The High King's Steel Heart
I don't now if this is very Merry Christmas per se, but I've been wanting to write it forever and it finally cooperated so. Here is ten thousands words of 'Wow, Sarrica really never learns'.
Sarrica laughed as he dropped the empty bucket and shoved his now-soaked hair from his face. The air was cool, and the water frigid, but after a long, grueling day of travel and an unexpected ambush from Carthians it felt good. "How do I look Lesto?" He touched his fingers lightly to the stitched up wounds on his left cheek, the work of Bentan bear claws that had grazed him instead of raking his face open as they'd intended.
"Like a buffoon who should learn to duck faster," Lesto said shortly, and upended a bucket over his own head, sluicing away the soap. A cadet stepped forward to dry him off, but Lesto took the towel and did it himself, dismissing the cadet with a jerk of his head.
Another cadet stood nearby, and at Sarrica's indication, came forward to dry him off, taking care of the many cuts and bruises that covered him, though thankfully his armor had done its job and the damage was minimal.
"Stop being cranky just because those Carthians managed to surprise us."
Lesto cast him a look full of hostility, but Sarrica had learned only months after they'd met that this sort of behavior meant Lesto was mad at himself for not knowing every last little thing in the world. He would find at least a dozen ways to blame himself for not anticipating the ambush, even though the entire point of an ambush was the element of surprise. Not to mention there were dozens of officers above Lesto, including the damned High Commander, who were actually responsible for knowing such things. If they weren't to blame, Lesto certainly wasn't. But there was no point in telling Lesto that.
"Come on, we kicked their asses and didn't lose a single soldier. For being on the wrong end of an ambush we did damned well. Father will be pleased when he reads the reports later." If he read them, but Sarrica wasn't going to ruin his own good mood by thinking too hard about his father's increasing apathy. "Can't you be pleased about something for five minutes?"
"I'll be pleased when I'm home in my bed and no longer out here getting stabbed and shot at—and listening to your yammering."
Sarrica rolled his eyes. "Oh, whatever. Go yell at some cadets, or find Captain Dinaari and compare notes on strategy or sword-sharpening methods or what lullaby you sing to your armor at night."
Lesto gestured crudely as a pair of cadets finished securing his armor, snatched up his sword belt, and stormed off.
Well, so much for enjoying a relaxing dinner with his best friend. As hostile and snippy as Lesto always was, and worse lately since they gave up the stupid idea of being lovers, Sarrica wondered if they were friends. Or if Lesto was just one more person who felt like he had no choice when it came to the imperial crown prince.
Sighing, he motioned for the waiting cadets holding his clothes. He'd only just pulled on his breeches when a familiar, yet unknown figure approached at a brisk pace, a frown on his face that Sarrica knew all too well. Sarrica had thought he'd grown immune to the beauty and draw of the Arseni family, especially given Lesto was rarely further than an armlength away, but watching Nyle Arseni walk toward him was like good brandy and a punch to the stomach all at once. He was even more beautiful than his brothers, gray eyes touched with blue as he drew close, hair actually long enough the curl showed. Like his brothers, he wore armor and weapons with ease, carried himself in that way only an experienced soldier could. Lesto had said Nyle had come back even healthier than they could have hoped after his years abroad in a last, desperate attempt to overcome the illness nothing else had fixed—he hadn't mentioned his brother had come back gorgeous and sexy. Sarrica really wanted to know what he looked like naked.
Nyle stopped short a few paces from Sarrica and looked him over briefly, disapproval flickering over his face. "Beg pardon, but have you seen Lieutenant Lesto? I was told he was here…" He glanced around the small area of camp that had been marked off for Sarrica, Lesto, and the commanding officers to use as a makeshift bathing room. "Did he get called away?"
"No, he stomped off in one of his snits," Sarrica said with a grin. "You know Lesto. If he's not perfect, he's mad for half the day. I'm sure he's nagging his long-suffering captain about everything they should have done—or has been given shit work for nagging."
Instead of laughing with him as Rene would have, Nyle narrowed his eyes. "Who in the Realms are you to speak so flippantly of my brother?"
Sarrica's jaw dropped, and nearby his bodyguards all had a sudden coughing fit. Shooting them nasty looks, waving off the one about to explain Sarrica's identity, he turned back to Nyle. "Who am I? Are you just trying to be funny?"
"Do I like look I want to amuse you?" Nyle asked scathingly. "I am long past tired of people in this camp deriding my brother simply because he's good at what he does and is friends with the imperial crown prince. Now where is he? I need to speak with him and I don't have time enough to waste on one more spoiled brat jealous of my brother."
"I'm not a spoiled brat," Sarrica snapped. "I'm his friend."
Nyle's lip curled. "I doubt that. My brother doesn't waste his time befriending buffoons who spend their time standing around camp half-naked and making snide remarks rather than doing actual work."
The guards were almost crying with their efforts not to laugh, and the poor cadets were too horrified to run or speak.
"Then he must really hate having an arrogant ass who makes sweeping judgments based on little to no information for a brother," Sarrica snapped. Why had he thought this irritating, condescending bastard attractive? The only thing he wanted to do now was break his fucking nose.
"You know nothing about me and my brother, I assure you. Now stop wasting my time and tell me where he's gone."
"You're so fucking smart, figure it out for yourself," Sarrica said. "I have better things to do with my time than put up with rude, disrespectful asses like you. But if you try asking politely, and curbing that insolent tongue, maybe I'll tell you."
"I beg your fucking pardon?" Nyle demanded. "I'm disrespectful and insolent? Better an arrogant ass than a spoiled brat about as useful as a bag of sand."
"Better a spoiled brat than an arrogant ass so fucking annoying my family had to ship me overseas to get some peace."
Nyle's face turned red, and the tumble of colorful epithets that left his mouth then was all the warning Sarrica got before he went stumbling back from a punch at least as nasty as one of Lesto's.
"Don't interfere," Sarrica said when his guards made to interfere. Then he returned the punch full measure. After that, it was violence and cursing and people scrambling desperately to get out of their way.
By the time someone grabbed him, and he and Nyle were dragged apart, Sarrica was a mess of bruises and blood, and his breeches were beyond saving. Nyle looked even worse. Sarrica writhed and jerked and twisted, but Lesto kept firm hold of him. Heaving, wiping blood from his face with a bare arm and only managing to make the mess worse, Sarrica glared murder at Nyle, who returned it full measure.
"Sarrica," Lesto said sharply.
Finally jerking free, Sarrica said, "It's over. I want him out of my sight."
Nyle bristled. "Who are you to—"
"He's the imperial crown prince!" Lesto bellowed.
