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The Viper's Scheme

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“I'm sorry I'm late,” Sylves said. His short blond hair had been flattened by the rain that continued to pour down on him, and his equally wet clothes clung to his body tightly. His shirt was white and thin, outlining clearly every curve and muscle. The sheepish smile on his boyish face didn't serve to detract from the tempting picture he made.

Anereth had never loved him, but sometimes, he did miss the times when they'd been together. Like right now. It would be so easy to lean forward and kiss him, seduce him, and Sylves probably would make it easy for him, not regretting any of it until after the fact. Sylves, he knew, was also still attracted to him, and missed some of the same things he did.

But Anereth had never been satisfied just having one lover, and Sylves, as it turned out, did not enjoy sharing. It had put a strain on their relationship, and they had ended it after their first more heated discussion of the subject, because for different reasons, they did not want to risk romantic troubles causing a permanent rift between each other.

Said reasons were still current, and that was the only thing stopping Anereth from kissing Sylves, and making him return his smile instead. “It's no problem. Please, come in.”

Sylves did, and only then did Anereth realize the man hadn't come alone. “You brought your slave?”

“Yes,” Sylves said as he took off his boots and placed them neatly next to the door. “I'm sorry, is that inconvenient? I don't really like leaving him at home. In the dorms it's not a problem, but my family... well, you know how they get. Especially my father and Imeria. Can't I trade her for one of your sisters? Anyway, I thought you liked Esares.”

“I do,” Anereth said as he watched the slave remove his own shoes and then kneel behind his master, eyes on the ground. He looked nothing like his master, but, Anereth had often thought in passing, no less beautiful.

It was certainly a different kind of beauty, however. He was small and thin, his features delicate. His hair was considerably longer than Slyves', almost as long as Anereth's own, and currently obscuring most of his face. Also very unlike his master, he was quiet and easy to overlook – Sylves, meanwhile, was chatty and boisterous and could barely step onto the street without someone recognizing him as the next leader of the Ivariney, the Magicians' Circle.

To say that Anereth liked the slave was either an over- or and understatement, depending on how you looked at it. He didn't dislike him, and it could be argued he liked looking at him, but it wasn't like they'd ever interacted in any significant fashion. On the other hand, he certainly planned to do something about the last part, and had been for well over a year now; for nearly as long as the slave had been in Sylves' possession.

He returned his attention to Sylves. “I see how you and your father would disagree over him, but I didn't know Imeria had much of an opinion on how slaves should be treated.”

Sylves made a face. “She doesn't. She has an opinion, though, on which slaves are handsome and what her brother should do if he has a slave who happens to appeal to her.”

“Ah,” Anereth said, glancing at the subject of their discussion. Unsurprisingly, Esares gave no indication of even paying attention to the conversation; he was, after all, well-trained. “You think she'd help herself to him the moment you turn your back?”

“She's pretty much admitted she would,” Sylves said. “And you know I don't lend him out. Even if it's my sister... no, scratch that, actually her being my sister makes it more weird.”

Yes, Sylves certainly did not like sharing. That he would be even more possessive with a favored slave was unsurprising. “You think so?”

“Yes,” Sylves said, emphatically. “Besides, he's... you know we've had issues.”

Anereth's gaze slid to the slave again, who was still showing no signs of listening to what was being said. He was good.

And issues was certainly a droll way of putting it.

“You mean when he tried to slit your throat while you slept?” It could have been his imagination, but out of the corner of his eyes, he thought he saw Esares' shoulders stiffen ever so slightly.

Sylves shushed him harshly, looking around like he expected someone from the Mage Council to appear out of thin air, strip him of his honors and seize his slave. “Don't say that. It wasn't like-- he just hadn't been trained, is all. You know they're not like us. Demons... it's their first instinct to kill. But I trained him, and we've not had any issues since. Everyone praises how obedient he is.”

Issues again. It was almost cute, really. “Instinct,” Anereth said. “I'd call it a fairly well planned assassination attempt, but far be it from me to nitpick semantics.”

“That's really not-- demons don't work like that, Anereth! And didn't you just say you liked him?”

Anereth shrugged. “I do. And it's true you've not had any major... problems since then, right? So I'm certainly not telling you to get rid of him. I just don't want you to take the matter too lightly. The last thing I want you is dead. And think of everyone else.” He let his expression change from a concerned frown to something less serious; an amused shine in his eyes, a small teasing smile. He practiced in front of the mirror, sometimes. “Whatever would humanity do without its Chosen One? We would be lost!”

Sylves looked very much disgruntled. “Don't call me that,” he said, and his ears turned a little red at the tips.

Anereth's lips curved further, the smile becoming more genuine. “You don't seem to mind when anyone else does.”

