Summary: A kingdom fights a brutal, never-ending war with its neighbor. The king's nephew serves on the front lines because he is unhappy at court, but his love affair with the son of a minor nobleman causes him to question the war and his loyalty, ultimately leading to a showdown with the king himself.

Warning: This story contains gay themes and includes some erotic content, sexual situations and mature subject matter. There are also scenes of battlefield violence and related graphic descriptions.


Chapter 1: EvanTark

The coach jostled to a halt and Evan had to grasp the edge of the seat to keep from bumping into his neighbor in the packed coach. He had originally thought he was lucky to get a seat inside away from the dust of the road, but he had quickly discovered that the cramped interior was hot and muggy with the passengers packed in four across on the two narrow seats, facing each other. His normally curly black hair was matted down by perspiration and his bangs kept poking into his large gray eyes, leaving drops of salty sweat that made them sting. The dusty but open air of one of the upper benches had become appealing after the first hour in the coach. The trip from the station at Green River Crossing, near his home, to Bandahar, the royal capitol, was six exhausting hours with only one half-hour long rest stop.

But now they had arrived at the station in Bandahar across from the massive public market and Evan eagerly stepped out into the unpaved square. He waited with the other passengers for his baggage to be handed down, but once it was in his hands, he faced the open square feeling suddenly intimidated. Bandahar was a huge city, home to hundreds of thousands people. The bustle and noise were a far cry from the simpler life he had grown up with.

"Don't know where you're going, Sir?" a friendly voice asked from behind him.

Evan turned around to find one of the coachmen smiling at him. "Well, I was planning to look for work at the palace."

"Oh." The coachman pointed up the road. "You'll want to go that way, then. Follow this road till you reach the big paved road. That'll take you right to the palace."

"Thank you."

"Good luck, Sir." The coachman touched a finger to his forehead in a polite salute and went about his business.

Evan turned in the indicated direction and set off up the street. He found the paved road after only a few minutes of walking. The road was wide enough for four or five large wagons to travel side by side and it was packed. People, carriages, wagons and riders thronged it, going in both directions. Overwhelmed again, Evan stopped next to an old woman hawking apples out of a basket to passersby.

"Can you tell me which way leads to the palace?" Evan asked her.

"That way, laddie." The old woman pointed to his right. "Want an apple?"

"No, thank you," Evan declined softly and hurried away. He did not want to admit he had almost no money. He let a press of pedestrians carry him along since they were moving in the direction he wanted to go. After a relatively short walk, the road opened out into a public square even larger than the market he had just left. An enormous fountain stood in the center, spouting water from the intricately carved mouths of fantastic-looking sea creatures. On the far side of the square stood the royal palace, a magnificent edifice of pinkish-white stone. Evan stopped to stare at it. He had heard that the royal palace was beautiful, but he had not imagined anything so wonderful. Eagerly, he crossed the square to the wide, wrought iron gates. Nobles, servants and tradesmen came and went through the gates under the watchful eyes of several dozen attentive guards, but many of the tradesmen were queued up at a table situated in the middle of the gates to speak with one of the two liveried servants seated there. The servants appeared to be performing some kind of secretarial function. They had several large books which they consulted and would periodically write something down on a slip of paper for one of the tradesman before sending him on his way. Suspecting he needed to stop there too, Evan took his place in the queue and waited his turn. When he finally stepped forward, the servant he approached eyed him with a bored expression.

"How may I be of service to you today, Sir?"

"I am seeking employment," Evan answered carefully.

The servant opened a thick book lying on the table in front of him. "What skills do you have?"

"I can perform the functions of a scribe or a bookkeeper."

"I see." The servant looked through the last entries in his book slowly. "There might be a position." He quickly penned something on a scrap of paper, blotted it, and handed the paper to Evan. "Take this inside and ask for Lord Undersecretary Viran."

"Thank you." Evan accepted the paper and entered the gates. He had barely stepped into the wide courtyard inside before he was accosted by a young page.

