Qamar emerged on the horizon with the dawn. Agostino had spent the night awake on the deck, aching and badly shaken, watching the stars pass overhead and listening to the nocturnal sounds of the creatures going about their business in the shadows of the river bank. He watched the sailors navigate the waters, the way in the early morning light the Alihat River opened out into the blue green of salt marsh dotted with islands. Then, at last, there was the city, hovering like a mirage, an enchanted image that floated outside of everything he had ever known, the line of buildings popping into view. In an optical illusion of movement it felt almost as if the city were coming towards them rather than the other way around, rushing up, so that it was far away at first and then very large and real, looming in front of them all solid stone and red shingled rooftops. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding, the painful twist in his chest releasing slightly.
"What happened to your face?" Agostino blinked at the Uthroon guard asking the question. He was standing on firm cobble stones by then, herded together with the other Abreanian prisoners. He reached up and touched the split in his lip, felt the bruising along the side of his face that had been slammed into the crates.
"A misunderstanding," he said. He glanced briefly at the others as they watched him, trepidation and dislike in their expressions. Did they know what had happened to Matteo? Did they know he was to blame? It made him queasy to think about, but he suspected his stomach had nothing left to give and he ignored it.
"More trouble than you're worth, the lot of you. I don't see why they couldn't just tie rocks around your ankles and let Su Ata have his way with you." He recognized the name of the river spirit from what Tadaaki had told him, a mischievous, fickle entity with a predilection for drowning people who displeased him. "It will be easier, at least, once you're in the prison cell you deserve and not wandering around terrorizing the innocent." Agostino flinched internally, not much liking the sound of that. He highly doubted Matteo was the only member of his former employment that took issue with him and the idea of being locked away-somewhere dark and isolated-with them was nothing short of terrifying. It's going to happen again and this time no one will save you.
"Have you heard any news from Lover's Sorrow? Does the pass still hold?"
"Be quiet," the man said roughly. "I am not here to answer your questions." Agostino blew the air out of his lungs in a frustrated noise and occupied himself with looking around. There wasn't much to see in this part of the city, mostly warehouses set up to accommodate the flow of goods in and out of the port. Through an alleyway he could see a sliver of a courtyard, a fountain in the center. He concentrated on that for a while, the play of sunlight moving through water, the sounds of a busy dock, a dull salve on his tired mind.
"What pray tell do we have here on this fine morning?" Agostino turned at the strange, willowy voice and had to concentrate to prevent his eyes from visibly widening. The person before him was tall with the broad shoulders and firm jawline of a man, but wore the jewelry and make up of a woman, eyes lined in heavy coal, pearls and gold in their ears and in long strands around their neck. The clothing was also feminine, a yellow headscarf and long robes in a similar bright sunflower shade, blue ocean waves and ships stitched into the sleeves and along the bottom.
"Good morning," Agostino said, staring a little stupidly.
"They are Abreanians captured in the Black Mountains. Pay them no mind, honored one." The guard produced a coin from his pouch. "Give my regards to Amphitrite and thank her for our safe arrival." A priest then, he surmised, some worshipping sect of the city's goddess.
"I shall, I shall, sweetheart. Bless you in these trying times." Cool grey green eyes turned on Agostino. "Oh my? What about this one here?" The priest stepped forward, pulling him close by the tunic and pressing their nose into the crook of his neck. Agostino's hands went to the yellow fabric of the robes, trying to keep his balance. "You smell like the meaty spill of life on altars," a whisper low against his ear, like a growl, "like sacrifice. Like feast day in the temple when the boys cut off their balls and everyone gets drunk and lost in ecstatic dance. Like terrible, beautiful possibilities. You smell like a high king on his throne."
Agostino froze, fighting the urge to struggle out of their grip, to push them away. The scent of frankincense and cosmetics, jasmine and the stink of salted fish crashed into him like a wave. " Please . What do you want?" He felt suddenly dizzy.
"Want?" There was amusement in the question, maybe an edge of hysteria. The priest's breath was like a puff of mist against his skin, moist and earthy. "Oh child, it is not what I want that matters. But for now I will simply take payment. My lady does enjoy her Dies Sanguinis —her days of blood."
He shivered. "I...I haven't anything to give you. I'm sorry."
"You're not from here and I've confused you." The Priest stepped back. "Apologies, apologies and I shall make it up to you with a blessing from my lady. Perhaps it can change your fortunes now that you are under her eye." They removed a pendant from their own neck, placing the chain over Agostino's head. It held the image of a woman, bare breasted with a crown of coral and sardines.
