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A More Satisfying Vengeance

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The First Prince of Kadar, His Royal Highness Sironn Lightsend, was dead. It had taken the rest of the world a good long time to realize that particular truth, but it seemed like even the dullards were finally catching up.

Sironn had understood he was dead from the moment his new husband, the King of Kadar, His Royal Majesty Rishard Lightsend, had made it clear he had not wedded Sironn for his wit, or his voice, and barely even for his body. No, Sironn was a political maneuver, being gifted with both strong looks and a weak family. He was pretty enough to be a plausible prince, and choosing him kept Rishard from having to endure a spouse from one of the major houses.

They might come with enough family clout to be protected from Rishard's cruelty. Sironn's main appeal was that he did not.

Sironn was to be beautiful, silent, and beaten when he failed to be either. Sometimes beaten anyway. Sironn could learn silence, and could learn how to roll with the blows, but age was gradually bound to steal his good looks. And when it went, so would the last of his usefulness to Rishard. Sironn had no illusions; he would meet with a tragic accident, and Rishard would choose his next pretty young victim.

So, whether the end came quickly or slow, Sironn was dead. And these days, he had no doubt it was coming very quickly indeed.

The small surprise was that Sironn had managed to survive twelve years of Rishard's abuse. The much larger surprise was that, scarcely two months before his thirteenth wedding anniversary, Sironn was informed by two royal guards he had outlived his bastard of a husband.

Of course, those same guards then confined him to his royal apartment for a truly luxurious house arrest, as Rishard had been deposed for crimes against the people of Kadar. Sironn was to be held until the new king figured out what to do with him.

Sironn snorted as he broke off the end of yet another sticky bun, shoving it in his mouth. As if it needed figuring. There was only one thing for a new king to do with the deposed king's spouse, and that was kill him. But the new king was taking his time in figuring that out, so for the last week Sironn had lounged about in blissful solitude. He needed no company other than all the books Rishard would have never let him read and all the foods he had never dared eat lest he lose his perfectly trim waist.

Rishard had loved to wrap his large hands around Sironn's waist when he shoved him, at least, when he wasn't hauling Sironn around by a handful of hair. So Sironn's plate stayed lean and his dark natural curls had always stayed styled in a soft cloud around his head. Wouldn't do to deprive Husband Dearest of his handholds.

Husband Dearest was dead. The first thing Sironn did upon being confined to quarters was find a razor and shave his hair down to stubble. Feeling the freeing breeze against his skull with every step, he stuck his shorn head out the front door and asked the startled guards to send a runner for a dizzying selection of sweets from the kitchen and whatever books they could find in the palace's paltry study. He ordered extravagantly, not expecting to receive either one.

To his surprise, he got books and treats in abundance. Day after day he glutted himself on words and sweets in equal measure. This had probably been the best week of his life, Sironn mused, as he stuffed another bite of the sticky bun in his mouth.

A knock sounded at the door, and the guard outside stuttered a bit as he announced, "His Royal Majesty Eshan Lightsend requests entrance."

Sironn stared at the door. The King could enter as he pleased, no need to abide by pleasantries. Still, Sironn scrambled upright, brushing any stray crumbs off his sadly shabby loungewear (Rishard would have stripped it off of him and whipped him for the insolence of wearing something so mundane, which was, of course, exactly why Sironn was basking in it now). After one last fruitless attempt to straighten his clothes, he called out with all the dignity he could muster, "I would be pleased for your Majesty's company."

It was, on the whole, not the worst lie he had ever told. Sironn wasn't in any hurry for his indolence to end, but it would be nice to fix his expiration date. The constant uncertainty was dizzying. After thirteen years of it, Sironn almost looked forward to the solid ground of certain death.

The King entered. He was older than Sironn had expected. Sironn still remembered him as the grave-faced nineteen year old who bore his full knight's regalia with surprising grace for one so young. But the last time Sironn, or anyone at the palace for that matter, had seen Eshan had been the day of the Royal Wedding, nearly thirteen years ago. Rishard had sent him out on campaign after that, and refused to recall him.

Continuous, unrelenting war was supposed to be a death sentence clothed in honor and glory. It, miraculously, hadn't stuck. But over twelve years in the field had weathered Eshan. Even royal regalia couldn't quite hide his corded muscles and calloused hands. The ceremonial sword at his hip looked distinctly less ceremonial then it ever had in Rishard's hands.

Sironn felt bile rise on his tongue. Eshan carried enough of his older brother's features to make avoiding comparison impossible. Here was his tormentor, reborn, and all the more dangerous.

Well, that was no reason not to be polite. Sironn swept a deep bow. "Your Majesty. A pleasure to see you again."

Eshan looked discomfited by the show of grace. Good.

Still, he rallied, inclining his head in response and managing a respectable. "Thank you, er…Lord Vackthrass."

Sironn flinched to hear his unmarried name. He supposed, with Rishard dead, the matter of his name did become complicated. He still couldn't help murmuring, "I highly doubt they'd claim me now."

Eshan hummed. "I wondered that. One of the options I'm considering is annulling your ties with the Lightsend family and sending you back as the new head of Vackthrass."

Sironn blanched, thinking of his ruthless first cousin, the current head of the Vackthrass line. "Cirinne would have me killed in a matter of days. I'm easy prey, no one would raise a blood debt for me. And you would win no love with my family, they were all too glad to be rid of me in the first place. Everything weighed, I prefer your sword to her poisons, Your Majesty. "

"And there lies the crux of the issue," Eshan said, a heavy weight in his voice. "Execution is the expected thing."

Sironn armored himself with a little smile. "Don't worry, Your Majesty. I understand what must be done. But if you'd like to break it to me gently, would you like some port? There's a fine vintage in the cabinet."

"Ah, no." Eshan shook his head looking off-balance. "No port. I'm afraid I'm too much the uncouth soldier to appreciate the taste. Syrupy." He wrinkled his nose.

Sironn found it adorable, which discomfited him. He preferred being in control of the conversation. Pivoting on his heel, Sironn marched over to the door to his apartment and threw it open, calling out to the guard outside, "Send a runner. Go to the servant's kitchen, bring us a flagon of whatever cheap ale they're serving tonight. And...they're probably doing some sort of meat pie. Bring a few of those as well."

The guard looked skeptical at Sironn's order, but he gave a brusque nod and turned to find a runner. After all, the king was inside, and if the king wasn't stopping things…

Sironn gave a tight smile as he closed the door and turned back to Eshan. "I hope that will do, Your Majesty."

Eshan shook his head a little. "I never thought of that. I've just been drinking whatever swill comes in those elegant little purple bottles."

Sironn couldn't help his small chuckle. "Highland Rosewine, Your Majesty. I would pay a great deal of money to watch you call it swill to the distiller's face. I think you might have a war on your hands."

Eshan looked momentarily alarmed, and Sironn waved his hands. "Don't worry, I'll be dead long before I can tell."

