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Title -- "Love and Loyalty: Aeren" Book Two Chapter Six
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 Part VIX

Aeren was in a much better mood after he’d had his evening chat with the Heir Apparent. Kovar, as promised, allowed the boys to speak through the comm in his bedroom at the handsome desk by his private library. The Prince lingered nearby, comfortably settled in a chair by the fire, pretending to be very interested in a book: close enough to the comm to know Aeren and Seren were behaving themselves, but not close enough to be intrusive. He could hear their soft voices barely above a whisper, Seren’s higher and brighter than Aeren’s, and full of joy. He could hear laughter, and imprudent jokes, snippets of inconsequential gossip, Aeren’s assurances that he was well, happy, and cared for, and, then, unexpectedly, the slow swell of soft singing.

Kovar looked up from his book. He saw Aeren, his eyes closed, a smile on his face, his jaw cupped in his hand as he leaned over the table toward the projection. Seren’s exquisitely pure tenor grew until it filled the room. It was an old ballad of lovers stranded in a snowstorm, of longing and loss, and it spoke of many things of which the young boy could not possibly have had any experience. But he sang it with such sincerity that it seemed as if he had lived the pain and desire himself. It was the most beautiful rendition of the song Kovar had ever heard.





Suddenly, Seren faltered and grasped his throat. Kovar resumed his fake interest in his book.

“My music master says my upper register has a break in it that may be due to my becoming a grown up man. He said it could go on for weeks more,” Seren said, embarrassed.

“I don’t hear any problem, that was beautiful, Little Star,” said Aeren.

Seren beamed with pleasure. “I was worried. They say sometimes boys lose their range, when they get older. But I won’t because I have short vocal chords, master says, and he says they are not going to get any larger. Master says I will be a countertenor, maybe I will even keep my soprano. Master has me doing a lot of sirens and scales and it is very boring, but I worked on this song for you. I am glad not to lose my voice because when I am Avatar I will have to sing the Praises and Lord Etan is a terrible singer, and I would not want to sing like that in front of people.”

“I’m glad for us both, then. I would be sorry if you would not sing to me anymore,” said Aeren.

Seren beamed.

“Your time is up for this evening,” said Kovar, gently.

“Ohhhh” Seren whimpered, predictably.

“Be good, Little Star,” admonished Aeren. “The Prince has been kind to us. We should let him have his comm back for tonight. Saveris has to use his comm, too. We’ll get to talk together again tomorrow, just like I promised.”

Seren paused a moment, then leaned forward and whispered, “Does Saveris know you are lovers with the Prince?”

Aeren could see Saveris hovering about in the background of the projection. “Er…Seren…um…we’re out of time.” Aeren glanced toward Kovar, who continued to fake deep interest in his book.

“It’s all right, I didn’t see Saveris crying or anything,” said Seren.

Kovar coughed.

“We have to say goodnight, Seren,” said Aeren, quickly.

“Aren’t you going to kiss me?” Seren asked, mournfully.

Aeren’s eyes darted to Kovar whose meretricious performance would credit a seasoned thespian. “Seren…I…uh….well, you are a bit young for us to be kissing like that,” Aeren said in a very low voice that Kovar could easily hear. The acoustics in the room were marvelous, Kovar thought.

“But you always kiss me good night,” said Seren, frowning. “You kissed me good night when I was much younger than I am now.”

Aeren struggled to find purchase on the cliff of his next thought. “Well, yes, I did. But now you are older and…”

“I thought you said I was too young to kiss. Now you say I am older,” said Seren, surprisingly stern. “Is it because you like to kiss the Prince instead?”

Aeren glanced toward Kovar, who was determinedly reviewing the same paragraph over and over. He’d been doing it for an hour. “Well, it’s just that… well, you are becoming a man now, and I can’t behave the same way with you that I did when you were a child. I don’t want to…make you feel things you are perhaps not ready for.”

“It’s all right. I am ready to be kissed. Saveris kisses me whenever I want him to,” said Seren.

Kovar bent his head to allow the smirk on his face to be hidden by a wide swath of black hair.

