Part 7: "Storm"
Story Rating: Hard R/NC-17
Story Warnings explicit heterosexual and homosexual sex, slavery, violence, torture and drug use.
Story Summary Since the death of their brother the Emperor Dolmus brought the royal brothers Valentin and Cassius back to Monsilys, capital of the great Jovani Empire, Valentin has cured the boredom of court life with poppy-sap and women, while for Cassius the remedy has been ale and the result much the same. Then an ill-fated duel causes their niece the Empress to send them to Gallica to deal with a problem there, and they find themselves drawn ever more back into the world of Jovani politics: a world their brother banished them from seventeen years earlier. As Valentin veers from disaster to disaster, always running from his past and a life he would prefer to forget, Cassius is fascinated by a damaged boy he rescues from a slave brothel. Valentin's weapon is sly diplomacy, while Cassius prefers the honesty of the sword, but will either be enough to protect Jovan, and themselves?
Notes: Volumes I and II are already written; you can check them out at my website (along with Vol III as it's written), as free eBooks (Volume I and Volume II) or I will be posting them here at a rate of one chapter a week, which means Livejournal will catch up to the website in around July/August 2013. I sincerely hope you enjoy the story. :)
The autumn rain was heavy and cold. It sat over Monsilys like a damp blanket, dark clouds pressing down on the city, bleaching the colours and sending rivers of water down the steep streets. Cassius went into quiet mourning for the warm months: he knew the storms would clear into the cool, crispness that presaged winter.
At first, he commandeered a disused salle and went about his sword practice largely as usual. After a couple of days the dreary darkness sapped his energy and he took to lounging around his room, half asleep, staring into the fire or attempting to get through the pile of briefings related to the city guard, which increased in frequency as the low-lying parts of the docks became at serious risk of flooding. The guard sought and obtained his permission to evict tenants from low-lying insulae before they collapsed, and a tent settlement sprang up on the plain, a collection of sodden canvas tents, leaning against each other as if huddling for warmth.
It kept raining.
Cassius went down to the city, to the sad, abandoned insulae, where the water had overflown the gutters and pooled in the street, full of effluent. He rode out to the tent city and surveyed the masses of ragged, miserable humanity from the height of his horse and the comparative warmth of a wool tunic and oilskin cloak.
The plain was well above sea level and at no risk of flooding, but on its great, grassy expanse the water had nowhere to run off, and having soaked the soil and grass, sat in thin sheets over the ground.
He leaned over to ask the city prefect, “Is there no way we can find any more solid structure for them?”
“The Temples have taken all the people they can, Commander,” said the prefect.
“Have we any more blankets to distribute?”
“All sodden: my men are attempting to dry them out by the barracks fires.”
Cassius sighed and turned his horse’s head towards the city, his mind drifting away from the plight of those behind him and towards the warm fire in his room.
Just as they were crossing underneath the city gate, “Sir,” came a voice behind Cassius. “Sir, excuse me.” He turned in the saddle, just as the prefect brought his horse around to try and interpose himself between Cassius and the speaker.
Cassius held up his hand and the prefect loosened his reins. “Good afternoon,” he said to the young man who had hailed him. He was handsome, with light brown hair and a strong jaw, and dressed in a brown wool cloak that set him apart from the ragged homespun of the peasants. “How can I help you?”
The prefect interjected, “There is no accommodation anywhere else. You must shift in the tent until the docks are safe to return to.”
“I’m not from the docks,” said the man. “I’m from Ilouera.”
Cassius furrowed his brow as he tried to recall what sort of a place that was. “That’s the little town on the mouth of the Verteon, isn’t it?”
“It is, sir.”
“You should call the Commander Lord Cassius, young man,” said the prefect.
The man looked down at his hands, wound together in front of him. “I’m sorry, Lord Cassius.”
“It’s all right. What is your name?”
“Karmin Ranno,” he said. “I’m the son of the head man of Ilouera.”
“How can I help you, Karmin Ranno?” said Cassius, glancing back towards the city.
