promised. I'm well acquainted with this prison, and I'm handing you its key.
Stef reached into his case, and pulled out a student book he'd pilfered from the library. "Want to warm up on the Midsummer March?"
"I haven't played that since I was a child," he replied, but his hands shaped the first note unerringly, with barely a glance at the book in Stefen's hands. Every beginner learned it. Muscle memory, Stef thought. Your hands and your ears remember, even if you don't consciously know it.
He sang slowly as Vanyel's long fingers made their hesitant way through the song. As Stef held the last note, Vanyel flicked at the strings in frustration. "Feels like starting from nothing," he muttered.
"Beats not starting," Stef told him. "You love music." That, he wouldn't let Vanyel deny any more, but his curiosity about the puzzle was eating him alive. "Whyever did you let it go?"
"I...didn't care any more. It doesn't matter. Nothing else matters," and Stefen sensed the pain shift inside of him. The tension returning.
"Nothing else except what?" he asked.
"Krebain," Vanyel breathed. "There is only him."
"Krebain?" Stef inquired.
A look of wild longing crossed Vanyel's face, and Stefen felt that instinct turn inside him. The word - the name - pulling him from the escape Stef had crafted as if it were a trap noose. He sensed pain wrack through Vanyel, and his lips curled as if he craved it. Stef seized his lute and sang the first line that came into his empty head. "Nothing can I hold of you but thought -"
Vanyel's eyes brightened, and he held his head in his hands. Stefen blinked, feeling dizzy as if he were drunk. Sparks seemed to circle Vanyel's hands, his hair. Everything was so bright and warm. Stef stared even as he sang, mesmerised by the smoke that clouded his eyes. Was this how magic felt, close at hand?
No, he noted, his vision fading. The mattress is on fire.
He tried to scream but the air was thick as a marsh. The lack of air. He dropped to his knees, and grabbed Vanyel's sleeve with both hands. "Get down here," he choked, and tried to pull him toward the door. Vanyel stumbled into him. They'd never touched before. It seared him, like the firelight burning patterns against his eyes - panic, yearning. Horror. Stef fell on his back on the ground as Vanyel scrambled away from him.
He choked, and somehow had the wits to grab his lute as he slid himself over the floor, gasping breaths of air an inch from the stone. He hammered at the foot of the door, tried to lever himself up to grasp the handle, but his arms were damp twigs and his lungs were leaden weights. Light bloomed in his eyes, and as it faded, he felt his hands turn numb.
Stefen rubbed his eyes, and his knuckles came away black with smoke. He felt like there was a lump of coal stuck in his windpipe. He tried to stretch. Someone had piled a heavy blanket over him. Several heavy blankets. He wriggled, pins and needles afflicting his limbs. "Don't, Bard," Savil cautioned. "I assure you, you need more rest."
"Where's Vanyel?" he asked.
"In my bedroom. I built him some shielding that ought to last the next few hours."
He rubbed his eyes and tried to look at her. She sat on a low table beside the settee that Stefen was stretched out on. The sleeves of her Whites were dotted with black-edged holes, and her frown was drawn in sharp, deep lines. His lute, Stef was relieved to see was beside her. Two of the strings were missing but if he was lucky, the rest of it might still be hale. "Shielding?" he queried, and thought of what he'd read of mages. "That's why you shut him up in the Work Room?"
"He's not 'shut up'," she replied sharply. "He comes and goes as he likes. But yes, he spends his time there because the permanent shields on the Work Room are a great help in keeping him and the rest of us from harm. It's usually the safest place he could be when he loses control of his Gifts," and her face sagged with exhaustion. "Last time he tried sleeping somewhere else, he had a nightmare that woke every Gifted person in Haven."
"I remember that," Stefen breathed. He and Medren had both woken up wild and screaming, and had only the next morning learned that every other Gifted Bardic apprentice had done the same - and so had the Heraldic trainees. "That was Vanyel?"
"Yes, and he doesn't want that to happen again." Savil sighed. "He's very sorry he hurt you."
"He didn't hurt me," snapped Stefen. "He'd never hurt me." She gaped at him in disbelief, and he wondered how he could be so certain. Logic presented itself easily enough. "He's a powerful mage - if he tried to hurt me, I should think he'd do a lot better than that."
Savil shook her head darkly. "I knew we were only putting him through this again," and her eyes shone as if tears of exhaustion were lurking behind her lashes. "We tried to free him from the pain after Yfandes first brought him home. I was sure his control was improving, and then one day it snapped back. I told you not to hope, and you still thought a few songs would cure all his ills? His mind is a trap, Bard."
"Whatever do you mean?" he asked in confusion. "What's wrong with his mind? What happened to him?"
"Stefen," and she trembled as she spoke. "As best as I know, Vanyel was kept as a slave for fifteen years. His mind was controlled and he was tortured, both physically and with magecraft. I removed the - the magical chain that his captor had used to control him," and her voice broke over the memory. "Van was conditioned to believe he didn't own his own mind, his own body. I thought we could heal him, until we realised his captor had planted a trap inside his deepest magical shields. We can't reach there - the trap is fed by Van's own power, and he's very, very powerful. He's completely impervious to magic, Healing or Mindhealing, to Mindspeech, even to Empathy. Even his own Companion can't communicate with him except when they touch. I let you try this damnfoolery because the Bardic Gift is the only thing he's not shielded against. And now I regret that," she thundered.
Stefen fought the urge to hide under his blankets. He'd had no idea how far beyond his depth he'd been trying to reach. He couldn't even imagine - the Lost One kept chained - by the hand, by the ankle? Around his neck? Every image was crushing, discarded in horror. He'd always thought of the Lost One as, well, lost, wandering through twisted forests, or in a maze of canyons cutting deep below wasteland. Not chained in some dark place as the years passed by.
"There's nothing I can do but keep him stable," Savil continued. "I've come to accept that. My one hope was that eventually he'd regain the control he needed to break the cycle, because I can't do that for him. We tried to bolster his magical abilities - I couldn't link to him through the shield, but I did try to build a connection to the Palace node. He was hurting - he always said he hurt - and the more power I tried to give him, the more it hurt," and she curled her eyes closed. "It's - like seeing a knife twisting deep in his reserves. It uses his own magic to secrete a kind of energy he can't handle. His torturer left it there to cause Vanyel pain whenever he wasn't nearby - so he wouldn't be capable of using his own power to seek a way out of captivity. So he'd always be a slave no matter how far away his torturer had gone. Now it hurts him even to try to use his Gifts - he can't unmake the trap and let us inside."
