by shukyou (主教)
“The prisoner has confessed, Your Majesty, and the sentence has been declared,” said Grand Advisor Maspa with all the smug self-righteousness of a man watching the jaws of a well-laid trap sink deeper into a prey animal’s leg.
Daraya bit the inside of his cheek to bleeding to keep from snapping back that of course the prisoner had confessed. Every ounce of his self-control went to keeping his hands from clenching into fists. As mad as he was at the men surrounding him, he was ten times angrier at himself. Had Athiel not warned him before about the perils of vanity?
After a moment’s silence to allow the king a reply, Maspa gave a small shrug and began to roll the scroll back in on itself, its contents now having been read to the whole room. “Moving on, we have the trade guild wishes to–“
“No,” Daraya said, raising a hand. The throne room grew still as all the courtiers leaned in, using bored faces to hide interest. No wonder so many of them had shown up that morning. One did not rise so far in the palace ranks without living for at least a bit of drama.
Maspa’s expression was pleasantly neutral, as though he couldn’t imagine why on earth the king might be concerned with the fate of a single blasphemer. “Yes, Your Majesty?” he asked. Daraya wanted to strike the honeyed poison from his tone. “Is there a problem with the way justice has been dispensed?”
Daraya pressed his lips together, counting to five before he spoke. “We would have the law stricken from the books.”
“Oh, Your Majesty,” said Maspa, holding a hand to his chest as though wracked with apology for what he was about to say, “of course your word is law, as you are the noble scion of the gods, worthy to be worshiped even by babes in their cradles and foxes in their dens — as the law in question only confirms. But even if you were to overturn the law to honor you — one, I remind you, set in place by your Lord Father before his untimely passing — it would not change the substance of past violations, nor would it overturn retroactively the sentences passed on any of the violators.”
Daraya was grateful for the long, fur-lined sleeves that all but covered his hands, because he was gripping the arms of his throne so hard, his knuckles had begun to throb. He knew that every eye in the room was on him, and he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing just how much they’d caught the young king off-guard. “We will then seek to give him Our pardon.”
“Majesty,” interjected another of his advisors, a squat man named Kambu, “you are indeed a great and noble ruler, fit to be given the same praises as we bestow on the gods who watch us from the heavens above the sky, and it is indeed commendable that you would show mercy to one who has shown such disrespect to you..”
It sickened Daraya to think how once, he had thrilled to have such praises heaped upon him, such endless adoration. How had he missed hearing how hollow they were? Why on earth had he ever thought men like these might be sincere?
“But,” continued Kambu, “you are a just and gracious ruler whose place on the throne is justified by both the Rule of Heaven and the Rule of Law.”
“The Rule of Law, yes,” Maspa echoed, absently scratching at his snowy beard. “The Rule of Law, which says you, most excellent son of King Kushur — may he rest among the gods, where his soul is forever placed to rule as their equal — are your late father’s choice to wear the crown and sit on the throne, and not those born before you, whom some might still consider more appropriate to reign.”
Daraya kept his breathing easy, measuring every inhale and exhale until they were evenly weighted so they would not betray the way his heart was pounding in his chest. Why had no one ever warned him that the king was as bound by the laws he made as everyone else was?
But someone had warned him. Athiel had warned him. And Daraya had not listened, which meant Athiel would now pay the price.
“Then it is settled,” Maspa said with a laugh, as though this had all been a silly little diversion, a misunderstanding funny now for having been cleared up. “When the sun sets this evening, Athiel the Foreigner will be taken to the Winter Cell and left there until dawn. And who knows? Perhaps the heathen god he chooses to exalt instead of your divine and true majesty will come down and keep him warm until the sun rises.”
The whole court laughed at that, and the sound was as bitter as the north wind that whipped against the palace walls, telling of just how cold the long nights could be.
It had been his father’s idea, to bring the boys to the palace. King Kushur, more than any king before him, had made great strides in expanding his empire, using military might to push the boundaries of his holdings to lands far in the south. He had seen it as a necessary part of establishing his greatness and his place in history.
He had, however, been as clever as he had been vain. Once he had pushed so hard to acquire lands where they spoke different languages and carried on different customs, Kushur had realized just how resistant the people were to rule unlike themselves. With this, he had hit upon the idea of bringing their high-born sons back to his capital city, to be educated and groomed to be ambassadors back to their people.
