By Moonlight

The twin moons were just beginning their slow descent toward the horizon. All the castle was fast asleep, save for those few who remained alert to guard against threats, and of those more than one could be seen slouching, nodding off, as the monotony of their duties wore on. It was the perfect time for one small slip of a boy to escape the confines of his lavish suite and make his way soundlessly down the wide, deserted hallways.

It was not the first time Prince Inkiza had slipped from his luxurious prison to wander alone, nor would it be the last, but this night would prove to be the most important of all of them. This night by chance there were servants trudging about with a late task in the corridor he normally took to visit the palace library, so the young prince was forced to choose an alternate path.

The path he chose led him around the southern palace wall and through a small, seldom-used courtyard. In the dead of the night such a place should be as empty as the halls themselves, and yet it was not. A lone figure could be seen, moving as fluidly as water and far more graceful, back and forth across the grass and stones with deliberate, perfect ease.

Silver moonlight flashed near his hands, above his head, thin crescents that moved in a dizzying pattern that the eyes could not quite follow. Beautiful. Dangerous. Inkiza hesitated in the occluding darkness of an archway, watching in silence as the man continued his deadly dance of swords.

He was taller than any man Inkiza had ever before seen, even his uncle's guards. Taller, and darker. Skin and hair both, made darker still by the night shadows. He wore the simple, plain uniform of a soldier. In the daylight it would be a grey-green; in the darkness it was only one more bit of shadow to cling to the twisting shape. The night itself come alive to take on mortal form.

There was no telling how long he watched, hypnotized, as the dark man dueled his invisible opponent. All thoughts of the library faded, overwhelmed by the flash of steel and the graceful economy of motion that comprised the warrior. Perhaps he would have watched all night, entranced, had not the subject of his single-minded regard not chanced to glance his way.

For a moment he could do nothing, caught in that startled gaze as they stared at one another, then the soldier took a step toward him and Inkiza promptly turned and ran. All his thoughts were consumed with fear; he must never be caught outside his rooms, or the guard would be increased and he would no longer be able to slip out in the dead of the night. To be seen was bad enough. He had to flee before the soldier realized what, exactly, he'd seen.

Or, more appropriately, who. Prince Inkiza had been locked in his personal suite 'for his own safety' since that terrible day in his fifth year of life when his father had been thrown from a horse and killed and his mother had chosen to take her own life rather than try to rule Cesim without her husband. The late king's brother, Inkiza's uncle, had been duly named Regent and from that moment on nothing had ever been the same again.

Should Uncle Fahrin find out that he'd managed to escape his gilded prison, that stolen freedom would be lost for good. The thought was almost too much to bear. And so he ran.

He heard nothing, no footsteps, no sounds of pursuit. Was it possible that the mysterious soldier was not following? Inkiza wished he could look over his shoulder to make sure, but then he ran the risk of running into something, or worse, someone. No, best to just keep darting down empty hallways until he was safe in his own-

Hands came out of nowhere, one wrapping around his mouth as the other caught his waist, jerking him back against a hard, muscled body. Inkiza tensed, going perfectly still. The powerful arms that had trapped him pulled him off to the side, into a small antechamber used on occasion for private meetings. He heard the click of the door shutting, then the arm around his waist slackened its grip.

"If I release you, do you promise not to make a sound?" Warm breath ghosted across Inkiza's ear, the voice low and melodious and rich like the fine chocolate he barely remembered from his childhood. He fought not to shiver, mostly failing, and nodded, once.

Slowly, cautiously, the hand clasped over his mouth slackened and pulled away. A moment later the one around his waist followed suit, and Inkiza drew in a slow, unsteady breath before turning around to face his captor. As he'd feared, it was the soldier from the courtyard, looming tall and imposing above him. In the dim light it was difficult to make out his features, but from what little Inkiza could see, the man almost seemed apprehensive.

Inkiza swallowed and took a step back, hands clenching nervously in his tunic. Now he was really in trouble. He should have just stayed in his rooms rather than risk the trip to the library. This was exactly the situation he'd always feared.

It was odd, though, how uneasy the soldier looked. Almost as uneasy as Inkiza himself. His gaze seemed jumpy, flitting around and taking Inkiza in a piece at a time rather than in one slow look like most people did. He did linger a little longer on Inkiza's clothing, dark brow furrowing slightly, the small beads of sweat at his temples glimmering in the faint light. This close, Inkiza could smell a musky scent, different from that of the usual guards outside his rooms. More pleasant.

"Who are you?" the soldier asked, and Inkiza shivered again, feeling decidedly strange. Words had never felt so tangible before, like the silks that he was still allowed on special occasions.

"I..." Inkiza swallowed. "Kiza... I'm Kiza."

"Kiza, then." Should his own name be able to sound like that? "Can I make a deal with you, Kiza?" the soldier asked quietly.

Inkiza blinked and opened his mouth before he had a chance to think. "A deal? What do you mean?"

The soldier smiled grimly, muscles rippling beneath his light tunic as he shrugged. "I'm guessing from your reaction that you weren't supposed to be out there either. So, if you don't tell anyone what you saw, then I won't either. Deal?"

Inkiza's mouth dropped open, then snapped shut a moment later. "But... but you're a soldier... why wouldn't you..." He closed his mouth again, blinking. "Inner courtyard. Regular soldiers don't come this far into the castle, only the palace guard."

Grimacing slightly, the soldier nodded. "Exactly. It's out of the way enough that I can practice in peace, but I'm not technically supposed to be here."

"Oh..." Inkiza thought a moment, then looked up cautiously. "So... you won't tell anyone I was out?" he asked hopefully.

The soldier shook his head. "If I did that, I'd be admitting I was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be, wouldn't I?" A faint flicker of a smile touched his lips, then he frowned. "Though I find myself wondering about you... you're dressed far too well to be a servant, but I can't think of anyone else who would be in trouble for being... out." The frown deepened.

Inkiza flushed hotly, hoping the darkness would obscure most of it. "Um. I'm... I'm not really supposed to leave my rooms..." He tried not to fidget and wondered if it was safe to tell this man as much as he had. Too late now.

"Why not?" the soldier asked, surprised. "You don't seem the type to be prone to political uprisings and revolutions and the sort, and anyway, most folk of that ilk are tossed in the dungeons for a few days to get it out of their systems." Even in the darkness, his direct gaze proved to be unnerving. "So, Kiza, why are you confined to your rooms?"

Fidgeting, Inkiza carefully studied the knees of the soldier's uniform. "I... um... Uncle says it's for my safety..." he mumbled.

Dark brows shot up as the soldier repeated, "Uncle?" A moment later his eyes widened and he took a half step back. "Kiza... Prince Inkiza. You're the reclusive Crown Prince!" he breathed.

Inkiza shrugged and wished he could convince his body to quit fidgeting. "Yeah... I guess." Hard to be a Crown Prince of anything when you were confined to your rooms all the time.

