by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
illustrated by Ravyn
In a country that had been almost constantly at war for more than ten years, a commander who could win battles and keep winning them was a treasure more precious than gold or jewels. When he could do it without excessive loss of troops, he was all but revered as a god.
And if said commander happened to have penchant for choosing the youngest and prettiest of troopers as his personal ‘aides’, and said troopers tended to end up a little broken and traumatized… well, high command could probably be persuaded to turn the other cheek on an offence that would have gotten anyone else court martialed and turned over to the priests for judgement. Though the official party line was that same sex relationships were tolerated, it was still very much forbidden to take advantage of your subordinates like that. Not to mention that some of them weren’t old enough by law to be having sex with any adult, commanding officer or not.
To be honest, Kale had tried not to think much about it, except perhaps to feel a little sorry for the poor bastards chosen for duty in Captain Alric Trenton’s company when the rumours started circulating. There was a large part of him that demanded he go charging off to try to fix things, but more than half a year in the army had taught him to be pragmatic. Idealism had no place on the front lines, not if you wanted to survive. So, like everyone else, he turned a blind eye and was grateful to have at least one commander who didn’t spend the lives of the rank and file like cheap copper coins.
It became much more difficult to not think about it when he suddenly found himself as one of the ‘poor bastards’ in question, however. He still wasn’t quite sure how it had happened. When he’d gotten his transfer orders he hadn’t thought anything of it, until he reported for duty at his new post and was ordered to present himself to the captain. Even then he still hadn’t believed it, thinking Captain Trenton must be one of those officers who preferred to know the name and face of everyone under his command, even a lowly private like Kale. Three days later he was still sure there had to be some kind of mistake. He kept expecting Trenton to glance up from his papers and maps and actually look at Kale, and realize his error.
What could the captain possibly want with him, after all? Kale was hardly a monster, but neither was he anything special. He looked like what he was; a farm boy, peasant stock going back hundreds of years on both sides of his family. His brown hair and eyes were as common as dirt, and his tanned skin marked him as someone who’d spent most of his life working out in the sun. He wasn’t nearly as young as most of the boys chosen by the captain, though his slender build and open face did make him look a little younger than he was.
He’d had a brief stay of execution thanks to the period of hasty training he’d been put through. The captain was very particular about what he expected from his aides. Kale had been bluntly informed that the captain would be doing most of his training personally, but there were certain minimum standards that he had to meet. Given the pitying look in the eyes of the corporal who had been instructing him, Kale had no doubt that the ‘personal training’ was a great deal of what left the captain’s aides so damaged.
Early this morning as he was rising for his drill exercises Kale had caught sight of the company medics leading his predecessor away towards the medical wing. The redheaded boy had been at least three years younger than Kale, and the vague, broken look in his green eyes had chilled Kale to the bone. The lack of visible damage to the boy’s body hadn’t been reassuring in the least.
When he’d been ordered to bring the captain his lunch later that day, he hadn’t been surprised. His grace period was obviously up, and now it was Kale who would be walking around with that haunted look on his face.
So far he’d done well enough. Lunch had gone off without any problems, the captain being absorbed in reports from the scouts and a supply list from the fort’s quartermaster. The afternoon had likewise passed without incident, Kale spending most of his time running all over the fort to deliver or pick up paperwork, and now he was serving the captain’s tea.
His hands shook a little on the teapot as he poured, and Kale had to take a deep breath and steady himself. Spilling the tea would be a good way to draw the captain’s attention to him, and he wanted to keep being mostly unnoticed for as long as possible. Maybe he was fooling himself, but part of him hoped that maybe he’d been chosen because Trenton wasn’t looking for another toy to break this time.
That hope was shattered when he placed the teacup on the desk beside the stack of reports, and Trenton caught his hand before he could withdraw. The captain looked up at him, his eyes measuring as Kale froze. The man wasn’t unattractive, and had an impressive commanding presence. He could have had any number of willing bed partners, but as far as Kale had heard he’d never shown interest in anyone but his aides.
“Private Coulter, isn’t it? Kale?” Trenton asked, and Kale nodded wordlessly. The captain rubbed his thumb over the sensitive skin on the inside of Kale’s wrist, and the young man had to suppress a shudder that had nothing to do with desire. “Good. Darl had outlived his usefulness. These delicate little things never last long enough; no sooner do I have them properly trained than they need to be replaced.” His eyes glinted unpleasantly. “I expect more endurance from you, boy. Surely someone used to long hours in the fields will be able to keep up with me.”
Well, that explained why he’d been selected, Kale thought numbly. More endurance, indeed. When he’d signed on for the army this was the last thing he’d ever expected, but he couldn’t get out of it now. The Istrion military owned his life for the next four and a half years, and when they told him to jump he didn’t get to complain about it before obeying.
“I’ll do my best, sir,” he replied, sketching a salute with his free hand. What else could he do? At this point his only hope was that if he neither fought nor excelled at what the captain wanted from him, he would be so boring the man would quickly lose interest. He already wasn’t much in the looks department compared to the captain’s usual playthings, so if he could make himself completely unexceptional maybe Trenton’s attention would wander before Kale ended up being hauled off like that poor redhead.
And if what he had to suffer in the meantime wasn’t exactly the way he’d pictured losing his virginity, well, there were worse ways. Not many, but some. He was tough; he would survive.
So when Trenton’s hand strayed from Kale’s wrist up over the muscles in his forearm, he didn’t so much as twitch. “You’ve got more muscle than your build suggests,” Trenton noted, his smile making Kale feel a sudden need to go and wash. “I like that. Are you as well built elsewhere, private?”
“Yes, sir,” Kale replied in a monotone, forcing himself to keep his breathing steady. He’d assumed he had until tonight at least before the captain actually made a move on him, but he was starting to wonder if his remaining innocence could be measured in minutes rather than hours. Surely the man wouldn’t do anything untoward right here in his office, where anyone could walk in without warning to make a report?
