by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
Sitting beneath a tree and grateful for its shade, Kale took another sip from his water canteen. Unfortunately the road between the port and the capital didn’t follow a river, so they had to ration their water between towns. Playing honour guard was supposed to be a cushy assignment, and certainly it had been a high honour for the 64th Elite unit to be chosen for the duty, but Kale was starting to wish the king had picked someone else.
Oh, it was wonderful to be away from the front lines and the fighting, no mistake about that. And the mission itself was of utmost importance. The envoy from the Kotei Empire, Lord Fujiwara Hiroyuki, had come to discuss the possibility of a marriage between the king of Istria and a princess of the Kotei imperial family. If the negotiations were successfully concluded, it would mean an influx of resources from the powerful Empire across the sea, maybe even enough to end the war with Semaska for good. Of course the Semaskans would do anything to prevent the marriage from happening, which was why the emphasis on this honour guard mission was less on ‘honour’ and more on ‘guard’.
The end of a war that had raged for more than a decade was something Kale could only pray for. But they’d been travelling for weeks on a trip that shouldn’t have taken more than one, because the envoy insisted on being carried in an odd sort of covered litter by six of his men, and they were therefore kept to the pace of the bearers.
On top of that, the magic used by these alien people made Kale’s eyes ache. Instead of the familiar shades of the magic he was used to, the Kotenese spells writhed with strange colours he didn’t even have names for, and he couldn’t read even the most basic of the symbols they used. The envoy himself was a mage powerful enough to make Kale’s eyes water a bit every time he looked at the man, which wasn’t often.
Worse, since they were unsure exactly what the Kotei outlook on relationships between men was, Jaren had regretfully ordered Kale to share a tent with one of the other Elite for the duration of their duty. He’d hardly even seen his lover the entire time, and certainly hadn’t had a chance to talk to him beyond receiving orders and giving reports. After all, officially he was just a lowly private, and hardly rated any attention from a captain of the Elite.
The envoy – ‘Lord Fujiwara’, as Jaren addressed him, though he was nothing but ‘sir’ to the rest of them – stayed behind his curtains during the part of the day when the sun was strongest, but otherwise kept them open in order to look out at the land they travelled over. He exclaimed over animals and trees that were commonplace to Kale, though he kept his expression as bland as that of a statue. Any time it seemed like some emotion might actually break through that stoic mask, his silk and sandalwood fan came up to hide his face, and the only thing visible were his strange slanted black eyes.
For the most part, he spoke only to Jaren, and despite his seemingly humble words his tone was always that of a superior deigning to make conversation with a servant. The men of the 64th he would sometimes issue orders to, but there were two people he refused even to notice. Dena was one, and Kale was the other.
Dena was clearly irritated by the treatment, and Jaren eventually had to order her to ride forward guard to get her out of sight. Kale tried not to let it bother him. He was beneath the notice of such an esteemed personage, and in the normal course of events a lowly peasant private like him would never have even seen someone like the envoy.
Despite the problems and difficulties it had been a mostly uneventful assignment, and now they were only few days from the capital. Kale was tentatively ready to heave a sigh of relief and look forward to the end of it. Surely they were in no danger from attack by the Semaskan forces this far into the heart of Istria. Soon enough it would be over, and things between him and Jaren could go back to normal.
They’d stopped to purchase supplies in a town on the road earlier that day, and when they broke for lunch in a pleasant meadow Kale was looking forward to the fresh food. The Kotenese contingent set themselves up a little distance away from the group of Elite, laying out rugs for the envoy to sit on and setting up a clever little lacquered folding table and an elegant tea set. Tea seemed to be the only beverage these people consumed, as far as Kale could tell.
As always, Lord Fujiwara settled himself at the low table in what looked to Kale to be an awkward kneeling position, and one of his guards started mixing his tea. It was a highly ritualized procedure, and Kale snuck looks as often as he dared, fascinated. There was nothing magical about the ritual that he’d been able to see, but it had the feeling of an elaborate magical working nonetheless.
At least, normally there was nothing magical about it. Sipping again from his canteen to wash down the dry bite of bread he’d just eaten, Kale frowned and tried to look closer without being caught staring. Yes, there was definitely a faint flicker of magic around the teapot this time. It was so faint it was hard to even make out the colour, but Kale thought it might be green.
That was the colour of life magic, at least in the magic he was used to, but there was something about this particular shade of green that made Kale’s stomach twist. It was… ugly, somehow. Distorted, as if someone had worked tiny threads of black through the green and turned it muddy.
There were many strange shades in Kotenese magic, but they were all bright and vivid, as beautiful as any magic Kale was used to even if they did give him a headache. This colour felt wrong, not alien. It intensified slightly as the guard poured the tea into one of the little cups, but it was still difficult to see. The guard took a tiny sip to prove the tea wasn’t poisoned, then passed it to the envoy.
Poison. Kale’s heart clenched as he realized what the colour meant. There was a magical poison in that tea. “Stop!” he shouted in horror, jumping to his feet. “Stop, don’t drink that!”
When Fujiwara showed no signs of paying the slightest attention to him, Kale did something in desperation that he’d never have otherwise considered. He lunged forward and threw himself bodily at the envoy, surprising the man’s guards enough that he actually managed to reach the noble. He knocked the cup out of the shocked envoy’s hands, the tea splashing all over the beautiful silk robes the man wore.
An instant later he found himself flat on the ground, with two very sharp swords pressed to either side of his neck. One of the guards drew his sword back as if intending to chop right through Kale’s neck, and the private flinched.
“Stop!” Jaren’s voice echoed Kale’s earlier exclamation, but unlike Kale there was Power behind his command. Magic shot from the warrior-mage’s hand to the two guards, freezing them both in place. The Elite were converging on the Kotenese group, weapons out and holding at bay the other guards.
