By dusk, Jay hungered to get out of the city.
A third of the gold had been spent--courtesy of his armed escort, Ned and Gareh, the two guards who’d been sent to fetch him earlier. Ned and Gareh had ordered expensive wine in every one of the twelve city taverns Jay had visited on his fruitless quest. While Jay had been sizing up the young men from a booth of the latest insalubrious alehouse, Ned, the straw-haired one, had disappeared up into a loft with a gangly barmaid. They returned down the ladder minutes later. The girl hurried back to her duties, wiping her hands on her grimy apron. Ned presented Jay with a lipstick-smeared grin and a larger-than-expected tariff for three quarts of honeyed beer.
A cacophony of laughter and drinking songs battered Jay’s eardrums, and no aftertaste of sweet liquor could dispel his bitterness. For the umpteenth time, he contained his fury. Just.
“This bill is a lie.” He slammed Ned with a glare reserved for children who’d ripped the spines off books. He pulled out a gold coin nevertheless. “I’ll meet it, because I’ve no doubt that girl earned her due, but if you offer me untruths again, I’ll be having words with your platoon commander.”
Ned offered a peevish grin before lumbering off to pay. Jay suspected the threat of a superior’s wrath had less bite than in his day. When Lyam’s father had been on the throne, such open profligacy among the royal guard would never have been tolerated, let alone fibbing.
Jay elbowed his way across the crowded room and stepped out into the narrow street. Ned and Gareh followed, swaying on unsteady legs, and Jay fixed on yet another attractive man. The latest potential sex slave strode toward them up the track, ducking under the first-story overhangs and weaving around other pedestrians with athletic grace.
The man was tall and handsome, stubble shadowing his lantern jaw. An expensive buckskin cloak draped his broad shoulders, and he wore a tall hat of the kind that was currently modish. Did he look like Druis? Possibly. During the past few hours, Jay had admitted a galling truth. While his memory retained a general impression of his erstwhile lover, details like the shape of Druis’s lips and thrust of his chin had escaped him.
Gareh prodded Jay, and the stench of licorice gum overpowered the perpetual whiff of the gutter. “He’s a good-looking chap, Captain. Will he do?”
“No.” Jay tore his gaze from the passerby, who’d responded to Jay’s scrutiny with a quizzical frown. This was most likely a rich merchant’s son, perhaps a young entrepreneur. “He won’t want to give up his life.”
“We’ve got to find someone sooner or later. You like him? Let’s fucking grab him.” Gareh clutched the hilt of his sword and started forward.
“No.” Jay seized Gareh’s arm and yanked him back. “Absolutely not. I refuse to take a man who isn’t willing.”
“This is ridiculous.” Gareh wrenched free and tossed his hands in the air. “You had six boys squabbling over the honor back in the Baited Bear. Why didn’t you take one of them?”
“They weren’t right either.”
The well-to-do gent hurried on, shooting them a look sharper than a swinging scythe. “Royal leeches,” muttered the man, noting Ned and Gareh’s liveries, and he disappeared up a side alley.
Jay wiped the perspiration from his brow. Before tonight, he would’ve challenged the insult to the crown, but it wasn’t the first of the kind they’d received. Despite the brawl over the chance to serve Lyam, Jay had spotted many more slogans criticizing the young king’s greed, which saddened him. Choosing any of the powdered fops seemed to be a slur on Druis’s memory, raking like talons through his conscience, yet the whole affair was an affront to Raeli’s legacy, as was the state of the kingdom. However, Jay had once sworn to lay down his life for Raeli’s bloodline, so he must
On the other hand, if Jay didn’t recall what Druis looked like, Lyam could hardly gainsay him. Unless the king had a portrait stashed away. This seemed unlikely. All Jay needed was a handsome brunet, and this ordeal would be over. He could go home and ponder how a noble father could have sired such profligate offspring.
“We’ve six more taverns to try,” said Ned, slumping back against an outer beam. “If that fails, we can start on the whorehouses proper, and--”
“No,” said Jay. If forced into another cauldron of alcohol, flesh, and sweat, he’d expire. “If I recall, there’s a pleasant inn a mile from the city gate.” That used to do a splendid hog roast each Gorenseve. The unappetizing slices of mutton and pottage the city alehouses served had failed to pique his appetite, though his stomach was empty. “Let’s try there.”
