Lord Glimmerveen had arranged for a long night of entertainment, with musicians, singers, a troupe of juggling fools, and dancers. The noise and commotion had forestalled further conversation, for which Wryler was grateful. Rouchet had sunk back into a contented half-slumber, and Wryler had also found himself glassy-eyed and inattentive to the sport in front of him.
Rouchet excused himself, and not long after, Wryler felt it would be acceptable to leave along with many of the staggering guests. He remembered Lennox’s suggestion that they meet afterward, but Wryler was still in a pique and felt no desire to be manhandled by a drunken merchant’s son. He avoided looking Lennox’s way as he left the great hall and moved quickly away from the guests mingling and chatting in the corridors.
He trod a wavering line toward the staircase that would take him to his tower rooms, but then decided to step out for a bit of fresh air. His head swam, his tongue wouldn’t work properly, and he’d begun to regret having eaten so little. He was suddenly famished.
He pushed out through a heavy wooden servant’s door and leaned his back against the cool stones of the tower wall. As a child, he’d often sneaked into the kitchens and begged sweets from the cook. He wondered if he could still get away with it, or as a nearly engaged man, should he behave more respectably? Was there any chance he could get Amster to bring up a plate?
The cool damp air felt delicious against Wryler’s hot skin. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths, but quickly opened them again as the world began to spin. The stairs presented a challenge, and he considered bedding down in the stables, another boyish thing he’d have to give up soon, being a husband in a fine mansion, not a fourth son no one paid any attention to. Now that he was on the brink of leaving, the benefits of his current situation became apparent.
But his father had said nothing about Wryler’s engagement to Lennox, so maybe nothing had been decided yet again. Wryler tried to work up a fit about this, but found he didn’t much mind. Perhaps freedom was better than a stifling marriage.
He squinted up at a velvet sky recently cleared of clouds. It would be a good night for peering through his telescope, if only the stars would stop swarming about so.
“Lovely night after so much rain.”
Wryler lowered his chin and stood up straight. The voice came from the shadows toward the stables, followed by the sloshing of boots through puddles. With a few more strides, Aeric Rouchet emerged from the gloom, that damnable grin on his face.
“Yes. Quite,” Wryler said. “The dining hall got so hot.”
“It did, didn’t it?” Rouchet kept walking, and Wryler feared the man might plow straight into him. He braced himself for impact, but Rouchet stopped a few inches shy of contact. “The fresh air is bracing, but it hasn’t done much to cool the flush in your cheeks.”
“It’s a curse. The blushing,” Wryler said, and damn if his blood didn’t flame even hotter.
“I find it quite becoming.” Rouchet rested his palm against the wall next to Wryler’s head and leaned in. “Is it only the quest for fresh air that keeps you from your comfy bed, Sir Wryler?”
“Yes. What else would it…would I…?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I noticed the young Mr. Arsburry giving you the eye all night.”
“Him?” Wryler snorted. “There’s nothing going on between us, I assure you.”
“Glad to hear it. I thought perhaps you were looking for company.”
“I weren’t. I wasn’t.” Accursed wine!
“But now?” Rouchet placed a finger under Wryler’s chin and lifted it slightly. His looming presence enveloped Wryler in warmth and the smell of leather. Rouchet blocked out the sky, the stars replaced by his gleaming eyes. Wryler shrank back against the wall. He wasn’t being held in place, but he might as well have been. He couldn’t move and didn’t much want to.
Rouchet swooped in for a kiss, his wine-moistened lips covering and consuming Wryler’s. He was surprisingly gentle, this barbarian, his tongue easing into Wryler’s mouth slowly but firmly.
What’s happening? What’s going on here, exactly?
Men other than Lennox had kissed Wryler. Large, rough men. Stable hands. Traveling knights. Many had attempted to steal more than a kiss, and, while it was pleasant, Wryler wasn’t often tempted for more. But now, now he sensed Rouchet hesitating, waiting for a sign from Wryler, for permission to unleash the lust he obviously held back.
This really isn’t acceptable behavior.
But Rouchet would soon be gone, and they’d never see each other again. What harm could come of a little kiss?
Wryler responded, pushing back with his tongue, his body arching against Rouchet’s.
Rouchet growled and plunged in harder, driving Wryler against the wall. A cascade of tiny explosions fired beneath Wryler’s skin, and he was instantly and embarrassingly hard. It had never been like this with Lennox. Wryler always required coaxing and coercing. Now he felt as if he could be the one in charge, tearing at Rouchet’s clothing and demanding to taste every inch of the lord’s enormous body.
