Protected: Knight’s Choice – the original draft

Knight's Choice, Novel

This was initially posted serially on Patreon, starting in 2017. Lots has changed since this draft has been written, but I’m keeping it here for the nostalgia purposes of my long time patrons. I do not recommend new readers read this draft – it is all very out of date!

Knight’s Choice

The Original Draft

“Your father is a hero,” the old man had insisted to Esra, wrinkled hands clutching the boy’s with a broken sort of desperation. Esra had smiled, and nodded as his fingers were squeezed gratefully.

It was not the first time the youth had heard the sentiment, even if he didn’t completely understand it.

At his reaction, the old man’s weathered face broke into a beaming smile. Esra’s hands were released, and the elder boarded the ship that would take him, and the other refugees, safely from Balor’s realm of Fomoria to the Continent.

For his whole life, Esra had watched people come and go from their village. They came from the mainland, and left, after a time, via his father’s boats.

“He’s a hero because he helps people,” Kian had told him. Kian was a few years older than him, and vastly worldly to Esra’s young eyes, knowing an answer to every question Esra had put to him. He was tall and russet-haired, with a sly smile and cheery disposition. They sat together on a grassy outlook that let the boys see the village sprawl beneath them, small and remote against the blue-grey sea.

Esra leant his head on Kian’s shoulder. Because they were alone, the older boy wouldn’t shrug him off. “What do they need help from?”

“Well, they need to escape of course.” Kian’s cheery eyes glinted. “Most people on Fomoria are hoodwinked, Esra. They worship a giant seabeast as their god. He has complete control over them and their way of life, from lord to slave. And if you reject him…”

Esra yelped as Kian tackled him to the grass, pinning his wrists to the ground and getting right up in his face.

“He kills you!” The boy bared his teeth.

“Kian!” Esra wailed, wriggling. Being restrained always set his heart thudding. “Get off me!”

Kian did, eventually, but not without making Esra beg.

Folk came from all over in secret – runaways, the outcast, the unwanted – to seek passage on their ships for what was said to be a better life on the Continent. Some came from the cities, their forearms littered with identifying red tattoos, or brands. Others had been chased from their rural villages, or had escaped some unknown prejudice. The slaves bore many scars from vicious beatings. They carried little, and were always starving and exhausted from travel.

Esra’s gentle heart went out to them, always. He did not fully understand what they were fleeing from, but it must have been horrible if it made them come to this.

They’d even transported fae folk a few times, those frighteningly beautiful creatures that had taken Esra’s breath away.

“Not many men have laid eyes on a fae,” his father had told him. They lived in secret, in the forests and mountains, always moving, always avoiding the God King’s reach. Centuries back, they’d ruled these lands, Kian had said.

Esra, then ten years old, had been gawping at the ethereal, androgynous things around the fireplace with a child-like wonder, unable to take his eyes off them; their long graceful ears, colorful clothing, and delicately pointed teeth.

“There are many on Fomoria who are part fae, from back when man and fae mixed more closely,” his father continued. Esra, who was always shocked whenever his father spoke more than two sentences to him, listened raptly. “Your mother… she had a bit of fae blood. Gave her the prettiest pointed ears.” He sounded wistful. “It doesn’t show on you. For the best, she said. For the best…”

He’d smiled sadly, eyes downcast. Then, he was serious.

“They are our allies against the tyrant, Esra. Always be a friend to the fae.”

“Yes father,” Esra had promised sincerely, without fully knowing what it meant.

Esra had always nursed a soft spot for the fae.

Growing up, no-one had ever called him handsome, or beautiful. There were no mirrors in the village, so he came of age with no real idea of what his face looked like. His nose felt sloping, narrow. His mouth was small, and his lips thin. From catching his distorted reflection in rivers and polished metal, his eyes stood out like huge dark circles in his narrow face.

It must be something in they way they were set, or shaped, but it caused well-meaning people to ask him if he was sad. But the fae all, unfailingly, called them soulful eyes, a beautiful gift from Danu.

Esra didn’t know anything about Danu, and had been too nervous to ask Kian, who, once he had moved from the children’s sleeping hut to the men’s, decided that Esra’s company was a bother. But it was nice, Esra thought, to have a feature that could be called beautiful.

By the time he’d come of age, Esra had grown into a slender, long-limbed youth, more gracile than gawky, thankfully, now that he’d finished his growth spurt. He wore his hair, long and inky black, tied neatly back.

His father had congratulated him, and in a roundabout way told him that it would soon be time to instruct Esra more completely in the work that he did around the village. So that Esra could follow in what his father did, when he passed. So that Esra could become the hope, the new hero of many.

Esra had felt a bit of fear at that, at so much responsibility. He much preferred following orders, felt safe when he was being told what to do. But his father wanted him to smile and be excited, and so he had.

He moved from the children’s quarters to the men’s and now found it difficult to sleep in these new, larger quarters, surrounded by people who, while polite, kept their distance while they tried to gauge his character as a man.

They no doubt found him wanting.

As much as Esra tried to hide it, he knew he wasn’t like the others. He was gentler, more easily hurt, his slender frame not strong enough for a whole day of manual labour. And he’d had little instruction as a sailor, being a weak swimmer. Qualities that were forgivable in a child were not as kindly dealt with upon reaching adulthood, when one was expected to be useful.

Esra learned quickly that he wasn’t allowed to cry anymore.

He missed Kian, who as a newly married man spent most of his nights with his wife, a squint-eyed girl who had left her Continent-bound family to promise herself to him. Kian had laughed at the romance of it, and enjoyed the jealousy that his young wife had provoked amongst the mostly older male populace of the village. He seemed harsher now, something taunting in his gaze.

Esra did not feel the same sort of jealousy that the other men did, another mark of his difference. Instead, he missed the cheery-eyed boy who shared his bed as a child, who wrapped him in his arms when he had a hard time falling asleep, who answered all of his innocent questions, who made him laugh when he was feeling sad.

Kian was every inch the man now, and gave Esra none of the tendernesses he’d been used to. He kept his distance, actually, for reasons Esra didn’t understand. Esra felt a sharp tang of betrayal from Kian’s actions, but he knew better than to ask why.

What was allowed for children, was not for men.

Sunlight peeked over the edge of the horizon, its warm rays hitting the small village where it nestled between forest wilderness and the vastness of the ocean. At dawn, the light was bright enough to work by without wasting precious candles, and thus, the village stirred to life.

Inside the men’s communal sleeping hut, Esra’s eyes blinked open at the muted sounds of those around him, rising, sighing, dressing, getting ready for the day’s work. His bed creaked gently as he sat forward, spine rounding, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. His dark hair, now long enough to brush his mid-back, slipped forward over his narrow shoulders.

On the floor beside him were piled sails the workers had left for him, frayed and damaged due to their difficult trips from their island of Fomoria to the Continent. Fixing them would be his work for the day. He was the best at it, all agreed, thanks to his fastidious nature.

Esra dressed himself in his usual neat manner and tied his hair up and out of the way, his movements automatic and unthinking. He glanced at the workload by his feet, brow creasing at how much he had to do, and bent down. With a huff, he hefted the heavy linen pile over his back.

The lonely blue-grey expanse of the sea met him as he padded outside the sleeping hut. There was something about the vast body of water that had Esra feeling tiny, insignificant. His father’s boats were pulled up on the shore, ready for their next voyages to the Continent. All they needed were good sails.

The refugees were getting restless, but his father didn’t like to send too many ships too often. Such a thing could draw unwanted attention.

With the weight of the sails bearing on his slim back, he turned away from the shoreline and started up the dirt path to the grassy outlook just outside of the village. Here, the wind gently brushed over his sun-kissed skin, and the morning granted him plenty of light. Seating himself on the soft grasses, he laid out the sails and set about darning the holes.

Esra found a rare inner peace when he could narrow his attention down to focus on a single task.

Growing up, the other kids had called him witch-fingers because of his slender hands, with unusually delicate narrow fingers that nearly tapered to points at the nail bed. Now, they were what made him useful. Give it to clever-hands, the sailors would say when something was broken, or damaged. He can fix anything.

A faint smile blossomed on Esra’s face, and he neatly tied off his darning, folding the sail aside. One down. He reached for the next.

Below him, he could see the village stir to life as he worked. There were ships to maintain, food to gather, things to be made and mended. He saw his father, tall and stern, directing the sailors who were loading up the ships for the crossing to the Continent with food and clothing. His authority was never questioned.

Esra felt again, that gnawing fear of responsibility. Could he ever be like that? Esra still struggled with asking people to please move when they were blocking his path…

Lost in thought, Esra’s grip slipped, and he accidentally pierced the side of his index finger with the darning needle. He hissed in annoyance as red blossomed over his skin, and sucked his finger into his mouth before checking the minor wound.

It didn’t go too deep, he mused, intent on examining it further, when movement from the lands behind the village caught his eye.

There were dots on the horizon, people coming. Esra put down his materials for a closer look as the crowd drew closer. They were men, on horseback, he realised. A rather large number of them…

They weren’t desperate refugees.

Esra’s heart froze in his chest when he saw steel armor glinting in the morning light.

Perhaps they should have prepared for this. Perhaps they had tarried too long at this location. It didn’t matter now. Balor had found them, and he had sent his soldiers.

Fifty men of Balor’s Fist, the God King’s personal army, swept through their defenceless village like a storm.

Those who tried to fight back were cut down, easily outclassed by the soldiers who trained every day and killed for a living. Esra, with nowhere to run from the grassy outlook, fell to his knees and surrendered himself, shaking as he softly pleaded for mercy from the flint-eyed men who cornered him.

His terror seemed to amuse them, he realised with a slow-dawning horror. But while they seemed to enjoy threatening it, they didn’t kill him.

The boats used to transport non-believers and other traitors of Fomoria were dragged ashore and torn apart for kindling massive bonfires. The smoke that billowed up from the flames sent a whooping cry of victory amongst the soldiers.

There had been three fae folk with them when Balor’s Fist descended, hoping to join one of the small communities of their kind on the Continent. They were dead now, their slender bodies impaled on the stakes surrounding the village, along with others who had tried to escape Balor’s justice, those deemed criminals and treasonous. Any villagers who fought to defend them lay dead on the ground, their blood mixing with the dirt.

Esra was escorted, an armored hand clenched around his upper arm, back to the center of a village that was quickly becoming foreign to him.

Balor’s soldiers paced lazily around the land Esra had grown up on, hungry for trouble. Their blood was still up, Esra realised, shivering. They were looking for an outlet. He carefully avoided eye-contact, not wanting any more attention on him than he’d already experienced.

But the ground wasn’t a safe place either. Esra had hesitated, but he was pushed to step over the littered corpses, and he desperately averted his eyes, too afraid of seeing a face he recognised. He’d vomit. He’d pass out. Then they’d kill him too, for being a terrified, useless nuisance.

He was breathing too heavily, he knew. He looked like prey.

The soldier led him to a small group of people who knelt fearfully on the ground, others like him who had been deemed harmless. Mostly women and children.

Another confirmation that Esra wasn’t like other men. Even strangers saw it.

“Stay,” growled the soldier, and shoved him down to join them. Esra fell to his knees. He kept his eyes downcast, and tried not to cry.

All sounds seemed muted to him, his vision greyed. As a child, he’d dared climb a tall pine, egged on by Kian. A deceptive branch had snapped under his weight, and he’d dropped to hit his head, hard, on the dirt below. The disorientation, the paralysing animal fear… all of it was the same. A fear of dying that numbed him to most else.

Time passed, he did not know how much. He felt a gentle pressure on his shoulder from a fellow harmless prisoner.

“Esra…” whispered Hester, the barkeep’s wife. She was crouched next to him, her creased face white with fear, concern. “Did they hurt you?”

Esra shook his head, thought carefully. He wet his lips, and very quietly asked, “My father..?”

Their hero.

Hester’s too-long pause before answering told Esra everything. “They… took him, to the blacksmith’s hut.”

Esra looked over at the smithy. The chimney was smoking.

“Their leader is using it for interrogations.” Hester wrapped her thin arms around herself. “Balor’s Fist are being led by a Knight of the Order–” she was abruptly cut off, her head whipped wildly to the side as she was backhanded by a soldier.

“No talking!” the man barked, spit flying.

Cowed, the group fell into complete silence. The soldier’s eyes dragged over them, his hand pointedly resting on the hilt of his sword. They all dipped their heads, and waited. After a few breathless seconds, the man was satisfied with their submission and resumed his patrol.

Esra exhaled shakily, and wiped his eyes.

A Knight, he thought, mind racing. One of twenty who made up the Order of Balor, direct agents of the God King himself. The seabeast’s many eyes, his father had said.

Though the man had never met one. Few had.

Esra had heard so many stories that it was hard to separate fact from fiction.

Everyone who passed through the village had a different story of the Order of Balor, and all, of course, swore to the veracity of their tale. Esra had heard tales of black knights clad in magic armor that drank blood to subsist, who were immortal, unkillable (to which Esra had thought, then why wear the armor?). He’d heard that they could see in the dark, hear every sound from a mile around, and read your mind, your intentions. They looked for the guilty. They enforced Balor’s justice. They were his eyes and ears, his most loyal servants.

And now, a Knight of the Order was questioning his father. His proud, stern, father. A man who, in Balor’s view, was nothing more than a traitorous, treasonous, non-believer.

And Esra, weak and easily subdued, could do nothing but listen as screams started to come from what used to be the smithy.

The soldiers had clamped irons around their ankles and set them to work raiding their own supplies to feed their invaders. The chain between Esra’s feet was not so short as to prevent movement, but there was no running away.

“We’ll be taken to the nearest market city and sold,” said a young woman in a matter-of-fact voice.

Esra knew her, vaguely, as one of the runaway slaves. Her fear was well hidden, if not for the slight tremor of her limbs as she grabbed supplies.

“I’ve already a slave mark, so I’ll be getting a runaway brand. I’m going to be sold for a pittance to a monster. I know it already.”

Outside, the soldiers sat around the bonfires of the broken ships and drank all the barkeep’s ale, eyeing up their prisoners with increasingly lecherous scrutiny. Some of the bolder ones had already snuck off with their own helpless captive for muffled thudding cruelty behind trees and bushes.

Alongside the crackle of the bonfires and the lazy banter of the soldiers, an ebb and flow of wails and screams from what used to be the smithy made up the ambient background noise of the village. When the sounds of torture abruptly cut off, Esra’s gaze snapped up.

That’s when he saw him.

Two soldiers came out down the steps first, splatters of blood on their plate armor, and stood to either side of the door. And then, moving with a sort of beast-like grace, descended a man that towered at least a head over anyone, his strength and authority obvious in the very line of his body.

The inhumanly tall knight was clad neck to toe in fearsome darkened steel, with a heavy cloak that draped from his broad shoulders to the ground. Instead of a sword, he carried a black scythe across his back, a weapon, and a mark of his office. A helm-like mask covered his eyes, followed the cut line of his cheekbones, and ended in a sharp point over his stern mouth, leaving very little of his expression to read. His face was clean-shaven, his strong, perfect jawline set fierce.

Without pausing, the black knight stalked to the cleared out meeting hall. Even the rowdiest soldiers fell silent at his imposing appearance, moving out of his way in a respectful wake.

He followed closely by a more finely armored soldier, who seemed to be the captain, and the other two soldiers who had also exited the smithy.

These two were looking around at the shambling survivors with a particular intent. One of them paused as his eyes alighted on Esra. He grabbed the trembling youth by the wrist.

“With me,” he ordered, and all but dragged Esra with them.

The soldier swung the door to the meeting hall open, and ushered Esra in.

“Something pretty, Sir Knight,” he drawled, holding Esra’s arm aloft like he was displaying him, “to serve us wine while we talk.”

A dark head turned to them. The tall knight, in his gleaming black armor, struck Esra as an incongruous figure in the humble village meeting hall, eating up the dim space around him with his presence alone. Orange light from the crackling fire glinted off the darkened steel, and Esra thought he looked like some sort of mythical salamander, from the stories Kian used to tell him. A creature formed from flame.

“If you must.” Esra couldn’t tell if the knight was looking at him or not, behind that mask. He had a low, rumbling voice, with the crisp accent of city folk. “Remove the irons so I don’t have to hear him rattle.”

The tavern had been thoroughly picked through by the evening, and a barrel of the better red wine that the barkeep had kept in storage had been sequestered by the senior officers for themselves.

Esra served it to to his captors where they sat at his father’s long meeting table, talking in less serious tones of his village, its people, and many declarations of how Balor would be pleased with the work they had done in subduing the traitors. The talk set his teeth on edge, not from insult, but from fear. That the reason they talked freely in front of him because he wouldn’t be leaving alive.

One can spill all sorts of secrets before a dead man.

He was curious, how could he not be? But he feared knowing too much. When it was his turn to be taken to the smithy for the knight’s questioning, he wanted to be able to say, with all his desperate honesty, that he knew nothing, of anything. To be seen as harmless, helpless. Not worth killing.

But he couldn’t close his ears, like he couldn’t close his eyes. Not if he wanted to please them.

Esra made himself perfectly, silently, servile. The moment a glass started to look more empty than full, he was at the drinker’s elbow to pour them more. When he felt the temperature of the room start to drop, he quietly went to stoke the fire back to life, or throw in more wood. Otherwise he kept to the corner of the room, as out of the way as he could manage.

He imagined his father would be ashamed.

The soldiers looked at him, or rather, the shape of him, in a sneaky way, like they knew they shouldn’t be. They were most bold when he was right beside them, although they never grabbed him, or even said anything. There were only looks that were more than looks, like the men weren’t really looking at Esra as he was at all, rather, picturing him elsewhere, in other circumstances.

The knight lounged in his seat with the lazy mastery of a predator, drinking slowly. He talked little, but was always deferred to, a silent hush falling whenever he spoke, lots of nodding from his captive audience. They were afraid of him too, Esra noticed, this gleaming knight with a God’s authority. He tried to keep his hands steady when he poured the creature wine, unable to keep his eyes from that pale, perfect jaw, or the way his ash brown hair moved as he tilted his head, the smoky strands shining in the firelight.

The knight seemed to pause. He was looking at Esra. Even behind the mask, Esra was sure of it, feeling it prickle his skin.

“I think you might need to refill the jug,” sneered the captain, breaking his reverie.

Esra flushed red as he realised his mistake. He’d poured the last few drops from the wine carafe, and then had stood there like an idiot, too distracted to realise why the glass wasn’t full yet. No wonder the knight was staring.

“I’m… so sorry…” he breathed, cringing backwards. The soldiers laughed, and Esra scuttled away to get more wine.

On his return, they were planning the guard shifts for that night, and what their duties would be for the next few days. He tried not to listen too closely as he carefully refilled the knight’s cup, and then the others being waggled in his direction.

Soldiers were to be sent out to hunt down refugees already on their way to the village, perhaps ignorant of its ruin. Others would be sent further still, to the cities and towns where treasonous non-believers whispered messages into desperate ears of an escape, from all of this, across the ocean.

His father must have given up his contacts, Esra realised, a terrible sort of sick fear growing in him. A whole network of resistance, brought down in a day. What had the knight done to break a man like his father?

It was dark outside now, colder too. Esra threw more wood into the fire. He could see the smouldering bonfires from out the window, and hoped that the plumes of smoke had alerted any refugees of the danger, sent them into hiding.

“… And we could contact the port authorities along the Continent,” one of the soldiers was suggesting. “Track down those who tried to escape Balor’s justice, bring back the slaves to their owners…”

“They’d want an equal exchange, or a favor,” the knight interjected tersely. “Balor has no interest in getting in debt to the petty kings of the Continent, no matter how slight. Especially in order to retrieve the dregs of society.” He waved a dismissive hand. “No, once they have left this land, they are out of our jurisdiction. And that, men, is a failure we must not allow ourselves to repeat.”

Evening turned to night, and the soldiers were dismissed. The knight was writing on a scroll of parchment, the pointed symbols indecipherable to Esra’s eyes.

The captain of Balor’s Fist rose, as did his men. “Any other instructions, sir?”

“That will be all for now.”

“We’ll leave you to it then, Sir Knight,” said the captain respectfully, and gestured for his men to follow him. Esra felt their eyes on him and almost reflexively pressed himself against the wall he stood by, head lowered, shoulders rounded, trying to make himself as small as possible.

It was no use. A hand closed around his wrist, the same soldier who had dragged him in here now tugged him close. A cruel smile flickered at the edges of his lips. Esra didn’t dare look any higher, too afraid of what he’d see. He closed his eyes instead, a surge of hot fear rushing through him.

He wasn’t stupid. He knew what the man wanted from him. Another reason why he hadn’t been slaughtered in the invasion, perhaps. He was easy enough to bully, and some of them liked the look of him. It had only been a matter of time, really, before it was his turn to be taken somewhere dark and private and have a soldier grind him into the dirt.

Or two, three. Or more.

“Leave the boy,” the knight had said in that imperious tone, not even looking up from his parchment.

They left him alone. The door shut behind the men of Balor’s Fist with finality.

The knight continued scribing black ink onto the parchment, seemingly ignoring him, while taking up all of Esra’s attention. There was nothing for Esra do, so he just stood there, stupidly grateful, feeling like he should… do something. Say something.

His mouth was dry. “T-thank you, Sir Knight,” he stammered weakly.

That got him attention, the full weight of it. The knight stopped, lowered his quill very slowly, and stared quite directly at Esra for a long moment. Esra could feel the pierce of it, even behind the mask, and immediately regretted opening his fool’s mouth.

“Whatever for?” the knight inquired, and tilted his magnificent head.

Esra gestured weakly at the door. “For not letting him…”

He trailed off when the knight scoffed. The parchment was pushed to the side, and the knight’s armor clinked ominously as he relaxed his powerful figure back into his chair, beckoning Esra closer with a wave of his elegant hand.

Esra took a few tremulous steps.

“Closer,” the knight ordered. “Into the light, boy. Want a look at you.”

Esra obeyed, wishing he could see the man’s eyes. The sharp lines of the mask gleamed orange in the firelight, gave it the illusion of shifting scales. A dragon’s face.


Esra stepped in, unsure where to look. The knight extended his hand expectantly, palm gracefully upturned, and waited, until the youth realised what he wanted and placed a trembling slender hand over the dark leather of his gloves. He’d barely touched the surface with his fingertips when warm leather and blackened steel closed over him with easy strength. He was tugged closer, just a little bit.

The knight just looked at him for a while, before he asked: “What’s your name?”


“Ah.” A handsome smile twitched under the point of that mask.

He knows who I am, Esra realised. He has heard that name before.

“So, you are his son,” the knight pondered, almost to himself. He moved Esra’s hand away from his body, looked him up and down, like he was measuring him. “You look nothing alike, except for the coloring, maybe.”

That much was true. Esra had more of his mother in him, in looks and temperament. Or so he’d heard. He’d no memory of her.

“Your father had a great fear of me knowing of you,” the knight continued. “Suppose he thinks you a delicate thing. Once Captain Pierce found out about you, he spoke of bringing you in to torment your father. It was that threat against you that broke him in the end.”

He said it so matter-of-fact, that breaking a man as strong-willed and proud as his father was just another day’s work for him. What had they done to him? Esra swayed a little where he stood, anchored only by that hand, the room seeming to spin.

The knight was still appraising him, gloved thumb brushing over Esra’s thin fingers thoughtfully. Esra had the sensation of a great strength, gently applied.

“You do not look much of a sailor.”

Esra flushed at this on-sight recognition of his failings.

It was an accurate enough assumption. Esra had never been able to keep up with the sailors, nor was he a strong swimmer. He’d tried his whole life, to be strong, but was hindered by the fact that his throat seemed to close up whenever he exerted himself too much, leaving him helpless and wheezing as he struggled to breathe. No healer he’d met had been able to help. He’d be more hindrance than help at sea, all had decided.

“More of a scholarly type, then?” the knight guessed. “Can you read? Write?”

Esra shook his head. He knew very few people who were literate.

The knight smiled gently at him. “Tell me then, what can you do?”

“I mend things, Sir Knight,” Esra said, his mouth dry with fear. “I… darn the sails of my father’s ships so they can…”

“So your father can ferry traitors to the enemy,” the knight interrupted, “and escape Balor’s justice.”

Esra hung his head, terrified. “Are you…” dread lodged in his throat, and he squeezed his eyes shut. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Haven’t decided yet.” He released Esra’s hand, and pulled his parchment close again. “Pour me more of that wine, then get me some dinner.”

Shaking, Esra obeyed.

He’d been out of the meeting hall for but a few moments when he was grabbed by the arm and pulled against an armored chest. He realised, quite belatedly, that all of his fellow harmless prisoners were dead, or otherwise occupied and out-of-sight. There would be no aid, Esra thought, as fear took over him. The only people moving around the village grounds were the men of Balor’s Fist.

The soldier’s hand drunkenly mapped the shape of Esra’s trim waist, breath heavy with ale. “What big eyes you have,” he slurred, and Esra shrank back.

“Please,” he begged, “I… have to get food for the knight. He’ll be waiting for my return…”

“Well, I’m hungry too,” muttered the soldier, grinning as his eyes licked over Esra’s struggling figure. “In more than one way…”

Esra tried to pull away, but the man’s grip had a careless drunken strength. He thought his arm would snap.

Then, there was a thud, and the man wailed.

“You fucking drunk!” snarled an authoritative voice. “What are you doing?” Esra recognised him from the meeting hall.

“Captain Pierce!” moaned the soldier. He dropped Esra as if he’d been burnt, and rubbed his ear where he’d been hit.

“Lay your hands on him if you want Balor’s knight to slice them off, you fucking moron,” Captain Pierce hissed. He jerked his head to the side. “Now, get out of here.”

The soldier scarpered. Esra rubbed his upper arm absently, to soothe the throbbing muscle. He cowered a bit, unsure what was expected of him. Captain Pierce glared just as fiercely at Esra.

“They’ve stew at the bonfire,” he said shortly, and waited for Esra to go.

“For the knight?” the young soldier there had asked, lazily stirring the cauldron over the fire. Esra nodded, and got an extra helping of meat. He carried it carefully, not wanting to burn his hands. He used his back to swing open the door to the meeting house.

The knight set aside his writings as Esra walked in. “Took your time.”

“Sorry, sir,” murmured Esra apologetically, and served the knight his dinner where he sat at the head of the table. He felt the heavy gaze on him, watching him.

“The soldiers gave you trouble.”

It wasn’t a question. Esra just bowed his head.

The knight sighed. “Hungry?”

“Not really.”

“Sit with me anyway.” The knight gestured at the seat to his right, and when Esra nervously obeyed, pushed one the abandoned cups over to him, filling it to the brim from the carafe. “And drink that wine.”

Esra did not normally drink, and the rich red wine was heady. His thoughts began to buzz, and the darkened room seemed fuzzier, warmer. His towering companion ate in silence, no longer drinking, instead gesturing for Esra to pour himself more each time his cup threatened to run dry. It was rather something, Esra thought drunkenly, to be able to watch him eat normal food, like any other man. Almost humanising.

He froze when he realised that the gleaming black knight was looking at him, unmoving.

“Sir?” he asked, voice trembling.

The knight considered him very, very carefully.

I’m going to die, Esra thought, mind blurred. No. He has already killed me. I’m already dead.

“Let down your hair,” ordered the knight, voice soft.

Esra quaked in his seat. He obeyed of course, fingers fumbling as he untied the cord. His inky hair spilled over his shoulders, slipped down his back, stark in contrast against his white linen tunic. The knight still wasn’t moving, just watching him for long moments. Then he reached out and took the wine carafe, filling Esra’s cup right to the top.

“Drink all of it.”

Esra tried to drink it quickly, to be good, but the drying tannins of the heady wine on the back of his tongue and throat slowed him. The knight watched him in stillness, watched the struggle of his throat, how his eyes winced. He smiled a little when Esra finished, clumsily setting the empty cup back on the table.

“Aren’t you good,” he remarked, his voice more velvet, as Esra swayed before him. And he reached up one of his elegant long hands and removed his helm-like mask.

Esra gasped a little. It slipped out of him, and he was too drunk to be subtle. The knight was beautiful, with strong, sleek features that were so, perfect, in their masculine proportions, their startling symmetry, that he almost didn’t look real. His eyes were dark and predatory, a fierce grey that put Esra in mind of the smoke that had billowed from the bonfires.

Those eyes latched onto his, and Esra realised he was staring. He ducked his head, face red, begging an apology, but there was no rebuke. The knight reached out and deftly raised his chin, so that their eyes met again.

That mask had been a blessing, Esra realised, to all who looked upon the knight, shielding them from that piercing gaze that razed over him now from head to toe.

The youth tried not to stare so… openly, at that raw beauty, but it was hopeless. From the moment he’d laid eyes on the knight, he knew in his heart that he would never really be able to look away.

He didn’t move when the fingers left his chin, keeping his face upturned. The hand dusted thoughtfully down his slim neck and Esra sat, but for his shallow breaths and the slight sway of his wine-drunk body, motionless, for fear of being strangled.

But the knight had other designs. With a neat tug, he undid the twine bow at the base of Esra’s throat, then pulled at the fabric so that the youth’s tunic loosened, now slightly open from neck to mid-chest. The knight considered this newly exposed skin in silence, while Esra’s breath quickened.

“You are afraid of me,” the knight observed quietly.

“Everyone is afraid of you,” Esra replied, the wine emboldening his tongue. “I would be stupid if I were different.”

The knight’s dangerous smile devastated something deep within him. “Ah,” he murmured, easing in, until he was so intimately close that he took up all of Esra’s vision. “But you are different, aren’t you.”

Another non-question, thought Esra, his eyes blurring wetly. He felt leather cup his cheek, hot breath on his skin. Fearful, he raised his hands to the knight’s broad chest, but he did not push. He just hovered there, on the edge of resistance, and surrender.

The knight cradled his jaw in one large gloved hand so very gently, and caught Esra’s mouth against his own. Expertly, he stole the youth’s first kiss.

Esra’s eyes flickered shut.

The knights’ mouth was warm on his, coaxing, melting into his own. He tasted of wine and spices. His scent was smoke, and leather. Esra, intoxicated, clung to the unyielding black steel that shrouded the powerful body, as he got caught up in the slide of soft lips and slick tongue.

A man kissing another man should be wrong, a small voice in the back of his mind told him. Bad for the body and soul. And that a Knight of the Order, sworn to deliver Balor’s justice, would break such a law was shocking to him.

But he supposed that, as a non-believer, a traitor, he was no longer quite considered person under the law anymore. Besides, he’d never been much of a man anyway. Everyone could tell. Everyone had always been able to tell.

He gasped when the knight pulled away from him, and covered his lips in an attempt at modesty, but the knight just patiently moved his hands aside so that he could look at Esra’s flushed face. He looked intently at the youth’s reddened mouth, his wine-blurred eyes, and that strip of exposed skin rising and falling with every soft panting breath.

“What is your name?” Esra asked, voice small, as the knight watched his lips.

The knight’s smoky eyes flicked up to meet his. “Umbra.”

Esra stumbled upstairs with a candle, the golden flame casting trembling shadows up the walls.

“Is there a bedroom in here?” the knight had asked in his low voice, after another thorough exploration of Esra’s mouth. At Esra’s stilted affirmation about refugee quarters in the attic, his smoky eyes narrowed. “Wait for me there.”

Umbra, the youth thought, and the syllables put in mind some stalking shadow creature from myth. Surely not a born name. Did the God King rebaptize his knights? How much of themselves did they give over to him when they were made?

The fireplace had warmed the building, heat rising through the walls. Esra rushed about the place, lighting a few candles to illuminate the corners. He wrung his nervous hands to stop them shaking, squeezed and squeezed, until his fingers were white. He fought the urge to touch his bruised lips. He could still taste the knight on his tongue.

There were four beds, unmade, their sheets hastily flung back.

Esra made the biggest bed as presentable as possible, and then, made another for himself, thinking, maybe the knight just wants a valet, he’s probably used to having someone attend to him, maybe after that, he would be allowed sleep unmolested…

Legs finally giving in, Esra curled up on top of the blankets of his bed. Outside, he could hear the crackle of the bonfires, a faint echo of boozy voices carousing.

He imagined he could hear the knight scratching out black letters, dutiful enough to finish his paperwork before allowing further indulgence.

He nearly dozed off.

He’d been on his feet most of the day, propelled by a nervous adrenaline rush and the ever present knowledge of the… consequences of disobedience, that were staked like trophies around the village border.

Exhaustion finally caught up to him, and he’d dared to rest his head on the pillows. The wine made his head spin, even when he closed his eyes.

Time passed, an eternity, or a few minutes. He heard the metallic clink of the black knight’s armor as he rose, heard a thud as he threw more wood on the fire. Measured footsteps up the staircase set his heart thudding, and Esra thought of how many nightmares he’d had just like this, lying shaking in bed as some ominous thing stalked him.

The door creaked open, and the knight swept in like a long black shadow. He had his rolled up reports with him, and a bottle of what looked like perfume, that he set on the bedside table. His sharp profile was silhouetted by the candlelight, and Esra was struck again by how impossible he looked, his darkly radiant figure at odds with the meagre surroundings, a dream superimposed onto drab reality.

His burning eyes fell on Esra.

“Up,” he ordered Esra crisply, and Esra sprung to his feet like he’d been whipped.

Following Umbra’s directions, the youth did a suitable job squiring for him. Terrified, and more than a little in awe, Esra treated the task with reverence, laying each jagged black piece carefully on the sideboard, like he was arranging rare relics. Umbra loomed over him, watching his every movement, something darkening in his eyes. The intensity of his presence left Esra a little breathless.

He was going to help unlace Umbra’s arming doublet, but the knight nudged him away. Esra’s momentary sigh of relief was quashed when the knight’s attention remained fixed upon him. He gestured at Esra’s figure from head to toe.

“All of that, off. And warm my bed.”

Esra swallowed thickly, feeling tears prick the corners of his eyes. “Please…” he begged.

Umbra started working at the knots of his doublet with long elegant fingers. He shot Esra a dark look, confirming his fate.

Esra suppressed a sob and stripped himself quickly, his fingers stumbling. He crawled under the covers and twisted to face the wall, thinking of a sacrifice binding its own body to the altar. The knight chuckled softly. Esra heard the shift of heavy fabric as the knight undressed and laid aside his clothing, and then, there was soft pad of footsteps drawing closer.

He wanted to beg the knight to spare him this, but knew him to be merciless. He’d take what he wanted from Esra anyway, and then throw him to the soldiers outside as punishment. Then Esra would end up on one of those spikes around the perimeter, like the others, and…

Esra bit his lip so hard he nearly split the flesh.

He had to be perfect, obedient. Too harmless to bother with. It had spared him the torture that awaited outside, at least.

The sheets were peeled back, and cold air embraced Esra’s skin as his body was revealed to the knight’s roving eyes. He curled into himself a little more, heart thudding in his chest, too afraid to do anything but perform this desperate version of playing dead, like if he lay unmoving long enough, his stillness would protect him from that… other hunger, that seemed to overtake all men eventually.

Was it his imagination, or could he hear Umbra’s breath quickening?

Shock split down his spine as the mattress sank, tilting him back a little. Umbra was lowering himself onto the bed beside him. One hand, immovable, went to the nape of Esra’s neck to hold him in place while the other ran possessively down the slender line of his form to knead at his backside, as if testing the quality of his flesh.

Esra flinched and folded in on himself, quivering in fear, but the forceful hand at his neck stilled him in silent rebuke. There was an urgency to this examination, something dark barely held back. It bit at his soul to be treated like this, not even worthy of a ‘lie still’ or a ‘just let me…’, and instead simply restrained, like one might scruff a misbehaving animal that balked at necessary handling.

He let himself be arranged beneath the knight, screwing his eyes shut, his breath coming out in frightened gasps. He was petrified. He had only a vague idea what to expect. He tried to imagine he was somewhere else as the knight rolled him onto his stomach, but couldn’t block out the sensation of those solid hands pulling him to his knees, so easily, like he was a weightless doll. He let out a soft whine as his chest was pressed to the pillow by a firm hand between his shoulder blades.

He caught the smell of a scented oil, and then gasped as something slick, hot, enormous, positioned at his entrance.

“Don’t!” he yelped, startling upright, but Umbra easily pressed him back into that horribly exposing position with a cruel hand at the base of his neck.

It was like being held down by irons.

“Please…” Esra gasped again, for mercy, weeping now, and the knight groaned lowly, sounding more like a beast than a man, and pushed forward to mount him.

Esra’s vision warped. His pleas devolved into a strangled moan that sounded like it was being wrung from his lungs. Mindless, he seized at the blankets. The knight mercilessly gored him open, bit by bit. With each oiled push, and pull, he sank deeper into Esra, paying no mind to how the youth shuddered and wept beneath him.

Umbra rode him hard. He was so large that Esra felt he was being reshaped with every pitiless thrust, turning him into something more… useful, for this act. The knight overwhelmed Esra’s senses, blocking out all else but the sensation of fervent hips grinding against him, the searing heat of a beast pinning him down and hungrily spearing into him again and again to the rhythm of some ancient dance.

Esra convulsed and contorted helplessly in return, reduced to mere reaction as the knight mercilessly, unceasingly sated himself in the youth’s body. He was being burned from within, consumed by a flame made flesh. His drunken struggles did nothing more than tighten Umbra’s grip.

In the midst of his debasement, over the slapping sounds of skin on skin and his own distressed half-smothered noises, Esra heard the door to the meeting hall swing open downstairs. He jerked to the side, mortified, but Umbra didn’t let him wriggle away, and he didn’t stop his punishing pace. The steady creaking of the bed must have clued the intruder in, because he retreated quickly.

Horrifyingly embarrassed and humiliated, Esra buried his burning face into the pillow with a cry. Everything about the black knight was subject to gossip. He’d been the seasoning of every conversation. And now, a new story. That the God King’s knight had made the traitor’s son his whore and claimed him in their own meeting hall, in some sort of twisted tale of comeuppance.

Umbra’s breath came harsher. He bent over Esra’s straining back and took a few long, deep possessive strokes that spawned a sickly sweet ache. Esra shuddered fitfully, like a wounded animal. Then, impossibly, his movements started to quicken.

Both hands grasped Esra’s hips, jerking his taut body back into each rapid thrust, making Esra writhe in over-stimulated agony. Abruptly, he pulled Esra tight, the youth’s slim back flush against his heaving chest, and spilled his essence deep inside with a shaking gasp. As the knight slipped out of him, Esra let out a tortured moan.

He fell boneless on the sheets, a shaking trembling raw nerve.

Umbra loomed close, bringing his burning heat with him. He caressed Esra’s shuddering skin, traced the wrought shape of him where he lay in a boneless tumble. He pushed the inky black hair from Esra’s forehead, out of his eyes to expose the delicate contours of his face.

“I was hard on you,” Umbra whispered, something regretful to his tone. “Sorry, I had such a hunger…”

Esra hiccuped softly as Umbra brushed the dampness off his cheeks.

“You’re a fragile little thing, aren’t you?”

He turned Esra to him, cradled him in his arms as the youth struggled to catch his breath. Esra let himself be moved, too exhausted and sore to do much of anything in the way of resistance. He felt a wheeze in his chest that would only get worse if he exerted himself in struggle.

There was a hollowness to him now. He felt like he’d been punctured. The knight had reached deep into his core and reshaped him, leaving him with an excruciating ache that twinged with every abortive movement.

Umbra didn’t realise, or didn’t care. He kissed Esra’s throat, ran a hand over Esra’s hair, stroking it, feeling the silky texture between his fingers with a pleased expression.

Esra looked blearily up at his sated beast. Umbra looked resplendent, his powerful body lazily coiled above him, his smoky eyes dark, smouldering with pleasure. How many had seen a black knight of the Order like this?

In Esra’s mind, the knight was just as fearsome naked as he was in armor, solidly muscled, impossibly tall. He had a few faded scars, from what Esra could make out by candlelight, and the same red tattoos that scattered the forearms of city folk, along with a symbol that Esra hadn’t seen before: some sort of half cross, or scythe.

Laying in his arms, skin against skin, Esra was surrounded by the warmth of him, rocked by the rise and fall of his chest with every breath. He felt so frail, next to Umbra’s towering figure. But he was held with such a gentleness that, despite what had just been taken from him, the pain still within him, Esra felt… treasured.

He’d never been held like this, not so intimately he could feel another man’s sweat, the movement of his muscles under pale skin, the soothing beat of his heart. And Umbra wasn’t just any man. Esra had never seen anything like him before, and he couldn’t bring himself to look away.

Umbra was completely unselfconscious in his nudity. But then, he had nothing to be embarrassed about. Every line of his form was perfect to the eye. He smiled when he saw Esra’s shy glances, and pulled the youth closer to his chest.

“You can touch me if you want.”

And as if to underline that point, he ran a warm hand from the nape of Esra’s neck, smoothing down his back, to his hip, like was measuring the length of his body by the span of his palm.

Esra shuddered a little, but did as he was bade, as he secretly wanted to, and touched Umbra in return. He tentatively stroked the broad chest, traced the solid muscles of his shoulders, indulged in the hot strength of him. He ran a hand up Umbra’s neck and felt the serene proportions of his face, running a thumb over that sleek cheekbone. He could feel Umbra’s gentle smile as well as seeing it, and his beauty made Esra’s head spin.

How could something so magnificent to look upon be so cruel? It didn’t make sense to Esra, that Umbra could rip his virginity so ruthlessly from him, and then cradle him in his arms like a precious thing.

He wondered if Umbra had even known that it had been his first time. He must have done. He seemed to know most things.

The temperature had seemed to cool between them, after the knight had taken what he wanted. Esra expected him to release his hold and fall to sleep, but he didn’t.

Instead, he grazed on the youth’s body in an absent sort of way, kissing the slender curve of his jaw, the side of his neck, the hollow under his collarbone.

The soft touches had his skin tickling deliciously, despite his trepidation. Esra felt his face heat, felt his body react to the beautiful knight who held him so close. Embarrassed, he tried to hide it, but nothing escaped the knight’s attentions.

Umbra seemed pleased by his reaction. He curled his arms around Esra’s ribcage and rolled the youth onto his back against the pillows, settling his weight on top of him. Satisfied, he started his feast in earnest on Esra’s sensitive skin.

Esra sobbed at this, his inner aches twinging, his palms pushing uselessly against the unyielding shoulders that pinned him down. The knight kissed open mouthed down his neck, collarbone and chest to suck at a nipple, stroking it with the tip of his tongue. It pulled a needy gasp from him. Caught beneath him, Esra writhed wordlessly in blooming pleasure.

“You like it?” Umbra asked softly, and at Esra’s fierce nodding, lapped at it once more before moving to do the same to the other. A hand smoothed keenly down his stomach, and Esra could not hold back a shaky moan as a large hand wrapped hotly around his stirring cock and began to stroke. He was hard and straining in a second, jerking helplessly under the knight. Umbra swept in at that, up and over him, and caught Esra’s parted lips in a kiss that alarmed Esra with its passion.

He’d nearly surrendered to it, when he felt Umbra’s slick manhood bump against his inner thigh, and quailed.

“Again..?” he asked, in something approaching bewilderment, betrayal.

Umbra chuckled against his neck, and tongued a kiss to the velvet skin there to feel Esra flinch under him.

“Got a monstrous appetite for such things,” he rumbled, his voice so low it was almost a purr. “All Knights of the Order do, even if some won’t admit it. It’s the God King’s blood in us, they say. Gives us a king’s appetite. ”

“Please, no more…” Esra quavered, delirious with fear. “Have mercy, I’m so sore…”

The trembling started again. Umbra kissed the delicate skin at the dip of his throat.

“I’ll be gentle,” the knight assured him, long lashes sweeping over those darkly covetous eyes.

It was easier to take on his back, maybe because of Umbra’s previous ravishment of him, but this time, when Umbra sank into him, he could feel his aching passage stretch pliantly to accommodate the well-oiled intrusion. He couldn’t help but let out a vulnerable moan however, eyes squeezed shut as he yielded to sensation, his head falling back to the pillows as Umbra settled deep inside him.

“There, see?” Umbra was murmuring, from somewhere above, as he started to move gently as promised in Esra’s body.

He found something pleasant in being rocked into like this, Esra admitted to himself, his flesh made into an object of another’s pleasure. His lower body was supported by Umbra’s strong hands under his hips, levering him into each measured thrust. The burn of it turned to a satisfying fullness. Esra panted a little, legs tightening around the knight’s waist. Beyond that, he was beginning to realise, loomed a greater pleasure.

Umbra touched a point in him that put stars behind his eyelids.

“Oh..!” Esra gasped, alarmed, eyes flying open and that seemed to light a fire in Umbra, who stared intently at Esra’s face and repeated the movement, causing that same greedy heat to blossom and spark. Esra clutched white-knuckled at the knight’s shoulders in response, and watched an unusually fervid expression cross that beautiful face.

His legs were hoisted higher around Umbra’s waist, higher still, until he was bent beneath him, the angle causing that intoxicating golden burn to rise molten hot, swelling with every snap of Umbra’s hips. His spine arched involuntarily, and his mouth fell open in a sinfully needy moan.

“That’s right,” Umbra urged him. “This is good for you…”

“Umbra,” Esra whimpered, and just that small noise made Umbra’s face freeze in wonderment, and then descend to ardently kiss him.

Esra moved with him, wrapping his arms around Umbra’s shoulders and melting into Umbra’s silken tongue, losing himself to the fire where their bodies joined, where monstrous pleasure was somehow made only more exquisite by the sting of pain.

There is something wrong with me, Esra’s mind rushed. The totality of Umbra’s power over him, it had him flushing with as much excitement as fear. It only made sense to submit to his whims, capricious though they may be. He’d taken Esra’s virginity with a rapacious brutality that he’d barely been able to stay conscious through. Now he urged Esra’s body towards an unearthly pleasure that turned the youth to a quivering mess beneath him.

Both of these extremes, Esra could not help but yield to. It was in his nature. He suspected Umbra had known that, when he’d bade the soldiers to let him stay.

And oh, how he’d been reduced. Over the slap of flesh on flesh, he was begging with every breath with words so slurred that they probably didn’t make any sense. He sobbed at himself for how good it felt to be made to take this, how wrong he was to think it. Trembling, crying, at his transformation into something lesser and lustful. No-one would recognise him like this. He didn’t know himself anymore.

Umbra held him through it as he writhed as if in agony, feeling like he was flying, or falling, like he was succumbing to blissful sort of seizure.

For a moment, he felt like he was dying.

Umbra followed it through, grinding deep into him, almost collapsing on top of him as he came with a jagged moan. They lay entangled, all energy gone. Together, they trembled in the cold night, bodies sheened with sweat.

He dreamed of bonfires that ripped apart everything he had ever known, furling high into the sky to blot out the heavens, until all was colored with ash. From the burning plumes rose an inhumanly tall man formed of smoke, with embers for eyes.

“Salamander…” Esra had whispered into the night air, caught in unconsciousness, and twitched a fist into the sheets.

In his dream, the salamander coiled close and smothered him until he couldn’t breathe, kissed him until mouth was filled with smoke.

Fabric shifted, and was gently peeled back. Cold air bit into his exposed skin, and he shivered at the shock of it, as if he’d just been dunked into the sea.

Esra awoke, bleary eyed, and was struck with an immediate sense of vulnerability.

Without the comforting buzz of the wine, his body was wracked with tiny pains. There was a distracting twinge along his muscles and joints from how he’d been pushed and pulled at like a ragdoll, along with that new sensation, the hollowness deep inside of him that smarted bitterly when he moved.

Still half stuck in his dreams, Esra rolled to his side and reached uselessly for the blanket. He wanted to cover himself, to hide his nudity from the harsh morning light, when he felt warm leather skim over his thigh.

Then, he was too afraid to move.

“Good morning.”

That rumbling voice was loud enough to have him wincing.

Umbra sat, fully armored, on the edge of the bed, looming over his stilled prey. He was hard to focus on, and smiled his dangerous smile when Esra looked nervously up at him. Morning light bloomed too brightly behind him, glinting off the edges of the dark steel. It had Esra squinting, his thin hand raising to shield his eyes.

“G-good… morning, Sir Knight,” he said thickly, his voice sore, exhausted. His head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton.

Something about the youth’s attempt at courtesy despite his miserable state made Umbra’s smile, his entire demeanour, soften.

The knight’s ash brown hair was slightly damp, his pale skin scrubbed clean. Esra saw, by the full bathtub in the corner of the room, that he’d already washed himself of the previous night’s activities. Now, in his full regalia, he looked untouchable. Perfect. The God King’s gleaming knight.

In contrast, Esra felt filthy, smeared with Umbra’s sweat and secretions. He shuddered a little as those smoky eyes raked over at his exposed skin, wondering what in earth it was that the knight found so fascinating about him.

“You’re a very calming presence to me,” the knight murmured. His gloved hand moved over Esra’s side, his fingers trailing down the youth’s hip to stroke a slim thigh, before settling in the dip of his hipbone. The warm leather was pleasant on Esra’s skin. “Haven’t felt like this for a while.”

He was so matter-of-fact. Esra just stared helplessly at him, not sure what to say in return.

The knight was considering him again.

“Think I’ll keep you.”

He nodded at his choice, and it set Esra’s heart thudding. He wasn’t gonna be killed, which was a relief, but… what did being kept by a knight of the Order entail?

“Had some breakfast brought up for you.” Umbra gestured at the side table, where bread, water and some of last night’s stew was waiting for him. “Rest, clean yourself, do whatever it is you need to do. You can wander about outside, if you want.”

Esra made a small panicked sound at that, but Umbra shushed him.

“None of the men will lay a finger on you,” he assured Esra, a smile curling the corner of his mouth. “Unless they fancy losing it, of course.” A long pause. “Don’t do anything stupid, like try to run away, and you’ll be fine.”

“I won’t, Sir Knight,” Esra promised sincerely. His mouth felt dry.

Umbra petted his hip. “Sir Knight, out there,” he said, a gentle order. The touch turned into a caress that had Esra trembling. “Umbra, in here.”

Esra swallowed, blushing at the correction, at the knight’s easy handling of him. Smoky eyes followed the bob of his throat. “Yes, Umbra.”

Something dark bristled through the knight, like Esra’s naming of him had been a summoning spell. “Good boy,” he rumbled, a nerve in his elegant jaw twitching. He leaned in swiftly, sparking that fear in Esra again, caught helpless between the desire to flee, and succumb.

But Umbra only dropped a kiss onto Esra’s worried mouth, tender, almost chaste.

He was alarmingly beautiful so close, in the light of the morning sun. His pale skin almost glowed. The rays put flecks of burning gold in his deep grey eyes. My salamander, Esra thought, and very tentatively reached forward. His movement caused a flicker of surprise to spark in the knight’s eyes, as Esra brushed his fingers over a smoothly shaven cheek. Then his lashes swept down, and he leaned very slightly into Esra’s touch.

The knight’s startled reaction, and then cautious acceptance, tore something in the youth’s gentle soul. He felt the echoes of the anger he should be feeling, other voices, his father’s voice, shouting at him to hate this creature who destroyed them, to hurt the man who had hurt them all so grievously.

But Umbra’s skin was so warm, his expression so serene, that Esra could feel nothing but a deep sense of awe at the luxury of being allowed to touch him like this. Esra had never been strong, but for a small moment, he felt it through the tamed beast that leaned into his palm. A dark force harnessed, as though it was his own.

It couldn’t last.

The knight looked away from him and rose smoothly to his full height with that predator grace. He swung the dark cloak over his shoulders, the heavy fabric sending dust spiralling up from the floorboards, and took up his deadly scythe. With the light behind him, he looked like the living shadow of Death.

“I want you back here at noon,” he ordered, eyes focused somewhere out the window, then donned his pointed mask and swept out of the room.

It took Esra a while to calm himself, to get out of bed.

He stayed there for a long time, curled up, near meditative, as the sun rose across the sky. On a normal day, he would already be working, the whole village up since sunrise, with much to do and plan. Only the children slept in. It had been years since Esra had been allowed that indulgence.

He ate breakfast slowly, and stretched out his aching joints under the blankets to try and soothe the twinges. When he got up, he hissed a little, stumbled, pain arcing through him. It paralysed him. For a while he just stood there, leaning on the sideboard, his breath coming in little cramped gasps, waiting for the pain to become background noise.

His skin was still filthy, his hair tangled from where Umbra had fisted his hand into it, but he didn’t want to call down for fresh bathwater like some noble. So instead, he got dressed and went to bathe in the river.

As he left the meeting hall, the sea breeze caught the strands of his inky black hair and caressed his skin. He put his face towards it for a moment, and breathed in deeply the scent of the ocean. Then he turned, and made his way in the direction of the river.

Soldiers glanced at him as he passed, nothing more. It was like Umbra had promised him. Indeed, their eyes almost seemed to slide off him, as if they were afraid of being caught looking.

There were fewer than before, many having been sent away to track down refugees and other nonbelievers. Those that remained mostly lounged in morning light, dozed, gossiped, with nothing to do. The destruction that surrounded them, all this death… it was just another job for the men of Balor’s Fist.

There were no bodies for him to recognise on the ground anymore. They were either staked or buried. There were a few prisoners left, ankles chained together so they couldn’t run, slouched on the ground by the huts as if trying to blend into the background. Esra averted his eyes to preserve a small fragment of their dignity, wishing he could do more.

