Chapter Nine: Freedom?

Valerian's visit to the physician revealed no particularly serious injuries as a result of his fall. There were possibly a couple of broken ribs to keep an eye on, and more than a handful of bumps and bruises, but by and large, he was quite lucky to not have been more severely hurt. Linnedain was quick to remind him of this once they were alone—save the physician mixing some herbs in the corner—in the infirmary.

"That so easily could have ended much worse for you, Valerian," he said from his place standing before the small bed upon which Valerian sat.

Valerian was having a hard time imagining things being worse than they were now. A broken arm or leg? He would take that kind of physical pain over having his emotional state violently ravaged any day. He was an absolute wreck right now. He had just nearly lost his sister to a danger that he hadn't ever even imagined could have been real. And the danger wasn't even warded off completely yet. All the excitement had upset Demetria's already flimsy heart, sapping any strength to even move on her own. She was taken straight from the infirmary to their mother's chambers, where she would undoubtedly be confined to bed for who knew how long. What if she wasn't able to recover? What if her heart gave way?

"Valerian, look at me." Linnedain's hands cradled his face, directing those amber eyes where he wanted them to be. "Did you knock your head? Your eyes look so vacant. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I understand," Valerian said. "I won't do it again."

The languor of Valerian's words betrayed his inattentiveness. "What exactly is it that you won't be doing again?" Linnedain tested him.

"I won't…" Valerian didn't have a clue what he wouldn't be doing. "Maybe I did hit my head on something." He didn't even have to lie. He had definitely hit his head on something; there were lumps to prove it.

"You won't be leaving this infirmary, Valerian. Not without someone escorting you. Someone that I have approved of. And let me make it clear to you right now: I do not approve of Nonde as a suitable supervisor for you. In fact, I think it's better if you don't see him at all for a time. The same goes for General Rain, as well."

The mention of Nonde was a stake stabbed into Valerian, and the name following was the hammer that drove it in to shatter whatever was left of his battered psyche.

"You can't keep me here," he said, shaking his head as he got to his feet. In his desperation, Valerian must have forgotten his sanity. He had already lost control of everything; his head and his heart were running wild after the day's events, and now Linnedain was trying to take his body from him, too.

"Sit down, Valerian," Linnedain warned him, a blizzard brewing in his eyes. He was one of the few men taller than Valerian. It wasn't by much, but when he took on his stony expression, he loomed over the young Starling like an ice-capped mountain, cold and dangerous to cross. "You're not thinking clearly."

It must have been true. Because no one with a clear head would ever have spoken Valerian's next words to Linnedain. "If anyone here isn't thinking clearly, it's you. This is fucking insane. How is keeping me locked up justifiable in any way? I am not your fucking pet. I'm not your little bird that you can put in a cage."

The back of Linnedain's hand flew at Valerian so suddenly that he hardly had time to consider his own reaction. Valerian did what any trained fighter would do and threw up his own arm to block the strike. It was a horrible mistake to defy Linnedain further than he already had, though, which he quickly realized after Linnedain's other hand came across his cheek, a thunderous wave of rage that knocked him from his feet.

"Leave us!" Linnedain roared. Even though he was staring down at Valerian, his chest heaving furiously, it was clear that his command was meant for the physician. The man hurried from the room; he didn't wish to witness this sort of violence. It was the worst kind.

The door swung closed and Valerian was alone in the room with Linnedain. For so long he had wondered what would happen to him if he rebelled against his lord, and now he knew. Could he handle this punishment? Was Valerian ready to suffer this wrath for the sake of freeing himself? Was there more to come? He lifted his hand to his smarting cheek and touched his fingertips to it tenderly. No blood. Just hot throbbing. The only other time Valerian could remember being hit so hard was by Adriel Rain when they had fought on the river. When Adriel was trying to kill him. Linnedain wouldn't kill Valerian, would he? The anger in his eyes…Valerian had never seen him this way.

"I do not enjoy this, Valerian," Linnedain said through clenched teeth as he advanced on his downed prey. His hand shot out and clamped around Valerian's throat. "I hate that you force me to do this, but there are certain lessons that you must learn."

Valerian wrapped his hands around Linnedain's wrist as he was heaved up off the floor. Before he could get his feet steady underneath him, the air was forced out of his lungs as his back was bashed up against the wall, lighting his already damaged spine and ribs aflame. He would have cried out in pain, if Linnedain's hand hadn't been clinching his windpipe.

"Do you see how weak you are? How easily I could crush the life from you?" Linnedain asked, drawing in so that his body was pressed up against Valerian's. The biting flurry of his fury had settled, a chilling blanket of menace trapping in the cold. "You are a little bird, Valerian. A beautiful, but helpless, little bird. You cannot protect yourself. You are my responsibility. But how can I keep you safe if you defy me?"