Nyle's mouth dropped, then snapped shut. He looked about half a step from throwing up. "Oh," he said weakly. "I didn't…"
Sarrica accepted the towel one of the cadet's handed him with a trembling hand and cleaned the blood from his face. Looking to Rene, who was still holding on to Nyle, he said, "Get him out of my sight, and keep him out of my sight until I say otherwise." Turning away, he barked for more water and clean breeches and started the process of bathing all over again.
Thankfully, everyone but the cadets and bodyguards left—even Lesto, and Sarrica hoped he was tearing Nyle apart. What sort of Pantheons-damned halfwit didn't know who he was? Even being away for years didn't excuse it—Nyle been home for two already, and even if they hadn't properly met there were plenty of other things that should have made it obvious.
And he wasn't a spoiled brat!
Seething, Sarrica jerked on his clothes as the cadets handed them to him, then stood still as they got his armor and tunic in place. Taking the sword belt when it was handed to him, he carried it as he crossed camp to his tent in the center, bodyguards flanking him.
He ordered them to remain outside the tent—and stopped as he finally noticed a cadet standing there holding a sealed leather message tube stamped with the imperial crest. A message from or regarding his father. Sarrica's anger was replaced by fear, worry, and exhaustion. Thanking the cadet, he took the missive and slipped into his tent, letting the flap fall closed behind him.
The scratch of pen against paper and the rattle of the coffeepot on its heater were the only sounds in the tent, the ruckus of the camp muffled by the semi-isolated location of his tent and the quality of it. At the far end, the only secretary he could stand was busily working on compiling reports and writing out the letters Sarrica had dictated the day before.
Going over to the coffeepot, Sarrica poured a cup and topped it off with sweetened cream. "Thank you for the coffee, Myra."
Myra looked up with a brief smile, but didn't slow in his work, and Sarrica left him to it. Going over to his bed on the opposite side, he pulled off his boots then sat on the bed. Heaving a sigh, he broke the seal on the message tube and tipped out the contents.
The letter was from his father's head secretary, brief and disappointing: his father was being even more apathetic and unpredictable than usual. Worse, he was becoming increasingly forgetful, with flashes of irritability that made him highly unapproachable. The healers had examined him again as Sarrica had requested, but found nothing amiss, though they'd advised rest and given him some soothing tonics, and claimed it was likely simply overwork. Sarrica sighed and kept reading, but the rest of the letter was only what he'd expected: there were things that needed to be done that his father was not able or willing to do. Sarrica would have to abandon the army to return home to deal with them, unless he could convince his father's secretary to send as much as he could to the front so Sarrica could deal with it there. Which would be preferable; if he went home he wouldn't be able to leave again for at least a month, and he was needed here, damn it. At least until he had a High Commander he could fully trust, not the worn down, increasingly selfish bastard who'd long ago lost any desire to do his job but wasn't willing to relinquish the perks. And crown prince Sarrica might be, he didn't yet have the authority to toss the man out.
Sighing again, Sarrica said, "Myra, you might want to take a break."
Myra looked up with sympathy, brushing back a strand of shoulder-length hair that had slipped free of its knot. "Yes, Highness." He put all his papers away with brisk efficiency and slipped out of the tent right before Lesto barreled in.
"Sarrica! What in the Pantheon were you thinking!"
"Thinking? I was thinking your brother is an arrogant, foolish ass who got exactly what he deserved."
Lesto looked like he wanted to do some hitting himself, despite the bags under his eyes and the strain turning them a dark, stormy gray. "You should have told him who you were!"
"He should have known who I was," Sarrica snapped.
"How could he know? He's never met you. He's never met your father. Ever since he returned he's been at the Fathoms Deep estate or with the army. How could he possibly fucking know what you look like?"
"It doesn't take a genius to figure it out," Sarrica muttered, and at Lesto's glare added, "Whatever. Ignorance doesn't excuse how damned rude he was, all the assumptions he made and conclusions he leapt to."
"You are a spoiled brat, and an ass, and—"
Sarrica shot to his feet. "You know, you could try to understand my side of the matter."
"He's my little brother!" Lesto bellowed. "And you're the imperial crown prince—"
"I know! No one ever lets me fucking forget it!" Sarrica shouted over him. "Crown prince this, imperial that. I have to be fucking perfect all day every day, and your stupid brother strides up and is rude right from the start for no reason, but somehow it's entirely my fault and not his at all."
"Get out," Sarrica snapped. "I'm not in the mood to deal with you anymore than him. I've had my fill of Arsenis lately."
Lesto's mouth hung open. "What—"
Sarrica barreled on. "I'm sure you'd prefer not to see me anyway. Go back to your brothers and all three of you can complain about how spoiled and stupid and unbearable I am." When Lesto just stood there, Sarrica snarled, "I said get out."
Lesto looked like he'd been slapped, but after a moment anger took over and he said coldly, "Yes, Your Highness. My honor to serve." Turning on his heel with military precision, he strode out of the tent in the same fury he'd arrived.
It should have felt like a victory, but instead Sarrica just felt more miserable than ever.
He glanced at the message he'd dropped on the bed, and picked it up as he slumped down. What had he been thinking? Nobody needed him here. Realms, they'd obviously all be happier if he left. Anything he could do on the field, Lesto could do a hundred times better. Even High Commander Palmay gave Lesto a wide berth, although that was probably more because he knew damn good and well that Lesto was already better than him. Lesto wouldn't be Palmay's replacement, that was probably going to be General Verence. But given how quickly and early Lesto had risen to Second Lieutenant in Fathoms Deep, and how much of the general army already did his bidding because to not do his bidding was at best a death sentence, it was already widely acknowledged that one way or another, Lesto would succeed Verence.
All Sarrica had wanted was to celebrate their victory in what could have been a nasty, tragic ambush with his best friend. His only friend, if he was being honest. Who was too busy with his brothers to have time for Sarrica.
Stupid to feel jealous. Of course Lesto wanted to spend time with his brothers, especially now that Nyle wasn't just home or training to adjust to life in the Harken army, but actively a part of Fathoms Deep. Now that Sarrica thought about it, maybe that was why Lesto had seemed more distant lately: he didn't need Sarrica anymore now that Nyle was back.
Gripping the missive tightly, Sarrica strode to the tent entrance and flung it open. Looking at the bodyguard who turned, he said, "My presence in Harkenesten has been urgently requested. Have someone come pack my things. I'm leaving immediately."