The chimney of the smithy was smoking again. The knight must be in there with his father.

Past a line of trees, and down a shallow slope, was the river. It wound down to their village from up country, and if Esra walked with it for a few minutes, he could follow it to the sea.

The water glittered in the sunlight, and the rushing sound was soothing to Esra’s shattered nerves. He peeled off his clothes and scrubbed them in the clear water, laying them neatly out in the sun to dry. Then he waded in himself. Standing in the river’s deepest point, the water reached his ribcage. He sighed, and submerged himself.

The sun was not yet high in the sky. He had plenty of time before noon.

Esra meticulously washed himself of any traces of the previous night. He scrubbed his skin clean, perhaps a little more harshly than he usually did, almost scouring himself. He cleansed his face, and carefully worked out the knots in his hair with his neat fingers.

As he bathed, he carefully examined himself, looking for evidence of his night with Umbra. The intensity of what had been done to him, how much he’d been tugged about, hurt, and pleasured. He’d expected bruising. Surely such things would leave their mark.

But to his surprise, there was not much to see. Inside, he ached terribly, but his sun-kissed skin showed no scrapes or bruises. Perhaps a shadow of a fingertip by his hipbone, and his knees were a little raw, but that was it.

Part of Umbra’s job was taking people apart. Esra supposed that the knight knew exactly where to strike, if his goal was to mark skin, and where to hold, if he wanted to leave no sign of himself. He’d left Esra looking virginal.

Far too late, he noticed that he wasn’t alone.

A terribly bruised young man sat on the rock where he had laid out his clothes to dry, staring at him with sullen eyes. The breeze caught his hair, and coppery strands shone in the sunlight. Esra’s heart thudded when realisation hit him far too late.

“Kian!” he blurted out, fighting the urge to cover his chest like he was some girl. “You’re alive!”

He could see why he hadn’t been able to recognise his childhood friend. Kian’s face was slightly sunken on one side, distorted. Esra couldn’t quite comprehend it. “Alive enough,” Kian retorted, and he bared his teeth at Esra in a facsimile of his cheery grin.

Esra couldn’t hold back his gasp. Every tooth on the sunken side of Kian’s face was missing, leaving him with only half a smile. Kian’s eyes narrowed harshly at Esra’s horrified reaction.

“Yeah, that’s what he did to me,” Kian spat. His pronunciation was affected too. “I wasn’t talking, even when they threw my wife to the soldiers. Your black knight took up a pair of the blacksmith’s tongs, small enough to fit in my traitor’s mouth.”

Kian pretended to pick up a pair of iron tongs, miming the size and weight of it in his hand. Kian often acted out his stories, Esra remembered as much from childhood. The boy had been everything from a dragon that kidnapped Esra from a village, to a sailor pulling a mermaid from the ocean. Now he watched in terror as Kian mimed his jaw being pried open by a cruel hand, the tongs being jammed inside, jostled, to emphasise his point.

“For every question I refused to answer,” Kian growled, “he pulled out a tooth.”

Esra clasped his hands over his mouth, gritting his own teeth. Kian…

“One by one.” Kian rubbed the side of his face. “There was only so much I could take. So I answered his questions.”

“Oh, Kian…” Esra cried.

“I thought you were already dead,” said Kian bitterly. “You’ve always been so fragile, I didn’t expect you to last a minute. But I wished otherwise anyway, you know? You were outside the village when we were attacked. I hoped you’d seen sense and run away.”

He sounded accusing. Esra shivered in the river water. “I can’t run, Kian. You know that.” He raised a slim hand to his neck. “My throat closes up…”

“Any man would rather die than willingly submit like you did,” Kian snarled so harshly that Esra flinched back. “They kept you with the women and children, didn’t they? They knew what you were, I suppose. A woman, a child. I wish I’d never wasted my worry for you.”

Esra’s anger flared. He’d been tortured too, if not so explicitly. He’d been humiliated, forced to listen to his father’s screams. Clamped in irons and made to raid his own village for food and drink. He’d had to serve Balor’s soldiers under the almost constant threat of their desires, knowing that if he made one wrong move, they’d be on him like carrion birds. And then, despite all his efforts, his attempts at being good… the black knight had taken him anyway, forced him, hurt him, shaped him into something different.

“You haven’t so much as met my eyes for years,” Esra hissed, heat rising to his face. “You made it quite clear you wanted to be a stranger. Now you try to guilt me by saying you worried about me?”

“Don’t worry. It turned to disgust rather quickly,” Kian retorted cruelly. “All the soldiers were talking about it. How you had whored yourself to the knight.”

Esra recoiled like he’d been slapped.

“One of them heard you moaning like a slut when he went in there to get the wine.” Kian smiled coldly at him. It looked even more horrific, with half of it missing. “They were all having a great time describing how you let the knight debase you.”

“I didn’t want to do it, Kian,” Esra protested, unable to believe what he was hearing. “He made me.”

Kian shook his head dispassionately. “This is the body of someone who didn’t want it.” He tugged at the neck of his tunic. Dark bruises painted his collarbone, scattered down his chest. “And look at you.” Kian’s voice went a little wistful. “Not a mark on you…”

Not where anyone could see it, anyway. Only Esra could feel it, that sensation of being cored.

Kian’s eyes roved over him in a way that only yesterday, Esra would not have understood. Now he knew all too well that covetous hunger.

Did Kian really think of him that way? It chilled him, to be still limping from his previous night, and have someone he’d trusted, someone he’d once considered his closest friend, look at him like that. To be frightened and vulnerable, with no way of escaping it. He couldn’t handle being so exposed in front of another right now. He’d had so much taken from him already.

Esra was getting cold, and Kian was right by his clothes.

“I want to get dressed.”

Kian’s mouth curled derisively. “Then get dressed.”

Esra’s heart sank as Kian settled back to watch him. “You are by my clothes…”

“I’ve seen you naked before.” Kian shrugged. “What’s the problem?”

From swimming together as children. Glimpses of flesh as they got changed for bed. Not like this. Not when Esra was so naked, sore, used, as he stood before sullen eyes filled with a peculiar mix of distaste and… yearning.

Kian wasn’t even looking at him like a person anymore.

“Kian, please…”

“You’ve always begged prettily,” Kian mused, rubbing a hand over his distorted cheek. “I liked it, when I was younger. Your eyes would go so big. I thought you sweet for it.”

Esra remembered the secret times Kian used some excuse to pin him to the ground, always when they were alone, out of sight. The younger boy had felt some hidden thrill at being overpowered, though he would never have admitted to it. Perhaps Kian had enjoyed it too. Maybe that was why he kept Esra away when they got older. So he wouldn’t be tempted.

“I’d hold you down just to hear it,” Kian confessed. He cocked his head. “Did you beg for the knight? I bet he enjoyed it.”

Oh, how Esra had begged. It hadn’t done anything. Esra had no idea that his pleas for mercy only seemed to spur men on.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Esra wet his lips. He’d fall to sickness if he stayed in the water too long, and coughing fits had were more of a torture for him than most. “Kian, please… just let me get dressed.”

“I used to think about it, when we were younger. How easy it would be to pin you down and do it to you.”

It was hopeless. Esra wrapped his arms around his body, fighting the urge to cry. Kian was staring hard at him, his distressed face, his slim shoulders, the suggestion of his body below the water.

“You would have let me, wouldn’t you? You let me do anything. You were so eager to please, so easily wounded. You never were much of a man. You’re more of a girl than my wife.”

It had hurt a lot to have a cherished childhood friend suddenly ignore him, pretend he was invisible. Esra had worn that wound as gracefully as he could. But It was a stab to the heart for that friend to then return and deliberately try to hurt him, to twist old happy memories into something sinister.

“Kian please, just turn around. I’m cold.”

“Why can’t I look?” His question was laced with resentment. “I’m not going to do anything to you. Not like he did.”

Esra curled into himself, shoulders slumped. “I don’t want to be looked at right now.”

“So you’ll let him fuck you, but you won’t let me look at you.” Kian snorted. “Why not? I have more right to you than he does.”

“Please, Kian.” Don’t make me feel like more of a thing than I do already, Esra silently begged. “Please.”

It took longer than it should have. The moment stretched, and Esra’s trembles worsened. Eventually Kian sighed, relented, and turned his back to the river.

Esra cautiously waded out of the water, his eyes fixed on the back of Kian’s head, ready to dart back in if Kian was laying a trap for him. But Kian let him dress unmolested, his back rounded forward, exhaustion evident in his posture. There were bruises down the nape of his neck, where he’d been held down. His breaths were unsteady, like he was nursing an injury under the folds of his tunic.

“I’m done,” Esra said quietly, and Kian’s head tilted in his direction, revealing the boyish lines of his handsome profile under his shock of russet hair.

Up close, Esra could see that he was crying. Had been crying a long time, going by the red eyes. His tears had left clear trails through the dirt on his face. Kian never cried. He’d been the son Esra’s father had always wanted. Even as a child he’d been vibrant, strong, confident. A quick learner, and an even quicker wit.

Now, dark shadows lay under his sorrowful eyes, and his cheery face had been forever ruined. He blinked, auburn lashes brushing away the tears, but more swelled up in their place, and spilled over his cheek. His lips were trembling.

“Esra,” he was mumbling, over and over. “Esra…”

Esra knelt beside him, and Kian leaned in close, unable to meet Esra’s eyes, but his longing was unmistakable.

They embraced, arms sliding around each other with clutching grasps. Kian moaned gratefully, pressed his face into Esra’s shoulder. His back shuddered under Esra’s hands with each anguished sob. Those years of silence between them had been broken, the tension finally snapped. They were children again, holding each other through dark, stormy nights.

“I’m so sorry he hurt you,” Kian rasped into the side of Esra’s neck. “I didn’t mean to say what I said. I know you… you always do what you’re told. It’s not your fault, Esra. Oh, it’s not your fault at all…”

He clung to Esra so hard that the younger man found it hard to draw breath. Esra didn’t have the strength to push him off. Kian’s fingers dug into Esra’s slim back, tightened into the damp length of his hair, making it impossible to move away. He sobbed into Esra’s shoulder, an outpouring of pain, disbelief, and sorrow.

Esra just held him. He found it odd, the reversal, Kian now vulnerable in his arms when it had always been the other way around. He traced his fingers through the warmth of Kian’s auburn hair, petting him, as Kian muffled his wails in Esra’s tunic.

His kindness has Kian freeze and look up at him, eyes wide, half the handsome boy he’d grown up with, half the distorted victim. Esra thought of what it would have done to him, to have Kian look at him like that when they were young. It had been all he ever wanted, once.

Kian, of course, shattered the spell.

“Let’s run away.”

Esra shrank back. “What? No! They’ll kill us!”

Kian tightened his grip on Esra. There was a trembling desperation in his eyes that bordered on madness. “No-one’s here, Esra. We’ll sneak away now, head to the market town. I know a family there that will hide us–”

“From a knight of the Order of Balor?” Esra shook his head, his arms going back to his sides. “He’ll hunt us down within the day.” And kill you, and do worse to me.

Kian didn’t let go. The embrace was no longer a comfort, indeed, his closeness was overwhelming. “Fine, not the town. We’ll hide out, live off the wilds for a while. Make our way east, to the Weald. No-one will know us there.” He trailed off, then his eyes glowed. “We could get a boat to the Continent!”

“We won’t make it..!” Esra had to pry him off. “You would. But I couldn’t. I’d slow you down. I’d get us both killed.”

“I’m not going without you!” Kian yelped, and went for him again. Esra skittered back, and tremulously got to his feet.

“Where is this coming from?” he asked, bewildered, putting himself out of arm’s reach. “Kian, you’ve barely spoken to me in years! When you became a man, it was like I didn’t exist anymore. I was…”


Kian crawled to his feet, hands outstretched as if to placate him. “I’m sorry, Esra… I was afraid.”

Esra blinked. “Of what?”

“Of how much I felt for you,” Kian professed, in an agonised whisper. “It was wrong to feel that way about another boy. I didn’t want to feel that way.” Kian’s face was miserable, stung by regretful tears. “And I could keep it down, as long as I didn’t look at you. But… when I did…”

The taller boy took a step forward. Esra nervously retreated further. But Kian kept speaking in that awful hushed tone.

“It was like the whole world shifted. All I wanted to do was look at you. It was wrong. No,” Kian shook his head earnestly, “it is wrong. But I don’t care anymore. There’s nothing left anymore but us. I want you, Esra. Run away with me. And when you can’t run, I’ll carry you. I’ll look after you. You know I will.”

It would have been wondrous to hear these words from Kian, before. Esra would have forgiven him every previous hurt. He’d adored the older boy, with his sly smile, and laughter in his eyes.

But this boy was broken, doomed. He looked madly at Esra like he was his last hope. Going with Kian would be going to his death. And it would be sending Kian to his death too.

“I can’t go, Kian,” he said softly, but with certainty.

Kian’s face blanched. “Why are you being like this?” He lunged forward and caught hold of Esra’s hand before he could back away. “You can’t want to stay here!”

“Kian,” Esra begged, as his hand was crushed in that desperate grip. “You’re hurting me!”

“You aren’t listening to reason!”

“You are the one not listening!” Esra retorted, even as fear hammered his heart. “I want you to get away. I want you to be safe. I wish dearly for you to find passage to the Continent. But you won’t get any of that if you take me with you.”

Kian just shook his head, tugging Esra closer. “You’re coming.”

“Have you forgotten everything about me?” Esra demanded of him. “I’m not… like you. You threw that insult at me yourself.” Tears pricked the corners of his eyes, but he did not let them fall. “I’m weak. I’m a burden. I can’t keep up with you here in the village, how am I to survive in the wilds? Do you really expect me to the make the journey to the Weald?”

Kian’s pale face was his answer.

“If you go, you’ll make it,” Esra urged him. “That’s what I want.”

“I can’t leave you here,” Kian said simply, clearly flabbergasted at Esra’s decision. “I can’t.”

“Please, go.”

Kian jittered where he stood, and for a moment, Esra feared the worst, but Kian surprised him by letting his hand slip away.

“Alright,” Kian muttered. “Alright, I’ll go.” He ran an agitated hand through his hair. “Fuck, Esra, this feels wrong…”

There was nothing right about any of this.

“I want to kiss you,” Kian said, with sudden fierceness.

If you’d asked me only yesterday… Esra thought helplessly. But now the idea of it repulsed him. “You’ve had years to kiss me, Kian. Our whole life. Like you said, you knew I wouldn’t have stopped you from doing anything.”

“Please…” He came forward anyway, so full of intent, and Esra turned his head.

“No,” he said to the river. He let his eyes dip close. “You should go, before those soldiers do a patrol.”

Above him, Kian gulped in a needy breath. “Alright,” he whispered, those two syllables overfilled with a profound, painful regret.

He lingered there a long while, just looking at him. Perhaps he was reeling over his memories. This wasn’t the first time they had stood alone together on this very riverbank. And now he had the knowledge that, if he’d wanted to, he could have kissed Esra at any time.

Esra would have let him, then, Once upon a time, Kian had been his whole world. Strangely, it wasn’t hard to watch him go.

As he neared the meeting hall, Esra caught sight of the knight in low conversation with the captain of Balor’s Fist, who stood at wary attention as Umbra towered ominously over him. Confused and anxious about what the captain’s presence meant, and fearful of interrupting, Esra came to an abrupt halt.

“You’ve ordered a search already, I presume,” Umbra was saying, his voice dark.

“The moment I heard,” the captain replied tightly. “We’ve found nothing yet, but -” the captain’s restless eyes landed on Esra. “Ah!” Esra startled as Captain Pierce sharply gestured him over. “Come here, boy.”

Esra hurried to stand before them in a whirl of sick panic, his eyes flickering between the two in apprehension. Apologies threatened to spill from his tongue, but he held them back as he tried to make sense of it all. What did they want with him? Was he so late he needed a search party? But it was not yet noon…

Umbra stood tall and imperious in his formidable black armor that gleamed in the morning sun, the breeze brushing at his ashen hair. He gazed down at Esra, unreadable behind his mask. All Esra could see was the perfect line of his jaw, and his mouth, neither smiling or frowning.

The captain looked a bit worse for wear, with dark shadows in the hollows under his eyes and his mouth a thin line. He was furiously angry as ever, but his weathered face was tense with dread that all the fierceness in the world could not conceal.

“This one will know, guaranteed,” the captain said, looking Esra over, and then to the knight, for approval. “They were friends after all, weren’t they?”


Esra swallowed down his immediate terror, blood rushing from to his face, his gaze dropping to the dirt beneath his feet as before him flashed his future. They were going to take him to the smithy, he thought, ragged. They were going to hurt him, in unimaginable ways, until he betrayed Kian, and he couldn’t, he couldn’t do that to someone who had been so broken.

But he dreaded being tortured, being ruined. He’d seen what these men were capable of. And Kian’s distorted face, the ugly pain of his half-smile, was something Esra was never going to forget.

The captain had noted his fear. “I’ll take him indoors,” he barked, reaching forward to grab him.

“You won’t,” said Umbra calmly.

Pierce shot an incredulous look at the knight, his hand dropping impotently to his side. “But, Sir Knight,” he said, voice haltering, “if he knows something, which he must, it’s important… that you…”

“That I…?” echoed Umbra, slowly turning to face the captain again, exuding latent menace.

Pierce opened his mouth to respond, and then clearly thought better of it.

Umbra’s brief smile was anything but pleasant. “Perhaps we should question your men,” he suggested coldly. “They tell me that the boy picked the lock on his shackles, though I’ve never seen a peasant manage such a thing.” He shrugged his broad shoulders, and turned to look out at the empty village. “Suspect he pick-pocketed the keys from one of those drunken louts when they were having their fun with him,” he continued, his lips curving ever so slightly into a frown, “and they were too far gone to notice.”

The captain nodded hurriedly, his eyes fixed almost reverently on Umbra. “It is probable, Sir Knight,” he agreed. “They will be disciplined regardless, for letting their guard down around him. I cannot comprehend that such an injured wretch managed to slip away unseen.”

“They certainly will be punished,” said Umbra darkly, his dangerous attention landing back on the captain with full force. “And punished further if they do not find him.”

A fearful expression darted across the captain’s face, if only for a moment, before he schooled himself into something more neutral. “I will get to the bottom of it, I assure you.”

Umbra stared at the captain in silence, and then nodded graciously, accepting this vow. The captain almost imperceptibly seemed to deflate with relief.

Together, they turned to Esra.

Esra thought he would pass out where he stood. His face was white. His hands numb. He thought, not the smithy, not that hidden torture, his anxious eyes pleading up at Umbra for some small mercy.

“The Kian boy disappeared sometime during the morn,” said the knight. His voice seemed, gentler. “You two were friends?”

Esra breathed deeply in an attempt to calm himself, his heart thumping wildly in his chest. “Yes,” he answered softly. “When we were children.”

“Mm.” Umbra considered that. Behind the mask, Esra couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Did you happen to see him when you were about?”

Esra’s mouth was dry. He swallowed hard, eyes fixed on Umbra pleadingly. He’d had time to think of a convincing story, earlier. Even now, a quick wit could lie. But Esra’s mind went blank as the powerful knight loomed over him. Just his size was intimidating. The very top of Esra’s head barely reached past Umbra’s chest. “I don’t…” Esra licked his lips, his heart stuttering as his nerves failed him. “I didn’t…”

Unconsciously, he raised his hand to the side of his neck, where Kian had buried in his face and sobbed into him by the river.

“What a useless creature,” the captain snapped from Esra’s periphery. “We can tell you know, boy.” He sneered at him quite cruelly. “Look how he shivers and shakes.”

“He’s a gentle thing, Captain, and we are quite frightful,” Umbra said, but there was a hint of amusement in the corners of his otherwise serene mouth.

“Kian is no friend of yours, boy,” Pierce growled, his eyes flashing in anger. “Your loyalty, whatever a traitor’s loyalty is worth, is misplaced.”

Misplaced? Esra looked uneasily at the captain, unsure of the man’s implications.

Reading the confusion on the youth’s face, the captain continued. “We had no idea there was a son, until your friend gave up your name. That’s what broke your father, in the end. He was so afraid of us dragging you in there.” Pierce spat on the floor. “You can thank Kian for that.”

While the captain ranted, the knight watched Esra closely. The severity of his attention was perhaps even more noticeable when he was masked, somehow, and he took in everything – Esra’s slightly damp hair, the guilt in his too-expressive eyes, his clothes, freshly washed, but for where the white tunic was marred by the faint smudges of dirt on the collar.

“Tell your men to search by the river,” the knight ordered the captain, and Esra felt his mouth dry.

He vividly recalled the outlandish stories he’d been told, of blood drinking knights who could read a man’s innermost thoughts. They seemed less ridiculous when, with a single look, Umbra had apparently seen enough to piece Esra’s whole morning together, and Kian’s part in it.

Pierce shifted to attention, eyes widening. “Sir Knight?”

“If you find him,” Umbra said smoothly, “I will be kinder in my report.”

“Yes, Sir Knight.” The captain hesitated, looking over at Esra like he wanted to say something, perhaps push the interrogation further.

But Umbra was getting impatient. “You’re dismissed, Captain Pierce,” he said icily.

The soldier bowed low, and then respectfully made himself scarce.

Alone, Umbra moved closer to the youth, and brushed his thumb over the smudge on his collar. He made a thoughtful hum as Esra cringed beneath him, thinking, he knows everything.

“I’m sorry,” Esra stammered, knowing there was no excuse for such a sin of lying. He was terrified of the consequences. “I…”

“He wanted you to leave with him.”

He, meaning Kian. The knight scratched at the dried dirt so that it dusted to the ground. Esra quaked under his hand, and nodded. He could see no point in lying to a man like this.

“Yet,” Umbra observed, “here you stand.”

Esra felt heat burn in his cheeks. The knight was so close that he found it hard to think straight. “It’s just that… well, he would be more likely to make it if I wasn’t with him,” Esra confessed.

“How noble of you,” Umbra remarked softly.

Esra couldn’t tell if the knight was scornful or sincere. In truth, he’d had no desire to leave with Kian, much like how he’d have no desire to choose certain death. The knight would have chased them down himself. There was no hiding from the Order of Balor. Even his cautious, capable father hadn’t managed to outsmart them, in the end.

Umbra smoothed down the fabric of the youth’s tunic, as if feeling the shape of his narrow shoulders. He could probably feel Esra’s shaky breathing. “Have anything warmer to wear?” he asked eventually. “Don’t want you getting ill on the journey.”

Esra looked up, confused.

“I’m taking you home with me,” Umbra told him. “To the capital.”

The capital! The city of Balor’s Throne was the setting of many tales he’d heard from Kian, and the more talkative refugees. A stone walled city filled to the brim with opportunities for glory, and for danger. Esra felt a rush of excitement, quickly quashed by a self-hating guilt. The price of this journey was literally all around him, in the ruins of his village and its people.

Umbra watched every emotion flicker across the youths face, the hint of a smile on his lips. “Ever been?”

“No, Sir Knight,” Esra replied, a little breathlessly. The farthest he’d been was a wagon ride to the nearest market town, after which, his father decided he wasn’t suited for long journeys. But he’d always, secretly, dreamed of adventure. He’d lived only through the stories of others.

“Get something warmer to wear,” Umbra ordered him, and gave him a gentle push. “Go on.”

The women, and when they discovered his skill for it, Esra too, would spin wool and make warm clothing for the refugees. Not all arrived well equipped, and the voyage across the sea could be long and treacherous.

Esra, with no small amount of guilt, raided these supplies for his own journey. He took a comfortable cloak that he tied around his shoulders, and a long woollen scarf that he wrapped around his slender neck, feeling much like one of those runaways himself, destined for the unknown, hoping that wherever he was headed would be better than what he was leaving behind.

The wool warmed him wonderfully, but did nothing to comfort him.

He returned to find Umbra fussing over the most enormously tall horse Esra had ever seen. A glossy jet black all over, with feathered hooves and a long lustrous mane and tail, it had a proud, intelligent face with such a striking appearance that it seemed a different creature from any horse Esra had seen before.

He didn’t know it, but he was looking at a Valian warhorse, specially bred in size, strength and temperament to serve the knights of the Order.

Umbra laughed at his bug-eyed expression, and beckoned Esra over.

“This is my stallion, Vaughn, he explained, gently stroking down the horse’s nose. Vaughn was watching Esra’s approach. He was alarmingly attentive, for a horse. “Vaughn is a little unruly, but he has a good nature. He is young.” Umbra shrugged artlessly, but there was fondness in his smile. “He will grow out of it.”

The magnificent horse whickered softly, swishing his tail.

“Do you want to pet him?” Umbra asked, sensing Esra’s awe.

Esra nodded, and carefully reached forward his hand.

“Don’t be nervous around him, or he’ll bite you.” Umbra’s tone was almost teasing.

“He won’t bite me,” said Esra quietly. Beasts had always liked him. He stroked between the horse’s neck and shoulder, the midnight hair silky smooth and luxurious to the touch under his palm. “Hello, Vaughn,” he whispered sweetly, and the horse swished his tail.

At his back, Esra could feel Umbra’s attention on him, almost burning.

He turned to the knight with a questioning look, and froze when Umbra reached out an elegant hand and, very gently, tucked a strand of the youth’s inky hair behind his ear.

His skin tickled where the black leather brushed over it. Esra’s mind went blank as he stared up at the knight, confusion and fear flooding him.

Umbra considered him. “What beautiful eyes,” he said, almost to himself, like he was observing an inanimate object that had happened to catch his attention. “Only now in daylight can I see the true color.”

Esra blinked hurriedly, and bit his lip, suddenly shy. He ducked his head. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been complimented.

He let out a tiny gasp when that warm gloved hand pressed beneath his chin, tilting his head up again, forcing him to look up at the knight’s masked visage. Esra’s skin heated as he remembered sitting next to him in the darkened meeting hall with that surprisingly gentle hand at his jaw, how startlingly handsome Umbra had been, his silken mouth meeting Esra’s own. Just the memory of it had his stomach swooping.

Beside them, Vaughn shifted on his hooves and started chewing on the grass.

“Have a piece of deep purple quartz that I dug up in the Vale sitting in my office back home,” Umbra said, after a his examination, releasing Esra’s face. “It’s so dark that it seems to swallow the light. Would swear that your eyes are the exact same color.”

Esra’s mind was muddled by the compliment. He forgot where he was, who he was speaking to.

“The fae used to tell me –” he started, before realising his mistake. He stared fearfully at Umbra, who smiled dangerously at his innocent slip of the tongue. “I’m sorry, Sir Knight. I didn’t mean to say it.”

“What did they tell you?” he asked, in a rich, low voice.

“Th-that they,” he stammered, “that my eyes were a gift from…” He swallowed nervously, not sure if he should ask or not. “Sir Knight, what is Danu?”

Umbra paused for long enough that Esra felt dread rise in him. He started to apologise again, but Umbra cut him off with a dismissive wave. “The mother of all the fae deities,” he explained curtly. “The goddess who granted them their witch magic. Danu isn’t real, of course. She exists only in their stories.”

Esra bowed his head.

“Balor is real,” the knight continued above him, “and he is the rightful ruler, which is why the fae have been so miserably defeated.”

“Yes, Sir Knight,” Esra murmured, thinking of the fae he had met, how different they’d been in their customs, the kindnesses they’d always shown him.

“They’re not a gift from anyone, Esra,” said the knight, his voice softer now, and he ran a thumb over Esra’s cheek, just under his lower lashes. “They are your eyes, and they are beautiful.”

The knight on horseback looked like something romantic from one of the fae tapestries that depicted myths and legends in woven silk and wool. He smiled handsomely down at Esra, and Esra flushed pink, feeling like one of those tapestry maidens that swooned before heroes in silver-steel armor.

With an imperious tilt of his head and a sharp order, Umbra had one of the soldiers come over to help Esra up into the saddle behind him. The man grimaced as he approached, and knelt in the dirt for him, his fingers laced together for Esra’s foot. Begrudgingly, he gave Esra a generous help up. Umbra waved him away afterwards, without even looking at him.

Esra settled hesitantly behind the knight, and Vaughn stamped impatiently beneath them, flicking his tail. He’d never experienced such a flighty horse before. It was like being astride a dragon. Umbra swung the beast around to address the captain of Balor’s Fist.

“I’ll want a full report when you’re back at the capital,” he ordered crisply. “Don’t disappoint me.”

“Your will be done, Sir Knight,” replied the captain, with a respectful bow of his head. His sly eyes looked between the two of them, at the contrast they made, the inhumanly tall knight of the Order in his darkly gleaming armor, and the slender youth that clutched at him with huge fearful eyes. “Farewell.”


Esra looked back at the ruins of his village as they rode off, the huts painfully small against the wide expanse of the ocean, the towering heights of the cliffs and evergreen forest. There was nothing for him there anymore. He felt a devastating pang in his chest, like his heart was being wrenched from him, as the village, everything he’d ever known, disappeared from view behind the looming pines.

He hoped Kian made it. If anyone could outwit the soldiers and find passage to the Continent, Kian could. The fact that Captain Pierce would have to face Umbra’s fury afterwards put a strange sort of thrill through him.

And then there was father…

He remembered his father in glimpsed memories – how stern he always looked, even in relaxed moments. His exasperation as he tried to teach Esra to swim, supporting Esra’s stomach as the boy tried his hardest, thin limbs splashing uselessly in the water to the amusement of the other villagers.

He’d held Esra the first time his throat closed up, a tiny child suddenly unable to breathe. Quick to action, he’d helped the boy’s spasming chest calm with hushed instructions to relax and slow himself, the worry in his dark eyes turning to genuine relief as Esra recovered in his arms.

There had always been an unsurpassable gulf between Esra and his father.

When he was still a child, he’d imagined that whatever his current shortcomings, he would eventually grow into the man his father was. That small hope was slowly, inexorably crushed with each passing year. He remembered the disappointment in his father’s eyes as his list of failures grew, and then, eventually, resignation, accepting the son he had ended up with.

He’s more like his mother, they’d said about him. She’d died giving birth to Esra, and his father had never so much as looked at another woman afterwards. Like Esra, she’d been gentle-hearted, frail. Perhaps that faint resemblance was why his father had been so tolerant of his failings.

Esra wet his lips, and looked up at the back of the knight’s head. “Umbra,” he started, and when the knight didn’t tell him to shut up, continued with: “My father… is he..?”

“Why ask me this?” Umbra tilted his head at him, mouth downturned. “You know the answer.”

He was right. Esra had known. But how could he not ask? What sort of son would he be, if he didn’t even…

“Is he staked, or buried?” the youth asked, his voice cracking a little.

Umbra paused before answering. “Buried,” he said simply, looking off ahead again. “He answered all my questions. I saw no reason to humiliate him in death.”

Esra rested his head on the heavy black cloak, the world around him blurring as tears filled his eyes in a hot rush. “Thank you,” he whispered.

They rode on in silence.

As day turned to evening, it began to rain. Slowly at first, just a few irritating dots of it on his head. Then the clouds rolled in, and there was a low rumble in the sky.

“Storm clouds,” Umbra scowled, and pulled up his hood. “Planned on riding through the night, but don’t much fancy it in this rain. This damnable changing weather…”

Esra wrapped his scarf over his head as securely as possible and clung miserably to Umbra as the rain got heavier, until finally, they were riding through a downpour. Vaughn stamped steadily on, seemingly the only one not discomforted.

“Can feel you shaking, Esra,” said Umbra, just audible over the rain.

“… m’sorry.”

Esra had stayed close to Umbra’s broad back so his front wouldn’t get wet, his eyes scrunched up, his breath coming in wheezing gasps. The sound of raindrops hitting the ground drowned out everything. He could barely hear his own thoughts. Cold wetness seeped into his wool clothing, trickled over his skin.

Umbra petted Esra’s knee, an attempt at comfort.

“There’s a Reaper’s Rest around here somewhere,” he called back. “I’ve stayed in it before. Stay close, Esra, and don’t get too wet.”

He urged Vaughn faster, and a terrified Esra tightened his grip around Umbra’s waist as they launched into a gallop down the road.

By the time they reached their destination, Esra was soaked through, and exhausted.

The youth was the first to dismount, slipping bonelessly off the horse like a wet blanket, nearly falling over as his feet hit the muddy ground. His legs felt watery, and he struggled to stand steady. Rain trickled down the back of his neck where the scarf had shifted. His breeches were stuck to him, a second skin.

He stared miserably at the puddled ground beneath his feet, and tried not to tremble so noticeably. Through the rain, he heard Umbra heavily dismount, and then a large hand soothed over his shoulder, drew him close to an armored chest.

“We’re here,” grunted Umbra, his voice hot in Esra’s ear. He pointed off the road.

It was so dark that he found it hard to recognise anything but mud and trees, but if he squinted, he could see that down a trail into the woods was a stone windowless hut. It looked ancient. Moss and plants had grown into the rocks and walls, part of the structure itself. There was a scythe in the shape of Umbra’s tattoo chiselled over the door.

Umbra rubbed his shoulder. “You get inside and make the place nice. I need to look after Vaughn.”

Esra quite happily obeyed.

It was as cold inside as it was outside, but once Esra started the fire, the enclosed nature of the room meant it grew warm quickly enough. He pulled off his cloak and scarf, and hung them on the wall hooks to dry. In the flickering orange light, he took in his surroundings.

Whatever this place was, and however old it looked from the outside, inside it was comfortable and well tended to. The room was clean, and smelled of herbs. There was plenty of firewood in the wood store, as well as pots to cook in, and a fine table to eat at. There was an enormous canopy bed, with a wonderfully soft mattress filled with, Esra pressed it curiously, wool? Compared to the straw-stuffed beds he’d slept on his whole life, this mattress felt like a cloud.

First, he made the bed, piling on every blanket and fur he could find. He scooped hot coals from the fire into a metal warming pan and slid it under the sheets so that they would be toasty warm. He carefully placed lit candles around the room to illuminate the space. Then he searched for food, for he was hungry, and surely Umbra had worked up an appetite. Alas, the only thing he found was wine, which he abandoned, for he had no desire for another awful headache in the morning, no matter how pleasant the warm numbing effect.

He was tending to the flames when the door swung open and Umbra stalked in, pulling off his damp cloak and holding it out expectantly. Esra leapt to his feet to hang it up for him as Umbra dropped his belongings onto the side table, leant his scythe on the wall. He was obviously pleased to be out of the rain, although unlike Esra, he didn’t shiver from the cold. Then he removed his intimidating mask.

To see that unreal beauty again, it took Esra’s breath away. The knight sighed to himself, pushing his wet hair off his forehead. His skin looked bone-white against the black of his armor, and the dark of his slicked back hair, the graceful lines of his pale profile in sharp contrast against the dim room.

His deep eyes were sweeping over his surroundings. “Very good,” he said simply, noticing Esra’s efforts at making the dark room more pleasant.

Esra’s face heated, unused to praise, and he smiled.

“Help me out of this armor, would you?” Umbra turned to him, an elegant brow raised, “before I rust into place.”

“Yes, Sir Knight.”

Umbra slumped in front of the fireplace with a low groan. “What luck,” he muttered. “Come sit by the fire, Esra,” he ordered, crooking his finger at where the youth was hovering by the wall. “I don’t want you falling ill.”

Esra obeyed, and knelt on the floor beside the knight, heart hammered in his chest, hands clammy.

Umbra was strikingly handsome by firelight, the sleek planes of his face illuminated by the golden glow. Clad in just his undershirt and breeches, his pale skin damp, his rain-rumpled hair falling over his forehead, the knight looked like some sort of dashing rogue. His deep grey eyes met Esra’s, lips quirking, and Esra swallowed hard.

“Come here,” said Umbra, in an oddly inviting tone, and before Esra could do anything, he curled an arm around the youth’s slim shoulders and pulled him against his warm muscled chest.

“Umbra,” Esra intoned in a breathless whisper, tensing up. “I… you don’t…”

Umbra smoothed a hand over Esra’s upper arm, petting him through his panic. “I don’t want you catching a cold. Anyway,” he softly chuckled in his velvet voice, “I like holding you.”

What could Esra say to that? He tried, despite his distress, to relax in the arms of his father’s murderer.

All he wanted to do was be allowed to cry, to curl up and mourn his losses. He felt like great pieces of himself were missing. It wasn’t just his village that had been destroyed, it was also the place he’d had in this world, however small it had been. Who was he, now that he was no longer the village leader’s son, a maker and mender?

He was just a thing now, he realised. A kept thing, with no greater purpose than to please its master.

And how long would Umbra find him pleasing? A year? A week?

Tears pricked at his aching eyes from the fear of it. His whole life, so far, had been a long string of miniature failings, and now any failings would brook deadly consequences. He cowered at the thought of sparking that dark fury in Umbra again, that beast that had taken him so cruelly for his first time. He barely remembered it, he’d been so wine-drunk – only a pained haze of being held down and possessed. What had he done to provoke that? Had he made some minute error?

Perhaps his small hope that he’d be allowed to sleep in a separate bed.

The knight’s undershirt was dry and hot from his body heat. Esra could feel Umbra’s heartbeat against his back, and his chest rise and fall in a smooth, slow rhythm. He was so, human like this. This was the man who ripped out Kian’s smile, who had committed unknown tortures to Esra’s father and buried him in his desecrated home.

It was, impossible, to overlay the two. The creature who had ravaged him, and the man who had, so gently, tucked his hair behind his ear to better admire the color of his eyes.

Overhead, the rain beat against the roof of the hut, a gentle roar of nature. The fire crackled and sparked, flames dancing in shapes and whirls. Esra felt himself mesmerised by it.

When he chanced a look at Umbra, the knight wasn’t looking at the flames. He was looking right back at the youth in his arms, a golden glow in his smoky eyes. Those eyes softened as Esra looked uneasily up at him.

“Still afraid of me,” he observed. Like he’d somehow been expecting otherwise. He brushed his thumb over Esra’s brow, down the delicate line of his cheekbone.

Esra, feeling vulnerable and too exposed, turned his gaze back to the flames as the knight absently traced the contours of his face. He didn’t dare move away.

The storm worsened. Rain hammered down on the roof of the Reaper’s Rest in a thunderous roar, drowning out any sounds of the world outside.

Esra’s stomach swooped as the tall knight bowed over him, the ruthless beauty of his features lit golden by the dance of the fire. Strands of his ash brown hair swept over his brow, casting shifting shadows over fierce grey eyes that razed over Esra’s nervous face, his mouth, the knot of his tunic that fluttered at his throat.

With a deft tug, he undid the bow. Esra sucked in a trembling breath, and looked to the flames.

He heard Umbra’s soft chuckle, shut his eyes as the knight thumbed over his jawline. “Look at you,” came the deep rumble of his voice. “What a sweet thing you are, already shaking.”

“I… I’m sorry, I just –” Esra whispered, and then gasped as the knight pulled loose his tunic and mouthed hungrily up the revealed skin of his neck, sucking hotly at the sensitive underside of his jaw.

The knight easily captured his mouth in a yearning kiss. An almost gentle slide of lips at first, Esra couldn’t help but respond to it, but the knight’s passion soon overwhelmed him. Tongue slipped over tongue, and Esra was held tight to a heady, melting kiss that had him shivering in a frightened pleasure.

Umbra kissed him, moved him, like Esra was a creature that he owned completely. Whether Esra tried to shy away, or yielded to his mastery, it didn’t matter. If the knight wanted something from him, he would take it, and there was nothing Esra could do to stop him. He’d proven it endlessly already.

Esra made a soft sound when their lips separated, his thin hands fisted in Umbra’s shirt, knuckles white.

The knight’s breath had quickened, his face still close to Esra’s. When their eyes met, he saw dark pupils snap wide, engulfing the smoky grey. The grip around his waist tightened. Umbra made a noise that was almost a growl.

He let Umbra undress him, near ripping the fabric from the body in his haste. As the knight pulled off his own clothes, he kept his eyes on Esra, drinking in the sight of the youth standing nervous and white-faced before the fireplace.

Umbra’s smoke-grey gaze was magnetic. Entranced, Esra watched him pace over, sucking in a breath as the knight skimmed his hands over the velvet-soft skin of his waist, his narrow back.

Esra yelped as his feet left the ground, weightless as the knight swept him up like a man might carry a bride. A few long paces, and Esra was thrown down and laid out onto softness, the blankets and furs he’d piled up on the enormous bed. He caught a glimpse of predatory eyes glinting in the firelight before he was descended upon.

Umbra ravaged his mouth again in a bruising kiss that stole the air from his lungs. A softer kiss to his jaw, and then greedy lips trailed down the youth’s neck, his collarbone, to lick over his nipples. Esra squeaked at the burst of pleasure, his hands flying to press at Umbra’s broad shoulders, wriggled fitfully back, his tongue tripping over a blurred prayer of nos and pleases.

Strong hands gripped hotly over his hips and pulled him back to his place beneath the knight. Umbra’s fierce features took up Esra’s vision, the unnatural symmetry of his countenance, the darkness in his eyes, the dangerous quirk of his lips.

“Don’t struggle so,” the knight ordered, soothing his hands over Esra’s chest, up his arms, wrists, to pin the youth’s narrow hands above his head.

Esra, he couldn’t help himself, tested that grip.

Completely immovable. As if he’d been clamped in irons.

He felt that rushing hidden thrill again. His body, shamefully, reacted to being so restrained, warmed by the insistent pleasure of Umbra’s touch. He felt his face heat, embarrassed tears stinging the corners of his eyes.

What was wrong with him?

The knight loomed over him again, his powerful form between Esra’s splayed thighs, dipping his head to taste the youth’s skin with the urgent hunger of a beast. Esra could make out the shape of him in the firelight; the muscles of his chest, his coiled waist, between his legs where his manhood jutted out, and… he hadn’t had much of a look at it before, but his eyes bulged now. No wonder he’d been in such agony.

“Umbra, I c-can’t…” he begged, but was cut off in a delicious gasp as Umbra wrapped a hot hand around his burgeoning erection, squeezed him, sending a pulse of pleasure-pain up his spine, down his shaking thighs.

“You know far better than to refuse me,” the knight murmured darkly, “don’t you?”

Fear bloomed in the youth at his mistake, his stomach knotting up. “I’m sorry,” he breathed, and cried out as Umbra squeezed him again. His wet eyes spilled over from the shock of it, tears slipping down his cheeks as Umbra slowly stroked him with a skilled hand. His chest heaved, his slim body trapped, unable to twist away.

“I know you are afraid.” The knight’s eyes were fierce with desire, watching Esra’s every tortured reaction. “I won’t go too hard on you. I won’t hurt you. But you’re mine now, Esra.” Another painfully exquisite squeeze. “And if I want you, I will have you.”

He leant close, dark lashes lowering over those smoky eyes, and mouthed ardently up Esra’s neck, jaw, catching his lips in a rapacious kiss. Esra came apart under it. His body was a shaking arch, kept beneath the knight, pinned so easily by one hand over his wrists, paralysed by the steady stroke over his hardness.

Umbra pulled away, panting, his smoky eyes running over the exposed youth beneath him. “I told you that I would keep you,” he said. “This is what that means – this is all mine, your flesh, your little sounds, all the pleasure your body can provide me with, any time I want it.”

He curled his fingers faster around Esra’s straining length, and Esra responded fitfully, his body bucking helplessly up for Umbra, eyes dipping closed, mouth dropping open in a desperate moan. He pushed, uselessly, against the hand that held him down.

A single hand – it sent thrills through him. With such little effort, Umbra completely overwhelmed him.

A dark laugh. “See? Your body knows what it wants, even if you deny it.”

The sensation overwhelmed him. “Umbra!” he gasped, his voice so shockingly vulnerable.

Umbra’s answering smile devastated him.

Esra had never experienced such pleasure before.

His skin tingled, his breaths came in shocked gasps. He lay spread out on the blankets and furs, fingers clutching the pillows above his head, his thighs splayed around Umbra’s bobbing head.

Umbra slowly opened him up with sweet slick oil, his fingers sinking into Esra, and curling just so to make him moan. His mouth consumed Esra’s cock, swallowing him, sucking back up with a pressure that made his spine arch, his whole body tremble.

He felt it again, that golden falling sensation, but before he reached completion, Umbra pulled back, a hand tightening ruthlessly around the base of his cock.

“U-umbra!” he groaned, biting his lip as the air brushed over his wet hardness. He could barely contain himself, filled to the brim with a vibrating energy that pushed, needed, to be released.

He couldn’t, with that grip around the base of him, and he actually sobbed as he felt that energy settle back, curl into him again, edging from pleasure into almost-pain. He wouldn’t be allowed such a mercy as release, not yet.

“I think you’re ready for me now.” Umbra pulled his fingers out of Esra slowly, deliberately wringing a whimper out of him. Esra could hear the burning need in that low voice, a dark desire only barely held back, a beast straining at its chains.

Umbra positioned him on his back, Esra’s knees bent high, vulnerable and open beneath him. He was moved so, easily, against the furs and blanket, with no choice but to accept it. Begging, pleading, didn’t work with the knight. All he could do was lie back and await his fate.

He was just a thing, he thought tremulously, as Umbra settled between his legs. A kept thing.

But the knight caressed his shivering skin with something close to reverence.

Esra stifled an undignified groan when Umbra shifted his hips, the slick tip of his manhood pressing against him, piercing into him with that now familiar humiliating stretch. He gripped the sheets and furs so he wouldn’t skitter back, his chest heaving.

But still, there was that threat of pain. The knight was so large, and Esra knew from the last time he’d been taken that he needed to relax, that struggling, resistance, would only make it worse. It terrified him to just lie back, to force himself still, perfect, obedient, and let the knight penetrate him.

He felt a sick sort of relief as Umbra’s hands gripped his hips, immobilizing him. One more choice out of his reach.

The knight dug further into the youth’s flesh. Esra gasped at it, as his insides were deliciously spread wide. The sensation of fullness was incredible. There was no pain, but the intensity was too much for Esra. He couldn’t stay quiet anymore, moaning with each shallow thrust.

Umbra was pitiless. His eyes were lowered, fixed where they were joined, watching his hardness rock deeper and deeper into the tight heat of Esra’s body. A drop of sweat trickled down his brow, down the bridge of his nose. His full mouth was slack in a panting gasp.

His skewering didn’t stop until he was pressed fully into Esra’s core, skin to skin. By then, Esra was just a shaking mess, any attempt at relaxing into his violation forgotten.

“Please,” he begged up at his knight, for mercy, to be spared. “Please, don’t…”

Those violent eyes snapped to Esra’s face.

Esra cried out blindly as Umbra withdrew, speared him again, fast and fierce. The sudden impalement sent a sharp jolt up his spine, too intense to be anything close to pleasurable.

Oil slicked Umbra’s movements, and he hammered into the youth, his thrusts moving Esra bodily up the bed. He yanked Esra back beneath him, and forced his wrists above his head, pinning him in place to be ruthlessly taken.

Esra heard distressed sobbing, and realised it was being wrung from his own throat. He twisted his head to the side, cheek sliding over smooth fabric as he was jolted over and over into the mattress. He drowned in sensation, that cruel thudding hurt, fucked so fast it didn’t seem possible.

Umbra finally took pity on him.

He slowed his pace, and let Esra’s numb hands go. A pleased, if slightly surprised expression flashed over his face when Esra’s arms immediately rose to embrace him.

“Please don’t go so hard on me,” Esra whimpered into Umbra’s sweat-sheened skin, his hands nervously caressing the knight’s broad back, feeling owned.

Umbra smiled and kissed Esra’s bruised mouth in response. “Don’t worry,” he hushed, in between kisses, his eyes dark and beautiful. “I know how you like it.”

As he spoke, he didn’t stop the slow roll of his hips into Esra’s shaking body. There was no pain, only the sweet ache of slick flesh moving within him in deep, possessive strokes. Umbra’s weight crushed him down, his size and strength all-encompassing. Esra let his head fall back, eyes slide closed, gasping little breaths with each thrust.

Then he spasmed, Umbra angling their movements to spark that coiled pleasure alive again in him. Esra cried out in shamed rapture, fingers scrunching in the sheets, his body almost convulsing around Umbra’s cock. What was he, to be so undone by this?

“Aaah, Esra,” the knight groaned, and started fucking him in earnest.

It felt sublime, revelatory. Somewhere, overhead, came the roll of thunder.

Esra dug his fingers into the writhing muscles of Umbra’s back, felt searing arcs of pleasure spiral down his legs, in his groin, up his spine. Umbra pressed his forehead to Esra’s neck and ground into him, again and again against that spot, letting out guttural grunts, his every breath hissing through clenched teeth.

The bed rocked with their movements, and all Esra could do was hold fast to the knight and try not to scream. He felt hard enough to burst, leaking over his own stomach, he was so close…

“Please let me,” he begged, voice ragged with need, “please let me, I need to, Umbra… oh, oh please…”

“Esra…” Umbra sounded almost, shocked. He cradled the youth closer, whispered in his ear, “You’ve been so good. Come for me, Esra.”

It was not a command Esra was capable of disobeying.

He heard his own voice as he came, a paralysing groan that came from deep within him. He spilled over their stomachs, convulsing, slumped boneless in Umbra’s arms. The moment of completion felt like giving in to something greater, like he’d joined with Umbra and let him steal his soul, leaving him empty.

Umbra pushed deep in towards his belly and gripped Esra tight, filling him in return.

They stole under the sheets. Umbra pulled him close, stroked a palm down his side, up, then down. Esra was so exhausted he could barely respond, but the warm tingling of Umbra’s touch over his still sensitive skin had him curling up to the other.

He needed that touch, that wordless praise. Umbra, maybe knowing this, maybe simply enjoying the feel of it, ran his fingers through the silk of Esra’s hair, massaged deliciously over his scalp, feeling the texture.

Esra leaned into it, letting himself pretend. He sighed quietly when Umbra took him into the shelter of his arms. He’d never admit it aloud, but the feeling of lying so close to the knight, surrounded by the lazy strength of him, was something close to bliss.

“Look at you,” murmured the knight, his voice so hushed that Esra might not have heard him, had he not been cradled so close. “Who would’ve thought I’d find something like you in such a wretched place?” He brushed the back of his knuckles over Esra’s cheek, watched the youth wet his lips. “The wilds eat the weak, and yet, here you are.”

The fire had burned low, and the room was lit with a dim red glow. Rain hammered down overhead. The storm had not yet run its course.

“Do you know what a Reaper’s Rest is, Esra?”

The question startled him. “No, Sir Knight,” he answered nervously. Umbra wanted to talk with him?

“These are old places.” Umbra stretched a little, relaxing the tired lines of his towering figure into the mattress. He kept Esra close with a possessive arm curled around him. “Hundreds of years old. Before us knights, before the Order.”

“Did… Balor, build them?”

Umbra huffed a laugh, his head dropping to the pillow. “I forget, sometimes, how little you know about your own country. Balor raises cities, Esra. Not little stone huts.”

Esra felt his face heat, embarrassed. He knew very little about life outside his village, apart from what he’d heard in stories, and less still about anything relating to the God King. “I’m sorry, I… I only know what I heard from others,” he stammered, and Umbra hushed him, tenderly stroking his palm over Esra’s back.

“You want to know the story?” he asked, with a sly glance in his direction, a smouldering smile.

Esra nodded swiftly. He loved stories, when people could spare the time to tell him one, hungering for tales of the world that he’d never get to see.

Umbra cleared his throat, and made a sweeping gesture above them as if he were showing Esra the stars. “Hundreds of years ago,” he began, “when Balor first rose from the sea and defeated the fae kings, life was very dangerous for the common man. For in retaliation, the fae had started turning themselves into beasts.”

“Monsters?” asked Esra, his eyes wide.

“Yes, and this is where a lot of Fomori myths come from. The beasts roamed the lands in different forms, terrorised villages, even cities. Balor wanted to protect the faithful, but he could not be everywhere at once. So, he chose twenty of the greatest soldiers in the lands, and made them into his reapers.”

Umbra’s eyes were far away, reverent, gazing up at the ceiling like he could picture it, his seabeast god taking a man and… changing him.

“The process was similar to what knights of the Order go through now,” the knight continued, “but the reapers were transformed… further. Larger, stronger. More bestial.”

How had Umbra been changed? Esra couldn’t help but wonder. He couldn’t imagine the magnificent knight before him as anything other than what he was. But no normal man was born to be so towering in height, so savagely strong.

Esra tried to picture what Umbra would have looked like at his own age, before the transformation, the unearthly beauty of his knight on a youth just come-of-age. What had he been like? What even was his name?

“A reaper’s task,” Umbra explained, resuming his absent stroking down Esra’s skin, “was to travel the wilds from village to village, and hunt down the fae beasts. In thanks, folk built stone sleeping huts, just like this one, in the lands by their villages for their protectors to stay in along their journey. The huts, over time, came to be known as…” He trailed off, looked down at Esra, a brow raised.

“Reaper’s Rests,” Esra finished for him, and was rewarded with a gentle smile that had his heart beating a little faster.

“When the villagers saw smoke from the chimney of a Rest, they’d know a reaper was sleeping there. They would bring offerings for him – food, drink, that sort of thing. When reapers were no more, and the Order of Balor began, they did the same for the travelling knights.”

“Even today?” Esra asked.

“Even today. You’ll see for yourself, when we wake tomorrow.”

When Esra dreamed that night, he was a young child again, with a child’s fears.