He could have fought back. He could have at least freed himself from Linnedain's chokehold. But Valerian wouldn't win a fight with Linnedain. If he lashed out, his lord would only come back harder and heavier with his blows until he had beaten down any last shred of defiance. This would be a lot less painful for Valerian if he just did what Linnedain wanted. If he just submitted. Linnedain was right. Valerian couldn't protect himself. He only knew how to fight for the sake of someone else. His hands fell from Linnedain's arm.

In response, Linnedain loosened his grip on Valerian's throat, allowing the young officer to inhale sharply. When Valerian slumped against the wall weakly, he pulled the Starling in close to him and supported his weight. "This never needs to happen again, Valerian, so long as you obey me," he murmured. "It pains me that I had to do this, but it was all for your own good. Now, tell me that you understand."

"I understand," Valerian murmured. He understood. He was at the cliff's edge, with the option either to jump, or surrender himself to Linnedain's protection. And he had already suffered a long enough fall today. Linnedain moved in for a kiss, and Valerian accepted it.

This was his true color, then. When given the choice to jump or be taken prisoner, Valerian had conceded his freedom for the sake of his safety. He wasn't Adriel Rain, who would fling himself off a precipice into roaring waters below rather than be captured. He was Valerian Starling, and as much as he wished he could be as strong as Adriel Rain, he wasn't.

The strong and fearless Adriel Rain was sitting alone on the steps leading up to the main entrance of the palace when Salathel intruded on his solitude. He hadn't even heard the old man coming, and was a bit startled by the sudden appearance of another person's presence sitting right next to him. He only relaxed slightly when he saw who it was; Salathel was hardly a smidgen more trustworthy than a thug looking to jump him.

"Go right ahead and have a seat," he muttered sarcastically. "Wasn't like I was trying to be alone or anything."

"If you want to be alone, you're going to have to come up with a hiding spot way better than this." Salathel was lucky enough to be the father of the world's greatest ditcher.

Adriel had no interest in discussing hiding spots with Valerian's dad. "What do you want?" he demanded.

"I've been told that you saved my daughter's life today," Salathel said. "That warrants a thank-you."

"Save your breath. I didn't do it for you," Adriel responded with a roll of his eyes.

"Why did you do it?" Salathel asked him.

"Why the fuck wouldn't I?" Adriel snapped. It really rubbed him the wrong way that Salathel seemed unable to fathom why Adriel would jump in the river after a helpless girl. Like he thought Adriel wasn't even human enough to see that losing that girl would be a horrible tragedy.

Salathel's brow wrinkled doubtfully, as though he wondered how Adriel could seriously be asking that question. "Well, you don't exactly inspire me to trust you with the lives of my children, Adriel. You pushed my son off a wall high enough to break his neck, so I wouldn't expect you to risk your life for my daughter."

"Yeah, well your son's a fucking dick. Your daughter isn't. And I didn't risk my life, either. I jumped in a damn river, not in front of a spear or something."

Interesting that Adriel would say something so decisive about both Valerian and Demetria when he was in the middle of being offended that Salathel had, up until recently, felt the exact same way about him. "Valerian is a little shit. But he also has some redeeming qualities that you probably wouldn't know about because he doesn't put them on display for you. Kind of the same way that before today you have only ever showed your coarse and insensitive side to me, which is why I never would have expected you to save my daughter."

Adriel supposed that made sense. But he wasn't going to admit to Salathel that he had gleaned a bit of wisdom from his lecture. He opted for silence.

It didn't take Salathel long to realize that Adriel wasn't going to hold up his end of the conversation. He hoisted himself to his feet, hindered only marginally by stiffness in his aging joints. "You did me and my family a great service today, Adriel. You have my gratitude, and also my respect. If there's anything I can do to repay you, don't hesitate to ask." He stood before Adriel with his hand extended.

Gratitude Adriel didn't really care about. But respect? That word wasn't idly tossed down to people like Adriel from these noble types. Was this some kind of trick? Was this another Starling trying to fuck with his head? Adriel narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Salathel's hand in front of his face.

The defensive bemusement furrowed in Adriel's brow spoke to Salathel a sad story, short, but with enough scars to fool anyone into thinking it ten years longer than it really was. There wouldn't be any handshaking that day. There wouldn't be any trust or understanding exchanged between Salathel and Adriel just yet. Adriel may have earned Salathel's trust, but Salathel hadn't done his share to earn Adriel's. With a nod of acceptance at that fact, General Starling retracted his hand.

"All right. I guess we'll just say I owe you one, then," he declared, before starting the long trudge back inside.

Putting himself in Adriel Rain's debt was the easiest thing Salathel had to do that day. Adriel may have been brazen and disrespectful, but, being the father of the prince of brazen and disrespectful, Salathel could handle that sort of attitude. The most trying task of the day was going to be talking with Horatus. He would need all of his wits to navigate the topic he was going to bring up with his lord, so he pushed any lingering thoughts about his children or someone else's forgotten child as he rapped on the door of Lord Rumen's study.

