Freyrík had long ago come to realize the gods rarely intervened in the lives of men, no matter what prayers or sacrifices were made. Yet only recently had he come to see their indifference as a blessing, for when the gods' great shadow fell upon you, it might well blot out the sun.
Which was how he found himself in the darkness now, tucked down in the canopy bed of his traveling tent with the man—the elf—he loved. The elf he'd sworn to see safely home. The elf he was now escorting to the one place more treacherous than even the darker forests: the High Court of Aegea.
"No," Ayden said, and none too gently, at that. "How many times do I have to say it? I'll not run away without you."
Freyrík rolled over to face him, glad for once of the elfglow in the dark tent, wondering if Ayden could see him back in a light that was not—according to the elf—really there. "You know I can't leave."
"Then neither can I. Go to sleep."
Before Freyrík could try a new tack, Ayden rolled away. For a moment he thought the elf angry, but then Ayden pressed his bare back to Freyrík's chest and tugged Freyrík's arm over his waist. He held to it with both hands as if he suspected Freyrík might take to pacing. Which, admittedly, was tempting.
"I can hear your thoughts roiling," Ayden grumbled. "Sleep."
As if he could with the dangers of the morrow looming so. "Not until you've heard me out."
Ayden sighed but then pressed up tighter against him, his arse grinding against Freyrík's groin. "Fine. Speak." Another wiggle that would have ended all conversation were Freyrík not so anxious. "But know my thoughts are not on your words."
Freyrík clenched his fist, his forearm flexing beneath Ayden's grip. 'Twas all he could do not to push the elf away and shake some sense into him.
He startled when Ayden's hand snaked between them, probing. "Perhaps your thoughts aren't, either?"
And gods befanged, but those questing fingers raised evidence to support Ayden's theory. A moment's trying to coax more from him, then another. Freyrík grunted and pulled Ayden's hand away before he lost the will to stop him.
Ayden hmph'd and did not try again.
Freyrík sighed. Had he hurt the elf's feelings? What he wouldn't give for the power to hear them as Ayden could. Mayhap then he'd know the right words to make him understand.
He settled for nuzzling his face into the back of Ayden's head, nudging tufts of hair flat with his cheek. "You have sacrificed so much for me already," he whispered. "I would not see you sacrifice more. Were you my subject, I would order you home. But I cannot, so I beg of you: Go. Now. Allow me to decline your selfless offer."
Ayden shook his head, squeezed Freyrík's arm. "'Tis selfishness, you idiot, not comity." A marvel, how Ayden could make such harsh words sound so fond. "I could not bear to see you executed for treason. But I can bear High Court. We've been through worse together already and come out the other side."
'Twas true, and yet... He pulled back, dropped a kiss on Ayden's shoulder and ran fingertips down the fine web of scars on his back. "You nearly died. What if—"
"I'm fine, Freyrík."
"But will you still be, even when they bind your magic?"
Freyrík winced as Ayden tensed in his arms. 'Twas a cold, cruel thing to have said, but he'd say it again and again if it would breach Ayden's stubbornness. And mayhap it had, for Ayden remained stiff and silent in his arms.
"Tomorrow we ride upon the Splendor," he pressed. "Once we cross the first gate, there's no turning back. You have to go now. The ambassador's escort—"
"Will think you complicit!"
"Beat me, then. Bind me. Make a show of it."
"It would not work," Ayden said, and gods but the weariness in his voice stabbed at Freyrík's heart. "You have intervened for me too often in the past to escape suspicion now."
Then make it work, Freyrík wanted to say. Break me. Kill my escorts.
But he couldn't betray his men so. Besides, deep in his heart he knew Ayden was right. None of it would suffice in the eyes of High Court.
He ground his head against the pillow in frustration. "Let them blame me, then. You have paid in blood for me; I would do the same for you."
Ayden's elflight flared so bright that Freyrík, startled, snatched his hand back to shade his eyes.
When he could see again, Ayden was standing. Pointing.