And so he had done exactly this, gathered up the children of deposed princes and high priests, spiriting them away to the snows, where they would be raised like the Sons of the North. They had grown up learning of the empire’s majesty and might, and then they had been returned to their homes, to rule as proxies of the throne. It had been a rather brilliant plan, one that had worked perfectly, save one exception.
That exception sat on the stone floor of his cell now, hands folded beneath his chin, lost in prayer.
“Athiel,” Daraya called out, his voice soft.
Athiel opened his eyes and smiled with no surprise to see his visitor. “O King, may your majesty continue unto untold generations,” he said. It was the same formulaic worship-speech heaped on Daraya by everyone else who spoke to him, but from Athiel, it rang true. Unlike most of the courtiers and advisors who wrapped themselves around the throne, Athiel never said a word he didn’t mean.
Daraya sighed heavily, leaning against the stone wall. Fires did their best against the chill, but down in the dungeons, the cells were nearly as cold as the snow packed up outside them. “Stop,” he said. “Stop. Please. No one else is here. It’s only us.”
“I know,” Athiel said with a soft smile. “Otherwise I might have bothered to stand.”
The statement was meant to be cute, Daraya knew, and under other circumstances he might have laughed at how the trappings of royalty had never stood between them. Their current situation, however, was far from humorous. “I will give you the sacred branch and the wine. Right here, I can.” Daraya gestured to the cell around them. “I will bring in witnesses who will watch and then swear your blasphemy is forsaken. You will be fined but free to go.”
Athiel let out a long, slow breath that was heavy with disappointment. “You know my answer.”
“I know you are a fool!” Daraya hit the wall with the side of his fist. “One sentence! Not even a full sentence! In fact, you don’t need to say anything. They’d hardly punish a faithful man for having a sore throat, would they? Pour the wine at my feet and snap the branch, and we’ll all declare this a terrible misunderstanding and go home.”
With a shake of his head, Athiel shut his eyes again and began muttering words beneath his breath, a prayer in a language Daraya had never even tried to learn. The answer remained unchanged.
Depending on how one looked at it, Athiel had either been the greatest success or the most spectacular failure of King Kushur’s plan. He had arrived as the eldest son of a ruling family, imbued with the authority of his lineage. Three years into his education, the real Prince Athiel lead a failed rebellion against Kushur’s forces, at which time the deception became clear — the Athiel who had been brought to them was a slave boy who had looked enough like the prince to pass without suspicion. Instead of having royal pedigree, he had none. Returning him to his people and expecting them to accept his rule would have been akin to delivering a trained dog and asking the population to do the same. They had gained a useless prize.
Yet in those three years, the boy calling himself Athiel had distinguished himself as the brightest of all the boys collected from the conquered lands. While the sons of nobility were often spoiled and lazy, Athiel had worked hard to master every lesson put before him. He had a gift for understanding complex situations and proposing fair solutions. Upon realizing that returning Athiel to his home country would do them little good, Kushur had begun to train him for life in the palace — not by his own side, but by the side of his favorite wife’s only son. That son, a boy the same age as Athiel, was Daraya.
This had caused some bitterness among the long-time servants of the king, all of whom had wanted their sons in place beside the prince clearly being groomed to take the throne. However, Daraya had assumed this bitterness had long ago dispersed, and that the more senior advisors had simply come to accept that the king’s most trusted counsel had come to them from foreign birth. How wrong he had been.
Daraya held his breath and counted slowly to five again, then let it out between pursed lips. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.
“I’m not.” After a moment, Athiel did rise, though with a back-cracking stretch that indicated the gesture had not been for Daraya’s benefit. “I have done right by my Lord God, and in doing so I have transgressed against my Lord King. I will take the punishment that has been–“
“Stop,” hissed Daraya through clenched teeth. “They’re going to — they’re going to put you in the Cell!”
“I know.” Athiel folded his hands into the long sleeves of his thin prisoner’s robe. If Daraya was cold down here, in his heavy layers, how much colder would such a simple garment be? Athiel’s bearing seemed unbothered by the cold, but there was no hiding how red his cheeks and nose were.
