A Night in Blue

by Tamari Erin (玉里えりん)
illustrated by 草庫

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/32718.html)

Second Lieutenant Simenon had enlisted in the 6th Company of the Infantry Corps in search of glory and adventure, to travel the world and see the ruins of its many former wonders. As the third son of one of the lesser noble houses, he wouldn’t have had very many chances to do so otherwise. He’d chosen the 6th Company for their reputation — they were the bravest, the cleverest, the most valourous. Of all the companies in the Imperial Army, they were the one sent in when the situation was at its direst. And with all the minor border skirmishes flaring up these days, Simenon knew he wouldn’t be lacking for danger. His mother’s sister, the Senator Biatha, had pulled strings to make sure he got in. He thought he had his life set out.

What he never expected when he walked into the company’s mess hall for the first time was to see his new comrades gang-raping one of their own.

An old work bench had been placed in the centre of the tent. It was about waist-high to a tall man, and one of the patterned red carpets that lined the floor had been draped over it. Through the loose ring of men circling it, Simenon could see the focus of that evening’s ‘entertainment’ — a young man, a boy really, barely older than Simenon himself, bent over the bench and shackled to it at the wrists. He was still and pale, his loose black curls obscuring his face. His uniform was in disarray, his shorter-than-regulations kilt thrown up over his waist, baring his reddened arse to the room.

A man with captain’s stripes at his neck was bent over the boy, grunting furiously, his face almost purple. His hips convulsed like he’d been struck by lightning, thrusting spasmodically. The captain froze suddenly, every muscle tensed, and howled like an animal. Hands clamped around the boy’s midsection, he stood still, drawing in great whooping breaths. After a moment like that, he began again, each act of penetration done in time with his every slow, drawn-out breath.

The slap of flesh against flesh was very loud in the quiet of the mess tent.

Simenon’s hands flew to his mouth, stifling his cries of horror. He staggered back into his commanding officer, who had followed him into the tent. Sir Nigellus’ hand enveloped his shoulder. “It’s not what you think, boy,” he murmured into Simenon’s ear. “Compose yourself.”

Simenon twisted himself sharply out of his grasp and surged forward through the crowd. He was nauseated, dizzy. This couldn’t be real, it had to be some sort of sick prank, some kind of trick they played on all the new officers — and yet the boy on the table was as limp as a rag doll and none of the others seemed to have noticed Simenon.

A lieutenant caught hold of Simenon’s arm as he shoved his way past. “Hey!” he said, tugging Simenon back, “you wait your turn!”

Simenon snarled wordlessly and wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his sword.

The man at the bench looked up at the noise, frozen mid-thrust. He fumbled for his belt and drew himself away, fastening his trouser placket over his half-hard cock. The surprise on his face melted into an effortless smile — but he hadn’t been looking at Simenon at all. “Commander!” he called out. Simenon spun around to see Sir Nigellus, standing right behind him.

“Yonge,” Sir Nigellus replied with a controlled nod.

Yonge gave the boy on the bench a hearty slap on the arse. The boy mewled pitifully. Before Simenon could react, Sir Nigellus’ hands were wrapped around his upper arms. Simenon had heard the rumours; those and the strength of Sir Nigellus’ grip were enough to deter him. He did not move.

“Would you like a go when I’m done, sir?” Yonge asked.

All eyes in the tent were on Sir Nigellus. He loosened his grip on Simenon and smiled coolly. “Not tonight, I’m afraid.”

“Ah.” Yonge looked like he’d expected that response. It certainly didn’t ease Simenon’s suspicions about the company, but it did allay his concerns about Sir Nigellus. “Then perhaps your friend might like a–”

Simenon charged.

He knocked Yonge away, and dropped into a defensive crouch with his back to the boy. Simenon eyed the small knot of soldiers warily, his left hand hovering over the hilt of his sword. He had no illusions about his battle prowess against such numbers but he could not stand idly by and allow this to continue.

All he’d heard, all he’d believed about the 6th Company, were lies. He remembered his sister laughing at him when he’d told her his ambitions. She’d said the world would set him straight soon enough. He hated her for being right.

Sir Nigellus helped Yonge to his feet, expression unreadable.

Simenon averted his eyes. He swept his gaze across the tent slowly, from one end to the other, and back. “This will go no further,” he said, his voice low. He hated the quiver he heard in it.

Yonge was shaking his head, a bemused expression on his face. “You’re blowing this completely out of proportion. It’s not what you think at all–”

Tears burned at the corners of Simenon’s eyes. “Not what I think? What could possibly explain this… this awful violation of someone you should be treating as your own brother?”

Yonge opened his mouth to speak, but Sir Nigellus silenced him with a shake of his head. “He’s new,” Sir Nigellus said, as if it were explanation enough. An odd look passed over Yonge’s face, finally settling into something that was almost pity.

Simenon quickly scanned the room and, taking advantage of this brief respite, turned to the boy on the table. He straightened the boy’s uniform as best as possible, trying to give him as much modesty as his kilt would allow. Simenon stepped around the table, still keeping his eyes on the others, and examined the shackles that kept the boy restrained. They were wrought iron and very old, a cup-lock style that could be secured without a key. He unfastened them quickly, though his hands were sweating so much it took him two tries to do it.

He took a deep breath and met Sir Nigellus’ eyes, wishing he could read the strange blankness he saw within them. Without looking away, he enfolded the boy in his cloak and scooped him up in his arms. It shocked him how light he felt. Simenon held him tighter. The boy’s soft black hair brushed against his neck, and Simenon’s breath came raggedly.

Sir Nigellus never broke eye contact either. “And now what?” he asked, as if he had seen this same drama unfold a thousand times before and knew he would see it a thousand times more.

“I’m leaving,” Simenon said simply. “I’m taking him with me.”

Sir Nigellus’ expression darkened slightly, an odd shadow passing over his rugged features, and then he nodded. He turned back to the other men in the mess tent. “Let them leave.” There were a few noises of disappointment, but Sir Nigellus silenced them with a glare.

The men parted, granting Simenon a clear path to the exit.

He did not run from the tent, but only just.

Simenon elbowed his way into his darkened tent, the boy an awkward weight in his arms. His clanker rose noisily from a corner where he’d been recharging, and circled the small space to turn on the various lights. When he finally saw what Simenon held, he threw his arms up in shock.

