by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
“Can you see anything at all, private?”
Kale strained until his eyes hurt, and thought maybe he could see the barest hint of movement. “I… I think… flickering, like a candle behind a thick curtain at the end of a long, dark hall.” There was a dismayed noise from somewhere behind him, and he sighed. “It’s really bright and you’re shining it right into my eyes, aren’t you?”
“I’m afraid so,” the medic said, sounding genuinely apologetic. Kale’s shoulders slumped, and he fiercely ordered himself not to cry or shout in frustration.
The faint flickering light vanished. Kale was left in complete darkness once more, and he bit his lip hard to keep from protesting. “We’ve done all we can,” the medic declared. “That was the strongest healing spell I know. It is possible that your sight will return slowly, with time.”
“But you don’t think it’s likely,” Kale concluded bitterly. He didn’t need to be able to see the medic’s expression to figure that much out.
“I’m sorry, Private Coulter.” The medic paused, as if he might say more, but then Kale heard the soft sound of footsteps and a door opening and shutting. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, even though it didn’t make any difference to what he could see, struggling to contain his disappointment.
A strong, warm hand clasped his shoulder. “Hey, a week ago you couldn’t even see that much. This is progress.” Jaren sounded like he was trying to be soothing, but Kale caught the faint hint of despair in his lover’s voice. They had both been clinging to the hope that the healers back at the capital, more powerful and far better rested than the ones at the front, would be able to heal the damage caused by the explosion of contained power that had burned out Kale’s eyes.
Now that hope was shattered, and Kale was hard put not to panic at the thought of never seeing anything again. He swallowed hard, and did his best to make his voice firm. “Well, at least the war is over, so I don’t have to worry about fighting any more,” he said, trying to put a good face on it.
“Yeah, I hear they’re mustering out most of the regular troops,” Jaren agreed cheerfully, his voice just a little too bright and loud. “Considering the size of the Elite has more than tripled since the war started, we’re more than enough to handle the peacekeeping duties of the army. No reason to pay the regular troops to sit around doing nothing.”
“And most of them will be happy to go back to their families and lives,” Kale said softly. How often had he heard his fellow privates talk longingly about going home, before he’d joined Jaren and the rest of the 64th Elite unit? Unfortunately for him, it was a sentiment he didn’t share. He’d never wanted to be a farmer, and the last thing he wanted was to go home now, broken and defeated, to be a burden on his family. He wouldn’t even be able to help out in the fields; he’d just be another mouth to feed, someone to be pitied.
On the other hand, staying here just meant being a burden on Jaren instead, which was a far worse prospect. “I… I guess I should start thinking about going home, too,” he made himself say. “Surely somebody in the army is heading in that direction, and would help me get there. Maybe if I offer to pay them; I’ve got enough saved up…”
“What? What are you talking about?” Jaren sounded startled. “You never said you were planning to go home!”
“Well, it’s not like I can stay with the 64th,” Kale said, trying to sound reasonable and mostly just sounding sour. “I’m worse than useless like this, I’m a liability. My ability to see magic was the only reason the army put up with me being assigned to you in the first place. If I go with you now, then the rumours really will be true – I’d be nothing more than your bedwarmer.”
“Well, but, you don’t have to go with us,” Jaren sputtered. Under other circumstances Kale might have been amused to hear his normally calm, collected lover reduced to stammering like a little boy. “You can stay here, I’ll take quarters in the city instead of a room in the barracks. It’s peace time now, the Elite will probably spend a lot more time in the capital than out in the field, so it’s not even like we’ll be separated for long periods…”
“Didn’t we already have the conversation where I said I didn’t want to be your kept boy?” Kale interrupted him. “Nothing has changed since then. If anything, I want your charity even less now than I did before.”
“It’s not charity, Kale,” Jaren protested, but Kale couldn’t stand to hear any more. He didn’t want to have this argument now, or ever. Especially because Jaren probably could talk him into staying, but in time they would only come to resent each other.
He knew where the door was because he’d heard the medic go through it. Kale only fumbled twice before he found the handle, and he wrenched it open and fled before Jaren could say anything else.
Of course, in the antechamber outside the examining room he found himself faced with a gauntlet of well-meant sympathy. What remained of the 64th Elite unit was waiting for the news. “Well?” “What did the medic say?” “Kale, did they fix you?”
The jumble of voices came from all sides. Kale shook his head, trying to place where everyone was. There were fewer voices than there should have been; they’d lost far too many people in that last big push, yet another thing for him to grieve over. He opened his mouth to answer, and to his horror felt his throat close and his eyes burn.
“Never mind,” Leor rumbled in his deep voice. “Your face says it all for you.”
“I’m sorry, Kale,” Jaysan said, and his sympathy nearly pushed Kale right over the edge.
“I’ve got a headache from straining my eyes all morning,” Kale choked out, and it wasn’t even a lie. “I… I think I’m just going to go lie down for a while.” The moment the words were out of his mouth, he realized he was effectively trapped; he had no idea how to get back to Jaren’s quarters from the infirmary wing of the Elite headquarters, and he couldn’t exactly find his way by himself.
He sensed more than heard his lover come up behind him. “Kale,” Jaren said, helplessly. Kale shook his head rapidly, not wanting to have to go all the way back with Jaren leading him, but not seeing any other way out of it.