Eshan's face hardened into set lines, and he glared at Sironn. "If you could stop being quite so eager to throw your head on the chopping block I'm trying to keep it off of, that would be appreciated."

Sironn's brow furrowed as he parsed that sentence. "You don't…why? My husband has been declared a traitor and deposed in favor of you."

"Your husband was the traitor, not you."

Sironn rolled his eyes. "A lovely thought, Your Majesty, but not one anyone else will follow. As one goes, so goes the other. I believe that's how the vow we took goes, anyhow. Rishard didn't pass peacefully in his sleep. He was stabbed by his court. I have to assume they were finally tired of that godscursed war with the Falnoc he kept throwing away money and men on. So they bring in you, the warrior, the man who understands the realities of conflict. But the Lightsend house is precarious. Your Royal Majesty must work to secure your throne, which obviously means doing away with all the trappings of your traitor brother, including his pesky widower."

"The contrast between your address and your tone is dizzying," Eshan said, rather than responding to any of the content of Sironn's analysis. "Call me Eshan if you're going to insult me."

Sironn froze. The freeing certainty of death had gone to his head. He had forgotten about all the ways he could be hurt in the meantime. But Eshan's voice hadn't gone cold and brittle yet. Perhaps it wasn't too late to head off the Lightsend anger. Sironn threw himself into a deep genuflection, saying in his mildest tones, "Forgive me, Your Majesty. I forget myself. No insult is meant."

His eyes still fixed on the carpet, Sironn heard Eshan give a faint sigh. "Please rise, Lord Vackthrass. No insult was taken. It was merely a clumsy attempt on my part to build some intimacy. But perhaps you are right, and formality is the more necessary virtue."

Sironn slowly got to his feet, not quite trusting Eshan's stillness. But, if the man would be more comfortable with casual address, it cost Sironn very little to oblige.

"And now I am the one that should apologize," Sironn said with as much grace as he could manage. "I don't usually misread a situation that completely. Please, Eshan"—the informality tasted like ash in his throat; he had only ever used Rishard's given name to provoke him—"call me Sironn. I get hives every time you call me Lord Vackthrass. I can feel Cirinne's assassins menacing me in the shadows."

Eshan offered a polite chuckle, before he was interrupted by the runner returning. Sironn drew Eshan further into the apartment, out of the runner's way. He gestured for the runner to set the small dining alcove for a family meal. Unfortunately, this did mean that the remnants of Sironn's current dessert board were paraded in front of them both as the runner cleared the space for dining.

"Sweet tooth?" Eshan murmured, as he watched the plates go past.

"Merely enjoying my last days," Sironn answered glibly.

He could feel the way Eshan tensed next to him. Sironn felt his chest ache. He had the oddest urge to reach out and soothe his executioner. Eshan was going to have to come around to the realities of ruling eventually, but it seemed a shame that it would be Sironn's death pushing him to it.

Once the runners bowed their way out of the apartment again, Eshan proceeded into the dining alcove. He unbuckled his sword and laid it on the sideboard, sat down himself, and gestured for Sironn to sit in the chair across. It was horribly impolite. The ranking noble, if he desired company, should either pull out the seat, or instruct their servants to do so. The only thing ruder would have been for Sironn to sit down without explicit invitation.

But coming from Eshan, it didn't feel like a snub. It felt like an intimacy. Like they knew each other too well to bother with such formalities. They didn't, but Sironn enjoyed the spirit of the gesture, so he wandered over to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a glass of the aforementioned syrupy port, before joining Eshan at the table.

Eshan set into the meal with an uncouth gusto. He ate like a soldier, like someone who wasn't sure how long they'd have to eat, or whether they'd ever eat again. It was such a studied contrast to Rishard's showy gluttony, eating two dainty bites of a thousand dishes, that Sironn felt himself relax. He ate a full half of the pie in front of him, instead of the third he'd allow himself around Rishard.

Eshan came to his senses after wolfing down the second pie. He looked up, mouth still half-full of food, and his eyes widened in embarrassment as they caught Sironn's own. His deep brown eyes were somehow much warmer than Rishard's bright glittering gaze had ever been. Sironn found it compelling, and all the moreso when Eshan's gaze snapped away and a red flush swept over the apples of his cheeks. He forced himself upright, smoothing the napkin over his lips as he hastily swallowed. "I prove myself the uneducated louse to you yet again, it seems."

"You prove your practicality," Sironn countered. "Good food should not be wasted, nor taken for granted. Though I must admit the ale is not to my taste. I believe I will stick with the port."

Eshan laughed. "It's watered-down piss. It's not to anyone's taste. And yet…" Eshan downed his mug with obvious relish. "So," he said, setting it down with a clatter. "You're the only person in this godscursed palace that hasn't judged my rough edges or tried to take advantage of them. If I wasn't keen to kill you before, I'm certainly not going to now."

"I don't see that you have a choice," Sironn said gently. "And I do understand the irony of me arguing this, believe me, but what are your other options? Imprison me here? Relegate me to some distant manor house?"

"Surely even those paltry choices would be preferable to death," Eshan countered.

"I don't see it being much different. Oh, certainly, right now I'm fine, awaiting the judgement of the King, with Royal Guards outside my door. But as soon as you lock me away, I don't see myself lasting much longer. Discontents will want to use me, and that will ensure that the loyalists will kill me."

Eshan gave him a heartbreaking look. "Is there no happy future you see for yourself?"

Sironn swallowed, and found he had to look away. No. The shy poet brimming with romantic thoughts of a good marriage to escape his cold family was the last version of himself that could see a brighter future. He had gone from cruelty to cruelty, and he expected nothing more. Still…

For the sake of that quiet boy, he found the courage to say, "If you really and honestly wish to give me some future I can cling to...delay your decision. You can hold off a month, at least. Say you are gathering information from me. And in that month, give me paper. Let me write. No one need read it, but I like the idea of crafting something that may outlive me."

Sironn had to pause, then, the emotion nearly choking him. He hadn't wanted—hadn't even thought about poetry in ages. He'd thought that part of him died a long time ago, smothered by misery. Apparently not.

Sironn flattened his hands against the table, lest they tremble. This was more vulnerability than he had offered since the wedding night. He had learned fast to never let Rishard see an honest desire. But he was close to his end, and so far Eshan had been…kind. As odd a concept as that was.

He took a breath, and managed to finish, "And then, when the end comes, let the sword be sharp and swift. That would be the greatest kindness I could imagine."

"No," Eshan said roughly.

Sironn did not flinch, but it was a close thing. He had forgotten how much hope could hurt.

"Sironn, please, I am Rishard's brother."

"That is very evident," Sironn snarled, forgetting all decorum in his fury at the man who had found his vulnerable point and pressed it.

Eshan looked stricken, but he didn't strike. He just laid his hands on the table, face-up. "His ten-years-younger, helpless brother," Eshan said, drawing out each word slowly. "I did not get my first scars from war."