“My father asked me to come to Monsilys to beg the city guard to send some men. We are sorely frightened that our village will drown, and there is the autumn tide in two days. Already the rain has loosened the rocks and dirt of the escarpment.”
“You should evacuate,” said Cassius. “Ilouera must be less than a day’s ride. If the people come here, to the plain, and they will be looked after.”
“They won’t come,” said Karmin. “We’ve tried.”
“Will they go upriver?”
“We can’t. The river is too rough to navigate, and the road is blocked.”
Cassius put his reins in one hand and rested his other hand on his knee. “Why do you want the city guard?”
“We need to bulwark the sea wall before the autumn tide, Lord Cassius, but we have no expertise and not enough men. And we need to reinforce the houses and buildings by the river. Otherwise Ilouera will be washed out to sea, and half the townsfolk with it.”
Cassius drummed his fingers on his knee. “The river is high?”
“Bursting its banks, Lord Cassius.”
“And the autumn tide is in two days. How many live in Ilouera?”
“Around five hundred,” said Karmin. “And four thousand sheep.”
“Prefect, send a troop of men to Ilouera, with my authorisation, to assist in any way they may.”
“Thank you so much, Lord Cassius,” said Karmin.
“Commander, the Monsilys city guard does not travel beyond the plain. If you wish to send legionaries or Imperial Guards, you must ask the Empress.”
Cassius stared at the prefect. “What kind of blessed use would Imperial Guards be? What do they know about bulwarking a town against flood?”
“What does the city guard know about it?” said the prefect with an elegant shrug.
Cassius bit back a stinging retort. “Karmin Ranno, give details of where you may be contacted to the prefect. I will take Ilouera’s case to the Empress.” He nudged his horse forward and cantered away into the city, leaving the prefect behind.
At the palace, he learned that the Empress was in her private drawing room. When he got there, he found the entire family: Adrienne, Lady Kyria, Luvina and Prince Caspar playing cards, Adelais sitting near the fire tooling softly on a little lap harp and throwing glances at the oblivious Caspar, while Valentin half-listened and half-watched Felix playing on the floor with a moppet.
Valentin looked up at Cassius and said, “Brother, welcome. Where have you been?”
“Out inspecting the accommodations for the people displaced by flooding in the docks.”
“Oh,” said Valentin politely, “and did you find arrangements acceptable?”
“No, but I came here to discuss something else.” He crossed to the table and waited for the Empress to acknowledge him.
After a moment she set down her cards and said, “Yes, Uncle Cassius? It seems important.”
“It is, Empress. On my way back into the city, I was stopped by the son of the head man of Ilouera. It’s the town on the mouth of the Verteon River.”
Adrienne gave him her full attention. Cassius noticed that Caspar was also listening with interest, while Kyria seemed engrossed in examining the damascened finish of the table.
“His name was Karmin Ranno and he came to beg me to send a troop of the city guard to Ilouera. According to his account, the town is in danger from an autumn tide and a river flood at the same time. They don’t wish to abandon their homes, but they need assistance to bulwark the sea wall and the riverbank.”
“I have no objection,” said Adrienne.
“Well, the prefect does.” Cassius tried to keep his voice mild. “He claims the guard do not go beyond the plain, and suggested I seek your permission to send a troop of legionaries instead.”
“Are there no legionaries in the region already?” Adrienne raised her eyebrows.
“Apparently not,” Cassius replied. “The overland route to Ilouera has been cut—by a mudslide, I presume. And since the town is small and the Verteon isn’t used as a shipping route, I doubt they have a guard or legionaries to call on in the town.”
“Hm,” said Adrienne.
“Might I suggest something, Empress?” said Valentin from his place by the fire.
“By all means, Uncle Valentin.”
Valentin stood up and lounged over to the table, resting his hand on the back of Kyria’s chair. She gave him no acknowledgement except to lean forward, away from his hand.
“Send the legionaries, with Cassius at their head. We’ve been looking for a way to send a strong message to the common folk that gens Sylvana will look after them. Send your uncle to defend Ilouera, and the message will spread around Jovan.”
“I will go willingly,” said Cassius straightening his shoulders, and encountered an amused look from his brother.
