domingo, 20 de novembro de 2016

Chronicles of Ylandre 02 - Hallowed Bond(2)

And, of course, you’re already acquainted with Guyon Barath,” Riodan said in a barely audible voice.

Dylen briefly nodded to Guyon then turned his attention back to the youths. “I trust you’re enjoying yourselves?” he politely said.
Oh indeed, Your Grace! It’s not every day we get to witness a royal binding!” enthused one.
Not to mention see so many notable Deira gathered in one place,” chimed in the other.
Then I take it you deem it worth travelling all the way here from southern Sidona.” The pair gaped at him in awe. “Oh, how did you know we hail from the south of the

fief, Dyhar?” the first Deir asked.

Your accent,” Dylen explained. “It’s similar to Rio’s.”

To his embarrassment, Riodan felt his cheeks heat up in a blush. He strove to dampen the surge of pleasure brought about by Dylen’s implied acknowledgement of their previous closeness. But it must have shown in his face nevertheless, for Guyon suddenly scowled. He looked at Dylen, eyes gleaming unpleasantly.

I was going to show my friends around after the reception,” he announced with a sly grin. “I thought they might appreciate the more sophisticated diversions our city has to offer. A visit to a hethare club for instance.”

Oh come now, Rio,” Guyon snidely said. “I’m sure Essendri-dyhar can recommend a decent club considering his intimate knowledge of such places.” He smirked at Dylen, his tone just this side of a sneer. “Or perhaps you would care to join us for a night of debauchery—I mean indulgence, Your Grace.”

There was a concerted gasp at his insolence. The Sidonans glanced nervously at Dylen, wondering how he would retaliate. But, while Riodan elbowed Guyon in the ribs and furiously glared at him, Dylen remained virtually expressionless.

As if only just realizing the severity of his offense, Guyon’s eyes widened, and he gestured apologetically. “I beg your pardon,” he said, seemingly abashed. “What was I thinking, assuming Your Grace would wish to revisit your old haunts or mingle with former associates?”

Dylen’s answering smile was frosty yet ever so polite. “On the contrary, I frequently return to my old haunts and keep in touch with my former associates,” he coolly said. “I don’t care to lose the affection of folk who stay loyal to me come what may. It’s more than I can say for others who forsake their friends as soon as there’s naught to be gained from them.” He looked pointedly at Guyon. “But you know all about that, don’t you, Barath-tyar?”

The sudden crimsoning of Guyon’s cheeks told of Dylen’s sure aim. He took leave of the now hushed group and disappeared into the crowd.
Forgetting all tact, Riodan growled, “Dolt! That was beyond the pale! You should be thankful Dylen never brings such matters to Rohyr’s attention.” He recoiled when a smug
smile curved Guyon’s mouth. “And you knew that!” he exclaimed in disgust. “Saints above, Guyon! You’re little better than dog excrement! Excuse me while I get some fresh air to rid my nostrils of your stench.”

Guyon found himself protesting to thin air when Riodan angrily turned his back on him and stalked off.
He was still fuming when he wandered onto one of the balconies. Taking in the balmy night breeze, he struggled to bring his temper under control.

Deity’s blood, he thought, Guyon’s conduct is inexcusable! If word were to reach Rohyr, Guyon would be barred from court. Indeed, all the Baraths could be subject to royal censure just for being related to him. Really, what had that imbecile thought to achieve? The humiliation of a perceived adversary? Well, Dylen had certainly put paid to that attempt and neatly turned the tables on him. Now all Riodan could hope was for Dylen to be magnanimous enough not to report Guyon’s behavior to Rohyr.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. If he were truly honest with himself, it would be a blessed relief were Guyon banned from the Citadel. Then there would be one place at least where he could be confident of not encountering him. He closed his eyes and sighed. How had his relationship with Guyon deteriorated in so short a time? They were friends—or supposed to be friends. He would not have consented to the betrothal otherwise.
Someone stepped out onto the adjacent balcony. It was Dylen.
Riodan saw him turn briefly to gaze at something inside the great hall. He looked in the direction of Dylen’s gaze and realized he was watching his brother and law-brother. Lassen stood in the circle of Rohyr’s arms, leaning back against him while Rohyr spoke to his counsellor uncle Yovan Seydon and his spouse Mered. The royal couple’s easy intimacy was wonderful to behold. But it can be painful for some, Riodan thought, when Dylen’s face took on a wistful expression.

He impulsively headed over to the other balcony.

Dylen had turned back to look up at the star-flecked sky and did not notice his arrival. But when Riodan came up alongside him, Dylen visibly stiffened before training an inquiring stare on him. Riodan wondered not for the first time how Dylen usually managed to sense his presence.

He hesitated, unsure what to say. But, slightly unnerved by Dylen’s steady gaze, he said rather inanely, “I see you needed some fresh air as well.”
Dylen regarded him frowningly then nodded. “Why did you join me?” he abruptly asked. He glanced at the balcony Riodan had vacated. “The air is just as fresh yonder.”
Riodan flushed. “I wished to speak to you,” he admitted. “So—speak.”

Damn it all, Dylen made it so hard! Riodan exhaled and said, “I want to apologize for Guyon’s behavior.”
Dylen scowled. “Why are you apologizing for that thickhead? It’s a useless exercise and not worth the words or effort wasted on it. Or are you expressing remorse for the motives that led you to accept wedlock with someone like him?” he taunted. “In which case, I’ll thank you not to foist your self-inflicted troubles on me.”

Riodan stared at him, shocked by Dylen’s open rancor. “Can’t you let the past be?” he blurted. “Must you always have it stand between us? What in Aisen will it take to soften your heart, Dy?”
He fell back a step when Dylen visibly bridled.

You dare say that to me?” Dylen scathingly said. “You call me hard-hearted for refusing your overtures? You who would have rather let my father die a wretched death than forego a proper match and a plum assignment. Why in the name of all that’s holy should I forget the past and risk putting myself through that misery once more? And at your so very capable hands may I add.”
Riodan averted his face as if struck. His throat tight from Dylen’s crushing disdain, he could not muster a reply.
It took me years to recover from your treachery, Ambassador,” Dylen continued, his voice dripping with pain and scorn. “And now you think I can just set that aside and take you back as if my heart never broke and my soul didn’t wither from your denial of our friendship and your refusal to help Adda.” He smiled bitterly. “I think not.”

With a curt nod, he departed the balcony. Riodan listlessly turned around and, resting his elbows on the balustrade, buried his face in his hands. He wondered if he would ever manage to win Dylen’s friendship anew.

That would suffice. It would have to. He had forfeited his right to regain what had once been his alone and lost it for the least of reasons.
Must I intervene, Rio?”

Startled, Riodan whirled about to find Rohyr at his side. The Ardan was regarding him with open compassion.
I mean no offense, Rohyr, but why would you want to?” Riodan dully asked. Rohyr’s eyes followed his brother as he made his way among the guests. “I wouldn’t
bother if there was naught to work with,” he admitted. “But there is a spark of something and it’s high time Dylen knew some happiness.”
I betrayed him,” Riodan raggedly said. “Wounded him terribly. He wants nothing to do with me.”
So he claims,” Rohyr replied. “But, were that true, would he still keep the wristlet you gave him?” When Riodan responded with obvious disbelief, he added, “Beaten gold and woven leather with a heartstfire clasp.”
Riodan gaped at the accurate description. “You-you’ve seen it?”

The Ardan raised his left hand. “He never exposes his wrist when you are present. What think you does he conceal from you?”

Hope flared in Riodan’s heart. But, a moment later, it dimmed, and he sighed and shook his head. “Dylen deserves far better than the likes of me,” he morosely said. “I let fear and ambition rule me and my choices.”

Rohyr shrugged. “An error in judgment.”

An unforgivable one,” Riodan insisted. “It’s not a thing to take lightly.”

It’s not,” Rohyr agreed. “But neither is it irredeemable. After all, are there any amongst us who have never made a like mistake?”
Riodan shrugged. “I would think you for one.”
Rohyr snorted. “You would think wrong. I allowed my choices to be dictated by what I thought was proper rather than what was right. Had I abided my own judgment I would have bound myself to Lassen long ago and not left the door open to a forced marriage that led me to shed the blood of my own kin.”

Riodan grimaced at the reminder of Rohyr’s first brush with matrimony. One that had nigh ended in disaster for king and country and led to death in the royal family.
I didn’t fear the unrest that might have occurred had I wed him then,” Rohyr grimly admitted. “But I disliked having to deal with the unpleasantness I expected would follow. And I thought that if I did my duty, it would ensure the peace and Ylandre would be safe.” His grey eyes glittered with pained remembrance.” Well, that certainly wasn’t how it turned out, was it? And the irony of it all is that Lassen had acquitted himself so well as my leman that few would have opposed his becoming my consort after all. Even amongst the nobility.” Rohyr sighed regretfully. “Think of the misery and rancor that could have been averted had I read the people’s sentiments correctly. Not to mention spared Uncle Imcael the grief of losing a son.”

The Ardan clapped an encouraging hand on Riodan’s shoulder. “You made a mistake, that’s true, but you can make amends for it. As for Dylen, he can claim all he wants that he no longer holds affection for you; his actions say otherwise. Fear rules him as well. But, as I said, it’s time he was happy. And you can make it so, Rio. If you are willing to fight for him.”
Riodan considered the suggestion. He turned his head to search for Dylen. Catching sight of his quarry at the other side of the hall, he regarded him for a long while. He looked back at Rohyr, his eyes agleam with renewed determination.
I will fight for us.”

Chapter Sixteen


Lassen braced himself against the bath stall wall as Rohyr repeatedly drove into him from behind, filling his arse to the brim with every inward slide of his shaft. As if to further remind him of his ownership, Rohyr reached around and down between his legs to caress his thighs, smearing them with the semen that trickled out of Lassen’s sheath. A breath-stealing moment later he proceeded to stroke the delicate passage, his fingers easily sliding along and into the copiously lubricated opening.

Lassen gasped as the exquisite sensations mounted. But, just as he thought he would unravel, something dampened the sensual tension just enough to keep his impending orgasm from erupting. That sudden tempering intensified his need for release to an almost excruciating degree. Lassen wondered not for the last time at the way his inordinately gifted spouse could enter his consciousness and control his reaction to pleasuring and even delay the onset of sexual completion. Rohyr did not do it all the time but even once in a very long while was an experience of unparalleled bodily bliss.

Roh, please!” he begged. “Finish this!”

Not yet,” Rohyr demurred. “I want to stay in you a while longer.” Lassen shakily chuckled. “You’ve been in me all night!”
Rohyr sealed his mouth to the side of Lassen’s throat and sucked hard on the sweet flesh. “Forgive me then, ariad, but nothing can compare with the bliss of being inside you. I find it addictive.”

Lassen cried out when Rohyr gripped his shaft and stroked it as well. The inability to come undone became even more acute.
Every thrust into him impelled his hips forward and drove his shaft into Rohyr’s possessive grip. And, all the while, Rohyr continued to finger him as well, tripling Lassen’s pleasure. In happy retaliation, Lassen pushed back as well as he could to take Rohyr’s shaft in as deeply as possible, deliberately clenching his muscles around the hard flesh to caress it from within.
So pleasurable a rhythm could be sustained only for so long even with the control imposed by one as iron-willed as Rohyr, and he finally released Lassen to the demands of his tightly wound body. Sobbing helplessly, Lassen climaxed, overwhelmed by nigh shattering pleasure coming at him from three different points. He struggled against the overwhelming rapture, refusing to be alone in it, and ground his buttocks backwards, thereby wrenched Rohyr’s mastery away. The Ardan smothered his cries against his consort’s back, holding Lassen’s bottom flush against his groin until he was done spending inside him.

With a satisfied groan, Rohyr uncoupled their bodies. He turned on the taps and warm water gushed from the bathing chute above them. Smirking at each other, they finally got on with the reason they were in the bath stall in the first place.

Snickering, Lassen lazily lathered Rohyr’s body, paying particular attention to the Ardan’s shaft.
What is there to laugh about?” Rohyr mildly inquired as he likewise washed Lassen, cleansing him of the leavings of their previous exertions.
“’Tis just I find it amusing that, when it comes to us, bathing doesn’t always signal the end of a night’s rutting.” Lassen tugged suggestively on Rohyr’s shaft while he rinsed it. “I wager you’ve still got enough in you for another bout or two.”

Rohyr did not reply but leaned forward and nuzzled the side of Lassen’s neck before kissing his way to his throat. Lassen responded by tossing back his head, giving the Ardan full access to the smooth flesh. Rohyr chuckled against his throat.

And who makes certain that I’ll be up for another bout or two?” he teased. When they were done, they retreated to the bed once more. Rohyr drew the bed
curtains then pulled Lassen down beside him to lie within his embrace. Snuggled against his king, Lassen contentedly sighed.
Prudent of you to let Vyren sleep alone tonight,” Rohyr murmured.

Lassen snorted. “I seem to recall the suggestion came from you.” He raised his head and eyed Rohyr with mock severity. “Indeed, you insisted on it and scarcely gave me time to tuck him in.”

Rohyr shrugged. “I was tired of having to hold back for fear of waking him up. It’s been a while since I’ve heard you scream loud enough to awaken the entire Citadel.”

I don’t scream—”

And even longer since you’ve thrown discretion to the four winds and pleasured me as ardently as a wanton strung out on a love philter.”
I beg your pardon—”
And, Veres almighty, you can’t imagine how much I missed it.”
That effectively brought Lassen up short. He gazed anxiously at Rohyr.

Why didn’t you say so? I would’ve seen to your needs forthwith had you told me.” Rohyr grinned. “You have been seeing to my needs, Las. Don’t think you’ve
neglected me. I only meant that I missed making love with you as riotously as we did before you birthed Vyren.”
Lassen regarded him thoughtfully. “You restrained yourself because you could see how caught up I was in his care,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, Roh.”
For what? For being a doting father to our son?” Rohyr shook his head. “I’ve been as obsessed with Vyren’s care as you.”

That’s not surprising given that he’s your heir as well as your firstborn.” Lassen gazed contritely at his spouse. “Perhaps there is naught to apologize for, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to improve on what we do have.” He pressed tender kisses to Rohyr’s mouth. “I’m glad Vyren is old enough to leave in Josel’s care most nights. Now I can attend to you as much as you wish.” He brought their lips together in a longer, more heated kiss. “And you needn’t restrain yourself any longer, my love. Tonight or any other night.”
I shall hold you to that,” Rohyr said, breaking into a rakish grin.
Lassen softly laughed and laid his head on Rohyr’s shoulder again. “I didn’t think it possible for anyone to be so happy as we are. How I wish others could also know such joy.”

Rohyr ran his fingers through Lassen’s hair. “Are you thinking of anyone in particular?”
You know I am,” came the muffled reply as Lassen nuzzled his shoulder.

Don’t you wish that as well?”

Of course.” Rohyr sighed. “But so long as he nurses his anger towards Riodan, I fear he will never have joy or peace. Much as he still despises what Riodan did, he hasn’t stopped caring for him either. I warrant he’s furious with himself for feeling thusly, and that only serves to deepen his resentment.”

He wants to hate Riodan but finds that he can’t?”
Worse. He feels himself forced to love against his very will.”
And so his anger is further stoked.” Lassen blew his breath out. “To be so torn… How terrible for him.” He frowned and looked at Rohyr. “What did Riodan do? Or are you forbidden to talk about it?”

Rohyr hesitated. “If there’s anyone to whom Dylen confides his deepest secrets other than myself, I think it’s you,” he slowly said. “But this strikes at his pride as much as it wounds his heart, and he is loathe to expose what he deems a weakness. You see, he’s ashamed of his failure to realize that Riodan probably couldn’t have acted otherwise and that if he’d had his wits about him at the time, he wouldn’t have been so surprised by Riodan’s duplicity. Or as disillusioned. And so he keeps the hurt to himself and holds the one person who has the greatest chance of healing it at bay. Ironically that person inflicted the hurt in the first place.” Rohyr exhaled in frustration. “It’s like a festering sore from which he can find no relief. And Riodan is faring no better. Each time Dylen refuses his overtures, he shrivels up a little more inside. If Dylen’s anger hardens his heart, Riodan’s guilt corrodes his soul.”

Lassen stared at him. “Tell me what you can,” he finally said. “You needn’t go into details if you don’t wish to betray Dylen’s confidence but tell me the bare bones at least. I want to help them. Veres knows they need some and soonest.”

He listened carefully to Rohyr’s spare account of his brother’s history with the young diplomat. When Rohyr was done, Lassen was rendered quite speechless.

I knew something had gone wrong between them, but nothing so devastating,” he said at length. “Saints! I can’t imagine Riodan doing something as reprehensible as that. And then for Dylen to blame himself for not anticipating so great a change in Riodan…” He laughed mirthlessly. “You really are brothers. Only the two of you would hold yourselves responsible for what is beyond anyone’s ability to control!”
Rohyr looked away in some embarrassment. Lassen guessed he was remembering that terrible day when he’d blamed himself for not foreseeing the unforeseeable. It had nigh cost Lassen his life and all but guaranteed that the rest of Rohyr’s would be spent in misery. Lassen cupped his face and kissed him.

Don’t, Roh,” he gently chided. “Dwelling on what might have been is fruitless. We won that fight and reaped the spoils of it. And now that we have secured our happiness, we can ensure the same for others.”

Rohyr smiled faintly. “Ensure? Are we deities to grant wishes and answer prayers?” “Nay, but you have the power to set circumstances in motion that might bring them

together once more. If not as lovers, then at least as friends.” “You have so much confidence in me.”
I have perfect reason to.” “Why thank you, ariad.”
Lassen placed his clasped hands on Rohyr’s chest and rested his chin on them. He
looked hopefully at his spouse. Rohyr laughed and shook his head.

Why do I feel that I must come up with a plan right now or lose your high esteem of my abilities?” he rhetorically asked.
Lassen huffed a chuckle. “But you do have something in mind, don’t you? Else you wouldn’t have delayed so long in deciding who to send to Asmara.”
Rohyr’s eyes widened then softened as he gazed at Lassen. He raised his hand and caressed Lassen’s cheek.

How well you know me,” he murmured. “Small wonder I feel I can accomplish anything with you at my side. Yes, I did delay my decision for that reason. I was debating whether their having to work together on a mission might help things along. Dylen would never allow his personal prejudices to interfere with the performance of his obligations. He would force himself to be accommodating with Riodan for duty’s sake. And, Veres willing, he just might make a habit of it.”

Thereby opening himself to Riodan’s attempts to reconcile with him,” Lassen mused out loud. “Yes, ’twould be a point from which they could start anew. Provided Riodan takes advantage of the opportunity. But think you he’ll stay the course?”

Rohyr nodded. “To the bitter end. I think the outcome will lie in Dylen’s hands. In whether he can forgive Riodan or not.”
Lassen bit his lip. ”Saints, I hope he can,” he whispered.

They lay in comfortable silence for several minutes. Lassen shifted a slender limb and laid it across Rohyr’s lap. Within seconds, he felt Rohyr’s shaft stir and firm up against his thigh. Before he could tease his mate, Rohyr rolled him over and lodged his hips between his splayed legs. Lassen moaned as his throat was nibbled and sucked and his nipples thumbed to tiny peaks while down yonder, Rohyr thrust against him, sliding their hardened shafts against each other.

Rohyr reached down and gingerly stroked Lassen’s sheath until his body was ready for reproductive intercourse once more. He slid a finger into the slippery passage, caressing it from within.

Lassen let out a shuddery exhalation. “Yes,” he whispered.

Rohyr withdrew his finger and pressed the tip of his shaft against the glistening entrance.
I won’t restrain myself,” he huskily promised. “And neither will you.”

Aflame with anticipation, Lassen raised his legs and wrapped them around Rohyr’s waist. He gasped Rohyr’s name as he was deeply penetrated then braced himself for a nice hard ride.

* * * *

Rohyr watched Dylen and Riodan’s faces as they listened to Gilmael explain the current situation in Asmara.

The country spanned the main route between Ylandre and the South Vihandran nations. All travellers passing through Asmara had to gain permission to do so from its government first. Ruled by the powerful Halvan clan, the wealthy and influential South Vihandran kingdom had become a cause for some worry thanks to the marriage of the reigning Asmaran king’s son to the heir of the current Varadani pretender Jubal Ferrenda.

It was an ongoing thorn in the Ylandrin monarchy’s figurative side, this constant cropping up of Ferrenda claimants to the rulership of the defunct nation of Varadan.
Despite having lost both crown and country in the war of conquest they instigated centuries ago, there seemed no end to rebellious Deira who clamored for the restoration of the Ferrendas to the Varadani throne.

They abided for the most part in the northwest of the Autonomous Province of Tenerith, which, along with the royal fief of Vireshe, had been carved out of Varadan. Though few, and largely lacking cohesiveness in method and purpose, the separatists tended toward violent means of achieving their goals. So every few years, the royal armies were sent to crush them before they had a chance to swell to less manageable numbers.

Rohyr had led more than one campaign to “clean house” as his forebears had put it and never lowered his guard against them no matter how few remained after. But neither he nor his predecessors had yet managed to eradicate them completely for they fled into the bordering hills and mountains after every defeat, and it was all but impossible to rout them out of the subterranean labyrinth of tunnels in which they hid themselves until the next attempt at insurrection.

So the Ferrendas remained without kingdom or throne, but not resources or prestige. Though stripped of a physical realm, they had managed to retain extensive properties in other lands whence they derived much income. And they were still of the blood royal and therefore remained respected in some countries, particularly in the south. After all, their former aggression had never touched the South Vihandrans. Thus to this day wedlock with House Ferrenda was still deemed acceptable by not a few southern clans, especially those whose ranks the Ferrendas entered in the days before Varadan’s conquest by Ylandre. The Halvans were among the royals who counted Ferrendas among their ancestors. And still wed with them as evidenced by Prince Sivar’s marriage to Jubal’s son Malkon.
Now that had not made Asmara unfriendly to Ylandre. On the contrary, relations between the two countries remained stable and lucrative. But no Essendri worth his salt would ever discount the possibility of a hostile in-law meddling in the kingdom’s affairs and influencing Asmara against Ylandre.

At present, Asmara had not put an embargo on Ylandrin goods or restricted passage through the realm between Ylandre and the countries down south. Nor had there been any hint of animosity on the Shaja Amir Halvan’s part. But there were signs that Jubal was trying to gain influence through his son’s entry into the royal family.

There is a possible indication of interference,” Gilmael said. “The approval of contract renewals between several Ylandrin and Asmaran corporations and guilds has been considerably delayed. There’s a great chance that some may not be renewed at all even after years of smooth relations and fruitful cooperation. And it’s rumored that Malkon is cultivating close ties with various heads of government. The Asmaran Minister of Trade is oft seen in his company.”
Riodan asked, “What does our ambassador to Asmara say?”
Gilmael shook his head. “He was recalled last month after Foreign Affairs received reports of too much carousing in the stews and not enough attention to duty. Another will be posted to Asmara when his current assignment is done. In the meantime, we can make do with an interim consular team.”

And may I presume that I will be part of that team?” Riodan ventured. “You may,” Gilmael confirmed. “You and Dylen.”
Silence met his statement. Dylen and Riodan looked at each other in surprise then stared at Gilmael.
You approve of my inclusion in the team?” Dylen asked disbelievingly. Gilmael nodded. “It’s a judicious choice.”
Judicious? Just how did you come to that conclusion?” “Gil didn’t make the decision,” Rohyr interrupted. “I did.”
He glanced ruefully at Gilmael. He was not really surprised by Dylen or Riodan’s respective reactions. Dylen was glaring at him with incredulity coupled with suspicion while Riodan’s expression revealed a jumble of emotions, astonishment and the faintest tinge of hope among them. Nay, he was not surprised and neither was he sanguine that Dylen would accept the mission unquestioningly.
Sure enough, Dylen eyed him with barely concealed displeasure. “So you want to find out if Malkon is behind the recent problems in trade relations between Ylandre and Asmara,” he said.
That is correct.”

And we must tread carefully because he is wed to Amir’s son.” “Yes.”

But why me?” Dylen asked. “It makes sense to send Riodan—he’s proved his mettle as a diplomat. But I’m untried whereas Gil has any number of seasoned agents at his beck and call. Not to mention far more competent than I.”

Hardly more competent,” Rohyr demurred. “It was you who helped uncover no less than three instances of burgeoning disaffection amongst the least suspected of the nobility.”

Minor achievements,” Dylen said dismissively.

On the contrary,” Rohyr countered. “Disaffection can easily evolve into insurrection if not nipped in the bud. Besides, you displayed a knack for discerning the beginnings of the problems before they developed into serious threats. And you have a great talent for getting people to open up. Pardon the term, Dy, but you virtually seduced them into talking.”
Those were local cases,” Dylen protested. “This involves international relations best left in a diplomat’s hands.”
But a diplomat’s hands can be tied in ways an agent’s are not,” Gilmael interjected. “Rio will be constrained by his position insofar as discovering what Malkon is about. But he’ll be the shield behind which you can act as you see fit.”