“You dare?” Clearly outraged, the envoy was on his feet and glaring at Jaren. Despite the fact that he was shorter than the warrior-mage by a good foot and a half, he somehow seemed to be looking down on the blond man. “This… peasant has touched my person and assaulted me, and now you attack my guards? Is this how your country treats its honoured guests, Captain Delwash?”
“Lord Fujiwara,” Jaren said, clearly struggling to hang onto his patience. “I don’t know exactly what is going on, but I can assure you that Private Coulter must have had a very good reason for his actions. I have not harmed your guards, only stopped them. They will be released exactly as they were at a word from me. Private?” he looked questioningly at Kale, and the expression on his face said Kale had damn well better have an explanation. Kale gulped.
“It was poisoned, sir. I think. I looked over, and I noticed there was faint magic around the teapot. It was… it felt wrong. Dark, twisted. I tried to tell him to stop, but he wouldn’t listen.” Sweating, Kale did his best not to move at all. Even speaking was enough to scrape the delicate skin of his throat against the blade that the frozen guard held across his neck, and if he moved he was sure to cut himself.
“Ridiculous,” the envoy scoffed. “He makes up a story to save himself. How could he see such a thing? And I wear a ring spelled to protect against poison,” he lifted one hand, where several jewelled rings gleamed on his fingers. “The jewel would have glowed if there was poison in the cup, magical or otherwise.”
“With all due respect, my lord,” Jaren spoke carefully, and Kale could see he was holding onto his temper with effort, “Private Coulter is not given to telling tales, and he does possess the ability to see magic. That is why he serves with my unit in the first place, and he has spotted things the rest of us missed many times in the past.”
Looking disbelieving, the envoy waved that off. “There is still the matter of the ring, captain. Perhaps your man saw something or thinks he did, but he still assaulted my person and must be punished for his audacity.”
Kale looked at the rings on the man’s hand, and tried to pick through the complicated weave of spells on them. It was impossible; he simply wasn’t familiar enough with the way their magic worked. That made something occur to him, though. “Sir… uh, not to disagree with you, but are you certain your ring would be able to detect a poison created by our magic?” he ventured. “I can’t make heads or tails of yours most of the time, so maybe our magic would be just as confusing to yours.”
A startled look passed over both the envoy’s face and Jaren’s. Lord Fujiwara composed himself a split second later, and his outrage had vanished as if it had never been. “I do not know if my magic would be proof against yours, it is true,” he admitted. “Release my men, captain.” He added something in his own language that caused the two guards to step back once Jaren released them, and Kale drew a breath in relief. Sitting up, he rubbed at the stinging spot on his neck where the blade had apparently drawn blood after all.
“Captain!” Leor had ducked out of the circle of Elite when Kale had first mentioned the poison, and now he was back with one of their canteens in hand. “Sir, I tested the water we got at the last town, and there is poison. It’s incredibly subtle, I had to try three different test spells before I found it, and I’d never have known to look if Kale hadn’t warned us. It’s set to only trigger when it’s mixed with something specific – at a guess, I’d say it’s probably that green powder they used in their tea.”
As one, everyone looked at the guard who had taken the first sip of the tea. He was pale and sweating, but that could have been as much a result of fear of the poison as the actual effects of it. But Kale could see the same faint, tainted green colour working its way slowly over the man’s body. “He’s poisoned,” he confirmed grimly. “It’s slow acting; I don’t think it would be noticed until hours from now. And by then it would be too late to stop.”
“Leor,” Jaren snapped, and his second in command saluted and hurried to the guard’s side. He was their de facto healer, having studied briefly among the healing mages as a boy before deciding he would rather be an Elite.
“I’ve got him, captain,” the lieutenant said, then looked at the envoy. “With your permission, sir?”
“There is no need,” the envoy replied dismissively. “He has failed in his service to me. Kasai.” He addressed the poisoned guard, and added a few words in his own language. His tone was stern, and contemptuous.
The guard knelt before him and bowed so low his forehead touched the ground. Then, as the envoy and his guards watched impassively and too quickly for the Elite to stop him, the man drew the shorter of his two swords and ran it straight through his own stomach.
“What…!” Leor exclaimed, and took a step forward. He was stopped by Jaren, who had assumed the expression of icy calm he used when he didn’t want people to see how upset he was.
“It’s their custom, lieutenant,” the blond said softly. “We have no right to interfere.” With the hand not blocking Leor, he reached down and squeezed Kale’s shoulder, and the private was grateful for the gesture.
The guard must have been suffering horribly; a gut wound like that would be agony and might take days to kill him. Yet he hardly made a sound, kneeling there before his lord with only faint whimpers and the trembling of his hands on the hilt of his sword revealing how much he was hurting. At last Lord Fujiwara nodded to another of the guards, and in one swift motion the man unsheathed his sword and beheaded the poisoned guard in a clean sweep.
Biting his lip, Kale forced himself not to look away from the body, and did his best to keep his face expressionless. Jaren’s hand tightened on his shoulder, and he drew a deep breath.
Then he bowed to the envoy as the guard had, a bit awkward from a sitting posture instead of a kneeling one, but he did the best he could. “Sir, I beg your forgiveness for, uh, assaulting your person,” he carefully used the same phrase the envoy had. There was still the potential for problems here; if Lord Fujiwara wanted to, he could call for Kale to be punished even though the private had saved his life.
“It is forgiven,” the envoy said. He did not apologize for the fact that his guards had nearly killed Kale in turn, but Kale hadn’t expected him to. “Is it true you can see magic? Is this skill so common among your people that you are nothing more than the lowest among your army? In my country, such a rare ability would be prized, even in a peasant, and you would be indispensable to the emperor’s court.”
Flushing, Kale bowed his head again to hide the bitterness in his eyes. “I am not a mage, sir,” he replied. “I can see the magic, but not use it. As far as I know, I am unique in my ability.”
