Enjoy! And I hope everyone has a lovely weekend :)
"Get it off me!" The man shrieked in a pitch that normally could only be achieved by boys before their voices changed. "Get it off!"
"Her," Rochus corrected as he crouched to pet Memory, who purred happily but didn't slow where she was licking away the blood from the cut on the man's cheek. "My cat is a lady, and being rude is not going to improve your chances of living. "
The man jerked and yelped, but between Memory and the magic pinning him in place, he wasn't going anywhere.
Rochus stood and removed his glasses, pulling out a cloth to clean them. "Now, then. You have been stealing and selling bodies without the permission of the demised or their surviving loved ones. You have been selling them to people who should not have them. I want a list of all your clients, and every last, single detail you can think of pertaining to them."
"I'm not telling you—"
"You can surrender the information while you live and breathe, or I'll let me cat feast on your brains and pull the information from your spirit," Rochus snapped, shoving his glasses back into place. "Three children have died so far and I intend to resolve this matter before that number climbs. You are guilty of cadaver thieving and aiding and abetting in illegal magic, and I am the one who decides whether it's worth the trouble to send you to court, or if it's better to simply kill you."
"All right!" The man started crying. "I'll tell, I'll tell."
Meowing crankily, Memory took a last few licks of blood and jumped neatly down, going to rub all over Rochus's shins before sauntering off to find something else for dinner.
Rochus broke the spell holding the man in place, grabbed the scruff of his smelly shirt, and hauled the man to his feet. "Start talking."
Shivering and sniffling, the man obeyed.
Two hours later Rochus dropped his off at the nearest royal garrison and, after filling out a report to be sent to the royal castle, decided it was long past time for a meal.
He paused as he reached the gates, turned back to see a young soldier with the marks of a private on his sleeves. "Yes?"
"Letter for you, magus. Nearly forgot, my apologies."
"Good night, magus."
Rochus tucked the letter into a pocket of his robe as he headed for the inn he was staying at. In such a large city, he could in theory stay at the garrison—but there were luxuries to an inn, like privacy and quiet and that he wasn't willing to go without.
Once he'd had a hot bath and a pitcher of blood, Rochus settled on his bed and finally took out the letter.
He had expected Tilo's handwriting, some silly letter to make him smile, or to inform him of something that was important, but didn't require haste. Instead, it was in Lele's handwriting—Tilo's steward, and Rochus had never seen anyone command a castle better. Why would she be writing to him?
Well, stupid to wonder when he could easily learn. Breaking the seal, Rochus unfolded the slip of paper and read:
A man has come to the castle, claiming to be a friend of yours, by the name of Carsten Bayer. His Lordship was not comfortable turning the man away, but Master Bayer is making his lordship decidedly unhappy. It is not my place to speak for His Lordship, but I worry the man will only grow more unbearable and I know His Lordship would not want to trouble you. I would appreciate your advice on the matter, and apologize if I have overstepped.
Rochus snarled at the name. Throwing himself out of bed, he dashed off a quick reply to Lele before packing up all his belongings. "Song, Silence, come to me." He threw open the window, and minutes later the ravens appeared. Fastening the letter to Silence's leg, he said, "Take that to Lele, and watch over Tilo—discreetly, if you please, I don't want him to know. But if that bastard tries to touch or hurt him, do your worst." Song cawed, and Silence flapped her wings, and then they were gone.
Next Rochus arranged for Fury and Memory to make their own way home. "Yes, I know you'd rather come with me," he told a pouting Memory who refused to look at him, putting her back to him as she meticulously bathed one bloody-covered paw. "But you don't like riding on the dragons, and I need to get home in a hurry, so you'll have to suffer. Please keep your murdering to a minimum, there is a hunting limit in these woods and I feel it should apply to you." Memory browed at him and went to jump on Fury's back, where she promptly went to sleep.
Heaving a sigh, Rochus returned to the hunt. The sooner he finished here, the sooner he could go home.