He ran and ran, his tiny bare feet splashing over puddles, lost in his own village.

The storm wouldn’t stop. Heated water rained down from the sky, the steaming river burst its banks in a flood, and the deep grey sea rose high and drowned the homes and halls in fierce waves and smoky foam.

“Help me!” he begged as he tried to outrun the storm, his voice an airless rasp. “Father! Help me! Save me!”

But the hot water continued to rise, reaching his knees, his waist, his chest, and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t even scream, like an invisible hand had wrapped around his throat and sealed it shut.

“Father,” he mouthed, tears falling, as he was dragged into the boiling sea.

He was still crying as he woke, throat clenched, wheezing wetly, smothered in heat and darkness. Hot hands soothed down his sides, rolled him on his back, a gentle voice murmured his name, had him thinking, father…


A hand soothed over his forehead. His father was dead. Umbra stared back into his eyes.

Esra would have sobbed at the shame of such a mistake, if he could.

Umbra’s brow was creased with concern. “Esra, what’s the matter?” he asked, voice rough with sleep.

Esra clutched the hand that tried to soothe him, coughing and rasping. “I … c-can’t…” he attempted, and then his chest heaved uselessly, cutting off his words.

“Alright, alright,” the knight groused. “Don’t talk if you can’t breathe.”

The bed dipped as Umbra sat up, movements slow. He was still waking up. He took hold of Esra under the shoulders and pulled him up too, settling the gasping youth between his legs in a sitting position, his slim back to Umbra’s chest.

“You sound like you’ve a rattle in you,” came Umbra’s voice from behind his ear.

Esra sucked in a narrow breath to apologise, but Umbra shushed him.

“I told you not to talk,” he muttered, then, “Your breath is moving too fast,” A large hand went over his ribcage. “Slower, with me.”

He breathed calmly for Esra, loud enough for him to hear. Esra followed as best he could, still making that awful frightened wet sound, like he was drowning in himself.

“That’s it,” Umbra murmured gently. “That’s it. Good boy.”

Despite himself, that soft praise put a glow in him. He breathed with Umbra, slow, obedient, willed himself calm.

Umbra stayed with him for a good while, until Esra only had the slightest wheeze.

The rain had become a gentle patter overhead. It was pitch black now, cold everywhere but under the covers, or against Umbra’s skin.

The knight’s long legs bracketed Esra’s, his warm chest rising and falling against his back. He was unusually lax, and Esra would have thought he’d dropped off to slumber again if it weren’t for the absent caresses over his torso. The knight must have been in deep sleep when he heard the sounds of Esra’s fitful dream.

“I’m sorry,” Esra said eventually, voice tiny. “I… I have this throat thing. Ever since I was a small child. When I push myself too hard, or when I am very afraid, or sometimes, I don’t even know what I did to make it happen, I just…” he trailed off, embarrassed at revealing this part of himself. “I don’t know how to… explain it.”

He’d never been very good at talking about himself.

“That’s alright. What frightened you?” Umbra asked quietly, his hands skimming Esra’s sides. His voice was tired. “Nightmare?”

It all seemed so childish. “Yes,” Esra admitted to the darkness.

A sigh, not unkind. “Come here,” rumbled the knight. “Lie down with me.”

He pulled Esra close once they were under the blankets, although he was careful not to put too much pressure on Esra’s ribcage. Soft lips touched Esra’s forehead, a blossom of warmth.

“No need for nightmares,” a low voice hushed in his ear. “You needn’t fear anything, Esra. I protect what’s mine.”

Esra shuddered very gently. He knew that Umbra believed it, that he had the right to rip Esra’s life apart, take away everything that made him, him, and still position himself as his protector. His possessor.

Umbra’s vow was true. He never spoke what he didn’t mean. But to the knights of the Order of Balor, words had… different meanings.

A large hand trailed down his spine, rested at his hip.

“Sleep, Esra. I’m right here. I’ve got you.”

Blessedly, the rest of his night was dreamless.

Esra awoke confused into darkness, mind muddled, with no idea of where he was. It took a moment for him to reorient himself. The remains of his small village, dwarfed by the sea and trees, falling swiftly from view. The sky darkening, caught in a storm. Swept somewhere secret, and taken by his knight in a bed that felt like clouds.

That bed dipped beside him. Umbra rose, swung his feet over the edge of the bed with a low groan that was almost a growl.

Esra looked up at the broad expanse of Umbra’s back, vision blurred a little at the edges, his eyes sore and exhausted. It was dark in the Reaper’s rest, the only light coming from the uneven gap around the door. It threw a highlight over Umbra’s body, the sculpted shape of his muscles.

The knight ducked his head, rubbing his hands through his ash-brown hair, and sighing.

After a short pause, he turned to look at Esra. Their eyes met, points of gleaming light in the dim room.

“Woke you, hm?” said Umbra, his voice rough. He shifted his position, put a hand on Esra’s hip over the blankets. “You can sleep if you like. Going to check on Vaughn.”

“I’m not good at going back to sleep,” Esra said, voice small, exhausted. He’d drifted between dreams and wakefulness since his nightmare, since Umbra had held him while his throat had clenched tight. “Is Vaughn alright?”

“He’ll be fine.” Umbra said, petting him a little, and then turning away to get dressed. “There’s a horse stall out the back. Brushed him down last night, wrapped him up warm. He’ll be ansty from all the rain hammering over his head all night, but that’s it.”

All that muscle disappeared under his loose shirt, and Esra glanced away. He shifted a little under the sheets, to check for pain.

Unlike his first time, there were no sharp twinges, nothing that would make him flinch. He ached, in a used sort of way. He felt half-dead from exhaustion, but that was the previous day’s journey, followed by a lack of sleep. His stomach panged. He was starving.

Umbra, dressed in his undershirt and breeches, padded over to the front door and swung it open. Clear morning light spilled into the room.

There was no sound of rain. Just trees swaying, and the gentle chirping of the birds. They had different songs to the birds that had lived near Esra’s village, softer than the caw of a seagull, more musical.

“Esra, here,” Umbra said, nodding his head out the front door.

He raised a brow when Esra gingerly rolled out of bed, a blanket wrapped around him to preserve any remnant of modesty.

“You are a funny creature, my boy,” he said, tugging gently at the fabric as Esra drew near, his smoky eyes narrowed in the morning light. “There is no-one here but you and I.”

Esra’s thin fingers just clutched the blanket tighter, and Umbra laughed, ruffling the youth’s inky hair. It was unfair, Esra thought, for Umbra to be so pleasantly relaxed and refreshed after their night together, while Esra felt like a cloth wrung dry.

“There,” Umbra said, nodded his head out the open door. “See?”

Outside, under the porch of the Reaper’s Rest, lay a basket. It was covered by a heavy blanket in case of further rain.

Esra, after a questioning look at the knight, and an answering nod of permission, picked it up. He peered under the blanket to see the basket laden with breads, cheeses, dried fruit and other foodstuffs. At the smell of it, his stomach quietly rumbled.

He felt Umbra’s warm hand on his back, and turned to look up at him.

The knight looked dashingly handsome in the morning light, his ashen hair falling over his sharp features, his mouth quirking into a smile as his eyes roved over Esra’s nervous face. He dropped a kiss on Esra’s forehead, as chaste as a hero from the fae tales, then brushed past him into the crisp morning air.

Esra unpacked the basket onto the wooden dining table, and set it back outside the front door. Alone at last, he got ready for the day.

The youth swiftly dressed, absently combed his fingers through the worst of the tangles in his hair. His stomach rumbled again, louder this time, and he clutched it. He hadn’t eaten since the previous morning.

But he didn’t dare eat. There were courtesies so old that even his small hidden village lived by them, and Esra knew that Umbra would consider it rude if a peasant took a meal before a knight of the Order.

Everything he knew about the Order had the tone of myth and legend.

The knights were the highest power in the land, next to Balor and his entourage, but Esra knew little else that wasn’t hushed rumors of blood-drinking and immortality. He’d seen one of the myths itself, seen him violent, seen him kind. How far did Umbra’s power go? What sort of man would Esra be kept by?

He knew he did not have the experience to comprehend it. But he was curious, with a zeal he had not felt before. Stories had always delighted him, for the simple sake of hearing new things to lighten his routine days. But with the Order?

Esra hungered for more, with a curiosity that was beginning to burn at him.

He wanted to know more about Umbra. The man was unpredictable, his character as formless as smoke, forever just out of reach.

On the side table was laid out the blackened steel of the knight’s armor. Its sharp edges crisply caught the light from the morning sun through the open door, giving it the appearance of shifting scales.

Esra’s hands trembled as he walked closer. The mask sat neatly on the polished wood, harshly angular, strikingly elegant. To the touch, the surface was smooth metal, alarmingly cold. It scraped a little on the table as Esra picked it up, and the noise had him looking towards the door.

He was still alone.

The mask was heavy, large. Esra put a hand on the curve on either side, and held it higher up. The geometric curve glinted down at him, the light slithering over details that had Esra thinking of a living beast. He imagined Umbra down at him though it. How did he see?

Esra lowered the mask, flipped it over. The inside was shaped like a man’s face, but there was no way to see through it, and no way Esra could see of even keeping it on.

There was whorl of metal above the brow, like an enormous thumbprint, slightly ridged, spiralling towards the center of the forehead. Something about the perfection of that shape was… hypnotic.

Esra couldn’t help himself. His hands were steady, and he moved as if compulsed, raising the mask to his face like he’d seen Umbra do in times before, and placing it against his flesh.

He didn’t know what he expected – some flash of magic, some great sensation of power conducted through him… but he felt nothing. He just stood there, holding cold metal to his face, completely blinded. Confused, he let go of the mask. It fell off him immediately, as if he’d tried to balance a dining platter on his face, and he caught it only just in time.

Sheepishly, he replaced it. What had he been thinking..?

Nervous, now, Esra adjusted the mask on the side table just so, making sure everything was just as he found it.

And turned to see Umbra in the doorway.

The tall knight’s serene face was unreadable, like a statue.

“You shouldn’t be touching that, Esra.”.

Esra could have fainted. He dropped to his knees in a hurried bow, staring between his knees. He was shaking uncontrollably. “I’m… so sorry…”

He heard Umbra step in, shut the door behind him with a clip of the latch. A pause, as the knight looked over to where Esra shivered.

“Straighten up that bow if you want to appease me.”

An instruction. Esra, confused, straightened his back, tried to neaten his position. To his horror, he heard the slide of metal against stone to his side. The knight had taken up his scythe.

He’s going to kill me, Esra thought, realising the depth of his mistake, his mind descending into scratching white noise.

A voice, as if from far away.

“No. Up, on your knees, come on.” The knight’s tone was light, but Esra’s blood ran cold. He scrambled to obey, rising up but keeping his eyes downcast. “Now, round your spine and press your forehead to the floor, palms flat on either side of your head. Slower. You’re not flinging yourself to the dirt, you are apologising.”

Esra bowed low with as much grace as he could muster, and crushed his wet eyes shut. He imagined the scythe coming down in a sick thump over his neck, and had to bite back a whimper. The floor was hard under his knees, and the flagstone was rough on the skin of his face and palms.

“Hold your weight on your legs. Don’t want to see strain in your hands, nor a big red circle on your forehead after this.”

Esra shifted as best he could, panting from it. Umbra stalked around him, examining him from all angles, while the youth struggled to keep the bow looking perfect. He could hear the sharp tap of the scythe against the stone like a staff as the knight walked.

“Very good. Now, this is how you must be, if you want my forgiveness.”

A stuttering breath. “I’m sorry, Sir Knight. P-please… forgive me.”

He was close to tears. He stayed where he was, because Umbra had not told him to stand.

“If I’m to take you to the capital, you must behave perfectly. You will not just be your own person. You’ll be representing me, and my judgement as a knight. If my peers see any flaws in you, they will use it attack my place in the Order of Balor.”

“I… please, I understand.”

“And don’t ever –” the knight came to a halt. “– put a finger on that mask.”

“I won’t,” Esra rasped. “I will never… Umbra, I will never touch it.”

A pause. Esra’s knees throbbed, but he didn’t dare shift a muscle. At last, he heard the scythe be set back against the wall.

“You may rise.”

Esra, shaking, rose to his knees. He wobbled a bit as he stood, the blood rushing from his head and making his entire body feel too light and out of his control. Umbra put a hand on his shoulder, steadying him. Esra couldn’t bring himself to look up at his captor, instead keeping his gaze on the front of Umbra’s shirt.

The knight reached out an elegant hand, tucked Esra’s rumpled hair behind his ear, and considered him.

“Look at me.”

Esra inhaled shakily. He was afraid of seeing the knight as he had first seen him, stern, merciless. It seemed impossible, but he forced his eyes upwards.

He saw a blur of pale skin and ashen hair, and Umbra kissed him. His lashes were long against his cheek, and he moved his mouth so sweetly that Esra gasped into it, his eyes flickering shut. He yielded swiftly, his heart pounding, and returned the kiss with a tentative gratitude. Instinctively, his hands went to Umbra’s chest, and he curled his fingers into the shirt fabric.

When Umbra had drunk his fill and pulled away, Esra’s eyes were blurred again with unshed tears. He didn’t loosen his grip on Umbra, and looked up at him with wordless pleas.

The knight’s eyes were soft. “I forgive you,” he said gently, unclasping Esra’s fingers and taking the delicate hands between his own. “You mustn’t be so curious, Esra. Especially where we’re headed.”

They ate breakfast together this time, sitting at the table. Esra was ravenous, but he ate cautiously, making sure that Umbra had the first choice of everything. He felt dirty from the previous night, and combed his fingers restlessly through the knots in his hair.

Umbra noticed. He sat back a little, and gestured over Esra. “What’s the matter?”

“Is there…” Esra murmured, “a river nearby? To bathe?”

“Ah.” The knight’s attention went back to his food. “Suppose. Prefer hot baths.”

“I can heat you water,” Esra offered.

“There’s no tub. Was speaking of the grand bathhouse in the capital. Waters of all different temperatures, and soaps, and scents, and…” he shot Esra a half smile, “… by Balor, a man can miss civilisation.”

Esra rubbed his arm, and nodded hesitantly. He’d grown up with few creature comforts, and only knew of the luxury of the capital from the stories.

“We’re not far away, if that’s what ails you. Be at the capital before noon.”

“I-I…” Esra stammered, “… do not feel clean.”

Umbra scoffed over his bread. Then, he looked at the youth more carefully. Esra’s face heated at the perusing gaze. He didn’t know it, but the knight found the blush on his cheeks quite becoming. “You think people will take a look at you, and know what we’ve done?”

Esra ducked his head, embarrassed. It was indeed his fear.

Umbra seemed greatly amused. “Never seen your own face? Need to get you a mirror, boy. You look pure as a maid.” He popped a dried fruit into his mouth, watching Esra’s flush deepen in mortification. “You look incorruptible even when I’m in you, somehow.”

Esra made a strangled noise in the back of his throat, and stared bug-eyed at the knight.

“No river venture. You will wait for the bathhouse. I’d like to set off as soon as we are able. Come, be my squire. I need to get this armor on.”

The storm must have emptied the skies, Esra thought, as they set forth on the last stretch of their journey. The howling winds and crashing rains that had so drenched them the previous night seemed, in the tender morning light, like they’d happened in another world.

The air smelled crisp and fresh. Vaughn trotted over green and luscious grass, where flowers uncurled their petals. The filtered sunlight through young leaves cast beautiful abstract shapes along the forest path, dappling them in light and shadow.

In only a few minutes, Esra caught sight of chimneys, roofs, smoke cutting into the air. Not one, but two tall towers he could see over the trees. A place more populated and clustered than he had ever seen.

“Is that the capital, Sir Knight?” he asked, his hand clutching the knight’s cloak. “There must be so many living there!”

He heard Umbra’s throat catch, and then the knight coughed to suppress a laugh. “It’s only Hornfast, Esra,” he said, as Esra reddened in embarrassment. “A township that trades in… building materials, I believe. I’m not entirely sure. They look after the Rest. We ate their food for breakfast.”

The place seemed grand to Esra. Even the market town he’d visited once seemed bare in comparison. How little he had seen of the world…

“If only the journey could be so short. No, Esra. We should be there late afternoon,” Umbra had told him. Now, even shielded by his mask, Esra could tell that the knight was eager to be home.

And Esra, for all that he missed his village, and mourned the simple life he had been forced to leave, could not help but feel a strange thrill run rich through him at the thought of reaching the capital. The stories he’d been told all mixed together to paint an enchanting picture of a vast city, terrifying and beautiful, filled with merriment, danger, and adventure.

It was wrong to feel such things, he knew, and his heart was pained with a heavy guilt.

Umbra petted his leg. “If you think that Hornfast is impressive, you’ll probably pass out when you see the capital.”

He saw his first glimpse of the castle the moment they rounded the pillar cliffs – a tall twin peaked citadel, high walls, waving flags, reaching higher than the mountains, into the clear blue sky. His gasp amused Umbra.

“That is the capital. Balor’s Throne. When the God King came from the blessed ocean to these lands, he raised it from the ground himself. It’s the largest city in Fomoria. And, I think, the most beautiful.”

Balor’s Throne rose up from fertile lands, higher than even the rocky hills, facing eastward to the blessed ocean.

“You live here?”


He could hear the smile in Umbra’s words, but understood it. He’d never seen a sight more beautiful and imposing before. Only in tales could he have imagined this graceful high-walled city. Esra couldn’t quite comprehend the size of it. The castle seemed so huge, even from this great distance.

Vaughn walked steadily on.

“The city itself is full of all sorts of folk,” Umbra told him. “From vastly wealthy, to poor. The castle is at the highest point of the city. Its lower wings are for the nobles and other honored people. The servants and slaves live in the belly. Balor, and his knights of the Order, live in the upper wings.”

Esra had no idea where he would fit in that arrangement. “Where will… where will I be living?”

The knight tilted his head towards Esra. “With me, of course.”

He steered the flighty Vaughn faster, ending the conversation.

They trotted past small farm townships that dotted the lands outside the city, past the barracks of Balor’s Fist that sprawled out from alongside the high walls of the capital. The walls were so high that Esra could not glimpse the city within. Only the castle, high and piercing, rose above the towering stone barrier, as if it were to trespass the sky.

He heard the sounds of the city as they approached.

Seagulls wheeled overhead, cawing at the travellers. There was one gateway into the city, and ornate arch that breached the high walls, tall enough for a giant, and bustling with carriages, piled high carts, and other folk, lone wanderers, merchants, families, soldiers. There were guards at the gate, and men and women in official robes, checking tattoos and paperwork with weary expressions.

Esra gasped when he glimpsed inside, rows of flagstone streets and houses of wood, brick, stone all the way up the hill, so bursting with life he couldn’t comprehend it. Trees rose up above fine buildings, and the roads were filled with workers, horse-drawn carriages, merchants calling out praise of their wares.

People startled when they saw the imposing black knight, and the crowds moved aside for him. The officials bowed him through the arch with murmurs of welcome. There were no queues, no checks, for the Order of Balor. However, a few curious eyes slid over the gracile youth in worn peasant garb who rode pillion.

Vaughn trotted proudly through the flagstone streets, swishing his tail. Esra was in awe at the sights, the smells. A town crier called out the news, of a criminal caught, a visiting envoy from the Weald. The streets were packed with people, lined with a variety of stores, inns and taverns. Grand guild buildings rose high, with their banners flapping outside.

Most were almost reverent of the passing knight, but the children who darted the streets had no such compulsion, calling out ‘Sir Knight!’ as they passed, giggling red faced when Umbra gallantly tipped his head at them.

It struck Esra that, despite the busyness around them, Umbra rode through the crowded streets of Balor’s Throne just as he had ridden through the wilds. He had his own pace, and the world moved for him. He was abruptly separate from the rest of humanity, venerated, but kept distant. But still, he was magnificent to look upon, tall and handsome upon his steed, and his small kindness to the children touched Esra’s heart.

As the the streets wound higher, the buildings became more grand, and the citizens more finely dressed, with coiffed hair and clad in colored fabrics. Some even wore jewelry, or fur. The black knight stood out starkly in his midnight steel among the bright city folk, and Esra saw many darting eyes in their direction.

Esra caught sight of a crowd as they rode ever higher, clustered around costumed men on a wooden stage. One of the players was beseeching the crowd in a heartbroken cry, a rose pressed to his ruffled chest:

“If love be false, oh, what fills my heart so? And if love true, then is it sane or ill? If love be good, from whence come my woe? If wicked, oh, I think it wonderous so, that every torment and adversity that comes of love seems bliss I think… for I ever thirst the more and more I drink.”

He didn’t hear the rest, the man’s high voice drowning in the shouts and sounds of Balor’s Throne.

The madam of the grand bathhouse fussed over her illustrious guest, ordering servants here and there, guiding Umbra herself to a more secluded part of the great hallway. Umbra was utterly unphased by the bowing and scraping, merely motioning for Esra to keep up.

Esra followed obediently, but found he could not pay much attention to their conversation, more caught up by the beautiful patterns the colored tiles made over the walls and floors – depicting sea dragons and curling waves in creams, gold and cerulean. The swoop of scales and water almost seemed to be moving, a magical arrangement of ceramic giving the illusion of life.

He felt the steamy heat from further inside. Umbra claimed that Balor had brought up water from deep below the ground, heated by the earth itself, into plentiful hot springs. There was the murmur of voices further in the bathhouse, but they were led to a private room instead, behind a door with that same scythe symbol emblazoned overhead as the Reaper’s Rest.

The madam bowed low and left them. Umbra let out a little sigh, and entered the room. Esra kept close, shutting the door behind them both.

He could smell the perfumed water behind the curtains, invigorating herbs that had him thinking of autumn. An attendant stood waiting inside, a beautiful girl in a sheer yellow robe, her auburn head bowed.

“I’ve prepared the waters, Sir Knight,” she said, voice soft. “May I assist you further?”

Umbra waved a dismissive hand, seemingly unaffected by her beauty. “No. Will summon you should I require anything.”

“Your will be done, Sir Knight.” The attendant bowed, her face clear of any expression, and retreated. To have such an opaque face before such power, Esra thought wistfully. His own emotions had always betrayed his features.

Her eyes caught Esra’s as she passed, and upon looking over him, they softened in understanding. The door clicked shut behind her.

“Esra,” Umbra prompted gently, and Esra startled to attention, looking up at his knight in question. “My armor.”

The hot water steamed. There were dried herbs in the water and soap flakes to make it bubble. In any other circumstance, Esra would be eager to enter the beautiful round pool, surrounded by fluted pillars, greenery woven up the slatted walls at the head of the room. Of course, it was much too fine for him.

His eyes were caught on Umbra, indeed, had not left him.

The knight sighed as he sank into the water, submerging himself. He broke above the water with a sharp inhale, hair slicked back over his skull, and relaxed against the wall of the bath. His pale skin glistened, dripping trails of water, and his smoky eyes went to Esra, who hovered self-consciously by the curtain in his tunic and breeches.

“The water is lovely,” he rumbled, a pleased smile on his handsome features. “Come in with me.”

Esra wasn’t going to disobey a direct order, but his heart beat fast in his chest at the thought of what he was asked to do. “In the pool, Sir Knight?”

Umbra raised an elegant brow, as if to say, where else?

Esra nodded, and fiddled anxiously at the knots of his tunic. His eyes kept flicking up to the knight, and his cheeks were flushed pink.

“Should I turn my head?” asked Umbra, half-teasing. “No need to be so modest, Esra. You are quite easy to look upon.”

Esra stammered at that, only making the knight’s smile widen. “N-no, it’s…” Esra tried, but he relented. The nervous youth undressed swiftly, trying not to make a performance of anything. He did not once look over at Umbra, but he could feel the weight of his attention regardless, and it put a tremble in his hands.

When he entered the bathing pool, the sensation of hot water over his skin had him gasping. It felt blissful. The pool was deep, and Esra was in up to his waist in the heated scented water, spirals of steam coming up from the surface.

Umbra chuckled at the expression on his face. “Nothing like it, is there?”

Esra shook his head, ducking down so that he sank into that inviting heat up to his shoulders. His hair floated around him like seaweed. “… do all city folk experience this?”

“Of course,” said Umbra genially. “They have the public baths, open to anyone. But this area is for the Order exclusively.”

He smiled dangerously at Esra.

“Get over here. Didn’t bring you with me just to look at you.”

It wasn’t difficult to attend to Umbra. The tall knight sat where he was told, closed his piercing grey eyes, and let Esra serve him, meek as anything.

Esra scrubbed his ashen hair, massaged his fingers into the scalp. Umbra’s mouth relaxed in bliss. He almost melted into Esra’s hands, his beast gone tame.

He was so beautiful, Esra thought. It was a surprise every time, to look upon him, how striking his appearance. His skin was bone pale, a shade unseen among the villagers who’d worked their hardest in the sun.

But he was not without color. The heat flushed his skin. His ash brown hair reminded Esra of bird feathers, the underside of a wing. And his grey eyes, when looked upon closely, were speckled with flecks of gold, hidden flame in the ashes of a fire.

When Umbra had had enough of Esra’s ministrations, he brushed the youth away and relaxed, boneless, at the side of the pool to watch his attendant bathe.

Esra nervously cleaned himself, although it was different with an audience. He took a long while untangling his long hair, which had been buffeted about on the journey. He twisted out the water when his fingers ran smoothly through it. The scented soap flakes left his skin feeling buttery smooth, and smelling of autumn. He smoothed over his arm, and marvelled at the feel.

Water lapped as Umbra rose. A large hand stroked down his waist, but he didn’t startle. “Feeling better now?” came Umbra’s low voice.

Esra nodded, turning so he could look up at the towering knight. “I can see why you missed this,” Esra said. It was a like a little private haven.

Umbra’s usually stern gaze was soft over the youth, warm with pleasure. He looked more relaxed than Esra had ever seen him, and seemed to glow with it.

“Alas, duty takes me out of the city more often than not,” sighed Umbra, but his eyes travelled over Esra’s slim form. “I don’t mind it. The pleasures in life only grow sweeter when you long for them.”

He came closer, walking through water until they were only inches apart, and ran his fingers through the silken length of Esra’s wet hair. The knight’s gaze smouldered, captivating, watching as Esra inhaled sharply, having felt the caress throughout his whole body.

When he bowed his head to bring their mouths together, Esra let him. The youth yielded with a soft moan, neck arched back, face upturned to meet full lips.

Warmth surrounded him as Umbra embraced him. In the steaming water, they kissed with a slow passion. Heat curled deliciously through Esra’s skin, and he embraced the knight in return. It was sublime, perfect.

But he could not help his shiver of guilt.

Umbra backed him to the wall of the pool, until Esra’s spine was pressed to the cool stone.

Esra barely had time to think before was kissed so deeply, so intimately, that it sparked tremors down his body, his legs, to where his toes dug into tiles. The knight’s hot hard body urged against his own, muscles coiling as he encircled Esra in his strong arms. The water lapped at their waists, tendrils of steam rising around them as Umbra’s clever mouth undid him.

They kissed for a long while, slowly, but passionately, lips melting together in the heated water. With the stone behind him, and Umbra before him, Esra had nowhere to retreat. All he could do was yield, too afraid to dare pull away, but soon he was caught up in the intoxicating soothe of Umbra’s kiss.

He drowned in the sensation of it. Only a few days ago, he could never have comprehended this. So much was new to him. He clung to his knight, the massive height of him, and let himself be overwhelmed. Large hands slid down Esra’s slim neck, his shoulders, to his waist, and gripped.

When Umbra kissed him like this, he inevitably wanted… more.

Esra yelped as his feet left the tiles, his stomach swooping as he was lifted so effortlessly that he felt weightless. He caught a glimpse of Umbra’s smoky eyes, heavy-lidded with desire, before their lips met again in a fervent kiss.

The knight’s strength was terrifying. Esra knew it to be deadly, had seen the results of it. So easily he had overpowered Esra, and as it always had, the youth found a strange guilty thrill in it. He shouldn’t want it.

He knew he shouldn’t want a lot of things that he found himself craving now.

Umbra had so ruthlessly stripped away all the trappings of Esra’s life, taken him from the only place he’d ever truly known, and still the youth was entranced by him. He barely knew who he was anymore.

He supposed, he’d be whatever Umbra shaped him to be.

Entwined, waist deep in the waters, Esra let himself fall away and succumbed to the knight’s greedy kiss.

When they broke apart, Esra felt dazed, boneless. He lay languid in Umbra’s arms, and Umbra, panting, buried his face in the sensitive crook between Esra’s neck and shoulder. The knight inhaled deeply. His grip around Esra’s waist was hungry, half caress, half hurt.

Esra’s heart hammered in his chest as the knight let out a low moan, but just when he thought he was going to be flung over the side of the pool and ravaged, Umbra instead reluctantly set the youth back on his feet.

His grey eyes were dark with barely restrained passion, flicking over Esra’s face to his lips, down his chest to the waterline. “Wish I had less to do today.” he muttered, a sharp glint in his eye.

Esra did not know how to feel about that.

He supposed he felt relieved that Umbra wasn’t going to take him here; he still had a lot of fear built up around being used so, and ached from the journey, and their last night together. But his skin tingled where they touched, and his body had begun to respond to Umbra.

He felt a strange reluctant pang as his hands slipped from Umbra’s powerful shoulders, eyes near closed. Gently, he twisted the scented water from his damp hair, unsure of what was expected from him. The tall knight stood close before him, watched him in longing, but he didn’t do anything. Esra could hear his breathing, could feel the heat radiating from his body.

“Look at you,” Umbra murmured, his voice so close it was like it came from Esra’s head. “You look like a painting.”

Esra’s brow twisted in genuine bewilderment, and he flushed pinker than he already was. Another compliment, he supposed, that he did not quite feel he deserved. He was so unused to them.

Umbra smiled roguishly as he peered at Esra’s reddened cheeks, then, there was a faraway look in his eyes.

“Unwise to keep a God waiting, I suppose.” he said eventually, and tilted his head towards the exit. “Come along, Esra. His Majesty awaits me, and I must get you settled.”


Behind the curtain, a set of black clothes had been laid out for Umbra, in the styles of the wealthy that they had passed on their way to the bathhouse. His black steel mask rested neatly on top, gleaming darkly on the rich fabrics. Beside it were the clothes Esra had worn here, washed and dried, and laid out for him.

Umbra looked terribly stern in black, Esra thought, compared to how he’d glowed in his cream undershirt by the fireplace of the Reaper’s Rest. His clothes, all finely made with thick opulent materials, were cut close to the line of his body, rendering his muscled figure in a shadow silhouette.

Esra neatly tied his loose sleeves back as he watched Umbra dress. “Sir Knight..?”

“Mm?” Umbra’s eyes darted in his direction.

“Do you only wear black?”

The knight dusted a pale hand down the black doublet. “It is an honor to wear it. Only the Order wear black from head to foot.” He paused, then shot Esra one of his dangerous smiles. “Why, boy? Does it not suit me?”

He glimmered down at Esra, his bone-white skin glowing against the midnight fabric, the black bringing out the depth of his grey eyes. Umbra would look handsome any color, Esra thought faintly, and stammered out, “It suits you well, Sir Knight,” as he suppressed a small smile.

Umbra gave him an amused look, then looked more closely at his captive. He picked at Esra’s sleeve. “We’ll need to get something for you that isn’t peasant garb,” he mused. “I have a few ideas. Although, that will have to wait. Follow me, Esra.”

He placed on his mask, and strode out.


Afternoon had turned to early evening, golden hour, when they headed for the castle. They didn’t go through the main entrance, up the grand steps – Esra was dressed too humbly for that. Instead, they’d gone through the dark belly of the castle.

They’d climbed endless spiral staircases, walked dark narrow tunnels; servant passageways, Umbra had explained. The few servants and slaves that they walked by would hurriedly press themselves against the wall, so the black knight could pass. Their eyes were downcast for Umbra, but they all shot Esra curious looks. The youth, with his wide-eyed wonder and humble clothing looked quite out of place next to a resplendent knight of the Order.

When they exited out into a wide hallway, Esra had to pause for his eyes to adjust. He winced, light streaming in from the arched windows. Guards marched the halls, the stamp of their boots echoing against the stone floor. As they passed, they inclined their heads in respect to the black knight. Umbra, as usual, barely took notice. He looked like some sort of aloof prince, stalking the halls of his castle dressed all in black. Esra followed in his wake.

They were surely out of the servant passages now. There were tapestries on the stone walls, Fomori myths depicted in thread. Beautiful figures ascended from spiralling waves. Majestic spires rose from barren rockland, the birthing of a city. Millions prostrated themselves before a glowing giant.

And paintings too, in ornate frames. One caught Esra’s eye – a landscape, of a grey ocean cast in gold as the sun dipped below the horizon, a lone figure rendered in hazy shadow, watching from the corner.

The vastness of the bleak ocean before such a tiny figure had Esra thinking of his home.

He’d wake with the sun, and walk out of the sleeping hut to see this same blue-grey expanse, rushing against the shore. Sometimes he would see sails on the horizon, his father’s ships coming home. Sometimes the sea would whip up into a storm, and as a child, Esra would curl up in his father’s arms in terror, certain that they would be swept away…

“You like those sorts of things, don’t you?” came Umbra’s voice suddenly. He was peering down at Esra with interest. “Storytelling,” he elucidated, as Esra blinked up at him. “Myths and legends. I saw you looking at the street players as we passed. And now tapestries, paintings. Do the arts interest you?”

Esra flushed, caught off guard. “Y-yes, Sir Knight,” he stammered. “Although, I have not seen much of these things before.”

Umbra made a humming noise. “A pity you cannot read. I have many books that would interest you, otherwise. With me, Esra.”

The knight had stopped before a heavy wooden door at the end of the hallway, and raised his eyebrows at Esra. The youth hurried forward as the door swung open, and was ushered inside.

Esra had never realised quite how humble his life was, until he stepped into Umbra’s rooms.

The stone walls were round, encircling a beautiful space with places to sit, stuffed bookshelves, tables cluttered with curios. The walls were decorated with tapestries, prints and paintings, the largest being a baroque map, that Esra recognised by shape, identical as it was to the navigational maps used by his village’s sailors for their journey to the Continent.

A wide arch, the shutters open, lead to a balcony. Esra gasped, and ran to it.

Umbra’s rooms were in a circular turret, which explained the shape of his lounge. From his balcony, the view was beautiful. He could see the whole of the city sprawl, and beyond it, the ocean. It didn’t seem so vast and terrifying from here, above it all. Instead, the blessed ocean was majestic, breathtaking. It glittered in the early evening light like something magical.

“Am I really to live here?” Esra asked breathlessly, turning to see Umbra standing by him, watching the joy on the youth’s face.

“Yes,” said the knight simply, a faint smile on his lips. He’d taken his mask off, holding it loosely in hand. He leaned on the balcony by Esra, unaffected by the view, his eyes instead trailing over his latest possession. To him, no doubt, Esra was much like a new tapestry, or some curious trinket. Something pleasing that he could distract himself with, when bored.

Esra’s gaze returned to the streets. The seagulls circled below them, cawing. Beyond their white wings he could see the expanse of the city beneath, a rich carpet of twisted streets, homes, businesses, inns, theatres, and more. The people who thronged the city were as small as ants to him, but he could see the color of their clothing, hear their voices rise even to the height of the castle. Small circles of gold were beginning to bloom. They were lighting the street lanterns.

Caught up in the beauty of the city before him, his mind rushed with excitement. Before him, a thousand stories were being played out, like the tales Kian had…


Heavy guilt crushed any joy Esra felt. For a moment, he’d forgotten the sacrifices that had brought him here, and Esra’s stomach twisted bitterly. How could he?

Now, the beauty of the sight before him almost hurt. It didn’t seem right, Esra thought, to be able to live in such luxury, to feel excited about it, when everyone he knew had suffered at the hands of…

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Umbra’s long dark figure shift, and the knight moved closer to him. Esra turned to him, and the knight’s hand went to Esra’s narrow shoulder, stroking down his waist. There was yearning in his eyes, and an enforced distance.

“Stay,” he told Esra. “Have business to attend to.”

Esra didn’t quite know what to say. “You are leaving?” he asked, a little nervously, and he found that he did not want Umbra to leave him here alone.

Esra was a stranger in these lands. He knew no-one, knew none of the customs. His un-inked arms marked him as an outsider to anyone who might find him. Umbra was his only anchor, the only familiar thing he had left. And now, the knight wanted to leave him.

He felt an unmistakable dread rise in the maelstrom of his mind, and had to resist the urge to cling to Umbra’s sleeve.

Umbra either did not notice the fear in Esra’s eyes, or did not care. “Won’t be gone long,” he promised, and dropped a gentle kiss on Esra’s lips before pulling away, placing the black mask over his handsome features without another word.


Esra took a long while watching the city, as the sun went lower. He did not know what else to do.

When all the street lanterns were lit, Esra rubbed his eyes, and turned, cautious, to the knight’s dark rooms. How could someone live here, in such unspeakable luxury? He felt like he’d been accidentally locked in with a treasure trove, and was terrified of being spotted as an intruder.

But, Esra thought, If he was to live here, he should get to know the space. And he could admit it to himself. He was curious about the place Umbra called home.

What did the black knight value?

The largest room seemed to be the main living room that Esra had first entered, decorated in deep colors and dark wood. Over the door, that Esra had not seen when he first walked in, a banner of the Order of Balor was in proud place. Umbra’s scythe was bracketed on the wall, over a chest where his black armor was carefully stored. It must have been brought up to his rooms by a servant from the bathhouse.

And he owned books, endless books, indecipherable to Esra, but he could tell by the cracked spines that they’d been referred to often. Some were printed, stamped onto the pages, the ink slightly smudged. The rare few were hand-printed, each letter drawn by one of the learned-men from the Church of Balor. Esra traced the ink, wishing he had knowledge of letters.

Umbra’s desk lay towards the other end of the room, a private nook. He had a lamp there, stacks of parchment, bottles of ink. He’d been writing, in his scratchy black letters.

And Esra saw it then. It glimmered in the fading sunlight, a large geometric cluster. Darker than the shadows, with a promise of hidden beauty. Esra, captivated, picked it up.

The quartz was as heavy as a rock, heavier than some. It seemed dark black but, in the light, Esra could see a deep purple richness to it, like some inner midnight flame. It was mesmerizingly beautiful, and it caught Esra’s breath to know that… that this was what Umbra thought of when he looked into Esra’s eyes.

“What’s that you’ve got there, little one?”

Esra’s heart stopped in his chest. His thin fingers nearly dropped the quartz.

Spinning, he saw a fully armed black knight glinting in the doorway. Not Umbra. Not anyone he’d ever seen before. He could have fainted.

The knight paced forward on armored boots, every step a clink, clink. His heavy cloak swished over the wooden floors with his predator’s stalk. His hair was dark brown, with a slight wave to it. He had skin as pale as Umbra, but perhaps with more of a grey tinge to it.

His smile was wide with nothing but cruelty.

“What are you doing in here?” the stranger asked silkily, tilting his head in a raptorial way. “A peasant, in a knight’s quarters? Touching his possessions?”

Esra was immediately stricken with a panic that swallowed all sense. He backed away as the knight approached, banging his hip on the side table painfully. What could he say? He didn’t belong here, that much was obvious. Would this knight believe his story?

There was no escape. He clutched the quartz to his chest as the strange knight walked him up against the wall. A heavy hand slammed beside his head, and the stranger leaned in close.

“Best not to anger one who represents the law of the land,” the knight growled, towering over Esra. His dark hair just reached his shoulders, framing a strong jaw, cleft chin and that cruel smile. He was the exact same height and build as Umbra, Esra couldn’t help but notice. Probably something to do with how they’re made.

“No tattoo or brand, so you are no slave. Who are you?”

Esra was shaking uncontrollably. “I… I’m with…” he tried, mouth dry. “Please, Sir Knight, I did not break in.”

The knight looked at him. Despite the mask hiding his features, Esra had the strong sense that he was being examined. “So you’re here… with my brother knight?”

Esra nodded swiftly, eyes widening as the stranger chuckled lowly.

“… oh ho ho, didn’t think he had it in him. How interesting…”

A hand went to Esra’s face, and Esra flinched as the cold leather touched his jaw, then let out a little cry as it gripped painfully tight to tilt the youth’s face up.

“Known Umbra as long as he’s been a knight,” the stranger intoned, feeling the shape of Esra’s delicate features with an ungentle hand, smirking at the youth’s gasps and trembles. He could probably feel how close Esra was to tears. “He’s never brought anyone back before. What’s so special about you?”

Esra’s voice had left him. He gasped air. The knight’s hand went to his hair, running his fingers through it as if he were petting him, and then suddenly fisting it. He tugged Esra’s head painfully back, uncaring of Esra’s pained whimper, and leaned in close.

“Answer me, boy. Why you?”

Esra blinked hurriedly, tears pricking at his eyes from the pain. “I-I don’t know, Sir Knight!” he begged.

A huff of impatience. “Give me your best guess.”

Esra’s tongue failed him, his mind searching wildly for answers, but he honestly didn’t know. He had a vague idea that Umbra found something about him, his appearance perhaps, his nervous docility, pleasing enough to warrant sparing him the fate of the rest of his villagers. But surely there were slaves, artfully trained in obedience, who were far more beautiful than some peasant. And surely Umbra, with the vastness of his power, could have his pick of them.

He fought back the urge to break down weeping as the knight loomed over him, fearing punishment, fearing that this knight would cut out his tongue for his failure to answer…


Umbra! Esra could have collapsed from relief. He stood by the front door, mask in hand, and glowered with a dark fury.

The stranger, Arturo, gave a courtly dip of his head return. “Brother knight,” he said, his gallant behaviour belied by the unyielding hand still fisted in Esra’s hair. With a free hand, he removed his own pointed mask, and granted Umbra a wide smile.

If Arturo had been the one to come to Esra’s village, Esra would have taken him for handsome. He had that height, and strength. With his sharp jaw, intelligent features, and deep blue eyes, he was strikingly good-looking.

But compared to Umbra’s sleek beauty, Arturo looked… cruder. They had that same almost unnatural savage perfection, the symmetry of feature. But there was something monstrous about Arturo’s good looks, like he was still wearing a mask over some deeper evil.

“Is he yours?” Arturo asked innocently. “Apologies. Took him for a thief.”

Umbra narrowed his grey eyes. “No you didn’t.”

Arturo smiled.

Umbra walked into his rooms, latching the door shut behind him. His eyes darted between the two of them with something close to nervousness. Esra had never seen that expression on his face before. Something about Arturo chilled him.

“What are you doing here?”

Arturo didn’t move away from Esra. He didn’t even loosen his grip on the youth’s silky hair. Esra held himself still, limp, a rabbit caught in the jaws of a wolf. He silently begged that the knight would lose interest and drop his prey.

“You were due back in the city yesterday,” Arturo said easily. “Unlike you to be late, so I thought to track you down.”

He smiled cruelly down at his captive, and tugged back on Esra’s hair to stare more closely at his face. Esra winced in pain, his eyes watering. He tensed his fingers over the quartz, its geometric edges digging into his skin.

“Understand now, of course. He’s quite unique, your young man.” Arturo paused in consideration, dipping closer. Esra didn’t dare breathe. “Bit skinny for my tastes. Lovely eyes, though.”

Umbra flicked off his leather gloves and placed them on a side table, tugging the cuffs of his doublet. Every move he made was neat, precise. There was none of that lazy mastery that Esra had begun to see as almost a part of him. Umbra… was on edge.

“There was a storm.” His smoky eyes were fixed on Arturo. “Didn’t want to ride through it.”

Arturo took a deep huffing breath over Esra’s neck with menacing slowness. Esra shut his eyes and winced at the hot breath over his skin, the intimacy of it. “He smells delicious, Umbra. Did you take him to the baths?”

Umbra’s wary courtesy finally broke. “Esra, here,” he ordered, and Esra immediately wanted to run over to him, to safety.

But Arturo did not release him. The youth jerked uselessly in his grip. “Oh please, I’m not going to hurt him…”

Umbra arched a wry brow. “No need to defend yourself against something I did not accuse,” he said artfully, and gestured again for Esra to come to him.

Arturo groused for a moment, then reluctantly released the terrified youth. Esra scampered to Umbra, heart thudding in his chest. His scalp ached from how tightly he’d been gripped and he longed for the protection of Umbra’s embrace, but he dared not express either thought. Umbra spared him a piercing glance, enough to make sure that his property hadn’t been damaged in any way, and then his fierce attention went back to the intruder.

“Esra,” repeated Arturo with theatrical wistfulness, like he was tasting the syllables. “Pretty name.”

“Arturo…” Umbra growled.

The dark-haired knight strode right past Umbra further into the living room, to rest his armored figure on one of the upholstered couches. “Enough of the dramatics. Let’s catch up. Sit with me.”

Umbra paused, then followed. “Why are you here?” he asked, sitting opposite the intruder. Esra took the opportunity to replace the purple quartz.

“Think of it as a goodwill call,” drawled Arturo, stretched his arms out on the backrest.

“I think of it as an intrusion.”

“Brother knight,” Arturo purred, “I wish only to see you, to help you. You’ve been so distant. I worry.”

Umbra shrugged, and lazily settled back. “I’ve been working.”

“So I see.” Arturo’s dark blue eyes darted over to where Esra was hovering by the desk, flickered over his slim figure, his peasant garb. “Tell me, I’m curious. Who is he?”

“You know of my mission.”

“Of course.”

Umbra paused a moment, then looked over to Esra himself. He raised an elegant hand, a wordless summon.

Esra swallowed his fear. He walked over, feeling Arturo’s eyes burning into him, and rested his hand over Umbra’s palm. Umbra’s long fingers curled around Esra’s narrow hand, tugged him a little closer. “Their leader had one son,” said Umbra, his eyes gleaming with pride at Esra’s obedience. “This is him.”

Esra heard Arturo’s scoff. “A souvenir of sorts, then,” he drawled as if he didn’t care, but Esra could hear the interest in his voice. “He’s very obedient, for a rebel. Why did you take him?”

Umbra looked right at Arturo. He was smiling still, but his eyes were hard. His thumb circled gently over the top of Esra’s hand. “It’s my right to take from the populace as I so desire,” he pointed out. “Learned that from you.”

An accusation, gently put.

Arturo seemed to bristle, his nostrils flaring a little, before he relaxed again. “No one has tempted you before, to my knowledge,” he answered. “And you didn’t answer my question. Why him?”

“He pleases me,” Umbra said simply, finally dropping Esra’s hand, “so I invoked my right. Why does it matter to you?”

Arturo’s eyes darted out the window, and Umbra paused to consider.

“You came here because you thought I’d be alone.”

“I admit it,” Arturo said, waving his hand, “I wasn’t expecting to see your pet. Like I said, you’ve been distant. I miss your company.”

There was more to what he was saying, Esra realised. The other knight’s eyes were filled with an odd emotion as he looked at Umbra. Almost… longing. He had to tear himself away to spare a glance at Esra.

“Why don’t you get us something to eat and drink, little one?”

Umbra shook his head, his hand going to Esra’s wrist, halting him in place. “I cannot entertain you long, Arturo. There’s much to do.”

“Perhaps just some wine, then,” Arturo persisted.

Umbra tugged at Esra’s wrist when the youth flinched in automatic attention, and then released him. “Esra,” he said darkly, “sit down.”

Esra looked at the chair between them, but Umbra’s movement stopped him.

The tall knight took a large cushion from the couch, and dropped it on the floor by his feet. He didn’t have to point at it, or pet it like one might with a dog. Esra knew, instinctively, what was expected of him.

He had to be perfect, he reminded himself, as humiliation crept up his spine. He felt his chest seize up as he looked at the stuffed black pillow on the darkwood floor. Eyes downcast, he knelt.

Arturo let out a little exhale, dark blue eyes widening at the sight before him, the luminous knight in his richly decorated rooms, a slim youth arranged on a cushion by his feet.

Umbra was looking at Arturo, a slight smile at the corners of his mouth as he watched his brother knight soak in the sight of Esra’s obedience.

“My mission has taken up much of my time,” he said smoothly. “I can’t afford to sit around and drink, I’m afraid, but I will give you a few minutes.”

Arturo dipped his head respectfully. “I suppose Balor is pleased with your successes.”

Umbra relaxed. “He is.”

His hand went to Esra’s head, and he smoothed over the youth’s silky hair in a soothing gesture. He’s pleased, Esra thought thankfully, and leaned into the caress of fingers over his skull. Umbra petted him gently, soothing over where he’d been hurt by Arturo, comforting him. It felt blissful.

Arturo seemed mesmerized by him. “Have you told him of this one?”

“I told him I invoked my right of Knight’s Choice,” Umbra answered, “which he accepted. He’s seen Esra himself, of course. Through the mask.”

The couch creaked as Arturo leaned forward a little, his eyes piercing Esra. “You know, his looks didn’t strike me immediately, but the more I look at him, the prettier he gets. Something in the shape of his features… some sort of haunted innocence.”

Esra looked to the floor, horrified.

“How poetic,” Umbra remarked, amused.

“Like I said,” Arturo mused. “Not my type, but I won’t deny his beauty. He has the look of one of Erasmus’s virgins.”

Umbra made a thoughtful sound. “Perhaps. I enjoy Erasmus’s work. Have one of the paintings from that series, actually.” And he gestured somewhere behind Esra’s head.

“I know,” said Arturo, and he sounded sly. “I believe you and he have similar tastes. You know, you could probably lend him to Erasmus as a model. I know he’s been on the hunt for his next muse.”

Umbra’s hand hesitated, only a little, over Esra’s scalp. “Perhaps,” he said, with measured mildness, but Esra could tell he was genuinely interested.

When they at last could shut the door behind their unwanted guest, Umbra sighed deeply, deflated. He stalked back over to the couch and slumped into it, his figure taut with stress.

Esra followed nervously. “Is everything alright, Umbra?”

The knight’s reply was curt. “Yes.”

The youth bit his lip. “It’s only…”

Umbra sighed. Eventually, he waved Esra closer. “Here boy, sit with me,” he muttered, in something close enough to an order that it put a spring in Esra’s step. The knight’s heavy arm went over his shoulder the moment he sat down, pulled him close. Esra felt swallowed up by his embrace, and relaxed into it, comforted.

Umbra had noticed his fright. “You need not worry,” he gently assured the youth, in a soft tone. “I will not let him touch you again. What did I vow to you last night?”

Esra swallowed, thinking of when he’d woken in darkness, unable to breath. Umbra’s rumbling voice soothed his panic, and he’d been so warm, so gentle, holding Esra to his chest so they could breathe together.

“That you would protect me,” Esra answered.

Umbra nodded, looking somberly at him. “A knight’s vow is binding. You are safe with me, upon my honor.”

Esra frowned. I’m not the only one who was afraid of Arturo, he thought. “Who was he?”

Umbra sucked in a sharp breath, and looked out onto the balcony. There, the low sun had cast the sky in lilacs and gold. Against it, Esra could see the edge of Umbra’s profile, the perfect sharpness of his features, the tension in his jaw.

“Arturo is… my senior,” he said eventually. “In spirit, if not in rank. He found me when I was a young soldier in the Weald, fighting for the Black Prince. Thought I had potential as a knight of the Order.” Umbra rubbed his shoulder absently, perhaps a ghost of a memory. “Took me here, to the capital. Trained me himself, for the trials.”

There was more to the story, but Umbra looked tense, nervous. Esra was oddly startled by Umbra’s sudden vulnerability. Up until that encounter, Esra had been certain of Umbra’s invincibility. Now his heart went out for the knight, for what he was certain was remembered pain.

He laid a gentle hand on Umbra’s chest, and didn’t flinch away when the knight abruptly turned to him, disbelief etched in his brow, in his smoky eyes, as he looked over Esra’s worried face.

“Esra,” he breathed, and his arm crooked, pulling the youth closer. “You should not feel sorrow for me. I am not a good man.”

I know, Esra thought, though he did not dare say it. And yet, I do.

Ever since the bathhouse, he’d been terrified of Umbra becoming something ruthless again, ravaging him, deaf to Esra’s pleas. Arturo’s sudden appearance had put the knight on edge in a way that Esra had never seen before, and once they’d gotten him to leave, Esra had been dreading what he assumed would be the inevitable consequence of Umbra’s mood.

At his village by the sea, the silent gathering of black clouds before a storm would never fail to hypnotise him. He’d await the winds that pushed the ocean into fierce waves, the whipping rain, the building roll of thunder. He felt much that way now. Sitting silently with the morose knight, his small hand on that strong chest like a voiceless plea, Esra waited for him to snap into something ruthless.

But his fears were unfounded. Entwined on the couch in the dying daylight, Umbra had only sighed, and held him close to kiss him.

The knight was almost tentative at first, his deep eyes meeting Esra’s before bringing their lips together. His mouth was gently explorative, his large hands soothing warmly over Esra’s shoulders and back, like Esra was something precious and easily broken.

Umbra was holding himself back, for some reason, but there was a surging need behind every touch that Esra could feel in the heat of Umbra’s skin, the uncomfortable shift of his hips. Esra felt it too. His skin tingled, and his heart hammered fast. He felt like he was being unfolded, some secret part of himself coming to light in Umbra’s hands to be treasured.