“Yes, you’re right, Valentin. We will send enough legionaries to protect Ilouera, with Cassius in command.” She paused, nodding to herself, then fixed her attention on Valentin. “You will go as well.”
“I? What possible use could I be?” said Valentin, blinking. Luvina made an unladylike noise and got up from the table to sit down on the floor with Felix.
“Why, Uncle Cassius will do the good deeds, and you will make sure that the right person gets the credit, and the right people hear of them,” said Adrienne with a small smile.
“Empress, I should like to go as well,” said Caspar. “The parts of Toqueia around the Ertianis River often flood. I may be of some use.”
“All right,” said Adrienne. She stood and scanned over Valentin, Cassius and Caspar. “I almost wish I could come. It is very frustrating always having to stay in Monsilys.”
“Do come,” said Caspar quickly. “If Cassius’ presence makes a strong statement, just think how much more so would yours.”
Adrienne bit her lip. “I wish I could,” she said, hesitating. “What do you think, Uncle Valentin?”
Choosing his words carefully, Valentin said, “You will do what you think is best, my dear, but as you have asked for my advice, I would point out that your value to Jovan is very great, and there is some risk in travelling from Monsilys in this weather, particularly to a town threatened by disaster.”
“You’re right, of course,” said Adrienne.
“Well, I’m not even slightly valuable.” Adelais had been listening, and now came over, hooking her arm through Prince Caspar’s elbow. “I want to go. If Cassius, Valentin and Caspar are going, then I will be perfectly safe—as least as safe as anyone like me needs to be.” She stared down Adrienne, who had turned in on herself. Now the Empress met Caspar’s eyes for a fleeting moment and turned away. “Yes, Adelais, you may go if you wish.”
Cassius looked at Valentin in time to catch his wince. He pulled a sympathetic face. As they were leaving the room to go and pack, he whispered, “I’m sorry, brother: I know you were only trying to do me a favour.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Valentin replied, looking out a window as they passed at the heavy black storm clouds hanging over the city.
They rode out of Monsilys, huddled under oiled cloaks. Valentin rode on one side of Adelais, with Caspar on her other side. Cassius rode in front with Karmin Ranno.
Adelais said, “I won’t be a bother, uncle, I promise.”
“My dear,” said Valentin affably, “I can’t think of anything more bothersome than having you along on this journey.”
Cassius stifled a laugh and turned to Karmin, who said, “Thank you again, Lord Cassius. I never dreamed that my plea would bring you to Ilouera personally.”
“I serve the Empress,” said Cassius. “She felt so keenly the plight of your town that she wished to come with us to save it. Being unable, she sent us as poor substitutes.”
“No-one could think you that, sir,” said Karmin, crumpling his horse’s reins in his hands.
The last few miles of the coast road were flooded, so they paused for a rest while a troop of legionaries broke a path along the high ground. They reached Ilouera just before nightfall.
“I’m sorry that we don’t have a residence fit for you to stay in, sirs,” said Karmin Ranno, who had handled the presence of a princess of Jovan and a prince of Toqueia by hunching up his shoulders and addressing his remarks exclusively to Cassius or Valentin.
“We’ll make do,” said Valentin.
“The prince and princess will have my father’s bedroom, of course, while if sirs do not mind, they may take mine.”
Adelais looked at Caspar, who winced. “The princess should take the best bedroom,” he said. “If you two don’t mind, I will sleep in with you.”
“I’m sorry, I…” Karmin trailed off.
“Don’t worry,” said Caspar with a wry smile. “As we are not married, it isn’t done for us to share a room. Court customs are very stuffy about these things.”
“I see. Please accept my apologies, Prince Caspar.” Karmin bowed. “Dinner will be served at your convenience.”
“I should like to see the town first,” said Adelais.
“Princess, this isn’t a sightseeing visit.” Valentin rubbed his hand across his eyes. “And I for one would like to get out of these damp clothes.”
“I meant that I would like to see the town’s state,” said Adelais. “The sea wall and the river bank, in particular. With this rain and the tide it might not be possible to get a good look at them tomorrow, and we have at best an hour of daylight.”