Salathel waited for several moments, but no answer came. He knew Horatus was in there, absorbed in his maps, no doubt. The senior Starling pulled open the door and let himself in. If he wanted his lord's attention, the only way to get it was to seize it.

"Horatus," Salathel barked out, drawing Lord Rumen's single green eye from the sheets scattered over the tabletop in the middle of the room.

"Sal." A grin split Lord Rumen's lips to display his ivory teeth. "Come here and enjoy this sight with me."

Salathel approached the table. The sight that he was supposed to be enjoying was a map. The same map, tattered after being splayed across so many tables, rolled up, and then shoved back into a belt, which had guided Horatus for over twenty years. It was his oracle, showing him not a landscape, but the road to his victory. Horatus saw his future in that map. Salathel only saw days long gone.

"We will sweep across the plains like a wildfire, bound over the mountains, and within a year, have control of the entire Sime region. The reclamation of what rightfully belongs to the Rumen is so near that I can taste it, Sal." Horatus's finger traced the path, zigzagging back and forth from city to city, marked on the fabric by triangles. "My father's dream, the dream that only I was able to remain standing under the weight of. It is nearly at hand."

"Perfect. I'm looking forward to a peaceful retirement," Salathel said.

"Don't tell me your age is catching up to you?" Horatus chuckled. "I was counting on another good ten years from you, my friend. You know that it will take a long time to stabilize the Sime after we've gained control over it."

"My age caught up to me a long time ago. You know I'm only still out here to keep an eye on the kids."

Luckily for Horatus, there was a long way to go before Valerian would be ready to be on his own. The campaign could never be successful without the seasoned General Starling watching over the places that Horatus and Linnedain couldn't see.

"I actually came here to talk to you about our sons," Salathel went on.

Horatus waved his hand dismissively. "You know that you have my permission to reprimand Nonde as though he's your own son."

"Actually, I meant Valerian and Linnedain."

Horatus actually quite enjoyed the younger Starling; the boy's wit was amusing. However, Linnedain didn't have the sense of humor to deal with Valerian. It didn't surprise Horatus to hear of a disagreement between those two. But a disagreement wasn't worth bringing up to the leader of their clan. Horatus knew that Salathel would have been the first to leave Valerian to suffer whatever punishment his insolence incurred. This must have been something else, then. He was a bit curious.

"Well, spit it out. What's going on?" he urged Salathel.

There was no delicate way to put things, so Salathel did as Horatus said and spit the words out like unwanted dirt that had snuck into his mouth after a hard fall. "Linnedain is terrorizing my son."

It was admittedly difficult for Horatus to imagine Valerian being terrorized by anyone. Usually that boy was the one doing the terrorizing. "How so?"

"As a possessive and coercive lover." It was sickening for Salathel to describe the nature of Linnedain's abuse, even when he phrased it so delicately that the words hardly did justice to what was truly happening.

Horatus took a moment to digest Salathel's explanation. His face, wrinkled with laughter lines, tightened. The laughter disappeared from his eye, and was not present in his voice when he spoke. "Wait here. I will send for Linnedain."

Salathel waited in silence, his jaw and his fists clenched, the few minutes it took for Linnedain to appear in the study. When he entered the room, their eyes met, and Salathel watched as Linnedain pieced together all the clues into a picture of recognition in only a moment.

"General Starling," Linnedain greeted him with a nod, his words bearing a gnashing, frozen gale.

But Salathel didn't flinch at the cold. Horatus was the sun which Linnedain's frost could not stand up to. The Starlings had survived the winter.

"Linnedain," Horatus began, his arms folded across his chest, "General Starling has told me that you seem to have taken a liking to his son."

"Lieutenant Starling is an asset to our army. He has the makings of a great warrior, but unfortunately is lacking in discipline," Linnedain replied. "Naturally, he behaves better for me than for any of his other commanding officers. I am able to bring out the best in him, and so I have kept him close lately, giving him lessons and imparting him my wisdom. He is growing quickly; already he is becoming a different person. Although it's true that at times he is still wayward, I have him under far greater control than he has ever been."

"Giving him lessons," Horatus repeated, his hand stroking the coarse silver hairs covering his chin. His one eye, a perfect match to the color of Linnedain's, pierced his son. "I'm sure you have much to teach him. You are, after all, a great deal older than he is. How old is Valerian now, Sal? I swear it was only yesterday that he entered training. You told him the moment he turned fourteen, you would let him begin. I remember thinking that it was too young, but I trusted your judgment."

"He's nineteen," Salathel responded, the words an arrow aimed straight for Linnedain's ears.

"I can hardly remember when you were that age, Linnedain," Horatus said with a thoughtful nod. "Why, I'm not sure you had even seen battle when you were nineteen. Not real battle, anyway. That was when we were working for the Imperial Army, mopping up on the western borders, wasn't it?"

"I don't consider any battle less real than another," Linnedain replied stiffly.