“I’m heading back to the barracks too,” Trant declared. “C’mon, Kale, we’ll go together.” Someone – presumably Trant – stepped forward and took Kale’s elbow, leading him towards the door.
“Thanks,” Kale whispered, trying not to seem too pathetically grateful.
“No problem,” Trant assured him, just as quietly. “You haven’t had a minute to yourself since the army found you two up on that mountain. If I were you, I know I’d be about ready to kill someone for some private time by now!”
Kale nodded, and thankfully Trant didn’t seem to expect any further conversation from him. They went the rest of the way back to the barracks in silence, and Trant left him at the door to the single room that was Jaren’s.
Once inside with the door safely locked behind him, Kale kicked off his boots and stumbled the short distance to the bed. He collapsed down onto it and screamed his agony into the muffling pillow as the hot tears finally slid down his cheeks. That was it, then. He was probably going to spend the rest of his life as a cripple, and he might just as well get used to it.
Later, though. For the moment, he thought he was justified in spending a little time ranting at the uncaring gods who had allowed this to happen to him.
He wasn’t sure how long he stayed there, alone and miserable. It was hard to keep track of time when he could see neither the changing angle of the sun nor any timepieces that might be around. Rage faded into despair, and then to a dull resignation that left him feeling drained and apathetic. He lay there on the bed, his headache that much worse for having vented his fury, half wishing he’d died in the explosion after all. It might have been a kinder fate.
Eventually he heard a key turning in the lock, and then Jaren’s familiar footsteps entering. Kale didn’t bother to turn his head towards the door. He wouldn’t be able to see anything, and he just couldn’t seem to muster the energy. He heard Jaren stop by the bed, and for a long moment the older man said nothing.
Finally he spoke. “Stop it,” he said, sounding angry. “Damn it, Kale! You were in shock at first, and I’ve tried to be understanding, but this is just self-pity.”
Kale pushed himself up to a half sitting position, trying to glare in Jaren’s general direction. It was a surprisingly difficult expression to maintain when you couldn’t see the object of your anger. For all he knew he was scowling fiercely at the bedpost.
“So what if I am?” he demanded. “I think I’ve earned it! I’ll probably never see again, and I’ll certainly never get my ability to see magic back. I’m useless like this, I’ll never be anything but a burden and a cripple, and…”
To his shock, Jaren grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Stop it!” the older man repeated. “So what if things aren’t exactly what we’d hoped they would be? We’re alive, and we’re together, that’s all that matters.”
“Easy for you to say,” Kale retorted. “You’ll go off and leave me here, alone, and eventually you’ll hate me for tying you down to a cripple…” To his horror he felt tears start to well up again.
Jaren cut him off with a kiss that was more angry than passionate, but when he pulled back his voice was gentle. “Idiot. Is that what’s been worrying you?” Jaren sighed and settled onto the bed next to him, pulling Kale close and tucking the smaller man’s head against his shoulder. “How many times do I have to tell you before I drill it into that dense head of yours? I love you, Kale Coulter, because of who you are, not what you can do. I love you because you stopped to rescue a complete stranger at the risk of your own life, and because you sacrificed yourself to save a unit full of people who didn’t even like you. I love you because when you found out I was the son of a duke, it never once crossed your mind to consider what you could get out of me. When I thought I was going to die, spending my last hours with you was the only thing in the world I wanted. Why would any of that change just because you can’t see?”
“But…” Kale protested weakly.
“No buts,” Jaren said firmly. “I’m not giving you up for anything, so you’d better get used to the idea. You’re stuck with me until the end.” He kissed Kale again, sliding his mouth over Kale’s lips and flicking his tongue out to taste the sensitive skin.
Kale surrendered, knowing he was never going to win this argument and not really wanting to. Sometimes it irked him that Jaren could win almost any discussion just by kissing him, but mostly he just threw himself into it and didn’t really care. He kissed back, winding his arms around Jaren’s neck and clinging tightly, trying to ignore the tight ache that lingered in his chest. He still thought Jaren would resent him some day, but he couldn’t bring himself to deny what the other man was offering right now.
Jaren eased him back on the bed, hands trailing down over Kale’s uniform and slowly undoing the buttons of the tunic. Kale returned the favour, though his hands fumbled with uncharacteristic uncertainty on a task he’d performed a hundred times before. Not being able to see what he was doing made a surprising amount of difference. They’d been injured and exhausted on the trip back to the capital, and this was the first time they’d had a moment to themselves since the final battle.
“Stop thinking so hard, and just relax,” Jaren ordered him, murmuring the words against his lips. “You’ve undressed me in the dark often enough. How is this any different? You’re only making it hard because you think it will be.”
Frustrated, Kale realized Jaren was right. He forced his hands to steady, and let his fingers move automatically instead of trying to remember exactly where all the buttons would be. Jaren’s shirt came undone in half the time it had taken to unbutton his tunic, and Kale felt marginally better.
“There, see?” Jaren pushed aside Kale’s tunic and shirt, leaving his chest exposed to the cool air in the room. Hypersensitive, Kale felt the soft draft of air over his skin almost as strongly as Jaren’s fingers trailing over him.
Then Jaren slid his mouth down over Kale’s neck and throat, nipping and licking his way to the younger man’s taut nipples. Kale gasped and clutched at Jaren’s shoulders for support, arching up into the contact. He jumped when Jaren’s fingers suddenly found the bare skin of his hip just above his belt, not having expected it. Jaren chuckled and bit at his nipple, then soothed his tongue over the tiny wound as he got to work on Kale’s belt. His other hand slid beneath Kale to run slowly over his spine, making him shiver.
