Loyalty and War: Marshal

The God Jars Saga Book 7

Marshal_Cover

When love collides with duty, you do what you must.

One of Valis’ fathers came home half-dead. The other is missing. When Valis tries to form a rescue party, he’s blocked at every turn by the Patron Priest who refuses to even consider the matter.

Valis’ non-magical allies—the Kalutakeni and mercenaries—are all on board, ready to follow Valis at a moment’s notice. But to mount a successful rescue mission, Valis needs mages. A lot of them.

He will have to go over the Patron Priest’s head to get the sanction. Doing that means he and his husband must go up against the Aesriphos Order’s Grand Masters in a battle of magic and stamina. If they win, they get the sanction and much more than they bargained for. If they lose, it may cost them their lives.

His father’s life hangs in the balance. Valis will do what he must.

Published: November 13, 2018
Publisher: Magelight Press
Cover Artist: Devon Vesper
Genres: FantasyFantasy RomanceM/M Gay Romance

5/5

Kindle: $4.99
Paperback: $12.99

Part of the God Jars Saga:

No amount of hard work and dedication could ever prepare Valis for becoming the world’s only hope of survival, but after finding love and true family he’s determined to give that destiny his all.

The God Jars Saga by Devon Vesper is a raw epic tale of strength and love in the face of adversity. If you’re looking for sword & sorcery fantasy with rich character development, intensity, uniqueness, and an unforgettable love story, look no further!

Over two-thousand years ago, one of the ten God Jars went missing.

In the wake of that ancient theft, the god attached to that Jar has become evil and wrought havoc and despair across the world. Brave souls of the Aesriphos order that’s comprised of same-sex mated pairs of noble men and women battle the resulting scourge with magic and might while continuing the endless search to bring the missing god jar home and end the devastation.

But soon may not be soon enough.

In this nine-book epic saga of medieval-esque sword and sorcery, the weight of the world rests in the hands of a single man, but only if he can find the strength within himself to overcome his trauma and face the world as he truly is.

Chapter 1

“No. NO! PAPA!”

It had to be Kerac. Tymor wouldn’t be carrying anyone else, and Valis would know that silver stallion anywhere. Even in the darkness of night where Valis had trouble seeing anything else but moon-silvered grass and the darker darkness of the distant tree line, he could make out Tymor’s coat and the distinct, elegant shape of his breed. The moon lit up the surrounding area just enough that Valis could see the glint of the horse’s silver coat and the shine of armor. And the person slumped over the saddle had long, dark hair that dragged through the tall swaying grasses. Just the sight made Valis wish he could fly. Kerac had to be alive. He just had to.

Another horse exited the tree line with a tired whinny, and Valis cried out, “Xyna! That’s Father’s horse! I know her whinny anywhere!”

But Xyna bore no rider, and Valis’ stomach pitted. Where was his father? Valis coughed to clear his throat and let out a cracked scream, “PAPA!”

“Valis! Don’t kill your horse!”

“Something is wrong with Papa,” Valis called back. “Where is Father?”

Valis’ heart thundered, sending jolts of panic through his veins. It thumped faster than Rasera’s hooves, even as he urged his horse to go faster, farther. And even though Valis knew his heart was in his chest, trying its damnedest to crack his ribcage, it felt like it was in his throat, strangling him as he wheezed for every gasping breath as if he ran instead of riding his horse.

“Papa, I’m coming!”

The body slumped over the horse didn’t even twitch with Valis’ choked cry. With every thundering beat of hooves, Valis felt his entire world tilt on its axis, and feared he would fall off. And as he raced, he frantically tried to call his friend.

Thyran! Thyran, please answer me!

Thyran took only a moment to answer and sounded harried. Gracious. What is wrong, Child?

I found Kerac slumped over his horse’s saddle, but I don’t see Darolen anywhere. I need a search party to my location. Can you see it in my mind?

No, but I can scry after you. Leave it to me. Bring him home and let me handle the rest.

Thank you!

Clouds passed over the moon, obscuring Valis’ vision. He pushed magic into his eyes until the area lit up again. As he neared Kerac’s silver stallion, he urged Rasera to slow down so they wouldn’t bowl the poor horse over or terrify him. Rasera didn’t have his augmented vision and trusted him not to let them run into anything.