"I suppose you're right," Horatus agreed. "After all, you did manage to impress me during those fights. You worked hard to earn your status, didn't you, son? Do you know why I promote so carefully, Linnedain?"

Linnedain took offense that his father would even suggest there was something he did not know. "Of course I do, Father."

"How about you, Sal. Do you know why?"

Salathel knew why. He knew why better than Linnedain did. "I don't, my lord. Please enlighten me."

As Horatus's grin widened, Salathel saw Linnedain's face harden.

"Because I want a strong army," Horatus started. "And a strong army is built upon a solid foundation of respect and trust. I only appoint officers who have worked hard enough to respect the power that has been awarded them. Men who respect power also respect a lack of power. The bulk of our army is made up of men who have no power. When they receive respect from the man who holds power over them, they respect that commanding officer in return. Mutual respect builds trust. Trust is the reason that these infantrymen follow the orders of their commanding officers. Trust is how we win battles. Ruling by fear does not raise respect, Linnedain."

"I will bear in mind this principle whenever I am reflecting on my success as a leader," Linnedain said.

"Good. Now, let us return to the topic that I called you hear to discuss: this interest you have taken in Valerian," Horatus redirected the conversation. "Have you taken him as your lover?"

Salathel cringed at the disrespectful use of the word lover. It was even worse hearing it come from someone else's mouth than his own, since Horatus didn't understand the extent to which it was so horrifically inappropriate.

"Father, it would be unrealistic to expect that Valerian could spend time with me and not develop an attraction," Linnedain replied.

"How serious is this attraction?"

Was that a smirk that Salathel saw threatening Horatus's serious demeanor?

"He is smitten," Linnedain said. "He hardly leaves my side."

"That's not true," Salathel interrupted. This was going too far. After last night, after seeing how worn down Valerian was bearing such an unfair burden, he had realized just how heavy a toll this was taking on his son. Every second longer this conversation took was another second that Valerian had to live in fear and exhaustion. Salathel had already let Valerian down by allowing him to get into this mess, and even though he couldn't ever make up for it, he could end it. "He hardly leaves your side because you don't let him."

Linnedain remained unruffled. "Is this what Valerian has told you, General? Then it is clear that he is lying to one of us. Of course, given your son's propensity for dishonesty, it doesn't come as much of a surprise."

Rage roared to life within Salathel at Linnedain's insult of his son's character. He didn't unleash it, though. Not physically. He was wiser than picking a fight that he wouldn't win. He matched Linnedain's cool performance. "There's an easy way to settle this, Lord Linnedain. End it. Tell Valerian that you're finished with him, and then stay away from him. If he's really so smitten with you, he'll beg you to take him back."

"I could never do something so cruel just to prove a point," Linnedain said.

"Entertaining the affections of a nineteen-year-old subordinate is a bit cruel in itself, Linnedain." Horatus re-entered the conversation to mediate. The situation was difficult. It wasn't that Horatus didn't believe Salathel, but Linnedain also spoke the truth. It was common knowledge that Valerian had no issue with lying to keep himself out of trouble.

"It's nonsense that you've even wasted so much time on the boy already. You have far more important things to be doing than babysitting, and it would serve Valerian far better to spend his days with his father than you. He has no business getting involved with a lord's duties. You're finished with Valerian, regardless of whether he wants it or not. And if I ever hear even a whisper that you are abusing your power again, you will be stripped of it until you remember how to respect it," Lord Rumen declared.

That was enough. Salathel didn't care that Linnedain wasn't facing punishment. It wasn't important that he had gently coaxed the suffocating tentacles to release his son rather than heroically slicing them away. All that mattered was that Linnedain would be staying away from Valerian for good now. Salathel didn't even wait long enough to thank Horatus before leaving the study; he called out his gratitude over his shoulder as he hurried from the room.

It took him a bit of searching to find Valerian. Even though he probably should have expected Linnedain to have ordered his son's imprisonment in the infirmary, the medical ward was actually Salathel's third stop after checking his own chambers where Demetria was laid up, and then Valerian's room. When he burst through the doors, scaring the physician half to death, General Starling found his son sleeping on a cot.

"Wake up, boy." He prodded Valerian less than gently.

"Seriously Dad. Fuck off," Valerian groaned, curling into a ball to protect his aching body from any more jabs.

"Your sister wants to see you," Salathel said.

Valerian's annoyance dissipated into apology. "I can't. Linnedain said—"

"Fuck whatever Linnedain said," Salathel interrupted him.

"Dad, please. I would rather just deal with it. It's not worth—"

"Valerian, I took care of it. You don't have to worry about Linnedain anymore," Salathel explained. "You are free to do whatever you want, Lord Rumen's orders."

On the rare occasion that Valerian cracked a grin, several years fell away from his face. The deceptive mask of maturity fell away, revealing the truth about his age, a secret that few knew about him. His scheming eyes and his feisty lips were for a moment harmless silk instead of searing weapons.

