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The Viper's Scheme

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The bathroom Kyenne had shown him to was spacious and thankfully empty, which was not at all a given considering it was probably the only one available for the household slaves to wash in. Dark green tiles made up the walls, while the floor was the color of sea foam. There were six big marble tubs in the middle of the room and two washing basins in the farthest corners, as well as a grander one between those two that had an ornate silver-rimmed mirror hanging above; and next to each tub were a neatly folded white towel, a small scrubber and several bottles of bathing oils and lotions and soaps.

Esares didn’t dislike the room’s interior, but he would never cease to be amazed by what human nobility spent money on. No matter how many slaves the Laverien family might own, he doubted more than two or thee of the tubs were ever occupied simultaneously.

Before stepping outside, Kyenne had asked if he should wait for him and bring in Esares’ new clothes once a servant arrived with them. Esares had been hesitant to take up his time, but Kyenne had smiled, and assured him he didn't mind and that he wouldn't get in trouble. In the end Esares had gratefully accepted, and not just because he wanted to try having a proper conversation with the other demon again.

Esares wasn't seriously worried about Anereth forgetting to send up a servant at all, but it was nice to know he'd not have to go out in nothing but a towel should there be a delay, and in the first place, he didn't like humans seeing him in a state of complete undress, even servants. He appreciated Anereth had almost never let the situation arise, and that the mage hadn't looked at him directly the one time he'd brought Esares something fresh to wear while he had been bathing.

As it turned out, Kyenne, too, politely averted his eyes when he handed him the clothes; an act that made Esares smile. He didn't actually mind other demons seeing him, though he'd not been sure before. Certainly he liked it better than talking to them while stinking of horse and sweat.

Stepping out of the tub, he asked the other demon to wait a minute while he quickly got dressed, and found it telling that after Kyenne acquiesced, the other demon didn't just keep his eyes elsewhere, but went so far as to turn his back to him. When he'd been free, Esares had rarely met any of his kind who were shy about their bodies; under the humans' rule, such a thing must be commonplace.

It was both a relief and an ache in his heart to find it confirmed that he was far from the only one whose interactions with his own people had been irreversibly tainted by their self-proclaimed masters.

When he was dressed in a soft pale blue tunic that went up to his knees, Kyenne handed him the wide-toothed comb the servant Anereth sent had also brought for him.

Esares thanked him, not just for the comb but all of his help. It made him feel warm in his chest that Kyenne seemed perfectly happy to offer it, despite Esares committing more than one faux pas before.

All over again, Esares was glad Kyenne seemed unconcerned about the time. He would have hated to blurt out deeply personal questions while the man was already out of the door with one foot, be it metaphorically or literally.

Even now, if nothing beyond his personal peace of mind depended on it, Esares might have refrained from bringing up so soon what was sure to be another sensitive topic, and simply taken his chances. He could have tried learning more about Anereth from one of the household slaves, and then decided if he still wanted to approach Kyenne. Tiliera likely wouldn’t return to her residence in Oleren while the Chosen One was recovering in her family home, so Kyenne wasn’t going anywhere, either; and though it wouldn’t be long before Esares himself would be restricted largely to his master’s room, if he wanted it badly enough, he should be able to find a way to see the other demon.

Unfortunately, this was too important to allow for any unnecessary risks, which included relying on second-hand information; and even if Esares waited until he got another opportunity to speak alone with Kyenne – or made one for himself, consequences be damned –, it was highly improbable it would come with a great enough window of time for the questions he had to not come similarly out of nowhere.

He’d just have to give it his best shot. Kyenne was helpful and good-natured: hopefully he’d not simply dismiss him as nosy.

When he was nearly done removing the tangles from his hair, Esares turned from the pretty mirror above the sink and said, “I know I may have already overstepped, but. Can I ask you something personal?”

“What is it?” Kyenne looked more curious than wary, which Esares took as encouragement.

“What's Anereth like? As a master.”

Esares realized immediately he had found a worse topic to raise with Kyenne than dragons. Before he had even finished speaking, the other demon’s face shuttered.

“It's been years since I belonged to him,” Kyenne said. “You've been with him for weeks, haven't you? You'd probably know better than me.”

Esares frowned at the reaction and evasive answer, uneasy. “I'm not his, though, and... I wondered if he'd be different in the long-term.”

