“A toast to our future queen?”
Rhicer of Zennor looked up, startled out of his perusal of the Mordyn Sea. He smiled when he saw his friend Kanath standing there, a bottle of wine and two goblets in hand. “Of course,” he replied with a twisted smile. “How could I not toast the woman whose marriage will end the bloodshed in our beautiful Ageselm?”
Kanath chuckled, hearing the note of cynicism in his friend’s voice. They had fought together since before Kanath should have been old enough to carry a sword, but it had been fight or find himself carried off into slavery. Emyl, Prince of Ageselm, had insisted Kanath and the other youths learn to defend themselves early, attiring them in soldier’s garb as early as their thirteenth summer so that the Mordyn warriors who came to collect tribute would leave them behind. The warriors wanted farmers for slaves, not soldiers. The recent defeat of Donnchadh’s general had forced the Mordyn king into negotiation, a discussion that ended the war in return for Emyl’s marriage to the Mordyn princess and their ascendance to the throne.
Rhicer had been quite vocal, at least in private, about his disapproval of the wedding. He hated to see the girl, for she was younger even than Kanath, bartered off like so much chattel. Kanath had retorted that Prince Emyl would treat her far better than she undoubtedly deserved and that her small sacrifice would allow thousands to live in peace. They had agreed to disagree.
“Open the bottle, then,” Kanath urged, handing it to the older man.
Rhicer glanced at the wax seal at the mouth of the bottle. “A rosebud,” he mused aloud. “I am not familiar with that seal.”
“Nor am I,” Kanath agreed. “The bottle was among the gifts intended for the court. I saw no harm in starting early.”
Rhicer laughed aloud this time. It was a discussion he and Kanath engaged in regularly. “One day, my friend, your light-fingered ways will get us killed.”
“Surely not,” Kanath retorted playfully. “I never take anything valuable.”
Still chuckling, Rhicer opened the bottle and poured a measure into each of the goblets Kanath held. Clinking their glasses together, they lifted the cups to their lips and drank. The wine was sweet, far sweeter than anything they had tasted before, but not cloyingly so. Intrigued by the unique flavor, both men sipped again, letting the heady aroma flood their senses, intoxicating them.
“This is extraordinary wine,” Rhicer observed, pouring more into the two cups. “Were there more bottles with this insignia?”
Kanath frowned in concentration as he mentally re-created the stores from which he had picked the bottle. “There were many different sigils, but I do not remember seeing another like this,” he admitted.
“Too bad,” Rhicer lamented. “I would have enjoyed this brew again.”
“Let us make the most of the bottle we do have,” Kanath declared. “We can inquire about its origins, but I do not know if the treaty between our country and Mordyna will allow for much trade. In time, perhaps, but for now, I suspect the end of hostilities is all we can hope for.”
Rhicer smiled. “I see your days spent at Tinrelm’s side were not completely wasted,” he teased. “You did not used to be so skilled in statecraft.”
“Prince Emyl would see us all masters of our fate,” he replied archly. “And that means knowing more than just sword craft.”
“Well do I know it,” Rhicer agreed. “I did not say I disagreed with your lessons or your understanding of the situation. Only that such sentiments, such awareness are unusual in one as young as you.”
This, too, was a familiar discussion. Rhicer maintained that wisdom could only come from age and experience rather than from being taught. The contrast between Kanath’s political acumen and his habit of borrowing things without permission was perfect proof of that. He took another sip of his wine, feeling lassitude settle into his bones. A niggling thought told him he should be concerned, given how little wine he had drunk, but he could not seem to focus on that, finishing his cup instead. “Another toast,” he proposed, holding his goblet out for Kanath to fill.
Kanath refilled their cups willingly and set the bottle aside again. “And what shall we toast this time?”
Rhicer smiled. “To a world where young men do not have to learn to fight to survive and young women do not have to fear being dragged off into servitude or worse. To a world where children are allowed to be children and the course of love runs true.”
