Where Angels Fear to Tread

I. Ghosts and Guests

'Sometimes I can't believe people!'

Ran looked up from his book as the door to the royal family chambers was flung open and slammed shut by his father.

'Bad day at court?' he asked.

'You wouldn't believe me,' his father sighed and flung himself into a chair, brushing his bushy blond hair out of his eyes. 'You'd think the whole world by now knew I can tell what people feel and think, and still they try to pretend, still they try to deceive me.'

'I can see that must be terrible,' Ran said with a grin, knowing full well that beyond the frustration, his father deeply loved to do something good and useful with his sensitivity for other people's emotions. His father smiled.

'Well, it is a little frustrating, at times,' he said. 'And some people of course still think I shouldn't be allowed to do it at all. I usually tell them to go and complain to Nehreb.'

'And of course everyone does know you're Nehreb's right hand,' Ran said and his father nodded.

'And more,' he said. 'And it's the 'more' that does the trick, most of the time.' He sighed. 'Still, sometimes I wish people weren't so foolish.'

'Go and see Nehreb, he'll cheer you up.' His father grimaced.

'I can't. Nehreb is busy trying to convince the ambassador of Harigan we didn't send pirates to ravage his coasts.'

'He what?'

'That's exactly what Nehreb said,' his father chuckled. 'As far as I understand it, Harigan is having trouble with a band of pirates, and for some reason they think Nehreb is behind it.'

'That's ridiculous,' Ran said. Why in heavens would anyone think Nehreb would do such a thing? 'You're not joking, right?'

'Wish I was,' his father said. 'But I swear it's the truth.' He leaned back in his chair with a sigh.

'Where's Giulian?' he asked.

'You should know, what with your mighty powers and all that,' Ran said and smirked when his father opened one eye and looked at him disdainfully.

'Don't be smart with me,' he said. Ran laughed softly.

'He's out riding with lady Cherèze.'

'Again?' His father now opened both eyes. 'Don't they ever get tired of that?'

'Apparently not,' Ran laughed but then became serious again. 'You can feel them better than I can...' he said, 'they're pretty serious, aren't they?'

'Serious?' His father cocked an eyebrow. 'I haven't heard them speaking of marriage yet, but I'll bet anything it won't be long before they enter that stage.'

'Well, in any case then mother and you don't have to worry about the future of the family any more,' Ran grinned. 'Your marriage just might not have been for nothing.'

'No, with beautiful sons like you two, we can't go wrong,' his father said sarcastically. 'And there's still a lot that can go wrong.' Ran shrugged.

'Oh, if Giulian turns out to be unable to conceive children, or Cherèze, or if they or their children die, you'll still have me.'

'Yes, I'll have you,' his father said, in what Ran thought to be a very strange tone. And he wasn't looking straight at him. What's this all about? he thought.

The strange moment was broken when the door opened again and the tall, dark figure of his mother appeared in the doorframe.

'Ran, dear, has your father yet... Oh, Corian, you're here already. Good.'

'Were you looking for me, Tya?' his father said while getting up and briefly kissing her cheek before offering her the chair he'd been sitting in. Ran had heard rumours that the affection his parents showed for each other was only a performance, since everyone knew they didn't marry for love. But he had been raised by them, and being the son of his father, he could feel there was at least a solidly founded friendship between them. True, they each loved someone else, but that didn't mean their marriage was a bad one.

'I need your help,' his mother said.

'I'm all ears.'

'The problem is,' she sighed and shifted a bit in her chair, 'I suspect Maricah has been stealing from me.' His father frowned.

'Your maid? Do you have any proof?'

'Not directly, no. And it's just little things, mainly. A few earrings, an old necklace or two, a ring, and I think she even took some of my pens. In any case, I can't find any of those things, and she and I are the only ones allowed in my drawing room.' Which was where she kept her jewelry and writing assets, Ran knew. But he'd never have thought Maricah capable of stealing, let alone from his mother. Well, so much for his advantage of knowing people's feelings.

'What do you want me to do about it?' his father asked, obviously already knowing - and dreading - the answer.

'Can't you... you know?'

'Tyanaïs, I won't do that, you know that. In the courtroom, I'm allowed to. And God knows I feel and hear a lot I don't intend to feel or hear. But I won't intrude on her mind like that, not without reasonable doubt.'

'I'd say my doubt is reasonable,' his mother said. 'She's the only person that can come in there, besides me. And she has been intruding on me, by stealing from me.' His father sighed.

'I'm sorry, Tya,' he said. 'You can bring it to court, if you have proof or a very solid accusation, but I won't search her outside the courtroom.'

His mother sighed.

'Well, it was worth trying,' she said. 'But don't look surprised if you see her name and mine on your list someday soon.'