Valentin gave every appearance of not having heard this speech. Into an awkward silence, Caspar said, “I think that’s an excellent idea. Let’s go now: no sense in changing into dry clothes if we are only going to get wet again.”
Cassius looked at Valentin, who was edging his way towards the staircase. “Brother?”
“Oh yes, go with my blessing,” said Valentin, waving his hand. “I will oversee the provisioning of the rooms and the preparation of dinner.”
As they left, Caspar said to Cassius, “Poor Valentin. No warm fires, no wine, and no courtiers to charm.”
Cassius stifled a smile. “Yes, I expect he feels his talents are wasted on Ilouera.”
The town was built around the nexus of the Verteon River and the ocean. It occupied a wide, flat floodplain; the only high ground was a small hill on which sat the head man’s house and a collection of municipal buildings.
The houses near the water were barely more than shanties, all sitting on wooden stilts that raised them perhaps a foot off the ground. The road began as cobblestones and ended as a series of wooden slats pressed into the mud. The entire area smelled of seaweed and dead fish.
“Does it flood here often?” said Caspar, scanning around him.
“Every spring and autumn tide,” said Karmin, “and sometimes when it rains. That is why people are refusing to leave. They don’t understand the danger. They know the tidal flood, and they know the groundwater flood. But they don’t understand that it is raining upriver as well, and eventually that water will reach us here.” He gestured to his feet. “When the water comes, it will be met by the tide. The ground is soaked; there will be nowhere for it to go.”
“What precautions have you already taken?” said Caspar.
“The riverside has been evacuated,” said Karmin, “but they keep coming back. And those further away refuse to leave.”
Caspar, with Cassius following, splashed through a few inches of water lying over the road and looked over into the river. It was bulwarked by a sturdy-looking stone wall, but the river was already licking the top. It would have to rise less than a foot to overflow its bounds.
“We need to evacuate,” said Cassius, “by force if necessary. I will instruct the legionaries.”
Caspar nodded. “They should go around tonight and warn the residents that they will have to leave tomorrow morning. That will give them time to prepare their belongings.”
Nodding, Cassius beckoned the legionary captain over and gave him his orders.
“We have a few hours to build up the sea wall. It won’t be enough—the water will find other ways—but it will give us more time.”
“The mortar will have no time to dry,” said Karmin. “Not in this weather.”
“It needn’t be bricked. Anything sturdy will do. A wall of stone with a wooden structure perhaps. Canvas bags full of sand to strengthen it. Anything we can find.”
“Evacuate the old, young, infirm and unwilling,” said Cassius to the captain. “Send everyone else here. We will put them to work.”
“Very good thinking,” said Caspar with a smile as the captain jogged away. Cassius’ treacherous heart stuttered, and he cleared his throat and nodded. Blessed few, he was desperate for a tumble.
He turned away and met the glowing gaze of Karmin Ranno. The head man’s son was a good looking man, a few years younger than Cassius, with a strong jaw and light green eyes which Cassius found quite fascinating.
Get a grip on yourself, he thought. All odds he is happily married, and has never looked at a man that way in his life. If they spent the night together, it would probably be because Karmin thought it was quid pro quo for Cassius’ assistance. The thought tasted sour in his mouth.
Adelais had hung back until now, but she stopped Cassius as walked past her. “I think I should go with the legionaries to notify the town,” she said. “I want to reassure the people here that even if they do leave, we will stay and do what we can.”
“That’s a very good idea, princess,” said Caspar. “An excellent idea, in fact.”
Straightening her shoulders, Adelais said, “I do want to be helpful.”
“Perhaps Valentin might be persuaded to assist?” said Caspar. “It doesn’t strike me that mud, sand and stone will suit him.”
Cassius nodded, then heard his stomach rumble. “Valentin will certainly be more amenable to the idea after dinner,” he said.
They sat down to eat in the head man’s cramped little dining room, with the head man, his wife, and his son sitting at one end of the table staring at them.