The first part of the toast did not surprise Kanath at all. Rhicer had always hated the lengths Lord Emyl had found necessary to save the youths from being taken as slaves. Young men taught to fight as soon as they could hold a toy sword. Young women spirited away from their families in hidden enclaves to keep them from being taken. He could not save them all, though, and that bred resentment in the families whose children were taken captive. Lord Emyl took every loss, every hard, angry word personally, and it weighed on him enormously. That Rhicer would toast an end to such exigencies was no surprise at all. The last part did surprise Kanath, though. The canny warrior showed a hardened shell to the world, battle-weary and cynical. Kanath had not even known the other soldier believed in love. He drank, though, for he did believe in it, did believe that somewhere out there his soul mate awaited him. He had only to find her. Perhaps now, he could begin his search.
Rhicer sipped too, wondering where such sentiments had come from. He had given up on love two decades ago, when the girl he loved had been raped by Mordyn warriors and had committed suicide when she realized she was pregnant. He had begged her to marry him, to let him claim the child as his own, even if he never touched her. He did not care. He simply wanted her at his side. None of his pleading, none of his offers, had penetrated her desperation, and he had watched helplessly as she threw herself from the cliffs into the sea. Heartbroken, he had sworn vengeance on all Mordyn and had spent the intervening years keeping that vow. He had guarded his heart carefully since that day, refusing to let any woman close. His need for sex, he had assuaged with the camp followers and loose women of the court who expected nothing more than a quick tumble and a little coin. The desire for companionship, he satisfied through his friendships with other soldiers: Rynes, when he needed the wisdom of years, and Kanath when he wanted the optimism of youth. His plan had served him well, allowing him to live in relative contentment in recent years, especially now that peace was nigh. It made his words all the more bizarre.
“Do you believe in love?” Kanath asked. “Is that how you will spend your days now that we are free of the threat of Mordyna?”
Rhicer snorted. “Free?” he challenged. “We will be free of them when Donnchadh is dead and burned. We will be free when a generation of children grows up without fear. We will be free when no one alive remembers the terror of these days. No, I will spend the next twenty years as I have spent the last: defending our borders and our people.”
Kanath's face fell. He had hoped to be able to pursue his own dreams of love, but he would not desert his comrades to go on such a quest. Prince Emyl had trained him well. The safety and security of their home was first in his mind and heart. If fighting remained to be done, he would stay and do it.
Rhicer cursed under his breath, seeing the change in Kanath's demeanor. “Do not listen to me, Kanath. You know I am a bitter old man. There is no reason for you to resign yourself to a soldier's life just because I have no care for a different future. You are young still. You should find a pretty lass and settle down, make beautiful children who can grow up free from fear.”
“You think my children will be beautiful?” Kanath teased, preening jokingly at the compliment. “I didn't think you'd noticed.”
Rhicer laughed in turn. “I'm not blind, am I?” His face grew serious again. “All children are beautiful, Kanath, a gift to all around them. You don't have to be ruled by my cynicism.”
The wine loosened Kanath's tongue, giving him the courage to ask, “Why don't you believe in love?”
Rhicer grimaced, casting about for a way to avoid answering the question. In spite of his intentions, he found himself opening his mouth and answering. “The woman I loved took her own life, despite my pleas for her to stay with me. She didn't believe I loved her, didn't believe I could love her after what happened.”
“Donnchadh,” Rhicer spat. “Oh, not him personally, I'm sure, but it was early in the war, when the fighting was still fierce, before we wore their yoke so firmly. His soldiers raided our village. I had not come to court yet at that time. They kidnapped her and kept her for weeks, then released her to live with the ignominy of being a Mordyn whore. I told her it didn't matter, but she didn't believe me. My beautiful, spirited Eldvese, broken by those dirty curs. She wouldn't let me touch her anymore—not a kiss, not a caress, not even an embrace. I wasn't going to let them win, though. I stayed at her side, only leaving her to tend to her personal needs and mine. I was there when she realized she was pregnant.”
Kanath flinched at that news. “I'm so sorry.”
