Faros traced his fingers down the long scar, the ugliness failing to mar the inherent beauty of the sleeping face. He had no fear that he would disturb Catos. The younger man was deep in an exhausted sleep; his head had rolled sideways, and his breath was a gentle wafting of air against Faros’s heated skin. Faros shifted slightly, his movement resisted by the friction of their mingled sweat. Soon he would have to peel himself away, fetch a towel or cloth, whatever came to hand, and wipe away the evidence of their loving. For now, he absorbed the well-known features in minute detail, reminded of his vigil at Catos’s side as he lay in a fever. The news of the injuries had wrenched him from his carefully nurtured denial, had winded him as though a great weight had slammed into his chest, and had sent him hurtling to the Khand border in complete disregard of his own safety or his horse’s well-being. Yanos was right: he was a fool; a fool not to have recognised what Catos was to him, and a fool to have believed the lies. Catos had a lot to forgive him for, and the accusation, ‘How could you even think...?’ hung on the air. Faros wondered that himself, but he had seen the easy sexual camaraderie between the men in the cavalry, and the malicious fabrication had been all too easy to believe. Who would not desire this man? He traced a finger along the curve of black eyebrow, and was drawn again to the presence of the scar.

And I was a coward!

Faros admitted the hard truth - he had fled from his memories of pain, of loss. To give one’s heart into the keeping of another was to invite heartbreak. The long scar stood proud, the skin around it puckered; it would take time to contract into a narrow white line - if the time were granted, if Catos’s luck held out.

As a senior officer, would he be in more or less jeopardy than before? Faros didn’t know, but he did know he would die a little each time Catos returned to active duty. He sighed, and levered himself up. The cloth that had fallen unheeded from Catos’s loins would do. He stretched for it, caught the end, and knelt over Catos to wipe away their come, caressing as much as cleansing. The sight of Catos sprawled on his bed, loose-limbed and naked, was very arousing. He wiped himself, tugging slightly at his cock, and shivered in anticipation of Catos’s hand on him. The cloth sailed through the air to land in a basket of dirty laundry, and Faros debated whether to ring for some hot water. He had just decided to leave that for now, had instead settled into a careful examination of the scars over Catos’s arm, chest and leg, when there was a soft knock at the door. It was a knock that did not wish to intrude, a knock that acknowledged it might receive no answer.

Faros eased away from Catos, threw a light sheet over him, and pulled on the robe that Catos had worn. He opened the door just a little.

‘Rufos!’ He stood back, inviting entry, surprised to see his steward, and especially surprised to see that he carried a tray laden with a large jug of hot water, a wide bowl, soap and shaving gear. A towel was hung over one forearm. Faros did not miss the glance towards the bed as his friend entered, but he trusted Rufos. Gossip would not be slow in linking his name to his former ward’s, but he had every confidence that Rufos would not be the source, and there was little point in being less than honest now.

Rufos set the tray down, and pulled the towel from his arm with a flourish. He did not even try to avoid the issue. ‘I’m glad to see that Catos has finally made you see sense.’

‘And what’s that suppose to mean?’

‘Only that Catos has wanted you to bed him for a long time.’ Rufos concentrated on pouring water into the bowl, but he looked straight at Faros for his next comment, pinning him with his gaze. ‘And he wants more than just bedding, you do know that, don’t you, Faros?’

Faros met the gaze. ‘Yes, Rufos. He has my heart, does that satisfy you? What are you doing here anyway?’ He waved a hand at the tray. ‘Playing servant like this?’

‘The talk in the household is already full of speculation. I thought I would keep them guessing.’

‘And you wanted to see for yourself.’ Faros suppressed a smile, but not soon enough to be convincing in his attempt at disapproval.

Rufos set down the jug and laughed. ‘Yes, of course. And I do have a message for you from the palace.’ His expression stilled into more sober lines, and he cleared his throat. ‘For my part, I’m glad you’ve come to your senses, my friend. I’ve often thought that Patros would have been saddened by your mourning him for so long.’

Faros sat down suddenly on the side of the bed and looked miserably at his hands. ‘I feel... I feel as though I’m betraying his memory.’

Rufos came and squatted in front of him. ‘He would be happy that you have found love again.’

Faros looked up enough to meet Rufos’s eyes. ‘Do you think so?’

‘I know so.’ A firm statement that brooked no argument, a reminder of their shared experience as slaves. ‘You do him a disservice if you believe otherwise.’

‘Thank you. You comfort me a little, but our small friend, Tolmos Aquilmos, would have followed his love into death.’

Rufos shrugged. ‘He is a northern barbarian; he knows no better.’

That roused Faros. He pushed up onto his feet, glaring at Rufos. ‘The Gondorians are not barbarians!’

Rufos was in no way intimidated. He followed Faros in standing. ‘But Aquilmos comes from even further north, yes? If the tales are true.’ He pulled out a straight backed chair - an invitation to sit - and picked up a tortoiseshell comb. ‘Let me be your manservant, since I’m here.’

‘There is no need -’

‘No, there isn’t, but I would like to do you this service. Now sit down.’