“…He does?” said Aeren, darkly.

“Yes, always. You always kiss me when I go to sleep and what difference does it make if we kiss through the comm? It’s not like we’re touching anyway!’

Kovar bit the inside of his mouth. Hard.

“I know I’m not supposed to have a lover until I’m older, Aeren. I know what having a lover means.” At that declaration, Kovar felt a pang. He had no doubt that Seren knew what the mechanics of sex were, but the boy had no experience with physical love. He knew rape, not love. Kovar worried that, perhaps, Seren might confuse the acts after what he’d been through. “But I love you and want you to kiss me. No one can say that it is wrong between us, and I like your kisses better than Saveris’s kisses, because I love you best.”

“Oh,” said Aeren. He sounded relieved. Kovar was surprised how jealous Aeren was of the affection between Saveris and Seren. “Yes, yes of course, you are right.” He glanced toward Kovar again whose entire head was shrouded by his hair.

Sneaking a peek through his hair, Kovar saw the boys press their lips together on the projection plane in a way that was charmingly childlike for Aeren, thought Kovar, having witnessed Aeren’s more sensual performances. Seren sighed and they whispered good night to one another. Then Seren darted out of view.

Aeren, a sheepish expression on his face, took the private door back to his room and went quietly to bed while Kovar resumed control of the comm. Saveris appeared on the screen in his turn. The lovers shared their nightly private moment together, shorter than was their previous custom, as Saveris kept his promise to retire each night with the Heir to sleep at his side to protect him from bad dreams. In the past, endearments over the comm with Kovar sometimes consisted of the mutual stripping away of garments and a bit of acrobatic self pleasuring, but those entertaining diversions would have to be enjoyed in the morning from now on. Unable to speak candidly about the events of the day, the Prince and the Avatar’s Shield exchanged gentle words of love instead. Then they said goodbye to one another and Kovar went to bed alone.

Once again, Kovar did not summon Aeren or disturb his morning. The squire awoke alone, with his breakfast already laid out on his dining table in his large, exquisite room. Simple cadet uniforms were in his closet, and one was displayed on a rack for him to wear. The fit was perfect.

Aeren was pleased later in the day when, carried by four doughty staffers, a large, handsome cabinet arrived into which the annoying devotional altar was placed. The cabinet was decorated with a romantic scene, the tale of a Prince who fell in love with a lord from a rival House during one of Ovanan’s internecine wars. Kovar had obviously chosen it as a gift for a lover, which anyone could observe and conclude as it was hauled down the hall to Aeren’s rooms. No doubt Kovar wanted every spy in the House to see its obvious symbolism.

The pictures were created with mosaics of tiny stones. The cabinet was very old and heavy and radiated a low hum of soothing power. The inside of the cabinet was also decorated in tasteful, but erotic scenes of the lovers entwined, the stones selected for the power to amplify desire and encourage romantic fidelity. The incongruously austere devotional altar rested in the midst of the images of the copulating couple. Aeren closed the cabinet and locked it, and did not open it again, consigning the lover’s spirits to the altar and whatever bliss they might wrest from it.

The lovers on the cabinet, one depicted with night black hair and the other of gold, looked rather like Kovar and Saveris, Or like Kovar and Aeren. Aeren bit his lip at the realization and directed his attention elsewhere.

Aeren discovered a stack of books to read about Teramis history and customs on his desk. How like Kovar to prefer ancient tomes instead of a simple tablet, Aeren thought. He’d seen a couple of the books in Kovar’s private library. There was a new digital tablet too, writing tools, some toiletries, and a few games of the sort that he could play with Seren over the comm, as well as a box of ridiculously expensive candy, and a book on physical culture. Aeren flipped through the fitness book, eyebrow raised at the lavish illustrations of impressively sculpted nude young men. He put the book at the bottom of the stack and picked up the tablet.

He made a careful list of all the equipment Kovar would need to secure for their mountain excursion. Aeren checked his own snow gear, climbing equipment, his tools. His crystalcutter tools were, thankfully, carefully packed and in the closet among the belongings the Avatar sent to Aeren’s new home. Almost everything he would need was there, Aeren realized. The thoroughness and finality of it made his heart sting.

