touch my mouth and hold my tongue

by hakugei (白鯨)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/223994.html)

He strides forward, propelled entirely by determination. It feels like his staff weighs triple its usual weight. The chaos of corpses and soldiers hinders his movements, the stink of the newly dead thick in the air, carrion birds already gathering. There is a thrum pulsing through the scattered groups of people, relief that it’s finally over even creeping into the wails of the dying and the groans of the injured.

There, a leather-clad figure, yellow-white hair a beacon among his dark-haired companions, armour brown-bathed-red-turning-brown. Shem hikes up his robes and starts running, staff forgotten on the ground.

There are calls of greeting from familiar faces, joy evident that the victory didn’t come at too high a cost, more hearsay than news making its way through the ranks. He nods, unseeing, at the faces as he shifts past them, congratulations heard but not registered.

“Shem,” Laral says with a surprised smile, turning to greet him. The Juraalian accent softens the consonants, warps the vowel—no one else says his name quite like this and the sheer relief at the sound of it hastens his steps.

Shem slides a hand around Laral’s neck and pulls him forward roughly, mindless of the gore, the crowd of soldiers looking on, the laughter of their friends.

Their lips seal together, part again for teeth, tongues, their clothing jostling together awkwardly as Shem pushes desperately closer. He closes in twice more, biting between urging Laral’s mouth open with soft strokes of his tongue.

“Are you always this demonstrative after saving the world?” Laral laughs, pressing their foreheads together.

“Laral,” Shem breathes, his green eyes wide and stunned, unable to stop checking over every inch again and again, as if he’s unsure what he sees is real. His hands are clumsy as they touch Laral’s face, trail over blood-splattered cheek and jaw and throat. “Laral, I—”

“Hush, love.” Steady, warm hands cover Shem’s. Solid, warm lips take away the words burning unspoken on his tongue, soothing the knot of euphoric disbelief. “Words can wait.”

Later, there will be congratulations and celebrations and declarations and mourning, talk of after, talk of rebuilding and plans and repercussions. For now Shem closes his eyes to the overwhelming enormity of being alive, ignoring the words of others buzzing in his ears.

Laral smoothes his thumb over Shem’s earlobe, gently tugging it down with each stroke as he coaxes Shem into another kiss.

Shem straightens from his bow to Mirthal, eyes alighting on the only one of his group he hasn’t spoken to yet. He glances up at the dais where Nigel—King Nigel is speaking to Lady Iras, not quite sure what he was looking for but not getting it, given Nigel’s diverted attention. Not exactly surprising given the entire coronation ordeal.

When he turns back Laral catches his gaze, gesturing to an alcove. Shem breathes in, out, and walks forward, shoulders set.

The throne room is so full the space doesn’t give more than an illusion of privacy, a group of elves chatting only three paces away. They turn their backs to Shem as he passes, closing ranks to make sure only they are within earshot. Despite neither Shem nor Laral growing up among them, they are still willing to look out for their own kind.

“Procrastinating, are we?” Laral teases, voice pitched just above the murmur of the crowd. He looks strange outside his armour—smaller, less deadly, like any other elf. Shem wonders at how he only knows what Laral looks like when Laral is about to fight or about to have sex and nothing in-between, that this may be the only time he gets to see.

Shem steps forward, closer than is polite but not as close as he wants. “Saving the best for last.”

“Oh-ho, better than a king? I like that. But, I am always partial to flattery.” Laral scans the nobles crowding the edges of the room. “Not so partial to pomp and ceremony. Too used to using them as opportunities, you might say—I expect my former masters may do the same.”

“A bloodbath would certainly liven things up around here.” Shem thinks of Baron Oswald and can’t help his mouth curling upward at the thought of that bigoted prick’s dying messily. “I don’t think I can take another speech.”

Laral chuckles. “For a man with such a sweet face you are quite violent. This is why I like you—always up for some fun.” He nods toward the throne and newly-crowned Nigel. “Earlier, you said you were staying here?”

Shem lets out a shaky breath, voice monotone. “I have responsibilities. Nigel could use the help. There’s a lot of rebuilding to be done, and the mages—”

“Do not make such a face.” Laral smiles, brown eyes soft. “You caught me and now you are stuck with me. We promised each other, did we not? I meant it when I said I am yours. Staying in one place may get…complicated, after a while.” He puts his hand on Shem’s shoulder and squeezes. “But until that time comes, I’m with you.”

Shem feels the eyes of the court heavy on his back as he returns the gesture, thumb dipping under the stiff fabric of Laral’s formalwear to run over his collarbone.

Laral’s gaze shifts to the side and Shem stiffens as he realizes what caught his attention. “You—I must say, I, ah.” His hand drops, eyes going back to scanning the crowd. Shem lets his arm fall as well, their proximity suddenly awkward. “I was not expecting you to, well—”

“You gave me an earring and now you’re surprised I’m wearing it?” Shem’s long fingers brush the small gold loop. The piercing is an angry red, skin slightly swollen from the irritation of the new jewellery.

Laral raises his hands in a placating gesture. “No no, it’s not—”

“Then what is it?” Shem snaps, hand moving to cover his ear. His voice starts to rise above its polite whisper. “You said it was just a gift, not anything more.”

Laral sighs, shakes his head. He runs his hand up Shem’s arm, easing their joined hands down and holding them just close enough so his breath brushes over their knuckles, an almost-kiss. “Nothing. Forget about it; foolish thoughts from a foolish elf.”

The invisible weight on Shem’s back starts to prickle and burn, but he doesn’t pull away. “Fine,” he bites out. Neither of them wishes to start a confrontation with so many onlookers. Not at a time of celebration, the cheering crowd outside the door almost deafening.

“We will see each other later, yes? Go now, your adoring public awaits their hero. I’ll make sure nobody tries to assassinate you.”

“Hog all the fun, why don’t you,” Shem grumbles, smile weak but firmly in place.

Laral squeezes Shem’s hand and lets go, winking as he walks away. “The advantages of being the sneaky one, what can I say?”

The bells start tolling in booming, echoing peals that penetrate the walls into Nigel’s room. The ceremony is about to begin.

Nigel adjusts the fall of the heavy blue cloak for the fifth time. “This could have been you. Getting married, I mean.”

Shem sighs. “Nigel—”

“You could’ve been king, if you’d wanted to.” He shifts the positioning of the ornate sword, now clean of the blood of the dead king and the monster that killed him, for the third time. “Or supported Lady Iras instead of me. You’re the hero of Grelen, people would’ve listened to you.” Nigel’s voice is quiet, sombre. He walks to the wardrobe, staring blankly at the new finery.

“I’m no ruler. They never would’ve accepted an elf as king, marrying the widowed wife or not.” Shem wonders, not for the first time, if making the reluctant bastard half-brother of the dead king assume the throne was the best decision. It had ended the unrest when they desperately needed peace, but to manipulate events and force his friend to do so had not felt like a victory. “I stand by my decision.”

Nigel tries to look over his shoulder at Shem only to have the bulky metal get in his way. “These pauldrons are terrible. How am I supposed to fight anything in this armour?”

“Do you expect to do a lot of fighting in your formal armour, as king?” Shem bats Nigel’s hands away and shifts the plate. “There. Now stop fussing with it.”

“King Menteth did.” He had looked grand indeed, wearing his full regalia when they’d met him: a proud young king looking for a glorious battle, receiving a slaughter instead.

“And he’s dead. That certainly worked out well for him.”

“So this is how he died. Not treachery but for want of smaller pauldrons.” Nigel adjusts the cloak again, frowning. “I’ll have them fix it after the ceremony. How do I look?”

The resemblance to the dead king is much clearer with the almost-identical armour. The same slightly beaked nose and brown-gold hair; the same kind eyes, his blue instead of brown. No one would doubt they were related now. “Like a king.”

