by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
illustrated by Ravyn
There was nothing quite like the celebratory atmosphere of coming back to camp after a successful mission, Kale had discovered. It had been true even when he’d been an army regular, but nobody knew how to celebrate the way the Elite did. He rode in the middle of the 64th unit, returning triumphant from a sortie with the Semaskans, and reflected that he couldn’t remember a time in his life when he’d been happier than this.
In the months he’d served with Jaren’s unit, they had come to accept him for himself as well as valuing him for his rare ability to see magic. Kale might not have been a true mage, and certainly he lacked his squadmates’ training and power, but there were times when he even forgot he wasn’t an Elite in truth.
Glancing at the front of their little group, he couldn’t stop the smile from spreading over his face. In the weak winter sunlight, dressed in the pale blue of the Elite uniform, riding a grey stallion and surrounded by snowy forest, his captain and lover looked like an ethereal spirit of some kind. He was just too perfectly beautiful to be real.
As if sensing Kale’s eyes on him, Jaren looked back and waved him forward. They were inside the camp’s sentry lines now, so keeping formation wasn’t as important. Happily Kale dug his heels into his mare’s side, urging her into a trot so he could catch up with the front riders.
“It’ll be hot food and hot baths for us tonight!” Jaren announced, grinning at Kale like a lad half his age. “Lord of Darkness and Lady of Winter, I feel like I haven’t been properly warm in a dragon’s age.”
“Only half that long, surely,” Kale replied with a soft laugh, amused by the older man’s exaggeration as usual. As the son of peasant farmers from the northern part of the country Kale was more than accustomed to being cold for a large portion of the year, but his lover had taken to the cold of winter in the mountains about as well as a fish to desert sands. “What happens if we come back defeated, do we get cold rations and ice water for baths?”
“I have no idea, it’s never happened,” Jaren joked, though of course not even the Elite could succeed at every mission they were given. It was true enough that they hadn’t yet failed in the time since Kale had joined them, though. Slowly the older man’s smile turned sly, and a knowing look entered his vibrant blue eyes. “You know what else being at the keep means, though? We get our own room again, not just bedrolls in the open,” he commented, lowering his voice until it was hardly more than a purr.
Of course, with the enhanced senses of the Elite warrior-mages, he could have whispered directly into Kale’s ear and the rest of the unit still would have heard. Chuckling broke out among the others as Kale blushed hard enough that it was visible despite the darkness of his skin, but he was used to this kind of teasing. Jaren didn’t mean any harm by it, and the others genuinely didn’t care as long as their captain didn’t play favourites in the field.
“Ho? Looks like we’ve got company,” Leor commented, pointing to the turrets of the keep as the walls came into view. The banners of the companies stationed there snapped and flared in the steady northern wind, surmounted as usual by the personal standard of the garrison’s commander. Out of place, however, was the larger pennon flying higher still. The only reason for another flag to be raised would be if they had a general or high-ranking nobility visiting the garrison.
From this distance Kale couldn’t make out the device, though he could see that the colours were a deep scarlet and rich gold. Not one of the high command, then, since they all flew the army colours of green and blue. By why would a nobleman be visiting such an out of the way keep? It wasn’t even under the jurisdiction of a local noble, being crown property, and that certainly wasn’t the king’s banner.
Beside him Jaren sucked in a surprised breath and went rigid in his saddle, his hands tightening on the reins until his spirited stallion danced in protest. “Jaren?” Kale looked at his lover in concern, surprised by what seemed an unwarranted reaction. “Is something wrong?”
“Not… necessarily,” the warrior-mage replied slowly, his eyes fixed on the banner flying in the distance.
“That’s not exactly reassuring, captain,” Dena pointed out, nudging her gelding up near them. “Should we be getting ready for trouble?”
“Oh, no.” Taking a deep breath and visibly forcing himself to relax, Jaren gave her a sardonic smile and waved her back to her place. “Nothing for the rest of you to worry about. It’s just my past coming to bite me on the ass, as such things are wont to do. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
He promptly changed the subject back to what they were likely to be serving in the mess that night, and not even Kale could get him to elaborate further. After a few half-hearted attempts Kale stopped trying, not wanting to push the man when he clearly didn’t wish to discuss it. It had been a long time since Jaren had bothered to hide behind masks with Kale, and the sudden distance between them disturbed him.
The sentries had sent a runner ahead of them to announce their arrival, of course, and the garrison commander met them at the gates. A man dressed in rich satins and silks who looked vaguely familiar to Kale accompanied him. Frowning internally, he came to a parade ground halt in his place in the unit and saluted with the others, trying to think of where he could possibly have seen the man before. That this was the noble whose flag flew above the keep he had no doubt; who else would be out in the mud and snow of the courtyard dressed like that, on a horse that had probably cost more than Kale made in a year?
“Sir,” Jaren addressed the commander, as was proper, but Kale knew his lover well enough to see that he was noticeably refusing to look at the nobleman. “The 64th returning from the border, sir. We successfully held off the advance force the Semaskans were attempting to send over the Widowmaker Pass, until the 23rd infantry and 53rd cavalry arrived to set up a barricade. Major Nelson relieved us of duty and ordered us back to base, and sends his compliments as well.”
“Thank you, Captain Delwash,” the commander saluted them in return. “And good work, everyone. Barring emergencies, you’re to have a week off duty here at the keep to recover.” That news was met with hastily stifled enthusiasm from the eight Elite under Jaren’s command, and the commander smiled faintly. “Dismissed. Duke Weyne, you wanted to speak to the captain?”