"May I guide you somewhere, Sir?"

"I need to see Lord Undersecretary Viran."

"This way, please." The page executed a quick bow and turned to lead Evan into the palace. Within minutes, Evan realized the enormous appearance of the palace from the outside still did not convey how large it really was. The first hallway they entered was wider than the largest parlor in Evan's home, and it was so long that the far end of it receded into the distance. Several of the intersecting hallways were equally wide. But the page led the way quickly, clearly knowing exactly where he was going. He finally stopped outside a set of double doors that stood open, revealing a large room containing several desks occupied by clerks.

"The gentleman seated at the rear is Lord Undersecretary Viran," the page said.

"Thank you." Evan entered the room and approached the large desk where Viran was seated. The gentleman looked up when he entered and watched his approach with an impatient frown.

"What's this?" he demanded as soon as Evan was within easy earshot.

Evan held out his note. "I am seeking employment, Lord Undersecretary."

Viran took the note and glanced at it. "A bookkeeper, eh? Are you truly good with numbers?"

"I can do sums of large numbers in my head, Lord Undersecretary."

"Indeed?" The frown left Viran's face. "Very well. I could use another clerk. What is your name and family?"

Evan flushed slightly. "I am Evan Tark, my lord. My father is Lord Horwin Tark of Green Glen, near Green River Crossing."

Viran lifted an eyebrow. "A gentleman's son and you're looking for work as a bureaucrat?"

"It's that or be a soldier," Evan said, his flush deepening. "I am the youngest of seven and the fourth son. I fear I have little prospect for inheritance."

Viran nodded. "I can understand your choice, in that case. Well, you'll find me a stern master, but a fair one. That desk over there will be yours. Kimson!"

At the shout, a young blond man a few years older than Evan popped to his feet. "My lord?"

"Show young Tark here around and get him settled. And take him over to the Chamberlain's to get assigned some quarters."

"Yes, my lord!"

Viran turned his attention back to the papers on his desk and Evan recognized that he had been dismissed. He turned to the young man identified as Kimson.

"My name is Evan Tark," he introduced himself.

"Joss Kimson." The two shook hands and Joss nodded toward the door. "Let's go see the Chamberlain first so you can drop off your things." He glanced at Evan's one small bag. "After that, I'll show you where we eat and then we'll come back here and get to work."

"All right."

The Chamberlain's office was easily as large as Lord Viran's office. Three walls of the room were completely covered with what Evan realized after a second glance was the floor plan of the palace. Tiny pins with colored flags punctuated rooms on the plans. The fourth wall, which also contained the door through which they entered, was lined to the ceiling with bookshelves. Several pairs of desks faced each other in a neat row down the center of the room. At the far end, a single long table stood, containing stacks of paper, ink pots, pens and several jars of the pins.

Joss led Evan to the far end of the room, where a tall man with flowing gray hair that hung to his waist leaned over the table studying something.

"Lord Chamberlain, we have a new employee in the accounting department."

The tall man straightened to look at them. He had gray eyes that matched his hair, high cheekbones and a small mouth with smile lines at the corners. "A new employee, eh? He'll need a room, then." He took a pin with a yellow flag out of one of the jars and moved to the wall on their right. He strolled down it slowly, studying the plans, before stopping and sticking the pin into a tiny square. "This will do. It's not too far from you I believe, Mr. Kimson."

"Yes sir, that's quite close to my room."

"Good." The Chamberlain favored Evan with a friendly smile. "I am Lord Alonzo. If you need anything, ask anyone on my staff."

"Thank you, Lord Chamberlain." Evan inclined his head politely. As they left, he glanced back over his shoulder. "He seems very nice," he said to Joss.

"Lord Alonzo is great!" Joss agreed enthusiastically. "Once he was promoted to Lord Chamberlain, the whole palace became incredibly organized. It was his idea to put up the floor plan and keep track of where everyone was living. He took a full census on the palace and found lots of people living here who had never been given permission. It was great when he got the king's permission to evict all the squatters. He even threw out nobles!" Joss threw his head back and laughed. "It was completely scandalous and terrific fun."