"Highness," the soldier said softly, dropping to one knee before Inkiza and bowing his head. "This humble soldier begs your forgiveness for his impertinence." From the new angle Inkiza could see that his dark hair was pulled back into a thick braid that trailed halfway down his back. That was odd. Most soldiers kept their hair cut short.

"Um." Inkiza waved his hands helplessly. "That's... that's okay. I'd just... as long as you don't tell anyone you saw me..." He bit his lip, more than a little discomfited at having the powerful warrior kneeling at his feet. "Please, um... please get up... nobody kneels to me..."

That unsettling gaze flashed up at him once, briefly, in surprise. "But you are the Crown Prince. All should kneel before you..."

This was just making him feel worse, on top of the butterflies that seemed to have taken up residence in his stomach. Inkiza swallowed. "I'm not of age yet... so... I'm just..."

A hand reached out and caught his, and Inkiza almost jumped in surprise. That rich, dark voice came again, quiet and solemn. "Regardless of age, the Crown Prince of Cesim should command respect. Even a lowly soldier such as myself knows this. Why is it that you do not understand your own authority?"

The words slipped out without his permission. "Because I have none," Inkiza whispered.

The hand holding his tightened briefly, then released it as the soldier stood. He drew out the twin blades he'd been using earlier, placing one on the floor and the other in Inkiza's startled hands. "Then, if you will have it, I, Ebedi, will pledge my sword and my loyalty to you. It is not worth much, the pledge of a halfblood, but even the loyalty of one such as myself is more than none at all."

Inkiza started again, Ebedi's blade shaking in his hands. "I... I don't... I'm..." He swallowed and drew in a soft breath. "I... thank you..." He looked down at the weapon, then shyly up at Ebedi. "I don't know what to do now..."

Ebedi chuckled quietly and held out his hands, palms up. "If you accept, you give it back. If not, then you drop it." He laughed again, rich and lilting, as Inkiza gingerly returned the weapon to his hands. "Thank you, my prince."

Gracefully he re-sheathed the blade and bent down briefly to retrieve the other one. Inkiza watched as that one was sheathed, then ventured gingerly, "Ah... I know I'm going to sound stupid again, but what's a halfblood?"

It was fortunate that Ebedi had already put away his weapons, for his hands jerked at the sound of the word. All his good humor faded, replaced by a weariness and dim determination. "Just as it sounds, highness," he replied. "My mother is a Cesim noblewoman. Scandalously she had an affair with a barbarian slave owned by her husband, and I was the result." He shrugged with painful nonchalance. "To lessen her 'shame' I was gifted to the king to be one of his soldiers."

"That's..." Inkiza flushed again. "That's why your skin is so dark? And your hair? I've never seen anyone who looked like you before..." Abruptly realizing what he'd said, Inkiza's already flushed face all but burned. "I mean... that is... I didn't mean... um."

Ebedi chuckled softly. "No apology necessary, your highness. I've had twenty years to get used to people's reactions to me. I've long since ceased to take offense."

Inkiza grimaced. "I really didn't mean... It's not a bad thing. It's just... different. It kind of gets boring when the people you see every day look just like you."

Dark eyes looked him over slowly, then Ebedi chuckled again and shook his head. "Not just like you," he murmured, "But thank you again. I suppose, as secluded as you are, you would not have picked up the common prejudices. That is rather... refreshing."

"Why is it bad?" Inkiza asked curiously, studying Ebedi a little more closely. "I mean, other than the sleeping with someone you're not married to part." He considered. "Why did your mother do that, anyway?"

Ebedi shrugged. "As far as I could ever tell, she didn't much care for the man she was married to. It's common enough, amongst the nobility, to marry for status or wealth."

"Oh." Inkiza fidgeted again, then jumped when Ebedi's hands gripped his shoulders, a startled "eep" escaping his lips.

"You need to learn not to look down," Ebedi announced softly, freeing one hand to tip Inkiza's chin up. "Hold your shoulders straight and your head high as befits a Crown Prince. Even in confinement, you outrank everyone in the land. Remember that."

Cheeks heating, Inkiza tried to do as bidden. It wasn't easy, but Ebedi's sure hands prodded him until he was more or less properly positioned. He felt ridiculous, pretending to a confidence he didn't possess, but it was impossible to refuse Ebedi. The man was like a force of nature. Firm and implacable.

"I feel silly," Inkiza mumbled.

Ebedi smiled. "You don't look it. Few are those who can see past the airs to the true feelings within. As long as you project a confident demeanor, no one will ever know that you're shaking inside."

Inkiza blinked up at him. "Do you do that?" he asked curiously.

"All the time." Ebedi nodded with a grim smile. "Because of the way I look, I always have to appear to be utterly confident. To be anything less is to invite more problems than I already have."

"Oh." He seemed to be saying that word an awful lot. "So, um... in the courtyard... you were... practicing?"

Ebedi smiled. "Yeah. It's... It works better for me if I practice at night." He considered, then offered, "So, if we're not going to turn each other in for being where we shouldn't be... did you want to watch?"

Smiling shyly, Inkiza nodded. "You move... different than the guards do. Do all soldiers... dance like that?"

The dark man laughed. "Not at all." He grinned. "Most soldiers don't ever bother to learn anything beyond the standard styles they're taught. That's all fine and good if you're fighting a war, but for one on one combat? The mercenaries and barbarians have it best. I've been sneaking lessons from whoever would teach me for years, bits and pieces here and there, and filling in the blanks on my own. Saved me a lot of pain and humiliation when everybody finally figured out I could hold my own."

Cracking open the door and peering out swiftly, Ebedi nodded once before stepping aside to hold the door open for Inkiza. They slipped out and made their way back to the deserted courtyard before Inkiza finally broke the silence.

"They mistreated you...? Because you're halfblood?"

Ebedi winced, then smiled faintly. "They tried. It's okay now. They don't do it anymore." He slipped his two swords from their sheaths, swinging them once, experimentally, then winking. "Threaten to remove a few important bits once or twice and they tend to leave you alone."

Inkiza considered, biting his lip. "But if there's more than one of them..."

Ebedi shrugged again, turning away before Inkiza could get a good look at his face. "Then I deal. And work at getting better." The swords flashed in a slow arc. "One day I'll be the best soldier in all of Cesim."

Smiling slightly, Inkiza stepped back a few paces to give Ebedi room to move. "When I'm king, I'll make you Captain of the Guard. That way, nobody will be able to pick on you any more," he announced firmly.

The dark man turned to regard him, then smiled. "I will do my best to be worthy of your highness's faith in me," he intoned, bowing low, then straightening and making a few practice strikes. After a moment he paused and regarded Inkiza consideringly. "Forgive me if I am being presumptuous, highness, but... Perhaps, in your situation, you might see the wisdom in learning how to defend yourself?"

