He woke to darkness and a small sound. Samet blinked drowsily. On the other side of the bed, Ethan let out another whimper. “Ethan, come here.”
The boy immediately moved closer, letting Samet put his arms around him. Samet focused his magic, letting the spell lend strength to his words. “Go to sleep, Ethan. You are safe here.”
Ethan snuggled in closer, clinging to Samet. He felt the boy’s body relax into slumber. Well, that made one of them. Samet sighed into the darkness, entirely too aware he had a handsome, naked young man in his arms, pressed against him. One who would do anything and everything Samet wanted him to do.
Samet sighed into the darkness. It was going to be another very long and frustrating night.
Ethan immediately sat down on the floor. “Yes, master.”
Master took a deep breath. “I meant in the chair.”
“I’m sorry, master.” He scrambled back to his feet and sat in the chair.
“Hold still.” Master began running a comb through his hair, then picked up a pair of sheers. Then he frowned, and stepped back. “Do you prefer your hair long, or close cropped?”
“As pleases you, master.”
“That’s not what I…” Master sighed. “Fine.” He stepped behind Ethan, and begin going to work with the sheers. Every now and then he’d brush the cut hair from Ethan’s shoulders and toss it into the brazier. After a couple minutes, he picked up a mirror and showed Ethan his reflection. “How is that?”
His hair was cut longer than he’d worn it previously, the strands about the width of his hand in length. “If it pleases you, master.”
“It would please me if I stopped inhaling it at night.” Master shook his head. He set the mirror on the table, then gave his own appearance a critical look. Then he set the mirror on the desk and began rummaging through the scrolls. “Where did I…”
“Top left drawer.”
“Ah.” Master retrieved the tome. “Get your lapdesk. I’m going to need you to note my observations. Write down what I say.”
“Including the curse words, master?”
“Yes, including the curse words.” Master ruffled his hair before heading to the workbench. “And spell them correctly this time.”
Ethan smiled as he retrieved the lapdesk.
Samet watched Ethan moving through one of the combat forms. He’d regained some of his lost weight and muscle, and was frankly becoming rather strapping. No doubt the handsome young prince had set the ladies of King Robert’s court atwitter. In the form, his steps were confident, and he moved with a surprising grace rather than the servile creeping he tended to do the rest of the time.
He shook his head and looked down at the parchment in front of him. Despite the distraction, he couldn’t quite bring himself to instruct Ethan to stop. He shrugged, and set the parchment aside before standing and walking over to observe more closely. “Show me.”
Ethan blinked, and turned toward him. “Master?”
“That form you just did.” Samet nodded. “Show me.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan nodded, and then went through the form again more slowly.
“Like this?” Samet attempted to imitate the movement.
“Your arm should be straight, master.” Ethan moved closer, adjusting the angle. “It is a punch, master. If you bend your wrist, it will break, master.” Ethan tilted his head slightly, then demonstrated another form. “Try this one, master.”
Slowly, he moved through the form. Ethan moved with him, occasionally stopping him to demonstrate a finer point. It took Samet several minutes to shake his head in frustration. “Perhaps we should start with an easier one.”
“I…” Ethan hesitated.
“That is the easiest one I know, master.” Ethan kept his head down, and his eyes firmly fixed on the floor.
“Are you smiling Ethan?” Samet folded his arms.
“No, master.” Ethan continued looking down.
“Are you lying to me?”
“Well…” Samet folded his arms before giving Ethan a mock glare. “Now you’ve gone and hurt my feelings.” He shook his head. “You can make it up to me by figuring out where I put that scroll on pre-Haldin astrolabes.”
“Top drawer in your wardrobe, next to the Entruvian lingual guide, underneath your sunshade, master.”
“Really?” Samet walked toward the wardrobe. “Why the hell did I put it there?” He retrieved the scroll. “Don’t you know any weapon forms?”
“So why just the punching and kicking?” Samet glanced over his shoulder at Ethan.
“I do not have any weapons, master.”