Thankfully, once he found one of the people responsible for the bad spells killing people, that man broke swiftly and the rest were soon rounded up and executed. Once Rochus was certain all their spells and materials had been destroyed, he wrote a final report, recommended a Hand look over the whole matter to be certain he'd missed nothing, and went to meet with the dragon he'd requested Lele send to him.
The dragon, a handsome woman named Antje, smiled as she saw him. Like all dragons, she almost wore more jewelry than clothing, including enormous golden hoops that stood out against her black-brown skin, matched the heavy bands of gold around her neck, arms, wrists, and waist where it peeked out from the long, lavishly embroidered purple tunic. "Greetings, magus."
"Greetings. Thank you for coming to get me. Has anything happened since I received Lele's letter?"
Antje made a face. "Only more of the same."
Rochus didn't bother to ask for specifics. It was Carsten, which meant it was easy enough to guess. "Let's go home."
Beaming, Antje shifted into a large, long and sinuous purple dragon with four glimmering wings. Rochus settled on one of her neck ridges, thighs and hands gripping firmly as she launched into the air. The first couple of times he'd ridden, he'd wound up right back on the ground. Tilo had laughed so hard Rochus had almost quit entirely, not in a hurry to continue humiliating himself.
But Tilo was very, very good at soothing wounded pride and getting himself out of trouble, and Rochus had eventually become a decent rider.
He still preferred keeping his feet on the ground, but sometimes it was damned nice to be home in hours instead of days or weeks.
Especially when he had an unscrupulous ex-lover to murder.
They landed in the castle courtyard, and Rochus had barely dismounted and thanked Antje when a familiar beautiful, vibrant figure came bursting out of the open castle doors and flew across the yard to throw himself in Rochus's arms. "You're home early," Tilo said breathlessly before kissing Rochus hard.
The first time Tilo had greeted him so, it had been a little disconcerting. Rochus was used to a quiet tower and lovers content to wait for him to find them—preferably after washing and feeding. Only Tilo had ever made a production of his returns, and kept doing it over and over and over.
When they finally broke apart, Tilo said, "I thought you'd be gone much longer. Did everything go well, then?"
"As well as it could, all things considered." Rochus frowned as he realized the smudge on Tilo's right cheek was in fact a bruise, like something small and hard had struck him. "Where did this come from?"
"I was helping move some barrels of beer yesterday, slipped and managed to knock my face against an edge. Nothing I haven't done a hundred times, stop scowling."
Rochus relaxed slightly, because Tilo was clearly telling the truth, but not entirely. "Why were you doing that? You have plenty of people to do that sort of thing, and a million duties of your own. There was no reason for you to be hauling heavy barrels up from the cellar."
Tilo's eyes narrowed. "They were short a few people, and my duties aren't that onerous…" Realization filled is face and he bristled like an angry cat. "Someone told you about Carsten, that's why you're home early. I thought I saw Song and Silence last night. Did you send them to look out for me? You of all people should know I can take care of myself." He jerked back a couple of steps when Rochus reached for him.
"You know damn good and well that's not it," Rochus said. "I came home because they said he was making you unhappy, and also I really fucking hate him."
Tilo didn't look much in the way of mollified, but he didn't move away when Rochus closed the space between them once more. "Why in the world did you have an affair with him? And if you hate him so much, why is he here swearing you're friends? I didn't know what to do with him. I thought, maybe you knew something I didn't that made him redeemable, and I didn't want to make you mad by refusing hospitality to your friends."
"It's your home, you can refuse anyone you want. I promise any real friend of mine would have told me they were coming, unless an emergency precluded it, and all of them would understand if you preferred to make them wait elsewhere until I returned. And I don't really have much in the way of friends, you know that. Memory is my best friend, after you."
That got Tilo's ire to drop, and Rochus was treated to an armful of warm and happy dragon. He lingered on a long kiss, nibbling and lapping at Tilo's lips before pushing deeper to taste his sorely missed lover.
"When did you become an exhibitionist, Rochus?"