Inkiza blinked. Twice. "Me? But I'm..." He stopped, closing his mouth. He wasn't nobody. He was the Crown Prince of Cesim. Just because he was more fond of books and scrolls than of wine and weapons was no reason to limit himself. "Do you think I can?" he asked instead.

"I would not have suggested it if I didn't think you were capable of it," Ebedi replied. "Come, I'll show you some basics."

Obediently Inkiza joined him, feeling an odd sort of fearlessness. They could both get in serious trouble for this, and it was dangerous as well, but none of that was important. For the first time since his parents' deaths, Inkiza was beginning to feel as though his life meant something. He would learn, and he would no longer allow them to cow him, so that when he reached his majority and assumed the throne he would be worthy of Ebedi's loyalty.

They met every few nights, whenever both could slip away from duties and guardsmen to practice and talk in the sleeping courtyard. Inkiza learned about the life of a soldier, though he suspected it was being heavily edited for his sake, and in turn Inkiza shared whatever bits of information he'd managed to glean from his myriad books. Before, his choices had been rather sporadic, being whatever happened to catch his eye as he snuck through the darkened library. Now, he deliberately picked out old histories, war journals, and whatever else looked as though it might possess information that would be useful to Ebedi.

A little over four months after their initial meeting, Ebedi brought with him a cloth-wrapped bundle, presenting it to Inkiza with something of a rueful smile. He'd explained that after asking around he'd learned Inkiza's fifteenth birthday was coming up, though no one had been all too sure of the exact date. Inkiza had firmly told himself not to cry - no one had remembered his birthday in years, even if Ebedi was off by two days - then promptly did so anyway once he unwrapped the bundle to reveal a set of exquisitely fashioned knives with birds worked into the handles.

Five months later he got the chance to even things in the form of a handwritten tome encompassing the entire known history of the barbarian peoples that had taken him forever to research and organize. He'd been unsure of it up until he'd actually managed to give it to Ebedi, not really knowing what the soldier thought of his father's people, but the expression on Ebedi's face had been worth every cramp and endless hour of checking and rechecking to verify his facts.

He hadn't realized until that moment that Ebedi had never been given a birthday gift before in his life, and he silently swore that he'd make sure to get something every year henceforth. It was the least he could do for his only friend.

Though, sometimes, in the middle of those nights when he hadn't been able to sneak away, Inkiza guiltily wondered if perhaps he didn't wish for Ebedi to be more than just a loyal friend. It felt greedy, somehow, to want even more when Ebedi had already given him so much, but Inkiza couldn't help it. Every time his friend moved, Inkiza found himself watching the pure grace in those motions. Every time Ebedi dueled his invisible opponents, Inkiza's skin felt far too tight around his body. Every time Ebedi's touch lingered for whatever reason, there arose a burn so strong it was like flames setting his blood to boil.

He'd thought he could manage, to continue on behaving as if nothing was any different. Then, a little over three months past his sixteenth birthday, he made a mistake. It had been a harmless suggestion, to have Ebedi sneak into his rooms so Inkiza could show him some of his drawings, and he realized far too late how different it felt when they were out in the courtyard always on alert for someone who might catch them when compared to the warm security of his personal quarters.

"You're really good, Kiza. You did these from memory?"

Ebedi was sprawled out on one of Inkiza's lounges, looking slowly through the sheaf of papers containing Inkiza's charcoal sketches. His weapons rested on the floor in their sheaths, abandoned in favor of the far more intriguing artwork.

"Mmm, yeah." Inkiza had chosen to drag one of his chairs over near the lounger rather than tempt fate by sitting next to Ebedi. Not that the warrior really left much room, sprawled as he was. "I remember almost all of what I read, so it wasn't too hard to do the same for images..."

"Yeah, but..." Ebedi sat up, still intent upon the paper. "This one... this is completely the crane kick. You've even got the balance and foot positioning right. It's incredible."

Inkiza flushed and bit back on his automatic reply. He paid a lot of attention to Ebedi when the warrior was shadow-dueling. No, he paid a lot of attention to Ebedi all the time. He could faithfully reproduce every one of the soldier's smiles, the quirk of his brows when Inkiza had surprised him, the odd, alert look he got when he heard a sound. All of them, all of him, Inkiza had memorized.

"It's just... um... It's not hard," he managed lamely.

Ebedi looked up, deep sapphire eyes sparkling in the lantern light. "We need to work on that confidence issue of yours, highness. You're far too skilled - at everything - to be talking like that. Embrace your strengths, and make them flourish."

There was no time to formulate a reply. One moment Ebedi was sitting still on the lounge, the next he'd reached out and snagged Inkiza's wrist, tumbling the startled teen onto the lounge and half in Ebedi's lap with a startled yelp. "E-Ebedi!"

The soldier chuckled quietly and let him sit up, carefully setting the papers out of sight beneath the sofa so they wouldn't be damaged. "My apologies, highness," he announced cheerfully, prodding Inkiza until he was positioned to Ebedi's satisfaction. "Now then, repeat after me: I am a brilliant, magnificent person."

"Ebedi!" Inkiza protested, flushing hotly. "I'm not-"

Ebedi held a finger to Inkiza's lips. "Don't argue. Just say it."

Nervously Inkiza licked his lips, realizing too late that Ebedi hadn't removed his finger. He tasted salt and skin, and something else, and jerked backwards so hard he tumbled off the lounger and onto the floor in his embarrassment. He remained where he was for several long moments, willing the crimson away from his cheeks and feeling like many kinds of idiots. Was it even possible to be more obvious? Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid.

"... Kiza?" Ebedi's rich voice still sent shivers through his body, even while he wallowed in misery. The soldier sounded worried, then verified it by gently touching Inkiza's shoulder. "Are you injured...?"

"Umf." Gingerly Inkiza got to his knees, looking up into Ebedi's concerned sapphire eyes. He loved Ebedi's eyes. No one else's could possibly rival those jewel-like orbs, especially when they were gazing at him with such obvious care and concern. "I'm okay..."

"You..." Ebedi hesitated. "I'm sorry if I upset you. I didn't mean to... ah..." To Inkiza's utmost astonishment, Ebedi actually blushed. It wasn't easy to make out with the soldier's dark skin, but nevertheless it was there. Inkiza found himself staring.

"I... um... ah... oh Marian's tits," Inkiza swore, knowing he was fully going to regret this and quite possibly lose the only friend he had, but unable to stop himself anyway as he grabbed Ebedi's tunic and pulled the man down, covering Ebedi's lips and kissing him in the awkward manner of one who has absolutely no idea what they're doing.

Ebedi froze, his lips moving slightly as he made a soft sound of surprise. His mouth was soft, softer than Inkiza would have expected considering that none of the rest of him was. He held almost perfectly still, his shock almost a tangible thing, and Inkiza bit back a pained sound. Now he'd done it. Ruined the one good thing in his life just because he couldn't manage to keep himself under control. He started to draw away, meaning to apologize, when suddenly hands wrapped around him. One around his waist, one clasping the back of his head, not letting him move away. Something shifted, arms and heads and lips and suddenly Ebedi was kissing him back, only it wasn't nearly so awkward anymore.