Which doesn’t explain why you want me to accompany him,” Dylen retorted. “Besides, how do you propose to explain to the Halvans why your adjutant is part of a supposedly diplomatic mission? Wouldn’t it be better to covertly seed Rio’s team with agents rather than openly have someone from Intelligence in it?”

Rohyr raised a hand to forestall the spate of questions.

It’s my prerogative to send who I want where I want, and no one can question my reasons,” he reminded Dylen. “But, if you feel a need for one, it’s because you are largely untried. Why shouldn’t I desire my only brother to gain more experience abroad? And wouldn’t that allay suspicions on Malkon’s part about the real intent of this mission? Save for your kinship to me, little is known about you even in Rikara itself. Not your stealth or your skill at extracting information or your talent in the mind-arts. Malkon won’t be on his guard and Amir will be flattered that I esteem him highly enough to send
my own brother to his kingdom for his very first mission abroad.” He locked gazes with Dylen. “Any more objections?”
Dylen glared back but only shook his head. Rohyr smiled faintly then looked at the others. “We are agreed on this then,” he declared. “When can they leave, Gil?”
No later than a sennight,” Gilmael promptly replied. “Very good,” Rohyr said. “You may go. Except you, Dy.”
Dylen seated himself once more, eyeing Rohyr warily as he did. The Ardan waited until the others had left the chamber. He looked at Dylen, studying him until the latter began to scowl.

Why did you ask me to stay, Ardan-tyar?” he stiffly asked. Rohyr sighed at the use of his title. “You’re displeased.”
I have no right to be.” “Dy, please…”
Dylen leaned forward, eyes flashing with hurt. “Why did you do this? You know what came of our previous association. Rohyr, I trusted you!”
And I haven’t broken your trust.” “Haven’t you?” Dylen challenged.
Do you hate him that much?” Rohyr said instead.

The question rendered Dylen speechless. He abruptly stood and walked to the windows. For a long while, he stared out, viewing stately Mount Sarak in the distance. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and rough.

Nay, I don’t hate him,” he admitted. “But it smites my very soul to be in the same room with him.” He blinked his eyes as if the bright sunlight dazzled him. “Bad enough to meet him now and then and perforce act civil to keep gossip at bay. But to work closely and keep company with him for most of a day for Veres knows how long…“ His voice trailed away to a pained murmur.
Rohyr rose and went to him. He put a protective arm around Dylen’s shoulders and pulled him close.
Do you love him?” he softly asked.

Love?” Dylen shook his head. “I no longer know what I feel. But I do know I can’t trust him.”
Can’t? Or don’t wish to?” “Does it matter?”
If it affects you so much then, yes, it does.” Rohyr gently made Dylen face him. “He’s suffering, too.”
Dylen grimaced. “I know.”

And he repents of his sin against you. Even that benighted intended of his knows it, and that’s saying a lot considering what an obtuse wantwit Guyon Barath can be.” That elicited a fleeting smile from Dylen. Rohyr forged on. “Can you not give him a chance to make amends for what he did? He’s humbled himself before you more times than I can count. Doesn’t that move you?”
And how hard can it be to humble one’s self before a king’s brother?” Bitterness shadowed Dylen’s eyes once more. “Were I still a hethar with antecedents of no particular importance, think you he would try to win my regard anew?”

It was because I was nobody that he refused me his help!” Dylen pulled away,
anguish limning his words. “Deity’s blood, Roh, he denied even our friendship! Made me out to be a one-night tumble and a liar for claiming to be more than that! Tell me, why should I trust him now? And why are you so bent on pushing us together when you know how deeply he hurt me?”
Rohyr pulled Dylen into his arms, holding him tightly and saying, “I’m sorry, Dy, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to cause you more pain. I hope you know that.”
Fighting for calm, Dylen tried to relax in his brother’s soothing embrace. “Tell me why,” he whispered.
Rohyr took a deep breath. “Because you still care for him though you fight it,” he softly said. “If you would only admit your feelings—”
And give him the chance to break my heart anew?” Dylen bleakly said.

Nay, to relieve you of the strain of denying what it still yearns for,” Rohyr asserted. “It will calm the turmoil in your soul. Believe me, it’s far more difficult to keep stoking one’s anger than it is to forgive and move on.”

Ah, so that’s how you manage to keep sane with Uncle Imcael,” Dylen murmured with a watery smile.
Rohyr smiled back, heartened by the stab at humor. “Now you know my secret.” He reached up and cupped Dylen’s face in his hands. “Riodan despairs of ever regaining your love, but I see how much he hopes for your forgiveness. Surely you have it in you to grant him that at the very least. And perhaps restore something of what you once shared with him. Friendship, if not love.”
Dylen shuddered ever so slightly. “You don’t say it but verily you would have me try for more,” he said, his voice catching.
Nay, I would have you take one step forward, no more, no less.” Rohyr touched his forehead to Dylen’s. “I would have you happy, brother.”

Chapter Seventeen


Asmara, South Vihandra

A land of contradictions, Dylen thought as he gazed out at Asmara’s capital of Shenze from the wide windows of the east gallery of the royal palace.

In the north and central regions of the kingdom, the climate was pleasant with none of the seasonal extremes found in most of Ylandre save in the east where a massive mountain range, its craggy windswept peaks more forbidding than any battlement, protected Asmara from its sometimes contentious neighbors. Toward the south, the climate became progressively warmer and the seasons less numerous and varied—wet, dry and cold. The southwest was lush with swamps and rainforests, the arid southeast rife with barren rocky plains and small deserts.
Shenze itself, or at least its architecture, seemed to follow the pattern. Massive domed buildings competed with thin, spire-topped edifices so delicate in appearance one almost expected them to crack and crumble at the slightest gust of the strong easterly winds. There was no homogeneity in the materials of which the city was wrought. Red brick, blue slate and moss green stone meshed and clashed in glorious profusion. The result was a vibrant metropolis alive with color, shape and texture.

Its citizens were more alike to each other than the structures they had built. They were little different from the people of the North Continent in physical appearance. But evolution had taken the sunnier climes of South Vihandra into consideration and consequently its folk were slightly darker in complexion with skin tones ranging from olive to coppery.
He’d felt the charm of this gateway city and its environs almost as soon as he and Riodan came out of translocation three days ago on the wide, gently undulating plain that lay before Shenze. If he now strove to keep Asmara allied to Ylandre, it was no longer out of duty alone, but also because he genuinely appreciated the land and its people.

At length he sauntered into the long open gallery that overlooked the open-air, mosaic-floored courtyard that was the center around which the palace had been built. The Halvan residence was as different from the Citadel as could be. Golden in hue and quite decadent in appearance, it sprawled rather than soared, with the main audience chamber housed under a massive dome that formed most of the north wing of the palace. Keeping the warmer climate in mind, its builders had provided many open courtyards and terraces within the complex, as well as numerous doors and windows to allow for maximum air circulation.

Like all royal keeps, the palace was enclosed within thick nigh impregnable stone walls. But an extra defense and a most effective one was the sheer drop in back of it. From the ramparts on the palace’s rear wall, one gazed down into a deep jagged chasm too wide to bridge and too long to skirt. It was a dizzying sight and a frightening one as well.
From his vantage point, Dylen spotted Riodan down below talking with the Minister of Trade by one of the three fountains that adorned the courtyard. Riodan had earlier told him that he intended to corner the Deir and put not so subtle pressure on him to get on with the business of approving the contract renewals that were the purported reason for their presence in Asmara. The Minister seemed rather red-faced at the moment and was mopping his face with a kerchief. What in Aisen was Riodan saying to the Deir to make him so uncomfortable?
He recalled the bit of gossip he had come across the night before after he and Riodan had parted for the evening. It had come to his ears by way of the loosened tongue of his drinking partner, one of the palace officials. Perhaps he should communicate it to Riodan now while he had the Minister’s full attention. After all, what good was all his training under Rohyr and Tenryon if he did not put it to practical use? He focused on Riodan and, taking a deep breath, reached out and connected with him, mind to mind.

* * * *

Ask him how he did at the gaming tables last night.

Riodan did not so much as bat an eyelash at the unbidden message. He only nodded his head slightly to let Dylen know he had heard. He looked at his companion, Thael Dimas, Asmara’s Minister of Trade.

I’ve heard quite a lot about the gaming halls of Shenze,” he casually said. “Is it true the stakes are higher here than in most other cities?”
Dimas glanced at him, obviously startled by the sudden change in topic. “Yes, it’s true,” he admitted. “You can win a lifelong fortune with one roll of the dice in our halls.”
Or lose everything but the shirt on one’s back I imagine.” “Well, that is a risk of gaming,” Dimas said with a shrug.

Riodan looked him straight in the eye. “And how did you do last night, Minister? Did you win a fortune or lose one?”
The Deir started. He grew pale. “A little of each,” he grudgingly admitted.

Then it must be very reassuring that you have ample resources to pay off any debts you incur,” Riodan murmured.
Dimas grew red-faced all over again. “I assure you there have never been defalcations at my Ministry!”
Riodan softly chuckled. “Ah, I never implied that. What I meant was that you must have friends in high places who are generous enough to lend you what is needed.”
The Minister seemed taken aback. “I—that is, I have been fortunate, yes,” he stammered slightly. “But I, er, pride myself in paying back all I owe.”
In kind as well as coin, I suppose,” Riodan said.

On occa—” Dimas stopped mid word, his eyes widening. Riodan clearly saw fear in them. “What-what are you suggesting, Your Excellency?”
Nothing at all,” Riodan replied with wide-eyed innocence. “A fair exchange does not always involve money after all. Now, about those trade contracts—may I expect progress on them very soon? Within the week perhaps?”

I—yes, yes, I will work on them at once,” Dimas nervously assured him. “That is, they are being, ah, processed even as we speak.”
That is good to hear.”
Yes.” Dimas’ kerchief was out again, and he wiped his face as before. Except now
his hands visibly trembled. “If you will excuse me, Ambassador, I have an appointment to keep,” he mumbled.
Oh, with Lord Malkon perhaps?” Riodan was gratified to see the other Deir turn deathly white. There were times a calculated guess could be as effective as an investigation of the facts. “Why, Minister, are you unwell?” he solicitously asked. “Perhaps you should get some rest.”

Dimas was by now sweating profusely. “Yes, I-I think I must,” he stuttered. “Good-good day, Your Excellency.”
Good day, Minister. Expect me at your office this afternoon.” “What? Oh, but I—Yes, of course,” Dimas finished incoherently.

He hurried away as if a pack of hunting hounds was after him. Riodan watched him go then looked up to where Dylen waited. Their gazes met for an instant, and then Dylen stepped back out of sight while Riodan headed for his first official audience with the Shaja Amir and his nephew and heir Laral.

* * * *

Riodan’s meeting with the Asmaran monarch proved illuminating and confusing at the same time in one particular capacity. Amir’s only son Sivar also attended and spoke with as much authority as his sire and cousin. Riodan noted Sivar’s demeanor with Laral. There was little deference toward a higher-ranking personage either in his speech or behavior. Understandable had the situation been a familial one; not so much when it was an official occasion where protocol was expected to be strictly observed even among members of the same family.
He soon realized he wasn’t the only one affected by their behavior. Amir’s head counsellor and the scribe and attendants present looked discomfited by Sivar’s apparent lack of propriety. Amir, however, was not, and tellingly, neither was Laral. Indeed, not only did the crown prince not seem affronted by his cousin’s behavior, he even appeared to encourage it. Riodan tucked the intriguing discrepancy away for examination at a later date.

I regret the anxiety caused by the new policy implemented by Minister Dimas,” Amir said toward the end of the meeting. “He’s not to blame since I did approve his revision of the process of contract renewals, but he was very remiss in not informing you of it. Rest assured I shall have a word with him on that, Ambassador. And I give you leave to discuss the matter with him directly as well.”
Thank you, Your Majesty,” Riodan replied, choosing not to reveal that he had already done so.
Amir left the audience chamber ahead with his chief advisor while Laral and Sivar lingered a while to chat with Riodan.

They were a handsome pair and very much alike in height and facial features. This was not surprising given that they were first-degree kin. But Sivar’s hair was dark brown while Laral’s was a deep honey shade.

Laral asked, “Are the Ylandrins truly accepting of Rohyr’s binding to his leman?” Riodan refrained from raising his eyebrows. “For the most part, Your Highness,” he
said. “There will always be those who resist the crossing of lines between social classes.” “I understand his uncle of Qimaras is of that thinking.”
The Herun is retired from court,” Riodan informed them. “His opinion on the matter
no longer carries much weight.”

Laral chuckled. “You certainly don’t mince words, Ambassador. Or have you a particular dislike for Imcael Essendri?”
Riodan lightly said, “I only find such close-mindedness tiresome.”

Ah, then you don’t oppose the blurring of lines between the well-born and the rabble?”
Riodan hesitated. “I would not advise wedlock between a blueblood and a peasant,” he cautiously clarified. “The disparities on just about every level would almost inevitably doom such a marriage. But I see nothing wrong with, say, a well-mannered commoner marrying into a noble family or an educated working class Deir wedding someone from the gentry.”
And, in any case, you don’t face that choice,” Sivar murmured. “Royal blood is royal blood even if it flows in the veins of a by-blow.” He smiled when Riodan stared at him, startled. “You hide it well, but every now and then, you can’t help but betray your attraction to Lord Dylen.”

Riodan reddened under their knowing regard. “I’m not alone in finding him attractive,” he said as blandly as he could manage.

He is very comely,” Laral agreed. “Essendri blood runs true in him.” He eyed Riodan curiously. “You didn’t wait for my uncle to give you leave to speak to Minister Dimas. I saw you talking with him earlier. And he looked most uncomfortable with what you were discussing.”

I only alluded to his fondness for gaming,” Riodan evenly replied.

So you’ve heard tales of his frequent visits to the halls,” Sivar said. He shook his head. “I have cautioned him oft enough to be more prudent with his wagers. His family is well off but not so much that he can afford to make a habit of such a ruinous sport.”

I hear Lord Malkon also enjoys the occasional evening trying his luck at the tables,” Riodan idly mentioned.

Does he?” Sivar shrugged. “Perhaps he does. I don’t keep track of Malkon’s activities. He has his own pursuits, and I have mine.”
Riodan said no more, but he did not miss the furtive glance Laral sent his cousin’s way.

* * * *

He and Dylen compared notes during the midday meal back at the Ylandrin embassy. They fell into the habit without ever saying a word, something Riodan hopefully thought was a sign that their affinity of long ago was still intact.

Riodan watched with fond indulgence as Dylen attacked his meal with delight. Despite all the pressures and tension of fulfilling their mission, Dylen was enjoying what he could of Asmara to the hilt. It was a conscious decision born of the twin reasonings that the experience might not come his way again, and though it had been against his will, he might as well make the most of it now that he was here.
Perhaps nothing had made it as easy for Dylen to appreciate the culture of the southern lands as the cuisine. And, having been exposed to sophisticated dishes for years, he was quick to enjoy the differences in flavor preferences. Slightly spicier than most North Continent fare and given to more adventurous combinations of ingredients and seasonings, the food south of the continental divide was pleasingly exotic for a Deir who
had not sojourned abroad before.

Today, they dined on fillets of whitefish poached in a surprisingly tart and piquant broth followed by peppery herb-encrusted roehart medallions roasted to a rare turn with mashed purple tubers garnished with sweet-tangy garnet plum puree on the side. And to end the meal, there was a rich cake of sweetened curd cheese in a biscuit crust topped with a mélange of fruits cooked in syrup.
They proceeded to discuss what they had learned thus far as they sipped the southerners’ favorite post-prandial beverage. Kahvi was a hot aromatic brew with a rich, slightly bitter flavor and was equally delicious taken with or without the sweetened condensed milk the Asmarans were fond of using in their various desserts and confectionery. Riodan grinned when Dylen displayed his predilection for the sweet version, adding the milk to his kahvi with a lavish hand.
What did Amir have to say?” Dylen asked after taking a sip.
He’s aware of the problem,” Riodan reported. “And he did question Dimas about it after we lodged our complaint. But apparently Dimas’ explanation for his actions satisfied Amir, and so he didn’t press the issue further.”

Dylen pursed his lips. “What explanation did Dimas give?”

Officially? That it would be in Asmara’s best interests to periodically reassess such agreements, and rather than do a shoddy job of it, he thought it wisest to take as much time as needed to study each and every contract.”

How very patriotic of him.”

And so very reasonable sounding, too.”

Except that it shouldn’t take forever to go over those contracts,” Dylen commented. “Unless he’s taken it upon himself to personally study each and every one without any help whatsoever.”

Riodan smiled mirthlessly. “That is probably what he’s doing to slow down the process. And it appears your source was right about Dimas’ gaming habit. Sivar mentioned that he’s talked to Dimas about it as well. But he didn’t seem aware of a possible connection between him and Malkon. Either that or he’s a very good actor,” Riodan wryly posited. “Though I can’t imagine why the pretense at ignorance if that is so. I’m inclined to believe he really doesn’t know. Or care.”

He doesn’t appear to take much interest in Malkon’s affairs,” Dylen agreed. “Which says a great deal about the state of their marriage.”
It said a lot as well about the Deir they had come to Asmara to keep an eye on. Malkon Ferrenda had proved far from impressive. Glib and often pompous, he was given to preening himself on even the most minor of accomplishments. Not least of these self-proclaimed achievements was his binding to Sivar Halvan. That this had come about after careful negotiations between his sire and Sivar’s—negotiations he’d had close to no part in—he blithely ignored. Indeed he had gained a not so charming reputation for embellishing stories about himself if by doing so he could further puff up his already swollen head.

Dylen summed him up within minutes of meeting him as shallow and vain and too clever by half. A thoroughly untrustworthy character who needed close watching as much for his propensity for harassing any Deir unlucky enough to catch his eye as for his suspected meddling in Asmaran politics. Both Dylen and Riodan heartily sympathized with Prince Sivar for having to bear with so unlikable a spouse.
Riodan put down his cup and sat back. “In any case, let’s assume that Malkon encourages his debtors to gamble away their fortunes and therefore borrow far more than they can ever repay within the time he stipulates. He would then threaten them with a stint in paupers’ prison if they don’t do as he says. I warrant he used that against Dimas to force him to delay the approval of those trade agreements. But what the Ferrendas have to gain from the delay, I don’t know.”

Profit, of course,” Dylen said. “And not always in the short-term. I studied the information Gilmael sent regarding the contracts in question and checked who the competitors of the corporations and guilds concerned are. Well, surprise, surprise, they’re either owned by the Ferrendas or Jubal and Malkon have considerable interests in them. I warrant Malkon is trying to get a foot in so to speak by slowly dislodging rivals and supplanting them eventually with Ferrenda-backed companies. If he’s successful with Asmara, he’ll probably try to do the same with other southern nations. The prejudice against the Ferrendas isn’t as strong down here as it is in the north.”

That’s very sound reasoning,” Riodan conceded. “I should have thought of that. Gilmael and our Trade Minister, too.”
Dylen shrugged. “They’ve got more on their plates than just this one problem. And you’ve been busy with your own investigations as well.” After a pregnant pause, he said, “I also learned something that is unknown outside of the immediate royal circle. There was an attempt on Laral’s life late last year.”

Riodan sat up straight. “On Laral? That is news indeed. But why did the Halvans suppress it?”

Partly because they feared it would encourage other attempts but also because too many questions would be asked, and the answer to who instigated it might lead to an open rift with Ylandre if not outright war.”

Why would it—?” Riodan sharply drew in his breath. “Sweet Veres, they think Ylandre was behind the attempt?”

They’re not sure,” Dylen said. “The would-be assassins escaped, but one left behind evidence of their affiliation—a cloak pin bearing the insignia of an Ylandrin foot soldier.”
Rather too obvious for credibility I should think,” Riodan scoffed.
But with lack of proof to the contrary, the Halvans can’t simply absolve us, can they?” Dylen countered.

I suppose not. Where did you get this information?” “Captain Talvas.”
Riodan frowned. “But if Amir ordered that the attempt be suppressed, why did he tell you?”
Likely because we’re kindred spirits,” Dylen replied. “Talvas is a bastard, too.” “That’s no secret. The son of one of Amir’s cousins they say.”
Nay, he was sired on a Shenzen minstrel by Amir himself.”

Riodan’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “So Talvas is Sivar’s half-brother? Small wonder he’s fanatically loyal to the family. He’s actually one of them.”
Precisely. And therefore he knows just about all there is to know about the Halvans’ history.” Dylen took a long sheet of parchment from the sheaf at his elbow and pushed it toward Riodan. “He helped me draw this up.”

Riodan scanned the document. “This is the Halvan ancestral tree.” He looked at Dylen questioningly. “What did you hope to find?”
A possible motive for Malkon to do away with Laral.” “And did you find it?”
I believe so. And it might also explain what you observed of Sivar’s demeanor toward Laral,” Dylen added thoughtfully. “Do you recall the inheritance law Imcael concealed from Rohyr when he forced him to marry Tyrde?” Riodan nodded, grimacing at the memory of the Ardan’s unhappy first marriage. “Well, that law originated here, in South Vihandra. But we discovered the Southerners don’t abide the law of primogeniture only after extensive research. Now, if even Rohyr’s scholars and lawyers didn’t know that the line of descent around here is through a monarch’s brother, it stands to reason the Ferrendas weren’t aware of it either.”

Riodan fell silent for a space. When he spoke again, his eyes gleamed with excitement. “Then Malkon was betrothed and wed to Sivar on the assumption that Sivar is the heir to the Asmaran throne.”

Exactly. Imagine his dismay when he discovered it is Laral who is crown prince. Since he married Sivar in fane rites, he can’t dissolve their union and go after Laral instead. Neither dare he do away with Sivar since he would likely be the first suspect, especially if he proceeds to court Laral afterward.” Dylen grimly said, “What think you might he do to win himself the rule of Asmara?”
Riodan pursed his lips. “But how could Laral’s death achieve that?”

Dylen glanced down once more at the sheet of parchment. “Laral is an only child like Sivar. His heir would have been Arfen Halvan, the ranking member of the most senior cadet line of the Halvan clan. But Arfen died after a sudden illness. So the next in line to the throne was his nephew, Gavan, who was conveniently killed in a hunting accident a few months later.”

Gavan’s only brother died in childhood so, with his own death, the line of succession shifted once more—to the eldest son of the next highest-ranking royal descendant after Arfen.”

Riodan quickly perused the pertinent information. He looked up with a jerk, his eyes wide with consternation.
Saints above!” he softly exclaimed. “Amir’s late consort, Sivar’s adda. Then Sivar is now Laral’s heir!”

Yes. Quite an interesting family tree I must say,” Dylen wryly remarked. “Convoluted is more like it,” Riodan retorted. “Thank Veres mine is more

You think this is convoluted?” Dylen scoffed. “It doesn’t even come close to the Essendris’ ancestral lines. I only lately discovered that most of our cousins are related to Rohyr and me twice or thrice over. Even Reijir and Keiran whom I thought were kin to us only through their sire are cousins through their adda as well.”

How is that possible? He was a noble from Qindala in western Khitaira, wasn’t he?” “Yes, but it turns out that his grandfather was the half-brother of our grandsire, the

Ardan Joren through their father the Ardis Levare’s first marriage.”

Riodan closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead vexedly. “This is giving me a headache,” he muttered. After a while, he took a deep breath and looked at Dylen again. “So you suspect Malkon of engineering Gavan’s accident?”

Gavan was reportedly gored by a swylboar after he was thrown from his steed. He
and Malkon had ridden ahead in pursuit of the beast. They were virtually alone when the accident occurred. Easy enough for Malkon to push Gavan off his steed into the swylboar’s path. And if the boar didn’t kill him, he could have finished off Gavan with his hunting pike, which is very similar in size and shape to a swylboar tusk.” Dylen paused and frowned thoughtfully. “If you think about it, why couldn’t Arfen’s death have been helped along as well?”

Riodan stared. “He had a seizure,” he mused aloud. “He died before the royal physician arrived. You think Malkon poisoned him?”
Dylen shrugged. “Perhaps, but that would have been an extremely big risk to take. The physician might have recognized the symptoms. The Asmarans are probably the most knowledgeable about poisons in the two continents. Besides, Arfen was known to have seizures on occasion though nothing fatal. Nay, I think it was simpler. The story goes that he was drinking with Sivar and Malkon in his apartment the night the attack happened.”

That isn’t common knowledge,” Riodan said, shaking his head. “Where you get your information…”
The old fashioned way,” Dylen replied. “I engage people in conversation. Sooner or later, they talk more freely than is prudent. As I was saying, the three were having a round of drinks when Arfen had his seizure. Sivar and Malkon carried him to his bed and then Sivar went out to the hall to instruct the servants to fetch the physician and also to inform Gavan of the incident. Since the attack didn’t appear serious, he didn’t go back at once but waited for the physician to arrive. So it was a shock when they entered the bedroom and found Arfen dead and Malkon attempting to revive him. Or so he claimed. What could have prevented him from smothering Arfen while he was alone with him?”
And no one suspected anything?”