But I was so close, Stef thought, as he watched her sink into despair. I was so near to handing him control, and then he focused on - "Krebain," he murmured.
Savil looked at him sharply. "How do you know that name?"
"He told me," Stef breathed. "He tried to let me inside the trap."
She was right. I shouldn't have imagined my ditties could cure Vanyel. Only Vanyel can cure Vanyel.
He looked up, and held her eyes. "He's trying to heal himself."
Vanyel lay with a soft pillow beneath his cheek, and his master's body warm above him. Krebain's hand toyed with his newest adornments - the rings of pure gold that passed through his nipples. Twisting, turning as Vanyel lay stretched out under him. He was so grateful for this different kind of pain. This blessing of Krebain's company.
His master was so often away from him now, and since that night when he'd offered his magic, Krebain's absence left him wracked with pain. It hurt like a Gate opening near him. Tearing his mind open again. (Again? When had his power ever made a Gate?) It was only his place, he knew. A reminder that however far and long they may be apart, Vanyel was still Krebain's possession, still subject to his whims and needs. He would lie in the dark, feeling desperate and empty. Sometimes, he thought he heard a voice calling his name on the wind. It wasn't Krebain's voice, so he ignored it.
There was only pain and Krebain. Krebain was pain. It was all that mattered. He'd wait long days in the dark until Krebain returned and touched him, changed the crawling Gate pain to the better pains, the warmth of a beating, the sting of a whip or the sharp agony of his master twisting the rings. The bruising in his throat when Krebain used his mouth.
Pleasure had become another tool of torment. Krebain would keep him near the edge of it for hours, even days, until Vanyel begged him helplessly for release, at the cost of any pain. All for Krebain, he thought, and bit his lip as his master's hand found his cock. Krebain wore his soft leather gloves today. His hand brushed at the head of Vanyel's cock, stroking so gently. With his other hand, he threaded a covered clawtip through one of the nipple rings. His hand stretched and Vanyel's flesh was pulled taut.
"Master, have mercy," he begged, arching his hips against the gloved touch. So needy. And probably disobedient, but he didn't care, he could live with any punishment so long as Krebain didn't leave him again.
"I might," Krebain whispered, and he licked Vanyel's ear as his clawed fist tightened over his cock. "But not here," he said, and he rose to his feet. "Come with me," he said casually, and did not even look behind him as Vanyel dropped to the floor, to follow on his hands and knees. It wasn't a rule, but his master liked to see Vanyel accept that humiliation. He dared to glance upward, and saw Krebain's perfect body striding the floor ahead of him. Besides the gloves, his master wore nothing else. His golden hair rippled over his back; Vanyel longed to touch it, but that was a rare reward of late.
Krebain swept open the door to the carved stone chamber that was like a Work Room (when did I ever see a Work Room?) Vanyel shivered, and crept after him, touching his head to the floor by Krebain's feet in obesieance. "Sit up, slut," Krebain muttered. Vanyel obeyed; around him, the strange sigils on the walls were illuminated by a magelight. Krebain had opened a small box that stood by one wall, and Vanyel shuddered at the sight of the objects in his hands.
A chain, a clasp at either end.
And a hooked knife.
Its handle was carved in bone, and it looked very sharp indeed. Vanyel had never seen it before.
"Why don't you sit up here?" Krebain suggested with a smile, and Vanyel hurried to obey, seating himself on the stone block that rose up in the centre of the room. His master fixed each end of the chain to one of the nipple rings, and tugged gently, testing him. Vanyel moaned at the sweet bite of pain.
And then Krebain did something he hadn't done since the first days they'd spent together. (How many years ago?) He bent, and took Vanyel's swollen cock between his lips.
Vanyel swayed, warm fire running through him. Such kindness - such cruel kindness, Krebain's hands seeking the gold chain that bound him and tugging, a needless reminder of his place, his pledges, his subjugation, and of how desperate he was for release. His lips were so gentle, his teeth sharp. The wet warmth was fit to make him melt, and he lay back against the stone, feeling each strange ridge of the carvings against his back. How long could he bear this? He moaned, fully ready to beg for the least sliver of satisfaction. "Master - please - I beg of you -"
He was answered with a cool touch at his thigh. Krebain raised his head, and Vanyel throbbed with warmth - ached with it - and only then did he feel the pain.
It was subtle pain, cool and flowing. His nipples still hurt more sharply. So did his ass, raw from the beating he'd received before he'd been permitted to taste Krebain's cock today. But the knife caressed him, leaving a thin, wet trail that throbbed long after the cold edge moved on.
He raised his head, and saw Krebain watching him hungrily. He didn't dream of asking what was happening. His flesh was Krebain's, to use for any of his needs or whims. To do as he liked. Krebain reached for the chain that lay against his chest, and Vanyel quickly sat upright as he curled it in his gloved fist. Pain pulsed through Vanyel's body, and he felt blood flow slick down his thighs.
"Kneel," Krebain whispered, and he slipped his fingers through the chain as Vanyel complied, slipping back along the stone. Krebain jerked his hand down, and Vanyel gasped with pain and bowed his forehead to the edge of the stone block. "I'm going to use you like you've never been used before." Vanyel trembled at the promise, his shins grating on the patterns in the stone. In his peripheral vision, he saw a dark red light. He could feel the touch of his master's magic - not the painful Gate-like feeling, but the deep sensation of Vanyel's giving, of Krebain's taking. His master was forming a spell.
The mage's soft footsteps circled around him, and he felt the the touch of the knifepoint trace over his hips, as if Krebain were writing on his skin. Some language of curves and points, too complex for Vanyel's nerves to follow. A deep gash into his ass. Krebain's fingers ran under his hips, following the wet flow of blood, and Vanyel felt the caress of his power. He's using me, and the thought made him warm with need.
"Your body is mine," and Krebain's words seemed to slice more deeply than the knife. "Your blood is mine. I'll take what I wish from your flesh, and do as I need with your blood. Serving me with your body is all that you live for. Your very existence is a sacrifice. It's your honour to bleed for my pleasure. Now take your cock in your hand like the needy whore you are," he instructed, and reached beneath Vanyel, pulling him back by the chain that clasped to his rings. Vanyel moaned with pain, and his cock throbbed against his hand. Blood trickled down his crack, ran stickily over his fingers as he touched himself. He felt his master's cock press against him, and he pressed back eagerly. Krebain slipped easily into Vanyel's stretched hole, and Vanyel gasped with pleasure as he thrust deeper - and deeper - pressing Van's cock hard against his bloody hand.