A little adjustment was needed in Faros’s opinion. He shifted the chair so that it was facing the bed before seating himself to let Rufos comb and braid his hair. He winced as the comb caught on a tangled knot. That must be where Catos’s fingers had twined so desperately. He looked at the sleeping face, and felt a warm rush of love to banish all his doubts. Their simple loving had been a promise, a commitment. That it had also been a rebirth was a source of wonder to Faros. He sat in silence for a while, absorbed in his study of Catos asleep. The steady flow of the tines of the comb through his hair and the deft fingers braiding in the gold thread were very soothing, but Tolm still needed defending.

‘He comes from a simple, pastoral folk.’

‘What? Oh, you mean Aquilmos. Do his people really live in holes in the ground?’

Faros knew the answer to that; he had often questioned his small friend about his Shi-er. ‘Only the very rich and the very poor. Tolm is connected to all the important families, and Barard’s brother is something like a king, from what I can gather. They have huge delvings, but no cities.’

‘Forgive me, but that doesn’t sound very civilised.’

‘Cities are places of fortification, of defence, but also of threat; they are about power, Rufos. Harflings do not make war or even threaten it. That seems very civilised to me.’ He shut up, knowing he was being too earnest about this, and also knowing that Rufos was deliberately distracting his thoughts away from Patros.

Rufos rubbed oil over harsh stubble and began scraping both off together, effectively preventing all response to his next comment. ‘Ah, the Peacemaker talking. Now, if you could just persuade the Khand to stop harbouring our enemies, we wouldn’t have to worry about Catos coming to grief, would we?’

Faros’s thoughts were catapulted from Halflings, their strange ways and customs, back to his fears for Catos’s safety. Rufos knew him too well, knew the exact fulcrum point to apply a lever, although sometimes the force he applied was ill-judged, excessive. Faros closed his eyes and fought to control his feelings. He let Rufos finish the task of shaving, and only opened his eyes again as Rufos wiped the last trace of oil from his face. The sting of orange water applied as an astringent was welcome.

‘What was the message from the palace?’ He stood, looking anywhere but directly at Rufos; he hadn’t meant to sound so cold, but more talking would bring him to the point where he couldn’t control his voice.

‘Faros! I’m sorry!’

‘The message?’

‘Sûlos requests the company of yourself and Lord Catos at the palace for the noonday meal.’

‘Thank you.’ It was a dismissal. The quicker Rufos left now the better. He flinched away from Rufos’s hand laid on his shoulder, and Rufos sighed.

‘I do mean “I’m sorry.” It was not my intention to cause you pain. Would you not rather I stayed?’

Faros shook his head. He waited until his friend was almost out of the door before he spoke again, repeating his last words more softly. ‘Thank you, Rufos. I do mean that, as well.’

Rufos paused on the threshold. ‘You worry too much. He’ll be fine.’

Faros had trouble holding the mask until the door had shut. He sagged down onto the foot of the bed and buried his face in his hands. His fears for Catos were bound up with past loss. He stood again in the Cartwright’s Inn, asking the innkeeper if he had seen Patros.

‘No, I haven’t seen him for a week, maybe longer. You’ve not been around, for that matter.’ The innkeeper looked at Faros critically. ‘River fever?’

Faros nodded. It was a fair guess, given that the fever had been sweeping through the city in the aftermath of the rains. He knew he looked awful, and the mother had not wanted to let him out, but he was desperate to find Patros. He turned away before the innkeeper could deliver a long monologue of comment and speculation about the fever that appeared every few years to take its toll on the sick and the elderly. What to do next? The inn had been the last place to look. Patros was always free around this time, so where was he? The sickening answer was that he had also been struck down by the fever. Faros would have run if he hadn’t felt so weakened by his own illness. He stumbled down towards the market.

‘Faros! Wait!’ Rufos came panting up to his side. ‘How are you? Shit, you look terrible!’

‘I’m... have you seen Patros?’

‘No, I haven’t. Hey! Where are you going?’

‘To his house.’

‘Faros! Come back! You can’t do that!’ Faros ignored him, and took the way that led to the most affluent part of the city. His master might have pretensions of grandeur, but Patros’s master really was very rich. ‘Faros! Wait!’

Faros spared Rufos a glance as he caught up. ‘Don’t try to stop me.’

‘I’m coming with you.’

Faros shrugged and kept walking, but he was glad of his friend’s company. Gradually the bustle of the city died away as they walked down a wide street between high walls. Gnarled lemon trees overhung the way, the lemons bright against the green foliage, and lizards scuttled between the red stones. Rufos looked about him, but Faros had seen it all before; when he first discovered he was in love, he would come here just to be nearer to Patros, despite the fact he risked arrest if found loitering for no good reason. With time, he had learnt to live between each encounter without such recklessness, but now he didn’t care what happened, as long as he got news of Patros. He stopped before a tall gate and peered through the iron bars at the extensive grounds, the lake, and the white house beyond. There! That was what he had been hoping for! A slave worked in the garden, raking the gravel paths after the recent rains to discourage weeds. Faros put his hand on the gate catch and eased it up.

‘You can’t go in there!’ hissed Rufos

‘Yes, I can. I’ve got to know. If he’s ill maybe I can persuade the mother to let me see him.’

‘What! You’re mad! You’ll be arrested!’