Arfen was already having some difficulty breathing during the seizure. If he was suffocated, his appearance would have been in keeping with someone who’d been fighting for breath.”

Didn’t they wonder why Malkon failed to call for help?” Riodan wondered.

He said he knew the physician was on his way so he decided to exert his energy in trying to revive Arfen.”
Hmm, it sounds logical enough if one isn’t suspicious in the first place.”

He probably counted on that,” Dylen agreed. “It was likely a spur of the moment decision. The opportunity presented itself, and he snatched it.”
It must have encouraged him,” Riodan guessed. “Hence Gavan’s accident and the attempt on Laral’s life.”
But he has to be very careful now lest suspicion does fall on him,” Dylen said. “Talvas dislikes him and, I dare say, so does Laral. Have you noticed how cold he is toward Malkon? They seem barely on speaking terms.”

Riodan nodded. “Some of our consular staff were present at the time of Sivar’s binding to Malkon. They say Laral opposed the marriage so much that he absented himself from the ceremony and only briefly showed up at the nuptial dinner afterward.”
So there’s already a precedent for their distance,” Dylen remarked. “Well then, under the circumstances, Malkon will likely bide his time until he feels it’s safe to strike again.”

Chapter Eighteen


The initial spate of educated conjectures and enlightening discoveries was followed by the business of following up on everything from the Trade Minister’s promises to the various intrigues of the Asmaran court that might have some effect on the country’s relations with Ylandre. It was tedious going for the most part for neither Dylen nor Riodan wished to offend their hosts by being too open in their investigations of Malkon Ferrenda.

Dylen and Riodan did not believe the Halvans completely trusted Malkon either, but the Deir was wed to one of their own and thus had to be treated with due respect. And so all inquiries about him had to be conducted as discreetly as possible, and that meant a lack of directness and therefore speed.

Fortunately, there was the exploration of a land new to both of them to alleviate some of their frustration at the slow pace if their investigation. And, if their occasional absences from the capital served to alleviate any suspicions regarding their inquisitiveness, so much the better. Not to mention it allowed them the freedom to lower their guard just that tiniest bit and thus relax enough to enjoy whatever discoveries came their way.

Such was the case during their brief sojourn in the mountaintop lakeside town of Varthe. The lake was unique in that it was the crater of an ancient extinct volcano. Looking at the tranquil deep blue basin, one found it hard to imagine that once upon a very long time ago, it had been a seething cauldron pockmarked with pools of steaming water, boiling mud and molten rock. Now the cold depths of the lake teemed with a dizzying variety of aquatic life and the slopes of the former volcano were thick with trees and other vegetation.

Varthe was a bucolic town—a perfect getaway from the frenetic rhythm of life in the cities of Asmara. It was also close enough to Shenze that one did not have to plan weeks in advance for a trip to the town. And, if one was gifted with the skill of translocating, the journey thence took no more than a few minutes.

* * * *

Riodan grinned at the sight of Dylen standing knee-deep in the murkier waters along the lakefront as he examined a fat silvery fish. Fishing was a major livelihood in Varthe, and if one came down to the lake right after daybreak, one could buy directly from the fisherfolk. Interestingly, not all the fish for sale were caught. The hardier, more prolific species were cultivated in fish pens that dotted the deeper portions of the lakeshore.

His smile widened when his companion proceeded to haggle with the fishmonger then charmed the latter into cleaning his purchases as well. Before long, he came back with a basketful of assorted fish all ready for the pot or spit as the case may be.

Are you planning to invite all the guests at the inn to lunch?” Riodan mildly inquired.
Dylen shook his head. “Nay, only two will be cooked for our meal. I shall ask the kitchen staff to cure or smoke the rest and send them to Adda and Tarqin.”
They’ll be greatly pleased. But will these keep?” “The kitchen staff said they would.”
They walked up the stone path to the inn where they were billeted. It was a small and charming establishment that overlooked the lake on one side and offered a breathtaking view on the other of the valley and mountains behind.

After leaving the fish in the capable hands of the head cook, Dylen went for a quick wash in the common bathing room on the ground floor of the premises. It was the one feature of the inn he particularly disliked, having become accustomed to the more advanced plumbing systems of the big cities where, if one was willing to spend for it, one could install modern facilities in one’s home complete with hot and cold running water and indoor commodes.

Dylen first came across the luxury when he started working at the Seralye. Having experienced the comforts and convenience of these modern baths, he had insisted on having one at home as soon as he and his father had earned enough to afford it.
He was quite spoiled for rougher living, Dylen ruefully conceded. Oh, he could get by with the most rudimentary of accommodations, but he had to admit, it would take much effort on his part to bear with them and that would considerably lessen his enjoyment of such a place.

Not so Riodan, he mused. His former lover had borne his share of more primitive living conditions in the course of his travels abroad during the years before he was appointed a full-fledged ambassador. Strange how they had started their acquaintance with Dylen the more travelled and less sheltered of the two.

Riodan had long left his naïveté behind. He was not as open as he used to be and indeed was inclined to reticence where once he had been quite talkative and cheerfully so. Of course, such changes came with maturity and the tempering force of experience. Dylen tried not to think about the other possible reason for Riodan’s less than sunny outlook these days—especially when a faint sense of guilt nagged at him.
He angrily shoved the thought aside, indignant that he should feel guilty about anything. But when he joined Riodan on the veranda at the back of the inn, he found it difficult to sustain his irritation.

Riodan’s face lit up with pleasure as soon as Dylen appeared. It always did. And fast on its heels came a diffidence that was uncharacteristic of a Deir who had a reputation for speaking and acting with confidence even in the presence of powerful foreign rulers.

When he was with Dylen, Riodan tended to walk on eggshells, his unspoken fear of resurrecting the past and triggering Dylen’s resentment over it shadowing his every word and deed. Though he had not admitted it to anyone, it left Dylen feeling uncomfortable and not a little wistful for the expressive plainspoken Riodan of old.

It was their last full day in Varthe. The following afternoon would find them back in Shenze, ready to be embroiled once more in the intricacies of Asmaran politics and the difficulties of a clandestine investigation of a royal in-law. They lounged on the veranda, their conversation desultory for the most part, until the innkeeper brought them the day’s mail, forwarded to them by the embassy in Shenze.
These were personal correspondence—official communications were conveyed by
embassy couriers. Nonetheless, Riodan’s sire affixed his diplomatic insignia to his missive. And Guyon Barath was not above stamping his family’s crest into the wax seal of his letter. Riodan’s lips curled in displeasure at such petty posturing.

Meanwhile, Dylen read his four letters. One was from his father, another from Rohyr by way of Lassen and a third was from Gilmael updating him on minor changes he had made among personnel in their Ministry. The fourth letter caused him to stiffen and abruptly sit up.
The sudden movement attracted Riodan’s attention.

Riodan surreptitiously observed Dylen’s expression then dropped his eyes to the topmost envelope on the low table between them. The sender’s name was clearly visible, and he easily read it. He looked up to meet Dylen’s watchful gaze. Riodan stole a peek at the adjoining sitting room, wary of eavesdroppers.

You can speak freely,” Dylen said.

Riodan sensed the sudden presence of invisible walls around them. He wondered once more about the extent of Dylen’s abilities. But now was not the time or the place to probe.

What has Sereth written that bothers you?” he asked as casually as he could muster. Dylen looked pensive. “Not bothersome exactly,” he murmured. “I am only at a loss
as to how to respond to him as kindly and inoffensively as possible.” “Why? Did he ask a favor of you?”
Nay, not a favor.” Dylen suddenly rose and stood at the balustrade enclosing the veranda. He stared somewhat broodingly at the nearby mountains. Finally, he turned around and somberly regarded Riodan. “He wants a definite answer to his offer.”
Riodan felt a stab of apprehension. “What offer?” he cautiously asked.

Sereth asked me to bind to him just before we left Ylandre,” Dylen quietly said. Riodan drew in his breath sharply. He turned his face away, swallowing hard as he
did. When he looked at Dylen once more, his eyes were moist and slightly reddened, but he managed a crooked smile.
Congratulations are in order then,” he ventured.
Dylen shook his head. “I didn’t accept his proposal.” After a moment’s hesitation, he whispered, “I don’t think I can.”

Riodan stared at him. “Why do you say that?” “I’m afraid,” was the unexpected answer. “Afraid of what?”

Of entrapping myself.” Dylen fell silent for a fraught while. At length, he said, “I was right all those years ago. I shouldn’t have allowed myself to fall in love.”

My doing, Riodan bleakly thought. He stood up and approached Dylen. “Don’t let what I did ruin love for you,” he softly entreated. “If taking a mate will make you happy, grab the chance and hold on.”

Dylen laughed mirthlessly. “But it won’t make me happy.” “Why not?”

I don’t love him.” Dylen squarely faced Riodan. “I took the chance once before against all good sense and…” A sad smile curved his lips. “I’m not sure I have it in me to risk it again.”

Riodan could only mutely gaze at him. Dylen’s smile faded.
Your sire was right though,” he said. “You were better off leaving me.” Riodan‘s brow furrowed. He asked, “What did he say?”
Dylen’s eyes glazed over a bit in recollection. “That if I loved you, I’d let you go,” he tonelessly said. “Your future was at stake, and a hethar couldn’t have given you much of one.”

An anguished groan escaped Riodan. He grabbed Dylen by the arms and gave him a little shake. “He was wrong, Dy,” he hoarsely said. “When he took me away from you, I lost the most beautiful—nay, the one perfect thing I could ever hope to know in my whole life. I lost your love.”

Yet when we met again, it was plain you were unhappy I had sought you out,” Dylen snapped. “Deity’s blood, none of my patrons ever demeaned me the way you did that night, Rio!” He jerked back, compelling Riodan to let go. “I have reproached myself all these years for being such a fool to believe that you loved me. And an even greater fool for returning what was so obviously false.”
It wasn’t false!” Riodan protested.

Then why, Rio?” Dylen harshly asked. “Why did you pretend that I was no more than a mere whore you’d bought to pass the night?”

It was not Dylen’s anger or contempt that nearly broke Riodan’s resolve. Rather it was the grief and disillusionment in Dylen’s earth green eyes that almost wrenched Riodan’s courage from him. But Dylen had lived with the torment of his betrayal for far too long. Riodan owed him the truth at the very least. Even if the truth destroyed all chances of rapprochement between them.
Riodan drew a shaky breath. “It is as you accused me,” he softly explained. “Public knowledge of our affair would have seriously compromised my reputation in some circles. You know full well Aba is not alone in his disapproval of liaisons between well-born Deira and members of your fraternity.”

I had no intention of revealing our affair,” Dylen bitterly retorted. “I held no hope for anything more between us save our friendship which you swore to uphold evermore. And I dared to trust you, Rio. I believed you. And you betrayed that trust without a second thought.”

Riodan swallowed hard. “Out of fear,” he admitted, shame roughening his voice. “I had learned to be as ambitious as Aba. Guyon is over proud. He would have broken our betrothal forthwith had he learned the truth.”

Dylen abruptly turned his gaze away. “You esteem him so greatly,” he muttered, unable to keep his hurt from limning his voice. “I suppose you love him as much.”

Guilt-stricken at Dylen’s obvious pain, Riodan placed a hand on his back in an awkward attempt to soothe him. Dylen stiffened but did not move away.

I have loved only one Deir with all my heart, and he isn’t Guyon,” Riodan whispered. When Dylen glanced at him skeptically, he sadly smiled. “I did place much importance on my family’s connection to the Baraths. You probably don’t know, let alone care, but the Barath baronetcy goes back many generations. And a serl’s son is considered a very good catch amongst the gentry. More to the point, it was due to Guyon’s grandparents that my sire came to the Ardan Joren’s attention when he was fresh out of university.”

Is that why he tried to betroth you to Guyon’s uncle? To pay a debt of gratitude?” “You might say that.”
So you declined the older but accepted the younger.” Dylen’s voice dripped with scorn. “He is more to your taste I take it.”
Riodan shook his head. “Guyon is not cruel like his uncle. When we came to be friends, I found it easy to get along with him. And I’m not proud to admit it but I chose to ignore his less admirable traits for the sake of keeping the peace.” He bit his lip then murmured, “I held some affection for Guyon, but I never loved him as I love you.”

Dylen narrowed his eyes. “Why do you speak of him in the past tense?”

Because my regard for him vanished when he belittled you,” Riodan admitted. “I’ve realized that he isn’t worth the cost of losing you. And neither is rank nor reputation. What good is acclaim if the price for it is loneliness and a loveless union?”

You were once more than willing to pay that price,” Dylen reminded him. Riodan pulled his hand away as if scorched. “And you would have me pay it.” He
sighed. “But, after all, what more fitting punishment could you mete one as contemptible as I?”
Dylen grimaced. “That is not—” he began to say.
But Riodan cut in. “I’ve troubled you enough. I won’t do so again. You have my word, Your Grace.”

He turned to go, shoulders drooping, his head bowed. But Dylen caught him by the elbow and drew him back. Riodan’s eyes widened in surprise.
Dylen released his arm and looked away, his cheeks coloring. Riodan’s worry gave way to wonder.
Dy?” he murmured.

I’m sorry, Rio,” Dylen unexpectedly said. He met Riodan’s gaze. “That was uncalled for. You took the risk and humbled yourself before me. And I would never…” He took a deep breath. “I couldn’t take the burden of such a marriage upon myself. How could I wish it on anyone else? Least of all you.”

Giving Riodan no time to ponder his words, he hurried on. “And contrary to what I have led you to believe, I don’t seek to avenge myself on you. Indeed, I weary of our rift.” He reached out a conciliatory hand. “I would put the past behind us. I would that we called each other friend again.”

Riodan stared at him in speechless amazement for several moments. Then a faint smile curved his mouth. He eagerly grasped Dylen’s hand and the possible reconciliation it signified.

Yes!” he said, his voice light with hope. “Yes, I would like that very much.”

Chapter Nineteen


Dylen studied Riodan curiously as the diplomat sat down to breakfast the first morning after their return from Varthe. He seemed more light-hearted than was his wont. From the moment he entered the dining hall, he exchanged unusually cheerful greetings with everyone he encountered, even reducing a newly bound aide to blushes with a bawdy quip. A quick look around told Dylen he was not the only one to notice.

Furtive glances in their direction there were aplenty for Riodan had not been seen to smile so openly or indulge in mischievous remarks since his arrival in Shenze. For that matter, his reputation in diplomatic circles was that of a witty, tactful Deir who seldom, if ever, let others see any side of him but the one carefully crafted for duty. The one exception to the rule, Dylen knew, was when a situation had to do with him, something he had heard a few observant Deira comment on before now. But obviously most assumed it was a matter of two personalities not quite getting along and therefore even fewer appeared to suspect there was more to their oft fractious encounters than that.

Riodan blithely piled his plate with glazed gammon and steamed spicy sausages, poached egg topped with a delicately seasoned sauce, richly buttered toast, sweet nut rolls and assorted South Vihandran fruit such as flavorsome golden manga, fleshy finger-shaped sunfruit, and a verdant variety of melon. Dylen’s eyes widened at the rather gargantuan meal. Whence Riodan’s hearty appetite this morning?
He continued to watch the ambassador over his cup of kahvi. He had started breakfast much earlier and could now observe his companion at his leisure. Halfway through his meal, Riodan finally noticed his intent regard. He glanced up, smiling inquiringly around a mouthful of sausage.

Dylen put his cup down and gestured to Riodan’s plate. “I thought only adolescents and breeding Deira ate so much.”
Riodan glanced down at his food and let out an amused huff. He took a swig of honey sweetened citrus juice then shyly beamed at Dylen.
I do seem to have overdone it,” Riodan conceded. “But if you recall, I always had a hearty appetite. Your adda used to warn me to slow down if I didn’t want to grow to the size of a barge.”

That further lifted Dylen’s already raised eyebrows. Riodan avoided reminiscing about the past lest the memories stirred Dylen’s volatile temper where he was concerned.
Yes, I do recall those days,” Dylen cautiously agreed. “But surely you haven’t been eating thusly since then. You’d be as large as a battleship if you have.”
Riodan chortled. “You’re right. I haven’t eaten like this in ages. I just woke up with a keen appetite, and I don’t know why.” He paused, his smile faltering slightly. “Or at least I do know why though it seems wicked to take pleasure in it,” he murmured.

Take pleasure in what?”

Dylen wondered as color rose in Riodan’s face. The ambassador bit his lip then looked almost self-consciously around the hall before turning back to answer.
I sent a letter to Guyon yestereve,” he quietly said. “I ended our betrothal.” Dylen stared at him. “But it was for the sake of that betrothal that you—” He broke
off and just looked at Riodan incredulously.

Riodan shook his head. “It isn’t worth it. It never was. Why should I maintain an arrangement that isn’t right for him or me?” He gazed at Dylen, his heart in his eyes. The sight nearly stole the breath from Dylen’s breast. “And it barred the way for me to ever fully make amends for the wrong I did you.”

But what of his parents? Your parents? Rio, I…” Dylen trailed away, unsure just what he wanted to say.
I haven’t felt so light and free in a long time as when I sent that letter,” Riodan said with a small smile. “It seemed the weight of all Aisen had been lifted off me. I’m just… For the first time in years, I’m actually happy, Dy.” His gaze turned earnest, almost pleading. “Won’t you, can’t you be happy for me?”

Dylen blew his breath out. After a tense moment, he reached across and covered Riodan’s hand with his own. He looked warmly at Riodan and the corners of his mouth turned up.

I am,” he gently said. “More than you can possibly imagine.” Riodan’s smile grew brighter, and he tightly clasped Dylen’s hand.

* * * *

A sennight later, they were invited to dinner at the palace with the Deir they suspected of being behind the recent deaths in the royal family. Malkon’s invitation came as a surprise given that the Ferrenda heir had shown no interest whatsoever in being around Dylen or Riodan, much less socializing with them. Far more worrying for Riodan was that the invitation had been initially addressed to Dylen alone. Thus, he was relieved when Dylen very politely requested that Riodan be permitted to accompany him, claiming it was an Ylandrin custom that a member of the royal family never attended a formal dinner by himself. Riodan was fairly sure no such custom existed, but he prudently kept his mouth shut.

By the way, why did you insist I join you?” he later asked Dylen when they arrived at the palace. “Do you think something is afoot?”
Don’t you?” Dylen countered.

Riodan nodded. “He looked at you differently during our meeting with Amir this morning.”
As if he were amused by something.”

Would that were the case.” Riodan frowned. “Nay, there was something more to it. One doesn’t openly look a guest over as if he were inspecting him. It wasn’t merely impolitic of him. He was disrespectful to you, Dy. I didn’t like it.”

Neither did I,” Dylen soberly admitted. “Why think you did I invent a ridiculous custom just so you could come with me?”
They ceased talking when a palace attendant came to escort them to the dinner venue. It was one of the small dining chambers reserved for occasions when the Asmaran royals wished to entertain guests in private. Riodan was more relieved than ever that he was with Dylen when they entered the room and found Malkon not alone as they’d been led to believe but in the company of three other Deira. Somehow, he felt uncomfortable at the thought of Dylen having to deal with more than just the Ferrenda lord’s attentions.
The others were friends of his from the Terazan embassy, Malkon told them. He duly apologized for not informing them in advance that there would be other guests present. Riodan believed neither statement.

These Deira did not comport themselves like diplomats nor did they behave like upper crust folk who alone would pass as suitable company for someone as class conscious as Malkon. It was possible they really were from Teraz, but as that country had once been old Varadan’s staunchest ally—its ruling family was closely related by blood and marriage to the Ferrendas to this day—he deduced that these were sympathizers of the deposed royal house of the defunct nation. He also suspected Malkon had not felt confident about meeting with them alone and thus had provided security for himself accordingly. As for the apology, Riodan set it aside for the obvious insincerity that it was.

The meal started out pleasantly enough. Conversation ran along strictly conventional lines. As Riodan expected, Malkon’s so-called “friends” contributed little in the way of sparkling repartee and let him do most of the talking.

The food was surprisingly lavish for such a small dinner. Malkon obviously wanted to impress his guests with his wealth and sophistication. Riodan had to refrain from rolling his eyes several times during the course of the evening as their host took it upon himself to regale them with stories of his extensive trips abroad, conveniently forgetting that Riodan was far more travelled than he and therefore knew when his recollections were no more than tall tales.

They were just finishing the sweet course, a spiced fruit ice served with a splash of sparkling wine, when Malkon turned his full attention to Dylen. He was a handsome Deir, Riodan grudgingly admitted to himself. If one favored small blue eyes, mousy brown hair and somewhat spotty skin, he uncharitably concluded.

I heard a most interesting rumor, Essendri-tyar,” Malkon all but purred. “Is it true that you were once one of the most sought after hethare in Rikara?”
Riodan felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. Quickly collecting himself, he managed to remain expressionless. He glanced at Dylen. If he was startled by the less than delicate allusion to his past, the Ardan’s brother did not show it either.
It is true,” he coolly said, ignoring the leers of Malkon’s cohorts.

Malkon smirked. “How fascinating. And I imagine you haven’t forgotten your skills. Unless, of course, you haven’t put them into practice lately.”

Why this interest in Essendri-tyar’s former profession?” Riodan cut in. Malkon shrugged. “Oh, I’m merely intrigued. I’ve never availed of the hethare’s

Never?” Riodan repeated in obvious disbelief.

I have no need for paid companionship,” Malkon smugly said. “Deira freely seek my bed.”
Is that what they tell you?” Dylen said, amusement limning his voice.

Malkon could not conceal the hint of annoyance in the sudden downward curve of his mouth. “But perhaps I have missed something in foregoing the company of the hethare,” he allowed. He let his eyes rake Dylen’s sleek frame more blatantly than he had earlier that morning. “And perhaps you would not be averse to educating me, eh?”

Educating you?”

Spreading his hands expansively, Malkon smiled and said, “You are a beauty. I can see why many desired your company. I wouldn’t forego a chance to benefit from your

Before an indignant Riodan could speak, Dylen responded with a bland smile. “You enjoy being fucked within an inch of your life then?” he crudely asked.
While Riodan stared at him, Malkon gaped in shock. “I beg your pardon?” he managed to say after collecting himself.
Dylen leaned back in his chair. “Didn’t your source inform you that I was most known for that particular service? There are many Deira whose partners aren’t as endowed as they would like or who play the sword out of duty but would prefer sheathing it in truth. Which one are you?”

Riodan dabbed his lips with his napkin to cover a grin. Malkon’s expression was priceless.
I am neither,” the Deir finally replied after an awkward silence. He recovered his composure somewhat and slyly smiled. “And surely you cultivated other skills for those like myself. I have never yet heard of a hethar who didn’t spread himself for his patrons’ pleasure.”

Dylen shrugged. “It is part of the profession,” he agreed.

Sweet Veres, but you’re a cool one,” Malkon remarked admiringly. The desire in his eyes intensified to Riodan’s dismay. “So, what say you to my proposal?”
May I remind you that Essendri-tyar retired years ago,” Riodan pointed out, barely keeping the ire out of his voice.
Malkon chuckled. “Well, surely he would consider briefly un-retiring for the sake of international goodwill.”

Are you suggesting that our Ardan’s brother service you?” Riodan shot back, no longer troubling to hide his anger.
Service?” Malkon said in mock horror. “Nay, I was merely inviting him for, shall we say, a night of mutual pleasure.”
About to retort, Riodan stopped when Dylen flashed him a warning look. He gritted his teeth and sat back, folding his arms in patent disapproval.
Dylen gazed at Malkon from under half-lowered lids, his mouth curving ever so slightly upward with just a trace of a pout emphasizing the lushness of his lips. It was a look that very rarely failed to beguile whoever it was bestowed on. Malkon did not prove the exception. He caught his breath and licked his lips, his eyes sweeping over Dylen’s body with even more blatant lust than before. Riodan bristled inwardly, wondering what in heyas Dylen thought he was doing.

Of a sudden, Dylen sweetly smiled. “I dare say you’ll have need of Prince Sivar’s attention tonight, judging from the state of your nether parts.”
His smile widened as the others all but spat out their drinks. Malkon stared incredulously at him. Dylen smoothly rose to his feet, prompting Riodan to do the same.

Leyhar-tyar and I must retire for the night,” he said apologetically. “It’s been a long day, and we face an even longer one tomorrow.” He suddenly leaned over Malkon as he passed him, preempting whatever vituperative words the Deir might have uttered with a huskily murmured, “I will think on your suggestion. It has been a while since I last educated anyone.”
He swept out of the room. Riodan followed him, chancing a backward glance at Malkon as he exited the chamber. The Ferrenda heir was red-faced and looked fit to burst, as much from sexual excitement as fury if the painfully prominent bulge in his
crotch was indication of his wretched state.