"I don't know why you bother with that little shit," the guard mumbled. "I know the moon and sea act in mysterious ways, but what could he possibly have to offer you?"
"Maybe by next spring when you have a son as fat as a yearling lamb you'll be less grumpy." The priest squatted in front of Agostino, fishing in his boot, plucking out the bloody blade and ferreting it away in their robes. "Oh yes, a fine payment, a fine payment indeed."
"A son? Waaa…Hey! Wait, what the hell was that? What did you just take from him?"
"Oh just a little trifle," their strange visitor patted the guard's cheek. "Nothing to concern yourself with, dear heart." Agostino swallowed, fingering the pendant as he watched the yellow clad figure move down the street. He had rather thought he might need that knife in the coming days, but hadn't dared object to it being taken.
"Mad as a March hare every last one of them," the man beside him said, shaking his head. "But you'd be madder to cross a priest of Amphitrite so there you are. Do hope she's right about the baby, though. That'd be welcome news and they usually charge extra for premonitions."
The prison ended up being an old soldiers' barrack, a place that smelled of wet hay, dust and vaguely of rotting fish. It was gloomy, one large communal room of cots that made his skin crawl with possibilities. A guard gave him a chunk of bread and an apple and he sat a little ways from the others and ate, mood sullen. He was both bored and frightened at the same time, body aching and exhausted from abuse and lack of sleep. It was a miserable ending to a miserable day and he allowed himself a little self pity.
Agostino, lay back on one of the old cots and closed his eyes, willing himself to rest a little now. Later-when the lights went out- he would need his mind to be alert. To distract himself from that unpleasant thought, he tried to pull up what he could recall of Qamar. They'd taken a handful of small boats through the city's waterways, passing twisting spires and arches, the weathered marble palatial homes of merchants, a mix of styles and designs everywhere-ancient Cytinium columns with tile work facades from further east, lace-like elements seen in early Uthroon temples lining balconies heavy with potted plants. It was a chaotic labyrinth, made up of brick, stucco, wood, and the exotic panes of glass made by local artisans. Feeling blurry and wrung out, he had at times found it rather hard to comprehend the whole of what he was looking at. Now, alone with his thoughts, the city blended and superimposed over itself, swimming in his mind as much as it swam on the sea. It almost didn't seem real , he thought, a welcome numbness settling in. Like something from a dream.
Agostino felt someone shake him and blinked up at the unhappy face of a guard. "Ngh?" he asked, pushing himself into a sitting position with some effort, not like the way that made his ribs protest, and his head throb.
"Yes." He ran hands over his face. "What's going on?"
"Fuck if I know. That man's come for you." He pointed across the room helpfully.
"Oh." A thrill of anxiety and hope ran through him. The man in question was a stranger, but he was dressed in official looking robes of gray and blue, his expression sour as if he'd taken in his surroundings and found them lacking.
"What's his uniform mean?"
The guard made a noise of annoyance, snapping his answer. "He works in The Palace of the Moon, the center of the Qamar royal court. So do you think maybe you should stop talking to me about it and move your ass already?"
"Sure," Agostino stood with a grimace, making his way in the official's direction. "Hey," he said with open curiosity. "I'm Ciro."
This information failed to impress, but he got a short nod of acknowledgement. "Come with me." They walked out and were quickly met by a boy with a lanturn. The air was cool, smelling of salt and cooking spices, the sound of lapping water somewhere beyond his vision.
"Where are we going?"
"To The Palace of the Moon."
He studied the profile of the man in the lantern light. "Who sent for me?"
"That's not something I am going to openly discuss with you on the street. Be quiet and you will find out soon enough." He rolled his eyes at that. Fine.
Before long they reached a dock and he was loaded into another boat along with the palace official, the child and the driver that rowed them into the night with the aid of a traditional long paddle. Left to his own thoughts, Agostino took deep breaths, thanking whatever shift of fate had once again put him in motion, away from that abysmal barrack and out into the world again. Most of the grand homes faced the canals, the true roads of the city, and lit in the darkness their massive windows glowed, revealing tantalizing snippets of lavish interiors, sounds of music wafting from open windows to meet them.