Sironn stayed silent out of long practice. The only grace, the only dignity in his position was that Rishard had not wished his worst cruelties widely known. Sironn had kept that secret gladly. When he had one of his all-too-infrequent opportunities to speak freely with others he did not want those conversations marred by pity.

"I was not happy, when he chose you. By that time I was two years gone to the military, with commanders who might have noted fresh bruising after a trip home. I was no longer an easy target. And then his wedding was announced. To you. The quiet heir of a minor house whose family had no leverage in the palace." Eshan looked down at his hands, a disgusted expression on his face.

"Then you saw clearly what I did not," Sironn said, trying for lightness and nearly succeeding. "It was soon illuminated, never fear."

"And I knew what would happen." Eshan reached up and ran a hand through his wavy brown hair. "I knew and gods help me, I did nothing."

Eshan hadn't had any more power than Sironn, in those early days. Sironn had been kept close and Eshan had been banished, and they were both intended to die. Sironn was faintly infuriated by Eshan's persistent naivete. There wasn't any hypothetical rescue that could have been mounted. It wasn't a matter of justice or injustice, it was simply history, and it would not change.

"And what exactly would you have done?" Sironn bit out. "If I recall correctly Rishard was doing his level best to kill you by proxy. Did you spend even one day in the palace from the day of my wedding to the day of your coronation?"

"There must have been something!" Eshan snarled.

And there was the famed Lightsend anger on Eshan's face. Sironn was surprised he didn't find it terrifying. In fact, there was something almost…comforting at having that anger felt, so deeply, on his behalf.

"You lived, Eshan," Sironn said, finding the name fit more easily in his mouth. "That is victory enough."

"Exactly. He tried to kill me. I lived, he's dead. I won."

"Victory," Sironn said with satisfaction. He would gladly take joy in Rishard's scheme not succeeding.

"But I was not his only victim, and I am not the sort to cede any battles for the sake of the war." Eshan fixed Sironn with a fierce gaze. "Here's the ugly truth of it. My determination to spare you is barely about you. I don't want to let the bastard win."

Sironn exhaled a long, slow breath. "Well, that's a motivation I can certainly appreciate." He'd assumed he'd won the best and only prize available—he'd outlived his tormentor. But the thought of yet a grander victory was exciting enough to break through his shell of careless apathy. A thrill of excitement shivered through his limbs, and he found himself leaning in.

"Good. We understand each other." Eshan gave a curt nod. "Regardless of your desires, I'm going to find you a better future than a quick death, and I would appreciate your help in the matter."

Fueled mostly by spite, Sironn started thinking. "Perhaps…the relegation. If you have soldiers you trust. That may handle the worst of the concerns for my safety. If you truly wish to indulge me, a comfortable manor with an extensive library, the ability to borrow books, and a study in which to write…" Sironn grew dizzy with the possibilities, and shook his head slightly, looking back down at his hands. "Forgive me. I grow intemperate."

"You'll have it," Eshan said quickly. "All of it. Dream your most immodest dream."

Sironn gave Eshan a small smile. "Up to half your kingdom and your child's hand in marriage?" he joked, dizzy with his daring.

"An appropriate prize! The dragon is well and truly dead." Eshan lifted his glass, found it empty, and grabbed Sironn's mostly untouched mug of ale. He hoisted it in the air and raised his eyebrows significantly at the glass of port Sironn had poured for himself.

Sironn grinned and joined the toast, chuckling as Eshan made good work of the neglected ale. "Though if either of us is the dragonslayer, it's you." Sironn wrinkled his nose. "I suppose that makes me the captured heir."

"Now we're losing the metaphor," Eshan laughed, a hearty rich noise that warmed Sironn through. There was no malice in those tones. "Because if we kept that going, my reward would be…"

Eshan paused, and then turned to Sironn with a very excited look on his face. "That's it."

Sironn tilted his head, wariness taking hold of his limbs again. "Hm?"

"Marry me."

"Ah," Sironn felt fear steal over him again. He had just—just found a future that felt good. Felt peaceful. A place of rest and learning, for as long as Eshan's handpicked guards could keep him safe. He felt all that slipping away.

"That solution solves all our issues neatly. There is no manor house that is going to be as safe as the palace, surrounded by the Royal Guards. None of the court are quite so brazen to ask me to execute my own spouse. And it would dissuade some of those that wish to use you against me, if we appear together in marital harmony."

Of course, of course, all dashed to dust because yet another Lightsend looked at him and saw an opportunity. His tongue numb with all his training to stay silent, Sironn managed to pull together enough words to say. "The court would not approve of the decision…they were already furious with Rishard for taking someone from the minor houses."

"Hang the court," Eshan said with a dismissive wave. "They're not so eager for revolution that they'd depose a second king so soon on the heels of the first. Sironn, you would not be trapped."

It took every last ounce of Sironn's good breeding and beaten silence to not laugh in despair. A manor house full of books and paper would not be half the prison this palace had been. And Eshan wanted to bind him in wedding chains and keep him here.

And Sironn could not refuse him. "If you think it best," he said meekly, signing his newly-dreamt future away.

Ironic, that this conversation with the supposedly merciful brother had flayed him far deeper than anything Rishard had managed in years.

"I—oh no, Sironn, no." Eshan sounded horrified.

Sironn plastered on his best look of pleasant neutrality to look up. "I am—what, no, I'm sorry—" he stuttered, his graceful words dying as he realized that Eshan had thrown himself up out of the chair and was circling the table.

Sironn flinched away, waiting for the blow.

It didn't come. As Sironn slowly uncoiled he realized that Eshan, that the King of Kadar, was kneeling next to Sironn's chair.

"Forgive me," Eshan said, his head bowed and voice grave. "Of course that's not—of course. You shall have your house, your guards, and your solitude. I will not interfere."

"I don't understand you! What—why…" Sironn spluttered. "Get up, what if the guards come in? What if they see this?"

"Then they will know they have a king capable of apology." Eshan looked up, and his face was set in lines of exhaustion. "Which is what I am trying to do. Sironn, you don't understand me because you look for angles where there are none. I am a blunt instrument. I am not clever, I am not diplomatic. All I strive to be is honorable."

"Not the worst thing to be," Sironn said weakly, his stomach still churning at the sight of Eshan, kneeling beside him in a complete counter to all the intended order of the universe.

"My goal here is to right the wrong that has been done to you by my house, and my blood. It is not to trap you further. I beg you to forgive my selfishness. You will have the future you desire, and nothing more."

"Selfishness?" Sironn said, as his heart gradually slowed down from rabbit panic, "You were willing to throw away your marriage on me. I—it may have well been the wrong offer, but it was not a selfish one."

"It was. I was so excited because…" Eshan gestured over to the table. "Tonight has been the easiest evening since I entered the palace. You are the first person I did not feel was aiming a knife at my neck. You found me cheap ale, for godssakes."