As if his thoughts had summoned it, there was a knock on the door. Frowning, Trenton released Kale’s arm and waved him back to his position against the wall behind him. “Come,” the captain said sharply.
A corporal wearing the armband of a messenger stepped inside and gave a crisp salute. “Sir! The sixty-fourth Elite unit has just arrived, sir. Their captain offers his compliments and says they are passing through on their way to their post, and wondered if they might bivouac here for the night.”
“Thank you, corporal,” Captain Trenton nodded. “Send my regards in return, and that I extend an invitation to dinner for the captain and any aides he has. Make certain he and his men are properly settled in quarters here at the fort. There’s no reason for members of the Elite to have to camp outside the walls with the regular troops.”
“Yes, sir!” The corporal saluted again, then turned to leave. Kale bit his lip, wondering if the arrival of the Elite was good or bad for his current situation. He couldn’t count on a rescue from that quarter, unfortunately. Although a captain of the Elite technically outranked a captain of the regular troops, the powerful warrior-mages had very little regard for ordinary troopers. With one exception, every Elite Kale had ever encountered wouldn’t even look twice at him, much less care about the mess he was in.
On the other hand, if the captain was busy entertaining and trying to impress the Elite, maybe he wouldn’t have time to harass Kale. He could use the extra time to try to resign himself to his situation, now that he had confirmation beyond a doubt that he really was the captain’s new plaything.
Indeed, Trenton had lost the lustful look in his eyes when he waved Kale forward. “Go to my chambers and prepare my dress uniform,” he ordered. “Make sure everything is shined and polished properly, and lay it out for me. Then go to the kitchens and make sure nothing goes wrong with tonight’s dinner preparations. You’ll be serving myself and the captain, so ensure your own dress uniform is also up to standards.”
“Yes, sir,” Kale saluted and struggled to keep the relief he felt out of his voice. Trenton might still call on him after he’d retired for the night, but it was at least a few hours more before he had to face his fate.
He lost no time in taking himself out of the office, jogging through the halls to where the officers were quartered. There wasn’t much time left until dinner, and he had a lot to do. Screwing up something this important on his first day of service wouldn’t help him stay unmemorable in Trenton’s eyes.
Thankfully the captain’s dress uniform needed only a quick burnishing, not a full polish and shine job. Obviously his predecessor Darl had regularly tended to the uniform. An example that Kale would do well to follow, actually, since it would save him time when the uniform was needed. He smiled grimly to himself as he buffed the brass buttons. If he could just focus on the mundane details of his new duties, maybe he could get through this in one piece.
His own dress greens required a bit more work, but not so much that he didn’t still have time to run down and oversee the last of the dinner preparations. The garrison’s cooks were used to having the captain’s aides fuss at them, so they didn’t object too much to his presence as long as he kept himself out of the way. Kale was just as glad to do so; he didn’t know anything about cooking, so anything he did would probably make it more likely that there would be a problem, not less.
Kale was more than a little nervous about having to serve the two captains. It would have been nerve-wracking enough just serving Trenton tonight, but to have to serve an Elite on his very first night as Trenton’s aide was asking for trouble. He prayed to Amera, the goddess of luck, to watch over him tonight. She wasn’t his usual deity of choice but he really didn’t need her acting against him on this of all nights.
By the time dinner was ready it was all Kale could do to keep himself from shaking. Prayers to the notoriously fickle Amera weren’t doing much to help calm him, but he couldn’t think of anything else that might help. Dressed in his formal greens, Kale headed up the steps from the kitchen to the fort’s small dining hall to take his position and await the two officers.
Trenton arrived first, looking splendid in his dress whites. He spotted Kale waiting and nodded once in approval, taking his seat and gesturing for Kale to pour him wine. Licking his lips, Kale moved to the sideboard where an array of wines and liqueurs had been laid out. This was his first test, but it was one easily passed. Part of his days of training had been drilling in the captain’s various preferences for food and drink. He poured a glass of dry white wine and carried it to Trenton, who took it and sampled it carefully.
“Good,” he finally declared, much to Kale’s relief. “I trust you know what to do. If not, I assure you I will be highly displeased. I wish to impress this man. He’s currently a bit of a shining star among the Elite, and rumour has it high command has their eye on him. I want him taking a favourable report back to the capital with him.”
“Yes, sir,” Kale acknowledged, saluting. Moving back to his spot at the wall, he waited for the Elite to arrive and kept an eye on Trenton’s glass so he could refill it before it was emptied.
He didn’t have to wait long, at least. Not ten minutes after Trenton arrived there was a brisk knock on the door, and one of the Elite warrior-mages strode through. He was dressed in their formal uniform of midnight blue and silver, and he cut an impressive figure. His fair hair and pale skin marked him as the son of a noble house, and he had the same casual air of authority that Trenton carried. His aura glowed strongly with the magic he carried inside him, bright enough that Kale had to blink a few times before he got used to it. He’d never seen anyone with that much magical power before.
When his eyes adjusted, however, Kale got a shock. He knew this man. Though they’d spent only one day together and that had been months ago, the warrior-mage’s features were stamped indelibly in his memory. “Jaren?” he gasped without thinking. The last time they’d been together the Elite had been drained to the point of exhaustion; he’d had no idea the older man was such a powerful mage.
Immediately he flushed and snapped his mouth shut, praying neither of the officers had heard him. Not only had he spoken out of turn, he’d addressed an Elite officer by name, an unspeakable familiarity from a mere private. Trenton would kill him.
Obviously Amera hadn’t been interested in his prayers. Trenton turned to him with a scowl, but any reprimand he might have delivered was forestalled by Jaren’s delighted exclamation. “Kale! By all the gods, is that you?” The fact that the Elite remembered him at all astonished Kale, but the genuine happiness and excitement in his intense blue eyes left the younger man speechless.