Warm and soft and entirely new, Inkiza's thoughts scattered in all directions as the hand behind his head shifted lower to stroke the back of his neck. He felt like he was melting, all his thought focused upon the impossible concept that Ebedi was kissing him. Kissing him. He never wanted it to end, though eventually they both had to breathe.

Inkiza blinked several times to focus his thoughts, absently wondering how he'd gotten into Ebedi's lap and deciding it didn't really matter. Though it did give him better access to Ebedi's mouth. Access he took blatant advantage of, twining his arms around Ebedi's neck and kissing him again without thought for his aching lungs or much of anything for that matter.

Lack of air forced them apart sooner this time, chests heaving and breaths mingling as neither seemed particularly willing to part too far, even if they did need to breathe. Inkiza rested his forehead lightly against Ebedi's, breathing steadily in and out for a moment before sorting his scattered thoughts into words.

"So... it is alright to do that after all..."

"Oh yes," Ebedi whispered softly. "Any time you like."

Inkiza licked his lips, wondering that they felt decidedly different, and deciding that he rather liked the tingly feeling. "Oh good," he managed. "I was hoping you'd say that."

Both moved at once, eliminating the scant distance between to fit their mouths together just perfectly again. The hand at Inkiza's back slid down, then deftly maneuvered beneath his tunic and up bare skin. He squeaked in surprise, then things changed again. Something invaded his open mouth, warm and wet and caressing and he moaned quietly even as he pressed himself closer to Ebedi.

Ebedi's tongue slowly explored his mouth, carrying several faint flavours that Inkiza couldn't quite identify as his mind seemed unable to focus on anything at all. Ebedi's hands kept stroking and teasing and leaving him hot and cold and entirely overwhelmed all at once. He was vaguely aware that he was trembling, but there was nothing he could do about it. His body moved without his permission, hands sliding slowly down Ebedi's chest, feeling the powerful muscles beneath the thin fabric.

This time, Inkiza broke the kiss to tug on Ebedi's shirt. He wanted it off. Wanted to feel the sleek lines of the soldier's body beneath. Ebedi obliged, pulling Inkiza's own tunic up and over his head as well, dark sapphire eyes caressing him with their gaze before Ebedi slowly lowered his head to suck gently upon newly bared skin.

Inkiza couldn't help the soft cry that escaped, though it swiftly turned into muted whimpers as Ebedi pressed a series of hot kisses down his chest. Teeth grazed one of his nipples and Inkiza cried out again, shaking as unfamiliar sensations burned through his body. This was nothing like the strange feelings that sometimes woke him in the middle of the night. Those could never hope to compare with the ecstasy that each of Ebedi's caresses awoke in him.

"Ebedi..." he whispered, barely managing to get the word out before it turned into a strangled moan.

The soldier lifted his head, sapphire eyes dark with desire and no small amount of disbelief at what was before him. "Kiza," he murmured, licking his lips slowly. "Not in my wildest dreams had I dared to hope..." Ebedi paused, swallowing... almost nervously, though the thought seemed out of place when applied to the confident, self-assured soldier. "Do you have any idea what you do to me, beautiful Kiza? How hard it has been to see you, touch you, and not..." He made a soft, strangled sound, then bent his head to claim Inkiza's lips once more.

His thoughts scattered beneath Ebedi's insistent kiss, though he did acknowledge one brief moment of surprise that the soldier had found their meetings to be as frustrating and wanting as Inkiza himself. Ebedi, apparently, was good at masking his desires. Though he certainly wasn't doing so now. Not with his tongue exploring every curve of Inkiza's mouth while his hands splayed over bared skin, teasing and caressing enough to make Inkiza squirm.

Sweet torture. He wished it could last forever, but the fates had never been inclined to show kindness before. Nor would they now. That much was agonizingly obvious with the faint sound of the door being shoved open, followed by the much more audible thump of heavy footsteps as people entered and more than one startled gasp.

"Inkiza!" a voice exclaimed, thick with surprise and something else. Something darker. Above him Ebedi jerked back, his hands automatically going to weapons that weren't there before vaulting off the sofa to place himself between Inkiza and the men who had interrupted them. One of whom was Inkiza's uncle, Lord Regent Fahrin.

Inkiza scrambled to sit up straight, flushing and trying not to look as disarrayed as he felt. Wisps of hair had escaped their ties and tickled his face in a vexing manner, several more trailing down over his bare shoulders. He wished he knew where his shirt was. Confronting his uncle was hard enough when he was fully dressed.

"Uncle Fahrin," Inkiza greeted as cordially as he could manage. "What... what are you doing here so late?"

Lord Regent Fahrin peered down his aquiline nose at Ebedi, though his words were for Inkiza. "One of the guards heard voices and thought you might be in danger. Apparently correctly so."

Inkiza licked his lips, imagining he could still taste Ebedi on them. The soldier was still between him and his uncle, every muscle in his body standing out in perfect definition as he held himself in readiness for whatever might come, despite being unarmed.

"I... I'm fine, uncle. Ebedi and I were..." He hesitated and bit his lip. "We were looking at my pictures..."

Fahrin's lips twisted up into a sneer. "Oh, is that what you were doing? It looked like something else entirely to me." He gestured imperiously at Ebedi. "Guards, seize that man."

"No!" Inkiza exclaimed, scrambling to get up even as the armed guards moved in to flank Ebedi.

Ebedi moved with all the grace of a wild creature, disabling four of the guards and dodging two more before one chanced to slip up behind him and hit him in the back of the head with a sword pommel. The soldier dropped without a sound, though Inkiza made up for it with his pained cry.

"Ebedi! Uncle, no! Please don't!" He lunged forward, trying to get to his fallen friend, though one of the guards caught his arm and held him back. "This is my fault! Please, leave Ebedi alone. Uncle!"

Lord Fahrin gestured again. "Take him to the dungeons. He will be punished accordingly for daring to touch one of the royal family." He waited until two of the guards had dragged Ebedi's unconscious form from the room before turning back to Inkiza, who was still struggling to get away from the guard who held him. "Inkiza."

"Please, Uncle," Inkiza begged. "Don't do this. I only wanted a friend. It isn't Ebedi's fault..."

"The barbarian will be dealt with," Fahrin announced coldly. "As for you, think for a while on your disgraceful behaviour, and be glad that I do not punish you as well. Consorting with barbarian filth, allowing such trash to... to..." He made a disgusted sound, then turned and strode for the door. "I will be doubling your guard so that such... incidents... do not occur again. Good night, Inkiza."