The bodyguard looked started, but only bowed. "Yes, Your Highness. Shall I summon Lieutenant Lesto to—"
"No," Sarrica said. "He has plenty of better things to do. Thank you." Letting the flap fall, he set to work packing the personal effects he didn't want anyone else touching, stomach churning with the love-hate of seeing his father, all the problems that would be waiting for him, and the realization that the man who'd always been the brother he'd never had didn't hold him in the same esteem. Why should he, though? He had real brothers. It was always Sarrica who'd needed Lesto.
Of an infuriatingly beautiful, breathtakingly arrogant bastard with gray-blue eyes and a mean right hook, Sarrica didn't think at all.
Sarrica wanted to die. He didn't care how, he just wanted somebody to come along and put him out of his misery. He heaved again into the chamber pot, stomach, chest, and throat aching because it wasn't even close to the first time they'd joined his fucking head in rebelling against him.
Finally finished with the last round, he sprawled on the floor and closed his eyes, tears threatening as his head continued to do its best to tear itself apart. Pantheon, he hated this—especially when he couldn't even lock himself in his room to hide his pathetic, humiliating behavior from the rest of the world. No, anybody could stride into his tent and see him lying on the floor, close to tears like a child, all because of a glorified headache.
He'd returned to the front barely two weeks ago, depressed and desperately hoping somebody had missed him.
Instead, Lesto was avoiding him, Nyle kept shooting him nasty looks and the few occasions they'd spoken he'd been so painstakingly polite Sarrica wanted to punch him, and Rene was avoiding all of them.
If he sent Lesto a note right now, would he put Sarrica out his misery? But that required getting up, and if Sarrica moved he would be right back to throwing up. Instead he kept his eyes closed to ward off as much of the damned light as possible, and tried to focus exclusively on breathing.
"Your Highn—" the voice cut off. "Are you all right?"
"Go away unless you're going to kill me," Sarrica muttered, cringing inwardly. Of course, of fucking course it was Nyle who entered his tent right now. The one Arseni who never had any reason to come see him had to pick this particular moment to need him for something. Hadn't he told his guards not to let anyone in unless it was an emergency? Or had he just thought about telling them? He couldn't remember.
He didn't move, or even open his eyes, as he heard Nyle crouch down beside him. "Go away."
Nyle huffed. "You really are too stubborn for your own good. Why are you sprawled on the floor like you lost a fight with a hangover?"
"It's not a gods-damned hangover!" Sarrica snapped, eyes opening as he sat up—and immediately regretted it, barely shoving Nyle out of the way in time before he heaved up his empty stomach, leaving behind the vile taste of stomach acid. When his stomach finally gave up, he crawled over to his bed and climbed slowly up into it, flopping onto his back and dragging a pillow over his head to get rid of that wretched, evil light.
Pantheon, he wished he could take his powders and sleep for a day or two. But once the scouts returned they'd be on the move again. If they didn't push Benta back now, they'd be stuck in Cartha through the winter, and Harken did not have the edge in winter—and Cartha and Benta knew it. Whoever those two didn't kill, the weather would.
Not that he was eager to be home either, but he wasn't going to leave his people out here to die because he was a coward when it came to his father and all the people who expected Sarrica to be a perfect High King, and to be so now and didn't hesitate to rebuke and harangue him whenever he did something wrong.
Why hadn't Nyle put him out of his misery yet? Why did he keep thinking about useless Arsenis?
"Lift up the pillow."
"No," Sarrica said.
Nyle said something crude and yanked it away, but before Sarrica could order his execution, he laid an ice cold cloth across Sarrica's forehead. "Try that."
Sarrica almost cried, it felt so good. "What did you do?"
"I melted snow and soaked the rag in it. I had a friend in Illiar who suffered crippling headaches. Their word for them is 'migraine'. I didn't know you suffered them."
"Why would you know? It's not exactly the kind of thing one puts in a letter to a brother," Sarrica said. "What did you need? I don't think you were sent here to help me with my headache. I haven't snarled at the healer or my bodyguards that much." And he hadn't even seen Lesto in three days, let alone talked to him, but he had enough misery to deal with currently without thinking about that.
Nyle's hesitation was palpable, but before Sarrica could snap at him to get on with it, he said, "I came to apologize, but I think it should wait until you're back on your feet. It seems wrong to apologize to a man who can't even stand up right now."
Sarrica dared to crack one eye open at that. "Apologize? For what?"
"Getting into a fight with the imperial crown prince, after being too stupid to recognize him?"
"As was loudly pointed out to me, you couldn't have known I was the crown prince. That's hardly stupid. Also, being crown prince never kept Lesto from yelling at me like a drunk soldier two hours late to training, or Rene from calling me a sandbag ten times a month. I don't see why you should be any different." He closed his eye again. "Anyway, that was six…or maybe seven…weeks ago. It's over and done. Forgiven and forgotten."
"And yet you and Lesto are still at odds, and I feel that's my fault," Nyle said quietly, and so sadly that Sarrica opened both eyes that time and even dare to sit up. His stomach lurched, and his head wasn't happy with him, but he shoved the misery away by focusing on Nyle's distracting presence and the worry on his lovely face. "So I was hoping to set things right."
"What's between, or not between, me and Lesto is our business and nothing to do with you."
"You fought with him because you fought with me. He's been even more hostile and snappish and unreasonable ever since you left, and I didn't think it could get worse but then you returned and now he's tipped right into despondence."
Sarrica snorted at that, then immediately winced. "Lesto couldn't be despondent if he had to do it to save Fathoms Deep."
"He's been acting like somebody cut off his limbs. If you don't believe me, summon him and see for yourself. I've done my part, you two clods will have to work the rest out. Lay back down before you heave all over me."
"Nothing left to heave," Sarrica replied, but gladly laid back down. "I'm sorry, too, by the way."
Nyle smiled, and Sarrica really wished he hadn't done that because now Sarrica was never going to be able to not think of Nyle, and what it might be like to get along with Nyle, and get along well enough to fuck Nyle. "Feel better, Highness." He dipped his head slightly and strode off in the perpetual rattle of sword belt and armor.
Sarrica closed his eyes and, with the soothing cold rag on his head, managed to doze for a bit.
When he was stirred awake a few hours later, the tent was dark save for a single lamp, and one of his bodyguards was shaking him. "Your Highness, the scouts have returned. The High Commander is waiting to speak to you."
"All right. Send for Lesto."
"Yes, Your Highness." The bodyguard faded off and Sarrica stumbled over to the table where his coffee, water, and a single bottle of wine were kept. He didn't as a rule allow alcohol in the camps; too much trouble came from giving soldiers access to it, and he preferred they not go into battle drunk or hungover. And he didn't make a rule he wasn't willing to follow himself, but he had the bottle saved for when they were able to go home. The first night back in Harken, he'd buy them all beer and wine and let them celebrate until they fell over, and he had one good bottle for himself—and anyone who might drink with him. Usually that would be Lesto.