Everything felt oddly more intense and focused. When they’d had sex in the ‘dark’ before, there had always been dim moonlight filtering through the tent or the guttering light of a candle by the door, just enough light that Kale could see enough to anticipate what Jaren would do next. Now, completely unable to predict where the next teasing touch would fall, Kale felt like he was drowning in surprised pleasure.
“Oh gods, Jaren,” Kale moaned, and belatedly remembered he was supposed to be touching back. He felt himself blush as he dropped his hands to Jaren’s pants, fumbling this time not from lack of sight but from eager anticipation. The moment the older man’s pants were unbuttoned Kale slid his hand inside, wrapping his fingers around Jaren’s hard cock. This was something he didn’t need to see to be able to do well, and he concentrated on the familiar feel of the heated flesh, touching the places he’d learned felt best.
Jaren always made the most wonderful, needy noises when Kale touched him like this, and today was no exception. He rocked into Kale’s touch, his own hands growing slightly unsteady as they continued to trail over Kale’s body. “Yeah, that’s it,” the older man said, breathless. “Fuck, Kale, you always reduce me to feeling like an overeager teenager.”
“It doesn’t show,” Kale assured him, his voice husky with need. He squirmed beneath Jaren, both to tease and to encourage his lover to touch the right places. “If I’m good at this, it’s only because you taught me, you know.”
“Then how could you think I’d want to be rid of you?” Jaren asked, moving so his lips brushed the sensitive shell of Kale’s ear with every word. His heated breath ghosted over Kale’s neck, making him shiver. “I’ve got you trained just the way I want you. Only think what a bother it would be to have to teach someone new!”
“Oh, is th-that why you keep me around?” Kale demanded, his attempt at mock-indignation somewhat spoiled by the way his voice broke when Jaren finally wrapped a hand around him. “Just to avoid the inconvenience?”
“Well, there might be a few other reasons,” Jaren admitted. “But that’s definitely one of them. You know how lazy I am.” He stroked Kale a few times, just hard and fast enough to leave the younger man writhing on the bed, then pulled away. Kale made a wordless noise of protest, reaching blindly for his lover, but he understood when he heard the rustle of clothes hitting the floor. Then Jaren’s strong hands were back on his body, pulling his uniform pants down and off as well, leaving them both bare to each other.
“Gods, you’re beautiful,” Jaren said, as he so often did when they had a chance to take their time and really look at each other. Kale could imagine the older man’s expression down to the last detail; the way his pale blond hair hung was slipping out of its tie, the perfect curved arch of his lips, and most importantly, the way his intense blue eyes would be shining with lust and love.
He could imagine it, but he couldn’t see it. Resolutely wrenching his mind away from the thought, Kale swallowed the lump in his throat and reached for his lover again. “Stop looking and start touching, already,” he demanded. “You are such a tease, Jaren!”
“And you love me for it,” Jaren laughed, but he obediently ran one hand down over Kale’s chest again. The other hand was absent for a moment, and Kale jumped again when Jaren suddenly touched his cock again. The older man’s hand was slippery, and Kale knew he’d grabbed the oil.
Suddenly eager, almost anxious, for the release and oblivion that orgasm would bring, Kale tilted his hips up and spread his legs encouragingly. “Do it, Jaren,” he said. “Please, gods, do it. I need to feel you inside me.”
“I’m right here, Kale,” Jaren said, and there was more sympathy in his voice than Kale wanted to hear. He lunged up and grabbed for his lover, smacking Jaren in the chest hard enough to make the bigger man rock back before Kale managed to get his arms around Jaren’s neck. He pulled the older man down, kissing him fiercely, hips rocking up and hand reaching for Jaren’s cock.
He felt Jaren’s laughter against his lips, but the other man gave in and slid his hand down to tease over Kale’s entrance. He slipped two fingers inside, pushing slowly to give Kale a chance to adjust, working at the muscles to stretch them.
Panting, Kale broke the kiss and threw his head back, eyes squeezed tightly shut even though it didn’t make a difference. This way he could at least tell himself he was choosing the darkness, in order to better concentrate on the feel of Jaren’s fingers inside him. He ground his hips down, trying to help Jaren find that place inside him that could make him see stars.
They’d been lovers long enough now to have all but memorized each other’s bodies, and it didn’t take Jaren more than a moment to find it. Kale shouted as a sharp stab of ecstasy swept through him, and rocked helplessly into the sensation. “Yes, Jaren, please! Fuck me already!”
“So demanding,” Jaren murmured, the strain of desire lurking just beneath the surface of his amusement. He refused to give in, continuing to tease Kale with the slow thrusting motions, even adding a third finger once Kale had adjusted enough.
Only when Kale thought he might go half mad with desire did Jaren finally relent, withdrawing his hand and shifting to align his body with Kale’s. Kale fisted his hands in the sheet and bit his lip, refusing to give voice to even a hint of the pain that he did feel as Jaren first entered him. It always hurt in the very beginning, but what came after was so incredibly worth it that he’d never complained.
His new hyperawareness his other senses made him conscious of every inch of Jaren’s skin sliding against his, creating an electric tingle that raced over Kale’s nerves. He was equally aware of the heavy, musky scent of sex and Jaren, and the moans that escaped the older man as he eased himself deeper into Kale.
