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Title -- "Love and Loyalty: Aeren" Book Two Chapter Five Part Two
Author-- AnonymousAvatar
series -- A Distant Soil
Disclaimer -- Colleen Doran owns all
Rating -- NC-17
Characters/Pairing -- Seren/ Kovar, D'mer/Seren
Summary -- The Avatar and his Shield Kovar must face a conspiracy that threatens everyone and everything they love. Kovar and Aeren get to know one another a little better. Comedy and Drama Ensues.

PART I PART II PART III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII Part VIX Part X Part XI Part XII Part XIII
Part XIV Part XV Part XVI Part XVII Part VXIII

In the Reception Hall, before the court and Inquisitors, Kovar had declared a storm was imminent. The bright morning seemed to belie his prediction, but shortly after Aeren’s attorney went his way, the sky darkened and the view of the mountains from Aeren’s beautiful cream and gold and blue apartment was almost completely obscured by a grey wall of wind and snow. He stood watching the beauty and chaos through the enormous windows, a sullen and quiet figure, wondering if the vista was a portent of his future here in the cold halls of Teramis.

He’d removed the flimsy shirt that made a decoration of him that morning, and replaced it with a comfortable and thick pure white sweater, that he had to doff shortly after, for as Kovar commanded, a tailor arrived in the late afternoon to take Aeren’s measure with a little scanning device. Kovar’s provisions for Aeren’s wardrobe would be supplemented soon with simple cadet uniforms, proper clothing for the gymnasium and, Aeren was surprised to hear, court clothing in the style of Teramis. He knew that the training he would receive could require that he be sequestered for weeks or even months. Aeren had no idea how long he would be isolated or how deep the isolation would be. It could be quite a while before he’d be allowed to attend court again and would need formal clothes. Then again, the style and craftsmanship Kovar would no doubt demand could require a long time to prepare.

Aeren paced the room before the big window framing the grey storm, his feet bare, his hair loose, flowing over the thick, comfortable sweater, which was slightly too big for his slender frame. Aeren had always chosen his own isolation. Fleeing to the mountains for weeks, disappearing without a word, wrapping himself up in the cool quiet of the mountains and the song of the stones. Now isolation was being forced upon him. He wasn’t sure he liked it, and it had been only his first day.

No one came to visit him, but for his tailor, and Asha, who brought him his meals every two hours to build his too-thin (she thought) figure and to replenish him after the psionic drain of the morning’s events. She didn’t speak often, but when she did she reminded him he’d soon have his own staff. It seemed important to her that everyone knew she was the personal servant of the Prince, and Aeren felt it best that he indulge her. She didn’t relish the idea of taking a step down in status to serve her Prince’s boy. She was Kovar’s and that was plain. Aeren recalled that loyalty was bred into the Teramis mindset, and he was seeing it in action in Asha. Kovar was her mission, and if that mission meant meticulous attention to a cuff and a collar, then she was there to perform it. But they had to be Kovar’s cuffs and collars.

Kovar did not show until late in the evening, the view out the window so dark Aeren could barely see the lights of the city. Kovar arrived looking perfect as usual, but perhaps a bit tired. He was still wearing his court clothes, and carrying a small elaborately carved box. Asha was behind him with a large tray, followed by two other servants, also with trays. They brought the evening meal to a sitting area next to Aeren’s fireplace and set it in front of the two large and comfortable chairs situated there. Asha lit the fire with the push of a button, and a pile of crystals burst into a bright golden flame. Kovar dropped himself into one of the chairs with a sigh, and waved the servants off. He stuck a booted foot out expectantly.

“Well?” he said.

“Well, what?” Asked Aeren.

“Boots.” Said Kovar.

“Yes,” said Aeren. “Yes, they are boots. Is this the first lesson? I can identify boots.”

Kovar smiled a lethal smile and said, “Squire, remove my boots.”