The suite was large, an expansive space with inlaid marble floors and an arching ceiling painted with a fresco of gold constellations set in a lapis lazuli sky. That alone would have stunned him into silence. However, his focus was immediately on Kadri, his bulk hunched over a low table, scowling at a pile of papers spread before him. Agostino stood in the doorway, holding his breath as the man looked up, eyes roaming over him before waving a hand at the man that had brought him. "Leave us."
The door shut behind him. "You're in Qamar," Agostino said, stating the obvious, although it was new information to him. Kadri was alive, Kadri was in this city and now they were both in a room, alone together. His mind swam.
"I arrived this afternoon, but I bring little words of comfort."
"The pass still holds?" There was a knot in his stomach as heavy as a stone. He resisted asking more questions, though his mind rattled them off at an alarming clip.
"A technicality. Like the moment you played that king of wands." He flushed at the reference. That moment felt like a million years ago. "We stand in the shadow of the fall." Kadri looked as if carved from stone, none of the leisurely lord left. He stood up, stepping out from behind the table, expression alarming. "Come here." Agostino suddenly didn't want to go, each step closer making his heart thud and his hands sweat. Something was profoundly wrong, something in him itching to bolt in the opposite direction.
"Were you injured?" he asked, cautiously. Kadri seemed to be holding himself upright, but he couldn't tell if the tension in his body was from anger or pain. "I heard only fragments of what happened, but my heart has feared for you and your people."
As soon as he was close enough Kadri reached out, fingers wrapping around his throat, tight enough to make him flinch, a small noise of alarm escaping from his mouth. "What did you know?" A hard yank and he stumbled forward, shock thrumming through him as he reached out to grip at the wrist of the hand that was damn near strangling him.
"What?" he choked.
"The attack from the north, you were asking questions—before in my tent. How much did you already know?"
"I..I didn't." He could hear his pulse beating in his ears, felt his life force quivering under Kadri's hand. "I was as shocked as anyone that Abrea would choose to make an assault through the mountains. The casualties they must have taken alone..."
"Do not speak to me of Abreanian casualties." His words came between clenched teeth, grip tightening, the ghosts of a battlefield in his eyes. "I held Yildiz's bloodied body in my arms, I saw his only children, Halil and Ihsan... I saw their young blood seep into the earth. I would trade every last one of you to get them back." Oh shit. Real fear was starting to build now, pumping through his bloodstream and making him shake. He had heard some men come back from extreme violence changed...
"Kadri, stop, " he put as much heat into the word as he could. "I understand your rage and I understand your fear, but hurting me can't take that away."
"It can't make it any worse," but something about him was hesitant now.
"I don't think you brought me here to terrorize. This isn't you."
Kadir let him go, snarling. His eyes narrowed. "No, I didn't bring you here for that." Oh. no no no, that's not what he had meant to imply at all.
"Kadri Please, I…"
"Bed. Now." He took him by the arm, moving the both of them across the room, making Agostino stumble to keep up. He grabbed him by the shoulders, twisting his body and walking him backwards until the back of his thighs hit the bed. He felt hot breath on his neck, the mass of this man blocking him in.
"Don't." Kadri pushed hard and he felt his back hit the bedding, found that he was staring up at the heavenly blue of the ornately decorated ceiling, eyes tracing the stars as he tried to slow his breathing and bring his nerves under his control. Then the weight of him, the feeling of being pinned, sent his mind into a new spiral of panic. It was not so much the memory of Matteo-although the ache of that recent assault was no aid-but more precisely the way bed-lust mixed with blood-lust, the seasick feeling that washed over him as he became the focus of whatever the fuck was going through Kadri's troubled mind. There were hands under his tunic and he flinched at the rough touch, the demand in it. Whatever spell had been cast between them at the camp was broken now, none of the excitement in this power exchange left to warm his blood and make him a willing participant in this. Kadri simply frightened him now and he could no more will his body to want this than to fly to the moon.
"Please. I can't…" he said, trying to push Kadir's hands from his bare skin. It hurt and he didn't like this kind of pain, flashes of a deadman moved through his mind, blood thick as it seeped out from his body, eyes glassy. "Stop." Kadri had him by the hair, fingers excruciating on his fragile nerves as his mouth ran along his neck, nipping at his tender skin, tongue running along the shell of his ear as fingers moved down to work the laces of his pants. He could feel every ache and bruise from the last week, from last night, his body screaming for space and air. He was trying to curl in on himself as he started to sob. "Please," he choked, " please I can't tonight. I don't want this." His cheeks were wet, tears and snot making his words gargled. Oh gods he couldn't breath, couldn't think...