“Well, everyone else is not my best friend,” Sylves said, almost petulantly, and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

For a moment, Anereth could understand why he used to worry he might have come to genuinely care for the man, once.

He did not dwell on the stray thought, and laughed lightly. “All right, then. I suppose I can do without that particular privilege.”

Sylves seemed marginally mollified. Slowly, he unfolded his arms. “Well, do we want to go inside or...?”

“Yes, please,” Anereth said, gesturing down the corridor.

Sylves nodded. “Come on, Esares.” Without turning to see if his slave obeyed, he headed towards the living room.

Esares stood immediately, but then hesitated, looking between the two humans. And ah, yes, Anereth could see his dilemma. He was supposed to follow at his master's heel, but at the same time, it was atrocious etiquette to cut in front of his master's host. Really, had he adhered to the rules of convention, Anereth would have gone first, leading Sylves into his home. He rarely did, but then, they rarely met at Anereth's private residence, and Sylves rarely brought his slave.

“Shoo,” Anereth said, gesturing for Esares to go after his master. It was, perhaps, not the most genial way to go about it, but he wasn't in the best of moods, and it was hassle enough to pretend otherwise in front of Sylves.

The slave, of course, did not complain, or look like he would have liked to complain. If anything, he appeared slightly relieved as he hurried after his master.

They made themselves comfortable on the pale couch in the living room. Well, not Esares, of course. The slave knelt at his master's feet on the dark blue carpet.

“Do you mind if I give him a cushion to kneel on?” Sylves asked.

“Not at all, pick whatever one you'd like.”

Sylves got up and did just that. As the slave settled down on the fluffy orange cushion he was given, he said, softly, “Thank you, master.”

Sylves quickly tousled the slave's hair as he set back down, and let out a relieved sigh. “I know why I brought him. My father might have suggested to just let him wait outside the door in the rain, kneeling on blank cold stone of course. 'He's a demon, it won't damage his knees'. But sometimes he even lets the dogs on the couch.” Something seemed to occur to him. “You don't mind that my clothes are wet, do you? And his. I didn't mean to get your furniture dirty--”

“No, it's fine. It's just water, after all. I'm mostly just curious what you wanted to talk about. Did you want something to drink, by the way?”

“No, I'm fine. Ah, well, I actually wanted to talk about Esares...”

Anereth blinked. “About Esares?” His eyes wandered to the slave again. His muscles seemed tense and he was staring at the carpet almost a little to intently, but if this was a surprise to him, too, he hid it well.

“Yes. I... well, you know I have to visit a lot of places during the holidays, because... well, because of my status. I can't during the school year, and everyone understands that, since of course I have to improve my abilities and learn more spells if I'm to decide a war that's been going on for centuries. But during the spring holidays, no one is so understanding, and now that I've turned twenty-two and finished all the basic lessons, apparently it has suddenly become reasonable to expect me to travel all over the country.”

Anereth had an inkling where this was going, but it seemed unlikely, considering how possessive and enamored with his slave his fellow mage was.

But as Sylves continued, it quickly became evident his first guess had been entirely correct. “I can't take Esares with me to many of those cities, either because of certain rules and expectations or because demons aren't allowed inside at all. And I can't leave him with my family. Well, I'll ask my brother if this is too troublesome for you, but it would be really hard to make work and... well, could you take him, for a few weeks?”

“I have to admit, I'm a bit surprised. As you said, you don't like giving him to anyone else, do you? Even if it's just to watch him. Really, I'd have expected you to hire a professional.”

Sylves looked very much unhappy. “I don't know if it sounds arrogant to say, but I don't think I can trust anyone, considering how well-known I am. They might try to get personal information about me from him, or worse. You know--” He broke off, shook his head. “I'm just not comfortable with it.”

Anereth could see what the main reason for that discomfort was, and he wondered if that was what Sylves had started to say before deciding never speaking of it aloud ever again would make it go away.

Every mage's, every human mage's power was tied to its wielder by words that were revealed to the mage in question and only them by Evynera, goddess of protection. This happened during meditation or while asleep, and was sometimes described as a vision and sometimes as a dream. It was a sacred and very private experience, and no other human could ever find out the words that created a mage and could become his undoing, provided proper precautions were taken to prevent oneself from being able to speak them even during torture, which these days was a common safety measure for all registered mages.

No other human could learn the words as a result, but it was said that demons could, by calling to their own bloodthirsty gods and performing an unholy ritual, or so legend went. Anereth suspected it had more to do with the nature of their own magic, which many scholars called raw and unrefined, but to Anereth the one time he had made contact with it had felt more like concentrated unbridled power. There had been nothing unrefined about it.