He was left completely alone until late in the evening, but for Asha’s quiet trotting in and out with trays of food. Aeren’s body grew stiff from long quiet hours of sitting, reading, writing, and staring wistfully out the window. He searched for some sort of fitness equipment and found nothing but a simple floor mat and some bands. The bands were much harder to use than he thought they would be, and when Kovar finally arrived to visit him long after the sun had set, Aeren was worked up with sweaty effort stretching his legs with them.

“Might go easier if you wore your gym clothes,” said Kovar as he walked through the private door between their apartments. He approved of Aeren taking up exercise on his own initiative and was quietly impressed by Aeren’s flexibility. Aeren shrugged in response, gently extricating himself from his pose. Kovar looked at him appraising the line of his body and how well the cadet uniform flattered it. The simple, black costume made a striking contrast to his delicate complexion and pale gold hair.

“Did you make the list of equipment we’ll require?” Kovar asked. Aeren nodded and retrieved his data tablet from the top of the desk for Kovar to review. Kovar scanned the information, adding a few notes himself with the quick tapping of a finger. “The map is inadequate,” he said.

“I have it all in my head,” said Aeren.

“Won’t do me much good if something happens to you, will it?”

“Nothing will happen because you will be there protecting me, my Prince,” said Aeren in honeyed tones.

Kovar cast him a cold grey eye, and tap tap tapped the tablet. “False identity chits, and credits. They’ll be ready tomorrow. Enhancers will disguise us getting out but not getting back in.” He bit his lip at his own words, thinking. “There’s emergency transport under the palace, I’ll take us to the edge of the border and we can slip away from there. We’ll rent a skiff from one of those agencies at the edge of the city.” He took a small crystal from his jacket and placed it against the tablet, transferring the information before handing the tablet back to Aeren. “Wipe that data,” he said.

While Aeren did as ordered, Kovar looked him up and down again. “The map,” he said critically, “seems to indicate we’ll be doing a lot of climbing. You can handle it?”

Aeren narrowed his eyes, appraising the Prince in return. “Yes. The question is, can you? Just having bigger muscles doesn’t mean you have more skill on a mountain than I do.”

Kovar smiled coolly. “I suppose not.” He hesitated, then added, “I’m having a private gym kitted out for you next door,” said Kovar, studying Aeren’s lithe length, his sturdy hands, and, for the first time, he noted Aeren’s battered feet, “so you may train without exposing yourself to other minds. I could see how uncomfortable the communal bathing facility made you.” Aeren looked surprised at that. It did make him uncomfortable, but he didn’t realize Kovar had noticed. “You’ll also have private instruction for fitness and combat. Some of that I will give you myself, of course.”

“You’re very generous. As always,” said Aeren. He wiped sweaty hair from his brow. “Are the Inquisitors gone? Did you find out anything more from them?”

“Mmm.” Kovar nodded his head toward the toilette. “Shower first, squire.”

Aeren made a slight bow that he’d read about in his protocol book, a private sign of respect, at a lesser angle than the formal obeisance. Kovar raised a brow at the gesture, and then Aeren trotted off to his shower.

He emerged wearing a thick and very comfortable robe, smelling of the lotion that he’d found on his desk that morning. His hair was still damp. He didn’t care to dry it fully with the heat wave as it tended to frizz. It tumbled over his shoulders and down his back, unbound and bright in pale golden waves. His feet were bare as was his habit, though Kovar had given him several pairs of beautiful slippers.

The Prince was no longer in the room, but he could see Asha had been busy. His bed curtains were open, the covers pulled back ready for him. Two pairs of slippers were set on a pillow, one of them far too big for Aeren, and embroidered with Kovar’s crest. Aeren stared at them in confusion. He looked around the room to see if any other changes had been made in the time he was in the bath.

A sumptuous meal was once again laid out on the table in front of the chairs before the fire that was at full blaze. A large pile of meat rolls was steaming under a glass dome. Two glasses held a sparkling beverage, and a carafe was set nearby. There was a box with Kovar’s seal on it, entwined with Aeren’s sigil.