“I wasn't, though,” Rhicer explained. “The child was still a gift, regardless of how it was conceived. The baby was supposed to be a reason for her to fight, to live. I offered to marry her, to tell everyone the baby was mine, that we had been intimate before she was taken and since her return. I wasn't being noble, Kanath. I wanted that baby. It was a part of her and so it was mine. She didn't see it that way, though. To her, it was one final curse. She slipped from the room as I dozed, running to the cliffs. I woke and followed her in time to see her throw herself off, taking not only her life, but that of the child inside her.”
Kanath's eyes closed against the pain in Rhicer's voice. “I didn't know.”
“Almost nobody does,” Rhicer replied slowly. “Prince Emyl does, and Rynes. I'm not sure I've ever told anyone else.”
Kanath nodded. “I'm honored to be in such company.”
Rhicer smiled absently, aware of a curious change in himself. Always before, the mere thought of Eldvese had been enough to send him to the bottle, a drunken rampage that would last for days, usually until Prince Emyl and Rynes locked him in a room and dried him out. It had been years since he had allowed himself to consider those days at all. Tonight, he had spoken of her aloud, something he had not done since the first drunken stupor, when Prince Emyl and Rynes had demanded an explanation, yet he felt no urge to flee, to escape into liquor. Perhaps time truly did heal all wounds. Even so, his thoughts of Eldvese and the babe were not happy ones. He drained the cup and held it out again. “This wine is too good to waste. Pour me another glass.”
Kanath complied, not entirely sure it was a good idea, but he would not be the one to deny the other knight. He doubted few besides Rynes or the prince would dare. He drained his own goblet, refilling it when he saw a little wine still remained. He sipped at it more slowly, suddenly feeling the effects of what he had already drunk. It was a night for surprises, it seemed, for two quaffs, even in such rapid succession, should not have had such a strong effect. “This is a most potent vintage,” he slurred casually, shifting to prop himself against the spar of the boat.
“Weakling,” Rhicer joked, though privately, he admitted Kanath was right. Watching his companion shift uncomfortably, he stretched out his arm. “Come over here and lean on me before you fall over and hurt yourself. Our prince would not be happy with me if I brought you home damaged.”
“Damaged, my arse,” Kanath retorted, but he moved to lean against Rhicer's solid shoulder nonetheless. He shifted, finding the crook of his friend's neck to rest his head. “Sleepy,” he murmured.
“Rest then,” Rhicer urged. “We're not on watch.” If they had been, he never would have opened the bottle. In the middle of the sea as they were, he did not expect any trouble, but duty was duty, and that came above all else.
He could not count the number of times he and Kanath had relaxed this way, leaning against each other for support and warmth through long nights of keeping watch or holding vigil, snatching what sleep they could as they waited for the signal to move out, either in attack or in retreat. It was familiar, comfortable, easy. He shifted a little, settling Kanath's head more comfortably against his collarbone and spreading his cloak over both their bodies to keep away the chill of the ocean breeze. He leaned back against the side of the boat and let sleep take him as well, confident that the soldiers on watch would alert them should the need arise.
Rhicer stirred in his sleep, those sensations mingling with his dreams. He could not see his lover's face, but he could smell the sweet scent of arousal, feel the heavy warmth of entwining limbs. He turned his head, nuzzling the curls that brushed his lips. His arms tightened, pulling the pliant body closer, desire growing as he felt the way his lover's frame pressed willingly against his. He wanted to roll the warm form beneath him and bury himself in the welcoming depths.
His lover pulled him closer, wrapping him in a heated embrace. Kanath sighed in his sleep, welcoming the feel of loving arms after being alone so long. He went eagerly, wanting more contact. His hand shifted, moving over cloth-covered flesh, stroking gently, enticing his lover closer.
Fingers moved over his chest, finding sensitive spots, teasing and arousing. Rhicer arched into the touch, angling his body so the urgent caress teased his aching nipple. He bent his head, tipping his lover's head back, seeking skin rather than silky hair. He wanted to smell, to taste, to learn every inch of his lover's visage.