The familiar rattle of Lesto's sword belt alerted him a moment before Lesto swept into the tent like he owned it, like they hadn't ignored each other for nearly seven weeks.
"Did you need something, Your—why in the Realms are you standing when you look two seconds from falling over? Get your stupid ass in bed."
Sarrica refused to cry about being yelled at by Lesto. He wasn't that pathetic. "I'm fine. These stupid headaches haven't killed me yet, more's the pity, so I doubt they'll do it today."
"You shouldn't be up," Lesto snapped.
"The High Commander is waiting to tell me what the scouts had to say. Do you want to keep nagging me, or do you want to get on with business?"
Lesto glared at him, but whipped around and told the guards to admit High Commander Palmay.
He stepped inside a moment later, sour-faced and flushed from contraband alcohol, looking between them disapprovingly. "Your Highness, I've come to report."
"Then report, please," Sarrica said, finally surrendering to his headache and Lesto's glaring by taking a seat at his work slash dining table. "I don't suppose it's good news?"
"It's not bad news," Palmay said. "The Carthians have withdrawn, and there is no sign of them in the vicinity, and barely any trace at all even a day's journey out. The Bentans are where they have been, but seem settled for the winter. There are indications there's a second camp further west, and possibly something smaller—perhaps a scout party—to the east, but there's no signs of activity. If they're planning to attack again, they're not doing it anytime soon."
Lesto looked at him like he was the stupidest thing Lesto had ever seen. "Are you kidding me? They're not settling in, you imbecile, they're waiting. The Carthians withdrew because it will take at least three weeks for additional Bentan forces to arrive, and they may as well use the time to resupply themselves and prepare for whatever winter will throw at us. That scout party is probably there to alert the main camp their reinforcements are arriving—and to be the first to know if the reinforcements send out a distress signal, and the first to act if they go missing. You're the fucking High Commander—"
"And you're being insubordinate and disrespectful," Palmay snapped.
"Not if he's pointing out things you should have," Sarrica said.
Palmay shifted his contempt to Sarrica. "With respect, Your Highness, I do not need two little upstarts barely out the classroom telling me how to do my job. Lieutenant Lesto sees a fight in every nook and cranny, and you do whatever he says because you're incapable of thinking for yourself."
"Get out," Sarrica said. "Don't bother leaving your tent until I say otherwise. You are temporarily relieved of duty." When Palmay bristled and made no move to go, Sarrica summoned his guards and ordered him removed. Jerking away when the guards grabbed him, Palmay stormed out in a flurry of threats and curses.
Lesto sighed. "I might feel bad if he hadn't slurred every last damn word."
Sarrica jerked his head at the guards. "Make certain he goes to his tent, see that he stays there, and no one goes in or out, not even to deliver his meals. Anything he needs gets left at the entrance."
Exhaustion, anger, and helpless frustration gnawed, driving his headache right back from bearable to agonizing. "Lesto, go find General Verence and sort out how we're going to deal with this. If we're going to be stuck here through the winter, which it sounds like we will if you're correct, then we need…" He dropped the cold rag and just barely reached the chamber pot in time to heave up the water he'd drunk. "Go fix it, Lesto. Please. I'll help as soon as I'm functional again."
Lesto nodded and strode off, but cast a look over his shoulder, equal parts worry and silent order to actually get some rest.
Some imperial crown prince he was. Sarrica dragged himself back to bed, buried his face in his pillow, and tried to will himself to die. As usual, it didn't work. Eventually, though, the exhaustion won out.
When he woke, it was to hazy sunlight and the smell of fresh coffee, the familiar clatter and bang of the camp rousing. His head, mercifully, was behaving. Sarrica slowly sat up and climbed out of bed, and walked over to the coffee. When his stomach didn't rebel at the first sip, he took several more and went to the entrance. "Find Lesto and tell him to come here."
Sarrica sat at his table and sighed at the pile of missives and reports that had appeared while he slept.
Before he could look at it all, Lesto swept in, followed by a cadet bearing breakfast. Sarrica's stomach growled at the smells. Camp food wasn't his favorite thing in the world, but neither was he going to complain about it, not when he'd missed dinner and the camp cooks for once seemed to know what they were doing. A bowl of meat and gravy, glistening with fat, and a stack of fresh bread had never looked so good.
"Feeling better, then?" Lesto asked.
Sarrica was too busy eating to reply, but when he'd swallowed he said, "So are we talking again?"
"You're the one who told me to get out," Lesto said. "That you were sick of Arsenis. You made it sound like we weren't friends anymore."
Sarrica scowled at his breakfast. Why had he opened his mouth? He hated this sort of thing, especially first thing in the morning. "You've been distant since we stopped trying to be lovers. You defended Nyle but wouldn't defend me—"
"How do you know I didn't defend you? I yelled at Nyle first, you know."
"Yes. If you'd held off throwing a temper tantrum, I would have told you that. You're my brother too, even if you have all the sense of a rock, and I was furious he'd gotten into a fight with you—especially that he threw the first punch. He's too smart to behave that way."
Sarrica laughed. "None of us is too smart to behave that way. We're at war, behaving that way is precisely what we're supposed to do." He laughed harder at Lesto's expression. "I'm not wrong."
"Whatever," Lesto groused, and stole a piece of bread from the plate beside Sarrica's half-empty bowl.
"Order your own breakfast, ass. Why didn't you?"
Standing, Lesto went to the entrance and requested another breakfast tray.
When it came, Sarrica stole a piece of bread, grinning when that got him another look, and used it to sop up the last of the gravy and bits of meat in his bowl. "So what did I miss?"
"We're stuck here. If we leave, Benta is going to make a move. Cartha doesn't like them anymore than they like us, but I get the feeling they'll let Benta pass with little trouble simply because they hate us a little bit more—and Harken wouldn't fare well against that kind of attack right now."
No, it wouldn't, not with Tricemore being difficult and everyone around them being useless, and the High Court a Pantheon-damned nightmare because his father wasn't doing anything, there wasn't a consort to do it for him, and Sarrica couldn't be in two places at once—and it was slightly more important he be here, especially since he couldn't trust his High Commander.
"Oh, marvelous," Sarrica said, grateful he'd already finished his breakfast because his appetite was gone. "So if we go home, we're fucked, and if we stay here Cartha and Benta will put up with each other just long enough to crush us from all sides."