When the meal was done, Valentin and Adelais went away with the head man and a few legionaries, and Cassius tucked himself back into his oilskin cloak and tromped back down to the river. As the sun went down, the locals started to appear, rugged up and wearing sturdy boots, carrying stone, planks of wood, canvas bags and anything else they could scavenge.
They were put to work alongside Caspar and Cassius, and all through the night they removed furniture from the houses and took it to high ground, raised the wall, and reinforced the pylons on which the lowest-lying houses sat.
When the sun touched his shovel, Cassius stuck it in the mud and looked up. The dawn had broken on eerie quiet and a clear blue sky. The storm had blown itself out in the night. When he thought back, Cassius realised it had stopped raining sometime in the dark early hours of the morning, but Cassius had been so deep in mud and misery, he had scarcely noticed.
“It’s going to be a beautiful day,” said Caspar. He didn’t sound happy.
“The town is safe, then?” said one of the residents.
“All this effort for nothing?” said another, laying down his hammer and cracking his neck.
“No,” said Caspar. He bit his lip and looked inland. “The damage has been done. The water that fell upstream yesterday is still coming for us, and the tide is still coming in.” He sighed, rolling his shoulders. “At least it won’t get any worse than it is already.”
The wall was now two feet higher than it had been. Caspar turned to Cassius. “What time is the autumn tide due?”
“Just before dusk,” said Karmin, whose hair was sticking up and caked with mud.
“Everyone, go and get some rest,” said Cassius. “We will leave a legionary on guard so we know when the river threatens the wall. Tonight will be a long night.”
He stumbled back to the head man’s house and found Valentin, looking fresh as a daisy, waiting for him with breakfast.
“You look exhausted, brother,” he said.
Cassius slumped down at the table and picked up the bread Valentin pushed towards him. They were alone in the room; Caspar was outside talking to the legionary captain.
“How goes it?” said Valentin.
“We’ve done all we can for now,” said Cassius. “The water will rise tonight. It’s lucky we brought Caspar. He knew exactly what to do.”
“Yes, I understand some parts of Toqueia are very prone to flooding.”
“Karmin, too. He worked alongside us without a complaint.”
“I should think so,” said Valentin, pushing his hair over his shoulder and leaning on his elbows. “It’s his town. Besides, he’s enamoured of you.”
Cassius paused in his eating. “Don’t be absurd. If anything, he’s awestruck; nothing unusual in that, unfortunately.”
Waving this away, Valentin said, “Well, for whatever reason, I hope you’ll consider taking advantage of it when all this is done.”
“No I won’t,” said Cassius.
“But you haven’t bedded anyone since Llewellyn,” said Valentin, opening his eyes wide. “Aren’t you going mad?”
Going from ravenous to a little ill, Cassius pushed aside his plate. “How did you know Llewellyn and I had…”
“Consummated your love?” Valentin’s voice was dry. “I hoped, but I didn’t want to plague you about it.”
“I thought it might have been your eerie omniscience again,” said Cassius.
“Yes, I am quite perceptive. And I understand you very well, Cassius. Take up with Karmin.”
“You know my distaste for abusing my rank,” said Cassius, as Caspar stuck his head in. “I have to go and get some sleep. Caspar, would you like to finish this?”
As Cassius stomped out of the room, Valentin called after him, “I do know your penchant for sabotaging yourself.”
After a few uncomfortable hours of sleep impaired by the light through the threadbare curtains and the thoughts spinning around in his head, Cassius rose, splashed some water on his face and hands, and went downstairs.
It was a little after two in the afternoon. Cassius found Caspar and a horde of others down by the water, testing for gaps and weaknesses in the makeshift wall. The sun was bright overhead, and it was warm for the time of year. He knew Caspar was watching the flood marker, a wooden board with finger-span increments painted on it. Every hour or so, another white line vanished beneath the murky brown water.
Then the tide started to come in, the clear green sea water pushing back against the river. The water rose quickly then; breaking the bounds of the brick-and-mortar wall, and testing the reinforcements installed in the last few hours.
The light started to fade and Cassius shouted for torches, as many as could be found. Then they waited. Occasionally someone darted forwards to plug a hole or add more structure.
