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Asriel expects there's no place for him here.

He's never truly belonged anywhere but in the depths of his research. Thorold finishes drawing the bath for the evening, mopping his hands, saying nothing but firmly clasping onto Asriel's shoulder. His pinscher daemon wags her little tail enthusiastically, giving a familiar, low ruff in Stelmaria's direction. Stelmaria merely watches on, chuffing in the back of her throat.

"Is there anything else you need, my lord?"

"That'll be all," Asriel murmurs, his dripping-wet fingers reaching up blindly and squeezing over Thorold's hand. "Leave the door open." He misses the faint, smiling look. Thorold nods, murmuring to his daemon losing interest and trotting into the corridor.

It's a rather narrow washing room, full of polished stone and a metal tub. He lounges in the cool water, stretching out lazily. Heading south feels too warm and blustery against Asriel's skin confined against woolen things. Give him the bitter cold any moment of day. Give him the feeling of the ice clinging to his upper lip, and the howling winds engulfing through snowy abyss.

Stelmaria yowls drowsily, stretching herself as well and prowling out. Not too far but far enough to be comfortable. For privacy.

(As much privacy as can be afforded between them.)

Restless crawls over him. Asriel grunts, feeling the sound vibrate off his tongue and lips.

He can still smell the putrid cigar leaf and ash drifting off the Chaplain hurrying over to him, shaking Asriel's hand and quick to agree to the funds. He's a good man. Dimwitted and madly in love with the wrong person, but useful.

Asriel will not entertain a serious commitment of any kind, to man or woman or any, but he does remember being seven or eight years younger than the Chaplain when the Chaplain was thirty and three. All of the flirtatious, deliberate stares and walking together. Asriel backed him into one of the marble-white alcoves then, kissing his mouth, drinking in the heat and having his prick humping Asriel's own.

It's about strategy. He needs the Chaplain in his favour when the position requires loyalty and money.

Asriel shifts down, combing both hands through his thinning, brown hair and pressing his forearms to the line of his nose. Men were a nuisance. All of them. His prick throbs, sudden, stiffening up between Asriel's legs crooked open. He's expecting it.

There's never enough time to… indulge.

A shuddery exhale. He lowers his arms, using one hand to dangle over the tub's edge and the other dips into the water, raking over plentiful, dark curls surrounding his cock. Asriel's fingertips touch around his length, pumping once. The Chaplain's harsh, ragged breathing in Asriel's ear, his nails dragging over buttons and silk and the gloriously tremendous lump in Asriel's slacks.

He grunts again, louder and breathier. Frustrated. No, not him.

Asriel shuts his eyes, conjuring up the image of dark eyes and dark, knotted hair. Jopari, the shaman, up in the North. He took one look at Asriel and told him what he believe. How he visualised all of the wonders and failures. He went by Grumman as well.

Grumman told odd jokes and command authority from his men and spoke in a heavy, rumbling accent that Asriel could not identify. He held Asriel's face in his hands like Asriel mattered. To him and only him.

Asriel's thumb rubs across the slit of his bulbous, reddened cock-tip. A jolt of pleasure hits him.

Grumman welcomed Asriel into his tent occasionally, inviting him to partake of his vodka and his attention, letting Asriel impale himself roughly, sweating and gasping, doing as he pleased most. He listened to Asriel whisper fondly of his daughter much later, thriving in the brightened memories of his own son William. Of a man named John Parry, who loved his family, who knew no other love asides from exploring to deepest pits of the unknown.

Love—a mysterious and unknowable substance in itself.

Asriel did not love the gyptain boys he stole playful, arousing kisses from as a lad traveling the Fens, or their older sisters, dancing in the river-light, giggling and bare-breasted and moaning in Asriel's hands. He did not love the nobles eyeing him with disdain and spiteful lust, mocking Asriel for his preferences.

That is to say—Asriel not having a preference at all. He did not love, not then, but it would not stop him from gaining notoriety.

Nobles held their scorn towards him like an infant suckling to a teat, but even they were fascinated. A wealthy, handsome explorer from their social ranks. A man who knew the world and its people in it. He did not fear adventures or danger or beauty. They wanted this. They wanted to grab it with their hands and feast on the exquisite knowledge. To drain every drop from him.

Asriel had his own cravings as a young man, mouthing over a cock or cunt. He ripped apart satiny trousers or a lacy, pearl-adorned dress, snarling and biting and ravenously consuming, thrusting hard against a noble's buttocks and gushing his seed.

He can feel the cold, thick barrier of steel against his naked arse. Asriel concentrates, growl-grunting, stroking himself faster.

Thorold did walk in on him with his companions, apologising for the intrusion and never once blinking.

He's a portly, older man. His hair lightening into white as Asriel reached fifty and five years old. He's a lifelong companion and manservant. Asriel doesn't think less of him for it, or Thorold's opinions and his service and his displays of intuition while living with Asriel. He has given into curiosity before. Thorold asks him to not speak of this in the last month, deeming it improper, giving his friend a rag to clean up. Asriel reluctantly did as bid, sighing, wiping the hot, sticky globs of Thorold's fluids from his perineum and innermost thighs.

The bathwater feels gradually warmer against Asriel's burning-hot skin. He twists his wrist a little on the next stroke, lifting his hips, releasing a deep and guttural noise. His features strain. Bright blue eyes flutter shut. Close. So close.

Marisa… two of Asriel's fingers ease down, groping and pushing urgently on his rim… Marisa

Marisa, and her gilded charm… her starlight-fever eyes, her black, soft waves and her perfume…

She felt like a dream and a wailing, heartsick curse. Asriel felt the twinges of love, and how heavenly and sweetly deceptive they were. How it felt to be inside Marisa, worshiping every sensation, pinning their hands and kissing her grinning, pale lips. She gave him Lyra, and a world of emptiness and betrayal, and there's nothing more than this. Damn her, damn him.

Asriel huffs, baring his teeth, quivering with his orgasm. His prick spills, coating Asriel's fingers and his stomach until he lets go.

There's still so much to be done. Perhaps he will sleep it off.