Evan stared. "When was that?"

"Five years ago or so. It was right after I started working here." He turned into a long hallway. "Here we go. Most of us in accounting live along this hallway. It's fairly close to the office, which is great." He finally stopped outside a door. "This one's yours."

Evan looked up and down the hall, a little bewildered. "How can you tell? All these doors look the same."

Joss chuckled. "There's a trick to it." He pointed to the top of the door. "See the marks up there?"

Evan stared. "It looks like a number."

"It is. 2188. That's the room number. That was Lord Alonzo's idea, too. He had all the small rooms discretely numbered. Eventually, you learn your way around. But until you do, the numbers really help." Joss opened the door and waved Evan in.

The room was small, but still a comfortable size for one person. It had a bed with a small night table beside it against the wall on the left and an armoire against the wall on the right. A small table and chair rested against the far wall under a narrow shuttered window opposite the door. A large red and gold rug covered most of the floor, protecting bare feet from what were probably very cold flagstones in the winter. There was no fire place, but a small iron stove stood in one corner, its narrow iron vent disappearing into a flue in the wall.

Evan blinked in surprise. "Are all the rooms like this?"

"Pretty much."

"It's quite nice."

"Yeah." Joss grinned. "Do you mind just leaving your things for the moment so we can get back to work? Lord Viran will get impatient if we don't return quickly."

"Of course!" Evan dropped his bag on the bed. He tried to pay close attention as they returned to the accounting office so he would remember the way. Fortunately, there were not many turns. Along the way, Joss paused briefly outside the door to what was obviously a dining room.

"This is the dining room where we take our meals. There are other dining rooms, but this one is used mostly by clerks like us. They serve three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you miss a meal, you don't eat until the next one, unless you have money to order something from an inn. But meals in the dining room are free, so I usually eat here." Joss started walking again and when they got back to the office, he escorted Evan to the desk Viran had assigned to him.

"You should have everything you need," Joss said. Ink pots and several quills were already on the desk, along with a neat stack of blank sheets of paper, weighted down by a smooth, flat stone. "You can get more paper, ink and quills from the cupboard over there. Our job in the accounting office is to manage both the palace and the kingdom's expenses. Lord Viran is an undersecretary of the Lord High Treasurer. Each of us manages a different expense area. The fellow who was managing the kitchen budget retired recently and we haven't replaced him yet, so I imagine Lord Viran wants you to start there. It's fairly straightforward. Have a seat and I'll get you the books. You can review the expense history first and then start looking at the current bills."

Evan sat down at the desk while Joss brought over the books. The stack was frighteningly tall and Joss gave him a cheerful smile as he deposited the books in front of him. "Good luck!"

Evan drew a deep breath and lifted the top book off the stack as Joss returned to his desk. "Here goes…"


By the time summer flowed into fall and melted into winter, Evan was comfortable in his role at the palace. Bookkeeping was an undemanding but satisfying job and it paid well enough that he was able to buy new boots and a new cloak for winter to replace the hand-me-downs he had brought with him from home. When the first snow fell, his feet stayed warm and dry in boots that fit properly.

"What are you grinning about?" Joss asked as they hurried across the great square in front of the palace gates. Today was their day off and they had decided to eat lunch at one of the inns across the square.

"Nothing," Evan said quickly. He did not want to tell Joss that he was smiling over new shoes. "Why are there so many people out? I would think the weather would keep them inside." A gust of icy wind flared his cloak as he spoke.

"We're out here, too!" Joss pointed out with a laugh. "But they're probably out buying presents."

"Presents? For whom?"

Joss returned his curious stare with a surprised look. "You don't know?"


"You must come from a really small town."

Evan flushed. "Green Glen is not that small!" he said quickly, embarrassed.