Tearing away, Rochus shoved Tilo behind him and glared at Carsten, who stood looking smug at the top of the stairs, arms folded across his broad chest, which as usual was covered in a shirt just the slightest bit too tight. He was still handsome, with his tanned skin, pale hair and eyes the green of a lake in summer. The kind of handsome and cocky figure Rochus had found attractive when he was younger and dumber, and now simply found tiresome.
Except… Rochus narrowed his eyes, skin prickling at the presence of magic he hadn't expected. And now he looked closer, Carsten's mouth was too tight and there were faint smudges beneath his eyes, his clothes older than Carsten usually preferred to be seen in. "What are you doing here, Carsten? Besides presuming a friendship that doesn't exist and making everyone here miserable."
Carsten shrugged, face tightening for a moment before settling into a more typical look of careful indifference. "I was in the area on a job and I'd heard rumors you'd taken up with some little dragon boy, had to see it for myself. It's been almost twenty years, Rochus, you can't still be holding a grudge."
"Holding a grudge? Certainly not. You're not worth that kind of effort. But you are still a contemplable, lying, thieving bastard—and that's professionally speaking. Personally speaking, you're all that and much, much worse. It's been seventeen years since we were lovers, but only three years since I had to clean up your mess in Klemens."
Carsten's face soured. "That wasn't—"
"If you say it wasn't your fault, I'll let Song and Silence peck out your eyes and let Memory eat your liver from your still-breathing body."
Lips pulling back, Carsten replied, "Of course you still have your little night terrors around. Look, I didn't come to pick a fight, Rochus. I heard tell you'd taken up with him and I couldn't believe it. Not given how pissy you got way back when."
"She was sixteen."
"She was old enough to know her own mind. And you're a fine one to talk, taking up with someone young enough to be your son."
Tilo didn't say anything, but the faint smell of smoke that perpetually clung to him strengthened.
Rochus walked up the stairs and past Carsten, the presence of magic strengthening. Why was Carsten acting like it wasn't there? But he kept walking, replying over his shoulder, "My behavior is not a justification of yours, and there's a world of difference anyway. Go away, Carsten. You're not welcome here."
"I see you still think you're better than everyone else," Carsten retorted. "Some village idiot turned half-dead—"
The rest of what he would have said was drowned out by a roar that sent the few gawkers fleeing for their lives. The next sound to fill the courtyard was Carsten squeaking, and then screaming hysterically, as he was scooped up in Tilo's jaws and dragged into the air. "Rochus! Rochus!"
Rochus went into the castle and headed quickly for one of the watchtowers. They were seldom used as such, had in fact been filled with couches, chairs, and other old bits of furniture no longer used in the rest of the palace, so people could relax there if so inclined.
He made it all the way to the roof of the west watchtower just in time to see Tilo drop Carsten into the lake—far enough out he'd have an unpleasant time swimming back, but not so far out he'd drown before he reached land. Tilo would probably send somebody to keep an eye on him and make sure of it, anyway.
And once he managed to make it back, Rochus would deal with the real reason Carsten had come to see him.
Tilo watched Carsten just long enough to ensure he surfaced then banked around and returned to the castle. He shifted as he drew close to the tower and landed smoothly on his feet paces from Rochus.
"Been wanting to do that for a while, kit?" Rochus asked with a faint smile.
Shrugging irritably, Tilo said, "I just wanted him to leave. He's been following me like a shadow, and saying all sorts of things." He shrugged again, this time looking uncomfortable. "He never did anything, but it wasn't hard to tell he wanted to, and he clearly thought I was some naïve little idiot who'd like, only slept with one person."
Rochus made a face. "I suppose he thought only an untried, naïve youth could be coaxed into my bed. That's how he likes his lovers, though he's smart enough not to go so young he draws unseemly attention again. I think he only ever took up with me for the novelty, and quickly lost interest. If I could kill or arrest him, I would, but he's always stayed just barely on the right side of the law."