He couldn’t have predicted this. Maybe, finding Esra in Arturo’s grip sparked some protective instinct in the knight. Or perhaps, Esra looked as vulnerable as he felt. He could have been one long bruise, sore head to toe from the journey, from Umbra’s previous attentions, from Arturo’s cruel hand in his hair. Umbra touched him like he wanted to soothe the many pains away, even the ones he himself had caused, and Esra succumbed to this wordless apology.

During their long, languid kisses, the sun slipped below the horizon.

The room dimmed, cooled, but Umbra was warm. They’d shifted even closer together, both Esra’s legs over the knight’s lap, held close by a strong arm at his back. Umbra smelled of the scented water, and his breath was hot on Esra’s cheek as they pulled apart. He kissed Esra’s forehead, and made a yearning sound that could have been Esra’s name, a plea. Esra’s heart hurt, and he kissed Umbra’s pale forehead in return, searching out Umbra’s face, his expression, in the darkness.

Umbra’s eyes were glossy, glimmering as they darted over Esra’s face in a way that made him think of sparking fire. In the dim light, his pale features were hazy. Esra found him less intimidating when he couldn’t quite see the unearthly perfection of the knight’s countenance. It let him pretend, if only for a moment, that the gulf of power between them did not exist, that they were two equals having some sort of hidden affair.

When he touched Umbra’s perfect jawline, he felt the long-fingered hand at his back tense in response. When he kissed the corner of Umbra’s mouth, he felt and heard the knight’s startled intake of breath, his thighs tensing under Esra’s limbs.

How beautiful he must have been as a young soldier, a mortal like himself. Esra would have let him do anything. He would have run away with Umbra, then.

Umbra carried Esra like a spring bride into his bedroom.

It was a sanctuary within a sanctuary, dark and intimate like a cocoon, and Esra was laid down onto an enormous soft bed that was surely big enough for four people. Silken sheets felt like bliss against his skin, and plump down pillows gave to the weight of his head. They undressed wordlessly, and when Umbra lowered himself over him, Esra wrapped his legs around Umbra’s waist and let himself be taken.

For all that Umbra had muttered to Arturo about work obligations taking up his time, it turned out that instead, Balor had granted Umbra a full week off duty. In name, for the knight to finally have a chance to relax after a long campaign of crushing the rebellion, but in truth, so Umbra could enjoy his time with Esra.

Apparently, the God King Balor approved of his choice. Umbra told him so in the after hours of their first night in the capital, both of them trembling with sweat and exertion, Esra pleasantly aching. Umbra had been very gentle, and Esra was warm with gratitude. He was already half asleep, but he remembered Umbra’s whispers. Balor was said to enjoy the poetry of their coupling, the rebel’s son now a knight’s plaything, as a sort of larger metaphor for his own rule. The inevitability of his reign.

“And he’s seen your beauty, of course,” Umbra had whispered fondly into Esra’s ear, his hands skimming over Esra’s flesh. “There’s no shame in owning you.”

The days blurred together. Umbra was addictive, in that heady, dreamy way, and Esra fell deliriously in love with something he knew would destroy him. He felt like he was being ground down by the intensity of Umbra’s desire, worn smooth by it, because he’d never felt so languid, so uninhibited, than when Umbra would coax his body to completion in his kinglike bed.

In the dark privacy of Umbra’s rooms, everything seemed possible. Here, cut off from all other things, there was only Esra, his knight, and the unspeakable luxury of this dreamlike space they’d chosen to inhabit together.

Because of this, Esra routinely let himself fall into the small fantasy he’d tapped into on their first night together. Umbra as a handsome stranger, maybe one of the many who had arrived for refuge, who instead seduced Esra to run away from home with him. Perhaps they’d crossed the sea, to this heavenly palace. Or maybe eloped to the capital, with secret identities. Nothing else would have changed. Everyone was alive, if only worried for him. He could go back home if he wanted, later.

It would be thrilling while Umbra was fucking him, almost freeing. Only afterwards, as he lay awake, did he obsess about how stupid he was being, staring into the darkness with wet eyes, Umbra slumbering at his back.

But he couldn’t stop. It was the only thing keeping him sane when Umbra continuously drove him out of his mind with pleasure.

They barely left his rooms. Meals, far more delicious and varied than Esra had ever tried before, were sent up to them. Except for extravagant trips to the bathhouse, they spent most of the time in Umbra’s bed, fucking, recovering from fucking, and dozing together.

They learned about each other in the afterhours, Esra curled in the arms of his satiated knight, whispering questions. Umbra was endearingly curious of Esra’s small life, his family, his lost mother. He got oddly protective when Esra told him of the furthest he’d been, before… everything that had happened. It had been a wagon trip to the market town, except he’d caught such a sickness that he was more hindrance than help to his father.

“Were you often ill as a child?” Umbra asked, as he idly mapped the shape of Esra’s body, his fingers rubbing in the indents of Esra’s ribs in a way that tickled his sensitive skin. His mouth quirked when Esra squirmed half-heartedly, but he stopped anyway at the unspoken request, which made Esra warm to him.

“I think so,” he said softly. He pressed his face to Umbra’s neck and squeezed his eyes shut. Umbra petted the back of his head, and waited. He seemed to enjoy the texture of Esra’s hair. “I remember when I was a child I would always end up catching whatever plagued the people passing through. There were a few winters where my father didn’t think I’d make it. I got better as I got older, I must have.”

He’d always try to hide it when he fell sick, because he felt guilty whenever he couldn’t contribute to the village. Once, when foolishly concealing some feverish illness, Kian had found him passed out in the forests, where he’d been collecting kindling. Kian had carried him home, all the way, or so he’d proudly told Esra when he finally woken from his fugue. That had been when they were still children, still close.

“It’s a wonder that you survived the wilds,” mused Umbra. Esra could hear his rumbling voice through his chest. “You have a delicacy to you that seems incongruent with growing up in a rural village.”

He didn’t mean it as an insult, but Esra still felt affronted, because he did survive.

Umbra didn’t notice his bristling. “Like some of the finer families of in this city,” he continued, brushing a finger over Esra’s cheekbone, “at a glance.”

He supposed it was a sort of compliment. Esra smiled shyly, and pressed his nose to Umbra’s cheek. He enjoyed the more delicate details of Umbra’s handsomeness himself; the length of his eyelashes, the refined cut of his features. They humanised him, else he’d look like a statue.

“Did you always look like this?” he asked his knight.

“Like what?” Umbra probed, a teasing edge to his tone. He’d want Esra to compliment him, so he could turn up the temperature between them and seduce him again. But Esra was serious.

“You don’t look real,” he said, and Umbra’s eyes narrowed. “Neither did Arturo.”

Umbra’s grip on him tightened at the mere mention of his name, which sparked fear in the youth. It was possible that Esra had miscalculated how willing Umbra was to talk about himself. He rested his head submissively on Umbra’s shoulder, which seemed to calm him after a time.

“I only mean–” he said quietly, “you look… more than human. I’m having a hard time picturing you as… as that soldier from the Weald.”

Umbra looked at him very carefully, the same way he had when he’d found Esra touching his mask.

Esra’s heart quickened.

“I’m sorry, you… you don’t have to–” Esra started, fearful, but Umbra interrupted him.

“We are all changed to suit his will, when we are made knights,” Umbra said. He dropped his gaze to the sheets, and scratched a fingernail over the grain of the fabric. There was something in the set of his brow that made Esra want to comfort him. “I still recognise myself in the mirror. I’m not a different person. Just… more idealised, I suppose. Like a sculpture.”

Esra tried to picture Umbra as something closer to mortal, but he couldn’t. The image of the man before him was so complete in its perfection that it blotted out all else. He pressed his lips to Umbra’s collarbone, and covered Umbra’s heartbeat with his hand, needing to feel it. He liked the heat of Umbra’s skin. Always a little too hot, like how a dragon might be. It was like lying by a fire.

“I was fifteen summers when I joined the Black Prince’s army,” he heard Umbra murmur overhead. “Seventeen, when… Arturo found me.”

Esra lifted his face to look at Umbra, who was gazing into the darkness, into some past he couldn’t forget.

“I’m seventeen summers,” Esra said automatically, shocked at himself for voicing it. They’d been the same age when they were taken to the capital, and something about that fact struck Esra as important. He hadn’t meant to say it.

Umbra’s eyes flickered out of the past and into the present, into him. He looked dangerous.

“I-I’m sorry, Sir Knight,” Esra stammered nervously, his spine going liquid, recognising too late that he’d ventured into unsafe waters. The whole conversation had been a bad idea. “I… I didn’t…”

“What are you sorry for?” Umbra’s hand moved from Esra’s back, to over the back of his neck. His fingers gently stroked the soft skin there, and Esra trembled, thinking of snapped necks. “You didn’t ask to be taken here. Neither did I. When you are not the highest authority in your own life, what else can one do?” He nudged his face against the crown of Esra’s head, his other arm coming up to cradle Esra’s torso. His voice was dry, cracked. “What do we have to be sorry for?”

He was entrancingly vulnerable like this, stuck halfway between the past and present, reaching blindly for an answer he didn’t truly want to touch. His obvious need drew Esra’s gentle heart to him, but the knight was dangerous too, like if Esra made one wrong move he’d snap around the youth like a mantrap.

How many other people had Umbra spoken to like this?

Esra hoped, no-one. That he’d earned this side of Umbra after so much time with him. That with every time Umbra had taken him, he’d left a bit of his soul with Esra, and accepted a piece of Esra’s in return, levelling them out, spiritually, into something closer to equals.

Esra sat up, and Umbra’s eyes followed him. With a soft voice, Esra encouraged his knight to roll onto his back. Umbra took Esra’s breath away when he wordlessly obeyed, sinking back on the pillows to look up at him, ashen hair framing his serene face. When Esra straddled him, the knight’s hands came to rest, perfectly, just over his hips. The easy strength in his hands, the heat of his body between Esra’s thighs, just the sight of his unreal beauty laid out like this, got Esra hard so quickly he felt dizzy.

“Let me take care of you,” Esra whispered, and he smiled, because he’d always wanted to say that to someone. Umbra’s eyes, fixed on Esra’s face, were wide with a sort of worshipful astonishment. He nodded, once, his thumbs stroking the sides of Esra’s waist.

Esra rubbed his ass experimentally back. Umbra’s cock was rock hard, almost twitching as it made contact with Esra’s skin, still slick from last time he’d been inside Esra, less than an hour ago. Esra reached back to apply more oil anyway, not wanting too much friction. He wanted this to feel smooth, easy. Something meant to be.

“Esra,” murmured Umbra, like a prayer, and his head rolled back as Esra sank onto him, made them one. They both lasted a long time, already spent from before, and the silken glide of a little too much oil made it hard to feel more than heated pressure.

By the time Esra’s trembling legs gave out, Umbra was more than willing to take the lead. He rolled them over and surged into Esra, angling his hips so he could hit the spot he knew made Esra’s toes curl. Esra came very quickly after that, his eyes locked on Umbra’s, although the world was blurring. He realised, later, that he’d been crying.

The picture was probably the most exquisite painting in Umbra’s rooms. It was also the smallest, perhaps one hand tall, and only slightly wider. A pale-skinned nude youth with curled red hair was caught in candlelight, sitting up in rumpled glossy sheets, his enormous eyes looking out of the canvas in a sleepy sort of surprise, as though Esra had just barged into his bedroom. But there was a fondness there too, as if Esra were no stranger. Like the youth had been shyly waiting for him.

The play of light and shadow was what kept bringing Esra back to it. The contrast was eye-catching, and the darkness made the painting almost modest, with shadow shrouding most of the youth’s languid figure. The slivers of skin revealed by candlelight seemed to glow with life, like the young man was right there before him, waiting to draw breath.

“It’s by Erasmus,” came Umbra’s voice suddenly from over Esra’s shoulder, making him jump. “The first in his… well, he calls it the virgin series.”

Esra nodded. Umbra smiled down at him, looking very pleased with himself. He was distractingly naked, having just wandered from the bedroom into the lounge, probably after waking from his slumber to an empty bed. Esra was flushed pink at the sight of him.

Bright daylight streamed through the open balcony doors, and he still wasn’t used to being around so much uncovered skin, even after spending most of the past week naked in Umbra’s arms. The intimate darkness of Umbra’s bedroom was like a veil of modesty, and Esra would always pull a blanket around himself before he’d venture to leave it, even though they were the only ones ever in these rooms.

His attempts at propriety never failed to entertain Umbra. He’d happily let Esra wrap himself in his expensive sheets whenever he wasn’t bedding him, and even now he had little smile on his face as he took in the sight of him, tugging gently on the makeshift toga in lieu of comment.

“It’s my favorite painting in here too,” Umbra told him instead. He ducked close to say it, like he was sharing a secret. “Like real life in miniature. Something about the way he paints his subjects makes them look alive.”

“Who is he?” Esra asked, turning back to the redhead. “The boy in the painting?”

He was also thinking, who would let themselves be painted like that? To exist as some nude youth forever, to whatever eyes happened to land on the canvas?

“I don’t know,” said Umbra. “I don’t really want to. I like the idea of him just existing here, for me. The real thing would probably be a disappointment.”

It was a very Umbra thing to say, and Esra disagreed with him. What was a person without a story? Even the lowliest peasant had a tale to tell, if one would listen. Stripped from their history, a person would become a thing.

“You can ask the artist yourself, if you want,” Umbra told him.

“Mm?” said Esra, and then as the words sank in he looked at Umbra in shock.

“I’m taking you to a gathering tomorrow.” Umbra seemed to take great pleasure in declaring things, and then watching Esra’s attempts to react, although usually he restricted himself to compliments. “Knights and their guests. He’ll be attending.”

“A gathering?”

Esra had no idea what that meant. The closest thing to a gathering Esra knew of was communal dinners in the town’s meeting hut, which he suspected would not be useful experience. He remembered Umbra’s warnings that he not disappoint the knight in front of others, and immediately started to feel self-conscious.

“An evening party,” explained Umbra. “It’s not often we have so many from the Order in the capital at the same time. I believe we are almost a full set, although Keriac is overseas on the Shimmering Isles, and Merrion is doing something secret in the far Northlands.

He was talking mostly to himself. The only other knight Esra had met was Arturo. The names sounded fanciful to Esra’s ears, like something from a fae tale. Still, Esra was intrigued and terrified at the idea of being in a room full of Balor’s knights. In his experience, just two in the same room was already overwhelming.

He had no idea what he would wear, however.

Umbra had summoned a tailor for him early on in his arrival, to take his measurements. Clothing arrived soon after, simple garments in accordance with the sumptuary laws. The fabric was more luxurious than ever he’d had on his body before, but even so, surely such modest styling would not be appropriate garb to wear to a gathering of the Order of Balor.

“Don’t worry about that,” Umbra said, when Esra asked him over lunch. His knight looked fetchingly handsome in the midday light, his ash brown hair a little rumpled, a lively glimmer in his eye. “I’m having something made for you. Should arrive this evening.”

Esra took the unspoken order and did not ask any further, although he was instantly curious. He imagined it would not be in accordance with the sumptuary laws.

“There is something we need to do today, however,” Umbra said, and looked at Esra meaningfully over his soup.

Something, ended up being a tattoo. Umbra told him this on the balcony, where Esra was watching the ships come in.

“A line,” Umbra said, the pad of his thumb sweeping over Esra’s mouth. “Down the centre of the bottom lip.”

Esra shivered, wide eyed at the thought of a red tattoo on his face.

“That is the sign of a Knight’s Choice,” Umbra explained. There was something covetous in his smoke grey eyes, that possessive streak in him pleased at the thought of visibly staking his claim on Esra. “The servants will know to obey you, and no-one will bother you when you are out and about.”

A tattoo. It seemed too much for Esra, a mark of his torment that would last for the rest of his life. Umbra saw his fear.

“It frightens you.”

Esra swallowed thickly, and tried to arrange his thoughts into words. He wasn’t overly afraid of pain anymore, so that wasn’t it. “The… permanence of it frightens me.”


“I’m thinking of… the future.” Esra always answered Umbra’s probing questions sincerely. Umbra was continuously disarmed by it. Though given his vocation, he was probably used to dragging answers out of people with steel. “When you tire of me, I will still have that tattoo. When I am old, everyone will know what I was, and what I am no longer, and I… I couldn’t…”

He hated how weak he sounded, how close to crying.

He heard Umbra exhale. The knight walked Esra inside, out of the sunlight, his hand on the small of Esra’s back as if to support him. He had Esra sit down on the sofa, and seemed to be taking in Esra’s defeated posture. Esra was nervously silent, his mind shuddering over thoughts of the tattoo, the implications of it, the certainty of his future as something to gawp at.

Umbra cleared his throat. “I think you’ve been under some misapprehension about your position here.”

“Have I?” Esra asked, sounding a little crazed. Umbra glowered dangerously, and Esra clenched his mouth shut, wanting to scream. He looked at his fisted hands. If he was under any misapprehension, it was because Umbra was always keeping things from him.

“A Knight’s Choice is not a slave, or even a servant,” Umbra explained patiently. His voice was coming from somewhere over Esra’s head, low and detached. “It’s a boon from the God King. We are made ageless, you see. Sterile too.” Something in his voice changed, and Esra looked up at him, only to see him look away, his ashen hair falling into his eyes. “We cannot marry, we cannot have families. And… there are some needs that a man can’t satisfy in a whorehouse.”

Their eyes finally met, and Esra startled. Umbra was giving the youth that same nervous look he’d given Arturo.

“Like what?” Esra asked.

“A sort of… long term companionship.” Umbra was barely maintaining eye contact. Like Esra was the sun, dangerous to look at. “Such as what a wife would give a normal man.”

Esra’s eyes bulged. “Am I your wife?” he asked, any last shreds of masculinity he dared have breaking pitifully inside, and he knew he sounded shrill.

“Esra,” Umbra growled furious, and Esra flinched in terror. He slipped to the floor, to his knees, into that perfect bow. He shouldn’t be speaking to the knight like this. He wasn’t in their dreamlike space of equality. It was daytime, and Umbra was his master, who could legally tattoo ‘whore’ over Esra’s forehead, if he wanted to.

“I’m sorry, Sir Knight,” he begged hurriedly. “Please. I’m sorry.”

He heard Umbra sigh.

There were slow footsteps, and then strong hands gripped him under his arms, pulling him onto the sofa, into Umbra’s lap. Esra curled into him, more out of habit than anything, breathed in the now familiar scent of him. It brought a strange comfort regardless. His eyes were stinging.

“What’s gotten into you, then?” Umbra muttered. He didn’t seem too angry, but Esra still trembled.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, into the crook of Umbra’s neck. “I… I only…” He winced.

“It’s alright. I’ve forgiven you,” hushed Umbra. “I know you are the curious type, and that you know little of the world outside your village. There will be things I can’t tell you, of course. But otherwise, ask me questions. I will answer you.”

Esra pressed his cheek to Umbra’s chest, feeling the warm fabric of his shirt against his skin, the steady beat of his heart, and considered. “Are you immortal?” he asked eventually, thinking of the impossible myths he’d heard from travellers, which were now seeming more and more likely the longer he’d been in Balor’s Throne.

Umbra made a thoughtful noise, threading his fingers through Esra’s hair where it spilled over the dark brocade of his doublet. “Only ageless. I can be killed the same way an ordinary man can, through war, disease. But otherwise, yes. Balor grants us immortality when he remakes us.”

Esra blinked, stunned. “How old are you?”

Umbra looked a little red at that question. “Twenty six.”

Young, surely, for an immortal? Esra wondered how old he’d been, when he was made a knight.

“I am the youngest in the Order.” Umbra explained. “My predecessor died overseas. I think he was over a hundred. Balor chose me to replace him, when I passed the trials.”

“And he named you Umbra?”

“Umbra was… my predecessor’s name. They are hereditary.”

Esra was beginning to understand why. To make a weapon, an extension of yourself, you needed someone with no history, no sense of self. The God King had taken a mortal man, changed his face, his body, even his name, to make him into something useful. There was no going back from such a pact. Umbra could hardly walk away from his duties now. Now he belonged to Balor even more than he belonged to himself.

“Can you read minds?” Esra continued. He pressed his hand over Umbra’s chest, to feel his beating heart. It had become something of a comfort.

“Read..? No,” Umbra scoffed. “Is that one of those peasant rumors?”

“Three separate people told me that,” said Esra, smiling a little when Umbra scoffed incredulously again. “Do you drink blood?”

That one had seemed ridiculous to him ever since he’d seen Umbra drinking the same wine and supping the same stew as the rest of his men, if only with a little more decorum.

But Umbra surprised him. “Well,” he said, after a long pause. “Not in the way you’d think.”

Esra raised his eyebrows in shock, but Umbra didn’t choose to elucidate. He stared at Esra quite serenely, waiting for his next question, while Esra’s mind ran wild with all the ways that answer could be interpreted, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling.

“Ah…” he said eventually, deciding to forge ahead, to what he was most curious about. “You and Arturo talked about… taking whomever you desired from the population… to be a Knight’s Choice? Is that true? No matter who they are?”

Umbra paused again at that mention of Arturo, then gracefully inclined his head. “Yes.”

Before, when Esra was still learning to look at Umbra’s face without blushing, he could never tell what the knight was thinking. It would be like trying to parse the thoughts of some impassive statue. But now, after near a week being deeply intimate with him, Esra was beginning to pick up on his emotional cues. More subtle than the villagers he’d grown up with, but definitely there. Umbra was blinking more often, and there was a self-consciousness to his every movement, a suppressed anxiety.

“And the person you choose…” Esra licked his lips cautiously, “has no way to refuse it?”

“Of course not,” said Umbra, tightening his hold around Esra’s waist as some sort of mild rebuke. “I represent the God King. I’m the law of the land.”

Esra nodded hurriedly.

“But in truth,” Umbra continued, “many desire to be a Knight’s Choice. It’s an honorable position.” He met Esra’s eyes, serious. “And there are rules governing my taking someone in. I must be able to provide for all your needs while you live with me, and even if I do tire of you, I can’t just throw you out. I’ll need to give you a place to the live in the city that is of high standard, and a hefty pension from my income for as long as you live.”

Esra’s blood ran cold, like Umbra had just slipped a knife between his ribs. He remembered lying in the Reaper’s Rest, his mind spinning over how long he’d have before Umbra discarded him. Panic pricked his skin. Umbra had said it so casually…

“You’ll get your second tattoo then.” Umbra said, quieter. “A line on your upper lip, joining with the bottom. It’s hardly disfiguring. In fact, I’ve always found it beautiful.”

He pressed his finger over Esra’s thin lips again, that mesmerised look glowing over his face again. No-one had ever looked at him like that, before Umbra. Like he was some precious treasure worth possessing. The smoulder in his deep grey eyes made Esra light-headed, but he had to remind himself of the truth. Soon, that look would fade. Umbra had just assured him of that.

“So you will tire of me,” he said numbly, his eyes already threatening to spill over with tears. He angrily blinked them away. “I will have this tattoo, and then another when this is over. It is inevitable.”

He couldn’t think of anything more terrifying than being abandoned in the capital after Umbra had finished with him. All he knew of this world was through Umbra. And before that, all he’d known was his small village. He wouldn’t know what to do with himself. And he wouldn’t be living there as just another face in the crowd. The red tattoo, beautiful or not, would let everyone who laid eyes on him know exactly what position he’d occupied in the castle, in the knight’s bed. What manner of man he used to be.

“You should have taken me as a slave instead.” Esra was trembling, but he didn’t dare pull away from Umbra, fearing that arm around him tensing to hold him in place. He’d break down, if he felt that. Umbra’s easy mastery of him. “I have no choice in this, regardless. A-at least if I was your slave, I’d know my place in the world.”

He couldn’t look at Umbra. Everything was blurred.

He knew he should be ashamed, caring about whether Umbra wanted him or not, or for how long. There were so many other fates he could have stumbled into, he should have been on his knees, grovelling, thanking Umbra for his mercy. But his eyes were prickling hot and his chest felt scorchingly tight, making it hard to breathe. That nightmare sensation of drowning in a boiling sea.

He’d tried so hard. He’d let himself be remade, carved away into something new. He had no family, no home to return to. All he had was what Umbra deigned to give him. What would he be, when he was not Umbra’s? Who would he be? Would there be anything of him left, to reshape into a new life?

“Knights are immortal, Esra,” Umbra said quietly. “You… are not.”

Esra swallowed thickly, and felt a tear slide down his cheek. He could feel Umbra falter. What was he thinking, when he looked at Esra like this?

And then, a hand through his hair. Umbra was petting him, soothing him. Esra didn’t do anything to stop it, but he didn’t lean into the gesture the way he usually did. He chanced a look at Umbra’s face, expecting to see him as impassive as ever, waiting for Esra to get over his emotions.

But Umbra looked like he’d been shattered. His grey eyes were fixed on Esra, too bright.

“Even if I never tire of you, our relationship is finite. I’d never mean to discard you.” He seemed stunned by Esra’s tears. “You are special to me,” he said. Did he sound hesitant?

“I am… terrified of you,” Esra blurted out. He felt raw, exposed.

Umbra flinched. But once Esra started, the words poured out, like blood gushing from a wound.

“You ripped my life apart. Everyone I’ve ever known is dead or enslaved.” He closed his eyes, fighting against the brutal memories. “I can’t stop thinking about… I’m so horrified at the things that happened to bring me here.” His voice began to break. “The things you could do to me. The things you have done to me.”

He started sobbing, helplessly, graceless fat tears spilling down his cheeks.

“That…that first night…Umbra, I was so scared.” He wiped uselessly at his face. “I-I haven’t… been able to stop being scared.”

He could feel Umbra’s breathing quicken, rising and falling against him where they were pressed together, and stiffened when Umbra raised a hand to touch his cheek, which was flushed red and wet with tears. The knight’s fingertips were so gentle, so cautious of Esra’s tremulous fragility, that Esra just wept harder.

“I’d never done that to anyone before,” Umbra admitted, and he sounded devastated. “Been on plenty of missions, seen what soldiers, what my fellow knights, would do to the helpless. It never really appealed to me. But tracking down and putting an end to your father, that was my first solo mission.”

Umbra sighed, looking at the carpet beneath his feet. His ashen hair swung forward, concealing his eyes.

“Everyone reported to me. Everyone was afraid of me. I was the highest authority. It was…” Umbra paused, searching for the right word, “… intoxicating. I wanted to flex that power. And you were right there, the son of the enemy, so obedient, and so beautiful.”

Esra remembered that too, the strength of Umbra’s fingers closing around his hand for the first time. It had all been inevitable, after that. His fate sealed.

“I didn’t want to stop myself,” Umbra admitted. “I hurt you because I could. I could have been kinder, gentler. I knew you were a virgin. I wish I’d been sweeter to you, Esra.” He looked up at Esra at last, solemn. “There are a lot of things I wish I could change.”

Something inside Esra broke, finally.

He had tried to be strong for so long, but he’d never expected an apology, or any admittance of fault, from someone so above him. Everything he’d held onto so tightly came rushing out – his sorrow, his anger, his hurt – like the sea crashing over him, and he was awash in it.

Again that hot drowning feeling, his body wracked with sobs, that spasming inside of him. He could not breathe, could not stop shaking —

But then Umbra’s arms were around him, squeezing tight. Esra was surrounded by the strength of him, his flamelike warmth, that scent that meant comfort. And Umbra was stroking down his back with a hot, open palm – firm broad strokes, as if he meant to smooth out the pain.

Esra had not been held like this in many years, but he had nothing left in him to feel ashamed of as he fell into the embrace. There was nothing left. There was only Umbra.

Esra clung to him, his anchor, let himself be smoothed – reshaped like clay – and the roar in his ears gave way to Umbra’s low voice. The knight was muttering something that passed Esra’s comprehension, but just the sound of it quelled his panic. He calmed, obedient, until they were breathing together as one.

“It’s rare,” Umbra was saying. “You are rare. I knew I had to have you the moment you were dragged into that meeting hut. I knew I wanted to keep you the morning after. I don’t want you as a slave. I want… you, as you are. Living here, with me.”

“Umbra…” hushed Esra, his eyes clenched tightly shut. It was all he could manage to say.

“You are my Choice,” Umbra told him, with unusual fervor. “My only one. I chose you, Esra, and I mean to keep you.”

Keep me, Esra thought, and it comforted him. Keep me.

The knight sat patiently by Esra as he calmed down, much like he had in the Reaper’s Rest, waiting for Esra to breathe. Esra clung to him, needing his heat, as the world came back into focus.

Everything else seemed too cold.

Umbra cupped his damp cheek, and leaned in, searching Esra’s face. Esra shook before that serene gaze and closed his eyes, inhaling sharply as their lips nearly brushed together. He pulled away, very slightly, and Umbra tensed in… anger? Confusion? His grip on Esra tightened.

“I need you to just… h-hold me, right now,” Esra begged, his voice hushed, his eyes still closed. He couldn’t look at Umbra while he said this.

Was he trembling? He felt a deep dread with his defiance. Umbra had ignored his every other plea before. He did not forget the night in the Reaper’s Rest, where his small denial had only spurred the knight on to hurt him.

He made a small sound in the back of his throat as Umbra’s long fingers brushed his cheek, waiting to be grabbed and kissed anyway, but the movement was only to tuck a long strand of hair behind his ear. When he opened his eyes, Umbra was staring at him, unreadable. With the daylight behind him from the balcony, he looked haloed, like the depictions of a god.

“Very well,” he said lowly.

Esra’s eyes watered again, but this time from an almost overwhelming gratitude that bubbled up his chest, the slight rasp of his lungs. He must be ridiculous, being so thankful for the small courtesy of being able to refuse a kiss, but that was what he felt in his heart.

“Oh, Esra,” the knight muttered, gently wiping his thumb under Esra’s eyes. “Look at you.”

Outside, it started to rain.

He was very kind to Esra the rest of the day, in a way that stole Esra’s breath. Umbra behaved as gracious as the most brilliant courtier, his touch respectful, caring. The youth didn’t dare comment on it, because he was captivated by this new side to Umbra, and didn’t want to break the spell.

While Esra curled on the beautiful couch in the light from the balcony, the knight had rung the service bell, and muttered instructions to the boy at the door. Soon after, a large tub was brought to their rooms by two red-faced castle servants, and a yellow robed slave from the bathhouse. It was filled with hot water, sprinkled with scented soap flakes.

Esra recognised the aroma as his favourite; essences of lavender, honey and almond. He couldn’t help his heart warm at that – at the thought of Umbra, remembering, and thinking to order it specially. He’d tasted the honeynut snacks the fae would make, heaven on his young tongue. And lavender…

Lavender, his father said, grew in huge fields in the Continent. Despite their emnity with Fomoria, the plant was still widely imported. Esra had first smelled it as a child in the form of a bottle of essential oil that had belonged to his mother, that his father would dot onto his pillow when he had a nightmare. It was Umbra who had first shown him the flower, upon noticing his interest.

“If I ring twice, it means bring more hot water,” Umbra said once the bath was ready, as means of dismissal. They left with deep bows, and murmurings of “Yes, Sir Knight. Of course, Sir Knight.”

When the door latched shut behind them, Umbra turned his smoke gaze to where Esra lay. Esra looked back. Again, his knight had collected himself, drawn himself up into something impassive, unreadable to most. Esra, however, could see the edges of his concern in the too-brightness of his eyes.

“For you,” Umbra said, gesturing to the tub. “To refresh yourself, without the hassle of travel.”

“Thank you,” said Esra with genuine warmth. He delicately rose from the couch, a little unstable. Umbra swiftly went to his side to help him, but Esra shook his head, put a hand on the knight’s chest. “I’m… I’m alright, Umbra,” he said, trying to keep the shake out of his voice, for it would belie what he was trying to say. “It’s okay, I’m alright.”

Another refusal.

He knew what he was doing, carefully testing the boundaries of this new small measure of control that Umbra had deigned to grant him. He focused on the pointed tips of his fingers, the rich black jacquard of Umbra’s doublet. Under the thick silk, the undershirt, he could feel the predator strength of Umbra’s body thrumming against the palm of his hand.

It would be trivial for him to overpower Esra’s small denial. He’d done it before when Esra dared resist him, cruelly, in the meeting hut, the Reaper’s Rest. What was stopping him now?

The tall knight hesitated, perhaps caught in the same dilemma. Esra couldn’t bring himself to look up at Umbra’s face, but he could feel the knight’s stare boring down on the top of his skull. What he did next, Esra felt, would define their relationship to come. If he was to be mere cherished property, or the partner Umbra claimed he desired.

“Very well,” the knight said again, gentler this time. He moved to the side so Esra could pass, and Esra felt his heart swell with the glow of a new hope.

Esra would have enjoyed this new luxury of bathing in the privacy of Umbra’s rooms, but his mind stung with ominous thoughts of what was to come.

He’d be getting his own red tattoo this evening, on his mouth, and shivered as he imagined the pain of it, the indelible stain it would leave. He didn’t quite know his own face, and Umbra would still mark it, mark him, as something different for the rest of his life. It seemed momentous, overwhelming. He felt very light, translucent, as though not truly there. His hands had a slight tremble to them that he couldn’t control.

In the corner of the room, he could see his knight’s broad back, bent over at his desk as he consulted numerous ledgers and wrote letters. The quill whipped over the parchment in his elegant hand, and Esra admired his sharp silhouette by the candlelight, the sweep of ashen hair over his forehead. Even after so long close by his side, Esra was still affected by his beauty, the hypnotising perfection of him that had stolen his breath away in the village meeting hut.

It was a comforting bubble they were in, and slowly, in spite of himself, he relaxed into it. The patter of rain outside, the soothing aroma, Umbra’s scratching letters, and the sluice of warm water in the tub as Esra shifted. He felt lulled into the moment, each minute lasting an hour. When he raised his arms to pull his the length of his hair over his shoulder, the water ran in trembling rivulets down his skin.

Umbra’s quill paused.

“What are you writing?” Esra asked into the silence, combing his fingers through his hair. He didn’t look over, for he knew Umbra would be staring at him.

Umbra, the youth had learned, took pleasure in observing him without being observed in return. He often said Esra looked like a painting like that, except living, touchable. The sentiment embarrassed Esra’s modesty, but he couldn’t help but feel pleased at being desired so. He’d never thought himself much to look at, before.

“Sorting out my finances,” the knight replied, “now that I have you to look after.” There was an amused tone to his voice. Then he let out a sigh. “Must be away much of the time, and I need to keep you in a manner that befits a knight’s choice. Would be a shame on my name otherwise.”

Esra nodded, though his heart shattered with dread.

He’d long known that Umbra’s departure was coming, that Balor had only granted him a week before his next mission, but now that dull background thought was forced to the forefront of his mind. “How long will you be away?” he asked, trying to keep the quaver from his voice.

Umbra made a humming sound. “Depends on my mission, and if I can fit in trips home during them.”

Esra nodded, but he felt lost already, just thinking of it. Umbra had left him alone once before, and that was when Arturo had found him, near scalped him. How would he survive for weeks alone in this treacherous castle?

Umbra must have seen the panic on Esra’s face, for Esra heard the chair creak, and then the neat pad of Umbra’s footsteps. The knight knelt by the tub, and Esra bit his lip when Umbra brushed a wet strand of hair from his cheekbone. He kept his eyes downcast.

“The water is cooling,” the knight observed.

“It’s alright,” Esra said softly. His skin tingled where Umbra’s finger had touched it. “I’ll be out soon.”



“Look at me.”

Esra’s cheeks flushed, and he finally met Umbra’s eyes. “I knew… that this would be happening,” the youth stammered, trailing his fingers through the scented water. Umbra was so close, covered from neck to toe in black, and Esra felt excruciatingly naked before him. “You leaving, that is. I know that it is the job of a knight to serve the God King.”

“Indeed.” Umbra brushed the back of his long fingers over Esra’s shoulder and upper arm, which sent a shiver of pleasure down his spine. “A week with you was not enough.” He had that longing look in his eyes, his lashes lowered slightly.

“I will miss you greatly,” Esra admitted, his heart pounding as Umbra’s gaze sharpened in interest. It wasn’t just loneliness. He feared being unprotected, alone, should the worst happen. “And I know little of city life, of the customs of this castle. I fear I will make a fool of myself, and then… of you.”

Umbra nodded, like he’d already known all of Esra’s tumbled thoughts before he could voice them, even the unspoken ones. “Already hired you a valet. Someone to guide you, and also to act as a bodyguard when you go out and about.” His voice softened, half-teasing. “So you needn’t worry about shaming me, Esra.”

A servant of his own, Esra thought, with wonder. Though he couldn’t ever imagine giving orders.

The knight’s large hand smoothed again over his arm, taking pleasure in how Esra’s skin had been softened by the soap. It had been a while, Esra realised, since he’d seen Umbra looking stern. Perhaps, when he said he found Esra’s presence calming, he’d truly meant it.

“I will write you,” the knight offered, “if you wish it.”

“Umbra…” Esra’s face heated, and he wrapped his arms around himself. The water really was getting too cool. “I would like that, really, but… don’t you remember? I cannot read.”

“Would you like a tutor?” Umbra asked, without skipping a beat.

“A… to teach me?” Esra stuttered, surprised.

Umbra raised a wry brow, as if to ask, and what else would one do with a tutor?

“Thank you, but…” Esra twisted the wet length of his hair nervously. “I don’t know if I have the mind for it. Reading and writing, I mean. It’s not something I’ve ever…”

“Mm.” Umbra nodded as he listened, then gave an elegant shrug. “It’s best to start in childhood, yes, but anyone at any age can learn his letters. You aren’t feeble-minded, Esra, just…” his lips quirked, “… rural.”

Esra pushed at Umbra’s broad shoulder, earning himself that rare roguish grin. “Yes, then,” Esra said firmly, and sunk deeper into the water. “I would like a tutor.”

Umbra smiled pleasantly. “Good,” he said, smoothly rising to his feet. “I have someone in mind already.”

By evening, the patter of rain had become a downfall, and they’d had to close the doors that opened to the balcony, sealing them into the beautiful rooms.

Esra curled before the fire in an ivory robe and one of Umbra’s furs, and by that flickering golden light he placed various objects in the room to sketch. Umbra had given him a quill and an inkpot (so he could “practice his penmanship”, the knight had told him, with a wink so rapid Esra nearly missed it) and Esra found the task remarkably absorbing.

He found great enjoyment in replicating what was before him in black and white, an undertaking that required much dexterity, the sort of small task he could sink into, much like his preferred jobs from his old life. It got easier as he went, and he learned how best to hold the pen, how much pressure, and in what angle one should make a stroke, to form the desired line.

And so he whiled the time away rendering bottles, trinkets and curios of Umbra’s eclectic collection, while his knight scribbled away at his desk.

A knock at the door startled him.

“Ah,” said Umbra, with a pleased half-smile. “It’s the tailor, at last.”

The very same tailor who had measured Esra for his small wardrobe earlier was let in, a small stout man with an elaborate mustache and perfectly fitted clothing. He looked very pleased to be back, dipping his head low to Umbra and Esra, and then ushering in his assistants, strong young men carrying a large wooden chest that they placed, with as much dignity as possible on a table in the centre of the room.

They were all a little damp from the rain, but Esra could see they’d dried themselves off, made themselves presentable once entering the castle. A meeting with one of the Order must be no small honor. The box itself was bone dry, perhaps having been protected from the downpour by sheeting.

The product, in the case, was more valuable than the comfort of the men.

“I hope you’ll be pleased with it, Sir Knight,” rushed the tailor, after they’d exchanged the requisite pleasantries. “I used only the finest materials, of course, and did much of the detail work by my own hand.”

“Esra,” said Umbra crisply, something bright dancing in his eyes. Esra, from across the room, felt pinioned. “Why don’t you open it? It is for you after all.”

Esra padded over, well aware of Umbra’s eyes on him. The tailor’s assistants watched him too, small glances at the line of his body, like they knew better then to stare outright. When Esra caught them, they quickly, fearfully, looked away, and Esra felt a thrill of pleasure in this power that was foreign in its newness.

“What is it?” he asked the room, brushing his fingers over the pine. The tailor’s logo, and that of his guild, was neatly carved onto the lid.

“Something special,” Umbra said quietly. He came to stand by Esra’s side, and dipped his head close. “Something that you will only wear once.”

Aware of his audience, Esra curled his slim fingers carefully around the rim of the lid, and lifted it to the side. He suppressed a gasp as he glimpsed what was inside, but Umbra saw his expression, and smiled.

Folded neatly into the box were silken robes so vibrantly red that the world around seemed desaturated.

“Valian silk, of course,” the tailor was saying, and Umbra nodded approvingly. The Vale was well known for being the source of much of what made Fomoria beautiful, though Esra had only heard tales. Umbra owned many things made there, taken the deep purple quartz from its earth. And then there was also Vaughn, Umbra’s spirited stallion.

One day, Esra thought, I would much like to visit the Vale.

“There is… affordable silk coming from the golden kingdoms of the Continent, and the Shimmering Isles of course,” the tailor was saying, “but for a ritual of importance like this, one can only use the best, and the best is from our beloved Fomoria. And I say this as a professional, it is worth the expense. No other silk has the texture and drape of Valian silk.”

Umbra was listening, but his eyes were fixed on Esra. “What do you think, my boy? Go on.” the knight’s tone was closer to an order, now. “Pick it up.”

Esra hesitated at laying his hands on something so beautiful, like he could easily taint it. To touch, the robe felt like cool rose petals, and had a soft sheen that almost glowed. When he lifted the robe from the chest, and it spilled over his arms like water.

“Beautiful,” said Umbra quietly, appreciatively, and Esra could only agree.

The robe was indulgently impractical, with long draped sleeves like wings, and a hem so long that it would certainly trail the ground as he walked. Esra had never seen anything like it before.

“I supervised the dying myself,” the tailor was saying. “I like to customise it to the individual. You’ll notice that the red is slightly richer and deeper than most, to bring out the warm tones of his skin, and to blend with the dark of his hair and eyes.”

He was speaking to Umbra, who nodded as though discerning different shades of red was something he could appreciate, while Esra tried to comprehend the beautiful item of clothing in his arms, the craftsmanship of it, the unthinkable expense.

“You’ve done well,” Umbra told the tailor, but his eyes were fixed on Esra.

It was like being clothed in a cool waterfall. Esra felt swallowed up by it, a slim cut red silk column cascading down his body to spill onto the floor. The sleeves reached the tips of his fingers, and were so wide that when he held his arms apart, they still near touched the ground.

“Umbra, I can’t wear this..!” Esra protested nervously, his face hot.

His knight was looping the long belt sash around the youth’s narrow waist, tucking it in behind his back. “It’s perfect,” he said crisply, then he peered down at Esra fondly. He’d chosen to dress Esra himself, sending off the tailor and his red-faced assistants as soon as business concluded. Now he circled Esra like a sculptor, tugging fabric here and there, perfecting his vision of how Esra would look at the gathering.

Esra felt crushed by embarrassment at just imagining himself dressed this way, in a room full of knights and nobles. The fabric puddled on the floor. If Esra took a wrong step, he’d fall on his face. “Is it meant to be so long? I can barely walk…”

Something pleased sparked in Umbra’s eyes. “That won’t be a problem.”

Esra’s heart beat a little faster at that. “Umbra…” he said, reaching out for him. For was he not going to a gathering?

And what had the tailor said, so swiftly, about a ritual?

The knight paused in his pacing. He’d clad himself in his glimmering black armor for the evening, and it caught the flicker of the firelight as he moved, his body rendered in fierce black geometry. His deep eyes moved from Esra’s small hand at his elbow, to the youth’s upturned face. “Yes?”

Esra steeled himself. He dreaded the answer, for Umbra had clearly noted his fear, and still thought it unimportant to stop… whatever this was. “What is this robe for?” he asked, his voice terribly small.

Umbra stared at him, perfectly still. Something dark was flickering behind his eyes, as when he’d made Esra strip in the room above the meeting hut. “Appropriate garb,” he murmured, gently removing Esra’s hand from the crook of his arm, “for a ritual of great importance.”

And he pressed his lips, very courteously, over Esra’s knuckles.

A great fear gripped Esra’s heart at the knight’s words. He tried to soothe it down, for Umbra had been so kind to him that day, and surely he wouldn’t… he couldn’t, harm someone he thought fondly of. “Umbra…” he quavered, looking up into the fearful symmetry of his implacable features, pleading.

“Think of it as an exercise in trust.” Umbra had reached into the chest, and pulled out another of the long sash belts. There had been several rolled under the robe. Esra had assumed them to be spares. Umbra admired the sheen of the silk. Against his bone pale skin, the color made Esra think of blood. “Do you trust me, Esra?”

Esra swallowed. “I don’t know what you mean by that,” he answered, honestly. He trusted Umbra completely in some respects; to protect him from others, to ensure his safety. But in others…

“Then I suppose we will find out.” Umbra snapped the sash taut. “Hold out your hands.”

“Whatever it is,” Esra said shakily, “I will do it, Umbra. You do not have to bind me…”

Surely, he thought desperately, the knight knew that?

“Your hands,” Umbra said, gentler.

In the end, Esra obeyed. What else could he do?

He couldn’t stop shaking, slightly, like a full-body thrum. He had that same feeling, as he had the night Umbra had first taken him, that prey instinct to lie still, play dead. It hadn’t helped him then, of course. There were no strategies with the Order. You either obeyed and survived, or you didn’t. Umbra had been sweet on him the past days, indulged some of his whims. But in this, Esra knew his place. He could only obey, and be perfect. There was no other option.

Umbra bound his wrists in the luxurious silk, not tight enough to hurt, but there was no escape from it. A dark fear stabbed to his core when he realised the knot was inescapable. He felt his eyes sting with near tears when Umbra knelt to the ground and bound his ankles together, winding the sash over his robe like he was tying a gift. What was this ritual? He felt like a sacrifice, but one already weakened, too numb to defend itself from a swiftly approaching death.

It was his tears that finally roused some sympathy.

“You don’t need to cry, Esra.” The knight petted his flank, steadied the youth as he swayed. His ashen-haired head was at the level of Esra’s hip, and Esra couldn’t see his face.

“I’m sorry,” he begged, and his voice broke saying it. “I don’t know what’s happening…”

He could have gracefully handled bound wrists, but now he couldn’t even walk. When he tried to shuffle back, he almost immediately lost his balance and would have toppled if Umbra hadn’t steadied him.

“This ritual has existed as long as the Order of Balor has.” Umbra rose to his full towering height, keeping Esra close to his chest so he wouldn’t fall. Without Umbra’s hand at his waist, the youth would’ve spilled uselessly to the floor.

Esra, panicked, had to crane his neck back to meet his captor’s gaze. His breathing had started to come in short gasps, which only frightened him further as he feared his lungs betrayal, his body strangling itself. Umbra ran a soothing hand over Esra’s scalp, the length of his hair. Esra leaned into it, his eyes sliding shut in a silent plea for leniency.

“The less you know about it going in, the more it will mean to us,” Umbra was saying, his words only making half-sense, “the more it will mean to the God King. You need to trust me.”

“I-I am… afraid,” Esra stuttered. Were his teeth chattering?

“That’s alright.” The knight touched Esra’s cheek, brushed hair off his forehead, his gloved fingers warm. “You can be afraid,” he said quietly. “But you mustn’t struggle.”

A simple instruction, and Esra grasped onto it immediately, feeling a distinct need to obey. He could do that. He could lie still, and not struggle. He could be perfect for his knight, who loomed over him now like a liquid shadow. In the darkened room, in the embrace of black-clad arms, Esra felt like he’d been swallowed up.

“Put your faith in me, Esra,” Umbra said softly, right into his ear, “and we will both be rewarded.”

Put my faith in you, Esra repeated, his thoughts sliding away into a mindless hush. His throat felt tight from fear, dread – not dangerous enough anymore where he might lose his breath, but just a discomfort. An invisible collar.

“I will trust you,” Esra hushed, as Umbra unrolled last sash in a shush of silk. “Please…” he near sobbed, “please, protect me?”

“Always,” Umbra promised.

Kiss me, was all Esra could think, shrouded by him, in his regalia, the smoke of his eyes. He was horrified by how much he needed it.

Umbra must have seen it in his eyes, for he leaned in his magnificent head and took Esra’s wanting mouth first tenderly, then in a searing kiss that melted his spine. Esra’s heart burned for him then, in a way it had never burned before, a feeling so deep that Esra knew he would lose himself if he weren’t careful.

Always, Umbra had said, and Esra fearlessly believed him.

How they must look, Esra thought, as he was blindfolded. A fearsome knight, and a trussed up youth. The contrast of gleaming black steel, and fluid red silk. The story felt familiar to Esra somehow, like something half remembered from myth. Echoes of an older story.

He couldn’t think of it now.

The silk was thick enough to block out all light, wide enough to cover the tip of his nose, to over his hairline. Blinded, he swayed again, and would have fallen if it weren’t Umbra’s hands on him, keeping him close. He could feel the heated leather gloves through the thickness of the silk.

“Are you alright?” the knight murmured.


Umbra donned his cloak in a whisper of heavy fabric, then his mask. Esra saw only blackness, but he heard the metallic tang as the knight took his great scythe from the wall, and put it at his back. He was in his full glorious regalia, no doubt the picture of a knight of the Order, something from an ancient tapestry. A knight, with a possession.

“When we leave this room,” Umbra said, in a low voice, “you must be silent. You must be silent through everything until I remove this blindfold. Can you do that for me?”

“I will be silent.” Esra hoped the silk was thick enough not to show his tears, for they were falling silently, out of his control, and not from any true fear. He trusted Umbra so completely that it was exhilarating to experience. Whatever would come next, Esra would accept it. Umbra would never let anyone truly hurt him.

His stomach swooped as a strong arm slung behind his knees, and he was easily lifted to Umbra’s chest. He made a frightened sound, involuntarily, and Umbra soothed him.

“It’s alright.”

He held Esra close, shifted his robe a little, just so, and Esra realised he was being… positioned, for display. His robe draping so as to show the length and quality of the silk, his bound limbs resting in a way that would be pleasing to any onlookers.

Umbra had the touch of the artist for these sorts of things.

The youth felt a hot flush rise to his face as he pictured how they looked, from embarrassment at the prospect of being seen so owned like this, but also from… pride. He felt cherished, precious. Something beloved, that needed to be shown at its best.

Umbra had stopped moving. He stood silently for a long moment, long enough for Esra to realise that he was being admired.

“Umbra,” he whispered, then he didn’t know what else to say.

The knight didn’t either, it seemed.

Esra would find out later that it was a great privilege to be in the castle, and be lucky enough to witness a knight carrying his choice to the altar. The ritual was a rare occurrence, but all knew the courtesies when one of the Order wished to bond with a chosen one.

As the knight approached, meetings paused. Work ground to a halt. Noble and servant alike fell silent as the black knight passed them. He was a long shadow in the dark hallways, a head taller than the tallest of them, moving with grand purpose that made his every footstep seem inevitable.

And in his arms, he carried a gracile youth clothed in a cascade of vibrant red silk, long black hair spilling over his knight’s arm like a luxury. Despite the blindfold, one could see the suggestion of his unusual beauty in the delicacy of his features. The boy was made of narrow lines, and was dwarfed by the knight’s enormity. It made for a mesmerising contrast.

All who saw them pressed their forehead and silently praised the God King in thanks, for such a sight was said to grant a long-lasting good fortune. As the knight’s footsteps faded, servants returned to their tasks, nobles resumed their courtesies, but all with a new energy, and with a new tale to tell jealous acquaintances.

Esra saw none of this, in his private world with Umbra. His journey to the altar was long and silent.

Cradled to Umbra’s chest, bound, blindfolded, he felt the knight’s measured footsteps, the clink-crunch of his armored feet against stone. Overhead, he heard Umbra’s breathing, steady and unlaboured. In Umbra’s arms, the youth felt weightless, ethereal, only held down on earth by the knight’s raw strength.

He could feel it as they ascended the western tower, a strange lightness in his heart with every upward step. He’d already made the decision to trust Umbra completely. There was a strange comfort in surrender, he was beginning to find. That beautiful freedom of blankness, like a white oblivion, that came from letting go of all control to something greater.

His knight believed in Balor. Esra believed in his knight.

With each step closer to his ritual, Esra felt each different trouble fall away from him. His fears, his worry for the future, his grief for the past – all sunk into the oblivion of his mind. He’d left the mortal world. There was only him, and Umbra.

Doors swung open as they approached. Esra could hear the immense size of them by the creak of iron, the heaviness of stone. His knight, who had cradled him close for for so long without a faltered footstep, swept them through. Behind them, the doors shut with a solid thud that rattled Esra to his bones.

They were, again, alone. Even blinded, Esra could tell that much.

It felt older here, colder, in a room that smelled of a midnight ocean. Esra had the sensation that they were very high in the castle tower, close to the centre of it, in a sacred place that was not entered often.

Umbra crunched forward with slow, solemn footsteps. His protective arms around Esra shifted, and his breath hitched. Esra lay very still as the knight, with the utmost care, lay his choice down onto a flat stone surface.

Fear sparked in Esra as he was left bereft in the darkness. The stone beneath him was smoothly cold, its chill quickly seeping through the silk to bite at Esra’s skin. He gasped mutely, caught in an involuntary shiver. Umbra must have noticed this. He soothed a heated hand down Esra’s torso in wordless comfort, smoothing out his fear. Hush, boy.