“What does it matter?” Kyenne wanted to know, and Esares couldn't decipher his tone. It seemed a little off to him.

“My master may leave me with him more often from now on. And--” He stopped. Did his best to make the half-lie sound convincing, “I was hoping. That if my master ever gets rid of me, or if-- anything ever did happen to him...” He trailed off, and clamped down on the guilt before it could grow into more than a momentary tightness in his gut.

Even if he didn’t fear what Anereth would do should he find out, it would have been the height of carelessness to tell someone he just met he was part of a plot to murder the Chosen One. Chances were another slave wouldn’t want to know, regardless of whether they approved.

Not that he believed many would approve of who said plot hinged on, and how. Lykis would probably think it insane.

Maybe it was.

Kyenne's features were carefully blank. Esares tried not to shift from one foot to the other and make his visceral discomfort obvious. He was fairly sure he looked at Sylves like that, sometimes.

“I see,” Kyenne said at last, with little infection. “You should be fine, then.”

“Will I?”

“I've hardly caught sight of my former master since he gave me away. But being with him wasn't difficult, and if he's not mistreated you so far, and likes you enough he'd consider buying you, there's probably nothing to worry about.”

Esares would have known there was a story here even if Valithia hadn't said anything. “Has he mistreated you?”

Kyenne's gaze went dark and through him, and Esares' heart sank.

“Has he bedded you?” Kyenne asked.

Esares jerked. “What?”

“Has he slept with you?” the other demon repeated, a hint of impatience creeping into his voice.

Esares gave him a wide-eyed look that he prayed didn’t betray his panic, dumbfounded by the blunt question which with any other prospective owner he’d spent nearly every night of the past month alone with would have been ridiculously unnecessary to ask, no matter how possessive Sylves was. “I--” He didn't know if he should be honest. It'd be beyond strange to talk of Anereth potentially wanting him as a personal slave when he'd not even used him in all that time. But... Kyenne knew Anereth, and the fact that he had asked at all held significance.

Esares pressed his arms close to his chest. “No. He hasn't bedded me.”

Kyenne's whole posture changed. “Oh.” His expression cleared, the blankness slowly bleeding away and replaced by faint embarrassment. “Sorry,” he said after a while of his jaw working without result. “I just... we don't really speak much anymore. And you never know, with humans.”

Esares was confused. “Did he hurt you, and that's why he no longer has sex with slaves?” he hazarded, because it was a possibility he'd wondered at and one that seemed to fit the picture. Anereth had been young when he'd gotten Kyenne, hadn't he? Valithia had said as much. It would have been around the time he first came to Nuvaria and met Sylves.

Kyenne laughed weakly. “I was already hurt when he got me.”

This time it was Esares who said, “Oh.” He grasped for words of sympathy that would not fall flat and that he'd not hate to be on the receiving end of himself, but couldn't come up with any. After a while, he asked, cautiously, “So did he... ?”

“He never raped me. He kissed me once, and then I tried to off myself.”

Esares stared at him.

“Sorry. I shouldn't have said that,” Kyenne apologized. “But yeah, I was not a fun slave for him to own. So he left me here when he went to school and signed me over to his sister at the earliest opportunity. And I’m not bitter about it – as I said, I don’t really have anything to whine about –, except when I see him. And, apparently, when I hear about him fawning over a new slave he actually wants around. Which is honestly bizarre, because you couldn't bribe me to set foot in that city and I'm not interested in switching owners another time. But it can’t hurt to be suspicious, can it?”

Although hearing this was a weight off his chest, because it was nowhere near as bad as what he’d begun to speculate, Esares still had trouble formulating a response. He thought of Anereth’s gentle treatment of him, and what it had been like to discover the lies and manipulation beneath; thought of Lykis, who had rightly warned him. In the end, he settled on a quiet, “No.”

But maybe not everything had been a mask, after all; even at first.

Suddenly, he looked at Anereth’s reluctance to seriously kiss him as opposed to pet or hand-feed or punish him with different eyes.

“Sorry,” Kyenne said again. “I'm having a bad day and you shouldn't have to deal with it. These are personal problems, though, and you deserve to know that much. There's no reason why you should be concerned. He was an irritating master, but he tried to be nice and it wasn't like a pig trying to fly.”