"Well I'll be happy to dump him in lakes whenever I see his stupid face. Especially after all the awful things he said about you."
"What, that you're young enough to be my son? It's true, even if I shudder at the idea of having kids at twenty-three. And half-dead isn't anything I haven't heard a thousand times before."
"That doesn't mean it's all right. You're not half-dead and you're definitely not my father."
Rochus laughed. "That would certainly be a surprise to all of us."
Tilo wrinkled his nose. "An unpleasant one. Please get such an unpleasant thought out of my head."
Stepping in close, Rochus looped his arms around Tilo's shoulders and drew him into a long, slow kiss, the kind that always, even after two years, left Tilo soft and pliant in his arms. "Distraction enough, kit?"
"You're going to have to stop calling me that eventually."
"Maybe," Rochus said, having no intention of doing any such thing, even when Tilo was fifty. He stepped reluctantly away. "I need a bath, and then I will be more than happy to resume distracting you."
Tilo nipped his lips, his throat, fingers skating over Rochus's sides and back. "Or I could help you bathe."
"Or you could help me bathe," Rochus agreed, and went easily as Tilo all but dragged him away through the castle to their room.
The room that was properly Tilo's, the master suite nearly the size of one floor of Rochus's old tower—the tower he'd let a friend use, since he more or less lived with Tilo now, though neither of them had ever really said anything formal about the matter.
It was an enormous room, with a private balcony clearly built with dragons in mind that stretched out over the lake. Rochus loved nothing more than to sit out there and enjoy the view while he read, unless of course Tilo was with him and they talked or behaved rather more lewdly than they should given how easy it was to see them from several other parts of the castle.
There was, in addition to the ridiculously large bed, a fireplace, a large corner filled with sofas and chair, another corner than had been turned into a miniature private library, and small rooms off it for clothes and other storage. Rochus's tower was nothing to sneer at it, but Tilo's home made him feel as though he were living like a prince.
Or at least the grouchy old necromancer sleeping with the prince.
Servants had already prepared a bath, no mean feat given the size of the bathtub, but the castle had some clever little system to send water to the higher floors without having to carry it bucket by bucket. Stripping quickly, Rochus climbed into the water and groaned as the heat began to sink into his skin. It was spring, and warming quickly, but still chilly enough there was nothing better than a hot bath.
Except maybe the warm, slick hands and rough cloth that started to clean him a few minutes later. Rochus dragged his eyes open and drank in the sight of Tilo flushed from steam and exertion, the sleeves of his shirt wet and clinging to his skin. Rochus pushed his hands away long enough to strip the shirt off and cast it to join his own clothes. He curled his fingers into the nape of Tilo's hair and drew him into another kiss. Slick fingers traced up and down his spine, nails dragging occasionally, leaving Rochus shivering.
"This isn't helping you get a bath, though you won't find me complaining," Tilo eventually said, grinning crookedly. "It's good to have you home."
"It's good to be home," Rochus said, and heaved up enough to drag Tilo, pants and all, into the bathtub with him. "I am sorry about Carsten."
Tilo laughed. "I've dealt with his kind before. You forget how loose I was with my favors when my father's associates and enemies came visiting. I was only frustrated because he said he was your friend, and knew so much about you it was hard to call him a liar."
"I'll tell you the names of the precious few I would allow to call me friend, and you won't have to worry about it in the future." He leaned in for another kiss, and frowned when instead Tilo squirmed away and climbed out—but only to remove the last of his clothes before sliding back into the water. Retrieving the dropped washing cloth, he resumed his earlier ministrations.
The tub was a tight, but not unmanageable fit with the two of them, though last time by the end there was more water out of the tub than in it.
This time, Rochus was content to let Tilo wash them both, not certain what he enjoyed more: Tilo's hands all over him, thorough and evil, or watching Tilo wash himself, water and soap all over that fine skin, firelight making it gleam.
He was damned grateful he didn't have to choose.