Lesto didn't bother to reply, simply continued eating his own food.
"I hope you've come up with a plan."
"Of course I have, and the general is helping me refine it." He looked proud of that, but he should. Lesto was made for the military in a way even Sarrica wasn't, though he didn't think it was exaggerating to say he was a close second. At the very least, he was the only one who could knock Lesto flat in the sparring rings. "It still needs a bit of work, but we'll have it ready to present tomorrow, I think. At worst, the day after. I'm already working on supply lists and such."
"That's not your job."
Lesto jerked one shoulder in a shrug that said there were many reasons he was stuck doing it anyway, but he didn't feel like elaborating.
Sarrica sighed. Once upon a time, the Harken Imperial Army had been one of the most revered in the world. Since his great-grandfather's day, that reputation had steadily declined. He and Lesto were going to have a long, hard road repairing it—and that was on top of all the other reformations and changes Sarrica was working on, or waiting patiently to implement. "Try not to kill anyone, Lesto. Bottle all that frustration of yours to take out on Bentans."
"I intend to, unless you act like a hole-ridden bucket again," Lesto said, finishing his coffee and standing.
"Do you really think of me as a brother?" Sarrica asked, then immediately regretted it because it sounded even more plaintive and pathetic out loud than it had in his head.
Lesto stared at him, expression flickering between surprise and anger. "Why are you asking such a stupid question?"
"I told you!" Sarrica snapped. "Ever since we quit the lovers thing, you've been distant—and even more so since Nyle officially joined Fathoms Deep. I thought maybe…" He shrugged and looked down at his hands in his lap, curling and uncurling his fingers.
Lesto cuffed him.
"Hey!" Sarrica snarled, surging to his feet, one hand going to his throbbing head. "What was that for, you ass?"
"I already have enough stupid people in this camp to deal with! I don't need one of the few other persons with intelligence suddenly turning into a halfwit. Stop asking such ridiculous questions." Lesto scrubbed at his face. "I didn't mean to be distant. I've been tired. What little free time I have usually goes to doing things that shouldn't be my problem or trying to keep Nyle from getting his fool self killed."
Sarrica smirked. "Let me guess: his arrogance and his mouth get the better of him."
Lesto narrowed his eyes.
"What?" Sarrica asked.
"Something you want to tell me?" Lesto asked, folding his arms across his chest.
"What are you talking about? No." He would quite literally rather die than ever admit to Lesto that he thought his brother was eminently fuckable. "Stop glaring at me, what's your problem now?"
Lesto dropped his arms and stole Sarrica's coffee, draining the cup and setting it back on the table with a bang. "That explains a lot." He laughed—long and loud and really, Sarrica was going to punch him in another minute.
"Don't make me regret reconciling," Sarrica said with a glare.
Lesto's grin was worse than any of his glares. "You have my permission, if that's why you're prevaricating."
Damn it. Sarrica desperately persisted with ignorance. "I still have no idea—"
"Don't insult me. Just remember he's an Arseni, so you'd better have respectable intentions."
Sarrica gave up, burying his face in his hands. "I hate you. I never want to see you again. Go away."
Laughing again, Lesto swept from the tent in that way of his that had left more than one unwitting foreigner confused as to which of them was the crown prince.
Sarrica slumped in his seat and groaned. Great. Not only was he still interested in Nyle, now Lesto knew. Not that it would have taken him long to figure it out once…
Once nothing. Nyle hated him. He might have been nice when Sarrica had his headache, and apologized because of Lesto, but that didn't mean anything. Especially since Lesto was right: Nyle wasn't the kind of person to have an affair with. He was courting material. Consort material. Sarrica hadn't really thought that far until now.
Why had he wanted to reconcile with Lesto? How had he managed to forget Lesto was an unbearable, domineering ass who always saw and figured out too much?
Pushing to his feet, Sarrica went to get washed and dressed.
Whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, Sarrica could never decide, but preparing his army for a long winter campaign where the odds were stacked against them kept him busy and in twenty places at once, and he didn't see Nyle again for two weeks.
And when he did see him, he was once again almost entirely naked and not at his best, though this time it was from a long battle that included getting a weighted fist to the face.
Sarrica looked up from the table he'd rested his head on. "Yes?"
The bodyguard nodded toward someone he couldn't see. "Sergeant Arseni has come to see you, and has your dinner."
The need to be alone warred with a spark of interest Sarrica had given up fighting. Ever since Nyle had come to apologize, he'd been nibbling and gnawing at Sarrica's thoughts. And doing a great deal more when he fell asleep and let his guard down, but he wasn't thinking about that. "Let him in."
Nyle stepped in a moment later, bearing a tray that smelled divine.
"Is that lamb?" Sarrica could have cried. Lamb was his favorite, and he'd been so busy at camp—and his month at home—that he'd never had time to sit down and enjoy it. "Where did someone find lamb all the way out here?"
"It's probably better you don't know, to be perfectly honest," Nyle said, looking pleased as he set the tray down. "Lesto was going to bring it to you, but he got called away and I volunteered to do it in his stead."
Sarrica eagerly dug in. "I appreciate it. How are you enjoying our oh so exciting winter in the Cartha Mountains?"
Nyle made a face. "I prefer the heat. Illiar was more like Harken in that. Why would anyone want to live in all this wretched snow?"
"Don't ask me." Sarrica took another piece of lamb, which was seasoned exactly the way he liked. There was also fresh bread, mint sauce… in fact, this wasn't just his favorite lamb, it was his favorite meal. He paused. "Am I being buttered up for something?"
"Not that I'm aware," Nyle said, and his mouth ticked up faintly. "Not really Lesto's style either, so if someone is attempting to soften you it's not us."
Sarrica laughed. "True enough. But if someone wanted to really coax me into agreeing to what they wanted, they should have included a proper cup of tea, too."
"I'll be sure to see that's spread around camp so whoever it is does a better job next time."
Smiling, hating the stupid fluttering in his chest when Nyle's tiny smile widened, Sarrica said, "Did you need something? Or were you just running Lesto's errand?"
The barely-there smile went out like a snuffed candle. "Just the errand, my apologies. I'm sure—"
"No!" Sarrica said, not quit surging out of his seat to stop him. "That's not what I meant. I just didn't know if you did want something. If you're not busy, you're welcome to stay. I like company when I eat, especially when it's not someone who's going to make me work between bites."
"Oh." Nyle still didn't move.
"Sit, sit, unless you'd rather go—and I won't be mad if that's the case." Sarrica wanted to beat his head against the table, even though it already felt like he'd slammed it into a wall—which, given the weight of the fist that had struck him, wasn't far off the mark. He was lucky nothing had been broken.