Esares' lips pulled upwards, finding that analogy an apt description of his own master. “High praise.”

Kyenne smirked. “He should be honored.”

“Would you say,” Esares ventured after a beat, “he's someone who keeps his promises, when he makes them to a slave?”

“Yes.” Kyenne's response came astonishingly quickly. Esares had anticipated at least some hesitation, and wondered if the other demon knew about the agreement Anereth had struck up with the school slave – Velvern. He briefly considered asking, but decided to leave it be for now. “I'd also say he knows how to play word games. If he tells you he won't sell you, don't be surprised if he ends up giving you to his sister as a gift.”

Esares made a face. “But she's all right?”

“Sure. A step up, really. Told you I'm complaining about nothing,” Kyenne said. “Speaking of the humans, are you ready? We should probably get going or they might send up another servant. It’s not a big deal, but we like to keep them out of the slave quarters.” Esares was still puzzling over that statement when the other demon added, “At least we don’t have to worry about Valithia. She'd not be above hammering the door in.”

Esares noted Kyenne did not say 'barging in'. The bathroom door, like probably all doors in all slave quarters in Desarias, did not lock from the inside. There were no official regulations against it, but there were, occasionally, inspections, and a general agreement that there was no good reason to encourage slaves to lock themselves in as if they owned the space they occupied, or their bodies.

Most owners, even Sylves’ father, permitted their household slaves to tie a piece of cloth to the door handle or door knob of certain rooms, to signal to other slaves they wished to not be disturbed – typically for use of the toilet, but in this case, Kyenne had placed a purple kerchief outside when they first entered just so Esares might bathe in peace.

“Is Lady Valithia very sick?”

“Oh no, she’s fine. Just a bit under the weather.”

Esares found this loosened the knot in his stomach somewhat. “Good,” he said. “I-- I do like her.”

Where Lykis would have at best drawn his brows together or grimaced, Kyenne smiled wide. “It’s hard not to, isn’t it?”

Esares suddenly felt a bit abashed, but gladly returned the smile. “Yes.” He tied back his hair with the red band he'd taken from his old tunic. “Can I ask you one more thing?”

“Sure.”

“Ryminis was his slave before, too, wasn't she? It didn't sound as if he likes her much. How did he treat her?”

“He can't stand her,” Kyenne said, and appeared wholly unbothered by this fact. If anything, there was a tiny upwards twist to the corners of his mouth, which took Esares aback. Yes, if Ryminis had given Anereth trouble, he could see how that could be humorous, but... he'd expected another slave – a friend, from what Valithia had told him – to be concerned about Ryminis if someone in her mistress' family hated her. Even if Anereth might not have done anything too bad.

Kyenne, seeming to sense his bewilderment, allowed his smile to grow more pronounced, and elaborated, “There's no real messy history between them, though, so don’t worry about it. And I'd be amazed if he ever regarded another slave as he does her. Honestly, if he's been decent to you and you can get him to take you, do it. Worst comes to worst, we'll have Valithia give him a tongue-lashing for you.”

Esares grinned back at Kyenne, even as guilt about all the things he wasn’t saying curled in his gut anew. “Thanks.”

“She’s not the only one who’d be happy to have you here more often,” Kyenne said, and Esares couldn’t tell him how much that meant.

He was still smiling when he followed the other demon out of the door.

No, the future need not look so bleak at all. He could hold on, watch Sylves suffer and the better part of humanity run around like headless chickens when they learned that for the first time in almost a century, they had to worry about dragon fire raining down on them. He could find ways to continue forming and maintaining connections to other demons.

And now that he knew Anereth had always been at least somewhat sympathetic to his people’s plight, it seemed infinitely more likely Esares could make him see things his way.

Not least because after what he had learned, Esares was confident he could employ the persuasion tactics he needed without wallowing in resentment, or throwing up. He would move steadily, slowly, and when the day arrived to follow through with what was both the most banal and the most delicate part of what he intended to offer Anereth, he would not aim to deceive him on any deep level as he did Sylves, nor would he cringe or freeze under his touch and turn him away just as surely. It would be merely another trade, another part of a larger agreement; simple as that.

And if he outdid himself and ended up solidifying Anereth’s affection for him to the point where the mage’s judgment became clouded… well, Esares wouldn’t complain, for all that he wasn’t going to count on it.