It calmed him, somewhat.

Esra tried to suffer in silence. He withstood his knight arranging him with ceremonial deliberateness over the surface of what must be some altar. The youth’s bound arms were crossed at the wrist over his chest, his ankles were straightened. He felt small tugs at the fabric of his robe as Umbra fussed over the drape of silk that spilled off the edge.

Umbra was perfecting him for what was to come.

Esra’s breath came faster, though he wasn’t even sure what he should be afraid of. He knew that he was brought in here without a tattoo, and would leave it forever marked. He knew that Umbra desired this ritual, greatly.

In the silken dark, memory came to Esra quickly. That pleased glow in the embers of Umbra’s smoky eyes as he spoke of a red line, down the centre of a bottom lip…

A claim on his choice. Something to quell that possessive appetite.

Esra shivered again. He wanted more than anything to reach out to his knight, to hear a comforting word from him, but he couldn’t break his vow of silence. The struggle hurt. He had to clench his hands so he wouldn’t helplessly reach out as Umbra paced over to his head.

The knight paused a moment. Esra lay there in his private darkness, waiting in mounting anxiety as Umbra just seemed to stand there and stare.

Warmth, at his jaw, of gloved fingers. He inhaled gratefully as Umbra gently touched his chin, tilting his head, just so. The finishing touch.

Then, the knight stepped back.

There was the chink-crunch of armor, the heavy drape of a black cape. Esra heard him kneel at the head of the altar.

How he must look – a beautiful statue of something dark and dangerous, watching over him in his black regalia.

The air felt different, smelled different. A presence, past the foot of the altar.

Esra felt it immediately, like a silent expansion of ice into the room. Something… enormous, incomprehensible, suddenly taking up space. The midnight ocean smell multiplied, an instinctive, animal fear clawed in his throat, he wanted to sit up and scream —

You must be silent, through everything, until I remove this blindfold.

Esra had promised to obey. Faithfully, he swallowed his voice, although he had to grit his teeth so as not to bite his own tongue. His head felt tight, like his brain was under a new pressure, like he was sitting at the bottom of the sea.

He heard something, tremendous, move towards him.

Low even rasps of air, slippery sounds, like a wet fist clenching, multiplied by a hundred, other noises that his mind wouldn’t picture. They echoed through the chamber. The enormity of him was shocking. Was this his knight’s God King? His father’s nemesis?

Esra’s panicked mind flittered back, to tales of a cyclopean being that had risen up from the blackest of the sea depths to answer monstrous summonings of the desperate. Balor’s kind had been banished to the watery fathoms after endless war with the elder fae, but centuries later, mankind had revived their greatest with misplaced faith and vile sacrifice.

They’d been tricked, his father had told him. The seabeast had entered their minds and left false prophecies. Balor could rend earth, melt stone, boil ocean, with his uncovered gaze. He was a seabeast, a destroyer, not a god. He’d quickly shattered the fae kingdoms, and enslaved the people of Fomoria.

Esra felt his hairs stand on end as the creature of every terrible tale he’d ever been told, Umbra’s god, approached the foot of the altar. He quivered violently in this endless space of dark silk, unable to stop himself shaking. An impossible apprehension was building, of a terrible danger not just to himself, but to everyone.

Could Umbra not feel it? Could no-one in this castle feel it?

“Uᴍʙʀᴀ, ᴍʏ ᴄʜɪʟᴅ.” A too-deep voice, with a crackle of the ocean depths, seemed to come from above them, all around them. Esra’s heart raced in the terror of it. “Yᴏᴜ ᴍᴀʏ ʀɪsᴇ.”

The knight rose obediently. Esra could hear the elegance in his trained movements. Umbra was calm in the presence of his overlord.

“Your Majesty.” There was a pause, a weight to this moment, as Umbra spoke over Esra’s head. “I bring to you my choice,” he said, voice grave, “to be marked as mine, as I was marked as yours.”

The altar chilled Esra as the God King moved closer with slow, heavy footsteps, the cold from him biting up his ankles, his calves, like liquid frost. He sensed strongly the feeling of being looked at – no, looked through. Looked into. His inner workings, flayed open, like someone had opened his skull to calmly regard the secret interior.

He wanted, uselessly, to shield himself – but, how could he cover the modesty of his own mind?

There is a deep crackling boom in answer to the knight, a low throaty utterance. Esra realised he must be hearing old fomorian, the ancient language of the sea beasts. The God King Balor intoned words that Esra couldn’t comprehend, in a language that encompassed more sounds than he could ever perceive. Regardless, the old words penetrated him, and rippled through his mind like dark ocean waves.

Umbra answered in that same language. His voice was so human in contrast, his tongue not made for such monstrous words, but he spoke with reverence. A pattern emerged. Balor would speak, and Umbra, it seemed, would answer.

Perhaps, he was making vows.

Esra wanted to reach out to him, grip tight to the dragon-like heat of him, for as they spoke, a chilling frost climbed his body, lapping up his waist, his shuddering chest. He was being pulled slowly, inexorably, into the churning, whirling black sea of the God King. The cold numbed him, and Esra was helplessly suspended in it.

You can be afraid, but you mustn’t struggle.

He wasn’t on the altar. The chill was at his throat, now. Umbra and his God King spoke their old tongue in unison, and they weren’t in the room. He, Umbra, and the other, they were elsewhere.

Esra didn’t struggle. He slipped beneath the waves, and swiftly loss consciousness.


He awoke in Umbra’s arms. Unbound, unblinded, he lay half on the altar, half cradled close to his knight.

He could see now, as his eyes opened, the sacred room, a perfect stone circle, spanning high to a domed ceiling. There were no windows, the only light coming from sconces mounted on the walls, their flames burning bright, arcing shadows up the walls. Were it not for the knowledge that they had ascended so high to get here, the altar could just have easily been deep underground.

The black knight cast a shadow over him. He still wore his mask, but Esra could tell he was worried. His concern rolled off him like a wave, palpable. It ebbed as Esra blinked up at him, as the youth clung weakly to his arms, fingers pressed to the cool steel of his armor. Feeling the strength of Umbra’s grip in return filled Esra with an immense sense of safety.

“Esra…” Relief. The knight exhaled, and ducked his head closer. “How are you feeling?”

“Did I…” Esra swallowed reflexively. His throat was dry. It hurt a bit to speak. “Did I pass out?”

Umbra nodded. He was slightly haloed by the flamelight. It sparked off his ashen hair, glinting his armor. “Part of the ritual,” he explained. “Old magic. You won’t remember anything.”

It was true. The memories of what had happened in here were already dripping away. The harder Esra thought about it, the less he could remember.

Umbra stroked Esra’s head tentatively, unsure if Esra was in pain. “Are you…”

“I’m fine,” Esra assured him. “My mouth…”

He touched his lips, wincing a little at the tenderness of his bottom lip. Was he already marked? When had that been done to him?

“His Majesty burns it into you.” Umbra had heard the unasked question. “Like he did to me. We are linked now. Such is his power. Can you feel it?”

Esra could. And he understood now how Umbra, excellent at hiding his face of any trace of emotions, was now so readable. His deep satisfaction, his joy, at having Esra in his arms marked as his, obvious.

“I can,” Esra whispered. He was wide-eyed. “Can you… feel me?”

Umbra nodded. “Didn’t know what this would be like,” he admitted, with a slight smile. “Still getting used to it.”

“It’s probably more useful for me than for you,” Esra said, gently teasing, and he felt the bloom of Umbra’s amusement in response.

His heart felt sore, at that. The humanity of him. He wanted, oddly, to cry.

Umbra stared down at him, the dark protector looking over his ward. When Esra reached up to touch that sculpted cheek, below the edge of the steel mask, Umbra leaned into it, just a little, his skin heated against Esra’s cool palm. His salamander.

There is something wrong, he knew, about feeling this way, about someone so…

The thought seemed to whisper from his mind like smoke.

“Will it work over the long distances,” Esra asked, his voice almost a whisper, “while you are away?”

“Hm.” Umbra intoned. “Not sure. Suppose we will find out.”

Esra had been carried, blinded and bound, into the altar room. He walked out freely on Umbra’s arm, his lip still stinging with the mark of his position.

The red robe rippled as he moved, and he had to hold the front of it up a little so he wouldn’t tread on the long swathes of glossy fabric. He was drowning in the impractical luxury of it, overwhelmed. But Umbra would have told him if he wanted his choice to change.

The sun was low on the horizon, and the castle lamps had been lit. Everything seemed different after dark. Esra had not seen the castle hallways like this before. Paintings looked different, the texture of tapestry more obvious. The shadows on the stone walls flickered in the candlelight.

Umbra escorted him through the tower, past a grand archway with an engraved scythe. The Order of Balor resided in the upper echelons of the castle, where they lived, and where they held gatherings for the royal favorites in the most beautiful rooms. Only the Order, and their guests, were allowed past the guards.

Esra’s tattoo marked him as an adjunct to the Order, Umbra told him. He had the right to pass through here alone, even when his knight was away. “Although I am employing you a bodyguard,” Umbra said, “for your safety.”

Esra licked his sore lip, nervous again at the thought of Umbra leaving him. “Will I be unsafe?”

“It is unlikely,” Umbra assured him, but Esra could feel his uncertainty. “It is best to be safe, Esra. This castle can be treacherous to the unprepared.”

He heard music, the murmur of voices, as he was ushered through an elegant hallway. A grand door was opened for them by silent servants, curtains pulled back, and they walked into a richly decorated chamber filled with tall masked knights, and their glittering guests. Esra froze, feeling he was in the wrong place, because surely amongst all these regal people he couldn’t…

Umbra must have felt his fear. His hand went to Esra’s back, escorting him in.

Brother knight, the Order all muttered to him as they entered, bowing to him, and he bowed back in what must be some greeting ritual. They were outnumbered by their guests, nobles and courtiers in colorful fashions, but it was the knights who stood out in their head to toe black.

Amongst even the grandest of the kingdom they caught the eye, like gods from some other realm, serene and unknowable, their unnatural beauty obvious even behind their masks. It was impossible to look at anything but them. They loomed ominously over all others, returning to conversations with lords and other honorable peoples, or their own secret circles.

And a small few of them had people, like Esra, with that same line over their lips. All were women, apart from one youth he saw in the columns by the side of the room looking right at him. He was hauntingly ethereal on the arm of a knight, a vivid red line down his bottom lip like bloodspill.

Esra startled when he realised he was looking at himself, undistorted, for the first time. His reflection stared back at him, eyes wide.

Umbra’s head tilted, looking at Esra in the silver mirror, and Esra saw his lip quirk.

“Never seen your own face before, I recall,” he said, dipping down to whisper into the youth’s ear. “Drink yourself in, boy. There are few like you.”

Esra shook his head, as did his reflection. He had to look away.

He was introduced to endless faces that evening, that they became a blur.

Esra recognised Arturo by his too wide smile, breaking off from conversing with a lordling to react to Umbra’s entry. With his mask on, he was unreadable, but he seemed to resist walking over to bother them.

Eventually, Umbra fell into conversation with a low-voiced knight, Lohier, with softly curled chestnut hair and a graceful disposition. Lohier was polite to Esra, but the conversation quickly moved over Esra’s head, to a discussion with other nobles about the intricacies of Northern politics.

Esra’s gaze drifted to the rest of the room. There were a few eyes on him, which he would later learn was to be expected. The ritualised companions of the Order were the subject of much talk, and rarer still were male choices. But his attention went to the ornate chandeliers, the painted ceiling of cloud and sea, the old landscapes and tapestries that covered the walls.

Sometimes, living with Umbra, he could forget or at least get used to the unimaginable wealth he was constantly surrounded by, but he felt it now, standing here. It made him feel a little ill.

At the far end of the hall, a stained glass window lit up in color by the setting sun cast the room in an orange glow. It depicted, Esra realised, reapers wielding giant scythes, in fierce combat with enormous fae beasts. The original warriors that would eventually become the order of Balor.

Ah, Lohier said, gently breaking the conversation. “Our host is here.”

“Ruegard,” Umbra said swiftly into Esra’s ear as they turned to the entrance. “The most trusted knight of the God King. He’s escorting someone I’d much like you to meet.”

Ruegard, Esra would later find out, was the eldest of the Order. It was said he was hundreds of years old, hailing from the time of the reapers. He did not look old, Esra thought, perhaps thirty summers. The eldest knight moved with a bestial grace, the face beneath his mask set stern.

What was striking about him was his dark skin, like the men who hailed from the golden kingdoms on the northern reaches of the Continent. Esra had seen men like him before, when they came by the village to trade. But such coloring was rare on Fomoria, and usually seen as a sign of the enemy, due to the relation to the Continent. That Ruegard was apparently Balor’s most trusted knight confused Esra greatly.

He escorted a blond man so beautiful that all seemed to pause for a moment as they looked upon him. The young man was not his Choice, for he had no lip tattoo. He had pale creamy skin, clever green eyes, and a cloud of wavy blond hair that spilled down his back like a mantle.

Those green eyes reminded Esra, treacherously, of the fae.

“Congratulations, Brother Knight, on your fortune,” said Ruegard graciously, after being introduced to Esra. Like the other knights, he did not lay a finger on Esra. It seemed to be an unspoken rule that knights did not touch another’s choice. “The King is pleased.”

Umbra thanked him with a slightly deeper bow than he’d granted the others who had said much the same. All knights were equal, but there was something different about the way they treated Ruegard, with that slight reverence.

The blond, at Ruegard’s shoulder, had his green eyes were fixed on Esra. His blonde hair, in the dim room, glowed about him like a halo.

“Esra,” Umbra said, a hint of pleasure in his voice, “this is Erasmus, one of the King’s Painters.”

One of Umbra’s favorite artists, Esra remembered swiftly, on the hunt for a new muse…

“A most grand title!” exclaimed Erasmus, with a sunny smile. “Esra, I am merely a jobbing artist, and a humble student of beauty.”

Unlike any of the knights, the man held out his hand. Esra took it gratefully. His handshake belied his graceful appearance, with a sinewy strength. His fingers were callused, and nails clipped short. For all the splendour of his angelic appearance his hands betrayed his status in trade.

His fingers, like Esra’s, were narrow at the tips. His teeth were, from certain angles, ever so slightly pointed. His fae blood was thicker than Esra’s for sure.

“It’s a pleasure,” said Esra, thinking of his father’s advice, ‘always be a friend to the fae.’

Although how someone with so much blood of the enemy was allowed so high in Balor’s court was beyond him.

“Look at this.” Umbra glanced between the two of them, pleased. “You two look like dawn and dusk.”

Erasmus laughed musically. “You have an artist’s heart, Sir Knight,” he remarked pleasantly.

“A true compliment,” Umbra said gallantly, dipping his head, “from you.”

Erasmus laughed again, then propped out his arm and stared at Esra with those intense green eyes. “Shall we take a turn?”

He was quite an overwhelming person.

Esra struggled, unsure of the correct response, if he was allowed to leave Umbra’s side, although he did want to talk more with this incongruous man. Umbra’s hand at the base of Esra’s spine pressed a little, unspoken permission. “Go on,” he urged. “Walk about the room together and conspire. I think we’d all enjoy it.”

“Thank you,” Esra said, and put his arm through the artist’s.

They took a slow stroll through the darkened room, closer to the stained glass. Many turned to look at them. “Erasmus, speak to us of your new work…” “Erasmus, I have heard much of your latest painting…”

“I will be right with you,” Erasmus would tell them courteously, before moving on. His attention was on Esra. His artist’s eyes flickered over as they approached the light. Was this stroll to get a better look at Esra’s features?

“Well aren’t you pretty,” Erasmus said suddenly, a pleased look on his angelic face. “Arturo told me all he could about you. I was ever so eager to have us meet, but I gather Umbra doesn’t let you leave his rooms much.”

He had such a soft voice, and he spoke so closely into Esra’s ear, that Esra was certain no-one but he could hear it. But he still flushed red at the joke, at a loss for what to say. “Well, I’ve…” he stuttered, “only just arrived…”

But Erasmus was still talking. “I admit, Esra,” he said seriously, “I can take or leave these fancy gatherings. But when I heard you were coming, I begged an escort here.”

“I’m sure we’d have met eventually,” said Esra slowly, a shy smile growing on his face. He couldn’t help but feel charmed by Erasmus’s force of personality.

“Why wait?” Erasmus challenged. “We have limited time on this earth, Esra. Unlike them.” He nodded his head at the black-clad knights, and let out a resentful sigh. “Immortality is wasted on them. Oh, the things I would do with all the time in the world…”

Esra nodded. “More time for painting,” he guessed.

The green eyes glinted. “More time for everything.” And he gave Esra a sly grin.

“You aren’t…” Esra licked his sore lip. “You haven’t got the tattoo?”

“Oh, I’m not Ruegard’s choice,” Erasmus drawled. “He’s rather annoyingly celibate, actually, for a man with such perfect proportions.”

Esra laughed at that, then covered his mouth, embarrassed.

“You’re lucky to have Umbra,” Erasmus continued. “He’s the most beautiful of the knights, in my professional opinion. And a devilish sense of humor, once you go digging. Although it’s hard to tell when they are teasing you, isn’t it? With those stony faces of theirs.”

“Umbra has a painting of yours in pride place on his walls,” Esra said. “It’s very beautiful.”

“You like it?” Erasmus asked, looking excited. “It’s an earlier work from my virgin series.”

Esra blanched. “He was… a virgin?”

“Oh no, no,” Erasmus corrected him swiftly. “Not at all. A whore in a city brothel, actually. Ran across him by accident, and had him my muse for a time.”

They stopped by the stained glass window, and Erasmus turned elegantly to face him. In the dying light, he looked like an angel. He couldn’t be more than twenty summers, but he had a nobleman’s self assurance, and a courtier’s grace.

“No, the series is about a certain gossamer appearance. I’m capturing virginity, not as a state of being, but as an idea.” He peered at Esra closely. “An idea that you fit beautifully, by the way.”

Esra startled at that, and felt his face heat.

“I imagine you are not a virgin, having been locked up with Umbra for a near week, but you are… glowing, with the idea I am trying to capture.” And he looked at Esra like he was trying to deconstruct him from head to toe. “You might very well be the culmination of it.”

“I would not be a good model,” said Esra hesitantly, and Erasmus shook his head.

“I could paint you just standing here,” he said seriously. “How this light hits you, perfect. Your robe is glowing with it. Your face, your presence… Arturo described you as a haunted innocent, but that doesn’t come close to it.” He took Esra’s hand again, squeezed it earnestly. “Oh Esra, you must let me paint you. I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I couldn’t…”

“Oh yes, you must.”

Arturo’s deep voice directly into his ear. Esra could have jumped in shock, but he resisted, just straightening his back. Politely, he stepped to the side to allow Arturo into the conversation.

“Sir Knight,” said Erasmus, with a little bow. “A pleasure.”

Esra did not bother to say anything to Arturo, and just stared stonily at him.

Arturo’s smile was too wide below his mask. “You two look like a picture, one dark, one fair. I’d paint it if I had the talent for it.” He paused, as if in thought. “With a few changes regarding attire, of course.”

Umbra, on the further side of the room, glanced at them. Perhaps he’d felt Esra’s caution.

“Your knight wants you back, I think, dear Esra,” Arturo noted, dipping his head ever so politely to Umbra. Esra shuddered, with Umbra’s sudden fury heating him.

Arturo, in public, behaved the perfect knight. It would be hard for others to picture the man who had so hurt him, but Esra wasn’t fooled for a second.

Erasmus watched them both carefully, his clever eyes narrowing.

“Please,” Arturo said, tilting out his elbow, “allow me to return you to him, honored choice. He leaves on the morrow, does he not? I’m sure you’ll want to spend as much time together as possible.”

Esra smiled thinly at the proffered arm, and Arturo scoffed a laugh.

“Oh, of course. How forgetful of me. No, please,” he said dismissively to Erasmus, who had stepped forward to join them, concern leaking through his practised courtiers smile. “I wish to talk to Esra alone.”

What could they do? Arturo ushered Esra with him, without touching him, but his will alone was forceful. They took a slow walk around the room, back towards Umbra, who was shooting glares at Arturo but unwilling to start a commotion.

Esra dropped his eyes to the floor, careful not to trip on his robes. He could feel without looking Arturo watching him closely, tracing his eyes over Esra’s features, the length of his hair, and where skin met red silk.

“You seem different,” he muttered to the dip at Esra’s neck. “Where is the timid country bumpkin? Didn’t realise that you could fuck class into a nobody, but look at you now, in your silks and slippers.”

He spoke low enough to be a murmur to other guests, but Esra was a little shaken by his crudeness. “You seem just the same as when we last met,” he answered quietly.

Arturo chuckled. “I suppose there is nothing you can do about that tragic accent, though.”

Esra flushed red. He had never noticed his own accent. Did he sound ridiculous, next to these crisp city nobles? He wanted to say something biting back, but now was afraid of his own voice. And what could he say, anyway, to a knight?

“Fear not, little one,” Arturo said with pleasure, noting Esra’s unease. “None of us knights would dare lay a hand on you.” That wide smile again. “Would only that that protection could have extended to your family.”

Esra’s blood ran cold. For a moment, he saw it: staked bodies, midnight bonfires, excruciating screams from the smithy. Chained children. Kian’s half face, sobbing into his shoulder.

“That’s right,” Arturo murmured, as Esra went pale. “While you enjoy these priceless robes, and your strolls around the most exquisite castle in the lands, remember the bodies of your friends and family that you have walked on to get here. It’s the least you can do, don’t you think?”

“Arturo,” hissed Umbra under his breath as Esra slipped his nervous hand through Umbra’s arm. The youth trembled uncontrollably, his throat catching his breaths. He felt Umbra’s anger down his spine, overpowering, raging, though all that showed on the knight’s face was tension in his jaw.

“Don’t stress,” Arturo muttered in return, through his smile. “I did nothing improper.” And after a respectful bow, walked on. To any onlooker, nothing was amiss.

But Esra felt shattered.

“I want to go home,” Esra whispered to his knight, who turned to him immediately in shock. “To our rooms,” he clarified. His voice shook. His fingers clutched the black metal of his bracers pleadingly. He needed Umbra’s strength. Esra wanted to be wrapped up by him.

“Very well,” said Umbra shortly, and Esra could feel a darker need from him, spilling out in waves. “Let us make our farewells.”

In the safety of their chamber, Esra let Umbra take him. The knight had a dark frenzy about him, and he threw Esra to the bed and took him with little preparation, possessive, close to violent in his movements. A beastlike reclaiming.

Esra gasped fitfully as he submitted to the onslaught, clutching at Umbra’s muscled back, the priceless red silk of his robe spilling aside beneath him. Umbra had merely unwrapped it before taking him.

He could feel Umbra’s tumultuous emotions course through him, his rage, his fear, his pride and most overpowering, the mine mine mine dark desire to claim Esra. It was intoxicating, and Esra let himself get swept up in it, crying out at the mind-numbing pleasure of it.

Esra did not like pain, and he was normally fearful of Umbra’s brutality, but for tonight he needed this. To be surrounded by the power of him, and held tight, and possessed.

His sharp gasps broke into a moan of pleasure as Umbra gripped him tighter, angling Esra expertly to send sparks of pleasure rippling through him with each thrust. He felt Umbra’s mouth at the crook of his neck, the pant of his breath, the grit of his teeth. He felt, more than anything, the urge of Umbra’s need for him, to claim him. Overwhelmed, Esra slipped his hands from the writhing back, to neck, to scalp, so he could tenderly card his fingers through Umbra’s ashen hair. He felt Umbra’s need flare up in response.

“Esra,” Umbra all but growled, his already strong grip on Esra’s hips tightening. Esra slid his knees up Umbra’s sides so Umbra could fuck him deeper, bring them closer, and Umbra gasped over his throat, so human that Esra’s heart hurt.

He was reaching pleasure. He could feel it build in his body, his skin heating oversensitive, his toes curling, his gasps filtered with little helpless moans. Umbra moved over him, pinning him down through his shudders as Esra cried out, shaking, and finally gave into it. Clutching Umbra tight, he gasped in pleasure, and came with a cry between their bodies.

He felt Umbra’s breath hitching in shock at the echoes of Esra’s pleasure, the shudder of his powerful body that pinned him down, and then the knight began to come, pushing deep into Esra’s body with a rapturous groan and spending himself into his choice.

They kissed like that, wrapped up in each other. Esra’s tattoo stung. Umbra’s lips were possessive, demanding. Esra gave in to him without a second thought, roaming his hands over Umbra’s burning skin, the muscled planes of his body. This man belonged to Esra, as much as Esra belonged to him in return. He understood that now.

Umbra’s grip eventually gentled, and he pressed his lips to Esra’s cheekbone, to the underside of his jaw, growing heavier as he relaxed. He could feel Umbra’s racing heartbeat slow. Their skin cooled in the night air.

Esra closed his eyes, letting out a soft sigh when Umbra withdrew from him. The knight rolled onto his back, and pulled Esra alongside him, under the sheets. The length of their bodies pressed together, entwined.

“Tell me,” Esra said softly into the dark room, skimming his fingers over Umbra’s warm waist, “about Arturo.”

They were both close to sleep, tangled close, defenses down. In the gloomy light, Umbra looked so languid, his usually piercing grey eyes glossy and half-lidded, that Esra had thought it safe to tentatively ask about Umbra’s brother knight.

But the grey eyes sharpened. Beneath his palm, he felt Umbra’s muscles coil.

The youth’s heart hammered in his chest – had he made a tremendous mistake? He swallowed thickly. He’d been too bold. Arturo, Esra already knew, was not someone Umbra cared to think about. Their mere encounter on Esra’s first day in the capital had left his knight on edge for hours. And at the gathering… Esra shivered to remember the poison Arturo had spilled into his ear. With a few words, he’d made Umbra bestial.

Umbra’s anger started to burn up in him as if it were his own. Esra, with a tremulous nervousness, rested his head trustingly on Umbra’s chest. Please be calm, he willed, and tried not to shake. He breathed with the steady thud of his knight’s heart, felt the dragon heat of him, and prayed for the flames to quell.

The knight must have noticed his fear, for he gentled. Esra blinked hurriedly in the dark as Umbra’s large hand came to rest on his head.

“Already told you enough,” Umbra rumbled, his tone too gentle to be curt. “Now go to sleep.”

“I cannot,” Esra admitted fitfully, as Umbra stroked his hair.

The hand paused, resting over the shell of his ear.

“Umbra, I…” He nestled even closer into the knight, watching the sleek lines of his still face in profile. Their bond was shockingly strong like this, skin to skin. Emotions flooded from the knight, through him. Apprehension. Defensiveness. And a vulnerability that could break Esra’s heart. “I need to know,” he pleaded. Surely, he thought, his sincerity would show.

Umbra barely moved. He was silent a long while, before he let out a long sigh. “Never should have let you out of my sight, at that gathering,” he groused, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. His eyes were closed. “Should’ve known he’d– What did he speak to you of?”

Esra bit his lip. The sick heat of humiliation rose whenever he thought of it. “Insults under his breath,” he said eventually. “About my appearance, my accent. I… I don’t think anyone heard him, though. He mostly whispered it to me.”

Although, that might have been the worst part. Keeping his expression clear, as that dark voice murmured hot in his ear, the cruel weight of his gaze behind the geometric mask.

“There is nothing the matter with your accent,” Umbra muttered darkly. “And you looked exquisite.” His arm went around Esra’s waist, over the red silk of his robe, and cradled him closer. His easy strength had once put fear in Esra’s heart, but now it was a comfort, how easily Umbra moved him. Like Esra was weightless. “He didn’t touch you, did he?”

“He didn’t lay a finger on me,” Esra assured him, as Umbra’s eyes swept over him, like he was checking for marks he might of missed in their earlier passion. “He told me that I was protected, that I shouldn’t be afraid of him–” his voice cracked, and for a moment he couldn’t speak. His heart hurt again, still raw. As if they’d never stopped, tears welled up hotly in his eyes. “And he told me… that it was a shame that such protection… could not have extended to my family.”

And how he’d deserved that shame, wrapped as he was in wealth, surrounded by so much power. He bathed in riches, whilst miles away, his tortured father lay in an unmarked grave by the sea, in the ruins of his childhood home. Everyone he’d ever known was either dead, or on the slaver’s block.

Momentarily, his grief overwhelmed him. He had to swallow back an ungraceful sob, instead letting out a crumpled sound, close to a whimper. He pressed himself against Umbra’s chest, shaking, as if willing his body to disappear into him.

Umbra said nothing for a long moment, just brushing his hand over Esra’s side. An absent, comforting motion. Esra could feel it, though. Umbra’s sick guilt spread thick in the pit of his stomach, so strong it almost paralysed him. His knight’s face, usually so serene and bereft of emotion, was stricken as he looked upon his choice. Neither of them needed to say anything. Each knew that the other understood.

“I’m not asking you to change the past,” Esra said softly.

“My duty…” the knight started, stopped.

“I know.” Esra nodded, smiling through his tears.

“If I’d the power to alter these things, Esra, I…”

Esra slid closer, kissed him to shush him. Umbra’s eyes widened. “Wherever we go from here,” Esra whispered, as the knight’s grey stare bore into him, “whatever we do, what happened back then will always be a part of our story. I have already… accepted this.”

“Esra,” Umbra said, startled, almost disbelieving. He sat up, brushed his thumbs over Esra’s wet cheeks, then cupped his face in concern. “You’re crying.”

“I’m okay,” Esra whispered, tugging him back down to the mattress. Umbra eventually relented, settling close beside him. “Please, tell me of him.”

Umbra grew very still. The only thing that moved was his chest, slowly rising, falling. His eyes were darting over the ceiling, caught in a memory that he did not revisit often. Wordlessly, one of his hands went to the crown of Esra’s head, smoothing over his hair, threading his long fingers through the length of it. It was a comfort for both of them. Esra rested his cheek on Umbra’s strong shoulder, and waited.

Umbra was not one given to sharing his private thoughts when bidden, even before he’d been made into a knight. There were many people whom, over the years, Umbra had brought close to him, whom he’d grown very fond of. But no-one he truly confided in.

Not before Esra. The youth did not know it, but his mere presence could bring out something in Umbra that he’d thought long smothered out. Esra had a gentle nature, despite everything. Umbra could feel the trust in his narrow hand, with the pointed fingertips, resting lightly over his heart.

“During my fifteenth summer,” the knight began, skimming his hand over the silk of Esra’s hair, “I followed my father into the army of the Black Prince.”

“That is… young,” Esra whispered. He thought of himself at that age, how close to frail he’d been.

Umbra made a humming sound. “It is, yet if a captain wants to train efficient soldiers, he needs to start when they are still boys. My father taught me sword and shield from the moment I was big enough to hold them.”

Esra nodded, although his own father had never attempted to train Esra in combat. He’d tried to teach Esra swimming, and sailing, with limited success. Esra had done his best to obey his father, whom he had always been in wonderment of. But some things were beyond the capabilities of his body.

“Never saw any action in the army, of course,” rumbled Umbra, in his low velvet voice. Esra could tell he was sinking into memory. “I was too young. They kept me busy at the base. I was more of an errand boy than anything. A page to my elders. In my own time, I trained as much as I could. Wanted to be sent off…” he seemed wistful, “somewhere. To see the world I’d only ever heard about in stories. So, I always trained hard.”

That sounds like him, Esra thought, with a small smile.

“The captain said I had much potential.” There was remembered pride in his voice. “My family was respected in the church, I was a strong, devout soldier. And I was smart. Knew my letters. Could potentially be an officer, one day.” Umbra paused, that flicker of pride and unease. “Arturo said he’d seen it in me immediately – the spark of ambition.

Sir Arturo had travelled far from the capital, on a duty to ensure that the standing army in the Weald was up to the God King’s standards. He brought with him no retinue, nor guard. This was despite the dangerous trip through the wilds — but he hadn’t needed the assistance. Not even the boldest of bandit camps would dare take on a knight of the Order.

A knight on the battlefield, it was said, was worth a hundred men.

Umbra had been seventeen when he first caught sight of the black knight of the Order. The stranger looked just like the knights from the tales, clad neck to boot in glimmering pitch-black armor, with the formidable curve of the scythe on his back. He was more than a man, in stature. The soldiers could talk about little else. But he remained aloof, to most of them.

“But he came across me one evening,” Umbra said quietly, “when I was practicing the sword alone in the yard.”

Young Umbra had made a habit of this. While his fellow soldiers were drinking and carousing, he’d spend the evening sharpening his training. He was well known, even at seventeen, for his excellent sword arm.

The first night, Arturo had just watched him for a long while, and then left. The youth had tried to put out out of his mind, but the next night, Arturo had returned, this time, with some pointers for him.

“I was stricken with a sort of terrified awe that he was even speaking to me, that he paid any attention to me at all.” Umbra admitted. “Knights usually don’t speak to anyone less than an officer, unless they are barking at you to get out of the way. And he never raised his voice to me. He’d simply noticed talent, he’d said. Talent that he wanted to… perfect.”

Arturo had been fascinating to the young Umbra, who quickly became grateful for the knight’s tutelage. They would spar together, much to the jealousy of Umbra’s peers, and over time, Umbra began to see him as something something approaching a friend.

Until, one evening, after a training session, he’d invited the youth back to the Reaper’s Rest.

Esra stilled in the knight’s arms, his breath catching. “Did you know what he… wanted, of you?” he asked tentatively, aware he was treading on dangerous ground.

Umbra blinked slowly. “Did I… know?” he repeated, as if he’d never considered it before. “Perhaps. I wish I hadn’t followed. But… I felt compelled to obey him.”

Esra didn’t need to hear it. He knew the feeling intimately, the compulsion to obey something dark, terrifying and unstoppable, even if you knew that in the end, it would hurt you. There had never been any question of denying Umbra, that night. Just, surviving him.

Umbra seemed to realise this. “Suppose I need not explain it to you, my boy,” he said. In the hazy light of their chamber, he looked ghostly, haunted. His eyes were glossy in the darkness, like sparks of embers as they darted over Esra’s face. “Did you know what I wanted from you? When I bade you stay?”

“In part,” Esra admitted. “Though only a little. You were the first… to kiss me.”

But, he’d always known that he’d wanted it to be a man, who kissed him.

“Then, I suppose you appreciate,” Umbra murmured, “how it is hard to speak of.”

“You do not have to tell me,” Esra whispered, for he understood. “Here, let me–”

He propped himself up, wrapping his slender arms around Umbra’s broad shoulders until he was half laying atop the man. Umbra looked up at him, serenely beautiful, shattered. His eyes were fixed on Esra, then slid shut as the youth came closer, pressed their foreheads together–

Their bond, already powerful, completed.

Esra’s sincerity, his curiosity, his grief for himself, his sorrow for Umbra, opened in the knight’s mind. And in return, Esra felt what Umbra had. Umbra’s shame, humiliation, rushed through him like a black wave. The deep sense of debt he’d felt, towards someone so above him. The fear he’d felt, upon realising Arturo’s intentions. And his religious panic.

It would have been a sin, a deep sin, to refuse one of the God King’s chosen knights. Umbra had no other choice, but obey. And Arturo had known that. He felt, behind the heated wall of his anger towards Arturo, his furious sense of betrayal. And, more deeply suppressed, the ice cold shards of young Umbra’s fear.

They clutched each other, emotions pounding through each other’s bodies. Umbra’s powerful arms wrapped tight around his body, hands clenched in Esra’s hair, and the youth was pressed into him, his eyes watering in sympathy. He felt the pain with Umbra, cried for him, until he was wrought with it.

Was Umbra crying? Had Balor left him the ability to cry?

They lay like that for mere minutes, or hours, in the darkened room. Foreheads pressed together, they were two people, one person, simultaneously.

Esra was utterly spent when Umbra released him. He tumbled to the knight’s side, breathing heavily, tangled in the heavy drape of his red robe. They’d both been left speechless by the intensity of their connection.

It was a long while before either of them spoke again. Wordlessly, Umbra pulled Esra into his arms so that they lay on their sides, the youth’s narrow back pressed against the length of Umbra’s chest. The knight could rest his chin on the crown of Esra’s head.

“You’re shaking,” he rumbled, concerned.

Esra felt like he was vibrating, words jumbling in his head. “Umbra, I… I am sorry, I did not know that our bond… that it would be so…”

“No,” Umbra stopped him. “Don’t apologise. I am glad of it.” He smoothed a warm hand down Esra’s flank, in something like awe. His fingers travelled over skin, silk, skin.

“I-I’m so sorry,” Esra whispered. A shaky grief had filled him, for the lost youth that Umbra had once been, caught in Arturo’s desires, “… for what happened to you…”

“Esra,” Umbra breathed, disbelieving. “Of all people, you shouldn’t…”

“Let me feel sorrow for you,” Esra begged. He twisted, so that they faced each other, and pressed his face to Umbra’s collarbone. Umbra’s arms surrounded him, hot, strong. “As you feel sorrow for me. I don’t think that is too much to ask.”

Umbra pressed his lips to Esra’s head. “Very well, my boy,” he murmured.

Arturo took Umbra from the army soon after

He bought the youth’s contract from the captain, and made him his squire. Even if those around them thought it unjust, there was nothing anybody could do. Knights were the living representatives of Balor’s law, and there was no questioning them.

“Never got to say goodbye to my family, or friends,” Umbra muttered. “I believe they were told after the fact, of what my destiny was to be. They’ve have no way of finding me now. Not now that I am… like this.” A slow exhale, his arm tensing around Esra. “In a way, I got my wish through him. I got to see the world.”

Arturo moved him to the capital, to train him for the trials. The God King Balor was looking for a new knight. One of the twenty had passed, only a few months ago, on what was meant to be a diplomatic meeting to the Continent. He’d been an honorable knight, well over a hundred years old, and one of Balor’s favorites.

“Another Umbra?” Esra asked. It shocked him, how replaceable Balor’s supposedly honored knights were.


Umbra seemed not to find anything odd about it.

“They’d interred his body in the Order mausoleum, and he left behind a valuable estate in good order, and his choice, who had been a famous beauty from the Westerlands. Many vied to replace him, including lords already close to the crown, some who’d long desired his choice… although Balor does not knight a man without years of careful consideration.”

Again, that remembered pride in his voice.

“It was me, he ended up knighting, after I passed the trials. I retired his choice, and took up his mantle. That would have been… four years ago, now.”

Esra’s mind whirled. “What…” he asked hesitantly, “are the trials?”

Umbra paused for long enough that Esra grew nervous. “Won’t go into details,” he said eventually. You are a gentle soul, Esra. And in truth, Balor blocked my memory of much of it.”

“But the parts…” Esra whispered, “that you do remember…”

“You have to sacrifice everything to him to be his knight,” Umbra said, solemn. “Your body, your will, your history, your morals… In training, I learned a different right and wrong. What Balor wants is right. What he does not, is wrong. I gave up my past, my name. I gave him my body, took communion of his blood, and he made me… this.”

Umbra gestured down the line of his powerful body.

“He guides my every action. That mask I wear is a direct connection with him. All knights have it. We are extensions of his will. And for our service, we are granted immortality, freedom from pain, freedom from illness. All in Fomoria bow to the Order of Balor. For a nobody youth in the bottom rungs of the army, the idea of it was intoxicating. And once I had that power, Arturo had to concede to my wishes.”

Esra thought about this. “He could have made you his choice.”

Umbra nodded. “He would have, if I’d failed the trials. That, he said, was the price of his tutelage.” The knight sighed. “Although, it’s been years, and he’s still propositioning me. But he can’t harm me. Not unless he wants to anger Balor.”

“He truly watches over you,” Esra realised. He could begin to see it, the reasons behind Umbra’s devotion to his king.

“Mm,” Umbra hummed, and Esra could hear it in his chest. “He’s not a seabeast. Not to me. Seen what he can do. He’s a god. He came from the sea, tamed these lands, raised the most beautiful city from the rock and made his castle.”

The first sight of Balor’s throne, a white city over the expanse of fields, higher than the very mountains, had truly been one of the most wondrous vistas Esra had ever seen.

“Maybe he is not a kind god,” Umbra mused. “I’ll give your father that. He is… endlessly cruel to his enemies. I have been endlessly cruel in his name.” Umbra’s voice grew softer, almost to himself. “Never used to be cruel. The trials, the ritual… it unlocked something in me, maybe suppressed something in me. Don’t know. Try not to think about it.” The knight grew uncertain. “Never told anyone this before.”

“Do you not feel anything then?” Esra asked, for he’d always been unable to comprehend this. “When you hurt people?”

He thought of Kian’s gruesome half-smile, how one man could do that to another.

“Sometimes,” Umbra replied quietly. He sighed, then tilted his head to kiss Esra’s forehead. His lips were soft, warm, on Esra’s skin. “We should sleep.”

Esra suppressed a nervous shudder. “When we wake, you’ll be leaving me.”

“Not immediately,” Umbra assured him. “I depart a while after noon. There will be a gathering that you must attend with me.”

Esra’s eyes dipped down. He brushed his fingers lightly over Umbra’s chest. “I don’t want you to go.”

“It’s not up to you, Esra,” said Umbra, gently. “It’s not even up to me. My life is not my own. Your life is not yours.” His hand on Esra’s waist tightened momentarily. “Do you see that?”

Esra eyes swam in the darkness. He touched Umbra’s cheek, thinking of the weight of this man’s duty to his monstrous king. “I’m not telling you to stay, Umbra,” Esra whispered, his voice near cracking. “Only that, if we lived in a world where we could both choose freely, I would not be parted from you.” He shook his head. “Not now.”

He felt a rush of fondness from Umbra, and sadness.

“Yet we live in this world,” Umbra said. Like Esra knew he would. “Now go to sleep.”

That night, Esra dreamed that he had a lover formed from smoke, tall and beautiful, with embers for eyes.

There was a cruelty to their love, for though the salamander was beautiful, he was formless. Temporary. Falling for him, Esra knew, with the hidden knowledge that only comes to the dreaming, would be choosing to have a broken heart.

His smoke lover came for him, and Esra was pulled from the grey blue ocean of his home and led, naked, over sand and stone, into the salamander’s bonfire. He was frightened. The heat was all encompassing. The flames felt like silk, rippling over his skin.

He did not burn.

Water evaporated from in skin as steam as smoken hands drew him close. His lover’s kisses filled Esra’s mouth, and grey sheets of smoke billowed around them, up onto the night sky.

He made love to Esra as the flames died around them, all through the night, until he had taken up all of Esra’s mind, and the ocean he’d risen from was just a distant memory. The sky changed above them, starry, then paling, to blues and purples, reds and oranges, like the sky itself was caught ablaze, burning over them where they lay, entwined.

But morning came. When all that was left was coal and embers, his lover had left him in the breeze, to journey with the clouds. Water lapped at Esra’s feet. The tide had come in, to take him back to the ocean depths.

Esra woke, grasping the sheets. He was alone in their darkened chamber.

His half-sleeping mind whirled– Had Umbra lied to him? Left already? The bed beside him, Esra ran a frantic hand over the silken sheets, was cool. The realisation choked him, and he let out a heartbroken whimper, trembled fitfully at the idea of being alone in this treacherous castle.

But… and he had to force his mind to still, he hadn’t felt Umbra lie. And as his panic subsided, he heard, with great relief, voices from the living quarters, the low velvet tones of his knight.

He’d have eavesdropped, not wanting to walk into anything he wasn’t supposed to, but the walls were too thick for him to hear exactly what they were saying. He knew, however, that he couldn’t recognise the second voice, and that put a prickle of nervousness down his spine.

Cautious, Esra rose from the enormous bed that had once seemed like an impossible luxury, and neatly folded the rumpled red robe he’d awoken in. He pulled on something warmer, more modest, the ivory robe Umbra had bought him when he’d been cold one night. It covered him from neck to ankle, and was trimmed with soft grey rabbit fur.

Thus clothed, he slipped on his slippers, and stepped out into the living room.

The men stepped apart as the door swung open, his knight, and an armored stranger. The youth looked at them in dismay. Something about the shining steel armor of the castle guardians put him in mind of the men of Balor’s Fist, and their violent, bloody delights. He remembered again the bonfires, from the village, from his dream.

“Esra,” said Umbra warmly. Umbra was dressed for court in exquisite black velvet and leather, his skin scrubbed clean and his ashen hair shining. There was a roguish glint in his smoke-grey eyes as he looked over his choice. “You slept well.”

Esra glanced nervously out the balcony doors, which were flung wide open. The sun was high in the sky.

It was near noon already.

“Good morning,” he said to them both, from where he stood by the bedroom door. With Umbra was a steely faced man in the smart grey uniform of a castle guardian, armored in silver steel, with a broadsword at his belt and a large shield at his back. On both cloth and shield was the now familiar sigil that Esra had seen on all the castle guards — Balor’s eye inside the symbol of the sun.

“This is Hansel,” said Umbra, and the serious guardian bowed deeply to him, lowering his dark blond head. “There is no castle guardian I trust more.”

“Honored choice,” said the guard lowly, earnestly. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Hansel had seen Esra briefly on the few occasions Umbra had taken him out of their rooms before, only catching a glimpse of the beautiful youth’s face each time, delicate, with large dark eyes. He was not a naturally nosy man, but a new choice was always a source of gossip, especially when accompanied by an almost scandalous story…

Not a girl, despite the knight having his pick of them, but instead a young man.

A strangely beautiful one, those who saw him said. Slender, with blood of the enemy in his features. The son of a traitor, who’d fallen for one of Balor’s great knights. Esra, in his seclusion, had no idea the size of the rumor mill that had been spun up around him.

Hansel had had the honor of seeing Umbra carry the youth to the ritual tower, bound in his arms, blindfolded with thick silk. He’d had longer to look, but it had been hard to see Esra’s features. Now, he could see why Umbra had been so taken with him.

Esra stood in the doorway, his hand gently on the wooden door frame, fully covered, but there was elegance in his long limbs and graceful features. He had ethereal beauty to him, even like this, just awoken in the morning light, his large eyes blinking in the sun.

“And yours,” Esra said politely, his throat a little dry from sleep. He looked very carefully at Hansel, as a deer might watch someone, unsure if they were a hunter or merely passing by.
So this was the man who would be protecting him while his knight was away…

Hansel was of average height, but broad solid build. He looked to be in his late thirties, and had a calm, dependable sort of face. He might have appeared good looking, were he not standing next to Umbra.

Umbra reached out a hand, and Esra went to him at once, linking his thin fingers with the knight’s. Just his touch was calming. How would Esra survive without his almost constant presence?

“I’ve hired Hansel to be your bodyguard, and your personal valet,” Umbra explained.


Hansel inclined his head. “Sir Umbra has willed it that I protect you in his absence, and teach you the ways of the court. It will be my honor to serve you. I’ve known Sir Umbra near since he first arrived at Balor’s throne, and I have him to thank for many blessings in my life. I want you to know, he has my complete loyalty.”

He seemed deathly serious.

“As do you, honored choice.”

“Hansel was in the city watch when I met him,” Umbra explained, “before his skills got him the job as a guardian. Few men know the city better.”

A small hope blossomed in Esra’s heart. “It would be good to see more of the capital,” Esra said, with a nervous smile. He wanted to see the teeming place he’d only really seen from his balcony.

“My decades of city knowledge are at your disposal,” Hansel replied, a spark of pleasure in his reply. “As am I. I hope to serve you well, honored choice.”


Umbra did not linger once Esra was up. He needed to see the king, to rendezvous with the northern Lords, to meet with his lawyer, his accountant, and other things. His eyes were distant as he answered Esra’s hesitant questions, his mind already elsewhere. Mask in hand, he chastely kissed Esra goodbye at the doorway to his rooms, and was amused by Esra’s white-knuckled hand at his elbow, nervously gripping the velvet.

“This isn’t it, dear heart,” Umbra assured him gently. He extracted Esra’s fingers from the fabric, folded the narrow hand into his own. His leather gloves were warm from his skin. “There is a gathering to bid the knights farewell, after the noon feast. That will be our goodbye.”

“I will sit by you at the feast?”

Umbra shook his head. “You would be given an honored position should you choose to attend, but I will have business elsewhere with my brother knights.”

“May I come with you for your meetings?” Esra asked desperately. “I won’t say anything, I only…”

Umbra shook his head. “It’s Order business, Esra. Besides, you’re hardly dressed for it.” And his eyes slid over the softness of the fur trimmed robe.

He was sweet to Esra, but Esra could feel Umbra was eager to be off. There was a feeling of barely contained energy about him. He wanted to be ahorse, racing through the wilds. The city had gentled him. There was something darker creeping back into Esra’s knight now, something closer to the dragon he’d met in the meeting hut.

“Wear something beautiful,” the knight ordered, with a squeeze of his hand. “It will be how I remember you.”

And he donned his mask, and left.

The door shut. Esra had wanted to spill to his knees and weep, and he would have, had Hansel not taken him by the elbow and lowered him into the armchair by the fire. He’d murmured something about food, rest, but Esra couldn’t really hear him over the rush of ocean waves thrumming through his mind.

Umbra was leaving him, today.

He did not attend the feast.

Hansel sent for a light lunch for him that Esra could barely bring himself to pick at, a delicate assortment of meats and pastries, fruits and nuts, and fragrant tea. He wanted to bathe instead, and when Hansel ordered up the scented bathwater, his favorite, lavender, honey and almond, Esra was startled.

“I was left a list of your preferences,” Hansel assured him. “If you would like things any differently, let me know. Sir Umbra has hired me to serve you in any way you need.”

“Everything is… quite alright,” Esra said faintly.

As he scrubbed at himself behind a forest-print screen, Esra thought of the preparations Umbra had made for him. What his habits were, his favorite foods, drinks, even scents. The tea, he’d noticed, was the blend he always picked. The foods he’d been brought from the feast were all things he’d shown preference towards, even if he had never voiced it.

Umbra had noticed everything.

Later, Hansel helped him further still, picking out his clothing from his quickly expanding wardrobe, his robes for the gathering, cream and red. Esra lounged in the sun to dry his combed hair, his body wrapped in an enormous embroidered linen towel, nodded at everything Hansel showed him, trusting in the guardian’s taste. The man knew an odd amount about the city fashions, Esra remarked quietly, for a castle guardian.

“Tis my upbringing, honored choice,” he explained. “You don’t just forget the things you saw as a child. They stay with you, and surprise you when you’re an old man.”

Hansel was 39, the son of a seamstress and a cloth merchant, and he’d grown up around the discussions of trade and fabric and fashion. It stayed with him. Even now he could hold his own in a conversation on the properties of linen against cotton, or price a man’s outfit by the yard.

“I don’t think I’ll have much that will come back to me,” Esra said shyly. “My life was… small. Not like you city folk.”

Hansel hummed thoughtfully. “You’ll be surprised,” the guardian told him. “It’s always what you least expect.”

Hansel’s parents had been comfortable enough to send him to school. He surprised them all when he joined the city watch at 16, where his dependable nature got him promoted up the ranks quickly. He’d been captain for a year when Umbra had suggested him for the much more lucrative position of castle guardian.

“How did you meet?” Esra asked, immediately fascinated at a glimpse of young Umbra. Hansel put down the clothes he’d been folding. He paced over and sat on the sofa across from him, and looked out into the sky.

“Oh, he was a young man at the time, eighteen I believe, training for the trials,” the guardian answered, his brow creasing. “Sir Arturo, his mentor, had him climbing buildings and running over rooftops, to strengthen his…” Hansel waved a solid hand, “I don’t even know. I’d arrested him, thinking him a troublemaker, until I got that letter with the Order’s seal demanding that I release him. I don’t think Sir Arturo ever quite forgave me the embarrassment. He has a long memory, that one.”

Esra believed it.

“Your knight was very apologetic. We took a liking to each other immediately, once that he wasn’t in handcuffs, and we started a friendship. I was thinking I’d make him an officer in the watch, if he failed the trials. He had the right temperament for it.”

“What was he like?” Esra asked, fascinated. “Before he was Umbra?”

Hansel seemed pleased to have finally found a topic that Esra was interested in. “He was a tall whippet of a youth, and an excellent swordsman for one so young. Not many men have his patience. He was very easy to get along with, if a little distant. I suppose that is typical for former soldiers. Everywhere we went, he’d set women sighing just by pushing his fingers through his hair. My friends and I were rather jealous in that regard. Although, he never really seemed to notice women. It didn’t surprise me, when I heard about you.”

Esra’s face heated, at that. “And what of yourself?” he asked quickly. “Do you have a love?”

Hansel, it turned out, was long married, with children he hardly ever saw. “The castle is my life now,” he explained solemnly.

“That must be hard,” Esra said softly.

“Aye, and I fear you might learn it, honored choice. The sacrifice required by duty. That’s life in the city, you know. None live for themselves. And the higher up you get, the more you must give up.”

The guardian stood again, and went back to his organisation of Esra’s wardrobe. “My small sacrifices are nothing compared to your knight’s. The Order live only to serve the God King Balor. His Majesty gives them great boons in return, of course, but honestly?” Hansel shook his head. “I would not choose Umbra’s life.”


The first sight they came across, upon leaving Umbra’s rooms, was the painter Erasmus being held up by guards.

At the far end of the castle hallway, the armored guardians stood firm, blocking him with crossed poleaxes. Esra could see that he was dressed very finely in pale blue for court, his cloud of blond hair pulled neatly back, rolls of parchment under his arm. He hadn’t, it seemed, been allowed through, although Erasmus was loudly insisting that he could enter the residences of the Order on the invitation of Sir Umbra.