“Yet you can do what many mages cannot,” the envoy pointed out. “I would pay much for a servant with such a skill, assuming I dared risk the emperor’s displeasure by stealing him away.”
“Private Coulter has thus far been undervalued by our superiors, it is true,” Jaren said warmly, with a smile for Kale. “But that situation is slowly being corrected. His assignment to my unit is proof of that, as ordinarily Elite and regular troops are never assigned together. He has been invaluable to us.”
Inclining his head, the envoy acknowledged that. “I think perhaps there has been enough excitement for one afternoon,” he suggested. “My men will deal with the mess, and then I think it would be wise if we continued on.”
“As you wish, my lord,” Jaren bowed again, and jerked his head at the other Elite. Kale scrambled to his feet and followed them back to ‘their’ side of the meadow, feeling extremely grateful to have gotten out of the encounter with his head still attached to his shoulders. The casual way the envoy had ordered his guard to disembowel himself, and then had the other guard behead him… and all because the man had failed to notice a poison he could not possibly have detected, and which the lord’s own ring had not warned him of!
But Jaren was right that they had no right to comment on the customs of these people. None of the other guards seemed in the least upset or concerned for their own heads, so presumably this was normal for them. Kale shook his head, and was very, very glad that he’d been born Istrion instead of Kotenese.
The next morning Kale woke to find the camp in an uproar. He could hear Jaren faintly from somewhere near Fujiwara’s pavilion; the Elite wasn’t yelling yet, but Kale swore he could almost feel the pulse of the man’s aura as he struggled with his infamous temper.
Scrambling for his clothes, Kale was dressed as quickly as he could and with only minimal attention to making himself neat enough to pass an inspection. What was going on out there was more important. He couldn’t imagine what had sparked an argument between Jaren and the envoy, but it was his unofficial job to keep his lover’s temper in check.
Outside he found an uneasy standoff, with the Elite lined up on one side behind Jaren, and the guards doing the same behind their lord. As Kale had expected, his lover’s aura was spiking dangerously, showing his anger. “…cannot simply conscript him,” Jaren was saying, emphasizing his words with sweeping gestures. “Private Coulter is a free man. Perhaps in Kotei you are permitted to simply take whomever you please, but this is Istria and in Istria a free man decides his own fate.”
“What?” Kale came to an abrupt halt still some distance from the two arguing leaders. What in the world? Looking around, he found the nearest Elite and grabbed him by the arm. “Ryen, what in the name of Amera is going on?”
There was little love lost between Kale and Ryen; he was one of the oldest of the Elite who served under Jaren, and he’d stiffly protested Kale being officially included in the unit. For a moment Kale thought the man wasn’t going to answer him, but then he shrugged. “Not sure, I wasn’t much ahead of you, but it sounds like Fujiwara has decided he likes you.”
“He’s demanding that Jaren turn you over to him,” Leor told Kale quietly, coming up behind him. Leor had also been a staunch opponent of his, until he’d realized just how valuable Kale’s ability to see magic could be. Now he was neutral, which made things a great deal easier since as the second in command he often gave orders to the group when Jaren was busy.
“For what?” Kale demanded, just as quietly but insistently. “I thought he forgave me for ‘attacking’ him.”
“No, he doesn’t want to punish you,” Leor explained wryly. “He thinks he’s rewarding you. He’s declared that you are to become part of his household, and that he’s going to present you to his emperor when they all go back to Kotei.”
“But I don’t want to go!” Kale protested, and Ryen snorted.
“Kid, I don’t think he cares what you want. He’s decided, and he’s used to his word being law,” the older man stated.
Open-mouthed in shock, hardly able to even comprehend the idea that the envoy could believe he could just command someone be turned over to him like nothing more than a piece of property, Kale stared at the unfolding scene. Jaren and the envoy were still arguing, but for the moment the warrior-mage was holding on to his temper. Kale decided not to interrupt unless he had to, figuring it would be best not to draw unnecessary attention to himself.
“Does he not owe loyalty to your king?” the envoy was asking, surprised. “Must he not, as a loyal subject, follow his king’s orders? Even as he follows your orders, being a subordinate to you?”
“Yes,” Jaren admitted, sounding like the word was dragged out from behind clenched teeth. “But that is beside the point.”
“It very much is the point, captain,” Fujiwara countered. “Do you doubt that your king will be willing to make this small gift to me, should I ask it?”
They all knew the king probably would happily give Kale to the man. Their king was not known for his compassion at the best of times, and to win the war with Semaska he would do a great many things even he might otherwise not contemplate. The life of one minor peasant would mean less than nothing to him, and if Fujiwara demanded it as part of the negotiations, the king probably wouldn’t even try to bargain.
“That remains to be seen,” Jaren replied, his expression stubborn. “Until such time as that does happen, Private Coulter remains my subordinate and part of my unit, not yours.”
“You are only making things harder on him,” Fujiwara sighed. “It would be best for him to begin learning what is necessary at once. But I will not argue with you further, captain. Coulter is yours, for the time being.”
Immensely relieved, it was all Kale could do not to run to Jaren’s side. As if reading his mind, his lover glanced at him and ordered, “Private, meet me in my tent. I think you and I need to have a discussion.”
“Yes, sir,” Kale acknowledged with a salute. Some of the other Elite were giving them knowing looks, but frankly at this point Kale didn’t care what they thought. He didn’t even care if he and Jaren did nothing but talk about the situation, as long as he got to be near his lover again. These last few weeks had been utter torture.
The moment he stepped inside Jaren’s tent, the warrior-mage seized him in a tight embrace. “Gods,” he exclaimed, shaking his head over Kale. “You do get into the weirdest tangles, Kale.”
“Why do they keep going for me?” Kale all but wailed, barely remembering to keep his voice down. “First Trenton, now Fujiwara… I suppose I ought to be grateful Fujiwara at least doesn’t seem interested in bedding me!”