"You sell your hand too low, Your Majesty," Sironn murmured. Eshan gave a crooked smile. It made the corners of his eyes wrinkle, and Sironn was struck by the urge to run his thumb along those creases.

"I was struck by the idea that I might do a kind thing, and still get some selfish reward, and I became overeager. Of course the last thing you want is to tie yourself to another Lightsend."

"You are not another Lightsend. You are not your brother. He would never kneel." Sironn was astounded at how quickly his opinion of the man in front of him had changed. "You truly wanted my hand for…my company?"

"Well, yes," Eshan said simply. "I can hardly visit you after I banish you."

Absurdly, ridiculously, the thought made Sironn sad. Sironn had always kept his own best company, even the romantic dreams of his younger self had mostly featured marriage as a way to escape. Why on earth would the thought of being unable to see Eshan's slightly crooked nose, the scar along his jaw, his warm brown eyes, why would that dismay…?

Sironn's hands reached over to cradle Eshan's jaw without any conscious thought beyond a sudden, dizzying, desire to touch. He was struck by the look of it, his dark brown fingers over Eshan’s golden skin. It was hauntingly familiar and entirely different—Sironn had never had the chance to be the one who did the holding.

Eshan's eyes went wide, but he did not jerk back or lean in. Instead, he kept himself perfectly, carefully still, like a trainer trying to lure a skittish pyrecat.

Or perhaps, like the cornered pyrecat itself. Sironn had to remind himself he was not the only victim in the room. "Eshan," he said softly. "Before I go, I find myself wanting another boon of you."

"Anything," Eshan said quickly, still not moving.

"This is a tricky desire, though." Sironn let his thumb trace near the corner of Eshan's mouth, not quite touching. "It would be no gift for me to receive, unless I was also giving a gift in return. We have both had too much taken. I do not wish to take more."

"It would be a gift I…" Eshan closed his eyes, turning his head slightly so Sironn's thumb brushed the barest corner of his mouth. "…desire greatly, in both the giving and the receipt. But I have already tried to pull you too far down the path of undesired intimacy. I would not ask you to go any further."

Sironn let his thumb pass fully along the curve of Eshan's lips. Eshan swallowed hard, drawing attention the the sculpted line of his throat. Sironn wanted to taste him so badly he was dizzy with it. "Then I shall lead. Follow as far as you are comfortable."

Feeling like he was doing something forbidden the entire time, Sironn leaned down to kiss his king.

Kissing was entirely different when you liked the person. Even before Sironn had known to be terrified, he had never honestly wanted Rishard's mouth on his. It was just the expected show of affection, until affection was gone, and then it was worse still—another thing Sironn had no choice in, another thing he had to do to survive.

Eshan was a revelation. His warm lips made no demands, but welcomed Sironn's advances. Eshan tilted his head a little, opened his mouth, inviting Sironn deeper into the kiss. Sironn accepted that invitation, his fingers tightening along Eshan's jaw to keep him close.

Eshan tasted like that terrible ale. Sironn thought he could grow very fond of that taste indeed, when it was paired with such an eager mouth. Eshan strained up, into the kiss, as far as he could without breaking their silent agreement by getting up off his knees.

Sironn moved on from his lips and started exploring Eshan's other features. He kissed the crook of Eshan's nose, the flushed apple of his cheek, the corner of his eye where those compelling wrinkles sat. Eshan panted between his hands, and Sironn could feel his powerful chest expand and contract and remain so perfectly still. Sironn felt powerful, it was a heady feeling, that all this strength would submit.

Sironn moved on to nibble at Eshan's ears, when he caught a glimpse behind Eshan's back. His right hand gripped his left wrist, so hard the skin was blanched beneath the grip. Sironn stilled, suddenly overcome with fear that he had become the monster he had endured.

But then Eshan whined, high in the back of his throat, and as Sironn watched he twitched, one arm reaching forward, the other holding it firmly in place. "Are you holding still for me?" Sironn asked with growing delight. "Holding yourself back?"

"Sironn," Eshan groaned in mingled exasperation and desperation.

Sironn loved the way his name rumbled in Eshan's throat. He slid his hands along Eshan's jaw until he could grip Eshan's wavy hair and kiss him hard, swallowing his own name, swallowing the pleased groans that followed. "I wonder how far you'd let me go? What would I have to do, before you broke?"

"I will not break," Eshan said with utter certainty. This was a man that knew himself, Sironn thought, and was used to his word being his bond.

Sironn found it delicious, and also found he wanted to be difficult. "Oh really, Eshan?" He slid off his room slippers and twisted in his chair. Deliberately, he placed his bare foot against the inside of Eshan's knee, then slid it a few deliberate inches up. "You have no idea what I may decide to do."

There was no mistaking the tremble of pure desire that coursed through Eshan. "Do it," he whispered. "Do anything. Do it all."

Sironn never could have given that order. He had seen too clearly the depths of depravity a creative sadist could find. Perhaps that was why he felt struck to the core by the magnitude of trust Eshan was giving him. Eshan was putting his body in Sironn's hands and telling Sironn to take what he liked.

Of course, Eshan was stronger. If Eshan decided to change his mind and grab, there was nothing Sironn could do to stop him. Maybe this was all a trap. Maybe—

Maybe he should Eshan even a fragment of the trust Eshan was showing him. Eshan was stronger? Eshan was king! If Eshan had wanted to hurt Sironn, he had a thousand ways he could have done it. Sironn could let himself have this.

Never letting go of Eshan's hair, Sironn stood from the chair. He stood in front of Eshan, using his grip to gently lead Eshan's head up, and back, until Sironn could bend down and plunder his mouth easily. Sironn enjoyed every eager noise he pulled from Eshan. Sironn's fingers fell from hair to neck to bicep, and he squeezed Eshan's well-muscled arms.

"Come on, then," Sironn said, tugging up. "On your feet. March like a good little soldier."

As Eshan made his way unsteadily to his feet, Sironn placed a hand against Eshan's crossed wrists. He used that leverage to press Eshan toward the bed, and eventually down onto it. Eshan managed as well as he could with the plush mattress, but he wound up in the most undignified of positions, his face pressed against the fabric, and his trousers stretched tight over a well-muscled ass.

"Thank the gods for military drilling," Sironn murmured, transfixed by that sight.

"It's all the lunging," Eshan said, and then, to Sironn's utter amazement, wiggled.

Sironn couldn't help his laugh as he followed Eshan onto the bed. He still felt a flutter of nerves as he reached out and stroked his fingers along the muscle under the linen. He still couldn't quite believe that Eshan would really permit this sort of degradation.

Except Eshan apparently had no idea it was supposed to be degrading, because he just gasped against the sheet and twitched a little into Sironn's touch. Sironn grew braver, squeezing the muscle, and Eshan actually groaned.

It could really go to a man's head, that sort of appreciation.