“Papa!”

He pulled Rasera to a stop next to Kerac’s horse. The poor beast looked exhausted, his head hanging down. He neighed tiredly when Rasera pressed his nose to Tymor’s neck.

Valis let Rasera comfort Kerac’s horse while he vaulted out of the saddle and brushed Kerac’s matted hair away from his face.

“Valis?” Tavros called.

“Here! Push magic into your eyes with the intent to see.”

“Got it. I’m coming!”

Valis frantically searched Kerac’s neck for a pulse. Tears scalded his chilled cheeks, but he ignored them. Finally, he found it. Kerac’s pulse came thready and weak, but it was there. Now that he wasn’t as frantic, he could hear Kerac’s shallow breathing. With as much care as he could manage, he pulled Kerac off his horse’s back and laid him in the grass to start removing armor.

Tavros approached, his horse letting out a snort as they stopped. He dropped out of the saddle and knelt on Kerac’s other side, and without a word, he helped Valis get the armor off. Between them, they made quick work of it, and Valis got up to get Kerac’s bedroll from his saddle and unrolled it, using it as a makeshift bag to carry the armor pieces in.

Once he had that tied to the silver stallion’s saddle, he tied the poor beast’s reins to Rasera’s saddle, Xyna’s reins to Tavros’ saddle, and mounted up. Tavros didn’t need asking. He just hauled Kerac up and helped situate him in Valis’ lap, knowing what Valis needed.

“We’ll get him home, love,” Tavros murmured. “He’s hung on this long. He won’t give up now.”

“I know,” Valis whispered. His voice wavered, but all he could do was hope.

Feeling Kerac’s soft, shallow breaths waft across his throat gave Valis something to focus on as he waited for Tavros to mount up. The moment he was in his saddle and ready to go, Valis wanted to race home, but he didn’t know the extent of Kerac’s injuries, nor did he feel comfortable making his fathers’ horses run with as exhausted as they were. Instead, he held on to Kerac and let Tavros lead them home.

The festivities in Cadoras were still going strong as they neared, the sounds of revelry echoing into the night as they navigated their horses through the whiptail trees that bordered Cadoras Lake. It offered Valis a little peace, especially when they boarded the ferry and the feeling of home washed over Valis. Even Kerac seemed to relax. But that only made Valis’ heart plummet and his fingers fly to Kerac’s throat to search for his pulse.

The weak beats that fluttered against his fingertips made Valis only marginally relax. It was a small comfort, just like the soft puffs of breath against his collarbone. And the moment they stepped off the ferry and onto Cadoras Island, Valis suddenly felt like he would break apart at any moment if he didn’t urge Rasera into a gallop.

But the Autumn Festival was still in full swing. There were people everywhere. It wouldn’t be safe—not for the city’s citizens, and not for the horses.

It took too long to get through the masses of people and in front of the monastery. People were everywhere, some drunk on ale or wine, others drunk on the fun they were having. All Valis wanted to do was scream at everyone to get out of his way, but he let Tavros do the talking while he focused on Kerac and those puffs of breath on his skin that let him know his papa was still alive.

“Valis?” Aenali’s voice carried over the revelers. “Valis!”

“Aenali, wait!” Jedai called.

Valis glanced over to see his group of friends rushing through the crowd. Seza, the faster of them, stopped at Rasera’s side and laid a gentle hand on Kerac’s back, her eyes huge. “Jedai. Get over here. Valis, pass him down to Jedai. Maph, take care of these horses, will you?”

“Of course,” Maphias said as he rushed over.

Jedai reached for Kerac, and Valis carefully lowered him down. “Be careful. I don’t know what injuries he has.”

“No problem, man.” Once Jedai had Kerac in his arms, he cradled him tenderly just like he would his baby sister. “Get down here so we can get him inside.”

“What’s on Kerac’s horse?” Seza asked.

“Kerac’s armor,” Valis said as he dismounted. “I bundled it into his bedroll.”

“I will get his armor,” Zhasina said. “You and Tavros get him to the Master Healer.”