Riodan hurried to catch up with Dylen. They did not talk until their carriage left the palace grounds. Riodan could not help grinning at the memory of Malkon’s discomfiture.

Malkon was on the verge of a bout of conniptions,” he commented. “You’ve probably put him off from importuning you again.”
Dylen shrugged. “Perhaps. It will depend on whether he wants my backside more than he hates my guts. No matter. I can always seduce him if necessary.”
Seduce—” Riodan’s grin vanished.

And I confess to some curiosity as to whether his arse is as untried as he claims.” “Dy! How can you jest about such a thing?” Riodan protested.
But I’m not jesting,” Dylen replied. “Sivar doesn’t strike me as submissive in bed even if he’s generally soft-spoken in public. Verily, I believe it’s Malkon who plays the mare in their marriage, his claim to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Well, surely you’re not serious about finding that out for yourself.” “And why shouldn’t I be? It isn’t something I haven’t done before.” Riodan stared at him. “You’re actually considering it?”
Dylen nodded. “We need to know what he knows. It’s very easy to plumb someone’s mind when he’s lost in sexual pleasure. Were it not for the possibility of offending Sivar beyond repair, I would have propositioned Malkon long before this. In any case, it may still come to that if we want to discover the truth soonest.”

Saints, I hope not!” “Here we are.”
Riodan started when he realized they were at the embassy. They both alighted and entered the building. They did not speak again until they reached their quarters. Dylen courteously opened Riodan’s door for him and gestured to him to enter.

I’ll see you in the morning.” “Dy—”
Good night, Rio.”

He strode off, seemingly oblivious of Riodan’s anxious gaze.

Chapter Twenty


Three-quarters of an hour later, Dylen answered the insistent knocking on his door. He had been wrestling with indecision since he returned to his room and had just determinedly snatched up his tunic again when someone rapped loudly on his door. Slinging the garment over his arm, he strode to the door and opened it. He looked in surprise at a slightly red-faced Riodan.
May I come in?” the ambassador asked.

Dylen stepped aside to let him in, taking note that Riodan was dressed for bed in a loose shirt and drawstring trousers. He wondered why the latter had come to his room when he had never done so before. Riodan strode past him, his manner somewhat distracted. Dylen closed the door and turned to silently wait out Riodan’s restless pacing.

At last, Riodan came to a stop and faced him, his expression slightly irate yet entreating at the same time.
You were serious?” he asked. “About tupping Malkon for information?”
Dylen regarded him cautiously. “If it will make him talk,” he replied. He approached Riodan and caught him by the shoulder. “You’re angry. Why?”

Riodan started to pull away then stopped and looked at Dylen pleadingly. “I just can’t believe that you would go so far as to use your body. You left that life behind when Rohyr recognized you. Why resort to it once more?”

We came here for a reason,” Dylen reminded him. “If taking Malkon to bed will help us find out what we need to know, then I have no qualms about doing so.”

Oh Veres…” Riodan put a hand to his forehead and rubbed it agitatedly then ran his fingers carelessly through his hair. He looked at Dylen with pain-filled eyes. “Is it so easy for you? Deity’s blood, Dy, it was years before I bedded anyone after you! And even then it didn’t feel right.” He swallowed and lowered his eyes. “It never felt right again.”

Dylen could not stop himself from asking, “What about Guyon?”
Riodan looked up quickly. Had there been displeasure in Dylen’s voice? “It never felt right again,” he repeated. “You spoiled me for others, Dy.” Dylen gazed at him then nodded. “I suppose I should be flattered,” he softly

remarked. He smiled a little crookedly. “Ah, why deny it? I am flattered, Rio.”
Riodan suddenly drew his breath in sharply, his gaze riveted on the tunic on Dylen’s

I was going to—” Dylen started to say. He broke off when Riodan grabbed the garment and flung it aside.
Please don’t bed anyone out of some ridiculous sense of obligation,” Riodan almost angrily begged.
Dylen looked at him thoughtfully. His eyes narrowed. “And what if I want to?” Riodan dumbly stared at him. At last he muttered, “I won’t object if you truly want
to-to…” He sighed with resignation. “Very well, I’d best leave you to it then.”
He headed for the door. But, when he reached it, he suddenly turned around, his eyes blazing with wounded disbelief, and blurted, “It’s not for me to question your taste, but I never imagined you would care for the likes of Malkon Ferrenda! It beggars belief that you should want—” Riodan abruptly stopped, his cheeks flaming. “I’m sorry, I have no right to—No right at all…”

Again, he turned and started to open the door. A hand shoved it closed once more then grasped him by the shoulder, swung him around and pressed him against the cool wood. He found himself staring into Dylen’s terre verte eyes.

Did I say I wanted Malkon tonight?” Dylen asked, his voice warm and smooth as newly drawn milk.
Riodan almost stopped breathing. “Don’t you?”

Dylen’s eyes gleamed. “Do I want to pound someone into the mattress right now? Oh yes. But not offal such as that pathetic excuse for a Deir. Besides, his arse is nowhere near as enticing as yours. As I was about to say before you interrupted me, I was going to your room.”

My room—! But the tunic? I thought you were going back to the palace.”

My intentions would have been less obvious had anyone seen me knocking at your door at this hour. But you seem to care little for discretion coming to me dressed as you are.”

Before Riodan could respond, Dylen caught him in a sweet, enticing kiss that was all about taking that first exploratory step. Riodan moaned and promptly melted into Dylen’s embrace with a fervor that bespoke desire and anxiety at the same time. When Dylen gently ended their kiss, Riodan refused to end their embrace as well.

Dylen lightly licked his lips then looked closely at Riodan. “You took mirash,” he murmured.
Riodan faintly blushed. “Just before I came here,” he admitted. Dylen regarded him intently. “Are you certain?”

All those years ago, I asked to be wholly yours,” Riodan softly reminded him. “I never stopped wanting that. Don’t deny me again, Dy.”
The gleam in Dylen’s eyes gave way to a purposeful glitter. In answer, he pulled Riodan back into another kiss, this one as hard and demanding, as the first had been gentle and inviting. He reached between them and roughly tugged Riodan’s shirt open. Elated, Riodan returned the favor. Quickly shedding their shirts, they resumed the molten seal of their mouths, Dylen raising his hands to cup Riodan’s face possessively.
Through the corner of his eyes, Riodan saw the gleam of metal on Dylen’s left wrist. He broke their kiss and stared at the woven leather and beaten gold wristlet on Dylen’s arm. He gripped Dylen’s hand and turned it over. A small but perfect hearstfire adorned the clasp of the wristlet. Almost reverently, Riodan pressed a kiss to Dylen’s wrist, savoring the feel of the gem against his lips.
Dylen cupped his face once more and pulled him into another long kiss. He began to walk Riodan backward to the bed, completely undressing him along the way. Riodan hastily followed suit.

The back of his knees hit the edge of the bed, and he fell back onto it. Dylen followed him down, purposely fitting his slim hips between Riodan’s outspread thighs. Riodan gasped as their shafts slid against each other. He lifted his hips to further press their groins together.
So eager,” Dylen murmured as he trailed kisses down Riodan’s throat. “It’s been like a famine,” Riodan said, arching up eagerly.
Dylen chuckled. Apparently addressing Riodan’s need, he wrought a sensual path down the length of his body, leaving crimson bruises wherever he plied his lips and teeth. Riodan moaned and trembled under the onslaught but did naught to hinder him. But when Dylen nibbled the tender skin where leg met groin, he reflexively tried to turn away, so acute were the sensations.
Laughing softly, Dylen held his hips down, saying, “I see you’re still sensitive here. What about here?”
He ran his tongue down Riodan’s shaft to the tender sac beneath. Riodan bit back a cry as Dylen plied his tongue on the soft pouch.
Dy, please—!”

He sighed with relief when Dylen ceased the maddening caress only to cry out once more when Dylen took his shaft into his mouth. This time there was to be no respite for Dylen held his legs firmly apart while he sucked Riodan to ecstasy with a fierce possessiveness that left Riodan dizzy with shocked joy.

The tight coil of pressure in Riodan’s belly threatened to unravel. He frantically clutched Dylen’s shoulders. “Not like this,” he panted. “Please—inside me.”

Dylen released him and the pressure subsided somewhat. Riodan closed his eyes and breathed deeply to reduce it further. He became dimly aware of Dylen reaching for the bedside table and heard the slide of a drawer opening followed by the sound of a stopper being eased out. He opened his eyes quickly and stared as Dylen poured oil into his palm. Riodan raised his knees in tacit submission.
He watched Dylen generously anoint his shaft, licking his lips in anticipation of finally sheathing this Deir he adored once more. But Dylen did not simply shove his length into him as he expected. Instead, he reached between Riodan’s legs and caressed the cleft between his buttocks before slipping a slippery finger into him.

Riodan willed himself to relax. He let out a shaky breath as Dylen’s finger pressed deep into him, stroking the satiny walls within. Arousal mounted again, and he found himself even more sensitive to sensation—almost excruciatingly so. The feeling grew sharper when Dylen inserted more fingers into him.

Ah, don’t make me wait,” he breathlessly said.

Dylen hesitated. Riodan felt inexplicably untried. “How long?” Riodan smiled. “Since you last had me.”
But I thought you—“ Dylen stared at him. “Not even Guyon?” He exhaled disbelievingly when Riodan shook his head. “I must ready you more then,” he murmured.

He repeatedly pushed his fingers in, gingerly twisting them to loosen up the snug passage. Riodan gasped at the exquisite incursions.
Nay!” he moaned, parting his upraised knees in wanton invitation. “Have me now!” Riodan saw Dylen force himself not to look down, obviously fearing the sight of his
fingers steadily breaching Riodan would wrench all restraint from him. Riodan deliberately contracted his muscles around Dylen’s fingers. Dylen shuddered and fought for control.

Please, Dy,” Riodan begged. “I want you inside me.” “I don’t want to hurt you,” Dylen protested.
I don’t care,” Riodan insisted. Raising himself up on an elbow, he reached down for
Dylen’s hand and pulled his fingers out. Lying back, he wrapped his legs around Dylen’s waist and insistently drew him down until Dylen’s straining length slid into the cleft of his backside and nudged the snug opening between. “I just want to feel you again!”


Sweet Veres!” Dylen groaned as the head of his shaft slipped into intoxicating softness and warmth.
Even for a Deir of his experience, the sensation was tempting beyond resistance, especially after his lengthy bout of abstinence from copulation. Trembling with the effort to master himself just that one bit longer, he slowly eased in until he was fully seated inside Riodan. Drawing a shaky breath, he began to thrust into him, gently at first lest he unwittingly abraded long untouched flesh.
Riodan hissed with each inward stroke. He raised shining eyes to Dylen. “It’s been too long,” he whispered. “I missed this so much.”
Dylen gazed at him in wonder. “I can’t believe Guyon did not demand that you yield to him,” he said, every thrust further confirmation of Riodan’s long abstention from playing the mare.

He did,” Riodan said, half sobbing with delight with each thrust. “But I refused. I told him I wouldn’t yield to anyone outside of the marriage bed.” He tightened his legs around Dylen’s waist. “Except you, Dy. I am yours when you want me, however you want me, whether you want me or not.”

His control already under siege from the sheer bliss of being inside Riodan once more, Dylen felt it shatter completely at the other’s admission. Restraint and method were abruptly abandoned, and he gave himself over to his desire.

He kept his promise and, quickening the forward lunge of his hips, drove forcefully into Riodan until the bed for all its size and sturdiness was virtually shaking beneath them. Trying to keep his release back longer, he saw Riodan’s hand creep down to touch his shaft as it repeatedly entered him. Joy and gratitude glowed in Riodan’s eyes as he felt the evidence of their bodies’ first union after so many years.
Feeling his control wear thin, Dylen growled, “Touch yourself.”

Riodan obeyed and grasping his shaft, started to pump it. He gasped when Dylen wrapped his fingers around his hand so that they stroked Riodan’s shaft together. The intimacy of it all proved too much for Riodan. Milky semen covered their fingers and stippled his belly as nigh shattering pleasure ran amuck within him.

An instant later, Dylen drove hard and deep into him, gasping harshly as he spent himself.

Riodan caught his breath at the no longer familiar sensation of warm seed spilling inside him. Tears threatened to flow, and he pulled Dylen down into a rough kiss before he made a maudlin spectacle of himself.

Dylen lingered a while inside him before gently withdrawing. Glancing down at the pearlescent streaks on Riodan’s rippled abdomen, he leaned down and licked the taut flesh clean. Riodan moaned at the sensual gesture.

When Dylen lay down beside him, he hurried into his embrace and nestled his head on a hard shoulder. He wrapped his arms around Dylen, savoring the closeness as intensely as he had their bodies’ coupling.

At length, he lazily draped a leg across Dylen’s thighs. Feeling the nudge of Dylen’s
stirring shaft against his limb, he felt his lust swell once more. One coupling was utterly inadequate to make up for the long years of loneliness. He lifted his head and looked at Dylen.

When Dylen met his gaze he hopefully asked, “Has the mirash taken effect yet?” Dylen chuckled. “Let me wash up,” he huskily said, sliding out of Riodan’s arms and

off the bed.

Riodan watched him enter the bathing chamber. Of a sudden, impatience struck him hard and he lay on his back, spread his legs and reached behind his seed sac to finger the tiny orifice it concealed. Images of Dylen taking him thusly spurred him on, and he continued to caress himself, initiating the process that would enable him to receive Dylen genitally. So rapt was he in the pleasurable exercise of turning himself that he did not notice when Dylen came out of the other room.
Dylen paused to watch Riodan. The young ambassador made a spectacularly sensual sight as, head thrown back and legs splayed, he stroked himself to readiness. Dylen clenched his hands and willed his lust to abate lest he went and sank himself into Riodan with little preamble.

He walked to the bed and, without a word, drew Riodan’s hand away. Riodan opened his eyes and stared up at him, eyes dazed with desire but questioning nonetheless. Dylen did not respond.

Still silent he pushed Riodan’s thighs up and spread them farther. For a moment, he locked gazes with Riodan. He dropped his eyes to the earthy delights before him. Riodan’s seed pouch had contracted, exposing his sheath completely. He dipped his head and sealed his mouth to the moist lips of the rosy opening.

Riodan’s shocked gasp was soon followed by a spate of moans and soft cries as Dylen plied his tongue on the tiny folds that guarded the sensitive channel within, sucking the delicate flesh ever so gently now and then. When the entrance was slick and ready for penetration, he pressed his tongue inside to taste deeply of his lover’s sweetness. Riodan almost reared then, but Dylen held him down and continued to breach him thusly.

Dylen felt Riodan’s fingers tangle distractedly in his hair. Judging from his alternating attempts to push up and pull away, it seemed Riodan was torn between the instinct to escape the much too intense sensation and the desire for more of it. Desire apparently won out, and Dylen smirked when Riodan urgently pressed himself against the tongue that speared him. When Riodan’s moans evolved into helpless sobs, Dylen rose above him and wedged his hips between his thighs. Leaning down, he kissed Riodan as he pushed into him, tearing the vestigial membrane inside in one smooth slide.

He heard Riodan’s startled whimper as he was thoroughly filled, and it seemed the sweetest sound to him, heady proof that Riodan had truly saved the taking of every vestige of his innocence for Dylen. He almost brusquely dipped his tongue into Riodan’s mouth in possessive mimicry of his shaft’s repeated ingress into Riodan’s body.

Riodan held tight to him, curling one leg behind Dylen’s thighs to urge him ever more deeply into him. He moaned Dylen’s name in between kisses, sometimes crying out as he was steadily cleaved, visibly overcome by the exquisite frictional contact between hard invading flesh and soft sensitized skin. And still Dylen maintained a measured pace, keeping them both just on the edge of completion, and thus heightened every rapturous
sensation between them.

Dy, Dy, finish it,” Riodan shamelessly begged. “Please, ariad, no more, no more. Ah, I’ll scream the embassy down if you don’t!”
Dylen cut him off with a hard kiss, relishing Riodan’s strangled cry as he was lifted up to straddle Dylen’s lap, deepening his impalement. Hardly giving Riodan time to adjust to the new position, Dylen wrapped his fingers around the column of flesh trapped between them.

You’ll scream anyway,” he roughly said as he boldly stroked Riodan’s shaft and bucked up into him. “And I don’t care if the entire city knows I’m the reason for it. Now ride me, Rio. Ride me hard.”

Instinct overriding all thought and any remaining reservations, Riodan obeyed. They moved together in an act as ancient as Aisen itself, and the world without seemed to lose substance as they focused entirely on achieving ultimate bodily union and the incomparable ecstasy that came with it.

Riodan shattered first, his whole body shuddering with the force of his orgasm. His sobbing cries resounded in the chamber. Dylen watched him keenly, mesmerized by his utter collapse.

The sight of Riodan’s undoing wrecked his own self-control, and he finally gave in to his body’s plea for release. It was no less explosive, and he ground himself upward into Riodan and spilled his seed into him in what felt like an endless stream. He rasped out Riodan’s name with the last of his spending, holding Riodan in an embrace so hot and tight, one would have thought he was trying to fuse their very bodies together.
Long minutes passed before Riodan lifted his head from Dylen’s shoulder to look at him with gleaming eyes.
I felt it,” he whispered. “The heat in my belly—had I not taken mirash…” “Yes, a child,” Dylen murmured.
Your child,” Riodan said with wonder. “And mine. I almost wish—”

Don’t say it,” Dylen interrupted, shaking his head. “It’s not the time or place. Not yet.”
Riodan gazed at him searchingly. At length, he cupped Dylen’s face in his hands with reverence and softly said, “I love you. While I have life and breath, I will always love you.”

Dylen sealed his mouth to Riodan’s in as tender a kiss as he could muster, savoring the taste and texture of his lover’s lips as if he had never known them before. Without breaking the kiss, Dylen turned them over and eased him down beside him, slipping from Riodan’s body as he did. For several minutes more, they simply held each other, their lips never parting for long.
Have me again,” Riodan pleaded. “Have me all night.”

Dylen smoothed his hand possessively down Riodan’s back. “With pleasure.”

* * * *

He would be unable to sit down for long tomorrow, even on the softest of cushions, Riodan thought as hard flesh plowed into him over and again. His sheath was deliciously raw from its repeated ravaging, which explained why he was on his knees and his face half buried in a pillow while Dylen made good use of his upraised arse. Saints, but Dylen was indefatigable!
Not that Riodan wanted a reprieve from his ravishment. Not when it was Dylen who ravished him with a concupiscence that hinted at deep-rooted affection the former hethar had not yet admitted harboring for him still. If Dylen would not say the words, Riodan would happily settle for what his body communicated to him.
He cried out hoarsely when completion overtook him once more then groaned with pleasure as liquid warmth filled him. Fighting for breath, he swiftly reached behind to stop Dylen from withdrawing from him.

Stay,” he breathlessly said, peering over his shoulder at Dylen. Saints, but how beautiful he looked with his raven locks tousled just so, his cheeks flushed, and lips enticingly swollen. And his eyes agleam with appreciation and—dare he hope?— affection.

You’ll be sore,” Dylen quietly warned him as he carefully eased them both down on their sides. He pulled Riodan closer into the curve of his body to keep his shaft securely embedded up Riodan’s backside.

Riodan wriggled back, relishing the continued presence of Dylen’s flesh inside him. “I don’t particularly care,” he said, tiredly taking Dylen’s arm and wrapping it around his waist. Much as he yearned for them to continue making love, his body refused to cooperate. “I just want to feel you… after so long,” he drowsily added.

You weren’t jesting when you said all night,” Dylen murmured, kissing Riodan’s shoulder.
Riodan shivered at the sweet caress, but sleep beckoned more insistently. “All morning, too, if you like,” he mumbled, exhaustion finally blunting the sharp edge of desire.

I’ll take your word for it,” was the last thing he heard before he drifted into slumber.

Chapter Twenty-One


Riodan studied the coffered ceiling as he lay amidst the stained and crumpled sheets of Dylen’s bed. Saints above, but his body ached. As did his sheath. And as for his arse… He closed his eyes as he remembered the reasons for his present discomfort. And his deep felicity.
He had awakened ever so slowly to the sensation of flesh sliding into him from behind. Full awareness came when his stirring shaft was clasped and stroked until it was hard and throbbing with need. He opened his mouth, but nothing intelligible came out, and he could only gasp and moan as Dylen slowly and maddeningly wrung another climax out of him.
This time, he winced when Dylen pulled out of him afterward. Like it or not, there was a limit to what his body could take, and he had finally reached it.
He listened to the gush of water from the bathing chamber. From the sound of it, the tub was almost full. He turned his head to see Dylen emerge from the other room.
Dylen reached a hand to him, saying, “Come, a hot bath will do you good.”

Riodan grasped his hand and, groaning, sat up. “Only if you join me.” He did not let go of Dylen’s hand as he slipped off the bed. “I dare say it would do you good as well after riding me all night.”

A smiled curved Dylen’s lips. “I do hope I didn’t wear you out overmuch. It would be a pity.”
Riodan’s eyes widened. “A pity? Why?”

Dylen only chuckled and pulled him toward the bathing room. Chafing a little at the lack of an answer, Riodan promptly set it aside when Dylen settled in the large tub of steaming water and motioned to him to join him. He quickly did so, settling between Dylen’s legs and leaning back against him.

Memories of their first bath together assailed him, and he closed his eyes in regret. How many lazy morning soaks would they have shared all these years if he had only been braver and true to his heart’s wishes? He turned around and kissed Dylen briefly before reaching for the soap. Determined to make the most of this intimate interlude, he lathered Dylen’s body, relishing the feel of every plane and contour of his lover’s body under his palms and fingers.

Perhaps Dylen understood what drove him for he did not question him but returned the favor, massaging the aches and kinks out of Riodan’s body even as he soaped him. Riodan closed his eyes when Dylen gently cleansed him of all remnants of his semen. He was sore, but the intimacy of the gesture more than offset his discomfort.

He returned to his apartment afterward to dress for the day, taking care to avoid being observed leaving Dylen’s rooms by any embassy personnel. He might not mind being romantically linked to Dylen in staff gossip, but the same could not be said for Dylen. Not at the moment. It simply was too soon to define just what it was they were to each other.
They met in the dining hall, studiously ignoring the curiosity of the other diners as to why they were rather late this morning, and proceeded to discuss their respective schedules over breakfast.

I was promised the contract renewals would be approved today,” Riodan said. “I think I’ll stay close to Dimas to ensure he keeps to our agreement. What about you?”
I shall visit the craftworkers market this morning,” Dylen replied. “The chair I ordered for Adda is ready to be picked up. Afterwards…” He pushed a note across the table to Riodan. “This arrived while I was waiting for you. Malkon invited me to have lunch with him. In his apartment. It seems his interest in me got the better of his pique over last night.”
Riodan stared at him in consternation. “Dy, you can’t mean to—”

Dylen shook his head. “We’ll do no more than talk and dine. It isn’t easy for me either, Rio,” he somberly said. “It never was even when it was part of my duties as a hethar. And it became harder after I met you.”
Riodan was abashed. “I’m sorry. What I said was uncalled for.”

Perhaps,” Dylen said. He reached for Riodan’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “But the reason for saying it was not.”

* * * *

Dylen returned to the embassy after his visit to the craftworkers market to change into more proper attire for his lunch appointment. As he entered the lobby on his way out once more, he saw a Deir in royal livery talking to one of the embassy aides. When the aide saw him, he informed the messenger of Dylen’s arrival. The Deir hastened over and, after uttering the usual courtesies, handed Dylen a folded sheet of parchment, the insignia of the crown prince stamped on its wax seal.

His Highness Prince Laral desires that you and Ambassador Leyhar join him for high tea,” the messenger said as Dylen broke the seal and unfolded the sheet. “He said it is very important that you come.”
Did he say why?” Dylen asked, swiftly reading the short note.

The messenger shook his head. And then he hesitantly said, “But he seemed quite perturbed when he gave me this letter to deliver.”
Dylen frowned then handed the invitation to the waiting aide. “Please make sure that Ambassador Leyhar is informed of this. Tell him I will return for him.”

He walked out of the building and boarded the waiting carriage outside. He arrived at the palace just as the midday chimes sounded.
Dylen proceeded to the visitors’ audience hall whence he would be fetched and conducted to Malkon’s apartment. To his annoyance, several minutes passed by, and no attendant came for him. Trust that pompous ass not to be considerate of other folks’ schedules, he sourly thought.