“Oh,” said Aeren. He looked flustered for a moment, and then dropped slowly to his knees, taking Kovar by the heel and calf, and tugging until one of the snug boots slid off. He was relieved it was not a thigh boot. The other soon followed. Aeren set them neatly aside and stood up.

“Socks,” ordered Kovar.

Aeren bit his lip then knelt again. Gingerly, he reached up into Kovar’s trouser leg and pulled at the long silken socks one by one, rolling them down and setting them aside. He stood again, wiping at his fingers. Kovar’s feet were a bit sweaty.

Kovar wiggled his toes. “Slippers.”

Aeren put his hands on his hips, exasperated. “No doubt you have a pair, but I have no idea where.”

Kovar looked annoyed.

“Kovar I’m sure all of this is very important to you, and I don’t mean to seem dense, but I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“No one has walked you through this? Where is your Deportment Master?”

“Asha says he hasn’t passed security yet.”

Kovar threw his hands up. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Come with me. Pick those up.”

Aeren hastily grabbed the boots and socks, and trotted after Kovar whose long strides left him behind in three steps. In a moment they were in Kovar’s apartment, where he showed Aeren the boot rack, the tray he would carry on which to place clothes to be sent down to the laundry, and a selection of Kovar’s favorite slippers. He chose a pair that he put on himself. Curtly, he shrugged out of his court coat, but left his pants on, and replaced the coat with a simple sweater, much like Aeren’s but for the color, which was a deep black. Then he stomped back into Aeren’s room, peeved that his nightly routine had been disrupted.

“We’ll have our dinner together every evening, unless you’re given notice otherwise, Aeren, you are not going to sit down and eat without washing your hands, those fingers have been on my boots and socks,” Kovar said, snippily.

Aeren flushed and rushed off to the water closet as he was told, breathless at the change in Kovar’s demeanor from this morning’s romantic parody in front of the court to this evening’s grouch and grumble.

He returned feeling a bit put upon. Kovar waved him to his seat.

Kovar glared at him from across the table setting, and Aeren glared back.

“Well?” said Aeren.

“You disappoint me. I expected more from you just now,” said Kovar.

Aeren’s lips went thin. He said, “Did you really?”

Kovar leaned forward, held out his hand, and with a simpering expression, he batted his long, black eyelashes and said in a breathy voice, “I am yours to command. I place my hand beneath your foot!”

Aeren’s jaw dropped. Kovar, unable to contain himself, grabbed his sides, rocking back and forth with a raucous guffaw that was a good deal higher pitched than Aeren would have credited him for being able to reach.

“What a performance! ‘My Master! My Prince!’” Kovar roared, “By the God, Aeren, I thought you were going to hump my leg!”

“Fuck…” groaned Aeren. “I’m never going to live this down!”

“No, probably not,” Kovar now chuckled at a low pitch that left Aeren in awe of his vocal range. Perhaps the man could sing. “What a performance! Where the hell did you get the idea?”

“I saw it in a play,” said Aeren, annoyed that he’d just been played himself and relieved he had not incurred the Prince’s wrath over his failures as a squire. “You unbelievable prick! You really had me going!”

“I delight in your need for approval, it’s charming.” Kovar said, chuckling.

“Would you kill me if I threw something at you just now?” grumbled Aeren.

“No, I’d just deflect it and make you pick it up.” Kovar dabbed a handkerchief, wiping away tears of laughter, very pleased with his joke. “Really, Aeren, I’m a Prince, I’m not a tyrant.” Aeren looked skeptical at this declaration. “I don’t expect you to know all of your duties on your first day. I can take off my own boot.”

“Does that mean I don’t have to help you with your footwear?”

“No, it means I don’t expect you to know your appointed tasks at this minute. Now stop looking sulky.” Aeren did not obey this order. Kovar smiled gently. “I’m sorry. That was unkind of me.”

Aeren closed his eyes. He felt a headache coming on.

“Aeren,” said Kovar. “Aeren, give me your hand.”