He keeps staring ahead for a time, silent. When he turns back around the smile is back on his face. “I still can’t believe you did it. Convinced all the nobility I was leadership material. Are you sure you didn’t use magic?”

“I used my quick wits. I realise that is hard for you to grasp—”

“Isn’t there a rule where you have to be nice on somebody’s wedding day?”

Shem tugs at the collar of his own robes, unused as he is to the heavy wool and smooth fabric. At least they didn’t insist he change his boots as well. Breaking in a new pair with all the standing for ceremonies would’ve been terrible. “Grelen has many wedding customs. That isn’t one of them.”

“Maybe I should add one. Royal decree.”

“You’re lucky royal marriages involve two days of ceremony before you share a bed.”

“I’m not—” His throat jumps as he swallows. “I’m not having any performance anxiety or anything. I’m sure—she’s a very understanding woman. She won’t mind, being the first. People like that sort of thing.” Nigel frowns. “Don’t they?”

“I’m sure you’ll work something out,” Shem says, wry.

“Right.” Nigel reaches for the wine. He drains the entire cup before refilling it and giving Shem his own share. “How much longer?”

Shem cocks his head to the side, listening. “The chant is just beginning; you’ve got plenty of time.”

“Good.” He starts to pace in front of the fire. After several minutes of this he spins to Shem, eyes bright. “What about one of the other noble ladies? Even the most stubborn nobles would have to respect you then. Marriage for everyone!”

“I’m well aware of what the advantages would be,” Shem grinds out.

Nigel narrows his eyes, smile creeping onto his face. “You love him that much, do you?”

Shem drains his cup and glares at the fire, face reddening.

“Aww, you do! I knew you were a softie somewhere in there,” Nigel coos, delighted.

“Was the only reason you called me in here to distract you from your wedding jitters?”

He stays silent, melancholy again. “If you had—” Nigel toys with his goblet, watching the remaining wine slosh against the sides. “He would have stayed, you know. And Lady Iras is, well, a very understanding woman. It could have worked.”

“I know.”

Nigel grins around the rim of his cup, nodding at Shem’s new earring. “You have it bad.”

“That’s nothing I don’t already know.” Shem snatches the goblet away. “You’ll end up drunk before your wedding begins.”

The enormity of the moment comes crashing down on him again, leaving Nigel’s voice wobbly and floundering for words. “Thank you, for the—well, for—”

“Nothing to thank me for,” Shem cuts off, shifting his weight from side to side. “The chant’s ended. It’s time to go.”

Shem isn’t sure what causes him to look up at the tallest tower in the castle as he crosses the courtyard, but the surprise of seeing a blond blob perched on the ledge makes him stop in his tracks. There’s no doubt it’s Laral—not many have such pale hair and the clothing is familiar even from so far away.

He’s too far up for Shem to get more than a vague idea of what he’s doing but it’s clear he’s looking out at the horizon on the east, toward Juraal. The sky is cloudless and intensely blue—a rare occurrence—and it makes the expanse look all the more vast, like the tower and the small figure on top will be consumed by it.

A gilded cage Shem thinks with a pang of remorse. For all the efforts to escape from his former masters, Laral’s situation here is much the same, perhaps worse. Before he could travel, within their rules, and was respected and feared; now he’s shackled to a single city because Shem is here and limited in what he can do because of their association.

One day, one or both of them will need to leave. Perhaps for only a few days, perhaps much longer than that—there’s no telling what Shem’s obligations to the mages or the price on Laral’s head will demand. A foolish dream, to think they will be able to spend more than a couple years together before circumstances demand their separation.

Shem touches his earring and resumes walking. It will be enough. The time that they have is worth it.

But all he can think about is Laral’s looking into the distance, surrounded by open sky. Shem doesn’t need to see him clearly to know his face would be full of longing.

The quill breaks, splattering the letter with ink. Shem flings the lot of it off his desk with a shout of frustration, the ink creating a black blot on the wall and floor.

Laral looks up from his book of Juraalian poetry. “You are putting a lot of effort into this.”

Shem bristles. “Of course I am. This is what I fought for.”

“No,” Laral laughs without joviality, closing the book and putting it down. “It really isn’t.”

“It isn’t,” Shem agrees with a sigh, running a hand through his hair. “I fought to do the right thing; I never thought I’d end up in the middle of all these asinine, pompous nobles vying for power. An elf mage in court—the entire idea is preposterous, but here I am.” He tugs his ponytail, grunting in frustration. “It’s necessary. All of this is.”

Laral gets up and walks over to stand behind Shem. He pulls the tie out of Shem’s hair, watching it fall into an awkward wave, running soothing fingers through the strands to ease out the tangles. “You care a lot about Nigel—as a friend, I mean. You make fun of him, but you really do believe he is a good king, don’t you?” It’s barely a question, his intonation too steady, searching for a reaction.

“Nigel is the right kind of idiot to rule—somebody who never wanted power and wants to protect those who can’t protect themselves.” Some of his hair snares on the earring and makes Shem hiss in pain. “Careful, it hasn’t completely healed yet.”

“My apologies,” comes the smooth reply.

Shem frowns, unsure why something seems off about Laral’s tone. He must be imagining it. “He didn’t swallow all that nonsense about mages being unstable lunatics or elves being inferior. He wants nothing but what’s right even if he’s too dense to figure out how to accomplish it most of the time.” It’s the same speech he gave himself when he first realized he’d have to have a hand in choosing the next ruler, when the most viable option was forcing the friend who never wanted to rule into doing just that. He feels better after saying it and going from Laral’s face, that’s exactly why he asked.

“You don’t have to keep doing the dirty work alone. Nigel may not be the brightest, but he is not so much a fool as to think ugly decisions do not happen. He watched you make quite a few of them, as I recall.” Laral chuckles, braiding a few strands of hair before pulling them back out again. “Hard to forget so much yelling.”

“I see what politics does to people. I don’t—” He sighs at the gentle pull of Laral’s hands his hair, the excuse of tangles long gone. “I don’t want him becoming like them, thinking nothing but manipulation and power plays. Even for the best of reasons. That’s not the Nigel I know. Somebody has to do this—might as well be somebody the court hates anyway.” Shem makes an attempt at a smile, but does not succeed. “My reputation certainly works in my favour.”

“I could help you. I am good for more than being handsome and killing things, you know. Though as I am so very good at those things, I see how you might get confused.”

“No.”

“No?” He cannot see Laral’s face but the tone makes him want to turn around. He doesn’t, because it might change his mind.

“No,” Shem insists. “There’s too much risk if you get involved. Your former masters will come after you if they get wind of where you are,” he reaches back to touch Laral’s hands. “This isn’t your fight. There’s no need for you to wallow in the mud with me.”

“Of course. I am quite good at being dirty all on my own.”

Shem turns, mouth opening to ask about Laral’s too-light tone, but is met with a kiss. Softening into the slide of tongue and lips his worry slips away, forgotten.

“When will the paladins from Xize be here?” Laral doesn’t quite pronounce the hard first consonant, softening it to “hize.”

Shem stalks down the corridor. “Two weeks. With more on the way, now that they know how badly our numbers were hit. Everyone calls on mages when the darkness rises, gives us lip service, but nobody wants to deal with us. Even after all this, they look at me like I’m going to eat their children.”

“Did you expect your victory to change it overnight?” Laral places a hand in the small of Shem’s back as they turn a corner, pulling it away at the sight of a guard. The guard’s eyes follow Laral as they pass by.

Shem breathes out slowly, slowing his pace, even taking a moment or two to stare at a tapestry. A captured unicorn, surrounded by knights and flowers. Very reassuring. “I don’t want them to limit me. Not after I’ve had this much freedom.”

“Even as king, does Nigel not count as your paladin?” What a polite way to label the person whose sole duty is to ensure a mage does not succumb to the dark and eliminate them should they fail.