“Oh, Master Sim! What have you done this time?”

Simenon sagged, clutching the boy to his chest, and the tears that had been threatening since he’d left the mess tent spilt down his cheeks. He shuddered, and after a steadying breath, the whole sordid mess tumbled out of him. He told the clanker everything, words bloated with bitterness.

Aaron lit the final lamp with a shake of his head. “Who is he, Master Sim?” Simenon was always surprised how concerned that metal voice could sound.

“I don’t know,” Simenon said, wiping at his eyes. “I wish I did.” Aaron helped him transfer the boy to his bed. Simenon rolled up his cloak and set it by the doorflap.

Simenon knelt down beside the boy and brushed the dark hair from his face. It was the first chance he’d had to take a good look at him, up close. He was very beautiful, with delicate features and a heart-shaped face. Aaron handed him a blanket and he draped it over the boy, stroking his hair another time. Simenon exhaled slowly through pursed lips.

He passed a hand over his face and turned to the clanker. “Aaron, I–”

A clammy hand closed around Simenon’s wrist. The words froze in Simenon’s throat, and he looked down at the pale figure lying in his bed. The boy’s eyes were open and watching him, and they were the most intense blue Simenon had ever seen, the colour of the sky in mid-summer.

Simenon clasped the boy’s hand tight and stroked it with his other hand. The boy’s expression was drowsy and unfocused, but he matched Simenon’s own faint smile.

“Is… is it over?” There was a hitch in his voice that pulled at Simenon’s heart.

“Yes. It’s over. It’s over and I swear to you I will not let them touch you again.”

The corners of the boy’s lips twitched for a split second, and he nodded cautiously. He turned his head away, and looked back at Simenon through his lowered eyelashes.

“I– my name is Simenon. You can trust me. I promise I won’t hurt you.”

The boy blinked a few times, something softening in his eyes. “I do trust you.” His voice was soft and rich, and made him sound older than he looked. “I believe you. You have an honest face.”

Simenon smiled at the sudden compliment.

“And if you trust me enough to give me your name,” the boy contined, “then it is only fair I return the compliment.” He shifted in Simenon’s low futon and sat up, leaning against the travel chest Simenon used as a headboard. He set his free hand on his chest. “I am Darael.”

Simenon looked down at their clasped hands. Darael was drawing a lazy circle over and over on Simenon’s palm with his thumb. “I have never seen you before,” Darael said, gesturing at him, “and yet you wear our colours. I thought I– knew everyone in the 6th Company. Are you a spy, dear Simenon, sent to infiltrate us?”

“I — er — no,” Simenon stammered. “I received my commission last month and arrived with the latest resupply convoy yesterday. Sir Nigellus was just giving me the tour when I–” Simenon quickly changed the subject. “What of you? How long have you been–”

Darael flinched, his hand trembling between Simenon’s like a caught butterfly. “I have been with the 6th Company for…” A strange look passed over his face, and his voice became hollow and empty. “For a long time.”

“It’s all right,” Simenon repeated. “It’s over. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up–”

Darael went still. He opened his mouth and worked his jaw a few times before he was able to speak. “They have– done this to me for so long I almost cannot remember what my life was like before. I am dragged to the mess tent once a week — or more if things are… bad — and they all– take turns.” He shuddered.

Simenon desperately wanted to comfort Darael, but didn’t know how. “You… you don’t have to continue if…”

Darael shook his head. “No. I want– I need to tell someone. Anyone. You.”

“It can wait until–”

“No. I don’t wan to lose my nerve. Before they have a chance to tell you their lies, their awful justifications. The worst is when they say that I want this, that it is more than a violation. When… when they’re not.. They keep me under heavy guard near the Commander’s tent. Sometimes the guards even…” He shook his head again, as if dissipating the horrid memories he was recalling. “It’s only luck that you saw me before…”

“Before they got to me.” Simenon felt empty.

Darael met his eyes, and for the first time he looked lucid, the odd dreaminess gone. He brought Simenon’s hands to his mouth and brushed his lips over Simenon’s knuckles.

illustrated by cao ku

Simenon was the first to break eye contact, gently releasing Darael from his grip. He pressed him down into the futon and drew up the blanket. “You should get some sleep,” he said. His heart still raced from the feel of Darael’s mouth on his skin, but he hoped the russet light in his tent hid the blush on his cheeks.

“I don’t know if I can.”

“… Oh.”

“But would you talk to me, Sim? I think I might be able to fall asleep if I listened to you.”

Simenon forced an awkward laugh. “Am I that boring?”

Darael reached up and trailed a finger down Simenon’s cheek. His touch was feather-light. “Oh, no no no. Not at all. I just think I might have an easier time, that I might sleep sounder, if I had your voice guiding me down.”

Simenon bit his lip and turned away from Darael’s touch. But Darael wasn’t dissuaded; he took Simenon’s face in his hands and guided him so they were facing each other. “Please, Sim. Please. Just… talk to me, it’s all I ask. I do dearly want to get to know you better.”

He felt his face light up like the sun and knew he couldn’t hide it from Darael this time. “Okay. I… alright.”

And so Simenon spoke. He told Darael of his dreams and ambitions, the reasons he’d chosen the 6th Company. Darael nodded and made all the appropriate noises. Simenon told him stories of his childhood, of his sisters. He rambled about anything and everything that came to mind: books he’d read, the last play he’d seen before he’d been commissioned, the roses his mother bred.

By that point Darael had dozed off, his lips curled up into a soft smile. Simenon tucked the blanket tighter around him.

Aaron’s familiar, blocky shadow fell over both of them. Simenon looked down at Darael. “I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into, Aaron, I really don’t.”

Aaron was silent.

Simenon made to stroke the boy’s hair, but froze when Darael made a soft moaning noise in his sleep. Simenon bowed his head. He wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers and rose to his feet. They stepped across the small tent.

The clanker bent his head to the side. “And now what, Master Sim?”

Simenon started unbuttoning his coat, fingers shaking. Aaron made a clucking noise and pushed his hands away. “Oh, do let me, sir, you’ll distress the fabric.”