Wryler kept his hands by his sides and balled into fists, not trusting himself to touch Rouchet with more than lips.
Rouchet had no such restraint and ran one large hand down Wryler’s back all the way to his buttocks, which he squeezed hard. Wryler gasped, and Rouchet seized him with both hands and pulled him in tight, crushing Wryler’s poor swollen cock against his unyielding thigh. The pressure felt too good. Wryler wanted to climb Rouchet, to mount this monster of a man and ride him like…like… Words fled him as he cried out for this unexpected delight.
Rouchet broke out of the kiss but kept his mouth close to Wryler’s ear.
“My dear Wryler, thank you for your answer, but I fear if I keep at it, I won’t be able to stop.”
“You’re drunk, and although appearances may suggest otherwise, I am nothing if not a gentleman.”
“I am not!” Wryler insisted, weaving as Rouchet released him.
“Sweetly, deliciously drunk.” Rouchet ran a finger along Wryler’s jaw, then stepped back and bowed. “A good night to you, Sir Wryler, and may you arrive safely at your rooms. I’d escort you, but I’m afraid I’m more the monster in the shadows this night than the knight by your side.” He sighed deeply. “No, I’m afraid I’m more likely to sling you over my shoulder and carry you to my bed than see you safely tucked away in your own.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Wryler said. “Not much anyway.”
“You’re too kind.” Rouchet bowed again. “Sleep well.” He turned and stalked off into the night, vanishing as suddenly as he’d appeared.
For a moment, Wryler wondered if he’d dreamed the entire thing. His body certainly didn’t think so.
“How utterly rude,” he muttered. How like a lord to toy with him, work him into a lather just to toss him aside. Obviously Wryler hadn’t suited Lord Rouchet, had been too chaste in his response. Well, fine. That was certainly for the better. No good could come from such an irresponsible dalliance. And Wryler on the cusp of his engagement!
He pushed away from the wall, staggered a bit, and then found the door. He’d dodged a very dangerous arrow! Luckily his quick thinking had kept him from throwing himself into Rouchet’s arms.
Wryler wanted nothing to do with barbarians and their unasked-for attention.
* * * *
Morning arrived on the plodding feet of ill-tempered giants. Glimmerveen Castle ground into a tumultuous, clanging upheaval as the harsh light of day crept over the castle’s outer walls and poured into Wryler’s window with relentless persistence.
He sat in bed with his hands wrapped around a mug of tea, recounting the evils of alcohol and swearing off the foul brew for the rest of his days. Amster snored loudly, stretched out on the settee beneath the window. Wryler had to summon a kitchen maid to bring him his breakfast—hot, spiced tea, dry bread, and a few sad-looking pieces of fruit. He nibbled on the bread and listened to fifty-odd guests loading their carriages, shouting at the servants, and generally making a very pointless racket. He wondered if Lord Rouchet was among those leaving and, with a creeping dread, recalled their unfortunate encounter.
Wryler’s body stirred, and he grimly ordered it to calm down. Thank goodness he hadn’t succumbed to Rouchet’s impetuous advances. It was a small miracle the brute hadn’t taken advantage of Wryler’s obvious drunkenness. He dimly recalled Rouchet threatening to hoist Wryler over his shoulder and carry him off to ravish him, at which point Wryler had said something devastating enough to send the barbarian running off into the night.
To his extreme irritation this muddled memory did nothing to soothe his body. His troublesome cock just kept growing harder and harder no matter how much Wryler conjured terrifying images of being abducted by the lord, manhandled, forced to do… Well, his imagination wasn’t that lurid… Oh dear, yes it was.
He nearly dumped the tea in his lap when someone thumped loudly on his door, and for a second he thought it might be Rouchet come to make good on his threats.
Then the door burst open and his father marched in, followed closely by his first minister, Fenwale Cook. They were both smiling, which made Wryler want to leap from the bed and throw himself out the window. No good ever came from his father smiling.
“Still lounging in bed, I see,” Lord Glimmerveen said in a booming voice. “You did well at the feast last night, so I won’t hold it against you. Not on this fine morning. Isn’t it a fine morning, Wryler?” Lord Glimmerveen stood with his hands on his hips, apparently unperturbed by the wide-sodden funk of Wryler’s room.