As father and son took their leave of the infirmary and trekked through the corridors to find Demetria, Valerian was noticeably relieved. His steps were lighter and less tedious, even despite the fact that he was hurting from his fall, and although his smile had quieted, there were still remnants of his joy lingering at the corners of his lips. After having resigned himself to his fate, after giving up on any hopes of ever getting back to the surface, Valerian could breathe once more.

"Son, before you go in there…I want to say something to you." Salathel put his hand over the doorknob that Valerian reached for. "I just…I want to apologize for letting this happen to you. And that it took me so long to do anything about it. I really failed as a father. I stood back and let the weight of the world fall on you when I should have been throwing myself in the way to protect you."

Valerian hated this. Why did they have to talk about it? The fact that his dad had come and saved him spoke enough for the way he felt about things. Why couldn't that be enough for Salathel? Why did he have to go and hold Valerian's eyes with his own tear-glossed pair? Valerian couldn't deal with this.

"Dad, it's not your fault," he said, his hands finding his hips to strike a pose that made clear his disapproval. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. What the fuck were you supposed to do? If you had tried anything, it would have just gotten both of us in worse trouble."

This fucking kid. So much for Salathel's apology. So much for earning Valerian's forgiveness to at least ease his conscience a tiny bit. Valerian's snotty glare was more than enough to blow away all of the sentimental fog clouding Salathel's head. What a piece of work, standing there with the audacity to be bratty about the fact that his dad was apologizing to him. Where did this ungrateful little twit find the nerve—wait. Valerian had just comforted Salathel, hadn't he? In his own exceedingly unhealthy way, but he had dispelled his father's distress nonetheless.

Shaking his head, Salathel took the liberty of opening the door for his son. "Regardless, I'm still sorry and I promise I won't let anything like that happen to you again, boy."

There might have been a "Thanks, Dad," muttered as Valerian brushed past Salathel into the bedroom, but General Starling couldn't be sure of that, as there was too much excitement at their arrival to have heard clearly.

Besides Demetria and Isana, who was taking her shift keeping a close eye on her younger sister, Nonde was also in the room. He had tried getting into the infirmary to check on Valerian not too long ago, only to be denied access by his older brother, on grounds that Valerian was asleep after being administered a sedative to help with his pain. Naturally, Nonde had come here, where Valerian would undoubtedly show up once he awoke.

"I knew you were faking it so you could take a nap," Nonde said with a grin upon seeing Valerian up and walking just fine.

Valerian reached out to give Nonde a light paw to the head as he walked past to stretch out on the bed alongside his sister. "I'm not talking to you. You didn't catch me."

"Speaking of catching," Nonde said. "I happened to catch a little detail last night that I've been meaning to ask you about."

Valerian snuggled up into his sister's embrace. "Apparently I'm not talking to you doesn't mean a damn thing to him," he said.

"You'd better make him work to earn your trust back." Demetria responded with typically playful words, but she could not deliver them with her usual confident cunning. Her voice was thinned out, her weak lungs unable to fuel both speech and breathing.

"Can't you ever be on my side?" Nonde asked Demi. "Like, just one time can it be Nonde and Demi against Val instead of the usual Val and Demi ganging up on Nonde?"

"I am on your side, Nonde," Demi said. "If I hadn't suggested that, you would have been stuck waiting around until he got over it. You know how long he holds a grudge."

"It's true. You can wait it out for a couple of months, or you can bring me a snack right now and we'll call it good when you get back," Valerian nodded.

"I'll take the two-month vacation," Nonde declared. Nevertheless, he stood from his chair and headed for the door, undoubtedly to go find Valerian something to eat.

"Nonde, bring me something as well, please!" the middle Starling sister called from her place sitting at a table.

"You don't need anything," Valerian told her. "Look at you. You're twice the size you were when I last saw you."

Isana narrowed her eyes in a glare at her baby brother. "I'm pregnant, you little snot."

"Pretty sure you aren't carrying a baby inside each of your arms. That is pure flab."

"That's it." Isana slammed the book she had been reading down on the table. "I'm getting Mother to watch you two pests."

Demi waited until their sister was out of the room before she spoke. "You might have found a nicer way to get rid of her."

Valerian waved that topic away dismissively to tell Demetria that their father had found a way—how nice Salathel's method was, Valerian wasn't sure—to get rid of Linnedain. He didn't mention Linnedain's rage, though. No one ever needed to know of his weakness in that moment.

"Wonderful!" Demetria sang. "Now there's nothing holding you back from Adriel. I noticed that you didn't thank him for saving me. You'll need to do that, Valerian."

"Why do I need to thank him?" Valerian asked. "He didn't save me."

Demi had expected Valerian to be all for the idea of demonstrating his gratitude to Adriel. "So you don't mind if I show him a bit of appreciation, then?"

"Go right ahead." He was avoiding her eyes, looking up at the ceiling.