At the prospect of rural fare, Gareh and Ned agreed to the plan. The three of them retrieved their horses, which were tethered near a water trough, and Jay led them out, cantering beneath the portcullis and into the open countryside. He gulped the fresher air like a drowning man surfacing from the briny depths.
As they traced the road beneath Highfell Scarp, Jay sniffed burning.
“Look at that.” Ned pointed toward a ramshackle collection of thatched buildings on the plain below the hillside. Smoke billowed from a barn in the middle. “Old Derren’s having a bad day.”
Jay tightened his grip about the reins of his horse. “We must go and help.”
“What about that hog roast?” whined Gareh.
Jay spied a split in the road ahead. One lane forked toward the stricken byre, and he chivied his horse into a trot. “Your meal can wait. Come on, men, with me.”
He galloped on. The track to the farm possessed high hedgerows and so many twists and turns he lost sight of the fire for several minutes. When he next caught a glimpse of it over a barred gate, he urged his stallion to a halt. He’d not drawn much closer, still a good five hundred yards afar. However, the smoke clouds had dissipated to reveal the barn’s structure still intact. Two people hurrying to and fro with buckets appeared to have gotten the conflagration under control.
He’d opted to continue on anyway--to ensure everything was all right--when a girl came tearing up the lane. On seeing him, she froze, then scrunched a fist in her frizzy hair and sprinted over. “Please, you’ve got to help.”
“Help put out the fire?” inquired Jay. The girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen, and tears streaked her freckled cheeks.
“No, no, you’ve got to help Alix. Everyone else ran away, so I crept up to see if I could help, and they think he started the fire--which he did, kind of, but it was an accident--and they’re going to lynch him. Help him. Please!”
As Jay digested her garbling, the girl ran around the back of his horse, setting the beast whinnying and stamping. She climbed up onto the bottom rung of the gate. “Oh gods. They mean it. They’re going to hang him on that tree!”
Few landmarks dotted the open landscape. Thus Jay noted a spreading chestnut, a scant survivor from when this whole area had been forest. His blood jumped when he spotted someone clambering along one of the sturdy branches, dangling a rope. Two more figures waded through the field toward the tree. Between them, they dragged a fourth man, who twisted and struggled, digging in his heels.
Jay made the decision even as the girl screamed again. Whether this Alix had burned the barn deliberately or not, summary justice was against Galataan law. Or as far as he knew, it still was. Those accused of crimes deserved a trial in front of court and king.
Ned and Gareh had caught up with Jay, but he’d no time to explain. “Onward,” he commanded, then maneuvered his horse to the shrubs opposite the gate, allowing himself as much of a run-up as space allowed. The girl scrambled out of the way, and he spurred the stallion to leap the bars. They charged across the rough pasture.
“Stop. In the name of King Lyam.”
On royal business, and with two uniformed guards backing him, Jay possessed no qualms in making the claim. His order and approach had the desired effect. The two men accompanying Alix had reached the tree and had been attempting to lift and force their kicking charge to put his head through a noose, aided by the individual who’d been climbing. They ceased their efforts. One slammed Alix back against the trunk. Another, who carried a sword and dressed in the distinctive brown frock coat of a wealthy agriculturist--Farmer Derren--strode toward Jay. They met ten paces from the tree.
“Since when has King Lyam cared about my property? I pay my taxes for the privilege of being left alone to get on with these things.”
“On the contrary,” replied Jay. “You’re breaking the law.”
“This man is an incendiary.” Derren spat with repugnance. “Mining scum, coated in karmite dust. The sentence for incendiarism is death, so we’re saving the king time and
his precious money.”
“His Majesty would rather see justice done.”
Derren snorted, and Jay suppressed a cringe. Learning what he had of Lyam, he feared he lied. “I’m informed this fire was an accident.”