“You are going to die out there!” Daraya barely managed to keep his voice down.
Athiel shrugged. “There are some who walk out of the Winter Cell.”
Of course there were — in the summer months, when the nights were far shorter. Even those who did survive their night of punishment were not unchanged; many lost fingers, toes, sometimes entire limbs to the cold. They were often recognizable by the permanent blackening of frostbite on their cheeks and forehead. A person who survived the night in the Winter Cell was considered to have paid their debt and be free, but at a terrible cost.
“You can’t do this.” Daraya fisted his hands in the fur cuffs of his royal robe. “As long as I’ve known you, I’ve tried to be patient. I’ve indulged you in your beliefs. I’ve done everything I could to make sure the right people looked the other way, because I thought it was admirable that you believed something. But it’s rubbish! You have to know it’s rubbish. The gods don’t exist — not yours, not mine, not anyone’s.”
Athiel watched Daraya with the patience of hearing a familiar argument rehashed. Daraya had perhaps never taken his speaking his position so clearly before, but then again, up until now, Athiel’s adherence to the faith of his people had been little more than a fun quirk of personality. The topic had given them something to talk about late into the night. It wasn’t something worth dying for.
After a moment without response from Athiel, Daraya exhaled through tight-pursed lips. “Fine. I’m leaving now, and if I just happen to leave the door to your cell open and the guards along the way distracted by attending to the king–“
“No,” said Athiel, his voice firm. “I won’t run.”
“Then I will drag you to the entrance myself!” snapped Daraya, though they both knew the threat was hollow. “I will … I will tie you up and toss you in the back of a merchant’s sleigh, and make them swear not to untie you until they’re on the other side of the mountains!”
Though it was expressly forbidden to touch the king without explicit permission, Athiel placed a hand on Daraya’s shoulder. Athiel was taller than Daraya by nearly a full head, and he kept his black hair long and cheeks clean-shaven in the fashion of a southerner. Small wonder that the other advisors had never liked him, for how he refused assimilation in all things, not only religion. But there were no laws against shaving off one’s beard or preferring foreign cooking — and there was a law, one put into place many kings ago, about not sacrificing to the divine majesty of the king on Solstice Day. To the best of Daraya’s findings, no one had ever been prosecuted for violating said law before now. Alas, there was a first time for everything.
Daraya looked at the point of contact, then covered Athiel’s bare hand with his own gloved one. Through the thin calf’s leather, he could feel how chilled Athiel’s skin was already. There was no way he could survive the whole night exposed to the elements.
“You may understand someday,” Athiel said softly, “what it is to believe, to put one’s faith in something so great and jealous for your love. And on that day, you will understand why I have made the choice I have made.”
Daraya was sick with fear and worry, but the emotions rose in his chest as anger. “On your own head be it, then,” he spat, turning away from the touch of his dear, doomed friend. “May your faith bring you comfort as you’re freezing to death.”
“It shall,” said Athiel — or perhaps Daraya only imagined it, as he was already walking away, and the sounds of his footfalls in the bare stone corridor were like thunder in his ears, blotting out everything else. When the guard shut and latched the door behind him, Daraya did not order him to leave it open instead. Open or shut, it would not matter. The prisoner had confessed.
Darkness had fallen over the land nearly two hours previous when the door to the Winter Cell opened, giving Daraya an image he would remember all his life: Athiel’s face, lit only by moonlight, fixed in an expression of absolute shock.
Daraya closed the door behind him, nodding at the sound it made as the heavy latch fell. Every guard in the land, he trusted with his life, but very few did he trust with his secrets. Those were the men standing guard tonight.
“What are you–?” began Athiel, though the words wobbled through the chattering of his teeth. Daraya had needed to wait for darkness, but hadn’t wanted to waste any more time than that. He had grown up in the snows, and he knew how quickly the cold settled in.
The laws surrounding the punishment of the Winter Cell were clear: The prisoner would be allowed inside wearing only a light shift, without overcoat or even shoes, and could not be given any garment or fabric that might provide warmth. Daraya had considered hiding some coat or blanket within the cell, or having a guard toss inside his outer cloak before shutting the door — but that ran against the possibility of Athiel’s being so invested in the righteousness of his punishment that he would likely have refused the aid.