"How generous of you," Demi said. "I didn't think you'd be willing to share. All that untamed, rough-and-tumble, tattooed muscle. Such a heroic hunk of rebellious masculinity. If I had that, I wouldn't let anyone even think about touching it."

Valerian abruptly sat up and then slid off the bed to cross the room. "Well, you can go ahead and lock that up, because he is all yours." He stopped in front of the full-length mirror and peered into his reflection. There was a bruise darkening on his cheek. Good thing he fell out of a fucking tree today, otherwise that might have looked suspicious.

But that was now a worry off the past. A one-time thing that he would never have to deal with again. Valerian moved past the mirror to search the room for something to occupy him.

Demi watched Valerian pick up Isana's book and rifle through the pages, and then move on to the desk to pull open all the drawers. When he found nothing of interest there, he strode to the window and pushed it open. Then it was back to the other side of the bedroom for absolutely no reason at all. He was pacing, roaming about nervously, desperate for anything to catch his attention. After a few trips back and forth, he finally surrendered and picked up Isana's book, which Demetria knew for a fact was an instructional guide on newborn babies.

"He can take care of himself, you know," Demi said.

"I don't know who you're talking about or why, but good for him," Valerian replied, his eyes fixed on whatever fascinating parenting advice he was reading.

"I'm talking about Adriel. You don't have to worry about him. You don't have to protect him."

"I don't want to protect him, so I guess we're all set on that front."

"You're impossible," Demetria sighed.

"No mystery as to where I learned that from," Valerian mumbled in response.

"Excuse me, but I did not teach you to bury your emotions and let your fears overtake you," Demetria said.

As far as Valerian was concerned, his mother couldn't have picked a better time to enter the room than that moment. He was more than happy to leave the conversation his sister was trying to have with him unfinished.

"I thought you were supposed to be confined to the infirmary in order for your injuries to heal, Valerian," Lady Starling said, circling the table where he sat so that she could place a kiss on the top of his head. "You aren't disobeying Lord Linnedain, are you?"

"I would never do such a thing," Valerian responded. "It turns out Lord Linnedain was overreacting. I'm fine and free to do what I want."

"And this is what you want to be doing?" Lady Starling questioned him. "Surely you have more beneficial ways to spend your time. Why aren't you training? Or at least studying military arts if you aren't up to physical labor just yet? Promotions are earned; not simply handed out to those who sit idly waiting for them."

"Yeah, you're right, Mother." Valerian got to his feet. "I should be doing something productive."

A satisfied smile crossed Lady Starling's lips. "That's my boy."

Valerian was her boy. Her little warrior. Lady Starling was as much—if not even more—responsible for nurturing her son's ambitions as his father was. After all, she was the one who raised him. She was the one who told him war stories at bedtime, who reminded him every single day that being an officer of the Rumen was the only thing worth being. It was Lady Starling who had insisted that her son was ready to begin his military training at age fourteen, even if that was a bit younger than was traditional, and even if he was a little bit small. The disapproving frowns when Valerian came stumbling home drunk too late at night were more severe from Lady Starling than her husband. Her slaps and spankings had disciplined Valerian far more strictly than any of Salathel's punishments during his childhood.

Of course, now that Valerian was an adult, her beatings were far less painful then they used to be. As such, he wasn't particularly worried about doing as she said. He had only pretended to be taking her advice so that he had an excuse to leave; he didn't want to be around Demi if she was going to be a little know-it-all bitch. Plus, he didn't really want to find out what exactly it was that Nonde was so anxious to question him about. So, running away from them was obviously the solution to both problems.

There were only so many places to run, though. Going to his bedroom was absolutely out of the question; it would be way too easy for people to find him there. He wasn't going outside, either. He'd had enough of climbing on things for one day. He wasn't sure he would have even been able to climb anything with the shape his body was in at the moment. On that same note, venturing out to the training grounds was also an obvious no. Wasn't there any place a guy could go to be alone?

That was a lot to ask of a place that was playing host to all the clan's nobility and most of the army. Valerian offered a half-hearted nod of greeting to an officer as he passed the man in the hallway, determined not to slow down and even hint at the idea that he was interested in stopping for a chat. He hurried to turn a corner and be on his way where ever that hallway might lead, but was stopped in his tracks only a few steps down the corridor. At the other end of the hall, in just the same frozen state as Valerian, stood Adriel Rain. The last person—and somehow also the only person—that Valerian could deal with right now.

Adriel's eyes, for that first moment after colliding with Valerian's, rounded with what seemed like it might have been panic, before he steeled himself and narrowed them into daggers to ward off whatever the Starling would come at him with.

But Valerian couldn't decide what he wanted to do. Well, he knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to give Adriel a proper thank-you for rescuing his sister. However, what he wanted to do starkly contrasted what he should have done.

Luckily, Adriel was able to make a decision. He took it upon himself to do the right thing and made an abrupt about-face to head back the way he came, away from evil incarnate.

