It was with difficulty that Catos sat through the rest of the business. He was going to Gondor and Khand with Faros! Already, his mind was busy with planning; he didn’t really believe they would be in any danger in Gondor, so the guard could be smaller - a token presence rather than an effective fighting force. They would see Tolm! That thought nearly broke through his carefully schooled expression. What he wanted to do was to whoop and hug Faros close. Thank the Light that they would have tonight to love in comfort. What were their chances of being intimate on board a ship? Catos knew little of seafaring craft, only being familiar with local boats on the river Hafos. Where did one even sleep? On deck? He turned that train of thought aside; he would find answers in time. The announcement that Hanril of Gondor would be asked to accompany them as interpreter brought Catos’s mind back to the king’s council. That was good news. An initial brief antipathy towards the man had given way to grudging regard, and then genuine liking and respect. That didn’t mean that he felt comfortable opening his innermost thoughts to Hanril in the way he would have to Tolm, and knowing his letters to Tolm went through the intermediary of Hanril’s translation affected what he said and how he said it. No matter. Now he would see Tolm, and the news dearest to his heart could be given in person.

Sûlos brought the council meeting to an end, and they all stood to follow him out for coffee. Sûlos turned to take Catos’s arm - a mark of great favour - and held out his free hand to Faros. ‘Come, my friends, take coffee with me. There is a lot to talk about.’ He nodded to his cousin. ‘Tarlos?’

It was Balios himself who brought their coffee into one of the small private audience rooms and placed it on a side table. He was dismissed with thanks. Sûlos stayed on his feet, and as the door shut behind the servant, he closed his eyes with a deep sigh. Catos had seen him do this before in private: a shedding of his kingship. He was not at all surprised that when Sûlos opened his eyes again and smiled, his whole body appeared to have relaxed. The king let go of Catos, but only to put an arm around him.

‘I trust you both,’ he said, looking from Faros to Catos and back to Faros.

‘Be assured; we will do our utmost to carry out your wishes,’ said Faros, and Catos felt proprietary pride in his quiet dignity.

‘No, no,’ said Sûlos, bringing Faros into the fold of his free arm. ‘Not what I mean. I trust you both to love each other with discretion and to hold to that love throughout your lives. I trust you not to cause dissension in the future between two great and ancient houses over some matter of jealousy and lost faith, but to have and to hold. My dear friends, I trust you with each other’s hearts.’ He smiled at them both, turning from one to the other, before looking to his cousin. ‘I do not think my trust is misplaced, do you, Tarlos?’

‘No. This is a deep-rooted attachment, not to be broken lightly.’ Tarlos stepped in close to Faros. ‘But know this, my friend. If we are wrong, and you cause Catos grief, I will personally geld you and feed your bollocks to the crows.’

Catos stiffened in indignation; he did not see why Faros should be singled out for this threat, even spoken lightly. If any grief had been caused between them, it was not Faros who had been the cause. Faros just looked sad. ‘Why is everyone so quick to believe that I do not understand the gift I have been given, that Catos’s heart is not safe with me? Tarlos, would you explain this to me?’

It was Sûlos who answered. ‘Peace! He jests, Faros. You are both dear to us, but you are the elder, and I am not sure you yet understand the full generosity of Catos’s love for you.’

Catos shifted his weight, both embarrassed and fearful of what the king would say. Don’t tell him, don’t tell him about tomorrow. It was a silent plea, but Sûlos said no more, and Catos relaxed. He did not want anything to cast a shadow over the coming night.

‘Yes, it was a jest,’ agreed Tarlos. ‘And in poor taste. I’m sorry, Faros. I do not doubt your regard for Catos; if I’d known others had...’ He shrugged and looked apologetic.

‘If only I could be met with such docility in court,’ replied Faros. Catos gave a snort of laughter. In court, Faros and Tarlos gave each other no quarter; there were many who wrongly believed the two lords to be sworn enemies.

‘And where would be the fun in that?’ countered Tarlos, pouring the coffee into small cups. The aroma filled the room, dark and inviting. ‘Anyway, what I want to know is, why you two have never taken an oath of blood between you.’

Catos accepted his cup and smiled at Faros. ‘There is no need,’ he said simply. ‘His enemies have always been my enemies.’ Following the king’s example he reclined on a couch, stifling a yawn as he did so. The heat and the recent meal had compounded the effect of a lost night’s sleep; his earlier nap had not been rest enough. The coffee helped a little, but he was glad when Faros and Sûlos had done with discussing Gondor, and he could allow himself to drowse without missing anything the ambassador’s guard should know. He didn’t hear Balios return at the end of the respite to throw open the shutters, and it was the brush of fingers across his forehead that woke him. He struggled up, bleary eyed, to find the room full of the late afternoon sunshine; Faros sat at his side holding a glass of lime juice. A slight headache made Catos screw up his eyes against the light, while outside, the call of a bird, repetitive and insistent, made him wish he could screw up his ears in the same way. He shook his head a little, looking around the room before accepting the drink.

‘Sûlos and Tarlos have gone?’

Faros leaned in and kissed him. ‘Mmm. Yes. They seemed to think I would want to wake you without an audience. I love watching you sleeping, you know.’ He smiled, and Catos felt a deep welling-up of warmth at the sight of his love so happy and relaxed.

Am I doing the right thing? he wondered. Should I tell Tarlos to forget it? It was a hard thing to deliberately cause grief when Faros seemed to have put grief behind him, but all the evidence earlier had shown Catos that the grief was still present.

‘What? What’s the matter?’