A nobleman and his wife stop just before entering the hallway, whispering furiously at the sight of them. Shem curls his hands into fists, resolutely not looking their way. “I’m alive and sane, unlike every mage before me. They don’t think he’d be enough, should it come to that.”

Laral frowns. “Will they be willing to listen to you?”

“Nigel and I are making a case for change. We have to have it finished by the time they get here, with the support of enough nobles willing to back it. If we can only convince them a mage won’t go on a rampage.” Shem traces the lines of his mage-rank tattoos. “If this works, it would change the way mages in Grelen are treated from here on. We’re rebuilding so much—if I am going to get changes done, now is the time.”

Laral smiles at a particularly handsome knight passing by, slowing down and turning his head to watch him walk away. The knight startles, increasing his pace. “You have much on your shoulders. I hope these newcomers relieve your burden, not add to it.”

“As do I.” Shem slows to a halt, mouth a thin line as Laral’s eyes snap forward again. “We hope to finish the proposal today and present it to the Highwalls.”

Laral sees Shem’s expression and shrugs, sheepish. “And you didn’t change your earring to match your robes? Such scandal.”

“What? The earring is fine.”

“Sounds like you have quite the busy day ahead of you. My apologies, love. I must be off.” He gestures to a side corridor leading away from where Shem needs to go.

Shem stops, brows drawing together in confusion. “Where are you headed?”

“Someplace livelier than meetings. Despite appearances I do have limits to my indolence.” He touches Shem’s wrist and smiles reassuringly. “I have contacts to keep up, nothing more. Do not worry; I’ll be back by sundown.”

“I’m not worried,” he smiles back, missing the touch as soon as Laral’s fingers leave his skin. He spends a few moments standing there, watching the spot where his lover left.

“Indulge me,” Laral coaxes, trailing a hand up Shem’s back, the movement shifting the heavy head lying on his shoulder.

“I just did. Or was my mouth so unmemorable?” He nips the nearest patch of skin, laughter weighed down with satiation and laziness. His body feels liquid and loose, the touch of everything soft and soothing, cocooned in the warmth of Laral’s body at his front and the fire at his back.

“Certainly not. I would never insult your talents in such a manner,” Laral says, mock-affronted. “Come on, It will be fun. And satisfying.”

Shem gives an exaggerated sigh, blowing the hair out of his face. “Fine. You win.”

“I’ll start easy. Baron Oswald.”

He hums, the vibration strange as he feels it carry into Laral. “Something slow. Painful. Freezing him from the waist down.”

“And leave him to talk?” Laral’s face shows exactly what he thinks of that prospect.

“The face is out. Suffocation would be far too fast.” Shem frowns. He trails a hand absently over Laral’s chest as he thinks. “Freezing him over a pit, so he can do nothing but feel his hold melt away.”

“Vicious,” Laral murmurs, appreciative. “I knew I liked you.”

“And you? How would you kill him?”

He trails idle fingers through Shem’s hair. “There is this lovely little poison that causes violent evacuation of the bowels for an entire day before it kills. Too much chance of intervention, but quite satisfying.”

“Very nice. My turn, then. Countess Celia.”

“Drowned in her own perfume,” Laral responds without pausing to think.

Shem snorts.

“Fitting, no? She does not seem to realize that smelling sweet does not make up for her personality.”

“Like putting a war hound in a dress.” He tucks himself closer to Laral, grinning. The low thrum of arousal is starting to creep back with such close proximity.

“The dog would certainly be a more pleasant conversationalist.”

“Remember when she insulted you, not realizing you knew Nigel?” Shem laughs, trying to think past how he’d like to set her on fire even now. Unlike Shem and Nigel, Laral had no position to protect him outside of their friendship, his role helping save the world forgotten by those who weren’t there. Despite their efforts rumours he was an assassin had started to circulate, causing more hostility than when he was just a foreign elf.

“My honour defended by a king. Life is indeed strange.” The silence stretches, awkward. Laral hastily adds, “Did you see her face when Nigel passed her by to talk to Olyra last week? A thing of beauty.”

“Like she’d swallowed Juraalian beer,” Shem’s body shifts up and down with each burst of laughter, hand absently slapping Laral’s stomach in time. It fades in waves; he leaves his hand where it is, tracing the muscles.

“Now, who next?”

Shem focuses on his hand. He opens his mouth and closes it several times.

“Is it so hard to think of someone?” Laral tweaks his ear but pulls away when he brushes the earring.

Green eyes look up, dart away again. “Gadaan.”

Laral stills. “Where did you hear that name?”

“You—” Shem tucks his head into Laral’s chest, words tumbling out in awkward spurts. “You said it once. When you were,” he clears his throat, “when you were sleeping.”

“Ah.” Neither of them speaks, the humour of the moment gone. Laral’s voice is light and flat, the hand in Shem’s hair stiff and strange. “He is already dead. I split his belly, left him holding his guts. No need for fantasy, there.”

“Laral—”

“Do not worry so. The past is the past.” He rolls them over, teeth grazing Shem’s neck as his fingers tease the insides of Shem’s legs. “I think that is enough talking, don’t you?” A smile, a wink and the shadow vanishes from his face.

Shem arches into the touch as he hooks long, lean arms around Laral. “Yes,” he breathes, partly in relief.

Laral leaves a trail of bites and sucks bruises down Shem’s body, tucking pale legs over his shoulders and smiling at the small quivers he feels running through them.

Shem closes his eyes, tense with anticipation. Heat closes around the head of his cock, tight and wet and punctuated by a clever tongue. One of Laral’s hands settles on his stomach, the other curling tight around the base, sliding upwards as Laral increases the pressure. Shem makes a vain attempt to keep his breathing steady as Laral continues to focus on just the tip, tight suction occasionally dipping down enough to tease. His hands twitch for something, anything to occupy them—one seeks Laral’s hand on his belly, twining their fingers, the other tries to touch everything in its reach: Laral’s jaw and hair, Shem’s hip and chest, the sheets and bedframe.

Laral finally, finally sucks all of Shem’s cock into his mouth, wet heat moving up and down. Shem’s focus narrows down to the pull on his cock and the squeeze of their interlaced fingers. He covers his mouth as he comes to stifle the embarrassing noise. As soon as he can move his limbs he’s pulling Laral back up, sealing their mouths together.

Kneeling over Shem, Laral pumps his cock with the hand not holding Shem’s, the red tip bumping into Shem’s stomach as he continues the kiss. Shem cups his hands around Laral’s face, sucking and biting until he feels wetness on his stomach. They pull back only to press forward again for a languid, lingering kiss.

When they part again Laral says, “What about Juvyn? I was thinking pecked by chickens.”

After a moment of shock, Shem bursts out laughing.

Nigel beams as he sits down, glancing around the small side-chamber in approval. “This is nice, isn’t it nice? A normal-sized table with only somebody I want to talk to in front of me; who knew that would become such a novelty so quickly?” The smile falls off, the grumpy, grim look replacing it strange on his usually amicable face. “Oh, right. I did.”

Shem grabs the wine jug to top off both their cups. He knew it was a good idea to ask the servant to leave it here—dealing with Nigel is always much easier drunk. “I could start on elven rights if you’re going to be like that.”

“Thanks, Shem. I’ll add to all the other council meetings and audiences and—” Nigel notices his full goblet and takes a bracing sip. His voice is forcibly cheery, smile comically wide. “Kingly duties, never ending!”

“Most noble families in Grelen employ elven servants—” Shem drones, wondering if the food will keep his friend’s mouth occupied or if he’ll rant while chewing.

Nigel holds up his hands in protest, wine almost sloshing over the side from the vigorous gesture. “Alright, alright! I know, I shouldn’t be so, so sour at you. We’re actually getting a chance to talk to one another without ten others in the room and here I am moaning on about being king.”