Joss grinned. "Right!" At Evan's annoyed look, he explained. "There's always a break in the war during the winter. A lot of the soldiers come home for a few weeks, so their families buy them presents to welcome them. Don't they do that in Green Glen?"

Evan looked down. "No," he said shortly. "No one from Green Glen has ever come back from the front."

Joss stopped in his tracks. "No one? Ever?"

"No," Evan repeated, clipping the word off short. He stopped walking, but he did not turn to look at Joss. "Except for my family, there are only peasants in Green Glen. Peasants never come back from the front. They're not trained to fight. They just die."

Joss was quiet for a long time. "I'm sorry. I didn't know that."

"Everyone knows each other in Green Glen," Evan continued quietly, "so when someone dies, it's always someone we know." He swallowed. "But when they're sent to the front, we never find out what happens. They just don't come back."

"Not even a letter?" Joss asked quietly.

"What good would it do? Peasants can't read." Evan looked over his shoulder at Joss and smiled wanly. "I'm sorry. I've ruined the mood. Let's go eat."

Joss blinked in dismay. "I really didn't know," he said.

Evan reached out and caught Joss' elbow. "Please don't worry about it. No one in my family has been sent to the front. We aren't important enough to earn the king's notice."

Joss snorted. "So he just conscripts your peasants?"

"It's his right," Evan said with a sad shrug. "He has to defend the kingdom."

Joss frowned. "I suppose so." He resumed walking. "This war is such a drain on the kingdom, though. Money, goods, men; it all gets sucked up by the war. Half of the money that the tax collectors take in goes toward fighting the war. It seems like such a waste sometimes."

Evan nodded in agreement, but then he sighed. "But what can we do? As long as the Colchara continue to mass on our border, we have to fight."

"True." Joss looked up at the sky. "Uh oh! It looks like more snow. We better hurry. That lamb stew is starting to sound really good right now."

They hurried as quickly as they could over the snow-slicked flagstones.


From the back of his tired horse, Dahl Shelby looked up at the glistening pink walls of the palace and sighed. The normally luminescent walls looked muted under the leaden sky.

"Are you not happy to be home, General?" his companion inquired politely.

Dahl half-smiled. "Must you call me that, Tolvar? It makes me feel old."

"You should be proud to receive a general's commission at such a young age, Lord Shelby," Tolvar replied.

"The only thing I'm proud of is making it through another season with most of the army still intact," Dahl said, his smile fading. He nudged his horse back to a walk. The horse's hooves splashed through the slush in the square, muffling the clop of its iron shoes on the smooth flagstones. "I should have stayed at the front. General Kordwain should be bringing this report to the king."

"You have been at the front for two years, Lord Shelby," Tolvar replied gravely. "The Lord High General thought it was time you returned home."

"Why?" Dahl peered up at the palace and frowned. "My father was banished from court years ago for fathering a few too many bastards and my mother has never set foot outside of the nunnery her family sent her to after I was born. And my uncle despises me, which is what landed me on the front lines in the first place."

Tolvar shifted uncomfortably. "I do not think his majesty despises you, Lord Shelby. After all, he allowed you to be raised in the palace and awarded you the Duchy of Swalesdown."

"Hah!" Dahl snorted. "That's only because he needed someone to saddle that barren strip of land on after he stripped the title from my father. Dumping it on me was just convenient. And he allowed me to live in the palace to appease my mother's family since everyone knows I am their kin, illegitimate or not."

Tolvar sighed. "I think we have had this argument before."

"We have," Dahl said. "We have it every time I'm forced to come here."

They rode through the wide gates into the palace courtyard. Normally a busy place, today it was nearly empty. Stable hands and pages scurried from shelter to meet them as they reined to a halt.

"Good afternoon, Lord Shelby," a page said, offering him a low bow.

A stable hand grasped his bridle and Dahl swung down. "Good afternoon," he replied affably. "Please dry my horse thoroughly, put a blanket over him and give him a warm bran mash," he said to the hand. The young man bobbed his head and led the horse away. Dahl turned to the page. "Please tell me that I'm not expected."