‘Just stay out of sight.’ The last thing Faros wanted was for Rufos to get into trouble. He pushed the gate open and slipped into the garden. It was a pity that the layout was so open. He’d just have to appear as though he had some right to be there; to appear furtive would be to invite disaster. He walked with eyes downcast, aware even so that the gardener had straightened and was leaning on his rake.

‘What business have you here?’ The tone was neutral, seeking information rather than challenging Faros’s right to be in the garden. Faros glanced around; slave etiquette ruled that an apology was necessary before he made his request, since trouble could follow from helping him.

‘I’m sorry. I need to know if Patros is well.’

The gardener slowly straightened and swore softly under his breath. He, too, looked around before answering with a question.

‘You’re Faros?’

Faros nodded. Well that was something, but he didn’t like the way the other slave swallowed and avoided his gaze. ‘Just tell me, quickly. Is he all right?’

They both jumped as a voice barked out at them. ‘Mathos! Who is this!’ The man who strode towards them was a slave, but an important one within the household judging by the quality of his dress. Mathos’s subservience confirmed this.

‘He comes with a message about the seeds I ordered, sir.’

Faros avoided any look of gratitude towards Mathos that might betray the lie. Instead, he adopted a respectful stance with eyes lowered.

‘If the message is given, then do not stand in idle chat.’

‘I need only decide on an alternative order, sir. Perhaps I could take him to the kitchen? While I think about what I need? It would save time later.’

‘No, Mathos, you may not. The master is due home at anytime and I want you finished with your work and out of sight before he arrives. See this slave out of the grounds at once.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Faros gave a small bow of the head. His heart had leapt at Mathos’s suggestion, and he was deeply disappointed by the refusal, but he was fairly sure he had let no trace of his feelings show. At least there would be an opportunity to get an answer to his question, and if Patros were ill, he could offer to buy Mathos a drink to both thank him and get reports of the fever’s progress. If Patros was well, and maybe confined as a punishment for some misdemeanour, then it was very likely that Mathos could take a message to him. Faros was in no doubt that the high ranking slave would be unsympathetic, otherwise Mathos would have been more honest.

They did not speak until they were nearly at the gate. ‘Please tell me, Mathos, is he well?’

Mathos held the gate open. ‘You’ve been ill, haven’t you? He was worried about you, but then he came down with the fever and...’ The man tailed off, scuffling at the gravel with one foot. ‘I know... I know he thought a lot of you.’

Faros stared at him. ‘What are you saying?’

Mathos pushed him through the gateway. ‘Are you free tonight? I’ll meet you in the Lamplighters’ Inn.’ He nodded to Rufos. ‘I’m glad you have a friend here. I’m sorry, Faros, I really am. I’ll tell you more later, but Patros is dead.’

Faros stood in shock, his only thought that there must be some mistake. Patros wasn’t dead. Patros couldn’t be dead! The gate closed with a clang of finality, and Rufos pulled Faros behind the high wall. ‘It’s white,’ thought Faros. ‘The wall is white.’ He curled his fingers into gaps between the stones, scraping his knuckles, but the pain was not enough, not real enough. He smacked his forehead against a projecting stone, and that was better, he could almost feel that.

‘Faros! Nienna’s tears!’ Rufos tried to drag him away, but Faros fought against him, his throat constricted on a wail.

‘For the Eye’s sake, Faros, I know, I know, but stop that noise, stop that noise now! We can’t stay here. Someone will come.’

‘He’s dead! He’s dead!’ Saying the words made it real; if only he’d not said them, they would not have been true. Faros sagged against Rufos. ‘He can’t be dead. Tell me he’s not dead.’

‘Faros, you need to help me here. Walk!’

In a daze, Faros obeyed. He was shaking. Every step was an effort, his body forcing a way through the air that swirled around him like deep water. The current tugged at him, turning him back towards the house.

‘Faros! No! You can’t go back. He isn’t there. You know he won’t be there!’

‘They’ll have burnt his body,’ whispered Faros, and the pain settled into an agony so intense that he could not prevent his knees giving way. He came down heavily onto the paved way, and curled over. ‘I can’t - even - go - there.’

Rufos crouched beside him, an arm around his shoulder. ‘No, you can’t, but it doesn’t make any difference; Patros isn’t out there, outside the city wall.’ He pulled Faros upright and waved a hand around them. ‘He’s here.’ His hand struck Faros on the chest. ‘He’s here. It’s no comfort, I know that, but there’s no need to go seeking him back at the house, or getting yourself arrested by trying to leave the city. Let’s get you home.’

‘Home! Home is with Patros!’ Why had he never realised that before?

‘We can’t stay here, Faros. Get up!’

Faros nodded; Rufos was right, but he couldn’t mange to push himself to his feet. Rufos released him to slip his hands beneath Faros’s arms and haul him upright. Dry-eyed, Faros leaned against his friend. ’Why can’t I cry?’ he whispered. ‘What’s wrong with me that I can’t cry?’

‘Sometimes it cuts too deep.’ Rufos’s voice shook, and Faros raised his head to look at him.

‘You’re crying.’

‘We have to go, Faros.’