Jedai carefully handed Kerac back over when Valis reached for him. “I’ll go with you in case you need anything. That okay?”

“Yeah,” Valis said. “Thanks.”

By the time they made it to the healer’s ward, his friends had raced to catch up with him and met him at the door. Tavros never left Valis’ side, so Jedai knocked to get Firil’s attention. When the Master Healer poked his head out of his office, his eyes widened, and he threw the door open, motioning Valis to head into the main sanctuary with the rows of cots. “Come in. Get him on a cot while I rouse my assistants.”

Valis’ friends parted to let him through. In the stark white light of the healing ward, if Kerac’s breaths weren’t ghosting across Valis’ skin, he’d think his papa was dead. Kerac had deep purple bruises under his eyes. His face was so gaunt and pale, and he was so emaciated, that Valis wondered when he’d eaten last. How long had he been slung across that saddle?

Most of all, his thoughts went to the sinking feeling in his stomach. Where is father?

Darolen and Kerac were inseparable. They never went anywhere without the other. Not unless they had to split up to keep someone safe, or they had a short errand to run. This was no short errand. Darolen would never let Kerac get like this unless he was dead or captured.

Valis laid Kerac on the cot and stroked his matted hair, picking out dead twigs and bits of grass from the ends. He stroked his papa’s cheek, ghosted his fingers over his forehead and down the side of his face to his chin, down to rest on his pulse point just to prove to himself that Kerac was still alive.

“Let us in,” Firil said gently. The Master Healer squeezed Valis’ shoulder and nudged him out of the way. “I will not ask you to leave, but your friends should return to their rooms or duties if they are not going back to the Autumn Festival.”

Valis glanced over at his friends and Jedai stepped forward, drawing Valis into a tight hug. “We’ll wait for you in the sitting room of your suite. Meet us there when you have news, okay?”

“Yeah,” Valis whispered around the lump of emotion in his throat. “Thanks.”

Jedai nodded and gave him another squeeze before ushering the rest of the group out of the room and shutting the door behind him. Only Tavros remained. He stepped up behind Valis and wrapped his arms tight about Valis’ chest, resting his chin on Valis’ shoulder. “He’ll be okay,” Tavros whispered. “He’s fought hard to get here. He won’t give up now that he has help. Not now that he has you so close.”

All Valis could do was nod and pray that his husband was right.

And then that thought hit him. Tavros was now his husband. Even as fear for Kerac’s life weighed him down, Tavros’ love kept him from drowning in that fear. It had only been two days since their joining night, and everything was still so new and vibrant before they found Kerac in the field.

“What are you thinking about?” Tavros murmured against the shell of Valis’ ear.

Valis shrugged. “I still can’t believe we’re finally married. Worried about Papa. Wishing I could do more than stand here like an over-emotional idiot while other people work on him.”

Firil’s voice, strained from working and his magical focus, filtered over, “You are doing plenty by just being here. Your presence is keeping him at peace.”

Valis felt a small, brief smile tug at the corners of his mouth. It seemed foreign, as if he hadn’t smiled in weeks instead of just hours. Leave it to Firil to comfort him while he worked.

“Do you think he’ll make it?” Valis murmured, careful to keep his voice down so he wouldn’t break the four healers’ concentration.

“I believe he will, yes,” Firil said, just as quietly. “He will need you when he wakes, I think.”

“He can stay in our suite,” Tavros said. “I won’t force you to part with him, Valis. We can either bring a small bed into our room or set up a cot or something in the sitting room.”

Valis leaned back into Tavros’ chest, his heart swelling with pride and love until it became hard to breathe. “Thanks.”

Firil glanced over with a small smile, then turned back to his work as he spoke. “I am afraid he may be remaining here for the foreseeable future. We can heal much, but he will need to be monitored for some time yet. Unfortunately, we cannot heal illnesses or weight loss with magic. He must be medicated and put on a special liquid diet to regain his lost weight and battle the infections in his system.”

“I don’t mind,” Valis said. “I’d rather he be in capable hands.”