Belatedly he snapped to attention and gave Jaren a shaky salute. “Lieu… er, Captain Delwash, sir. Uh, congratulations on your promotion?”
“You know my new aide, captain?” Trenton asked, looking like he couldn’t decide whether to be displeased or not. The expression on his face said it had never occurred to him that his new plaything might have such influential friends.
“I should think so,” Jaren replied with a laugh. “We spent a day trapped on the wrong side of enemy lines together once. That’s not an experience you forget in a hurry.” He was grinning at Kale like he’d just found his long-lost best friend. “I’m glad to see my report to headquarters actually drew some attention. The ability to see magic is rare, you were being totally wasted on the front lines.”
Cursing silently, Kale did his best not to either wince or glare at Jaren. Trenton’s expression had changed to surprise, then turned far too calculating for Kale’s comfort. So much for his hope of remaining so unremarkable that Trenton would tire of him quickly.
“You have mage potential, private?” Trenton asked. “I don’t recall seeing that in your dossier.”
“No, sir,” Kale replied stiffly, holding himself rigid so the trembling of his body wouldn’t be obvious. “I can only see magic, not manipulate it. It’s an aberrant ability, not true mage potential.” It had caused him no end of grief in his life, too. His dreams of being one of the Elite had been shattered when he’d arrived at the capital and their testers had informed him that he didn’t actually have the capacity to use magic necessary to be one of the respected warrior-mages. Yet his ability still set him apart from the ordinary and often caused people to treat him like a specimen in a zoo rather than one of them. He was neither fish nor fowl, and he hated always feeling like an outcast.
Worse, now it was going to mark him as interesting and useful in Trenton’s eyes. Even if he couldn’t do anything with the magic he saw, Jaren was right that there were plenty of tactical uses for a talent like his. You didn’t win that many battles by luck; Trenton must be possessed of a stunning intellect and nothing short of a tactical genius. Kale could already tell the man’s mind was racing with plans for him. His usefulness might save him from the very worst of Trenton’s attentions, but the man would never let him go now.
Obviously aware that his words had caused something to change and not for the better, Jaren’s smile faded. “You didn’t know?” he asked Trenton, surprised. “But then why…”
Kale could almost see the memory of the rumours about Trenton running through Jaren’s mind, and the warrior-mage frowned. His eyes cut sharply to Kale’s, but the younger man was staring in rapt fascination at a spot on the wall, holding himself at attention so he wouldn’t give anything away with his expression. Bad enough that he had to be Trenton’s plaything at all, but to have a man Kale looked up to as much as Jaren be aware of it was humiliating. The regard and affection Jaren apparently still held for him would surely vanish in light of his knowledge of the change in Kale’s position. How could he respect someone who was nothing more than an officer’s toy?
Sure enough Jaren scowled, but to Kale’s surprise his anger appeared to be directed at Trenton rather than Kale himself. Yet he said nothing, and the tentative hopes for a rescue that had blossomed within Kale at the sight of the Elite died a silent death.
Well, what had he expected? What could Jaren possibly have said? He might technically outrank Trenton, but he had to know that high command had chosen to allow Trenton to continue with his ‘eccentricities’ as long as the captain kept winning battles. There was nothing Jaren could do, even if he’d wanted to.
“Would you care for a drink, captain?” Trenton asked, gesturing for Kale to serve the Elite. “We’ve access to some very fine vintages here. They were laid in by the fort’s previous commander some decades ago, and they’ve aged quite well.”
“Whatever you’re having is fine,” Jaren replied, taking his seat across the table from the captain. His movements were stiff, and his expression had closed up so completely that Kale couldn’t tell what he was thinking at all. It took everything the younger man had to keep his shoulders back and his head up rather than cringing as he moved to serve the warrior-mage from the same bottle he’d poured Trenton’s drink from.
When Kale leaned over to pour the wine Jaren tried to subtly catch his gaze. Kale refused to look, not wanting the man to see the shame and misery in his eyes. He could at least hold on to what scraps of dignity still remained to him.
That set the tone for the rest of the dinner. Kale served them both, managing by some miracle not to screw up badly or spill anything on one of the officers. Conversation between the two men was bland and innocuous; Jaren was icy and distant, the very picture of a noble who considered himself above his present company but was making small talk because it was expected of him. He complimented Trenton on his recent victories and accepted the return congratulations for his promotion graciously, and neither of them mentioned Kale again.
As they lingered over their dessert and sherry, Kale stood to one side and tried to get his racing heart under control. He had little doubt now that Trenton would call on him tonight. It was obvious that the man had felt threatened by the fact that Jaren knew Kale, and he’d want to assert his dominance over Kale immediately. He was that sort of man, wanting to be unquestioned in his mastery of everything and everyone under his command.
Kale could only hope that Jaren and the other Elite were being quartered far enough from Trenton’s suite that the warrior-mage wouldn’t be able to hear anything that transpired. Otherwise his humiliation would be complete.
“Will you and your men be staying in the area long, captain?” Trenton inquired, gesturing for Kale to come and clean away the empty dessert dishes. “I could certainly make good use of a squad of Elite to help push back the enemy in this area.”
“I wish I could help, sir, but I’m afraid we’re on our way to another posting,” Jaren told him with polite but obvious false sincerity. “Crevasse Keep needs reinforcements and scouts, so my unit was assigned to Lord Major Carlson.”
“I see,” Trenton said, nodding briefly. “A shame. Well, we’ve managed fine on our own this long, I’m sure we won’t perish for lack of a few Elite.” His thin smile said he was perfectly aware of the implied condescension and insult in his words. “Is there anything we can do for you? Do you need provisioning?”