His uncle swept from the room, followed by the remaining guards. A few moments later there came the distinctive click of the door being locked and Inkiza slowly sank to the floor with a strangled sob. The last of his freedom, gone. Ebedi, gone, and who knew what his uncle would have done to the soldier. All of it, his fault.

Inkiza stared unseeingly at the carpeting, trembling in pain, wishing he'd never brought Ebedi back to his rooms. One moment of weakness, and now he'd cost a man his freedom. Or worse. He groped blindly for his shirt, fingers touching fabric that he pulled to him, whimpering when he realized it wasn't his shirt he held, but Ebedi's.

Clutching the fabric to him, Inkiza curled up in a ball and wept for the loss of everything.

There was no real way of knowing how long Inkiza lay upon the floor of his sitting room with Ebedi's shirt clutched in his fingers. His were inner rooms without windows, supposedly for his own protection but more likely to make it harder for the prince to get out of his posh prison. Therefore there was no sunlight to inform him of the changing hours, and he couldn't bring himself to move enough to read the face of his small gold and ivory clock. He slept fitfully whenever the wracking sobs finally exhausted him into unconsciousness, and it wasn't until the timid arrival of one of his servants that he managed to look up at all.

"B-Biraz..." To Inkiza's dismay his voice was hoarse from crying and the sound echoing in his throat felt like swallowing shards of glass.

"Master Inkiza!" The servant, Biraz, darted across the room to kneel by Inkiza, fluttering worriedly. "What happened? I heard the guards talking and..." The boy bit his lip. "I... is it true, what they're saying? That some horrible barbarian came and..."

Inkiza swallowed, trying to work his way past the burning in his throat. "Not... horrible." He sat up slowly, still clutching Ebedi's shirt to his chest. "Not. Not barbarian. Ebedi."

The boy frowned in puzzlement. "Ebedi? What's an Ebedi?"

Slowly Inkiza managed to pull himself to his feet, stumbling to his desk and the pitcher of water that was always present. The cool liquid eased the tightness of his throat, allowing him to speak, if not normally, at least understandably. "He wasn't a barbarian. He's a soldier, and his name is Ebedi. He... he's my friend."

Biraz blinked several times. "But then why..." Slowly his brown eyes opened wide. "Ohh... The Lord Regent..."

Inkiza nodded once, refusing to give in to the tears that once again pricked his eyes. "One more way for my uncle to show his power over me," he whispered. "One more thing to break me..." He stared blankly at the now empty glass of water for a long moment, then slowly dragged his head up to catch Biraz's gaze. "What happened to him, Biraz? Do you know?"

The servant hesitated. "I... I heard..." Biraz swallowed. "Master, perhaps you do not wish me to-"

"Biraz." Inkiza pulled himself up straight, adopting the regal, confident pose that Ebedi had gone to so much effort to instill in him without consciously thinking about it. "Tell me what you know."

"Yes, Master Inkiza." Biraz's head bobbed in a slight bow; the boy was still very nervous. "The barbar... ah... soldier was taken to the dungeons and... questioned. When... when they brought him back out again, he had to be carried. They said he would be taken to the wildlands for..." The servant's voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "For the beasts to feast upon."

He couldn't breathe. Ebedi... Ebedi was... had been... "When?" he managed to choke out, his expression so full of agony that the servant boy took a step back in unease.

"Th... this morning..." Biraz was almost trembling with fright. "They were to leave this morning..."

This morning. "What time is it now?" Inkiza demanded.

"N-nearly supper," came the timid reply.

Inkiza bit back a sob. There was no way then, to rescue Ebedi from his fate. Even if his uncle hadn't increased the guards around his room as promised, there would still be no way for Inkiza to leave the palace and certainly no way to get to the wildlands.

The wildlands. So named because they remained the domain of the wild beasts, untamed by mankind. Numerous attempts had been made to conquer the area, and always those attempts failed. The wildlands refused to be tamed. Only the barbarian clans to the far south dared enter them now, and even that was only done during rites of passage. It was simply too dangerous otherwise. The chances of a single man, alone and wounded...

"Leave me, then," Inkiza said softly, turning away and dropping into his desk chair. "Bring supper, if you will, but do not disturb me otherwise."

He heard the quiet acknowledgement, the soft footsteps as they retreated, the muffled thud of the closing door, and ignored them all. They didn't matter. Nothing mattered, now. It was as though something vital had been ripped away from him, leaving him hollow and empty inside. Idly Inkiza cast his gaze over his sitting room, eyes pausing on Ebedi's twin swords still lying in their sheaths on one of the chairs. It would be so easy...

No. Ebedi would never wish that of him. Ebedi had always wanted him to be strong. Prince in more than title. Very well then. In not quite four years he would reach his age of majority and take the throne. For Ebedi, he would make himself the greatest King his country had ever known. It was time to begin studying for real.

Three years, eight months, fifteen days. At times it seemed like an eternity, while at other moments he found himself marveling at the changes that could take place in such a short span of time. Changes within and without.

Inkiza stood in his bathing room, staring blankly into the heavy golden mirror at his reflection. He'd gotten taller, though Ebedi would still have had over half a foot on him. His hair was longer, reaching to his lower back, and pulled into a simplistic plait. He had no interest in fripperies and elaborate fashion. Such things had no place in his world of books, laws, and kingdom.

Turning away, Inkiza smoothed down his tunic and stepped out into his bedroom. Today, at last, he was twenty. The end of childhood and the beginning of the rest of his life. This was the day he'd been waiting for ever since his world had been shattered around him. Now, at last, he would be able to make Ebedi proud of him, even if the soldier was no longer alive to know it. Inkiza would know for the both of them.

As he'd done every day for nearly four years, Inkiza went slowly to his dresser and pulled open the bottom drawer, setting aside the thin blanket so he could reach what lay beneath. His fingers lightly trailed along the curve of one sheathed blade, then the other, before he slowly drew out the thin tunic. It no longer smelled like Ebedi, but that didn't matter. He could remember; all he had to do was close his eyes and hold it close, and it was as though no time had passed at all. He still knew every line, every curve, every angle of his soldier's body.

Carefully he replaced the tunic, then the blanket, and closed the drawer. Rising, he exited the bedroom into the sitting room and dropped down into the chair behind his desk. There, he drew open a drawer and retrieved the set of three beautiful knives, soaring birds worked into their handles. His fifteenth birthday gift from Ebedi. He wanted to be wearing them when he was crowned. It seemed... fitting, somehow.

One into his boot, one strapped to his wrist, and the longest at his waist. Now he was ready. Soon, it would be over. Or begin.

Five hours later came the sounds he'd been waiting for. A key in the lock, voices outside. The door opened to admit Lord Regent Fahrin, followed by two guards. Inkiza's brow creased in a brief frown as he stood, smoothing the expression away into polite neutrality before any of them could more than glimpse it. Something was wrong. There should be at least three Councilors here with his uncle, to acknowledge his majority.