Suddenly, Kovar emerged from the private door between their apartments, long slender white feet padding across the marble floor, his stately figure wrapped in a large, beautiful deep red velvet robe, hair slightly damp, the trail draped over one arm.

Bathing was customary before sex. Aeren looked uncomfortably from the freshly bathed Kovar to the Prince’s slippers on a pillow. This was the sort of ritual lovers engaged in. Aeren gulped.

“Go ahead and get started, don’t wait for me,” Kovar said. Aeren froze glancing toward the bed. “Eat,” Kovar elucidated.

“Oh.” Aeren smiled weakly and nodded, taking his seat by the fire and picking up a glass. He desperately wished there were alcohol in it.

“Come,” Kovar said, and the great doors of Aeren’s apartment opened, Erastos at the lead, a Quadrant of enormous Shields behind him, their uniforms immaculate, and their gleaming black hair in matched queues. Aeren did not recognize them. He realized Shields were rotated often, and he had not seen the soldiers who had struggled with him on his arrival, or the kind Shield who had gently supported his arm when marching him into Kovar’s office again.

Aeren self consciously pulled his robe tight around him, as Kovar greeted his men with an easy mien. “At rest,” he said. The Quadrant had a funny idea of what rest looked like, thought Aeren, as the big men looked almost as ramrod straight as they had before Kovar bade them ease.

“Get my slippers, Aeren,” Kovar said.

“…Yes, my Lord,” Aeren stepped over to his bed and picked up the large pair of slippers on the velvet pillow, returning as he heard Kovar say, “I don’t like it, either, but she’s not going to budge. It’s not like this is going to drain the coffers, Erastos.”  Aeren knelt at Kovar’s feet, as the Prince stepped into his shoes.

“I’ll be in seclusion,” the Prince continued, “Perhaps five days. Or as many as seven.” Aeren felt Kovar’s hand caress his head, fondling his pale gold hair. Aeren rose to his feet. As he did, Kovar turned to him, and took his squire’s chin gently in his fingers. Then he looked at his men. “Look at that. Can you blame me?”

The men laughed lightly along with their Prince. His chin still resting in Kovar’s hand, Aeren’s head tilted toward the Prince’s face. “Though even seven days may not give me enough time to take the edge off this desire,” the Prince said. Then he smiled and kissed Aeren at his temple, ruffling his hair affectionately as he did, his mouth making a light trail down Aeren’s jaw.

Aeren bristled. He saw amusement in Kovar’s grey eyes, daring him. Aeren leaned into Kovar, slipping his hand into his robe, running it down the Prince’s chest until he found a nipple. He squeezed it. Hard. The Prince let out a small gasp of surprise. The Shield’s faces lit with amusement. Aeren could feel Kovar’s astonishment though his expression was calm. Aeren pulled his hand out of Kovar’s robe and turned away to walk toward the fireplace, Kovar let out a whoop and swatted him hard on his ass. It was Aeren’s turn to gasp.

Kovar, laughing, grabbed Aeren by the arm, spun him around and pulled him tight against the plush of his deep red robe. In a whisper that everyone could hear, slurred with his lips across Aeren’s bare neck he said, “I’m going to stick my cock so far up your ass you won’t be able to sit for a month. And I won’t pull it out unless I need to piss.” Aeren shuddered and gasped as Kovar kissed the small hollow under his ear, while reaching around to cup his bottom in his large hand. “Smooth as cream, tight as a glove,” he murmured, kneading the flesh there.

You fucking asshole! What the hell do you think you’re doing? Aeren’s thought seared with rage.

The spy is in the room, Kovar thought back, coolly and clearly. A shadow of an emotion flickered across Kovar’s aura, mutable and indistinct, but Aeren could not read it.