“No, we’ve got enough to get us to Crevasse Keep, but thank you,” Jaren replied. He paused, and looked at Kale. “Actually,” he said thoughtfully, a wicked light sparking deep in his blue eyes, “there might be one thing you could do for me.”
Seeing the direction of Jaren’s gaze and obviously not liking it, Trenton frowned. “What would that be, captain?”
“Well, it does get awfully cold up in the higher reaches of the mountains,” Jaren said, and Kale was shocked by the lewd look on the warrior-mage’s face. From everything he knew about the Elite, Jaren was very much not that sort of man. Granted, his knowledge was confined to one rather harrowing experience, and his opinion was based pretty much solely on the way Jaren had treated him in a very atypical situation. Then again, the look on his face when he’d deduced why Kale had been transferred had been prohibitive as well.
“I’m sure Lord Major Carlson will have plenty of… appropriate bedwarmers available,” Trenton replied, his eyes narrowed. “Or if you’re worried about the trip, I can probably spare a detachment to escort you to the Keep.”
“Ah, but Kale is a bit of a personal good luck charm for me,” Jaren told him. Despite his almost cheerful tone there was a hint of steel in his voice. “I really should have grabbed him last time, but they sent the Elite out immediately to try to win back the valley we lost and by the time I returned his company had already been moved out.”
That made Kale’s heart jump. He’d thought maybe he’d never seen Jaren again because the warrior-mage had dismissed him the moment he’d no longer needed Kale to help him survive. Knowing it had just been a matter of timing made him feel a lot better.
Seeing the growing scowl on Trenton’s face, Jaren’s smile turned into more of a smirk. “The Elite are allowed to requisition any stores or personnel we require, captain,” he reminded Trenton casually.
“Within reason,” Trenton shot back. “Not essential personnel. It’s taken me far too long to find a replacement for my previous aide as it is. I don’t want to have to start all over again just as I’ve found Private Coulter.”
“If you’ve only just taken him on, he can’t be all that essential,” Jaren pointed out, his smirk growing. “You haven’t had time to train him up, so you won’t be wasting much effort by giving him up and finding someone else.” He paused, then added, “I could of course simply report your refusal to cooperate to HQ, and let the high command decide which of us is in the right.”
Kale held his breath. He didn’t know what Jaren was playing at, but he did know that he’d much rather take his chances with the Elite than with Trenton. At least Jaren had treated him well enough in the past, and didn’t have a reputation for leaving his bedmates broken and damaged.
That last statement had been a direct challenge, though. All three of them knew that Trenton was the darling of the high command for the way he kept winning no matter what the enemy threw at him, but from what Trenton had said earlier Jaren was also held in high regard by their superiors right now. Whose side would they come down on, the celebrated commander or the star of the Elite?
Apparently Trenton wasn’t quite sure enough of his dominance to want to find out. “Never let it be said that I’ve obstructed the needs of our Elite,” the captain said, raising his hands in a show of defeat. His eyes were hard, though, and said that he hadn’t given up yet. “Of course, I’m sure if it turns out you don’t require Kale’s… services, you wouldn’t think of depriving me of my aide, would you captain?” The lewd tone he said ‘services’ in made Jaren’s face tighten and Kale blush.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Captain Trenton,” Jaren said smoothly, pushing his anger back down under his icy polite mask. Standing, he gestured to Kale. “Come along, private. We’ve matters to… discuss, if you’re going to be leaving with my unit in the morning.” He put the same lewd tone into the word ‘discuss’, but with a mocking overtone that made it clear he was making fun of Trenton.
Remembering to breathe, Kale nodded and saluted quickly, not even sure which of the two officers he was directing it at. He didn’t hesitate when Jaren turned to leave, trotting along at the warrior-mage’s heels as they left the room.
“Laran, Lord of Darkness, take his soul for it is surely black as your name,” Jaren swore under his breath as soon as they were safely out of earshot. Kale risked a look at him, and saw the warrior-mage was scowling fiercely. He was so angry that his aura was flaring, his magic escaping his control to pulse and spike in ways that made Kale wince and edge a bit farther away.
“J… sir, your magic,” he whispered back urgently. He wasn’t sure just what the relationship between them was now, or what plans the Elite had for him, but he thought it prudent not to be too bold in using the warrior-mage’s name instead of addressing him properly.
Jaren gave him a briefly puzzled look, before he took a breath and got himself forcibly under control. When his aura was a steady shining layer again, he let go of the breath and nodded. “Thanks,” he returned. “I don’t lose my temper very often, but things have a bad habit of exploding around me when I do.” He gave Kale a lopsided smile. “See? I do need you around. Listen, Kale, I’m sorry. It was the only thing I could think of to get you out of there.” He looked shamed, much to Kale’s astonishment.
“You’re sorry? For what?” Kale asked, stunned. “Sir, you have no idea how grateful I am…”
“Stop that,” Jaren ordered him, as he stopped in front of one of the doors and opened it, revealing one of the fort’s guest rooms. “I told you before, nobody who has saved my life – multiple times, even – needs to call me ‘sir’. To you, I’m only Jaren.”
Gesturing Kale inside, Jaren followed him and closed the door, sketching a couple of hasty runes over it once it was shut. Kale recognized the one for silence and the one for sight, but not the others. “There. Now we can speak relatively freely,” Jaren sighed, leaning against it once he was done. “I’ve blocked any scrying spells that might be on the room.”
Standing in the middle of the room, Kale looked around hesitantly and tried to decide what to do. There was a set of saddlebags propped up against the wall, one of which was open and mostly empty. A clean set of Elite blues had been laid out on the bed, probably the ones Jaren had worn in and washed by the garrison servants. Only one bed graced the room, and he wondered where he was going to be sleeping.
He wasn’t sure just what was going to happen to him now. Kale couldn’t imagine what possible use Jaren would have for a private in a unit of Elite troops. It seemed like the warrior-mage hadn’t taken him for a bedwarmer after all, and while he was eternally grateful to be rescued from Trenton’s attentions, it left him somewhat up in the air. If Trenton ever got him back, his anger would ensure Kale would never have any hope of coming out of the experience in one piece.