That was why, before stepping out his door into the night’s deep chill, Daraya had wrapped himself in his warmest, most voluminous fur coat. It swept around his feet as he walked across the bare stone floor to the corner where Athiel had huddled, drawing as much of his body as he could into the loose shift. Daraya sat down just next to him and held out his arms, opening as he did the folds of the coat to show how much room there was inside.
It was a testament to just how bitter the cold had become that Athiel hesitated only a moment before throwing himself into the king’s arms, cleaving as close as he could to the warmth of Daraya’s body. Daraya closed the furs around him, drawing them both together inside. He pulled up the coat’s hood until it covered both their heads. “There,” Daraya said as he hid his hands again inside the sleeves of his robe.
“What–” Athiel started again, though he managed even less of the sentence than he had before. He was shivering almost violently now, which Daraya knew to be a good sign, an indicator that his body was warming up again from the point of being too cold to shiver at all.
Daraya shook his head. “You didn’t think I was going to leave you out here to freeze, did you?”
“Should–” Athiel took a deep breath. “Should have.”
“Absolutely not.” Daraya wrapped his arms around Athiel’s body, taking in for the first time the broadness of Athiel’s frame. As close as this, there was no disguising the sturdiness of his build, the way Daraya’s hands barely met on the other side of his doubled-up body. “Perhaps I have committed no crime, but I have also not been a just ruler, to allow a law to stand that would punish my most valued advisor for the sake of my own vanity. There is a lesson I should learn as well, and I will learn it here.”
Athiel sighed, but any disapproval in the sound was overridden by the grateful way he pressed up against Daraya. He was a principled man, to be sure, but even a principled man’s instincts did not want him to die. “Shouldn’t … shouldn’t be here.”
“Oh, do shut up.” Daraya shifted their position so his chin came to rest atop Athiel’s head. “Just because you’re my advisor hardly means your advice is always good.”
That at least won a soft, snorted laugh from Athiel. “Majesty,” he murmured. Despite his shivering, Daraya could feel Athiel’s body began to relax. The ebb of that tension told the truth — that Athiel had indeed planned to die. His bluster about survival had been only that; he had walked into the Winter Cell at spearpoint, never expecting to walk out again.
“Stupid,” Daraya said, his lips pressed against the soft curls of Athiel’s dark hair. “I can’t believe you’d leave me with only them.”
“Them?” asked Athiel.
“Them,” Daraya repeated, spitting the word as he pictured the inside of the throne room and the clusters of men who packed its corners. His father had trusted them, or so it had seemed always to Daraya in his youth. Had his father been a fool, or had he placed Athiel at his side to teach Daraya caution? “The honey-tongued serpents who set you up. I knew you were hardly their favorite, but I could never have imagined they’d be so cruel as to plot your death outright.”
Athiel snorted. “I could.”
That surprised Daraya so much, he let the hood fall back from his face, until he could meet Athiel’s gaze with his own. “Have you always known?” Daraya asked, and when Athiel nodded, Daraya sighed, disgusted with himself. “And you said nothing?”
“I did, as I could,” said Athiel, his voice growing stronger by degrees as the chill faded from his body. “You weren’t ready.”
The hell of it was, Daraya knew Athiel had indeed tried to warn him — never outright, but with well-placed reasons to doubt that some of the things the elder advisors said could be taken just as they were given. Daraya could remember the number of times Athiel had wisely given him pause at their suggestions. And yet, he had never drawn the line from individual questionable moments and the truth that they might not have his best interests at heart at all. What kind of a king was he, then, that he had lacked the wisdom to see such a threat?
As though hearing those thoughts spoken aloud, Athiel took one bare hand and placed it on the left side of Daraya’s chest. “You have a good heart. And you want to trust. You want to believe all…” Athiel was silent for a moment, taking a few slow, deep breaths to center himself. Daraya was grateful indeed he hadn’t waited any longer to arrive. “To believe in good hearts. And noble minds. Like yours.”
With a heavy exhale, Daraya let his bearded chin drop toward his chest. “My heart is hardly good, and my mind scarcely noble, if despite them, you wound up here.”
“I was disrespectful,” Athiel reminded him.