"Fine!" Kadri said, hands suddenly retracting in a frustrated, explosive gesture. "Fine. I won't touch you if it repels you so much." Agostino made a hiccuping sound, drawing knees to his chest, deeply ashamed at his reaction and crying all the more because of it. It was stupid, so very stupid and he hated himself for his weakness. Kadri got off the bed, stalking across the room towards the door. "It's for the best that I don't distract myself, anyway. I will find someone to take you back. Don't worry about it." Shit. If he thought this was bad, it was about to get so much worse.
"No!" Agostino forced himself up off the mattress, stumbling after him, his initial panic bleeding into a fresh wave of dread. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Please . I'll do whatever you want, I swear." He reached Kadri and dropped to his knees on the marble floor with a crack, trembling slightly even as he willed himself not to, biting into his cheek until he tasted blood.
"Why?" Kadri sounded more bewildered than angry. "But you said you didn't want to."
He let out a hollow laugh. Of course Kadri didn't realize. He probably thought nothing of him the moment his lust was spent. The nuances of Agostino's unstable position were as interesting as river mud to this man. "I know you're not stupid." He sounded hurt and bitter even to his own ears."But please try to think . You discarded me after two nights, wearing an Uthroon tunic no less and covered in very obvious marks. Do you think that anyone was confused about how I was used? Do you think those Abreanian soldiers will ever see me as anything but a whore?"
Kadri looked down at Agostino, taking in the bruising on his face with new understanding and then his expression became shuttered and unreadable. "Were...were you raped?"
Blunt as always . He sighed, annoyed at being asked to share such a private humiliation with Kadri, that he thought he had a right to that. "No, but not for lack of trying. I...I got away..." He trailed off for a moment, willing himself not to dwell on that memory right now. "Others may find better opportunities, I assume, now that we are to be housed in those barracks." He said it tonelessly, eyes unfocused on geometric shapes of the floor.
"That was not my intention."
His eyes flicked up, hot rage bubbling to the surface before he could find the strength to push it back down. "Does it matter what your intentions were, Kadri, when the results are the same?" He didn't know what exactly he wanted from this man. Probably more than he had any right to ask. If he told the truth would he believe him? Would a penniless and disenfranchised Abreanian prince somehow have the footing to demand better treatment than this? He felt so miserably stupid, badly rattled, and with no idea what to do.
Kadri ran palm across his face, suddenly exhausted, all the tension and anger bleeding from him into a look of haunted defeat. He sat on the floor beside Agostino. "I am not myself tonight. A lot...a lot weighs on my mind. I wasn't exaggerating, all hope for Qamar died with Yildiz." He closed his eyes, a mask of grief. "I ache for my people left on the mountain, for those that followed me to their death at Lover's Sorrow. I have not slept in gods know how long..."
Agostino nodded. "It would be more concerning if you didn't feel a little unstitched, after everything that's happened. You shoulder a great many unexpected burdens."
"Something is broken within me." The words were a whisper, making the hairs stand up on the back of Agostino's neck and arms, a raw terrifying truth Kadri would not dare say to his own, the ones that looked to him for comfort and leadership. "My thoughts scatter and leave me again and again with the bloodied, torn bodies of my kin. I fear to close my eyes. The pass holds, but the cost has been unspeakable. This will come to be a reality here as well and what use am I if I can do nothing to stop it? I dishonor everything I have ever loved."
Well shit. "If you are broken then set the bone however you must," Agostino met his eyes, willing him to truly hear him. " Find a way to function . You're exhausted from fighting, I understand, but the game has not played out and the hand is not won so easily. Don't you dare give Paoluccio the satisfaction. There has to be a way and you will find it."
He nodded running fingers through his hair. He glanced away, suddenly looking contrite. "I really fucked up tonight. With you, I mean."
Agostino shrugged, feeling more exhausted than resentful. "You reigned it in before it was too late."
"But I promised not to hurt you." His finger reached out to gently trace the split of his lip, the discoloration along his jawline.
Well that was unexpected. "You did?"
"Yes, something like that. When we first met." He gave him a wane smile. "An outrageous request, really." One, until now, he hadn't realized Kadri had taken to heart.
"Hmm." He couldn't stop himself from smiling back. "I can't say I've lived to regret it."