“Oh.” Samet frowned. “Right.” He waved a hand. “There are some knives in the cabinet, and a sword in the stand over there.” He shook his head at the scroll. It was the one he’d asked Ethan for, but… “This isn’t the one I need. Where is…” He turned to find Ethan staring at him. “What?”
“I am not permitted weapons, master.”
“I…” His eyes went to the collar and leash around Ethan’s neck, then he shook his head. “Ethan, who is your master?”
“You are, master.”
“Well, then.” Samet waved a hand. “Get a knife. I need to test an enchantment anyway and it would be good to have a baseline.”
The knife quivered slightly, stuck dead center in the target. “You’re getting pretty good at that.”
Ethan turned towards Samet. “Copying the scrolls did not take long, master. I had time to practice.” He retrieved the knife, then went to sit across the desk from Samet. “You have been frowning at the parchment for an hour now, master.”
“That’s because the words on it refuse to change.” Samet set the parchment aside, and rubbed his eyes. “Right, I…” He looked up when the door opened, and frowned. “Father.”
Immediately, Ethan dropped to his knees, his head bowed. Lord Vadin ignored him. “Samet, how goes your project?”
“Mathrian scribes are overly obsessed with metaphor. Which would not be quite so frustrating if so many of them were not terrible at it.” He stood, and went around the desk to accept his father’s embrace. “I have found some things of use.”
Lord Vadin caught Ethan by the hair, and pulled the young man’s head back so he could look at him. “Oh?”
Samet gestured to the maps laid out on the other table, more to take his father’s attention off Ethan than anything else. Lord Vadin followed him to the table. He pointed at some of the marks he’d made on one map. “There may be caches in these locations. I would like to send some of your scouts to take a look.”
“I will tell General Nilam he is to see to your needs.” He hooked his fingers in his belt. “I am having some guests this evening, and was wondering if you’d mind me borrowing Ethan to entertain them.”
“I would, actually.” When his father gave him a surprised look, Samet shrugged. “You know how I don’t like sharing. Additionally, I’ve been using him for a rather delicate experiment and I’d rather not risk the energies being disrupted by him requiring healing magic.”
“An experiment?” His father raised an eyebrow. “Do you require additional body-slaves?”
“Potentially, but not at the moment. Ethan has assisted me in enough experiments now that he knows how to properly report results. Training a new assistant would take time I’m not inclined to put in on what amounts to a whim of mine.” He met his father’s eyes. “Plus, Ethan doesn’t scream unless I give him permission. Makes it easier to concentrate.”
His father laughed. “No worries. Let me know how your experiment works out.” He clapped Samet on the shoulder affectionately before leaving.
As soon as the door had closed, Samet went to Ethan. “Ethan?”
“I’m alright, master.” Ethan nodded. He looked up at Samet, and his voice was small. “Thank you.” He rose. “What should I say, if I am asked about the experiment, master?”
“Tell them…” Samet shrugged, and then chuckled. “Tell them I’m working on an enchantment to eliminate the fungus that tends to infect soldiers in their more…” He winked. “Moist areas, but all I’ve succeeded in doing so far is making it highly contagious.” He gestured. “Then walk funny.”
Ethan laughed. “Yes, master.”
Robert looked over the war table. “Tell General Hubert to move the heavy cannon to Kendlemoor. He’s to keep Vadin’s men out of the valley.”
“At once, your majesty.” The messenger bowed before leaving.
He turned to look at Graham. “How in the name of all that is holy did Vadin manage to redirect a river?”
“I fear I can answer that.” Graham sighed. “The sorcerer found a convergence of ley lines.”
“Gods have mercy.” Robert sighed. “We’re scrambling just to get our men armed, and Vadin has a man who can fucking reshape mountains.” He folded his arms. And his brother was in the hands of that very man, assuming Ethan was even still alive. “We won’t win if we can’t remove the sorcerer from play.”
“Vincent…” Graham sighed. “He has been working with two of the Covenant mages since his last encounter with the sorcerer. They are certain they have a way of killing him, and believe they may also have a chance at taking him in alive.”