Kale clawed at Jaren’s back, desperate for more and yet never wanting the moment to stop. He forgot about being blind, forgot about everything but the incredible feel of Jaren moving within him. A deep, throaty moan escaped him as he rocked up into Jaren’s thrusts, and felt the unstoppable spring of orgasm beginning to coil slowly tighter inside.
It wound and wound and wound, as they grew increasingly more frantic in their attempts to touch and devour each other. Kale felt hot tears streaking his cheeks as he nearly choked on the tension. He screamed when it released at last and flung him out of the dark and into brightness.
The light was only an illusion, and it faded quickly, but he was grateful for it nonetheless. He clung to Jaren, panting and trembling, and felt the older man stiffen against him as he reached his own completion. “Kale,” Jaren whispered, no less emotion in his voice for the lack of volume.
“I’m right here,” Kale replied hoarsely, echoing Jaren’s earlier words to him. “I’m right here, Jaren.”
Jaren collapsed against him, then rolled them both to the side so they were cuddled close together without him being in danger of crushing Kale. Kale buried his face in Jaren’s bare shoulder, breathing in the familiar scent of him and picturing the look of sleepy satiation he knew would be on his lover’s face right now.
How long would it be before the memory of exactly how Jaren looked at the moment of orgasm began to fade?
How long would it take before he started to forget what Jaren looked like completely?
Fighting a sob so hard his whole body shuddered with the effort, Kale burrowed deeper into his lover’s embrace. Jaren seemed to understand that he didn’t want sympathy at that moment, because he said nothing, only held him close and stroked one hand gently over Kale’s back.
“It’s not that I’m trying to make you into some kind of pet or kept boy, you know,” Jaren murmured after he’d been silent long enough that Kale had relaxed and begun to drift into sleep. “I just… let me put it this way. If I were the one who’d been hurt in that battle, would you just walk away and leave me because of it?”
“What? N-no! Of course not,” Kale stammered, caught by surprise. Horrible as it was to imagine his strong, athletic lover crippled and weakened, it still didn’t change Kale’s feelings about him. The moment the words left his mouth, he saw where Jaren was going with this. Kale sighed and shook his head. “It’s not the same thing. You’re always the strong one, the one who’s protecting and looking out for me. If I can’t do anything at all to try to stand on my own two feet, I’ll just end up being…”
He trailed off, not wanting to say the word, but Jaren finished the sentence for him. “A burden? Never, Kale. You’re my light in the darkness, my reason to survive and come home. I’m going to need that reason now more than ever. Whether you can actually fight by my side or not, I need to know that you’re there for me.”
“Huh? Why?” Automatically Kale started to lift his head to get a better look at Jaren’s expression. He realized his mistake a moment later, and flopped back down again with an irritated noise. “We’re at peace, what do you need a…” he made a face, because it sounded so corny, but made himself keep going. “A light in the darkness for?”
“Because we’re not at peace, Kale.” Jaren had gone tense beside him, and his voice was laced with bitterness and regret.
“We’re not?” Shocked, Kale sputtered for a moment before he regained control of his voice. “How can we not be? There’s almost nothing left of the Semaskan army, and all their mages are dead. They can’t possibly invade us again for at least another decade, maybe more.”
“They’re not invading us,” Jaren replied heavily. “We’re invading them.” When Kale just gaped at him in shock, he sighed and elaborated. “I got pulled into a meeting of senior officers right after you and Trant left. The king has declared, and I quote, ‘In order to ensure the continued peace and prosperity of Istria, we have no choice but to take firm control over the lands of Semaska and its people. Only then can we ever hope to have a true reconciliation between our two nations.’ ”
He gave a cynical laugh, and sound Kale couldn’t remember ever hearing from him before. “What he means is that the Semaska is ripe for the picking, and has some very lucrative gem mines as part of its crown properties. But don’t ever repeat that, please. With the current state of politics in this country being what it is, even thinking something like that is treason.”
“But… but…” Kale was staggered by the thought. For more than a decade Istria had fought off advances by the Semaskans, who were desperate to gain possession of the fertile cropland on the Istrion side of the mountains. Almost all his life that he could remember, Kale had been hearing about the ‘greedy barbarians, trying to steal the land our people have shed blood and sweat to make prosperous, land we’ve worked for generations’.
“But… doesn’t that make us just as bad as them?” he finally asked, bewildered and a little frightened.
“Arguably worse, in some ways. We may not be torturing and draining life energy from our prisoners to help us win the war, granted, but at least they were fighting us out of genuine need, not the greed of their royalty.” Jaren pulled him a little closer and buried his face in Kale’s hair. “I thought I’d lost most of my idealism out there on the battlefield, but… I became an Elite because I wanted to protect my country and the people in it, not so I could run roughshod over a broken, starving civilian populace in order to steal the little they do have. What’s happened to the country I loved?”
Kale thought about the many, many things he’d seen in the war that had tested his own idealism: the way some commanders recklessly spent the lives of their troops, because they were ‘only peasants, easily replaced’; the way troops who had gone too long without leave would rape and pillage the innocent villages that happened to be caught on the edges of the ever-expanding war zone, sometimes not even caring which side of the border said village happened to be on; the way the high command had ignored the disgusting depredations of one of their own, so long as the man kept winning battles.