Aeren looked at Kovar, puzzled at the request. Kovar was leaning toward him, his cool silver eyes glinting in the firelight, reaching across the table with his palm open to his squire. Many Ovanan were light skinned, but Kovar was astonishingly fair. His fingers were long, and were, perhaps, elegant once, but coarsened by many years of combat. Aeren noticed Kovar often wore gloves; perhaps he was self conscious of his soldier’s hands, though they were as pale as alabaster, the skin flawless and translucent. His aura glowed through it with the light of a late winter evening reflected off snow.

“Why do you want my hand?” asked Aeren.

Kovar smiled. “You’re a sensitive, so you will know the truth of what I am saying. Correct?”

“Yes. Of course,” said Aeren, and smiling nervously, put his hand into Kovar’s palm. Aeren’s skin was also fair, but with the light blush of a morning sunrise next to Kovar’s ice. The Prince’s hands were huge in comparison to Aeren’s. Aeren looked up at Kovar, remembering that the Prince had seen the telltale signs of combat on Aeren’s knuckles that morning, but he did not make note of it now.

Kovar’s grey eyes were kind. “You could have left. You chose to stay,” he said.

Aeren shook his head. “No. I could not leave.”

Kovar smiled. “I offer the choice to you again. Aeren, you will be taken care of if you decide to go.”

“No,” said Aeren, softly. “But…thank you.”

Kovar sighed. “Our task will be difficult. Painful. And I do not know how long this will take. Months. Perhaps years.”

Aeren smiled grimly. “To train me to be a psi worthy of Teramis, or to root out Sere?”

Kovar shrugged. “Both, I suppose…but I would hope not. I know you do not want to be here.”

Aeren bowed his head. “I cannot thank you enough or apologize enough for the burden I bring to your door.”

Kovar’s free hand covered Aeren’s in his big grip. “Would it have been better for me to be ignorant? To not know that such evil was being carried out in my House? No,” he said. “I suppose you could have gone on fighting this without me, but you would not have gotten much farther without my patronage.”

Aeren’s sighed. “I suppose not.” He stirred uncomfortably. “What happened with the Inquisitors? Were they serious about…about you paying a blood price? Kovar, you can’t mean to -?”

Kovar grinned. “The Inquisitors are still here, in the guest wing, surrounded by half the wards in the Palace. Nasty little shits. The Inquisitors I mean. And yes, Sere wants money. She’ll get it, we’re still negotiating.”


“Shut it, squire. I do what I have to do. And then I’ll do what I have to do to get it back. And more. Sere will pay.”


Kovar shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t know what I’m dealing with yet, do I?”

Aeren shifted uncomfortably, his hand still held gently in Kovar’s encompassing grip. “Well…”

“We have papers to decipher and that could take a long time. We’re not sure we will find all we need to know in them, or if we do, that we will be able to stop this monstrous enterprise if it has spread elsewhere.”

Aeren looked bleak at this declaration. “Damn it, Kovar…”

“I may not be able to take this very far Aeren, you realize this. I rule Teramis, I do not rule the Concordant.”

Aeren nodded solemnly.

“Sere knows I’m paying a bribe to protect you, and she’s happy to collect it. She’s convinced I’m in love with you.” Kovar used the Ovanan word for love that meant “ardent”, “fiery”. The kind of passion that burns out, as opposed to the true love that Kovar shared with Saveris. There was a good deal to unpack in the use of the word, and Aeren struggled to wrap his mind around what Sere might be thinking. Ovanan had many words for love, states of love, and the state of being in love, while other sentient beings often used the words for love and sex synonymously. True love was rare on Ovanan, as it was a thing that lasted a lifetime. On a world where no one grew old, “in true love” meant a great deal. Some longed to experience it, and others looked upon it with dread. Kovar and Saveris, who knew what being in love meant, were certain that Seren and Aeren were very much in love themselves, while being wholly unaware of it. Seren was still achingly young. The boys were in for a rough go of a romance, Kovar thought.

“I find it a little hard to believe she was so easily fooled by our performance,” said Aeren, puzzled.