‘Sorry, nothing. Just a muzziness in the head.’ Catos wriggle his shoulders in invitation and Faros slipped his arm around him. They leaned together with soft sighs, happiness mingling with regret that this was not the place or time to do much more. Catos slumped a little, making himself lower than Faros, and felt a thrill of more than just warmth as Faros bent his head to kiss him again. He opened his mouth, accepting and meeting Faros’s probing tongue, and blindly fumbled the glass he held onto the ground. That left his hands free. One went instinctively to the back of Faros’s head, pulling him into harder, rougher contact, while the other grabbed a fistful of Faros’s dress. There was an ache in his balls and thighs, and a tightness in his chest like a hand folded around his heart. He had never understood before why poets chose the heart as having anything to do with love. His feelings found release in a sound deep in his throat, and he wished - with a small part of his mind that was still capable of rational thought - that he would stop doing that. Faros must think him pathetically needy. But Faros’s reaction was to tighten his hold and press in with a greater urgency.

By the time they parted, Catos was a boneless heap only held together by Faros’s arms. His breath came in short gasps, and his chin was stinging from the rasp of stubble, unnoticed at the time, but now adding to the feeling of wonder and realness. Faros gazed into his eyes as though there was nothing and no one else in his world. As their breathing slowed back to normal, they touched and stroked each other’s faces. Faros found his voice first, but it was hoarse and a little shaky.

‘What... what do you need to do... before we can go home?’

‘Make a will, perhaps?’

Faros frowned. ‘Before we travel, you mean?’

‘No. Before tonight.’ Catos watched Faros’s face lighten into a laugh and smiled back. The night seemed far away. He sighed. ‘There’s much to do if we’re travelling tomorrow. I must choose your guard; that’s the priority.’ I love you, I love you, I love you. ‘I’ll send for my old cohort to accompany us to Khand.’ He struggled to sit, Faros’s arm lending him impetus. ‘Bollocks. I’m pleased we’re going - more than pleased - but...’

Faros nodded his understanding. ‘I know. I just want to take you to bed, and let the world go hang.’ He shrugged his frustration. ‘As you say, “but”. It’s not as though we don’t want to go. We’ll not have much privacy, you know, after tonight.’

‘Better make it good, then.’

Faros kissed him - the tender, gentle kiss. ‘I’ll do my best. Can I come with you now? I won’t try and influence your choice.’

‘Of course, Need you ask? I’m going to change into uniform first, otherwise I’ll just be “Catos, the boy”. Only a few of the king’s Household Guard have seen me since the overthrow of the Usurper.’

‘Perhaps you’re right, but I think you underestimate how much presence you have.’ Faros released Catos and stood, holding out his hand. ‘Let’s get through the rest of the day. I’ll ask Balios for some hot water and a change of clothes. We can have a proper bath later.’ They looked at each other and looked away. Best not to think of that yet.

In the barrack square, the Household Guard were at ease. The appearance was deceptive; Catos knew how hard these men trained. They were fiercely loyal to Sûlos, and most of them had been his personal guard since before he was king. Catos sought out their captain, who was not happy to hear that Lord Catos intended to commandeer some of his men. He stared gloomily at the signed paper in his hand. ‘You will take a whole cohort! I cannot spare so many men, my lord. I must protest -’

‘No. Lord Yanos will supply the cohort.’ Though he doesn’t know it yet. ‘I need only twenty men. A small guard to accompany the king’s ambassador to Gondor; I will keep them under my command when Lord Faros travels to Khand.’ Such well-trained men were an invaluable resource, not to be reckoned by a head count alone. Catos was fairly sure that if Faros had not been standing politely to one side, gazing out of the window at the barrack square below, the captain would have had more to say on the subject, but he appeared mollified by the modesty of Catos’s demands.

‘Very well. I will see who I can spare.’

‘I will be asking for volunteers; I will choose whom I will.’ Catos was on solid ground here. The signed orders gave him the authority to do this. The last thing he wanted was men with a belligerent sense of national pride, who might go out of their way to insult or provoke foreigners. He stared the captain down, and the man coughed and shuffled his papers.

‘I will let it be known.’

‘You misunderstand the urgency. I must choose today. I ask for the assembly to be sounded; I will speak to the men.’ Catos noted the calculating look he was given: the captain was hoping that he could enjoy Catos’s embarrassment when no volunteers came forward. The man left the room with an exaggerated briskness that was doubtless a sarcastic comment on his having to take orders from a young upstart.

Catos sighed and rubbed his face with his palms, pressing the heels against his eyes. ‘How did such a paper-pusher become a captain in the king’s elite guard?’ he asked wearily. It was a rhetorical question, and he was not surprised when Faros just shrugged. He didn’t want to feel this tired, not with the busy night he was hoping for, and neither did he like feeling judged on his brusqueness to the captain. ‘If I’d given the slightest sign of weakness, he would have fobbed me off with his worst troublemakers.’

Faros turned from the window. ‘I’ll go if my presence worries you. I told you I wouldn’t interfere, and I didn’t just mean by making your choice for you.’ His lips quirked into a half smile. ‘If he’d gone on talking to you as though you were a fool, I might have arrested him for insolence to one of the ruling Houses. The law has never been repealed, you know.’

Catos smiled his appreciation of both the small joke and the implied support, and when the men were drawn up in the square, the process of selection proved easier than he’d anticipated. There were plenty of volunteers, and amongst them were men he knew - veterans of the Restoration. ‘You! Belmos, isn’t it?’