The page had to stifle a grin. "We were told you were coming, my lord, but not when."

"Good. If anyone questions you about not announcing my arrival, tell them I threatened you with bodily harm if you uttered a peep, all right?"

"Yes, my lord!" Now the page did grin. "Shall I order a bath for you?"

"Yes, please." Dahl started walking, but stopped when Tolvar called him.

"My lord, aren't you going in the main entrance?"

"No." Dahl rolled his eyes. "Someone will just tell my uncle I'm back. I'm going in the side door. I want to get a snack from the kitchen anyway."

"Very well, my lord." Tolvar let out a long-suffering sigh and turned toward the main entrance.

Dahl entered the palace through a service door and made his way to the kitchen. He had hoped to swipe something quickly and disappear, but as soon as he stepped through the door, the head cook saw him.

"Lord Shelby!" she sang out, her big voice booming across the enormous room. "You better not be planning to steal one of my pies again!"

Dahl grinned. "Who, me?" He put on his best innocent face as he was enveloped in a warm, flour-coated hug.

"Yes, you!" she chuckled in his ear. "When did you get back?" She released him with an affectionate smile.

"Just now, Cherise. I was hoping to get a quick bite to eat. Nothing fancy."

"I'll make you a plate," Cherise said, immediately belying her own words by shouting at the nearest kitchen staffer: "You there! Quit lazing about and assemble a light luncheon for Lord Shelby!"

"Yes, Miss Cherise! At once!"

Cherise's smile faded. "How was the front? You were gone a long time."

"It never changes," Dahl answered quietly. "There are always more battles."

"It's not right that you spend years at the front and that good-for-nothing lay-about Prince Vardon has never set foot outside Bandahar," she said angrily. "The king makes every family send sons to the front but his own."

"Hush, Cherise!" Dahl admonished her. "I am the king's nephew. It's not as though he risks none of his own kin."

"Pish!" Cherise waved away his objection. "If he treated you like blood kin maybe that would be different."

"You're going to get yourself in trouble with such talk," Dahl said seriously.

"I'm not the only one saying it," Cherise grumbled. "We hear the stories about what you've been doing at the front. They say that since you've been there we've won more battles and fewer soldiers have been lost. It's only right that they made you a general. That fool Vardon could never do that."

Dahl patted her cheek. "I had better leave before you say any more. Vardon is the Crown Prince. You'll have to speak more politely about him when he takes the throne."

"I'll retire that day and come cook for you at the front!" Cherise exclaimed. The staffer assigned to get his luncheon returned with a covered tray. Cherise peeked under the cover and examined the selections critically. "Well, I suppose this will have to do." She scowled at the staffer and took the tray, but she smiled sweetly when she passed it to Dahl. "Please enjoy your luncheon, my lord."

"Thank you, Cherise."

Dahl made it to his room without having to talk to anyone, which he found amusing. The fact that he was carrying a tray made everyone immediately assume he was a servant and therefore they did not look at him. He had been using the trick for years to pass through the palace unrecognized and no one had caught on to it yet. The snobbery of nobles was good for something. Once in his room, he bolted the door and settled down to eat. The luncheon was considerably more than the snack he had planned on. Half a roast chicken, bread and butter, a leek and potato pasty and a large wedge of blueberry pie were nestled under the cover, along with a pot of tea and honey. He smiled as he silently thanked Cherise again. He had missed her cooking.


The sound of people talking loudly in the hall outside his room after dinner distracted Evan from his book. Slightly annoyed, he stuck his head out into the hall to see what was going on. A group of men and women from the accounting office stood in the middle of the hall, gesturing animatedly as they talked. Since they had disturbed him, Evan felt no qualms about interrupting their conversation. He stepped out into the hall.

"What's up? Has something happened?" he inquired.