Sironn reached up and tapped at Eshan's wrist. "Release, and strip for me. I want to see what muscle is hiding under there."

Sironn slid back on the bed, as Eshan shakily pushed himself upright. Sironn felt a moment of panic when he turned toward Sironn, arms free. But that was easily squashed when Eshan reached down and undid the clasp on his ornate belt, letting it slip from his fingers and fall against the bed.

Sironn's cock began to take an interest once Eshan started undoing the clasps along the top of his surcoat. Eshan didn't put on a show, but undressed with intent, looking at Sironn the entire time. His gaze didn't falter as his hands ran down his coat, and Sironn was torn between meeting Eshan's gaze, and enjoying the removal of layers.

Sironn felt like he was both the audience and the player in an intimate show. Hot prickles ran over his skin, Sironn dizzy with a lack of control. He felt the need to do something, so he decided to put on a performance of his own. He leaned back on his heels, spreading his legs, and trailed an index finger down the bulge his thickening cock was making against the thin fabric of his loungewear.

Eshan flushed red and looked away, undoing the clasps even faster. Sironn smiled in wicked delight as he watched Eshan toss the ornate surcoat away with a little twitch, and move on to grasp the hem of his tunic. He couldn't be shy. All that muscle, drilling, he must have been surrounded by an appreciative audience.

Sironn pressed the heel of his palm against his cock and groaned softly. Eshan pulled the tunic over his head and stole a quick glance at Sironn. He stopped, his mouth open slightly as the tunic slid from between his fingers, utterly transfixed by Sironn's palm playing between his splayed thighs.

"Undershirt too," Sironn said, at the same time he rolled his hips, thrusting up against his palm.

Eshan gave a distant nod before finally managing to look away again. As he reached for the hem of his undershirt, it was Sironn's turn to find himself transfixed. Hips, navel, chest, neck, all slowly revealed, until Eshan was on display before him.

There was nothing comfortable or showy about Eshan's bearing. There was no lean, lithe form or indolent softness. Eshan was thick, well muscled, and scarred. He was powerful, he was real. Sironn leaned in, hesitating to touch. He already knew he had been given more intimacy than he deserved.

"Whatever you want," Eshan said gently. "Take it, Sironn."

The way Eshan said his name, lingering over the letters, full of affection—Sironn had never heard his name spoken like that before. He felt a difficult twist in his stomach. He wanted to hear it again. He wanted to hear it with those broad, controlled hands exploring him. But to welcome that sort of handling from anyone, much less a Lightsend, would take more trust than Sironn had left to give.

Instead, Sironn reached forward and took Eshan's wrist, guiding him up and back to lay down against the bed. Eshan permitted himself to be stretched until the tips of his finger brushed the top of the beds ornate headboard. Sironn led the other hand up to match the first, then sat back and looked with satisfaction over the obediently splayed man on his bed.

"Do I meet with your approval?" Eshan asked, like he couldn't see the way Sironn was ogling him.

"The finest ornament to ever grace my bed," Sironn said, glibly and honestly, as he reached out and laid two fingers against Eshan's sternum. "I'd like you to keep your hands against the headboard. Shift as you desire, but don't break that contact. Can you do that for me?"

Eshan took a shallow breath, making Sironn's fingers dip and bob. He pressed up, so that the full of his palms lay against the headboard, and then he said, steadily, "I will not move."

Sironn set himself to exploring. He sat alongside Eshan and trailed fingers, then lips, then teeth, over the expanse of Eshan's chest. He learned that Eshan's stomach juddered when Sironn raked his nails lightly over it, learned that Eshan would arch into the kiss of lips over his nipple. Eshan's neck was particularly sensitive. Sironn left no marks, for that would be a public and inadvisable claiming of an unwedded king, but the slightest graze of teeth was enough to set Eshan moaning.

Eshan threw his neck back, inviting further exploration. Sironn slowly stretched out alongside him, letting himself press along the length of Eshan's broad body, shivering with each new point of contact. Sironn nipped and licked and kissed, as he stroked his hands across Eshan's biceps and over his chest. A dizzying array of handsome skin to be explored.

The more Sironn explored, the louder Eshan's noises of pleasure got. He squirmed under Sironn's hands, and Sironn gradually became aware of a rolling sensation near his thighs. He looked down the length of both their bodies to be treated to the sight of Eshan's hips thrusting up, the bulge of his cock covered by his supple leather trousers.

With a sheepish grin against Eshan's chest, Sironn turned to address the half of Eshan's body he had been neglecting. He hadn't even managed to get the man's boots off.

Sironn remedied that oversight as quickly as he could, then turned his attention to the trouser laces. As he unraveled them, he murmured, "Hips up, but don't lose your grip," and was thrilled when Eshan arched for him, that powerful body curving for no other purpose than for Sironn to strip it bare.

Eshan, entirely naked, was beautiful to Sironn's eyes. Sironn couldn't wait to caress the entire bulk of him, stroke his hidden scars and well-honed muscle. Eshan's cock was as impressively-built as the rest of him, the flushed length of it displayed against Eshan's stomach.

Eshan was nearly trembling with want, but he was so well controlled. His hands never moved from where Sironn placed them, even as the rest of him canted toward Sironn.

"Gorgeous," Sironn breathed, and for his trouble, got the joy of watching Eshan's flush travel down his chest, even staining his thighs faintly pink.

Sironn had no doubt he could take Eshan's thick cock between his hands and bring Eshan to completion before Eshan knew what was happening. But it would be a shame to end the fun so soon. Sironn chose to take a different tactic.

He moved to the end of the bed, placing himself between Eshan's feet. He ran his fingers lightly along the underside of Eshan's foot, watching with joy as Eshan's entire body twitched. "Tease," Eshan breathed, but he also placed a foot against the bed to shove himself upward, his arms bracing all the more firmly against the headboard.

"Yes," Sironn said, taking Eshan's other foot between his hands and digging his thumb into the arch. Eshan made a pleased noise and relaxed a little.

Sironn alternated between light strokes, deep massages, and interesting variations on kissing and licking as he slowly worked his way up Eshan's legs. He murmured appreciation as he brushed over Eshan's calves (all that time in the stirrup was clearly to great benefit), and continued up until he found the knee. Sironn squeezed the crown of the knee, to little reaction other than a slight smile.

Sironn kept exploring, letting his finger stroke along the outside of the leg, along the underside of the knee. As soon as his fingers lightly brushed the skin there, Eshan practically mewled, his leg curling instinctively up, trapping Sironn's fingers against the tender skin.

A sensitive spot, Sironn thought. Good to know.

"Sorry," Eshan gasped, immediately relaxing his leg again. His hands still hadn't moved.

"I didn't mention anything about your leg," Sironn said, placing a fond kiss to the side of Eshan's knee as he dragged his fingers lightly along the inside. "You're still being good."