Valerian didn't take immediate action. The struggle inside of him raged on violently for several seconds. He was too emotionally vulnerable. Hooking up with Adriel right now could be disastrous. Hooking up with Adriel while the man was still radiating red-hot heroism, while Valerian's heart was fluttering and his head was cloudy, would be a horrible mistake. He couldn't approach Adriel with anything other than animosity, lest their encounters become anything beyond pure lust.

Then again, if Valerian had the presence of mind to realize the potential danger, then surely he could manage. He went after Adriel, his silent steps keeping his presence a secret until he was ready to spring. Just as Adriel stomped past a door to his left, Valerian pounced.

There was little need for Adriel to wonder who the fuck would be attacking him, but he did have to question just why Valerian would do something so stupid. The only reason Valerian was able to wrestle him out of the hallway and into this chamber was because he had caught him completely by surprise. Adriel stumbled into the room, fighting to keep his feet underneath him after Valerian suddenly shoved him sideways, until he crashed into a large chair that he used to steady himself. Once he was balanced, he whirled around with his arms flying, grabbing for any part of Valerian that he could get his hands on.

As Adriel's fist curled up in the fabric of his shirt, Valerian threw his arms up in surrender. "Why are you always so violent?"

"You're the one who attacked me," Adriel growled.

"Please. If I had attacked you, you'd be dead right now."

One more eye roll like that and Adriel was going to punch Valerian. Right on top of the bruise he already had on his left cheekbone.

"You're out of your fucking mind." He still had a hold of Valerian's shirt, and somewhere along the way had pulled him in. The instant he realized how close they were, Adriel relinquished his hold. "What do you want?"

Valerian didn't back away. "I wouldn't expect you to be able to figure it out on your own, since you have the manners of a wild animal. I'm here because after the shit you pulled today, I unfortunately owe you."

After the shit Adriel pulled today? What a little fuck. Next time, Adriel would just let his sister drown. Wouldn't want to pull any shit like that again and offend His Nobleness.

"I don't want anything from you."

"You're completely sure?" Valerian asked. He shifted forward; he couldn't have been any closer to Adriel short of touching him. "There's nothing I can do?"

When Valerian's head fell slightly rightward, that tell-tale indication that he was about to make his move and set Adriel's lips aflame with his own, Adriel leaned in without even realizing what he was doing. His actions became excruciatingly apparent after Valerian left him hanging, though. Of course. He was just fucking with Adriel, as usual.

Adriel cursed himself inwardly for still not having learned. Every fucking time. Valerian was just going to keep doing this shit. Until someone who wasn't afraid to get dirty put him in line. If Adriel wanted this time to be different, then maybe it was time to do something different. Maybe it was time that he kissed Valerian instead of waiting for Valerian to kiss him. Adriel had stolen a lot of things in his years; he could sure as fuck steal a kiss from the careless little punk in front of him. His hand found the back of Valerian's head to give him help closing the distance between them.

Their lips collided forcefully and gracelessly. Perhaps Adriel had pulled Valerian too vigorously, but how could he have known he would be so easy to persuade? It was almost as though the slender brunet had lost his legs at Adriel's touch and collapsed into him, casting his willowy arms out around the tattooed general's neck. But once Valerian was settled in, once he found his feet, the kiss took the unfamiliar form of a softly burning ember. It was a kiss like Adriel had never experienced before, one that he wasn't sure he liked, but also one that he couldn't end.

Luckily, he didn't have to end it. The gentle warmth only lasted a few seconds before Valerian tore himself away from Adriel. And with the same suddenness that he pulled away, he threw himself back into Adriel, slamming his hands into the other man's broad chest. He pushed and Adriel, caught by surprise again, had no choice but to move his feet or he would end up on the ground. Eventually, his back was against a wall, and Valerian was against his front, his mouth nothing short of ravaging Adriel's. Now that was the Valerian that Adriel was used to.

"Don't ever…" Valerian's warning was put on pause so that his lips could scorch Adriel's once more. "..kiss me…" His lips grazed Adriel's and then lingered for another moment. "…again."

That didn't make any fucking sense. This whole stupid thing Adriel and Valerian had going on didn't make any sense. But when they were in the moment, it made all the sense in the world. When Valerian was scraping his fingernails down Adriel's chest and then his stomach, when his voracious lips and his wicked tongue were wreaking glorious havoc on Adriel's neck and his collarbones, he was fucking perfect in Adriel's book.

Valerian's fingers followed the trails cut into Adriel's abdominals downward, underneath the waist of his pants and into the ravines that led from his hipbones to his manhood. By the state of things, it would seem that Valerian hadn't done quite enough to earn full attention, but that was easily remedied. He took Adriel in his hand and awoke his lust with slow, steady strokes. Torturously slow and steady. At this rate, Adriel would go mad before he finished. He reached down to take hold of Valerian's hand and set a more satisfying pace.

But Valerian wouldn't be told how to do his job. He retreated at Adriel's touch, stepping away and folding his arms defiantly.