When at one point as they descended the stairs, Kyenne asked him for how long he’d been owned by Sylves, Esares answered without pause and without sparing his master another thought, too busy planning out his future interactions with Anereth, and his own people; and of course, the most prudent path to take should the Chosen One’s replacement ultimately become in similar need of removal as the original, after all. Though he was confident now that he could work with Anereth, and do so well, the limits of their collaboration had yet to be determined.

There was all-out war on the horizon, and Esares needed to be prepared.

He hadn’t the leisure to cower before a dead man walking.

*

Kyenne guided him to Anereth’s room himself, in lieu of the servant who’d brought the clothes, whom he had apparently sent on his way unconcerned about the instructions the man had received from the mage – with great politeness, no doubt, but before meeting Oliar and Milara, Esares would nonetheless have been shocked by the brazenness of such an act. In most households in Nuvaria, it was not done; in that of Sylves’ father, it was unthinkable.

After asking whether he had need of anything else, Kyenne gave a small wave and made to get back to his mistress, explaining that although he’d not be reprimanded for tardiness, he’d like to try and get permission to speak with Ryminis in Valithia’s quarters, and besides, he’d rather not want to run into Anereth here. At his promise to come find him in the morrow if there was a chance, Esares covered up a grimace with a smile – he was quite certain he’d be back with Sylves by then, and that once he was, his master wouldn’t easily let him out of his sight again any time soon. At most, he could ask Anereth to get him away from him for a few hours once it’d no longer be terribly rude; maybe after a day or two.

At least he was quite sure they wouldn’t be returning to the capital before that.

Finding himself alone in Anereth’s room could have been an opportunity in itself, but although he wasn’t scared off by the prospect of punishment should he get caught going through the mage’s things, it wasn’t worth antagonizing him at this critical juncture. For one, if Anereth had anything deeply private here a slave left to his own devices would be able to access, he’d have found somewhere else to put Esares while he was otherwise engaged; and furthermore, it was obvious at a glance the room was abandoned. There was only the barest decoration, and the most basic furniture: aside from a wardrobe, a night table and a bed, there were only an armchair and a single bookshelf in a far corner. As the room was no smaller than what was the standard for heirs of noble families in Nuvaria, this left a lot of open space.

The bookshelf, too, was half empty, and most of the works that remained appeared to be textbooks going by their titles, or something close enough. A few books had no titles written on their spines, but the adornments typical for fictional novels, and when Anereth failed to show up even after Esares finished the well-seasoned rice and vegetables a servant delivered a good while after Kyenne’s departure, Esares told himself, fuck it and grabbed one, settling into the armchair with it.

The book turned out to be the story of a pirate and a priestess, and their forbidden love. The pirate was challenged to a battle to the death by her many rivals at least once every other chapter, and the priestess, who was some type of mage, kept finding clever ways to curse them. Esares skipped a lot, but it was entertaining enough despite some extremely corny scenes, and it somehow amused him that Anereth possessed this book, even though he realized the man might neither have bought it himself nor actually read it.

When the mage eventually stepped into the room, it was already getting dark outside, and Esares was still perched on the armchair.

He looked up at Anereth’s raised brows, unapologetic. “I didn’t chew on it.”

Anereth rolled his eyes, but just strode into the room and proceeded to get ready for the night. His hair was as wet as when Esares had last seen it, but this time clearly owing to a bath, not the rain that had started pounding against the window again some pages into chapter five.

The mage only addressed Esares once he had settled into bed. “I’m sure Sylves will want to see us as soon as he wakes tomorrow, but for now he’s not a concern. What will it be? I’d offer to have a couch brought in and appreciate the nostalgia, but it’d be a bit strange under the circumstances. I can point you to the spare bedclothes, though.”

Esares closed the book and put it away, and instead of answering crawled into bed, pillowing his head on the mage’s arm and pressing his back against his chest.

“Well, that’s new,” Anereth said after a pause, but his hand was in Esares’ hair almost before he finished the sentence – three fingers very gently carding through by now nearly dry strands. “Did you hit your head and forget the past two weeks, give or take?”