“No! You weren’t!” Perhaps under other circumstances, Daraya would have let his temper walk him away from this conversation, pretending they would have it later when, really, no such thing would take place. But in this cell, they could not even run from themselves. “I don’t care if my people sacrifice anything, to me or to anyone else! It does me no good when the snow is stained with the wine from ten thousand goblets, or a hundred thousand evergreen branches torn from trees! It’s a foolish tradition, and even more foolish to require it by law, and the only reason I left it in place so long was–” Daraya clamped his mouth shut, biting down on the insides of his lips. The night was achingly cold, but his cheeks were flushed with heat.
Nodding, Athiel let his hand splay out against Daraya’s chest. The furs drawn around them meant that Daraya could not see the touch, but he could feel it as keenly as though those fingers had penetrated his very skin. “You deserve those things,” Athiel said, his voice soft.
“No, I don’t.” Daraya shook his head. “No more than your god deserves to have you freeze to death. I know what you believe,” Daraya said, fixing Athiel with a sharp gaze as he began to open his mouth in response, “and I tell you, here and now, that no god, no matter how great, could be worthy enough to deserve your life. And if a god did think that, I would track him down and meet him in combat.”
That made Athiel chuckle. “You would fight a god, for me?”
It sounded ridiculous to hear it put that way — except it wasn’t so ridiculous at all. “I would,” Daraya said, meaning every word. “To keep you at my side, I would.”
When Athiel raised his head at that, Daraya expected that he would chide the king for saying something he couldn’t possibly mean, or perhaps brush off the statement as royal bluster. What he did not expect, however, was that Athiel would press his mouth to Daraya’s in a warm, soft kiss.
For a moment, Daraya could neither move nor breathe. Athiel had spoken before of customs in his homeland, how rules regarding sex and genders were far more relaxed than they were in the northern lands. Even knowing that, though, had never given Daraya freedom enough to consider such a thing. Sexual congress between men was expressly forbidden, to the point where the most unrepentant offender might find himself–
Daraya nearly laughed outright. Of course, such a man might find himself exactly where Daraya was now. There was literally no greater punishment for the crime in question than the one Daraya had walked into of his own free will. When framed that way, it would have seemed a greater sin not to kiss back.
And so Daraya did, parting his lips and letting Athiel’s mouth work against his own. He could feel the curve of Athiel’s lips as he smiled and deepened the kiss, taking charge of the embrace in a way Daraya would not have imagined of him. In the throne room, they were king and advisor, the unlikely regent and the slave wearing a prince’s name. Here, though, there were no ranks, no titles, no crowns. There were only bodies and they way they felt against one another.
Daraya tightened his arms around Athiel’s body, where he could feel that their shared warmth had suffused them both. Had he really come so close to losing Athiel forever? He had been furious about events before, but now all his anger had burned through him, leaving him only with the ache of imagining what it would be like to rule without Athiel as his right hand. The entire enterprise was unthinkable. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” Daraya promised, speaking into the kiss. “If it costs me my throne, my life, I will keep all harm from you.”
Athiel raised one of his hands to cup Daraya’s face, resting his palm over the soft ginger curve of Daraya’s beard. “I know,” he said, before drawing Daraya’s face to his own and kissing him again. How long had Athiel been thinking about this? How long had Daraya wanted it without knowing that was what his heart had desired?
Inside their shared fur cover, Athiel shifted position, moving from sitting astride Daraya’s lap to straddling him. Through the thin prisoner’s shift Athiel had been dressed in, Daraya could feel easily the form and curves of his body. Athiel was a handsome man, Daraya had always known this, but it was one thing to know it as true and quite another to get his hands on it. Athiel’s broad body was muscled in a way that could not be seen beneath the heavy garments he always wore against the cold northern weather. Daraya now wanted to learn every inch.
Athiel broke from the kiss to move his mouth up to Daraya’s ear, tugging at Daraya’s earlobe with his teeth in a way that made Daraya gasp. Oh, he hoped that the noise outside the Winter Cell’s walls all but blocked the sounds from inside; there were some secrets he’d just as rather not have to bother with needing to be kept.