"'Tis not blood they would take," the elf growled. Not shouting, no—too aware of men who might overhear—but his words were no less sharp for it. His anger pricked at Freyrík's skin like a thousand blowdarts. "'Tis your head. I have seen the cages strung like lanterns along the outer wall, displaying what remains of slaughtered commoners and kings alike. Do not try to tell me you would be exempt!"
No, he supposed he wouldn't, but nor did he think it would come to—
"Wait, you've seen the cages?" He sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed. "You've been to the Splendor?"
Ayden lowered the finger he'd been jabbing at Freyrík and nodded. "As a child, with my father. Things were different then."
Despite himself, a smile crept upon his lips at the thought of Ayden as a diplomat's son, dressed to the chin in finery and standing still and mannerful at his father's side—likely with that mop of unruly hair to ruin the impression—
"What?" Ayden demanded, folding his arms across his chest and scowling, and damn but if that didn't turn Freyrík's grin into a full-blown laugh.
"Apologies," he huffed when he could speak again. "I'm just"—he shook his head, scrubbed a hand across disobedient lips—"I'm just imagining you being polite, is all."
"Well, stop it." Ayden's scowl deepened, but Freyrík needed no elven magic to hear the smile behind it. "I'll have you know I was a terror, even then."
"I do not doubt it," he said solemnly. His grin cracked through again and he held his arms out, inviting. Ayden stepped into his embrace, the warmth of him soaking right through Freyrík's skin as arms hugged round his shoulders and one smooth cheek came to rest against the top of his head.
Freyrík closed his eyes and let himself revel in Ayden's shelter.
But only for a moment, for though he'd surrendered the argument, the danger still loomed. He gave Ayden's arm a tug, guiding the elf to sit on the bed beside him. They angled toward each other, knees touching, hands tangled together between them. Ayden gazed upon him, eyes questioning.
"You must not be a terror this time." Freyrík said.
Ayden squeezed his fingers. "I know."
"The Crown Prince will greet us at the gate to the inner ward. You must seem to him a slave broken and trained."
"And gods pray, do not wander off. Ever. I cannot protect you if you leave my sight."
"Yes, yes, I know." He pulled his hands free and cupped them to Freyrík's cheeks with just a bit too much pressure to be tender. "Now if you've finished fretting, human, I would you still your tongue that we may put it to better use."
He could fair taste the elf at those words, and next he knew he was on his back, a hot heavy weight across his hips, his manhood straining against Ayden's arse. Hands on his cheeks again, drawing his eyes up to Ayden's hungry, focused grin. When Ayden leaned in to claim him, he didn't fight it, just slid his hands round Ayden's arse and splayed his legs, opening up beneath him.
After all, 'twould be ungentlemanly to refuse an invitation so sincerely given.
* * * * *
Ayden woke before dawn to the sounds of rousing in their little camp, hand reaching by habit for the dagger at the bedside table. He doubted these men would harm him, but such instincts could not—should not—be squashed.
Freyrík stirred against his side, and Ayden let his hand slip back beneath the blanket and across Freyrík's chest. His fingers toyed with the sprinkling of coarse hair there, brushed once over a nipple, then settled atop his lover's heart.
Freyrík's hand came up to cover his own, squeezing lightly. It seemed neither of them felt much in the way of excitation this morn.
Freyrík lifted Ayden's hand to his lips and kissed it, then threw back the covers and rolled out of bed, calling for his groom, who appeared so swiftly he must have been standing just outside the flaps. Had he heard their argument last night? They'd kept mostly to whispers, even at the height of their anger, but Lord Vitr was never far from his master's side.
Ayden pushed the worry from his mind—he trusted Lord Vitr, and 'twas too late in any case if someone else had overheard—and went about his morning ablutions. They dressed in silence, then ate in silence. What little they had to say had been said far too many times already.
The moment they left their tent, four attendants swarmed in, packing it and its contents away. Ayden too was packed away, for they'd never allowed him a horse. He let two guards escort him to the supply wagon and give him a none-too-gentle shove onto the unforgiving bench where he'd spent the last three weeks, resigning himself to yet another day of watching the countryside rattle by.