"Come, I want to show you something." He stood and pulled Agostino to his feet, guiding him across the room, handling his body with far more care now. They stopped in front of a large stone basin by the window. "Have you seen plumbing before?" He watched as Kadri opened a valve and the tub began to fill with clear water.
"The palace has its own rain cisterns, this pipe is cold and the other is very hot for a few hours in the evening when they heat that tank for this floor. I was told it's best to fill the tub half full with cold and then add heat to the desired temperature."
"I can't say I've seen anything like it."
"They ring a bell to mark the beginning and ending of hot water. You'll hear it in a little while when they turn it off. It was designed by a very famous engineer, Daedalus of the Crete. He worked for the royal family several generations ago. I hear a great many of his journals are in the palace library."
"Mmm. I've heard that name before." Kadri added an oil that smelled of lavender and lemon before switching the water to hot, steam rolling up into the air around them.
After a moment he stuck his hand in the water, then turned it off. "Undress," he ordered. Agostino hesitated, unsure of how he was going to react to whatever Kadri had in mind. He still felt too depleted and raw to trust himself. "I'm not going to fuck you or send you away tonight," he added, seeming to read his mood. "Get in the bath and gather your wits."
To his great horror, he felt his lip tremble, tears falling silently down his cheeks in sheer relief, the lack of sleep and long term fear combing to undo him. "Oh gods, I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me." He wiped at his face in frustration, looking away, not wanting this man to see this side of him. Here he'd been given another opportunity to put himself in Kadri's good graces and he was fucking it up royally in every way possible by crying like a goddamn child .
"Shh, I've got you." Kadri stepped forward, hands reaching out to carefully pull the tunic up over his head, hissing darkly when Agostino's other injuries were revealed. His fingers carefully traced the nasty bruise across his ribs, his back, the scratches that marked his shoulder. "Did I hurt you earlier?"
Agostino shook his head. "No, not seriously, just frightened me."
He kneeled to pull off boots before working loose his trousers, sliding them off his hips, touching the hand-shaped bruise there."I'm going to kill whoever did this."
He shook his head at that. "No, you won't. Please don't dwell on it." He thought of the girl with the knife, the flash of white teeth as blood pooled on the floorboards of the ship's hull. Naked, he closed his eyes, buried his face against the man's chest. There was the familiar smell of leathers and orange blossom, a hint of cardamom and jasmine. He'd stopped crying, thank the gods, but he still felt weirdly fragile, small against such an imposing figure.
"Hmm. We'll see."
"Your blood's just up. It will pass."
"Perhaps. Ready?" Kadri lifted Agostino up easily, depositing him into the warm bath water with surprising gentleness. Warmth seeped into his tired muscles, all the way down to the bone. He leaned his head back against the rim, letting his mind swim in empty oblivion. He blinked his eyes open again at the sound of dishware being placed on the stand that held the bath oils."Drink a little wine and eat something. It will help."
"Okay." There was a small plate of fruit and cheese, beside it a cup of wine the pale green of unripe fruit. "Thank you." Kadri nodded, retreating to the other side of the room, settling back at the table, the shuffling of papers the only sound for a long time.
Agostino woke to heat on his back and lips on his neck. One large hand snaking around to roll his nipples between rough fingers. Teeth found his ear, tugging and he shivered. "Are you ready for me now, little bird?" He let out a breathy huff, felt the beginnings of arousal radiate from his groin, warm and slow. He'd gone straight to bed from the bath, toweling off and climbing under the soft sheets of Kadri's bed without bothering to ask for clothes, letting exhaustion take him into a wonderfully dreamless sleep. Kadri sucked at the skin behind his ear.
"Yes." He brushed aside his hair to graze teeth along the base of his neck, sending a tingling sensation up and down his spine. "But you smell so good." Like sacrifice. Like feast...Like terrible, beautiful possibilities. You smell like a high king on his throne.
"I was in Merdeth when the troops invaded after the death of the Abreanian king. I could live my whole life happily never seeing that again. But Abrea is coming here—to this beautiful place..."
"Yes, they will come." He was kissing his shoulder blade now, hands massaging the tight swell of his ass.
"A half moon's time perhaps? It depends on how long the pass holds."
"I assume they will attack the port by ship. But I can't quite sort out in my head how long we have until then."
"Mmm. I will be in strategy meetings all day and probably into the night." He hummed. "I just want to lose myself in your body for a little while. Will you give that to me?"