“Indeed, and thank you major,” the duke nodded gravely, and inclined his head at their captain. Jaren nodded in turn, and dismounted. Handing his reins to Kale with an apologetic smile, the Elite followed the duke inside the keep itself.
Staring after his lover with a frown, Kale tried to put the disquiet he felt out of his mind. He had no reason to be worried; Jaren could certainly take care of himself, and it wasn’t as if Kale could do anything to help him even if he knew what the problem was. But seeing his happy-go-lucky lover so tense and almost nervous was unsettling, to say the least.
Sighing, he turned to lead the horses into the stables, and nearly jumped when he found the rest of the unit staring at him expectantly. “Well?” Dena demanded when Kale didn’t immediately speak. “What was that all about? What does one of the richest and most powerful dukes in Istria want with the captain?”
“I don’t know!” Kale protested helplessly. “You probably know more than I do. He never talks about his past, ever.”
“Damn, I was hoping he’d at least told you something,” Dena frowned. “For such a talkative man, the captain can be remarkably closed-mouthed about certain topics.”
“Well, we can’t just leave it at that, can we?” Stephon said reasonably. “You know if it was one of us being hauled off by a nobleman with that look on our faces, the captain would be sure to put himself in a position to rescue us if we needed it. Can we do less, in good conscience?”
“You’re pushing it, Stephon,” Leor retorted, but he was already handing his reins to one of the waiting stablehands. Elite usually took care of their own mounts, due to the spells worked into the tack and placed on the horses themselves, but just this once it seemed they were all willing to pass off the duty so they could follow their captain.
“This way, it’s faster,” Kale called when they started for the main doors. He’d served at this keep for a while before he’d joined the 64th, as a private in the regular army, and he’d done duty as a messenger boy at the time. He knew the keep inside and out – and, more importantly, he knew all the side corridors and shortcuts that were meant to allow servants to carry out their duties quickly and invisibly.
He led them to the servants’ entrance, which let out into the kitchen. Dodging the workers there, they trotted into a narrow hallway and hurried towards the front hall.
They were in luck; the duke and Jaren had gone into one of the side parlours to talk. With a grin Leor sketched a hasty sigil over the lock of the next door to open it, and they all piled into the adjoining room. From there it was the work of a moment to set up a scrying spell that would allow them to see and hear what was happening on the other side of the wall; the Elite were, when all was said and done, as much spies as warriors. Kale found a spot leaning against one of the walls, and fixed his attention on the misty image produced by the spell.
The two men were standing at a distance somewhat greater than was normal for a private conversation; the duke hovered near the narrow window, while Jaren stood stiffly at ease a few paces inside the door. It was clear that they were uncomfortable with each other. “Jaren,” the duke said at last, turning away from the window to face the Elite. “It’s been quite a while, hasn’t it? You look well. I didn’t know you’d made captain.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jaren said slowly, looking like he wasn’t quite certain that the ground he was standing on wasn’t some kind of minefield. “Forgive me, but… while I’m starting to think that winter never ends this high in the mountains, unless I’m mistaken it’s already well into spring back home. Shouldn’t you be overseeing the planting?”
Sighing, the duke rubbed a hand over his face. “Ah, gods, I’m too old and tired for this never-ending dance of formality between us. We both said things we regret the last time we met, I’ll wager – I know I certainly did. Which is not to say that I don’t still hold the same positions, but the argument seems less important than it once did. Can we, just this once, speak honestly with one another without ending at each other’s throats?”
Obviously surprised, Jaren dropped his rigid pose and took an uncertain step towards the duke. “Father?” he said, and someone near Kale made a choked noise of shock. “What is it, what’s happened?”
Father? Staring at the two men, Kale finally realized why the duke had seemed familiar to him. It wasn’t that he’d seen the man before, but rather the family resemblance he had with Jaren. The duke was stockier in frame and his hair was salt-and-pepper grey, but he had the same nose and mouth, and his eyes were a faded version of Jaren’s vibrant blue.
Stunned, Kale was grateful he had the wall to lean against, or his legs might have given out on him. He’d long suspected that his lover had to be from the nobility, an acknowledged bastard at the very least; he had that air of sophistication and unconscious superiority, and the pale skin that marked those who hadn’t spent their formative years toiling at labour in the harsh sun. But the son of a duke? That was higher than Kale had ever imagined. What was the son of a powerful duke doing as a simple captain in the Elite?
“Jaren, your brother is dead,” the duke said heavily, and Kale watched as the blood drained from his lover’s already pale face.
“Kavin? Dead? How?” the warrior-mage stammered, shaken. “Father… I’m sorry. I know you were close to him.”
“As were you, in your own way,” the duke shrugged. “It was a bandit raid, earlier this winter. It’s taken me this long to get everything in order and find out where you were stationed; I wanted you to hear the news from me directly, not from a letter.”
“For that, I thank you,” Jaren replied, but his expression was slowly shifting from shocked to wary. “It’s not the sort of news I would have wanted to receive that way. But surely this means it’s doubly important for you to be there to oversee the estate? Everything must be chaos.”
“I had to speak to you personally,” the duke answered him. “I knew you would be resistant to what is necessary. No,” he held up a hand to forestall an angry protest that Jaren had clearly been about to make. “That was not an accusation. I understand that you have duties and responsibilities here. But there are many Elite who could take your place. You are the only son I have left, and I need you home with me. I’m not going to live forever, Jaren, or probably even much longer, and you need to learn what it truly means to be a duke.”