Faros had no memory of that walk back to the jeweller’s house. He’d lived in a dark world where there was no sunshine and no laughter, until a scrawny boy and a small imp came into his life. They had amused him, made him laugh, and Tolm’s grief had released emotions that Faros thought were buried deep. Just remembering, tears came, deepening his confusion. He loved Catos, but he was still grieving for Patros, and that seemed dishonest to both men. He dragged his palms down his face, rubbing at his eyes.

‘Faros?’ A weight settled across his shoulders. ‘Faros, what is it?’ Warm breath wafted across his cheek, fingers tugged at his hands with gentle insistence. Faros raised his head to find Catos draped over his back. He leaned back into the solid strength. Catos wrapped his arms around Faros’s chest and kissed him on the temple. ‘Do you want me to go?’

Faros heard the unspoken question, do you not want this? He turned his head, tilting up to meet Catos, to silence his fears with the warmth of a kiss that was possessive and deep and full of the love he felt. Catos relaxed into the kiss, and the small noise he made was a repetition of earlier. Whether it represented satisfaction or need, Faros wasn’t sure, but he did know that he loved the sound already. He sighed as they parted, resting his head back against Catos’s shoulder. His horseboy knelt behind him, arms folded loosely across Faros’s chest. ‘

‘Will you tell me?’

‘I’m sorry.’ Faros ran his hands down dark thighs which framed his own and closed his eyes again. ‘I can’t help thinking about Patros. It doesn’t mean... it doesn’t mean...’ It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. He felt Catos stiffen, felt the arms around him tighten, but he wasn’t sure if that was in reassurance or jealousy. He was not proud of his behaviour over the last few weeks, and he owed it to Catos to state his feelings clearly, but it was Catos who spoke first.

‘If I were to die, I hope you’d always love me, think about me. You don’t have to apologise for... Faros?’

Faros seldom let tears get the better of him, but when that reserve was broken, they came in wracking sobs that tore him apart. Catos moulded to his back, arms wrapped around him: a haven of safety in which to lose himself. Gradually, the fit passed as darkness and the memory of darkness gave way to knowledge of the man who held him. Faros had no idea what he had ever done to deserve Catos’s love and devotion. He clutched at the arms that were wrapped around him, and realised how much he had missed such contact: missed the warmth of breath against his skin, missed the closeness, missed kisses that could reassure, comfort, arouse. Missed having a lover. He listened to what Catos was saying over and over.

‘Hush, hush. I’m so stupid; forgive me.’

‘I... I love you.’ It was hardly the clear declaration Faros had hoped for; his nose was blocked and his voice sounded odd. Catos gave him a reassuring squeeze and released him. The mattress dipped and rose. Faros watched Catos move across the room, enjoying the sight of his naked body, but not sure why Catos had left their bed. He smiled at that thought. Their bed. Catos turned, cloth in hand, and caught the smile. His whole face lit up in answer. He stood before Faros and handed him the cloth to blow his nose.

‘You fear I’ll die, like Patros did.’

Faros took a deep shaky breath and let it out slowly to steady himself. ‘Yes, how did you...?’

‘Know? You told me. You told me not to die, you told me you couldn’t bear it again - and I go and say a stupid, stupid thing like...’

‘You heard me say that?’

‘Yes. I heard you say that. Would you like me to leave the cavalry?’

It was tempting to say yes! but Faros loved Catos for who he was, and this was no small gift offered. He only had to say “yes”, and Catos would resign his commission. The young man’s earlier pride over his promotion, the studied nonchalance now, left Faros in no doubt as to the sacrifice Catos was prepared to make. He blew his nose again, threw the cloth aside. ‘No, I don’t want that. Yanos tells me that you have the potential to be a great leader, that we need men like you in our armies, in peace, as well as in war.’ Faros smiled as Catos’s gaze slid away in embarrassment. ‘But you must forgive me if I do what I can to bring about peace by diplomatic means while you wave your sword around and shout a lot.’

Catos met Faros’s gaze again and gave a small huff of laughter. He stroked his thumbs over Faros’s face, removing the dampness that clung there. ‘I don’t fight for fighting’s sake, you know. If you can end the war more quickly, then I would thank you for it.’

‘Your recent victory has made the Khand ready to talk.’ Faros always enjoyed hearing Catos’s views, but Catos ignored the comment. He bent down to kiss Faros, his single braid falling forward. It was a gentle exploration, teasing at Faros’s lower lip.

‘Will you tell me about Patros?’

Faros looked up at Catos as the young man straightened. ‘What do you want to know?’

‘What was he like? He must have been special for you to love him.’

Faros raised his eyebrows and was answered with a smug grin. He didn’t reply straight away; the rush of love he felt for Catos took his breath away. He reached out, needing to touch. Catos was very different from Patros, not only much taller but also more solid. Muscles were well-defined, despite wounding, fever and convalescence. ‘He was a small man, a central-plains man, though not quite so dark as you. Soft spoken, but full of laughter.’ He smiled up at Catos. ‘Yes, he was special, but not as conceited as you.’

‘Ha!’

‘He lived here.’

‘Here?’ Catos frowned, all spark of laughter gone from his eyes, and Faros silently cursed himself, noting the flare of nostril and the tensing of jaw. He had not thought Catos would mind so much. The last thing he wanted was to cause pain; he hastened to match Catos’s generosity, to take the pain as his own.

‘Would you like me to sell the house?’