“I’m just in a good mood,” Esares returned, which wasn’t a lie; just not the whole truth, either. He needed Anereth, needed to work his way as deep into his heart as he was able, for so much more than his own sake. He also wanted the physical contact. Thinking about it logically, it would be that much worse to go back to Sylves starved for it; even more sensitive to touch than he already was thanks to the collar and his nature.

And aside from that… until Kyenne’s suspicious behavior where it concerned Anereth, and then finally learning the mage probably really never had treated a slave significantly worse than he had Esares, he hadn’t realized just how scared he had been to learn the facts. He didn’t want to despise Anereth like he did Sylves, didn’t know from where to take the energy and how to live like that; but if the man had been a rapist, had done that to Kyenne – Esares couldn’t not have, even if he could have brought himself to believe he’d never do it again, even if Anereth regretted the pain he had caused. There were acts too vile to ever be filed away as past mistakes.

Anereth’s caresses halted for a second. A moment after they resumed, the mage said, dryly, “Ah, yes. Your dragon.”

“They’re not my dragon,” Esares said, annoyed. Then added, because he didn’t feel like being lectured about presumably getting his hopes up, but also wasn’t about to explain just how he knew it wasn’t merely improbable that the dragon had been anything other than real, but impossible, “If it was one.”

“Of course.” The neutral tone just increased Esares’ ire, because he couldn’t tell whether or not Anereth was being sarcastic. “There are plenty of others who can’t wait for this country to burn, I’m sure.”

“Can you not ruin this? I don’t-- after today--”

The briefest sensation of lips against his nape, soft and barely there. “Forgive me.” This time, Anereth’s voice matched the gesture.

Esares shivered at the mage’s breath tickling the spot he had kissed.

He exhaled slowly, the anger dissipating. He let Anereth continue playing with his hair; enjoyed how now and then, the mage would trail his fingers down his neck and back up. Gradually, he relaxed under the gentle, achingly familiar attention.

Soon enough, his eyes fell shut.

After some minutes, he asked, without opening them, “What did you mean about it being nostalgic if you had a couch installed for me? Did Kyenne sleep on one? Or Ryminis?”

“Kyenne did, for a while. Ryminis slept where she pleased.” Anereth’s voice turned wry as he added the second part. “It didn’t come up?”

“No.”

Anereth hummed, his fingernails sliding along Esares’ bare arm. “We had some issues.”

“Issues,” Esares said, not without humor. “I remember you didn’t seem impressed with Sylves using that word.” His tongue barely got stuck on his master’s name.

A gust of air against the space between Esares’ shoulder blades. “Well, Kyenne never tried to kill me in my sleep, so I’d argue it’s not quite the same.”

Esares gave him a look over his shoulder, but didn’t follow the urge to ask for details. Kyenne had told him enough – it wouldn’t feel right to delve into his history further now, behind his back.

The ensuing silence was comfortable, with Anereth continuing to stroke his arm and neck and hair, and Esares almost drifting off a few times.

It was only broken when the mage stopped, and wrapped him in a loose embrace instead, asking, “All right?”

Esares appreciated the mage checking, and appreciated more that he would probably have done it with any slave, not just one he especially liked, or wanted something from. “Yes,” he said, and sighed contently when the arms around him tightened.

Anereth was quiet again for a while, before asking, “So can I take it we’re good?”

“That depends,” Esares said at length. “Do you have any more unpleasant surprises stored?”

“Oh no, only pleasant ones.”

Esares snorted, but leaned back against Anereth, drinking in the contact.

“I’ve wondered,” Esares said much later, so much he couldn’t be sure the human was still awake, though he’d not turned off the lights.

“Yes?” Anereth’s voice was quiet, but not drowsy.

“That student. Whom you set the snake on.” The arms around him twitched, almost imperceptibly. “He could have died – easily. Why did you do it?”

“Because he was insufferable,” Anereth said. “I thought I mentioned.”

“You find a lot of people insufferable. You don’t go around attempting to murder all of them.”

“No, that’d be a bit conspicuous.”

“You try to make people like you,” Esares continued as though the human hadn’t spoken, “more than you give them reason to distrust and hate you. Because being viewed with anger and suspicion isn’t to your advantage, and wasn’t before you knew about me, either, even if it wasn’t as dangerous to you then. So why did you risk killing him?”