“I’m not so sure it ever really existed,” he finally whispered, knowing it wasn’t the answer Jaren wanted, and wishing he had some other answer to give.
“Neither am I, Kale. Neither am I.”
The door flew open suddenly as Kale was in the middle of struggling into his uniform. He yelped and tried to dive for the bed, painfully aware that he was half naked and not sure just who was bursting in on him. Unfortunately he got tangled in the trouser leg he’d been pulling up, and ended up sprawled in an undignified heap on the floor beside the bed instead.
“Sorry, Kale, it’s just me, I’m sorry,” Jaren apologized, moving forward to help him up. “I didn’t mean to startle you. We need to get into dress uniform, fast. We’ve got a Royal Audience to attend, and it doesn’t do to keep the king waiting.”
“The… what?” Kale felt himself gawking in Jaren’s direction, and snapped his mouth shut again. “You mean, you’ve got an audience. It’s okay, I’ll stay out of your way and dress when you’re done…”
“No, I mean ‘we‘,” Jaren insisted, leading him to the bed and helping him to untangle himself. “The king has summoned both of us, as ‘the heroes of the Battle of Headquarters’. I know you’d rather take care of yourself, but I think you’d better let me help you just this once.”
Face hot enough that he knew he had to be blushing visibly despite his dark skin, Kale nodded. It was embarrassingly difficult to handle even his normal uniform when he couldn’t see what he was doing, even after more than a week of practice. There was no way he’d be able to deal with the complicated fastenings and ornaments of his dress greens.
For once Jaren didn’t take the opportunity to touch Kale as he helped the younger man dress, obviously too focused on the upcoming audience with the king. That made Kale even more nervous than he already had been. Jaren not taking a chance to flirt was a very bad sign.
With Jaren’s help, they were both ready in a remarkably short period of time. “Come on,” Jaren said, placing Kale’s hand on his arm. Taking that position always made Kale feel like a girl, but it was easier to walk this way than getting yanked along by the hand like a child.
“Don’t be nervous, and try not to let him intimidate you,” Jaren instructed him as they hurried through the halls as fast as Kale could go. “He hates it when people cower. Don’t talk unless he asks you something directly, and if he does, try not to say anything more than you absolutely have to. Stick to ‘yes, your majesty’ and ‘no, your majesty’ if possible. The less you say, the less likely he’ll find something to take offence at. Never forget to use his title, every time you address him.”
“Do you really think he’ll want to talk to me?” Kale asked, horrified by the very thought. He was just a peasant, a farmboy who’d dreamed too big for his britches, a failed Elite candidate who wasn’t even a real mage. Most people in the army believed the only reason he was with the 64th at all was because he was Jaren’s plaything, not because he had anything to contribute to the unit.
“No, probably not, but I just want you to be prepared,” Jaren said grimly. “I grew up with this kind of political crap, but you didn’t.” He stopped, and tugged briefly at Kale’s uniform to straighten it. “Head up, eyes forward, don’t let anything get to you. When I tug my arm down, kneel beside me. Here we go!”
Suddenly Kale desperately wanted to say he’d changed his mind, to beg Jaren to let him run back to the safety of the room. But it was too late; he could hear something that had to be massive doors creeping open, and three loud thumps like a staff hitting the floor before a herald cried their entrance. “Captain Jaren Delwash and Private Kale Coulter of the 64th Elite.”
“They may approach the throne,” a baritone voice said. The speaker sounded bored but vaguely curious, like someone forced to sit through too many long meetings who has finally heard something interesting. As Kale followed Jaren’s subtle guidance, he felt thick carpet suddenly cushioning his booted feet, and heard the rustle of expensive fabrics and the whispers of the courtiers all around.
He felt the downward motion of Jaren’s arm, and dropped quickly to one knee. He almost lowered his head, but remembered Jaren’s admonition to keep his eyes forward and hoped he wasn’t misinterpreting it. The surprised murmur of voices around them wasn’t reassuring, but the king didn’t immediately shout ‘off with his head’, so Kale figured it couldn’t be too much of a mistake, if it was one at all.
“Captain Delwash,” the king – it had to be the king – said. “Or should we say, Jaren of Rhyse?”
Beside him Kale felt Jaren twitch, ever so faintly. “I would rather you didn’t, your majesty,” the Elite replied, his voice rock-steady. “As I’m sure you are aware, my father disowned me some time ago. I left that name behind when I chose to become one of your Elite.”
“But surely it must bother you, to have to give up your heritage,” the king insisted – taunted, Kale would have said if it had been anyone else. “Especially after your brother died. You should have been the heir.”
“I didn’t want it, your majesty,” Jaren said. “I can do more good for the country and its people as a warrior than a noble, frankly.”
“Ah, but now you are a hero,” the king said. “You could demand that we force Duke Weyne to reconsider you as his heir, or even request lands and titles of your own as your reward.”
“I am your humble servant, your majesty,” Jaren answered him slowly, sounding as if he was feeling his way through a trap. Kale was reminded irresistibly of the minefield they’d navigated together the first time they’d met, so long ago. Then, as now, one wrong step could have disastrous consequences. “As an Elite, I neither want nor need lands and titles. Your majesty has generously provided for all of our needs. If your majesty chooses to reward me beyond that, it only shows your majesty’s gracious generosity.”