‘What! No!’ Catos looked truly shocked at the idea.

‘But you don’t like the thought -’

‘I don’t like the thought that you have no grave or keepsake. You were thrown out and I never realised it was from here.’ Catos touched Faros’s face with a light caress of fingertips. ‘Don’t look so surprised; Rufos told me when I asked him how Patros died. At the time I thought there was something he wasn’t telling me. I know it’s easier to accept a death when you can be there, and when all the death-rites are observed. I’m sorry you were denied that for one you love so well, that you were unable to say good bye and wish him safe passage into the unknown.’

Faros swallowed. He didn’t really believe that the long journey could only take place after the proper death-rites had been performed, although a small, rarely heard voice held the view that he only doubted because the alternative was too painful to contemplate. He didn’t know which was worse: the thought of ceremonies which had never taken place, or Catos’s familiarity with death and loss, implied by this insight.

‘What are you thinking?’

Faros didn’t feel inclined to voice either thought. He kissed the fingertips that had come to rest over his lips and responded instead to the tense Catos had chosen to use. ‘Thank you for understanding that I still love him.’

Catos knelt on the bed next to Faros and draped an arm around his neck. ‘Just think of us as your harem. I suppose that makes me your concubine. I doubt your wife will be pleased.’

‘Lady Saskia knows that her position is mainly a name, that she is free to look elsewhere with discretion, although I would prefer an heir to be of my siring. I think she likes the fact that I will neither weary her with my attentions, nor bring home a flock of younger wives to make her life difficult. I doubt she will be unduly worried by your place in my heart, as long as we don’t flaunt our love before the world, and so belittle her place in my household.’

‘Rumour will not be long in finding its way into the market place.’

‘It is probably there already.’ Faros turned his head as the warmth against his back was lost. Catos had shifted away, tugging at Faros in a wordless plea as he moved further onto the bed, Come. Lie with me. Faros responded, his heartbeat quickening as he twisted to face Catos. To be in love again stripped away his years, bringing impatience. He took the young man’s shoulders, pushing him onto his back and following him onto the disordered bed to cover him. Catos, I love you. They moved together, lips meeting softly at first. Catos made that small noise in the back of his throat, and Faros gathered him in his arms as the contact hardened into a hunger to satisfy their bodies’ needs. By the time they parted, heated and panting, Faros found himself gazing into eyes made even darker with desire. His voice came out a husky whisper.

‘We... we have to be at the palace by noon.’

‘I want... I want to...’ Catos didn’t finish the sentence. He rolled Faros over and slid down his body, lips and tongue trailing warmth over sensitised skin to show by his actions what his words had failed to convey. Faros twitched beneath him, and Catos laughed softly, the laugh cut off as his tongue and lips explored the possibilities of cock-loving. There was little finesse, not that Faros cared. The thought came to him with fleeting clarity that, with more skill, Catos would kill him with his tongue, but for now enthusiasm more than made up for technique. Faros dug fingers into Catos’s shoulder, trying desperately not to thrust.

‘Catos... I’m...’

Catos’s bent head stilled; Faros felt the swirl of tongue, and his head fell back against the bed, neck arching as his eyes fluttered shut. His throat closed on a series of deep groans as release took him, and the intensity of it left him limp and helpless. Some called it the little death, and he felt the truth of it. He was unmade. With difficulty, he forced his eyes open and lifted his head.

Catos lay with his head on Faros’s belly, his right hand kneading gently at Faros’s left hip, his shoulder showing the marks of Faros’s fingers. At the tightening of the muscles beneath his cheek, he raised his head and smiled at Faros. He looked thoroughly content. ‘Was that good?’

‘Mmmmm. Come here.’ Faros drew Catos into his arms and they kissed again, the scent and taste of seed mingling together. ‘Catos?’ He wasn’t sure if now was a good time for this confession, but it had to be said, and soon. Catos didn’t answer with words; he stroked Faros’s cheek with his thumb and raised an eyebrow at the hesitation in Faros’s voice. ‘I... I can’t do that. Not yet.’

Catos pushed himself up a little, and his eyes came into clearer focus, looking doubtful. Faros hastened to reassure him; Catos always thought everything was his fault. ‘It’s me; I can’t give head. I’m sorry.’

‘Because of Bayos?’ Catos’s nostrils flared with anger as understanding dawned. ‘That’s it, isn’t it? I wish Tolm had killed the bastard.’

‘And then Tolm would have died.’

‘You always have an answer for everything!’

‘I don’t have an answer for this, except maybe it can be different with time.’ Please let it be different with time. He had tried on several occasions with Patros, but always ended up gagging and retching. Could it be different? Could he learn that it was different? He sighed as Catos relaxed back into his arms. ‘I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t want to.’

‘It’s not your fault. What else did that camel-excrement make you do?’

‘Nothing else.’

Catos looked at him suspiciously. ‘You’re sure?’

‘I think I would have noticed.’

‘Yes, but you aren’t very good at telling. You keep everything locked up inside.’

‘Like just now?’ Faros smiled as the worried frown disappeared from Catos’s face.

‘Was it good?’

‘Very. Did you enjoy it?’

‘I want to do it again.’ Catos wormed a hand between them and caught hold of Faros’s soft cock.