“I don’t know,” Simenon said once the clanker was finished. He slid off his uniform jacket and handed it to Aaron. “But he’s in no condition to go anywhere right now.”

“‘Go’, sir?”

Simenon rubbed at his face. It felt like he’d just lived through the longest hour in his life. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I won’t let them hurt him anymore. If they aren’t going to live up to the reputation of the 6th Company, then at least I can.”

Aaron made a non-committal noise. “Perhaps you should follow your own advice to young Master Darael and go to sleep yourself. Would you like me to fetch you a spare bedroll–”

Simenon was shaking his head. “No, it’s alright, I can sleep on the floor.” There was just enough room for him to stretch out beside the futon if they made enough room. Aaron could stand in his corner alcove for the night, and the cushions around his small iron fireplace could be stacked up out of the way.

Aaron gave him a graceful bow and started moving things around the small tent, to make space for Simenon. He did it all in near-perfect silence.

Simenon watched the clanker circle the tent and extinguish the lamps. He shivered slightly as the gloom grew darker. As he wrapped his cloak around himself and settled down on the floor, he looked over his shoulder — and met Darael’s eyes. He wasn’t as asleep as Simenon had thought.

He looked away quickly, and shifted under his cloak, putting his back to Darael. He could still feel Darael’s eyes on him as he waited in vain for sleep to come.

He’d fallen into a light doze when someone tapped on the chimes hung outside his door.

The jangle of discordant notes roused him, half-formed dreams clinging to his thoughts like sea foam. Simenon sat up and rubbed at his eyes, motioning to Aaron to see to the door. It took him a moment to recall where he was, why he was sleeping on the ground. When Aaron lifted the flap and Simenon saw who’d come, he scrambled quickly to his feet, smoothing the wrinkles from his uniform.

Despite what Darael had told him, Simenon still found it difficult to behave differently to Sir Nigellus.

The Commander stood just outside Simenon’s tent. He made no move to come in, and other than a brief, puzzled glance at Aaron, kept his eyes on Simenon. Night had fallen while Simenon had slept, and the moon was a low, hazy patch on the horizon. Light from a nearby signal fire sharpened Sir Nigellus’ craggy features.

“Second Lieutenant,” he said, his voice flat, his face expressionless.

Simenon wiped at his lips. He still had the odd taste of sleep in his mouth. “Yes, sir?”

The Commander’s eyes flickered deliberately across Simenon’s tent and setttled on the lump Darael made in his bed. He watched him for a moment and then looked back at Simenon. The meaning of this was not lost on Simenon. “I believe we need to have a conversation, Second Lieutenant, about what happened this evening.”

His stomach did a brief, vertigo-inducing somersault. “Yes, sir,” he repeated.

Sir Nigellus cocked an eyebrow. He nodded slowly. He took a step away from Simenon’s tent and beckoned him out with the curl of a finger. “Come with me, then.”

Simenon strode after him. He heard the heavy fabric of the doorflap rustle as Aaron dropped it closed. Sir Nigellus had not come to see Simenon alone. Two armoured soldiers, their faces obscured in the shadows of their helmets, flanked them, one in front and one in the rear. Simenon stayed as close to Sir Nigellus as propriety allowed.

They reached the centre of the camp — and Sir Nigellus’ tent — after a few minutes. The Commander’s own tent was at least twice the size of Simenon’s. It was the same russet-gold shade, the colour of the sand on the steppes.

Lit torches framed the entrance to the tent. The two guards took up position beside them. Sir Nigellus lifted the flap and motioned Simenon in. “Please,” he said.

Simenon stepped in and shivered. Sir Nigellus’ tent was colder than the night air. The tent itself was very spare and almost empty — Simenon’s had more things in it and he’d only been with the Company for a few days. He’d expected a man like Sir Nigellus, with all the places he’d been, the campaigns he’d lead — and if only half the rumours they said about him were true — to have more mementos of all he’d done in his life.

Sir Nigellus came in after him and set a hand on his shoulder. He gestured at a small, low table, surrounded by cushions, at the centre of the room. An already-lit shisha pipe had been set on one side of the table and beside it was a cluster of plates of cut fruit and sweets. Simenon sat down facing the door. Sir Nigellus looked and him, and then over his shoulder, and smirked. Simenon felt his face grow warm.

Sir Nigellus eased himself down, wincing slightly. “My officers complain so frequently about the lack of chairs, they think I only do it to torment them. It’s to spare my back, but truthfully a part of me does enjoy watching them suffer at being forced to stand or kneel.”

Simenon kept silent. He took a slice of fresh fig from the table and chewed it thoughtfully. Sir Nigellus watched him for a moment, eyes hooded.

A stack of half-folded maps were pressing against his thigh. Simenon pushed them aside. The toipmost tumbled to the floor, revealing a map of the canyon. Simenon recognised some of the short-hand, the scribbled arrows, the half-decipherable notes. It was an invasion plan — of the very canyon the 6th Company had called home for the last few months.

Sir Nigellus craned his neck at the noise. “Ah, yes. That was from when we first took the canyon from the Furure. This used to be one of their largest settlements on the steppes.”

Simenon shivered. He’d heard stories of the Furure — one of the most vicious of the atavists, they didn’t even bother to pretend that they’d once been human — but they were campfire tales he’d share with friends when they wanted to scare each other. He had no idea they’d gotten so close to civilisation.

Sir Nigellus smiled faintly at Simenon’s reaction. “They were very upset at the loss. Our oracles tell me they think of little else these days.” He rubbed at his shoulder. “Something we’re all aware of — they’ve stepped up their attacks in recent weeks.”

Simenon re-folded the map and set it back atop the pile.

The Commander uncoiled the hose of the shisha and drew in a deep mouthful of the flavoured smoke. After a few more inhalations, he handed the mouthpiece to Simenon. Simenon inhaled once and handed the mouthpiece back to Sir Nigellus. The smoke tasted like black currants.

“I noticed you have your own clanker,” he said. “I wasn’t aware they were still being built.”

“He belonged to my great-grandfather. I inherited Aaron when he died.”

Sir Nigellus nodded. Smoke curled out of his mouth like dragon’s breath. They passed the mouthpiece between them a few more times before Sir Nigellus spoke again.

“What did he tell you?” The Commander’s voice was soft and non-threatening.