“Jaren?” Kale asked hesitantly, since the Elite wasn’t saying anything and he figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. “Not that I’m not grateful or anything, but…”
“But you want to know what’s going to happen now,” Jaren finished for him. He looked tired, the icy facade he’d held to in front of Trenton crumbling into weariness and a lingering disgust. “It depends. I can tell you this much, I’m not leaving you here. One way or another you’re coming with us tomorrow, even if I have to kidnap you and throw you over my saddle.”
“He’s just going to get someone else, you know,” Kale said uncomfortably, looking down. “You’ll have made an enemy out of one of the army’s most influential captains, and it’s not going to stop him.”
“I know,” Jaren replied, clearly frustrated at the thought. “If I could I’d bring him up on charges, but he’s too highly regarded right now. I can probably beat him as far as taking you goes, but I don’t have the power or influence to shut him down completely.” He sighed and raked a hand through his fine blond hair. “Just because I can’t save all the poor kids he’s going to ruin doesn’t mean I can’t at least save you, though. I owe you my life three times, after all.” He gave Kale the same quirked grin the younger man remembered from their last encounter.
“Well, this definitely evens the score for at least one of them,” Kale told him firmly, and Jaren’s smile widened. Kale felt guilty for just fleeing the fort and leaving the next poor bastard to Trenton’s non-existent mercy, but not so guilty that he was ready to volunteer to remain himself. Idealism had no place on the front lines, he reminded himself when the guilt threatened to swamp him.
“Once we’re out of here, we’ve got plenty of time before we hit Crevasse Keep to figure out what to do with you,” Jaren said thoughtfully, moving to collapse down at the edge of the bed and start trying to pry his knee-high dress boots off. Without thinking about it Kale went to kneel in front of him and help. For a moment he thought Jaren was going to protest, but then the Elite smiled ruefully and shook his head. “You don’t need to serve me, you know. But I will take the help getting these thrice-damned boots off. Whoever designed these things was a sadist.”
Lips twitching, Kale ducked his head to hide his laughter. “I don’t mind,” he said honestly. Jaren might see rescuing him as repayment of a life debt, but Kale had never considered there to be a debt in the first place. “Anyway, we should at least keep things up for appearance’s sake, shouldn’t we?”
“Yeah,” Jaren agreed. “Do you know if Trenton has any mages stationed here? Especially any that might be sympathetic to him wanting to keep you? My blocking spell isn’t foolproof, not if he’s got a mage who specializes in scrying.”
“Didn’t you know?” Kale blinked up at him. “Captain Trenton is a mage. He’s not very strong, and his abilities weren’t discovered until after he’d already made lieutenant, so they let him stay in the army. He doesn’t like having other mages around, though, so he never lets high command assign any to him for long.” He stood and moved to set the boots next to the saddlebags, then turned to face the Elite again.
“He’s a mage?” Jaren looked surprised, then thoughtful. Kale wasn’t sure what was going through his head, but whatever it was it drew a dawning look of horror from the Elite. “Presira save us all,” he breathed out, naming the patron goddess of mages. “No wonder he keeps winning battles. All those poor kids he’s breaking and throwing away… he’s not just using them for his own pleasure, he’s using them to raise magic to ensure he keeps winning!”
“Huh?” Kale tried to make sense of that, but he felt like he was missing an essential connection somewhere. “What do you mean, using them to raise magic? Magic is an internal force, isn’t it? He hasn’t got much.”
“It’s not something many people know about,” Jaren told him grimly. “The mages do not want it getting around. A mage can, with certain rituals and spells, drain other people to create a reserve of magical energy. If it’s not done carefully it can completely destroy the person being drained. Sex, spilling blood, and death all raise magical energy. Willing sex magic is something of a grey area as far as morality goes, but unwilling sex is a lot more powerful. And I’ll bet he’s using blood magic too. That utter bastard.”
“But why didn’t I see any of it happening?” Kale asked, wide-eyed. He could certainly see why the mages wouldn’t want that information getting around. The general population would panic, and probably turn on them at the slightest hint that something like that was being done to them. “Darl, his last aide, only left this morning. Shouldn’t I have seen more magic on him every time he, uh, used Darl?”
“The last one was probably already little more than a dried-up husk by the time you got here,” Jaren shook his head. “That’s why he’s so desperate to hang onto you; by the time he finds someone else suitable, he’ll have been weeks without power. If the enemy attacks before he has a chance to recharge, he won’t be able to use magic to hold them off.”
Standing, he moved to put his hands on Kale’s shoulders and asked urgently, “How long have you been here, Kale? Has he touched you yet? He might have some way of creating a link to you and draining you even if you’re not in contact. Laran take it, with the potential of your gift for seeing magic, you must have been the best thing he’d found in years. There aren’t many untapped full mages running around in the army, we check for that too thoroughly.”
“No, he hasn’t touched me yet,” Kale told him, shaken. “I mean, he’s touched me, but not like that. I, uh… I think he was planning on it, when the messenger came to say you’d arrived this afternoon, and then he got distracted.” If what Jaren was saying was true, he’d had a very close call indeed.
Jaren was obviously thinking much the same thing. “If I’d come even one day later, or a few days earlier… looks like we both owe my Lady Amera some more incense.” He gave Kale a wry smile. “Still think I’m strange for having her as my patron goddess?”
“No,” Kale shook his head and swallowed. “But Jaren, we can’t just leave here without doing something! It’s bad enough that he’s abusing the men under his command, but to steal their life force like that…!” Pragmatism be damned. How could he just walk away knowing what he was dooming some other poor soul to? “If we tell high command, surely they can’t ignore this!”