‘We have to go to the palace.’

‘But tonight? You’ll fuck me?’

Faros groaned. It was just possible that Catos would give him another erection. He wanted to sheath himself in tight heat, feel the constricting muscles as he made Catos cry out with the burning pain that gave way to pleasure. ‘Yes, tonight. We’ll take a bath together and make sure we aren’t disturbed until the morning.’ They could stop at the apothecary on the way back from the palace to buy what was needful. ‘I want to make love to you, and fall asleep with you, and wake with you in my bed in the morning.’

‘And maybe fuck me again?’

‘Insatiable horseboy. Wait and see. I don’t want to make you sore. I’d love to just lie with you now, but we’d better get dressed and see what Sûlos wants. Maybe he’s decided whom he’ll send to Gondor.’

Getting dressed was an unexpected delight, outside of Faros’s experience. Catos alternately helped and hindered - one minute, buttoning Faros’s dress, the next, kissing and cock-teasing. Faros enjoyed the easy companionship of it, the intimacy and the possessiveness, but his enjoyment was tinged with sadness at the thought of all that he and Patros had missed. He kept his thoughts to himself and laughed as Catos tried to both tie his own breechcloth and mould their hips together. So far that day, Catos had dealt with rejection, unjust accusations, the shade of Patros, and the aftermath of Bayos’s abuse - and it wasn’t even midday yet. Faros stilled the younger man’s hands. ‘Thank you.’

‘For?’

‘Not taking “no” for an answer. Understanding me so well.’ Loving me. ‘Here - let me tie that for you; you’re as clumsy as a Harfling.’ Catos stood loose and easy, acquiescing to the help offered. Faros twisted the ends of the cloth together with an intensity of concentration that was unwarranted by the task; to look into Catos’s eyes or take heed of the firm lines of his long lean body would be too great a temptation. Failure to appear at the palace when summoned could jeopardise any chance they might have to travel as ambassadors to Gondor. Sûlos might understand their truancy, but he would not trust them to put his interests before their own gratification.

Faros stretched for Catos’s dress and held it up for him to turn and slip his arms into. He hugged Catos close as his horseboy flipped buttons into place. Only then did he release Catos, to turn him and kiss him, softly, lovingly, promising “later”. As they separated, Catos smiled at him, and the happiness Faros felt welled up like a spring breaking forth after a long drought. They spoke in unison, voices hushed to whispers.

‘I love you.’

Catos quietly sighed, closing his eyes for a moment, and Faros had to admit the truth of Yanos’s words. Only a fool would have denied both himself and Catos this happiness when it had been there for the taking, months past. Catos canted his hips slightly, rubbing against Faros, his eyes open again and inviting. With regret, Faros gave a small shake of his head. ‘Don’t think for one minute that I don’t want to, but we must go.’

Catos grinned. ‘I’d rather come.’ He kissed Faros on the forehead, forestalling the words Faros was marshalling to explain why not. ‘Don’t look so worried. I do know. Orders are orders, even if they come in the guise of an invitation.’


They set out for the palace on foot. Catos hated litters, and Faros made a point of walking whenever possible, believing that nothing contributed more to public confidence in law and order than to see the judiciary walking about the city without a guard. Today, the colours of the city seemed brighter to Faros, as though the rains had washed the ubiquitous red dust away, but the rains were some way off yet, and the only difference was in the eye of the beholder. Catos had a spring in his step which reminded Faros of how his ward used to bounce when excited; he smiled and caught Catos’s eye. The answering smile was endearingly shy, with a familiar duck of the head that came with embarrassment or uncertainty. Faros laid a reassuring hand flat-palmed against his lover’s back for a few moments and swallowed at the surge of desire he felt. The coming evening seemed a long way away.

At the palace, they were directed to the king’s private reception rooms where Sûlos greeted them warmly. Sûlos did not expect his close friends to make the prostration in private, but they all knew it pleased him after an absence. Faros watched as Catos slipped easily to his knees and dipped forward to kiss the king’s feet; it brought back, with arousing clarity, the image of Catos kneeling at his own feet that morning.

‘You’re looking well, my friend.’

Faros jumped. ‘Baklos! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.’ He couldn’t prevent his eyes following Catos, as the young man was released from the king’s embrace and sought out Tarlos. ‘How are you? Is your wife well?’ He didn’t really listen to Baklos’s reply. There was that duck-of-the-head from Catos again as Tarlos said something. Tarlos glanced towards Faros, laughed, and clapped Catos on the shoulder. Damn the man! Did he know, already?

‘I see your thoughts are elsewhere,’ said Baklos, and thankfully there was amusement rather than offence in his voice. ‘That’s a nasty wound, but I don’t think I’ve seen Catos looking so happy before.’

‘Catos always looks happy.’ Except when he’s whimpering in pain and confusion , fingers clutching at me as I hold him close. Faros gave his head a shake, refusing the image, and belatedly made eye contact with Baklos. ‘I don’t know anyone else like him.’

‘It’s good to see him home, Ah, now he looks more sombre.’

Faros looked back to his lover, now deep in earnest conversation with Tarlos; the latter stroked his chin thoughtfully, glanced at Faros again and turned Catos away from the room a little to make their conversation more private.

‘Faros!’