Daraya pulled Athiel closer to him, as close as bodies could be, and was somewhat comically shocked to find that doing so brought the hard, insistent press of Athiel’s erection right up against his own. Certainly, he understood anatomy and arousal, having owned a penis for every moment of his life thus far. But there was something still to actually feeling another man’s cock pressing against his body and know that he, Daraya, was the one responsible for the man’s state. Of all the powers granted to him since taking the throne, this one seemed the most magnificent.
He would one day be expected to take wives, of course; even now his advisors were likely dreaming up alliances with eligible women from politically convenient lands. He had known this since he was young, but the thought had neither excited nor repulsed him. It had simply existed in his awareness as an expectation, one which he did had accepted as his duty.
Yet the thought of marriage to those unknown women had never for a moment excited him the way Athiel’s body did. He knew Athiel, and more, he trusted Athiel. There were no other plans to fear with him like this, no knives to watch for before they entered his back. Athiel touched him because Athiel wanted him. It was a powerful thing indeed, to be wanted.
Athiel groaned softly into Daraya’s ear as he leaned his hips in further, pressing for contact. Not so long ago, Athiel had thought he was going to die, and Daraya had thought he would be left alive but alone. How much sweeter, then, was the embrace knowing that the worst would not come to pass!
Still within their cocoon of furs and robes, Athiel reached for the fold of Daraya’s robe, untying the knot that tied the garment shut and pushing the two sides apart. Beneath it was another shift — and Daraya laughed to think that he, while planning to spend a night in a prison of stone and carved ice, had somehow managed to make the mistake of wearing too much clothing. Athiel seemed to find the same humor in the situation, chuckling as he pulled up the hem of the undermost garment. The heavy pelt still formed a layer beneath them, keeping bare skin away from the cold, hard ground.
Once he had exposed their skin to each other, Athiel took his hand and wrapped both of their cocks together in his grip. Daraya bit his lower lip to keep from crying out at the sensation of his own sensitive flesh against Athiel’s. He had never even dreamed up this fantasy before, and now he was already wondering how he would ever, for the rest of his life, think about anything else. “Your Majesty,” Athiel purred against Daraya’s ear as he began to stroke them both.
Something about the sound of his title shocked him out of the fog of arousal, though, and Daraya pulled back enough that he could see Athiel’s face. “You, ah–” Daraya cleared his throat. “I would have done this for — you don’t need to — you must know that you should feel no obligation–“
Athiel cut him off with a kiss, one that did not feel obligated in the slightest. “I had one regret,” Athiel whispered against Daraya’s lips, “as the cold and dark crept in on me here, and that was that I had never held you like this. That in a lifetime of service, I had never told you how long I have admired you as a king but wanted you as a man.”
Daraya’s brow furrowed. “You … you have?” Had there been signs Daraya had missed? Should he have noticed something about this before now?
Laughing, Athiel pressed their foreheads together, still working their erections together in his hand. “Shall I be more obvious next time?”
Next time. The idea that this not only could but would happen again made Daraya’s already-thrumming heart race. “Perhaps,” Daraya said, which made Athiel laugh and kiss him again. Then Athiel squeezed their cocks together in a way that made Daraya gasp and Athiel grin. It was so easy and wonderful to melt into that touch.
The sensations built to overwhelming, and before Daraya knew it, his climax was washing over him, until he spilled his seed in a mess between their bodies. He had tended to his own needs before, late at night and in bed, but the result had never felt like this. He clung to Athiel’s body, wrapping the furs around them as tight as they could go.
Moments later, Daraya felt Athiel’s body shudder as he gasped and pressed his lips to the curve of Daraya’s jaw. Daraya held him throughout his orgasm, then kissed him once Athiel had his breath again. He wanted to know what it would feel like to be the one with his hands on them both, to make Athiel come and shiver like that. And he would get his chance. On the other side of the night ahead of them would be dawn, and the day that followed would see some changes made. For now, though, it was enough that they were together.
Athiel sighed and leaned back until the top of his thin-clothed body emerged from the furs. “Almost got too warm in there,” he joked. In the thin white moonlight through the gaps in the ceiling, Daraya could see curls of vapor roll off Athiel’s flushed skin. What a change indeed from preparing to freeze to death.
“Almost,” Daraya agreed, feeling beads of perspiration prick against his own body. Sweat could be dangerous at such temperatures, but only if the person in question were then exposed to the cold. Daraya didn’t imagine the heat between them would be going anywhere soon.