Simenon balled his hands in his lap and stared at the fruits and sweets. “He told me the truth. He told me why he was there, what you were all doing to him,” he replied flatly. He met the Commander’s eyes. “He also told me you would lie to me, spin me a tale of your validations and excuses.”

Sir Nigellus sighed and shook his head. “So you won’t listen.”

Tears burned at the corners of his eyes. “No.”

Another sigh. “I really didn’t expect otherwise. And I doubt you would believe me even if I told you.”

“What’s there to tell? I know what I saw.”

Sir Nigellus set down the mouthpiece and picked up a piece of honeyed lemon. He toyed with its shape a few times before he finally put it in his mouth. “Tell me, Second Lieutenant, have you ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?

“Yes, sir. I had a sister who liked to tell tales, so we heard it fairly frequently.”

“Consider this variant, if you would: Instead of confessing breathlessly to all the adults of his fictitious coming wolf, the boy would approach one at a time, and privately. He would tell them of the wolf attack that another group of adults was aware of, but for the purposes of some nefarious conspiracy, they would allow it to happen. he would also tell them, tearfully, of threats these conspirators made against him, and that any part he plays in this must be hidden.”

Simenon numbly ate one of the sweets. The smoke from the shisha was making him light-headed. The sweet tasted of rose water. It felt so bitter in his mouth.

“How long,” the Commander asked, “do you think this would go on? The boy would never be branded a liar, because the adults he conned would be the ones believed to be tale-tellers. They would be the ones ostracised and ignored.”

“It would go on until people began to compare notes.”

“Ah, but would you be willing to admit you’d been tricked by a–”

Simenon slapped the table. “Stop. Please, sir. Stop. I respect your reputation, and I respect you, but I will not allow you to continue in this vein. Nothing Darael has told me was contradicted by what I saw in that room.”

He rose shakily to his feet. “I trust you will allow me to leave without interference.”

Sir Nigellus nodded.

He returned to his tent at a run, in spite of how bone-tired he felt. All he wanted was to see Darael. The thought of him burned away all other thoughts, scouring his mind like a clensing fire. His heart thrummed at his name, conjuring up the feel of Darael’s hair running through his fingers, as soft as water, of Darael’s long fingers entwined with his own, of Darael’s lips skimming across his skin–

Simenon pushed open his tent’s doorflap. Inside, he came face to face with Aaron. The clanker stepped aside without a word, and Simenon saw Darael still in his bed, still asleep.

He passed his tongue over his lips. “Has he…”

“He has not woken since you left, Master Sim. But it is not unusual, I suspect. He has suffered a great trauma, and his body — his mind — needs time to recover.”

Simenon sunk down to the floor beside Darael. Aaron brought him a cushion from by the fireplace, which now had a small fire crackling in it.

“I’ve made some tea. I had assumed you might need some after your meeting with the Commander. Would you like a–?”

Simenon sat on the cushion. He shook his head. “Not now, but thank you.”

“With you back, sir, and able to watch over young Master Darael, there are some matters I need to attend to with the Quartermaster…”

Simenon waved his hand in the general direction of the door. “Go, it’s okay. I’ll be fine.”

He sat by Darael’s side well after the clanker had left, watching him. The firelight added colour to Darael’s cheeks, made him look almost feverish, like a man caught at the heights of his passions. Simenon shivered. Was this what Darael looked like during… during lust? During lovemaking?

Simenon rose unsteadily to his feet. He ran his fingers through the short bristles of his hair. He exhaled and it felt like a sob. What was wrong with him that he felt like this? He’d known this boy for less than a day, had rescued him from a horrible, very public rape, and now all he could think of was sleeping with him.

His cushions were stacked in a very ordered pile between the fireplace and Aaron’s alcove, directly across from his futon. Simenon knocked them over and spread them in a rough quarter-circle around the fireplace. The tea kettle was hanging from a hook inside the fireplace, and Simenon took it out with the tongs to pour himself a cup.

He left the kettle on the floor in front of the fireplace and sipped gingerly at his tea. It was very hot and very strong, but he needed something to steady his nerves. He sunk down into the pile of cushions and wrapped his fingers around his mug.

The fire was a roaring blaze, the flames almost hypnotic. He watched them, occasionally sipping at his tea. A cold breeze swept past his tent with a howl, swirling inside through the unfastened doorflap to brush across Simenon’s neck like an icy kiss. He shivered and drew his jacket tighter.

A long-fingered hand fell on his shoulder.

Simenon nearly dropped his mug. He looked up and met Darael’s eyes, fever-bright in a face that looked pale even in the firelight.

“You’re back.” Darael’s voice was a whisper, rich with want. He’d divested himself of his uniform coat, stripped down to just his kilt. He was even thinner than Simenon had thought, his skin a sick, milky-white. There were strange, sweeping arabesques tattooed on his shoulders and hips, peeking out from above his kilt. Less lovely were the livid bruises dappling his ribcage and upper arms. The sight of them made Simenon sick and squelched whatever desire he might have felt.

Darael knocked the tea out of his hands and pushed him down into the cushions. His grip was firm and possessed a strength that belied his size. Simenon could barely breathe. Darael didn’t release his grip as he straddled Simenon’s lap, the flimsy fabric of his kilt rucking up his thighs. The naked hardness of his cock pressed against Simenon’s pelvis.

Simenon was aroused in spite of himself. He bit his lower lip, stiffling a moan. He tried, feebly, to remove Darael, but his efforts were rebuffed easily.

“Oh, my pretty Sim, I missed you terribly,” Darael whispered, hot and sibilant, in Simenon’s ear.

“Darael, you–”

“Shhh…” Darael silenced him by brushing his cheek against Simenon’s. Their mouths were separated by only a finger’s-width, their breath commingled. Darael started to rock his hips against Simenon.

Simenon hissed and caught Darael’s wrists, wrestling him to the floor. Darael landed on his rear with a solid thud. Simenon took a deep, steadying breath and waited a moment for his throbbing heart to return to normal. He crouched down in front of Darael and met his eyes. They were wide and fathomless, like a man drugged. As Simenon watched, the colours in his iris seemed to shift, roiling like a sea at storm.