Kovar smiled. “You underestimate your appeal,” he said.

Aeren’s ready blush crept onto his cheeks again.

“If she thinks we are ardent, then she thinks I will grow tired of you, that she can wait us out,” said Kovar. “Get her hands on you after I’ve had my way,”

Aeren bit his lip at that. “Will you tell me what you learned from the Inquisitors?”

“A lot more than they learned from me; sloppy business from that lot. Then again, they weren’t expecting you,” said Kovar, with satisfaction.

“What do you mean?”

Kovar grinned. “Those waves of passion…nice work.”

“Oh,” said Aeren, blushing again.

“Inquisitors are prepared for pain, anger, and rage. And they’re used to inducing it,” said Kovar. “But that love bomb? Inquisitor Riet had multiples.”

“Oh,” said Aeren. “She didn’t!” Aeren blushed furiously again. It was really quite becoming, thought Kovar. The Prince would be sad to train him out of it. Perhaps that was why the Avatar never had.

“Yes, she did, and when she does, she leaks. Her mind, I mean. A lot. And that ugly one to her left, Romari got hard so fast I thought he’d poke a hole through his vestment. When you hit the room with that last wave, he opened up like a low rent whore.”

“Ugh! No…”

“Ugh. Yes. Didn’t you notice?”

“Um…I was trying to concentrate on…on what I was doing.”

“I was concentrating on cracking their uplinks. They have Riet do the talking so your attention is focused on her, but the mind to watch is Romari’s. With you turning him into your helpless swain, I got a look around in there. Not much, but enough.”

Aeren shuddered, suddenly cold, but the Prince’s large hands were warm and Aeren took comfort in them. He raised his eyes to Kovar’s face. Softened by the firelight, he looked quite young. Aeren had always avoided any interaction with Kovar but the most superficial kind, thinking of him only as the lover of Saveris and as a man with a mind to be avoided. Sometimes Aeren forgot how beautiful the Prince was.

“Our meal is getting cold,” said Kovar

“Ah,” said Aeren. Kovar released his hand, and Aeren drew back.

Kovar and Aeren tucked into the food, a large pile of meat rolls that Aeren had deduced were a favorite of the Prince, a warm carafe of a fine dinner wine with no alcohol content (“You’re not allowed, not while in training,” Kovar admonished, knowing that Aeren rarely drank, but for getting completely plastered in Kovar’s office on arrival,) and an impressive array of vegetable rolls, a creamy soup served in cups, small sandwiches and pies. Kovar did not like to use eating utensils, Aeren noticed. All of the food he’d been served when in the Prince’s House could be eaten with the hands or drunk from vessels. Aeren wondered if it was the sort of food soldiers usually ate.

Kovar could pack it away like nothing Aeren had ever seen, and managed to do it without spilling or dripping. It was an impressive performance.

Kovar munched a meat roll. “I found correspondence between Acteon and Amiya today, minor stuff on Acteon’s system, so we know they had a connection. I’m sure we’ll find more in those papers.” He gestured in the general direction of his office. “Sere was afraid you were coming here to tell me about it all. She must have killed Lady Amiya to cut the trail.”

“You knew how to…shortcut the Inquisitors, to make them distracted. By using me. That’s why you wanted me there in the Reception Hall, for the meeting. You wanted me to…to put on that act on that rose crystal throne. It’s the seat of a consort.”

“I know,” said Kovar, amusement creeping into his eyes.

“You’re not going to tell me Saveris sat on that…”

“By the God, no. He was never my consort. He wouldn’t have it anyway.” Aeren looked at Kovar, wide eyed. Kovar didn’t explain further.

“Whose throne was it?”

Kovar hesitated. Aeren thought he saw a shadow cross Kovar’s still expression. But the Prince picked up another roll and munched enthusiastically. “Verain; for his woman, the Lady Betaran.”

Aeren noted Kovar did not use the formal address to speak of a Prince and his lady. “He was your predecessor?”