The Master Healer merely nodded. Sometime later, Valis glanced at the clock in the room. It had been hours, and Valis hadn’t moved, watching the healers work. Finally, Firil rose from his stooped position over Kerac’s body and stretched his back, craning his neck from side to side with a series of pops and snaps as his spine realigned. “We have done all we can for now.”

“How is he?”

The three other healers who had worked with Firil all smiled at Valis and disappeared through a door in the back of the room as Valis neared Kerac’s cot. He glanced up at Firil, waiting for news.

Firil took his time stretching, and Valis waited as patiently as he could until Firil let out a sigh and started speaking. “He is critically malnourished and dehydrated, has a chest infection, stomach infection, kidney and urinary tract infections, and is severely magically fatigued. My apprentices and I healed his wounds, but the infections from them are still in his blood and tissues. All must be cared for with medications, nutritious foods, treated water, rest, and around-the-clock care.”

“But he’ll live?” Valis asked, his voice cracking on the last word.

The Master Healer gave him a sympathetic smile as he squeezed Valis’ shoulder. “I believe he will, yes. So long as he receives the proper care, he should pull through. But, the first few days will be critical to his recovery. I must start on his treatment plan immediately.”

“Can we stay a little longer?” Tavros asked.

Firil gave him a nod and motioned to the chairs along the walls. “Neither of you will hinder me. Stay as long as you like. Just be sure to take care of your own health as well. And if you need me, I will be in my office.”

Valis glanced at the office door and nodded. “Thank you.”

Once Firil was gone, Tavros gave Valis a hug from behind, pressed a kiss behind his right ear, and went to the side wall. He brought back two chairs and placed them beside Kerac’s cot, then reached for Valis’ hand and drew him over.

“Come on, love. He needs you.”

Valis didn’t hesitate. With that single tug, he let Tavros lead him over to the chairs and sat himself down, his hands automatically reaching for Kerac as if they had minds of their own.

“He needs a bath,” Valis whispered.

“You can bathe him,” Firil said from close behind Valis’ chair. “I was going to have my assistants do it soon, but there is a bathing room through the door on the left if you and Tavros wish to do it yourself.

“I’ll go get him a change of clothes from his suite,” Tavros said. He stood, pressed a kiss to Valis’ temple, and left, leaving Valis alone with Kerac and Firil.

Firil took Tavros’ vacated seat and rested his clasped hands in his lap. “Once you get him bathed and on a clean cot to rest, you and Tavros should go on to bed. I will send for you both when he wakes, but it is very late, and you need your sleep if you want to stay strong for him.”

All Valis could do was nod. His vocal chords wouldn’t work, so he didn’t try to force them. Instead, while he waited, he contented himself with petting Kerac’s head to ease his own heart, to remind him that Kerac was here and he was safe.

Tavros returned sometime later, and after spending an hour getting Kerac clean and into clean clothes that looked ten times too large on him, they tucked him into a clean cot and Valis sat down to try to relax. Everything was pressing down on him, and he needed a moment to get his body to stop shaking from the adrenaline crash from finding one of his fathers half-dead.

Then, out of nowhere, Kerac sucked in a wheezed gasp. His eyes fluttered open. He clutched at the bed sheets as if they were a lifeline.

Then he started screaming.

The sound was like nothing Valis had ever heard before—broken, pained, lost, agonized… tortured.

Valis tried to calm him down. He stroked along Kerac’s head, whispered words near his ear, but it was like Kerac couldn’t hear him, like he was lost in his own mind, seeing and hearing terrible things. He screamed so hard, only stopping to refill his lungs, that Firil rushed back into the room and placed a glowing hand on his head.

Kerac instantly went limp, and Valis turned accusing eyes onto the healer. “What did you do?”

Firil frowned down at Kerac. “I put him into a magical coma. Not stasis. That would prevent him from healing. Instead, I forced him to sleep. He must rest, and I feared he would hurt himself. We will try removing it tomorrow.”

“But—”

Tavros grabbed Valis’ hand and squeezed. “Listen to Firil, love. Let’s go rest. We can come back in the morning and see how he’s doing.”

“I’m afraid,” Valis whispered. “What if—”

“He will be monitored constantly,” Firil assured. “Nothing will happen to him during your respite. Go rest, Valis. He will need you when he wakes.”