A rather large group of Deira entered the hall—diplomatic folk it appeared from the clasps on their mantles. Dylen recognized three of them from the dinner last night. Terazan embassy people then. He idly wondered who they were meeting with and why. He could not help feeling indignant, however, when they were met by an attendant just minutes after their arrival. Dylen watched them leave the hall then decided he had waited long enough.
Just as he started for one of the stewards to inquire about Malkon’s tardiness, a Deir
seemed to appear out of nowhere and fell in step with him. Dylen stopped and looked inquiringly at Talvas Halvan il Moran, Captain of the Guard. Amir’s bastard son carried himself with the dignity of a scion of the Royal House and the martial grace of a seasoned warrior.
You have an appointment with Lord Malkon, Dyhar?” Talvas ventured. “At his invitation, yes,” Dylen replied.
Ah! Well then, I hope you enjoy yourself. That is, if Lord Malkon is fit to entertain anyone.”
Dylen regarded Talvas more closely. “Is there anything I should be aware of, Captain?” he asked.
Talvas’s smile was faint and humorless. “Only that little more than an hour ago, Prince Laral visited Lord Malkon in his quarters and they appeared to argue about something.”

I see. Do you know what it was they argued about?”

I only gathered that they did because they raised their voices enough to be audible in the hallway outside. But His Highness was obviously displeased about something when he came out of Lord Malkon’s apartment. And, as for His Grace, I have not seen him so white of face and shaking quite badly to boot.”

I wonder what could have frightened him so,” Dylen mused out loud. Unexpectedly, Talvas said, “Then you haven’t spoken yet with Ambassador


About what?”

This morning’s events at the Ministry of Trade.” Talvas’ expression turned grim. “Minister Dimas killed himself.” Dylen stared at him in shock. “He was discovered by Leyhar-tyar,” the captain added.

Holy Veres,” Dylen murmured. “Why? Do you know why?”

He left a letter for Prince Laral. I don’t know its contents, but judging from Laral’s reaction afterward, I have my suspicions.”
Dylen pursed his lips, deeply disturbed by Talvas’ news. “What do you suspect, Talvas? Or is it who?”
I’d rather not say until I have more information. But I think you know this touches quite closely on the royal family.” Talvas paused. “And surely you can guess Laral’s reasons for wishing to meet with you this afternoon.”

An attendant suddenly approached Dylen. He was breathless and looked quite harried. “Essendri-dyhar?” he addressed Dylen. “His Grace Lord Malkon begs your pardon for keeping you waiting.” He paused and glanced at Talvas somewhat nervously.
A good day to you, Dyhar,” Talvas courteously murmured. With a slight bow, he strode away.
Dylen turned his full attention to the attendant. After a short while, he murmured an appropriate reply to the Deir. As the latter hurried off, he quickly looked around the hall for Talvas. Finding the Captain, he briefly dipped his chin to him then turned on his heel and left the hall.

* * * *

Riodan was tempted to rub his eyes to make sure he wasn’t imagining things. He frowned at the embassy staffer who was his acting aide. The young Deir paled, aware he
had displeased the ambassador but not quite sure how.

Why did you bring him here?” Riodan softly demanded, briefly eyeing the visitor who was currently ensconced on the couch in his bedroom sitting area. “You know our private quarters are off limits to non-embassy personnel.”

The aide nodded. “Yes, Your Excellency, but I thought it was permissible to let him in since he’s your intended.”
Was my intended,” Riodan corrected him. “And just how did you know who he is? Are you acquainted with Barath-tyar?”
The aide gulped. “Nay, I have never met him. But he showed me your latest letter to him. And-and you wear matching earrings.” He stopped abruptly upon noticing that Riodan no longer bore his betrothal earring but had reverted to the plain milkstone set in ley-silver that had identified his standing in society before his betrothal. “That is, you used to wear…” The Deir said anxiously, “I’m so sorry, Dyhar! I—I didn’t realize— Shall I show him out?”

Riodan sighed. Taking pity on the hapless aide, he said, “Nay, I might as well speak with him and find out why he has come. Fetch me some food—bread and cheese will do and a cup of kahvi, no milk. I’ve had naught to eat since breakfast. Then stay close by. I expect I will need you to escort him out of here before too long.”

Yes, Dyhar.”

Riodan scowled then entered his suite. He had arrived back at the embassy following a most distressful day at the Ministry of Trade. After spending the past few days alternately cajoling and bullying Dimas into promising that the trade contracts would finally be ready, the last thing he’d expected when he arrived at the Minister’s office was to find Dimas hanging from one of the rafters. No one at the Ministry, not even his adjutant, had had any inkling of tragedy in the offing. Dimas’ mood had seemed as usual that morn, they informed him.

Adding to the bewilderment over his suicide had been the promised contract approvals all signed and neatly stacked on his desk. It appeared Dimas had hanged himself after preparing the documents.

Riodan had found a sealed letter addressed to Prince Laral between two of the documents. Suspecting Dimas had wanted to ensure that it would reach its intended recipient, Riodan ordered several ministry guards to escort the adjutant he’d charged with delivering the missive to Laral. Having done what he could, Riodan took the documents he had come for and returned to the embassy, shaken by Dimas’ death and angered at whatever had driven the Deir to end his life.

His mood could hardly be improved by the unexpected and unwelcome appearance of his former fiancé. Even more annoying, Guyon had used their betrothal—the betrothal Riodan had broken just a week past—to get the embassy staffers to give him special treatment. Riodan decided the entire staff would need a severe lecture on the impropriety not to mention dangers of laxness with visitors to the embassy.
Guyon stood up, an expectant smile curving his mouth. But Riodan evaded his attempt to pull him into a hug. He faced his erstwhile intended with a discouraging scowl.
Why are you here?” he tersely asked.

Taken aback by Riodan’s curtness, Guyon gaped at him for several seconds. Riodan rolled his eyes and said, “I don’t have much time, Guyon. I repeat, why are you here?”

Guyon recovered himself and answered, “I received your letter regarding our

Well, what about it? Was there anything that wasn’t clear to you?”

Oh, it was clear enough. Which is why I came here soonest. To ask you to reconsider. I shouldn’t want your recklessness to be cause for regret later on.”
I beg your pardon?” Riodan slowly said.
You should know better, Rio,” Guyon chided. “It isn’t wise to make such an important decision in haste.”

Riodan stared at him incredulously. Had this Deir he had almost bound himself to always been such a thickhead? He shook his head in exasperation. “Guyon—”
Guyon quickly cut him off. “Look, I understand your fascination with Dylen Essendri. He was the first Deir you’d ever bedded. And he’s certainly an exotic creature even to this day. But, Rio, you deserve a mate who is your equal in all ways.”
My equal,” Riodan repeated.

But of course! You need someone who can match you in name, education and social standing,” Guyon asserted. “Someone with an unblemished background whom you can openly and proudly talk about.”

Meaning you,” Dylen wryly said.

Guyon made a deprecating gesture. “Well, you have to admit, you won’t ever have to worry about being dished scandal-broth with me. And you need never fear stumbling across who knows how many Deira who’ve been on intimate terms with your mate or, worse, by-blows coming out of the woodwork to beg financial support of him.”

Riodan scowled at the all too obvious allusions to Dylen. About to make a scathing retort, he noticed the quick sidelong glance Guyon directed toward the door. The corners of his mouth then quirked upward in the beginnings of a smile. Riodan apprehensively turned his head and saw Dylen leaning slightly against the doorframe with his arms folded, his face devoid of all expression. But there was no doubt that he had heard Guyon’s every word. As Guyon had intended him to hear, Riodan knew from the satisfied smirk on Guyon’s face.

Forcing down the impulse to punch his former betrothed, he gestured to Dylen to enter. Dylen complied.
You heard about Dimas?” Riodan asked.

Dylen grimly nodded. “Talvas told me when I arrived at the palace.” He regarded Riodan with some concern. “I hope you weren’t overly upset at being the one to discover him.

Riodan swallowed. “It was unpleasant,” he muttered. “What about your meeting with Malkon? Did you learn anything?”
Nay, he suddenly begged off.”
But he’s the one who asked you to join him,” Riodan said in surprise.
Guyon snidely suggested, “Perhaps he realized he preferred the company of Deira more alike to him in station.”
Riodan opened his mouth to rebuke him, but Dylen acted as if he had not heard and interposed himself between Riodan and Guyon, deliberately turning his back on the latter. He dropped his voice to a confidential murmur, making it clear that Guyon was not privy to what he had to say to Riodan. Following his lead, Riodan ignored Guyon’s aggrieved reaction and drew Dylen a little farther away.
Dylen said, “Talvas told me Malkon had a heated argument with Laral just before

Riodan frowned. “Not Sivar?”

Nay, Laral went to Malkon’s apartment and demanded they talk. Those outside heard raised voices after a while, and when Laral came out, he was obviously angry. As for Malkon, he was ashen and all a-tremble. He started to come after Laral but retreated back into his quarters when he saw there were other folk outside.”

Saints, what did they quarrel about, I wonder?” Riodan’s eyes narrowed. “Think you it had to do with Dimas’ death?”
I wouldn’t be surprised.” Dylen added in a normal voice, “In any case, we mustn’t keep the prince waiting. I shall meet you at the palace.” He briefly tilted his head in Guyon’s direction. “You’d best finish your business soonest.”

He strode out of the room without so much as a glance at Guyon. The Deir stared after him in self-righteous dudgeon then swung around to confront Riodan. But Riodan busied himself dressing more formally, donning his court tunic and pulling on his dress boots. Guyon stubbornly sought his attention nonetheless.

You can’t let him get away with—”

I have no time to talk,” Riodan curtly said. “Prince Laral awaits us.” Guyon tried again. “But, Rio, he—”
Riodan cut him off with a brusque, “You must return to Ylandre at once. I’m on official business and can’t entertain you.”
Not until that insolent cur has been put in his place!” Guyon shrilly declared. “Watch your tongue, Guyon,” Riodan snarled. “It is the Ardan’s brother you

Stunned by Riodan’s reaction, Guyon whined, “But he insulted me!” “How?”
He didn’t greet me!”

You’re not a part of the consular team and furthermore got in here on a falsehood,” Riodan icily pointed out. “Dylen is under no obligation to acknowledge you, speak to you or even look at you.”
You defend him?” Guyon said disbelievingly.

Yes. Oh, and by the way,” Riodan maliciously added. “I slept with him.” Stupefaction rendered Guyon speechless for several seconds. “You-you what?” he

He’s as potent and well-endowed as I remember,” Riodan remarked with a pleased grin. “I can still feel him inside me. Indeed, I haven’t been able to sit down properly all day. But that’s not surprising given that he had me several times last night and again this morn.”
You gave him what should have been mine?” Guyon shouted.
Nay, I gave him what has always been his,” Riodan retorted. “I was his leman, Guyon.” He smiled broadly at Guyon’s horrified expression. “It was he who deflowered me and taught me all there is to know about coupling.”

Before Guyon could muster a reply. Riodan turned on his heel and left him standing in the middle of the room, pop-eyed and mouth agape. He saw his aide coming down the hallway bearing a tray of his requested food.

Make certain Barath-tyar leaves Shenze forthwith,” he instructed the Deir, taking the tray from him. “Oh, and inform the necessary parties that we are no longer betrothed.
I don’t want him using that excuse to show up here again.”

Riodan reentered the apartment, stalking past Guyon with nary a glance or word. He settled himself at the small dining table in one corner of the sitting area and set to consuming his simple meal. Biting deeply into a warm slice of thickly buttered bread, he listened to Guyon’s protests as he was politely but firmly ushered out. The corners of his mouth tilted slightly upward at this small blessing in the midst of tragedy, uncertainty and potential peril.

Chapter Twenty-Two


He found Dylen waiting at the main terrace from which several stone paths branched out to various sections of the palace gardens. Laral’s personal pavilion was at the far end of the east section, and they would take the right most path to reach it. Riodan dismissed the attendant who had conducted him thence, briefly explaining that he needed to discuss something with Dylen in private.

But, almost as soon as Riodan approached him, Dylen turned to step off the terrace and onto the path. Riodan caught him by the wrist and pulled him back.
We have to talk,” he said.
Dylen’s face was unreadable. “There is nothing to talk about.” “Guyon—”
Was right.”

Nay!” Riodan protested. “Nothing he has, not even all the wealth and power in Aisen, did he possess them, could make him right. It’s you I want, Dylen. It’s you I love.”

Being a king’s brother does not erase my past, Rio,” Dylen pointed out.

Your past?” Riodan huffed in frustration. “Veres almighty, Dy, I lived with you for a year, waiting for you to come home to me, knowing you might have taken one or all of your guests to bed before you returned to ours! It didn’t bother me then, so why should it bother me now?”

A glimmer of emotion showed in Dylen’s eyes. “You turned your back on me because of it,” he dryly reminded Riodan.
In my idiocy, I feared it would hinder me in my profession, but I never felt repugnance for what you did.” Riodan spoke earnestly. “You likely don’t believe me but even were you not Rohyr’s brother, I still would have sought you when I returned from Tehara, Aba’s will be damned,” He gripped Dylen’s wrist pleadingly. “I regretted what I did as soon as you left that night, but I was still ruled by ambition, and so I let you go. But the contempt you showed me then—it haunted me all my years in Tehara. Yet I couldn’t forget you; couldn’t stop wanting you. I would have asked your forgiveness on bended knee and begged you to give me a second chance.”

But you didn’t,” Dylen countered. “Not when we met again and not in all the time since. You didn’t even break your betrothal to Guyon.”
Riodan looked down, his cheeks flushing. “I would have done it had there been even the faintest hope of reconciling with you,” he said, his voice hushed. “But you were so distant, so cold. Even when you dealt kindly with me, there was no warmth in you. I tried so hard, Dy. But you put a wall between us that I couldn’t scale or breach. I came to believe that you loathed me. Worse, that you no longer cared. Without the certitude of your love, I had neither the courage nor the strength to cope with the consequences of breaking the engagement.” He looked up shamefaced. “There, I said it. I’m a coward and a weakling. You have every right to detest me after all.”
He held his breath when Dylen did not reply but looked at him uncertainly. At length, Dylen’s lips tightened, and he averted his gaze.
I tried to stop,” he whispered. “I failed.”

Riodan swallowed hard. His grip on Dylen’s wrist turned into a caress as he slid his hand into Dylen’s and laced their fingers together.
Tried to stop…?” he anxiously probed.

Dylen opened his mouth to reply. But the palace chimes suddenly tolled the time, startling them into awareness of their surroundings. Riodan swore under his breath at the untimely interruption.

We have to hurry,” Dylen said. “We’re late.” “Very late,” Riodan reluctantly agreed.
They hastened down the garden path and walked as rapidly as they could toward Laral’s pavilion.

* * * *

Strange,” Riodan murmured as they neared the fairly ornate structure. “Where are the guards, the servants?”
Perhaps Laral ordered them to be discreet and—” Dylen started to say. He stopped when the sounds of clashing metal reached them. They glanced at each other then raced for the entrance.
Holy Veres!” Riodan blurted. He stared in shock at the sight before them.

Bodies littered the floor and slumped against the walls, some feebly moving, others deathly still. All were garbed in royal livery. Their assailants however were attired in Ylandrin uniform. Unaware of the newcomers, they stood around watching the last Asmaran standing, their faces smug.

Laral still battled on, fending off two attackers. But he clutched his side and blood seeped between his fingers. Before either Dylen or Riodan could act, Laral uttered a curse as his sword was struck from his hand. The Deir behind him lashed out at his legs, and
the prince fell heavily to his knees.

The soldier in front of him laughed and jeered, “Tired so soon, O Prince? And here I thought we’d get more sport out of you!” He raised his sword and started to bring it down on his helpless victim.

The Deir stopped in mid swing. He dropped his sword, his mouth open in a soundless cry. He toppled over, a carving knife embedded in his back. His comrades whirled around in shock just in time to bear the brunt of Dylen and Riodan’s charge. Once more, the sound of swords meeting in combat rang through the pavilion.

Taking advantage of his guard’s momentary inattention, Laral grabbed the sword that would have decapitated him and swung it across the Deir’s legs, hewing them from under him. He staggered to his feet and rejoined the fray.

Riodan caught sight of a large dinner gong at one side of the room. Realizing they were seriously outnumbered and Laral badly wounded at that, he slew his opponent and dashed toward the gong. But more assassins blocked his way. Riodan grabbed a metal pitcher from atop a nearby table and flung it with all his might at the gong. The resulting clang was deafening and discordant, startling the other combatants into brief immobility. Riodan barged past his distracted adversaries and reached the gong. He managed to strike it a second time before he was forced to engage the enemy once more.
His effort was not in vain. In a matter of minutes, a commotion outside heralded the arrival of more palace guards. Talvas burst into the pavilion, his warriors right behind him. For a moment, they stared in some confusion at the sight of the Ylandrin king’s brother and the Ylandrin ambassador defending their crown prince from Ylandrin soldiers. Then Dylen ran his opponent through, and all confusion evaporated. Talvas led his people into the fray.

With the arrival of reinforcements, the tide swiftly turned. The ambush turned into a rout for its initiators save that there was no disorderly retreat for them. The would-be assassins fought tooth and nail to escape or die in the trying. Talvas obliged them and led his people in their slaughter. By the time the fighting ended, only one assassin remained to tell the tale of his people’s defeat. He was subdued and taken aside to await questioning.
Before too long, the royal physician arrived with his assistants. Dylen helped Laral to one of the benches and made him sit down. He summoned the physician and waited while the Deir examined and then bound the prince’s wound.

Your tardiness saved the day,” Laral told him with a pinched smile when the physician was done. “Had you arrived on time, you would have been caught in the ambush.”

Yet it astounds me that they didn’t realize you were waiting for others. It was quite obvious that you had guests.” Dylen gestured toward the dining table and the shambles of what had been place settings for three Deira.

Laral gingerly shifted his position to a more comfortable one. “Let’s just be grateful for their limited powers of observation.”
Dylen nodded then looked about the pavilion for Riodan. He saw him several paces away helping check for survivors from the first attack. Judging from his expression, there were not that many, especially among the defenseless servants. His mouth tightening in anger, Dylen did not wait for permission from Laral but stalked up to the sole prisoner and grabbed him by the collar. He slammed the Deir against one of the wrought iron posts from which lanterns hung.

You’re not Ylandrin,” he growled. “Speak! Who do you serve, dog?”

The Deir struggled at first, clawing at the hand at his throat. But, after several seconds, he began to breathe harshly. His eyes bulged with terror, and a ragged whimper soon escalated into a strangled wail.
Get out of my head!” he shrieked. “Ah, save me!”

Who sent you?” Dylen’s voice, low but commanding, overrode the prisoner’s cries. “Who is your master? Tell me or I swear by all the saints, I’ll leave you a gibbering wreck!”

The Deir closed his eyes in an apparent attempt to fight Dylen’s incursion into his thoughts. But there was no ejecting Dylen’s presence from his mind, and after an agonizing while in which he wheezed and wept, the Deir broke down.

Slumping against the post, he blubbered, “His M-Majesty… J-Jubal Ferrenda.”
Hearing the Deir’s confession, Riodan felt a surge of elation at this first solid evidence of Ferrenda treachery. He started to walk toward Dylen when, through the corner of his eye, he spotted someone just outside a narrow side entryway a short distance
from where Laral was seated. The stranger was hefting something in his hand.

It was a bottle filled with a liquid that gleamed with a reddish hue. A burning cloth wick protruded from the stopper in the bottle’s narrow mouth.
For an instant, Riodan froze, shocked that anyone would use an incendiary weapon within the palace grounds. Such devices were forbidden in all Aisen for they were indiscriminate in the damage they caused. Innocent bystanders were injured or killed alongside intended targets.

The Deir flung the explosive at Laral. Racing forward, Riodan called out a warning to Talvas who stood nearby. The captain lunged forward and instinctively used his arm to bat the bottle away from the prince. The bottle’s trajectory changed. As if in a nightmare, Riodan watched it tumble through the air. It would land on the floor near Dylen.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Riodan swerved toward his lover and threw himself at Dylen, bringing him down beneath him just as the bottle smashed on the floor.

Riodan cried out as searing heat suffused his back. He dimly heard Dylen’s savage imprecations as the latter scrambled out from under him. Riodan blacked out momentarily. When he became aware of his surroundings once more, all he could make out was a confusing welter of noise and motion. Someone was screaming in agony. Another was shouting for help.
A length of cloth had been thrown over him and hands beat down on it. In the midst of his pain, he realized his back from his nape and shoulders to his thighs were aflame. The smell of singed hair added to his fear when he thought for a moment that his head had also been set on fire. The blistering heat diminished somewhat as the flames were put out, but the pain did not, and his breath came in agonized gasps.
There was the sound of running feet and then someone dropped down beside Dylen. He cried out once more as the charred ruins of his tunic were hurriedly peeled from his burnt flesh. A cool hand touched his cheek, and he turned his head and looked blearily into Dylen’s anxious eyes.
Hold on, Rio,” Dylen whispered. “The physician is here.”
Something was smeared on his back, and he moaned from the initial contact with his overly tender skin. But very quickly, the pain receded to something more bearable, and he sighed with a little relief. He could feel the physician’s hands on his back, slowly and thoroughly stroking the damaged flesh. Wherever his fingers lightly pressed down, there was a tingling sensation followed by sparks of feeling alike to the maddening jabs of a needle. But in their wake was a further lessening of pain.

Why, Rio?” Dylen said, his voice catching. “You would have avoided the worst of it had you stayed where you were. Yet you—” He paused and let out a frustrated exhalation. “Why did you do it?”

Riodan managed a small, tired smile. “Why else?” he murmured. At Dylen’s stricken expression, he reached for his hand and squeezed. “Don’t worry about me, Dy. You’re alive and well; that’s all that matters.”

Deity’s blood, Rio…”

Riodan did not hear the rest of Dylen’s anguished response for he finally slipped into blessed oblivion.

Chapter Twenty-Three


The physician’s healing touch brought him some relief. But in between visits he endured the incessant aches and relentless discomfort of mending flesh and knitting bones. Only after they had seen to his burnt flesh did the healers discover that one shoulder had been dislocated and an ankle broken. Small wonder it felt like pain would be his constant companion from now on.

Riodan turned his head from the stifling softness of his pillow seeking one thing alone. He exhaled in relief when he found Dylen seated beside his bed, watching with concern and not a little fear. He reached out a shaky hand and feebly smiled when it was immediately caught in a strong, comforting grip.

Don’t leave me alone,” he whispered, forgetting that he had pleaded thusly a number of times since regaining consciousness in the palace infirmary.
Dylen quietly said, “I’ll be here, I promise.”

Riodan slid back into slumber, keeping his face turned toward Dylen that the first thing he would see when he awakened would be his beloved face.

* * * *

It was only on the fourth day since the incident that Dylen deemed it permissible to leave Riodan’s side. The ambassador had finally fallen into a deep, restful sleep unlike the previous days when the slightest movements or faintest sounds disturbed his fragile slumber.
Dylen gazed long at him, relieved that Riodan would have some respite from the almost interminable pain of his injuries. He grimaced as he recalled the prior evening’s ghastly proceedings and Riodan’s suffering. True, Amir’s physicians had prevented more serious damage. But even they could not alleviate the excruciating discomfort wrought by the process of healing from severe burns.
Last night, the healers had tended to an infection in Riodan’s lower back, perforce cutting away flesh that threatened to turn gangrenous. They gave him a sleeping draught beforehand. But even the strongest dose could not completely render him oblivious to the pain of the procedure, and he’d awakened several times before the physicians were done. Dylen flexed his fingers in involuntarily response to the memory of how tightly Riodan had held on to his hand, gripping his fingers so hard that Dylen thought his bones would break. Yet despite the pain, Riodan had not cried out.

Tears streamed down his cheeks, and at one point, he’d been reduced to gasping sobs and whispered imprecations. But he did not shout or bawl as might be expected of a Deir in his situation. And all the while he stared at Dylen, as if drawing strength and courage from him. It was all Dylen could do to keep from lashing out at the physicians for doing what they had to do.
He ran his fingers through Riodan’s hair. The bronze locks were lank from oil and sweat and the strands at Riodan’s nape were dark and uneven where the singed ends had
broken off. Dylen stroked Riodan’s cheek. Thank Veres the burns went no further and the ambassador’s face was unmarred.
Not that Dylen would have found him less beautiful had his face been burned. If anything, Riodan seemed more exquisite in Dylen’s eyes, even to his ruined back.
Dylen sighed. Riodan had saved his life and deemed the consequences of that act worth it. Dylen would never forget their conversation after the healers had finished their task.

I wish I could take your pain away, Rio,” Dylen said, guilt underlining his voice. Riodan weakly smiled and murmured, “You already did.” He briefly placed his hand

on Dylen’s chest. “It’s gone—the ache I’ve borne these many years. When you let me in again, you took away my pain, Dy.”
Oh, Veres…” was all Dylen could say. He pulled Riodan’s hand to his lips and reverently kissed the knuckles. Riodan’s smile turned even more luminous before he slid into exhausted slumber.

Dylen bent and dropped a kiss on Riodan’s cheek. Then, after getting the reassurance of the physician on duty all over again, he left the room and went to keep his appointment with Laral Halvan.