“I’m used to it. I don’t think I’d recognise you without all the complaining.” It’s relaxing, to bicker like this. They’ve been trapped in formal situations so long Nigel has started to turn into a stranger as he shoulders the mantle of leadership.

“Ha, ha. You think you’re so funny, with your jokes and your sarcasm and your, your everything else. I should appoint you my court fool. That’ll show you.” The door opens, revealing a red-haired elven servant with two trays. Nigel brightens. “Oh, look. Food! I must say that is the best part of the job.”

“Only you would focus on that.” Shem shifts back to allow space for the tray to be put down. A roast of some sort surrounded by golden potatoes and a green leafy vegetable he doesn’t recognize. Simple enough fare.

“Once you try the pies here you will see what I mean. I may have proposed to the cook a few times.”

“And here I thought your heart was taken by Lady Iras. What a fickle man you are,” A second plate with a small pile of pastries and a couple of apples is set down beside the steaming roast. Shem wonders how the boy managed to carry it all.

“Well, well I—er.” Nigel puffs himself up, affecting a terrible attempt at a Juraalian accent. “I am a man of many loves. There is room in my heart for both.” He waggles his eyebrows for emphasis

“What have I told you about your impersonations?”

The cutlery is set down without a sound, the boy obviously experienced in being unnoticed.

“That I’m terrible at them,” Nigel concedes with a pout.

“It’s still true.”

Nigel shifts his attention to the silent servant, perking back up. “Thank you, Elim.”

He gawps, frozen in place except for his mouth opening and closing in its fishlike search for words.

“Give the poor boy a break, Nigel. Not everyone wants to listen to you ramble on.” Shem nods at the boy, “Leave, if you’d like.”

Broken out of his daze, the boy darts out of the room with a hasty bow.

Nigel frowns as he watches the door close but quickly turns his attention back to the meal. “The cooks still make far too much food. Really, what is it with people thinking I want to eat more now that I’ve got a crown on my head? It doesn’t weigh that much.”

He drains the rest of his cup. “That’s why I’m here. I’ll make sure your head doesn’t get too bloated for those broad shoulders.”

“Oh, no need for that. I get a healthy serving of insinuations every day. Along with being reminded I’m a bastard.” Nigel jabs a potato with more force than necessary. “Pleasant person, that Baron Oswald.”

Shem slices into his meat, watching the juices run down. “I could always have Laral take care of him.”

Nigel coughs, blue eyes darting to the wine jug as he makes himself busy refilling both of their goblets. “Laral. Right.”

“So how fares it with Iras? Did she enjoy showing you the ropes?” The words are somewhat garbled by the mouthful of meat he’s chewing, but clear enough.

Setting the jug down with a thump, Nigel pouts, “Hey, don’t be such a mean—mean person! You didn’t make fun of me about that before!”

Shem puts down his fork, voice sharp. “I’m only bringing it up because you are being prudish.”

“I am not.”

“At the mere mention of Laral—”

“You, you were very loud, you know. In camp,” Nigel protests. “I would be trying to sleep like a normal person and you would make these noises. Loud, obscene noises.” He gives an exaggerated shudder. “Gave me nightmares, it did.”

“Oh, so nightmares are what you’re calling it then?” Shem mocks, one dark eyebrow raised.

Nigel’s face is flaming red. “I didn’t—I’m not—” He stops, sighing. “You’re doing this just to tease me, aren’t you?”

Shem laughs, tension easing out of his body. It’s good to know that even though Nigel is better at leadership and speeches now, he’s still the same blundering paladin underneath. “You’ll be the King of the Obvious in no time.”

“It’s your fault I’m king of anything at all. I never wanted to be one,” Nigel grumbles, looking at the floor.

“And that’s why I made you one,” Shem says, humour suddenly absent from his voice. Nigel looks up and their gazes lock, a raw level of honesty that makes them both shift uncomfortably.

The king looks away first, stabbing another potato. “Aww, you’re getting all these feelings all over me. Is Laral revealing the squishy heart underneath your sullen outer shell?”

“Oh, so now you want to hear the details of what Laral and I do?” Shem smiles, thin-lipped.

“No! No no,” Nigel waves his hands, dangerously close to flailing, almost losing his potato. “that’s, that’s quite alright. I am fine, not knowing. Very fine, with not hearing about it at all ever.”

“If you’re sure…”

“Very sure!” He seems to realize that he should stop talking and finally bites into his potato.

They spend several minutes in companionable silence, chewing and making pleased noises at the food. Shem cannot ever recall eating so much meat in one meal—the perks of being king, indeed. He shifts uncomfortably at the memory of the elves in the city, crowded into hovels. It does no good to dwell on it when he is already working to change it, he knows, but it doesn’t stop the vague sense of guilt gnawing at him, that he cannot do more for his people.

“I’m sorry, that I didn’t invite Laral. Couldn’t, with the court still in uproar after making Olyra a Baroness and the, you know—”

Shem feels his temper flare, hot and bright. “And how he still makes you uncomfortable. It wouldn’t do, to have rumours that you were sleeping with the both of us.”

“That’s not—Shem, you know that isn’t—”

“Isn’t it?” He bangs his fist on the table, cutlery clattering and palms hot with the promise of spellfire.

Nigel raises his hands in a calming gesture. “Look. He’s very—I didn’t trust him. I know he’s proven himself several times over now but I spent so long expecting to find you dead some morning. It’s hard to see past the, um. Assassin…thing. It’s not like we’ve talked much outside of the offer to massage me in oil.” He hurriedly adds, “And I know it wouldn’t be him trying to kill you now, of course.”

It is strange to remember the two people closest to him have so little common. Stranger still, to think that he has two people at all. “He only offered the one time.”

“It—it felt like more!”

“He’s very talented at it you know; you should have taken him up on it when you had the chance.” The joke sours as soon as it leaves his mouth, surprising him. Shem dismisses it as momentary irrationality. No reason to be upset over something that never happened.

“I’m, I’m good. Married. Thanks.” Nigel looks into Shem’s eyes, suddenly serious. “I’m sorry, that I ever questioned you. Questioned him.”

“No you aren’t.” Damn the face on the man, making him feel like an arse. Shem reaches up and presses his fingers into the smooth metal of Laral’s gift, relaxing at the familiar shape. “You had every reason to believe he was seducing me to save his own skin or lower my guard to finish the job. He admitted to doing that kind of thing before, after all.”

“I meant—I meant I’m sorry I questioned your judgement, after you did all the yelling at Xu, and Orraine, and Mirthal, and, well, everyone. You trusted him, and I trusted you. It should have followed that I trust him.” He straightens, face determined. “Next time, we’ll dine together. All three of us. Let Oswald choke on that.” He nods, as if each dip of his head is further convincing him the idea is good. “I’m the king. I’ll eat with whomever I like.”

“Nigel—”

He looks very, very intently at his fork, only glancing up at the last word. “What kind of ruler would I be, if I can’t spend time with my friends?”

“You are a fool, Nigel.” Shem shakes his head, smiling. “The best kind of fool.”

“Now, ah, are you going to eat that pastry?”

Laral’s armour and weapons are gone and there’s no sign of him. The sun has long set. Surely he would have said something if he were staying out late, or found a mercenary gig that would take him away, or an assassination contract, or whatever else it could be. Shem hasn’t asked how Laral has been spending his time; there is no need, no matter what Xu says.

Perhaps this is it. The clock has been ticking and everyone reminds him of it constantly. He’s been lucky to get as long as he has, keeping a wanderer like Laral in one place. Shem breathes in and out, methodical, trying to quell the way it feels like his ribs are collapsing around his lungs. He’s been expecting this. It shouldn’t hurt. The fire is warm, he does not feel cold. He tucks the blankets around himself and stares at the shadows on the wall, trying to sleep.

Three people walk by the door and his ribs shrink after each one.