Eshan moaned a little, and it seemed to be more at the words than at the touch. Sironn tested the theory by pressing a kiss low on Eshan's thigh, and adding, "So good for me." Eshan gave a ragged gasp, and Sironn hid a smirk against Eshan's leg. Yet another key to unlock Eshan. He was a man saturated with control, and Sironn wanted to wring some of it out, see what he looked like a little more free.

Sironn kissed his way up Eshan's thighs, showering him with praise as he got closer and closer to the musky core of him. He quickly learned that compliments to Eshan's body rolled off of him, but commendation of his character undid him. Sironn licked and nibbled on sculpted muscle and murmured that Eshan was a good man, a kind man, and honorable man, and listened with pleasure to Eshan's shaky gasps and heartfelt moans.

Sironn meant every word, to his surprise. Oh, certainly, there was undoubtedly some measure of bastard hiding inside Eshan. There always was. But Eshan had walked into this room with all the power and given it up for this—so that Sironn would live, and so that, for the moment, they could make each other happy. Eshan deserved every word of admiration.

"Please," Eshan was begging, as Sironn licked the tender skin high on his inner thigh. "Gods, Sironn, please," he begged. He started moving, and Sironn expected him to squirm so his cock was nearer to the hand Sironn had placed on his hip. But no, Eshan's hips canted up, and his thighs spread even wider, so Sironn had easy access to his…

Oh.

Nowhere in the evening's imaginations had Sironn pictured that Eshan would consider even this a gift. But Eshan's body language was blown-glass clear. So Sironn reached a hesitant hand forward, and dragged his fingers lightly over the cleft between Eshan's asscheeks.

"Yes, oh, please," Eshan babbled, and Sironn still couldn't—he couldn't believe that Eshan really would want—

"Please what?" Sironn asked, hoping his false sweetness masked his real concern. "Do be explicit."

Eshan made a wordless noise of frustration, before biting out, "Take me, damn you! I want to feel you." A moment later, he repeated a plaintive, "Please."

Sironn was struck dumb by the trust he was being offered. Careless trust, the kind that only came from being unaware of how badly things could go wrong. Sironn was poisoned with its opposite, the wary certainty that there were teeth behind every smile. But…knowing the pain meant he also knew how to avoid it. He could give this to Eshan. He could make it a beautiful thing.

Eshan, clearly not understanding Sironn's hesitation, grit his teeth and growled, "I don't know how much clearer I can be!"

"Of course, Eshan," Sironn said, putting as much warmth into the name as he knew how. "I'll find the oil."

Sironn fingered Eshan open slowly. The promise of action did nothing to still Eshan's desperation. He gave pleased little bitten-back moans and whimpers as Sironn breached him. Sironn felt something sacred as he watched his fingers vanish inside Eshan, as he stroked and moved and drew out Eshan's desire.

Eshan's arms were starting to tremble with the effort of not moving. But he stayed there, splayed and obedient, begging for more of Sironn's fingers.

"You're so beautiful," Sironn breathed. "So steady, so strong. I'm going to take you, Eshan. You're giving yourself to me and I'm going to take it."

"Please," Eshan said. "I want it. I want you." After another shaky breath, Eshan continued, "I beg you—"

"Don't worry," Sironn reassured him, smoothing his thumb over the curve in Eshan's hip as he pulled his other hand out. "You'll get me. Right now."

Sironn unlaced his trousers as swiftly as he could, and slathered oil over his own neglected cock. Not that it was suffering for being neglected—Eshan's obvious pleasure had burned through Sironn as well. With only a few rushed strokes, Sironn was ready. He lined himself up and slowly, carefully, pushed in.

It was the first time he'd ever felt anything this—tight, slick heat around him, welcoming him in, inviting him to take his pleasure. And to be gifted the experience here, here, with his king, with the man who should have killed him. Eshan could have stripped away everything Sironn had been, and instead he had stripped down himself to offer Sironn everything.

"You feel so good," Sironn whispered. "You're perfect."

"Oh, gods, you—you feel—"

Sironn didn't let him finish that sentence, driving into Eshan with a quick snap of his hips. Sironn pulled out and thrust in again, hard. He wanted to claim Eshan. Maybe he was too careful to lay a bruise on Eshan's skin, but he would mark his mind. He would fuck Eshan so hard that Eshan would never forget him.

"Yes, that, more…" Eshan writhed against the comforter, his hands still fixed against the headboard.

Eshan was greedy for him, his hips twitching to meet every thrust, ragged gasps and senseless begging coming from his throat. Nobody had ever wanted Sironn, but now Eshan was moaning as if he were starving and Sironn was the only food that would satisfy. But despite his hunger, he was holding himself so perfectly open, because he wanted to be good, he wanted to be good for Sironn.

Sironn babbled in return, "I'll give you more. I'll give you everything." He hiked Eshan's leg up and over his shoulder, changing the angle, stretching Eshan out even wider, and sinking in even deeper. He snapped his hips forward, pressing in, in, holding that massive thigh and really fucking Eshan. His lord, his king, his to please, his to claim.

Sironn came all in a rush, Eshan's tight heat too perfect to resist any longer. He let his hand fall down on Eshan's cock, and one firm stoke along its length was all it took for Eshan to come spilling after.

After a long moment spent basking in the shivering pleasure of the orgasm, Sironn gently eased himself out. He carefully settled Eshan's leg back against the bed and patted the thigh affectionately before looking up the length of Eshan's body.

To his dismay, he saw that Eshan was trembling, his fingertips still pressed against the bedframe, pressing hard enough that the beds of his nails were a ghostly white.

"You can move!" Sironn blurted out, inelegantly, reaching up to hook an index finger over the top of Eshan's bicep, tugging down.

Eshan curled his arms down to his chest, holding them tight, his eyes squeezed shut.

"Did I hurt you?" Sironn asked, horror creeping up the back of his throat, chasing the easy lassitude out of his limbs. "Eshan, are you—?"

"No," Eshan gasped. "Sironn, you were—" He reached for Sironn, an abortive little gesture, before pulling his arm away again.

"Oh, sweet man," Sironn breathed, once he understood what the problem was. "You can touch me."

Eshan looked up at him, big brown eyes still wary. "I don't want to hurt…"

"You won't," Sironn reassured him. "I—here. Let's just…" Sironn slid so his lap was next to Eshann's head.

He looked down and had the slightly horrified realization that he was still clad in his plain lounge clothes. Mortifyingly inelegant. But Eshan was already moving to lay his head in Sironn's lap, so Sironn let that go for the moment, in favor of stroking Eshan's hair.

The trembles that moved through his body gradually stilled. Eshan stayed pressed against Sironn's hip, relaxing slowly.

"Are you doing alright?" Sironn asked, once Eshan seemed calm again.

Eshan rolled to his back, looking up at Sironn. Sironn gently brushed Eshan's hair away from his eyes as Eshan responded, "Yes, forgive me, I simply—" Eshan shivered again. "You were magnificent. I find myself unexpectedly overwrought."