“Vincent didn’t exactly do well the last time he tried to take him in alive.” Robert folded his arms. “He’s lucky the sorcerer left it at humiliating him.” His voice softened slightly. “I know he feels responsible, Graham. But getting himself killed won’t help anyone.”
“So, I tell him.” Graham clasped his hands behind his back. “Daily.”
Vadin moved a marker, then frowned and put it back before frowning again. He looked up. “Ah, Samet. I was about to send for you.”
Samet walked to the war table and looked down at the area that had caught Vadin’s ire. “Why Kendlemoor? It has no resources to speak of.”
“It’s not the resources, it’s the position.” Vadin drew lines with his finger. “From here, Robert can move his forces into anywhere in this area quickly, and keep them supplied.” He shook his head. “But Kendlemoor can’t be taken from the south.”
“You don’t need to take it, you just need to keep Robert out of it.” Samet nodded to the map. “Withdraw your forces.”
“What?” Vadin raised his head. “I withdraw my forces, and Robert can secure that entire valley.”
“Anything you do just maintains the stalemate.” Samet shook his head. “Let him fill the valley.” He smiled. “Kendlemoor was a nexus once, before the Magi crafted the wards in it’s foundation. There is old, angry magic there, scratching against those barriers.”
“And you…” Vadin slowly smiled. “Can bring those barriers down.” He raised an eyebrow. “Can the Covenant mages bring them back up?”
“In theory. I doubt any among them know enough of the old magic to do so, and their oaths forbid them from dealing with any who could instruct them.” He looked down at the map. “Of course, that denies Kendlemoor to you as well.”
“I can’t take Kendlemoor.” Vadin showed a hint of teeth. “And if I can’t have it, neither can Robert.” His eyes went to the golden markers on the map. “And the archways?”
“Father.” Samet shook his head.
“Soldiers are a finite resource, Samet.” Vadin shook his head. “And conscripts won’t make up the difference. Have you found a way to open them?”
“Opening them was never the problem, Father. What good is an army you cannot control?” Samet folded his arms.
“You know the prophecies, Samet. I am the Lord of the West, and the Dragoncrown is mine. They will obey me.”
“I know enough to know that prophecies are never clear until after they have been fulfilled. And Voxin was a lunatic. Who is to know which of his ravings were vision and which a madman’s rambles?” He let his hands fall to his sides. “The risk is too great.”
“The gems of the Dragoncrown already glow, Samet. The archways will open.” He touched the easternmost of the golden markers. “Let the Coalition flail at my armies. They’ll never see the true threat until it is far too late for his pathetic people.”
Samet looked down at the map. He touched the golden marker to the west, then nodded. “The world is blind to the true threat.” He looked up at Vadin. “Was there anything else, Father?”
“No. Let me know when you are ready to take Kendlemoor.”
He stopped a few feet from the door to his quarters. Slowly, he took deep breaths, calling his magic to him. The familiar warmth spread through his body, tingling against his skin. Fire ignited around him, the flames wreathing him without burning. Then Samet clenched his fists. The power vanished. Not for the first time, he wondered if the story were true. If his father really had made a pact with the darker powers to ensure his birth. To ensure the son of Abhay Vadin was a sorcerer.
Coming home may have been a mistake. The victories he’d handed his father had only emboldened him, made him hungry for what magic could do. Made him look once more to the archways, and what lay on the other side.
And still the last piece of the ritual lay tantalizingly out of reach. Samet frowned. Or perhaps not. Maybe he was just approaching the problem from the wrong side. He nodded to himself before turning to go seek out the steward. There were a few things he was going to need. At least the steward was accustomed enough to his odd requirements to not ask awkward questions.
“Your brother is a clever man.” Master nodded to Ethan when he entered the room. “He took Candlemere back.” Ethan froze in place. Word of a coalition victory often resulted in a new form of torture. Master had yet to hurt him, but… He watched Master warily. The man appeared amused as he went to his desk. “Cut through the old mines into the catacombs, and came into the city from below.” Master frowned, and turned to look at him. “I expected this news to please you.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan nodded, uncertain of how to respond.