He swore it wasn't always this difficult to talk to people.
Nyle slowly took the seat across from him, and Sarrica tried not to be dejected that he looked like a child being put before his father after angering the tutor.
"So what called Lesto away?"
That was clearly the wrong thing to ask from the further tensing of Nyle's shoulders. "I honestly don't know. There was a lot of shouting and swearing and Lesto threatening to remove organs."
Sarrica ate more lamb then said, "Sounds like I don't want to know, either. So what do you do when Lesto isn't running you ragged?"
"Train, spar, the same thing anyone else does." Nyle looked up briefly, then back down at the table.
"Surely you must do something for fun. Even I get to enjoy my hobbies once or twice a year."
"What hobbies are those?" Nyle looked up, and this time kept his eyes up, which was nice, because Sarrica had been starting to think Nyle hated looking at him.
Had he always been this terrible at talking to people he was interested in? On second thought, he didn't want to know the answer. "Pissing off Lesto, horse racing, chess—and I honestly can't remember the last time I got to ride a horse for anything more than battle." Even then, he was usually not right in the middle of the fray, as that was a stupid place to put the only heir to the imperial throne. "Do you play chess?"
"You say that like I would have had any choice in the matter," Nyle said wryly. "Even oceans away, I was thoroughly tutored in chess and other such games."
Sarrica laughed. "Foolish question. You still haven't told me your hobbies. Is it sitting in the family vault like Lesto?"
Irritation flickered on Nyle's face, but before Sarrica could apologize for whatever he'd said wrong, Nyle said, "Art. I like art. I have a rather impressive collection, I like to think, though I'm sure it's nothing like the imperial palace boasts."
"You'd know better than me, likely, what sort of art is around the palace. That was my mother's interest. I'm so busy whenever I'm there that I wouldn't notice if somebody painted a picture of me naked across the floor of the compass hall."
Nyle laughed, and hot satisfaction swept through Sarrica, along with a low curl of lust. "You may not notice, but I am fairly certain many others would and make your day even busier." He looked up, the blue in his gray eyes even more apparent. He was so beautiful it hurt, especially when he smiled so openly. Sarrica had never wanted to kiss someone so badly in his life.
As his laughter faded Nyle said, almost shyly, which wasn't nice of him at all, "I like gardening, too. I had a beautiful garden back in Illiar. I hated to leave it, but gardens can't exactly be packed in trunks and I could only bring a few cuttings with me. I've got them at Fathoms Deep for now, until I have time to make a proper garden."
"Well if Lesto throws a fit about you mucking about his precious estate, you are welcome to garden all you like at the palace. We've got more of them than I think even the gardeners know about."
That got him another smile, even if it was coupled with a spoiled brat look that Sarrica knew all too well. It was a look Lesto gave him whenever the subject of money came up. "I'll keep that in mind, though I think the High Court would take it amiss if you just let some stranger traipse about planting gardens."
"At least you wouldn't be traipsing through the gardens naked singing bawdy ballads," Sarrica replied. "Or releasing the damned songbirds for the thousandth time."
"Why would someone release the songbirds?"
"Usually it's children who feel sorry for them, the rest of the time its drunk youths amusing themselves."
Nyle snorted. "Drunk youths—you say that like you're not a youth yourself, Highness. Lesto is twenty-one, so you're what, twenty-two?"
Most days, Sarrica didn't feel anywhere close to twenty-two. Other days, he was painfully aware of his age and how inadequate everyone found it. "And you're what, eighteen?" He grinned.
"Nineteen." Nyle glared at him in a way that said he knew damn good and well Sarrica had gotten it wrong on purpose.
Sarrica just grinned more and leaned in slightly, pushing his empty food tray out of the way. "Barely out of training and already punching crown princes. You must have been a handful to raise."
"You wish you knew how much of a handful I—" Nyle broke off, his face turning an alarming but adorable shade of red. He surged to his feet so quickly his chair tipped off. "Excuse me, Your Highness." He fled the tent, nearly tripping over himself in the process, startling the bodyguards.
Sarrica stared after him, mouth hanging open. He snapped it shut and sighed. Nyle had flirted with him. Then run away he was so horrified by his own behavior. Why? Was the idea of flirting with Sarrica that awful?
His mouth turned down in a tight, sour frown. No, probably the idea of flirting with the imperial crown prince was that horrifying—even for an Arseni, who had a longer history of friendship with the imperial throne than anyone else in the empire. It was why Sarrica had so few lovers to his name, and no real relationships. Everyone else his age spoke and boasted of lovers and affairs and betrothals. Even Lesto had a string of people constantly vying for his attention, because to marry into Fathoms Deep was to obtain wealth, power, and prominence beyond compare.
To take up with Sarrica was to put one's self at risk, and for all the perks that came with ruling the empire, there was also a great deal of work—never mind the bodyguards and the constant threat of assassination and other dangers. It was only a few years ago that Myra had saved him from an assassin. Most people decided that being that close to Sarrica was too much of a good thing, and not worth the cost.
Stupid him for thinking Nyle might have been different. It wasn't like he really knew Nyle—it only felt that way, to some degree, because he knew Lesto and Rene so well.
Whatever. He had work to do, work he should have been doing instead of trying to flirt with a man who'd bolted the moment he'd realized they were flirting. Shoving the hurt down to join so many others, Sarrica rose and went to have the bodyguards recall Myra so he could start dictating replies to the council's many, many letters.
Pantheon and all the Realms, Sarrica was sick and tired of the cold. If he never saw snow again, it would be too soon. At least the fighting had tapered off again. Even Benta seemed to be getting sick of trying to crush them. Sarrica was simply relieved that Lesto's plans were working. Of course, part of that plan had entailed summoning Penance Gate, who true to their name seemed to thrive in the settings that made everyone else miserable. But between Penance Gate's brutality, Winter Dark's effective scouting, and the general efficiency and stubbornness of the general army, all held together by the relentlessness—and audacity—of Fathoms Deep…
They may yet get through this campaign and drive Benta back enough to be able to go home in the spring. But Sarrica wasn't counting his victories before he'd won them.
Wincing as he slipped on the ice and pulled at the wound in his side, Sarrica stopped until the pain settled back to a throb then carefully continued on his way to the Fathom's Deep portion of camp. Lesto would probably scream at him for not having his bodyguards, something he'd been annoyingly rabid about ever since the assassination attempt where Myra had saved Sarrica's life, but Sarrica honestly didn't care right then. All he wanted was a friendly face, someone he should share the letter from his father with.