“Erasmus!” Esra exclaimed, and rushed forward, Hansel at his side. Erasmus’s angelic face lit up at their approach.

“Now won’t you feel like fools,” he said sweetly to the guardians, who had stiffened a little at the sound of Esra’s voice. “Esra! My savior!”

“You know him?” Hansel asked, voice low.

“We met yesterday,” Esra answered breathlessly. “I think we’re friends.”

“You want to watch out for that one,” Hansel said. “He has a less than savory reputation.”

“You wound me!” Erasmus called out. His hearing was sharp. “All artists lack respectability, or we’d end up men of the law, or worse, accountants.”

Hansel shook his head dolefully.

Esra rushed forward, and the castle guardians moved aside, their eyes nervous behind the slits of their helmets, muttering their deepest apologies. He would have replied, but Erasmus was on him, hugging him tightly. He then grasped Esra’s shoulders and beamed at him, his fae green eyes bright in excitement.

“Sir Umbra has hired me to be your tutor in letters!”

“Truly?” Esra asked, amazed.

“Yes!” Erasmus exclaimed. “He says you know absolutely nothing of reading or writing, and that I must teach you everything, or I am in big trouble. Who could resist such a command?”

Esra turned to the nervous guardians, and cleared his throat. They all but sprang to attention. “I want it to be known that Erasmus is allowed access through these areas to visit me in my knight’s quarters,” he ordered, suppressing the nervous tremor of his voice. “I don’t want him ever held up from reaching me again.”

“Your will be done, honored choice,” murmured the guards, both dipping into a bow for him. The sight of them, in their shining steel, bowing their great heads to his will, gave him an enormous rush of power. It was through Umbra, of course. The castle guardians did not dare bring down the wrath of the Order by spiting a Knight’s Choice.


“I’m Erasmus,” the artist introduced himself to Hansel as they descended the castle halls. “A painter, and a simple student of beauty.”

“I know you already,” replied Hansel drolly. “You’ve walked by me many a time as I’ve stood watch in these towers, and you’re a hard man to forget.”

“My goodness,” laughed Erasmus. “Castle guardians all sort of blur together after a while, do they not? Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Hansel. There must be something special about you if Sir Umbra trusts you with his precious choice.”

Hansel shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not. I know not the mind of a knight.”

“How discreet.” Erasmus whirled to face Esra. “He’s perfect. Like talking to a stone wall. Hansel, if Esra murdered someone in front of you, would you tell anyone?”

“What a question,” stammered Esra.

“I wouldn’t tell a soul,” answered Hansel evenly, but there was an amused glimmer in his eye. “So watch what you say to him, hm?”

Erasmus laughed.

As they descended the castle, they passed the greatest hall, where the servants were clearing up after the noon feast. They carried plates and pitchers, and the leftovers, meats and breads and pies, and great extravagant dishes, all now cut and carved into.

Erasmus, upon seeing his interested glance, chatted about how at the feast, the lords and ladies sat up at the high table there, see? and directed dishes to their favorites (Erasmus, apparently, had received a few), and how there had been lively music from the court musicians. And over there, one of his paintings was on the wall, a dour piece of lords on a hunt.

“But don’t look at it too long,” Erasmus pleaded. “It’s not my best work. It was a commission. We must do these things to survive, you know. I have my own passions. Esra, you must let me paint you! You could make it a present for your handsome knight…”

He ushered Esra further along. The milling courtiers had taken notice of the young choice and his small retinue, and were summoning courage to ask Erasmus for an introduction to him. But Hansel’s stern expression stopped even the bravest from trying.

The farewell gathering was in a smaller hall, but it was richly decorated. Again, Esra passed under the mark of the reaper’s scythe over the door. His tattoo allowed him entry, along with his retinue. “I’ve never been in here before,” Erasmus hushed, slightly awed.

The highest of the nobles and lords were present, in quiet conversation, their heads flickering to look at him as he entered. They were dressed more soberly than they had last night, but Esra recognised a few faces. And the Order, of course, in head to toe black, loomed over all with their sharp masks. Less than there had been at the previous gathering.

Where was Umbra? Esra’s eyes darted over the knights present, but he couldn’t see Umbra’s sleek features, his ashen hair. Until there was a gap in the crowd, and Esra saw him, sharp features in profile, in conversation with a fellow knight and several lords. He was in his full regalia, and looked like a dark stature come to life. He looked over the moment Esra caught sight of him.

“Go to him,” Hansel whispered, and Esra swallowed back his fear. He straightened his back, lifted his head, and crossed the room to his knight.

Erasmus, with his artist’s eye, watched the youth cut a narrow red and cream figure through the dark blue decor. He moved with unconscious grace, parting the courtly onlookers without a word. His fearsome knight, in the gleaming black armor of his high station, awaited him at the centre of the hall. Discreetly, Erasmus sketched the scene on a sheaf of parchment, ignoring Hansel’s disapproving cough.

“Sir Knight,” Esra hushed, upon reaching him. Esra could feel the knight’s affection for him bloom in his own heart, and it made him tremble.

“Excuse me,” Umbra said to the men he’d been conversing with, and offered his arm to Esra, who took it at once, and allowed himself to be pulled to a private corner.

They stood by a tapestry that depicted the ocean rising in a storm, civilians running for cover. It was enormous work by a famed designer, utilising silk and gilt metal threads. Esra glanced over the terrified faces, the breaking homes, but what caught his eye most was the storm, dark swirling clouds that blocked out the sun, cruel bolts of lightning striking the ocean, depicted in woven blues and greens, with white crested waves.

“Blue is the most expensive dye to produce,” Umbra told him, upon noticing Esra’s interest in the tapestry. “But a necessary expense, for some scenes. Do you like it?”

“I think,” said Esra quietly, “that I am one of those running people.”

And he looked over the faces again, seeing something of himself in the features distorted by fear.

“Which one am I?” Umbra asked, a little amused by him.

“None of them,” Esra replied, letting Umbra take his hands. “You are the storm.”

Eyes blurring wetly, the youth looked up at the towering knight, his perfect face half shielded by the gleaming mask. He should not feel this way, Esra thought, for a man like this, for a man who had killed his past, and stole his future. Looking back terrified him, with visions of blood and fire. And looking forward…

“Is that what I am to you?” Umbra asked quietly. His warm hands squeezed Esra’s.

“It would be foolish of me to think that I had any sway over the storm clouds,” Esra replied.

“Indeed, but… I would like to inspire in you more than fear.”

“I’m scared of you,” Esra said, “And scared for you.” For not a few years ago, another Umbra had perished on a mission for the God King, and laid beneath the earth forever.

“Dear heart,” Umbra murmured, pleased. He raised one of Esra’s narrow hands to his lips, kissed it. His lips were soft, warm. “Walk with me.”

Umbra took him up a spiral staircase, to a balcony that overlooked the front of the castle. The city in the afternoon light was captivating. Closer to the grounds, he could hear the sounds of Balor’s Throne, the chatter, the heavy laden carts rolling through the streets, the clip clop of horses. As he rested his arms on the balcony wall, he felt the sun on his face, and smiled despite his sadness.

“Hansel told me that when you were 18, he arrested you for disturbing the peace. He caught you climbing buildings and jumping over rooftops, and took you for a criminal sort.”

“He didn’t lie,” said Umbra with a roguish grin that made Esra’s heart thud faster, leaning next to him. His ashen hair fluttered in the breeze, and even through the mask, Esra could tell that the knight was looking upon him fondly. Esra dearly wanted to see his handsome face, one last time, before his knight had to leave.

As if reading his mind, Umbra rose and shut the door to the balcony. Then, he removed his mask and took Esra into his arms.

His raw beauty, as ever, captivated the youth. His sharp features seemed to soften as they looked upon him. Deep grey eyes bore into his own, flickered when Esra raised a hand to a carved cheek, to feel the warmth of his skin.

Esra raised his face as Umbra leant down, and they kissed deeply. Esra shuddered as Umbra’s arms wrapped around him, kissed back, clinging to the black steel. He could taste Umbra’s passion, feel the heat of him.

“When will I see you again?” Esra asked, when they parted.

“Within two months,” Umbra replied simply. He smoothed his gloved hand down Esra’s spine, drew back a little to look at him more closely. Esra blushed under the inspection. “You look like a painting in red.”

This will be how he remembers me.

Umbra raised his hand to don his mask, and Esra reached out — “Wait…” he began, and then did not know what else to say. He bit his lip, put his hand over the mask, as if trying to pause time. “Please,” he hushed. “Wait…”

In so short a time, Umbra had become Esra’s whole world. He set his time by his knight, rising with him, bathing with him, eating with him, sleeping with him. Now Umbra would be gone for longer than Esra had ever known him, and the thought of it put dread in his heart.

Umbra’s eyes were fixed on him, as Esra struggled to comprehend what his life now was going to be. He wanted to say something, to put into words the fear he had, for a lifetime of loneliness, dotted infrequently with companionship, as his knight returned to him, left again for the wilds. Instead, he leaned forward, heartbeat loud in his ears, watched those smoke eyes dilate.

“Kiss me,” he said, and Umbra did at once, looming down and kissing Esra so deeply he nearly moaned aloud. Metal-clad arms tightened around Esra’s waist, and suddenly Esra’s feet had left the ground. Umbra’s mouth was warm on his, melted into his, moving deep with yearning. Esra sank into it, heady with bliss. He wrapped his arms around Umbra’s shoulders, and didn’t want to let go.

There was a polite knock at the door, an eternity later.

“Sir Knight?”

It was Hansel.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but… your presence, sir, has been requested–“

“Yes, yes,” Umbra groaned, reluctantly lowering Esra back to his feet. “Will be along shortly.”

Esra’s hands slipped from Umbra’s back, but he kept them resting on the knight’s chestplate, loath to pull away. He could see them trembling against the pitch black, and knew that if he tried to speak, if he even blinked too hard, he would start to cry.

“Stay here,” Umbra ordered, as he donned his mask. “Watch me go. I want to look back at you.”

The horsemen burst forth from the castle, three knights at the head of the procession, black armor gleaming in the sun. Their squires carried rippling flags, showing the sigils of the Order, and the God King’s omniscient eye. The were followed by the high lords of the northern reaches, with their own banners, who were heading back to their homeland.

“There’s been some trouble up there,” Hansel explained to him, where they stood on the balcony. “The Order has taken an interest, although it’s all very hush hush.”

“I’ve heard it’s about a fae princia,” whispered Erasmus to Esra. “Although you mustn’t tell anyone.”

“Don’t spread such rot, painter.”

“It’s not rot, it’s rumor.”

“The two are more alike than dislike…”

Esra did not listen to them. He was looking at Umbra. He’d recognised the knight immediately from his cohorts. The sheen of his hair, the shape of his jaw, like how he’d admired the dangerous creature by firelight in his father’s meeting hut.

How long ago that seemed.

A dart of his head, Umbra was looking back at him. With a pang of loss, Esra realised that he couldn’t feel him anymore. Their connection, it seemed, was only for close quarters.

He raised a hand in farewell, and tried, for now, not to worry for his future.

Three years later…

The rain had finally stopped; the heavy raindrops had been drumming on the canvas roof of the travelling caravan all night, so hard that Kian had found it impossible to sleep.

Still, he was up well before Master Lagos.

Kian quietly rolled up the flaps at the back of the caravan, so he could swing his legs around and sit on the edge to watch the sun rise. The air smelled fresh, and there was a gentle morning breeze that ruffled at his auburn hair. Red tattoos scattered his muscled forearms, slave markings, and numerous scars that disappeared under his rolled up sleeves. Even now, barely awake in this pre-dawn, he wore a long sword at his belt.

He bit into a green apple, savoring the sour sweet, and then rubbed at the empty side of his jaw. It always bothered him in the morning, the wounds the black knight had given him. He still remembered sweet Esra’s large eyes rounding in horror, upon catching sight of him at the riverbank so changed, and winced at the memory.

He didn’t want to be the type of person who would dwell on things, but with physical reminders it was hard not to.

Kian had grown his hair to his chin, parted on the still-human side of his face. He was always careful about who could see his scars. Master Lagos had allowed him to take lovers, but even with the most non-judgmental of whores, he preferred to make love in the dark. He still thought – in his most private moments that he would never ever admit to – of Esra, who was no doubt a mouldering skeleton now, swept away by the ocean to mix with the bones of the others.

Esra, so awkward in his youth, his dark eyes lighting up whenever Kian paid attention to him. Easy to bully, easy to bring to laughter.

Esra, Kian had been sure, adored him.

But as the boy grew into a man, he grew into himself. His skinny body, knobbly knees, became slim and graceful. His odd narrow face, with thin lips, an almost hooked nose and too large eyes, became hauntingly beautiful. Like a painting, Kian would think later, like the ethereal beauty of the fae.

Kian… couldn’t trust himself around the boy anymore.

He’d broken Esra’s heart, Esra had told him on the riverbank. The boy who once loved him refused even a kiss. Although, Kian had been ruined then, no longer the handsome youth whom Esra had looked up to.

The knight had ruined Kian.

Every time Kian jaw ached, every time he heard the horror, quickly silenced or not, from those who caught a glimpse of his ugly side, he had cause to remember the seabeast’s creature knight, who’d tortured him so… coldly, with a vicious practiced efficiency, inhuman and silent.

And he’d raped Esra. Kian couldn’t imagine it, someone forcing a person as fragile and gentle as Esra into something so crude.

Although Kian would be lying if he said he hadn’t thought about bedding him.

But he’d never force Esra. It made his blood run cold to think of anyone looking at Esra and being inspired to make him a whore.

Kian still wished that Esra had run away with him. They could have lived together, been near-hermits in the woods by a village, worked their way into the community, saved their coin to bribe a sailor for passage to the continent. Kian could have helped on deck, he was a competent sailor. Esra could have… mended things, whatever he did.

And in private, warmed Kian’s bed on the bitter nights.

But no, the boy was dead.

Kian threw the apple core into the woods. He was always so maudlin in the mornings.

The path to the Vale was long, and often precarious. The further the road wound up from the oceans, the higher the mountains rose, and the deeper the valleys plunged. Rivers spilled into sparkling waterfalls down ravines, forests deepened, and the sun was high in the sky, bright and clear.

Kian sat in the coach box at the front, expertly steering the four horses up the winding road. He was careful not to rush them. They were carrying valuable cargo from the Capital, and if the cart were to topple, he’d be damaging a small fortune.

Automatically, his eyes drifted side to side as they went. He was always on the alert, even after a full day’s travel. In these wilder areas between the cities and townships, bandits were known to make their fortune. Unusual sounds or movements had his hand go to the sword at his belt, but it would be a darting rabbit, or a flock of birds, and he’d relax again, content.

For these smaller shipments, Master Lagos took only Kian with him.

The old man knew him as Bruto, the name the slavers had given him when they sold him to the Arena, after he’d fought so fiercely, and futilely, to avoid his inevitable capture. Master Lagos trusted completely in Kian’s sword arm, and his intelligence in using it. The old man was riding in the back now, going through his huge books of trade, surrounded by his wares.

His trips between the Vale and the capital were always the most lucrative. If things went well, he’d give Kian a heavy purse of coin to spend as he liked. Kian saved most of the money Master Lagos gave him, but he wasn’t above spending on finer food and drink, as well as, when his self-esteem was up to it, women.

The brothels of the big cities had been something of a revelation, decorated inside like enormous boudoirs, with perfumed women swanning about showing more skin than fabric. Kian had been afraid of frightening them with his mutilated face, but they instead seemed quite eager to be chosen by him, which he chalked up to them being whores, and thus probably less choosy.

The second, more surprising revelation, was that it wasn’t only women.

It had been a shock the first time he’d entered one such discreet establishment to find that there were youths lounging in silks right next to the women, just as perfumed and beautified. One very pretty dark-eyed boy stretched his spine as Kian looked at him, and licked his lips. Kian almost chose him, he’d been so intrigued, but found himself unable to go through with it.

He was still getting used to the fact that, unlike in the small towns he’d grown up in and around, there were many parts of Fomoria where homosexuality mostly passed without comment, especially in the cities, and among the upper classes. Kian had always preferred women, but he couldn’t deny in himself anymore that unspeakable desire that he’d thought he’d quashed in his youth.

A small desire, easily controlled. He’d yet to see a boy who measured up to the vision in his head.

This, he thought, would not be the life he’d have chosen. But it was a good life, in a harsh world. It rankled Kian to be so underfoot, but his master was not an overly religious man, and had sympathies for the Continental way, and so Kian found it easier to serve him. And he was flattered that over time he’d become considered something of a right hand man. Maybe it wasn’t what he thought his life would be, but he had a place now, and he was growing into it.

All he had to do was serve a good man, and all would be well.

Or so Kian had thought, until he saw his master’s latest shipment being unloaded in the Vale.

There were paintings for collectors in the Vale, from the greatest artists of the capital. Kian did not know much of art, although he enjoyed the nudes of curvaceous women draped over quilts and pillows that always seemed to sell well. But one painting stopped Kian in his tracks.

“It’s by the King’s Painter, Erasmus”, explained his master, noticing Kian’s shock. “He’s a bit of a favorite with collectors, because as he gets more famous, his work only gets more valuable. I wager this latest piece will sell for the highest price. There is a bit of a scandal about it too, which always brings the rich eccentrics. He had to repaint parts of it, twice, before the Order let it be exhibited. Presumably to keep the sitter’s modesty. Isn’t he lovely?”

The portrait, an enormous work of art, an arm span wide and twice that tall, was of Esra.

Kian couldn’t believe his eyes. His heart pounded as he took in the painting, trying to make sense of it, the strokes of oil paint placed just so to make an image so real, that Kian felt as though he’d slipped and fallen to a place between dream and reality.

There was no way it could be a double. Esra’s odd beauty was singular. His delicately angled features, the small mouth, sloping nose, and enormous dark doe eyes were unmistakable. Esra stared out at him, a glossy light in his eyes, near enough to life-size that Kian felt he could reach forward and touch him. He was bathing in a river, slightly surprised, as if just having caught sight of his audience. His hair reached his lower back now, gleaming like silk. If the painting was accurate, he had only grown more beautiful with age.

“Apparently it took Erasmus eight months to paint,” said Master Lagos, almost shocking Kian, who had forgotten for a moment who he was and where he’d been standing. “He did many studies. He had that poor young man pose for him in the river until his skin went blue. For the realistic touch to unreal romance,” he said.

Romance. And the viewer, Kian felt, the other part of this unreal romance, was supposed to be male. Women wouldn’t look at men like Esra, unless they wanted to mother him. Men, Kian knew, would. And for their enjoyment, he was being presented here as a body to lust over, so they could imagine grabbing him, kissing him…

Kian remembered what it was actually like to see Esra bathe in the river, not quite so idealised, but far more enticing. His dark hair was sleek and wet, dripping water down his smooth sunkissed skin, the cool droplets making his skin come up in little goosebumps, the chill air making his nipples peaked and hard–

“–it’s from his virgin series,” Master Lagos was explaining.

“Virgin?” asked Kian, his thoughts interrupted, for he well knew Esra to be no virgin.

Master Lagos scratches his beard. “A metaphorical virgin. It’s about capturing a certain look, not whether or not the subject is… well, this one definitely isn’t. The model is the concubine of one of the Order of Balor, a Knight’s Choice. But look at him! Like an untouched angel. That look is what Erasmus tries to capture in this series.”

A Knight’s Choice. Kian’s tormentor had kept his prize, then. And showed him off, like a trophy. Kian could not imagine what Esra was going through at the whims of that demon.

Kian had met Erasmus, who would buy westerwine from his master, and would use him as the middleman to sell paintings to the collector’s market in the Vale. Kian remembered him as a strikingly attractive man, with more than a bit of fae in him. He undoubtedly skilled in the arts, but lived far too lavishly for such a young artist at only the start of his career.

He’d found out later that Erasmus’s unusual wealth had been due to his careful choice of lovers. Erasmus had been a kept man of his most generous benefactor, the Lord who had more or less started the artist’s career. But, no longer. By the time he was dealing with Master Lagos, Erasmus was one of the God King’s painters, and enjoyed a salary straight from Balor. Kian enjoyed bantering with the artist, the few times they’d met. Something about Erasmus encouraged everyone around him to take life a little less seriously. But this was serious.

Kian had purpose now. He would use Erasmus to find out where Esra was being held prisoner.

Over dinner, in the very fine inn they always stayed at in the Vale, Kian spoke to his master.

“Master Lagos, who are the Order?”

“The Order of Balor?” Master Lagos was cutting his roasted hen into chunks, his hands with a slight shake to them. The tremors were always worst after a long journey. Kian resisted the urge to offer to cut for him. ‘Why, Bruto, I suppose you must not have learned much of this, growing up outside of the capital.”

Kian shrugged, looking down at his own plate. “I know of them. But that’s it.”

“Well,” said Master Lagos, after he’d chewed and swallowed. “They are a most mysterious organization. Only they have the honor of speaking directly to the God King Balor, you see. It is through the Order that the God King’s rule is made manifest.”

“Right,” said Kian. He wanted to ask immediately about the black knights, but he didn’t want to seem to curious for no reason. He didn’t know how much Lagos had guessed about his past, but he liked to keep it to a minimum.

“There are five archbishops,” Master Lagos was saying, now deep into his explanation, “who preside over the cathedrals of the five great cities in Fomoria. They rule the bishops, priests, monks and so on. You could call them the spirit of the Order.”

Kian had seen a few of the religious men before, the ornately dressed priests in the cities, the humble monks in the more rural areas. They’d stayed in an Order monastery one night during a vicious storm. Kian had thought he’d been glad to be out of the rain, but the all too keen eyes of the monks unnerved him, looking at him like they could peer right through him and into his darkest thoughts. Their food was meager, the wine watered down, and he’d slept fitfully in his cold room, certain that the walls were watching him.

Kian shivered, and shook his head briskly. Then he dug back into his food.

“There are twenty knights,” Master Lagos continued. “They are the body of the Order, who enact the God King’s rule wherever he sees fit.”

“Have you ever met one before?” Kian asked, as the old man finally finished cutting his food. “A knight, I mean.”

Master Lagos made a humming sound. “I’ve had the honor of entering the castle of Balor’s Throne many times in my long life, but I’ve never spoken to a member of the Order. I’ve seen knights in passing, moving through the castle like great walking statues. They are very magnificent to look upon and I’m sure a conversation would be fascinating, but I’m quite beneath their interest of course.”

Kian bristled protectively. “That’s not true,” he said firmly. “You’re a great story teller, and I’ve met a few.’

The old man chuckled. “You are kind to say so, Bruto.”

In his whole life, Kian had only ever spoken with one knight… if you could call it speaking.

He’d seen very few others, and every time he caught sight of the unnaturally large figure, clad all in black, his blood would freeze. “So,” he asked hesitantly, “what is a Knight’s Choice?”

Lagos looked amused, his eyes twinkling, as if saying to Kian quite clearly, ah, and now we come to your true question… “Can’t stop thinking about him, can you? Erasmus is very talented that way. His portraits stay with you.”

Kian nodded impatiently, and shoveled more chicken into his mouth.

“The God King allows his knights to choose a companion from his people, anyone,” Master Lagos raised his eyebrows to emphasise his point, “from noble to beggar, whether the poor thing wants it or not. They become a knight’s Choice, and serve as a sort of wife… for as long as the knight will keep them.”

“They aren’t immortal, then?” Kian asked, momentarily panicked.

“Oh, no,” said Master Lagos. “And the knights, well, they are. It’s made for many a tragic tale. They say Sir Ruegard, the head of the Order, only fell in love once. He’s mourned for hundreds of years since his love passed away, and will take no other in his bed.”

“So he says,” Kian snorted. In his experience, nobles always pretended to be above such things, but they were in truth the absolute worst for it. “He’ll be having them,” Kian assured his master. “He’s just sneaky about it.”

“I’m sure you’re right, Bruto,” said Master Lagos with a chuckle.

“What happens when someone is…” Kian bit out the word, “chosen, by a knight?”

Master Lagos wiped at his mouth with a handkerchief, then sat back. “Well, they are taken to the capital, and bonded in a ceremony. The Knight’s Choice will have a red line tattooed onto their bottom lip,” he traced it over his own, “at the start of their service. It’s all done in some strange ritual, they say, in the heights of the palace of Balor’s Throne. Apparently, catching a glimpse of the ritual grants good fortune. Alas, the few times I’ve been high up the castle, no knight was bonding a lady.”

“You say that the Choice does not serve forever,” Kian prompted, speaking of what interested him most. “What does that mean?”

“The knight can break the bond at any time. It is called retirement. Perhaps the Choice has gotten too old for the knight’s appetites. Perhaps, after the first flush of desire, the knight has grown bored. So they place the Choice somewhere respectable, and pay them a considerably generous allowance to live well. Former Choices tend to gravitate towards supporting the arts, and I have heard of them drifting towards positions of diplomacy, which they are well suited for after years of living in the castle of Balor’s Throne. I’ve met a few in my business, all very charming, and very wealthy.”

“Can they… marry again?” asked Kian.

“I believe so,” mused Master Lagos. “Although one would have to be quite special, and quite confident I might add, to follow on after a knight.”

Kian looked at Master Lagos carefully. The old man had grown dear to him, in a way. After the brutality of his career in the Arena, his new Master was often inconceivably kind to him. Kian still struggled to wrap his head around it.

When he was twenty two, the Arena needed to make a quick bit of money, and they put Kian, then their reigning champion, back on the auction block. He was bought by Master Lagos, who needed security for transporting valuable goods through the wilds, where bandits and raiders roamed and killed for coin.

Kian saw all of Fomoria on his travels with the merchant, its cities, lakes and forests. The old man knew how wealth in the country flowed, and followed it like the tides. They’d buy goods in one city, sell to another. They assisted the wealthy in selling and acquiring valuables, pocketing their fees. Master Lagos was one of a few very successful travelling merchants, and he enjoyed it greatly.

From his time as an Arena slave, Kian knew well the Weald, the harshest part of Fomoria, where the great fae forests had been burnt to drive out Balor’s enemies, where the most vicious wars were fought. The people of the Weald were hardy and suspicious, and Kian disliked dealing with them.

He preferred the other great cities of Fomoria.

The bright northern reaches, with long stretches of white sand meeting blue ocean, and the main city of Hyrei that overlooked it, with cobbled streets, yellowstone houses and an intricately built castle for the Lord. The westerlands, the breadbasket of Fomoria, with long stretches of farmland, and the pleasant city of Everon. There was the Vale, in the centre of Fomoria, the land of valleys, waterfalls, lush natural splendour, the best artisans and craftsmen. And the south. Balor’s Throne, the most beautiful city in Fomoria. It had taken Kian’s breath away, when he first saw it, rising up like white heavens from the ocean, above the mountains.

He enjoyed the work. He got on well with most he met, with his Master’s peers, and the other servants. When the merchant recognised his intelligence, his duties rose, until he was the most trusted slave of his master, and something of a right hand man.

“Your clever head was wasted in that bloody arena,” Master Lagos would lament. The old man had tried to teach Kian letters, and he could read a little. He taught Kian the lute, which Kian had enjoyed. “You have an ear for music,” Lagos would praised him, stretched out in front of the fire to ease his old bones as Kian strummed pretty tunes.

In Kian’s head, he’d compose songs about the things he’d seen, the places he’d travelled to, the places he’d wanted to go. He made a little song about the gentle river he’d grown up by, fresh and secret, flanked by the woods, so that it seemed like a river through a silver glen. And maybe, someone beautiful bathing there, who hadn’t yet seen him.

It was probably why Erasmus’s painting had affected him so. Without knowing it, the painter had captured an image that was close to Kian’s heart.

“I knew him,” Kian said eventually. “The knight’s Choice.”

Master Lagos’s wrinkled face creased. “Indeed?”

“Yeah.” Kian drained his ale. “From… before the Arena.”

The old man studied him carefully. “You don’t often speak of your past, Bruto.”

“I was called Kian, then.”

“A sweet name.”

“Aye,” said Kian morosely, rubbing his fingers into his sorry jaw. “But I’m not so sweet anymore.” He avoided Master Lagos’s eyes. “I’ll shut up if you want me to.”

“Please,” said the old man. “I’m quite willing to listen.”

It was surprisingly easy. Kian ended up telling him everything.

About the village he’d been born to, the tail end of a resistance that took refugees from Fomoria to the Continent. About the boy he’d grown up with, strange and beautiful Esra, who adored him, and who Kian realised he’d fallen in love with far too late.

The invasion from the capital.

His night of torture.

He’d escaped, and gone to run away, but Esra was in the river, and just the sight of him healed something in Kian. His almost kiss, with Esra in the woods. Esra didn’t want to run away with Kian, because he was sure he’d slow them down.

“Which he would have,” Kian admitted. “I was a lovestruck fool who didn’t want to admit it. I never saw him after that. I thought he’d died there, like everyone else. Guess the knight took a liking to him, and brought him to the capital. That must have been three years ago now.”

He felt almost jittery at that thought. Nauseous. What had Esra been through, in all that time?

He saw Master Lagos watching him closely. The old man’s eyes were shrewd, but kind.

“Do you believe me?” Kian asked, almost desperate.

“I believe you”, said his master. “I don’t believe someone as straight headed as you would make up such a tale. Besides…” the old man took a shaky sip of ale. “I have heard such tales before. The army of Balor’s Fist is aptly named. They are used to pummel Balor’s enemies. And his knights are made to be without mercy. I do feel pity for you, and your friend Esra. I hope now that his life is better as the knight’s consort, and that he is treated gently.”

Kian’s eyes could have bulged out of his head. There was no way Esra’s life was anything kind. The knight was a monster. “Master Lagos, I need to see him.”

The old man sighed. “I had a feeling you were going to ask me that.”

“I think seeing that painting was… I don’t know, a message, a sign!”

“You’ll have your usual time off on out return to the capital. I won’t stop you from making arrangements to try to see him. But I should warn you, Bruto-” he hesitated. “Kian. Most often, a painting is just a painting.”

Kian brimmed with energy on the trip back to the capital, and worked so quickly that Master Lagos was done with him by the late afternoon. He left his master scribbling away in his crowded office with a jug of wine and a platter of his favorite foods, and went through the bustling crowds to see the artist Erasmus.

The artist’s small studio sat at the top of the winding street that came up from the ports, at the very neck of where the rougher parts of the city met with the richer, mercantile area. His apprentices had already gone home, so the infamous painter answered the door himself, green eyes lighting up in recognition as he saw who was visiting him. His tumble of blond hair was neatly tied up, and he had a smudge of white paint on his flushed cheek that made Kian want to lick his thumb and rub it off.

“Bruto!” Erasmus said, beaming. “Please come in!” He all but pushed Kian into an armchair by the fire. “Are you thirsty? I have water, ale, wine…”

Kian, flustered, asked for wine.

It was toasty warm in the studio, and smelled of drying oil paint. There were half finished paintings on easels, and other canvases propped up against the wall. Mostly nudes, some male, Kian noted, turning his eyes away nervously.

“Your Master Lagos sent me a message earlier.” Erasmus’s musical voice came through clearly from the other room, where Kian could hear him pouring their drinks. “It seems my work was very well received at the Vale.”

This Kian knew. Erasmus, and his master, had made a small fortune at the auctions. “I’m here about something very important, painter,” he said gruffly, “and I’d appreciate it if you took this seriously.”

“Oh, I take everything seriously,” Erasmus assured him, striding back in, and handing him an obscenely full goblet. “It’s not like you to show up here late, and not on business.” The painter sat neatly in the armchair across from him, wine in hand. “How can I help you?”

Kian looked into his goblet, and took a quick sip so that it wouldn’t spill. “It’s about…” he muttered, “one of your paintings.”

Erasmus blinked. “Yes?” he prompted.

“It’s a… well, I should just say it.” Kian shifted in the armchair, then turned his gaze to to fire. “That boy in your river painting, I… how well do you know him?”

“Oh, very well,” said Erasmus, but the tone of his voice had changed into something more suspicious.

It was difficult, but Kian met the painter’s narrowed green eyes. “I knew him, once.”

Kian could see the disbelief. “Really?” he asked simply. “How?”

It’s all right that he doesn’t believe me, Kian told himself. It is an unbelievable tale, and Esra is not the sort to go babbling about such things to just anybody. “We grew up together, in a small village by the sea,” he said simply. “I knew him as Esra. Don’t know if he still goes by that. He knew me as Kian.”

Erasmus visibly startled at his name. “I know Esra quite well,” he said. “And he has told me of a Kian. He told me… that his knight had mutilated you.” The green eyes peered to the shadow of his face, mostly hidden by the sweep of hair.

“It’ll be worse than when he last saw it,” Kian growled. His ruined appearance still rankled him. The missing teeth made his speech clumsier, and made his cheek sag like an old man’s. “I was sold to the Arena when they caught me trying to board a ship to the Continent. To make me look more fearsome, they gave me some new scars.”

It had been after his training. The Arena master did the honors, having Kian tied down before taking to his face with sharp hooked tools. Kian had screamed bloody murder, for a moment thinking he was back in the meeting hut, with the black knight leaning over him, ripping into him. The horror in his stomach as the knight showed him each tooth, as it was pulled from mouth…

His story was that he had fought ten wolves when lost in the wilds, and won. His face, cruelly marked on one side, gave him a gruesome visage. They shaved off his auburn hair, to fully display his fearsome appearance to the roaring crowds. Kian never thought of himself as vain, but it still was like a knife to him, the fear in people’s eyes whenever they caught sight of his deformities behind his longer hair.

“You must be close,” Kian said, “if Esra has opened up to you about what happened at our village.”

“We are confidants, you know.” Erasmus seemed to glow with pride, at that. “We tell each other everything.”

“I thought him dead,” Kian admitted. “Mourned him for years. But now… I must see him, Erasmus. He’s… I’ve barely been able to sleep, since I saw your painting.”

Erasmus looked at him carefully, took a sip from his cup. Kian’s heart was already sinking as he said, “It’s not that I don’t want to help you…”

“But… if you are confidants, surely…”

“We have very different positions at court, Esra and I,” explained Erasmus quietly. “He is a knight’s Choice, and is adjunct to the Order, so his standing is high without even trying. I, on the other hand, have the esteem that I do due to years of very careful maneuvering. If I make a mistake now, I could lose everything. My very career, even, if the God King withdraws my salary.”

“How could that even happen?” balked Kian. “I just want to see him–”

“If I take you to court, whatever you do or say will reflect on me. I like you Kian, but I don’t know you well enough to stake my reputation on you.”

“I won’t say anything to anyone. We don’t even have to meet at the castle–”

“And what if the wrong person sees, and a rumour is started? Or if his knight views this as some sort of treachery…” Erasmus shuddered. “I dread to think of it.”

Kian wanted to shake the useless fop. He’d all but spelled out what a treacherous place Esra lived in, and now he wanted Kian to just forget what he saw? He put down his cup, then stood abruptly. Erasmus looked up at him, eyes huge.

“Where are you going?”

“To the castle,” grunted Kian, pacing over to the door. “I don’t need your help.” The moment Esra saw him he’d want to speak to him, Kian was sure.

Erasmus bolted ahead of him, and slammed his back into the front door so hard he momentarily winded himself. “Don’t be a fool!” He hissed, red-faced. “You think a slave can just stroll up to the castle and ask to see a knight’s Choice?”

“I’d rather try than not,” Kian growled. He was quite a bit taller, and broader, than the slender artist. “Move out of my way.”

“You’re being stupid!” Erasmus retorted, green eyes flashing. “You are a slave. You have no rights to enter the castle uninvited, let alone to demand an audience with someone so above you.”

Kian scoffed, but Erasmus kept going.

“The castle guardians will kill you if you try. Then Lagos could be investigated, for letting his slave commit treason. And Esra has enough enemies who would want to spin this in a way that would hurt his reputation.” The artist put a hand in the middle of his chest and gave him a shove. “It won’t be just you who is hurt.”

“You can’t just ask me to forget this!” Kian snarled.

“You must,” Erasmus insisted, unafraid. His eyes flickered over Kian’s face, bright and equally furious. “At least for now, put it out of your mind. Your timing couldn’t be worse.”

“I’ll go mad, Erasmus, I mean it.” He took a step back and ran a sweaty hand through his hair. Was he trembling? What was wrong with him?

Erasmus stared at him, wide eyed. Kian realised that he had pulled back the hair that covered the scarred part of his face. He scowled, and turned away. “I don’t know why I came here. I don’t know why I thought you would help.”

“You ask so much of me!” Erasmus retorted. “I don’t think you even realize it. I like you Bruto– Kian. But I can’t just… bring you to Esra.”

Kian let out a long sigh. “Bring him a message from me, then?” he asked. “I want him to know that I am… alive, and that my life is not so hard. And that I am in the capital often, if he wants to see me.”

Erasmus seemed to calm, at that. He straightened his shoulders and raised his eyebrows at Kian. “He may very well not.”

“And that’s fine,” Kian said. “I just want him to know.”

Erasmus paused by the door, for a moment unwilling to move away lest Kian dash past and race up to the castle. To assuage him, Kian sat back down in the armchair, and relaxed back. He took a long gulp of wine, which slid smoothly down his throat. A nice vintage…

“Right,” said Erasmus, pushing stray hairs from his forehead. “Are we calm?”


Erasmus made a tutting sound as he walked over and again sat down across from him. “The capital isn’t the Arena, you know. Big shows of bravado don’t go down well when your audience is a royal court and not the bloodthirsty crowds at the Weald.”

“I’m sorry,” Kian said, embarrassed now as his temper cooled. “I get that way sometimes. I can be… stupid, cruel… when I get riled up.”

“Esra told me,” Erasmus said.

Kian, ashamed, remembered. It was the last time he’d seen Esra, and he’d said some truly unforgivable things in the heat of his rage. “I can be a real idiot. I’m sorry, Erasmus.”

“Yes, well… I suppose it is understandable.” Erasmus sighed, and rubbed at his face. “I regret that painting, you know. Not just because of you finding it,” he said hurriedly, as Kian protested. “It just had many… unforeseeable complications, this being one of many.”

“It’s a good painting,” Kian said, face heated. Hopefully he wasn’t blushing.

“Sir Umbra was very cross with me,” Erasmus mused. “A miscalculation. I make them, sometimes.”

Umbra, Kian thought. The name of the knight that ruined him. It seemed an ugly name.

Erasmus’s faced softened. “I tell you what, Bruto, Kian– ah, which do you prefer?”

“Either is fine,” said Kian shortly.

“I will take your message to Esra.” He held up a hand as Kian started thanking him. “But first, you need to tell me something about yourself that only he will know, so he can verify for himself that you are who you say you are.”

“All right,” said Kian, flustered. It was a reasonable request, but the question made his mind go blank.

Erasmus stared down at him with those fae green eyes.

At last, he said the only thing that he could remember.

“When we were little, we used to, uh… play a game, where…” Kian flushed slightly at the memory, although there was nothing indecent about it. “When he least expected it, I would tackle him and… hold him down.”

Erasmus raised an amused eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yeah. He would have to beg me to let him up, and uh… yeah, it was only a simple children’s game,” he concluded stupidly.

“Of course,” said Erasmus, glittering. “Perfectly innocent I am sure. I will bring your message to Esra. Where are you staying? So I can bring you your answer.”

“I, uh… with Master Lagos, at his residence on Evebrook Street–”

“I know it. I’ll meet you there, once I have the reply.”

Erasmus visited him there that evening. He looked far more polished since Kian had last seen him, to make himself presentable for visiting the castle, and now was eye-catching in fine raiments of pale blue, his blond hair falling down his back in soft waves of gold. He exchanged pleasantries with Master Lagos, then followed Kian upstairs.

“He knows you,” Erasmus said at once, once they were alone in Kian’s room.

Kian’s heart leapt. “Of course he does, painter,” he said cooly.

He sat down at his bed, and worried his fingers at the sheets. The bed shifted as Erasmus sat next to him in a swish of silk. He smelled of sweet roses. Kian was suddenly awfully aware of how he looked in comparison, huge and monstrous, in the work clothes and leather armor he’d worn on the long road to the capital. Erasmus was sitting on his scarred side, and Kian tilted his head, so that his chin length hair swing forward to cover his gruesome injuries.

“Did you tell him,” Kian choked out, “how I looked? I’m a lot worse now than I was then. And he remembers me as the boy I was, probably. He couldn’t imagine this…”

“I told him everything,” Erasmus replied. “And you do not look so bad as you seem to think.” His green eyes twinkled. “I’m sure you’ve met many who enjoy a big, strong man who looks a brute.”

“Did he tell you of the sacking of our village?” Kian pressed on.


“He told you then, what that black knight did to me. To him.”

A pause. “Yes,” said Erasmus eventually.

Kian’s fist clenched around the bed post. His breath was coming sharply, sucking between his clenched teeth. “It sickens me to think of him at the mercy of such a monster,” he spat.

“If it helps you,” Erasmus said, “know that he is not mistreated.”

“Not mistreated,” Kian growled. “The man raped him, and–”

“Yes, yes, I know that story–”

“And you cringe from it as I do!”

“Sir Umbra changed for him,” Erasmus continued, although did he have a tremble in his voice? “when he decided to keep Esra as his choice. They have been in love for three years now.” He grew sterner. “If you had any ideas about your meeting with him being a chance to steal him away, banish these thoughts from your mind. He will not go with you.”

“Surely the knight terrifies him,” Kian protested. “He’d not want to leave unless he was certain it was possible–”

“He won’t want to leave,” Erasmus said firmly.

“Did you ask him?”

“I don’t have to. You won’t either, if you know what’s good for you.” The artist looked furious, for a moment. “You promised you would behave. Anything you do could affect my social standing. I’m a commoner. One wrong move and I’m less than dirt to them all.” He shook his pale blond head, exasperated. “But if I do nothing exciting, I bore them, and they move to their next entertaining commoner. It’s a real balancing act, moving in that court of vipers. I hope you are capable of more tact than you seem.”

“Oh yeah, I am,” Kian replied, perhaps too enthusiastically. He felt light headed, like he was in a dream. Esra was alive, and Kian was going to see him.

Erasmus put a hand on his shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. Then he stood.

“I will be here tomorrow to bring you to him. I can’t take you to the castle, but I’ll figure something out. Rest, will you? And have you anything else to wear?”

Kian shrugged helplessly. He was too tall and broad for any of Master Lagos’s clothes, assuming his master would even lend him any. All his own clothes were purely functional.

“Well,” said Erasmus pleasantly. “I’m sure you can make do.”

When Erasmus came for him at noon the next day, Kian was so nervous he could barely speak.

He wore no armor, despite feeling naked without it, and took no weapon. Even so, he knew his mere size and strength made him look dangerous. On a whim, he strapped his lute to his back, as if that would make him seem less of a brawler, and more of a travelling bard. Such types were welcome in any city. But although Erasmus assured him of his appearance, he regretted it the moment they stepped outdoors into the chaos of the city.

“Where are we headed?” He asked gruffly. How would a bard walk with an artist? Surely not with the measured swagger of a fighter.

“Oh, up there,” Erasmus answered vaguely, nodded his head towards to castle. They made an odd couple that drew more than a few glances as they walked up the winding paths, a brutish looking mercenary type, and the beautiful painter in elegant fashions.

“I thought we weren’t going to the castle,” Kian growled as they approached the intimidating structure. It towered so high it seemed to disappear into the clouds. Humans couldn’t build a structure so tall. Merely looking at it unnerved him.

Erasmus glittered at him. “He’s meeting us in the gardens.”

He saw Esra before Esra saw him.

A slim figure, escorted by a heavily armored castle guardian, walked the lush royal gardens of the castle. There were a few others enjoying the blooming flowers, but Kian’s eyes went to Esra immediately. He was wearing what looked like Order monk robes, except far more luxurious in red and cream, and his ink black hair spilled down near to his hips, longer than Kian had ever seen him keep it.

When Kian looked at Esra, a strange pang strummed through his chest, like his heart had started beating again, after years of stillness. Esra’s beauty hit him as an unexpected strike through his core, and he found that, while he wanted to walk, run, over, his feet had sealed themselves to the grass.

“Honored choice!” called out Erasmus, stepping ahead of him. “Look what I brought you!”

Esra turned, and Kian’s eyes blurred over the impression of him, huge dark eyes in a narrow face. The red line on his lower lip, absent in Erasmus’s painting, stood out like a bloodstain on his smooth features. Kian’s heart thudded harder as Esra ran over to them in a billow of robes, thinking that he was going to fling himself into Kian’s arms, but he stopped short of an embrace, nervous now, and so beautiful that Kian couldn’t quite comprehend him.

“Kian,” Esra said breathily, beaming, and it had been so long since Kian been addressed by his true name, in that familiar voice, that for a moment he felt himself a time traveller, standing with Esra on the grassy hilltops, children again.

Esra was looking at him just as raptly, tinged with an apprehension that reminded Kian of a deer that he didn’t want to startle away. He’d be in his twentieth summer. He’d been very pretty, if a little awkward, when Kian had last seen him, but the young man before him now had lost all of the awkwardness of youth. He’d filled out a little, slender rather than scrawny, and his features were more beautiful than unusual. Thanks to his fae blood, age had only perfected him. And he was taller too, tall as the average man, although Kian still reckoned himself a head higher. He’d grown plenty in the past few years, in size and strength, as a well-fed well-trained fighter in the arena.

“Erasmus, what have you brought?” growled the bodyguard, who had been at Esra’s side the whole time like a shadow.

“An old friend of Esra’s,” answered Erasmus, as the castle guardian’s steely eyes go disbelievingly over his arena tattoos, his slave marks, his ruined face. “We organised this meeting last night.”

“Behind my back,” Hansel groaned, and turned to Esra. “Honored choice, how am I to protect you if you plan these sorts of things without my knowledge?”

“There is nothing to protect me from, Hansel,” replied Esra, without taking his eyes off of Kian. “Truly. I didn’t want you to worry.”

“I mean no harm,” Kian said, suddenly aware of the rural gruffness in his voice, and how much larger and graceless he was than them. He wished he’d bought new clothes, dressed nicer, so he didn’t feel like a mistake in the beautiful castle gardens. He wanted to restart the whole day. “Esra is… very important to me.”

“He is also important to the Order,” stated the bodyguard, Hansel, firmly.

The Order of Balor. He was referring, of course, to Esra’s black knight. Kian felt his blood cool.

“I just want to speak to… an old friend,” he said quietly. “Nothing else.”
“Let’s walk the garden,” said Esra pleasantly. He didn’t seem at all put off by his bodyguard’s grousing. Kian sucked in a shocked breath as Esra put a narrow hand through his arm. The silk of his robe was cool on Kian’s skin, and he smelled of honey lavender. “My favorite flower is in bloom.”

“I feel lucky to see it,” said Kian, and they walked off, the two of them, in the direction Esra pointed.

Hansel followed at a distance, far enough to give them privacy, close enough to rush in and protect Esra, should Kian go feral. There left Erasmus sat neatly on a bench by the castle, sketchbook in hand. That made Kian nervous. Erasmus always seemed to see too much..

The grass was lush beneath his feet. He smelled the flowers in the air, their fragrance carried by the gentle breeze – it was late spring, and fresh blooms unfurled on green branches, ready to show onlookers a month or so of their beauty, before falling away.

He could feel the warmth of Esra’s delicate hand at the crook of his elbow, paralysingly intimate. He could imagine that gentle warmth cupping his cheek, or maybe smoothing down his back…

One shouldn’t think such things of a Knight’s concubine, but Kian was not known for his impulse control.

There was the strong feeling of being observed. The castle towered above them, too tall. Even if he’d known nothing of the evils of Balor’s kingdom, he’d have found the castle unnerving. Humans couldn’t build such things. It was an architectural invasion.

As they walked in tense silence, Esra large eyes flicked to him, and then away again. It gave Kian the impression that he was having a hard time looking away. Should he feel complimented? Esra walked on Kian’s handsome side, at least. It must make it easier for him to imagine Kian as the youth he once was.

“I am sorry,” Esra said quietly. His accent had changed, Kian realised. Years at court had softened his voice, and crisped his vowels. “I told Erasmus to bring you here, and I had so much I wanted to say to you, but now my words have left me.”

His shyness touched Kian’s heart, as did the realization that Esra had been the one to organise this meeting. He took in Esra’s appearance with new eyes, wondering if he picked what he wore thinking about Kian, if he’d fretted at all. “S’all right,” grinned Kian. “You never said much anyway. You are more of a listener.”

A nervous smile. “I’d like to think I’ve changed from that. But maybe you’re right.”

“Well, I have a lot more stories now, if you’re interested.” Kian was brimming with them. He was certain he could talk to Esra for a month straight and not run out of things to tell him.

“I missed listening to your stories. So many times I’ve experienced something new in the capital, and I’ve thought, how wonderful! That was just how I imagined it! And then I would think, now why did I imagine it like that in the first place? And it would always come back to one of your stories.”

Kian’s heart jumped into his throat. unable to take his eyes from Esra’s pale profile, lost in memory. “Well…,” he hesitated. “I just told you what others told me. Dressed it up a little. I’d never been to the capital myself. All I’d seen before…” he swallowed, barrelled on, “before they came, were a few surrounding market towns that we traded with.”

Esra thought about that. “All the same,” he said eventually, “they were true for me.”

He stopped walking. Kian, and then Hansel, stopped with him. They stood before an arch of dark roses, such a deep purple that they appeared black. These, Kian realised, must be his favorite flower.

“Pretty,” said Kian, a bit uselessly. And they were, darkly gleaming under the sun, petals richly blooming.

He fancied himself a bit of a bard now. Given enough time, and perhaps without the bodyguard staring daggers into the back of his neck, he was sure he could say something poetic about them. Perhaps… if Esra were not cruel enough to stand right next to them, making them far less beautiful in contrast. The sight of him was captivating: his gentle smile, the doe-like length of his eyelashes, his dark eyes sweeping over the roses.

“Erasmus told me that the fae bred this rose,” Esra said. “It’s a climber? See?” His hand clutched a little tighter on Kian’s arm. “They’d have it wind up the pillars and archways of their cities.” He made a little spiral with his pointing hand, miming how the roses wound wind about a column. “They called it the rose of Danu, because they were the color of her eyes.”

The fae assigned much meaning to color, especially the color of one’s eyes. Kian remembered that the fae who passed through their village would always notice Esra, whose dark amethyst gaze was non-existent among humans, and rare even amongst the fae. Kian certainly hadn’t met anyone else with eyes like Esra.

“My knight tells me it’s a Lexter rose, bred over many years by a monk from the westerlands. He was trying to get a true black rose, to present as a gift for the God King, in his honor. But this was as close as he got.” Esra’s gaze softened, troubled. “I wonder which story is true?”

“I suppose we won’t know,” Kian said, with an artful shrug. “All the fae cities were burned long ago. I spent most of my time in the Weald, after I was captured trying to leave for the Continent. It’s the bleakest part of Fomoria, but it used to be an endless forest. And in the centre of that forest, the largest city of the fae kingdom, and their Moonrise Palace. All of it razed. It’s grey now. Moors, straggled woods, and a great grey city built on the foundations of their defeated enemy.”

“That’s very sad,” said Esra quietly, and he reached out, and touched the dark petal of a rose. In the sun, they sheened purple.

Kian was suddenly struck by the purple in Esra’s deep eyes, and realised that he wore dark gemstones at his throat on fine golden chains, and on the rings he wore on most of his narrow fingers. And his ears had been pierced. Although half hidden in his inky black hair, Kian could see he wore drop earrings, each a delicate golden chain the length of a finger, with that same dark gemstone at the end, catching the light to glint purple as they swayed.

Somehow, the idea of Esra’s flesh being pierced, a hollow needle thrust through tender skin, hurting him, just to be able to ornament him more completely, made Kian furious.

“I thought you dead,” Kian said. “For years. I always wished I’d taken you with me. I wanted nothing more than to protect you. And you’ve been here, this whole time, in a city I’ve visited over and over, and this whole time I had no idea you lived just above me. I wish I’d just… asked. If anyone had seen you, if anyone knew of you. But I was so certain you had died.”

“I always thought you’d made it to the Continent,” Esra replied eventually, voice soft. He let go of the rose, and it swayed, stopped. “When Erasmus told me you’d come looking, I didn’t believe him at first.”

“I saw his painting of you.”

Esra flushed a shy pink, and his dark eyes went big. He looked like he did when Kian used to pin him down…

How often has the knight seen that face, Kian thought furiously. And he’ll have taken it further than I’d ever have dared.

“I truly love that painting,” Esra confessed, “but I sometimes wish I hadn’t posed for it. It caused everyone so much trouble.”

“Erasmus was probably looking for a scandal to boost his name. Or his infamy.”

“Perhaps.” He swallowed. “Where did it end up?”

Kian hummed, scratching the back of his head as he thought back. “A collector from the Continent won the auction for some record sum, I think. From Skyreach.”

“Ah. How far away.”

“I knew it couldn’t be a double,” Kian continued, knowing his face was reddening. “The model for the painting, I mean. No-one looks like you. I thought I was dreaming.”

“I’m glad you came,” Esra said, finally meeting Kian’s eyes again. “There’s so much I want to talk about.”

“I… yes,” Kian replied.