As if a wave of icy air had washed over him, Kale suddenly felt cold. Though he’d often had doubts about how long the unlikely relationship between a peasant private and the rising star of the Elite could last, the one way he’d never imagined he might lose Jaren was by having the man leave the army.
Unlike the mages and the regular soldiers, the Elite were part of the army from the day they were selected to the day they were retired with honours – though very few lived nearly that long. They were too valuable and far too powerful for the king to want them free to act on their own. When not in the field they had every luxury they could ask for, and few begrudged their life-long servitude.
There were only two exceptions; if an Elite performed an act of surpassing magnitude for the country or the king, he might be granted an early release from the military. Or, as in this case, if they became heir to an important position that required them to leave the army behind. Neither happened very often. The chance that a son of the nobility would have the power and aptitude necessary to become an Elite was low enough, but the odds that someone like that would want the hard and often harsh life led by the warrior-mages were even lower. And even then, as far as Kale knew you had to be the third or fourth son before you would be considered. Either Jaren’s other brothers had died at some earlier time, or he’d lied about his identity – which would explain why he had a common last name, come to think of it.
If Jaren was now the heir to a dukedom, that meant he would have to leave the Elite. Even if Kale hadn’t had more than a year and a half to go in his tour of duty, chances were good that he would never see his lover again. After all, when everything was said and done, it was only their exceptional circumstances that had allowed him to come to know Jaren at all.
He’d missed the rest of the conversation, lost in his shock. The duke was turning to go, having paused by Jaren’s side to rest one hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’ll see you at dinner, then,” the duke declared. “Jaren… truly, I wish peace between us. Believe that, if you believe nothing else.”
“I do,” Jaren agreed quietly, though he didn’t look the man in the eyes. After an awkward moment, the duke squeezed his shoulder once more and left.
The small group of Elite huddled in the next room was silent, all of them dealing with the shock in their own way. “Should we say something to him?” Leor finally asked uncertainly.
As if in answer, Jaren sighed and looked up at the ceiling, like he was speaking to a deity. “If you’re not all listening, then you’re not the professionals I’ve trained you to be,” he said wryly, and there were a few soft chuckles from the group. “Keep this to yourselves, if you please. We don’t need the whole army gossiping about my private life, though I realize it’s probably a futile request. Kale, can I see you in our room, please?”
“Yes, sir,” Kale answered aloud without thinking, though presumably Jaren couldn’t actually hear him. He hadn’t seen the older man cast any spells, and the hearing of the Elite wasn’t that good. Whoever had cast the scrying charm let it fade, and Kale was left staring at a blank wall.
To his surprise, the others crowded around him, many offering sympathetic touches or gentle punches. “Don’t look like that, Kale,” Stephon said, patting him on the shoulder. “The captain won’t just turn his back and forget you. The two of you may not be fairy tale true lovers, but you’re disgustingly sappy about each other despite that.”
“Thanks, I think,” Kale said wryly, shaking himself out of his stupor with an effort. He wasn’t sure what Jaren could do other than forget about him, but it wasn’t worth arguing with them about it. It helped a little to know that the others believed in them, at least. “I’d better go, he’ll be waiting for me.”
It took him a few minutes to find out which room Jaren had been assigned; as an officer he rated a private room whenever such was available, something he and Kale both took great delight in. Technically Kale was supposed to bunk in with the rest of the unit, but nobody ever said a word when he ended up sleeping in Jaren’s room instead.
He entered to find that Jaren had gotten there before him, unsurprisingly. The Elite was standing before a large, unfamiliar trunk that sat open at the foot of the bed, his hands on his hips and a resigned look on his face. “He doesn’t waste any time, does he?” he said wryly, not turning to look at Kale.
Glancing inside the trunk, Kale saw rich silks and velvets in colours that would suit Jaren’s pale colouring perfectly. “What is all that?” he asked, though he had a sinking feeling he already knew.
“Clothes,” Jaren answered succinctly, sitting on the edge of the bed with a sigh. “He probably coerced my measurements out of the quartermaster and had them made just for this. Can’t have his heir prancing about in something as common and tasteless as a military uniform, after all. I suppose I might as well indulge him; I am off duty, which technically means I can wear civvies if I want to. It’s not worth the battle that would ensue if I show up to dinner in my uniform, even if it’s my dress blues.”
“So… what’s going to happen now?” Kale asked, trying to sound nonchalant and failing miserably. “Will Leor take command?”
“They might promote him, or they might transfer someone else in,” Jaren shrugged, finally looking up at him. His expression was wary, and he looked more tired than even their time out in the field could account for. “I’ll recommend they promote Leor, of course, but we all know how much attention high command pays to recommendations from the people who might actually know what they’re talking about. Kale…”
“It’s okay,” Kale interrupted him, turning away and walking over to where his own saddlebags had been propped up against the walls. He’d need a fresh uniform for dinner, and if they were going to be here for a week he might as well unpack completely. Maybe if he could occupy himself with little details, the gaping hole growing in his chest wouldn’t feel quite so obvious. Now if only he could make his hands stop trembling, so he could actually undo the laces. “I understand. You have to do your duty to your family.”
“It’s not what I ever expected,” Jaren admitted. “As I’m sure you can tell, I’ve never really gotten along with my father. He couldn’t understand why I was so set on being an Elite. Even years after I ran away, I never could explain to him that my gift was so strong I had to get training of some kind, and that I wasn’t interested in being a traditional mage.”
“I can’t really picture you as one of them, no,” Kale agreed with a shaky smile. He could picture Jaren as a duke though, all too easily. His lover would make just as good a lord as he had a captain, the sort of leader that people were happy to serve.