“It’s your destiny to attract powerful men, I guess,” Jaren said, with a laugh that had nothing to do with mirth.
“Is there anything you can do?” Kale asked him anxiously. “Jaren, I really do not want to go with him! I don’t care how prized I’d be! If I don’t fit in here because of my gift, I’ll never fit in there!” More than anything, Kale despised being ostracized by the people around him. In Kotei they might value him for his ability, but he’d heard about the way they treated foreigners. He would never, ever be happy there.
“I don’t know,” Jaren admitted wearily. “I just don’t know. I’ve got some strings to pull in high command, but the king? The only card I can play there is one that probably still won’t be strong enough to deter him, not if Fujiwara makes getting you a stipulation to the marriage. I… wait.” His eyes lit up. “I think I’ve got an idea.”
Pulling away from Kale, he turned and marched right back out of the tent again. Nervously, Kale followed him. “Jaren…” he hissed, trying not to draw anyone’s attention. He hadn’t been with the Elite all that long, but he’d learned to have deep misgivings whenever that look appeared in his lover’s eyes. Especially when accompanied by that determined expression.
“Lord Fujiwara!” Jaren called, and the envoy emerged from his tent a moment later.
“Yes, captain?” he asked, his face hidden behind his fan as usual.
Taking a deep breath, Jaren said, “I once had the pleasure of speaking with the Kotei ambassador, and he told me that many things are settled among your people in a duel of honour. I would have this matter settled here and now, without bringing the king into it.”
“You would challenge me over him?” Fujiwara looked startled, enough so that it showed even past the fan. “While I can appreciate the duty a captain has to his men, this goes beyond that. Why do you do this?”
For a moment Kale was afraid Jaren was going to have to explain their relationship, but to his surprise the Elite answered firmly, “Sir, I would do the same for any of my men. I fight for my country because I believe in the freedom my people have, which the Semaskans would take from us. You are proposing to do the very same thing, and I will not stand for it.”
Studying him for a long moment, Fujiwara finally lowered the fan and nodded. “I can see that this is indeed a matter of honour to you. Very well, I accept your challenge. Take up your blade, captain.”
“A moment,” Jaren shook his head. “I would have the rules clarified before we begin, that no-one may claim cheating later because of difference in customs. Do you allow magic in battle?”
“Certainly not,” the envoy looked faintly affronted. “That would be no test of a man’s swordsmanship, but rather of his magic.”
“Then I’m afraid a sword duel isn’t possible,” Jaren told him dryly. “I am an Elite, sir. Battle magic is drilled into us until it is instinctive. I could no more fail to use it than you could forget how to hold a sword. Let it be a duel of magic, then.”
“Magic?” The envoy raised an eyebrow, considering it. “I was given to understand the Elite are not true mages.”
“Our training is different from that of the mages,” Jaren admitted. “We focus more on inherent magic, such as enhancing speed and strength in battle, and protection spells in the place of armour. But I know enough to participate in a duel.”
Kale could almost see the thoughts going through the envoy’s mind. He was a stronger mage than Jaren, and though he probably couldn’t see that as easily as Kale did, surely at some point he would have taken the measure of the people escorting him. Moreover his magic was utterly foreign, and it would be difficult for Jaren to anticipate or block him. Of course the same was true in reverse, but the difference in power levels would be telling.
“As you wish,” Fujiwara finally agreed. “Let it be done as you say. I require one hour to meditate and prepare myself. There will be, of course, no blades permitted.”
“Of course,” Jaren agreed. “One hour. Private Coulter, come with me. The rest of you, start widening this clearing. We’ll need a ring about a hundred paces across.” The others jumped to obey, and Kale followed Jaren back into the tent.
“Are you crazy?” he gasped the moment they were in private. “Jaren, he’s more powerful than you are. And he’s a full mage, with all kinds of magic you can’t even begin to guess at!”
“He’s more powerful than me right now,” Jaren corrected him with a grin. “He won’t be in an hour. I was taking a risk, hoping that he’d elect to take some time to prepare, but I’ve heard about how much importance they put on meditating before a battle.”
Looking at him as if he’d gone insane, Kale shook his head. “What can you possibly do in the space of an hour that would put you on a level with him? You can’t change your inherent abilities to… oh.”
Suddenly realizing exactly what Jaren intended, Kale flushed. “Oh. Never mind, I get it.” He felt stupid. Sex was a powerful method by which to raise energy; they’d proved that once before, in a situation that had been far more dire than this. And the fact that they’d been separated for weeks would only make it all the more potent.
“You’re not objecting, are you?” Jaren asked, with a gleam in his eye that made Kale feel distinctly overheated. Turning, the warrior-mage quickly wrote a series of sigils along the tent flap, sealing it against entry and soundproofing it as well.
“No,” Kale said hastily. “No, definitely not. Gods, Jaren, I’ve missed you.” He felt stupid saying it. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t seen each other, or even as if it had really been that long. He reached for his lover, and was met halfway as they embraced passionately.
“Not half as much as I’ve missed you,” the Elite insisted, brushing his mouth lightly over Kale’s before settling into a firmer kiss. They only had an hour, which wasn’t nearly as much time as it sounded like it was. Jaren had to be recovered enough to fight afterwards, for one thing.
“What do you want?” Kale asked as they broke the kiss again, hands already fumbling with each other’s clothing. “You know what works best. I’ll do anything you want.”
“Mmm, you shouldn’t tempt me like that,” Jaren told him, biting at Kale’s neck as he finished with the buttons on his tunic and dropped to his belt. ” ‘Anything I want’ would take longer than an hour, I’m afraid. Damn it, I’d intended to wait until we got to the capital and had a room of our own with a nice soft bed for this, but… the best thing I can do to raise power is to take you.”