With a deep sigh, Valis forced himself out of his chair at Tavros’ insistence and gave Kerac one last look before he let Tavros lead him out of the room.

“Come on, love,” Tavros said as he linked their fingers and drew him down the hall. “Let’s give our friends the news, kick them out of our suite, and get some sleep. We’ll send Seza out to alert Thyran that you won’t be teaching anyone tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Valis said on a gusted breath. “Yeah. Thanks.”

He would humor his husband, but Valis doubted he would sleep at all.

 

Chapter 2

The next day, Valis didn’t wake until lunchtime. Tavros lay snuggled up to his back, his arm snug around his waist. Valis closed his eyes, enjoying his husband’s soft, rhythmic breaths that puffed against the back of his neck. He tried to move but gave up with a soft chuckle when he realized Tavros was lying on his hair.

Just that little chuckle felt strange after the heartache of the previous night. Valis itched to go check on Kerac, but he didn’t have the heart to wake Tavros to start their day. They’d both had a rough night with Valis tossing and turning for hours before his body had finally had enough and he passed out sometime after dawn.

Settling into a doze, Valis laid there for another hour before Tavros finally stirred. He grunted and squeezed Valis’ waist as he stretched out his back and legs, pressing his morning arousal into the crease of Valis’ ass.

“Good morning,” Tavros murmured, his sleepy voice thick and gravelly.

“You mean good afternoon?” Valis glanced over at the clock on his nightstand and stretched, too. “Lunch is halfway over for the day.”

Tavros groaned, burying his face in Valis’ hair and rocking his hips. “Lunch or sex? I’m leaning toward sex and more sleep.”

Valis huffed a laugh, reaching behind him to swat Tavros’ hip through the covers. “I want to check on Papa soon.”

“So, no sex?”

The pout in Tavros’ voice made Valis grin and roll over in the circle of his husband’s arms. He ran his hand teasingly down Tavros’ arm, tickling his fingers along his ribs, over his waist to rest his hand on his hip. “I never said that. We just have to be quick, so we can bathe and get food before we head to the healing ward.”

Tavros’ eyes glittered with mischief. “I can be quick…”

Sex with Tavros was rarely quick. But as Tavros lined their dicks up and grabbed them both with his callused hand, Valis’ breath hitched, and he moaned. This might not take as long as he thought.

Tavros claimed Valis’ mouth in a hungry, possessive kiss as his hand stroked their cocks from root to tip. Valis mewled into his husband’s mouth, bucking his hips for more friction. As their tongues entwined, Valis let his hand roam, mapping out the hills and valleys of hard, defined muscles in Tavros’ back, gripping his rounded, muscular ass. He pulled Tavros closer, smiling into the kiss as his husband gasped, stealing the breath from Valis’ lungs.

With the way their hips alternated in thrusting up into Tavros’ pumping hand, creating a delicious variance in friction, it didn’t take long for both of them to fall apart, moaning and panting against each other’s necks.

Valis rested his forehead against Tavros’ as they fought to catch their breath. His heart stuttered when Tavros grinned, showing his slightly crooked teeth. Valis’ voice wavered as he whispered, “I love you.”

Tavros tilted his head for a chaste, sweet kiss. “I love you, too.”

Valis looked up and combed his fingers through Tavros’ shaggy black hair. Soulful cloud-gray eyes stared back at him, searching Valis’ face. He leaned in for one more kiss before brushing his knuckles across Valis’ cheek. “Come on. Let’s get bathed and dressed so you can go see Kerac.”

It no longer surprised Valis that Tavros knew what he needed just by looking at him. He followed his lover into the lavatory, and after Tavros lovingly bathed him and helped him get dry and dressed after hastily bathing himself, they stopped for a quick lunch and were in the healing ward within an hour.

Firil was already by Kerac’s bed when Valis walked in, Tavros close behind. “How is he?”

Firil glanced back and smiled at them. “Better than he was last night, but still very weak and sick. I just finished medicating and feeding him.”

Tavros rested a hand on the back of Valis’ neck and squeezed, relieving some of the tension that started building the moment they entered the ward. “How do you feed a sleeping man?” Tavros asked.