Master suddenly shook his head and made a frustrated sound. “He’d punish you when the coalition won, didn’t he?”
“Yes, master.” Ethan looked down at the ground.
“Your brother held his armies back a long time.” Master leaned on the desk. “He defended himself against attack, but he did not advance save when compelled by the treaties of the coalition.” Master sighed. “He was no doubt concerned for your safety.”
His fists clenched, and Ethan shook his head. “If he cared, why did he never send anyone to rescue me, master?” He heard a note of anger in his voice.
A surprised look came over Master’s face. “You…” He sighed. “No. I suppose he wouldn’t have told you. There were at least three attempts to rescue you, Ethan.”
“I…” Ethan blinked. “Three, master?”
“Three.” He folded his arms. “My father has spies in your brother’s court. He knew about each attempt before it unfolded, and those involved were captured. I believe some were executed.”
“Executed.” Ethan collapsed in upon himself. “He executed the ones who tried to save me.”
“I’m sorry, Ethan.” Master approached, kneeling in front of him.
“Do you…” Ethan took a deep breath. The faces of his men swam before his eyes. Jakob and Vincent and Matthew and… He’d surrendered so they could live. They had to be alive. “Do you know their names, master?”
“Ethan…” Master shook his head. “Do not blame yourself. Nothing my father did was your fault.”
“I am taking you with me.” Master stood back up.
“I…” Ethan raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, master?”
“Soon, I will be leaving the castle to undertake the next portion of my project. My real project, not the one my father thinks. And I am not leaving you here to…” Master clenched his fists, and the logs in the fireplace burst into flame, making Ethan jump.
It took him several moments to collect himself. “Where are we going, master?” He rose.
“Through a waypoint, into the beyond. I cannot promise you will be safe there…” He sighed. “But I know you will not be safe here, and I have no means to see you safely home. So, I am taking you with me.”
He took the end of the leash in his hand absently before leading Ethan out of the room. The young man followed happily enough, no doubt eager for a few minutes outside the room’s confines. They were halfway down the hall when he sensed the briefest tingle of magic. Samet reacted immediately, forming a protective ward even as he dragged himself and Ethan backward.
The spell collided with the ward, creating a shower of sparks. Samet flung fire in the direction against the spell had come from, and hit a shadowed figure that began screaming as it ignited. A sword swung in his direction, penetrating the ward. Samet dodged most of the blow, grunting as he felt the blade’s tip slice a gash in his left shoulder. He flung another spell at the armored attacker, sending the man flying backward to crash into one of the stone columns. Another tingle of magic. Samet brought his hands together, and the two nearby stone pedestals responded to his motion, crushing the mage between them and sending blood splattering across the two mages still on their feet, both of whom were frantically drawing their spells. Samet simply called raw power to him and flung it in their direction. The taller of the two screamed as his own spell blew up in his face, melting flesh from bone. The other managed to dismiss his glyph in time, and started to draw a wand. Samet jerked his hand, shattering the glass in the window next to the mage and sending the jagged shards into the mage’s body, pinning the man to the wall.
Then he called fire into his hand as he turned back toward the warrior.
Samet stopped, the flames wreathing his hand. The knight lay on the ground a few feet away, panting as he struggled to rise again. “Ethan?”
The boy shook his head. “Please, master. Don’t hurt him.” Ethan dropped to his knees, bowing his head. “Please, master.”
“Ethan.” The knight choked out the prince’s name.
“Who is he, Ethan?”
“Sir Vincent, master.” Ethan swallowed. “My friend, master. Please, master.”
Slowly the flames around his hand flickered and died. He lowered his arm, then took a deep breath before turning toward Ethan. He gestured at the fallen knight. Ethan immediately scurried to Vincent’s side. “Vincent.”
“I’m sorry.” The knight coughed weakly. “So sorry. My prince, I…” Blood was trickling from the side of the knight’s mouth, and his breath was coming in wheezing gasps.