Shem gives up and finds the brandy Nigel gifted him as an apology for one of their nastier arguments. Two long pulls and his stomach is warm. He crawls back into bed and noises slide by—another set of footsteps, a dog barking, a log falling in the fire—without a sense of how long passes between. Drifting in and out of darkness, his ribs don’t hurt so much.

He hears the door’s unlocking and familiar footsteps. It takes him a moment to realize he isn’t dreaming. It takes him two tries to sit up, hauling his heavy body forward. By the time he does Laral has materialized out of the dark like a ghost of when they first met.

“Laral,” Shem swallows down his questions. “You’re back.”

It’s been a while since he’s seen his lover fully armed. It makes him look dangerous with the leather dark and sleek, the dull glint of the metal studs and dagger handles. If the nobles saw him like this they’d never talk of him so poorly again—they’d fear him, as they rightly should. It sends a low thrill through Shem’s stomach.

“Apologies for the delay. I was in the slums.” He unbuckles his belt, tossing the weapons onto the desk. “Let’s skip the depressing details, hmm? I would much rather be distracted,” Laral says, eyeing the blanket barely covering Shem. “Lend me a hand?”

“I rather like you in it,” Shem says, appreciating the way the armour accentuates his lean musculature. He crawls out of bed, relieved at the first touch of smooth leather. Laral is solid and warm and there. He starts on the ties of the chest piece as Laral works on his boots. He starts to lose patience as they make a pile of scattered pieces, mouthing Laral’s neck.

“You are not making this easier,” Laral grunts as he works on his laces. “I did not mean that kind of distracting. Well I did, but not yet.”

“I don’t want to wait,” Shem’s chest still aches despite Laral being right there. He hates it, wants nothing more than to forget about the last few hours, forget about his day of organizing and scheming and dealing with people he would rather see dead. “I could use a distraction too.”

“Finally,” Laral sighs as he strips off his trousers. “You were not very helpful,” he says with a quirk of his lips.

“I’ll make it up to you.” Shem pulls Laral back to the bed, hands roaming because he cannot decide where he wants them most. He bites at Laral’s neck and jaw, laying back and letting Laral crawl on top of him.

Settling his weight down, Laral rolls his hips forward. “I am quite sure you will.”

They push into each other, cocks trapped between their bodies. It’s a familiar rhythm, gradually increasing in pace as Shem locks his arms around Laral’s back to hold him even closer. It’s all sweat and skin and heavy breathing when Laral shudders and it’s suddenly wet.

Shem stops. “Did you—”

“I did.” Laral frowns.

“That was…fast.” The attempt at delicacy fails. Miserably.

“This, ah. This is—this has not happened before.” He looks down, still disbelieving. “Ever.” He wipes up the mess with a corner of the sheet, not making eye contact. “My apologies.”

Shem urges him back to where they can kiss. It’s brief and awkward, but better. “It’s fine.”

“Shall I?” Laral runs his palm down Shem’s stomach, smile firmly in place.

Leaning back onto the bed, he says, “Yes.”

The light, barely-there touches are unsatisfying. Laral grips Shem’s cock harder, which helps, but it’s not enough. Laral keeps pumping, teasing his balls, kissing his throat, trying all the usual tricks and none of it works. He switches hands and Shem wants to scream with frustration.

“Here, just—just let me do it,” Shem says, annoyed at himself for being unable to do something as basic as get off. It feels like routine, gripping himself hard and fast as he tries to chase down his orgasm. Laral watches, touching Shem’s legs and stomach but careful to stay out of the way of his hands.

When he finally comes it’s with a defeated sigh. It doesn’t make any sense. Why should he have so much trouble when he’d wanted so badly to be distracted? “Sorry,” Shem murmurs, “I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“Everyone has bad days,” Laral soothes.

“Don’t coddle me,” Shem snaps, turning over to face the wall, almost wishing the bed were empty again.

“Nigel is taking another trip. To Rogyn! Does he mean to visit every town in Grelen?” Shem tugs on his earring as he groans, leaning back on the bed and staring at the ceiling. “Iras isn’t good at handling the day-to-day, what is this supposed to accomplish?”

Laral chuckles, too sharp and loud in the quiet of their room. “You’ve developed a new tell. Dangerous, in a court like this. Perhaps you should—”

“I’m not taking it off!” Shem bristles, snapping forward. He tugs on the earring again as he gestures with his free hand. “Stop asking me to. If you didn’t want me wearing, it why did you give it to me in the first place?”

“I’m not telling you to take it off,” Laral soothes, hands skimming over Shem’s temple, cheek, chin. “I’m saying touching it so much when others are watching is going to cause problems. You cannot show weakness.”

“Living among mages for most of my life didn’t make me blind to how people work. I know that. I know how they see me.” Shem’s eyes almost glow with anger, “But you are not my weakness.”

Laral shakes his head. “Words do not make it so. They will use me to get to you. That is the very definition of a liability.”

“You’re an assassin; you can take care of yourself,” Shem snaps, grabbing the front of Laral’s tunic.

“I do not do so well in a fair fight, as you proved when we first met. I am not invincible.”

“No one is!” Shem yanks on the tunic. He stares, as if searching Laral’s face will explain everything. “This isn’t like you. You don’t actually believe this.”

Laral remains passive and still, his voice deadly calm. “So good of you, to tell me what I think.”

“I didn’t,” Shem growls and pushes away, starting a fire in the hearth with an excessive burst of flame. His shoulders slump as soon as he’s done, tired. “Leave it. Please. It’s just a stupid earring.”

“As you wish,” Laral says after a long pause. They don’t exchange any more words that night.

“Thank you for your help, Xu.” Shem walks slowly, letting the tension from the negotiation fade as they walk down the hall.

“Hmph.” She shakes her small, square head. “It’s a good thing you brought me in. As rude as you are, you would have set them all on fire instead of sitting down to talk properly. You never understand you attract more flies with honey, not vinegar.”

“I hardly—”

Xu arches her thick eyebrows, the criss-crossing landscape of wrinkles and tattoos shifting with the motion. “I’m not saying it’s completely undeserved, mind. You are still lucky they sent Gepa-za to lead and not traditionalists like Toxa-za or Rin-za. Even so, the antics you pulled to put that bastard on the throne would never have worked with Xizejin.”

Shem has already used up most of his patience today, “Nigel is—”

“Not a bastard? What a surprise for his mother.” She pauses a moment to lean on her staff before attempting the stairs. “I have seen two kings and a queen rule in my lifetime. I’m not about to get attached. He’s a nice boy, too nice I’d say. Not my business. I was out to help mages, not fuss with royalty.”

“You helped me put him in power,” Shem points out.

“A side effect of trying to get things done. I didn’t care a whit who you picked. All I care about is our duty.” Xu snaps out each syllable, the only remnant of her Xizeja accent.

Shem forcibly reminds himself of how much he owes this woman with a tug to his ear. “Then thank you, for believing that I was right.”

“Hardly. More thanks to you, for being living proof I was wrong.”

The simple marvel of still being alive and sane after taking on the dark. There is no record of its happening in the entire history of mages.

Xu continues, “It is time people remembered the value of our role. None of them would be alive without what you did, nor could any of them have done anything about it without our power.”

“Our curse is their salvation,” they recite in unison the mage creed ingrained from the moment of initiation. Xu smiles. It leaves a bitter aftertaste in Shem’s mouth. Initiation is not optional.

They fall silent as Xu slowly starts making her way up the stairs, one at a time. The final battle had almost taken her life. She has not fully recovered and given her age, likely never will—but as the oldest remaining mage in the entire country she feels duty-bound to stay active.

Shem doesn’t offer help and she doesn’t ask for it.

When they reach the top, she eyes him up and down. “I never thought somebody your age would cause so much change, and an elf, besides. That face of yours—such a baby you are!”

“We can’t all be as old as you,” he smiles, all teeth.