One of the women, whose name Evan could never remember but thought might be Joslyn, turned to him. "Lord Shelby has returned from the front!" she said excitedly.

"Lord Shelby?"

Joslyn's eyes went round. "Don't you know who Lord Shelby is?!" she exclaimed in astonishment. Her exclamation caught the attention of the others and they all turned to stare at Evan in amazement. "I thought everyone knew who Lord Shelby is!" she continued.

Evan frowned, hoping his embarrassment was not showing on his face. "I'm afraid I've never heard of him," he said.

"Lord General Dahl Shelby, the Duke of Swalesdown, is the king's nephew," said one of the men, a supercilious fellow named Herbert Vole. "He's been serving at the front for the past few years. He was commissioned by the Lord High General Kordwain last summer for his superior tactical prowess and fighting skills." Herbert stared down his thin nose at Evan. "He is very popular at court, despite being the bastard son of the king's younger brother."

"Oh, you shouldn't say it that way, Herbert," another woman said angrily. "Lord Shelby is a great man! He saved my brother's life!"

"Your brother lost his leg," Herbert said with a sniff.

"But he's still alive because Lord Shelby carried him all the way to the surgeons' tent before he bled to death! You don't know anything!" She started to cry and Joslyn put an arm around her shoulders.

"There, there, Annette, don't cry!" Joslyn glared at Herbert. "You're just jealous! You should apologize!"

Herbert pinched his lips together with a pained expression. "Of course," he said stiffly. "I meant no disrespect for your brother, who served honorably at the front."

"Come on, Annette." Joslyn led Annette away and the conversation broke up.

Evan was about to re-enter his room when Joss came striding down the hall.

"Hoy, Evan!" Joss called. "Are you busy?"

"Not especially. Why?"

"There's a party in the east wing to celebrate Lord Shelby's return. We should go. I heard someone say he might show up." Joss' eyes sparkled. "There should be a lot of women there from other departments. It's a good opportunity to meet someone."

"I'm not looking to get involved…" Evan began.

"You don't need to be," Joss laughed. "I am! But if I show up alone, everyone will know I'm fishing. Say yes! Please!"

Evan smiled ruefully. "All right, I'll come."


Their rooms were in the west wing of the palace, so the east wing was a long walk. The halls were crowded because of the poor weather, but a number of people seemed to be heading in the same direction they were. Evan began to experience misgivings.

"How many people do you think will be there?" he finally fretted aloud.

"A fair number," Joss said lightly. "Lord Shelby is quite popular. But there shouldn't be too many hoity-toity types. They can't adulate him too openly because it will annoy King Vidar." Joss grinned. "The king hates it that people like Lord Shelby more than Prince Vardon. But Vardon's kind of dull and he's not the natural leader Lord Shelby is."

Evan stared at Joss. "I've never heard you talk about anyone so positively before," he remarked, "except maybe for Lord Alonzo."

"Really?" Joss laughed. "I guess that's so. I am very impressed by Lord Shelby, but Lord Alonzo will always be my first love!" He grinned widely as he spoke.

Evan fell silent. For some reason, it made him a little uncomfortable to hear one man talk about another that way. They arrived at last at a large ballroom crowded with people; mostly bureaucrats and minor nobility. A small orchestra played on a stage on the right hand side. Chairs stood against the walls, leaving the middle of the room free for dancing. Stairs on either side of the entrance gave access to a balcony that ran all the way around the room, allowing spectators to observe the ballroom from above.

Joss rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Look at them all," he exclaimed delightedly. "Hundreds of available women just waiting to find out how perfect I am! Let's hunt!"

A few hours later, Evan climbed up to the balcony feeling exhausted. At Joss' insistence, they had danced or chatted with dozens of women. He was more than ready to go to bed, but he felt a little guilty just abandoning Joss without saying goodbye. He leaned against the railing and gazed down at Joss skipping through the steps of a formal dance with a new partner, a happy smile on his face.

"Your friend is really enjoying himself," a man's voice murmured on his right.