“By whom? The rest of the karmite-smeared knaves who fled the scene of the crime, I’ll wager.” Jay’s horse flicked his silver mane, expressing the agitation Jay kept restrained. The farmer raised two slug-like brows. “Nobody around here will miss this little shit, and I’ll have words with his masters at the pits if they complain. So I suggest, good fellows”--he bowed as Ned and Gareh drew level at Jay’s side--“that you carry on your way and have a good evening.”
“We do tend to let the country sorts deal with such matters themselves,” muttered Gareh. “Come on. I’m getting thirsty.”
“No.” A desperate cry from Alix echoed Jay’s shout as the lad’s captors dragged him back toward the noose. The burly farmhands ripped Alix’s shirt amid the struggle and looked to their patriarch for final instructions.
an accident,” yelled the miner, appealing to Jay now. “I’ll pay for the damage. I’ll do anything.”
“Finish him.” Derren nodded to his men.
“I say no!” Propelled by a lightning strike of righteous fury, Jay leaped from his horse. His soldier’s instincts overruled ten years of tranquil existence, and he grasped for the pommel of his sword. Cursing its absence, he lunged for the farmer. In a single, fluid movement, he seized the man’s glaive and whipped it from its sheath.
The mottled blade’s weight felt good, and the hilt molded into Jay’s hand like an extension of his arm. He shoved the protesting Derren aside and launched toward the chestnut. The amateur executioners had forced Alix’s head through the loop. One of them held Alix in place, not yet letting him drop, while Alix hooked his fingers through the hemp, striving to protect his throat. The lad booted his other persecutor’s jaw, sending the man sprawling, counterproductive to his cause of being held up rather than allowed to choke. Given his obvious panic, Jay couldn’t blame him.
The fallen farmhand picked himself up off the ground. Jay jabbed his sword’s point so it hovered inches from the man’s heart. “Let the boy free, or I’ll fillet this man alive.”
“I’d do as he says.” Ned’s supportive shout came as a welcome surprise. “This is Captain Jaysen Ghair, savior of the realm and the greatest swordsman Galataan has ever known.”
As Ned’s words impacted on the company, they stared at Jay anew. Silence swept the vale, save the warble of evening birdsong. Jay didn’t flinch. He wouldn’t object to his enduring legend if it prevented bloodshed. The farmhand blanched, edging back.
Jay carved a figure of eight in the soot-flecked air, sweeping a hair’s breadth from the man’s nose, then touched his forehead with the blade in a businesslike salute. “What’s it to be?”
Derren found his voice first. “Take the boy to jail.” Jay spun around to face the farmer, who stretched out a meaty palm. “But I’ll have my sword back, Captain Ghair, if you please.”
Jay didn’t oblige the request, not yet. He wrested possession of Alix’s legs from the remaining laborer, who reeked like a pigsty, and then severed the rope above the boy’s head with a single slash of the blade. Alix’s full weight sank onto him. The body pressing against Jay was compact with solid muscle, difficult to support from this awkward angle, and they crumpled to the ground tangled as one.
He landed among the tree roots with his face jammed on Alix’s stomach, one arm wrapped around a shapely arse, the other holding his sword aloft. Jay glanced up at Alix, who stared back, allowing Jay a proper look for the first time. Alix’s eyes stole his breath--a rich mahogany brown, framed with curling lashes, though one brow was swollen, the recipient of a recent blow. A fresh graze marred Alix’s cheekbone, his nose bled, and he was dripping wet, though still streaked with black karmite powder. His diamond-shaped face and high cheekbones afforded him an impish air, but he was a handsome young man.
handsome young man.
“Are you all right?” Jay placed the sword within grabbing distance and allowed Alix to extract himself and sit up.
Alix dragged the noose over his head, then hooked the ragged remnants of his shirt back on his shoulders. “Better now.” His voice shook, though otherwise he appeared composed. Or talented at hiding his fears. “Th-thank you, Captain. But, um, what happens--”
“We have to take you to the palace dungeon, that’s what,” said Ned, his stomp and tone enforcing a belligerent aura as he approached. “As if we didn’t have enough to sodding do this evening.”
Alix wiped the blood from his face. “Then you might as well let them hang me,” he said quietly. “No court will care that it was an accident. I’m a miner. They’ll condemn me anyway.”
