“Ethan…” Samet’s eyes glowed as the shadows began moving. “Iron.”
Ethan drew the blackened iron blades. The soldiers around them all ensured their own bits of black iron were displayed. Several of them shifted nervously as the trees rustled around them. “My lord?” one of them asked hesitantly.
“Stay close.” Samet started walking.
“And what about them?” One soldier glanced at the three young men wearing green scarves around their arms. “Where do they come in?”
“Well…” Samet shook his head. “There really is no good way to phrase this, but…”
“They’re bait.” Ethan shrugged.
“Wait.” One of them looked up. “What?”
“We have to draw the dryads away somehow.” Samet shook his head. “Don’t worry. They won’t actually hurt you.” He glanced at the soldiers. “Try not to hurt them, either.”
Graham reached up a hand to close Deanna’s eyes. He sighed, and felt Robert’s hand on his shoulder. “Graham?”
“Thirty years, I have known her.” He stood, and blinked the tears away. “War claims the best of us.”
“I’m sorry, my friend.” Robert sighed.
Ethan felt his stomach roll as a group of vines suddenly descended from a tree and wrapped around one of the soldiers, lifting him into the air and ripping him apart. Blood splattered the other soldiers, some of whom were starting to look as if they were considering running. Fire trailed up Samet’s body, and the tree burst into flames. A screaming sound came from it as it fell away to ash in only a few seconds.
Several other trees seemed to recoil, making the path seem wider. The soldiers hefted their weapons, and kept moving. Some of them were smiling.
He tightened his magic, focusing the heat more intensely rather than on a wide spread. The lance of fire burned a hole through the Rusayaka’s chest. “How many did we lose?” Samet glanced over his shoulder at the soldiers.
“Three.” One of the knights reported. “Six wounded, two badly enough to be out of the fight.”
“Give them one of the ward crystals, and then take your positions.” Samet looked around the chamber. “Once I begin the ritual, do not cross the boundaries of the wards.”
“Or everybody in a two mile radius is going to die.” Ethan nodded.
“Yes, my lords.” The knight saluted and began calling orders to the rest of the soldiers.
Vadin rose, and walked across the room. He stared at the item sitting on the pedastal. One of the three crystals was cracked and dark. And now a second seemed to swirl, red and white shifting around each other without ever once seeming to mix. Samet had been reluctant about the archways, even going so far as to seal one. Surely that had been about controlling the forces? Showing the soul storm who was truly in command, who had the strength to… “My son, what are you doing?”
He turned, and strode across the room. An athame lay upon a table. He picked it up, and used it to pierce the skin of his forearm. Blood welled, dropping into a tarnished silver cup. “Garachus.” No rustle of wind. The demoness was still not answering him. “Garachus.” He shook his head in frustration when his second call failed to get a response. Slowly he took deep breaths.
Salt mixed with shavings of blackened iron was spread across the ground to form a circle, though he was careful not to close it. He set the cup of blood within, then went to his wardrobe. He removed a small iron box covered with ornate runes, and unlocked it. Using a kerchief so as not to inadvertantly touch the item within, he removed a tooth. Vadin closed the box once more before going back to his circle and placing the tooth into the blood. He spread more salt to close the circle, then rose once more. He took several deep breaths. “Varorgirin.”
The acrid scent filled the air, burning his nose. And then her wizened form rose up in the center of the circle. “Abhay.”
“What have you done?” He narrowed his eyes at her.
“Exactly what I told you I would do.” She smiled, blood dripping from her mouth.
“You were to train him.” Vadin shook his head.
“And I did.” Her laughter was wet. “Just as she…” Varorgirin emphasized the word. “Bid me.”
“What?” He blinked. “I bound you to…”
“You really think the likes of you…” She drew herself to her full height. “Could ever bind me? Your demoness worked her magic, Abhay, but demons only see the darkness. She bound me only because I allowed it for my own purpose.” She cackled. “You will pay for what you did to my Usha.”
“You turned her against me.” He glared at the monster.
“She loved you until the last, Abhay. And for that reason alone…” Varorgirin’s extended her claws, scratching at the barrier that protected him to create sparks. “Your soul will beg me to release it to hell.”
Vadin snarled. “Tell me what you did to my son.”
“I did nothing. It was all you. Such a beautiful mistake you made, in your hatred and pride.” She laughed, the wet sound of tearing flesh. “Usha’s son was born of fire, Abhay. Creation and destruction, consumption and purification, feared in its rage…” She showed her jagged teeth. “And treasured for its warmth and light.” She met his eyes. “Burn.”
Then she was gone, vanished once more into the ground, leaving those damned flowers behind to mock him.
And there, in the dragoncrown, the second crystal cracked and went dark.
The black stone of the archway turned to white stone as the spell collapsed. Samet staggered, and Ethan caught him before he fell. “Samet?”
“I, uh…” His eyes rolled back in his head as he lost consciousness.
“Prince Ethan…” Sir Jakob frowned. “Was that supposed to happen?”
