The sun pierced a crevice in the mountains, and M’lan raised a hand to shield his eyes. He stood on a desert battlefield littered with the wounded, the dying, and the dead. He held a blood-smeared sword in his other hand. He let it drop.
Dawn cut across the broken earth in a fiery lance, the anger of Salar, god of light, exposing man’s cruelty in shocking, vivid detail. Blood everywhere, limbs hacked, horses screaming. Hundreds of cold, sightless eyes, all turning toward him.
M’lan stepped forward and tripped over a body at his feet. He fell, not onto a rock-strewn desert, but marble steps.
As his palms hit a cool stone floor, he shook his head in confusion. His vision wavered between illusion and reality. On his hands and knees, he breathed deep and tried to remember who he was and where he was. He raised his head, and the tentacles of the night terrors recoiled into the shadowed corners of a temple, chased away by the sun that was indeed cresting the mountain. He was not a warrior but a monk, a healing monk, and he was in the temple of Ka’alar, not some hideous battlefield.
He let out a shaky breath and climbed the last few steps on hands and knees. The nightmares were getting worse, and so powerful that they chased him all the way out of his cell into the blessed light of day. He thanked Salar for the dawn, then groggily staggered to his feet. He dimly recalled rising and dressing before dawn, but the dream had hunted him down and reclaimed him on his way to the temple.
The fading aroma of night-blooming cacti still sweetened the air of the healing room. Clay ovens had been fired to heat it, but a chill remained in the open space. M’lan was grateful, because the nightmare had left him drenched with sweat. He leaned against a marble column and soaked in the rose-tinted glow of the sunrise. Morning was his favorite time of day, a fresh start, a new beginning. Every day, he channeled divine energy to mend fallen warriors. Every night, as if he became a warrior himself, he relived the horror his patients experienced in real life.
His heartbeat slowed, and he took a moment to clear his mind and prepare for the first patient of the day. He’d trained for years to calm his mind and cool his passions. While he was busy treating his patients, passion was not a problem. Despite the array of beautiful bodies he worked on, he stayed as cool as a mountain lake, his mind still as he concentrated on sinews, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. At night, though, his passions erupted in those violent dreams of war, killing, and terror.
The monks of Ka’alar Healing Temple exclusively served the noble classes of the kingdom of Rakkan. In recent years, most of their clients were soldiers, officers who’d been injured in the ongoing battle with Jirnan Province to the south. The monks also treated elite forces of no particular rank or designation--spies, assassins, sons and daughters of the nobility trained to serve the king in secret and deadly ways. The only reason M’lan knew this was because of the nightmares. He saw what his clients did, where they went, who they killed. If anyone ever found out, he’d be executed on the spot.
Cobwebs clearing, he hurried to wipe down the soft-padded table in the middle of the room with essential oils and snapped out a fresh cloth to smooth on top of it. Today he was to begin the healing process on a new patient. For the sake of secrecy and discretion, patients were referred to by title. Today’s client, if spoken to, was to be addressed as Major. He was male, twenty-eight passages of age, and had been in the intensive-care ward of the temple for three weeks.
M’lan’s role came into play after the most grievous injuries were patched, wounds closed, and vital functions stabilized. He put the final touches on a body to make it as fine and fit as before whatever trauma had broken it. He aligned the chi as well as the bones, muscles, and nerves. He released locked-in trauma, allowing the body to flow naturally again, maybe better than before, if the connection was right and the patient willing.
Some warriors only wanted to be patched up so they could return to the fight. Others believed a complete healing cycle would make them better at what they did and less likely to fail again. They all took injury as a personal failure.
The entry chimes sounded, and M’lan bowed his head, as was custom when nobility entered. The patient wore a black silk robe, head covered with a hood. He moved with grace and a lightness of foot, unlike most of the warriors M’lan worked on, who tended to be heavyset and muscle-bound. By the tang of sulfur salts, M’lan knew the man had already warmed up with exercise and soaked in the healing pools. Good. A committed patient was so much easier to work with.
The man crossed the tiled floor without a sound and stepped up to the table. From behind him, M’lan watched the silk robe drop to the floor before he raised his eyes, ready to assess what he saw.