"I take that as a compliment, never fear," Sironn said, scratching his nails lightly against the top of Eshan's scalp. Eshan gave a happy groan and a lopsided smile. Sironn found it entirely unfair, how adorable Eshan was able to look. "Though, I must admit, I can't believe you let me fuck you wearing this."

Eshan blinked at him, confused. Sironn gestured to his unremarkable linen tunic. Eshan shrugged, his shoulders pressing against Sironn's thigh. "You could wear a vegetable sack. What does it matter?"

"Well," Sironn shifted, feeling an uneasy embarrassment creep up the back of his neck. "I was rather invested in getting you naked."

Eshan smiled, and reached up, stroking a hand over Sironn's cheek. "I didn't want you naked. I wanted you comfortable. And touching me."

"Well, I certainly did a lot of the latter." Sironn paused, before admitting, "And I felt the former."

"Then all is well," Eshan said, dropping his hand and shifting so he could cuddle a little closer. "In truth, you undid me so thoroughly I had no idea what you were wearing."

"Yes, well," Sironn looked down at his shirt, and found he had to admit, "You were not the only one who was distracted. I never had time to become self-conscious."

Eshan flashed Sironn a pleased smile. "Good."

The smile washed over Sironn and he knew with sudden, blinding certainty that he wanted to get his clothes off, that he wanted Eshan to be able to touch him with no barriers between them. "Lift up a second, would you?"

Trying to act as if nothing of significance was happening (for himself, as much as for Eshan) Sironn shifted out from under Eshan and quickly stripped out of his clothes. He sat back next to Eshan's head again, nude and feeling horribly vulnerable. "There," Sironn said, hoping Eshan didn't hear the tremble in his voice. "Isn't that better?"

"Mm," Eshan said, noncommittally, hand reaching out again to rest against Sironn's knee, his thumb caressing Sironn's kneecap.

"Really?" Sironn huffed. His body was the only thing that had ever won him any praise at all. "I know I'm nearing thirty-seven, but most courtiers still count me as a beauty. And all the appreciation I get is, 'Mm?'"

Eshan ducked his head. "I did warn you I was no wit. I…I think you are very pleasant to behold," he managed, stiffly.

Sironn raised an eyebrow. "No diplomat, either. Well, if you find me so unremarkable, I can put the clothes back on, if you'd rather." Right about now, Sironn would rather. Very pleasant to behold, indeed. After all that?

Eshan sat up, his words a little too tight and a little too fast as he said, "Don't mistake me. Your beauty is obvious. But—" Eshan seemed to choke on the words, looking away from Sironn as he continued, low and rough, "I know it's why he picked you. He wanted an accessory that suited his tastes."

Sironn went cold at the sudden summoning of his tormentor into their bed. He felt the ghost of Rishard's uncaring hand along his skin, prodding at every wrinkle as it formed, felt the churning terror of wondering what happened the day Rishard decided he needed a younger…how had Eshan put it? Accessory. Object.

There was a reason Sironn had always been vain about his looks. Self-defense.

"And it's idiotic!" Eshan snapped, and Sironn flinched at the sudden anger. "I've known you for a scarce handful of moments and already—I see you."

Eshan gentled, and looked over at Sironn with a face so full of care that Sironn's fear vanished, and all Sironn's indignation made a good attempt at trying to go with it. Sironn had to hang on to what was left deliberately, and remind himself he was not going to be wooed by a kind expression.

"He saw me too. He just didn't like what he saw," Sironn said, his chin lifted high.

"Then he is more the idiot than I had ever imagined. You are clever and charming and full of wit. You are gracious and kind and utterly captivating. Alluring. And yes, you are—are beautiful. But that is the only part of you he appreciated, and I—I do not wish to be like him."

The rest of Sironn's indignation took its leave, and he did not try to hold to it any longer. "It's true," Sironn said gently, "that my beauty did me few favors. I appreciate you seeing that, you impossibly perfect man."

Eshan snorted. "No perfection here. Only an unfortunate honesty."

"Not so unfortunate. But, you know, you cannot live by avoiding being anything he was. For all his monstrosities, he was king. You must rule as well. In some ways, be different. In others, be better."

"Wise words." Eshan shook his head. "But I would rather not think on them right now. I will have the rest of my life to dwell on that. In this moment, I only want to be with you."

"Who says that guidance doesn't apply to this moment, too?" Sironn asked with a little smile. He took a breath, and slid closer, next to Eshan's sitting form, and gently draped himself against Eshan's side, bearing them both down to the bed. "I see no reason you cannot admire my grace and my wit and my charm, and also appreciate the fact that I am absolutely gorgeous. I've probably only got a few years left I can say that, so I want the adoration while it is still honest."

He did not say the rest of it. That Rishard had used his beauty, not appreciated it. That Sironn wanted Eshan's earnest honesty pointed at the whole of him, without stumbling blocks.

Eshan laughed a little. "You do yourself a disservice. Your beauty does not trade on age. You are like onyx. There is a depth to your allure. The passing of years is only the polish that makes you shine. In ten years, twenty, thirty, forty, you will still be utterly, maddeningly, beautiful." As he spoke, Eshan brought his hands up and wrapped Sironn up in his strong embrace, one hand stroking from Sironn's shoulder, to ribs, to the curve of his ass.

Sironn purred and relaxed into the hold. "Now which of us is the poet? I do not think I will ever grow tired of you praising me."

"Then I'd better do it while I can," Eshan said, a little sorrow in his voice, as his hands stayed steady and gentle against Sironn's skin.

"Your Majesty," Sironn started slowly, tasting each word to be certain he wanted to say it, "do you remember when I came to play at the royal estate when I was but a young boy of twelve?" Sironn started talking faster, as certainty drove the words out. "Your brother was too old for our games, but despite the age difference—oh, you would have been seven or so—we grew a fast friendship?"

"...no?" Eshan said, his hands stilling.

"Of course you don't, it never happened, do keep up," Sironn said, waving a hand vaguely as he shifted to pillow himself more squarely across Eshan's broad chest. "We were inseparable, we wrote each other letters, I came back to visit a few more times. We roamed through the orchards for hours on end, boys at play. I had even thought—oh, as we grew older, perhaps a match could be made. You, of course, cared for me with the full force of childhood adoration."

"Of course," Eshan said tolerantly. "Where is this going?"

"Such a shame, of course, that just as you left for knighthood, Rishard took an interest in me. And my family…as good a match as the young prince would have been, the king was obviously the greater choice. And I understood my duty. We broke things off, not that there ever was anything other childhood puppy love and a wish for something more."

"I'm growing quite sad with this tale," Eshan said. He hugged Sironn a little tighter, and Sironn had to wonder if he even realized he was doing it.