‘Hmm?’ Faros had trouble focusing back on Baklos.

‘I asked you when the lady Saskia returns. What’s the matter with you today, man? It’s time you realised where your heart lies and bedded that horseboy...’ Baklos tailed off, smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand in a parody of revelation. ‘You have, haven’t you? That’s why Catos looked like his whole body was singing a paean of glory a moment ago.’

There seemed no point in denying it to his close friend. ‘Yes.’ He moved to join his heart, wanting to know what Catos could possibly be talking about that had made him so serious of a sudden. It was like a jealousy, not of Tarlos, but of Tarlos’s being told something or knowing something that he did not. Baklos came with him.

‘Just “yes”?’

Faros paused and turned to Baklos, his dry humour to the fore. ‘No? Maybe? What other answers are there?’

‘“Mind your own business?’” suggested Baklos, making Faros laugh. Baklos laid a hand on Faros’s shoulder. ‘I’m glad for you. Glad for both of you. You go on. I’ll get some drinks brought over.’

As Faros came within hearing, Catos broke off mid-sentence and smiled at him, the paean of glory that Baklos had spoken of plain to see again.

Tarlos nodded greeting, but spoke to Catos. ‘I’ll talk to Sûlos now. As long as we have his agreement, I’ll see to all the arrangements. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you in Faros’s hands.’ The smirk on Tarlos’s face gave away the intended double meaning, and Faros rolled his eyes as his adversary in court, but at all times good friend, sauntered off.

‘Did you tell him, or did he just know?’

‘He asked, but... well, he knew to ask because of a conversation I had with Yanos.’

‘The one where he called me a fool?’

‘Yes.’

‘And what arrangements is he seeing to?’

‘Something I asked him to do.’

‘You’re not going to tell me?’

Catos shook his head. ‘Not yet. Tomorrow.’ He accepted a drink from a servant carrying a tray of glasses, and greeted Baklos warmly. The talk turned to Baklos’s family and Catos’s brother, and Faros gave up on any idea of cross-examining Catos. Instead, he listened, not to the words - he knew all the news - but to the sound of Catos’s voice. Even after several years in Hafar, Catos still had an accent that marked him as coming from a southern kingdom: a soft blurring of some sounds, a lengthening of others, and Faros let it wash over him, suddenly stunned by the thought that this man was his lover. He watched the movement of Catos’s throat and jaw, the slow thoughtful movements of his hands, and was lost in a reverie of being given head while those hands wandered across his skin.

‘I’m sorry, Faros. Did you say something?’

‘Uh?’ Faros blinked at Baklos.

‘I thought you spoke.’ Baklos considered Faros for a moment, then leaned in and lowered his voice. ‘I think you need to get your mind out of Catos’s breechcloth, my friend. I believe Sûlos will chose you as ambassador to either Khand or Gondor, but not if you are unable to keep your mind on the moment. Pull yourself together. Now! This is not like you!’

Catos ducked his head, catching Faros’s eye as he did so; his smile was one of pure happiness, presumably at the thought of Faros in his breechcloth. Faros sighed. ‘Yes, thank you, Baklos.’ He knew the advice to be just. Catos was acting with far more maturity, but - and the thought gave Faros a pang - it seemed that Catos had known this desire for a long time. I love you. I’ve loved you for years - no one else, only you. How many times had Catos stood by his side, with no outward sign of his wanting? He would apologise to Catos later, hopefully make the long wait worthwhile. For now he looked around to help compose himself. ‘No ladies,’ he commented. That meant business was intended. Only Sûlos's inner circle of close friends and advisors were present, but Faros had known that would be the case as soon as Balios directed them to the king’s private rooms.

Now, Balios reappeared to request they make their way into the dining room. It was a large room, its aspect onto the king’s private garden shuttered against the midday heat, giving it a quiet and sleepy look. Chinks in the wood showed the brilliance of the sunshine outside, at odds with the wavering light of oil-lamps. The feeling of intimacy was heightened by the low light level; too many lamps would simply overheat the room.

For those sitting at the head of the table with Sûlos, there was no question of precedent. Faros and Baklos took their places to the right of Sûlos, Tarlos - as proxy for Yanos - and Catos took their places on the left. Faros regretted the separation, even while appreciating the respite it gave him. The rest of the guests sat where they would, and Faros was aware of Tarlos’s sharp eyes noting friendships - the possible cradle of factions.

‘I think it is a habit,’ commented Baklos drily, for Faros’s ear only. ‘Since I don’t believe there are any here who are not trusted. Although does Tarlos ever trust anyone completely?’

‘His cousins, his concubine.’ They waited for Sûlos to sit, and followed his lead.

Baklos toyed with the goblet before him, chased in silver and gold. ‘You know, it’s his concubine who really endears Tarlos to me.’

‘Many disapprove of her.’ Faros said this stiffly; he did not see why Lysia’s having been a lowborn slave should be any matter for comment.

‘Yes, and Tarlos doesn’t care an Eye’s blink for such narrow thinking. You know, I found recently that she has been his love for years, long before he stood so high in the kingdom. Apparently, it was she who refused the title of lady, saying that as his concubine she would engender less spite. Tarlos wanted her to have full rights and privileges as his wife.’