The king chuckled, but it wasn’t an appealing sound. “A very pretty turn of phrase. Spoken like a true courtier. Those years spent with the commoners hasn’t made you forget the skills you once knew so well, we are glad to see.”
Kale stiffened, not sure if that had been a veiled barb at his relationship with Jaren or not. Suddenly he had another thing to worry about; did the king know about their relationship? If he didn’t, would he be angry if Kale let something slip? If he did, would he be upset if Kale seemed to be denying it?
Please, Lady Amera, don’t let him talk to me, he prayed fervently.
Unfortunately, the Goddess of Luck was notoriously fickle, even with those she often seemed to favour. “And you, Private Coulter,” the king said, his tone silky. It should have sounded warm, almost friendly, but Kale’s every instinct was screaming at him that the predator was getting ready to pounce. “We understand that it is you whom we truly have to thank for saving our country. Without your ability, the battle would have been lost. Is that true?”
“Y-” Kale’s voice squeaked in his throat, and the courtiers tittered with laughter. He coughed, and made himself keep going in a louder voice. “Yes, your majesty.”
“Then it is you who most deserves reward. We are in a generous mood, and not inclined to have such an obligation hanging over our head. Tell us, what boon would you crave of us?”
Kale froze, his mind spinning, trying desperately to think of something to ask for. Something big enough that it wouldn’t seem like he was mocking the king, but not so big that he would be over-reaching himself. It didn’t escape him that the king hadn’t offered him lands and a title. One thing to re-enoble someone of birth as high as Jaren’s. Another thing entirely to make nobility out of a man whose peasant roots stretched so deep, his family had no history recorded before they tended their farm.
“Kale,” Jaren’s whisper was soft enough that it barely carried over the few feet between them, but the older man’s excitement was clear. “Kale, ask him to have his personal physician heal your eyes! Lady Elsbeth is the best healer in three nations. If anyone can fix them, she can.”
The thought of being able to see again gripped Kale so tightly that his voice froze once more. Oh, gods, to not be trapped in this agonizing darkness forever! Even if he didn’t get his ability to see magic back, just being able to function and not be completely dependent on Jaren would mean the world to him.
He opened his mouth… and hesitated. There was one other thing he could ask for. It was bold, and might be asking too much, but it was also the only chance they would ever have at this. He thought about how much he hated being helpless, how terrified he was at the idea that he would someday forget what ‘sight’ even was.
Then he thought about the anguish in Jaren’s voice the night before when he’d talked about why he’d joined the Elite, and the way the older man had trembled against him in grief and fury. And he knew he didn’t have a choice at all.
“Your majesty, I would ask for Jaren Delwash to be released from his oaths as an Elite, and granted his freedom.” Kale was proud that his voice came out steady and clear, and didn’t waver at all.
“What?” Jaren exclaimed, forgetting his polished court manners. His startled cry was swallowed up in a much louder uproar from the watching nobles, however, and the herald had to bang his staff again to regain order.
“That is a very bold thing to ask for, boy,” the king said, and Kale heard a rustle and creaking as if the man had sat forward on his throne. “Tell us why you would ask such a thing.”
“I…” Kale faltered again, and chose his words carefully. “I know that he is one of your most loyal subjects, but his heart is dedicated to protecting our country and our people. Being sent out to… to… to occupy another country would crush his spirit. Your majesty.” He was sweating hard, knowing he didn’t have Jaren’s knowledge and experience to help him navigate through this deadly minefield.
“Kale!” Jaren’s whisper sounded strangled. “What are you doing?”
“Boy, are you implying that our desire to help our neighbours of Semaska is somehow wrong?” The king’s voice was low and dangerous. “No, Rhyse, do not prompt him. We wish to hear his thoughts, not your silver noble’s tongue.”
Kale nearly backed down, remembering Jaren saying that it was treason even to think of suggesting that the king was in the wrong. But he also remembered the things Jaren had said had made the strong, beautiful warrior-mage fall for him in the first place. Things like staying behind to help a stranger, or sacrificing himself for the sake of people that wouldn’t even appreciate it. Those weren’t the actions of someone who would back down from what he knew was right out of fear.
How could Jaren love him, if he betrayed the very things Jaren loved him for? Worse, how could he ever live with himself?
So he did what was probably the stupidest thing he’d ever done in his life, and that was saying something. Kale squared his chin and stared straight ahead at where the throne must be, and answered honestly. “Yes, your majesty.”
This time the herald had to bang his staff and bellow over the noise of the crowd before order could be restored, and even then it took what seemed like half an age to Kale. He could feel Jaren rigid beside him, trembling with an emotion that Kale was desperately afraid might be fear. The next words out of the king’s mouth might very well be an order for Kale’s execution, but it wasn’t the first time he’d faced death to hold to what he knew was right. If he survived this time, it probably wouldn’t even be the last.
The silence stretched out until Kale’s nerves were rubbed raw, but he refused to back down or lower his eyes. For once he was grateful for his blindness, because he thought his courage might break if he’d had to actually look the king in the eyes. He held his breathe, afraid that to break the silence first would be a sign of weakness that the king would pounce on.
Then, to his surprise, the king laughed. It was a real laugh, hearty and amused. “Well! So there is someone in this country still willing to speak his mind to us. Your boon is granted, boy. Jaren Delwash, we hereby release you from your oaths of service to us and to Istria. You are free to serve where and as you please. However,” his voice lowered back to that dangerous tone, just as Kale was relearning how to breathe. “However, we believe it would be best if you were not to spend very much time inside our borders. If we were to see too much of you, we might begin to wonder at your motives for remaining in a country you no longer serve. Is that clear?”