Kovar pulled his mouth away from Aeren’s neck. “Forgive me, I’ve embarrassed you,” he said. Sere thinks we’re faking it. She thinks if she pushes me far enough, I’ll give you up. Then Kovar took Aeren’s jaw in his large hand, stilling him. Aeren’s eyes grew wide as Kovar bent and kissed him on the mouth, his lips parted, taking in Aeren’s gasp. The kiss lingered. Aeren swayed with the force of it, stunned by the power of Kovar’s body and the depth and complexity of his commanding aura. He slipped his arm around Kovar’s neck as if to save himself from falling into the well of the Prince’s emotions. They shared their breath.

The Prince smiled as he finally drew back, his hand moving from Aeren’s bottom to rest at his waist.

“I am burnt by this beauty,” Kovar said, his voice husky and warm. “To be ardent is to be a slave of fire itself. It will consume you, friend, and you will beg for more while it renders you to ash.”

The men smiled and laughed gently, acknowledging the experience that some had had, and others had not, but all had served as Shields to those in its throes. “My rudeness is insupportable,” said Kovar to Aeren. “Forgive this display of my vulgar need. I treasure you, and would not see the jewel of our ardor shamed by coarse exhibition.” Aeren and Kovar’s eyes met. The Prince meant it, truly, as an apology for his crude performance. He gave Aeren’s face another caress. There was tenderness in the touch.

Kovar turned again to his men. “This passion is maddening, and if I do not have my time with my squire, I may have to invade a small sovereign nation to quench the blaze. It’s either fucking or war.”

This earned another companionable laugh. The Prince’s passions were the stuff of legend. For long periods he was as celibate as an acolyte. During the forty years of his love with Saveris, he had favored none above him. For his part, Kovar’s devotion was nearly chaste. But when he did fall into passion, Kovar was consumed by it and there was nothing to be done but stand back and watch the conflagration. This searing ardor was a gift Saveris usually enjoyed as his exclusive privilege. Now the recipient of this honor and pleasure would be the exquisitely beautiful young squire who so very much resembled the man Kovar loved.

When the Prince released him, Aeren was flushed and trembling. Kovar smiled. “Now, go, beautiful fire, I have business to discuss.”

Kovar smiled warmly down at him as Aeren pulled away, a bit unsteady on his feet and scarlet to the roots of his hair. He could feel the eyes of the Shields on him, and those of Erastos, who smiled knowingly.

“It’s the blushes that undo me,” said Kovar. “The boy is damned undisciplined, but I can’t think of anything prettier on that face especially when he’s…Ah, forgive me again, Aeren, you have torched my good manners.”

Aeren made his way back to his seat by the fireplace, and picked up his glass.

“His lack of psionic control, you experienced it in the Reception Hall. He’ll need a great deal of Shielding: the more emotional intensity, the more Shielding. You understand. Erastos has the assignment schedule.”

The soldiers nodded solemnly. Kovar detailed his wishes for security and privacy, and instructed Erastos in how his personal affairs should be conducted, how emergencies would be handled, and how the bars should be stocked, instructions for which, Aeren thought, had a good deal of detail considering they would not eat any of the food. The office, and the two men’s apartments would be sealed. Aeren ate his dinner with pretended nonchalance.

Sere thinks we’re faking it. Well, they were faking it. How she knew this, or if it was mere speculation, he could not fathom. He wondered if his acting had been that bad. It had convinced everyone else. Of course, Aeren had had many dalliances and affairs, but few with men. And Kovar was nothing like his type of man. Perhaps the radical change in romantic attraction inspired suspicion.

He heard Kovar thanking his staff and dismissing them, giving final orders to Erastos who lingered a bit longer chatting before he too trailed out the door. Then the Prince took his seat across from Aeren by the fire. He did not look at Aeren at first, but stared quietly into the flame.

“I beg your pardon, that must have been uncomfortable for you,” Kovar said still gazing into the blaze.

“You pawing at me? I’ve had worse.”

Kovar observed his squire who was casually nibbling a pie. “So have I,” Kovar said. He smiled. “You have very soft lips.”

“What did you think they’d be like?”

“Soft lips.”

Aeren grinned. “Your lips are soft, too.”

“What did you think they’d be like?”

“Sword blades.”