‘Who me, sir? Yes, sir.’ The man stood a little straighter, proud to be remembered. As though it were yesterday, the memory came fresh and clear to Catos, “We thought he was mad, but it was inspired madness, if you know what I mean. We all went with him.”

‘You went with Lord Faros to intercept the Usurper’s third army.’

‘Yes, sir, across the desert, sir.’ The man glanced to where Faros stood. ‘It was an honour. Like living in a legend, it was, to have the Sun appear in our midst. We couldn’t fail.’

Catos nodded and turned to another familiar face. ‘And you, you’ve met some of the soldiers of Gondor, haven’t you? What did you think of them?’

‘That’s right, sir. I went with Tolmos Aquilmos to meet the Gondorians. I’m surprised you remember, sir. A bit suspicious they were, and who can blame them, but really, they were just like us. When they got here, they wanted to know where the inns and brothels were.’

‘You showed them, did you?’

‘All in a day’s work, sir.’

Catos laughed. ‘And now you’re hoping they’ll reciprocate? No, don’t answer that. Your cousin’s in my cohort, isn’t he?’

‘Yes, sir. He says you have balls.’

Faros choked and was caught in a paroxysm of coughing. He waved Catos away, as he stifled more coughs. ‘I’m fine,’ he wheezed. ‘Please, continue.’ Catos nodded, wanting to make physical contact with this man who was suddenly, wondrously, his lover. He was painfully aware - by the ache of longing that pooled there - that he did indeed have balls. He made short work of choosing the men he wanted, dismissed the rest, and gave his new guard a taste of what was expected of them.

‘I hope and believe that our embassy to Gondor will be peaceful. You will do nothing to put that in jeopardy. No insults are permissible even under provocation, and at all times you will conduct yourselves with integrity. You will not get drunk and you will not brawl, do I make myself clear? If a brothel is offered, you may avail yourselves of it only if the whores seem genuinely willing and clean. I do not want you getting the pox. When we go to Khand, you will be on a state of alert at all times, and brothels will be out of bounds. My old cohort will be joining us, and if you have proved yourself to me in Gondor, I will put each of you in charge of twenty men. I want small, mobile units, so that if we come under threat in Khand, each group can operate independently. Our numbers will be too low for a direct assault. Should Lord Faros be held captive, other tactics will prove necessary.’ I will tear the place down brick by brick, if I have to. ‘Be prepared for night assaults and rooftop work. I want us armed for conventional warfare, which will be expected since we are a guard, but I want you to have plenty of camouflage, ropes, knives - you know what is needed.’ The men nodded, they did know; Catos had seen them in action in the city during the Restoration. His cavalry cohort were loyal and knew his ways, but they didn’t understand this type of clandestine fighting. ‘Good.’ He turned to Belmos. ‘You will captain the guard. Get your men kitted out with new uniforms, horses, stores for travelling. Don’t let anyone give you any crap. Find a well-mannered horse for Lord Faros. He will need a tent; get bedrolls for both of us. Decide amongst yourselves who will cook, or whether it will be a shared rota. I don’t care which, as long as the food is decent. There’s a lot to do before tomorrow.’ Like losing my virginity! ‘So get to it!’

Faros touched his shoulder briefly as they made their way back across the square. ‘That was... impressive. I can see why Sûlos wanted you to command my guard; I thought he was just letting us be together.’

‘If that were the case, he’s got a strange sense of humour. It will be difficult to be intimate, but at least you’ll have a tent.’ Catos kept his laughter in check. ‘I believe it will be necessary for you to hold briefings with me about the embassy on a regular basis.’

‘Yes. Yes, I think that will be essential,’ agreed Faros with all of his usual gravity. He cleared his throat and glance around, checking on their privacy. ‘You know, I never have been fucked myself.’ His voice was conversational, but there was a slight shake to it. ‘I’d like to try that sometime.’

Catos made a small sound, a moan. He clamped down on it quickly and forced himself to keep walking. The prospect of fucking Faros was very arousing. ‘You know, your timing is crap.’ He lowered his voice even though there was no one close enough to hear. ‘Not tonight, though? Tonight I want your cock up my arse.’ He’d been thinking about this a good deal, and he didn’t want to have a whole new set of worries and uncertainties.

Faros closed his eyes briefly. ‘Sweet Lady, Catos! Can we go home now? I need you in bed.’ They entered one of the palace corridors, theirs eyes adjusting again to the lower level of light. Soon the servants would be along to open the shutters onto the kitchen garden, letting in the sun and the evening breeze, but for now it was empty.

‘We could go to my room here.’

‘The bed’s too small. I told you: I want to have you, and hold you, and fall asleep where we lie.’

‘Will you mind? If I’m not as good as...? If I’m not very...?’

‘Catos!’ Faros swung around abruptly, halting their progress. He took Catos by the shoulders to give him a rough shake, and held his gaze, not angry exactly - exasperated, maybe. ‘It doesn’t matter if between us we make the most complete -’ His expression softened into amusement, and his sudden laughter was warm and reassuring, ‘- the most complete cock-up of it. It doesn’t matter if every thing you’re imagining could go wrong, does in fact go wrong. Stop worrying. Trust me.’

Catos swallowed and nodded. The clatter of shutters being folded back parted them. Faros released Catos’s shoulders, briefly smoothing the creases his fingers had made in the material of the tunic. He glanced round at the servant, who - at least outwardly - appeared engrossed in his task.

‘Do you need to do anything else or can we go home?’

‘I need to report to Tarlos, but that won’t take long.’ Catos touched the feathers at his neck. ‘I’ll change and leave this with Balios to pack.’