“How long do you have left to serve with the army?” Jaren asked abruptly, rising to pace the length of the room. “No, you know what, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got more than enough strings left to pull, plenty of people in high command owe me a favour or two. Do you think your family would be willing to move to my holdings? I’m sure I can arrange it with my father, and you’ve mentioned that the land they’re on isn’t enough to support all of you. I can grant them more than enough, if they’re willing to uproot, and then you’d have them nearby…”
“What? Jaren, wait,” Kale cut off the flow of words in confusion. Giving up on the stubborn ties, he stood and stared at his lover. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, I just thought you might like to have them close, is all,” Jaren explained, stopping his pacing long enough to look at Kale quizzically. “You’ll like the south, at least. It’s much more temperate than the region you’re from. Lots of lush farmland and forest. I’ve missed it, to be honest, it’s truly beautiful.”
“You want me to go with you?” Kale asked, disbelieving.
“Well, of course,” Jaren agreed, like that should have been obvious. “I mean, if you want to finish out your term with the army I won’t stop you, obviously. I’d rather have you with me right away, though.”
Torn between bitter laughter and tears, Kale shook his head, struggling for words. Gods, but he loved this man – even if he was blindly naive in the most odd ways sometimes. “Doing what?” he finally asked, his voice hoarse with the tears he refused to shed. “Jaren, I’m a peasant. You’re going to be a duke. There’s no place for someone like me in your life, except maybe as a stablehand or a farmer on your lands. What were you planning to do, set me up as your concubine?”
“I… I hadn’t…” Jaren stammered, clearly taken by surprise. “I hadn’t really thought about it. What difference does it make? I don’t care about your background, you know that.”
“You might not, but everyone else will,” Kale pointed out relentlessly. “We’ve gotten away with it here in the army because, frankly, as an Elite you’re just that valuable. And even so we’ve been damned lucky that the rest of your unit has been accepting of our relationship.” The official stance of the military was that relations between the men were to be tolerated, but ‘tolerated’ was all they were. There were still plenty among the ranks who felt it unnatural, and few outside the privileged Elite dared to admit it if their preference was for their own sex.
“Since when have I ever cared about what ‘everyone else’ thinks?” Jaren retorted. “If that sort of thing mattered to me, the fact that you’re a private would be just as daunting as the fact that you’re a peasant.”
“It’s different in the army, Jaren,” Kale snapped, irritated that he had to explain something that should have been obvious when all he wanted to do was crawl into a corner somewhere and hide. “You’re the noble, you tell me! What would the king think of one of his most important dukes openly having a male peasant lover? What would your father think? Forgive me if I’m wrong, but given that most nobles don’t even admit to the common-born female lovers they take…”
“No. No, you’re right,” Jaren broke in, and he looked pale. “The king would not take it well. And my father – well, I’m used to arguing with him. That’s not going to change, whether I become his heir or not. But the king is not the sort of person to be forgiving about such things among his nobles, and he is not a man I wish to anger.”
Since their king was notoriously fickle in his favour, and prone to ruining or even executing those who incurred his wrath, that was an understatement. Even the commoners of Istria knew the rumours about the king’s behaviour towards his nobles.
“You see?” Kale asked, his voice softening with something close to grief. “The best you could do would be to give me a position as a servant of some kind, and hope that the rest of your household didn’t gossip too much about it.” He swallowed hard. “Don’t get me wrong, Jaren. I love you; you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’d do almost anything to be with you, but I won’t be your… your doxy. That wouldn’t make either of us happy.”
“Gods.” Looking older than he usually did, older even than Kale knew him to actually be, Jaren rubbed a hand over his face. “Gods, Kale. It’s not right. Not that I expected us to last forever, necessarily, but this isn’t how I imagined it might end.”
“Well, that’s sort of the nature of the unexpected,” Kale joked weakly, trying to inject some levity before one or both of them got maudlin. “You can’t really imagine it ahead of time. When… when do you leave?”
“He wants me to ride out with him tomorrow morning,” Jaren said woodenly, looking away again. “I told him it might take me longer than that to arrange things, but honestly, he couldn’t have picked a better time to show up. Since you’ve all got a week of leave, that’s plenty of time for the commander to sort things out even if I leave immediately. Which I suspect the commander will mention at dinner.”
So this was it, then. They had one last night together; most of which, Kale knew from experience, Jaren would spend scrambling to get all his loose ends tied up so he could be ready to go. In fact… “I guess I should bunk in with the others tonight, then,” he replied, biting his lip hard. “If he sends someone to get you in the morning – or worse, comes himself – you don’t want to be caught with me in here.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Jaren agreed helplessly. “Kale…” Reaching out, he caught the younger man by the shoulders and pulled him into a fierce embrace, kissing him like the world was ending around them.
In some ways, it felt to Kale like that was exactly what was happening. He clung to Jaren no less desperately, returning the kiss with interest. It had always been intense between them, whether they were lost in passion or being leisurely sweet, but this was something else altogether. They both knew it was probably the last time they would ever be together, and neither of them was willing to let go just yet.
Jaren’s hands slid from his shoulders to his waist, tugging him in closer until they were pressed together from chest to knee. The older man was just tall enough that Kale had to tip his head back to maintain the kiss, but their hips were matched almost perfectly. Somehow Kale wasn’t surprised to discover that they were both hard already, grinding against each other through the layers of their uniforms with impatient eagerness.