“No. There’s another option.” Jay touched the lad’s cheek, prompting Alix’s gaze to meet his. He wondered if he should sob or cheer as the inevitable plan formulated.
Alix was an attractive brunet, slighter than Druis, but Alix felt strong as a little ox, and close enough to what the king ordered.
Moreover, Alix might be right. One thing Jay had known before he’d ventured from his library this day was that rich and powerful folk indeed treated miners as second-rate citizens. Jay abhorred this fact but couldn’t deny it; too many pit workers had told him tales of drudgery and despair, and their lifelong contracts and piteously small wages rendered their existence not much better than slaves’. The boy’s prospects weren’t good, but if Jay was to improve them in some way, he had to appease Derren, who hovered nearby.
“Wait here, Alix.”
Alix glanced at the two guards. Ned had drawn his blade. “Not going anywhere, believe me, Captain.”
Jay returned the farmer’s sword and promised him the miner would be dealt with swiftly and severely, leavening the promise with more of his gold. Appeased by the jangle of the king’s coins, which would cover the damage to the barn, Derren and his henchmen slouched away.
With a final piece of gold, Jay persuaded Ned to lend him his cloak, which he draped over Alix’s shoulders. It was a warmish night, but it didn’t do to leave the lad clad only in torn and sodden garments. Then he squatted down beside Alix and tried not to feel like a cheap pimp. “Answer me honestly. How old are you?”
“Do you lie with men or women?”
“Eh?” Alix scrunched his battered nose.
“Please answer the question.”
“I, um, prefer men,” replied Alix. Well, that was one small mercy. “What’s all this about?”
Jay leaned forward so his brow nearly touched Alix’s. Hot breaths mingled. “Listen. I’ve been charged this night with finding the king an attractive young man. Somebody ready and willing to, uh, well--”
“He wants to know if you’ll suck the king’s cock,” interjected Gareh, coming to the rescue, albeit in a crude fashion.
Alix’s jaw dropped. “You want me to become one of the king’s sex slaves?”
It seemed everybody knew more about Lyam’s lifestyle than Jay had. His stomach clenched.
“King Lyam’s a good-looking chap,” added Ned, who’d warmed to the task of procuring Alix, probably because time pressed on. The sun had sunk beneath the horizon, and evening dew beaded the grasses and cooled Jay’s blazing visage. “From what I’ve heard, his boys live a coddled existence.”
“The choice must be yours, Alix,” said Jay. “But Farmer Derren might find you and kill you if we let you go free, and we can’t take you back to the palace with no reason. You must face trial or elect to serve the king.”
Jay’s conscience stabbed like an ice pick, because there was little choice, really. He wished the lad, who remained motionless, would say something to put him out of his misery. Alix raked his fingers through his short brown hair. Then, sudden as the first morning cry of a cockerel, he laughed. And sweet mother of all the starlords, it was the dirtiest and most charming sound that’d ever blessed Jay’s ears. Alix’s smile was delicious too, though he couldn’t disguise his trembling or the gleam of fear in his eyes. Jay suspected this unforeseen mirth to be an act, so it didn’t make him feel any better.
Nevertheless, Lyam had asked for a man with some spirit. Alix indeed possessed that.
“All right, I’ll do it.” Alix dabbed away the last of the blood. “Um, should I thank you? I mean, yes, I really should. You just saved me from--”
“No. That’s not necessary at all.” Any decent man would’ve done the same thing.
Without requesting the rescued party become a sex slave.
Jay rose, then took Alix’s arm and helped him up. Once upright, Alix hissed in pain, then balanced on one leg. Jay clamped the lad’s shoulders. “Are you badly injured?”
“Just a minor sprain.” Alix mustered a faltering grin. “Doesn’t hurt.”
“We’ll tend to your wounds when we get back.”
It seemed the least he could do. Then again, he had
saved Alix’s life. Serving at court, even as one of the king’s pets, could well be preferable to laboring in the mines, let alone languishing in prison or facing the chop.
Not quite reassured, Jay scooped an arm about Alix and supported the lad in hopping over to the horse. He helped Alix up--involuntarily confirming that Alix had a firm and rounded butt and sinewy thighs--then sighed and nodded to Gareh and Ned.
“Lead on back to the palace.”