“I knew you were poorly educated, but I had no idea just how poorly. Yes, Aeren, he was my predecessor.”

Aeren looked mildly miffed. “That was…that was over 100 years ago. You kept it?”

“Mine by right, why wouldn’t I keep it?”

Aeren shrugged, “I don’t know, just seems if you kept everything from the previous reign, that’s a lot of furniture…”

Kovar said sarcastically, “I don’t know Aeren, it’s a chair made of rock, it’s not going to break. And it was useful today, wasn’t it?”

“Have you used it before?”

“Have I used emotional manipulation before? As a tool of war? Of course I have. More times than I can count. No one knows better than a solider how passion can unravel a mind. And how love is the most important component of war. There’s more than one reason we keep matched pairs of lovers in combat, as wards and Shields: their passion is a defense and a distraction, a tool to derail the minds of weaker combatants and to strengthen the bonds of others. We’ve set pairs of lovers to fucking each other in the vicinity of foreign agents and representatives to disarm their psionic defenses. Nothing gets into the mind like passion gets under the skin. Once I knew you were a sensitive – and one of the most talented I’ve ever met – I knew exactly how to use you.”

“I see,” said Aeren.

“Don’t look so tender,” said Kovar. “I did nothing today that you haven’t done before. The Avatar has been using you as an agent and a spy. This wild boy act has served you well. You seduced God only knows how many to get what Etan wants and what you want. You tried to do it to me. And today, I amplified that power and targeted it for you.”

Aeren smiled ruefully. “You could have told me before…before setting me up like that.”

“And risked a stray thought? Ruined all that spontaneity? No. You’re good, but you’re not that good. Your rawness is part of your appeal, of course. But you’re all talent and no skill. We’ll work on that. Would have been a mess of a job if I hadn’t had half my security force shielding you.” Kovar brushed his hands on a napkin with finality. Aeren noted that he had eaten almost all of the meat rolls that had been piled in a heap on the tray. Gingerly, Aeren picked up a pie.

“If it makes you feel any better,” said Kovar, “You walked into that hall hated by most of my people, and you walked out with half of them wanting to fuck you.”

“And the other half?” said Aeren, his mouth half full of pie.

“They want to watch me fuck you,” said Kovar.

Aeren let out a bark of a laugh, his hand covering his face as he did so to keep from expelling a bit of pie. “Delighted to hear it.”

“They want their Prince happy and they think you make me happy. Then Sere tried to push you around. She gets away with that in other Houses that cower before the Hierarchy, but going after a royal consort is punching high. She decided to cut and run and see if she could get us to reveal something. She’s still trying, that’s why her Inquisitors are still here.”

“Does she know…does she know I killed those people?”

Kovar shrugged. “She may think you know something about it, but I don’t think she believes you did it. Hard to tell. I made sure to throw a few thoughts out about how annoyed I was that she was interfering with my young innocent lover. That I thought she was jealous, that I had no other idea why she would be here. That sort of thing. I don’t know if she fell for it.”

“She backed off quickly enough.”

“Yes, a bit too quickly. Which means she’s just going to wait a bit, see what happens and try something else. In the meantime, she’s going to get me to pay to keep you.”

Aeren nibbled another meat pie as Kovar made a pathway through the pile of desserts.

“Kovar, how well do you know her?” Aeren said softly. “Sere, I mean.”

“We keep our distance and work through proxies, “ said Kovar matter of factly. He quaffed his wine and reached for more dessert. “The royals avoid each other. Except for court functions, we rarely meet. I’ve had little direct contact with her.”

“What do your spies tell you, then? I know you must have them. She has them here too, I’m told.”

“Oh yes, that dolt who tried to bug your room this morning.”

“Her spies were here before I arrived.”

“Yes. For some time. Acteon dies, and the next thing I know, you show up here making accusations and spewing bile about Sere. Got my attention.”