‘I need to visit the apothecary.’

‘I’ll meet you there.’ They stood awkwardly, neither making a move. Had the servant not been near they would have marked this first small parting with some sign of affection. Faros broke the impasse, laying his palm briefly against Catos’s back and then simply walking away. Catos sighed, and took a short cut through the gardens to find Balios and arrange for his packing to be done.

He was right that his meeting with Tarlos would be brief. He let Tarlos know how many men he was taking from the Household Guard and asked for his old cohort to be sent for. They spoke of arrangements for the next day, but Tarlos had everything in hand. Catos hugged him, expressing his thanks. He visited his room to change back from uniform to dress, folded his red cloak carefully, and went to meet Faros. As they walked back across the city, Catos was quiet and introspective; he was thinking of Patros, of all the deaths he himself had seen, and of Yanos’s insistence that funeral rights were held whether there was a body recovered or not. It was important to respect and honour the dead, important to allow the men to grieve and move on.

As they entered the house, Faros took his hand. ‘What is it, Catos? What’s bothering you?’

‘Nothing.’ Catos had no intention of saying, “the dead”. Not here; not in this house.

Faros raised his eyebrows: a solid line of disbelief. ‘Forgive me if I don’t believe you. Look, there’s no hurry over this. Come and have a glass of wine in the garden while we wait for supper.’

‘Are you trying to seduce me?’ Catos was amused.

‘If that’s what it takes, but I’ll settle for seeing you relax.’

They sat out in a leafy arbour where long pendulums of scented white flowers hung through a criss-crossing framework of wooden beams, intertwined with grape-laden vines. The hum of bees vied with a bird’s song that rose and fell on the warm air, and the only harsh note was a repetitive quark quark from one of the brightly-coloured birds that flocked into the garden at this time of day. Faros sat across the table, just out of reach, smiling quietly. Catos sipped his wine and stretched out his long legs. It was pleasant to sit here in the shade, a small turning back to the easy friendship they had always enjoyed together. As the light failed, the hum of bees was replaced by the stridency of crickets and cicadas, and the birds fell silent. Servants came, bringing scented candles to keep away biting insects, although these had become less of a problem since Sûlos had ordered the draining of the swamp lands that always formed after the rains.

The food came as mezedes, a variety of small dishes that just kept appearing until the servants were having trouble finding space on the table. Catos moved the wine to make way for a basket of warm flat-bread to dip into bowls of pureed chick peas with sesame paste and lemon, grated cucumber in yoghurt and mint, and an avocado puree - all of them redolent with garlic. There were plates of small river fish, cubes of meat skewered and cooked over charcoal, vine leaves and tomatoes stuffed with fragrant rice, bowls of olives. The informality and the distance Faros maintained were just what Catos needed to relax. To the servants, hoping maybe for some gossip, the meal was probably a disappointment: two friends talking into the evening, discussing politics and art, speculating about foreign lands, and reminiscing over a small harbinger of good luck, a Halfling from the north. It was only when they had finished nibbling at sweet and sticky pastries and turned to coffee - when they could reasonably be expected to be undisturbed - that the subject of love came up.

Catos swirled the thick grounds in his cup and looked up to hold Faros’s gaze for the first time. ‘You know, I think that’s when I first loved you, when you were so kind to Tolm after you’d bought us in the market.’

‘I nearly didn’t buy you.’

This was news to Catos. ‘Why not?’

‘Because of Bayos.’ Faros didn’t allow the conversation to dwell on this. ‘I can’t believe how much hung on that decision. I can’t believe I went into the market just hoping to get finished quickly, with no foreknowledge of -’ He pushed his cup away and came to stand behind Catos, hands kneading at his shoulders. ‘Love just crept up on me, you know.’

Catos tilted his head back, leaning into Faros’s body. Through a gap in the leaves a full moon shone bright gold. They could leave shutters open in the bedroom and make love by moonlight. The full moon was a good omen, a blessing on new beginnings, but that still left him unsure of his abilities in bed. Faros sensed his uncertainty.

‘Now you’re tense again. I promise I’ll not do anything you don’t want; I’ll stop anytime you say. If you don’t like - ‘ Faros must have caught the way Catos shifted beneath his hands. He paused in mid-sentence and leant down to kiss him on the forehead. ‘Is that what’s worrying you? So - we don’t do it again. But I think you’ll be begging for it.’ The husky note on the word “begging” brought the ache back to Catos’s balls and a fluttering sensation to his stomach.

‘I’ve been begging for it all day.’

‘Mmm. I know. And I’ve had trouble keeping my hands off you. We’ll have a bath together and then things will happen as they happen. Yes?’

Catos nodded. In his opinion, had there been no reason for Faros to buy his house out of sentiment, then the bathing room alone would have been reason enough. One side of the building housing the deep blue-tiled bath was open to a small secluded garden, with climbing plants blurring the boundary between the two. Screens were available, but rarely used, since the dense planting both acted as a windbreak and ensured privacy. The floor and walls were bright mosaics of colour, and Catos always took great pleasure in bathing there. He readily acknowledged to himself that some of that pleasure was because Faros often joined him - a source both of his best wank-fantasies and of frustration - but the place had an understated elegance and an airy lightness that were a delight in their own right.