Kovar let out a bark of a laugh. He reached for a meat roll and downed it almost without chewing it. He took another.

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” asked Aeren.

“The spy, was the one in front on the left,” said Kovar. “One of the few Shields we’ve taken back after a sale. He once belonged to the Hierarchy Central Authority. We suspected he was damaged, and he proved it quickly enough, but then, that’s half of why we kept him, to get a look around, see what he’d do. He’s running off to relay information about you and me and our pawing even as we speak.” Kovar picked up his glass and took a drink. “He’ll be dead in about two hours.”

“Oh,” said Aeren.

“Yes. Oh,” Said Kovar.

They ate in silence, the crackling of the blaze and the clinking of their glasses against the carafe the only sounds. Aeren nibbled a pie, and said, “You were gone all day. I thought you might send for me. You were going to tell me about you’re meeting with the Inquisitors.”

“I dealt with them through my staff. I don’t care to risk any more contact with them than I absolutely must. I spent most of the day in the office.”

Aeren blinked. “With the parchments? Why didn’t you send for me? That’s why I’m here!”

Kovar looked at him kindly. Then he sighed. “I thought you could use a break. Get away from it, just for a little while.” Aeren frowned. “Aeren two days ago you were breaking down in that office, throwing things, throwing up, and drinking yourself into a stupor. You’re not well. I don’t want you to look at it again until…until you’ve had some time away.”

Aeren laughed a little, shrugged and said, “If you say so.”

“I do say so,” said Kovar, softly. “You keep it hidden well, but your pain is searing.”

Aeren licked a bead of wine from his glass. “Do tell me more about me.”

Kovar was silent for a moment, thoughtful, his face a sculpture. He pursed his thin lips. “I felt it when I held you. You got very angry when I…when I touched you and said those things. Your anger allowed your block to slip. I felt loathing. Abhorrence. Repulsion. Rage. I blocked it before it leaked to anyone else.”

Aeren lowered his eyes and peered into his sparkling drink. He felt his heart pounding in his temples. He turned his gaze to the golden flame in the fireplace, watched it flitter and sputter. Aeren would sit on the ice floes late in the summer, and watch the sky dance in shimmering aurora borealis waves, a dervish of color. He wished he were there now.

“Aeren, look at me,” said Kovar softly. Aeren regarded the Prince with narrowed, cobalt eyes. “Saveris said to me that in a way, you are as damaged as Seren. He’s right.”

Aeren felt his throat constrict, the beginning of a sob, part anger and part grief. He didn’t want to feel either. He didn’t want to discuss his feelings with the towering glacial Prince whose warm spells were even more unnerving and disorienting than his frigid regard. Let him live in perpetual winter, Aeren thought.

“I…apologize for my poor control, Your Highness,” said Aeren. “The feelings weren’t…they weren’t directed at you.”

Kovar’s smile was an impossibly fragile thing on his stark alabaster face. “Aeren,” he said, “Etan used you as his tool, directed your power and beauty as a weapon to gather information and to influence votes in the Concordant. I’m using you now. To save the honor of my House.”

Aeren rolled his eyes. “It’s just an act. All right? I get it. We’re playing. I’m not fragile Kovar, I can handle it.”

“You say it means nothing, but it does,” said Kovar. “It hurts you. You fake indifference just like you fake love. And when you fake passion, it is truly an impressive performance, but you have never once in your life felt it. You simply reflect what others feel. You are the loneliest person I’ve ever met.”

Aeren gave a small shudder, and gripped the glass tighter.

“I have hurt you again with these words, I see,” said Kovar.

“Shut up.”

“Aeren…”

“Is this another opportunity for us to be candid with one another? Because I don’t care to. Really.”

“Then I will be candid for both of us,” said Kovar, firmly, but quietly. “I apologize for making a spectacle of you. While this display has served its purpose, I regret that it has distressed you so deeply.”

Aeren sniffed. “Mawkish doesn’t suit you.”

“The responsibility I have taken on in accepting you into my house is not a performance, Aeren. I am your Shield Master. This is a sacred bond. Your care is consecrated to me. The romance is a ruse. But the vow of the Shield Master is real. Beyond everything else, I will care for you.”