"Is that a kind way of asking me to shut up?" Some of the sharp tension between them seemed to have eased in the light of day.
He snorted at that. "You can talk. Just not about politics. Here, roll over onto your stomach. I'll be gentle."
He shifted onto his belly. "But I like politics."
"What a truly dreadful thing to say." He pulled back the covers, continued trailing kisses down his back, true to his promise to be mindful of his bruised skin. When his mouth reached his ass, he spread his cheeks, cool air running over sensitive skin. His lips found his hole, tongue making teasing circles before spearing him, flicking in, deeper with each movement, fucking him with a little girating dance that sent spikes of pleasure up his spine. Agostino jerked and squirmed, breath quickening, hands fisting in the blankets as Kadri took his time. After eons of slow pleasure, he fetched oil, spreading Agostino's legs wider, adding a finger alongside his mouth. It slid in easily, almost without friction, exploring his body in places his tongue couldn't reach. It wasn't enough, and Agostino began to ache for the stinging stretch of a hard, smooth cock, the expectation like a hunger. Kadri added another finger, more oil, twisting and scissoring inside of him until sweat prickled his skin and his hips were grinding into the mattress, chasing more stimulation.
"Nuhhh Kadri…" he whined, eyes screwed shut.
"Hmm?" He added a third finger, movement lazy, working him open with relentless care, fingers spreading further apart with each deeper penetration. Then he removed his hand altogether, gripping his ass as he invaded his loose hole with his tongue again, licking at his inner walls.
"Nnnnh Kadri!" He was trembling, the slow assault of sensations driving him mad. "Do it. Do it now. Please ."
"Okay, okay." He finally obliged, pulling him to his knees, head still pillowed in his arms on the mattress. Kadri positioned himself between Agostino's wide spread thighs, sliding into his body in smooth, languid strokes. Agostino ground back into each thrust, a low moan growing in his throat.
"Oh gods," he choked out. It felt devine, each slick thrust better than the last, filling the empty feeling left by the slow stretch. Kadri began to go harder, previous patience evaporating as their bodies slapped together. He reached down, wrapping an arm around Agostino's middle, pulling him up, pining his back flush to his chest as he continued to drive into him. At that angle Kadri's cock was beyond compelling, dragging him closer to orgasm each time it grazed his sensitive insides. He let his head lull back against Kadri's shoulder, body feeling more liquid than solid. The man finished inside him in two short thrusts, groaning into his hair. A moment later and his hand was around Agostino's cock, stroking him to completion, still buried deep, making squelching little thrusts with his hips in his well used hole. He came hard, vision blotting out as he gasped for breath, a sense of exhausted ecstasy passing through him. Kadri lifted him up off his lap, laying him out on the bed comfortably before getting up to fetch a rag.
"You're feeling better?" Kadri handed him a wet cloth and he ran it over his skin, between his legs, wondering if it was too decadent to ask for another bath so soon. To ask any luxury of a city slated to burn felt questionable.
"Yes. Thank you for your kindness last night."
"That's a charabitable way of framing it." Kadri sat on the edge of the bed, still naked, and damn but that was more than a little distracting. He ran a hand down Agostino's side, gentle and friendly. "I did think of you, like a melody I couldn't stop humming."
He rolled his eyes at that. "Oof that's a line. I hope it sounded better in your head."
He made a growl of annoyance. "If it's a more articulate man you want, I will continue to disappoint."
"What on earth makes you think I want a man at all?" Some bitterness remained, a hurt at being so casually discarded—a wound that would not fade with a few simple niceties, even if he could tell himself they owed each other nothing.
Kadri moved closer, climbing up onto the bed beside him. He lifted Agostino's chin, exposing his throat, teeth stinging as he sucked a new mark and hands drew down his naked body possessively. "Ciro," he said, breath warm against his collar bone and he felt some vague regret that it wasn't his actual name in his mouth. He gave into temptation, carding his fingers through hair as black as ink, the smell of sex and citrus and cardamom between them.
"What the hell are you doing?" Balian's voice cut through the room like a knife.
Kadri turned his attention away from Agostino. "Oh, is it that late already?"
"Yes. Do I need to remind you that Queen Tutku and her advisers are meant to be here within the hour? Meanwhile, you're naked and...mother of the gods is that the Abreanian boy from before? Where did he come from?" Agostino pulled the sheet up to his chest, but otherwise didn't comment.