Sarrica loved his father, he did. But right then he was tired. He couldn't run a brutal campaign and the empire all by himself. His father should be doing things, and instead he spent his energy yelling at Sarrica for things he didn't fully understand because he let the court gossip get to him. Because Sarrica's abysmal ability to play politics definitely came from his father—but at least he had the sense to know he could ignore most it and there wasn't much anyone could do about that. If only someone could get that through his father's head.
Shivering in the cold, which just seemed to make every ache, pain, and bruise worse, he threaded through the maze of the Fathom's Deep camp until he reached the area slightly set apart for Captain Dinaari and his Lieutenants. Anticipation and relief swept through him as he finally reached Lesto's tent. Pulling back the flap, he stepped inside. "Lesto, you won't believe—" He stopped as he realized it wasn't Lesto he was staring at, but a very naked, very beautiful Nyle. "S-sorry. I was—"
"I don't care!" Nyle snarled, snatching up a nearby robe. "Why are you still standing there gawking? How typical of you to just walk in wherever you want, while expecting everyone to stand around waiting permission to enter your tent."
"Sorry," Sarrica said again. "I don't—that's not—sorry." He turned and fled, crashing into several soldiers who were passing by. Muttering yet another apology, he headed back the way he'd come, emotions knocking around in his head like a box of broken glass being heavily shaken.
Gods, why couldn't he do anything right where Nyle was concerned? Every time he tried, he managed to make Nyle angry. Every time it seemed things were going well, something invariably interfered or Nyle bolted. And sometimes, like now, Sarrica messed up without any warning at all and without any hope of setting things right.
It was long past time to give up hope of Nyle seeing him as anything but an annoyance to be tolerated, but Sarrica couldn't. Every smile he extracted left him happy for hours, and the rare laugh bolstered his spirit for days. When they managed to get along for more than ten minutes, all his hopes bubbled up again. As much as he had wanted to see Lesto… gods, he wouldn't have minded if instead Nyle had listened to him fret and worry, and made him feel better simply by being someone Sarrica could talk to. He loved Lesto, but right now he wished it was Nyle who strode into his tent without so much as a warning, that it was Nyle who made the guards sigh because he completely ignored their protocols but insisted on them for everyone else.
But Nyle didn't want him, didn't even want to be anywhere near him—not as a comrade, not as a friend, and certainly not as a lover. As a man Sarrica would gladly court with every intention of marrying someday. No wonder his father and the council were always screaming at him. If he was too stupid to manage a simple courtship, too stupid to have the sense to give up on a man who hated him, how would he ever be fit to be High King someday?
Sarrica slowed his steps, looking around the camp, desperate for any friendly face at all.
"Looking for someone, Your Highness?" asked a familiar-looking soldier. Charlaine, Sarrica thought his name was. "If it's Lieutenant Arseni you're seeking, I think he went to see Lance Corporal Arseni." He winked.
"Thank you," Sarrica said with a smile. "Do you just use their first names when you don't have to be proper?"
Charlaine laughed. "Yes. Except for the Lieutenant."
With a laugh of his own, Sarrica thanked him again and headed off for the Winter Dark section of camp, which was headed by Captain Quin Arseni, Uncle to Lesto and the others. It was rumored he expected Rene to someday take over Winter Dark, but there were also rumors that several other mercenary units were trying to coax Rene away.
He heard Lesto before he saw him, the ache in chest easing slightly to finally hear a friendly voice. But right as he turned the corner of the long row of tents, Nyle's voice chimed in. "I don't care what you say, that man is a spoiled, entitled ass."
"Yes, I'm well aware of your opinion of Sarrica—better than you, in fact."
"What in the Realms is that supposed to mean? Have you listened to a word I've said? What he did?"
Lesto snorted. "Yes. But do you really listen to you?"
"Lesto, I will punch the shit out of you! Listen to me! Sarrica just blazed into your tent—"
"The same way I always blaze into his. The two of us have done that for years. Enough, Nyle."
"Oh, whatever," Nyle snapped. "I don't know why I thought you'd listen. The man could murder a hundred people in front of you and you'd still defend him. It's a wonder to me you're not lovers given how much time you spend up his ass."
"Nyle!" Lesto jerked like he was barely refraining from doing some punching of his own. "Do you listen to yourself? Do you know what you sound like?"
"Like somebody who is damned tired of being harangued and harassed and tormented by a spoiled brat prince who doesn't care about—"
Sarrica turned away, unable to help the rough, pained noises that escaped. He fled, ducking and weaving through the tents to evade whoever was calling his name and coming after him. Lesto, probably, but Sarrica no longer wanted to talk, even to him. Damn it, all he'd wanted was not to feel alone for an hour or two. He was so tired of feeling alone.
Eventually he reached the eastern edge of camp, which was quiet and still as it was where most of the soldiers assigned night shifts slept while the rest of the camp was bustling. His bodyguards and Lesto would tear him apart later, but he didn't care. If he couldn't have a friendly face, he would settle for absolute peace and quiet.
He found it in a small clearing, bordered by a circle of dense winter-green trees that didn't block the snow, but did block most of the frigid wind. Sarrica brushed snow off a stump and sat down, drawing his knees in close and wrapping his heavy, fur-lined cloak rightly around him, drawing the hood up. Despite that, he still felt wretchedly cold. But the thought of returning to his tent made him ill, and there was nowhere else in camp he could go.
He must be the spoiled, entitled brat Nyle accused him of if he had missed that Nyle felt harangued and harassed and tormented. Gods. Tormented. Sarrica cringed inwardly. Had he really been that bad? How could he miss it? He'd been so eager for every smile and laugh he could earn, he apparently hadn't noticed they were all forced.
It was fine. He'd made mistakes. He'd get past it. From now on he would make every effort to avoid Nyle, and when he couldn't avoid him, he'd be polite and courteous and nothing else. Long past time he moved on anyway.
The sound of footsteps crunching in snow and ice made him tense. He dragged his eyes up, unsurprised to see a figure in Fathoms Deep teal, wrapped head to foot in cloak, scarf, and additional furs. No one hated being cold more than Lesto. "Go away," Sarrica said. "You can lecture me later, but right now I'm not in the mood to hear it. I've had all the being yelled at I can take today." When Lesto didn't leave, just hovered at the edge of the clearing, Sarrica glared. "I mean it. I'm not in the mood to talk to anyone, not even you. I'll apologize to Nyle later, or maybe send a written one since he apparently thinks I'm a vile, contemptible bastard. You could have told me how much he hates me, you know, instead of letting me keep making a fool of myself trying to court a man who can't stand to be around me."