* * * *

He met Laral in the sitting room of the latter’s apartment. The prince was almost recovered from his injury. The only indication of it was the occasional wince when a sudden movement pulled at the wound.

Laral ordered everyone out of the apartment and took it upon himself to pour Dylen some wine and serve him salty roasted nuts and crisp cracklings dipped in spiced vinegar, a snack of which the Asmarans were inordinately fond.
I hear Leyhar-tyar is mending well,” Laral said as he sipped his wine.

He is mending but not without suffering for it,” Dylen replied a little bitterly. “Yes, that’s to be expected.” Laral shook his head. “He highly esteems you to have
exposed himself to such peril.”

Dylen looked away, eyes suddenly veiled. Laral sighed.

And you feel the same way though you deny it to yourself. Ah well, that is none of my business, as you undoubtedly would say.” He helped himself to a handful of nuts. “Still, I do hope you resolve whatever it is that divides you. You work so well together, and it would be a pity were such an enviable partnership be riven by past grievances.”

After a moment, Dylen returned his gaze to Laral. “It will be resolved,” he said. Laral smiled faintly. “Good. Now, on to more urgent matters.” Laral’s mouth

tightened. “Malkon.”

Dylen sat up, immediately alert.

Talvas’ people caught him outside the pavilion,” Laral told him. “Did he throw the explosive?”
There was no one else around.”
Then he must have arranged for the ambush as well.”

Probably. Though it must have been an impulse on his part. Set off most likely by our confrontation earlier that day.”
About that—” Dylen regarded the prince wonderingly. “What did you confront him about, Dyhar?”
Laral refilled their cups. “It seems your ambassador succeeded in convincing Dimas to do his duty,” he said. “Dimas admitted the extent of his gaming debts in his letter to me as well as his inability to repay them. He named Malkon as his creditor.”

Dylen caught his breath. “Did he mention what Malkon had demanded of him in lieu of coin?”
Laral shook his head. “Unfortunately, he only said Malkon had threatened his family with harm, his children in particular, if Dimas did not do as he bid.”
And that’s what you argued about?”

Yes. It’s one thing to threaten someone with exposure or debtor’s prison in order to force him to pay what he owes. That is but right and lawful. But to endanger the lives of his family—” Laral’s eyes narrowed in anger. “That is beyond the pale. None of Dimas’ children have reached their majority yet. I know what you’re thinking—that he demanded Dimas reject as many of those contract approvals as possible. Well, I have had my suspicions as well. But Dimas didn’t outright say what it was Malkon had asked in repayment and so I can hardly accuse him of that.”

But he tried to have you killed,” Dylen pointed out. “You believe that he did even if he hasn’t confessed to it.”

Yes and yes,” Laral agreed. “And that is telling. Methinks he feared I knew the full truth and would expose him to my uncle as soon as I had more evidence of it.”
Then you are aware of his ambitions and how he had to revise his plans to fulfill them.”
That Sivar is my heir and therefore will come to the throne if I am removed?” Laral smiled mirthlessly. “Oh yes, I have long suspected. Ever since Uncle Arfen and then Gavan died so conveniently. And with Malkon always on the spot. But there was no proof, you understand?”

Completely. But that last assassin named Jubal as the instigator of the plot against you,” Dylen reminded him.

Laral softly said, “Malkon denies he knew what his sire planned.” Dylen scoffed. “A likely claim!”
But there is no concrete evidence linking him to Jubal’s scheme beyond their kinship,” Laral said. “And the one Deir who might have been able to reveal the truth is dead. Killed by an explosive Malkon may or may not have thrown.” Laral huffed in exasperation. “He denied he threw that device by the way, and once again, the evidence against him is circumstantial. He was the only Deir in sight, but no one actually saw him do the deed. Even Ambassador Leyhar only glimpsed the figure of someone, but he won’t be able to identify Malkon as the culprit, will he?”

Dylen shook his head. “So there is no way to charge him with this?”

Only if we can force him to talk. And this is where things get interesting.” Laral leaned forward, his eyes aglitter with interest. “We tried to read him, Uncle and I. But his mind is protected by layer upon layer of shields.”

Saints, is he so powerful then?” Dylen asked with consternation.

Nay, we don’t think they are of his making. They were likely placed there by a skillful adept, if not a templar.”
Dylen was taken aback. “That is troubling. No templar would involve himself in murder and the sowing of mayhem.”
Unless his loyalty to his sovereign exceeded his oaths of fidelity to the brotherhood
and its laws,” Laral pointed out. “We can’t discount that possibility. Even templars have their weaknesses.”
I suppose that’s possible,” Dylen reluctantly conceded. “I shall have to report this to Tenryon Hadrana. He will want to discover him whoever this Deir is. The templars won’t risk harboring a renegade in their ranks.”

Laral nodded. “Do as you must. But in the meantime, we have Malkon to contend with. Unless he talks, the most we can charge him with is misconduct with regards to his dealings with Dimas. As for colluding with Jubal, all we have are suspicions. That isn’t enough cause to bring him to justice. And he is of royal lineage even if the Ferrendas no longer rule a realm.”
Dylen brought a clenched hand down hard on the tabletop. “Then we must get confirmation of those suspicions,” he growled. “Tell me what you can about these shields.”

Uncle Amir believes that together we could breach them eventually,” Laral related. “But he fears that the force of our attempt could break Malkon’s mind and render him useless for our purpose, which is to gain information. Furthermore, even if we managed to keep Malkon from losing his sanity, we would have to stay in his consciousness longer than is safe for us. We did consider asking one of the physicians to try for they can remain in Malkon’s mind long enough to extract the information. But none of them have the strength to take down the shields. They are different from anything I have encountered.”

Dylen fell silent for a space as he considered the risks and possibilities. “Perhaps I can be of help, Your Highness,” he softly said.

* * * *

Despite his current straits, Malkon had lost none of his bombast or arrogance. But why should he when he’s obviously banking on the more lenient treatment accorded a prince of the blood to save his pitiful hide, Dylen thought with disgust

Even if evidence against him was found, he could claim immunity from punishment by execution by dint of his royal heritage. Except in war, royalty did not kill fellow royalty as much from fear of setting a precedent that might prove fatal in the future as from an inherent reluctance to treat a peer like a common criminal. So the worst Malkon could expect even if found guilty of the charges brought against him was comfortable imprisonment or possibly exile from Asmara.

He and Laral had walked in on an interrogation conducted by Malkon’s own mate Sivar with the Shaja Amir and Captain Talvas in attendance. The interrogation seemed likely to go nowhere as all the other sessions had.

Malkon fumed, protested his treatment and refuted every accusation against him save one. And that one—his threats of reprisal against the unfortunate Dimas—he claimed to be no crime at all. He had been within his rights to regain what was owed him by whatever means necessary.

When Dylen came to Sivar’s side, the Ferrenda lord scowled and said, “What, is he going to question me, too? Sivar, you should know better than to allow some bastard half-breed the privilege!”

Lord Dylen has every right to question you,” Sivar snapped. “His colleague is a victim of your family’s perfidy.”
Malkon sniggered. “You mean his lover,” he sneered. “Oh, I saw Leyhar’s face that night at dinner. He looked most murderous when Lord Dylen started to try and seduce me.”

Dylen lifted his eyebrows contemptuously. “I tried to seduce you?”

And why not when you undoubtedly have the skill to loosen a Deir’s tongue by way of bedding him,” Malkon retorted, sidestepping the improbability of his earlier statement. “Doubtless had the Ambassador not been present, you would have lured me between your sheets forthwith.”

Eyes narrowing, Dylen took a step forward. Malkon flashed him an insolent grin. Dylen looked at him as a merlion might regard a flea. And then he suddenly smiled. But the smile was far from pleasant and did not reach his eyes

I won’t deny it,” he said unexpectedly. “I would have buggered you senseless that night if it would have gained me the information I sought.” Ignoring Malkon’s startled expression, he bowed briefly to Sivar. “My apologies for such crude language, Your Highness,” he said. “But truth be told, I would have used every means at my disposal to get what was needed. Even if it meant bedding a Deir of little charm and even less beauty.”

There! You see? He admits it!” Malkon bellowed, whether out of self-righteous rage or piqued pride it was difficult to say. “It is the Ylandrins who were contemplating treachery, not I!” he declared. “He would have had me cuckold you, Sivar, for his own purposes. If not for my great love for you—”

Oh, do shut up, Mal!” Sivar sharply ordered. “You have the gall to play the innocent when we all know so well how you chased after every shapely arse you took a fancy to in Shenze!”
He turned to Dylen, uncaring of Malkon’s incredulous gape.

You have my full consent to bugger him to death if need be,” Sivar said. “That is if you have the stomach for it.”

Previously I did,” Dylen replied. “But not anymore. I would rather use other methods.” He looked at the Shaja. “I understand he is resistant to normal modes of interrogation, Dyhar.”

Amir inclined his head. “I’ve never personally encountered multiple shields before,” he said. “But I do know what is needed to circumvent them. Force is out of the question. Each time we break through one layer, we run the risk of damaging his mind bit by bit.”
Making it impossible to retrieve information at all.”

Exactly. The only way to get past such a defense is to locate each layer’s weakness and ease one’s self past them. But none among us possess the skill to do so. It is wholly the province of templars.”

Dylen eyed Malkon thoughtfully. The Ferrenda heir was smiling smugly once more. It was his overweening demeanor that decided Dylen on his course of action once and for all.

Perhaps not templars alone,” he softly said. “The Essendris of the direct line of descent are known to possess gifts beyond the ordinary.”

Of the direct line,” Laral echoed. “Do you mean to say you have the skill for this?” “I might,” Dylen averred. “And I may as well find out now.”
Then you have our permission to test your skills on him,” Amir declared. “What!” Malkon sprang to his feet. “Nay! I won’t allow this. You have no right—”
Talvas shoved him back onto his seat. “You have no say in the matter,” the captain told him, his voice hard and threatening. “I suggest you make it easier on yourself and be still!”

Dylen silently approached Malkon. In the instant before he placed his hands on either side of the Deir’s head, he saw fear spark in his eyes. Buoyed by that evidence of knowledge worth uncovering, he took a deep centering breath and took the plunge into the realm of another being’s consciousness.

Between one heartbeat and the next, he found himself in a wide hazy tunnel. Darkness loomed before him, and he cautiously walked toward it. Several steps forward and he suddenly came up against a barrier the likes of which he had not seen before. It had no concrete form but was like an impenetrable black fog that shifted in every direction. It soared up to the apparent nothingness above and extended from one side of the tunnel to the other. There was no apparent opening in it. Dylen thrust a hand into the fog and touched something hard within. The barrier looked like a thick inky mist but felt like a solid unyielding wall.

He studied it closely. He knew he was seeing what either Malkon or whoever had created the shielding wished him to see. That made sense for how could anyone discover a way through this amorphous yet impermeable mass? But that it was confined to a space of definite dimensions indicated a limit to its creator’s skill.

Dylen hearkened back to his training under Rohyr and Tenryon. He would not abide the rules of this world. He would change them to suit his needs instead.
He focused on altering the very nature of the barrier, ridding it of its foggy exterior and turning it into something recognizable and therefore comprehensible.
At once he felt resistance. Malkon fought him fiercely, the strength of his desperation making up for what he lacked in talent and power.
Their battle for control manifested itself in a series of convulsions in the barrier. The entire mass trembled and shifted this way and that as if subject to the whims of a mighty wind. And from lightless black, the fog lightened to dark grey and then to storm blue only to darken once more to indigo.

Back and forth the barrier changed. Dylen wondered how much longer he could sustain his assault on it. And then, of a sudden, he heard an angry wail in the distance.

The fog shivered horrifically then seemed to collapse into itself. Suddenly, the violent heaving stopped, and the barrier solidified into a stone wall of an indeterminate shade of grey.

Dylen exhaled in relief. Malkon had given way. The barrier now appeared as Dylen desired it. For there was no wall in existence that could not be breached. And this wall would be no exception if he had anything to say about it.

He scanned it thoroughly, searching for any sign of weakness. He suddenly smiled. Forcing the wall’s coloration to lighten further, he took a closer look at a section of it.

Tiny fissures had become visible thanks to the paler hue of the structure. Dylen reached out with his senses and swiftly deduced that he had found a spot in the wall that was not as solid as it appeared. It felt—hollow was the closest he could come to describing it. Indeed, he now discerned numerous areas that were as vulnerable. Small wonder the barrier had been cloaked in fog. The misty covering had made it harder to perceive its weaknesses.

Dylen placed a hand on the center of the network of fissures and firmly pushed
against it. The wall slowly gave way before the pressure. And then the whole section cracked and crumbled on its own accord. A gap opened in the wall large enough for Dylen to slip through.

As he stepped past the opening, the wall shuddered and groaned to eerie effect. Though a cold shiver snaked its way up his spine, Dylen ignored the frightening sounds and forged on.

Another barrier soon loomed before him. Armed with the knowledge of his subduing of the first barrier, Dylen set to defeating this one as well. It did not prove as difficult nor did it take as long to locate its weak points. Dylen quickly selected one and soon passed through into the space beyond. And again he heard a howl of protest in his mind.

He did not bother to count the number of barriers he passed but concentrated on getting closer to his goal. Besides, he was beginning to tire. He could not afford to waste his strength on needless exercises.

The next barrier he confronted had a different feel to it. Not only did it transform fairly quickly, he sensed something like despair beyond it. He felt a jolt of elation. He knew he had reached his quarry.

To his surprise, he had hardly touched the wall when it gave way before him. He quickly clambered over the resulting rubble.
Several paces away, Malkon cowered like a cornered rodent. He stared at Dylen with a mixture of disbelief and terror. As Dylen got to his feet, the Ferrenda lord bleated out a frightened cry and turned on his heel to flee. Dylen raced after him. He caught up with Malkon, grabbed him by the collar and threw him down to the ground. He rolled Malkon onto his back and punched him hard enough to nigh break his nose. Dylen straddled the dazed Deir, hooking his ankles over his splayed legs and pinning his hands to the ground with a brutal grip on each wrist.

Talk, treacherous dog,” he growled. “Did you force Dimas to delay approval of Ylandrin contracts?”

I only suggested he pay me another way,” Malkon whimpered. “It’s no crime to ensure that he did.”
By threatening the lives of his children?” Dylen scornfully said. “It was my right! He owed me!”
And so you drove that poor wretch to his death. You are truly vile, Malkon Ferrenda!”
I’m not to blame for his actions. I’m no—!”

Dylen grabbed Malkon by the hair of his crown and slammed his head down hard enough to stop the latter’s blubbering.
Who set those assassins on Laral?” he brusquely asked. “You heard,” Malkon croaked. “My sire ordered it,” “And you abetted it.”
Nay! I had naught to do with it!”

Liar! How did those knaves enter the palace grounds? Someone let them in and guided them to the pavilion!”

It wasn’t I!” Malkon shook his head frantically. “I tell you I had naught to do with that!”
Amidst Malkon’s attempts to evade meeting his gaze, Dylen caught a glimpse of something in the Ferrenda lord’s eyes. It was enough.
Of course!” he exclaimed. “They came in the guise of Terazan delegates!” Malkon’s eyes bulged in shock.
How did you kno—?” He gasped, horrified by his slip.

If I investigate the visit of a rather large delegation from the Terazan embassy that day, what will I find, Malkon?” Dylen closed a hand around Malkon’s throat menacingly. “That they never left the palace afterward? Indeed, will I find their discarded clothing hidden in your room?”
You are insane! I hid nothing in—”
Dylen backhanded him into shutting up. He reached down and, ripping the crotch of Malkon’s trousers open, clenched his fingers cruelly around the Deir’s seed sac.
They came to the palace at your summons, didn’t they?” he snarled. “Now tell me. Where did you hide their clothes? Speak or by Veres I will geld you bit by bit and feed the pieces to the palace hounds!” He tightened his grip.

Malkon screamed, “Under my bed! Beneath the floor boards!” “And where did you have them pass to get to the gardens?” “Servants’ hall—”

Dylen caught his breath. The passages to and from the servants’ hall wended their way along the back of the palace. The hall itself overlooked the chasm.
How?” he pressed. “Did no one notice a whole contingent of Deira in Ylandrin livery?”
Only a few at that hour,” Malkon wheezed painfully. “Killed them—” Dylen swore. “The bodies?”
Threw-threw them down the chasm.”

Heyas!” Dylen muttered. “Heartless scum!” he said through gritted teeth. His eyes narrowed. “That explosive—did you throw it?”
Malkon’s eyes suddenly blazed with malevolence. “Yes!” he spat. “A pity your fool of a lover got in the way!”

Dylen smashed Malkon’s head down. He rose to his feet, feeling as if he had just wallowed in a pit of miasmic filth. He could not get away from the cesspool that was Malkon’s mind fast enough.

He staggered as he came to. Laral caught him and led him to a chair. The Shaja Amir thrust a cup of strong brandy into his hand. Dylen quickly drank it, welcoming the invigorating burn of its descent down his throat.

He looked across at Malkon. The Deir was slumped in his chair, moaning softly. Dylen noted that the latter’s throat was mottled and the crotch of his trousers rent. It seemed his threats had not wholly been undertaken in the realm of Malkon’s mind.
Sivar burst into the room, followed by some of Talvas’ soldiers. They carried bundles of clothing. The prince viciously flung a handful of mantle clasps at Malkon. The Deir yelped and opened bleary eyes to stare at his furious spouse.

Dylen glanced at the scattered clasps. All bore the delphinid engraving of the diplomatic corps. And inscribed above each delphinid image was the insignia of the House of Havare, the ruling family of Teraz.
You heard?” he asked Amir.

Every word,” the Shaja grimly confirmed. He nudged a clasp with his foot. “We should have suspected given the blood ties between the Ferrendas and the Havares.”

Yes,” Laral somberly agreed. “Shall we have the rest of their consular team
arrested, Uncle?”

Immediately,” Amir grimly said. He addressed Talvas. “Question them well. I want to know what else they’ve been up to. Meanwhile, we have this dungworm to deal with.”

I say we quarter him alive and send the parts to his sire!” Sivar snarled. He was trembling with rage and looked quite ready to carry out his choice of sentence then and there.

Malkon lurched to his feet with a fearful gasp, staring at his mate in shock. He had apparently never seen this side of the normally quiet and reserved prince. Dylen observed that Talvas did not force him down again but instead stepped to one side.

The captain silently yanked out his long knife from its sheath on his leg. He nodded at Laral. The crown prince dipped his head once in answer then placed his hands on his cousin’s shoulders.

You know we can’t just dismember him much as we would like to,” he said. “As that craven cur pointed out, and he is right unfortunately, it won’t serve us to set a precedent of openly torturing and killing a fellow royal. So do calm down, Siv.”

Calm down?” Sivar angrily said. “He nearly killed you! How can you expect me to remain calm about that?”

Catching the undercurrents of something other than cousinly concern in his tirade, Dylen carefully studied Sivar. He caught his breath as comprehension struck him. Here was the true explanation for Sivar’s lack of obeisance toward Laral.

But I wasn’t killed, thanks to Lord Dylen and Ambassador Leyhar,” Laral said soothingly, reaching up to run his knuckles down Sivar’s cheek. “And, if we are agreed on our course, there will be no more threats to my life.” He glanced over his shoulder at Malkon with chilly disdain. “At least from some quarters.”

That Malkon was puzzled by Sivar and Laral’s behavior showed in the frown that creased his brow. Seeing his expression, Sivar promptly forgot his rage and suddenly smiled, albeit derisively.

You never suspected? Yet I can tell Lord Dylen has already guessed our secret.” Sivar regarded his mate mockingly. “The reason I stopped inviting you to my bed was because I’d been frequenting his.” He let his eyes run up and down Laral’s body in covetous fashion. At Malkon’s shocked expression, he laughed. “I didn’t particularly care to wed you, my dear Mal. But you brought with you not only a considerable marriage settlement but also your shares in several Ferrenda companies. Shares that are now conjugal property and will come to me after your death.”

He raised his eyebrows in amusement when a horrified Malkon gaped at him. “And you didn’t suspect that either, I gather. Really, Mal, such an obtuse fool you’ve turned out to be! Well, no matter. Verily, we weren’t going to allow you to live long enough to interfere with Aba’s rule or Laral’s. But we would have waited a decent while before arranging for your demise. Your actions however have forced us to do it much sooner. We do have to put our interests first after all.”

As he listened to Sivar’s discourse, Dylen saw Laral slip behind Malkon next to Talvas. The Ferrenda heir noticed his stare and half-turned with a jerk. Dylen caught a glimpse of Talvas’ knife blade as he passed it to Laral. He jerked his attention back to Malkon as the Deir tried to back away from Laral. There was the sound of another blade sliding out of its sheath behind him. Malkon whirled.
Fine metal flashed. Dylen could only stand by as Malkon screamed.
His scream ended in a gurgle as he was skewered front and back. Sivar and Laral held him there between them, uncaring of the blood that stained their garments.

Laral chuckled. “Goodbye, Malkon,” he murmured into the mortally wounded Deir’s ear. “Rest assured we shall accord you all the burial honors of a member of the family.”

With that, he yanked his blade out and rammed it up and into the base of Malkon’s skull. The cousins withdrew their knives and stepped back. Malkon slumped to the floor in a heap amidst the pooling crimson of his blood.

Amir grunted approvingly and said, “Well done.” He gestured to his guard-captain son and instructed, “He died from a fall. See to it, my good Talvas.”
Talvas obeyed with grim satisfaction. Two of his soldiers dragged the corpse out of the chamber. Another was tasked with quickly mopping up the blood, erasing all signs of Malkon’s execution.

Amir laid a steady gaze on Dylen. “A walk along the cliff wall when one is in his cups is very reckless, don’t you think, Essendr-tyar?”
Dylen looked from the Shaja to Sivar and Laral. He let out his breath and, addressing Sivar, said, “You have my deepest condolences, Your Highness.”

Chapter Twenty-Four


Riodan listened intently as Dylen related the events that occurred while he was unconscious. He grimaced ever so often as more of the Ferrendas’ perfidy came to light and stared wide-eyed when Dylen described his battle to gain entry into Malkon’s consciousness. Finally, he winced at the tale of Malkon’s slaying.
A day and a half had passed since Riodan fell into a deep refreshing sleep. He’d awakened to find Dylen drowsing in his chair by the bed. When Riodan attempted to turn on his side to face Dylen, the motion pulled on his still tender back, forcing a sharp hiss out of him. The sound, soft as it was, roused Dylen at once and prompted him to call a physician to Riodan’s bedside.
With most of his discomfort alleviated, Riodan had demanded a detailed account of what he had missed or been too distracted by his injuries to notice. Dylen obliged, and when he was done, Riodan half-closed his eyes and fell silent while he mulled over everything he had learned. At length, he sighed and looked at Dylen.

Laral and Sivar,” he murmured. “To kill anyone with such cold-blooded efficiency… I confess I don’t know whether I’m impressed or horrified.”
They will make a most formidable pair when Laral comes to the throne,” Dylen concurred.
And they were lovers all this time,” Riodan said with some wonder. He chuckled wryly. “I truly did not see that.”
Neither did I until that very moment.”

Riodan’s brow furrowed. “But Amir’s counsellor, his scribe, the servants—do you think they know?”
Most likely.”
Yet Malkon didn’t. Why did no one tell him, I wonder?”

Do you really? Malkon was generally disliked even by his own retainers,” Dylen reminded him. “The only folk who were loyal to him were his family’s supporters.”

Then it wasn’t disapproval of Sivar’s demeanor I witnessed that day but rather discomfort that they were being so open in front of me.” Riodan frowned. “Did they worry that I might carry the tale to Malkon myself?”

Possibly,” Dylen replied. “They didn’t know your intentions yet. But Sivar and Laral must have believed you could be trusted else they would have been discreet. And Amir apparently agreed with them.”

I suppose you’re right,” Riodan conceded. “But how very foolish of Malkon not to cultivate affection for himself amongst the royal household at least.”
Dylen shrugged. “Foolish and overly conceited. I wager he thought himself much too high to care for the sensibilities of common folk.”
He was beyond stupid then,” Riodan dryly concluded. “Will the Ferrendas believe the official story of his death?”
I highly doubt it. Several Terazan delegates gone missing in the space of one night
will definitely raise suspicions,” Dylen pointed out. “But they will have no grounds to protest. Or rather they’re in no position to do so given Malkon’s role in the murders of two Halvans and the attempted assassination of Laral.”

Riodan nodded. “Who will you inform of the truth? Aside from Rohyr that is.” “Gilmael, of course, as my superior,” Dylen answered. “And Tenryon will have to

know if it can aid him in searching for the templar who shielded Malkon. As for Lassen, well, Rohyr tells him everything in any case.”

That made Riodan grin. “He trusts Lassen completely.” Dylen sighed. “Because he loves him utterly,” he softly said. Their eyes met. Riodan’s grin turned wistful.

Despite everything, I enjoyed our stay in Asmara very much,” he whispered. “So did I,” Dylen agreed. “Against my better judgment.”