Vanyel's thighs were filthy with blood and sweat. Stars circled his vision. How much could he bleed, and still stay alive? As much as his master desired of him. How long could he be fucked and touched before the pleasure drove him mad? Krebain fucked him faster, and at every third stroke he yanked at the chain he held in his hand. "Your seed is mine," hissed Krebain. "Give it to me now," he demanded. And Vanyel somehow knew that the magic was coming together, pulsing from the chaos inside of him, mingled salt-iron-agony, ready to become something else. He cried out and spilled over his fingers, feeling Krebain's own pleasure thrum through him, so much greater and more than Vanyel's meaningless release.
And then the pain hit him. It was Gatelike but worse - he felt the magic twist him in that same, awful way, but then it curved down into a world of blood and torment. The air reeked of sulphur. He was too weak to move, blood, sweat and seed pooling beneath where he lay. Running through the grooves of the stone, mingled together.
"Your offering, sire. As I promised you," said Krebain, and Vanyel forced himself to open one eye. He saw Krebain kneeling before the stone. That wasn't right. Wasn't possible. He looked beyond, stared at what had once been the doorway.
The door was open to a world of darkness and smoldering fire. In the doorway was a man - a shape, a creature - straight from a nightmare. Dark copper skin, spined and ridged like a horned reptile. It stood on two twisted limbs, with four more jutting from its shoulders, ending in crablike hands. And at the level of Vanyel's eyes, a phallus as thick and long as his forearm, forked at its tip.
He was too afraid, too weak to move. Its yellow eyes looked into him, and he Felt a needle-like stab into his mind. "This is the one you offer me?" The creature sniffed, and a plume of acrid smoke came from its mouth. "This worn rag, devoid of all its innocence? Faith, Krebain, you try me. What sustenance is this - your leavings? Do you think to unburden yourself of one who has grown too old for your tastes?"
Krebain shifted on his feet. "Sire, you well observe that he is not young, but he is well trained, and has power like none other I have ever possessed -"
"What about the other one?" it hissed. "That fine Shin'a'in child, all of fourteen, who you keep in that so well hidden tower in Pelar Fa'ina?"
The mage startled. "Fourteen is underripe for a human," he declared.
"Thirty is stale." The creature's jaws snapped. "You promised me a youth. Why should I accept this tarnished vessel, so filthy with your seed?" Vanyel felt reeling with dizziness, even where he lay on the stone. They're...haggling?
"His great and highly controlled power preserves him," the mage said. "Does he not remain a youth in appearance, a beautiful, tractable -"
"You ask too much for him," and two snapping hands waved near Vanyel's neck. "For this, you'd have my servants ally with you against the foul Tayledras? He's barely worth an imp," the creature fumed. "You offered me something of value to you."
Krebain's lip quiverred. "I assure you he is of great value. Perhaps you wish to sample him?" he suggested. "He's so pliable. Unresisting."
The creature hissed, and Vanyel watched him wrap one pincered hand around his huge phallus.
I'd never - no one but my master - he'll kill me - I'll be raped to death - how could he - ? He stared at Krebain, imploringly. He tried to scream, but could only choke with fear. I'll die. He let this hell-beast here and now I'll die, and a warm mist rolled over him. Magic, in his mind. So familiar, but he'd never known it for what it was before. The words washed over him, warmer than his blood. I belong to Krebain. My flesh is Krebain's. His to use, to sell, to bleed and tear. To serve is my honour. To be used and obliterated for Krebain is my honour. It was a balm on his nerves. Everything moved so slowly. He stared at one of his hands, curled near his head. It looked almost colourless - he didn't know if the blood had all run from it, or if it were his eyes and his brain that were losing their function. He saw that the demon left smoldering marks on the stone where it walked, like a goat with coal-stained feet. He saw Krebain shrink beyond the edge of his vision, backing away from the beast in a humble stoop. "To sample upon your altar? That, I will," it said.
He felt a strange, creeping limb rest on his hip, toying with his skin to open the wounds anew.
His whole body wrenched through space, scraping stone and then air and his weak arms curled about his head as he fell, finally screaming, first in fear then in agony as he hit the stone floor. He looked up, and saw the beast standing impassive, Krebain gripped in four hands at his thighs and arm and throat, his golden hair tumbling over the edge of the altar. "You greedy, lying fool," it said, as if it were savouring a banquet of vices and follies, and Vanyel looked away as its claws closed over Krebain's throat. "All you value is yourself," it declared. "So trade we will. Yet as I take what you value, nought is left of you to receive!"
Vanyel's mind fell blank, as if everything he were had vanished into a dark void.
He felt the slow shift of magic, and the light above him throbbed, darker and darker red until he could no longer see it. The beast was gone. He couldn't move, but his mind flailed weakly, searching for - anything. There was nothing except his master. Only pain, and he felt the rising agony of Krebain's absence. Only eternal pain. His mind reached beyond, as if stumbling through the night, crying for help.
Stefen walked the Palace grounds restlessly. He hadn't even really seen the flowers as he cut through the formal gardens in the last of the light; here, out in Companion's Field, the sun kissed the horizon, and the trees cast long shadows over a meadow thinned by winter. Stef swung himself up onto the parapet of the bridge, and swayed his feet over the water. Ripples broke apart the reflection of the low sun. It felt like the first time he'd had space to think since - since the fire.
He hadn't seen Vanyel since, and not for want of trying. He'd headed outdoors because Savil had offered him another frosty excuse for why he wasn't welcome any more. He didn't even know why he'd kept coming back.
It wasn't that he hadn't been afraid. He'd been terrified out of his wits, but his memories of it smouldered recklessly. He'd come out more or less unscathed - he had even been able to sing again two days afterwards - and if that was the worst that could happen around Vanyel, he wasn't deterred in the least. Which, he reminded himself pointedly, was insane. No one should miss an exhausting charge who may or may not accidentally set fire to you on any given evening. But he missed Vanyel so much it was irritating. Like a half-finished verse, waiting for a final rhyme that hadn't come to him yet.
There's a way. And...it's not just magic. It's music, too. It's everything music ever meant to you - or to me.