Kanath's head fell back, exposing his features to his lover's mouth. Warm lips passed over his forehead and cheekbones, the bridge of his nose and his closed eyelids, down to his jaw. His lips parted in invitation, but his lover did not see or did not care, choosing instead to tease the skin of his neck, behind his ear, nipping gently at his earlobe. He moaned softly at the alternately soothing and arousing sensation. Wanting to encourage his lover, he slid his hand up, seeking the neckline of his lover's blouse, determined to return pleasure for pleasure. His fingers slid beneath the loose cloth, immediately finding warm skin. He caressed it gently, seeking the swell of a sweet breast. The feeling of rough hair beneath his palm instead shattered the illusion. Kanath's eyes flew open, finding himself entwined exactly as in his dream, hand against skin, lips against his neck, arms holding him close, but ’twas no tender miss whose arms embraced him. Horrified, he pushed hard, scrambling backward away from Rhicer.
His lover's sudden, violent withdrawal started Rhicer awake. “What the fuck?” he muttered, seeing Kanath staring at him with an unreadable look on his face.
“You… I… we…,” Kanath stuttered, unable even to put into words what he feared had just passed between them.
“What is it, Kanath?” Rhicer asked pointedly, his annoyance at having been forced out of such a heated dream coming through clearly in his voice.
Kanath struggled with what to say. Rhicer obviously did not realize what had happened. He was annoyed but not mortified like Kanath himself was. He debated not saying anything, but to his dismay, warring with his embarrassment was a strong desire to snuggle back into the other warrior's embrace and pick back up where they left off. “Were you dreaming?” he inquired finally.
Rhicer had no idea what that had to do with anything, but he nodded anyway.
“So was I,” Kanath said slowly, “except that I wasn't just dreaming.”
Uncomfortable now as he remembered how vivid the sensations were in his dream, Rhicer looked at his young friend sharply. “What do you mean?”
Kanath flushed and looked away. “I woke up with my hand inside your shirt, your arms tight around me, your lips on my neck.”
Revulsion contorted Rhicer's face, long ingrained prejudice surging to the fore. He kept himself from scrambling away by force of will alone, embarrassed to realize that one part of him wanted to scramble in the other direction. “’Twas the wine,” he rationalized immediately, determined to explain away the impulse. “We drank too much and lost track of where we were, of who we were with.”
“We had three mugs apiece,” Kanath retorted. “We have drunk twice that before, fallen asleep side by side, and never woken up… like that.” His lips curled into an expression of disgust as he thought about it, deliberately ignoring the part of his libido that screamed for more, screamed for Rhicer's touch. Any touch would do, he reassured himself firmly. He simply needed to find a camp follower and sate his lust with her, the way he was supposed to. He was not attracted to his longtime friend. He was not. ’Twas the circumstances.
“You said yourself it was an unusually potent brew,” Rhicer reminded him, mentally scrambling for purchase in this newly changed landscape. “It went to your head far more quickly than I have ever seen wine do before. It has to be the wine, Kanath. It could be nothing else.” He pushed aside the welling panic at realizing that the desire he had felt in his sleep had not faded.
That gave Kanath pause. Why was he arguing against it being the wine? He most certainly did not want it to be anything else, anything… real. That would be unthinkable. Men did not engage in such activities together. No one at court would tolerate it. He nodded slowly. “You're right, of course. It was the wine.” He sat back down, keeping a respectable distance but trying not to make it any greater than he usually would. He did not want Rhicer probing his unease, asking why he was still so on edge. His only answer, if he told the truth, was the inexplicable desire to sit closer, to snuggle up to the other man's warmth, an impulse he dared not indulge. At the very least, such desires would see him cast out from the court, bereft of the prince's protection as well as of the only home he had ever known. At the worst… he pushed away images of men tortured, maimed to stop their unnatural desires. He had never heard of such atrocities in Prince Emyl's realm, though he knew some of the other tribes were not so civilized. He knew better, if Rhicer asked, than to lie. He had never been able to keep a secret from the blond warrior once his friend made up his mind to learn it. Rhicer could read him as easily as he read tracks on the forest floor. No, the only solution was to keep Rhicer from asking in the first place, and that meant acting like nothing had changed. He shook his head slightly. Nothing had changed. He wanted no more from Rhicer than he had yesterday morning, or the morning before that, or the morning before that.