“Sometimes I just get this appetite to make those who slight me suffer, and to devise creative forms of going about it. It’s why you particularly loathe me, remember?” Anereth shifted, lifting his upper body from the bed and leaning forward just enough so warm breath brushed Esares’ ear when he added, “Did you hit your head?”

Esares inhaled sharply, but refused to rise to the bait. Instead, he focused on the part that was interesting rather than aggravating: Anereth was attempting to divert his attention from the original question. And not overly subtly, either.

Not something he wanted to cover up at any cost, then. But maybe… something he vaguely hoped Esares would just drop?

Esares grasped the one arm Anereth had still slung across his torso, holding on tight. He wanted the mage to have no illusions about how likely that was going to happen. “I know you much better now than I did then. Obviously you aren’t squeamish. And I have no doubt you are someone who can enjoy hurting his enemies. But you’re not impulsive, and you’re not someone who kills people over besting you in a class once or twice, or calling you names, or even sabotaging your work or whatever tale you spun that was supposed to explain why you wished to play a trick on him.”

“My, such faith.”

“There was always a chance you’d get in trouble, and you’re many things, but a sadist with no impulse control is not one of them. So why?” Esares pushed.

“I don’t usually chat with people about these things, you know,” Anereth said. “Grudges. Meaningful offenses. It’s funnier when those who suspect or know anything speculate whether I go after the people I dislike more or less at random. Unless it’s Ksielle, but she’s just no fun, period. Especially when she demands answers and you try getting out of giving them.” There was exasperation in the last sentences, but also a softer emotion – reminiscent of how he spoke of and to his sisters.

Esares was so surprised he sat up, almost hitting Anereth in the chin with his shoulder. “She knows?”

“That I’m not an idiot who’d play a prank using a snake without checking if it’s venomous first? Oh yes. It’s very inconvenient. I deeply regret our friendship.”

Esares stared at him. And laughed, startled when he realized. “You have never regretted anything less in your life. You actually meant it, didn’t you. She’s your best friend.” He paused. “You adore her.”

“I do no such thing,” Anereth said. Despite the lack of emotion in his voice, and the fact that he was putting no particular effort into being convincing, Esares thought his cheeks had taken on a slightly reddish tint.

He laughed again, harder. “Dragons,” he said when he could finally speak again, lying down on his back. “This is great. All that time I worried about making you like me when I should have just taken lessons from Ksielle. You would love me by now and tell me all your secrets.”

“Yes,” Anereth said dryly, “obviously I have a weakness for people holding my furniture hostage on a regular basis.”

Esares barely heard him, still in the throes of hilarity. “You would-- you would march up to Sylves right this instant and finish the job, in defense of my virtue.” He dissolved into giggles again.

Anereth was looking down at him strangely.

Esares was sure it was because he should not find this as funny as he did – until a minute or two later, when he raised his hands to rub at his his burning eyes, and it occurred to him his cheeks had never been this wet with tears of laughter.

For some reason, this set him off all over again. When his laughter died down at last, he was gasping for air, and Anereth was still giving him that look, somewhere between concerned and bewildered.

“Never mind,” Esares said. “The snake.” He barely had enough air left to get out the words. “Why did you do it?”

Very slowly, Anereth touched his knuckles to the still wet skin below Esares’ eyes. His hand stayed there for a long moment, during which Esares was not sure he’d answer. “I actually did not care about him, at first,” the mage finally said. “He considered himself my rival, not the other way around. Or maybe I did, but not in any serious sense.”

Anereth let his hand fall away. “Then once after a party, he propositioned me. He had a number of choice words to say about my rejection, what with the number of people I sleep with. How dare I think myself too good for him?” A familiar smile curled at the edges of the mage’s lips, cold and contemptuous. “Things kept going downhill from there. Largely for him.”

Esares didn’t know what he’d expected, but this wasn’t it. He let the words think in. And felt there was still something the mage wasn’t saying. His eyes widened. “Did he--”

“Not what you are thinking,” Anereth said immediately, but didn’t elaborate, procuring a kerchief from the bedside table and taking to drying off Esares’ face.

Esares endured it for a few seconds before swatting away his hand. “Then what?”

With a small sigh, the kerchief was returned to where it came from. “It’s a tale that involves someone sporting a bloody tongue and a burned wrist and still failing to take the hint. He found more creative ways of making a nuisance of himself after, though. In the end, he had a string of slaves,” Anereth said. “There was--” He stopped, seeming to choose his words. “A certain resemblance.”