But it was no blessed good if he kept being turned away from Savil's door.
He looked up at the low ridge above the river, eyes scanning the orange-red horizon. Medren had always said that meant good weather. A blessing. There was a Companion on the slope above him, a rider on her back - not in Whites, but in plain grey breeches, draped in a hooded cloak. The rider was bareback - not so unusual a sight, when a Herald was merely seeking his Companion's company. As Stefen watched, the figure bowed its head against the mare's neck - and then straightened, his hood slipping down over his long dark hair.
Stef gasped, and swung himself back to the ground, loping uphill after them. They walked on, seeming oblivious to his pursuit - but the Companion looked back at him over her shoulder, tipping her head. Beckoning him to keep following.
He caught up with them within a sort-of copse - a clutch of young trees, scattered across a low hollow atop the ridge. Too young and scrubby to hide them from the setting sun, but the air seemed somehow warmer beneath their thin branches. The air smelt of pine sap, and a thin coat of needles whispered under his feet - warm, living sounds. I'd swear I'd never been here before, but everything about it feels familiar.
The Companion - that's Yfandes, who Chose the Lost One - lay on a patch of long grass, and Vanyel nestled against her back. He doesn't touch people, Stef thought. She's...more than people, he realised, and Yfandes looked up at him. She's a living myth. Her pure blue eyes held his, and in them he felt a deep and weary wisdom, and some semblance of appreciation; whatever role he was playing in the Lost One's story, she welcomed him into it.
Vanyel's face was set in stony discomfort that did nothing to detract from his beauty. Stef had never seen the Lost One in anything close to daylight before; Vanyel's pallor suggested it was rare. But years of darkness hadn't withered him, hadn't even aged him. In the approaching twilight, Stef might have taken him for a ghost - the kind of Lost One he'd imagined, a shadow cast in faraway wilderness. Yet his silver-grey eyes were clear with reason - and heavy with guilt. "I'm sorry, Stefen," he said. "I asked Savil to tell you that for me. I didn't want you to have to see me again." Stef gaped at him, at a frustrated loss for words. Yfandes shifted, as if to nudge him. "Fandes says to give you her thanks," Vanyel told him. "You have mine as well."
Stef sniffed. "I didn't do so well last time, did I?" Vanyel looked away awkwardly - it's an awful inconvenience to accidentally set fire to a new acquaintance - and Stef scratched his boot on the ground in frustration. "I'm sorry about what happened, too. It was more my fault than yours - I didn't mean to remind you of..." He trailed off. You know, all that torture and slavery you endured. That thing. Havens, I'm such a fool.
"You didn't need to remind me," Vanyel replied. Yfandes dipped her head against him protectively. "It's - hard to drive him out of my mind when I'm hurting. You were - helping me." Vanyel flinched, as if even thinking of questioning Krebain's hold over him caused the pain to redouble. He was tense the way all people in pain got tense - trying to run from it, even when there's nowhere to go. He lived with near-constant pain, in a hellscape of his memories. But that wasn't even the real problem, was it?
The problem is that you've got nothing to heal for. You're desperately unhappy. Your whole life is an empty cell. They tell you you'll hurt anyone who comes near you. You can't touch anyone except your Companion. You're rarely lucid enough to hold a conversation. And all I can give you is songs about people doing all the things you can't do. Having adventures, helping others. Falling in love. All the things that Krebain took away from you.
The determination it planted in Stef's mind was like nothing he'd ever felt before. I am going to destroy Krebain if it's the last thing I do.
He sat in the long grass close to them, but not so close that they might accidentally touch. "Savil thinks music can't heal you," Stef said plainly. "I guess she told me that because you didn't want me to come back. But I think she's wrong - she has to be. Music's all I've got and I'm not giving up." He folded his arms and stared implacably at them both.
Vanyel hung his head. Yfandes, however, still watched him levelly. "I always knew music shouldn't matter," Vanyel whispered, and his face creased. "My - my father said it was worthless. And I wasn't good enough to be a Bard -"
"Doesn't matter," Stef told him insistently. "I can't say I knew the finer points of musicianship before I came to the Collegium, but music meant a lot to me when I didn't have anything else. When I sang it didn't matter if I was cold, or hungry, or feeling like I'd never get out of a miserable trap of a life." I don't talk about this, he thought wildly. I try to fit in with the rest. I never tell anyone what it felt like - not even my best friend. But Vanyel's eyes turned wild, somehow recognising his pain. "Songs were - a different world," Stef tried to explain. "I think that's what they're for - having stories inside us, inspiring us, can set us free. No matter what you've been through."
"What did Savil tell you about me?" Vanyel asked sharply.
So much for escaping from troubles. "Nothing that would make me think the less of you," Stef replied firmly. You can't scare me away.
Vanyel shook his head. "She doesn't know. Not really. Not why it hurts," he said bitterly.
"She says there's a trap inside you," Stef said, perplexed. "She said it was to control you -"
"She doesn't know why it hurts." Van sat bolt upright, as if he couldn't even bear to touch Yfandes any more. "I let him do that. I offered him everything I am." Savil's words rang in his memory - your body. Your mind. They weren't your own. "She thinks he beat me down. She doesn't know that I just gave him all he wanted. I couldn't resist him," and Vanyel sighed, his eyes fluttering with a strange longing - you still can't, Stef knew with chilling certainty. "I chose to be with him."
Stef's stomach turned at the thought of it - an innocent, lonely child, seduced by a malign enchanter. Blaming himself for the web of coercion he'd been trapped in. For Stef needed no Thought-Sensing gift to read the desolate guilt radiating from Vanyel's face. "Van, it's not your fault and you don't deserve it. No one could deserve what you live with. It's inhuman. You know that - you're a Herald!"
Vanyel looked down at Stefen with a sneer of disgust. Self-disgust. "Stefen," and his voice was a lash, words set to drive him away. "I allowed Krebain inside my deepest shields to hurt me because I wanted him to - to make love to me."
"You did not," and Stef snapped back at him with absolute certainty even as his mind reeled in horror. "He controlled your mind. He tortured you," and the truth of it fell into place with sudden, horrible clarity. "He raped you and forced you to think you wanted it?" Oh great gods. "You didn't. He coerced you. No one would want that, and you can't keep blaming yourself forever when you have a life to live."