“Well, it happened last time.” Ethan sighed. “Give me a hand?”
“How long is he going to be out?” one of the other knights asked.
“Last time was about four hours.” Ethan frowned. “He said this one wasn’t going to be as tough to seal so I, uh…” He shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“Highness…” One of the knights was looking around.
“What’s wrong, Sir Richard?” Ethan raised an eyebrow.
“We’re missing a virgin.”
Robert looked over the report, and nodded. He looked up at the messenger. “Pass the word. Come morning, we break the camp and head home.” He frowned as he watched the man exit the tent.
He turned to see Graham staring at him. “What troubles you?”
“Everything went according to plan.” Robert shook his head and folded his arms before frowning again.
“I would have thought something like that would please you.”
“Graham…” Robert took a deep breath. “Everything went according to plan.”
“Yes…” Graham raised an eyebrow.
He leaned on the table. “When Samet first offered his aid, he made one thing very clear to us both.”
Slowly, Graham nodded. “He won’t help us kill his father.”
“Dragoncrown or no, Vadin still rules Atrios, and Atrios can still win this war. If Vadin stops using the dark powers but persists in continuing his conquest…” Robert met his eyes. “Then the best case scenario may be that Samet reverts to a neutral party. I am certain he would not bring direct harm upon any of us, but one need only look at Kendlemoor to see just how devastating even his indirect aid to his father could be.”
“There is Ethan to consider.” Graham clasped his hands behind his back. “He knows Samet’s truename.”
“And yet it is Ethan that obeys Samet.” Robert straightened. “I don’t even begin to understand the relationship between those two, and…” He sighed. “And our soldiers have seen what Samet can do, seen him fight alongside them, defend them, seen him risk himself, maim himself to save my children. They’ve seen what his power can do, that he is all but an army unto himself. How many would take the field against him now?”
“Then do not surrender. Ally.” Graham shrugged.
“It is not the first alliance sealed by a marriage, and I think both would be agreeable.”
“Perhaps you missed the part where they are both men?” Robert raised an eyebrow.
“Robert, my king, my liege, my friend.” Graham smiled. “Tell Samet you would like to seal an alliance by overseeing the marriage between him and Ethan. Then please, please I beg you, let me be present in the room when anyone tries telling either of them it’s not allowed.”
“We did it.” Ethan sat on the cot and kissed the back of Samet’s neck. When Samet didn’t respond, he lifted his head. “Samet?”
“Next is Atrios.” Samet’s voice was quiet. He turned to look at Ethan. “Will you be alright, going back to…” He caressed Ethan’s face. “To Rohil and…”
“Will you be with me?”
“Always.” Samet smiled.
“Then yes.” Ethan nodded. “I love you.”
Samet bent his head, kissing Ethan. “Who is your master, Ethan?”
“You are, master.”
“Take off your clothes.” Samet leaned back, settling himself on the cot. He waved a hand, and the light in the brazer dimmed.
Ethan rose, and began unbuttoning his coat. He stripped it off and folded it before setting it on the bench. A few moments later, he was naked, standing in front of Samet. Samet’s eyes traveled over his body, and there was a small smile on his face. “The combat form, the one you tried to teach me.”
He moved through the form, keeping his movements slow. He started to turn into one of the moves and realized Samet was on his feet, standing behind him. Samet put one hand on his waist, and another on his shoulder. “Keep going.”
Samet’s hands caressed him as he continued through the form, gentle and tender. He finished the form, and started to return to center. Samet kissed the side of his neck. “I wanted you then. The first time I saw you moving like this. Beautiful and graceful.”
“You could have had me, master.”
“You weren’t you then, Ethan.” His scarred hand encircled Ethan’s throat, holding him in place as he ran his other hand down Ethan’s side. “It would not have been your choice.” He kissed Ethan’s shoulder. “Kneel.”
He sank to his knees, Samet’s hand still around his throat. Samet knelt behind him, then caught let go of his neck to catch his hands. He felt rope encircle his wrists as Samet crossed his arms behind his back, his hands against his elbows. Each knot was tied with painstaking care, snug but not tight, and the ropes then went around his chest and shoulders to create a harness. He leaned back, resting his head on Samet’s shoulder as Samet tied the final knots. “Who is your master, Ethan?”
“You are, master.” Ethan tested the bonds, then jerked slightly as a small jolt of magic came from Samet’s fingertips.
“I didn’t say you could move, Ethan.”
Samet’s hands began caressing him, light and gentle, before laying him down on the rug. Ethan started to turn onto his back, and there was another small jolt. He went still, letting Samet’s hands position him. Then he gasped when Samet’s mouth hungrily encircled his shaft, sucking hard. “Ah.” Pleasure rose in him, but Samet didn’t slow his movements. It took Samet only a few moments to bring him to orgasm, and he panted before looking up at Samet in confusion.
A small, evil smile was on Samet’s face. “Well, now that I’ve taken the edge off…” He bent, and kissed Ethan’s nipple, flicking his tongue around it lightly before raising his head again. “I’m going to be taking my time with the next part.”