“Why the hell do you let them stay? And report all that nonsense about…about me and you and…”

“And the spanking?” Kovar grinned at Aeren’s annoyance. “I didn’t plan that part, but it worked out well. The spy spotted you on your arrival and he saw your lusty performance during your forced removal from my office. He rushed to Sere with the news. Then she came running with her Inquisitors. We’re going to let her spies continue to send false information back to her for a day or so, then we will discard them.”


“Take their heads off.”

“I see.”

“What her spies are going to tell her is that you and I are holed up together in the most passionate accord. In reality, we will be spending all of our energies poring over a pile of dusty papers looking for evidence against her that we can use to bring her down.” Kovar sighed at this and gulped down another pie.

“Does she know about the papers?”

“She’s asked about them. She was told they were transcribed and destroyed. Oh, and we have to give her that necklace. She knows about Acteon’s will.”

Aeren hissed.

“Can’t be helped, she knows it’s coming to her. If she doesn’t get it, or if the data has been altered, she’ll know we’ve found her out.”

Aeren drew in a deep breath. “There are…images of Seren on that thing.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Aeren.”

Aeren rubbed his hand across his eyes. Then he looked into the fire, as Kovar continued to eat quietly. “You promised I could speak to Seren. Every night.”

“Of course.”

Aeren twisted his hands together, He kept his eyes on the flame.

“Aeren,” said Kovar, thoughtfully, “You said you had more evidence. That you’d hidden it where no one could find it.”


“And… it is?”


“Do you intend to tell me where? I can send someone to get it.” Aeren looked at the Prince, a dubious expression on his face.  Kovar frowned back. “No, Aeren, you are not leaving this House.”

“Well, then you are not getting the evidence.” Kovar’s face went dark. “I’m not trying to be difficult, Kovar, I’m telling you no one will ever find it. No one will find it in a million years.”

“What the hell did you do with it?” Kovar barked, annoyed.

Aeren shrugged. “It’s out there,” he said gesturing toward the window.

Kovar blinked. “Out…where?”

“There,” said Aeren again, as if Kovar was a bit slow. “In the mountains. The mines. No one is ever going to find it but me. You have to let me out to get it because I am the only person on this world who can possibly bring it back.”

“You stashed it in a mine?”

“Of course! I’m a crystalcutter! What else would I do with it? And what better place to hide a data crystal than…”

“A crystal cave.”

“Good luck finding it without me,” said Aeren brightly. Kovar groaned.

“Best to let me get it now. We could spend weeks going over those papers and miss something, or not understand its context or…”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” said Kovar.

“I can be back in just a few days. No one will ever know I’m gone.”

“Like hell you will.”

Aeren frowned. “I promise to come back, Kovar! I wouldn’t betray you!”

“You’re not going anywhere alone.”

“You can’t expect me to go out there with a bunch of your lunkish guards! They’ll contaminate my crystal fields! And lead everyone to my secret stashes! And all my treaties will be broken, I have negotiated and paid for peaceful access, it took years to broker those deals, I can’t have the military following me –“

“I hear you, Aeren,” said Kovar, his voice very soft yet powerful enough to inspire silence. Kovar stood, picking up a napkin to wipe his hands. He strolled to the fire, gazing into the flame. ‘Those mines…they’re the lands the Avatar seized from you?”

“Yes,” Aeren sighed, anger seeping into his voice. “They don’t belong to me anymore. I suppose I can’t legally return to them…”

Kovar meticulously wiped each finger with his napkin then wiped each finger again. He dabbed his mouth. “I have the impression, Aeren, that you don’t really care if you have legal access to the area or not.” He did not wait for Aeren’s answer. “No matter. I have treaties with the Avatar’s House to provide emergency security. This qualifies.”

“Kovar, you mustn’t,” Aeren’s sudden distress was mildly alarming to Kovar, who knew little of crystalcutters and their devotion to their cold hoards and caves. “I’m begging you. I need my fields to stay pure, I can’t have…I can’t just let anyone in there. And there are…unsavory types who wander the wastelands. I pay them protection money. They’re going to be furious if I bring in the law. I could lose everything I’ve built, it took me years to map that area…”

“Protection Money? Smugglers?” said Kovar, grinning at Aeren, who had nervously joined Kovar at his place by the fire.