Riodan’s eyes widened as he recalled the same words spoken just so more than twenty years ago. And then they twinkled.
Perhaps your better judgment isn’t all you’ve touted it to be,” he teased. Dylen tried not to smile and, failing quite miserably, huffed a chuckle instead. “You’re probably right,” he lightly said.

* * * *

The Shaja summoned Dylen a few days later.

He sat with Amir in the long trellis-shaded terrace adjacent to the royal apartments. Dylen looked about him appreciatively. There were many such airy spaces built into the upper levels of the palace. And the view of Shenze from this particular spot was spectacular to say the least.

After the usual preliminary courtesies, Amir immediately broached the reason for his summons.
What you did—that was extraordinary, Lord Dylen,” he remarked. “The Essendris are indeed to be feared if they are all so gifted.”

Rest you, Dyhar, not all the Royal House are as blessed,” Dylen assured him. “And Rohyr was trained by Tenryon Hadrana himself.”
Meaning to say he has been imbued with a sense of honor and responsibility in the owning of such power. Thank Veres for that.” Amir nodded. “Yes, Hadrana-tyars reputation precedes him even here in the south. Would that the same could be said of all adepts. The templar who aided the Ferrendas for one.”

I have already sent word to Tenryon regarding that matter.” “That is good.”
They quietly viewed the city for several minutes. Dylen could easily imagine the extent of the Shaja’s relief that his country had been spared much turmoil and his House the threat of internal strife, at least for the moment. Eventually, Amir sighed with apparent contentment and looked at him again.

And now, what will you do?” the Shaja asked. “Sivar tells me you wish to take Ambassador Leyhar back to Ylandre soonest.”
Dylen inclined his head. “He will recover faster amongst family and friends. And besides, this posting was only temporary,” he added. “The designated ambassador to your country will be here very shortly.”
I see. Well, in any case, we are indebted to both of you. If you require any
assistance, you need only ask and we shall grant it.” The corners of Amir’s eyes crinkled unexpectedly. Grinning quite suddenly, he added, “And you may bring back as much kahvi as you wish. I hear you both took a great liking to it.”

Dylen laughed. “Indeed, I would have missed it badly. Thank you, Your Majesty.”

* * * *

The story that would come out of Asmara in later days was that Malkon had gone for a late evening stroll along the cliff wall behind the palace. He had apparently been inebriated—several palace sentries as well as a number of servants testified that they had seen him walking none too steadily close to the parapet edge. So sloshed had he been that he had not even had the wits to scream when he slipped, tumbled over the wall and plunged to his death in the rocky depths below. It took almost a fortnight before they managed to retrieve his corpse, and by then, it was badly decomposed, it being the height of one of the hottest summers to afflict Asmara.

Teraz cautiously inquired after their missing people, but Jubal Ferrenda dared to insinuate that his son’s demise might have been no accident. The Varadani pretender went so far as to say that it was too much of a coincidence that Malkon had died so soon and suddenly after the arrival of two prominent Ylandrins.

Asmara’s response regarding the missing Terazans was that they did not know anything about their fate save that last they were seen they were being escorted by one of Malkon’s retainers to the late lord’s apartment. Where they had gone thence was hardly Asmara’s responsibility given that their visit had neither been official nor expected by the palace stewards.
As for Jubal’s veiled accusation, the Shaja himself responded with a stern letter chastising the Ferrenda patriarch for even hinting that the Halvans had not provided adequate protection for Malkon. For what else could he glean from Jubal’s suggestion that someone had somehow managed to penetrate or circumvent the more than ample security provided all members of the royal family? Now murder from within by a member of the royal household—that was more feasible. But surely Jubal was not suggesting that the Halvans were capable of such skullduggery!

Teraz asked no further questions, and Jubal hastily backed off. After all, it would not do to antagonize the Halvans and lose an ally in the process. He very reluctantly however handed Malkon’s shares in Ferrenda-backed corporations over to his widower. His misgivings proved correct when Prince Sivar promptly sought and eventually wrested considerable control of several of those corporations within a few years of inheriting his late spouse’s estate.

When Sivar wed his cousin Laral a mere eleven months after Malkon’s death, Jubal was all but livid with fury. But already overthrown by the canny Sivar as principal administrator of two of the richest of his family’s holdings, he could do little other than vent his spleen on his unfortunate underlings and stew in impotent rage.

Chapter Twenty-Five


Rikara, Ylandre

The gentle creaking of a rocking chair broke the early morning quiet in Hirlen Teris’ apartment. Dylen grinned at his father’s blissful expression as he relaxed by the entrance to the small, sun-dappled patio that adjoined his sitting room, comfortably tucked into the new chair Dylen had purchased for him in Shenze.
Well worth its price, Dylen thought with satisfaction. The craftsmanship was excellent, the chair as beautiful as it was sturdy. Its armrests and rockers were artistically inlaid with iridescent nacre and the woven cane seat and back provided ventilation, a welcome feature during the warmer days of summer. Hirlen had been most elated upon receiving such a handsome present from his son.
It was now a month and a half since his return from the south, and autumn was coming to an end. He had brought Riodan home, snugly bedded down in a converted coach. The Halvans’ personal physician had accompanied them and ridden with Riodan throughout the short journey. Prince Laral had also insisted on an armed escort whose captain was gifted with the ability to translocate. This was so Dylen would not be overly taxed generating a passage back to Ylandre. Now Riodan was recuperating in his parents’ home.

Rohyr’s physician cousin Eiren Sarvan had attended to him at once. His skill and the considerable healing energy he wielded ensured an even swifter recovery for the young ambassador. Last Dylen had heard, Riodan was already up and about though Eiren had forbidden him to return to work, as that would only sap his newly returned strength.

Dylen’s contentment waned somewhat. Last he had seen Riodan was the week right after their return when he visited him with Rohyr and Lassen. Gilmael also joined them, and they had not been alone with each other the whole visit. Thus, no personal talk beyond Riodan’s health had ensued.

But Riodan looked at him questioningly several times during the visit. Almost pleadingly, truth be told. Dylen had been at a loss how to respond.
Their stab at reconciliation in Asmara felt unreal. It was almost as if the entire affair had been one incredible dream. Their one torrid night together was particularly disturbing to Dylen for he feared he had reopened himself too much, too soon to Riodan. He simply was not sure if he was ready to resume the deep, all-consuming relationship he’d shared with him.
Dylen sighed. There lay the rub. Would he ever be willing to be consumed by love again? He had allowed it to happen once and look where it got him. Nay, he scolded himself. He had to put the past behind him. Otherwise, he would not know the peace of heart and mind and soul that came with letting hurts and ill will go. Peace such as he had known from the moment he agreed to call Riodan his friend once more. That peace had lasted until he overheard Guyon Barath’s venomous aspersions on his character and the
reasons for his unsuitability as a friend to Riodan.

It had hurt deeply though he refused to let Guyon see it. It hurt because it was true, and much as Dylen loathed thinking about it today, what he had once been was at the root of Riodan’s denial of their relationship. For after all, had he not persuaded Riodan to leave him and return to his parents for that very same reason?

But Riodan had repented of his actions and ceaselessly humbled himself in the hope of gaining Dylen’s forgiveness. More, he had taken the unprecedented step of breaking a long-standing betrothal to prove his intentions to Dylen. That could have adverse repercussions insofar as Riodan’s reputation; the upper classes did not take kindly to one of their own breaking faith with another of similar station in favor of a Deir of dubious origins. For why would anyone do so unless it was for mere gain?

King’s brother he might be, but Dylen knew there were many Deira of good name and family who would hesitate to align themselves by marriage with a former hethar. Such a liaison was not unheard of among the common folk—many prostitutes supported partners and families by selling their bodies after all. But such was not the case with the aristocracy and gentry except if wedlock with one such as him would be politically advantageous. A way of breaking into the Ardan’s close-knit circle of trusted advisers and confidants.

That was the main reason Dylen had been wary of every suitor since Rohyr formalized his status as an Essendri. He did not want to be anyone’s convenient stepping-stone to political elevation. But that was the feeling he got with every Deir who wooed him, even gentle, good-natured Sereth. Only Riodan did not make him feel like a mere rung up the ladder for the politically ambitious.
It always came back to Riodan. But if one thought about it, Riodan had displayed his remorse only when he learned of Dylen’s entry into House Essendri. Despite Riodan’s protestations to the contrary, Dylen could not help wondering if he would have done so had their circumstances remained the same. What guarantee did he have that Riodan had really intended to look for him, make amends for the hurt he’d dealt him and join himself to Dylen in wedlock, society’s opinion of such a union be damned?

Yet ambition alone could not have driven Riodan to nigh sacrifice himself for Dylen’s sake. Only one force could impel anyone to offer his life for another.
Dylen shook his head vexedly. Why was it so hard to accept that one thing had not changed between them?
Tarqin entered the room, beaming brightly, and announced they had visitors. The servant deferentially showed Rohyr and Lassen and their son Vyren in.
Hirlen brightened with pleasure, and he held out his arms to the infant prince. Vyren happily crowed, “Oda!” and eagerly leaned down from his father’s arms toward the closest Deir he had to a resident grandparent.

Lassen chuckled and planted his son on Hirlen’s lap whereupon the two embarked on a conversation comprehensible only to a babbling babe and a doting grandfather. Dylen shook his head in amusement and grinned at Rohyr as the Ardan seated himself on the couch opposite Hirlen.
I wonder, did I make any sense at that age?” he remarked.
Hirlen looked up and laughingly said, “Nay, but I managed to understand you just the same. It’s a skill most fathers learn somehow.”
Whether they want to or not,” Lassen quipped. “But it’s learn the language of babes
or muddle one’s way through parenthood.”

He yelped when Rohyr suddenly pulled him back by his belt. He landed with a grunt on the Ardan’s lap. Lassen half turned and lightly swatted his smirking spouse before settling himself more comfortably between Rohyr’s hard thighs.

Dylen observed them with a touch of melancholy. It was then he noticed Rohyr regarding him sympathetically. He raised his eyebrows quizzically at his brother.
Rohyr asked, “Have you visited Riodan recently?”

Dylen leaned back, shaking his head. “There’s been no pressing need,” he blandly replied.
To which Rohyr snorted. He nuzzled Lassen’s ear but kept his gaze on Dylen. “Yet I wager certain needs were duly tended to in Asmara,” he murmured.
Dylen colored. “I thought you were against invading people’s thoughts, Roh,” he chided.
I am, and I didn’t.”

Rohyr moved lower to kiss the side of his now blushing consort’s neck. Lassen would have elbowed him but his arms were snugly pinioned by Rohyr’s embrace. Rohyr grinned when Dylen shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

I glimpsed a few of Riodan’s thoughts when we visited him,” he smugly informed Dylen. “As I’m sure you did, so strongly did he project them as soon as he saw you. There was no need to plumb his mind at all.” Rohyr slipped a hand down to lightly rest on Lassen’s thigh, perilously close to his crotch. Lassen gasped and slapped his hand away. Rohyr only snickered.
The images I saw were quite incendiary,” he continued. “If that’s how you take care of a friend, I shudder to imagine what you would do for a true love.”
Roh!” Dylen finally barked. He glanced at his father and was chagrined to find Hirlen smirking at him. “One night of—of rutting does not a love affair make!” he protested.

Nay, but it can be the start of one,” Rohyr countered. “Or a second beginning.” Dylen scowled, but there was little ire behind it. “Did you come to visit or to vex
me?” he muttered.

He groaned when Lassen looked at him keenly then. If Lassen was going to start in on him, too, he would go and seek less inquisitive company.

I saw him the other day,” Lassen related. “He looks so much better now. He had the ends of his hair trimmed, and he was hardly limping.”
Hirlen dimpled. “Then he is truly on the mend. That is good to hear.”
Yes. And his burns have also healed though there is much scarring,” Lassen said. “Eiren told him the scars will fade and become smoother over time. But the skin on his back will always be a little rough and patchy. I thought that of little consequence, but I fancy Riodan does not.”
What do you mean?” Dylen sharply asked.
He was quite self-conscious about them,” Lassen explained. “He kept tugging at his collar to hide his nape. And he said he would probably give away all his collarless shirts since he would no longer have use for them.”

But that’s absurd!” Hirlen exclaimed. “Someone should tell him so. After all, it isn’t his face or form that makes him such a beauty but his goodness of heart and fidelity to those he loves.”
Fidelity?” Dylen abruptly scoffed. “Much that you know, Adda.”

Hirlen frowned at him. “What? That he hurt you terribly at one time or another?” At Dylen’s stunned expression, he said, “Oh, I may not know the specifics of your quarrel, but I’m not blind, Dy. I felt your grief even when I was at my sickest, and I noticed how assiduously you kept your distance from him when he returned. I also saw how you dealt harshly with him when you couldn’t avoid him. And one more thing I saw that you refuse to see,” Hirlen added. “He loves you, Dy, and he blames himself without cease for your rift. You told him he was unworthy of you, didn’t you? Well, behold! He has come to believe it and contents himself with the crumbs you deign to toss his way!”
Adda, please…”

You hurt him, but you also hurt yourself,” Hirlen plowed on implacably. “For how can you ever be whole if you refuse to accept the other half of your heart?”

Dylen stared at his father speechlessly. Seldom had he heard Hirlen so impassioned and even less had he ever raised his voice to his only son. Hirlen must have noticed his stricken expression for his stern demeanor promptly vanished and he gentled his voice when he spoke once more.

Forgive me, Dy,” he contritely said. “I had no right to speak that way and in front of others.” He glanced at Rohyr and Lassen in some embarrassment then looked at his son once more, his eyes pleading. “I just—I just want you to be happy,” he professed, frustration tingeing his voice.

Dylen swallowed. He looked at Rohyr. “You said the same thing,” he whispered. He bowed his head, his eyes shut tight against impending tears.

I told him,” he hoarsely murmured. “I said I was afraid. How do I get past that? Tell me, how do I conquer this fear?”
He heard a sob and realized with horror that it was his. He leapt to his feet and stepped out onto the patio. Dylen stared up unseeingly at the cloudless sky, his body trembling with the effort not to cry. It proved a futile attempt when tears streaked down his face and his throat tightened painfully.

Someone tugged at his hair, and he turned with a start. Lassen stood behind him, Vyren in his arms. The child was gazing curiously at him.
Nunky!” Vyren cooed. Dylen smiled through his tears and stroked his nephew’s plump cheek. He looked at Lassen, a little ashamed that his law-brother had seen him weep. Lassen looked back at him, his aquamarine eyes aglow with compassion.
It isn’t easy to conquer fear, Dy,” he murmured. “But with a little help, it is possible.”
Whose help?” Dylen asked though he already suspected Lassen’s answer. “Whoever brings you peace,” was Lassen’s reply. “Of heart and soul and mind.” Dylen sharply inhaled, startled by the mirroring of his earlier musings. He glanced
sideways and saw his father and brother watching him with concern. He faced Lassen again.
Such as you have,” he said.

Such as you had,” Lassen pointed out. “For a while.”
But it can be longer than a while.” Lassen placed a fist against Dylen’s chest. “Listen to your heart, Dy. What does it tell you? What is its plea?”
Dylen bit his lip. He noticed Vyren reaching for him demandingly. He took his
nephew into his arms and rubbed noses with him until Vyren shrieked with glee.

By the way,” Rohyr said, coming to Lassen’s side. “He’s moved out of his parents’ house.”
That surprised Dylen. “He has? But whither did he go?” “A smaller house up Marsden Way.”
Dylen stared at his brother and law-brother. He caught his father’s entreating gaze. He held Vyren closer, taking in his sweet baby scent.
Drawing a shaky breath, he said, “I want to be happy, too.”

Chapter Twenty-Six


Time had never seemed to pass so slowly as it did this afternoon. Or so Riodan groused to himself. And his sire’s presence did not improve matters for Theron’s visit was most unwelcome at the moment.

He only half listened to Theron’s account of some junior diplomat’s mishaps in his first posting. Since the young fool didn’t precipitate a war in that part of Aisen, why bother recounting every detail of his blunders? Riodan thought with irritation.

Realizing he was fidgeting, he stood up and walked to a window to stare at the quiet street below. The traffic in this portion of the north district, vehicular or pedestrian, was not as heavy as in the more fashionable sections farther east. Long minutes ticked by before passersby or carriages came into view. Riodan sighed, chiding himself for his impatience. It was still early, and in any case, Dylen had not specified the exact time of his visit.

Riodan felt his heart start to race as it was prone to do each time he recalled Dylen’s message. The note arrived just after he finished his solitary breakfast, informing him that Dylen would come by later in the day. He had not known a moment’s calm since then.
His correspondence was neglected, lunch was left largely uneaten, an appointment with Eiren was promptly cancelled, and his plan to drop by his parents’ residence on his way back home was discarded. Furthermore, all callers were told he was indisposed or not at home, whichever excuse was deemed appropriate by his butler. Only Theron was sufficiently thick-skinned to be oblivious of his son’s very clear desire not to have company and had insisted on coming up to see him.

He sighed again. It was not charitable of him to resent his sire’s wish to visit him. Now that he no longer resided with his parents, the times they saw him were considerably reduced. And Theron had not been at all pleased by his decision to move out of the family house and away from the virtual battery of caregivers hired to attend him during his convalescence. Riodan was grateful to his parents for that and had often told them so.

But gratitude could only go so far. Eventually all the fuss and attention became stifling. And being immured in his sire’s residence hardly encouraged a certain Deir to come and see him. Riodan was not so naïve as to believe that was the only reason for Dylen’s failure to visit again after that one time more than a month ago. But it was still one reason too many.
Riodan absent-mindedly scratched the back of his neck—it tended to itch there as his skin continued to recover. The scrape of his fingers against unevenly textured flesh gave him pause, and he pensively caressed the rough patch of skin that peeked out from his collar. What would Dylen make of his scars? A moment later, he bitterly laughed to himself. What reason had he to hope that they would be intimate enough once more for Dylen to see his blemishes, much less touch them?

He almost jumped when the parlor door opened and the butler appeared. Theron stopped mid-story and looked at the servant questioningly. The Deir proceeded to
announce the arrival of His Grace, Dylen Essendri il Teris.

Riodan felt the color rise in his face as he gave the butler leave to usher Dylen up to the parlor. He glanced at his sire. Theron’s mouth had tightened, and he looked at Riodan reproachfully.

Is he the reason you cancelled your visit with us?” he inquired peremptorily. “Yes,” Riodan tersely answered. Hearing the tread of footsteps mounting the stairs
outside, he added, “I have missed him so, Aba. Don’t begrudge me this one small joy.” Whatever Theron would have replied was preempted when the door opened again.
Dylen entered, briefly hesitating when he espied the elder Leyhar. But, though his eyes turned wary, he did not let the latter’s presence deter him. He walked to Riodan who eagerly met him halfway.

For an awkward moment, they looked at each other uncertainly. And then Dylen held out his hand and said, “Am I welcome?”
Riodan clasped his hand and firmly replied, “You always are, Dy.” He turned his head and looked defiantly at his sire. “Aba was just leaving,”
Theron’s face reddened slightly, but he did not rebuke Riodan. He stood up, stiffly saying, “Yes, I must be on my way.”

He moved toward the door. But to Riodan’s dismay, he abruptly stopped and turned around and headed back toward them. Riodan held his breath as his sire faced Dylen, his mien worryingly stern. Theron’s throat worked jerkily, as if he found it hard to speak.

The senior diplomat said, “I hope you can forgive an old dog his bad habits, Essendri-dyhar. I wronged you, and for that, I am sorry.”

Riodan gaped at him in shock. He quickly glanced at Dylen. His beloved was visibly surprised as evinced by the startled lift of his eyebrows. But Riodan thought he also glimpsed a flicker of respect in Dylen’s eyes,

Bad habits are the hardest to break, Ambassador,” Dylen quietly replied. “I won’t hold your errors against you if you don’t hold my past against me.”
He held Theron’s gaze. The ambassador was the first to waver.

Fair enough,” Theron gruffly agreed. He bade them both goodbye and walked out of the room.
Riodan blew his breath out. He glanced at Dylen, his eyes still wide with amazement. “I didn’t expect that,” he admitted.

Nor did I,” Dylen said. “But it’s good to have that out of the way.” He ran a searching gaze over Riodan. “You look very well.”
I am well,” Riodan assured him. “And itching to get back to work.”
Has Eiren given you leave?” Dylen asked as Riodan led him to the hearthside couch. They sat in cozy warmth before the crackling fire.

Riodan shook his head. “He says another sennight or so. It better be for, if he confines me any longer than that, I swear I shall start climbing the walls.”
Dylen smiled. “Why did you move here?” he curiously asked. “Did you have a falling-out with your parents?”
Nay. But, saints above, Dy! You can’t imagine what it’s like to be nigh smothered with care. They were all but coddling me to death,” Riodan darkly muttered.
Dylen chuckled. Even better, his earth green eyes danced with mirth. Elated, Riodan said, “You will stay for dinner, yes?”
I would like that,” Dylen smilingly replied.
The butler returned and served them a light afternoon repast—hard cranapple cider, spiced haronuts, dainty blackgrape leaf rolls stuffed with forcemeat and, to Dylen’s amusement, crunchy Asmaran cracklings and bite-sized batter-coated quintail eggs fried to a golden turn.
You seem to have developed a taste for southern cuisine,” he remarked as he popped a quintail egg into his mouth.
Not all,” Riodan mildly demurred. “I don’t mind blood soup and sautéed fish tongues too much—actually, they’re quite delicious. But you will never get me to try roasted ram bollocks!”

Nay? But it’s considered a great delicacy,” Dylen said. “And purported to do marvels for one’s potency.”
Riodan wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I’m quite satisfied with my level of potency, thank you. And, verily, were I forced to eat so repulsive a dish, I would more likely shrivel than swell up down yonder.”
Dylen burst out laughing. The sound of it thrilled Riodan to the core.

Why, Ambassador, I never knew you hid a salty tongue behind that demure exterior of yours,” Dylen teased. “Who would have thought it?”

Riodan snorted. “You shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, it was you who got me started down that road.”
Ah, by dint of my sterling example?”
Hardly sterling. Really, Dy, some of the terms I learned from you would reduce a worldly-wise harlot to blushes.”

Dylen’s eyebrows rose in tacit skepticism. “And you know this because you’ve bandied lewd words with bawds?”
Riodan hesitated. “Well, actually… yes…”
You did?” Dylen grinned with abject delight. “For shame, Riodan Leyhar. How came you to keep company with such disreputable company?”

It was an accident!” Riodan protested. “There was this ball in Qatare. The host actually brought in whores to entertain his guests, but he didn’t inform us of their professions. I thought the Deir I was talking to was only a particularly filthy-mouthed, questionably dressed blueblood and so I matched him jest for bawdy jest. How was I to know he was the premier attraction at the biggest brothel in the city?”
After they laughed over Riodan’s misadventure, Dylen suddenly said, “We got along so well in Asmara, didn’t we?”
Riodan felt his heart go thump. He had not expected Dylen to speak so soon of their time together in the southern kingdom.
Yes. Yes, we did,” he murmured, conscious of how breathless he sounded. Dylen sat back, a faint smile curving his lips. “Thank you for granting my belated

request that we be friends again,” he said unexpectedly.

You thank me?” Riodan swallowed. “I’m the one who’s deeply grateful. If you count me even as the least of your friends, it will be enough for me and so much more than I deserve.”

He nearly choked when Dylen reached across the small distance between them and gripped his hand. Dylen gazed at the fire a while before speaking again.
Rohyr told me it was more difficult to nurse my resentments than to forgive you and move on,” he softly said. “He was right. I found it easier not to keep my distance from
you. The effort it took to stoke my anger far outstripped being civil with you. And I didn’t feel as lonely.” He drew a deep breath then slowly released it.
Riodan turned his hand over to weave their fingers together. When Dylen did not balk, he tentatively asked, “Then… may I assume that you’ve forgiven me?”
Dylen’s smile warmed considerably. “You may.”
His heart beating madly, Riodan assayed another question. “Could you also learn to trust me again?”
I think I already do,” Dylen admitted.

Merciful Veres…” Riodan closed his eyes, willing his heart to slow down a bit that he might think a little more clearly. He opened his eyes and looked at Dylen, hope and fear and barely leashed wanting colliding with each other inside him. “And…love?” he whispered hesitantly. “What of love?”
Dylen shook his head. “Nay. That I can’t do.”
Riodan was crestfallen. Swallowing hard, he mumbled, “Of… Of course… That was… presumptuous of me.”
He started when Dylen pulled his hand to his mouth. He mutely stared as Dylen pressed a kiss to his fingers.

It would be a waste of time learning something I already know.” Dylen looked squarely at Riodan. “What I’ve always known. Don’t you agree?”
Riodan could not speak or move, so thunderstruck was he. But when Dylen’s mouth quirked upward in an affectionate smirk, an irresistible urge to kiss that mouth overtook him. He suited action to thought and, leaning forward, caught Dylen in a kiss that was equal parts emotion and bodily desire.