It had been far too long since the last chance they’d had to be alone together. Even without the added factor of their impending separation they would have been starving for each other’s touch. Kale’s fingers fumbled over the familiar fastenings of Jaren’s tunic, impatience making him clumsy with a task he’d performed a hundred times before.
For once Jaren wasn’t being exceptionally careful of his spell-enhanced strength, and he was even less patient than Kale was. Fisting his hands in the younger man’s uniform, the Elite gave a sharp tug and the sturdy cotton parted like wet tissue, literally tearing away from Kale’s body. A little thrill went through Kale at the unusual display of power, and he shivered in anticipation. There was something tantalizing about being reminded that he was entrusting himself to a man who could snap him in half if he chose, though he knew Jaren would never hurt him.
Shrugging his shoulders, Kale let the tatters of his uniform fall. Now bare to the waist, he revelled in the sharp contrast of Jaren’s heat against his front and the cold air of the room at his back. He finally succeeded at undoing the Elite’s uniform, and they pressed together skin to skin for the first time in weeks.
Growling, Jaren tightened his hands around Kale’s waist, and the younger man wrapped his arms around the warrior-mage’s neck. Without any apparent effort, the Elite picked Kale up and carried him the few feet to the bed, tumbling them both down so he was pinning the smaller man to the mattress. Kale squirmed beneath him, not in an attempt to get free but rather just to enjoy the feel of his lover against him.
Breaking the kiss at last, he gasped for air and tried to think through the haze of desire that wrapped around him. “Hurry,” he urged Jaren, his voice thick and hoarse with need. “We don’t have much time.”
“They can wait,” Jaren replied gruffly, though his hands had already dropped to Kale’s belt. Shifting so he was braced with his knees on either side of the younger man’s hips, he undid the belt and tugged at Kale’s pants and underclothes. Arching up off the bed to help get the clothes off him, Kale groaned when the action rubbed his cock up against Jaren’s again.
“You’re overdressed,” Kale accused his lover breathlessly, but instead of moving to fix the situation he couldn’t seem to stop running his hands over Jaren’s muscled chest. The Elite’s smooth skin was broken here and there by rough scars; even magic couldn’t heal wounds without any mark at all. They were like a familiar roadmap, and Kale traced every one of them with fingers that trembled, feeling like he was trying to memorize them so he could hold the memory to him later.
“Tease,” Jaren retorted, shivering under his touch. “You know I can’t think when you do that. If you want me undressed, you’ll have to stop.”
Reluctantly Kale pulled his hands away, and Jaren sat up long enough to divest himself of his pants and smallclothes. Lying spread wantonly on the bed, Kale just looked up at his lover and tried not to drown in the man’s sheer beauty. As always at moments like this, he found his breath was stolen by the awe of the idea that someone like him could possibly interest a man like Jaren.
And yet he could hardly doubt the Elite’s interest, not when the older man’s gaze burned down at him like blue fire, alight from within with Jaren’s desire at the sight of him. Kale shuddered and reached up, tugging the warrior-mage back down on top of him. Truly skin to skin this time, they rocked their hips together and held each other tight enough to leave bruises in the morning.
Desperation was a powerful aphrodisiac, Kale discovered. It was all he could do to rein himself in, to keep from pushing Jaren over onto his back and just impaling himself on the older man. Not that his lover probably would have objected, but if this was going to be their last time together then Kale wanted to feel that powerful body moving over and inside him. “Jaren, please,” he panted, feverish with need.
“I thought I was supposed to be the impatient, headstrong one,” Jaren teased him, though Kale could feel the way the man was trembling with the effort of holding back. Reaching over the side of the bed, the warrior-mage fumbled with his saddlebags for a moment before coming up with the phial of oil they used for this. Kale flushed at the sight of it – not with embarrassment, because he’d lost most of his embarrassed reflexes about sex a long time ago, but with anticipation. He wanted Jaren inside him so badly he could feel the ache all the way to his toes.
He’d half expected the Elite to slick his cock with the oil and press straight into Kale; there was no doubt in his mind that Jaren was just as far gone as he was. Instead the warrior-mage moved oiled fingers against his hole, easing inside him and stretching him to prepare for what was coming. Moaning, Kale writhed against the intruding fingers and tried to force them further inside. “Don’t be gentle, Jaren,” he begged, fists clenching in the sheets. “I won’t break, and I need you so bad. Please!”
“No,” the older man shook his head, and there was a light of stubbornness along with the desire in his fierce blue eyes. “It’s been too long since we’ve done this, and I won’t have your last memory of me be one of pain.” There wasn’t much Kale could say to that, so he just groaned and tried to keep himself from going insane with need and want while Jaren stretched him gently.
Finally, just when Kale was certain he was going to break into a million pieces if Jaren drew it out one moment longer, the Elite withdrew his hand and moved to position himself between Kale’s legs. Twining his arms around the older man’s neck, Kale tangled his fingers in Jaren’s leather hair tie and tugged it loose, freeing the long blond locks to tumble down around them. “Do it,” he pleaded, arching his hips up as he felt Jaren press against his opening. “Make me yours.”
One last time, was the part that went unsaid, but they were both painfully aware of it. Slowly, so slowly Kale thought he might go mad, Jaren pushed inside him. It hurt a little, despite the careful preparation, but Kale was more than used to that and even welcomed the sharp discomfort as a way to help keep himself anchored for a few minutes more.