Vanyel sagged against Yfandes as if the reckless tirade had knocked the breath out of him. So panic, Lost One. So set fire to something again. I don't care. I'll still come back. I'm going to destroy Krebain. He shifted into a crouch, as if being ready to move would even matter if Vanyel were to lose control again. But he wasn't out of control, and Yfandes curled around his body, jerked her head at Stefen, bared her teeth. She talks to him via touch - Savil told me - and if she can reach him now...
He sang because he'd nothing else left to do. If there's no pain, and she can reach him. And if even for a moment he truly believes he's more than what Krebain made him be. If he believes he's a Herald and her Chosen and not just some mage's puppet. He saw Vanyel's lips move, whispering against her mane. Stef sang like he could see a way out even if he couldn't. You have to believe you don't deserve to live in pain. If you think you ought to keep suffering, you'll never escape. You'll just keep doing what it is that imprisons you.
He sang, sinking on his knees and putting all that he could into the words. It wasn't enough to promise the end of pain. There had to be more than that, a reminder, something else. Spring songs, midsummer songs. Lovesongs, duets with lines missing. Empty notes, waiting for another voice to fill. And he knew, he knew he was close to the end when a rasping voice joined his, searching for a key and a harmony and gasping a breath before the end of the line, but unafraid.
You never gave him your life. He took it, and you can take it back. I'm destroying Krebain.
He felt the power in the song move with Vanyel's long-unused voice. It didn't have to be in tune - didn't have to be Gifted, didn't have to remember the words. Vanyel only had to try for Stef to take the song inside him, beyond all the lines that nothing but music could cross. Stef sang, and nothing else mattered. Nothing except obliterating that sick planted feeling that Vanyel deserved endless pain.
Something nudged him hard, and he came to his senses with Yfandes standing over him, her eyes wide in shock. It was almost dark, and Vanyel was curled on the earth beside him, clutching his hands to his head.
He breathed, feeling the music echo away, leaving Vanyel in silence.
But not in pain.
It was harder than ever for Stefen to put Vanyel out of mind. There were many other people better placed to help now - Mindhealers and Empaths who had never been able to reach him before - and Stef hadn't seen him but for twice when he'd been summoned before Randale, and then without exchanging a word. He'd only felt Vanyel watching him, listening, letting his music touch him again.
He'd tried calling, but found Savil's former chambers vacated, and it wasn't like he could just blunder around asking the Heralds where he could find the Lost One. Medren surely knew - he had been called to visit several times. He needs family, Stef told himself, trying not to be jealous. And he milked Medren carefully for news - tales of other visiting relatives, of fencing practices and exhaustion from magical training, every manner of re-engagement. It didn't sound like Vanyel had any time for a mere acquaintance. But Stef couldn't pass a day or even an hour without thinking of him.
On an unusually generous hunch, Stef started accepting invitations from the Healers again; they seemed even more fascinated by his workings since he'd driven that trap from the Lost One's mind. He was ostentatiously vague about how that had happened. He was generally glad they were beginning to grasp his pain-numbing abilities, but he thought it wise to retain certain other mysterious powers to ensure his future usefulness.
And it was on one of these terribly fascinating afternoons, feeling tired and frazzled from scrutiny, that he turned a corner in the Healers' House and saw Vanyel again, looking over his shoulder as he opened the door to leave.
He looked - different. Maybe in the way that he held Stefen's gaze, without his former withdrawal and detachment. His eyes were clear silver and rimmed red with, no doubt, the emotional wearying of Mindhealing; there was no more guessing if Vanyel were there with him in time and place, no more being lost in his own home. "Herald Vanyel," he said. His heart pounded as he crossed the floor between them, and he only prayed that Vanyel didn't notice. "It's - been a while."
"I'm sorry." The reply was fast and mechanical, and Stefen cursed himself.
"No, I know you've been very busy," he shrugged lightly. "I heard enough tales from Medren. Between fencing and family visits, it's a wonder you've a drop of energy left for calling on Healers." I'm being insufferably glib, he realised, but Vanyel allowed him a wry, real smile, and his racing heart almost stopped entirely. But that only made him feel all the more bold. "I don't even know where to find you any more," Stef complained.
"Here, all too often," and Vanyel rolled his eyes. He's so - expressive. I thought it daring of me to dream he'd ever be so relaxed. "Family and fencing are the least of it, to be honest. It's magic and mindhealing that's been running me ragged." Stef nodded - he could hardly begrudge those things. "If you'd like to know where to find me, I'll gladly show you my new chambers. Not that I'm ever there," he added.
They stepped outside, and Vanyel turned towards the Herald's Wing of the Palace. They walked in a quiet that Stefen would hold to be companionable; sometimes, he caught Vanyel stealing a glance at him. He was so used to them being together in the silence between music. People usually want their space after getting untangled by Mindhealers - it's a wonder he's letting me intrude at all.
Vanyel admitted him to the Heralds Wing via a discreet side door, and then palmed open another door just inside it. "It's not much -"
Stef stepped passed Vanyel as he held the door, and he grinned. "Oh shut up, Herald, it's lovely. And after years shut up in one of those Work Rooms I think you know it." The room sported high rafters, elegant goldenoak panels, a thick woven rug on the floor, and most of all, privacy. And a real bed. Which looked quite comfortable - Stef regarded himself as a connoisseur of beds.
"I can't say you're wrong," Vanyel admitted. "Gods, I've missed sunlight. I never liked to go out to see Fandes until it was near to dark - I couldn't risk being near a crowd of people. We used to watch the stars come out together," and he shook his head.
"You seemed lonely," Stef sympathised.
Vanyel looked at him strangely again, as if there was too much he couldn't say about those years. "I - I'm forgetting my manners. Would you like to -" Stefen had removed his cloak and one boot before Vanyel even finished saying "- stay a while? You did say you'd show me that variation."
"You'd do better to ask Medren about that - he wrote it," Stef replied pointedly. I neither need nor want an excuse to be near you.
"Well, you'd offered." He looked shy again. "I'm sorry, I saw more of you when I was a mad recluse - that doesn't seem right." Stef's eyes widened - that he'd recovered enough to joke about his former life, even limply, was more than he'd expected. Vanyel hung his own cloak beside Stef's, and then looked at him awkwardly. "I really don't know why you used to sing for me. It must have cost you a great effort, and I was hardly in a position to repay you."
Stef recalled his fury, his complete determination to tear apart everything that still kept Vanyel trapped inside himself. His refusal to behold another moment of misery. "I really couldn't tell you," he said casually. "Is it so strange? Why, did Medren tell you it was so very out of character for me?"