Dylen suddenly pulled him astride his lap. Their lips met again, parting and slanting against each other in a spate of blistering open-mouthed kisses. The sounds of a coach passing by drifted in through the window, abruptly reminding Riodan that they were in the parlor and not the privacy of his bedchamber. He broke their kiss and touched his forehead to Dylen’s, panting as he strove to catch his breath.
Perhaps…” he murmured thickly. “Perhaps we should continue in the bedroom.” “And of course closeting ourselves this early in the afternoon won’t give your butler

notions about us,” Dylen remarked with a chuckle.

Better we leave that to his imagination than provide him with a full show!” Riodan shot back. He kissed Dylen once more. “I wouldn’t care were you someone else. I’ve had servants walk in on me before.”
Well then, why so shy with me now?”

Not shy,” Riodan demurred. “I just don’t want anyone else to get an eyeful of your charms, much less a taste of them. I never want to share you again, Dy.”

Dylen blinked in surprise. He bit his lip then met Riodan’s gaze. “And you haven’t,” he quietly assured him. “Not since the night I revealed myself to Rohyr.”
Riodan stared at him. “But I thought—When you spoke of seducing Malkon, it gave me the impression that…”
That I’d been bedding others,” Dylen finished for him. He shook his head. “Malkon wouldn’t have had the full benefit of my experience. If it had come to that, I would have found other ways, used other methods save for the coupling of our bodies, to get what we needed from him. Once I no longer needed to sell my services, I became so selective that no one could meet my standards. And then you came back, and my desire awakened once
more.” He reached up to run his thumb along Riodan’s lips. “Truth be told, Rio, even when I tried to hate you, I still wanted you and badly so.”
Is that why you kept your distance?” Riodan asked, his voice rough.

Dylen sighed. “Among other things. I told you, I tried to hate you as well. The mere sight of you was enough to undo all my efforts. What more your scent, your voice, the mere brush of your hand against mine?”

Riodan gasped as he was suddenly stroked between his legs. He glanced down and groaned at the sight of Dylen’s hand on his crotch, gently kneading the hard bulge therein. With a shuddery exhalation, he pulled away and got to his feet, drawing Dylen up as well.

Bedroom,” he hoarsely said. “Now.”

Dylen softly laughed and let him conduct him thence. Almost as soon as he kicked the door shut behind him, Riodan all but pounced on him, kissing him hard as he started to undress him. He returned the favor.

But when Dylen had him down to his shirt and had loosened its collar, Riodan abruptly stiffened. A deep flush heated his cheeks.
Dylen paused and looked searchingly at him. “Rio?”

Riodan gulped. “I should have warned you,” he said, his throat tight. “My back—“ “Yes, I know.”
It’s just that… It’s not a pretty sight.”
Riodan knew a twinge of fear as Dylen thoughtfully studied him. He caught his breath when Dylen resumed undoing his shirt, going behind him as he drew the garment off his shoulders. Riodan closed his eyes, agonizingly conscious of Dylen’s gaze on his blemished flesh. The press of soft lips against his nape startled him, as did the sensation of Dylen’s tongue ghosting a moist trail across the uneven landscape of his back. Fingers caressed rough patchy skin before smoothing around his torso and reaching down to fondle his subsiding erection through his breaches into renewed firmness. Riodan shakily exhaled, not quite certain what to make of Dylen’s ministrations.

Pretty is an understatement,” he heard Dylen murmur. “You’re so beautiful, Rio.” Riodan shook his head and turned around to face Dylen. “I’m not—” he started to

Dylen cut him off with a hard swift kiss. Pulling away, he slipped his own shirt from his body.
You are beautiful,” he firmly repeated. “And to my eyes your scars make you even more so. Now—are we going to make love or not?”
Riodan slowly smiled.

They swiftly undressed each other, nigh tearing off the rest of their clothes in their haste to have naught but skin between them.
Sensing that Dylen seemed inclined to let him take the lead, Riodan allowed himself to be more aggressive. In light of their conversation, he suspected that Dylen wished to be mastered that he might forget his years of mastering others. Enflamed by the prospect, Riodan pressed Dylen down to the bed with nigh indecent haste. He paused only long enough to grab a bottle of oil from the topmost drawer of the bedside table and place it within easy reach on the bed.

He eagerly explored Dylen anew, thrilling to the sounds of his groans. Steadily moving downwards, Riodan sucked at his neck, kissed his chest and teased his nipples
while his hands caressed every inch of skin within reach. He felt Dylen’s fingers run through his hair; heard his breathing growing more uneven with every ardent assault on his flesh. Reaching Dylen’s groin, he eagerly enclosed Dylen’s hard length in his mouth, drawing upon it as if he had just emerged from a lengthy fast and been served a veritable feast.

Turn around, Rio!” Dylen suddenly demanded.

Grinning widely, Riodan quickly changed his position. Dylen grabbed his hips and made him straddle his face. Riodan yelped as he was engulfed in Dylen’s talented mouth before he set to lavishing his attention once more on the seductive flesh before him. To be steadily drawn upon even as he likewise employed his lips, tongue and mouth on Dylen’s shaft—the feeling beggared description.
It turned into a sensual race as both strove to undo the other. Soon they were both wracked by rapture. Riodan cried out around his luscious mouthful when he felt the pulsing in his groin that rapidly spiralled into an orgasm of explosive proportions. So ardent did his suckling become as he rode out the waves of his spending that Dylen soon climaxed as well, gasping raggedly as Riodan hungrily milked him dry.
Still panting from his release, Riodan crawled back up into Dylen’s arms. He pressed their lips together at once, feeling the need to be in constant intimate contact with his lover. He moaned in delight as his mouth was pillaged and he was lured into a hedonistic duel of lips and tongue and teeth.

Riodan drew away slightly, his eyes pricking with grateful tears. Gazing at his hard-earned prize, he whispered, “I love you, Dy.”

With a sweet smile, Dylen snaked his hand behind Riodan’s nape and pulled him back down into an even more voracious kiss. At once, Riodan set to ravaging him anew. Dylen happily succumbed to his desire.

Supple fingers played with his nipples, pinching and tweaking them until he was squirming with delight beneath Riodan’s withy form. As their members surged back to life, Riodan thrust against him, sliding the hardening columns against each other until they were both gasping in ecstasy into each other’s mouths.

Riodan snatched up the bottle of oil and poured a goodly amount onto his palm. But Dylen stopped him just as he was about to smear Dylen’s shaft with the unguent. Riodan stared at him, eyebrows lifting in question.

I want you to take me,” Dylen whispered. He firmly guided Riodan’s hand to his own member. “Anoint yourself, ariad.”
Riodan’s hand shook as he lubricated his shaft. “Are you certain?” he anxiously asked, remembering the former hethar’s aversion to yielding thusly outside of his professional assignations.

Very certain,” Dylen huskily said. “Have all of me, Rio. Own me.” He drew a shuddery inhalation. “I want to forget all the others. Make me think only of you. Of us.”

Riodan could have wept from being blessed with so precious a gift as Dylen’s utter trust and complete surrender. Almost holding his breath, he moved between Dylen’s thighs. Dylen lifted his legs and wrapped them around his waist. Swallowing hard at the thought of berthing himself inside Dylen once more, Riodan carefully pressed his aching shaft home.
He barely stifled a cry as he was sheathed to the hilt. He stared at Dylen in joyous disbelief. He had ceased to entertain the thought of taking Dylen thusly long ago and after
their last union before their rift he had expected to never again have Dylen at all. But now, here he was buried deep in Dylen’s heated sweetness after so very long. He had not thought such bliss possible.

Saints above,” he whispered as rapture coursed through him like a molten river. “Veres preserve me.”
He waited for his lover to adjust to his embedded shaft. Dylen was as tight as an untried innocent, evidence of his many years abstention from playing the mare. Riodan watched him will himself to relax his muscles further. He knew Dylen was ready when he curled a leg behind Riodan’s thighs and pulled him closer.

Riodan experienced a sharp surge of possessiveness. An urge to stake his claim on his beloved overcame him, and he began to drive into Dylen, thrusting into him as deeply as he could. Dylen’s moans and gasps sent prickles of delight simmering along his skin, and he applied himself to delivering them both into ecstasy.

It was as glorious as it had been that one time more than two score years ago when he’d had the pleasure and the honor of taking Dylen in genital intercourse. With none of his subsequent partners had it ever felt like that or as it did now. None had looked as exquisite as Dylen did as he lay beneath him, lips parted invitingly, eyes gazing up at him in open love and lust. And for all the others’ willingness to submit, only Dylen’s surrender meant the world to him.

For in yielding all that he was and had, Dylen had given him the greatest gift of all. His hard-won devotion and trust.
This knowledge sent Riodan’s lust soaring. Rough cries escaped him with every lunge of his hips, the feel of wonderfully snug satin softness making him near giddy with joy. Desiring to see Dylen lose himself just as completely to pleasure, he grasped the shaft that pressed against his belly and stroked it hardily.

Dylen cried then shuddered helplessly, the sensations of being caressed from within and without conspiring to unravel him. Coming completely undone, he called out Riodan’s name and spent himself copiously into his hand. So stunning were his features in rapture, the sight finished Riodan as well.

Breathing harshly with the force of his release, Riodan buried himself as deeply as he could, his entire existence in that instant reduced to the ecstasy of at last wholly claiming Dylen. As the last of his seed filled his lover, he felt his limbs give way, and he collapsed onto Dylen. Strong arms enclosed him, and with a happy sigh, Riodan nestled his head on Dylen’s chest. He smiled broadly upon marking the unsteady up and down of Dylen’s breast as he breathed, evidence that his lover’s climax had been as powerful as his.


Riodan waited for them both to calm down before he carefully pulled out of Dylen. Snatching up a discarded shirt from the floor, he used it to wipe their seed-stippled torsos. Tossing the shirt aside, he slipped out of the bed.

Dylen watched him head for the small liquor cabinet by his wardrobe. His eyebrows rose when Riodan took out a bottle of mirash. Riodan looked almost shyly at Dylen as he poured himself a glass of the conception suppressor.

Seating himself on the edge of the bed, Dylen grinned and said, “Curious that you have mirash on hand. Methinks you expected more than a simple visit from me.”
Riodan chuckled with some embarrassment. “I didn’t expect anything,” he corrected. “I only hoped.”
Holding Dylen’s gaze, he downed the mirash then returned to the bed and climbed onto Dylen’s lap, straddling him. Dylen held his warm body close, kissing his throat and reaching for his buttocks to knead the firm mounds suggestively. Riodan moaned as an enterprising finger slipped into the crease of his arse and nudged the tight entrance within. He wiggled his hips, caressing Dylen’s slowly rousing shaft in turn.

Dylen groaned then softly laughed. “You’ve learned much, ariad,” he remarked, pulling Riodan into a plundering kiss.

I had a good teacher,” Riodan murmured against his lips. “The very best in fact.” “Is that so?” Dylen chuckled. “Well then, what say you demonstrate how well I’ve
taught you?”
He plucked the bottle of oil from its nest among the pillows. Keeping his eyes on Riodan, he deftly eased some of the lubricant up his backside, caressing him within until Riodan was arching sensuously against him even as he bore down on Dylen’s embedded fingers. Dylen latched onto a nipple, sucking it to a hard peak, which elicited a litany of soft cries from Riodan.
Dy, please…” Riodan pleaded.

Dylen cast the bottle aside and lazily coated his shaft with oil. “Do you want me inside you so badly?” he huskily asked.
Then ride me, my love. Let me in.”
He lowered Riodan onto his shaft. The stretch and burn of his entry fetched a slight wince from his lover. But it did not take long for lingering groans and ecstatic whimpers to supplant it as discomfort gave way to pleasure. Riodan began to move as bidden, riding the flesh that cleaved him so fulsomely. Dylen gazed at him, completely enraptured and consumed with love. He wrapped his hand around the proud member that jutted up between them and stroked it with every slide of his shaft into Riodan’s core.

For several heartbeats, all that could be heard was the symphony of their ragged breathing and drawn out moans.
They climaxed nigh simultaneously. Semen dappled their chests and bellies and flowed from one to fill the other. Sobbing his bliss against Dylen’s mouth, Riodan wrapped his arms tightly around his lover’s shoulders and held fast to him, yearning for emotional intimacy as much as his body had been in need of sexual satiation. Dylen embraced him tightly, lifting a gentle hand to smooth his tousled locks. With the other he stroked Riodan’s back soothingly, tenderly rubbing his fingers over the uneven flesh that was palpable testament to Riodan’s great love for him.

They bathed together afterward, washing semen and saliva from their bodies. But Riodan did not expect to be tumbled back into bed as soon as they came out of the bathing chamber.

You-you’re indefatigable!” he half stuttered, half laughed when Dylen promptly reached down between his legs to begin the process of turning.
What can you expect when so splendid a feast has been spread before me?” Dylen quipped as he fingered the tiny orifice hidden behind Riodan’s seed pouch.

He grinned salaciously when Riodan could only writhe in speechless rapture. A glance down told him his lover’s body had turned
Dylen pushed Riodan’s thighs up and spread them wide. His eyes homed in purposefully on the glistening entrance that was Riodan’s sheath. He locked his lips onto
the sensitive flesh, laving Riodan with his tongue before penetrating him in mimicry of what was to come. As soon as Riodan started to lift his hips to press up against him, Dylen shifted above him and entered him in one smooth thrust. Moaning wantonly, Riodan threw his head back, enraptured by the sensation of thick, firm flesh sliding into him.

The sight of Riodan abandoning himself to pleasure aroused Dylen even further. But he restrained himself and initially delivered only slow, shallow thrusts, refusing to let their rutting end too soon. Holding Riodan’s hips steady, he bent low to kiss his lover’s throat, occasionally teasing the hollow at its base with tantalizing dips of his tongue. He moved lower to gently maraud Riodan’s dusky nipples to hard nubs. Riodan pressed up, arching his body in willing complicity in his ravishment. Dylen abandoned restraint and gave himself over to mounting ecstasy.
It was never less than wondrous whenever their bodies joined, a feeling alien to Dylen for all his experience. It was not in any way like this with all the Deira who had passed through his life, not even those for whom he had held some affection. He could not think of a logical explanation except that they had been made for each other.


Riodan clutched at the beddings as Dylen steadily speared him. Everything seemed reduced to the singular sensation of hard flesh repeatedly plunging deep inside him.

He pulled Dylen down to him to seal their mouths in scorching union. A moment later, he was shuddering uncontrollably as rapture swept through him in a nigh endless torrent of sensation. His sheath contracted around the flesh that breached him, triggering Dylen’s climax in turn. Riodan moaned joyfully when he felt Dylen’s semen fill him to overflowing followed by the swift rush of heat in his belly—Dylen’s love made tangible.

Neither spoke for some time afterward. They were content to simply lie close together, Dylen resting his head on Riodan’s shoulder. Riodan gently wove his fingers through Dylen’s hair. When Dylen pressed kisses to the shoulder beneath his cheek, Riodan’s body responded with a faint tremor of delight.

Their post-coital reverie was rudely interrupted when the door opened suddenly, banging sharply against the wall as it did. Quickly pulling the covers up higher over both of them, Riodan stared incredulously as Guyon Barath barged in over the protestations of his butler. The butler on the other hand gaped in horror when he realized what he and the uninvited visitor had stumbled upon.
I’m so sorry, Dyhar!” he anxiously told Riodan. “I told him you were indisposed, but he wouldn’t heed me!”
I can see that,” Riodan grimly said. “You may go. I will tend to Barath-tyar.” He regarded Guyon with annoyance as the butler hurried out. “What in heyas are you doing here, Guyon?” he snapped. “You were told I wasn’t available.”

Guyon was staring at him and Dylen in turn, eyes bulging in disbelief. “What am I doing?” he blurted. “What about you?”
What about me?”

I came here to forgive you!”
Riodan almost choked. “Forgive me?” he repeated.
Eyeing Dylen with dudgeon, Guyon scrunched up his nose in disgust. “I was ready to overlook your indiscretion and reinstate our betrothal,” he huffed at Riodan. “And this is how you reward me?”
Reward—” Riodan glared at him. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with my rumored elevation to ambassador-at-large, would it?” he sarcastically suggested. “Verily, I find it hard to believe that you want to renew our troth out of mere affection.”

I do hold affection for you!” Guyon cried. “That I am willing to disregard your sordid affair with him should be proof enough of that.”
Riodan grabbed the heavy timepiece on his bedside table and hurled it straight at Guyon’s head. Guyon yelped as it hit him squarely in the face. He gingerly rubbed his bruised nose, wincing as he did.

How dare you!” Riodan shouted at him, indignation thrumming in every word. “It wasn’t sordid, and it was no mere affair, I’ll have you know! We loved each other and even more so now.” He snorted disdainfully as Guyon continued to stare at him in apparent refusal to believe his assertion. “And I seriously doubt you’d still be willing to wed me were my appointment withheld.”
Guyon’s mouth fell open. He looked like a fish out of water gasping for breath. “Withheld?” he finally croaked. “Then it hasn’t been confirmed?” He uttered an imprecation. “Confound your sire. He assured me it was a sure thing and—” Guyon stopped in dismay, realizing his error. “You misled me!”

Riodan smiled. “And you wouldn’t be interested in binding to me any longer were that true. How predictable.” He snuggled suggestively against Dylen, turning his face into his lover’s neck to nuzzle it. “Now would you mind?” he murmured. “Dylen was about to fuck me again.”


The slam of the door was deafening. Dylen listened to the petulant stomping of feet outside until it was abruptly cut off by the closing of the parlor door. He let out a relieved sigh then looked at Riodan. He noticed his lover was shaking rather violently and kept his face hidden against Dylen’s neck. Concerned, Dylen slipped a finger under Riodan’s chin and lifted it to look closely at his face. He burst into chuckles when he saw that Riodan was only snickering helplessly.

Again?” he archly inquired.

Riodan grinned impishly. “Why not? Unless you aren’t up for another bout?” “You may rue your words, ariad,” Dylen mildly warned him.
Dark brown eyes gleaming with devotion met his gaze. “Nay, I will never regret being yours,” Riodan softly said, his words punctuated with tender kisses. “I love you, Dy. Veres knows how much I love you.”

Dylen pulled him flush against him and crushed their mouths together. “Don’t leave me again, Rio,” Dylen whispered against his beloved’s lips. “Never,” Riodan promised.
And he pulled Dylen once more into his body’s heated embrace.



The Citadel, in the 3010th Year of the Common Age

Ah, never have I seen capes so fine before!” “Can it be—? Hirlen, is this Asmaran cashmere?”
It can’t be. It’s nigh unavailable north of the border.”

Hirlen Teris smiled indulgently as his old friends oohed and aahed over the dress capes displayed on his bed. One was of a rich burgundy shade, another a sumptuous cobalt blue and the third an elegant terre verte.

Actually it can,” Hirlen said. “The Shaja of Asmara sent them to Dylen and Riodan as binding gifts.”
But why three of them?” Eldran asked curiously. Hirlen grinned. “One is for me.”
What?” Miqar exclaimed. “Whatever did you do to deserve such a gift?”

I birthed Dylen,” Hirlen smugly replied. “The Shaja was so grateful for a service my son did for them, he rewarded me for bringing him into the world!”
Well, I never!” Miqar huffed. “Why hasn’t anyone rewarded me for birthing my children?”
Because neither of your sons have done anything extraordinary for a filthy rich monarch,” Liave pointed out. “So which is yours, Hirlen?”
I haven’t decided,” Hirlen admitted. “Riodan insists that Dylen have the green one because it matches his eyes so well. He left it to me to choose between the others since either color will suit him perfectly.”

Choose the burgundy then,” Miqar said. “It’s absolutely stunning!”

Nay, the blue,” Liave insisted. “It will contrast wonderfully with your hair.” “When his hair was all chestnut, it would have,” Miqar retorted. “Choose the

burgundy, Hirlen.”

Don’t be daft, Miqar,” Eldran gibed. “Hirlen still has more brown than grey on his head. Which is more than can be said of yours!”
Hirlen laughed as the three good-naturedly squabbled among themselves. He glanced up when Rohyr Essendri came to his side. Eldran, Miqar and Liave promptly shushed up, awed and a little abashed to be in the same room with their king. And in such close quarters at that.

Don’t mind me,” Rohyr affably told them. “I’m a little envious myself over those capes.”
Are you?” Hirlen smilingly gestured to the garments. “Then have your pick,


Rohyr shook his head, grinning. “I was only jesting. And I think you should take the green. Let Dylen wear another color for a change.”
Hirlen chortled. His friends laughed as well albeit diffidently. At that moment,
Tarqin appeared at the door and announced he had brought in some refreshments.

They filed out of the bedroom, Rohyr wheeling Hirlen after them. A delectable array of savory snacks and tempting pastries awaited them along with fragrant freshly brewed kahvi.

A child’s happy cry caught their attention, and they looked toward the terrace where Rohyr’s son and heir Vyren gleefully rolled on the ground with a trio of lively pups. A tongue in cheek wedding present from the Princes Laral and Sivar, they were of a rare breed of hounds exclusive to the royal families of the south.

His father bent to wipe slobber from the baby prince’s face, but otherwise Lassen did not interrupt his child’s play with the puppies. Behind them, Dylen and Riodan stood side-by-side, arms around each other, oft exchanging adoring looks and tender kisses in the manner of newlyweds the world over.
We wanted him to be happy. And now he is.
Hirlen glanced at Rohyr, just a tad startled. Despite having been exposed to Dylen’s abilities through the years, he was still awed when he experienced mind-speech.

He beamed at Rohyr, nodding in agreement. Looking at his son again, he saw Dylen gazing back at his brother, his rare sweet smile gracing his lips. He’d heard Rohyr’s message, the elder Teris realized with even more wonder.

Hirlen sighed with contentment and utmost felicity. His son was indeed happy. For he and the Deir of his heart were finally one in an inviolable union.
Theirs was a bond that had withstood the test of trials and time. Their love would prevail in this lifetime and beyond.

Glossary of Terms

Aba ‘sire’ Parent who functions as the head of the family.

Adda ‘father’ Parent who functions as the principal caregiver of the family.
Ardan North Continent hereditary monarch or potentate of a large sovereign realm or ruling overlord of an aggregate of internally autonomous states
Ardis An Ardan’s consort. ariad ‘beloved’ An endearment. by-blow An illegitimate child

Deir (pl. Deira) Member of the race of hermaphrodites that populates the world of Aisen.
dyhar High honorific applied to Deira of noble blood or high-ranking profession. enyr (pl. enyra) ‘True Blood’ A Deir whose antecedents kept their breeding with the

gelra to the barest viable minimum and thus retained much of the physical strength and endurance and most of the mind gifts of the Naere.
felka (pl. felkar) Prostitute who works in a brothel or walks the streets for patrons. Herun (pl. Herune) North Continent ruling aristocrat. Herune may govern sovereign

principalities, fiefdoms, city-states or great urban centers.

hethar (pl. hethare) ‘companion’ Deir who provides sexual services and/or social companionship for a considerable fee. Unlike common prostitutes, hethare are well-educated and highly cultured and, in most cities, generally accepted in polite society.
heyas A common expletive.

il Designates the birthing parent’s surname when an illegitimate child carries his biological sire’s name, e.g. Dylen Essendri il Teris.
mirash A conception suppressor

min Diminutive form of address applied to a Deir of junior years or station. Usage warrants mutual familiarity whether familial, platonic or professional.
Naere The Deira’s hermaphroditic race of origin.
Oda ‘grandfather’ Grandparent who functioned as caregiver of his family.
sedyr (pl. sedyra) ‘Half Blood’ Deir whose antecedents bred indiscriminately with the gelra, which resulted in the diminishment or disappearance of many of the characteristics of the Naere in succeeding generations.

serl ‘baronet’ Non-noble holder of the lowest hereditary North Continent title. Shaja South Vihandran hereditary ruler
templar Extraordinarily mentally gifted Deir.
thein ‘baron’ Non-ruling member of the North Continent nobility.
tyar General honorific for someone of higher years or station or whose profession warrants more than general courtesy.

The End
About the Author:

As far back as her college days, Eressë enjoyed writing stories set in historical times or, even better, fantasy settings. A good number turned into homoerotic romances because many of her male lead characters wound up having more chemistry with each other than with the female leads.

Whether Eressë subconsciously wrote them that way even she does not know. In any case, this penchant for fantasy M/M romance became the wellspring of Ylandre, the world in which her seminal piece Sacred Fate and its sequel Hallowed Bond take place.

Eressë lives in Southeast Asia with her husband, three sons and one dog. An AB Journalism graduate, she started her writing career as an advertising copywriter. She is now a freelance writer and a contributor to a number of publications. She also enjoys cooking and baking and tries her hand at everything from pasta to pastries. But her first love is, and always will be, writing stories.

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