Evan started and turned to find a slender man with straight, reddish-brown hair, wide green eyes and a long straight nose over a shapely mouth leaning against the railing beside him. "I… I'm sorry!" he stammered. "I didn't see you!"

The man turned to him with a smile. "I noticed." He held out his hand. "I'm Dahl Shelby."

Evan took his hand before the name sank in and then he froze. "Lord Shelby?" he squeaked.

Dahl chuckled. "You say that like I might bite you!"

"I'm sorry!" Evan apologized again, feeling foolish. "It's just… I…" He stammered to a halt, not knowing what to say.

Dahl's chuckle turned to a laugh. "Well, that's the first time I've made someone speechless. Too bad, because I was hoping you would tell me your name."

Evan blushed furiously. "Evan Tark, my lord. I work in the accounting department."

"An accountant, eh? One of the minions who keep the kingdom running." Dahl's smile was warmly disarming. "I have nothing but respect for people who deal with numbers. I can't seem to get the same three numbers to add up the same way twice in a row."

Evan blinked, not knowing what to make of such a self-deprecating statement from someone who was supposed to be as great as Dahl Shelby.

Dahl leaned toward him and lowered his voice. "To be honest, I'm tired of dancing. I was thinking about leaving. Would you like to join me for a glass of wine? We so seldom get wine at the front and I'm still savoring having a whole decanter of the stuff to myself. But I don't like drinking alone. What do you say?"

Evan glanced down at Joss, still swinging through the reels of the formal dance. He was clearly not ready to go. Evan looked back up to find Dahl studying his face. He felt his cheeks reddening again. "I would be honored, Lord Shelby," he said, trying not to sound like the country hick he was starting to feel like.

"Good." Dahl gestured with one hand and bowed slightly toward the stairs.

Evan started walking and Dahl fell into step beside him. He thought Dahl would take him to one of the many parlors were people went to talk or play cards, but he was unfamiliar with this part of the palace and was therefore caught completely off guard when the room he stepped into turned out to be a bedroom. He stopped in his tracks, but Dahl had already closed the door behind him.

"Lord Shelby…" he began in an embarrassed tone, but gasped in surprise when Dahl's arms encircled his waist from behind.

"Evan," Dahl murmured in his ear. "Please hear me out before you demand that I open the door."

Evan went still, his heart pounding in his chest.

"I was first sent to the front when I was sixteen and have served for eight years. I have not been home for the last two years. When soldiers come home from the front, we have only a few weeks to enjoy all the things we have missed: family; friends; food; drink; whatever it is we have missed the most." Dahl paused and sighed softly. "Sexual intimacy." Evan shuddered. "I do not desire women, Evan. The touch I long for is that of another man. I cannot fulfill that need at the front because of my position. But sometimes it is just as difficult here at court because of who I am."

Evan could scarcely breathe. Dahl's confession was riveting, even while it made his pulse race.

"I will not force myself on you," Dahl whispered, "but I will beseech you to indulge me. Spend the night with me." His lips touched Evan's ear gently.

Evan shivered. "Lord Shelby," he whispered. "I… I don't know what to say. I've never…" He fumbled to a stop, his face flushed. Suddenly, the idea of admitting his innocence was painfully embarrassing.

Dahl stepped around to face him and lifted Evan's chin, his other arm still encircling his waist. "I can fulfill you, Evan," he said softly. "The love of another man can be joyous. Let me show you." Very slowly, he brought his mouth to Evan's and kissed him deeply. Evan had never experienced a kiss like that before. Dahl's mouth moved against his, his tongue stroking against Evan's lips. It felt awkward not to return the kiss, so Evan kissed back, but as he did so, he felt excitement beginning to stir in his loins. When Dahl finally pulled his mouth away, Evan was breathing rapidly. "Please stay with me," Dahl said, his eyes fixed on Evan's.

Transfixed by Dahl's emerald gaze, Evan slowly nodded.