Vanyel coughed politely. "He may have said something of the sort. Though he hedged it with reference to your stubbornness. He said if there was an idea in your head, it would never let you go."
I wonder what else he told you about me? Stef thought darkly. Well, surely nothing so awful - I don't think my presence troubles you so much. It was a good thing, he'd often reflected, that his worst vices were known only to those likeminded souls who entertained compatible vices. "True enough," he acknowledged. "I do hate to leave a song unfinished."
Vanyel sat on a low couch that faced the fireplace. His elbows rested on his knees, and as Stefen watched him stare at the unlit coals, they ignited brightly. Heralds, he thought, and swallowed hard. He sat beside Vanyel, watching the flames chase from coal to coal, too eager to be entirely natural. "Stef," Vanyel said softly. "I was completely despairing and you reminded me there's reasons to live. I can't thank you enough for that."
Stef didn't know how to feel about the acknowledgement. I do everything for recognition, praise or money. I never looked to you for any of those things, so what am I looking for? "It was only my duty to you," he said shortly, not even sure why it was the truth. There was little he'd regarded as a duty before.
"I might start to dislike that word," Vanyel frowned. "Savil and Healer Nor think I'll soon be ready to take my Whites and leave for the Border."
"What?" Stef snapped. "After all you've been through?"
"After all the years I couldn't do anything for anyone with the powers I have?" Van sighed. "I need to, Stef, and not just for duty. For myself, too. I can't sequester myself forever. The one time my life ever made sense was when I killed a colddrake - a Pelagir monster that was attacking a family of farmers. I can't protect everyone who doesn't have the powers I do. But where Valdemar's under attack, that's where I have to be."
A sentiment that seemed common among Heralds, though it was incomprehensible to Stef. "I'll miss you," he blurted out, and Vanyel's mouth dropped open. "I - I know we've not talked so much, but - hellfires, I want us to. I wish I knew you. And thinking of you out there on the Border - surely you've suffered enough for one lifetime." Stef felt he'd suffered quite enough in his first ten years of life, and since then he'd made his suffering into a bulwark that spared him from the least bit of guilt for his vices. And if he deserved to live a little, then Vanyel deserved to live an awful lot.
Vanyel stared at him in surprise. "Surely it's about time I proved myself to have some worth -"
"You don't have to prove anything," Stef replied vehemently. "I want to see you happy. You more than deserve that." He ran a hand through his hair in agitation. "I understand - duty's all any Herald ever talks about - but I'll miss you so much."
"I'll miss you too," and Vanyel sighed. "I'm still not so good at - being near people. I truly wasn't avoiding you. But it's been so exhausting," and he hung his head wearily. "Did you know I have the Gift of Empathy?"
Is that Herald talk for 'stop staring'? Stef wondered, and he shook his head, blinking. "I thought you were a Herald-Mage -"
"I have several Gifts," he said shortly. "Anyhow, Healer Nor told me that because touch makes Empathy more potent - it's made things harder for me. Being touched in malice for so long - that stayed inside me. There's only so much a Mindhealer can do." He stared into the flames. Stef saw them flicker in reflection in his silver eyes. He understood far too well - I knew you needed more than Healing. You need some tender loving care, and what a dangerous thought that is. He silently cursed himself. "Stef, I feel...very comfortable around you. More than anyone but Yfandes or Savil - but you never Chose me, you're not family. You don't have to have patience with me."
"You deserve patience," Stef scraped his reply from a dry mouth.
"See?" and Vanyel smiled very slightly. "Fandes thinks I need you - as a friend," he wavered.
"And what do you think?" Stef had to ask.
Vanyel took his hand in lieu of a reply.
Stefen turned to him slowly, and there seemed to be nothing in the world beyond his bright eyes and the warmth of their fingers wrapped together. Stef leaned close, searching Vanyel's eyes, seeing hope and longing and a dark thread of fear - oh, my gods. I can't deny him anything - and then their lips closed together and nothing else mattered any more.
It wasn't gentle. Vanyel's touches were frantic and shaking, tugging at Stef's hair with those long, beautiful fingers that Stef had longed to feel against his body. Stef was kissing a man drowning - how many years since you were last touched without malice? He could never, ever make up for that, but he was damned if he wouldn't try.
When he next paused to breathe, he found his shirt was slipping off his shoulder, and he had less than no idea where his belt had gone. At least he'd kept his touches above clothing. Mostly. He was sat straddling Vanyel, which was a wonderful way to keep their eyes and their lips level, and he almost lost his mind when Vanyel shifted under his hips. "Van," he said, before his lips could be seized again. "Let's - please tell me what you need. I'd do anything for you."
"Please," and Vanyel breathed like he truly had been drowning. Stefen stared at him in longing, hoping that Vanyel could tell that he'd deny him nothing. "Please hurt me."
I'm not saying I'd be averse to that, but I don't normally do it on a first date. Stef shifted, wishing he could hide exactly how appealling the thought of having that kind of relationship with Vanyel was to him. I've been fool enough to imagine it, but I'm not fool enough to take that proposition on faith. "Why," he said gently, praying that Vanyel could sense his lack of judgement, "should I hurt you, after all I've done to ease your pain?"
Van stilled, wide-eyed and blinking like he'd never thought to ask himself that, and Stef felt him shiver with frustration. "I don't know. I - I want to, to feel it. I want to please you," and Stefen could feel Vanyel's frustration with his instincts as distinctly as he could feel the cock pressed tight against his balls. "I want you to - do what you will with me," and his face flushed warm as Stef cupped it in his hands. Oh great gods. There was no confusion, no doubt there - Vanyel knew what he wanted. I can't deny you. And the last thing I want is to deny you. But after all you've been through, how do I make this right? I don't want to act out the role of a monster who moulded you to his twisted desires.
"Listen," Stef said, thinking fast. "I want to please you too. I - I need to see you happy. If I'm to hurt you - there's a way to do that that's not in malice. If you trust me. It's - like theatre. We'll act like I have the right to hurt you, and I'll tell you how to please me - but it stops any time you want it to. And I swear I'll take care of you."