Firil smiled and turned back to pull the covers up to Kerac’s chin. “The swallow reflex works whether you are asleep or awake, but I used a tube to inject his liquid meals directly into his stomach to ensure he wouldn’t aspirate it. He will be on a high-nutrition liquid diet for more than a week in my estimation, even if he wakes.”

“Will you wake him today?” Valis asked.

“No,” Firil said. “No, I do not believe that is wise. I would like to get more medication and food into him before I remove the sleep spell.”

He stepped back and sat on a chair next to Kerac’s cot and started writing in a chart that he had resting on Kerac’s chest. “I must warn you, Valis. His recovery will be very slow. First, we must deal with the infections while rebuilding his tolerance to solid foods. Then we must work on his strength. He may need therapy to enable him to walk again based on how much muscle mass he has lost.”

He turned his head and stared up into Valis’ eyes as Valis approached and buried his fingers in Kerac’s hair. “It is a miracle he made it home, Valis. He has suffered greatly. It appears he was tortured, so be wary. When he wakes, his mind may also be broken. With as sensitive as he was before he left, it may take years of therapy for him to regain any sense of normalcy.” Then he shrugged and went back to writing notes in Kerac’s chart. “With your care, he may pull through faster. We will have to wait and see.”

“What can I do to help him?”

Firil reached out with his free hand, still writing with the other, and squeezed Valis’ wrist. “Once I finish my notes, I will show you how to work his body. His muscles have atrophied for the most part. We were able to reverse most of it, but he will need his muscles worked at regular intervals to help him regain range of motion, and the strength to sit up on his own, and eventually stand and walk.”

Valis inhaled a shaky breath and nodded, taking a seat in the chair Tavros brought over. He idly played with Kerac’s hair while Firil finished his notes, then helped as Firil showed him the exercises to put Kerac through. When they finished, Firil squeezed his shoulder and gave him a sad smile. “You can sit with him as long as you like, but I recommend going and doing other things with your day. Visit with your friends, get your own strength training done. There is nothing else to do for him at the moment but wait until his next feeding. His next exercise session isn’t scheduled until after dinner.”

“We’ll stay a few minutes more,” Tavros said. He squeezed the back of Valis’ neck, then slid his hand over his shoulder to rest over his heart. “Then I’ll drag Valis out for a while. We’ll be back often, though.”

Nodding, Firil headed for his office, Kerac’s file tucked under his arm. “Come as often as you wish. You will be bothering no one. Just don’t neglect your own needs, yes?”

“Yes, sir,” Valis and Tavros said.

Tavros only let Valis fuss over Kerac for half an hour, just long enough to brush out Kerac’s hair and braid it so it wouldn’t get knotted again while he was bedridden. After he finished, Tavros drew him out of the healing ward by his hand and paused outside the door. “Anything you want to do today other than hover over Kerac?”

Valis smiled weakly at the tease and rested his forehead on Tavros’ broad shoulder while he thought. Then he drew in a deep breath through his nose. “I want to visit Aryn, see how he’s doing.”

“Are you sure?” Tavros asked. He took a small step back and cupped Valis’ face in both of his hands, tilting up so they were eye-to-eye. “It hasn’t been very long…”

Valis shivered as Tavros pressed a soft kiss to his lips and brushed their noses together. He closed his eyes and soaked in Tavros’ quiet love for a moment as he searched his heart for the truth. When he found the answer, he reached up and gently squeezed Tavros’ wrists and turned his face to press a kiss to one of his husband’s palms. “I’m sure. He wasn’t himself, Tav. I can’t believe that if he was in his right mind, if he was in control of himself, he would have hurt either of us. I can’t believe that. I won’t.”

After a moment of staring into his eyes, Tavros acquiesced with a small nod. “I won’t give up on him, either. But I have to admit, I’m not in any hurry to see him yet.”

“You don’t have to go,” Valis said. He closed his eyes and leaned into the comfort when Tavros kissed his forehead.

“You’re not going anywhere alone today. You’ve been through too much since last night, barely slept, and I can’t stand the thought of you being out of my sight for more than fifteen minutes.” He gave Valis a small smile and pulled him into a tight hug, breathing out a sigh that tickled Valis’ left ear. “Seeing Kerac in that condition hit a little too close to home.”