Gazing down at his king, Athiel curled his lips into a gentle smile. “Am I to understand you plan to stay here until dawn?”
“Until nearly dawn.” Daraya pointed to the cell door, indicating the guards on the other side. “They’ll come for me just before the sky begins to turn, when I can go without being seen. So unfortunately you’ll have to last the final hour or so alone.”
Athiel nodded, then bent down for another deep kiss. “Make me warm enough beforehand and I won’t even mind.”
It was a challenge Daraya had all but been born to rise to.
“And what do the physicians say?” asked Daraya, standing in his courtly robes beside the hospital hall’s roaring fire.
“That all is well,” Athiel told him, a gloss that made Daraya scowl. Laughing, Athiel drew a blanket tighter around his legs as he sat upright, propped up by pillows in the sickbed closest to the warming blaze. “That all is nearly well, and the rest shall heal up nicely, given how they had not expected to find me alive enough to heal at all.”
Daraya rolled his eyes, though he couldn’t help smiling. Around them, those same physicians and their nurses milled about, attending to the various patients whose cots lined the walls. Athiel had refused any of the king’s attempts to heap upon him preferential treatment, which was why Daraya had not said a single word about how, while Athiel convalesced here, servants were relocating his quarters. After all, it made perfect sense that the king’s most trusted advisor should keep rooms adjacent to the king’s own. And if Athiel had any grievances from this, well, he could use his new proximity to complain to the king to his heart’s content.
As Daraya considered the accommodations, he noticed a bowl and spoon left dirty but empty beside Athiel’s bed. “Are they feeding you well enough?”
Athiel laughed. “You may fight a god for me if you choose, but you don’t have to fuss over my lunch.”
Daraya shook his head. “That means no. I’ll have them send up something from when they prepare my meals.”
“Your Majesty, I–” With a patient sigh, Athiel glanced around the room. Daraya followed his gaze to see that everyone else had their own concerns, and no one was paying attention to even such a rare sight as the king. Then Athiel patted the side of the bed, indicating that Daraya should sit.
After a moment, Daraya did, folding his hands in the lap of his robe. How was he meant to act? He could go to war, he could argue with a kitchen staff, he could show up on a frozen night — but how could someone simply exist around someone else when they felt like this?
Athiel of course knew better than to cross the distance between them. Here, they were king and advisor again, as close as they dared to be in such a public setting. But he moved his leg so that Daraya could feel the pressure of their bodies together, even through the blankets that covered him. “I am well. Thanks to you.” Athiel smirked. “Though I wish you could have seen their faces when they opened the door at daybreak.”
Daraya wished he could as well. Alas that he’d had to leave in darkness, to pretend that he had been snug in his chambers all night, to feign surprise in the morning when he was given the news of his foreign advisor’s unlikely survival. “I simply wish to make sure you are well cared for,” Daraya said. “Things are going to begin to change very soon, and I will need you healed and whole and by my side as they do.”
“Believe me, no matter how well they treat me, I wish to spend no more time here than necessary,” Athiel said, smiling at the king. “Besides, I wish to return to the freedom of the outside world. I believe the doctors here would frown on my burning incense to my Lord God in gratitude for sparing my life.”
“Your–” Daraya could have spat in frustration. As it was, he clenched his teeth and huffed a hot breath through his nose. “No god did that!” he snapped, barely mindful to keep his voice down. “That was no divine intervention! You were left there and you would have died alone! How can you still believe?”
In response to Daraya’s rising anger, though, Athiel only smiled. “As I felt my life slipping away, you were sent to me,” Athiel said, his expression serene. “In my prayers, I cried out for deliverance, and that deliverance came in the form of your embrace. What more could I ask to justify my belief?”
Daraya knew little of faith, and even less of how gods — if they even existed, if they even listened — monitored or intervened in the affairs of their devotees. He had never felt any supernatural presence, divine or otherwise, that had led him to any conclusions about existence beyond those his senses could detect. And yet, in a world wider than he could imagine, with more people than he could ever meet, the two of them had been brought and bound together. Whether by fate or by design, their lives had become intertwined, and when Daraya had reached out his arms, he had felt Athiel reaching back. Perhaps the simple improbability of love was all the miracle anyone needed.