Aeren looked sheepish. “Well…”

“Is that how you got those knuckles, Aeren?”

Aeren closed his eyes. When he opened them, Kovar was looking at him with his steely gaze. “More or less,” said Aeren.

Kovar took Aeren’s hands in his own again carefully examining them, turning them over to rub the gnarls and study the hard callouses of the palms. “What. Have. You. Been. Doing?”

“I shouldn’t have to spell it out for you,” said Aeren, flatly.

“Smuggling is a crime. Does Etan know?”

“Of course he knows!” Aeren barked. “He very much enjoys the fruits of my labors! I’m not sorry, Kovar!”

Aeren’s eyes were set in hard lines. Kovar said quietly. “You have to stop. At least while you are in this House. No more.”

Aeren bit his lip.

“You have no need for money here. I will take care of you.”

“I know,” said Aeren. He ducked his head. “I know. But Seren…I promised. I promised I’d repair the conservatory, his garden…”

Kovar sighed. “I can’t have my consort…consorting with smugglers. Smugglers and operatives for the Resistance often work hand in hand, Aeren. You’re financing crime and sedition. I cannot allow it. You won’t be able to leave here once your training starts. It is too dangerous. Your mind will be too vulnerable. You cannot have contact with these people.”

“Then let me go this one last time and get the crystal. It’s not a lot to ask, Kovar.”

Kovar looked at Aeren’s hands once again then let them drop.

“You will not go alone. My word is final.”

Aeren looked defeated, imagining his delicate and beautiful ancient crystal repositories smashed and contaminated by soldier’s boots, clumsy minds, and callous hands, the trail of the warriors easily detected by the watchful eyes of wasteland residents, always on the prowl for easy loot.

“I’ll inform the staff,” he realized Kovar was speaking, “that my squire and I will be sequestered. And that we are not to be disturbed.”

Aeren blinked. “You…want to come with me?”

“I have the legal right to enter those lands. With me at your side, no law is violated. And you won’t have better protection than you have with me.” He stretched and yawned. “I wouldn’t mind some fresh air.”

Aeren looked dubious. “Kovar, it’s dangerous out there.”

The Prince let out a bark of a laugh. “Do I strike you as delicate?”

“No. No, of course not. But…”

Kovar waited patiently.

“It’s one thing to be a warrior and another to challenge those mountains. Those caves. I live there, Kovar, it is my home. I understand it,” said Aeren proudly.

Amusement crept into Kovar’s eyes, warming the cold grey. “We do have training for that sort of thing here.”

“I don’t believe you have the kind of experience and training that you will need for where we are going,” said Aeren. “It is very dangerous. No one has ever been in some of those caves but me. If you follow me there, you must promise to do exactly as I say. To follow my lead in all things.”

“Indeed,” said Kovar.

“You’ll die down there if you don’t,” said Aeren.

Kovar studied Aeren’s face, suddenly sad and wistful. Something had happened before, something terrible. A piercing moment of emotional pain leaked from him before Aeren could draw it back. Kovar took a breath and nodded. “Very well, Prince of the Caves. I will follow your lead.”

Aeren swallowed, and nodded curtly in return. “You’ve got my skid impounded, right? We’d better use something else to get out of here, it will be recognized. We can’t ride a skid all the way. Can you climb? You’ll need equipment, skis, and proper snow gear. I’ll give you a list. How are we going to get out of the Palace without being seen?”

Kovar was amused by how quickly Aeren took over. “There are many secret passages here. It’s a Palace, after all,” he said.

Aeren nodded. “It’ll take a few days to get out and back, maybe five in all. Can you get away for all that time?”

“It is not unusual for me to shut myself from the world when I have a lover. That is our cover for this operation, after all. You. Me. Sex.”

“Ah.” Aeren recalled many a time when the Prince came to the Avatar’s House and Saveris was not seen for days.

