It was late afternoon by the time the two riders crested the hills overlooking Tulas Hold. They had been travelling light and both were eagerly looking forward to a proper hot meal and the chance to wash the dust of the roads off their skin, yet at least one of them was even more anxious to reach their destination for more personal reasons. Silchas Ruin twisted in the saddle to look at his companion, who smiled wryly in return.
“Fret not, my impatient friend,” Captain Scara Bandaris said. “He’ll be happy to see us whether we arrive now or five hours from now.”
“Let us hope it doesn’t take us five hours to descend this hill,” Silchas replied, equally wry but unable to keep the anticipation from his voice. Without waiting for a response, he nudged his horse into motion again.
The guardhouse at the gates was modest, as were the barracks some distance to the left; newly elevated to the ranks of the nobility, Kagamandra Tulas had clearly not made much of an effort to amass houseblades to match his new peers. For some reason, Silchas found this oddly endearing, if a little frustrating; poor Kagamandra clearly had trouble adjusting to his new social status. Who knew, he might even blame Silchas for landing him in this situation; it was, after all, as a reward for saving Silchas’ life that he had been elevated to nobility.
A castellan with ‘ex-Legion’ practically painted all over him admitted the two newcomers with reasonably good grace. The master of the house was out riding, the man said as he led the guests to a room where servants brought water and clean towels to freshen up with; he would be back for dinner if the guests were willing to wait.
Left alone again, Silchas and Scara looked at each other. “Out riding, he says,” Scara muttered, bemused.
Silchas shook his head slowly. “Patrolling the borders.”
“Against what enemy, I wonder,” Scara mused idly.
A rueful smile tugged at the corners of Silchas’ mouth. “He builds tall the walls around his heart and guards them well.”
Kagamandra Tulas had not been expecting guests. When, upon his return, the castellan announced that Silchas Ruin himself had arrived in the company of Scara Bandaris, his first instinct was to turn right around and head back to the hills. This, however, was not an option; all he could do was get ready for dinner and brace himself for whatever new social obligations the visit might entail.
Silchas and Scara were already in the dining hall when Kagamandra entered. Despite his misgivings, he found that it was good to see both of them, two of the increasingly few people he might consider his friends. Seating himself at the head of the table, he spoke. “Please forgive me for not being here to welcome you,” he said. “I did not know to expect you. What brings you here?”
“Merely a social call, I assure you,” Silchas replied, Scara nodding his agreement. “We wanted to see how you’re settling in.”
“Well enough, friend,” Kagamandra said when Silchas seemed to be expecting a response, though he feared that his answer was unconvincing. “Well enough.”
“That is good to hear.” Silchas’ smile was genuine though there was worry in his eyes; he was a perceptive man, but courteous enough to take the older man’s words at face value. “It also occurs to me,” he went on, “that I never had the chance to thank you properly.”
Kagamandra must have looked startled, because Scara laughed out loud before he caught himself, and even Silchas chuckled. “Please,” Kagamandra said, “none of that is necessary. It was my duty as a soldier—”
“You’ll forgive me if I happen to place a rather high value on my life,” Silchas interrupted gently.
“You’ll not change his mind, sir,” Scara said with an almost mischievous grin. “Just accept the gratitude and be done with it.”
Silchas shook his head with a grimace. “You make me sound like a right nuisance.”
Scara shrugged. “I wouldn’t say ‘nuisance’, just stubborn.”
Kagamandra looked at the two friends and felt a knot of anxiety he hadn’t even been aware of loosen in his chest. “Very well, Captain,” he said. Mustering up a wry smile, he turned to Silchas. “I accept your thanks, most graciously, and bid you have more wine. You too, Scara, and that’s an order.”
Laughing, Scara reached for the carafe and refilled all their glasses.
They sat late into the night, talking and laughing. Truthfully it was Silchas and Scara who did most of both — the talking and laughing — but Kagamandra was able to relax while listening to them, and that was all they could have hoped for. It was partly the easy mood, partly the wine, that finally made Silchas lapse in his judgement and broach a topic that should have been better left alone.
“I hear there’s talk of a marriage…” He knew immediately that the words had been a mistake; Kagamandra’s expression closed up and he grew visibly tense.
“Faror Hend,” the older man replied, his voice heavy as though the mere thought of her drained his strength. “Cousin to the Duravs. A fine family, though now of lesser status than mine. The union will be as valuable for them as…” He didn’t finish the sentence.
It made Silchas’ heart ache to see his friend so defeated. An honourable man, Kagamandra Tulas would have rejected thoughts of marriage had it been deemed only for his benefit; he would not have bound any woman to a broken man such as he perceived himself. But when the potential marriage offered as much if not more to the family of his prospective bride, that very same honour forbade him to decline, and so he was trapped as surely as Faror Hend.
Silchas set his goblet aside and stood, slightly unsteady from the wine, and crossed over to where Kagamandra was sitting and knelt beside his chair. His hand found Kagamandra’s as he looked up to the other man, who seemed slightly bewildered by the contact. “Forgive me,” Silchas said, “I was not thinking.”
Kagamandra shook his head. “No, there is nothing to forgive. If anyone is to blame for ruining the mood, it is I.” He twitched as though to withdraw his hand, but decided against it and instead just leaned his head back and closed his eyes briefly. “Please, my lord, get up.”
Scara, watching the scene, chuckled. “Sir, you have Silchas Ruin kneeling for you. Are you sure you wouldn’t reconsider?” He flashed a grin that bordered on lewd. “Can’t say that I’d object to such a sight myself.”