“It is, your majesty,” Jaren said, his voice a little unsteady. “Thank you.”
“Begone, then,” the king ordered. “Defiance is amusing, but only in very short bursts. Take yourselves away before we tire of you completely.”
Jaren caught Kale’s hand and tugged, but Kale didn’t need the prompting to know that he should bow low. Then Jaren pulled him to his feet, and this time he did yank Kale along by the hand instead of leading him more gently.
Kale did his best not to stumble, but Jaren set a fast pace and the sudden transition from plush carpet to bare stone threw him. Jaren steadied him without a word, but when Kale started to blurt out an explanation Jaren hushed him with a finger over his lips.
“Not here,” the older man murmured urgently, and Kale shut up and followed him meekly.
He wasn’t sure how far they’d gone before Jaren stopped; not so far that they could have reached the Elite barracks again, but far enough that he couldn’t hear even a hint of the uproar they’d left behind in the throne room.
“Are you out of your mind?” Jaren demanded. “You… you… do you have any idea how lucky you are that he was in a good mood? Nine times out of ten, defying him like that would have gotten you a fast trip to the executioner’s block!”
“I had to do it,” Kale said stubbornly. “Jaren, I had to. You said yourself that he hates people who cower from him. I couldn’t back down.”
Jaren sighed, then tugged him into a crushing embrace. From that close, Kale could feel the way his lover was still trembling, and he wrapped his arms around Jaren in turn and hung on tight.
“Idiot,” Jaren muttered. “You do realize you’ve thrown away your best chance at ever being able to see again?”
“You said you still loved me just as much blind,” Kale argued. “Jaren, I’d rather spend the rest of my life blind and free with you, than be able to watch as your spirit is crushed and all the joy slowly drains out of you. Being forced to invade Semaska would have broken you, you know it would have.”
“Maybe,” Jaren admitted, his voice so soft Kale almost didn’t hear him even though he was inches away. He kissed Kale briefly, then straightened and let go. “Well, what’s done is done,” he said in a more normal tone of voice. “It’s too bad we’re not likely to be able to get an audience directly with Lady Elsbeth. I hear the old bat is as bad-tempered as the king.”
“You could try just asking anyway,” a dry voice said from a little further down the hall. “The ‘old bat’ might just be in a good mood… though too many more comments like that, and I think I’ll change my mind.”
They both jumped, and Jaren twisted to face the newcomer. Kale felt him go tense with shock a moment later, and with a sinking feeling he thought he knew who it must be. “L-lady Elsbeth!” Jaren stammered, confirming his guess. “I… I meant no disrespect…”
“Of course you did,” the old-sounding woman snapped. “Take a page from your lover’s book, and grow a bit of a spine, young man. It’s true that it may backfire on you, but backing down from your beliefs will never get you what you want.”
Kale snickered, then hastily covered it by turning it into a cough. He was astonished at himself for having the nerve, but it might have been a release of tension as much as genuine humour that prompted him.
“You there, boy,” the woman said, her tone imperious. “Chin up. Let’s see those eyes of yours.” Thin fingers with paper-dry, wrinkled skin gripped his chin and tipped his face up, and Kale felt warmth settle against his skin like the heat of the sun. “Hmm. Interesting. It’s not the explosion that burned them out physically. That’s why the healing spells I’m sure the incompetents in the Elite tried on you didn’t work. There’s nothing wrong with your eyes that needs that sort of healing.”
“What?” Kale was startled, and dismayed. “But… but then…” If it wasn’t physical damage of the sort a healing spell could fix…
“Does that mean you don’t know how to heal it?” Jaren finished for him, sounding just as upset as Kale was.
“Did I say that?” she asked. “It was the overload of magic that burned out that sensitive ability of his. Different problem, different solution. Why are you only a private?” she asked Kale, sounding incensed. “Oh, I suppose they decided that since you weren’t an active mage, you were useless. Typical. You’ve always been able to see magic, haven’t you?”
“As long as I can remember, ma’am,” Kale said, a little dazed by her high-handed manner and frequent topic changes. “I mean, my lady.”
“Ma’am will do.” The feeling of warmth against his face was intensifying, and just like in the infirmary he thought he could see the faintest flicker of light, somewhere in the distance, still almost shrouded by darkness. Unlike whatever the medic had done to him, though, this light was slowly but steadily growing brighter, and hope was growing in Kale’s heart along with it.
“How do you see it?” she asked him.
Puzzled, he started to shake his head before he realized that moving might not be a good idea. “I’m not sure what you mean, ma’am. I don’t have to try to see it; it’s always just there. Like a light, a glow around things or people that are magic. Different types are different colours, and the strength of the glow tells me how powerful it is.”
The light was growing bright enough that his poor eyes, now accustomed to darkness, were starting to ache and water. Kale fought the urge to squint and kept his attention focused on that beautiful, wonderful light. He could see shifting colours in it now, like a coruscating rainbow that shimmered with every colour he’d ever seen in magic, and quite a few he didn’t even have names for.
“What are you seeing now? Do you see colours?” She made a pleased noise when he answered in the affirmative. “Excellent. Shapes?”