Now, as Catos stood just inside the bathing room, waiting with rapidly beating heart while Faros secured the door against interruption, he thought again of those fantasies. What were the chances of Faros fucking him in the bath or the garden, or, even better, both? Catos sighed his regret; Faros had been very clear about what he wanted, and what he wanted was “bed”, but hopefully there would be plenty more opportunities - if they came home from Khand safely. A knot of fear tightened around his heart, quenching his body’s response to those balls-induced memories. What if I lose him? I’d give my life to protect him, and only grieve at the grief I would cause. He stared unseeing out into the garden, pondering whether he could act in a rational way if Faros were in danger, whether he was the best person to protect the one dearest to his heart. I’ll have to be; I’ll trust no one else with his life. He jumped as arms wrapped across his chest, bringing his focus back to the present, and the next moment he shivered with longing as light kisses traced down the back of his neck.

‘You only have to say if you’re having second thoughts.’ Faros breath wafted warm against Catos’s ear. ‘There is no - mmmmphh.’ Faros stepped back to keep his balance as Catos turned; he thudded into the closed door, the breath driven from him in a gasp of surprise, his expression of soft concern turned to raw need. Catos trapped him there with the weight of his body, cupping Faros’s face with his hands as he did so. Their mouths came together with a new urgency. Catos met Faros’s tongue with his own and pressed his body in hard. With eyes closed, longing met longing in a world of darkness that heightened every touch. They were both whimpering, moaning, desperate for each other. Catos thought, He wants me as much as I want him. Just this morning, I didn’t know, and now - this!

They parted, panting, resting forehead to forehead, while fingers plied buttons undone and pulled unwelcome cloth free. Faros caught their cocks together in one hand - not encircling, but constraining - while his other hand moulded to the curve of Catos’s arse. His voice was a breathless whisper.

‘No doubts, then?’

It was never what Faros said, but the way he said it. Catos started laughing, short of breath as he was, hazed by desire as he was. He didn’t answer with words, but dropped to his knees to nuzzle against Faros’s belly until he’d recovered breath enough to take Faros’s cock into his mouth. The fullness and now familiar taste gave him a deep thrill of pleasure. He closed his eyes again to recapture the intensity of sensations, and folded one hand around Faros’s shaft to roll back the foreskin, sucking and lapping at the cock head as he did so. With his other hand, he kneaded blindly at the muscles of Faros’s inner thigh. Faros stroked over his neck and shoulders, not trying to force Catos to take him deeper, but encouraging him to do what he would, unhindered.

In turn, Catos listened to Faros through touch and sound: the tensing of his muscles, the stilling of his hand that said yes, good! and the soft sighs. There was something very fulfilling about this slow exploration with lips and tongue, a sense of losing self in the rhythm of the movements. Catos tightened his lips around the rigid shaft, pulled slowly back over the rim of the crown, and dipped down again while his tongue swirled and probed. He felt Faros twitch.

‘C... Catos!’ Faros grasped the single braid at the back of Catos’s neck and pulled. ‘Stop! Stop now!’

Catos rocked back onto his heels to look up, while his thumb took over the exploration that his tongue had regretfully relinquished, spreading weeping fluid in lazy circles. Faros was worth looking at: dark eyes half-hidden by lowered lids, face slack, lips full and slightly parted. Amidst Catos’s desire-addled thoughts there was room for a little smugness. I did that to him...

Faros stilled Catos’s hand with fingers tight around his wrist. ‘I... said... stop!’ Despite the tightness, Catos could feel the fine tremble.

‘Why?’ Damn! That sounded like the whine of a sulky two year old.

‘Because... I’m not as young... as you. I’m not sure... how many times... I can come in a day... and still be up... for more.’ Faros pulled Catos to his feet and wrapped his arms around him, his breathing a little steadier now.

‘But was it good?’ Despite all the evidence, Catos still needed this reassurance.

‘Good? No, it wasn’t good.’ Faros gave a soft laugh. ‘It was... breathtaking. What was it you said about needing to make a will?’ He released Catos, pushing him away a little, and bent hastily to untie his sandals.

‘Let me.’ Catos knelt again, working the leather free despite Faros’s protest. He had enough sense not to say, “You are my master.” That would not go down well. Instead he said, ‘I like doing it. Hold still. Anyway, an old man like you shouldn’t be expected to have to bend down.’

‘Horseboy, do you want to get into trouble?’

‘Mmm. Yes.’

In the bath, Faros refused to let Catos touch him, firmly removing his hands every time he tried. Catos didn’t mind; it was not as though Faros were forbidden territory, as he had been for so long, and this unwillingness now was - in a small way - a tribute to Catos’s ability to arouse him. Catos especially didn’t mind since Faros had no such compunction in touching him. The bath was mainly memorable in its promise of what could and would be done in the future, its potential, but afterwards one moment always stood out as a clear watershed in Catos’s mind between his wish to lose his virginity and his apprehension of what doing so would be like. Before, his anxiety was like a discordant note weaving through all the building crescendo of his desire; after, there was only the burning need to be fucked.

Faros washed Catos all over, his hands moving with slow thoroughness, taking possession of his lover’s body. He drew him close in a kiss that melted Catos against him, and smoothed his soap-slick hands down Catos’s back, and on down to his arse. Catos was so relaxed in Faros’s arms that he made no resistance as a finger teased and probed at his opening, broaching the ring of muscles. He welcomed the entry and felt for the first time just how good it could be.
Not touching was suddenly impossible. Catos’s fingers curled around Faros’s hips, bracing him instinctively as he thrust against him with a cry. Faros thrust back, and enveloped Catos’s mouth with his own in a kiss that was hard and rough and demanding. Their bodies ground together, smouldering desire leaping into consuming fire. Unable to beg with words, Catos let his body and hands speak through the urgency of their movements. Please - now! Don’t stop - don’t stop! Fuck me - now! The soap-slick finger probed deep, and Catos went rigid, clutching Faros with bruising force. He tightened around the welcome intrusion, not sure what Faros had done, but wanting more, wanting the moment to build and build into release. Faros’s plan for bed be damned.