The bustle of servants pouring wine subsided and the conversation around the table became more general. Catos answered questions on the Khand offensive as the many courses - some no more than tastes to clear the palate - came and went. Faros listened attentively, and not just for the sound of the beloved voice; Catos had a good understanding of the enemy, and his opinions were always worth listening to.

If Tarlos had made it known to Sûlos that two of his greatest Houses were now allied by bonds of love, Sûlos made no sign or reference. He spoke with Faros of their lands, of the royal harem, of his plans for building new aqueducts and for providing running water for the whole city, not just the wealthy few. He also questioned Faros about the state of the judiciary; a conversation that Faros hoped convinced Sûlos the courts could run smoothly in his absence, but the king dropped no hint as to his intentions.

It was not until dishes of small sweets had been distributed, and the servants had retired to prepare coffee in the anteroom, that Sûlos stood, waving his guests to stay seated with downwards movements of his hands. Balios remained standing, holding an enamelled casket.

‘My lords, I have several matters to discuss with to you, but first I would like to make a private presentation, one that will be repeated before all Hafar at the earliest opportunity, but which - you will understand in due course - I wish the recipient to have now. Lord Catos.’ The king held out his hand, asking Catos to stand. ‘For your valour and leadership in the defence of this land and our people, I am delighted to confer on you the Order of Aquilmos.’

Balios opened the casket, amidst murmurs around the table, and Sûlos carefully lifted out the intricate gold chain with the eagle’s feathers and emeralds. He placed it around Catos’s neck, reaching up to do so. Balios was there, smoothly, with no fuss, to make the fastening, and Sûlos embraced Catos to give him the royal kiss on one cheek, then the other. Catos cleared his throat self-consciously at the applause, which was no polite going-through-the-motions; there was no doubt as to the genuine approval and congratulations of most of those present.

Sûlos smiled around the table, glancing briefly at Faros. ‘It is also my pleasure to inform you that following Yanos’s recommendation, Catos has been promoted to the rank of a senior officer. However, he will not be returning to my brother’s command at this time.’

‘M...my lord?’

‘I wish you to take command of the guard accompanying my ambassador to Khand, Catos.’

Out of the murmur of voices, one rose. ‘I have heard his bravery was reckless. He lacks maturity.’

Faros knew without looking who spoke; the man was loyal but always quick to question Sûlos, presuming on the fact that he had been blood-bonded to the king’s father. The lord in question was getting on in years, and had been heard to call Catos a young pup.

‘It is possible that a certain recklessness will be needed, should my embassy find itself compromised. Lord Catos has shown that he has a sound grasp of Khand politics, and his name is known. My spies report that he is regarded with respect. The bravery for which he has been rewarded was pivotal in their recent defeat; that defeat in turn has opened the way to negotiation. There is, I believe, a real opportunity for peace. Catos, will you take this commission?’

‘May I know whom I would be guarding?’

‘Does that have a bearing on your acceptance?’

‘I think so, yes. If your ambassador does not believe me fit for the task, then he is unlikely to take my recommendations seriously, that could in turn put my men at risk.’

Faros could not see Catos’s face, and he kept his smile to himself. It would not be long before his lover was a power to be reckoned with. He looked up at the king, wanting to be sent with Catos, but knowing the price: he would not represent Harad before King Elessar, nor see Tolm. Sûlos met his gaze.

‘Lord Faros is my choice.’

At Faros’s side, Baklos spoke. ‘An excellent choice.’ There were murmurs of agreement. Faros bowed his head; let it be interpreted as his loyal acquiescence, but he suspected Sûlos would know that he was hiding a grief for what might have been.

‘Catos?’

‘I accept gladly. How many men will I command?’

‘How many do you think you will need?’

‘Too few, and I will be ineffective; too many, and I will be seen as a threat. A cohort should be sufficient, if they are well trained, especially if there were to be a strong Haradrim force on manoeuvres along the border.’

‘Good. Choose your own men later today. Be seated.’ Sûlos waited for the scrape of Catos’s chair across the tiled floor to finish before he continued. ‘The Khand are keen for negotiations to begin, but it seems to me that we should not be too eager to respond. We have approached them with offers of peace on several occasions, and they have replied with more violence, leading to loss of life on both sides. Their people grow restless against the House of the Eye. If we let it be known that Faros is to be my ambassador, they will be pleased; he is known as a peacemaker. Regretfully, he has already left for Gondor.’

Faros’s head jerked up; he heard the gasp from Catos. ‘I am still here, my lord.’ He hoped his dry tone hid his excitement.

‘You must leave tomorrow. I will send a reply to Khand the day after. The news that you will have seen the northern king first will give them pause for thought; they will not know what alliances have been entered into. If they do not already know that you are blood-bonded to one high in King Elessar’s favour, I will see that they do so before you cross their border.’

Catos cleared his throat again. ‘There will be dangers in Gondor. We cannot assume that Lord Faros will be safe because of ties of friendship.’

Sûlos laughed at that. ‘And so his guard will be needed. Yes?’

‘I am yours to command.’

‘That is good, because I command you to protect my embassy to Gondor.’



Inset Chapter: part 1 - Back to Chapter Listing - Inset Chapter: part 3


Home

Feedback? Always welcome here