As many times as they’d done this, the breathtaking novelty of it never seemed to wear off. Every time felt new and startling to Kale, and almost unbearably intense. Usually Jaren stopped moving once he was all the way inside, giving him a chance to adjust, but this time the warrior-mage withdrew again almost immediately. Crying out and shuddering as Jaren thrust into him again, hard and strong, Kale clung to his lover and tried to force himself to breathe through it.
The pace the Elite set was fast and deep, more of a breakneck race for the top than a spiralling climb. Kale wasn’t objecting, far from it. It was all he could do to hold on and match his lover thrust for thrust, and he was vaguely aware that he was crying out repeatedly. He wasn’t even sure what he was saying; Jaren’s name, maybe, or an incoherent prayer to their patron goddess Amera, whose fickle attention had brought them together and was surely responsible for tearing them apart again as well.
Clawing at Jaren’s back for support, Kale rocked up to meet each thrust and felt himself flying towards the precipice. Under other circumstances he might have been embarrassed at how fast he was reaching the edge, but as it was he was far too lost in sensation and need to care.
Something like a snarl was building in the back of Jaren’s throat, a feral noise Kale had never heard from him before. It was thrilling, like the earlier display of strength, making Kale feel like he rode a knife’s edge of danger and knowing that only Jaren’s own self restraint and his love for Kale kept him from going too far.
“Yes,” he whispered, the word choked as it escaped him. “Yes, Jaren, please, do it, gods…” A particularly hard thrust pushed him deep into the mattress, and Kale felt the crest of the wave of sensation swirling up to engulf him. With a wrenching cry he hit his release, coming hard and shuddering as what felt like every muscle in his body spasmed.
“Kale!” It sounded more like a prayer than an exclamation, the way Jaren said his name, but anything else the Elite might have said was lost as he followed his younger lover over the edge into orgasm. Kale felt the rush of heat inside him and tilted his head back, panting for air as the aftershocks shuddered through his body.
For long minutes they lay there like that, Jaren’s weight pressing Kale into the mattress as they both struggled to recover. It should have been crushing, but protesting was the furthest thing from Kale’s mind. Indeed, when the warrior-mage finally groaned and rolled over onto his side, withdrawing from Kale’s body, the younger man whimpered softly at the loss.
Gathering Kale closely to him, Jaren hugged him fiercely. “It’s not right,” the Elite murmured again, the words almost lost as he pressed his face into the junction of Kale’s neck and shoulder. “It’s not right. This isn’t how it should end.”
“Better this than losing one or both of us on the battlefield,” Kale pointed out hoarsely. He stroked one hand over Jaren’s bare shoulder, feeling the older man trembling faintly beneath his touch. Reality was creeping back up on them far too quickly, and they were out of time. They dared not even linger here to enjoy a few last moments of afterglow; dinner surely was starting soon, and people would come looking for Jaren if he wasn’t there. “I should go,” he added reluctantly. “You need to get ready.” And if he stayed to ‘help’ they’d only end up right back in bed again, he knew from experience.
“You’re right,” Jaren agreed, though he made no move to let go. “Kale…” Propping himself up on one arm so he could look down at the younger man, Jaren studied him seriously. “If you ever need anything, anything at all…”
“I know,” Kale cut him off gently with a wavering smile. Jaren knew Kale well enough to know that the younger man’s pride would never allow him to make good on the promise, but that it had been offered at all gave them a lingering sense of connection. Leaning up, Kale kissed him one last time, drawing it out and trying to blaze the memory of the taste into his mind, so he wouldn’t forget it.
Then he slid out of Jaren’s embrace, and climbed out of the bed on legs that felt like they might not support him. Tears built in the back of his eyes, but he refused to give way to them. He didn’t dare say anything as he scrambled back into his pants and fished a new uniform tunic out of his bags, making himself presentable enough to get through the hallways. If he’d tried to speak, the dam he had put up against his emotions would break, and he would make a fool of himself.
Nor did he dare to look at Jaren, still lying silent in the bed. Whether the Elite was struggling and afraid to say anything as well, Kale wasn’t sure; if he looked, if he met Jaren’s eyes one more time, that would be the end of him. Whatever the reason, he was pathetically grateful that the warrior-mage said nothing, requiring no response from Kale.
In moments he was dressed well enough to make it to the barracks, with his saddlebags slung over his shoulder. He left his ruined tunic where it was on the floor; he’d have to requisition another one anyway, and he didn’t think he could bear the reminder of what he was losing. Without looking back, his hand white-knuckled on the door, he paused and drew a deep breath.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice cracking but somehow managing to hang on to the torrent of his emotions. “For everything. I’ll never forget you.”
With that he made his escape, and if Jaren said anything in return Kale couldn’t hear it over the roaring in his ears.
It would have been easier, Kale reflected miserably, if he’d just skipped dinner. The rest of the unit had insisted on dragging him to the mess hall, saying that he needed to eat. He’d let them, figuring it was better to just go along with it rather than try to muster the energy to argue. Of course, what he’d forgotten was that Jaren would be highly visible up at the main table with the commander and the duke, resplendent in his finery and looking like an unreachable dream.
It was odd to see the rich clothing on his lover. Kale had never seen Jaren dressed in anything but the pale blue of the everyday Elite uniform and the midnight blue and silver of their dress blues. The silk and velvet should have suited him, but oddly Kale thought it just made him appear soft and weak. Jaren had always seemed a warrior first and foremost, but the clothes he wore now hid his muscles and made him look like a spoiled sybarite.