Sometime after dark, Cassius looked down and tapped his toe, splashing in the small puddle around his feet. He beckoned Caspar over with a torch. “Look.”
Caspar crouched by Cassius’ feet and said, “It’s probably normal. But…” He frowned. “It’s flowing towards the sea.” He stood and pointed at Karmin, who was running towards them. “I think I know what he’s coming to tell us.”
“The river is breaking around the wall on the western edge of the town.” Karmin leaned his elbows on his knees and puffed.
“How bad is it?” said Caspar.
“Rather bad,” said Karmin.
“Take whatever you need to shore it up.”
“I’ll—” Cassius hesitated. “I’ll come and help.”
Karmin gave him a shiningly grateful look.
The western edge of the town was bearing the brunt of the river’s force, and for the next few hours Cassius’ every thought was of brick, wood and clay. Then the work was done, and they lapsed into exhausted, waiting stillness.
Townsfolk moved between them with trays of food and mulled ale. Karmin came over, hovered for a moment, and sat down beside him. The water was licking the top of the wall. Cassius watched a splash make its way down through stone, wood and canvas to join a muddy puddle.
“How much more, do you think?” said Karmin.
“I don’t know; Caspar’s the expert,” said Cassius. “If the water rose enough that it overflowed the wall… what would that do to Ilouera? What would be safe?”
“If the town was under six feet of water?” said Karmin. “Everything except the buildings on the hill and some outlying homesteads would be flooded. But having a slow-rising flood is still better than the wall of water we faced; all the houses in the flood path have been emptied. I am so glad I found you, Lord Cassius. No matter what happens, you have saved Ilouera.”
Cassius ducked his head. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “It’s Prince Caspar you should be thanking, and the others.”
“You brought them here,” said Karmin.
Cassius thought back to Valentin’s words. Carefully, giving him time to flinch away, he reached out and put his hand on Karmin’s thigh. Karmin looked down at it, then up at Cassius, wide-eyed.
“I’m sorry,” said Cassius, letting his hand drop away.
“No, don’t… I mean…” Karmin took Cassius’ hand and placed it back on his leg.
Cassius smiled. “When we have saved your town, then.”
“Thank you Lord Cassius.”
Cassius sat in the sodden grass of the hill, looking down over the area where the houses started to vanish under the sparkling brown rise of the water. In the end, the water had broken over the top of the wall, but only in a trickle that rose to floorboard-height in the nearest shanties.
Once they could no longer wade through to the wall, Caspar had said they might as well get out of the way and leave it to the legionaries, who had a job to do keeping the locals away from the flooded area.
The mood remained eerily quiet, as it had been ever since the storm blew away. Beside Cassius sat Valentin and Caspar, hands resting against their knees, eyes fixed on the wall like Cassius’. The wall was a long, misshapen line in the distance, with the river pushing and breaking against its very top.
“If we’d built the wall a little higher…” said Cassius.
“We couldn’t have,” said Caspar. “We hadn’t enough materials; we would have stretched it too thin, and all odds it would have come down entirely and flooded the whole town.”
“As it is,” Valentin’s voice was smooth and cool, “you used the time not spent on the wall clearing those… houses down there. Wood will dry, and all their valuables are safe on high ground.”
Wordlessly, Cassius nodded.
A day later, the river retreated once again into its confines. The Ilouerans rushed back into their houses, and began the clean-up. The wall was slowly being cannibalised into its component parts, and a steady stream of people were climbing up to the head man’s house to offer their thanks.
When Cassius, Valentin, Caspar and Adelais conferred, they decided there was little more they could do, and that they should return to Monsilys the next morning. They would leave half the legionaries in Ilouera to help with dismantling the flood wall and moving people back into their houses.
When they told the head man of the decision, Cassius’ eyes flashed to Karmin, and he found Karmin was looking back at him. Cassius raised his eyebrows, and Karmin blushed and an involuntary smile quirked into the corner of his mouth.
Right then, thought Cassius. He glanced to the right and found a smirk plastered on Valentin’s face.