In any event, 'twas easier to focus on his bruised backside than what might lie in store for him at journey's end. He'd not been to the Splendor in some five centuries, and could have gone another five without regret. Whatever pleasant memories he'd had of the place were fouled beyond repair. His father had died there, murdered at treacherous human hands.
Gods alone knew what he might endure at the same hands to keep Rik safe.
The sun was just beginning to burn away the frost when a massive wall came into view—a stone structure that stretched on seemingly for leagues, curving round toward the horizon and back on itself. Fallen gods, where had that come from?
As it loomed larger and larger, farmland and the occasional wood-frame home yielded to the fieldstone country manors of the landowners. Here and there a small copse of trees stood out from the flatlands like a group of forlorn survivors. And survivors they were, Ayden realized with a start—the last beaten remnants of the elven forests, long since annexed by the humans whose defilement of the woods had driven his people away. Ayden's hand clenched on the wagon's rail as he looked away from the wounded land.
The taint on his mood must have translated to the humans, for all around him they grew wary. Freyrík looked back, and his concern-alarm-love washed over Ayden's mind-ear in a clamor of drums and cymbals.
He reined in, drawing even with the wagon, and leaned sideways in his saddle. "Whatever you have just done..." He looked away a moment, off toward the city, song abuzz with nervous hesitation. "Frightening men of the Splendor may get you killed. I know it is not easy, but I would you hide your elflight when we ride upon the city."
Ayden nodded. "I will be careful, I promise."
He hoped it was a promise he knew how to keep.
* * * * *
Just as the humans had spilled into the old elven enclaves, the city had spilled into the country. A league or two from the first wall came the noise and stench of an impoverished city that had not been there last Ayden had: shoddy wooden homes along narrow, winding alleys, waste flowing free in the gutters where their children played. Even from this distance, notes of hunger and weariness cut the air.
'Twas almost with relief that Ayden silenced his song, wishing he could dim his sense of smell along with it.
Their party skirted round the city with clear distaste, the noblemen pressing perfumed cloths to their noses when the road forced them between its outer edge and the steep southern bank of the Góz River. There tradesmen and small-plot farmers hawked their wares to travelers from rickety wagons and booths. Ayden huddled down into his own rickety wagon, more uncomfortable at the tight press of human disharmony than he cared to admit.
He was as glad as his "companions" to leave the squalor behind for the first of the Splendor's gates, an artful creation of wrought iron and carved oak as tall at least as four of him. He swallowed hard at the sight of the Aegean crest halfway up the gate, tall at least as he was and stamped in gold upon the wood. Swallowed again, this time with nausea, at the sight of the little cages hanging left and right of it, each marked with a sign—"Traitor," "Murderer," "Deserter"—and holding a single severed head.
He forced down his dread as the gates parted to let them pass, splitting the sword and crown on the crest down the middle.
Once we cross the first gate, there's no turning back...
He turned his gaze from the heads in the cages to the one on Freyrík's shoulders, wavy auburn hair distinct even from a half-dozen paces ahead. Gods help him, but the image that flashed through his mind could never be unseen, not even if he lived another ten-thousand years.
Perhaps Freyrík sensed his distress, for the man turned in his saddle, locked eyes with Ayden and nodded slightly. All will be well, his expression said. But the off-key skelter of his song belied him.
On they rode through the league-wide wheel of land between the third wall and the fourth. He'd played there as a child, racing horses through pasture and farmland with the other diplomats' sons, swimming and fishing in the maze of streams that swelled the Góz as it flowed west from the Splendor.
Little remained of that flourishing life now. The land bore more semblance to the squalor they'd just passed: narrow streets crammed full of wooden houses and shops and their human occupants.
Closer though it brought him to High Court, he was almost relieved when they reached the next gate.
This one, leading into the Third Ward, was achingly familiar. He'd passed through it hand in hand with his father, awed by the sounds and sights and smells so different from all he'd known before. Long-forgotten scents enveloped him—midland spices and baking bread, roasting meat, wood smoke and tallow and leather—bringing back memories full of wonder and mischief along these cobbled streets.