Disgust swept through Esares.

Anereth took one look at his expression and smiled again, but this time without an accompanying hardness in his eyes. “Yes, I thought so, too,” he said. “Above all, though, it was foolish. People see no real reason why I should have wanted dear Belmvar dead; and while he was lucky enough to retain no permanent damage, he can’t give them a motive without ruining his own future prospects. Sylves might just finish what I started.”

Anereth finally lay back down properly again as well, facing Esares. “Though killing him was never my goal, really. There were plenty of healers available. Some people are just an inconvenience alive or dead – but he ran with his tail between his legs, so that’s all I could have asked for.”

Esares frowned. “When I first met Ksielle, she mentioned you having had a stalker. The son of some duchess?”

“Not him,” Anereth said. Which wasn’t entirely unexpected based on what Esares could recall of the conversation – like that Ksielle had attacked the man she and Anereth had been discussing.

“Does this sort of thing happen to you often?”

“Only sometimes,” Anereth said, the corner of his mouth twitching. “Must be my pretty face and outgoing personality.”

“Or the hair,” Esares said, with just a little rancor.

“Or that,” Anereth agreed easily, and Esares stared at him for a second. “Anyway, that first one was quite harmless. Hence why I left him be. Alas, Ksielle saw it fit to pursue a more dramatic course of action.”

Says the one who nearly murdered the other fellow noble who harassed him, Esares thought.

“Maybe because reasonable people hold that a stalker, by definition, isn’t harmless,” he suggested.

Anereth sketched a shrug, but then rolled onto his back and said, “Ah, yes. That may have played a part.”

Esares kept his eyes on the mage, even as Anereth’s own gaze was fixed to the ceiling. “So what about the student whose hand you crushed? Did he bother you, too? Or did he kick puppies?”

“Determined to pry all my secrets from me tonight, are you,” Anereth said. Yet immediately went on, “No, that one did just call me names. What can I say? I was sixteen.”

Esares snorted. “Who doesn’t go around turning people’s bones to mush because they insulted them when they are sixteen.”

“Exactly.”

“You ask me if I’ve hit my head, but I think the impression I had of you before I knew what I do now was fairly accurate.”

“Oh?” Anereth turned to him again, leaning close. “And what impression was that?”

“That you’re strange,” Esares said. “And dangerous. And dangerously infuriating.” He sat up, as much as he could without bumping against Anereth’s nose. “But not the worst human to stick with.”

“Don’t praise me so,” Anereth said. “I might faint.” After a moment of quiet, the mage slowly raised a hand to Esares’ face. He cupped his cheek, and Esares let him.

The mage’s thumb stroked his jaw, and then Anereth closed the last bit of distance between their faces, kissing his forehead. “You should sleep.”

Esares’ hand dug into the mattress. He consciously focused on relaxing his fingers, pressing them flat against the silk instead. “I don’t think I can.”

A few beats of silence. “Then what do you want to do instead?” It could have sounded like innuendo, like a cheap offer masked as something kinder. But Anereth’s voice was very soft, his hand on Esares’ cheek so gentle as though he feared the demon might shatter under it, and Esares could not have mistaken him if he’d tried.

“Nothing,” Esares said. “Stop time.” He scooted back, away from Anereth’s touch. Took a moment to ground himself while the mage waited, slow to drop his arm. Finally Esares slid under the covers next to him once more and settled down facing the wall; the way his body brushed up against Anereth’s faux casual. “Kill Sylves.”

The bed shifted, and Esares had been half-expecting the arms that encircled him a moment later. “We will.” The words were barely more than a breath next to his ear.

You will, Esares thought. You will have me play his lovesick pet and fulfill his every order, and then when the times comes, you won’t even let me watch.

But the anger was no blazing white-hot flame this time, and no steady fire simmering in the pit of his stomach. It was igniting embers, come and gone with the wind.

He melted into the embrace, letting Anereth stroke his hair and press his lips to the flimsy material covering his shoulder so briefly he could almost believe he’d imagined it, and then in the dark allowed himself to be soothed by promises that Sylves’ end would be slow and torturous, whispered as sweetly as a lover’s oath.

Tonight, he could be weak.

Come morning, there would be room for no such thing, not a second of it.