'I won't,' his father smiled, and moved to get up. 'However, right now I think I'll rescue Nehreb from Ambassador Brunher's clutches.' Tyanaïs moaned and rolled her eyes.

'What has the little creep got to whine about this time?'

'Pirates,' her husband said, giving her a quick kiss and ruffling Ran's hair, and left.

'Pirates?' she asked Ran, dumbfounded. He grinned.

'It seems Harigan's coasts are being plundered by pirates, and the senate believes Nehreb sent them.'

'What? Are they out of their minds?' Tyanaïs cried out. 'Why would they think Nehreb has any hostile interest in them?'

'I wouldn't know,' Ran shrugged. 'But I do know that the ambassador firmly believes it. And Nehreb isn't having much luck talking him out of it.'

'Poor Nehreb,' his mother said. 'Maybe your father can save him.'

'I bet he can,' Ran grinned widely, imagining all the ways in which his father could save their Emperor form the annoying ambassador. His mother looked at him suspiciously.

'I just hope he doesn't do anything foolish,' she said.

'Who, father?' Ran said, with a look of surprised shock on his face. His mother laughed but pretended to be cross.

'You know what I mean.'

'I wouldn't be much of my father's son if I didn't, would I?'

Corian, too, knew perfectly well what she meant. He smiled while he walked through the palace's corridors, still listening to the conversation between his wife and son. He did have the means to save Nehreb, and Tyanaïs was right in thinking that most of them would leave the ambassador mentally scarred for life.

Which wasn't entirely such a bad prospect, come to think of it.

In the antichambre to Nehreb's office he found Anàth, who was sitting languishly in a chair, throwing something in the air and catching it.

'Hey, uncle Corian,' the young prince said.

'Are you waiting for your father?' Corian asked him.

'Yes,' Anàth said. 'But that ambassador is still in there.'

'Well, luckily for you, I'm here to do something about that,' Corian said, smiling as he saw Anàth's eager grin, and opening the doors to Nehreb's office. The look of pure relief on Nehreb's face brought a grin to his own face, but in any case he still tended to grin stupidly whenever Nehreb looked at him. And a familiar warm feeling spread in his chest when Nehreb mouthed 'love you,' at him. Ambassador Brunher saw Nehreb move, turned around and sagged in his chair when he saw and recognised Corian.

He's afraid of me, Corian thought. Good.

The Ambassador was one of those small, fat people who seemed to think themselves extremely important and who spent most of their lives trying to convince others of that. Why Brunher had chosen to be an ambassador, Corian could only guess, as the thought of trying to figure it out from the ambassador's self-centered mind practically made him sick.

He walked over to Nehreb and bent down to kiss him full on the lips, which made the ambassador slightly embarrassed.

'I hope you've got something important to discuss with me,' Nehreb whispered against his lips, and the feeling of Nehreb's breath over his skin made Corian shiver. He buried his hands in Nehreb's hair, night black today, as always when he had official matters to attend to.

'Don't worry, I've come to rescue you,' he said. He noticed their little display of love and affection was increasingly making the ambassador uneasy and uncomfortable. Anàth, he felt, was finding the scene tremendously amusing.

'Good afternoon, your Excellency,' he said to ambassador Brunher, letting go of Nehreb for the moment. He sat down on the arm of Nehreb's chair and felt Nehreb's arm creep around his leg.

'My lord,' the ambassador inclined his head. 'I trust you are well?'

'Well enough, considering you have kept my love away from me all day.' He felt Nehreb smile, and the ambassador turned a positively bright shade of red.

'Your Excellency,' Nehreb said, in the exasperated tone of voice of a man who has had to say the same thing many times before, 'as I have said before, I have nothing to do with the pirates pillaging your coasts and I have no contact with any kind of pirates whatsoever. After listening to your accusations for hours on end, I have no desire to do so any longer. Believe what you will, but these are my words, and I suggest you tell them to the Senate.'

'But the proof...' ambassador Brunher began, but Corian interrupted him.

'Do you really accept that as proof?' he said. 'A letter which one of the senators claimed he intercepted?' The ambassador stared at him, his mouth forming words without sound.

'How...' he said at last, but Corian knew the man had realised it already. He tapped the side of his head.

'I know everything you know, Brunher,' he said. 'However, you don't seem to realise how ridiculous it is. I suggest you do as His Majesty here says and run home and report what you've heard today to the Senate.'

He could see Ambassador Brunher was flushed with rage and embarrassment by now, but the man managed to surpress it and got up as dignantly as possible, for such a corpulent man.

'I will do that, then,' he said. 'Your Majesty, Mylord.' He bowed curtly and quickly left, ignoring Anàth, who was having trouble keeping a straight face.