Valis nodded. He knew exactly how Tavros felt. Their future was set, at least it was in Valis’ mind. He had to find out where Darolen was, rescue him, and find the missing God Jar to return it to the other nine. Tavros would be accompanying him, and he’d had nightmares all night about Tavros getting left behind, sending Valis home, half-dead on his horse while staying behind to keep fighting, dying only moments after Valis’ horse thundered away. Thankfully that dream didn’t feel precognitive.

Precognitive or not, it left Valis feeling cold long after he thrashed awake, long after he woke up hours later to start the day, and even now, as Valis let out a shaky breath and tried to revel in Tavros’ intense warmth and love, that chill remained coiled tight about his spine.

Valis did his best to shake off that feeling and gave Tavros a small smile. “Aryn might fight harder and do better in therapy to get well if we show him he’s still loved. We have to try.” He leaned in and kissed the tip of Tavros’ nose, making him scrunch it adorably. “And I wouldn’t want you anywhere else but by my side. I don’t know if I could visit him alone, anyway. It’s still… raw.”

“It is for me, too,” Tavros whispered. “He and I used to be so close. I just… he’s my baby brother. I should love him, just like I used to. But I don’t know if I can after what he did.”

Valis tugged on Tavros’ hand, drawing him down the hall toward the stairs that would take them to the prison. “That’s okay. If you can’t, you can’t. But, keep an open mind, and let him prove to you he’s worth it. If he can’t do that, then at least we tried.”

“Yeah,” Tavros murmured softly. “Yeah. I can do that.”

Once they made it to the Duty Captain’s office, Valis took a deep breath as they waited for Captain Girnas to finish his thoughts on whatever he was writing. When he looked up, he perked a brow. “You two look like you’re about to be led to your beheading. What’s going on?”

Valis laced his fingers with Tavros’, squeezing his lover’s hand. “We want to visit Aryn Sadovin.”

The Duty Captain shook his head. “Probably not a good idea. He’s been a little bastard of late, demanding to be released. Fairly certain that boy’s mind is gone.”

Valis’ stomach dropped, but he swallowed down the nausea and nodded. “Even so, I’d like to see him, and I’ll be visiting him often.”

Girnas smirked at him and waved to the two seats on the opposite side of his desk. “Have a seat. I’ll send guards down to fetch him.”

The two Aesriphos guarding the door to the prison nodded and called to the other side, relaying the message, and Valis and Tavros settled in to wait.

After about fifteen minutes according to the clock over the door, the two guards started unlocking the gate. “He is ready for you.”

Valis and Tavros stood, their hands still linked. Valis took a steadying breath, then led Tavros through the door and followed the waiting Aesriphos to an interrogation room.

“We will wait outside,” their escort said. “If you need anything, or have any trouble, let us know.”

She unlocked the door, removing a large, heavy bar and swung the door open. Just as it had been with Roba, Valis’ birth father, Aryn was encased in a tiny cell that was too small for him to even sit down. He leaned against the back wall with his arms crossed over his chest. He wore the prison uniform of a gray tunic and matching loose pants. His black hair was slicked back and braided, the long braid draped over his shoulder to hang down near his stomach.

As Valis and Tavros entered and took their seats, Aryn glanced over at them, his dark gray eyes dull and almost lifeless. “What do you want?”

The door to the room boomed closed, making Valis wince. He waited until he and Tavros had taken their seats before replying, “I wanted to check on you and see how you’re doing. Have you begun therapy, yet?”

Aryn rolled his eyes. “Why do you care?”

“Because you were once my best friend, and I want my best friend back.” Valis kept his voice calm and steady, trying to fight back the tremor that wanted to come out. “If you do as you’re told, do well in therapy, you might not be in here as long as you think.” Valis shrugged and met Aryn’s steely stare. “While I won’t say what you did wasn’t your fault, I will say that mental illness played a large part in your actions toward Tavros and I, and if you try, we can all get past it.”