Faros eased back just enough to be able to see Catos’s face, even while he held him impaled, and Catos trembled with desire at the dark hunger he saw there. Faros’s voice was a whisper. ‘You like that, don’t you?’ Then huskier, more urgent, ‘I want you.’

‘Here. Now.’

Faros shook his head, but his voice gave away the difficulty with which he spoke. ‘Bed. I want you... in bed.’

Rinsing was cursory, drying they didn’t bother with; they wrapped towels around their waists - which only seemed to emphasise their rigid cocks - and hastened back to their room, hand in hand, fingers tightly interlocked. Any closer contact was like touching a too sensitised spot, and Catos was reminded of the warning that came with fireworks: set light to the touch paper and retire. He was very aware just how fragile a thing Faros’s control was, aware of how easily he could break it, be slammed up against the nearest wall and fucked on the spot.

They scattered a group of three servant girls whose eyes went wide at the sight of them; the wenches covered their mouths with their hands and regrouped behind them, giggling and chattering with excitement. Neither man spared them a second glance.

Behind the privacy of their bedroom door, they let the towels fall and moved with purpose to the bed. All day had been a form of foreplay and now came the consummation. Faros paused only long enough to retrieve a jar of ointment from his bedside table and break the apothecary’s seal. Catos still had some uncertainties - no longer that he might not enjoy being fucked, but about the mechanics of the coupling. He did not want Faros to cover him like a stallion, not this time, anyway. He wanted to hold eye contact as he was entered; he wanted to be able to see Faros’s face and watch him come. He lay back on the bed, displaying himself, his cock aching and hard, his balls tight.

Faros knelt between his thighs, his face intent as he smoothed his hands over Catos’s chest. Catos had forgotten - amongst all the wonder of Faros loving him - how good that had felt before. He reached up to stoke Faros’s face, and whimpered as Faros captured his thumb within his mouth. His whole body seemed attuned to his one need to be fucked. With his free hand he reached for the viscous ointment to spread over Faros’s cock, rolling back the foreskin as he slid his fingers down the rigid shaft. I want you. He reclaimed his thumb, needing both hands to draw up his legs, to offer himself. Now!

Faros laid his hands against Catos’s thighs, pushing them further up and apart. He frowned. ‘Are you sure? Wouldn’t you rather come down on me?’

‘No. Like this!’ Was it too soon to start begging? Probably not. ‘Faros, please! Not your fucking finger, I want you!’ He canted his hips up further as Faros anointed him, and swore as Faros stroked his cock and teased him again with the slow slide of a finger that promised so much.

‘Shh. Shh, horseboy. I don’t want to hurt you. I want you to be ready for this. I -’

‘For fuck’s sake! I’m ready! I’m... ready. Please, Faros. Now!’

Faros shifted, taking his weight on one hand, guiding his cock with the other. Catos sighed in relief. He was warm and relaxed from the bath, ready and waiting, had been waiting so long. He cried out as Faros entered him, but not from pain. The sensation was intense; a stretching and filling, but also arousing far beyond his powers of description. He had always been aware that thoughts and feelings existed without the need for words - that words were just the outward expression of a process that went far deeper - and now there were no words for this primal lust that coiled through him. He whimpered, wanting more.

Faros stilled with only his cock head sheathed, holding Catos’s gaze. He was so... so beautiful, the small frown back as he held himself in check. ‘Push against me,’ he whispered. ‘As though you would push me out. Don’t clamp down, not yet. Push against me.’

It made little sense, but trust needed no sense, and Catos obeyed without question. Faros thrust into him in one long slow motion, that stretched and seared before flowing into an all engulfing joy, mirrored back to him in Faros’s face. Faros eased back, their bodies further apart than Catos had hoped, but with each sure thrust, they came into closer contact. Catos had all the suppleness of youth, and his body was well used to exercise; he barely noticed when the gradual stretch of his leg muscles allowed him to open wide with no help needed, freeing his hands to make love to Faros’s body. Faros, in turn, gradually thrust deeper and deeper, until his weight lay on Catos, heated skin moving against heated skin. Catos was briefly aware of his cock trapped between them, but his mind was so overwhelmed by the intense wonder of it all, that he lost touch of each small part. It was like losing himself in the magic of the drum circle, as the beat built layer upon layer, faster and faster, spiralling upwards to its climactic end. Just when Catos thought he could take no more, bear no more, that he must come or die in the frenzy of the dance, Faros eased back, gave him respite, before bringing him to the edge again. Catos cried out, not caring how much noise he made, his hands scrabbling at Faros’s back in his desperate need. Let me come, let me come! Faros groaned and thrust faster, his head bowed to Catos’s breast. Dimly, Catos was aware of fingers curling around his shaft, pushing him to that point of no return. He arched into the deep strokes, tightening around the cock that pierced him, and came with great shuddering waves of release that seem to stretch and spin into eternity, and yet be over too soon, too soon. He lay, open and filled and loved beyond his reckoning. He had not known it could be like this.