“Oh, don’t you even start,” Xu self-consciously touches her spiky hair, gone mostly grey. “I’ll beat you with my staff.” She thumps it on the ground for emphasis, the sound ringing down the hallway. A curious head cranes out of a doorway only to duck back in again.

“Will you sic your many cats on me, too?”

She points a finger at him, jabbing with each word. “Don’t. You. Even.”

“A venerated, wise, experienced mage such as yourself—”

“Now those aren’t your words at all, are they? You will never be a charmer.” She frowns. “Where is he, your charming snake? Gallivanting about? Or has he gone back to murdering for hire?”

Shem shrugs, staring at the wall, face impassive. “I’m not his keeper.”

Xu clucks. “You love him, and that is close enough. Those are the words of a man who is worried.”

“I don’t need you to mother me.” Shem increases his pace. “Grandmother me,” he adds under his breath.

“And being my age means I must want to, does it?” She stubbornly matches his stride, huffing with each step. “There is a difference between being a mentor and being a nosy busybody. You may outrank me in power but that does not make you smart. So few survived. I consider myself invested in your future.”

“You told me getting involved during a time of war was a terrible idea, yet nothing happened.” He could still remember every angry word, the way she’d spat “killer” and “whore”, Laral’s unwavering gaze as he’d responded, “Yes, I am.”

“It wasn’t as disastrous as I’d feared, but Laral isn’t the settling-down sort. No amount of jewellery will change that,” she glances at the loop of gold in Shem’s ear and sniffs disdainfully. “A snake may shed its skin, but it is still a snake. I’m surprised he’s still here.” She eyes him again, sidelong. “And you are too, from the look of it.”

“I trust him—” Shem tugs the earring, the sharp pain helping him focus on staying calm.

“You trust him to be faithful, perhaps,” Xu cuts in. “He’s proven he won’t bite the hand that feeds him. But you know that his past will catch up with him one day. There’s no telling what will happen after that. ” She looks down her prominent nose. “You both know this won’t last forever.”

“I am done listening to this.” They are close enough to her quarters there’s no need to continue to escorting her, politeness be damned.

“Use your head, you young fool. Passion is well and good but it takes more than that to last. Don’t come crying to me when you end up disappointed.”

Shem shuffles into the room, feet dragging, and falls onto their bed with a groan, face smothered into the sheets. He sighs at the warmth of the fire but is too annoyed to properly appreciate the sight of his lover, naked and warm, on the bed. “I want to go back to killing things. It’s much simpler than politics.”

The sheets garble his words but Laral seems to understand enough to make sympathetic noises; perhaps he is used to this particular kind of pillow talk. He shifts closer, bare thigh pressing against Shem’s side. He pushes the flat of his palm up Shem’s spine. “The troubles of not getting to set everyone that gets in your way on fire.” Straddling Shem, he starts to work on the tense shoulders in earnest. “Are you sure you don’t want me to assassinate anyone? I’d give you a very good rate.”

Shem gives an appreciative groan as Laral attacks a knot. “Nigel would never let me hear the end of it, even though he agrees with me. I couldn’t take the whining.”

Laral chuckles. “And you’d want me to kill half the court, yes?”

“It’s a big job, I’d help.” Shem turns his face to the side, grin feral. “And once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop. You know how magic is.”

“Explosive?” Laral leans down so his tongue flicks the tip of Shem’s ear when he speaks. “Dangerous?” He drapes his body over Shem’s, pressing warm expanses of golden skin against the heavy wool.

“You like me dangerous.” His hips shift, breath stuttering at the friction.

“Yes, yes, you’re quite intimidating when lying down,” Laral laughs, hands sliding over the bumps of Shem’s ribs. “Very fearsome.”

“‘m still taller than you,” he grumbles, unable to help his smile.

Clever fingers smooth over the sides of Shem’s waist. “But skinnier. You mages need more exercise. Perhaps you should wave your staff around a bit more, hmm?”

Being on his stomach is starting to get uncomfortable. “I am all for waving my staff, but somebody is quite heavy.”

“Oh? Is that a problem?” Laral grinds his hips down, cock slowly dragging over the fabric covering Shem’s arse.

Ha, no.” Shem reaches back for him, lust-clumsy fingers tangling in the blond hair at the nape of his neck. “Definitely nnhnot.” The last word hisses out as Laral rubs against him again, his own hips thrusting down in search of more friction. Laral nips the tips of his ears, licks a wet line up his neck, chuckling at the strangled, needy noise that escapes Shem’s throat.

Laral pushes off, hands on Shem’s hips encouraging him to up on his knees. Shem struggles to rise, head still planted in the sheets, his breath making the cloth hot and moist. It hurts where his earring is pushed into his skin but he doesn’t care.

“One thing I will say for robes—they make it much easier.” Laral laughs as shoves Shem’s clothing out of the way until it bunches around his middle, making a pleased noise at the sight of Shem’s cock heavy and full. He slides his hand down Shem’s hip and inner thigh, touch light and teasing. “No buckles or ties like my armour.” He pushes his thumb in the crease between leg and groin, smiling as Shem squirms. “Good thing I’m not wearing any, hmm?” The hands press outward, encouraging Shem’s knees apart and he almost chokes keeping back a moan.

“Let’s ease some of that tension, shall we?” Laral’s hands run up the backs of Shem’s thighs, squeeze handfuls of arse as his thumbs push teasingly closer and closer. Shem grabs fistfuls of the sheets, breath coming in staggered gasps as Laral palms his balls.

“A pity you are so tired. I had hoped for something more energetic,” he says as he wraps his hand around Shem’s cock.

Something settles in Shem’s chest at the words, a pebble of discontent he cannot dislodge. It’s foolish to think of those words as any more than teasing but the sensation persists. He ignores it.

It’s exactly as tight and fast as Shem likes it but he can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that it’s the only thing happening. The sound of Laral’s touching himself in time is good but somehow lacking. There is no teasing—not so long ago Laral would have licked him open and incoherent before touching his cock. Laral steadily pulls them toward climax with tight, tight pressure until Shem is panting and coming onto his robes. Laral sighs as he finishes himself off, wiping his hand on the already messy robes as he helps pull them over Shem’s head. It’s strange to think he has more than one set now.

Orgasm leaves him loose-limbed and sleepy, but the discomfited feeling doesn’t go away even as Laral curls around him to settle in for the night.

It’s probably nothing, Shem decides as he drifts off.

Warmth splashes onto Shem’s face, the pungent copper smell jolting him awake. Thick, sticky liquid coats his upper body and the sour smell of death is overwhelming. Something heavy falls on his legs. “Laral!” Shem reaches blindly, eyes still adjusting to the dim light of the banked fire. There is something slimy creeping down his calf.

“Apologies for the rude awakening, my love.” A shadow detaches itself from the wall, the red-gold gleam of a bloodied dagger in the firelight, the dappled red-gold of Laral’s naked skin splattered with blood. “I had hoped to dispatch him more cleanly.”

The pressure on his legs makes sense—the bumps of leather and metal through the covers, the sluggish warmth soaking his legs. Shem glances from the corpse to Laral, stumbling to stand, words slurring, awkward in his mouth. “D’you know ‘im?”

“No. He was certainly not one of my order,” he scoffs. “Sloppy work, not taking me into account. And such terrible form—poison would have been much simpler.” Laral smiles, the firelight accentuating the curves of his face into something deadly and beautiful. “Lucky for us, hmm?”

“Laral.” Shem reaches for him, staring at the play of light and shadow on his cheek.

“Focus!” Laral seizes him by the shoulders and shakes him roughly. “We have to rouse the guard.”

The fog of confusion clears, leaving cold clarity. “Nigel!”

“Go. I will inform them of our visitor.”