Simenon looked away as quickly as possible, to counter the faint nausea growing in the pit of his stomach. He took Darael’s hands in his and focused on their entwined fingers. Darael’s hands were cold and clammy. Simenon clutched them tighter, trying to pass on some of his own warmth.

“What were you doing?” he asked finally.

Darael’s voice was utterly guileless. “You rescued me. Dear, sweet Sim, I was doing what one always does for a hero. What I was doing was thanking you.”

Simenon stared at him in shock. “Thanking? After… after all you’ve been through, is that really and truly how you want to thank someone?”

Darael turned away.

Simenon grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Look at me. Darael, please. There’s more to you than just sex. You are so much more than something people can fuck.” Darael flinched violently as Simenon spat out the final word and sank into Simenon’s embrace.

Simenon held him for long minutes. Darael’s breath was hot and hoarse on his neck. He stroked Darael and clutched him as close and as tight as possible, murmuring reassuring nothings in his ear.

Darael soon extricated himself from Simenon’s embrace. Simenon continued to caress his shoulders. He met Simenon’s gaze, a faint smile on his lips and his eyes heavy with tears. “Thank you,” he mouthed.

Simenon mopped up the tears that spilled down Darael’s cheeks with the cuff of his linen undershirt.

He spent the rest of the night asleep in his own bed, with Darael in his arms. They’d both been fully clothed, and apart from the soft kiss Darael had placed at the corner of his mouth — lingering to a point just past comfort — it had been entirely chaste.

Simenon woke at dawn and carefully disentangled himself from Darael. Darael made a soft sighing noise when Simenon pulled himself away and curled tighter around the pillow. Simenon stroked his hair and a soft smile spread on Darael’s lips.

Aaron had returned while they’d been asleep. He stood in his alcove, eyes dark, still recharging.

Simenon stretched, rolling the kinks from his neck. He’d had a few lovers before joining the 6th Company, but this was the first time he’d shared his bed with anyone for anything other than lovemaking. And as enjoyable as it had been, it would take some getting used to. Darael, he noted with a rueful grin, stole the covers.

At the thought of the Company, he fingered the rank insignia at his neck. He couldn’t stay. They couldn’t stay. They had to run. He knew he had to get Darael away from this place — he’d suffered enough and Simenon only hoped Darael was able to heal from the damage.

It scared him, to think like this, to think of desertion. He never thought he’d be capable of it, but if a lesser betrayal was necessary to fight the greater betrayal that the 6th Company had perpetrated against Darael, then so be it. He knew what the penalties were — death by firing squad and nothing less — but he was prepared to accept it. Simenon didn’t fear death, if it meant securing Darael’s freedom.

Simenon eyes Darael, and then Aaron. “Be safe,” he murmured, and stepped out of his tent. He needed some air and didn’t want to wake either one of them.

The camp was nearly empty at this hour. The early morning rays of the sun had scorched away the night’s chill. He heard the low murmurs of human activity as he skulked about, but didn’t see anyone. He shielded his eyes and looked up at the canyon wall that loomed over the camp. They’d have to climb it, when the time came.

Simenon rubbed at his face. He looked at the horizon. The sun had risen by a few degrees. He’d been out long enough. Heading back to his tent, he skirted the edge of the camp. He was in no mood to see anyone, not after what had happened the night before–

“It’s him.”

A small cluster of officers was standing in his path, and he’d been so wrapped up in his own thoughts he hadn’t even noticed. He recognised a number of them from the mess tent yesterday. Simenon stopped dead in his tracks.

“What do you want?” he asked, backing up a few steps. He looked over his shoulder. There were more behind him.

The group’s leader — the man that Sir Nigellus had addressed as Captain Yonge — shook his head and took a few steps forward. “We just want to talk, is all.”

Simenon grew very still. He’d left his sword in his tent and he cursed himself a thousand times over for that mistake. “So talk.” Though he already knew what the subject would be.

“I think you know why we’re here, and I think you know what we want–”

“‘Want’? He’s not a thing! He’s a person, and if you think I’m going to just– pass him back to you like a–”

Yonge lifted his chin. “You don’t get it at all do you? The little slut likes it. He’s just a–”

Simenon took a swing. But he was too blinded by anger, to slow, and Yonge was too fast.

Yonge’s fist connected with Simenon’s face, and Simenon connected with the ground. Yonge booted him in the gut.

Head ringing, Simenon gasped for air like a fish. What few fights he’d been in had been gentlemanly, highly ritualised and codified, rules strictly enforced and solely for the purpose of improving one’s craft. He knew from the look in Yonge’s eyes that the man was interested in none of that — he was after pain and blood and nothing more.

Simenon staggered to his feet and tried to get in a blow of his own, but Yonge blocked him easily, hit him once more and he was back on the ground. He could taste the sharp coppery tang of blood in his mouth. He was dizzy, in pain, and a part of him wanted to stay down, hoping it would make Yonge more lenient.

Yonge was watching him, brow furrowed. Simenon coughed, and blood spattered Yonge’s highly polished black boots.

Blood thundered in his ears, drowning out all other noises. He closed his eyes and waited for the next blow to come.

Through the ever-loud throb of his heartbeat, Simenon heard a murmur sweep the crowd. Simenon cracked open an eye. A horse was approaching the camp at a run, its rider slumped in the saddle.

Simenon propped himself up on his elbows to get a better view. He watched in a blood-shod haze, the ringing in his head beginning to lessen, as the horse came to a halt only a few metres away from them. The men who moments before had been out for his blood surrounded the beast. The rider was injured, unconscious. They lifted him from the saddle. He wore the navy blue uniform of the 6th Company, and had an ugly, ornate metal spear shaft protruding from one shoulder. Simenon could only hear fragments as the others clustered around him, their voices an olio of babble.

Yonge’s voicce rose sharply above the commotion. “Raise the alarm! It’s the Furure. They did this to him. They’re coming!”

Simenon’s blood went cold. An idea sparked in his mind. With their attentions diverted, he got to his feet shakily. Simenon drew in three short breaths before he started to run.

He was trembling by the time he reached his tent. His hands shook as he lifted the doorflap and stepped in. He was careful to remember to securely knot the ties that kept it shut.