"Uncle Fahrin," Inkiza greeted calmly, moving out from behind his desk. "Might I inquire why you are not in the company of the kingdom's Council members?"

Fahrin waved away the question as though it were nothing more than a minor irritant. A pesky fly buzzing around. "They are not needed."

Inkiza arched a brow. "Not needed? To acknowledge the age of majority of a Crown Prince? What game are you playing, Uncle?"

"No game, Inkiza." That hated face smiled coldly. "Your... regrettably inappropriate behaviour has convinced the Council that allowing you to rule Cesim would be a grave mistake. We cannot risk the chance that your weak nature would allow you to be controlled so easily."

At his sides, Inkiza's fists clenched tightly. "I do not allow others to control me, Uncle. And the incident you speak of was four years ago, while I was still a child under our laws. Clearly even you can see that I have grown up since that time."

This time his uncle's smile was almost calculatingly cruel. "I'm afraid the Council agrees with me, Inkiza. You cannot be trusted to rule properly. I, of course, will take on the onerous duty until such time as the Council changes their minds, but until then you will simply have to remain right where you are, my dear nephew."

No. Fahrin couldn't do this. Inkiza had made a promise to Ebedi's memory. His uncle couldn't take even that away from him. He couldn't! Inkiza had promised!

"You..." Inkiza knew the shock was written blatantly across his face from the way Fahrin's mouth quirked up into a dark smirk. "You... you traitorous bastard!"

Before any of them had a chance to move, Inkiza had drawn his long dagger and lunged at his uncle. The man barely had enough time to get an arm up to deflect the worst of the blow, though blood gushed deep and hot from the long gash, spilling out over both Inkiza and his uncle. From the look of it, it was doubtful that Fahrin would ever be able to properly use that hand again. Most of the tendons had been cut.

"How dare you," Inkiza spat. "You power-hungry demon!" He lunged again as Fahrin jerked away from him, this time leaving only a shallow cut from his uncle's throat to just left of the man's navel. Before he had a chance to take a third strike, the stunned guards finally recovered enough to move, pinning his arms and wrenching the dagger from his hand. "Traitor! Monster!" Inkiza screamed.

Fahrin backed away from him, clutching his still-bleeding arm to his chest, eyes wide in genuine startlement and a small measure of fear. Then his lips thinned in a tight smile and he turned, sweeping out of the room without a backwards glance. In that moment, Inkiza knew his uncle had won and he ceased his struggles, dropping soundlessly to the floor.

The Council would never acknowledge him now. His rage had damned him, and now he'd never be able to fulfill his silent promise to Ebedi. He was forever trapped in his gilded prison.

Inkiza didn't really notice when the guards left, nor when the servants came to clean up the blood on the floor. He barely noticed when one helped him to the bathing room to wash off the blood that had gotten on him. Nothing mattered now, not the blood, not the servants, nothing.

A quiet klunk drew his attention back to his surroundings. The servant reached down with wide eyes to the knife that had fallen when Inkiza had been undressed. Before he could reach it Inkiza snatched it up, holding it close and snarling harshly enough that the man took one look at his bloodied face and fled.

The knife. The knives. They'd taken the long one from him. Where was it? Frantic, nude, and blood-spattered, Inkiza rushed out into the sitting room, startling the servants that were still trying to get the pooled blood out of the carpet. He ignored them, looking around wildly. Gone. His gift from Ebedi was gone. They'd taken it with them.

His scream of rage and pain had the servants scrambling away from him, one or two sneaking fearful glances at his agonized expression before turning nearly as one and bolting from the room. Inkiza didn't care. Let the blood stain the worthless carpeting. Let it stand as a reminder. And a new promise.

He knelt, running his hand slowly through the sticky red wetness before bringing it slowly up to contemplate the blood on his hand. If he was denied his throne, his promise to Ebedi's memory, then there was only one thing left that he could do for the only person he'd ever loved.

Though there was no one to see it, a chillingly cold smile spread across his lips as he stood and walked purposefully back to the bathing room. His dagger was gone, but none of them knew about Ebedi's twin swords still hidden in his drawer. The soldier had taught him all the basics of combat already, and Inkiza had long memorized Ebedi's every intricate move with the beautiful weapons. He would master them, no matter how long it took, and then he would shove them through his uncle's traitorous heart.

It didn't matter that he was still naked and covered in blood as he knelt to cast aside the concealing blanket and draw out the beautiful blades. His life had changed again, and now there was nothing left in it save for one all-consuming thought.


"Well?" Inkiza demanded, making the servant jump.

"The... the barbarian army is only hours from the capitol," the man stammered, twisting his hands in fear. "They've left Upadri in ruins, like Dravanya before that, and most of the royal army has been wiped out. Those that are left are guarding the palace, but..."

"But they have as much of a chance as a mouse trying to swat a wildcat," Inkiza finished for him. "Very well. You may leave."

The servant nodded and bowed, taking himself out of the prince's rooms with all haste. No doubt to collect his meager belongings and flee the country. Not that it would do much good. With the southern kingdoms in ruins and Cesim poised to fall as well, there was literally nowhere left to run. Nowhere safe, at any rate.

Five years ago the rumors had begun. Somehow, impossibly, the barbarian clans had been united under one ruthless warlord. Three years ago the united clans had laid waste to the kingdom of Kress. Two years ago, Dravanya and Malle. Last year, Uphadri. It was said that they rode with demons and wild beasts and the bravest of soldiers died of fear from the merest glimpse of the barbarian warlord's cruel gaze.

Cesim was the most powerful kingdom in the southern lands; even the northern confederates hadn't rivaled them. Despite all the warnings, they'd remained arrogantly assured that they could hold back the invaders. That a 'paltry collection of unwashed barbarians' posed no threat to the might of Cesim's army.

It had taken only three days for that army to fall.

Now the barbarian horde was only hours away from the palace with nothing but a handful of terrified palace guard to stand in its way. Inkiza chuckled darkly, the first time he had done so in over six years. If his traitorous uncle hadn't fled by now, he was soon to be a dead man. Though Inkiza would have preferred it to be by his own hand.

Unfortunately, he was still locked in his rooms with no way out. Three locks there were on his doors, after he'd taught himself to pick the simplistic ones and gone out in search of his uncle's head. Only once had he made it all the way to the royal suite, and Fahrin still bore the scar from that incident. One more scar to add to the others left over from six years ago when the bastard had destroyed his life and Inkiza had in turn destroyed his uncle's use of his right hand.

In all that time, Inkiza had done nothing but prepare. He'd mastered both Ebedi's twin blades as well as the remaining two daggers he had left. He'd never found out what had happened to the longest one. The one that had given Fahrin the terrible scars.

His uncle no longer came to Inkiza's rooms; even the guards dared not set foot inside unless they were at least four strong. Not after what had happened last time. Only the servants still entered, though even those were constantly nervous. It was well known that Inkiza was no longer the sweet, tractable prince he'd once been, though he didn't lash out at the servants. There was no reason to. They had not incurred his wrath.