Shem doesn’t waste any more time, pushing the small table out of the way to reveal the rune he’d painted for this very reason. He pulls, magic like liquid fire in his veins as he feels himself slide between the reality and darkness to Nigel’s room. With the added light of fire in his hands it takes only seconds for him to see the figure crouched near the foot of the bed.

The fire is loose before he can think, the figure jumping away too late as the inferno catches them in the chest and face. A scream, the sickening smell of charred flesh, and it’s over. Not even warded—sloppy, indeed.

Nigel bellows, reaching for his sword on the bedside table blindly, nearly tripping over his sheets as he lurches to his feet. He looks at the flames licking his rug, the burnt corpse, the scorch marks, and Shem. “What the—what are you doing? You’re naked!”

The body stops twitching. Definitely dead. How disappointing. “Calm down—”

Nigel points his sword at the corpse, gesturing to the lingering bits of fire and Shem’s body. “You are naked and bloody and setting things on fire in my bedroom! I am not going to calm down!” He gestures wildly, “I did not need to see that!”

“I just saved your life. Assassin.”

He lowers his sword slightly. “Oh. Right. That does explain the—well, everything. But the nudity.”

“They came after me first. Laral took care of him,” Shem gestures to the blood. Nigel starts to follow the gesture but averts his eyes when he remembers the lack of clothing.

“So what you, you teleported here? Just like that? What if Iras had been here?”

Shem grabs the tattered remains of cloak off the corpse, using it to smother the remaining flames. “I was making sure you weren’t dead. If you’d prefer modesty over living be my guest!”

Nigel glances around. “Can you—er, go back the way you came?”

“We talked about this, remember? One way only, for safety.”

“Right,” he starts to pace. “So there’s no getting you out of here without a lot of awkward questions.”

Throwing his hands in the air, Shem hollers, “Will you— Somebody just tried to kill us!”

Nigel’s voice rises in pitch and speed as he gestures at the corpse and Shem. “Not exactly new territory, is it? Well, the being asleep is new. And the, the you being naked. All the others had the decency to come at a more respectable hour.”

Nigel,” Shem snarls, his hair wild around his face.

The clatter of boots and weapons reaches their ears. There’s scrambling at the door. “Sire, are you alright?”

“Couldn’t you have at least put something on before saving my life? Is it so much to ask?” Nigel groans as the door slams open, stepping down off the bed. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” Nigel reassures the cluster of guards, standing up taller and trying to look the part of a king despite only wearing his underclothes. He puts his sword down. “The threat seems to be taken care of.”

They all turn to the charred remains and Shem, still bloody and naked. None of them put down their weapons.

Shem makes an attempt to pull his hair back into its usual tail. “There’s another body in my room.”

More noise in the hall—a second group of soldiers pushes forward. Nigel opens his mouth to give more reassurances, but Laral weaves through the crowd of soldiers, still bloody but wearing a hastily-laced pair of trousers.

“Shem, your magic worked. You made it here in time.” The affection and relief in his voice is clear, cutting through the undercurrent of tension. He smiles, meeting Shem’s eyes. Shem dips his head a fraction, and Laral closes the space between them for a brief kiss. He stays close, blocking Shem from the curious gaze of the guards.

“Alright,” Nigel’s voice snaps the attention back to him, finally regaining his sense. “Ser Thaisa, have you checked the grounds?”

A scarred, black-haired woman salutes as she steps to the front. “Your majesty, the west wing has no other signs of intruders. A second group is checking your private quarters.”

“Dispatch a messenger—I need to know if Iras is safe.”

Shem turns his attention back to Laral, knowing Nigel will sort the rest out. “Protecting my modesty?”

Laral unwraps the leather string from around his wrist, reaching around to smooth Shem’s dark hair. “But of course. I am a greedy man, wanting you all to myself.”

“No jokes about me naked in another man’s bedroom?” Shem smirks, swallowing his tension as he makes sure it’s loud enough to carry to the nearest guards.

Gathering it into a proper knot, Laral ties Shem’s hair into place, letting his hands linger. His voice is just loud enough to be overheard by everyone crowded into the room. “Him? Hardly a threat.”

“You saved my life. Thank you.” He feels the weight of eyes as he places a hand on Laral’s cheek, thumb sweeping over the faint beginnings of crow’s feet, blond hair brushing his fingers without the tie to keep it out of Laral’s face.

Laral is practically purring. “Simply returning the favour for when you saved mine.”

Shem often wonders how much his life would have changed if he’d chosen to kill Laral instead of capturing him. Sometimes when Laral is sleeping he remembers looking at the assassin for the first time, bound and unconscious, on the cusp of that decision.

“And you two—” Nigel cuts in. “Thank you both, for saving my life. I owe you a great debt. I will do everything in my power to find out who did this. I’ll have the chambers next to yours prepared and the mess cleaned up. In the meantime—please have a bath. Or three, in your case Shem.”

There’s a murmur of shocked laughter from the remaining guards.

“As you command, my king,” Laral says with a graceful bow. “I will ensure he is most thoroughly cleaned.”

“You do that,” Nigel somehow managing to sound dryly amused instead of embarrassed. Being in front of others seems to help him keep his composure. “Off with you, then.”

The guards have more trouble keeping themselves quiet, covering mouths in a vain effort to keep the severity of the moment. Ser Thaisa glares, shutting them up.

Shem can’t help but snicker himself, the excitement being alive making his limbs light, thoughts of sleeping far away. His eyes keep lingering on the loose laces of Laral’s trousers. He dips low for his own bow, itching to leave and expend the energy. “I hope the rest of your night is more restful, King Nigel.”

“I certainly don’t think it can get any worse,” he mutters, wincing at the sight of Shem again. “Just, go put some trousers on already. Please

“How did you enjoy being an intimidation tactic?”

Laral chuckles as he pulls his boots off. “Oh, that part was immensely satisfying. The sitting around, not so much. If most of his meetings are like that it’s no wonder Nigel takes so many trips.”

“Some are worse,” Shem says as he snags a few more grapes from the tray. “You’re lucky you weren’t the one who saved Nigel or you’d be dealing with even more of it.”

“I am quite content with the court’s respectful fear and admiration.” He pulls off his chest piece and hangs it in their wardrobe. “But I am concerned with how it is affecting your reputation.”

“I’m sure they’ll get over it once they’re used to your being active in court,” Shem says around a mouthful of fruit. He swallows and adds, “Something else will come along and take their attention off of us. It’s unfortunate we had to be so public but you’re under less suspicion now. Mostly.”

Down to trousers and shirt, Laral walks over so he can speak face-to-face. “It is not so simple. You hold an important position here.”

“I know that. This is why I told you not to get involved in the first place—you’ll lose their attention. It’s not an issue. ”

“I believe it is. Perhaps…” Laral trails off and Shem knows he’s going to hate whatever comes out of his mouth next. “Perhaps you should explore other options.”

He pulls his hand away from the bowl of fruit in case he becomes tempted to throw it. “What do you mean?” Shem’s voice is flat with repressed anger.

“This arrangement between us, it may be best if we—” Laral clears his throat delicately.

“You can’t be serious. We talked this over months ago.” His hand grips the edge of the table, knuckles raised and white.

“I have slept with many people. Sleeping with only one person is strange to me. I never considered it, not until you.”

The table creaks as he tightens his grip. “We already talked about that.”

“What I am saying, is that this is very new for me. Perhaps I was too hasty—”

Shem glares. “You’re bringing this up because of what Countess Celia said. Because they know about you. And us.” He breathes in and out, knowing that shouting won’t help. “I know you’re trying to look out for me but that is not an option. I don’t care what it means, I’ll deal with it.”

Laral sighs, putting a hand on his forehead. “It would be much easier—”

“I don’t care!” Shem interrupts, unable to stop himself from shouting this time. He stands so he can move his hands to do something with all the pent-up anger. “I’m the hero of bloody Grelen and they can live with whoever I want in my bed. It’s not their business.”