When they were finally clean and he could not take a second more, Rochus climbed out of the tub and dragged Tilo to the bed, completely uncaring they were still wet.
Tilo rolled them over so Rochus was beneath him, then stared to suck and lick the water remaining on his skin, interspersed with sharp bites that sent shivers up Rochus's spine. By the time his mouth finally dropped over Rochus's cock, it was almost more than he could take. Rochus moaned, one hand clinging to his pillow, the other tangled in Tilo's hair, as he used Tilo's mouth ruthlessly, fucking into it as deep as he could. When he could take no more, he groaned Tilo's name on one last thrust and came.
Looking well-used and pleased with himself, Tilo shifted to straddle Rochus and wrapped a hand around his own cock. Rochus knocked it away and took over, enjoying the heft and heat, the flush to Tilo's skin and the hungry, adoring look on his face.
Tilo bent to kiss, sharp and toothy and flavored of blood, and came moments later in Rochus's arms, making a mess across his skin.
He rolled to the side a few minutes later, and Rochus couldn't muster the energy to get out of bed and clean himself off. He'd probably regret it later, but he was much more interested in falling asleep. With Tilo curled against his side, head on Rochus's shoulder, he did precisely that.
Soft footsteps woke him later, to find the room had gone dark, though someone thankfully had built up the fire—and taken the bath away. How hard had he slept?
Rochus saw someone standing near the bed. "Lele?"
"Sorry to disturb you, magus," Lele said in low tones. Next to Rochus, Tilo remained fast asleep, so warm that he'd kicked off his blankets at some point, though Rochus remained covered. "That man is returning, I thought you would like to know. We've packed his things; they're waiting in the front hall."
"Carry them outside, put them on his horse if he brought one. I suppose put some food with it all. I will deal with him."
Reluctantly climbing out of his warm bed, Rochus went into his dressing room and pulled on breeches, socks and boots, a black shirt, and a mid-weight robe made of purple wool and lined in black silk, a gift from Tilo a few months ago.
He next went to the special set of locked chests at the back of the room, rifled through the box of crystals in one drawer, picked out a gleaming pendulum carved from jasper. Unlocking another drawer, he pulled out a small black silk bag. Finally he tucked a small bag of coins into a pocket. Pulling the pendulum necklace around his neck, he carried the bag with him downstairs and out to the courtyard.
Pulling the bag open, he tipped out the contents into his right palm and tucked the bag away.
A moment later Carsten came through the gates, soaking wet and clearly pissed. He froze, however, as he saw Rochus. "You fucking bastard! How could you let him—"
"I let him do nothing," Rochus said. "Young or not, he's an adult, and if you make him angry in his own damned castle, Carsten, you have no one but yourself to blame for the consequences. Why did you really come here?"
Carsten's mouth flattened. "Like I said, everybody was talking about how you were living with some kid and having a grand old time. I couldn't believe it, not with how sanctimonious you got with me. There's a lot more years between the two of you than there ever was between me and that girl. I thought maybe you'd finally loosened up."
"Out of friends and in need of a favor?"
"Fuck you, Rochus. Always acting like you're better than all of us, living in your tower and letting no one in unless it's to warm your bed. The snotty necromancer pet of the queen. Is that what he sees in you?"
Rochus shook his head, saying nothing as he heard Lele and a few others come up behind him. They set the bags containing Carsten's belongings a few paces in front of Rochus when he motioned. On top of the pile Rochus threw the sack of coins he'd brought with him. Then he let the long, slippery, thread-thin string in his left handle tumble down, and looped it over each of his middle fingers. A few softly whispered words of magic and the pendulum around his neck began to glow. "Lele, did you or anyone else happen to see a Hands uniform in those bags?"
But the sour, bitter look on Carsten's face was all the answer he needed.
"No, magus," Lele replied. "I packed everything myself. There was no uniform."
"As I thought, and instead of coming here and asking me for help, and treating my lover and his people kindly, you behave like a jealous, bitter bastard," Rochus said. "Once upon a time, I might have hit you for that."