‘Catos!’ Husky and desperate, Faros’s voice brought Catos back to himself. Faros was still moving, thrusting with a rough urgency, one hand beneath Catos’s hips now, supporting him as he ground against him. His face was slack, his lips parted, his dark eyes losing focus: Faros on the edge. Catos tightened around him again, pushing up to meet him, and with a deep groan, Faros came, as though his release were torn from him. He went limp, his full weight collapsing onto Catos, and they lay together, drenched in sweat, too breathless to speak. No words were needed. Still coupled together, they held each other in the shared intimacy of their post-coital elation, their bodies saying “I love you,” with every breath, every heartbeat. At some point, they shifted, getting more comfortable. At some point, they drifted into an exhausted sleep, their limbs entwined.

When Catos woke he lay in the darkness behind closed lids trying to make sense of where he was. There was a weight across his chest that made him think of tight bandages, and for a frightening moment he thought he was in the hospital tent. The scent on the air was not the foetid smell of infected wounds, though, but the musky smell of sex, and suddenly he knew where he was and why his arse felt sore. He stretched with a satisfied sigh and opened his eyes. Faros lay awake beside him, propped on one arm quietly watching him. As he met Catos’s gaze, he smiled and leant in to kiss him, teasing a little at his lips.

‘Good morning, horseboy.’


Faros ran his free hand down over Catos’s body, cupping his hip and drawing him close. ‘How are you feeling? Sore?’

‘A little. ‘sgood.’ Catos wrapped an arm around Faros, and wriggled to get a comfortable fit as their bodies pressed together. ‘You can fuck me again, any time.’

‘Sadly, Sûlos expects us at the palace. I’m not sure why; it doesn’t sound as though we’ll be leaving until later in the day.’

There was a loud knock on the door, which saved Catos from having to find words to explain what he had set in motion, but the reprieve was short lived. Faros pulled on a dressing robe and opened the door to Rufos carrying a tray; he stepped aside to give his steward entrance and stared in dismay at his unbordered white dress and white robe.

‘Rufos! What...! Who has died?’

Rufos glanced at Catos. ‘Ah. I’ll just leave the coffee here and let Catos explain. Water is ready for your bath, and breakfast is set out in the morning room. I’ll, er, see you shortly.’ Faros shut the door behind his steward’s hasty retreat; he turned slowly, eyebrows raised.

‘Catos? Who has died? Why is Rufos dressed for a funeral?’

‘Patros. Patros has died.’

‘Patros! Are you mad! He died more than four years ago! He was cremated on the communal pyre.’

‘Maybe so, but his funeral is today.’ Catos stepped in close and laid a hand on Faros’s shoulder, uncertain of his reception. When his touch wasn’t rejected, he took Faros in his arms. ‘Yanos never lets a man be lost without holding funeral rights, even if the body is not recovered.’

‘An empty bier! How can that be a funeral?’

‘Don’t be angry. Or... or if you are angry, forgive me. I’ve seen the difference it makes, to know the dead are honoured.’

‘Why didn’t you ask me? Or tell me yesterday?’ Yes, Faros was angry, his body tense, his voice harsh.

‘Because... because...’ Because I was thinking of myself.

Faros sighed, the tension draining from him on the outbreath. ‘I can see why you didn’t want to say anything yesterday, but it seems... pointless.’

He was silent and introspective as they bathed and broke fast. Catos dismissed Faros’s manservant and took over his offices, but Faros seemed hardly aware that it was Catos who shaved him and braided his hair without ornamentation. Always a traditionalist, Faros made no fuss about wearing white; he might not see the point of performing funeral rites so long after the event, but he would do them right.

In the entrance hall, not only Rufos and his wife Callia awaited them, but also servants like the gardener Mathos, who had been slaves with Patros. Tarlos and his beautiful Lysia were there, both as friends of Faros and to represent Sûlos, since the king’s presence with his guard would have given the funeral an unwelcome prominence. With them stood Baklos and his wife. There were only a few wreaths of white jasmine at such short notice, but the sweet heady scent still filled the air. Rufos wore one such wreath, and he placed another around Faros’s neck. He held out his hands, palm up, and the two men made greeting as they had always done as slaves. All that was missing was the hug at the end - in deference to the wreaths they wore - but they clasped one another by the shoulders and smiled at each other.

There were years of memories of Patros in those smiles that Catos had no knowledge of. He stood back, aware that he had no real part to play, and also aware that he could never ask what he really wanted to know. Do you love me best? He could never ask, and Faros would never say.

Faros turned, searching for Catos. As their eyes met, his expression softened, warmed, and he held out his hand, asking Catos to join him.

He loves me; that’s all I need. Catos stepped up to his side and stayed there throughout the walk to the tombs of the kings outside the city. Beyond the tombs, the land fell away to the flood plain and the river - not a fashionable place to be cremated, but traditionally where the bodies of slaves had been brought in the past. The pyres would have been simple, the coffins some cheap wood, but that was not the case today. In the still air, the scent of cedar mingled with that of jasmine. As the mourners spread out, and the bier was laid on the pyre, Catos moved away a little, to be able to watch Faros without its being obvious that he did so.

Faros uttered the formal words of lament, Rufos spoke the eulogy, then Faros spoke again, invoking the blessing of the Valar, asking them to receive Patros beyond the mystery of death. Catos had heard it many times before, but there was a comfort in the familiarity of it.

Lord of the Breath of Arda, see us as we stand in supplication: our pleas for your intercession rise with the beat of wings on the winds of the world. Lady of the Stars, hear our voices as we mourn our loss. Light is your joy; behold the flames that burn in your honour. Lord of the Waters, you give us life, take now in your mighty river the ashes that we scatter. Lord Keeper of the Houses of the Dead, hold safe your servant Patros, until he passes from the confines of your halls; Lady of Tears bring him strength of spirit to stand at last before the One. Lord of Visions and Dreams, with your fair wife, the Lady of Healing, ease our grief as we mourn our loss.