“Are you kidding me?” Sighing, and suddenly looking older than Kale had thought he was, Jaren shook his head. “Kale, they were ignoring what was going on when they thought it was just an eccentricity of his. If they know it’s the reason he wins his battles, they’ll never put a stop to it. They might even start encouraging it, though I think the mages might try to downplay it for their own sake.”
Stunned, Kale stared at him. “They would just hand innocent people over to him?” But the truth was, in his heart of hearts he knew what Jaren was saying was probably true. Was it really that much worse that Trenton was stealing their magical potential as well as raping and destroying them? In fact, it could be argued that since using up those boys allowed Trenton to send the rest of his forces to victory and lose far fewer soldiers, that it was worth the lives of a few to protect the lives of many.
Still, it sickened him to know that he was fighting for a country that would not only allow something like that, but encourage it. Yes, he’d come a long way from the idealistic young farm boy who’d come to the capital with stars in his eyes, but not that far.
“You’re not fighting for them,” Jaren told him, and for an astonished moment Kale wondered if he could read minds. Some mages had that ability, he knew, but he’d never heard of an Elite who could do it. “No, I’m not reading your mind,” the warrior-mage assured him. “It’s written all over your face, and I had to go through the same thought process when I was about your age. You’re not fighting for the ones who would condone this. You’re fighting for all the innocent people out there – farmers, merchants, and nobles alike – who wouldn’t, but who would suffer a great deal more if Istria is conquered. So long as the people in charge aren’t as bad as the ones who would be in charge if we lose, then we keep fighting.”
“I… I guess,” Kale acknowledged, though the thought still ate at him. Unfortunately Jaren was right; there wasn’t anything they could do and trying would only get them in trouble, not fix anything. “So what do we do?”
“First, we have to get you out of here,” the older man pointed out, pacing the short distance between the bed and the wall as Kale watched. His expression turned grim. “If he’s been using sex magic that long, he won’t need a scrying spell to tell if we’ve been doing anything. He’ll be able to tell by the ambient energy hanging around. Damn it to all the hells.” He scowled and kicked at the wall, his aura spiking again.
“Can’t you fake it?” Kale suggested, watching those flaring spikes warily. “Or block him somehow? I know it would probably take a lot of energy, but… Jaren, watch your aura, damn it.”
Once again Jaren got his magic back under control with an effort. “I can’t fake it. If I was as experienced at it as he was, maybe, but I have no idea what he’d even be looking for, let alone how to reproduce it. No wonder he was being so emphatic about the fact that I can only take resources I actually require.”
“Then… then we have to…” Kale couldn’t get the rest of the sentence out through his suddenly dry throat, no matter how much he tried. He’d developed a bit of a crush on the charismatic Elite the last time they’d met, and he’d allowed himself to nurse it because he’d thought it was a better outlet than possibly crushing on one of his squadmates. Jaren had been safely out of reach, after all, whereas someone in his unit might have noticed his attention and taken exception to it. Same-sex relationships might be officially tolerated, but the reality was that it was still a better idea to just stay quiet about it if you did prefer your own sex.
Only now Jaren wasn’t safely out of reach. Exactly the opposite, in fact. Kale didn’t think he could go through with what he was trying to suggest without revealing his feelings for the Elite, and then he was going to have to live with Jaren knowing. Worse, he was going to have to be on the road for days with nobody but Jaren and his unit for company, if Jaren really was going to get him out of here. He didn’t think the warrior-mage would be disgusted with him to the point where he’d leave Kale behind, but that was also a possibility.
“I don’t see any way around it,” Jaren agreed, his voice tight with anger and his eyes narrowed. He looked supremely unhappy about the idea, which only made Kale feel even more nervous and miserable. “Hells, Kale. I don’t want to do this to you! I am not interested in unwilling bed partners!”
“Unwilling?” Kale looked at him in surprise. “Jaren, I’d rather have you than Trenton any day!” That at least he thought he could admit to. “At least I know you’re not going to hurt me, or break me, or drain me! And I, uh… I mean, I’m not… completely opposed to, uh, that sort of thing.”
Well, that had been coherent. Flushing, Kale looked at the stone floor and fervently wished it would open up and swallow him whole. He was never going to get through this without making an idiot of himself.
Gentle fingers caught his chin and lifted his face until he was looking up into Jaren’s vivid blue eyes. He hadn’t even heard the Elite moving closer, but they were barely inches apart now. Kale’s eyes widened, and he felt his flush increase a notch. “I don’t want to do this. I’m not sure I can do this,” Jaren admitted, and Kale winced. Seeing that, Jaren shook his head and amended his words. “It’s not anything wrong with you, Kale. But I don’t bed the unwilling, and ‘you’re better than the alternative’ is not good enough to count as ‘willing’!”
Chewing on his lower lip, Kale sought desperately for a solution. “Does it have to be all or nothing?” he finally ventured. Jaren quirked an eyebrow at him, obviously not understanding, and Kale explained with a painfully red face. “Could we maybe just t-touch ourselves? That’s still sex, right? It would be something, he wouldn’t be able to say you didn’t use me, but you wouldn’t be doing anything directly to me.”
He could not believe he was seriously suggesting to a captain of the Elite that they strip down and get themselves off together. The warrior-mage looked thoughtful, though. “I’m not sure,” Jaren said. “Possibly. Especially if we’re, er, in contact at the time.” Kale was astonished to see a flush spread over the older man’s pale cheeks. “It’s certainly the best solution I can think of. He won’t be able to say conclusively that nothing happened. Are you sure you’re all right with this, Kale?”
The younger man gave him a look, and Jaren’s mouth quirked in a reluctant smile. “Okay, that was a stupid question,” the warrior-mage acknowledged. “Compared to the alternative, I know which one I would choose.” Leaning down, he kissed Kale so briefly he didn’t even have a chance to react. Pulling back, Jaren started unbuttoning his midnight-blue dress tunic.