“I wouldn’t know, Father, for as you noted, I am still in bed.” He glared at the intruders, but they didn’t seem to notice. Instead they drew closer and hovered over him as if he were sitting on a couch in his father’s study, dressed and presentable instead of miserable in his nightshirt.
“I have good news,” his father said. “Your destiny is sealed, my boy. No longer will you be the useless fourth son of a second wife but a well-situated husband in a grand house of your own.”
Wryler set down his mug on the nightstand with a trembling hand. So the deal was done.
“You’ve finally reached an agreement with Sir Arsburry?” he asked.
“Arsburry? That lowborn merchant? No, no. Why would I trade you away to a commoner when I could have a lord as a son-in-law?”
Wryler swallowed with difficulty. His head pounded. “Which lord?” he asked meekly.
“Why, Lord Rouchet, of course. He was quite impressed with you and came to my study straightaway this morning to negotiate a deal.” Wryler’s father rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Not only did he accept your measly dowry without a quibble, he’s agreed to open the road through the Black Forest and escort a trade caravan this spring. If we don’t get devoured by trolls, dark elves, and hellbeasts, I stand to make a fortune. The route through the forest will cut weeks off the journey to the coast and save us paying the tolls at Starvale Pass!”
It wasn’t too late to throw himself out the window, Wryler thought. He pulled his quilt to his chin, gulped air, and then experienced a surge of anger that propelled him out of the bed.
“Are you mad? You’d send me to live at Gryffon Hall? Beyond the edge of nowhere? With a bloodthirsty barbarian as a husband?”
“Wryler my boy, I’d send you to the netherworld to wed the king of demons if it would save Glimmerveen from ruin. You don’t pay attention to these things, I know, but with the Wardyles dominating the north and the merchant leagues to the east imposing their regulations and tolls, trade through the middle lands has become impossibly expensive. The coffers are nearly empty. An alliance with Rouchet will give Glimmerveen the advantage we need to survive. Besides, you seemed to like our bloodthirsty barbarian guest well enough last night.”
“I was only trying to make Lennox Arsburry jealous,” Wryler said. He shivered in his nightshirt but stood firm, hands clenched into fists. “You can’t go back on your word to his father, surely.”
“I can, but Sir Arsburry was the first to back out. Got his eye on that twerp Branson MacFarlane for a son-in-law. You’re well shut of the Arsburry clan if you ask me. I hear Rouchet has an impressive library. You’ll enjoy that. And all the nonsense about bloodthirst and unchecked plundering is mere propaganda, I’m sure. One has to put on quite the display of ferocity to keep the monsters of the Black Forest at bay.”
“Are there really monsters afoot near Gryffon Hall?” Wryler asked. One heard the tales, of course, and gawked at the skeletons on display at the university museum in Kirik, but the strange beasts had been driven from the civilized lands centuries ago, off the edge of the earth, according to most scholars.
Minister Cook, who had yet to utter a sound, cleared his throat and stepped forward. “If it will ease your mind, Master Wryler, consider the likelihood that the tales of monsters have been kept alive by the Rouchets themselves, in order to guard their borders and enhance their prestige. If we really believed centaurs and gryffons still roamed the woods, we’d hardly risk sending a heavily laden caravan through the forest, with or without Rouchet’s guidance.”
Wryler chewed his lower lip. It wasn’t the monsters in the forest that concerned him.
“And if I refuse?”
Lord Glimmerveen laughed heartily and slapped Wryler on the shoulder. “If you refuse, I’ll escort you to Gryffon Hall at swordpoint myself. The ink on the contract has dried. There’s no turning back. Think of all the new stars you’ll see without the fog and dust of the valley to obscure your sky peeper.”
“It’s called a telescope,” Wryler groused.
“You’ll do fine. Think of it, Cook. Our dear Wryler is the first Glimmerveen lad to be married, and at the tender age of twenty. Who would’ve guessed it?”
“No one.” Minister Cook shook his head. They both smiled broadly, completely unconcerned with Wryler’s feelings or the terrifying fate they’d bound him to.
Wryler lifted his chin and put back his shoulders. “And when is the ceremony set to occur? Sometime in the summer?” he asked, mind racing. There was still a chance he could talk to Rouchet and explain that Wryler had no interest in marrying him, that he loved—or at least was fond of—another. Maybe MacFarlane would reject the Arsburry offer and Wryler’s father could be persuaded to reconsider—
“Seven days hence at Gryffon Hall. Lord Rouchet has already taken his leave in order to prepare his household. You’re to follow in three days. Better get packing.”