Rhicer breathed a sigh of relief. He did not want to discuss what had happened between them, however inadvertently, did not want to examine the emotions chasing themselves around his head like crazed rabbits. He wanted to fall back into the world of dreams where a gentle, female lover welcomed him with open arms. He wanted to close his eyes and see Eldvese's beautiful face, smiling at him as she had once done, before Donnchadh's soldiers changed her. He wanted to pull Kanath back into his arms and finish what they had started.
His eyes did close at that thought, shock running through him as he tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the emotion. The first two, he could indulge, but not the last. Never the last. He had worked too hard for his position at court, his military command, to sacrifice it now for such perverted pleasures. He had never found his soldiers attractive, even one as handsome, objectively, as Kanath. Could he list the lads who were likely to be popular with the ladies because of their looks? Of course, but he had never had any interest in them himself. He had always looked toward the women, appreciating their softness and sweet, gentle curves.
Kanath's hair had been soft, the skin of his neck as sweet as any he had ever tasted….
Rhicer shook his head, rejecting the wayward thought. He was not going to do this, not going to ruin a valued friendship over a momentary lapse of sanity. His heart twinged at the thought of losing Kanath's friendship. The young man was a breath of fresh air in Rhicer's staid existence. For so long, he had trusted only Rynes and Prince Emyl, had allowed no one else close, even as friends, though he had plenty of acquaintances among the other soldiers. Then a few years ago, the prince had promoted a promising young soldier to second in command of Rhicer's patrol. He had protested because of the man's youth, but Emyl had insisted, and Rhicer had slowly gained another friend. Kanath kept him on his toes with his antics, yet the younger man surprised him as well with his grasp of tactics. Together, they made a formidable pair. Only Tinrelm's patrol had more success against the Mordyn, a title Rhicer had no interest in trying to wrest from their prince’s chosen heir.
A sudden bustle on the deck drew their attention. Grateful to have anything to think about other than the unwanted, unwelcome desire that had swamped them during the night, both men rose to see what was going on. They immediately recognized Princess Nische’s maidservant.
Looking at each other with concern, they approached her. “What is wrong, Bragnae?” Rhicer asked kindly. “You seem troubled.”
“It’s gone missing!” Bragnae wailed, wringing her hands in frustration.
“Whatever it is, it can’t have gone far,” Kanath pointed out reasonably. “If it was on the ship yesterday, ’tis still on the ship this morning. Tell us what is missing and we will help you look.”
“Oh, no! I couldn’t do that!” she protested. “’Tis a secret, only meant to be shared with the princess and her bridegroom on their wedding night.”
Rhicer frowned. “Something as valuable as that should certainly be found immediately. Are you sure you cannot tell us? We would be discreet, of course. We are in the prince’s confidence. He would surely share with us later the nature of the secret.”
Bragnae tugged nervously on the end of her braid, but in the end, she suspected they were right. If she had any hope of finding the love potion before some hapless soldier drank the brew and found himself irrevocably in love, she would need help. There were parts of the ship she would not be able to search on her own. “’Tis a bottle of wine,” she told them softly, “but not any bottle of wine. It has a rose in the wax seal.”
Rhicer’s heart pounded suddenly in his chest. “And what makes this wine so special?” he asked, leaning forward to speak softly enough so that only Kanath would be able to hear.
“It is a love potion,” she explained, embarrassed. “Nische’s mother made it for her to share with her husband to ensure a happy marriage for them. If someone else drank it….” She trailed off, not wanting to even imagine the imbroglio that could cause.