Whatever the reason, though, there was no doubt their ability to figure out the words necessary to rob a mage of their craft – and by extension almost inevitably their life – was not just a myth, because they had gone and done it to the Chosen One, and then sent one of theirs to him in the guise of a slave, when his true purpose had been to kill Sylves and steal his power for himself while he was at it. How Sylves could delude himself into thinking it had been anything but a cunning and extremely elaborate plot, Anereth would never know.

However, even if Sylves chose to believe his demon had acted more like a wild dog than a determined assassin, and appeared to go so far as to think his slave was loyal to him, even he was not so naive as to not see what threat he posed simply by knowing. The Timnestra collar binding his magic made him harmless physically, but it was still not possible to place a complex spell on a demon that would survive longer than twenty-four hours. If Esares were to be tortured by one of Sylves' many enemies or someone who would pass on the information to them, he would become a liability, regardless of whether he still held ill-will towards his master or not. And personally, Anereth had no doubt he did.

Sylves knew almost as well as Anereth how tempting the prospect of finding the Chosen One's ultimate weakness and taking his power for oneself was. The risk of dying in the process meant little for a mage skilled enough that the probability was low. Almost certainly, once Sylves' murderer survived the act itself, there wouldn't even be severe repercussions, since while it would be almost impossible to not get caught, the ancient laws supporting the practice had never been overturned: the idea had been that any mage foolish or weak enough to reveal the most sacred part of themselves would perish, and the one who had overpowered them would be considered precisely the way their firstborn child would, as their heir.

The latter part had been important because during the Great Wars, sometimes aging and dying mages had voluntarily given their powers to their successor or whoever was near them as they lay bleeding out on the battlefield, and it often had been impossible to tell what precisely had occurred after the fact. Back then, locking up or executing a powerful mage without an extremely compelling reason would have been an unbearable loss for humankind. And even today, simply squandering the Chosen One's power was unthinkable. Most likely, Sylves himself could go out and commit a string of murders and people would jump to make excuses for him, so long as he did not kill the Queen and King themselves.

Aside from this most dangerous secret of Sylves', probably Esares knew much more about him that could be used against him in less significant ways, or simply make for long-lived uncomfortable gossip. Though no one not in the room knew about the demon's assassination attempt, once someone started getting information out of him one way or the other, it would be a slippery slope.

So it was, after all, not so surprising that Sylves would not give his slave to a complete stranger for the duration of his absence; even a professional who was supposed to do nothing more and nothing less than what he had been instructed to do and paid for.

Therefore, Anereth said, slowly, “I see.”

“I'm really sorry to spring this on you,” Sylves said. “But you are my best friend, and there's no one in this city I trust more than you. And I'm not talking about immediately, I still have a few more days before I need to leave, so you can take your time thinking about it. Just... it would be a big help.”

Sylves took a deep breath before continuing, “And I know it would be too much to ask to just look after him, with all the work of having a slave and none of the benefits. I know you think slaves are too much trouble to keep around. But you like him, and I remember you said you like his looks, too, and I... I know I've been--” Sylves' ears reddened-- “a bit territorial, in the past. But you can use him. And treat him like he's yours, really.” He rested a hand atop the unmoving slave's head. “Of course I don't want him to be permanently damaged or treated cruelly, but I know you wouldn't do that, so with anything else... he'd be yours. Though-- don't leave him alone with anyone else. Just think about it?”

Anereth tried not to stare at the other mage. For one, essentially being given free reign over the slave in this agreement was even more unexpected than the request to look after him in the first place. More importantly, however, this was just too perfect. He might have expected some sort of trick, had this not been Sylves. Foolish, naïve Sylves.

“I don't know,” Anereth said, feigning reluctance.

“Please? I'll make it up to you.” Sylves grinned. “I'll even let you refer to me as the 'Chose One' in the future without trying to kill you with the power of my glares.”

Anereth laughed. “Well,” he said at length. “If I get to do that just for the price of keeping a pretty slave with me for a few weeks... I suppose I'll have to help you this time, then.”

Sylves' face lit up. “Really?”

“Really. It's a bit boring all by myself here, anyway. Just don't expect me to do this sort of thing all the time now in the future. I won't if I'm actually busy.”

“Sure! I won't, I promise. But you're a lifesaver. Thank you so much. Isn't that great, Esares? You should say thank you, too.”

“Thank you, sir,” the slave said without looking up or otherwise moving. His tone betrayed no emotion.

Sylves patted the slave's head, smiling brightly at Anereth and making no effort to conceal his relief.

Anereth smiled back, thinking it would almost be a little sad to wipe that happy grateful expression off Sylves' face forever when he finally figured out the words that would be his ruin.

But alas, he had never sought to get close to him for the company.