His breath caught. Even though he was used to seeing well-sculpted, muscular bodies, this one was exceptional. Faint scars crisscrossed the truly beautiful almond skin but were obscured by the swirls and tangled vines of an elaborate tattoo that climbed from the crease beneath the man’s left buttock to the base of his neck. His torso tapered from the broad shoulders to a slim waist. The arms and legs were lean yet muscular, and the buttocks tight and hard. He had glossy black hair that flashed red in the sunlight. M’lan glimpsed a fine high cheekbone, sculpted jawline, and aquiline nose. A true son of Rakkan.
The man lay down on his stomach without a word, crossed his arms above his head, and rested his face on the open frame at the top. He was tall, and he reached from one end of the table to the other. M’lan moved closer, rubbing warmed zinn bark oil onto his hands.
“With your permission,” he said as was required. All he got in return was a grunt.
His heartbeat spiked as his nightmare flashed before his eyes. What horrors had this man endured? What visions would M’lan be forced to share? He clasped his hands together and centered his thoughts. Only the act of healing mattered now. His fears were childish. He placed his palms flat on the small of the man’s back. Though heavily scarred in places, the skin was smooth and hot from the sulfur bath. Electric sparks trickled up M’lan’s hands, and he nearly jumped back. He closed his eyes and let out a calming breath, feeling the rhythm of the man’s pulse beneath his palms.
As he sometimes did when the distraction of base physicality disturbed his calm, he imagined the body as a sculpture, a fine piece of art. This one certainly was. He called up the anatomical charts in his mind’s eye and allowed his fingers to travel up the spine, searching for the damaged nerves and knotted muscles that blocked healing. The skin had a soothing smell, like a sweetly remembered lover, and the body--he instantly connected with this body. His hands seemed to know where to go. But of course that was impossible. He’d never forget having worked on this man.
The major’s muscles were like coiled iron, and M’lan knew he had a rigorous workout in front of him. But for now his motions were gentle as he explored the body with his hands and waited for the healing energy to begin its journey through him to his client.
So much pain. Something terrible had happened to the major, and M’lan did not look forward to dreaming about it that night. He knew he would; with this powerful a connection already, there was no doubt.
He began to press harder, to examine and map out the sequence of injuries. He would address the surface, superficial scar tissue and knots first and then work his way down, ever deeper. With this degree of damage, M’lan’s part of the cure could take weeks, if done properly. The warriors usually weren’t willing to give him the time. He hoped the major would give him all he needed. He probed the long neck and admired again the curve of the jawline. By the pulse of a nerve there, he knew that the area was sensitive, but the major didn’t make a sound or react in any way.
“If the pain becomes too much, let me know.”
The major let out a little huff of air. “I seriously doubt you can hurt me, monk.”
M’lan smiled. His strong fingers--fingers that knew exactly where the deepest injuries lurked--reduced these tough fighting men to gasps and tears easily enough. He happened upon a stiff sinew that refused to give way, and concentrated on it, calling on the energy that flowed through the temple walls. He felt it ripple through him and penetrate the smooth skin under his fingers. The major let out a muffled groan. The hard spot softened, and M’lan moved on, loosening, softening, probing.
Along with sulfur and sweat, the major smelled of a hot spice, like red pepper. M’lan worked his way down both sides of the spine, doing an admirable job of keeping his mind on abstract visions of the muscles beneath his hands. Until he reached the buttocks. Gluteus maximus, where so much resistance was kept locked in those mighty muscles. The major’s perfect ass was unyielding. The tattoo of curling shard vines and small snakes led directly into the crease between the buttocks, and M’lan’s fingers wanted so much to glide right inside him. This transgression could get him dismissed from the order, cast down to a field hospital, and possibly beaten by the major himself. One never knew the preferences and prejudices of a patient. Besides that, their sharply distinct classes prohibited social interaction.