“No… wait. Yes!” Kale strained, eager to see more, and thought the colours were beginning to resolve into blurry outlines that might have been two people. Closest to him was a blob of violet almost eclipsed by bright green light, but right behind that was a shade of dark blue he knew very well indeed. It was the exact colour of Jaren’s dress blues, and it was surrounded by the pale wheat-coloured glow of ambient magic. A mage’s aura at rest, though ‘rest’ was a relative term. This one was spiking in all directions, out of anxiety rather than anger for a change. “Jaren, watch your aura, damn it!” The familiar words felt so good to say.
“Kale,” Jaren’s voice broke on his name, and the flaring aura drew in on itself a bit. That confirmation that he really was seeing things, and not just imagining them, made Kale’s heart fill over with joy.
“You should have better control than that, young man,” Elsbeth said absently. “I’ll be having a word with your trainers.” The green light emanating from her was now so bright that it was threatening to eclipse everything else, and finally Kale couldn’t fight the instinct to squeeze his eyes shut to protect them. She didn’t say anything, so he assumed it didn’t affect whatever she was doing at all.
“There!” she said at last. “Open your eyes, boy.”
He opened them slowly, half afraid of what he would see. To his intense relief the world sprang immediately into sharp and beautiful focus. Colours seemed richer than he remembered them, details clearer, but he wasn’t sure if it was his imagination or if he was just paying that much more attention to everything now. Perhaps it was true, what they said; you didn’t know how much something meant to you until it was gone.
Most beautiful and wonderful of all was the hopeful, awestruck, and incredibly loving expression in Jaren’s intense blue eyes. Without thinking about it Kale threw himself at his lover, reaching up to wind his arms around Jaren’s neck and pull the older man down into a joyful kiss.
With a delighted noise Jaren kissed him back, then hugged him tightly before pulling away with his hands on Kale’s shoulders. “You really can see me,” Jaren exulted.
“Better than ever,” Kale confirmed, bubbling over with happiness. “Your aura is so bright today! I’ve never noticed so many colours in it, before.” The pale gold colour was still predominant, but now he thought he could see brief flashes of other colours twining through the light.
Belatedly he remembered that they had an audience, and turned to face the woman who had just saved his sight. She was regarding them with a raised eyebrow, but her tiny smile was amused. “I implanted a few subconscious suggestions on better ways to control that ability of yours,” she informed him, without a trace of remorse for invading his mind that way. “You’ll be able to see things a bit more clearly, I think. Were you aware that you were blind?”
He gave her an incredulous look, but she chuckled and shook her head before he could answer. “No, that didn’t come out right. Were you aware that you were always blind?”
“Uh…” Kale hesitated to tell the woman who’d just performed a miracle for him that she was either mistaken or crazy, but he didn’t know what else to say to that. He’d always been able to see just fine.
Her smile was knowing, and just a touch condescending. “Oh yes, you are. You don’t just see magic with your ability, boy, you see everything that way. Tell me, do mages sometimes seem brighter and clearer to you than ordinary people?”
“Huh? Well, yes, but that’s because of their aura,” Kale said, astonished. “I mean, it’s not like it’s real light, I can’t see them any better in the dark, but it…” he gestured helplessly. “It highlights them, I guess. If I was only seeing through my magic, wouldn’t I be able to see in the dark?”
Jaren was staring back and forth between them, his mouth open in shock. “What… but… can a person actually be that sensitive?”
“Apparently, since this one is.” Lady Elsbeth tapped the palm of one hand with the folded fan she held in the other. “You can’t see in the dark because you’ve always believed you shouldn’t be able to. A pity you’ve just been effectively exiled. I’d love to study you more closely, and teach you a few conscious tricks. You’ve managed well enough on your own up till now, I suppose you’ll muddle through somehow.”
Kale still wasn’t certain he believed the story that he was blind; having been blind for more than a week, he was far too intimately acquainted with exactly what it felt like, and it was nothing like the way he’d lived the rest of his life. But either way, he owed this woman a great deal. “I can’t ever thank you enough,” he started awkwardly.
She waved him off brusquely. “Of course you can’t. So spare me your fumbling attempts to try.” Despite her harsh words, she was smiling slightly again. “Call it an interesting experiment on my part. Besides, loyalty like you displayed in there should be rewarded, not punished. Now, shoo. You’d better move fast if you want to be out of the country before the king changes his mind about allowing you to go.”
Without letting him get another word out, she turned and sailed off down the hall, the train of her magnificent purple velvet dress trailing along the floor behind her. Kale watched her go, a little awestruck.
“Wow,” he finally whispered when he was sure she was out of earshot. “I can see why people say she’s intimidating! But I like her.”
“I’d like the king if he’d been able to save your eyes,” Jaren said, and swept Kale into another kiss. “But she’s right, we should move quickly.” His eyes gleamed. “Last one there gets to do all the packing?” With no further warning he took off down the hall, running fast but not using his magic to cheat as far as Kale could see.
“No fair!” Kale exclaimed, and bolted after him, laughing. “You know the way!”
“Then you’ll just have to follow me,” Jaren called back over his shoulder, ignoring the astonished looks they were drawing from passing servants and the occasional noble.
“I’ll follow you forever,” Kale whispered to himself, smiling. It felt so good to be able to stretch his legs, to run without fear that he would stumble into some obstacle he couldn’t see. “As long as I can see you, I’ll always be right behind you.”