Not that Kale was looking. He’d glanced at the high table once, realized his lover – former lover, he reminded himself – was there, and fixed his gaze on his food for the remainder of the meal. He hadn’t touched his dinner, pushing it absently around on his trencher and tearing little pieces of bread off the edges, but not actually eating anything. If he tried to swallow past the lump lodged firmly in his throat, he was afraid he would end up choking. One missed meal wasn’t going to kill him.
Now, if only he could find a polite way to escape the hall without drawing attention to himself. Or, failing that, if he could convince the others to end the spying spell they had set on the high table, allowing them to hear everything said up there. They insisted they were just making sure that the captain wasn’t being coerced into going with his father somehow, but for Kale it was pure torture to listen to Jaren’s voice.
They’d been talking about inconsequentials for the most part; Jaren had asked after his sister and her husband, and the duke had filled his son in on what had happened in the duchy during his long absence. The conversation was stilted and awkward, as if father and son were both cautiously sticking to innocent topics to avoid starting a fight. Kale had never heard Jaren sound so unhappy, and it tore at his heart with every word.
“Quite a mix of people in the army, isn’t there?” the duke was saying as Kale tried hard to tune him out. “I suppose that will be good experience for you, at least. The common folk like to think their lord understands their troubles.”
“We don’t,” Jaren replied stiffly. “We never can. We’ve never gone hungry for so long we don’t even feel it any longer, and we’ve never suffered through a winter without adequate shelter or fuel. We play at being labourers at harvest time, helping in the fields, but we don’t know what it’s like to toil from sunrise to sunset and then watch half of what we reap going to our lord’s table instead of to feed our children. When war comes to us, we hide safe inside our strong stone walls, and we don’t have to watch the enemy rape and pillage his way across the land that our families have worked for generations.”
There was a drawn-out pause, and Kale bit his lip. That was such a typical response from Jaren, who had so often seemed the epitome of everything Kale had thought nobles weren’t. Small wonder he had fallen so hard for the man, really.
“Yes, well,” the duke floundered, clearly searching for a way to change the topic. “Hmph. Is that a private down there among the Elite? He’s a brazen one, isn’t he? I thought there weren’t any non-commissioned men among the Elite.”
Realizing they were talking about him, Kale’s shoulders went stiff. Ducking his head, he hoped he wasn’t broadcasting the fact that he was aware he was under observation. The others could get into a lot of trouble for casting a spying spell on the high table, and he didn’t want them to be punished because he’d given them away. It was hard not to react, though, not to look up at them and glare his defiance.
“Private Coulter is not an Elite, no, but he is a member of the 64th unit,” Jaren replied to his father, his voice deceptively calm. Kale could hear the thread of anger and sorrow that lay beneath it, but he doubted the duke could.
“Oh? One of those, then,” the duke said, his voice dismissive. “I’d heard about such things, but I hadn’t thought to see it for myself. They really are that blatant about flaunting themselves in public in the army, are they?”
The hushed conversation around Kale stilled as the rest of the unit absorbed what the duke had just said, and the implications of it. The duke wasn’t the first person to make disparaging assumptions about him because he was the only green uniform in a group of blue, but Kale had learned to hold his head high and ignore them for the most part. He’d earned his place, no matter what the gossips liked to think. But it was hard, sometimes, knowing that so many people assumed he held his position only because he spread his legs for the captain.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Jaren answered carefully, and his tone had turned icy. Kale risked a glance at his lover, and if he wasn’t close enough to see the way the Elite’s knuckles had undoubtedly turned white around the stem of his goblet, he certainly couldn’t miss the angry flare of the warrior-mage’s aura.
“They say in court that some of the army commanders are shameless about who they take to their beds, particularly among the Elite,” the duke continued, apparently oblivious to the warning signs from his son. Kale winced, and frantically hoped something would happen to change the subject. Jaren was touchy about this topic at the best of times, and the duke had no idea what sort of minefield he was walking into. “I certainly can’t think of any other legitimate reason for a mere private to be assigned to an Elite unit. Really, it’s disgusting. Have they no thought for propriety?”
“The 64th is my unit, father,” Jaren said, his voice lowering dangerously. His aura spiked again, the normal pale yellow colour of undirected magic bleeding slowly into the scarlet of aggressive anger. Nobody else could see it, of course, but Kale knew the signs of an impending explosion from his lover’s temper well enough. Normally it would have been his job to diffuse the situation somehow, but at the moment there was nothing he could do but hope that Jaren wouldn’t lose control of himself.
“Oh?” Once again the duke was caught by surprise, and obviously left scrambling to find something to say. “Well, I suppose there’s not much you can do, since the army condones such things, is there? It must be difficult for you, working with people like that. I’d think it would be a horrible disruption to discipline, and a distraction. You’re very tolerant, to allow such…”
All of the power that had been spiking with increasing ferocity from Jaren’s aura suddenly contracted in on itself, and Kale winced and instinctively ducked. “Oh, shit,” someone whispered, just before all hell broke loose.
Every piece of glass in the hall – the crystal goblets used at the high table, the lanterns hung all around for light, and even the priceless glazed windows – shattered all at once, spraying deadly shards in all directions. Warned by Kale’s reaction and their own knowledge of their captain’s infamous temper, the Elite of the 64th had thrown up magical shields around the tables, and that was the only thing that prevented serious injuries from occurring.
Radiating fury, Jaren was on his feet glaring down at his father, fists clenched and apparently unaware of the chaos he was causing. His aura was pulsing such a strong scarlet that Kale was amazed nobody else could see it, magical gift or not.