He was talking too fast, he knew. It was a lot to ask of someone all at once, and Vanyel's face was creased with confusion. And he had never second-guessed himself so hard in his life. I know I'm not a monster. Damned, assuredly, and definitely disreputable, but twisted though my desires are, I've only ever left a man happy. So maybe I don't have to fight the way you've been moulded. Maybe I can work with it. I can use it to bring you pleasure, real joyful pleasure that comes from respect and affection. There's nothing wrong with wanting someone to dominate you - what's wrong is that he used that to abuse you.
"Do you trust me?" he asked, and held up a hand between them before Vanyel could reply. "Really, truly? I need you to trust me enough to tell me if you don't feel right about anything. You have to promise me you'll do that."
Vanyel nodded slowly - it is a lot to ask. Of both of us. "I promise you."
"Good - I'd hate for you to stop feeling comfortable with me," and Vanyel smiled fleetingly before they kissed again. Stef rolled off his lap, struggling to contain his own giddiness. He'd never wanted anything so much in his life. It felt so dangerous, so easy. He slipped off his clothes and turned to look at Vanyel, disarrayed and smoldering in the corner of the seat. "You belong to me tonight," he said. All performance now, his voice a low snarl. "Just tonight. Just here. Just as long as you want to be, you'll be mine." His back was to the fire, and Vanyel could see every inch of him. And he keeps glancing at it, Stef noted with delight.
Stef bent over him and seized his body again. Keep this moving, he told himself, pushing Vanyel down on his back and planting kisses down his neck. He knew Van was uncertain, needy though he clearly was. He had every reason to be uncertain. I demanded your trust before I earned it. But I'll earn it. I won't use you. I won't deny you. I'll touch you until I've wiped out your last memories of evil. And I can do more with rhythm and timing than any man can with a whip. Stef kissed his way down over his collarbone, and scrunched Van's shirt in his fist, tugging it up over his head. Gods, you're lovely, he thought - pale, not quite so lithe as when they'd first met. All that training had filled him out perfectly. Stefen noted the odd divots above his nipples - like that riverboat sailor he'd spent a night with once. He wrapped his mouth over one of them, licking gently, and Vanyel writhed under him.
He bit down, and his lover moaned, clutching at Stef's hair as he arched under him.
Stef licked at the nipple again in entirely insincere apology. "You liked that," he teased. It always felt like playing an instrument. Feeling out its resonance, making it sing. He offered the other nipple the same treatment, for the sake of harmony. "You really liked that," he observed again. "I'm taking you to bed," he declared, grabbing Vanyel's hands from either side of his head and tugging him unprotesting across the room.
He shoved Vanyel onto the bed, and tumbled on top of him, feeling his lover gasp a breath before their lips met again. Gods, I'm going to enjoy making sure you enjoy this. He took one wrist, and raised it above Van's head as they kissed. And then the other. He crossed them over, rose above him, restraining Vanyel with nothing but his weight and fervent kisses. One hand was enough, to hold down someone who wanted to be held. He wished he had rope - maybe next time. I am going to make you want a next time. His other hand, he swept through Vanyel's hair, splayed artfully over the bedspread. "I want your mouth," he demanded, shuffling up Vanyel's body to plant knees either side of his neck.
That made him more than available, resting above Vanyel's closed lips. Was he comfortable with this? Stef knew that for some men, it was easier to be told. Doubtless especially so if you'd dealt with a monster who would abuse you whenever you put a single step wrong. It was a kindness, if someone else took the lead. Vanyel's lips twitched against him, taking a kiss, a taste, tounguepoint testing his foreskin. Testing himself. Then his mouth dropped open to slip Stef inside, and Stef's back arched over him.
Oh, gods. You're good. Vanyel's tongue swirled soft around the head of his cock, lapping rhythmically under it, circling the tip and then back again. Stef moved against him because he couldn't have done otherwise. He was harpstring-taut, vibrating a clear note as he slipped in and out of Vanyel's mouth. If I think about how you got this good, I'll get angry. Is it safe to be angry? His hand curled in pleasure, tightening in Vanyel's hair. If it means I take damned good care of you? Oh hellfires and heathen gods, you're so good at this.
He bent his head against Vanyel's arms, helplessly kissing the soft skin inside his elbow, on up to his hands. Then following the same path with his teeth. It was a cruel trick, biting a man's inner wrist, and Vanyel whimpered around a mouthful of cock. Doesn't put you off. No, it was just making Van tease him back and oh gods, he was taking Stef deep. I'm losing my mind. Or something. Definitely something, and he pulled back out, and in, and Van's lips tightened over him, back and forth and tighter until he broke.
Pleasure arced through him, and he sagged, and keeled over onto his back beside Vanyel, pulling him close in his aftermath. It was a good thing Vanyel moved so willingly, for he'd no strength at all - and he kissed him, tasting himself and exalting in that pure sense of possession. "You please me," he murmured as they parted, and he felt Vanyel blush. Stef ran a hand down his body, cupping his still-clothed ass to press them together. Feeling Vanyel's cock through his clothing was almost enough to make him hard again. And I did promise you. He raised his hand and brought it down hard.
The slap made Vanyel gasp and grind against him. Stef grinned, and sat up slowly. He hadn't any of the things he might have liked to have to hand - but that might just have intimidated him anyway. And there was a lot he could do with just his bare hands. "Want more of that?" he asked, his voice husky and predatory, the question nevertheless sincere.
Vanyel looked up at him, eyes wide, as if it were strange to really be asked. "Please," he replied.
"I want you naked and over my lap," Stef told him.
He watched Vanyel comply - he seemed hesitant, almost curious, in a way that reminded Stef of the first time he'd played out this game. Tasting the freedom wrapped up in its peculiar roles. He held Stefen's eyes as he slipped his breeches off his hips.
Stef swallowed hard. As beautiful as the rest of him, and he straightened out his legs and tapped the bedspread with a dull thump. Vanyel settled over him slowly, and Stef felt that cock - that beautiful cock that he had such plans for, such pleasant plans - slip into the gap between his thighs. His lips parted at his view of Vanyel's ass - so full and firm, and...
There was no mistaking those marks for anything accidental. He followed the longest of them with a trembling finger, down Vanyel's thigh, where it led into another net of scars. Is it safe to be angry while I hurt you?, and he shuddered with utter loathing for the man who had marred this skin.
Vanyel twisted under him, his face turning aside, and Stef saw his raw breaths and the damp at his lashes. You know exactly what I'm looking at.