His tent was cool and oddly dark for this time of day. Only three of the smallest lamps, clustered at the head of his bed, had been lit. The scent of lavender hung heavily in the small space. Darael had been sitting by the dark fireplace, arranging playing stones in geometric patterns on Simenon’s spare shogi board. He rose when Simenon entered the tent. He was wearing a pair of Simenon’s pajamas — they were too large for him and made him look like a young boy wearing his father’s clothing.

“Where’s Aaron?” Simenon asked, surprised at the clanker’s absence.

Darael smiled sunnily at him. “It’s all right. I sent him out to get me something to eat. I was getting hungry and you don’t have much food in your tent. He didn’t leave more than a dozen minutes before you showed up.” He frowned, and reached up to lay a finger on Simenon’s cheek. “What’s wrong?” Something flickered across his features. His eyes narrowed. He brushed his finger across a just-forming bruise. Darael’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Who did this to you?”

Simenon batted his hand away. “That doesn’t matter now.”

Darael’s face sagged. “Oh, Sim. Was it because of me?”

“It’s not your fault.”

Darael shook his head, tears in his eyes.

Simenon took his shoulders. “It’s not. Darael, it’s not your fault.”

“What did they want?”

“I…” It pained him to lie, but he couldn’t burden Darael with the knowledge of what had really transpired. “I don’t know. They just– they just attacked me, out of the blue.”

“Oh, Sim,” Darael moaned.

“But it’s not important, it doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does! Sim, I worry for you. They’re so possessive–”

Simenon laughed suddenly. “You don’t have to worry about that anymore. I have a plan.”

Darael looked sceptical. “A plan? For what?”

“For us. To escape. I’m going to get you out of here.”

“Escape?” Darael’s voice was incredulous. He looked annoyed. It wasn’t what Simenon had expected.

“Yes, for you. You’re going to be free of this life. You want that, don’t you?”

Darael’s expression cleared and he smiled brightly. “Of course I do! I just.. ” He looked away, his wide blue eyes filled with apprehension. “I’ve tried to run before, and every time, they’ve caught me. They are… they’re not gentle with their punishments.”

Simenon took his face in his hands. He kissed Darael’s cheek. “It’s all right,” he murmured in his ear. “This time will be different. I have a plan. If we time this right, we can’t fail.”

Darael slid his arms around Simenon’s waist. He was like melted wax, warm and pliant, fitting himself just so to Simenon’s body.

Impulsively, Simenon held him tighter, pressing Darael’s slender form to his. He stroked Darael’s hair. His heart throbbed in his chest like a caged animal. “Oh, Dara.” After a few moments, he released his embrace and held Darael at arm’s length.

Darael looked vaguely disappointed. Simenon felt a tinge of regret but plowed on. “I think there’s going to be a raid soon. I think there’s going to be an attack on the camp. A runner arrived just now–”

“Is that why–?” He gestured at the bruises on Simenon’s face.

Simenon shook his head. “They saw him and stopped.”

“What did he say?”

“He was unconscious. He didn’t say anything. But– but the others thought it was the Furure–”

“What?” Darael had gone pale.

“It’s all right.” Simenon grinned. “See, that’s the beauty of my plan. We’ll leave before they arrive. The camp will be in such an uproar over this, they’ll be so busy preparing that we’ll be able to sneak out undetected.”

“No, I–” Darael put his fist to his mouth. “It’s just– I was with the company when we first took the canyon from the Furure. I remember them so vividly.” He choked down a sob. “I’m afraid.”

“Don’t be. Oh, Dara, don’t be.”

“You’ll protect me, won’t you, Sim?”

Simenon stroked Darael’s cheek. His words tugged at Simenon’s heart. “Of course I will. I’ll always protect you. I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again.”

Darael sobbed and threw himself into Simenon’s arms. His tears splashed on Simenon’s collar. Simenon pressed his lips to Darael’s temple and held him as his slender body shook from the intensity of his emotions. “Oh, Dara. This will all be over so soon. It’s like a bad dream. You’ll wake up from it soon and it will all be over.”

illustrated by cao ku

Darael went stiff in his arms. “Oh! But– Sim, what about you?”

Simenon stopped stroking his hair. “What about me? What’s wrong?”

“Your career! I thought you wanted a future here.”

Simenon laughed bitterly. “I wanted a career with an idealised version of the 6th Company that obviously doesn’t exist in reality. I want no part of this.”

Darael drew away slightly and set his hands on Simenon’s shoulders. “I’ve never met anyone quite like you.”

Simenon quirked a smile. “Thank you.” He wiped a lone, remaining tear from Darael’s face with his thumb. And then seized by the desire that had held his heart since he’d first laid eyes on him, Simenon leaned in and brushed a kiss across Darael’s lips.

Darael stared at him, eyes agape, and then looked down, touching a tentative finger to his lower lip.

Simenon was filled with a surge of shame. His face burned. “Dara, I–”

Darael silenced him with a kiss, fierce and possessive. His mouth was open, and his tongue danced acrss Simenon’s teeth, nudging them apart. Simenon clutched Darael’s elbows and pulled him closer. Darael moaned into his mouth.

Darael broke the embrace with a gasp. Simenon didn’t let go, panting in Darael’s ear. “I want this, Sim,” Darael muttered. “I want you. I want to be yours. Will you let me?”

Simenon pressed the hardness of his budding erection against Darael’s lower belly. “Yes yes oh yes.”

Darael pushed him to the floor, not ungently. He landed on the cushions by the fireplace, and Darael straddled him. Simenon had a strong sense of deja vu — but this time was different. This time, Darael wasn’t doing it out of some sick form of obligation. He wanted this as much as Simenon.

Maybe more, Simenon thought dimly, as Darael bucked his cock against Simenon’s. He made a noise of pleasure and pulled Darael down for another kiss. Darael grinned at him impishly and attacked the buttons of Simenon’s coat. He smoothed his hands underneath it, stroking Simenon’s flanks through the thin fabric of his undershirt. The uniform coat was quickly shucked off and tossed in a corner.

Simenon lifted his hands to help Darael out of his pajamas, but Darael smacked them aside. “Me first,” he said in a sing-song voice.

He tugged at the fabric of Simenon’s undershirt and popped off most of the buttons. Darael grinned. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”

Simenon laughed weakly. He set his hands on Darael’s hips and drew him closer, longing for the closeness of his touch, the heat of him.