There was a sharp intake, and then the furs were stripped away—and Sarrica felt like throwing up to see it wasn't Lesto at all. Anger coursed through him, so sharp and hot that for a moment he stopped feeling the cold. "Get out of my face. What are you doing here, anyway?"
Instead of leaving, Nyle walked across the clearing to him, and it was only then that Sarrica noticed the fresh bruise on his cheek. "Who hit you?"
"Who do you think?" Nyle asked bitterly. "You talk incessantly about Lesto, and he speaks incessantly of you. Lesto this, Sarrica that—it's no wonder the whole camp thinks you're only waiting until we're back in Harken to announce your betrothal."
Sarrica wrinkled his nose. "I love Lesto dearly, but I wouldn't marry him if my father issued an imperial decree."
Nyle didn't look convinced, but he nodded. "I came to apologize, Your Highness—"
"I don't want your fucking apologies," Sarrica snapped, surging to his feet. "I want you to not hate me. I want you to think well of me. I want you to like me. But you've made your feelings about me perfectly clear." Painfully, agonizing clear. "So if it's all the same to you, I'd rather you just leave."
To his astonishment, Nyle abruptly looked close to tears. "I don't—I don't think any of those things I said. Lesto was right, I wasn't hearing myself. Or rather, I wasn't admitting things to myself. Like I just said, I thought you and Lesto were, if not lovers, probably going to be. My mother told me over and over again that there was a good chance an Arseni would be marrying into the imperial family one day, so when I returned and learned how close you two were, I shrugged and went on. Then I met you and… the more I got to know you, the more I resented that Lesto had gotten to you first. Bad enough I spent my whole life somewhere else, and everything I hear is just a reminder how much I'm not like the 'real' Arsenis. How much I'm not like the rest of Harken. Even my accent isn't exactly right." He seemed to shrink further in on himself. "I don't think your spoiled or entitled or—or—" He swallowed, staring at the snow like it might rescue him from his own misery. "I think you're marvelous, and untouchable, and at this point probably too good for me. I-I really am sorry."
He turned away, and Sarrica finally remembered how to move—mostly. He lunged forward, but the combination of snow and stiff legs sent them both crashing into the snow.
Nyle shoved and jerked and twisted until he was lying on the ground, surrounded by and covered in snow, staring up at Sarrica with a mixture of annoyance and hope. "What in the world did you do that for?"
Sarrica kissed him.
Nyle froze beneath him—then melted, threw his arms around Sarrica's neck, and kissed him ardently back. His mouth was cold, but warmed quickly in the fervor of the kiss, arms almost painfully tight, and Sarrica would never forget how it felt to have that lithe, trim, muscled body shiver against his. Bracing himself, he leveraged up to his knees, dragging Nyle with him. The kiss broke, but only for an instant before Sarrica dove to take another. Nyle whined and loosened his arms to shove back Sarrica's hood and sink his fingers into Sarrica's hair.
When they finally drew apart, Sarrica nuzzled against him, cold and sore and absolutely uncaring about both. "So you don't actually hate me?"
"No," Nyle replied. "I'm sorry."
Sarrica kissed him again, hard and quick. "I am, too. It seems like every time I opened my mouth, I always said the wrong thing."
Nyle grinned, bright and mischievous and incredibly distracting. "You?"
"Be quiet," Sarrica said, and smothered his laughter with another kiss, already addicted to them, drunk on the idea that he could kiss Nyle, that Nyle wanted to kiss him.
He drew back again only because he started shivering in a not good way. "Come on, let's go before Lesto actually does show up to yell at me." He gave Nyle a look. "You could have said sooner it was you."
"By the time I realized you thought I was Lesto, it was too late—and I'm not terribly sorry given how it turned out."
"Fair enough." Holding fast to his hand, Sarrica headed back to camp, keeping to the fringes to minimize the chances of someone waylaying them.
When they finally reached his tent, Sarrica could barely feel his face. He told the guards he wasn't to be disturbed the rest of the day and pulled Nyle inside—and stopped short to see a meal for two had been arranged, complete with contraband wine. There were also fresh clothes for Nyle.
"I'm going to kill Lesto," Nyle muttered.
Sarrica laughed as he stripped off his soaked, snow-covered clothes. Hurrying over to his chests, he quickly pulled on dry clothes and shrugged into his heavy, warm winter dressing robe. When he turned, Nyle had done the same, and was sitting at the table sipping wine.
"Am I the only one in this camp who actually bothers to follow your rule about no wine?"
"Probably," Sarrica said. "I mean, other than Lesto, Rene, and I. But as long as it's kept to a minimum and not causing problems, I don't say anything. General Verence and the various mercenary captains can crack down when it starts to get out of hand." Except, of course, for the High Commander, but that was a problem best waited out.
They settled in to eat, the hot, spicy mutton curry the best thing Sarrica had tasted in ages. He had a sneaking suspicion Lesto had been responsible for the lamb Nyle had brought him forever ago—and responsible for making certain it was Nyle who brought it. Looking up, feeling almost shy, Sarrica said, "So you really want to give this a try? Us, I mean. I know being anywhere near me is more trouble than it's worth…"
"It's not," Nyle said. "I mean, you're worth it. I won't lie, it's intimidating, especially when the first thing everyone will say is that I'm three years younger than you and far too young to know my own mind. But I want to try. I'm tired of being at odds, of watching you from afar and disliking you because that's easier than admitting I'm hurt and jealous."
Sarrica reached across the table and took his hand. "Don't worry, I get the too-young speech as well—generally in the same breath they're demanding I do something my father should be doing. We'll manage. I'm glad I'm not the unbearable bastard constantly forcing himself on you like I thought."
Nyle smiled, soft and sweet, and Sarrica ached with the thought that he just might get to see that smile every day for years and years to come.
Finishing his wine, Sarrica rose and offered his hand and a slow grin. "Would you like to join me in bed? It's warmer than the rest of this drafty tent. We don't have to do anything—"
Nyle pushed into his space and kissed him hard, nipping at Sarrica's lips. "We'd better do something."
Laughing, a bit breathless, so happy he didn't know how to handle it, Sarrica dragged him over to the bed and discarded their clothes. Normally he would have liked to drag it out, but the tent wasn't much warmer than outside.
He kissed Nyle again, tangling their limbs together and holding him close. Drawing back just enough to speak, Sarrica said, "So I remember a taunt about you being a handful."
Nyle flushed, but beneath the blankets he grabbed Sarrica with intent. "Find out."
Sarrica rolled to push him into the bedding and did precisely that.