Kale shivered, and suppressed a moan. Though they’d been lovers for more than two months, they still had never gone that final step. Jaren had teased him with it a few times, using just one finger to play with Kale’s entrance and drive him wild, but he’d always insisted that the time wasn’t right to finish it yet. No matter how much Kale begged or cursed him.
“Do it,” he said instantly, his body going from half aroused to completely hard just at the thought. “Do it, Jaren, gods. What ever made you think I needed a soft bed and a room for that?” Though it still awed him that someone as powerful and important as Jaren would treat him like something precious and valuable, there were times when Jaren went a little too far in the interests of protecting him. This was definitely one of those times.
“I just wanted it to be perfect,” the Elite murmured, his mouth trailing over Kale’s neck and making him shiver, his hands pushing the younger man’s trousers down off his hips. Kale was still stuck on Jaren’s belt, and the distraction of his lover’s touch wasn’t helping his coordination.
“You sound like a lovestruck woman, Jaren,” Kale pointed out, his soft chuckle broken by a moan when the warrior-mage bit him again in retaliation for the teasing.
“Well, someone has to be the girl, I suppose,” Jaren replied in amusement, pulling back to grin at Kale. That let the younger man gather his thoughts long enough to undo the Elite’s belt and push his pants down, though he blushed and stared at the very idea of Jaren being in any way the ‘girl’ in this relationship.
Certainly there was nothing in the least feminine about the body revealed now that the last of the clothes were off. Jaren was tall and slender, his pale skin betraying his noble heritage, but every inch of him was solidly muscled. Some Elite relied entirely on spells to enhance their strength and did the minimum required to keep themselves fit, but even without artificial enhancement Jaren would have been a strong man.
In contrast Kale was swarthy and had dark eyes and hair, the mark of the peasant farmers his family were. He was stocky rather than muscular, and only about average in terms of looks as far as he was concerned, though Jaren insisted he was attractive. At the very least Jaren certainly seemed to enjoy exploring Kale’s body as he was doing now, and Kale enjoyed doing the same to him every bit as much.
With great pleasure Kale ran his hands over the other man’s chest, feeling the hard muscles shifting beneath the soft skin. Jaren leaned down and kissed him again, his arms going around Kale’s waist and pulling him close with gentle insistence. Kale went willingly, and they both moaned as their bodies rubbed together.
Instead of a comfortable bed they had only Jaren’s messy bedroll, but when the Elite bore him down onto the blankets Kale couldn’t have cared less. Cared, hell, he was hardly even aware of their surroundings. All of his attention was focused squarely on Jaren, as it should be.
The one regret Kale did have, and which he knew Jaren shared, was how limited their time was. They would just have to make the most of it, and gods willing, they’d have the chance to take their time with it in the future.
“Let me,” he murmured, squirming beneath Jaren until the bigger man rolled them to their sides, and he had freedom of movement again. Kale pushed him further, until the Elite was lying on his back and Kale was straddling him.
“Kale?” Jaren sounded surprised, but Kale shook his head and put a finger over his lover’s lips.
“Let me,” he repeated. “Let me do this for you. Jaren, you’re the most considerate lover anyone could ever ask for, but this once it has to be about your pleasure more than mine.”
Without waiting for further permission, Kale slid down over Jaren’s body, deliberately brushing their groins together but then moving too far down for further contact. Jaren groaned and fisted his hands in his blankets as Kale fastened his mouth on the older man’s nipple, tormenting it with teeth and tongue.
Kale had been slowly growing bolder in bed, but until now Jaren had always been very firmly in control of things. Now Kale put to use everything he’d learned from his lover and did his best to turn the tables. He had a good memory, thankfully.
When Jaren’s nipple was stiff and red from the abuse, Kale finally released it and slid further down, dropping kisses as he went. Jaren made a startled noise when he realized what Kale was planning, followed by a heartfelt moan. Though Jaren had gone down on Kale several times, until now Kale hadn’t quite been brave enough to return the favour. His one and only experience with it had been… well, not awful, but certainly not under circumstances he’d care to repeat.
Taking the older man’s cock in his hands, Kale stroked it the way he knew Jaren liked it best. This he’d done any number of times, enough that it felt almost natural now. Tentatively Kale brushed his mouth over the tip, then licked at the slit and tasted the salty drops already gathered there.
A little more confident at that sign of arousal, Kale opened his mouth and took the tip inside. Jaren made an incoherent noise and his fists tightened in the blankets, and Kale could feel how he was trembling. Taking that as a good sign, he slid his mouth down further, until he’d taken all he could without choking.
The skin on this part of Jaren’s body was so delicate, yet it covered a hardness equal to the best steel Kale had ever seen. The contradiction was fascinating, and Kale wished he had more time to explore.
He didn’t, though; both because of the impending duel, and because judging by the noises Jaren was making he might not last long if Kale lingered. Coming up for air at last, Kale smiled at his lover. The look Jaren gave him in return was so hot it made Kale shiver hard, and the heat of it rushed straight to his own neglected erection.
“As much as I’m enjoying that,” Jaren said, his voice hardly more than a husky growl, “if we want to get any further then you’d better come back up here.”
“Some other time, I’ll finish it,” Kale promised him as he moved back up to lie beside his lover. It hadn’t been as bad as he’d thought, and if it was going to get Jaren that hot, well, Kale thought he could learn to like it. “Now what?”
Reaching over him, Jaren rummaged in his saddlebag and produced a small bottle of oil. Kale blushed despite himself. He knew what that was for, in theory at least. Pouring a handful of the oil into his palm, Jaren urged Kale to lie on his back and spread his legs. Kale obeyed without objection, caught between breathless anticipation and a sudden case of nerves.
“This may – probably will – hurt,” Jaren warned him, which didn’t help Kale’s nerves at all. “I don’t have enough time to be as slow as I should be. I’m sorry, I promise I’ll make it as good for you as I can.”