Robert scratched at the tent just after sunrise. A moment later, Samet opened the tent flap. “A word?” Robert raised an eyebrow.
“Come in.” Samet nodded, and stepped back to let him enter.
He shot a quick glance at the cot. Ethan was still on it, snoring, having apparently managed to acquire all the blankets and pillows. “Isn’t he usually awake and working on his third breakfast by now?”
“He had a rough night.” Samet folded his arms. “Something troubling you?”
“Graham and I were discussing what happens after the third archway is closed.”
“All the soldiers go home to their wives and in ten months we have a massive population explosion.” Samet shrugged.
“If we are lucky.” Robert smiled, and then it faded. “You close the third archway and the demons lose their hold on your father.” He took a deep breath. “Samet, there are those among the Coalition that will demand retaliation for what…” He sighed. “Ethan wasn’t the…”
“I know what my father has done.” He lifted his head, and looked down at the scarred hand before clenching it into a fist. “And I know what some members of the Coalition did to me. If there is justice to be done, it will not be one sided.”
“I…” Robert slowly nodded. “Well, let’s just pray that the gods send some sense.” He laughed softly. “And maybe a unicorn calvary.”
“Unicorns have been extinct for the past dozen centuries.” Samet chuckled.
“Some days…” Robert lifted the tent flap to leave. “It seems the same is true of sense.”
“Your father has moved many of his soldiers back to Naluan.” Robert gestured at the wartable. “Enough that Alinor has managed to reclaim half his captured territory.” He began setting markers. “Sikander and Alinor will commit their forces to our cause. Dorasha, unfortunately, doesn’t have enough breathing room to offer more than a token force and some supplies. Lales is complicated due to…” Robert frowned. “Samet?”
“The hills are beautiful this time of year. The orchards will be in full bloom, but the streams still cold from the ice running off the mountains. If you stand on the northern ramparts, all you can see is winter, even in the full thrall of summer.” He looked up. “It’s my home, Robert.”
“I wish I had an alternative to offer you.” Robert sighed.
“I would like to meet with my father. Try one last time to…” Samet leaned against the wall. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“I…” Robert thought of all the dead. The brand burned into his brother’s flesh. That Ethan still tended to react violently at an unexpected touch. Vadin’s hand around Margaret’s throat. For the first time, it occurred to him that Samet was only a few years older than Ethan. Young enough to be his son. Part of him wanted to put his arms around Samet as he would do his own children. Instead, he nodded. “Alright, Samet. If you want to try, I will send an envoy.”
“She’s the same age as his daughter.” Tabitha folded her arms and glared at her husband.
“I am aware.” He shook his head. “And yet even knowing that, I’m hard pressed to think of a better choice. How many wars have we fought against Adormen? The practical considerations alone are…” Robert sighed. “And the thought of it makes her smile.”
“You are an old fool, my love.” She chuckled.
He kissed her, and then his face grew serious again. “We are going into Atrios under a flag of truce, to give Samet a chance to talk sense into his father.”
“Vadin won’t honor the flag.” Tabitha immediately began shaking her head. “He’s already…”
“With Samet there? If anything, Vadin will be far more eager for this meeting. The last time he saw his son his guards were dragging him away from Samet’s bleeding body. He’ll want to talk to Samet, to try to convince him to return to Atrios.” Robert sighed, and sank down onto the chair in front of the fire. “As much as I hate Vadin, I…” He looked up at her. “That boy let his hand be cut off rather than risk harm to my children. The least I can do is let him talk to his father. Maybe…” He pulled her into his lap. “Maybe Samet’s right, and the man that raised him is still in there somewhere.”
“My lord?” Lady Roshni’s voice called him back from where he’d been staring at the letter.
Vadin slowly nodded, and fixed his gaze upon the messenger’s face. “Tell King Robert I agree to his terms. I will meet him in Lales.”
He waited until the messenger had gone and the room cleared before standing. Lady Roshni walked over to him. “My lord?”
“Samet wishes to speak to me.” He half closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.
“Then perhaps he will explain why he —”
She cut off as he whirled, backhanding her across the face. She slid several feet across the floor. “You, of all people, should know better than to question my son.” He glared at her. “He has a right to be angry, I spoiled his plans and nearly got him…” He forced himself to calm down. “Do you know it was the little dog I gave him that killed the Archmage?”
Lady Roshni smiled as she wiped the blood from her face. “The little…?” She laughed as she stood. “Robert let Samet keep his pet prince? Oh, that must grate on him.”
“I told you not to underestimate my son.” Vadin smiled. “He has no less than King Robert on his leash now, and both Covenant and Coalition are tearing each other’s throats out. You see it, don’t you? He dangles his power before them, and they fight each other for the right to serve him. Sikander, Roshni. He won Adormen without raising a blade.” He held up the parchment. “And now, he comes in peace. A treaty…” Vadin laughed. “And they will crown him themselves.”