Late that night, when everyone had sought their beds, Cassius slipped down to the kitchen, where Karmin slept on a pallet. Karmin sat up when the door opened. He didn’t say anything, just watched Cassius cross the room and kneel beside the bed.
In the light of two candles, Cassius studied the line of Karmin’s cheek and jaw, first with his eyes, then with his hand. He hesitated, and Karmin said, “What is it?”
“You’re sure?” said Cassius.
Karmin nodded and crossed his hands in front of him to pull off his shirt. He was naked underneath, and, as Cassius discovered, stirring. Cassius felt his breath hitch. He reached out and wrapped his hand around Karmin’s cock, stroking it to life. Karmin’s head fell back and he hung on his shoulders, gasping.
“Please, sir,” said Karmin. Cassius stood up, shedding his nightshirt. He waited for a moment, letting Karmin run his eyes over his body with its battle scars, then took himself in hand. His eyes sank closed as he thrust into the constriction of his fist, so he felt, rather than saw, Karmin sit up and lay his hand on Cassius’. When Cassius opened his eyes, there was a question in Karmin’s that made every bone in Cassius’ body ache with lust. In answer, he let his hand drop, and Karmin eagerly replaced it with his mouth.
“Oh—blessed few,” Cassius mumbled, scrabbling behind him for something to hold himself up. He found the fireplace and clung to it, eyes rolling back in his head, and his entire being focused on the building sensations in his crotch.
After a while, he pushed on Karmin’s shoulder, guiding him to lie back against the pillows. Karmin reached around and produced a pot of some yellowish-white, opaque substance. Cassius took it and sniffed: it smelled like wool. Karmin lay above the covers, leg crooked, cock curled against his thigh. It was pretty evident what Karmin intended the substance to be used for, but Cassius reflected with amusement that this was a somewhat more homely coital aid than he was used to.
Nonetheless, it served its purpose, and having worked Karmin open, Cassius slid inside him, slowly, until their hips brushed. They moved together, stifling the unavoidable sounds of pleasure, until both were satisfied.
Valentin was already standing by his horse when Cassius emerged the next morning. “Good morning, brother,” he said, gathering the reins in one hand.
Cassius slung the saddlebags over his horse and nodded in Valentin’s direction.
“I gather you found somewhere else to sleep last night.”
“You are correct,” said Cassius austerely, but he couldn’t help flicking Valentin a conspiratorial smile over his shoulder.
Valentin swung onto his horse. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Caspar and Adelais emerged from the building. “Glad to hear what? Good morning, Cassius, where were you last night?”
“He was otherwise engaged,” said Valentin, looking over his horse’s ears.
“Ah.” Caspar nodded. “Karmin?”
Valentin tilted his chin to where the head man and his family had emerged to see them off. Cassius gave his horse’s reins to a legionary and stepped forward to receive their thanks, a freshly-slaughtered lamb, and a basket of vegetables.
Feeling rather than seeing Valentin’s smirk, Cassius kept his farewells brief, and contented himself with clasping Karmin’s forearm slightly longer than necessary. Karmin nodded and said, “You are always welcome in Ilouera, Lord Cassius, and we will tell everyone that you saved our village.”
“Tell them it was the Empress’ generosity that sent us here,” said Cassius.
Karmin nodded. Cassius moved on to thank and farewell the head man, then returned to his horse and mounted. As they rode out, Adelais said, “So Uncle Cassius, you tumbled the head man’s son?”
“Princess,” said Cassius, feeling his cheeks heat up.
“Well? I’m not a baby.”
“Blessed few, I can’t wait to get back to Monsilys,” said Valentin. “I am going to soak in the baths for a day.”
Cassius and Caspar exchanged an amused look. Adelais settled down into her saddle and glared straight ahead. Caspar brought his horse alongside hers and said, “You didn’t act like a baby at Ilouera, Adelais. You acted like a princess.”
“I wasn’t much use,” said Adelais. “You wouldn’t let me come down to the river.”
Valentin ran a hand over his hair. “You’re the heir to the throne of Jovan.”
“Well, what was your excuse?” Adelais fired back.
“I detest being dirty,” said Valentin with unimpaired calm.