It was by the most reckless hunch that he raised his hand again - fast but without force. Vanyel gasped, and his hands curled in his sheets. Centred by sensation. Stef had seen it more than enough times to recognise it, to know how right it could be, so he did it again. "You want me to hurt you?" he murmured, words punctuated by slaps. "I'm going to. I'm going to find all the ways you like to be hurt. All the ways it can remind you that you're here with me." Vanyel cried out, shifting against him, his cock trailing wet against Stef's thigh. His hand stang, and it didn't matter. Not when Vanyel's ass was writhing beneath each slap. And he knew why it mattered. "When I hurt you, you're not alone. You can feel whatever you need to feel with me - I don't care." Harder now, scraping his nails over reddened skin between each blow, because his forearm was aching. His muscles sagged from the weight of this last irony: "I would do anything to ease your pain."
Stef breathed deep, and lay back wearily, wriggling himself out from the gasping, inert weight of Vanyel. He slung a hand over his shoulders, and their eyes met again. Alive and brimming with tears, and that was all Stef could see before he was kissed again, deeply and passionately. He tasted salt, felt shivers of reaction. He felt warm with victory, because I read you right. I gave you what you needed, and it was so satisfying to watch you take it from me. To watch you feel.
His hands cupped Vanyel's face, his fingers catching in his fine black hair. Van looked confused, but in a delighted way; he hadn't anticipated affection from a man who hurt him, which Stef supposed was fair enough if you weren't used to the rules of this odd game. "Shh," he whispered as he drew away. "Glad you enjoyed that as much as I did," and he was gratified when Vanyel blushed.
"I did," he admitted, twitching rather pointedly against the bedspread. "You're right. It...felt like I'm really here. And alive. And touching someone," and he leaned into Stef's light embrace.
Everything I swore I'd give back to you, and Stef rubbed gently at Vanyel's temple. I'm not going to let you go now. "Had enough pain?" he asked. Vanyel merely stared back at him, with a heavy-lidded, insolent smile. Stef caressed his hair, and pulled a fistful of it tight, forcing his lover's neck into an elegant arch. He scraped his teeth along it, enjoying Vanyel's shivers. "Let me take care of you." He slipped down Vanyel's body, planted a not-altogether-kind kiss on his reddened ass, catching flesh between his teeth. His lover hissed sharply. If he'd only had oil, and he left a bite like a promise. Next time. "Turn over," Stef ordered. Vanyel obeyed, and Stef bent his head to his thighs. He paused, enjoying the sight of him, the warm scent of sweat and need, before he began tracing out a scar with his tongue.
Vanyel was immensely patient with his explorations, he noticed. Or, someone taught you not to react too much. Not to seek your own pleasure. That thread of anger was back in him as his lips ran over dark curls of hair. He tasted the base of Van's cock with kisses, slipped his hand around it as he kissed its peak. I doubt I'm as artful as you, but I don't play nice, and he raked his teeth over the head. That got a reaction, another hiss and a hand at his shoulder. He flexed his hand rhythmically, fingertips toying with veins. His lips circled the cock, and his tongue ran soft over its head, tasting the first beads of Vanyel's pleasure.
His cheeks pulled tight as he lowered himself, licking a furious path beneath the head, up and down, hard and rhythmic. Vanyel was touching him, cupping his face in what seemed like surprise, as if simple pleasure had been too much to expect for him. Or not so simple. Stef's hands slipped under his ass, kneading warm, raw flesh as he worked. Van arched against him, and Stefen quickened his movements, looking for the rhythm that would make Vanyel wild with joy.
It wasn't so long before he found it. "Oh gods - Stef, I - please, please -"
Stef realised what he was asking, and raised his head in surprise. He never argued with a man's particular tastes, but - you want permission? To take what I want you to have, in abundance? And you're not even expecting that I'll grant it? The angry growl came to him easily. "I want to taste you. I want to see you taken over by pleasure because of what I do to you. You belong to me tonight," and he left Vanyel to ponder that as he worked his mouth frantically over him. Vanyel's hand slipped from his shoulder, the only warning before he arched and moaned, low and long, as Stef's mouth filled with his sweet release.
He gathered Vanyel, still quiverring, into his arms. Van's hand ran weakly down his body, but Stef batted him away. "Never mind that." That his cock was ragingly hard again was honestly the last thing on his mind. "You look happy," he murmured, and Vanyel gave him a smile that Stef wouldn't have suspected he had in him - relaxed and full of confused joy, as if he couldn't quite believe what they'd just done. To be fair, Stef couldn't believe it either. Holy hellfire, you're wonderful. So responsive - everything I did to you was so damn satisfying. I want to explore every inch of you. I want to find out what excites you, what you really need. How I can leave you very, very happy. "That's it," he added, because he thought it best to be clear. The first time you set a new lover down could be delicate, especially if you'd made him cry in the interrim. "I'm done asking anything of you - I'd rather stop pretending anything and just talk to you."
Van curled his lips, and sighed against Stef's shoulder. "I can't thank you enough."
"For what? Letting me do everything I wanted with you?" Stef grinned. It was a lie, part of the game; he would always indulge Vanyel as much as he could. Maybe Vanyel knew; he certainly hugged Stef tighter. "Empath, right? You said when I touch you, you know how I'm feeling about you?" Vanyel nodded. "I reckoned even while I hurt you, you'd know - what I really felt," and put like that, there was little point in trying to make it feel any less vast or new or frightening; Vanyel knew, unless he didn't want to know it. I've never felt like this for anyone...
Vanyel stroked his face, his silver eyes turned strange and gentle, as if looking through him for something far, far away. "I know," he said. "Would it be so odd if I needed this? If I needed you?"
"Yes," Stef assured him. "I appreciate your oddness very much."
"I never was so good at being normal," Van smiled.
"Really, if you have to take your Whites and go - I want to give you some good memories to take with you," Stef told him. I want to give you a reason to come home.
Van stretched, and sat up slowly. He reached for Stefen's hand, which was still raw at the heel - Stef winced, and Van kissed it delicately. "Suppose we got dressed and sought out some food?"
"There's a fine plan," and Stef added shyly, "We could make a little music, and talk about what else we'd like to do." And then maybe we could do some of it. I can always run back to my room for the oil.
"Medren told me you were incorrigible," Vanyel smiled.
"He doesn't know the half of it." Stef replied. But you will. That, I pledge you.
For those who want a little bit more, I posted a follow-up fluff scene in a subsequent 21-days amnesty, and you can read it here.