"You're worrying about all the wrong things." Kadri strode across the room, muscles moving like a big cat. He stepped into the tub, washing efficiently, running the cold water and splashing it across his body. "I tried to return Yildiz signet ring to her yesterday and she would not take it. Pray tell me what that could mean?"
"I don't know. Do you want to get married?"
"To a widow whose husband's body is barely cold? It seems a bit goulish don't you think? Surely it says somewhere in the legal texts that you have to perform funeral rites for one husband before you're allowed to have another one."
"Just say you're terrified of having a wife."
Kadri laughed. "Doesn't that go without saying? I've already sworn to protect Qamar to my last breath. Do we really need to complicate it beyond that? Fuck , I hate this shit."
"And yet the fates have cast your dice and here you are."
"Hey, find me something appropriate to wear for this, would you?"
"Oh Good. I had just resigned myself to the fact that you would be conducting this meeting with your cock out. What do you want to do with him?" He gestured in Agostino direction.
"Yeah, pick something for Ciro to wear as well." Kadri glanced towards the bed with a smirk. "Something silk if you can find it."
Balian rolled his eyes. "Do you even hear yourself?" He was crouched over a well worn set of travel trunks, pulling out a tunic set, slippers and several other smaller boxes. "He's tiny . None of this shit is going to fit him." He stood up with a sigh, stalking across the room and throwing open a large wooden wardrobe. "Okay. Yeah this will work. Ciro, do be a lamb and get your ass over here."
Agostino slipped from the bed, padding across the room nude. He felt himself flush hot even in the morning chill, but kept his face neutral, shoulder's back. Flinching wasn't going to win him any favors with Balian and the man had seen him in more compromising conditions than this. "Yes?"
Balian openly stared. "What the hell happened to you?"
"Oh uh…" he looked down at his battered skin.
"Kadri?! What the hell?"
"What? Don't look at me," he sounded offended. "I didn't do that to him, although I may have words with the man who did."
"I'm fine. It will fade in a couple of days."
Balian looked incredulous, but he just selected a green tunic, sliding it over Agostino's shoulders and fussing with the complicated closures in the front. A moment later he held out a matching pair of pants for him to step into, cinching the belt until the waist no longer threatened to slide off his hips. "That will do. Find some shoes if you can."
"You called Yildiz your uncle?" He asked, looking through the wardrobe for passible footwear. "Is it common for a marriage to take place after the death of a family member?"
"Ack!" Kadri shook his head, making a face. "It's more of an honorific. Not my literal uncle. We're distant cousins at best."
"So it would be a possibility?" Agostino mulled this over in his head, anxious to get a look at this Tutku and better understand her feelings on the matter. It would be important, if she did have designs on Kadri, for her not to perceive him as a threat. He was in a foreign court and exceptionally vulnerable and while Kadri seemed to have renewed his interest for now, he'd more than proven that his protection was fickle.
"I'm not going to be the goddamn king of Qamar," Kadri grumbled and Agostino found himself meeting Balian's eye briefly, a look of knowing passing between them. He might not want it, but that was hardly the deciding factor in such matters. The city was in crisis and desperately in need of leadership. Kadri was an awfully convenient candidate that would also have the benefit of not already holding entrenched political associations. Or did he? By the way he spoke it seemed extremely doubtful he harbored that kind of ambition. Good. That would be even better.
There was a knock on the door and a servant entered with a tea tray. Balian frowned. "Ciro, you could possibly wait in my room down the hall..."
"Wait for what?" He asked, face serenely neutral as he stepped quickly to take the tray, a casual smile to the serving girl masking a sudden surge of fierce determination. He took it to the low table in the seating area, dropping to his knees beside it. "I don't mind serving your guests in the least."
The man outright glowered at that. "Kadri, do you really think having an Abreanian bed warmer serve tea in a meeting of this nature is appropriate?!" He appreciated the restraint that came with not calling him a whore and he felt a little surge of affection for poor Balian.
Kadri, who did not look all that bothered by the image of Agostino on his knees, considered momentarily. "Do you know any of the formal tea customs?"
He beamed. "Yes. As a matter of fact, I do. I know them very well."
"It's fine, Bal. Let it be. Remember, the bigger picture here." Agostino took a deep breath, riding out the tiny surge of hope, warm in his belly, more than he'd dare let himself feel for months . He touched the amulet around his neck. Fuck it. He'd pay tribute to Amphitrite and her temple of mad priests all the rest of his days if they could find a way to save her patron city.