“No, no.” Ethan brushed the man’s hair back. “No. You’re going to…” He turned to look up at Samet, tears in his eyes.
He looked down at the bleeding gash in his shoulder, where the knight’s blade had come within inches of ending his life. Then he growled in frustration before taking the potion out of his belt pouch and tossing it to Ethan. “Bloody hell.”
“My lord.” Lieutenant Brelith came rushing up, followed by a dozen other members the guard. “My lord, are you alright?” He glanced at the scene, then chuckled. “Well, now, one of Robert’s own knights. Your father will — ”
“Yes, one of Robert’s own knights.” Samet whirled on the lieutenant. “Waltzed right past you.” He let fire trail up his fists again as he took a step toward the man. “A bit of disciplinary action and you let assassins through?”
Brelith’s eyes widened, and he started shaking his head frantically. “No, no, my lord. I…”
Samet raised his hand, using magic to lift Brelith into the air by his throat. The carpet beneath Samet’s feet was starting to smolder. He hurled the lieutenant to the floor. “Oh, my father will be pleased indeed.” He showed teeth.
“Please my lord.” Brelith coughed. “Mercy. Have mercy, my lord.”
“Get this dog out of my sight.” Samet gestured at Brelith before looking to the other guards. “I’ve mess enough without him fouling his pants. I’ll forget the face of every man who leaves now.”
Two of the guards yanked Brelith to his feet as they fled.
Ethan watched Master silently, trying to reconcile what he had just seen. Master was a sorcerer, he’d known that. He’d seen the man work enchantments. But Master had been kind to him, almost gentle. He hadn’t truly been afraid of Master since the day Master had taken him to the underwater city.
Master’s eyes hadn’t glowed then. Not like they had when the man had Vincent at his mercy. The other men had died violently. The screams of the first still rang in his ears, and blood splattered the hem of his robes from the death of the second. Vincent had been thrown with enough force to shatter his ribs, and had been dying when Ethan had poured Master’s healing potion down the knight’s throat. Vincent stirred restlessly on the cot, still unconscious. Master had chased away the lieutenant before bringing Vincent back to their quarters and instructing Ethan to secure him.
Vincent moved again, and his eyes opened. Ethan immediately put a hand on the man’s chest to keep him from injuring himself pulling at the restraints. “Don’t move.”
“Ethan?” Vincent’s eyes widened as he blinked up at Ethan. He swallowed. “You’re alive.” He tried to raise one of his hands, and was prevented from doing so by the strap Ethan had used to bind him to the cot. “Blood of the gods.”
“Are you alright, Vincent?” Ethan gave him a worried look before beginning to gently press the man’s chest. Vincent winced a few times, but none of the ribs moved.
“I…” Vincent swallowed again. “I’m sorry, my lord.”
“It’s good to see you alive.” Ethan smiled.
“As it is you.” Vincent’s smile trembled slightly. Then he shook his head. “What happens now?”
“You did better on the subtle this time, I will give you that.” Master’s voice drifted toward them. “Which means I do not feel obligated to kill you on principle.” Master stood from where he had finished tending to his own wound, then retrieved a fresh tunic from the wardrobe. “However, you stabbed me, so I also don’t feel obligated to break out the good wine.”
“My brother will ransom him, master.” Ethan put his hand on top of Vincent’s.
“And my father will have him skinned alive.” Master shook his head. Then he walked toward them, staring down at Vincent. “You will go back and take a message to Robert. You will tell him that any of his men still in Kendlemoor when the full moon rises will learn why the wise fear the shadows.” He flicked his eyes toward Ethan. “Get him fit to ride. I want him on his way within the hour.”
“Yes, master.” He stood to retrieve another of the potions as Master headed back to his workbench. When he brought it to Vincent, Vincent gave it a suspicious look. Ethan rolled his eyes. “Don’t be stupid. Drink it.” He held it to Vincent’s lips, then set it aside when it was empty. He hesitated a moment, then leaned forward. “My nephew.” He smiled. “What’s his name?”