The fire kindled quickly, roaring and crackling into a life of its own. Released from their cage, white doves flew high, wings beating as they rose into the blue sky. Faros’s face was grave but composed. Possibly only Catos, and maybe Rufos, knew him well enough to recognise how rigidly he was keeping his emotions in check. Catos ached to take him in his arms and offer comfort. The flames leapt upward, the air shimmering with the heat, and they all joined in the general lamentation that was without words, a ululation that could numb the mind. It was an entity in its own right, having a natural life whose ending was sensed collectively. Years before Catos’s small brother Minos had asked him, ‘But how do you know when to stop?’ and Catos had answered, ‘I don’t know; you just do.’

Faros scattered the seeds that signified both rebirth and the cycle of life, and Rufos poured a libation of wine onto the sun-baked soil. The reason for the wine had never been successfully explained to Catos; he presumed the gods liked a drink as much as anyone. As they waited for the fire to die down enough for a servant to rake out a little of the ash, small conversations started: shared memories of Patros. Catos put an arm around Faros’s shoulders, as any friend might do, but Faros took a deep breath and shook his head.

At last, some of the ashes were gathered into a casket and offered to Faros. He took a handful and broadcast the fine grey dust across the surface of the river. In turn, they each dipped a hand in the water, and with wetted finger, transferred a daub of the ash from casket to forehead. One of the servants took the casket for safe keeping, and they walked back into the city in a loose procession. The Lamplighters’ Inn was a thoughtful touch for the funeral feast; presumably Rufos had suggested it.

Farewells followed. Faros and Catos would leaving for Gondor after the respite; it would be weeks before they returned, only to set out again almost immediately for Khand. Tarlos and Lysia walked back to the palace with them, but Faros was quiet and withdrawn - hard to engage in conversation and answering direct questions with monosyllables. The market square had already emptied as they crossed it, and Catos was glad to reach the cool atmosphere of the shuttered palace. He had a headache from standing in the sun too long.

In the palace, Tarlos had one last surprise - for Catos as well as for Faros. The Halflings’ rooms had been refurnished for their use. Catos closed the door, smiling with affection as he heard Tarlos’s and Lysia’s muffled voices receding, interspersed with laughter that could be heard even after words could not. He turned to the dim room, and his smile faded. Faros stood gazing into the tall mirror between shuttered windows, ignoring the comfort of well-upholstered chairs and the call of the bedroom beyond. Catos could only see Faros’s face by reflection; the familiar gravity marred by a lack of focus, the ash starkly pale against brown skin. He hesitated, uncertain whether he had made a terrible mistake, whether he’d simply revived old griefs rather than helping lay them to rest. Whatever the reason for Faros’s earlier rejection of his sympathy, it had hurt.


‘Hm?’ Faros turned, but still with that unfocused look, as though he didn’t really see Catos.

‘Forgive me.’

That produced a reaction. Faros’s gaze snapped into focus, and he frowned at Catos. ‘What?’

‘I... I’m sorry.’

Everything about Faros changed, from the way he stood to his expression; everything about him was suddenly more open, receptive, softer. He held out his arms. ‘Oh, love! Come here.’ Even his voice had softened. He wrapped his arms around Catos and drew him into a kiss which was entirely lacking in passion but was nevertheless full of love. The gentleness of it brought tears to Catos’s eyes.

‘Faros, I -’

‘Hush. I just wish you didn’t all know me better than I know myself. I am a fool, I didn’t appreciate how generous your love is, and today was far from pointless.’ Faros rubbed his thumb over the ash smeared onto Catos’s forehead. ‘Thank you. I didn’t realise how much I needed that - how much I believed that Patros needed that. I know he wasn’t there, not really, but it seemed as though he were. Thank you for thinking of it. How did you?’

‘You were so upset yesterday, and... and it’s the cavalry way, so I thought...’

‘Dear Catos, do you know why I was so upset?’

‘You were thinking of Patros, remembering -’

‘Yes, I was. That’s true. But it was the thought of losing you, the thought of how much I love you. I mourned for Patros today, but the worse moment was when I imagined how I would feel if you...’ Faros took a deep breath. ‘Will you...?’


‘Will you help me to be a better swordsman?’

Catos blinked at the sudden change in subject. ‘Faros! You hate using the sword!’

‘If we run into trouble in Khand, I don’t want to be a liability, and I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I can’t defend you, should the need arise.’

‘This is the Peacemaker talking?’

‘This is the man-who-loves-you talking. I’m serious.’

The thought of Faros defending his back was both touching and scary, but at least they’d die together. Faros gave a huff of annoyance. ‘Don’t laugh! I really am serious.’

‘Then I’ll do my best. We’ll need some scimitars; I can probably -’ Catos stopped talking as Faros kissed him again - a gentle pressure of lips against his.

‘Stop planning. Come and rest.’


It was Faros’s turn to laugh. ‘Lie down, anyway. And I need to rest.’

‘Poor old man.’

‘Incorrigible horseboy.’

They smiled at each other, even as fingers reached for buttons to rid themselves of their funeral clothes. Soon they would travel together into unknown lands, be reunited with old friends, possibly share dangers, but for now all they wanted was to be naked together in bed, to love and be loved.

It was enough.

Inset Chapter: part 2 - Back to Chapter Listing


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