“Jaren… you apologize too much,” Kale told his lover, rolling his eyes and reaching up to pull the older man down into a brief kiss. “I told you before, remember? You’ve never done anything to me that I wasn’t eagerly participating in, regardless of the circumstances. If it has to hurt, let it hurt. I’m a big boy, I can handle it, and I’d rather get a little hurt than find myself hauled all the way to Kotei!”
That earned him a small smile and a more lingering kiss. Before he’d even broken the embrace Jaren was already sliding his hand down to probe at Kale’s entrance, the oil making it much easier than usual for him to slip one finger inside the younger man.
They’d done this often enough before that it no longer felt odd to Kale, but rather caused him to squirm in anticipation. There was this one spot, he had no idea what it was or why it was there, but it felt like he’d touched the heavens when Jaren pressed his finger against it. Oh, gods, like he was doing right now. Panting, Kale arched up against him, and hardly even noticed the burn when Jaren added a second finger.
After a few moments Kale realized he was babbling, an endless stream of barely understandable pleas interspersed with frequent moans. He’d have blushed, but at this point it would have taken more than his own begging to embarrass him. Swallowing, he forced himself to be more coherent. “Jaren, please. Do it. I… I want you inside me.”
Nodding, the warrior-mage slowly withdrew his hand, making Kale whimper at the sudden loss. A moment later Jaren was braced above him, his cock probing at Kale’s entrance and feeling much bigger than it ever hand when Kale had his hand around it.
Trying not to tense up, Kale stared up at Jaren and searched his lover’s face for reassurance. He found it, not in the heat in the older man’s eyes but in the softness that spoke of genuine love and affection.
It did hurt when Jaren pushed inside him, enough that Kale couldn’t quite clamp down on a whimper, but it wasn’t unbearable. Kale fought to relax, knowing that would make it easier on him. The look on Jaren’s face was something almost close to pain as well, but Kale doubted it was caused by anything but pleasure.
Finally he was all the way in, and Jaren paused to let them both catch their breath. He was trembling, Kale could feel it all through the older man’s body, but he restrained himself for Kale’s sake.
After a few moments Kale drew a deep breath and nodded, as ready as he was ever going to be. Jaren drew back again, then thrust forward once more. It still hurt, but not nearly as much as it had the first time. It felt odd more than it hurt, much as it had felt odd the first time Jaren had used a finger on him. Kale started to believe that this could possibly be good.
Then Jaren shifted his weight back on his heels, put his hands under Kale’s hips and lifted, and Kale knew it could be good. The change in angle made Jaren’s cock rub against that spot with every pass, and in moments all thoughts of pain had fled Kale’s mind entirely.
Even so, Jaren was the one who came first, already worked up from Kale’s earlier efforts. His rhythm faltered once, then again, and finally he stiffened against Kale with a cry. Kale could feel Jaren pulsing inside him, and he squirmed with his own need. “Jaren!” he pleaded brokenly.
“Sorry,” the warrior-mage gasped, clearly struggling to gather himself after the explosion of orgasm. He wrapped one hand around Kale’s cock and started stroking him quickly. It didn’t take much of that before Kale followed him over the edge at last, his vision blurring briefly as he came hard.
When he caught his breath again, he found Jaren looking down at him with an expression that would have melted Kale’s heart if he hadn’t already been desperately in love with the man. “Are you okay?” Jaren asked.
Kale gave him an incredulous look for what seemed to be a stupid question – Jaren’s hand and Kale’s stomach were both coated with his come, weren’t they? – but it changed to a pained expression as Jaren slowly withdrew and let him fall back to the bed.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Jaren said, his tone somewhere between rueful, amused, and smug.
“It worked, at least,” Kale informed him, feeling drowsy as he usually did after sex despite the growing ache in his body. “I almost can’t look at you straight on, you’re glowing so brightly with power. He’ll have a hell of a surprise waiting for him.”
Jaren nodded, but he looked worried. “I still have no real idea what he’s capable of, though. It’s a hit and miss proposition for both of us, but I feel a lot more confident now.” He brushed his hand over Kale’s cheek gently. “I couldn’t let him take you. If this is how it must be, then so be it.”
Reluctantly, he pushed himself to his feet. “As much as I’d like to laze about with you and just enjoy myself, there’s no time,” he added with genuine regret. “I’ve got a duel to win.”
Kale watched for a moment as the older man dressed, trying to dredge up the energy to move. He wanted to be there to witness the duel, needed to be there, but… well, he was a little sore. Okay, a lot sore. And damn it, every bloody person in the camp was going to know exactly what they’d been up to in here. Kale blushed at the thought. The rest of the 64th he didn’t mind so much, it had to happen eventually, but Fujiwara’s men were another matter.
At last he groaned and forced himself up on his knees, wincing. Jaren caught the flinch and gave him a sympathetic smile. “Sore? I’m not surprised. Here, I think I can spare this much energy.” He traced a sigil of healing on Kale’s forehead, then rested his hand on the younger man’s head. Kale felt the flood of energy flowing over him, far stronger than was necessary for such a minor injury, if you could even call it that.
“Careful,” he cautioned when Jaren lifted his hand again, sounding a bit dazed. “You’re stronger than you’re used to being, right now. Don’t put so much power into things or you’ll bleed off the excess too fast.”
“Right,” Jaren agreed, somewhat sheepishly. On the bright side, Kale discovered that he was now able to move without even a hint of discomfort. There were unanticipated advantages to having a mage as a lover, apparently.
By the time they were both presentably dressed and left the tent, it was almost time. Kale caught a few sly and knowing looks from the members of the 64th who had been least happy to have a mere private tagging along with them, but somehow he managed not to blush. Instead he held his head high, refusing to be ashamed of his relationship with Jaren. It was only as sordid as he let other people make it out to be.