“Justin.” Vincent nodded. “The Queen named him Justin.” Vincent swallowed. “The Queen prays for you every night, as do your nieces.” His voice trembled.
“Give them my love. Please.”
“I will, my prince.”
“A man tried to kill you, and you let him go?” Vadin stared at his son.
“Father…” Samet shook his head and chuckled. “That particular knight has personally tried to kill me more than once. I only wish I could actually see the look on Robert’s face when our good knight has to report that I sent him off with his tail between his legs yet again.”
Vadin blinked, then he laughed. “You’re right, that actually is funny.” He shrugged. “Though I wish you’d mentioned the matter to me first. According to my spies, our Sir Vincent is the illegitimate son of Prelate Graham. We could have gotten him and Ethan matching collars.” His smile faded. “About the archway…”
“There are some things I will need to acquire before I can properly direct the ritual.” Samet frowned. “I may have to do some traveling, handle certain matters in person.”
He put his hand on Samet’s neck before pulling his son toward him and pressing their foreheads together. “That’s my boy. I knew you’d see it my way.”
“Yes, father.” Samet nodded.
Samet blinked at the whispered words, then turned his head to look at the young man lying on the other side of the bed. “Hmm?”
“Thank you, master.” Ethen moved closer, rolling to face Samet. He put his hand on Samet’s chest.
“Yes, well, here is hoping the next friend you have drop by is a little less stabby.” He started to settle back down to sleep.
Then his eyes snapped open again when Ethan’s hand started caressing him. The prince shifted, coming closer, pressing against Samet’s side before gently kissing Samet’s neck. “I am sorry you were injured, master.” He kissed Samet’s throat, then started trailing kisses down Samet’s chest as his hand moved down toward…
He caught Ethan’s hand in his own, and drew it away. “Ethan…”
Ethan gave him a confused look. “I thought this would please you, master.”
“Just stop.” Samet pushed him away.
The boy drew back, looking like a hurt puppy. “I’m sorry, master.” He shook his head. “Don’t you want me, master? Have I displeased you, master?”
Samet took a deep breath and sat up. A half blind idiot could tell displeasure wasn’t exactly what he was experiencing at the moment. “Ethan, I…” He shook his head. “I don’t want you to do anything you do not want to do.”
The infernal prince moved closer, crawling across the bed to him. Samet felt a hand on his shoulder before Ethan kissed the back of his neck. “I want to please you, master.”
Not long ago, he’d been on his knees, begging Samet not to burn his friend alive. It would be so easy, to turn and take his reward for that act of mercy. Ethan’s body, beautiful and compliant, offered up eagerly. “I always thought hell would have more fire.”
“Master?” Ethan kissed his shoulder, and began running his hands over Samet’s body.
“Go to sleep, Ethan.” Samet stood abruptly.
“Master?” Ethan blinked up at him.
“Just go to sleep. We…” He shook his head. “We have a long journey tomorrow, and…” He sighed. “Just get some sleep.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan moved back to his side of the bed. Then he frowned. “Where are you going, master?”
“To find some very cold water.” Samet stalked toward the bathing chamber.
“Ethan’s alive.” Robert let out a breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding.
Sir Vincent couldn’t bring himself to meet Robert’s eyes. “I’m sorry, your majesty. I failed him.”
“You made it further than any others have.” Graham put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “And if you hadn’t brought the warning, we —”
“I’m only alive because Ethan begged on his knees for my life.” Vincent’s fists clenched, and he shook his head. “He called that…” He gestured sharply. “Thing ‘master’. He…” Vincent swallowed. “That thing had him on a leash.”
“Enough.” Robert drew himself to his full height. “My brother still lives. You’ve lifted that weight, Vincent, and enabled us to preserve forces that would otherwise have been lost. You got four mages into the heart of Vadin’s stronghold. You could not have known that sorcerer could overcome them.”
“I drew his blood, your highness.” Vincent did look up then. “The hellspawn bleeds.”
“Good.” Robert’s lips curled up in a smile. “Then all we truly need is an arrow he doesn’t see coming.”