“Would you like to see where I live?” Esra asked, quite suddenly. “It’s more private than these gardens.”

“In the castle?” Kian shifted his feet. His face had heated at the word private. “I’m not, I’m hardly…”

“We’ll take the servants way up,” Esra said, as if it were no issue, no issue at all, to invite another man’s slave up to the castle. “Hansel?”

“Honored choice…” the bodyguard was glowering at Kian, as if it had been his impertinent idea.

Esra just smiled, and waited to be obeyed.

This was hardly the same boy, Kian thought with terribly slow realisation, as the one who’d had trouble telling people when they were blocking his way, or who would tremble at the very hint of leadership being handed to him. Esra was giving out orders, however sweetly, that seemed impossible to disobey, and he had that nobleman’s air of expectation that all things would naturally end up going the way he wanted to.

The three of them climbed the winding castle via one of the many servant passages, through narrow corridors and endless stone spiral staircases. Kian could hear bells ringing, pulled through some mechanism from all the way up in a lords rooms. He heard the shouts of the kitchen, the laundry, metal clattering and fast footsteps. Servants clad in neat grey uniforms flattened themselves out of the way for Hansel and his honored charge, their faces downcast, but Kian could see their curious eyes on him, the clear outcast of the three, thinking, and who are you?

Before he had the chance to run out of breath, they arrived in a wide stone hallway that was suddenly blinding in its brightness.

Sun streamed in through the wide windows, and the walls were ornamented by a gallery’s worth of tapestries and paintings. He could see already how high they were. Too high, almost. Perhaps there was some black magic built into the stone of the castle, for he was certain he had not climbed so many steps to get here…

Esra’s slim figure walked ahead of him, the fluidity of his robes making him look like a moving painting himself. Kian was captivated by the silk of his hair. Esra had never worn it down in the village, and he’d never let it grow so long before, below his waist. It looked like black water, spilling richly down his back.

What would it be like, Kian couldn’t help but wonder, to run his hands through that hair, to grip…

Damn it all, Kian thought to himself, and he adjusted his breeches.

Kian had thought he’d seen luxury living with Lagos, but Esra’s rooms were like stepping into a treasure vault.

His mouth dropped open as he took in the richly decorated round solar room, the priceless artworks and tapestries that decorated the stone walls, the finest of furnishings. Working for a rich merchant had given Kian a fairly idea of the value of things. As such, he was excruciatingly aware the wealth he’d just stepped into.

Hansel opened two wide doors that lead to a balcony, and light streamed in, lighting up golden curios, and glossy silks. Rescued from shadow, a familiar face depicted in oil paint could be seen hung over the fireplace – a younger Esra, in Erasmus’s inimitable hand. Much more modest than the infamous river painting, young Esra was instead almost drowning in a rich crimson robe that covered him completely from the neck down.

His eyes didn’t leave Kian’s, that magnetic dark purple, the eyes of Danu. Standing in the black knight’s quarters, Kian couldn’t help but put himself into his shoes. When he looked into his concubine’s eyes, did he know the significance of that color? Or did he just think Esra uncommon pretty?

“I was seventeen,” Esra said, noticing Kian’s attention. Kian looked at him, the real thing. Esra stood quite at ease, seemingly unaffected by the riches he was surrounded by, his eyes long since adjusted to it. He was resting his narrow hand on the backrest of a luxurious couch, creamy skin on burgundy jacquard. “This was the first time Erasmus painted me. I gave it to my knight.”

His knight. Kian could have growled, but he schooled his expression, as Esra was giving him a very shy smile. “It looks… good,” he said awkwardly, and scowled at Hansels quiet scoff. What on earth was he supposed to say?

“Would you like to step outside?” asked Esra, gesturing elegantly to the opened doors. “This is my favorite view of the city.”

He lead Kian out to the wide balcony that let in the early afternoon sun. Hansel the bodyguard watched over them from the shade, his hand resting threateningly on the pommel of his sword.

“It’s like you’re haunted by a ghost,” remarked Kian, irritated. The bodyguard was far enough away to not eavesdrop if Kian whispered, but his steely gaze burned holes in the back of Kian’s neck.

“A helpful one,” Esra teased, and then he looked more serious. “He’s a good man, Kian. Please don’t be put off by him.”

“He’s staring at me like I’m planning on eating you!” Kian hissed fitfully, very determinedly keeping his gaze towards the city.

“He doesn’t know you like I do,” said Esra.

The breeze was stronger here, and the sounds of the city hit him again. From so high, he could see the whole of Balor’s throne, stretching from the higher streets dotted with folk dressed in colorful fashions, to the merchant districts, the ports and industries, and beyond it all, the wide expanse of the sea. They were so high that the seagulls wheeled beneath them, and the sounds of the city, instead of a cacophony, were softened by distance into something dreamier.

As Kian looked out at the city with Esra, he thought of their great hilltop that they’d sat on to look over their village, masters of their small realm. Except, the village was tiny, secluded, even more so from a distance. It was dwarfed by the reaching evergreens, the tall mountains, and the vastness of the grey ocean. Looking over the city of Balor’s throne, in contrast, was exhilarating.

It had Kian thinking of endless possibilities.

He turned to his companion. Esra was tucking a strand of hair behind his ear absently as he looked over the balcony, and Kian sucked in a breath at the sight of him. What a poetry of a person, he thought, his littlest motions enough to inspire art and song.

“Do you have a nice life here?” Kian asked.

“Oh yes,” Esra replied, his dark eyes following the gulls.


“Then why do you look so…” Sad, Kian thought. Drenched with yearning. Full of… longing, for something impossible.

Esra turned to him, then, the summer sun glinting off his inky hair and the silk of his robes, the deep purple gemstones flashing as they caught the light. Even in warm colors, under the noon rays, Esra looked… haunted. There was a fragility to his questioning smile, his clasped hands. It was barely hidden, beneath the richness of his wardrobe.

“You look sad,” Kian said. “Why?”

Esra looked startled at Kian’s bluntness. What was meant was probably rarely said, in court. “Because when I look at you,” he said eventually, hesitantly, “you remind me that I’m in love with a cruel man.”

His knight.


“You love him.” His mouth went dry. Erasmus had said as much, but Kian hadn’t truly believed it until now. He hadn’t wanted to believe it. “Even after all he did to you? To us?”

“I know I’m foolish,” Esra said, voice cracking. He turned his head back to the city rather than look at the man before him, his dark eyes glossy.

“He must have cast some spell,” Kian said, for surely none with a clear mind could fall for one of the seabeast’s minions. “Or he had his god wield some evil magic–”

“No, for even before he chose to keep me–” Esra’s voice cracked. He was shaking his head, broken, eyes filling with unshed tears.

Kian was seized by the urge to hold him, comfort him, but Hansel’s fierce eyes on the back of his neck held him back. Surely, he wasn’t allowed to just grab a knight’s choice, even with the best of intentions. Hansel might very well decapitate him.

Instead, Kian slid his hand across the stone of the balcony wall towards Esra, an offering of comfort. Warmth bloomed in his heart as Esra put his small hand over Kian’s and squeezed.

Esra had always been delicately built, the fae blood in him making him narrow, almost ethereal, but his hands at least had once been rough and human with the work of the village. They’d been callussed from gripping the needle, scraped on rough materials, cut by splinters. Now his hands were soft, like a noble’s. And he was paler too, from spending more time indoors, to the point where Kian’s thick, callused hand looked dark beneath Esra’s.

He still thought they looked right, together. Felt it, too, that sense of balance.

He’d been a fool to ever push Esra away. Had anything ever gone right since? When he looked at their hands, all he could think was, I want to be next to him, always. Whatever it takes, I need to be by his side.

“I was so excited to see you,” Esra confessed. He, too, was looking at their joined hands. “But now that I do, all these things I’ve not thought of in– in years– they’re all bubbling up, and I can’t think straight.”

“S’alright,” Kian said. “You know, I think I’m the same. We have a lot to talk of. And I think it will take awhile before we can speak to each other as free as we used to.”

Esra nodded. “Just seeing you,” he confessed, so quiet that it was almost a whisper, “has made me remember all the things that slipped from my mind here. There is something about these walls that… sap at unpleasant memories.”

Kian believed it. There was something unnatural about the castle of Balor’s Throne that he was having a hard time wrapping his head around.

“I know that my knight’s duty is a harsh one,” Esra confessed. “And while I don’t ask him about… any of it, I know that much of what he does is cruel. But it is easy to forget such things here.” And he looked over the beautiful city, his brow furrowed with worry. “And maybe, I let myself forget.”

His hand left Kian’s, and clasped together with his other under his chin, as if he were in prayer

“Do you remember when we used to climb the hills?”

“Of course I remember,” said Kian.

“I see it so clearly now: me and you as we were in that time long past, sitting in our high place and looking over the others in our village.”

Esra spoke so wistfully. And then, his face fell with sorrow.

“I am… ashamed to admit how hard I worked to keep myself from thinking of you.” The young man trembled. He looked on the edge of tears. “And of father. And our village. The people I grew up with. I tried to forget the wide grey ocean. How the mountains around us dwarfed us in their enormity. Those tall evergreen pines that stretched up so high, and whipped about in the storms…”

And… tears finally spilled.

“I tried to forget all that death and blood. I told myself it was a story, a dream. I had to. Else… else I’d have gone mad.” Esra paused, wiping under his eyes. “I couldn’t look back,” he said, shaking his head. “I only looked forward. And I all I ever saw day after day was Balor’s Throne, so much so that it’s places and people became all I knew of existence, so all that mattered was this city, and my knight.”

A pause, and then a smaller voice…

“But now that I’m here with you, I can’t help but think of the life I once led. I can’t help but remember what was done to us, to bring me here.”

Kian felt himself tense with rage.

Esra’s survival involved closing doors on memories, shutting down the truth. And he, Kian, couldn’t forget. Every morning, he felt his jaw ache anew. He couldn’t speak as sweet as he once could. Couldn’t even eat or drink with ease. He’d have said this to Esra, but…

Esra was looking at him, and for a moment, Kian saw a different Esra…

… with his wet hair and peasant clothes, skinny and trembling from cold, from fear. The youth by the river that in his anger, he’d pushed away.

It was a mistake he never wanted to make again.

“It’s alright,” he gently said to Esra. “I understand.”

It’s what he should have said all along. He says it not only to the Esra in front of him, but to the Esra from years back, at the river bank, who in his pain he’d been so cruel to.

“So much of what happens to us is out of our control,” Kian continued. “All we can do is survive it. I mean, I get that. I didn’t want to be a slave. I didn’t want to kill people. But I did, ‘cause otherwise I’d have been the one that died.”

Esra nodded, and bit his lips hopefully.

“And our feelings – how are we supposed to have control over those? It’s not like,” he held up his hand, clenched it, “your hand forming a fist, or putting one foot in front of the other. We don’t have any control over who we fall in love with, right? It’s probably why it’s called falling.”

He realised, belatedly, that he wasn’t just talking about Esra and the black knight. He spoke also, perhaps even moreso, to himself.

Esra seemed to shine at him in gratitude, a sunbeam. He moved closer, looked up at Kian like he had in the gardens, but this time… instead of hesitating, he embraced him, slender arms around Kian’s waist.

“Thank you…” His voice was a whisper.

Kian could rest his chin on the crown of Esra’s beautiful head. He did so. He put his arms around Esra’s narrow shoulders and squeezed tightly, letting his eyes fall shut. Let himself breathe Esra in, and feel the warmth of him.

I shouldn’t love you, Kian thought. I look into your eyes and I know that you will be the death of me. But I adore you. And if I’m honest with myself, I’ve always adored you. And if saying kind things of your life here will let me stay by your side, I’ll say it.

I’ll say anything. It’s just words.

It’s worth it.

They took late lunch together in Esra’s rooms.

Esra ate like a bird, and so Kian ended up with most it, rich meat, intricate pastries and thick soups more delicious than anything he’d had before. Esra didn’t drink wine or ale – didn’t like the headaches, he’d said – so instead they drank fragrant tea, leaves curling at the bottom of the cup.

Over the breaking bread together, Kian told Esra the story of what had happened to him: his capture, the Arena, life as Lagos’s slave, his many journeys between the towns and cities of Fomoria. Esra listened raptly, for as it turned out, he still didn’t travel well, and had spent most of the past three years in the capital.

“Although… I still haven’t seen everything there is to see here. It’s an amazing city, Kian. And Hansel has been a great guide.”

The bodyguard stood by Esra’s shoulder, leaning idly against the wall. He dipped his head at the compliment, a perfect gentleman. Kian resisted the urge to scowl at him.

“I tried once to leave the capital, last year,” Esra admitted. “My knight summoned me to Evalon – he’d been gone so long, and we missed each other terribly – but I got so sick on the journey that I had to return home before ever getting close.”

“What time of year? Spring?” Kian asked, thinking of the pollen from the vineyards, and Esra’s weak breathing.

“Late spring,” Esra confirmed. “Do you think that was it?”

“Maybe.” Kian shrugged as if were just an issue like any other, although inside he was burning with eagerness to prove his usefulness, to Esra, to his scowling bodyguard. “You could try again in autumn, as long as the weather is tolerable. You know, there are herbs in the eastern countries that the people use to help with problems of the lung. They boil them up and breathe in the steam.”

“Really?” Esra asked, curious. “What is the herb called?”

Kian couldn’t remember, but said he’d ask his master.

It was as enjoyable to tell Esra stories as it has always been, of the places he’d been and seen, the people that he had met. He even played Esra some tunes on his lute, serenading him as Esra rested on the couch, enthusiastically clapping at the end of each piece.

“Who taught you that?” he asked, delighted.

“Master Lagos,” said Kian, for probably the twentieth time that afternoon. “He also taught me my letters – or tried to, anyway.”

“I’ve been learning too,” Esra said, with a tiny pleased smile.

He had Hansel carry over an ornate chest, and open it for him. Inside he showed Kian long scrolls of his work, copying out books, he’d said. “This was my first attempt. And my latest..”

Kian looked closely, observing Esra’s initially wavery hand becoming more confident, until he had, in Kian’s opinion, beautiful handwriting.

“This is amazing!” Kian exclaimed. “You are… far ahead of me, I feel.”

In the chest was a neatly stacked pile of letters, tied with a glossy ribbon. He could only make out a few of the words in the cramped, spiky hand. “What are these?”

“Oh,” Esra said, flushing a little pink. “My knight writes to me when he is away. I write him back. And we save all our letters here.”

Kian’s heart thudded as Esra very carefully lifted out the letters, and tugged at the ribbon to release them, an easy gesture that he must have made a thousand times.

He could picture Esra here, coiled on the sofa on some lonely night, untying these letters so he can read again was was written to him, so he could imagine his knight beside him, speaking the words he had written.

Kian wasn’t adept at letters, so he could hardly parse the words they wrote, but he could see the differences in their hand. A letter from Esra, then from the knight, then from Esra, and so on. Conversations over time, and made more meaningful by it. Feelings transcribed in black ink, inner thoughts made transportable.

There was a magic to writing that suited Esra.

Kian wondered how it would feel to receive a letter from him, written in that beautiful, careful penmanship, his thoughts about his day, where he has been, what he had done. He would treasure such letters too.

He discreetly peered at the letter Esra was holding, in the spiked hand of the knight. Hard to make out, but if he concentrated…

‘… and I ache for you, dear heart, when we are apart…’

Esra was fingering an amethyst at his neck as he read. “I couldn’t read when my knight first started sending me letters,” he admitted. “Erasmus tutored me, you see, but it took me so long to learn. So… Erasmus would read me the letters aloud when I got them, and then I would dictate my response. After that, I would copy what he wrote into my own hand, to be sent off.”

“How long is he away for usually, your knight?” Kian asked. He was grateful to his luck, that the knight had not been here for their reunion. It had him thinking, perhaps foolishly, that all of this was somehow meant to be…

Esra bit his lip. His eyes were on the letters. “It changes, depending on his mission. He has been away near a month now, though.”

Sounds lonely, Kian thought, but did not dare voice. Esra saw it in his eyes though.

“I am lucky that my days are full, I’ve never been at a loss for something to do in this city,” he said gently, but he does not say, Kian notices, I am not lonely.

Late afternoon, with the sun golden and lower in the sky, Hansel finally convinced Esra to dismiss Kian.

“He’s another man’s slave, honored choice. It’s ill to keep him away.”

“Alright,” Esra agreed, but he wrote a letter in that careful hand for Kian to bring to Master Lagos. Kian took it reverently, the paper crisp under his fingertips. He walked all the way to his master’s apartments slightly in a daze, staring at the letter, his proof that the day had not just been some fever dream.

The paper was of fine thick quality. Esra had sealed it with red wax, stamped with a heavy seal that had been on the desk. The symbol was a scythe, the symbol of the Order of Balor.

It shocked him, that Esra had the authority to wield the power of the Order.

When Kian handed it to Master Lagos over dinner, the old man regarded the seal with alarm, and then broke it open immediately. Once he read it, he peered at Kian from under his bushy eyebrows.

“What have you gotten yourself into now, Bruto?”

Kian shrugged helplessly. “What does it say?”

Master Lagos scrutinised him, and then shrugged. “That, while we are here, I’m to send you to the castle when I’m done with you for the day.” He chewed thoughtfully. “So I can assume things went well?”

I didn’t make the same mistake as last time, Kian thought. “Turns out,” he said, with a smirk, “that the painting wasn’t just a painting.”

In the days that followed, he went everywhere with Esra, albeit with Hansel dogging their every footstep. Erasmus often joined them. Outside of Hansel, he was probably Esra’s most constant companion.

They explored the city: the markets, the galleries, even the great church of Balor. He’d watch theatre at the many performance houses – romantic dramas, comedies, tragedies – and always from the best seats in the house. Most of the proprietors knew Esra on sight, but even those who didn’t knew to treat him well. The red tattoo on his lower lip commanded great respect.

When they stayed in, in Esra’s rooms, they’d lounge by the fireplace with fine food and drink, perhaps a pack of cards or the like, and spend the evening in conversation. Even Hansel was tolerable, close to charming, when he was relaxed enough. Kian found that he was enormously protective of his charge, and had more than a little in common with Kian. Although Hansel was far older, 42 winters, and a family man. Protecting Esra was his primary duty. He only took time off when Sir Umbra was in the city.

“I think my presence is a bit superfluous when Esra has his knight protecting him,” he remarked, and beside him, Esra blushed.

One early evening, before heading home, he told Esra the news that Master Lagos would need him soon. The old merchant had been planning a new trip, and Kian, of course, was to be by his side. Kian didn’t know when he’d be back in the capital – it all depended on so much.

Esra listened to this carefully, nodding along from where he sat by the balcony. They’d just come back from watching courtiers compete at the archery fair, and Esra’s cheeks were a little flushed from the walk, making him look fetchingly innocent. The knight’s choice had looked liked sunlight by the range, dressed in yellow and cream, his golden jewelry gleaming in the late afternoon light. “Do you want to go?”

“No,” Kian replied swiftly. “It’s… I don’t wanna leave. Not after I just…”

“Would you rather stay with me?” Esra asked softly. “In the capital?”

Kian wet his lips, heart racing. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, and darted a look at Hansel, who looked just as confused as he felt. What did Esra mean by this..? Could he..? “Of course, Esra.”

Esra nodded. He seemed to come to a sort of decision. “Hansel,” he said over his shoulder. “Could you summon my knight’s lawyer?”

It was the next morning when the news came.

It’s not that I don’t value you, Bruto,” said Master Lagos, and he smiled, spreading his arms wide. “But it was a considerable sum – far more than I paid for you – and I am, after all, a merchant.”

Esra had bought him.

The news shocked Kian, who dropped the clothes he’d been folding to the bed and leaned a hand to the wall to steady himself. His head swam. Master Lagos, standing at the door frame, blurred before him.

Esra? Sweet, shy Esra? It was impossible to think he’d make a move so bold on his own, and yet, Master Lagos held the proof himself, written in Esra’s careful hand.

Not Master Lagos anymore, Kian supposed. Just… Lagos.

Esra, it seemed, had offered Master Lagos twice Kian’s worth, and extra on top of that, to make up for any inconvenience Lagos would have to go through to find a new slave on such a short notice.

“So he owns me now?” Kian felt giddy hope bubble up in his chest. The impossible would happen. He was going to stay with Esra..!

“His knight owns you,” corrected Lagos, a prospect that rather cooled Kian’s elation. “I think you better report to the castle, young man.”

He’d been expecting a joyful reunion with Esra, but it was Hansel who met him at the castle gate that bright morning, looking quite perturbed.

“This whole situation is… unusual,” he confessed to Kian. “So expect irregularities. My charge bought you without any plan of what to do with you. There’s no suitable position for a slave of your… skillset, around Esra. And with Sir Umbra away, I can’t make any formal changes in the household.”

“Can’t I just hang about like before?” asked Kian, and a little irritated at the bodyguard’s insistence on propriety. Why did it matter? Just give Esra what he obviously wanted. He was the one in charge of this, right?

“There are rules at court, codes of conduct that everyone must follow, no matter their position. All the Order, including Sir Umbra, treat chivalry as a second religion. Your visits were an exception that I didn’t approve of in the first place, and cannot be continued without reason.” Hansel must have noticed Kian’s panic, because he put a hand on Kian’s shoulder and squeezed. “Don’t worry. I’ve been working on finding you a place.”

“Yeah?” growled Kian, fighting the urge to push Hansel’s hand off of him. The man meant well, even if he was overly concerned with what was and wasn’t ‘proper’ to do in a castle filled with, in Kian’s opinion, the worst kind of puffed up lords and nobles. And Sir Umbra? Chivalric? It made him want to spit.

“Don’t give me that face,” Hansel ordered, in an authoritative tone that had Kian instantly obeying, even though he was half a head taller than the bodyguard. “Better.” He slapped Kian’s shoulder and stepped back, eyes flicking over Kian to size him up. “Now, follow me. I’ve arranged for you to be brought in as one of the castle guardian initiates.”

“A castle guardian?” cried Kian in displeasure. “The guys that march about all day with poleaxes?”

“You went on, at great length, I might add, of your skill in the Arena,” replied Hansel. The old bastard had a twinkle in his eye. “We could use a strapping lad like you in the corps.”

“But when will I–”

“Hold it. In the position of trainee, you’ll be sleeping and eating in the castle. And I’m going to officially take you on, be your mentor. Which of course will mean that, outside of your training, you will be shadowing me in my duties. And so…”

“Ah,” said Kian, catching on a little late. He flushed with embarrassment. “Yeah, um… that sounds good.”

They entered the castle together, and walked to the quarters that housed the castle guardians. Those higher in rank had their own rooms, but the rest of the men bedded together in the barracks in the belly of the castle. It would’ve been like the Arena all over again, except that the quarters were stringently tidy, and the men without exception neat and courteous to one another.

He was introduced to the Captain, a burly older man with a stern face, and had to repeat a vow he barely understood, before he was accepted as a trainee and given a uniform. It was all done very quickly. Kian had the strong impression that Hansel and the Captain were merely checking boxes.

“When can I see Esra?” Kian asked Hansel as soon as they had a vague semblance of privacy, in the bathing room. His panic was beginning to grow again. He was a slave, owned by the black knight, trapped as a trainee guardian at the bottom of the castle, inducted into an organisation he’d barely even heard of…

“Today,” Hansel replied, with a raised eyebrow. “So hold your horses, alright? There are some things we need to go over first…”

Hansel explained, in brief, how life in the castle generally was. The behaviours expected of him. Who he could order, who he had to obey. As Kian washed and dressed himself in the uniform of a trainee, Hansel spoke of the most important topic, which was how he should behave around Esra.

“You need to understand how above us he is in station,” the bodyguard explained. “Even though he was born a peasant, he has been risen most high, an adjunct to the Order of Balor. I’ve been giving you leniency because this has been an important reunion for him, but you need to understand your place now. You must have none of this easy attitude towards him when we are on duty…”

Kian could only half-listen to the warnings. He was too elated, too overwhelmed by the slow realisation that this was actually happening. That he would be living in the castle with Esra, that they would spend their days together. The opportunities that could come from such an arrangement were intriguing…

“… and your salary,” Hansel continues, “will be coming from Sir Umbra. If he decides that you’re not worth keeping, he will be sure to find another use for you in the castle.”

Kian’s blood cooled. “Oh, yeah?”

Hansel nodded, and gave him a pointed smile. “Yes. So, best behaviour, alright?”

Esra was sitting on the couch waiting for them, back in his rooms. Kian, who had never seen this new Esra early in the morning before, was struck by the sight of him.

His long hair was still a little damp from his bath, his skin seeming to glisten. He was wrapped in a long cream colored robe, with long wide sleeves that reached his fingertips, trimmed at the edges with soft rabbit fur. His feet, barely visible beneath the hem, were in cream slippers. His very appearance, modest yet perfectly desirable, made such an impression on Kian that he stopped in his tracks.

“Honored choice,” said Hansel drolly. “Please meet my new trainee…”

When Esra saw him, saw his uniform, his face lit up in joy. Kian felt as though a curtain had been flung open, bathing him with the sun’s rays.


Esra sprang up from the couch and darted over to him. Kian, unable to control the wide smile blooming on his face, opened his arms for Esra, who all but leapt into him to embrace him in a whirl of silken cream cloth.

“Oh, I’m so happy…” Esra whispered into his chest, “I was worried it couldn’t happen..!”

“Yeah well, your bodyguard has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, it seems,” Kian murmured, his heart thudding painfully hard. Esra felt so delicate under his palms, the strands of his hair brushing against him.

“He does, doesn’t he?” laughed Esra, pulling back to smile at Hansel, who snorted softly in amusement.

Kian could only stare at the youth who had just been wrapped in his arms. He remembered the fire he’d felt be lit in him upon seeing Esra in the castle gardens, and it only burned hotter now. His imagination had run wild at the sight of Esra so willingly coming to him, wanting to be held close. He must get so lonely here in the castle, with his black knight away for so long. He’d all but confessed as much to Kian.

And now he had made it quite clear that he wanted Kian close to him during those times. How close? Kian could only imagine. But, and he carefully dropped his hands from Esra’s waist, he found that he could imagine a whole lot…

Before his mind could race completely away from him, there was a polite knock at the door.

“A letter for the honored choice!”

Esra’s eyes went wide.

It was from his knight. Kian could tell from the sharp black handwriting, even if the red wax hadn’t been stamped with that scythe. Esra’s hands trembled with poorly suppressed eagerness as he took the letter from the young servant. He stepped away from them all, and sat neatly down on the couch.

“I would like privacy, for a moment,” he said, in a very quiet voice. He didn’t look up at either of them, eyes fixated on the letter in his hands.

“Of course,” Hansel said immediately while Kian balked. He guided Kian out of the room with a firm hand, closing the heavy door behind them.

“It’s the knight!” whispered Kian, the moment everyone was out of earshot. “I could tell by the handwriting–”

“Have you considered joining the city watch?” Hansel interrupted drily.

Kian blinked in confusion, cut off from his rant.

“You would make a first class detective.”

A grin. Hansel was making fun of him. Kian elbowed him, very lightly, then sighed at himself. He slumped against the wall. His morose scowl made Hansel’s grin even wider.

“Stand up straight,” the bodyguard said. “Castle guardians do not slouch.”

Kian watched the sun move slowly across the stone tiles until they were summoned back inside.

Esra appeared quite different. His cheeks were colored by anxious delight, his dark eyes wide in his pale face. The letter lay open on his lap. He looked between the two of them, and wet his lips.

“I have news,” he told them. “Sir Umbra is back tomorrow.”

Kian’s heart fell.

When Kian was summoned to Esra’s rooms the next morning, he found the usually tranquil space bustling with castle servants. Hansel stood conducting them all from the middle of the solar room, jabbing his finger and giving snappy orders.

To a young man hovering by a large landscape: “Careful taking that down, can’t you see it’s worth more than you and yours?” Then to a maid: “Dust it, don’t just waggle your hand over it, it’s not a magic dust vanisher.” Then sharply, to two men moving the couch: “Handle that one gently. If I see any scratches on it, I’ll scratch you.”

Kian, filled with fidgety energy, sidled up to his mentor.

“Uh, what is happening?” he muttered. “Where is Esra?”

“He’s at the bathhouse,” Hansel replied. “He’ll be there for a while. Can’t have him here with all this dust flying around.”

Hansel wasn’t looking at him. He still supervised the servants with that watchful, almost suspicious gaze of his.

“In the meantime, I’m organizing the tidying of the rooms. Not that the place has ever been dirty, but…” Hansel cleared his throat. “Sir Umbra likes things a certain way. On his return home, we like to welcome him with perfect rooms.”

The curtains and rugs were shaken out and beaten of dust. The silken bedsheets were changed to ones new and fresh scented. All surfaces were dusted, and the curios too. Hansel organised the rearrangement of the furniture, and some of the paintings and tapestries on the wall were taken down and replaced with new ones.

Kian had gotten used to the way Esra had kept his beautiful rooms, had grown to associate each detail as part of his almost dreamlike life here. It was a brutal awakening, an invasion to see the tranquil space bustling with grey servants turning the place upside-down to serve a knight’s whims.

He turned to Hansel, bemused, and more than a little angry.

“Each of Sir Umbra’s predecessors added to and handed down a collection of artworks, furnishings, and the like,” Hansel explained, seeing Kian’s bewilderment. “Esra has some favorites, Sir Umbra has others. We change it out depending on who is living here.”

That rankled Kian. Did Umbra really think so little of Esra’s taste?

Hansel noticed his drop into a foul mood. “Do something about your face,” he growled. “You look like a murderer.”

“I feel like being one,” Kian snapped.

Hansel jabbed a finger at his chest. “Don’t give me trouble. Now come here and hold things for me.”

From Esra’s wardrobe, Hansel picked out long layered silks of deep green, with flowing sleeves, and a delicate gold pattern embroidered into the collar that had Kian thinking of sunshine.

“To celebrate the cusp of summer,” Hansel explained.

Kian nodded apprehensively. “Am I supposed to learn that? Colors and fashions and fabrics and so on?”

“Everything I do, you must be able to do,” Hansel declared. But then he gave Kian an understanding look. “Listen, I do not expect you to learn everything overnight. I am expecting you to learn, however. You claim to be capable enough at that.”

Kian nodded, brow creasing. He’d learned about art and valuables from his former master, to the point where he’d been a capable salesman himself. He could apply that now.

To go with the green silks, Hansel picked out golden jewelry – a brilliant sun pendant, two matching ornate bracelets, bright emerald drop earrings, delicate rings, and an intricate swirling circlet. Kian felt wine-drunk just looking at it. Esra would be wearing a fortune against his skin…

He recognized the craftwork of the circlet as from the northern reaches, with its musical swirls and flourishes. The jewelry was cool to the touch, and he traced the lines with his fingertips, imagining it crowning Esra’s brow.

But it was for Umbra’s eyes. To bring Umbra pleasure.

He dropped the circlet back to the table, fingers stinging. Hansel looked over.


Kian raised his eyebrows in an approximation of innocence, put his hands behind his back. “Yeah?”

“Everything all right?”

“Of course it is,” he said, perhaps too sharply, because Hansel’s shrewd eyes narrowed. “I’m fine. Seriously.”

“If you want to take some time off, go ahead.”

“Why would I need time off?” Kian retorted. “Like I said, I’m fine.”

Hansel paused. “I understand that you and Sir Umbra have history–”

Kian cut him off before he got too deep. This wasn’t a conversation to have in earshot of gossip-hungry servants. “Hansel. I appreciate… your concern,” he said firmly. “But you have nothing to worry about. Let’s just… focus on getting everything ready.”

“Mm.” Hansel seemed to see right through him. “Might be good advice to take yourself.” The guardian straightened up. “Behave yourself while I’m gone. I must retrieve our charge.”

When Esra returned from the bathhouse, the place was in order, the servants gone.

The young man was quite silent, distant, as if he were walking through a dream. Kian couldn’t quite pinpoint whatever beautifying treatment he might have gone through, but to his eye, Esra looked almost like he’d been polished, his skin glowing, his hair gleaming. But he seemed paler to Kian, his eyes darker than Kian had ever seen them, the red tattoo stark on his lip.

Hansel followed close by his charge. “Sit down, Esra. Would you like some tea?”

“No, thank you,” Esra murmured quietly. He made no remark about the many changes Hansel had made to his rooms, almost as if he didn’t notice. Instead, he sat on the couch as he was bade, and looked out the balcony to the morning sky. There was a deep melancholy to him. Was it longing, Kian pondered? Or dread?

The golden rays made Esra glow, and the dust in the air shimmered like an aura around him. It would be picturesque, if he didn’t look so… separate from the world around him. Kian felt that, if he reached out to touch Esra, his hand would slip right through fabric, flesh, and out the other side. The thought disturbed him greatly.

The young man looked beautiful in deep green silks and gold adornments that Hansel had picked out for him. Kian had to admit that the old man’s eye was good. The circlet was fine gold, resting over Esra’s brow, just as delicate in design as the youth’s fine features. It suited Esra as perfectly as it had been made for him.

Maybe the knight had commissioned it.

Esra, eyeing himself in the mirror Hansel held up for him, touched the circlet thoughtfully. Kian was in the middle of admiring him, when the youth’s eyebrows shot up his forehead in sudden panic.

“What if he arrives early?” Esra stared at Hansel, wide-eyed. “He’ll want to see me waiting for him on the balcony…!”

Hansel put a firm hand on Esra’s delicate shoulder. “Honored choice,” he said, with the patience of a man who had experienced this many times, “it is not yet noon. He is not to arrive for many hours. I’ll send my eldest out to spot him on the horizon. We’ll know of his approach well before he arrives.” He looked down at Esra’s face, concerned. “You are pale.”

“Am I?” murmured Esra. “I’ll get some sun.”

“Is he always like this?” Kian asked under his breath, as Esra fretted out on the balcony.

“The comings and goings of Sir Umbra pulls as strongly on him as the moon does the tides,” Hansel replied, which Kian took as a yes.

His mentor seemed to be taking Esra’s changeable moods in stride, but Kian was not so easily convinced. These were hardly the behaviors of someone awaiting a long lost love. Esra seemed almost… fearful. As if there would be dire consequences if he were not dutifully waiting upon the balcony, when his knight arrived.

A knock on the door, and then without introduction Erasmus stepped neatly in, his blond hair tied back, wearing a fine set of vest and breeches the same forest green as Esra. He looked bewitching, Kian could admit to himself. But there was a bit of white paint behind his jaw, that he wouldn’t be able to see in a mirror.

“Oh!” The artist exclaimed upon laying eyes on Esra, before even saying good morning. He plucked at his collar. “Should I change?”

“Please don’t,” said Esra, a small smile forming just at the sight of the painter. He drifted back in from the balcony, a lovely spring spirit in his long robes. “I like to match you.”

“What happened to you?” Erasmus asked Kian; he’d just caught sight of Kian’s formal garb. “Is that sigil…” the painter gasped in mock horror, clutching at his chest. “Are you a castle guardian?

Kian withheld a smirk as Hansel rolled his eyes. “A trainee,” Hansel grunted. “At least, until Sir Umbra decides what is to be done to him.”

Ominous, Kian thought bitterly. He pushed that fear away.

“Oh goodness, no!” cried Erasmus, as if he’d just discovered that Kian had contracted a rare, fatal disease. “I hope you don’t become too sensible, Kian. You know, if you’re desperate for a job, I’ll hire you.”

“What on earth as?” Hansel asked. He was irritated at Erasmus barging in, but Kian wasn’t. He could see that the artist’s mere presence had calmed Esra.

“He can help me lift heavy things,” Erasmus chattered. “And maybe some light modelling.”

Kian coughed nervously. “What brings you, painter?”

Erasmus’s green eyes landed on Esra. “I came to see if Esra here should like to walk along the canal with me. A great troupe of actors have come, with boats and pulleys and who knows what else, and they are putting on quite a show over the water!”

“I just saw them from the balcony,” Esra said. “But I would rather stay nearer to the castle today. For, you see… my knight…” Esra stuttered, his eyes going big. “I don’t want to wander far.”

Erasmus grew more serious. “I understand.” Then, he brightened. “Let’s have a turn in the gardens, yes? Then maybe some lunch. It’s a beautiful day outside! I insist you see at least some of it.”

It was late afternoon when Hansel’s eldest son came riding back from the city limits, with an urgent message to his father.

Sir Umbra and his retinue were on the horizon.

Esra stood at the balcony wall, his narrow hands resting nervously on the intricately carved stone. He was deep in whispered conversation with Erasmus. Kian couldn’t even catch a word.

On this private balcony, they were high enough to see out to the streets of the city, and low enough to see the faces of those who came and went. Kian would have stopped to gawp, but Hansel had ordered him to step away from view. So he rested his back against the wall of the castle, silently fuming, clenching and releasing his fist over the pommel of his sword.

“Stop that,” muttered Hansel.

“Must I be a statue?” Kian retorted.

“That would be ideal,” Hansel replied. “Do you ever see a castle guardian fidget, boy?”

So Kian steadied himself, and turned his gaze instead to appreciate the twins in green at the stone barrier. The breeze rippled their silks, and pulled at their long hair. They looked good together, similar in height and build. Erasmus sparkled golden in the sunlight, the more obviously eye-catching of the two. But there was something mesmerising about Esra. The sight of him standing there, gazing out with sad longing at the city streets, it captivated and infuriated Kian in equal measure.

“How long till the knight’s arrival?” Kian asked Erasmus in a careful undertone, after he’d strolled over to join them. They had been standing long enough that his knees ached under the weight of his armor. “How far is the horizon?”

“My goodness!” Erasmus exclaimed. “I believe you mistake me for a philosopher.”

“Not long now,” Hansel assured him. “Now quiet, both of you.”

They could see the commotion before the knight himself. The uproarious cries, the curious spilling out onto the streets to see. Kian followed the direction of their upturned faces.

That was when he saw him.

Unlike the city folk in their bright fashions, the knight was singular in ominous gleaming black. He parted the teeming crowds on his enormous black stallion as a ship cuts smoothly through the waters. Like how a knife cuts through flesh–

Kian’s blood ran cold at the sight of him. To quell his shaking, he clasped his hands tightly behind his back, and forced himself to concentrate. The knight was followed by his squire, and two men dressed like they were from the north, with billowing shapes in Hyreian colors. A diplomat, and a noble, Kian would have guessed by their respective wardrobe. The noble rode up alongside the knight, to trade words…

Kian blinked forcefully. Sweat beaded at the back of his neck.

There was something unnatural to the knight, this long shadow still visible under the sun. He moved, to Kian’s eyes, like an animal. A predator creature from nightmares, now in the guise of a man.

He recognised that armor, the dragon-like darkened steel that covered the near entirity of his body. He recognised the cruel shape of the scythe, jutting like a monster’s claw. He recognised even the shape of Umbra’s mouth. And as he recognised these things, he began to find himself back in the smithy. How close the walls. How tight his bonds. And the steam, and the steel, and the pain…

The stone floor rocked beneath him – he was swaying on his feet. He looked to Esra in an attempt to ground himself.

From the center of the balcony, Esra raised a slender hand. It shook slightly, Kian could see, although with what emotion he could not parse. Esra faced away from him.

Once he caught sight of his Choice waiting for him in gold and brilliant green, the knight halted his stallion, wheeled back, so he could take in the arresting sight of him. He urged the crowd out of his way as he did so.

“Forgive me,” he said to them, although his head remained upturned to Esra. His deep voice travelled well. “But it’s been long since I’ve seen so lovely a sight. I must have time to drink it in.”

Kian was mad enough to spit, but the crowd adored this display of courtly love, and even cheered loudly for the knight, and Esra’s striking beauty. They knew nothing of the knight’s many cruelties…

Or maybe they did, and did not care.


Erasmus’s hand was on his arm. Kian looked at it in alarm. He hadn’t felt Erasmus touch him.

The fingers over his arm squeezed gently. Kian watched the flex of the narrow tendons. “You’re breathing like you’re going to pass out.”

Was he? He looked from Erasmus’s hand to Hansel, vision blurred darkly around the edges. Hansel was giving him a wary look over.

“Erasmus, take my apprentice back to the guardian quarters,” he ordered. “I think he’s suffering from a heatstroke.”

“A heatstroke!?” Kian exclaimed. “But we’re in the shade–“

“I wanted to stay,” he groused, as he let Erasmus push him out the door, and down the spiralled steps into the private halls of the Order.

Erasmus gave him a hardened look. It looked quite sinister on his angelic face. “No,” he said silkily. “You want to start trouble.”

At his words, Kian’s fury swept over him like a tidal wave. Even Erasmus, who thought himself so worldly and astute, was just as blind as the rest of them. Although Kian had been well aware of the circumstances, it was another thing entirely to see his sweet childhood friend transformed into a nervous spirit, readying himself for the knight’s return. Bathing himself, dressing to please ‘his knight’, adorning himself in jewels – as if preparing himself for sacrifice…

This same monster that had left their home in flames, slaughtered their friends and family, whose cruel hands had twisted Kian’s face into this mockery… He now got to return home to much fanfare, to his lavish castle and his obediently waiting prize.

Ever since Esra had received news of the knight’s return, he seemed to have fallen away, from the world, from even Kian. Gone to a place where no one could touch, his thoughts consumed with little else. Could that creature ever understand that? The depth of Esra’s fearful devotion to him?

“You will have to leave it, at least for a few days,” Erasmus said to Kian’s blanched, silent face. “Esra all but disappears from court.”

Again, Kian’s hands clenched, unclenched, over the pommel of his sword. At least he had a weapon to defend himself with, should things go awry and the knight decide to attack him. He must have looked as mutinous as he felt, because Erasmus laughed at him.

“Don’t look so grey. Isn’t this what you wanted? On track to being a noble guardian, by Esra’s side, his trusty shield…”

Kian shook his head hopelessly, his blood drumming in his ears. “I’m beginning to lose track of what I want.”

“Well, that’s no good,” said Erasmus pleasantly. “Maybe you should keep a list.”

From Erasmus, such a suggestion could be a joke, or honest advice. Probably a mix of both.

“You have paint on your face,” Kian snapped at him, desperate to change the subject. “It’s been there since this morning.”

“Oh really?” Erasmus didn’t so much as blush. “Can you wipe it off for me?”

Kian stopped in his tracks.

They were alone in the middle of the beautiful archroom, with no light except what came from high windows, all candles unlit. Erasmus stood glittering in a beam of light, his golden hair aglow, and he was like a ray of sunlight cutting through the fog that clouded Kian’s head. For the first time that day, Kian really saw Erasmus, truly recognised him as being there, before him.

And he looked quite perfectly lovely even paint smudged, Kian realised, with his long blond lashes, perfect little nose, and full lips…

The painter had a spark of triumph in his eyes. It was very possible, Kian realised belatedly, that Erasmus had put that paint there deliberately, for him to find. Had his eyes been following Erasmus too closely? Perhaps it had been some test in interest. No-one else had said a thing to the painter about the smudge, not even Esra.

Behind Erasmus rose a tapestry, enormous and intricate, of an ocean storm drowning a village. Kian licked his thumb, emboldened. He was close enough to see the slight flutter of Erasmus’s lashes as his green eyes followed the motion.

“Look that way,” Kian ordered, and when Erasmus obeyed, rubbed off the paint at the artist’s slender jaw. His warm skin was smooth as a girl’s, Kian noted with some amazement. All that fae blood – it made men beautiful. Was it through his father, or his mother? Where were his family anyway? Was he from the capital at all? Kian found that he really wanted to know…

“Did you get it?” Erasmus asked sweetly. He gave Kian a sidelong look under his pale blond lashes.

Kian jerked his hand back. “Yeah.” And before Erasmus could thank him, or worse, he barrelled on. “Let’s leave. I am fairly certain lingering here is not allowed.”

Three days passed without a glimpse of Esra.

Kian had doggedly followed the young man’s usual routine, expecting to catch him – a routine to which he’d grown rather accustomed at this point – but Esra did not come down to the grand banquet hall for any meals, nor did he walk the gardens, nor visit any of his favorite establishments.

The first day, he wrote it off as the knight being greedy about keeping Esra to himself. They had been parted so long, after all. It was an understandable thing, even if the thought of it rankled Kian. But then the second day passed, and the third, and no matter how faithfully Kian followed his schedule, there was no sign of Esra. It was as Erasmus had said. Esra had been vanished to his rooms.

That sparked a sort of base anxiety. Worry continued to build in his gut as the days ticked by, often accompanied by anger, and Kian could not help revisiting, in his head, the changes in Esra’s behavior that he’d witnessed leading up to the knight’s return.

Esra’s distraction, his melancholy glances – it would be easy for those around him to interpret his odd little actions as that of a besotted lover, awaiting the return of his beloved – and indeed, it would fit into their pretty little tale. No one would want to think it was fear that filled the knight’s chosen companion. Just like the cheering townspeople, they had no way of knowing the truth.

Only Kian knew what cruelty the knight was capable of.

Kian knew, and, of course, Esra himself.

The memory of Esra by the river – his unblemished skin, his frightened eyes – came to him often. Sometimes unbidden, always painful.

The black knight was an expert in torture, in how much pain and pressure human flesh could take before it left a mark. Kian had known, even back then, how Esra had been brutally taken, robbed of his innocence, forced and hurt – without even a bruise to tell the tale. It was the work of a skilled hand, on someone who had been so delicate and frail. Who was to say that it wasn’t happening again?

Behind those closed doors, in those dark forbidden rooms, anything could have been happening to Esra.

Despite his blatant fear of the knight, Kian grew determined to go to his rooms. A glimpse of Esra was all he needed, for reassurance.

But without permission, Kian could not step a foot into the Order quarters.

The guardians that stopped him were polite, but firm in their refusal. His hurried explanations were met with blank faces. Kian realised, with a growing bleak horror, that these men were not potential allies. They had not been stationed here for Esra’s safety. If anything untoward were to happen to Esra, if they’d ever heard any screams from behind the knight’s thick door… they would hold their silence. And they would not do anything to stop it.

These men were here to serve the Order. Esra would always be second to that.

First, Kian turned to his mentor.

Hansel had a small apartment in the middle ring of the city, right in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the markets. An easy walk from the castle. It seemed pretty enough, in the warm noon sun. Flowering vines climbed their way up the red brickwork, dancing in the breeze. Kian rapped on the painted door, and after a while, a small girl answered, stony-faced.

“Who is it?” came a woman’s musical voice from down the hallway.

The girl stared up at him critically. “A big scary man,” she called back boldly, as if daring him to say something.

Kian smiled, unruffled, kneeling onto the pavement so he could look at her eye-level. He dipped his head so his hair swept further forward, covering his scar. “I’m not as scary as I look, little miss. Came here looking for Hansel. I’m his apprentice, see?”

He showed her his emblem. The girl nodded sternly. “Dad?” she called out.

She was, amusingly, just like her father in manner, though much prettier. Hansel’s wife must be really something to overpower all that dour countenance.

Lucky old man, he couldn’t help but envy. He’d had a wife once, a young thing who had left her family for him. He had liked her dark eyes and sweet demeanor. The men of Balor’s Fist hadn’t killed her, but rather kept her to sell into slavery. Yet in all his travels around Fomoria, Kian had never found her.

He still felt guilt for having her stay with him. She would have been free, if she had gone with her family to the Continent.

“Just to hang around,” Kian begged Hansel. He hadn’t been invited in. Instead, they stood in the alley by his home. Hansel was quite different without his uniform. He looked almost… relaxed, in the loose-fit colorful city fashions. “I won’t have to say anything. Does Esra really not need any security? I have seen the knight around, you know. Off to those Order meetings… Does he simply… leave Esra in his rooms?”

“If Esra needed security, Sir Umbra would see to it,” said Hansel steadily. He looked concerned, but not for Esra’s safety. His eyes were travelling Kian’s face, perhaps picking up on his stress, his lack of sleep… “You look dreadful.”

Kian wiped an angry fist over his mouth. “Forget about me! What of Esra?”

Hansel’s mouth twitched in bemusement. “Esra has been awaiting the return of his knight for weeks. I am sure he’s quite content.”

“Oh you’re sure? How are you sure?” Kian ranted. “We have no idea what goes on behind closed doors.”

“Well, what always goes on behind closed doors,” said Hansel slowly, proceeding through the sentence like how a man might walk through bear traps. “It is none of our business.”

“Has Esra ever tried to talk to you?” Kian persisted. “Does he ever speak of what happens when he and Umbra are alone?”

Hansel’s eyebrows flew up his head. “No. I should think… that would be quite inappropriate–”

“He’s never tried to intimate to you that he is being hurt?”

“Hurt?” Hansel’s expression of concern finally changed into shock. “What could have given you that idea? Sir Umbra would not allow Esra to be hurt.”

He said it with such sincerity that Kian was momentarily stunned.

He has no idea, Kian thought incredulously. The realisation hit him like a physical blow, and he took a few stumbling steps backwards. This honorable, honest man… he has no idea that he works for a monster.

Hansel was already shaking his head. “I am not giving you permission to enter the Order’s quarters.”

“Look, I just need to see–“

“My eldest is a lot like you. Headstrong. Unruly.”

“You do not need to patronise me!”

“Take a step back from court,” Hansel advised him. “Sleep well. Eat well. Focus on your training. When you’ve proven yourself to your peers, you will get the privileges you desire.”

“You don’t know what I know,” Kian insisted. “Just because Esra has no marks on him, doesn’t mean that he is not being hurt. We’re his bodyguards. We have to protect him–”

“From what?” Hansel said, his voice slightly raised. A rare event. It would normally be enough to put a tremor in Kian’s resolve, but he was too far gone now.

“From the knight!” Kian hissed. “Am I the only man here who cares for Esra’s wellbeing?”

A broad hand gripped his shoulder, and he was shoved to the brick wall. Hansel was shorter than him, but solid, strong. His eyes were sharp.

“Snap out of… whatever this is,” he barked, and shoved again. Kian winced. “I am sworn to protect Esra, to lay down my life for him if need be. I have been doing a very good job of it too, for years before you even knew he was alive. You need to be very careful of what you say, and who you say it to. You know nothing of the castle, nor the ways of court. If you care for Esra’s wellbeing, you wouldn’t be risking his reputation with these ridiculous rumors.”

Kian took that hand and shoved it away from him. He felt, from Hansel’s lack of resistance, that the man was letting him. “Don’t manhandle me,” he growled anyway.

“Then don’t play the fool.”

“You’re being fooled yourself,” Kian retorted. “Think of your vows, and how they might clash against each other. You are there for Umbra, not for Esra.” He nodded stiffly as he spoke, meeting Hansel’s stern gaze. “The guardians serve the Order, not their property. But not me! I am here for Esra alone.” He jammed a thumb to his chest. “There’s no conflict in me.”


Hansel’s wife had come outside to join them, a baby on her hip, their little daughter at her knee. She was as beautiful as Kian had guessed, with copper hair and large green eyes flickering between her husband and the stranger.

Just the sight of it, a paused moment of the family waiting for Hansel on the stoop of their little home, flooded him with an intense feeling of loneliness. This was not something he would ever be able to have, as much as he wanted it. He was too ruined in face, mind, body, to ever dare hope for a comfortable home to call his own, and a family who loved him.

“I’ll be right inside,” Hansel assured his family, his eyes not leaving Kian’s. There was something turning behind them, although Kian couldn’t tell what. “My apprentice was just leaving.”

“Nice to meet you,” Kian said politely to them, dipping his head. His voice was hoarse.

Hansel, of course, would be no help. He had his own to think of, and too much to risk. For Kian, who had no family, there was only Esra to care for.

The little girl waved to him. He wiggled his fingers in return, a smile rising helplessly on his face.

Kian went next to Erasmus. The man had permission to pass into the Order quarters whenever he wished, provided he went straight to Esra’s rooms. Perhaps he could be used as some sort of go-between.

The walk was slow. Kian felt like he had been beaten. His embarrassment of how he’d acted at Hansel’s grew as his anger faded. The stares of the city dwellers bothered him more than usual, like they all knew of his self inflicted shame. He ducked his head, and made his way directly through the bustle to Erasmus’s studio.

The artist looked pleased to see him when he answered the door, and joined him on the porch to chat. Inside, his apprentices studiously mixed the colors for his next work. The smell of paint took some getting used to. It was more comfortable outside, with the sounds of the city, the view of the industrious docks. Together, they watched the city breeze by, and talked idly about nothing serious. Kian had to build his courage first. The loneliness had swelled in his heart to become distracting.

The breeze caught the loose strands of Erasmus’s hair where it wasn’t pulled back behind his head. It glowed like spun gold in the light. Something about it had changed.

“Did you do something to your hair?”

“Hm?” Erasmus looked at him, his bright green eyes wide and innocent. “Nothing in particular.”

Kian stared at him hard before he realised the difference. “There are no curls!”

“Oh, my hair isn’t naturally curled,” Erasmus admitted, with one of his luminous smiles. “I tie it up just so before bedtime, and it’s curled the next morning by the time I wake up. But I couldn’t do it yesterday. I’ve been organising shipments of materials… canvas, paint…” he waved a stained hand. “All things you need not concern yourself with.”

“Really?” Kian swallowed. “Well, uh… it looks nice. Without the curls. It looks nice with them, too. In general, your hair, I mean. It just looks…”

“Nice,” Erasmus finished for him, with a musical laugh. “I thank you for your high compliment. Did you just come here to say sweet things to me?” His voice dipped low. “If you don’t mind waiting until my apprentices are gone, you can sing my praises all night.”