Aeren’s breath was the shuddering of wind over snow. “If you don’t mind my saying so, My Lord, I think I liked you better when you were an asshole.”

Kovar released a short bark of a laugh, but his eyes were focused on Aeren. Aeren realized, once again, that his shields were weak. Kovar was skirting the edges of his aura for stray thoughts and emotions. On Aeren’s first arrival to Kovar’s court, the Prince had been reluctant to pry. After announcing that Aeren would be his squire, Aeren sensed Kovar’s probing mind again and again.

Aeren fought for control and braced his psi wall. Kovar took in a deep breath, withdrew, and spoke. “Aeren, what happens between a Shield Master and his cupbearer is an intimate thing. The boundaries between us will fade with time. I will taunt you. I will hunt your weaknesses. I will hurt you. I will tempt you.” Aeren raised a brow. “I do not do this to harm you. I do this to strengthen you. And you will fight me.”

Aeren’s eyes were bright in the reflected firelight. “Yes. I will,” he said tartly. “How’s your tit?”

It was Kovar’s turn to blush, the faintest pink bloom across his alarmingly white skin. “Still attached to my chest,” he said. “Barely.”

This was satisfying. Aeren smiled coolly. “And was that kiss the temptation you warned me about?”

Kovar reached for a meat roll and determinedly began to eat. “Falling all over you like that makes me look the besotted fool. Sere’s spy is running back to her even now to assure her my prick is your thrall.” He sighed. “Here we are, both of us as chaste as acolytes, while my slobbering pleases you not in the least and does me no credit,” he said, resignedly and picked up two more meat rolls.

“Come now,” soothed Aeren. “If it makes you feel any better, you’re not a bad kisser.”

“How kind,” said Kovar flatly, and without enthusiasm, his mouth stuffed with two rolls, he reached for his glass and gulped inelegantly. He’d been tentative at the start of their conversation. Aeren sensed distress and genuine concern. But the wall was between them again. Aeren felt nothing and the Prince’s aura revealed nothing.

“Kovar,” Aeren ventured, “tell me about your Shield Master.”

The Prince paused in his relentless march through the meat rolls. “What do you want to know?”

 “Is he that man in those pictures in your library? The one with the short brown hair.”

A shadow crossed Kovar’s face. “Yes.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

“You are very young in those pictures. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Kovar smiled and stuffed his mouth again, talking around his dinner. “I was an unpromising prospect as a child.”

“Unpromising?”

“Gawky. Gangly. Long neck. Big nose.”

“You were rather pretty. Not at all like you are now.”

“Well. Thank you.”

“But you still have a big nose.”

“It’s aristocratic.” Kovar rose from his chair. “It’s time for your nightly swoon with the Avatar’s Heir. Come on.”

“Nightly swoon?”

Kovar rolled his eyes. “Those raptures you go into while speaking to him. By the God, Aeren, we’ll have to place pillows all around your chair lest you keel over in ecstasy and crash your precious head onto the floor.”

“Kovar, remember that thing where I said I liked you better when you were an asshole? I was lying.”

“That’s too bad,” grinned Kovar. “Why don’t you bring one of those games I brought so you and the Heir will have something to talk about instead of giggling and cooing incoherently at one another for an entire hour?”

“He’s a young boy, what do you expect him to do? Quote philosophy?”

“What’s your excuse for being so dull-witted?”

“What’s your excuse for eavesdropping?”

“I’m supposed to eavesdrop, I’m your Shield Master.”

Aeren picked up the game and trotted behind Kovar to his room, to the comm, and the desk, and the library. “Is this another one of those things where you poke and prod and test my limits?”

“No,” said Kovar. “But if Sere wanted to see what besotted looks like, she would have done better to observe the two of you smooching one another’s projection.”

Aeren froze. “I’m not besotted,” he said, quietly.

“Suit yourself,” said Kovar. “If it makes you feel better, you can tell the Heir I’m not a bad kisser, too.”

Aeren glared.


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