Aryn drew in a shaky breath and blew it out. He lowered his eyes to the floor and hugged himself as he whispered, “I thought you hated me…”

“Neither of us hate you,” Tavros said. He gripped Valis’ hand tight. “We want you to get better. We want you back, Aryn. I want my baby brother back. I miss you. We both do.”

Twin tears dripped from Aryn’s eyes. He shrugged, wiped his face with the back of his hand. “I’ll try, okay?”

“That’s all we can ask,” Valis said gently. “That’s really all you can do.”

With a small nod, Aryn sagged further against the wall and wrinkled his nose, rubbing his eyes with one hand. “I feel different, too.”

“I removed all the black magic from your system,” Valis said. “I also locked your gold away until you’re well enough to use it wisely.”

Aryn’s lower lip wobbled. “I—I had black magic?”

“You did,” Tavros murmured. “It was terrifying as fuck, too. At the end, even I had it, though a bit less than you had. Valis took care of that, too.”

Aryn let out a shaky sigh and tossed his black braid over his shoulder, but it bounced off the wall and fell back onto his chest. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t—” He cleared the squeak from his throat and tried again, “I didn’t mean for it to go that far. I was just… so… so jealous. I couldn’t think, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and the more I thought about it, the worse I got. I don’t even remember the last few weeks.”

He shrugged again. “I’m still jealous… but…”

“I know,” Valis said. “It won’t go away overnight.”

“No,” Aryn whispered.

Then he took a deep breath and glanced over again. “You got married?”

“We did,” Tavros said proudly. “Valis and I had our joining night three days ago.”

“Congratulations,” Aryn said, sounding half-dead. “I’m sorry I missed it.”

Valis gave him a small smile. “It’s okay.”

He needed to change the subject, so Valis rubbed over his heart and murmured, “I have some news.”

“Oh?” Aryn only looked mildly interested. “What’s that?”

“Papa returned home.” Valis told him about finding Kerac the night before when he and Tavros left the Autumn Festival for some time alone outside Cadoras’ walls. When he finished, Aryn’s eyes were filled with tears.

“Will he make it?”

“We’re fairly sure he will,” Valis said. “He just needs medicine, food, rest, and to rebuild his strength. Firil thinks he was tortured, so his mind may be messed up.”

The boy shivered and grabbed his cell bars. “I’m so sorry. Did… did you find any sign of Darolen?”

Valis shook his head. “No. Thyran sent out search parties, but none turned up any sign of him. Scries turned up nothing, as well, so we have to wait until Firil removes the sleep spell so we can ask Papa about it. Firil is waiting until he’s built up a bit of a tolerance for food because of how emaciated he is.”

Aryn glanced down at himself and winced. “Yeah.”

“You’ll fill back out again,” Tavros assured. “You went a long time without sleeping or eating right. The dark circles under your eyes started to look like you got punched in each eye twice a day. It… it was kind of awful.”

“I’m sorry,” Aryn whispered. “It still hurts.”

“Then will you stop giving the guards a hard time?” Valis asked. “The Duty Captain said you were causing a lot of problems.”

The boy shrugged. “I didn’t know why I was in here until yesterday, and I didn’t believe them until you came in. It all feels like a really bad dream.” He took a deep breath and rested his head back against the wall. “But yeah. I’ll behave.”

“Good,” Tavros said. “If you’re good, you won’t be in here for long, I think. Valis and I will talk to the priests and see what can be done if you prove you’re no longer a danger to anyone.”

Aryn gave his eldest brother a small, tired smile. “Thanks, Tav.”

The door to the room opened, and the female guard stuck her head in. “Time’s up. Are you ready to head back?”

Valis let out a soft breath. “Yes, ma’am.”

He looked back at Aryn and smiled. “I’ll be coming to see you as often as I can, okay?”

With a nod, Aryn wiped his eyes on the neck of his tunic. “Yeah. Thanks.”

As Valis and Tavros left the interrogation room, Valis rubbed over his heart. “Think that was really him?”

Tavros squeezed his hand and brought it up to kiss the backs of Valis’ fingers. “I’m pretty sure it was. Thanks for making me come today.”

“You’re welcome.” Valis turned and pressed a kiss to Tavros’ shoulder. “Thank you for coming with me.”

“Always, Valis. Always.”

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