M’lan kept away from the danger area, plunging his knuckles into the hard, wiry muscles below the hip. He was starting to sweat heavily, and not just from the exertion. The major’s breaths became louder as he strained not to reveal his discomfort. A warrior would never ask a monk to back off, to be gentler, and M’lan took this as a sort of challenge, a wicked impulse that wouldn’t occur to a true monk. He’d never asked for this life of passionless sacrifice. He released his frustration on the major’s perfect ass. One hand on the curve of the back where the smooth spine began to slope toward the anus, he pushed on a knot of muscles with the other fist, remembering occasionally to breath and call on the healing energy.
Thank goodness the monks were required to wear loose, chaste clothing. His erection would be considered most unseemly. The silk of his robe stuck to his sweaty back, and he wished he could peel it off and press skin against skin. He leaned close, mouth watering inches away from a slick buttock. How he’d like to slide his tongue down that deep groove.
“Don’t hold back,” the major said, snapping him out of a most inappropriate fantasy.
He cleared his throat. “What?”
“Don’t worry about hurting me. I know you can go harder.”
“The purpose of healing is not to create more pain, Major.”
“But pain is necessary. I know this, so do what you have to do.”
“Major, this is only the preliminary work, the surface wounds. I’ll be hurting you soon enough.”
“Preliminary, you say?”
“Get on with it, then.”
“Yes.” M’lan stood up straight. He was dripping sweat, and he hadn’t even started to work on the large muscles of the legs yet. He oiled his hands again and reluctantly left the magnificent mounds to begin on the wrought-iron hamstrings.
Another tattoo, this one of a coiling dragon, had been woven into and around an old scar. He fingered the dragon’s back and felt tough adhesions beneath. He rubbed at it, pressing down, wondering if myofascial stripping was required.
A vivid image suddenly swarmed in front of his eyes. The vision of a courtyard, ringed with young men and women in matching red uniforms. A hard packed-dirt ground, a long sword in his hand, and an opponent, lost in the sun.
. A night terror during a session? This had never happened before. He concentrated on remaining calm, breathing, kneading the scar. In the vision, he whirled around, hands on the hilt of a heavy blade, but not in time. His opponent, a much taller, older man, lunged from the shadows of a column and sliced him across the back of his left leg. He crumpled to the ground, screaming in agony.
He released the major’s leg and gripped the edge of the table with both hands. The pain was too much. He called on the breath of Salar, the god of light whose healing powers infused the springs that fed the pools around the temple. A cooling mist rose from the tiles into his bare feet, chilling the heat and rage and pain of the vision until it was merely a frozen montage of images, which then faded away into the bright sunlight of reality.
He opened his eyes and realized the major had risen on one elbow, turned slightly, and was watching him. He had pale green eyes flecked with gold. They appeared luminous, as if lit by an inner fire. His black hair stuck to his face in long, sweaty strands.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, his face an expressionless mask.
“No. I am calling on the energies of Salar to assist with the healing.”
“You needn’t bother. That’s an old wound that was healed long ago.”
“Is it, though? Does it not cause you pain occasionally? Hamper your stride?”
“Yes, but not enough to matter. If you try to heal every old injury of mine, we’ll be here for a passage.”
“It’s not.” He flopped back down. “Remember, I have physical training at midday.”
“Certainly. You will not be late.” M’lan steadied himself and carried on, applying his most rigorous meditation techniques to staying out of the major’s memories and holding his erotic thoughts at bay. He must not allow himself to connect so deeply, at least not yet. He had to prepare himself. Next time he wouldn’t be blindsided by the perfection of this body. He’d take more relaxing herbs and hopefully get more sleep. He’d spend more time in prayer.
He finished with the legs and asked the major to roll over.
Yes, he’d spend much more time in prayer.
The major’s large, glistening cock lay partially engorged on his right thigh. At some point during the treatment, he’d become aroused. M’lan’s skin tingled all over. Breathe.
The major didn’t seem to care. His eyes remained closed, and he might have been asleep. Nobility had no reason to blush or be ashamed before the lower classes. Clients often became aroused and sometimes attempted a tryst with the monks. This was severely discouraged, with the monk being the one punished, of course. A respectable distance and decorum must be kept at all times. There was nothing distant or demure about that erection.
M’lan swallowed hard, wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, and went to work on the major’s iron-corded thighs.