Darael smiled wickedly once he got Simenon’s shirt off. “Ooh… freckles! I love freckles, I love the way they taste.”

He kissed each one of them, trailing his tongue along the skin in between like an electric wire, tracing out a picture on Simenon’s chest. Simenon laughed in pleasure, and made a happy little sigh.

“Darael?”

He was unbuckling Simenon’s belt, rubbing the heel of his palm against Simenon’s cock. It was a delicious pressure that send him almost beyond thought. “Hmmm?”

“I love you,” Simenon husked.

“Oh, Sim.” Darael’s voice broke and he stopped his ministrations long enough to kiss Simenon. Simenon cupped his face in his hands, and when he broke away, Simenon slid his hands down Darael’s neck and under his collar. At a pace that was almost glacially slow, he undid one button and then another and then another. Darael squeezed his sides and moaned, writhing against Simenon. “Your turn now,” Simenon said in a sing-song not unlike Darael’s.

Darael pulled the shirt off over his head like it had pained him, and rubbed his bare chest against Simenon. Simenon traced out the beautiful markings on Darael’s shoulders and slid his hands down his sides, under the pajama bottoms’ waist-band. He wanted to see if the tattoos on Darael’s hips matched.

Darael wriggled out of the rest of his clothes and knelt atop Simenon, naked and magnificent. His cock, beautiful, erect and nestled in soft black hair, was already weeping. Simenon flicked his thumb against the head and took a taste. It was as sweet as Darael himself. Simenon wrapped his fingers around his cock and squeezed. Darael moaned and nearly bounced as he rocked himself back and forth.

Simenon sqeezed and tugged at Darael with one hand, and with the other undid the cold metal buckle of his belt. Darael’s grasping fingers helped him slide his trousers down past his knees. He gasped when the cool air in his tent brushed his cock. Darael pulled a small phial from the cushions and drizzled its contents on his hands, on Simenon’s belly, on his legs.

With a wicked grin, Darael pulled and stroked Simenon’s cock, smearing the warm, oily liquid up and down its shaft, coating it liberally, bringing him just up to the point of release and then backing down, like a wave crashing against a tidal barrier. Simenon was babbling nonsense, holding on to Darael for deara life.

In the dim light of the tent Darael’s eyes almost seemed to glow.

Simenon moaned. “Please please please.” His body felt like a fire, insatiably in search of fuel.

His breath was coming in short little pants when Darael finally lowered himself onto Simenon’s cock. He eased himself down slowly, slowly, letting gravity drive Simenon in as deeply as possible.

Simenon bucked his hips furiously, his cock throbbing into Darael. All he could see was Darael. All he could feel was Darael. His world had shrunk down to this beautiful boy atop him, to his bright eyes, his soft mouth, the strange writhing tattos on his shoulders and hips–

Simenon came suddenly, wordlessly.

He blinked and the world came into focus. Darael’s tattoos were moving. He could see shapes in them, people, locked in the same embraces as they were.

Darael threw back his head and cried out, a sound that was almost Simenon’s name. His come splattered Simenon’s chest like an abstract painting.

Darael went limp, slid off Simenon and collapsed into his arms.

The shapes on Darael’s shoulders stopped moving.

Simenon twined his fingers through Darael’s hair, untangling the long mass of curls. They laid, nestled together on the floor of Simenon’s tent, basking in the twilight of their lovemaking. Simenon’s bed was only a few feet away, but they made no move from where they were. Simenon had only moved far enough to grab his pajama bottoms to sop up the sticky patches on the cushions — and on himself. Darael had only watched and laughed drowsily.

They curled up, each in the other’s embrace, fitting together like two puzzle pieces. In all his life — short though it might have been — Simenon had never known such contentment, such peace, such a perfect rapport with another person. He didn’t think it would be possible for him to feel this way about anyone else. Though he knew that when he desserted he would lose everything — his name, his family, his position — he knew it would be worth it to be with Darael, to be with the one he loved.

Simenon held him tight, breathing in deeply. Though he could still smell the lavendar, faintly, it was overwhelmed by the wonderfully heady scent of Darael himself. Simenon nuzzled Darael’s temple, kissed him softly on his hairline. Darael made a contented sound in his sleep, half-way between a sigh and a purr.

Simenon glanced around his tent. He wondered where Aaron had gotten himself to.

The tent door was savagely yanked open, and they were framed in a square of bright sunlight. Simenon winced and looked away, holding a hand to his eyes to shield them. “Whuh?” Simenon slurred, eyeing the door through slitted fingers. Beside him, Darael cried out in his sleep.

Two figures stepped into the doorway, obscuring some of the sun rays. Simenon was suddenly very aware of his own nudity, and Darael’s. There was nothing in arm’s reach that could adequately cover them. He was too angry at the intrusion to feel ashamed.

The afterimages of the sunlight faded from his sight. It took almost as long for the fuzziness to clear from his brain. The two men at the door — he still couldn’t see their faces — seemed to be waiting for him to take the lead. The commotion had woken Darael and he clung, whimpering, to Simenon’s side as he moved them to a sitting position. “What do you want?” he asked again, his voice clear this time.

The two men took this as their cue and stepped into the tent. It was Sir Nigellus and Captain Yonge, Simenon noted with not a speck of surprise.

“Gentlemen,” Simenon said with a curt nod.

They ignored him. They were watching Darael. “I know you’re awake, boy, so stop pretending,” Yonge said, squatting down to bring himself eye-to-eye with Darael.

Simenon recoiled in disgust. He dearly wished he had a weapon within reach. “Leave him alone.”

Yonge cocked his head. “Or?”

“Or you’ll have to go through me to get to him.”

Yonge laughed and tousled Darael’s hair. Darael made an annoyed noise, but did not move his face from Simenon’s chest. “Oh, he didn’t tell you, did he? I’m curious, what tale did he spin for you?”

Simenon was shaking in his rage. His voice went quiet, quiet. “He told me the truth and only that. I know what you’ve done to him, what you will do no more.”

“No you don’t. He’s not–”

“He’s not your whore!” Simenon shouted. Darael moaned in his arms.

Sir Nigellus spoke. “No, he’s not.”