Kian fought the urge to give Erasmus a merchant’s once over, and failed. He wanted to slide the artist’s hair between his fingers, the way he would an expensive cloth, to experience the quality. Even in paint-stained clothing he looked lovely, like some artfully disheveled beauty. Not for the first time, Kian seriously considered his offer. The painter was easy to look at. Kian was lonely. And he knew that no-one would find out. Erasmus had a reputation, but few at court could name any of his partners.

Yet Erasmus took his long silence for rejection.

“You look so scandalised whenever I flirt with you,” Erasmus said. “You don’t need to be so ashamed about liking men too, you know. I swear, whenever a pretty youth looks at you, you have an existential crisis. I wonder how you spend all that time with Esra without your brain fizzling out from between your ears.”

“I don’t know, painter. I feel fairly hollow-headed about now.”

Erasmus shrugged delicately. “Well I see that you haven’t come here to sweep me off my feet. Can I ask as I to why you showed up at my doorstep?”

He had come to ask for permission to enter Esra’s quarters. It seemed stupid now. He knew he wouldn’t see Esra scared, or bruised, the way he was pretending to fear. If he was honest with himself, he wanted to see Esra hurt, so he had reason to save him from it. Some dramatic escape out of the castle and into the wilds, something they could write poetry about.

Esra frightened and hurt by Umbra’s hands was something that made sense in Kian’s universe. But Esra in love with such a monster… it hurt just thinking about it.

He remembered on the riverbank, how Esra’s unblemished skin had been such an affront to him. It had felt like a betrayal, after all his pain.

He looked at his hands. Big brutal things, he thought. Murderer’s hands. Not the sort of hands that could tenderly cradle a lover. “I think… I may have had a bad few days.”

*You poor thing.” Erasmus said it teasingly, but Kian could see the sympathy in his angelic features.

“I worry for Esra,” he confessed to the skyline.


“I know no-one here likes to speak of it, but I was there when he first met Umbra.” Kian dragged a hand through his hair with an exhausted sigh. “I know what happened. And I can’t get it out of my head that… that it still happens. And no-one is there to protect him from it. I know that you said already that he isn’t being mistreated–” he said quickly, as Erasmus started to speak, “but I still can’t shake the feeling. How would any of us know? We are not there to witness. And it’s not like Esra would tell any of us.”

“Actually,” said Erasmus gently, “he does tell me.”

Kian stared at him, eyes widening. That was unexpected. The two were close, but surely Esra wouldn’t…

The painter looked down at his cuffs, neatly tugged them straighter. He brushed some dust from his breeches. “I told you. We are confidants. We tell each other everything. And I won’t betray his confidence, but to quell your fears, I don’t mind telling you that Sir Umbra does nothing that Esra… does not want him doing.”

Heat rose so fast in Kian that he nearly toppled. “Speak not of it,” he said swiftly, rubbing fitfully at his eyes. Then he sighed, stilled, then rubbed thumb and index finger over his brow. “Forget I asked.”

Erasmus had tried to tell him so from the start. It was only that Kian was too foolish to listen. He felt again embarrassment rise at the memory of his righteous indignation at Hansel’s door…

What an idiot he could be. He pressed his face into his hands. So fueled by rage. It was what drove Esra from him in the first place. Three years, and he still hadn’t learned.

Slender hands landed on his shoulders, massaged them. He groaned thankfully into his palms. “This does seem like you’ve had a bad few days,” came Erasmus’s voice.

Kian nodded, feeling useless.

The fingers squeezed over the muscles of his neck deliciously. “Come inside,” Erasmus offered, after a pause. “We’re a lot of fun, you know. I promise it will take your mind off what ails you.”

Kian sparred with Hansel in the training yard the next morning. His mentor had sought him out, uncertain about Kian’s state after his apprentice’s desperate visit to him at his home.

“You need to work this out of you,” Hansel had urged. “Sparring can help clear a man’s head.”

“I do not wish to hurt you, old man. Sorry.”

Hansel was undeterred by the challenge. He’d been trained from childhood with the sword, the bravado of youths only amused him. “No need to apologise until you’ve managed to hit me.” A tempting pause. “If you can.”

Kian could never resist a challenge thrown down with style.

They traded blows in the yard for what felt like hours, starting slow as each tried to get the measure of the other, and then growing fiercer. There was a small audience of other guardians, who whooped and cheered at the right moments. Hansel was a tactical, worthy opponent, but Kian had strength and youth on his side.

“You seem more energetic,” Hansel huffed out between gasps, his hands on his knees. “Refreshed, maybe. Not so morose.”

Kian twirled his sword in his palm, an Arena flourish. “Dunno what you’re talking about.”

“Heard you spent the night at Erasmus’s.”

“We didn’t do anything,” Kian said defensively. It was mostly true. Hansel didn’t need to know the details.

Hansel shook his head, a minute smile quirking his mouth. Then he grew stern. “Pick up your sword.”

“You wanna get beat again?”

“Yes, yes, I’m an old useless man, and I haven’t got your reach. But your guard drops. And your footwork is clumsy. That’s why we’re tying.”

Kian groaned, more because he felt he should than because of any actual annoyance. Inside, he felt thrilled at the challenge. He hadn’t fought a worthy opponent in months.

But Hansel’s eyes had drifted behind him. Kian turned to see a castle servant racing towards them, feet pounding on the grass.

“Hansel!” the young man blurted out, breathing heavily. His hair was all about his head. “I’ve been looking for you all over.”

“And here I am,” Hansel replied easily, though he looked concerned. “What is it, boy?”

The servant gulped, and his eyes darted everywhere but Kian. “Your apprentice, he’s been summoned by his master, the knight…”

Kian’s stomach dropped. The last time he was summoned by the knight… it did not bear thinking about. He stared blearily at the grass beneath his feet, and fought the urge to sprint off.

“Do you know for what reason?” he heard Hansel say.

The city had four gates. Four roads to freedom. If only he hadn’t worn himself down with all that sparring – he was getting a stitch down his side that would only worsen if he ran.

“Apologies, no.” The boy seemed nervous, trying to keep his gaze obediently on Hansel, but they kept sliding off to see Kian. “Only that… he wants to see the new slave.”

With Hansel leading them, the guardians finally let Kian pass into the Order quarters. But he felt no triumph. A deep, destructive fear had clutched his heart, stretching in him with each step. He’d felt this before, when the soldiers of Balor’s Fist had led him to the smithy to face the black knight.

But no, he reminded himself. He had been just a boy, then. Helpless, really.

Now? He was an Arena champion. People had cheered his name from the stands when he was announced. And the walk, from the tunnels, waiting in darkness and listening to the sounds of bloodshed, knowing that he would be next… he was used to it. The walk towards a fearsome opponent only sparked his courage. It was how he had survived. Thrived.

Hansel, ever the mentor, was advising him in low tones. “… and you must kneel before him when I introduce you.”

Kian didn’t want to do that. “But I’m Esra’s,” he argued.

“Through Sir Umbra,” Hansel corrected, and something in his expression showed a deadly seriousness. “Everything Esra has, every power he possesses, comes through his knight. As does his ownership of you. Do you understand? Sir Umbra will decide how you live out your days. So you need to be perfectly behaved. Do not speak unless you are spoken to.”

“I know how to be a slave,” Kian growled.

“It’s not me you have to convince.” Hansel rapped his knuckles on the heavy wooden door.

Bright light streamed into the private chambers, illuminating the furnishings in a golden glow, like flame. Kian, following Hansel as meekly as a large man could, felt as if he had just stepped into a dragon’s nest.

Balor’s knight and his Choice sat together on the couch, dressed exquisitely for court. The knight lounged back in his seat like some dark prince, and beckoned them closer with an easy gesture. “Do come in,” he said imperiously, his voice a deep rumble. Curled up beside him, tiny in comparison, was Esra.

Kian, his face half hidden by his hair, discreetly let his gaze wander over them. He’d known, logically, that Umbra wouldn’t be wearing his armor inside his quarters but it still shocked him to see the knight looking almost…human, in rich black velvet that seemed to swallow the light.

And Esra…

Esra lay upon that black velvet, his cheek upon the knight’s chest, his warm skin almost glowing in comparison. He was dressed in cream and blue. The pale colors had him looking even smaller underneath the weight of the knight’s arm, which wrapped around him so possessively – like a huge dark serpent draped around its prey.

The young man looked tired, but pleasingly so, the shadows under his large dark eyes giving a haunted edge to his beauty. His long hair was loose over his back, spilling luxuriously over the strong arm wrapped around his slim waist. His slender hand rested on the knight’s broad chest, over his heart. Something about the gesture seemed pacifying.

Esra smiled nervously at Kian, the purple glimmering hopefully in his eyes. Kian couldn’t bring himself to smile back. The youth looked so small and fragile in Umbra’s arms, that all he could think of was Esra as he’d been the morning after, the terrified thing by the river.

With difficulty, Kian looked at his imposing master.

He hadn’t known what to expect about the face behind the mask. Umbra’s features had the unnatural symmetry of an idealised statue, too perfect for Kian to mistake as human. The emotion was hard to read. He was neither smiling or frowning. And there was something bestial about him, hidden behind that composure. Just the way he sat there, his expression a perfectly set aloofness, but his eyes slid from Hansel to Kian with a predator deliberation…

His eyes were the most striking, Kian thought, with a sharp swallow. A piercing grey that had Kian thinking of the glint off of a sword, or the cold iron of tongs. He remembered the mouth though, stonelike and cruel, unflinching in violence.

Fear rose up in him so quickly that he had to forcibly still himself from trembling like a child.

Why had he been brought in here? To be dismissed, maybe to be killed… In his youth, he’d passed on to Esra the stories he’d been told, of blood drinking knights. Was that how they stayed immortal? He couldn’t keep his mind straight. All logical thought had left his mind at the sight of the black knight unmasked.

“Sir Umbra, honored choice.” Hansel’s steadiness brought him back to reality.

“Hansel,” came the knight’s deep voice. His accent was crisp, polished. Kian recognised it with alarming immediacy. “Apologies for pulling you away from your family so soon.”

Hansel bowed low. “I am honored to serve, at any hour.”

“Mm.” The knight’s eyes swept back over to Kian. The weight of his gaze put a shake in Kian’s hands. “You’ve brought the new slave.”

Hansel glared at him, ‘kneel‘ in his eyes.

Kian, helpless, knelt, and bent his spine low.

“His name is Kian, Sir Knight,” Hansel said, a sort of introduction, although the knight must have been told everything already. Another useless formality. “Your honored choice bought him from a travelling merchant. He was once an Arena champion, and I’ve sparred with him. Right now, he’s been positioned as a trainee castle guardian. He’ll be more than capable in the position, once tamed.”

“High praise,” the knight dryly noted, “from you.”

His hair in his eyes, Kian couldn’t see the pair on the sofa, only Hansel at his side. His heart was pounding, his stomach tight. He felt the stone under his knees in unusual detail as his fighting instincts sparked to life. He didn’t have his sword, but Umbra was unarmed too. If the knight came at him, he’d have to go for his throat–

“You mentioned how hard Hansel was working,” came Esra’s gentle voice. “And how you’d wanted him to have an apprentice, so that he did not have to spend so long away from his family.”

The knight did not seem much taken in by this argument. But then, he didn’t keep Esra around as an advisor. “Yes, I have been talking to a few hopefuls already.”

Hansel, to Kian’s surprise, backed Esra up. “I was dubious at first, Sir Knight, but I think Esra’s judgement was sound. Else I’d not have let the sale go through.”

“A traitor has your vote of confidence?” the knight mused.

“He has a shared history with Esra,” Hansel said boldly. “They were both lied to as children – and have overcome it. In time, he would make a fine guardian, should you think him worthy of the opportunity.”

Kian’s mind was spinning. Hansel defended him from their master, and for no gain that Kian could see. Did Hansel truly believe the things he was saying?

Kian felt a desperate loyalty to his mentor in that moment, and a desire to make it up to him, somehow, in the future.

If he would be allowed a future…

“Must talk to the slave myself before I make any decisions,” the knight said. A pause, as he thought it through. “Esra, let Hansel escort you to breakfast, I will meet you in the garden later.”

Esra wavered, perhaps nervous of leaving Kian alone with his knight. “I am not hungry.”

“No need to fret, dear heart.” Kian heard the rustle of silk as the knight stroked a hand down Esra’s arm. “This won’t take long.”

Esra hesitated for even longer. They both knew what Umbra was capable of.

“All right,” he said eventually, in a very quiet voice. He heard them kiss; the sound made Kian flinch. And then, in a whisper: “But… please be kind.”

It was a rather desperate plea. Esra swept out of the room past Kian, Hansel at his heels. The door shut behind them with terrible finality. Kian remembered, with dreadful clarity, what had happened the last time he was alone in a room with the knight. The memory surrounded him – the smell of the smithy, and the copper taste of blood. The dark gleam of an armored figure circling him…

His jaw ached anew.

If there had ever been a moment where Kian would rather die than live a second longer, this was it.

As the knight regarded him, Kian felt that sharp gaze penetrating deep, past skin, into bone. It was disturbingly familiar. He had felt it before, and hated it. Rumors said that the seabeast’s knights could read minds. If that were true, why did they torture?

“Stand,” came the command. “I want to look at you.”

Kian wanted to bolt out of the room, out of the castle, the capital. He’d live homeless in the wilds if he had to. He just wanted to be as far from this man as possible…

It was an order.

Kian shuddered, took a small moment to compose himself, then rose to his feet. The moment he met those grey eyes again, he could see that Umbra did indeed recognise his face.

“You remember me?” He swallowed thickly at Umbra’s narrowed eyes. “Sir Knight.”

“I remember everyone.” Umbra seemed to be analysing him from where he lounged on the couch. “Although, you have much changed.”

Kian could hardly say the same in return. It had been three years, and the knight looked identical to how Kian had last seen him.

He had been casting the knight as near beast in his memories. He had only ever seen the black mask, and the cruel mouth. Now, the perfection of his features both shocked and unnerved Kian. It was a masculine beauty, that served as another kind of mask, to hide the horror that lay beneath. The knight was like a statue, carved by a talented master, and given movement by an unnatural power. Something that looked human, but was too perfect to be made of flesh and blood…

The knight was at home in his rich rooms, dressed in all black, cut close fit to the shape of his long, muscled figure. His ashen hair shone like silk in the morning light, just long enough to brush his high pale cheekbones.

He peered over Kian with that imperious gaze, taking all of him in, then just as quickly dismissing it as beneath him.

“A traitorous peasant, then a wretched arena slave. Now you stand before me, in the garb of a castle guardian, seeking a position. Quite the transformation.” Umbra’s eyes glinted. “Hansel seems to trust you, and he is an honorable man. Esra, of course, thinks you mean no harm. But I know better.”

He means to dismiss me, Kian thought. And it would be a mercy, for that is not the worst thing he can do to me.

Umbra stood gracefully, a long shadow rising, and the movement had Kian’s heart thudding faster. The knight began to move towards him as smoothly as a beast, stalking towards Kian with measured footsteps. He was tall, Kian thought with a shudder, unnaturally so. He had thought that his memory of Umbra being so monstrously large was on account of him being younger at the time. But, no. The knight was taller even than Kian, who was a large man already.

He was not used to being loomed over.

One of Umbra’s long pale fingers brushed at the hair that covered Kian’s face. He flinched, eyes dropping to the floor, but held his ground as Umbra looked at his disfigurements. He had been assessed by potential masters before.

“What happened to your face?”

Other than you? he wanted to say, and bit his tongue to keep it in.

“The arena master did it,” Kian answered. He thanked whatever god was out there that his voice was steady, unshaking. “Sir Knight,” he remembered. “He took his tools to my face. To make me look more fearsome.”

‘Indeed. You look bestial. It’s hardly fitting for a castle guardian.”

As though appearance revealed anything at all. For all his scarring and disfigurements, Kian still had his humanity. Umbra’s unnatural beauty hid a vicious, amoral beast beneath.

Must I be pretty as you to serve your dark god? he thought bitterly, but did not dare say. Erasmus had warned him against bravado, that it would not go down here as it would in the Arena. And Umbra was a knight. He was the embodiment of the law. He could kill Kian right now, wash his hands, and nothing would come of it, except a few of Esra’s tears.

And Umbra surely had seen plenty of those.

Umbra was watching him, his every expression, closely. It was unnerving. Kian preferred him with the mask on. “I know why you are here.”

Kian glared balefully at his feet. “To see if you think me worthy to be trained as–”

“No.” The word was tinged with amusement. “That is merely your disguise. You desire my choice.”

Kian startled, and looked up at Umbra. A mistake. Umbra’s sculpted face was inches from his, that frightening beauty taking up his whole vision. His monstrous intensity so close was like a physical blow. Kian wanted to fall back, but instead he gritted what remained of his teeth and stood still, staring right back.

Umbra’s mouth twitched in an amused smirk. The creature knew that it took every inch of Kian’s bravery to merely hold his gaze.

“You covet him. You are not unusual in this. Many desire my choice.” Umbra tilted his head. There was something reptilian about the movement, quick and bloodless. “You tried to have him leave with you once before. You mean to convince him to do so again.”

“I don’t know what you–”

“Three years ago, on the riverbank by your little village. You’d escaped your bonds, and stumbled onto him during your escape. You tried to take him with you, but he refused you. So you went into the wilds on your own. Leaving him behind is one of your bigger regrets. Am I mistaken?”

Kian felt the blood drain from his face. Perhaps, the old fear took him, the knights truly were mind readers, and they only tormented answers out of men for sport. How else could Umbra know where exactly to strike, to leave him so vulnerable? It was true that he had more regrets than most men his age. And the most haunting, had been leaving Esra to his fate in the wreck of his village. “How do you know of this..?”

“There is little I don’t know.” Umbra began to move again, circling Kian like a predator. It took all of his effort not to shudder, or cringe into himself. Oh, the things he’d told Umbra, so the knight would stop hurting him…

“Yeah, I wanted to rescue him,” Kian growled. He could feel the hair stand up on the back of his neck as Umbra circled him.

“Rescue.” Umbra repeated, unimpressed.

“From you. From all the things you’d do to him.” If only he’d come with me, Kian had thought. “He is your prisoner. You keep him locked up here, with a guard on him at all times…”

“The city can be a dangerous place, and Esra is susceptible to malady.”

“You wanted to own him. So you simply took him as you pleased, and dressed it up later with all the pretty words, made it all official. I know about the Order and their ‘choices’. Seems like the objects of your desires don’t get as much say in the situation as you do.”

Umbra gave a soft snort of derision. “You cast yourself as the hero in your delusions, I see. But you forget. You act as if you are the only one who cares for Esra, and yet…” the knight stopped his pacing, right by Kian’s ear. Kian’s eyes reached only his shoulder. The beast was so close, that Kian could feel the dragon-like heat from him, his steady breathing. “You are the one who gave me his name.”

Kian froze. He could have fallen to his knees at Umbra’s feet. He heard the huff of a disdainful breath, then the knight stalked past Kian in a rustle of velvet to continue his slow circle.

“I took a young man raised in abject poverty and gave him a high place in the richest court of Fomoria,” Umbra said darkly, swiftly. “Esra will never want for anything again. Is that a cruelty, in your eyes?”

It was too much to take. His accusation, his arrogance, after everything he’d done… the knight’s twisted words sparked something violent in Kian, and he snapped. “You took a boy to your capital against his will, with his home up in smoke. By your command, everyone he knew was murdered or enslaved. You left him nowhere to turn but you,” Kian nearly spat. “I’m sure you enjoyed that.”

The words poured out of him like a torrent from his heart, destructive and unstoppable.

“And now you leave him alone for months at a time, only to immediately lock him up in your rooms upon your return. You have not seen how he pines for you, obsesses over your return. The way you treat him, it hurts him still. You say you care for him, but how is that care? He is nothing more to you than some living trophy, or perhaps a helpless plaything, victim to your whims.”

Kian was nearly breathless when he finished speaking.

” … Sir Knight,” he remembered quickly, far too late.

He was supposed to control himself. He suddenly dreaded what was about to happen as a result of his outburst.

Umbra gave a dangerous chuckle. Kian’s fury had only amused him. “Surely you were warned against speaking so freely.”

Kian flushed red. “Yes,” he managed to say. His own words were ringing in his ears, mocking him. That which had seemed so righteous only a minute ago, was so clearly foolish now.

“Haven’t forgotten your bravado.” A pregnant pause. “And how hollow it ended up being.”

Kian’s guts plummeted.

He had done it again, let his own temper best him. He had let Umbra get to him, and now he had given the knight every reason to dismiss him, throwing away everything in a hot flash of anger, just as he had done that regretful day down at the riverbank.

Umbra, satisfied at Kian’s reaction, paced away, as if to admire the treasures on his mantelpiece. The portrait of young Esra hung over his head. “Been searching for an apprentice to Hansel for near a year now. There are many young hopefuls. All with years of service to Balor, to the castle. All with impeccable court etiquette. All excellent swordsmen. Out of them, I believe you are the least qualified.”

Kian hadn’t come all this way to be cast aside. He remembered Esra’s small hand on his, of the promise he had made to himself… “Sir Knight–”

“You would be useless in the position you seek. You have one quality useful in a bodyguard, but strength, in isolation, is no virtue. You lack knowledge of the castle, the court, its politics. You have difficulty controlling yourself when emotions overwhelm you. Doubt you could spot friend from foe. Indeed, I can see you as one easily manipulated.”

Umbra’s eyes narrowed.

“Besides, it is not the position you desire. You want proximity to my choice, and you would take on any role I give you to keep it, wouldn’t you?”

Anything, Kian thought. Anything to stay by his side.

Umbra smiled coldly at him, as if reading his thoughts.

“I apologise,” Kian blurted out. “I overstepped. I did not mean–”

“But you did mean it,” Umbra said.

Kian numbly sought out the right words in his head. “I wish… I only wish to protect Esra, however I can.”

Umbra stared dispassionately at him for a moment, before turning away and pacing to a large mahogany desk. He sat down, pulled out a fresh roll of parchment, and began to write.

Kian stood there awkwardly. He recognised the handwriting from Esra’s collected letters. Cramped upright letters, spiky, like an iron gate. Was the knight even listening anymore? Was the interview over?

Kian watched him with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. He had come so far, found Esra again after all this time, only to have it all snatched away because he couldn’t hold his tongue.

“It was wrong of me to speak to you in such a way, Sir Knight,” he said to that impassive back. “I… I forgot my place.”

Umbra paused momentarily, but he didn’t turn around. Kian held his breath, until he realised that the knight was merely dipping his pen in the inkpot.

“I care for Esra more than anyone,” he insisted, “and I will protect him with my life. Point to any of the others you’ve talked to for this job. I can best them. I’ve bested hundreds in the Arena. I protected my last master on his journeys across the most dangerous roads of this country. There’s no-one Esra would be safer with than me…”

Umbra, silent, continued to write. Had Kian been dismissed?

“I am willing to learn the ways of court so that I can conduct myself appropriately,” he said, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. “I learn quickly. I am adaptable. I am willing to do any number of things for his sake…”

Even if it meant sacrificing his own pride.

Kian knew how to kneel. He dropped to his knees, pressed his forehead to the floor in supplication to the black knight.

“I will submit to your authority if you allow me to remain by Esra’s side. Please, Sir Knight. Don’t send me away-”

“The job is yours,” Umbra cut him off, gesturing to the drying letter. “I have written what is to be done in my absence.”

But – Umbra had begun to write even before —

Kian gaped up at him. It actually worked?

“Already made up my mind before your little speech, of course.” His eyes flickered over Kian’s beseeching form. “But you kneel very prettily.”

“You-” Kian nearly shouted, and just remembered his promise to be respectful. He flushed, pushing himself up to his feet. “You’d already decided?! B-but…” Was this a trick? The knight was unreadable. What game was he playing?

“The one thing you and I have in common,” the knight said, “is concern for Esra’s well-being.”

Umbra glanced up at the portrait of Esra once again. A younger Esra, the way Kian remembered him, with his large, soulful eyes – only he was draped in possessive red silk, that crimson mark kissed upon his lips, captured in the expert strokes of Erasmus’s brush. A strange softness touched Umbra’s impossibly perfect features, one that Kian suspected he did not often show others. If he were human, one might even call it tenderness…

“In the world we live in,” Umbra said quietly, “I am much weighed down by my duty to the God King. If things were different, I would be able to spend more time with Esra. But I must face reality.” The knight shook his head. “Esra understands this. But I am not blind to the fact that he is lonely when I am away, and that no amount of gifts, and promises, and letters from me will be able to assuage that. He asks so little from me–”

Umbra’s eyes clenched shut. Pained. Then the expression was gone.

“I make no secret that you are not my first choice to protect Esra,” his voice was, once again, hardened steel – as if the moment had never occurred at all. “But you are Esra’s. And you will protect him with your life. That is what I will prioritise.”

The towering knight returned to his desk. Two severely neat folds, and a circle of wax. Umbra swiftly sealed the letter, and handed it to Kian, who fumbled. “B-but…”

“You have the job,” Umbra said, grey eyes piercing into him. “You will remain a slave, I will not make you a freeman. But you will find that this title will have your status increase. Bring this letter to the Captain of the Guardians. And do not forget what you have promised me here today.” His eyes narrowed, as if underlining his words. “You are dismissed.”

He didn’t have to say it twice.

Kian left Umbra there, staring up at his portrait of Esra.

His heart was in his throat. His hands trembled over the letter than he could not read, even if he were to tear open the seal. It was hard to walk down the stone hallways – his legs were like water.

Shakily, he let out the breath that he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.

Esra had beamed at him, back when he’d seen Kian in his guardian uniform, when he’d realised Kian could stay. Kian had seen the boy in that smile, from when they had played by the grey sea, hidden in tall forests, told stories on the high hills. Only children. They’d had their life ahead of them, then.

And now, Kian realised, with rising triumph, they did still.

Sunlight bloomed ahead through the stone archway. Umbra stepped from the shadow of the castle, into the lushness of the gardens.

The flowers were at the peak of their beauty, and scented the air with their sweetness. Leaves brushed against his side, and butterflies fluttered in his wake. The knight stalked along the columned pathway in the shade, and spotted Esra at once. He resisted the urge to go to his choice immediately. So rare was the opportunity to look upon Esra unobserved

The slender youth paced fretfully under the black rose arch, his little hands wringing together. It was apparent that he was quite distressed, dark eyes wide in his delicate face. He didn’t quite see the world about him, lost as he was in worry. But still, he waited obediently for Umbra’s arrival. Something about that fact was enormously pleasing.

Hansel, ever dutiful, ever loyal, was on guard over his choice from the shadows. The man looked at Umbra in askance once he saw him, and Umbra dismissed him from his post with an easy wave. Hansel needed to go back to his family.

Then, Umbra strode over the green grass to his choice.

Esra heard his approach and stopped in his tracks, turning to him. It caught Umbra’s breath every time, the unusual beauty of that innocent face. Even when in the thick of the wilds and days from what anyone could call civilisation, that face would come to his mind, lips slightly parted, eyes fixed on him. It fascinated Umbra. Even when Esra had been young and terrified of him, he’d always met Umbra’s gaze. As if from the beginning, a part of him always knew what they would end up becoming.

Esra’s narrow hands twisted together anxiously. “Umbra?”

“Dear heart,” Umbra almost growled, and Esra’s eyes went big. It set something aflame in the knight’s chest.

He picked his choice up easily, like one might pluck a flower. Esra yelped when his feet left the ground, and he gasped a shocked laugh when Umbra spun him round. It was all too easy to kiss him, then.

How willingly Esra opened for him. His hot mouth tasted a little sweet from the fruit he’d eaten at breakfast, and he moved sweetly too, if hesitantly, as he always did when they kissed outside the sanctity of their rooms, when Umbra wore his mask. But Umbra felt the moment Esra succumbed to him. He relished it, as slim arms slid easily around Umbra’s shoulders, and the youth calmed against his chest.

So close, skin on skin, he could sense Esra’s affection for him, but also the intensity of his apprehension. When their lips parted, Esra’s delicate features were so close that Umbra could see the tremor of his long eyelashes. The young man was breathless, his flushed face framed artfully by the purple-black of the lexter roses, like one of nature’s halos. Umbra could see plainly the nervous question in Esra’s darting dark eyes.

“Something on your mind?” Umbra asked, with deep amusement. “Why the worried face?”

“Well,” Esra licked his lips, leaving a wet sheen. He was startled by the question. “What… what did you decide to do with Kian?”

“Oh, him.” Umbra tilted his head, and paused for effect. “Well, had him fed to the hunting dogs.”

Esra’s eyes went wide, and for a half-second, seemed as if he believed him.

“Only teasing, dear heart,” Umbra chuckled, and he squeezed Esra gently, having felt the spark of his fear. “You can stop your fretting. He has the position you intended for him.”

“… Truly?” Esra exclaimed breathlessly. His eyes had a wet gleam to them. Umbra nodded, and in a blur, Esra flung his slim arms around Umbra’s neck in a fervent embrace, whispering, “Thank you, thank you!”

The small body trembled in Umbra’s arms. Umbra let his eyes dip close, and carded a hand through Esra’s dark hair, enjoying the warm rush of his gratitude. But still…

“You seem quite overcome,” he muttered into Esra’s ear. “Did I frighten you?”

He felt Esra’s fingers sliding nervously together behind Umbra’s neck. “I admit,” the youth murmured, “I was worried you would… well…”

Umbra’s brow creased. “And have you look him in the eye before I did it? Wouldn’t be so cruel to you.”

Esra hesitated. “Of course…” he said quietly, but his small voice trailed off. He brimmed with words unsaid.

Here in the gardens, Esra was luminous. The dappled sunlight through the blooms put shimmering light in his inky hair and patterned his smooth skin. He’d only grown more beautiful over the years that Umbra had kept him. Esra had learned to carry himself with a graceful confidence that belied his origins, the peasant boy that had tried to pour him wine from an empty carafe little more than an amusing memory.

And yet…

Perhaps it was because of Kian’s arrival, this reemergence of his past, but Esra’s old fragility had returned. He could see it in the way Esra moved, in the cautious way he spoke. For the first time in years, Umbra was reminded of the boy in the meeting hut that had been left there for his pleasure. How young he’d been, how fearfully obedient…

Umbra kissed Esra again, just a soft press of lips, then lowered him back to his feet. They stood beneath the rose arch, while Esra struggled to find his words.

“I apologise,” Esra stuttered eventually, his hands clasping together. “I don’t mean to be like this, after you have been so generous…”

“You were so nervous of leaving him alone with me,” Umbra said softly. “Did you truly think I could mean him harm?”

He’d meant to intimidate Kian, of course, to put him firmly in his place. But no more than that. If Umbra had wanted to disappear the young trouble-maker, he had far more subtle means at his disposal, means that wouldn’t cause a scandal at court.

Esra crushed his eyes shut. “I don’t know what I thought,” he muttered. “I admit, Umbra… ever since my reunion with him, memories that were once faded and grey… they have grown vivid. Like it was only yesterday that you…” He swallowed thickly, and shook his head. His hair swayed glossily, near falling over his face. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”

Touched, Umbra reached out and tilted up that delicate chin with his forefinger. Esra’s dark eyes were downcast. Fear. He could feel that prey emotion. Although of what exactly, he could only guess.

“There is nothing the matter with you, Esra, except a sharper recollection of things you’d rather forget,” he murmured gently. “But don’t you remember what you said to me? No matter where we go from here…”

Esra swallowed, finally met Umbra’s eyes. He was trembling. “That what happened back then will always be a part of our story.”

It had been a piece of wisdom from his choice that had struck Umbra quite completely when Esra’s had said it, years ago. Not a denial of the realities of their past, nor an excuse for them.

“It’s just… I know that I overstepped in buying him…” Esra bit his lip, nervousness flooding him yet again. But he stood closer, seeking connection. His narrow fingers played over Umbra’s chest, tracing the embroidery that decorated his doublet. “But I hadn’t even known that he was still alive, after all this time. He had been… my only friend… and to see him again…”

Umbra could sense it at once, blooming like roots from the fingertips at his heart: an overwhelming melancholy that, if unchecked, would swallow Esra whole. Unpleasant memories loomed at the edges of his young choice’s mind – and Umbra too felt the curious pull of them. He himself remembered the dark circumstances of their meeting with some regret, but also, in his more selfish mind, an undeniable sense of victory. It had been his first time leading a campaign, with no-one to answer to but himself. And what a prize he had brought home…

Esra probably couldn’t comprehend the pride Umbra felt at possessing such a choice, and not only for his exquisite appearance. All who looked upon them knew the story of the Knight, and the son of the enemy. Esra was a living symbol of the totality of Umbra’s victory.

“You didn’t overstep,” Umbra said quietly, reassuringly. He tucked a strand of Esra’s hair behind his ear, and touched his tender cheek.

Esra made a little sighing noise.

“Really, wish you would spend more of my money,” he continued, his tone lightening. Three years he had kept Esra in luxury, and the youth was still disturbed by it. He had asked very little of Umbra materially, until now. “The court might think I’m miserly with you.”

“Don’t say that,” said Esra, shaking his head and peering off into the distance like Umbra had said something unconscionable.


“I’m sorry,” Esra said faintly, immediately. His cheeks turned red. “I didn’t mean… I’m sorry. I’m grateful, of course, for everything you have given me…”

There was a fear in him that Umbra had not intended to cause. “You mistake my meaning, dear heart,” he murmured, running his hands down Esra’s silk clad arms, clasping their hands together. He watched Esra’s face in something like wonder as doe-like eyes met his again in a flick of long lashes. “To make you happy… that is what I want.”

“It is only that…” Esra continued hesitantly, trying to explain his tumult of emotions, “I did not realise it was a certainty that you would let me keep him.”

“You wanted him,” Umbra said simply. “And luckily for you, Hansel vouched for him. Kian is young and reckless, yes, but I can see he’ll withstand much to be able to protect you.”

He’d certainly tested Kian enough. A lesser man would have fled the room, and at court there were plenty of lesser men in the guise of the brave. They all vied for his favor, swearing to pledge their lives for Esra’s safety, if only they could be given the honor of that position.

Umbra, eventually, would have found a suitable candidate after enough searching. But the stakes were so high. Should he choose a man wrongly…

Umbra felt a surge of protective love for his choice – both the Esra he had found in the wilds, and the Esra who stood before him.

“This is what I want for you,” he said forcefully. “Someone who will prioritise your safety, even should the worst happen. That is what Kian can give you, that perhaps none other can. But…” and he gave Esra’s narrow hands a little squeeze, “I suspected that he would be suitable from the start.”

“Did you?” Esra gave him a very shy look. He had been momentarily startled out of his melancholy. “So you scared him on purpose…”

Umbra let out a low chuckle, and raised his eyebrows. “To see what he’d do.”

“What did he do?” Esra asked, rapt.

“He was brave.” Umbra told him. “I liked the spark in him.”

And he wouldn’t say it, couldn’t admit it out loud, but there was something oddly refreshing about Kian. He had no artifice to him.

“He’s so afraid of you…” Esra confessed, his gaze flitting from Umbra’s, back again.

“Yes, well,” Umbra let his voice dip lower, “sometimes I like it that way.”

Esra’s eyes went big, then he smiled a little, a touch of warmth at the edges of his small mouth. He was captivating. “I know you do,” he whispered.

They kissed again, more gently this time, Esra’s small mouth yielding easily to his. Umbra put an arm around his narrow waist, pulled him closer so their bodies pressed together. Esra was little, and easily moved. Umbra felt the bloom of his arousal.

Enough of the roses. They had been away from bed too long…

Secluded in the highest tower, they fell onto silken sheets with the desperation of a hundred nights apart.

This dark appetite was impossible to sate. No matter how many times Umbra succumbed to his passions for his choice, he knew it would never be enough. He wanted to consume Esra, to fill him, to feel the heat of him around his own self.

That need drove him now.

Esra gasped hotly between each of Umbra’s kisses, his doe eyes wide and close to fearful. He was wordlessly begging to be consumed, and Umbra felt in himself the rise of that relentless bestial hunger that Esra never failed to inspire. He growled with it, felt the crackles his fingers left on Esra’s psyche over his own flesh.

Esra trembled like a hurt thing beneath his hands. His naked body writhed beneath Umbra’s chest in an enticing slide of skin on skin. It was more than Umbra could bear, seeing him like that, and he quite ruthlessly pinned Esra to the mattress with his weight.

“Still yourself, little one,” he growled, right into the velvet shell of his ear. Esra shuddered, and obeyed, his breath catching in his throat. Always so obedient. Esra was drenched with a heady, guilty pleasure that set Umbra’s passion aflame.

The knight drew in a deep breath over the quivering flesh, lingering on the honey lavender scent of his choice, and then let it out heatedly in a dragon’s breath. His eyes were drawn to that small, panting mouth, the red tattoo standing out like a bloodstain on his trembling lip. His mark of ownership.

He wanted to relish this.

It was the easiest thing to do then, to kiss Esra hard on his small gasping mouth, to taste the soft underside of his jaw, run lips down the graceful neck to a delicate clavicle. Esra was making delicious noises at this assault, and he gasped a cry when Umbra mouthed down his chest, and lapped over his tender pink nipples.

“Umbra..!” he pleaded, his hands rising to Umbra’s chest and pressing. “Please, I…”

He quieted Esra with another fierce kiss. Even after all this time, his choice was touchingly shy. He stroked his hands down the slender body beneath him, to the slim parted thighs, and gripped possessively at the youth’s rump. With great strength, he crushed their bodies tightly together. The sudden movement had Esra gasp, opening his mouth to Umbra’s tongue. He was pinned, helpless, between silk and muscle.

Holding the trembling youth close, Umbra shifted a hand lower, and pressed two fingers intimately into Esra’s hole. Esra groaned sweetly into his mouth, a pleading sound, and deepened their kiss. His thighs skittered up Umbra’s sides, pressing hotly. Umbra had taken his choice already that morning, only a few hours earlier, and Esra was still pliant from it. The tight heated clench around his knuckles brutally spiked his arousal, leaving him painfully hard, and seized with a rapacious urge to possess.

He pulled back, greased his heavy cock with the oil they kept on the nightstand. Esra panted where he lay on the pillows, skin glowing with sweat, strands of his gleaming dark hair sticking to his skin, spilling over the sheets. His eyes screwed shut when Umbra shifted urgently against him, positioning himself.

Umbra grasped Esra’s hips and tilted them up, pressing the tip of his cock firmly against Esra’s hole, not hard enough to drive in, not yet. He liked to push into Esra a moment before the youth was ready, to make him shudder and cry out.

“Look at me,” Umbra whispered intensely, and Esra sobbed.

He felt the bite of Esra’s fear, and the thrill of his arousal, as the youth opened his gentle eyes and stared into him. Liquid, his gaze glittered in the semi-darkness of the bedroom like near-black amethysts. His delicate face was a pale oval, over a narrow, heaving chest. So innocent, he appeared. But that body called to him.

With a groan, Umbra drove in deep. Esra whimpered, then flung his head back and cried breathily. His hands rose to Umbra’s shoulders, narrow fingers digging into muscle, pushing away or pulling closer, it was impossible to tell. Once Umbra pressed as far into that clutching heat as he could manage on one stroke, he moved his hips in short thrusts, stretching Esra open bit by bit.

Esra moaned his name, soft and deep, an almost helpless plea, and Umbra growled in return, for he was helpless too. His self-control was a hair’s width away from snapping. The youth was wanting it despite his struggles, his hitching breath. Pinned down, hazy eyed, Esra writhed fitfully as he was slowly fucked into, making sounds of such yearning in the back of his throat that it was worse to Umbra than hearing him moan.

He felt it, the moment Esra yielded to him. In a second, Umbra had lost control. He lunged forward, entering Esra to the hilt, pressing Esra’s thighs back and pounding into him vigorously. Esra near wept from the intensity of it, but Umbra could feel his sense of deep satisfaction at being filled up like this, taken, owned.

That had been one of the most compelling things Umbra had discovered about Esra; the pleasure that his choice found in helplessness, the ecstasy he could only reach when he was subjugated. The knight leaned back to look at his prize more completely as he took him. He reached down to grip the narrow throat, then smoothed his palm down the panting chest, the trembling belly, before cupping Esra’s prick against his stomach, wanting to feel how hard he was. Esra cried out at that, sharp and needing. How responsive he was…

Esra coiled under him, trembling with the passion of Umbra’s thrusts, and gripped the pillows. Shakily, almost shyly, he started angling his hips to meet Umbra’s every stroke. There was an innocence to Esra that could not be quenched, no matter how wanton his movements, that made every act with him feel like a new conquest. It enraptured him.

Umbra took a moment to savor the feeling of the body around his cock as Esra worked his hips. Then he relented, thrusting down again and again into Esra, every snap of his hips close to brutal, relishing the tight heat of him, exulting in it.

As Esra moved with him, he felt pleasure surge in him anew, a boiling heat that had the world around him blurring, dimming, except for Esra in his arms. Esra, his every utterance, whether smothered or cried out, and every expression on that face, called out to a part of Umbra that he couldn’t explain. It started in his heart, which burned for Esra, and spread down his own self to every point of connection he had to the body beneath him, until he was overcome by it.

Esra shook with it as well. His fingers bent like claws into the pillows, and Umbra, knowing immediately what he wanted, descended on him, pinning him mercilessly down by his birdlike wrists. He pressed their bodies together as flush as he could for this final claiming, for boiling heat was rising fast within him, threatening pleasure.

He could feel that heat rising in Esra too.

As they moved together with growing fervency, the bed rocked, the wooden frame creaked. A heated flush reddened his choice’s cheeks, his breathing quickened, deepened.

“Please, Umbra…” His whisper, ragged with pleasure and deep with feeling, echoed through the roaring in the knight’s ears. His cock was pressed to the muscle of Umbra’s stomach, and there was slickness from the tip. A small, fitful gasp. “Please… let me… I n-need to…”

“You’ve been such a good boy,” Umbra whispered, rolling his thrusts into something deeper, more passionate. “Come for me, Esra,” he commanded, and he released Esra’s wrists to take him by the waist, and thrust into him, over and over, until Esra’s whimpers became groans, became a long cry, and he fell to pieces in Umbra’s hands as he helplessly reached his pleasure.

The echo of that heady golden bliss pierced through Umbra too, and his own climax took him with shocking, rapturous force. His body arched forward, and he crushed Esra’s hips to his own so he could empty himself as deep into the willing flesh as he could.

Utterly spent, he carefully lowered himself over his gasping choice, withdrawing from the liquid heat of his body. Esra looked frightfully small beneath him, lying naked on the sheets. Umbra, dizzy with tenderness, wrapped the sweet thing in his arms, and pulled the blankets over their cooling flesh.

“Umbra…” Esra mouthed the words against Umbra’s shoulder, his voice breathless and slightly shaky, “Oh, Umbra…”

“Yes,” he murmured in his deep velvet voice and gently brushed his lips against Esra’s hot brow.

They lay together for a while in the dark sanctuary of their bedroom.

The knight held his choice, who breathed shallowly beneath him, sleepily stroking his narrow hands over Umbra’s side. For as long as this secret time lasted, it was as if the world outside did not exist, but only for the two of them. They talked sweetly to each other, sometimes sincere, sometimes teasing. Both treasured these moments almost as much as they did their lovemaking.

Esra lay in the dark, lulled into a peaceful near-sleep by the soothing heat of Umbra’s skin, his cheek resting upon the broad planes of Umbra’s chest. He never felt so at home than when he was wrapped in Umbra’s embrace, their emotions blurring together at the seams. He sometimes let himself entertain a strange fancy that they could simply merge together like this, and would never again have to be separated.

He felt, more than heard, the rumbling deep tones of Umbra’s voice, as he told Esra stories of his last mission, the long journey to the northern reaches, and its bright city of Hyrei.

Under Umbra’s large hands, the wordless praise of his touch, Esra let himself become pleasantly pliant, felt himself sinking into daydream. In his mind’s eye he could envision it: the spires Umbra described to him, the sand-colored city and the flowing fashions of its people, the warm landscapes, and the stretches of long, golden beaches–

I should like to see it, he thought. It had been a long time since he’d stood by the sea.

The idea of the ocean brought a strong wave of longing, quickly followed by another type of longing rising in its wake. He could not help but wonder… when and for where would Umbra be sent to next?

It was a horrible thought, the type of thing he usually forbade himself from dwelling on in these private moments when it was just the two of them. But he could not stop its invasion. Their time together would be over before long, Umbra had been called to a meeting of the Order yesterday that had lasted hours, probably to discuss his next mission. Esra knew what would follow. Soon he would be gone again, to another far-flung place where Esra could not follow.

He trembled, and clung just a little bit closer to Umbra, feeling the solidness of him, his presence, the fact that he was real and there; trying to commit to memory the feeling of his skin, his salamander heat. He was storing the memories for the lonely days ahead, as one stores grain for the winter…

Umbra had stopped speaking.

“Esra,” he rumbled, and shifted beside him as he propped himself up onto an elbow. “What troubles you?”

Esra blinked rapidly, willing the tears away. He would have liked to think that Umbra could not see his tears in the dark. Of course, such things never escaped his knight’s notice, not even before they shared a bond.

“It is nothing,” Esra attempted.

“Do tell me, dear heart,” Umbra insisted, grey eyes boring into him. “Would not have you unhappy, if I can help it, during the times we are together.”

Esra’s throat seized up, and he couldn’t speak. His knight had by chance mentioned the very thing that was causing him so much pain. Umbra’s hands touched his cheek, and smoothed his hair from his face to peer at him more closely. Esra would dearly have liked to turn away, but knew that Umbra would only force him back. Instead, he closed his eyes and let Umbra look upon him.

He felt keenly Umbra’s worry, then the hurt twinge of his sadness. “Ah, sweet Esra,” he said, with a sigh that Esra felt on his skin. “I know you are lonely when I am away.”

That was not a thought that Esra ever dared lend voice to, and he spent most of his days trying to deny it. To hear Umbra admit it, with the feeling of guilt that coloured it, broke something inside him, a fortress he’d been trying to uphold all on his own.

Eyes still clenched shut, he let his hot tears fall, and with a small sob he buried his face against Umbra’s bare chest. He felt foolish for behaving in such a manner, a little selfish, even. But Umbra did not reproach him. He only soothed his warm hands over Esra’s narrow shoulders, stroking him in comfort. Esra, feeling a great relief at finally letting out the tears he often did not let himself cry, wept into his knight until the pangs of grief subsided.

“I am aware that I am only giving you a half life,” Umbra mused quietly, “keeping you here. It is selfish of me. Yet, I must have you be mine, dear heart. And you must stay here, for you cannot travel with me when I am sent away, as other knights do with their choices. I would not risk you again.”

It had been last year, as he’d told Kian. Umbra was at the western city of Evalon on a diplomatic mission that had run for longer than anticipated. Pining for his choice, he had sent word that Hansel escort Esra to him as soon as possible. The weather was warm and the road well travelled, so Umbra had not expected a repeat of what had happened in the Reaper’s Rest. That dream-like memory, of Esra smothering in the dark, his back to Umbra’s chest, had long faded in both their minds.

But something of the air had set Esra off, and he’d been reduced to gasping in his carriage, his throat so narrowed that he couldn’t breathe without painful restriction. Hansel, quick-thinking, had pulled his charge in front of him on horseback and raced him to the nearest building. In a roadside inn, out of the bad air, Hansel and the proprietress had calmed him through the attack, and tried various medicines to heal him. He had managed to recover, to their great relief. But still, he’d so nearly been lost.

Esra could sense the hint of Umbra’s fear at the recollection. But that time had been difficult for Esra as well; he had longed to be reunited with his knight, and to be sent back home so early into the journey had been heartbreaking. He had felt in himself, a great disappointment, the old familiar feeling of anger at his own weaknesses. Too frail to swim, too sickly to travel to the neighboring market towns, helpless and useless.

Umbra must have felt the tremors of Esra’s upset, for he said, solemnly, “I’d not risk your life, Esra.”

Esra blinked hurriedly, recalling an earlier conversation he’d had before his knight’s return. “And… what if it were not a risk?”

“Then I’d take you with me,” Umbra replied immediately, his lips quirking. “On the safer missions, anyway. But that is not the case-”

“Kian says,” Esra stuttered (he could see immediately his knight’s expression darken in doubt at the mention of Kian’s name, but continued regardless), “Kian says that he knows of a herb that helps to soothe disorders of the lung. And I thought, maybe…”

He propped himself up and turned fully to face Umbra. He was feeling brave.

“I thought, if this herb worked for me…” he suggested, “Then I could, perhaps, come with you sometimes. We could try again!”

Umbra frowned, obviously dubious at the existence of such a thing, or perhaps the reliability of the source of information. “Perhaps…” he mused. But looking upon Esra’s excited face, his expression softened. “It would do me great comfort to see you more often.”

Esra’s heart beat fast in his chest at the affectionate words. He pressed a quick, grateful kiss to his knight’s mouth, and pulled back with a smile. “There is so much I would like to see with you. And then, I needn’t miss you so terribly… and we could be together…”

Umbra smiled at him, then, and a precious fond warmth swept over Esra, from Umbra’s heart to his own. “I will look into it,” his knight promised, his voice sincere. He smoothed a hand over Esra’s flank, considering the facts. “Such a medicine would be useful to have on hand, regardless. Where should I take you first?”

“I should like to see the Vale,” Esra replied happily. “You’ve spoken to me of it so often.”

“Ah… the Vale. It’s beautiful there.” Umbra pulled his choice into his arms, and gave him an amorous squeeze. “You would suit it, my love.”

Esra felt heat spark in his chest at the sound of those words. My love. The phrase was given so casually, but love was the word that Umbra had chosen to use.

It wasn’t that he doubted Umbra’s deep affection for him, for he could feel it in his every touch, in his embrace, when they were pressed together just like this. But Umbra so rarely said such things out loud, even when it was only the two of them. And how good it felt, Esra thought, to hear that word, love, in Umbra’s voice, applied to him.

“What is it?” Umbra asked lightly, feeling Esra glow with happiness. “I have pleased you with my plans for the future, I see. Well, we must test this medicine first. Only if it proves effective will I let you travel beyond the capital.”

“It is not just that,” Esra said quietly, twisting to wrap his arms around Umbra’s strong neck. He looked up into that smouldering gaze, and near shivered. The raw beauty of Umbra’s fierce countenance so close thrilled him. And yet the knight’s expression held such softness for him. It gave Esra an odd pride, to know that he was capable of gentling this powerful man.

Umbra’s ashen hair fell dashingly over his forehead, and Esra reached up, pushed it back, so he could better see Umbra’s smoke-grey eyes. No-one gets to see these eyes, Esra thought with a sharp excitement. No-one but me.

His knight huffed a laugh at Esra’s action, but still his questioning glance remained. “Esra?”

“I like it,” Esra said, running his palm over Umbra’s well-muscled arm, “when you call me your love.”

“Then I will say it more often,” Umbra promised, and Esra’s heart beat a little faster.

Umbra idly stroked Esra’s long dark hair, as he often did, feeling its cool silkiness under his fingers. Esra knew his hair pleased Umbra so he kept it just the way his knight liked – unadorned, and as long as a maiden’s. He closed his eyes, enjoying the feeling of Umbra’s strong fingers carding through his hair, massaging and petting him; his affection and approval.

He pressed his forehead to Umbra’s collarbone, feeling the need to be ever closer. There was a stoppered feeling in his throat. He was feeling close to tears again, although he did not know why. Something to do with the billowing smoke, a red robe worn only once, ribbon-bound letters, Umbra’s strong hands, capable of such cruelty, but so gentle over his body. These memories, good and bad, that he had always possessed, had become suddenly precious to him on recollection.

“I do love you, you know,” Umbra said, into the darkness. Esra felt his voice as it rumbled through Umbra’s chest, and the words seemed to vibrate through his own skin. “Maybe I do not say it enough. But I did not know what that feeling was… until I found you.”

The tears that had been threatening to fall brimmed over, hot over his skin. Umbra cupped the curve of his jaw and lifted his face, to look at him.

His eyes are not dark at all, Umbra realised, seeing them glitter in the half-light like a starlit night sky.

“I love you,” Esra said, the words catching in his throat. “I was helpless to love you from the start. And if not for you, I’d never have known what it was like to truly feel for someone like this…”

Umbra shushed him, and kissed each cheek, gently, soothing the glistening tracks left behind by Esra’s tears. “I am in love with you,” he said, and then he kissed Esra’s mouth, the crimson mark upon it, less gently. Esra succumbed to the mastery of his mouth, feeling something hot and branding in it, a flame that seemed to lick deep into the dark recesses of his soul. Coiling into the burning heat of Umbra’s embrace, Esra let his eyes slide shut.

They did not leave their rooms as afternoon fell to evening.

Shops and markets closed their doors, children ran home from their playing, and lanterns were lit in the streets. The city watch began their nightly patrols. Theatres opened, pubs filled with the raucous, and music started up in the streets. The sunset was golden that night, lighting up the sky with brilliant flames that arced overhead and cast everything in amber hue. They watched it together, on their balcony, as the sun sank below the horizon and the night rolled in.