Silchas shot him an amused look. “We can get to that later.”
Kagamandra fixed them both with an incredulous frown. “If this is a jest, gentlemen…”
“No jest,” Silchas hurried to assure him. Kagamandra looked confused but didn’t flinch when Silchas placed his other hand on his thigh. Silchas darted another look towards Scara, who nodded and came to stand next to his friend. “If you’ll let us,” Silchas continued, “we would be honoured to help you take your mind off the future for a while… For, say, one night.”
Next to him, Scara nodded emphatically. “You can trust us, sir.”
Something that might have been either desire or desperation or both shifted in the depth of Kagamandra’s eyes and he drew a sharp breath… and nodded. “I trust you,” he said, so quietly it was barely audible. He stood and drew Silchas to his feet as well, and it was impossible to tell who initiated the embrace or whether Silchas simply fell into the other man’s arms; all he knew was that it felt as inevitable as the turning of seasons, and as right.
Then Scara laid a hand on Silchas’ shoulder. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it properly,” he said, and then, directing his next words to Kagamandra, “Would you be so kind, sir, as to show the way to the bedroom?”
Dawn arrived grey and dreary, and if not for the fact that he wasn’t alone in his bed, Kagamandra would have been inclined to believe that the past night had been but a dream. On his left lay Scara Bandaris, a sheet haphazardly covering his body from the waist down, one arm flung over his face. On his right lay Silchas Ruin, completely uncovered and so beautiful he hardly seemed real. Kagamandra remembered being held by Silchas while Scara took him in mouth. Many other details of the night blurred and blended into each other, but that scene remained clear: Silchas’ lithe body against his, the young lord’s breath on his neck; Scara’s hands and mouth around his cock; the incredible tenderness of both their attentions as though they thought he needed to be handled carefully lest he break.
He was ashamed to admit that the thought was not as ridiculous as it should have been. The affection shown by Silchas and Scara had stripped him of something more than his clothes and he knew that thing would not be as easy to don again as his garments. He felt brittle and wanted to hide, unsure how to move on from here.
As he watched, Silchas’ eyes fluttered open and he met Kagamandra’s gaze steadily. “No regrets, I hope?”
“None,” Kagamandra replied without hesitation. And it was true; he would make the same decisions again, even knowing the vulnerability such surrender would invite.
Silchas smiled and rolled over to his side, to face Kagamandra. “I’m glad to hear that.”
“But you won’t be staying long,” Kagamandra said, not a question but half hoping he was wrong.
“Unfortunately, no,” Silchas replied. “I must head back to Kharkanas.” He chuckled wryly. “I probably should never have left, but Anomander and Andarist have things well in hand, they could do without me for a few days.”
“You told them where you were going?”
“Not in so much detail,” Silchas said, “but I am sure Anomander figured out the general idea. He… sees things.” He was silent for a moment. “Does this bother you?”
Kagamandra thought about it. “If someone has to know, I suppose I’d rather it be the First Son of Darkness than someone else who might be less discreet,” he said at length, earning a delighted laugh, and he had to smile in return. “Well, give him my regards.”
“Thank you, I shall.”
It was not long, then, until Scara woke up as well — or perhaps he had been awake all that time and had merely remained silent out of courtesy — and the three had to get dressed for breakfast. There was not much conversation and the little that took place was mostly light and inconsequential. After the meal, Scara announced that it was time to leave.
“Would you—” Silchas began, but Scara cut him off before he could finish the question.
“Absolutely,” he said with an easy grin. “I’ll see the horses saddled and wait for you in the courtyard.”
Left alone with their host, Silchas looked at Kagamandra for a moment before closing the distance between them. The other man met him halfway, closing him in a fierce embrace.
“I know you can’t stay,” Kagamandra whispered, “and I wouldn’t ask you to. Am I a fool for wanting it anyway?”
Silchas laughed. “If so, that makes two of us.”
Kagamandra closed his eyes and let himself lean against Silchas, as though drawing strength from the younger man’s solid presence. Silchas wished with all his heart that such strength was his to give. Before too long, Kagamandra sighed and detached himself from the other man. Placing his hands on Silchas’ shoulders, looking him in the eye, he spoke. “Thank you. For everything.”
“It was our pleasure,” Silchas replied. Then he added, with a mischievous smirk, “Literally.”
Kagamandra shook his head but couldn’t help a smile. “You should go. Scara is waiting.”
On top of the hill overlooking Tulas Hold, two riders paused to look back for a moment. This time they were headed away from the Hold, back towards Kharkanas, and the mood was less anticipatory and almost solemn. Scara Bandaris watched his companion, making no move to hurry him along, and it was but a short time later that Silchas Ruin turned his back to the view and nudged his horse along the road in the other direction. Scara followed.
“The next time you see him, he could be a married man,” Scara said.
“Not likely,” Silchas replied. “Betrothals like that take time. Faror Hend may not be any more eager to enter the wedded life than our dear Kagamandra.”
Scara nodded. “That’s possible.”
“Besides,” Silchas went on, but then changed his mind and grimaced. “It matters not. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d rather talk about something else.”
“Please, Scara,” Silchas interrupted him. “I’ll be fine. And I’ll do anything within my power to make sure he’ll be fine as well. But right now I would appreciate it if you could kindly shut up.” He smiled to take the edge off the words, to show that he was not entirely serious, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.
Scara reached over to pat his arm gently, and they rode on in silence.
It was going to be a long ride to Kharkanas.