Wishing he’d had a chance to actually enjoy that kiss, since it was probably the only one he’d ever get, Kale moved to do the same. Considering how often he’d had to dress or undress in a crowded barracks tent full of his squadmates, it shouldn’t have been half as embarrassing as it was to strip down with Jaren. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising. Undressing so you could lie down and touch yourself in front of someone else doing the same thing was very different from doing so in the impersonal atmosphere of the barracks.
His hands were shaking as he shoved his pants down and loosed the laces of his boots enough to let him step out of them. He wasn’t going to need his dress uniform again any time soon, so he just left it to lie on the floor where it fell. Shrugging out of his unbuttoned tunic, he let it fall as well, and stood completely naked before the man who had been the object of his fantasies for months.
Jaren looked even better than Kale had imagined him. He wasn’t heavily muscled, but he had the sort of toned definition that most men could only dream of. The parts of his body normally covered by clothes were so pale he was almost ice-white, and Kale was even more certain that the older man was noble-born.
Despite his best efforts Kale’s eyes dropped down to the Elite’s groin, and he bit down on a groan at the sight of the older man’s cock. Jaren was only half hard, probably too put off by the circumstances to be truly aroused. Even so Kale could tell the man had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in that department. His cock was every bit as gorgeous as the rest of him.
Unable to believe he was even thinking such a thing, Kale wrenched his eyes back up again. When he caught sight of Jaren’s face and realized the flush had spread right down to the older man’s neck, Kale had to stifle a snort of nervous amusement behind one hand. It was reassuring to know he wasn’t the only one embarrassed by the situation.
“Let’s…” Kale’s voice cracked on the first word, and his face flamed as he cleared his throat and tried again. “Jaren? It’s okay, really. Right?”
Looking at him, blue eyes locked on brown, Jaren studied him for a long moment. Finally he drew a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, it’s okay. Nothing either of us hasn’t done before. Just with a bit of company involved.” He reached out and caught Kale’s hand and tugged him towards the bed.
With an effort, Kale shoved his awareness of their situation to one side and pretended this was one of his fantasies. Usually in his dreams Jaren was anything but reluctant to touch him, but watching and being watched wasn’t bad as fantasy material went. He spread out on his side on one half of the bed, watching as the Elite sprawled over the other side. Jaren was lying on his back, but he turned his head to look at Kale and reached out with his off hand.
“Contact,” Jaren reminded him when Kale hesitated, mistaking the pause for reluctance. The truth was that Kale had needed a moment to catch his breath and remember where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. It was an effort not to squirm forward and press himself against the warrior-mage’s strong body like he wanted to, but Kale nodded and wordlessly reached out to clasp Jaren’s hand in his.
“Should we, uh, watch?” Kale croaked, his throat so dry he could hardly swallow. He wasn’t sure what he was hoping the answer was. Not watching would mean less of a chance that he would forget himself, but then again he wasn’t sure he could resist the temptation anyway.
“Probably,” Jaren replied, sounding no less uncertain. “This is just a guess, but I think we need our energy to be mixed.”
“Right,” Kale said, and fixed his eyes on Jaren’s groin. It was actually easier than looking at the Elite’s face, because in his fantasy Jaren wouldn’t have looked hesitant like that. The warrior-mage was already cupping himself loosely, still not quite hard but more so than he had been before.
Taking a deep breath, Kale reached down and wrapped his hand around his cock, the familiar touch making him shiver with an entirely unfamiliar sensitivity. There was no reason it should have felt more intense just because he was watching someone else at the same time, but it did.
After a long moment Jaren started to stroke himself as well, his hand tightening at the top of each stroke as he reached the head of his cock. Curious, Kale tried the same thing as an experiment, and gasped when it made spikes of pleasure shoot through him. His other hand clenched on Jaren’s, and the warrior-mage squeezed him back in turn.
Not quite brave enough to look up and see where Jaren’s eyes were focused, Kale kept his gaze on the older man’s hand. Consciously or unconsciously, they’d matched their pace to each other. It was a bit slower than Kale usually went, but then his pattern had become influenced by the rarity that privacy was among the rank and file, and the subsequent need to be as fast as possible. It felt good to slow down and actually enjoy himself instead of rushing to relieve the tension in his body as quickly as he could.
Even so, he wasn’t going to last much longer than he usually did. It had been a while; he’d been too nervous about his new duties as Trenton’s aide to take advantage of the cot in a private alcove he’d gotten as part of his new status. More than that, watching Jaren was very definitely a turn on, and it was affecting his endurance to an embarrassing degree.
Hopefully the Elite wouldn’t last too much longer than Kale was going to, or he’d never be able to face the older man again without dying of embarrassment. At least Jaren was hard now, his cock flushed with blood as he fisted it and looking unnaturally dark against the pale skin of his hand. Kale glanced briefly at himself, curious, and found that his cock was actually a shade lighter than his deeply tanned hand.
From there it seemed natural to look at their joined hands rather than back at what Jaren was doing. Half lost in the pleasure haze of arousal, Kale found the dichotomy between his blunt, dark hand and Jaren’s slender, pale fingers absolutely fascinating. Tracing his gaze up over Jaren’s well muscled arm, he finally looked up and caught his breath when he found Jaren was watching him.
Not just watching what he was doing, but watching him, his gaze focused on Kale’s face rather than his hand. He saw that Kale had realized he was watching and that light flush spread over the pale features again, but when he would have looked away Kale squeezed his hand again and held his eyes.
The blue in Jaren’s eyes had been almost swallowed by the black of his pupils, expanded in arousal until there was only a line of intense blue around the edges. The warrior-mage’s mouth was slightly open, as if he couldn’t get enough air through only his nose, and Kale fought the urge to lunge forward and catch it with his own.