"If you want to do it yourself, I can leave," Valerian snipped.

"Really? You're really doing this right now?" Adriel asked incredulously. That glare from Valerian made it clear that yes, he really was going to be a brat in the middle of giving a handjob. A groan escaped Adriel as his head fell back against the wall behind him. "Fine."

"I could finish you faster than I can finish a bottle of cherry wine," Valerian said as he moved back in to resume his work, "But where's the fun in that?"

"I've waited a fucking week for you to just get a hold of my dick," Adriel replied through gritted teeth. "Throw me a fucking bone here." If more of his blood supply had been free to aid his brain function, he probably wouldn't have let Valerian know that he'd been pining and brooding over him ever since their first hook-up.

Valerian dropped down to his knees. "I'm only trying to ensure it turns out to be worth the wait."

Those were the last intelligent words spoken between the two. Valerian's tongue sliding along his shaft left Adriel too dumbfounded to form any. As the warm wetness enclosed his head, Adriel's knees weakened, and when Valerian moved to take the entire length into his mouth, Adriel couldn't help but spasm, his hips bucking forward.

Displeased with Adriel's attempts to take control, Valerian pulled back and folded his arms once more, shooting a glare up at Adriel. Much to Adriel's dismay, the little bird had never looked sexier than he did pouting on his knees.

"What the fuck did you expect? You're killing me with this fucking teasing," Adriel was quick to defend himself before Valerian could even say anything.

"One more time, and I am done," Valerian warned him.

Feeling Adriel squirm was quite satisfying for Valerian. The patient almost-enough-to-feel-amazing pace he set was punishment for Adriel's earlier thievery. A small hum of laughter vibrated in Valerian's throat at the sight of Adriel's fingernails digging into the wall behind him, hanging on for dear life so that he didn't reach out and grab him by the hair.

He could have watched Adriel suffer all night. But, luckily for Adriel, Valerian's neck and his jaw were beginning to grow a bit fatigued. He increased the speed of his head-bobbing and added a little bit of suction to intensify the in-and-out sensation for Adriel. His right hand busied itself fondling Adriel's sac, while the fingernails of his left dragged down the inside of Adriel's thigh.

Fucking finally. Adriel wasn't sure he could have handled any more of that tedious torture. He glanced down to capture the sight of Valerian on his cock in his mind, but he didn't watch for more than a second, because it drove him wild and he didn't want to fuck this up now that he was so close. He closed his eyes and focused on the feeling of absolute pleasure. He didn't need to worry about accidentally thrusting any longer; Valerian left him wanting nothing. Just when he thought he needed it faster, Valerian quickened the rate without having to be told, finding the perfect rhythm. It only took a few more strokes before Adriel burst with glorious relief.

Valerian pulled back and gagged at the horrible, bitter taste that permeated his mouth. "What the fuck? Not even a warning?" he seethed as he got to his feet. "You're a fucking prick."

"A warning?" Adriel was too dazed to even know what Valerian was so pissed about, but the obviously appropriate reaction was to be angry back. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Are you fucking serious right now?" Valerian demanded. "A warning that you were about to come. At least give me the chance to decide if I want it in my mouth or not."

That was a thing that Adriel was supposed to do? "How the fuck was I supposed to know you needed a warning?"

Valerian threw his hands in the air incredulously. "Oh, I dunno, maybe because I'm not a mother fucking prostitute."

Well, that would explain why Adriel had no idea he was supposed to give Valerian a heads-up that he was coming; he only ever fucked people who were being paid to let him call the shots. Oops. But he wasn't going to apologize for it.

"If you expect me to be able to think and talk while you're sucking my dick, then don't be so good at it." Fuck. That was not what Adriel meant to say. Trying to have a conversation with Valerian so soon after ejaculating was a bad idea. He didn't have nearly enough wit to deal with that pain in the ass right now.

The smirk on Valerian's face as he moved in toward Adriel was both disconcerting and arousing. He laid siege to Adriel's lips, breaking into his mouth and taking his revenge. The kiss tasted like filthy vengeance, and Adriel couldn't say that he hated it.

"Now we both know what to do next time," Valerian said before turning to take his leave.

Adriel didn't follow Valerian. That would surely only lead him down a path of insanity. This whole thing was fucked up. Valerian was clearly out of his mind. And Adriel was crazy for letting that crazy little fuck make him so crazy. But even more insane than the idea of being so wild for someone who was absolutely nuts was the idea of turning that slender slice of sexcake down. The prospect of there being a next time had Adriel salivating. Hearing promise of another encounter like that from Valerian was enough to make Adriel forget that Valerian had told him not to ever kiss him again.

A/N: That one was a little challenging to write. Not exactly sure why. But that's why it took a long time. So much happened, and I didn't get nearly as far as I expected to in this chapter. I'm super excited for all the things that are coming up. Don't even begin to think that things are cooling down, my friends. There is so much more awful pain in store for everyone. Let me know what you think! I love you guys!