There was no sign of Fujiwara yet, though his guards were arranged around his pavilion. Jaren squeezed Kale’s hand one last time, then went to stand alone at one end of the large cleared area the Elite had created for the battle. Kale joined the rest of the 64th, hanging back to avoid the smug and irritated looks.
“Branon?” he asked the man who was the closest thing he had to a friend in the unit, other than Jaren. “How different is a mage battle from what the Elite are taught?”
“I’ve never been in one, so it’s hard to say,” the other man said softly, coming to stand beside him. “And it’s especially hard to predict since we don’t know much about what their spells are like. But… well, not many Elite are dumb enough to get into a magical duel with a mage. And the few who are usually lose.” He frowned. “Plus, the captain is working at a disadvantage. From what little I’ve been able to get out of Fujiwara’s guards, by their rules this is a battle to the death. Fujiwara will be out for Jaren’s hide, but the captain can’t kill Fujiwara or even badly damage him, or this whole damn negotiation falls to pieces before we even reach the capital.”
Kale gulped, seeing the problem. Gods, what had he gotten them into? It wasn’t his fault! All he’d done was save the damn man’s life, he hadn’t asked for all this! But it was Jaren who might end up paying the price.
In the middle of one end of the cleared space, Jaren stood silent and composed, as still as a living statue. Kale could tell by the way the warrior-mage’s aura had pulled in tight around him that Jaren was focusing, maybe even meditating lightly. At last Fujiwara’s tent flap opened, and the envoy stepped out.
Kale blinked, shocked. Where in the seven hells had the man’s magic gone? As far as he could tell, it had vanished completely. What was Fujiwara doing?
Opening his mouth to say something, Kale forgot to close it again when he finally realized what was actually going on. Like Jaren, the envoy had gathered his aura in close to himself with self-discipline and focus. Unlike Jaren, whose magic now outlined his form with the most intense yellow light Kale had ever seen, the envoy’s magic had actually pulled in so far it was literally nothing more than a second skin. At that concentration it should have been too bright for Kale to even look at, but instead it was as if all the light was turned inwards somehow.
Feeling sick with worry and apprehension, Kale turned back to Jaren and tried to signal him somehow. Sight had always been his lover’s weakest skill, that was one reason they complimented each other so well. But the Elite wasn’t looking in his direction, all his attention fixed on Fujiwara, and Kale didn’t dare shout or run out there.
Then Fujiwara reached the corresponding spot across the circle from Jaren, and took his position. The two men locked eyes across the distance that separated them, but neither moved.
“What are they doing?” Branon muttered after a moment, brow furrowing. “They’re just staring at each other.”
“No,” Kale whispered, struggling to keep his breathing steady and slow as the air seemed to grow heavy around him. “They’re focusing. Can’t you see the way their power is drawing in on them? They’re waiting to see who will move first.”
For long moments nothing happened, while the tension in the air soared. Finally Jaren, never the most patient of men, broke the stalemate. His hand flashed faster than Kale’s eyes could follow, and sigils too advanced for him to recognize hung in the air where Jaren’s hand had passed. He shouted a command as he drew them, and despite the complexity of the sigils he was finished at exactly the same moment he spoke the last syllable. Balls of fire and bolts of lightning sprayed from the sky, pounding down onto the spot where Fujiwara stood.
The envoy didn’t look in the least bit ruffled; if anything, he seemed faintly contemptuous as the magical attacks struck the shield he threw up to ward them off. Power welled around him as he readied a return strike, but before he could even begin to cast the spell the ground beneath him suddenly began to shake. He was thrown to his knees, startled.
Looking back at Jaren, Kale’s eyes widened when he saw his lover crouched with one hand to the ground, power pouring out of him and into the earth. Once that first instant of shock was past Fujiwara swiftly constructed a lattice of power to stabilize the ground beneath him – but Jaren had already moved on to his next attack, and the roots of the trees that had once stood on the battleground worked their way up through the lattice to entangle Fujiwara in their grasp.
Awed, Kale realized that the outcome of this battle might not be a question of power after all. Enhanced by spells that were all but ingrained into him, Jaren was simply faster than Fujiwara, too fast for him to get a chance to recover and sling an attack of his own.
The shriek of angry birds suddenly filled the clearing, and a huge flock of sparrows descended on the field. Fujiwara had elected not to try to fight the roots directly, instead choosing to spend the time forming a retaliation of his own.
But sparrows? Kale squinted at them, trying to see if they had blades for talons or metal beaks or some other modification. But no, other than being faintly outlined with the magic that had created them, each bird was perfectly normal as far as he could see.
Of course, while an individual swallow was about as dangerous to Jaren as a fly was, Kale quickly realized that a flock this size could do a lot of damage. Jaren had thrown up a hasty shield, but the sparrows continued to batter at him and blocked his view of what Fujiwara was doing.
Heart in his mouth, Kale watched as the envoy drew an elaborate series of complicated symbols in the air. He was chanting as he wrote, unheard under the shrieks of the birds, but Kale could see his lips moving. Power, immense power, pulsed through the symbols and through the envoy himself, and slowly a shape began to take form in the air above him.
By the time Jaren finally blasted the swallows into nothingness, the thing Fujiwara had created or summoned was almost fully formed. It was a sinuous creature, long and scaled like a snake, but with four stubby legs and a head that looked like no animal Kale had ever seen. The huge fangs in its mouth made it pretty clear that it was carnivorous, though. It twisted and twined in the air, the coils of its body making great loops against the sky, as if the air was as solid to it as the ground was to Kale. It was beautiful, its scales running through every shade of blue Kale had ever seen and some that he hadn’t, but it was the deadly beauty of a cobra about to strike.
Looking up, Jaren said something that Kale was guessing was probably a curse. The monster roared, the noise at once soundless and deafening, and Kale clapped his hands over his ears with a wince. Several of the Elite did as well, the ones most sensitive to the currents of magic, but the others and all of the guards simply stared in awe.