“You prejudiced, provincial, hidebound old bastard,” Jaren growled. “For your information, Kale has saved my life and been instrumental in the success of the unit more times than I can count, thanks to his unique abilities. He’s earned his place with us a hundred times over. It would have been a criminal waste for him to remain among the regular troops. But yes, he serves specifically with my unit because he’s sleeping with his commander. Me.”
There was a wave of hushed muttering from the assembled troopers, and Kale wanted to die of embarrassment. Everyone knew, of course, but as long as nothing was ever said out loud they’d all been able to pretend it was still a secret and he’d been able to keep his dignity. He thought he might never stop blushing. At the same time, he felt a thrill of pride and warmth that Jaren wasn’t ashamed to admit to their relationship, even in front of his own father.
“You?” the duke sputtered, no less furious than his son. “You, you… how dare you disgrace our family this way? You did this to spite me, didn’t you? By the gods, Jaren, your poor mother would be shamed past bearing had she lived to hear this…”
“Enough!” Jaren roared, slamming his hands down on the table. There wasn’t anything breakable left in range, but the more solid objects were starting to rattle warningly. Kale couldn’t remember ever seeing his lover this angry before, but he didn’t think he really wanted to find out if the warrior-mage was powerful enough to make metal and wood explode as well as glass. For one thing, he wasn’t sure the shield the others had thrown up would do any good if things inside it started blowing up.
“Jaren!” Horrified at the idea of drawing attention to himself, Kale nevertheless forced himself to stand up and face the high table. “Jaren, stop it! Get ahold of yourself, damn it! You’re going to kill someone!”
Looking around, Jaren appeared to notice for the first time the destruction he’d wrought. Soldiers were doing their best to edge out of the mess hall unnoticed, while those caught in the middle huddled together in the scant shelter provided by the tables themselves. The commander had backed up against the wall, as far from Jaren as he could get without leaving the protection of the shield, and was nursing a wound on his forearm from his shattered goblet.
Breathing hard, the warrior-mage closed his eyes and visibly struggled to control his temper. Kale watched breathlessly as the angry scarlet flares of the Elite’s aura slowly drew in around him. It didn’t fade back to the healthy pale yellow of undirected magic, but at least the power wasn’t breaking out all over the place.
“You haven’t changed a bit, have you father?” Jaren asked at last. His voice was low, but carried to the farthest corner of the utterly silent room. “Still as self-centred and arrogant as you ever were. You say you want peace, but you’re still pushing to make me just another copy of you, aren’t you? It will never happen. And I think I’ve just demonstrated fairly well that the worst thing that could happen to our people would be for me to go back with you as your heir. I’d destroy the duchy in a month’s worth of arguments with you.”
Turning, he strode down off the dais, leaving the duke raging behind him. “Jaren! Don’t you dare walk away from me, young man! Take one more step, and so help me I will disinherit you!”
Only meters away from Kale, Jaren paused and looked back over his shoulder at his father. “Good,” the Elite agreed, his voice hard. “Let my sister inherit the title. Her husband will be a better duke than I would be, anyway. I already know where I belong in the world – right here, with my men. I am an Elite.”
Crossing the last few steps of distance between them, Jaren slung his arm over Kale’s shoulder. The younger man could feel the way his lover was trembling with barely suppressed rage, but it didn’t show at all on the warrior-mage’s face. “With your permission, major, I think my unit and I will head out in the morning,” he added, saluting the commander. “The 23rd could probably use our help holding the pass after all.”
“Of course, captain,” the commander nodded and saluted him hastily in return, obviously all too happy at the idea of being rid of him. “Dismissed.”
With a gesture Jaren ordered the rest of the unit to follow, and strode out of the hall with Kale close at his side. Only once the doors had closed behind them and a babble of voices had risen from the hall did the Elite breathe out and relax marginally.
“Captain, are you all right?” “Kale, gods, you look pale as skim milk!” “We are never going to live this down.” The others crowded around them, everyone talking at once and reaching out to offer tacit support to Jaren and Kale both.
“Sorry about that, everyone,” Jaren smiled wryly at them all, and Kale was unutterably relieved to see that his aura was starting to return to normal at last. “Funny how your family always knows the best way to push your buttons, even when they’re not trying. You’d think nearly two decades of training as an Elite to control myself would keep me from losing my temper with the man by now.”
“Frankly sir, I’m amazed he’s still alive,” Dena commented, to grunts of agreement from the others.
“Well, the last time he and I spoke face to face, I hadn’t yet come into my full power,” Jaren explained with a shrug. “And he was pushing a bit of a sore spot this time. Kale, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have embarrassed you like that.”
Shaking his head, Kale drew a deep breath and smiled. “It’s selfish of me, but I’m glad you’re staying,” he replied. “It’s even worth the fact that I’ll never be able to look anyone from this base in the face again.”
Laughing, Jaren hugged him close and ruffled his hair with his free hand. “Ah, what do I need to be a duke for, anyway?” he asked. “I’ve got everything I need right here. And you lot would get into trouble without me anyway.”
“Most likely, captain,” Leor agreed with a straight face. “And we can certainly arrange for it to be so, if you try to leave again. Besides, without you Kale would probably be too miserable to work, and we’ve gotten spoiled having our own personal magic-spotter on the team. If we have to put up with you to keep him, I suppose it’s worth it.”
Flattered and embarrassed, Kale threw a punch at the other man that the Elite easily dodged. The truth was, he’d been absolutely honest in what he’d said to Jaren. He couldn’t be too upset by anything right now; he’d thought the best thing that had ever happened to him had finally come to an end, and instead he’d been given a second chance. What was a little teasing compared to that?