Nehreb sighed and leaned against Corian's side.

'Thank god,' he said. 'I thought I'd never get rid of him.'

'Let's be grateful he's so afraid of me, then,' Corian said, stroking Nehreb's hair. Nehreb snorted.

'He's not afraid of you, he's afraid of what you can do. You yourself are by no means frightening,' he said. Corian sighed.

'Well, there goes another one of my illusions shattered,' he said and leant down to give Nehreb a proper kiss. Nehreb sighed and pulled him close, his mouth opening, granting him access and generally kissing him back as if he'd never been kissed before.

They were interrupted by a small cough coming from Anàth, and Corian let go of Nehreb, guiltily.

'I almost forgot,' he said. 'Your son wants to talk to you.'

'In, er, private,' Anàth added, a bit red around the ears. Nehreb grinned and gave Corian a slight shove.

'Well, shove off, then,' he said. 'Let me have a man to man conversation with my son.'

'I'm that easily discarded, then?' said Corian disapprovingly, but smiling. He kissed Nehreb on the forehead. 'You know how to find me, when you've finished.'

Outside, he decided to walk down the corridor a few yards, until he came to a small balcony that oversaw one of the castle courtyards. As most parts of the palace, the courtyard was buzzing with activity. A few people who looked up recognised him and made a small bow or curtsy before hurrying on again. Corian looked up, squinting in the bright afternoon sunlight. Rising up around the courtyard was the rest of the palace; the whole building was actually a mix of several larger and smaller buildings, added over the centuries. It was a castle with a lot of history, and not too much architecture, but the overall effect was stunning.

But even the most hidden, neglected, forgotten corridors were almost never empty. Except for the Queen's Garden, of course.

He looked up again, but from here he couldn't see the large tower on top of which the Queen's Garden was situated. The garden had been planted centuries before, when the empire of Neär had only been a kingdom, but most of the Queens and Empresses had looked after that garden - until about two generations ago. Nehreb's grandmother had been the last Empress to actively tend to the garden, helped only by a little girl who would later become Corian's mother. But, as things went, Corian's mother had had to leave the palace, and the garden had been neglected for years on end, until Nehreb had discovered it.

Corian grinned. Nehreb was hardly the gardener; although he could easily make his fingers all shades of green, he didn't have any talent for gardening. Corian hadn't thought he had, either, until Nehreb had become Emperor, and the garden was about the only place the two of them could get some rest. Somehow, he had found a hidden talent inside, and working in the garden had become one of his favourite pastimes.

'I suppose this makes you Queen, doesn't it?' Nehreb had remarked one day, while Corian was weeding out some flower beds. Corian had just glowered at him and pretended to be too dignified to answer. 'Although of course, by other standards, you already are-' Interrupted by some soil being thrown in his face, Nehreb spluttered and wiped the dirt away. 'Oh, how civilised,' he said. 'Can't think of a witty repartee?' Corian had looked up at Nehreb's grinning face, and offered him the weeds in his hand.

'Do you want me to put these nettles down your pants?' he had said, chuckling when Nehreb's eyes went wide.

'You wouldn't dare!' he said, and grunted when Corian's weight hit him and the two rolled over the ground, both fighting for control, nettles flying all around them. They'd both been covered in a severe rash by the time they'd made their peace.

Corian laughed softly. The memories he had of them in that garden... It was a good thing no one else ever came there.

He turned his attention from the Nehreb in his memories to the Nehreb of the present. Anàth had already left, and Nehreb was waiting for Corian to return. He had left his chair by the desk and was now sitting in the comfortable sofa by the window.

'What took you so long?' he said when Corian entered.

'I was lost in thoughts,' Corian said, not sitting down next to Nehreb on the sofa but on the ground and placing his chin on Nehreb's knees. Nehreb laughed.

'Your own thoughts, I hope,' he said.

'Whose else?' Corian said innocently. Nehreb's hair was white again, he saw, and his skin was a good deal paler than when he'd been talking to the ambassador. It was a sign of trust; Nehreb only didn't camouflage his unnaturally white skin and hair when he was with those he loved and trusted.

'You're looking at me like that again,' Nehreb said.

'Like what?'

'Like you like what you're seeing, and any minute now you'll be saying how beautiful you think I am.'

'But you are beautiful,' Corian said, putting as much of his heart in those words as he could. 'You've always been beautiful.' He knew those words always made Nehreb emotional, and just a tad weak in the knees, and indeed, Nehreb's red eyes started to shine and he tugged at Corian.

'Come here, I want to kiss you,' he said softly. Corian smiled widely, jumped up, and yelped when Nehreb pulled him close so forcefully that he lost his balance.