Just barely in time, Jaren dodged the burst of energy the creature spat at him. It looked like lightning, sort of, but it wasn’t quite. The Elite rolled as he hit the ground, and came up on one side of the field, next to the barrier. His hands were already moving, frantically writing sigils so far beyond anything Kale had ever learned that they might as well have been the foreign symbols Fujiwara used.
The snake-like monster roared again, and Kale had to fight the urge to cover his eyes. If it attacked in the instant that Jaren was concentrating on his spell, the Elite wouldn’t have the chance to doge and it would all be over.
Jaren managed to finish the spell a split second before the creature spat another burst of energy at him, diving out of the way of the second attack much as he had the first. The place where the blast had struck swelled with magic, and Kale gaped in horror as a second form began to take shape from the power. How many of these things could Fujiwara conjure?
Glancing back at the envoy, Kale blinked when he realized the man was frowning slightly at the cloud of rapidly forming energy. Was it Jaren’s doing, then?
Given the way power was now flowing from Jaren to the new creature, apparently it was. At this rate, it would be only moments before Jaren was sucked dry. Clearly this was an all-or-nothing attempt, a desperation counter to the powerful magic of the alien monster.
The snake-thing roared again, but this time its call was echoed by a much more familiar shriek. Kale gawked as a dragon burst free of the cloud of energy, its scales gleaming scarlet, orange and gold in the sunlight. It almost seemed to be made of the same fire that it blasted the foreign monster with, a creature so much a part of its element that it could not be separated from it.
Only the fact that it was far too small kept Kale from wondering if Jaren had gone insane and summoned a real dragon to the battle. Such a tactic would certainly guarantee an end to the fight, but only in a way that would leave Jaren and Fujiwara – and then everyone else – little more than ashes on the ground.
The two creatures locked themselves in an aerial battle that showered the ground below with sparks and flame, and both Jaren and Fujiwara shielded themselves. That was effectively the last of Jaren’s power. The tiny bit he had left was clearly going into controlling the dragon he had conjured. Fujiwara still had energy to spare; that was the difference between power that was his by right and the sort of temporary power that Jaren and Kale had raised.
Twisting and twining around each other, the monsters fought. The snake-like creature had wrapped its coils around the dragon and was squeezing, trying to constrict its wings or crush the breath out of it. With one final roar of defiance, the dragon flipped in mid-air and got the upper hand. It snapped right through the snake-creature’s spine, spewing flames directly into the beast. The monster shrieked in agony, then vanished as the dragon roared triumphantly.
The backlash hit Fujiwara hard, and he collapsed where he stood. He seemed to be either unconscious or dead; either way, the battle was over. Despite himself Kale let out an ecstatic whoop, and the cheer was echoed a moment later by the rest of the 64th.
Looking like he wanted to collapse himself, Jaren waved a hand and the injured dragon disappeared from the sky as well. The 64th poured towards their captain, babbling all at once and slapping him on the back hard enough to stagger him. He laughed and accepted their congratulations, and caught Kale into a hug that was nearly as tight as what the snake-monster had been doing to the dragon.
Releasing his lover, Jaren turned to face Fujiwara. His guards were already surrounding him, cutting him free of the entangling roots and lifting him carefully. “Let that be an end to it,” Jaren called, loudly enough for them to hear him. “Kale – Private Coulter – is a free man and may choose his own path. You have no right to coerce him.”
Fujiwara was awake, though somewhat dazed. Kale was incredibly glad to see that, because if Jaren had killed the Kotei envoy Kale thought the king probably would have been more than a little upset. “You speak truly,” the man agreed, his voice hoarse. “The duel is yours. I do not thank you for sparing my life, but I understand the necessity. I will conduct my business with your king and report back to the emperor before ending my life in shame.”
Kale winced, horrified at the realization that Fujiwara intended to do the same thing to himself that Kasai had. But what could he do? That was their custom, and what right had he to dictate what they should and should not do?
No more right than Fujiwara had to order him to obey. Their cultures were simply too alien for them to be able to understand each other. Kale spared a moment to pity the poor Kotenese princess, if she did come to marry the king. He doubted she would ever adjust to life in Istria.
“All right,” Jaren said, turning somewhat unsteadily to regard his men. “Nobody is going anywhere today. I’m ready to fall over, and Lord Fujiwara needs to recover. We’ll strike camp in the morning, not today.”
Catching Kale’s hand, Jaren squeezed it reassuringly and smiled at him. Kale held him just as tightly in return, relieved beyond words that the day hadn’t ended with Jaren’s death and him effectively a captive of the Kotei Empire.
“And you come with me,” Jaren ordered, his voice quiet enough not to carry. “They’re busy worrying over Fujiwara, and frankly at this point I don’t think I care what they do or don’t realize about our relationship. I want you next to me while I sleep.”
“You’ve earned it,” Kale said fervently. “You’ve definitely earned it.”
The warrior-mage laughed. “Does this count as me saving your life? What does that make us?”
“I never kept track in the first place,” Kale insisted, all but shoving the older man inside his tent and prodding him towards his bedroll. Sex was probably the last thing on either of their minds, but getting to simply lie with his lover sounded like heaven to him. “And you should stop trying to.”
Pulling him in for a kiss, Jaren smiled at him. “But I have to make sure the score is never even,” he explained lightly. “Then we wouldn’t be bound to each other, and my Lady Amera might decide to be fickle again and send us apart.”
“The Goddess of chance will do as she wishes, regardless of how many times we owe each other our lives,” Kale retorted, but he was secretly flattered. Was that why Jaren kept track?
Well, maybe Kale would have to start putting effort into making sure the count wasn’t evened as well. And if it required fudging things a bit… well, remembering numbers had never been Jaren’s strong point.