“I will tell my staff we are in rapport, as I said. The apartment will be locked down.”

“I suppose,” said Aeren tactfully, “that people could just assume you’ve got me sequestered for training.”

Kovar grinned sardonically. “No. If you were in training, we’d have to have staff in and out of here with trays of food many times a day due to the energy we’d burn off. If we’re just fucking, we can live on what Asha stocks in the bar. As awkward as it is for me as well as for you, people will have to be told we went into my bedroom, locked the door, and screwed.” Kovar walked back to the food trays, poured himself another drink, and munched another pie. “I burned off a lot of pie today,” he declared.

Aeren followed Kovar and picked a pie off the tray as well, exhilarated, his mind electric at the prospect of returning to his crystal caves. Then he thought of how this might be the last time he would be allowed to see them.

Kovar watched his squire, studying the play of emotions over Aeren’s face, from tender hope to melancholy. “When you’ve finished here, you may use the comm. The Avatar’s Heir will be waiting for you,” he said.

Aeren’s face brightened. “Thank you,” he said, meekly.

“I didn’t ask before,” continued Kovar. “Do your rooms suit your needs?”

For a moment, Aeren looked confused by the question. “Of course they do. This is a beautiful apartment. I didn’t expect so much. I’m very grateful, Kovar.”

Kovar smiled. “I’m glad you like the rooms. Would you mind, then,” he said, his smile turning predatory, “tell me where is the devotional altar that customarily sits in that corner?” Kovar pointed toward the now empty niche. Aeren blanched.

The damned altar. He hated it the moment he set eyes on it. At first, he’d hid it under a carpet. “You can’t expect me to look at that thing every moment I’m in this room?”

“No. What did you do with it?”

Aeren gulped. Then he stuck out his chin and announced, “I put it in the water closet.”

Kovar blinked. “The toilet.”

Aeren shrugged. “I can pee without turning on the light so I won’t have to look at it while it’s in there,” he said.

Kovar smiled coolly. “I’ve had experience with your peeing habits, and I happen to know you’re a lousy shot. If you get piss on a holy altar, then I will show you my anger, and you will not enjoy the experience. If you cannot bear to look at the altar, then I will have a cabinet brought in for it and you may keep the doors closed as long as you wish. This is your apartment, after all. But I expect the altar to be out of the water closet after we have finished our meal. And before you are permitted to speak to the Heir Apparent.”

Aeren chewed the inside of his mouth, cutting off a retort. “Yes. Of course. Forgive my ingratitude…My Lord.”

Kovar smiled. “Have another sweet,” he said.

Aeren glared. But he took the sweet pie.

“I almost forgot,” said Kovar. He reached for the lovely box he’d brought with him when he’d entered the apartment. “These are yours.”

Curious, Aeren took the box and opened the delicately carved lid. On looking at the contents he asked, “What is this?”

Kovar smiled again, white large teeth on display. He was genuinely amused. “The contraband we took off the clothing you wore when you arrived; jewels with various cunning devices, cutting tools and recording whatnots. They were deactivated by our scanners when you walked in, of course, but nice try. Quite an arsenal you had packed into that jacket. And the boots, of course, had to destroy those. Oh, and that tiny little crystal there, the smooth pink one in the sealed container. That’s the one my Shields found in your rectum.”

Aeren turned a deep scarlet.

“It doesn’t work anymore, either. Stuffing a recording device up your ass will not protect it from our scanners. Again, nice try.”

Aeren’s could not contain his mortification, which leaked to Kovar who felt deeply satisfied on catching a whiff of it.

“I look forward to spending a good deal of time alone with you on our excursion, and getting to know you better, Aeren,” said the Prince of Teramis smiling broadly. “You must tell me more about your adventures as a smuggler.”

Aeren looked up at Kovar balefully, the words of the Prince’s valet Asha echoing inside his head: “He’s going to have such fun now that you’re here!”

He’s having entirely too much fun already, thought Aeren.

Good God.
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