Carsten sneered. "Fuck you, Rochus."
"Lele, you and the others can return. Go to bed. I'll tend the rest of this."
When they'd gone, Rochus touched the glowing jasper with his right hand and drew out a thin strand of the spirit inside—the spirit of an ichor spider, brown-red and viscous, as sticky and poisonous as the webs it had once spun in life. "There's money enough there to live well for a year if you're smart about, Carsten. Food for days and knowing Lele, additional supplies that should keep you well for some time. More than you deserve, given how rotten you are to everyone you cross." Carsten opened his mouth, but shut it again.
Humming softly, Rochus began to weave the long loop of string between his fingers, twisting and turning it, all the while weaving the spider's soul with it, until he spread between his fingers an intricate web saturated and sticky with poisonous soul.
Across the courtyard, Carsten had dropped to his knees and was clutching at his chest, panting heavily.
With a last few notes, the web vanished, and Carsten toppled over with a cry.
Rochus walked over to him, and as he stopped Song and Silence came swooping down from the sky to settle on his shoulders. Song's caw echoed across the courtyard.
Carsten glared up at him. "Cursing is illegal, you blood-drinking bastard. And your magic is for dead things."
"It's not a curse," Rochus replied. "Stop treating me like an idiot, Carsten. You clearly came to me for help—why not just say that. I don't like you anymore, but I would have helped you. Have helped you."
Carsten's frown cut deeply into his face as he sat up and scowled at the stones of the courtyard.
Rochus sighed. "My magic is for dead things—and things cursed by necromancy. Who did you piss off that put a spirit drain in you?"
"I don't know," Carsten said, sounding exhausted and three times his age. "I woke up two weeks ago and felt sick. Couldn't keep anything on my stomach for days, and even now, I have to be careful. A healer told me I'd been death-cursed, but she didn't know more than that. Told me to find a necromancer and to do it quickly. I'd heard you were in this area, so I came here… and I don't know. I was angry."
"Well you're going to feel like death for a few days while the ichor poison works. It can't kill you, but it is one of the few things that can break a spirit drain—and kill the source. Once that curse is broken and the necromancer is dead, you'll be fine again. I would say about six days, but possibly as many as eight. I suggest you make your way to a garrison and tell them what is happening. They can keep an eye on you, and once the curse is taken care of can ensure you're seen by a healer." He sighed again. "You know, if you'd shown up and apologized and been decent, this could have gone differently. We'll never be friends again, but we would have treated you well."
Carsten stood, weary and defeated. "Just… leave me alone, Rochus. I'm grateful you helped me, I really am, but leave me alone." He gathered up his belongings, including the sack of coins, and left without a backward glance.
When he was well out of sight and the guards dropped the portcullis, Rochus turned to go back inside.
He wasn't remotely surprised to see Tilo standing on the stairs. "What's going on?"
"He came for help, and as per usual, proved too proud and stubborn and scared to simply ask for it. Someone he pissed off had a soul drain put on him." At Tilo's questioning look, he said, "Some living souls are weaker than others, usually from a hard life or, like Carsten, being a bastard. It means they're susceptible to necromancy, the same way a weakened body is more susceptible to illness. A soul drain is a curse that drains the soul drop by drop, usually over the course of weeks, though it can be done in days or dragged out for months. It's already been two for Carsten; another four and he'd be dead."
"So he came here and acted like an ass?"
"I think he doesn't know any other way to be, and fell back on bad habits," Rochus replied.
"He'll be all right now?" Tilo asked.
Rochus shrugged. "He'll be safe from the soul drain. I can speak to what anyone else might do to him."
Nodding, Tilo took his hand and drew him close. "I'm glad you were able to help him. Nobody deserves to die like that." He leaned up and kissed Rochus softly. "You've yet to feed properly, magus. I'm sure you're even hungrier after casting a spell like that. Come to bed and have a drink."
"If you insist," Rochus replied, and kept hold of his hand as they vanished into the castle.