There was nothing but weariness in Sir Nigellus’ voice — no deception, no guile, nothing but exhaustion. And truth.

He jerked his chin at Darael. “I know you’re faking. Get up.”

Simenon’s blood felt like ice water in his veins. He went very still. He didn’t dare look down at Darael because he was afraid of what he was going to see. What he knew he would see.

His tongue was leaden. It was an effort to speak. “What’s going on?”

Darael stirred in his arms, sitting up straighter. Simenon let go of him as if he were on fire and dropped his head between his knees, curling up around himself. He heard the rustling of fabric, the padding of feet moving about his tent as Darael searched for his clothes and dressed himself quickly. Simenon jammed the heels of his palms into his ears and keened softly for all that he’d lost.

Simenon heard the murmur of voices. He dropped his hands to his sides and looked up. Darael was speaking quietly, urgently, to Yonge and Captain Nigellus. “Please,” Simenon asked, his voice half-breaking, “won’t someone tell me what’s going on?”

Darael shot him a withering glare and didn’t answer. “From the east?” he asked Sir Nigellus.

The Commander nodded. “Yes. We managed to repel their preliminary attack, but there are more coming.”

Darael sketched an ornate, archaic salute and galloped out the door.

Simenon watched him leave for the span of three heart beats and then scrambled to his feet. He staggered about his tent like a newborn foal, fitting together the scattered pieces of his uniform. He couldn’t find his boots and didn’t bother with the coat. He sped off after Darael. The world was spinning. His pulse was mad in his ears.

He heard two sets of footfalls behind him.

He’d almost reached Darael — in the distance, Simenon could see the wave of oncoming Furure, drawing close — when two pairs of hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back, not gently. He would have collapsed to the ground but for Sir Nigellus’ grip. Simenon stared at him and Yonge in abject confusion. He opened his mouth to speak, to ask ‘what’s going on?’ for what felt like the millionth time, but Sir Nigellus held up a hand and he fell silent.

Sir Nigellus pointed at Darael, who was fast approaching the Furure. “Watch.”

From the tone of his voice, Simenon knew to let any questions he had wait until later. He lifted a hand to his eyes and did what he was told.

He watched Darael running, running until he was only metres from the Furure. Darael skidded to a halt and laughed, hips jutting out at a cocky angle. The Furure did not slow their charge. Another few moments and–

Darael threw off his uniform jacket and shook out his hair. And despite Darael’s deceptions, Simenon still felt a surge of longing at the sight of Darael’s near-naked form. Darael raised his arms, hands clasped above his head, and rocked his hips, head rolling back and forth. The movements were slow and snakelike. It was beautiful, almost like dancing. As Simenon watched, Darael started to glow, his markings shining a bright phosphorescent white, a nimbus of blue energy surrounding him. They drew brief after-images in Simenon’s eyes as Darael moved.

The Furure were closing in fast, and for the first time Darael seemed to notice them. He stopped his intricate dance with a disdainful toss of his head and waved a hand at the Furure–

And the first wave of the Furure dissolved into skittering spiders.

Simenon staggered back into Sir Nigellus’ arms, shocked well beyond speechlessness. So numb was he, he didn’t even protest when the Commander and Yonge pulled him into a nearby tent.

“There are some thing,” Sir Nigellus murmured into his ear, “that you can’t unsee.”

He sunk to the floor, thankful for the cool touch of the darkness inside the tent. He stared at his hands, still picturing the Furure as they had– melted away, like sand castles in a storm. They’d not had time to scream, had barely been able to register any shock at their fate.

Finally, finally, Simenon looked up and met Sir Nigellus and Yonge’s eyes. He felt oddly calm — but a part of him knew it was only the shock.

“What is he?” he asked.

Sir Nigellus and Yonge exchanged a glance. “He’s a mage,” Sir Nigellus said. “Very powerful, very old.”

“And very twisted,” Yonge muttered under his breath.

Sir Nigellus’ expression turned sour. “What you saw in the mess tent wa– He draws his power from lust, from desire–”

“From sex,” Simenon completed. The room was spinning. He felt sick. “How could– Why– Why didn’t you say anything?” Though he felt like a fool because he knew they’d tried.

“Would you have believed us?” Sir Nigellus replied with a shake of his head. “After what you saw… I wish I’d known he’d planned it that night, I would have kept you out of the mess tent.”

“You– What he– He wanted that?”

It was Yonge that replied, with a low chuckle. “He used to be satisfied with a few quick fucks a week in his tent, but over the years, his tastes have become more…”

“Refined,” Sir Nigellus filled in. The way he said it, it felt to Simenon like the germ of a years-old argument.

“Heh. Yeah. That. Now it’s public gang-bangs or seducing bright young innocents–”

“I’m not a–”

“You’re innocent where it matters to him, Second Lieutenant. It’s the purity of your soul he’s after, and not your body.”

“I trusted him. I believed him.”

“Yeah. We all did, at one time or another.”

He curled up, wrapping his arms around his head. “I loved him,” he murmured.

A hand stroked his hair. A reply was spoken, but he didn’t need to hear it to know what had been said.

It had been a night and a day since the attacks, and Simenon had not yet strayed from his tent. He sat alone in the darkness, nursing an almost-full glass of Scotch, latest in a series of many he’d drunk since Sir Nigellus and Yonge had brought him back to his tent. He’d shattered every one of his lamps on his return, and he could still hear the crunch of broken glass as he shifted his weight on the cushions. They still stank of sex, and he would have burned them if he trusted himself to stop with just the cushions.

Aaron still wasn’t back. Simenon wondered where he was.

He choked down another mouthful of Scotch. It had been a gift from his great-uncle in honour of his commission, and he’d brought it with him to drink when he needed to celebrate. Having the bottles in his trunk had made him feel very adult, but that didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered anymore.

He felt filthy, inside and out.

He wondered how easily the glass would–

Someone tapped out the first few notes of the Imperial anthem on the chimes outside his door. Simenon went still. The Scotch felt cold in his hand.

“Dear Sim…” It was Darael’s voice, sweet as any poison. “I’m back. Won’t you let me in?”

Simenon rose to his feet and walked to the door, every step feeling like it spanned a mile. The words bubbled in his throat. He set a hand on the heavy fabric of the doorflap and took a deep breath.

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