'Careful, love,' he said. 'I'm not as young as I used to be.' Nehreb just rolled his eyes, took hold of his face and laid onslaught to his lips.

Corian felt himself melt down to Nehreb's body. Nehreb slid down the sofa a little, so their bodies could touch better, but it wasn't really necessary; every time they kissed, somehow they connected so deeply that even not touching felt like they were holding on for dear life.

He gasped when Nehreb took some distance and teased his lips very lightly with his tongue, and he tried to get back to kissing, but Nehreb's hands around his face wouldn't allow him. Instead, he resorted to runing his own hands up and down Nehreb's chest, imagining the pale, naked skin beneath his fingers instead of the fine, but irritably rough clothing. He reached Nehreb's waist, and, holding on firmly, pressed his hips against Nehreb's, his crotch rubbing against a similarly swollen bulb in Nehreb's pants.

Nehreb let go of him, panting, and let his head rest on the back of the sofa.

'If you keep that up...' he said, 'I won't get any work done today.'

'Good,' Corian said, his head dipping down and placing a soft kiss just below Nehreb's left ear. Nehreb moaned, but pushed him away a little.

'I'm afraid it'll have to wait till tonight,' he said. 'There's something I have to tell you.'

'Oh?' Corian leaned back, interested. Nehreb smiled and nudged him gently.

'Get off me, so I can...' While Corian stood and sat down beside Nehreb, Nehreb reached for a pile of paper on the low table in front of the sofa, and unearthed what looked like a letter.

'This letter came this morning, and I was just able to read it before Brunher burst in and demanded to see me.' Corian took the leter from Nehreb and skimmed over it briefly.

'It's from Acery Barehn of Mauran, lord of the largest of the Keldin Isles,' Nehreb explained. 'Apparently, he's sending his son Aridan to us, in order for the boy to aquire some mainland experience and manners. He'll be here in two weeks, and he will be accompanied by a most generous staff of servants.'

'Sounds like fun,' Corian said. 'Though I'm not sure what he expects us to do with the boy.'

'I think his father just wants to get rid of him, for a while. The man sounds a bit exasperated in his letter.'

'Oh, a trouble-shooter, is he?'

'I have absolute faith in you, my love.'

'What? Why me?'

'Because I'll be too busy being Emperor,' Nehreb smiled innocently.

'Right,' Corian said, and decided to delegate responsibility for the young lordling to Ran. His son needed to make some more friends, anyway.

'Anyhow, I think I'll give Aridan and his retinue chambers here in the royal wing,' Nehreb said. Corian nodded, and then looked up sharply as he realised just what Nehreb had said.

'The only chambers available in this wing are Achet'namen's,' he said softly. Nehreb looked away.

'I know,' he said. 'But I haven't got anywhere else to put him.'

Corian said nothing; he knew it was foolish, to object to Achet'namen's old chambers being used to accomodate a guest, but he couldn't help but feel resigned.

'It's been a long time, Corian,' Nehreb said, turning back to him, his red eyes soft and sad. 'Achet'namen has been dead for a long time. He may have been a traitor, he may have hurt us both, and many more people, but I doubt his ghost still wanders his chambers.'

'I know that,' Corian even managed to smile a little. 'But stil...'

'I know,' Nehreb said. 'I still dream sometimes, of the night father died. Or the night when Farsès died. But then I remember that we took care of Achet'namen, that he was punished for what he did. He can't hurt us, not anymore. And he sure as hell can't hurt young Aridan.'

Corian sighed. Nehreb was absolutely right, of course. He just needed to set aside his feelings. Those chambers were nothing but unoccupied space, right now. It would be the most practical thing to do, to put Aridan and his retinue in those chambers.

Even if all he could think about whenever he heard Achet'namen name, was all the people he had loved that Achet'namen had murdered.

'Right,' he said, taking a deep breath. 'Aridan will be taking Achet'namen's chambers. Was there anything else?'

'Nothing I can't handle myself,' Nehreb said.

'Good,' said Corian before pushing Nehreb on his back and keeping him there, pinned underneath his own body. Nehre sighed.

'I really need to see to everything I had to neglect today because of that monkey-headed ambassador, Corian,' he said.

'I don't care,' Corian said, bent down and nibbled on Nehreb's ear. Nehreb moaned softly and struggled to get out from under him, but he held on tight.

'Besides, you've been neglecting me, too,' he whispered in Nehreb's ear, and Nehreb shivered.

'We can... do this tonight, you know,' he said, but didn't sound entirely convinced himself. Corian looked down at his lover, taking in his beautiful pale face, those ruby red eyes already shining with the prospect of making love. Yes, maybe they could do this tonight, but that didn't mean they couldn't do it now. And he needed to do it now.

'I don't think so,' he whispered, and bent down to claim his lover's lips.