Something of his thoughts must have showed in his eyes, because Jaren made a muffled noise that wasn’t quite a moan, and bit his lip. That was even more tempting, and Kale had to close his eyes to help him resist. Kissing wasn’t part of what they’d agreed on, and he no more wanted to force himself on Jaren than the older man had wanted to force Kale.
Jaren’s hand squeezed on his, and there was a rustle as the Elite shifted. When Kale opened his eyes again, he found the older man had turned on his side to face him, noticeably closer than he had been before. Kale could feel the heat coming off his body, and if he’d shifted his top leg forward a little they’d probably bump knees.
“This okay?” Jaren asked him, his voice husky in a way that went straight to Kale’s cock.
“Yeah,” he agreed hastily, just as gruff. “Yeah, it’s fine. The closer the better, probably. Right?”
Nodding, Jaren finally lowered his eyes to watch what Kale was doing. Now it was Kale’s turn to watch the older man’s expression instead of his hand, and he understood why Jaren had been looking at him like something he wanted to swallow whole. The unabashed look of pleasure on the Elite’s face, combined with the flush on his cheeks and the way he was panting slightly, was almost intoxicating.
Feeling his body start to tighten as the first tingles of orgasm approached, Kale struggled to hold it off as long as he could. He wanted to keep watching, didn’t want to lose the chance to enjoy the intensity that came with watching Jaren stroke himself to completion. He would probably never have an opportunity like this again and he didn’t want to waste it in a rush of hormones like an untouched teenager.
He was doomed to failure, however. He could only hold off the inevitable for so long before the familiar overwhelming feeling started to creep up on him no matter how hard he fought it. Gasping, his rhythm speeding despite his efforts to keep matching Jaren, he trembled at the edge and clung to sanity with everything he had.
“Jaren,” he moaned, and the warrior-mage looked up at him again. In the moment when his eyes met Kale’s, the younger boy finally lost his battle with control and came hard all over his hand, feeling like he was drowning in blue-edged black.
All the air left Jaren in a sharp exclamation that might have been a curse or a prayer – Kale was too far gone to be able to make words out of the individual sounds. Jaren’s eyes closed as his face contorted with something almost closer to pain than pleasure, and with a sense of astonishment Kale realized the warrior-mage was following him over the edge into orgasm.
For long minutes after they’d finished, they lay there not quite able to look each other in the eyes, not sure what they should do now. Finally Jaren cleared his throat and reached for his cotton undershirt, using it to wipe his hand and groin before hesitantly offering it to Kale.
Taking it with a blush, Kale cleaned himself up and tossed the shirt back onto the floor. “You should sleep here tonight,” Jaren murmured, pulling up the sheets that had been turned back by the servants before they’d gotten to the room. “I’ve no doubt the servants will be in first thing in the morning to try to catch us sleeping apart.”
“All right,” Kale agreed shyly. Was it silly to be shy with someone he’d just jerked off in front of? Maybe, but he couldn’t help it. What they’d done hadn’t exactly been under the usual sort of circumstances, either. “Thank you.” He wanted to say something more, something about how much he’d enjoyed it, so the Elite would stop thinking Kale had been the least bit unwilling. But he just knew the words would come out the wrong way, and he’d end up confessing his crush on the man instead of just reassuring him.
“You’re welcome, Kale,” Jaren replied, his expression both wry and soft. Reaching out, he brushed his fingers over Kale’s cheek. Surprised by the gesture, the younger man held still and regarded him with wide eyes. “Tomorrow we’ll be out of here, and you’ll never have to think about this again.”
“Yeah,” Kale agreed, ducking his head so the Elite wouldn’t see the truth in his eyes. Never think about this again? It was going to be front and centre in his fantasies for weeks, he just knew it. Now that he knew what Jaren’s face looked like as he came, Kale was never going to be able to forget it.
With a whispered cantrip Jaren extinguished all the lamps in the room, plunging them into darkness. It was a simple spell, but Kale was still suitably impressed. He could see the glow of Jaren’s aura, a light that wasn’t actually light and illuminated nothing. It was pulsing lazily with his heartbeat, even stronger now than it had been before. A result of the energy raised by sex, Kale wondered? If just what they’d done could make that significant a change in levels, he could see how it might be a very powerful source of magic.
Figuring he was never going to get another chance like this and might as well take advantage of it, Kale cleared his throat. “Jaren? Should we maybe, you know, sleep closer together? Can you sleep like that?”
“Yeah, I can,” Jaren replied, sounding surprised. “You don’t mind being that close to me? I didn’t want to suggest it.”
“It’s not like I’m scared of you now or something,” Kale replied, rolling his eyes though he knew the Elite couldn’t see him. “I didn’t mind being crammed up against you that time we were stuck hiding in the cave, did I?”
“We didn’t have a lot of choice,” Jaren reminded him, and now he sounded amused. There was a rustle, and Kale felt a hand touch his shoulder. “Come here, then.”
Grateful the warrior-mage couldn’t see his flaming face, Kale snuggled close and let Jaren wrap an arm around him. He was curled against the Elite’s side, with the older man lying on his back again, and it meant Kale had his head practically on Jaren’s chest. He could hear the other man’s heartbeat from here, and smell sweat and sex and something that must have been Jaren’s personal scent.
Sighing in contentment, he settled in and closed his eyes. This might not have been exactly what he’d dreamed of – Jaren was usually a lot more willing and eager in his dreams – but it was more than he’d ever hoped for. Even without the added consideration of escaping from Trenton’s service. He sent a quick prayer of thanks to Jaren’s Lady Amera, knowing it had to be her fickle favour that had brought the Elite to him at exactly the right time. At this rate, Kale was going to have to make her his personal deity as well.
Jaren shifted and hugged him a little closer, and Kale smiled in the dark. If she kept bringing him and Jaren together, Kale could definitely live with having her as his patron goddess.