Even the guards seemed familiar, though in his youth, their ancestors had not regarded him with such malice.
Up the hill through the Third Ward, then another inspection at the gate, more thorough than the last. As they entered the Second Ward, he spotted archers on the parapets of the final wall and, beyond that, the spired roof of the castle keep. 'Twas a fortress as sure as any border outpost and just as heavily guarded.
At length they approached the Splendor's inner sanctum, and this time the gates remained firmly closed as the guards studied first the ambassador's papers and then each of the men in turn. Ayden felt their eyes linger long and harsh upon him, but he kept his own stare affixed to the gates lest the guards find a pretext for violence. At last they seemed satisfied with him, moving on to inspect the contents of the wagons before waving their party through.
Ayden kept his head down and made himself small as the High Court nobility would expect him to be.
The gates parted to reveal a drawbridge lowering across a moat, and a second gate and guardhouse on the other side. This they crossed through without inspection, and Ayden peeked up through his eyelashes as the bailey unfolded before them, enormous and bustling as a city and breathtaking in its... well, splendor.
But where was the Crown Prince? Why had he not met them at the gate?
Why had nobody met them at the gate?
He turned his eyes and mind-ear to Freyrík and immediately spotted the tense set of his back, heard the insult and anxiety in his song. Yet the man rode on, shoulders squared and head up.
Perhaps the Crown Prince would meet them at the keep itself. The air was quite chilly today for a soft midland fop, after all.
They passed by a stable and training rings as large as Freyrík's entire bailey, a reflecting pool that seemed to capture the whole of the sky along its lilied expanse, a topiary, and a hedge maze Ayden had spent long days getting lost in as a child. Somewhere beyond a hothouse full of South-Islands orchids and untold acres of manicured lawn, their party reached the staging ground before the castle keep, where a noble officer stood at the head of an honor guard.
Ayden had little experience with human royalty, but surely this plain-looking man could not be the Crown Prince of Aegea.
The officer—Prince Náliga, by Freyrík's greeting to him—stepped forward to welcome them, and the pages rushed to secure the party's horses and assist the riders. Ignored, Ayden tilted his head back and squinted against the sun, following the convoluted roofline with his eyes, tracing spires as tall as redwoods and nearly as magnificent. From atop the parapets, guards peered back.
"Elf!" Freyrík barked, and Ayden startled at the impatient tone, kicking himself for the lapse in attention.
He ducked his head with a mumbled "Master," then slunk from the wagon and to Freyrík's side, hands folded behind his back. Freyrík's hurt and anger echoed like a shout in Ayden's head, so loud he itched to study the scene before him with his eyes as well as his mind-ear. But he daren't risk eye contact with the Aegean officer. Instead, he sidled half a step closer to Freyrík, so that their shoulders nearly touched. He wished he could do more, wished he knew how to help. Crack it, he'd settle for knowing what was wrong.
"Follow these men," Freyrík said, pointing toward two pages and a handful of guards. "Do as they say. Behave. Do you understand?"
No, he did not. Had not Freyrík just lectured him the night before about the importance of staying together? Where did these men mean to take him, and what for?
And why was Freyrík allowing it?
He risked meeting Freyrík's eyes, saw within them a reflection of the maelstrom he heard in Freyrík's song. Fear, anxiety, carefully controlled panic... And love, gods, such love. Trust me, his gaze said.
Always, he thought back, even seeing clear as water that Freyrík didn't trust himself.
Ayden bowed and said, "As Master wishes." And if his voice shook a little, well, it wasn't as if he feared he'd never see the man again, right?
Freyrík clutched Ayden's chin in one hand, lifting his head and pulling him in for a bruising kiss. 'Twould surely seem absent affection to onlookers—a taken pleasure, one-sided—but 'twas as reassuring to Ayden as Freyrík had meant it to be: all would be well, and they would be together again soon.