He did wonder how long the guards would remain stationed outside his rooms. Probably only until the first signs of fighting broke out. They were not the bravest of creatures. Still, without the keys the guards held, Inkiza would be trapped inside. Keeping him safe from the barbarian horde? Or the barbarians safe from Inkiza?

Well. Either way, he would be ready. His traps had been carefully laid about the room, his daggers were in their proper places in boot and sleeve, and Ebedi's blades had been strapped securely to his back. Now it was entirely a waiting game, to see how long it took for the invaders to wonder what kind of things would require three complicated locks to keep it safe and break through the door.

Waiting was something he'd gotten very good at. Ten years, he'd been waiting for one thing or the other. Now he was simply waiting for something else.

It was three hours before the sounds of conflict made themselves known. Three hours before his guards fled their posts. Inkiza smiled grimly and set to seeing how long it would take him to figure out how to pick the newest locks. Hours? Days? Weeks?

He didn't get much of a chance to find out. Scarcely more than an hour after the fighting had begun there came voices outside his door again. Loud, arrogant voices speaking in the harsh, guttural language of the barbarian tribes. That was unexpected. He hadn't anticipated them coming so soon.

Nevertheless, he was ready. Swords unsheathed, Inkiza waited patiently as the door shuddered beneath the onslaught being applied to it. Again and again, the door shuddered and cracked, until one final blow reduced the majority of the heavy oaken obstruction to splinters.

The first barbarian that stepped through didn't even get a chance to cry out in surprise before gurgling out his last breath. The second came through with his sword at the ready, though he fell nearly as swiftly. There was a brief lull after that while harsh voices conferred, then the third barbarian came through in a rolling tumble that took him beyond Inkiza's immediate range. He was up and on his feet as another of his fellows followed through, giving Inkiza two targets to deal with.

Although the barbarians were better fighters than the guards he'd dealt with before, Inkiza had considerable practice in fighting against multiple opponents. As the guards no longer stationed at their posts could attest. He'd lost count of how many barbarians he'd gone through - they just kept coming through the door while he was occupied with their brethren - and it wasn't until he found himself battling five at once that they finally managed to overpower him.

Inkiza closed his eyes as they forced him to the floor, waiting - it seemed he was always waiting - to die. Strangely, the barbarians instead bound his hands behind his back and hauled him roughly to his feet. They shoved him forward, out through the broken doorway and down the hall. He could hear distant sounds of fighting, shouting, but it was getting dimmer. The pockets of resistance were falling swiftly. He wondered if they knew what had happened to his uncle. Not that they'd be likely to tell him even if they did.

It didn't take him long to realize he was being herded toward the throne room. That was not entirely anticipated, though he supposed it made a greater show of strength and all. Dictating to your prisoners from your enemy's conquered throne. It would be the first time he'd seen the throne of Cesim since his parents' deaths so many years ago.

The blood was the first thing he noticed. The second was the empty throne. If the barbarian warlord wasn't there, why had his people brought Inkiza to this place? Then he saw.

Pinned to the wall by daggers through his arms was Inkiza's traitorous uncle Fahrin. Blood seeped from more wounds than he could count, trickling down a corner of Farhin's mouth in a rivulet of crimson, though by far the worst was the deep slash across the stomach ending in a golden dagger still plunged deep into his uncle's guts. Those that weren't spilling out onto the floor, that is.

Inkiza cried out, breaking away from his captors and darting over to his uncle's body, struggling futilely to free his hands. That dagger. That was his dagger. The one that had been taken from him six years ago. The one Ebedi had given him.

He managed to partially knock it loose, bringing a pained, gurgling sound from the body pinned to the wall. Inkiza took a step back in shock. Fahrin was still alive? After all that had been done to him?

The barbarians reached him then, pulling him away from the bloody, slowly dying body of his hated uncle. He fought them, kicking and biting until they finally had to bind his feet and carry him to prevent any further outbursts. Even then, he didn't make it easy for them, squirming and writhing and wishing he could reach the last of his weapons - the dagger still hidden in his boot. He didn't know what he wanted to do with it; his heart wanted to plunge it deep into Fahrin's and end the bastard's miserable life, while his mind acknowledged that the man would suffer far more with this slow, draining death.

This time he didn't notice where they took him until he was thrown down roughly onto a dimly familiar carpet. He struggled to sit up, to place it, biting back a curse when he realized it was that of the royal suite. The rooms his uncle had occupied up until a few short hours ago. Why was he here? Unless...

More of that guttural language was exchanged somewhere behind him, then footsteps retreated and a door closed. Cold fear shot through his spine and Inkiza twisted desperately to reach his dagger. He'd sooner kill himself than allow any but Ebedi to touch him, and with Fahrin dying his last remaining reason to live died as well.

There. His fingers brushed across cool metal. A moment later the dagger was in his hands, its sharp blade cutting through the ropes binding his feet. He nicked his leg in his haste, feeling the wet trickle of blood winding down his ankle and summarily ignoring it. In a few minutes, it would be the least of his worries.

Then the dagger was pulled from his grasp by strong hands, though he hadn't heard anyone approach. He twisted his head to catch a glimpse, seeing a fall of untidy black hair, dark skin, and the intricate silver paint of a barbarian on blood-feud. The hair obscured any features he might have been able to make out, impossibly long and braided haphazardly with beads, feathers, and bits of bone. It all meant something, he was sure, but in his panic Inkiza couldn't manage to summon to mind the things he'd read so very long ago.

"Hold still," a soft, deep voice commanded, and Inkiza froze. He knew that voice. But it couldn't be... that was impossible. More than impossible.

In one smooth motion the ropes binding his arms were cut, freeing him. He spun, heart in his throat as he found himself looking into a pair of sapphire blue eyes that he knew more intimately than he knew his own. Eyes that couldn't be here. Eyes that belonged to a dead man.

"Kiza..." the blue-eyed barbarian whispered.

"E-Ebedi..." Inkiza choked out, staring, trembling, unable to reconcile what his eyes were showing him with what his mind knew for fact. "Y-you... you..."

They both moved at the same unspoken cue, Inkiza flinging himself at Ebedi as those familiar arms wrapped around him and held him tight enough that it made breathing difficult. He didn't care. He'd sooner give up on air altogether than have Ebedi let go ever again.

Ebedi held him while he cried, ten years worth of tears bursting forth from the dam he'd hidden them behind. Ten years of mourning, of pain, of sorrow. He cried until there was nothing left, all his tears having gone to soak the furs and leathers of Ebedi's barbarian garb. Only then did he lift his head again, his breath catching at the sight of his love's face, the silver paint streaked and blurred by tears of his own.

"I... I thought... They said..." Inkiza swallowed, his throat feeling hot and thick. "You're dead."