“It is impressive how well you have done despite approaching politics like something you hit with a blunt instrument,” his voice is too sharp for humour, smile a parody. It hurts to look at him like that.

“I won’t compromise,” Shem steps forward and tucks his face close; his earring drags along Laral’s cheek. He whispers into his ear, “Not on this.”

“Can I interest you in something else, then?” Laral whispers in return, sliding a hand down Shem’s back.

Shem smiles, relieved that their argument was not so bad as to sour the whole night.

“There you are! You’re almost as sneaky as Laral when you’re avoiding me.”

“Laral has taught me many things,” Shem says just to watch Nigel sputter. As much as he wants to duck out, Nigel was bound to corner him and whine sometime. Might as well be in this secluded hallway.

Still red in the face, Nigel makes a gallant recovery. “Look, um. I know you and Laral are—are whatever you want to call yourselves, and that’s, um, fine. Great. But you were hissing and spitting like a cat at Countess Karia just for flirting with him.”

“She should know better.” Shem casually pulls the flame from a nearby torch and cups it in his palm.

Nigel knows him too well to be intimidated. “Shem, Laral flirts with anything with a pulse. You can’t have missed that, with all the making eyes and innuendo and the talk of past conquests and um,” he rolls his hand, “everything. You never said anything about it then. Outside of laughing when he did it to me—which I am still upset about by the way.”

He tosses the flame back to the torch. “If it weren’t so hilarious, perhaps I’d stop laughing.”

Nigel sighs, rubbing his forehead. “Look, argh. The point is, you can’t go around insulting anyone that makes a pass at him. We almost lost the support of Eastmoor because you called her a desperate cow. While true, it is not the kind of thing you actually say to people.”

“She—”

“Were you listening?” Nigel is angry enough to speak to him not in the friendly whine but the commanding voice of a king. “It’s not about her, Shem. It’s you!”

“I’m not going to stand by and let them—”

Nigel cuts in again. “You never had a problem with all the flirting before and now you act like some rabid war hound any time Laral bats his eyes. It was fine, and now it isn’t, and he is not the one who changed. I can’t afford losing support. Not with so much on the line.”

“She talked like he was a whore!” Shem explodes in a burst of anger, all the torches in the hall doubling in size.

A fist crashes into the wall next to his head. Nigel is angry in a way Shem hasn’t seen since their fight about the mage-mad boy. When he speaks it’s deliberately slow. “Shem, whatever the reason, you cannot do this. Karia isn’t the problem, she’s the symptom. You and Laral—whatever is going on, you need to fix it. Now.”

Shem stands there for several minutes, not speaking. He nods his head once.

Nigel pulls his fist away and turns to leave. “Thank you.”

“It still works,” Shem says in surprise as he pops onto the top of the tower. Some clever, lazy mage had carved a teleportation rune at the bottom of the stairs years ago, when mages were commonplace. He takes a peek over the edge. It’s an appealing thought, casting spells down on unsuspecting invaders below.

“Shem.” Laral turns from his contemplation of the Dufan plateau, or what can be seen of it through the clouds. The eastern horizon again. “It seems my secret sanctuary is not so secret.”

“Secret from everyone but me. I think that still counts.” Shem stands beside Laral and mimics his pose, leaning forward with elbows resting on the wide lip of stone. He rolls the word sanctuary over in his mind and adds, “Unless that was the point.”

Laral says nothing.

The silence stretches out, clouds slowly crawling past. Shem turns to look at Laral, watching his hair blond move with the breeze. The wind is much stronger up here. Laral keeps staring straight ahead.

“What you did, with Countess Karia. It was smart.” Shem swallows, turning back to the landscape. “And I ruined it.” He waits a few seconds but there is still no response. “You’re better at it—at people than I am. It was wrong of me to say you shouldn’t get involved. And stupid.” Shem clenches his hands and flexes them out several times. His chest hurts. “I should, I should go.”

“Stay.” Laral finally turns to look at him. “Enjoy the view with me.”

Their arms press together, skin-warmth bleeding through the fabric. With the chill of the wind it feels like all of Shem’s body is radiating around that point of contact.

“Then we’re…” Shem tries to smile. It doesn’t succeed. “Everything is alright?”

Laral tilts his head to the side as he nods, “As you say. But I think it is best if,” he looks at the earring, “I ask for that back.”

Shem freezes. “What?”

“My earring. I would. I am asking for it back.”

Shem steps back, grasping for words. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong,” Laral speaks with the light, easy voice he wears as a mask. “I simply want it back.”

“What do you—what the hell is this?” The height is suddenly disorienting; Shem plants a hand onto the stone to keep himself steady. “You—how am I supposed to take this?”

Laral’s tone is deceptively placid, his smile polite. “You are not supposed to take it as anything.”

The blood drains out of Shem’s face. His ears are ringing. “Are you saying—” He sucks in a ragged breath. “Are you ending this? Now?” Shem closes his eyes at the way his voice wobbles, ashamed.

“Not at all,” he assures. “You are reacting very strongly to a small trinket.”

I’m reacting—I thought it meant—it’s not just a trinket!” he says, voice growing louder and louder. “And you’re the one who cares so much to want it back.” Shem starts gesturing wildly. “You’re the one who kept telling me to take it off!” His anger redoubles. “You’re the one who gave it to me and acts ashamed I’m wearing it!”

“It is not shame,” Laral says quietly. “It is not,” his eyes look at the floor, the clouds, but not Shem directly. “Most certainly not shame.”

“What?” Shock makes it hard to form the word. He’s never seen Laral like this.

“It is not shame, that causes me to—” he straightens, rallying himself, locking his gaze with Shem’s, “to have trouble, seeing you wear it.”

“Explain.”

Laral shifts his weight, restless as he considers his response. “You have met several other Juraalians, yes? What did you notice about their jewellery?”

Shem frowns, brow furrowing as he thinks back. “I don’t—was I supposed to notice something?”

“Xu and Orraine made some comments, if you recall.” Laral hasn’t stopped making eye contact. Whatever this is, it’s important Shem understands.

Closing his eyes against the noise of visual distractions he can almost hear the echo of conversation as he skims through his memories. The gold and emerald necklace with the silver and onyx earrings of Lord Mura comes to mind. “Oh, Xu commented that none of it matched except Ser Sarai’s.”

“And how was she different from the others?”

Realization dawns on Shem’s face. “She’d been married for years to her childhood sweetheart.”

“Jewellery is never purchased for yourself. It is given by those closest to you and accepted as,” Laral ducks his head, “an acknowledgement of your relationship. Giving gifts is not so different here, but there is—perhaps more weight than you are used to, wearing a gift from a lover.” Laral looks again at the earring, almost nervous.

“Was this—” Shem’s fingers curl over the earring. He frowns in confusion. “But you said it was, you just asked me to—”

Laral smiles ruefully as he steps closer. “I know what I said, and I apologize. For all my grand words it seems even I get cold feet.”

“So you did,” it’s almost hard to breathe.

“Seeing you wear it, it was,” Laral starts, tries again. “I knew you were unaware of the custom. I should not have given it without explaining first, without accepting what it means for myself.” He stops again. Shem has never seen Laral so hesitant before. He takes one last look over Shem’s shoulder toward the east, then he smiles, touches Shem’s wrist. “And I should never have asked for it back; I want you to wear it.”

“Yes,” Shem says as he closes the distance, tangling both hands in Laral’s hair to pull him close. He kisses the corner, gently licks Laral’s lips apart. “Yes.” Small noises escape the back of Shem’s throat as their tongues slide together. He has to pull back before it feels like too much. “Laral, I know I haven’t been, that I’ve…” he swallows down the surge of emotion. “I’m terrible at this.”

“It seems we both have a few things to work on.” Laral slides his hand over Shem’s, pressing their joined fingers into the metal of the earring. “Perhaps we do need to talk.”

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