"And so will the courtiers, when we tell them this story. And in the depths of those pathos, we will announce that when you came to see me, for the first time in thirteen years, you found yourself unable to kill me. So you offered me an honorable exile, instead."

"Sironn," Eshan said, his hands stilling. "Must we talk about this now?"

Sironn pushed himself up, still across Eshan's chest but now looking down at him, able to see his full face clearly. "But then, we sat, and we talked, and we found that our childhood love had not faded, despite our best efforts and our many years apart. You could not bear to exile me as you'd planned. And I could not bear to go. So you made an offer of marriage and I accepted, and we both plan on being blissfully happy, for however many years are left to us."

"Sironn." Eshan swallowed, something like a cautious hope flitting across his face. "I—do you mean…?"

"Unless you've rethought your marriage offer," Sironn said with a small smile.

"No!" Eshan said quickly. He pushed himself up a little, looking at Sironn intently. "But you…"

Sironn reached out a hand and cupped it along Eshan's cheek. "If your offer still stands, I've changed my answer. I've decided I want rather more from you than one night."

Eshan's face grew worried lines, as his hand came up in a mirror to Sironn's, his thumb tracing reverently along Sironn's lips. "But…your little estate. Your peace."

Sironn gave a careless shrug. "My odds of survival do go up, married to you. And besides, you will not be an idle king. I'm certain you will go out on campaign. Perhaps I will retreat to an estate then. But someone needs to work on keeping you alive while you're here. You are a soldier, but you do not understand the subtle battlefields of the court."

"And you are an expert at surviving it," Eshan said, his eyes tracing over Sironn wondrously. "But you…you would really give that future up for me?"

"I expect," Sironn said, looking away from that gaze so he could pretend he didn't care so much about what he was putting into words, "that a life spent with you will be superior even to an estate filled with books and paper."

Sironn wasn't sure if he was betraying the young poet he once had been, or if he was fulfilling every dream of the young romantic. It was true, though, so it deserved to be said.

"Oh, Sironn," Eshan gasped, and pulled him into a kiss. Eshan cradled his head and kissed him like he was precious, like he was someone Eshan planned to cherish.

Sironn was starting to believe that Eshan might spend his life doing exactly that. Eshan was turning him into an optimist. He needed to find some cynicism again, and fast, or he was going to become unbearably saccharine.

Eshan pulled away, still cradling Sironn's head between his hands. "I will build you a library," Eshan promised. "I will give you enough paper and ink to fill it with your own words."

It was too good a future to imagine. His past self—the poet and the romantic alike—sang with joy. His present self was too damaged to accept it so easily. Sironn's eyes fell shut, and he felt hot tears leak out of them.

"And sometimes," Eshan continued, apparently not yet content with his picture of perfection, "perhaps you'll let me come and sit at your feet and hear your stories."

Sironn gave a wet laugh, and a fresh spill of tears escaped his eyes. "I'm not even that good of a poet."

"I won't know the difference. I'll love the words because they're yours."

Sironn pulled away from Eshan's embrace. It was too much intimacy, too much sincerity. He needed some air. Eshan let him go, turning a little to curl toward Sironn. There was no injury in his expression, just patient devotion, and Sironn was struck with the dizzying realization that he loved Eshan.

It was too soon for love. It couldn't be anything more than a coltish, bolting thing, all spindly limbs and awkwardness and unbridled emotions at the promise of books. But Sironn thought it had a good chance of maturing. He and Eshan were stubborn, each in their own way. They would respect each other and be careful with each other and gradually, this love would grow into something with stamina, something that could last a lifetime.

Sironn just wasn't ready to name it, quite yet.

"I'll not become a recluse," he promised instead. "I'm going to show up at every court event at your side. We are going to be so sickeningly happy with each other that they'll know better than to protest you bringing me to all the important little meetings that you have. And when I have all the information, I'll use every bit of diplomacy and knowledge and wit I have to secure your throne."

"I'm more concerned about our kingdom than my throne," Eshan corrected, his words somber, but his smile growing wider with every promise Sironn made. "I would more than welcome your presence. The court is a nest of vipers, and I'm never sure what exactly will strike."

Sironn tilted his head to the side. "You look after the kingdom. Be that good, honorable man you are. And I'll manage the viper's nest. Make sure you stay on the throne long enough to actually make some change."

Eshan shook his head slightly, capturing Sironn's hand and laying a kiss along the back of it, as if they were courting quietly in a garden, instead of lounging about naked in Sironn's royal apartments. "I accept your terms, dear one. Now, if I promise to restrain myself from maudlin displays of affection, will you tuck yourself back between the sheets with me? I'd like to hold you again."

"You know, at some point the guards are going to wonder if I've slit your throat," Sironn said, picking his way back over. "We're going to cause quite the scandal when they walk in to find us naked and postcoital."

"Mm, if it hasn't happened already," Eshan said, winding his arms around Sironn and pulling him down onto Eshan's chest. "I was certainly in no state to notice if someone stuck their head in."

"Oh gods above, below, and around, what a picture that would have made," Sironn said, unable to quite stop the little flutter of pride at the idea of someone seeing Eshan spread out and begging for him. "Best hope they're discreet."

"Let the palace talk." Eshan said, maneuvering them so Sironn was tucked against his neck, safe in Eshan's protective arms. "They'll be talking soon enough. I plan on being intemperately devoted to you."

"They're going to think I am a master manipulator, to not only escape death but secure my pincedom a second time." Sironn wiggled in Eshan's hold, throwing a leg over his thigh to further tangle them together. "I suppose I'll have no choice but to show devotion in return, to still the worst of the rumors."

"I can handle rumors. Don't feel obliged to—"

"Shush," Sironn said, cutting him off. "Also because you are too wonderful for words, and I don't think I'll be able to help myself."

Eshan swallowed, and his hand along Sironn's hip tightened. "That's a better reason."

"You should know sincerity is not an easy gift for me. I envy how simply it flows from you." Sironn drummed his fingers against Eshan's side. "I've spent thirteen years building a barricade around my heart. You and your earnestness have breached it over the course of an evening."

"I'll be careful with what's within," Eshan promised. "I simply ask that you do the same. I've spent thirteen years building my own walls. It was simpler to be alone, rather than give Rishard an easy target."

"Hang the man," Sironn decided. "He didn't kill either of us, and he won't keep us from love. He is formally disinvited from the space between us. I'll be careful with you, you do the same with me. We will trust each other, and we will be happy."

"Love?" Eshan asked, after a moment.

"A fine revenge," Sironn said, to cover the accidental sentiment.

"A fine life," Eshan countered. He really seemed to be unable to help his earnestness. It was a good thing Sironn found it endearing.

"I suppose that, too," Sironn agreed, and pressed himself even closer to his future husband. "Come now, let’s sleep. We'll have a busy day of scandalizing courtiers in the morning, as we gaze longingly at each other and plan an indecently fast wedding."

"I look forward to it," Eshan said, full of promise, full of joy.