Fingers threaded through his hair, undoing it from the thick plait he'd put it in. "No," Ebedi said softly. "They tried, but I couldn't be so selfish as to die and leave you all alone, my beautiful Kiza. I'm sorry it took me so long to return to you."

"Ebedi..." Inkiza breathed again, bringing his hands up to trace the lines of Ebedi's face, noting the various subtle changes that had taken place over the span of ten years, the deeper lines, the jagged scar that ran down the side of face and neck to disappear beneath the thick leathers. "What..."

"Wildcat," Ebedi supplied. "I spent nearly two years in the wildlands, and its inhabitants aren't all that friendly."

Inkiza bit his lip, fingers tracing the long scar slowly. "I'm sorry..." he whispered. "Because of me..."

"No," Ebedi said sharply. "That snake's cruelty has nothing to do with you." His expression softened, preceding the brush of his hand across Inkiza's face. "Thoughts of you were all that kept me sane, though my warriors might argue that such a word does not apply to me." He paused, then chuckled. "Though, from what I hear, you gave quite an accounting of yourself as well."

Inkiza flushed. "I... I'm sorry... I didn't know they were..." He gestured helplessly. "With you."

Ebedi laughed softly. "No, I imagine you didn't. Though it hardly matters, in the end. In the mind of the clans, you have proven yourself more than worthy of respect after that performance."

"I did?" Inkiza blinked. "That's... um." Gentle laughter from Ebedi made him scowl. "What? If I'd done that to Cesim soldiers I'd be in nothing but trouble for it. Barbarians are strange."

"That we are," Ebedi agreed cheerfully, sapphire eyes sparkling. "Though, speaking of you and Cesim... your uncle was sporting a number of curious scars that I didn't recall him having before I left..."

"Yes," Inkiza agreed absently, still puzzling through barbarian customs. "If the guards hadn't been there they'd be more than just scars..." He trailed off and blinked. "Wait... You did that! Where'd you get my knife?"

Ebedi's lips twisted into a thin smile. "I took it from him. It seemed befitting, that the death wound be inflicted by the weapon of the one he had most greatly wronged. Though if I had known you had become such a warrior yourself, I would have left him for you."

Inkiza smiled faintly. "I just... I wanted to become someone you could be proud of... I studied law and history and everything I could to become the strong King you wanted me to be... not that he ever meant to let me rule." His smile darkened into a scowl. "That's when I gave him the first scars. When I turned twenty and he denied me my throne."

"You have it now," Ebedi murmured, both hands lost in his loosened hair now. "My warriors were under strict orders to destroy as little as possible once we got to Cesim."

Inkiza blinked. "But... you conquered us. Shouldn't you..."

"I have no wish to rule," Ebedi replied firmly, pressing one finger to Inkiza's lips to forestall any further protests. "All I have ever wished was to be your loyal soldier, to protect you and stay by your side, though I will admit that my methods were somewhat unusual."

"But..." Inkiza frowned. "Uncle Fahrin said the Council declared me unfit to rule..."

Ebedi smiled, his blue eyes carrying in them a sudden chill. "I'm afraid you'll have to build a new council, my King. The old one is... unavailable."

Inkiza shook his head slowly. "I don't want to know, do I? You really have become a real barbarian now..."

"We are a very direct people, we barbarians." Ebedi's hands wandered lower, tracing intricate patterns across his sides. "If someone offends us, we deal with the problem in such a way that the problem does not occur again. Removing a few selfish lords from power is no great task. Especially when they do not put up much of a fight worth speaking of." He smiled again, this time warm and open and oddly unsure for a man who spoke so casually of death and vengeance. "If my King will permit, I have a request to beg..."

Inkiza blinked at him curiously. "A request?"

Ebedi smiled, reaching up to brush his thumb across Inkiza's lips again, feather soft. "I would like to ask permission to kiss my King."

"Oh," Inkiza breathed. "Yes, always. Please." He reached up, twining his arms around Ebedi's neck, catching midnight strands and tiny black braids between his fingers. "Kiss me."

"Yes, my King," Ebedi murmured, dipping his head as Inkiza tipped his up, their lips meeting in a slow, sensual caress that lasted for scant heartbeats before devolving into a fiery rush of heat and tongues and a desperate reaffirmation of feelings that had only strengthened during the time spent apart. Ebedi's hands slipped beneath the hem of Inkiza's tunic, seeking out and finding the bare skin beneath, and Inkiza broke off the kiss with a startled gasp.


"My King?" Ebedi's head dipped lower, his lips caressing a searing trail down Inkiza's throat until he was thwarted by the collar of Inkiza's tunic.

"I..." Inkiza's breath seemed to be coming in shallow gasps. "Your... King... would like to request..." He bit back a moan as Ebedi sucked at the skin over his collarbone. "Re...request..." Those wonderful lips worked their way back up his jaw to nibble gently on Inkiza's ear and his thoughts promptly scattered in a thousand directions.

Ebedi's kisses slid back to Inkiza's lips, tongue dipping in to taste all too briefly before the dark man pulled away, smiling warmly. "You do not need to request anything of me, my King. My Kiza. I am, always and forever, yours to command."

It was hard to gather his thoughts with Ebedi's sapphire eyes looking at him so intently. He had to drag his own gaze down to the heavy furs and thick leathers before he remembered, blushing hotly as he did so.

"You... um... before... we got interrupted... we were... um..." Inkiza flushed darker. "Would you still want..." His breath caught and he swallowed. "Will you touch me, please?"

Those eyes he knew so well flashed briefly with surprise, then a gentle smile and something else crossed Ebedi's face. It took Inkiza a moment to figure out what it was, so seldom had he seen such an expression, and tears he hadn't thought he'd had left stung his eyes when he managed to place a name to it. This was what love was. Ebedi's love. For him.

"It would be my honor and pleasure, my King," Ebedi murmured, pulling Inkiza into his arms and standing swiftly, confidently, as though Inkiza weighed nothing at all. He looked around for a moment, frowning at the lavish bed and shaking his head slightly. "That needs to be burned."

Inkiza followed his gaze, looking over the embroidered silk and intricate bedspread, his hands grasping thin handfuls of Ebedi's furs. "No... it's... it's okay. I remember... from when I was little. It belonged to my parents..." He bit his lip. "I remember the colors. I used to trace the patterns with my fingers."

Ebedi smiled. "Then I think they would not mind if we borrowed it, hmm?"

Flushing, Inkiza mirrored the smile even as he shook his head. "No, I don't think they would."

Ebedi's smile widened. "In that case, permission to take my King to bed?"

Inkiza met the smile with one of his own, admittedly shyer even as he stole a brief, fleeting kiss. "Please," he whispered.

Ebedi laid him out carefully on the beautiful comforter, leaning down across him so that their lips were just short of touching, his breath warm as he smiled again. "Yes, my King."