Valis must step up as a mentor, but two highly suspicious men may ruin everything.
Something is wrong with Vohan and Xetar—two reliquary guards who have just returned from field duty. They are adamant that Valis is a spy for Qos because of the black magic he wields. Valis insists their malevolence is more than war trauma, but no one—not even his closest friends—believe him.
With the time to retrieve the lost God Jar quickly approaching, Valis must teach the reliquary guard force the necessary skills to succeed in the coming battles. However, a riot amongst the men hides Vohan and Xetar’s treachery and Valis has to act fast.
If he doesn’t, the people he loves most will pay the ultimate price.
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.
Valis sighed as he leaned against the door, thudding his forehead against the wood. He couldn’t hide in his room any longer. He had already bathed and needed to see the Patron Priest before he did much else. With that in mind, Valis stepped away, opened the door and balked. Outside stood the two assholes who had threatened him earlier. He could still hear the blond one’s gravelly voice say, “Watch where you are going, you evil brat,” as he knocked his shoulder into Valis’, nearly knocking him into his mate, Tavros. Seeing them both now made Valis’ stomach curdle.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” Valis stressed the last word hoping they would get the hint and remain civil.
The one on the right glowered at him with hard brown eyes, his shaggy brown hair hanging in waves to either side of his face. His partner tucked his shoulder-length blond hair behind an ear as if he couldn’t stand having it near his eyes. He seemed the more menacing. When he scowled, his classically handsome face transformed. The long scar that bisected his eyebrow and ran across the bridge of his nose pinched and made him seem almost evil. His green eyes pinned Valis in place with a threatening stare. Neither spoke.
“Guess not. Please excuse me.” The moment Valis stepped into the hall and tried to get past them, the two men caught him and thrust him back inside so fast he stumbled and fell onto his ass. Valis pushed through the sudden spike of fear and shoved himself to his feet.
Before he could defend himself, both men rushed him. The pair glared at him with so much hate that Valis instinctively shrank back as though he were still that boy back on the farm in Evakis. They slammed him against the far wall. Their hands tightened like iron bands, one around his throat, others pinning his arms. The blond ground the heel of his hand against Valis’ sternum, making it hard to breathe as pain bloomed from an impending bruise.
“You,” the brown-haired man pressed his face in close, his voice little more than a feral growl, “do not belong here.”
Valis grunted, trying not to wince at the pain. “How do you figure?”
“Black magic.” Their lips writhed back from their teeth almost in unison, but the dark-haired one continued, seemingly the mouthpiece of the pair. “You foul this place, make a mockery of our Order.” He sneered, his eyes narrowing as he tightened his grip on Valis’ throat until the blood started to pound in Valis’ head. “That you roam our sacred halls free—”
Valis had enough. He tugged on his gold magic, and with a push of his will, both men flew across the room as Valis’ shield snapped in place with a mild concussive force. Enough to get them away, but not enough to seriously injure them.
“Do you doubt your superiors now?” Valis stepped away from the wall. He resisted the urge to rub his sore throat as he stared the two Aesriphos down. “Notice my golden shield. Yes, I was plagued with black magic, forced upon me by my sire when I was an infant. That is not my fault.”
Something in Valis withered as he watched both Aesriphos scramble away and rush to their feet as if Valis was about to kill them. Still, he didn’t back down. That wasn’t an option. Bone tired from his journey, Valis couldn’t find any patience for dramatics. “I don’t know who you are, or why you hate me. But if you think you’re going to intimidate me, you need to try harder. You’re nothing compared to the master that was my father.”
“Are an Aesriphos Valiant,” Valis said, staring pointedly at the blond. “Appointed so by the Sovereign Priest, herself, who is very aware of who and what I am, and what magic I wield. Get over yourselves, and get out.”
Neither man went for the door, almost as if they were rooted in place. And then Valis saw why. Both men stared at him with a mixture of fear and horror, as if Valis were some monster they had no idea how to slay. Valis took two steps forward, and the spell broke. The dark-haired Aesriphos snarled and jerked his mate out of the room.
Valis sagged as the door to his room slammed shut. With a thought, he drew his shield back into himself and rubbed his sore throat. How bad did they hurt him?
He dragged himself into his lavatory and stared into the mirror, grimacing at the angry red marks around his neck and drew on his magic to start the healing. The last thing he needed was for Tavros to see them, especially when the red marks turned into finger-shaped bruises. His mate would be furious, and might be driven to do something stupid.
After he healed the marks on his neck, arms and chest, Valis washed his face and neck, took a few deep breaths to calm his nerves and forced his hands to stop shaking. Damn it, he was an Aesriphos Valiant. He had taken down an entire army of Qos adherents. Two Aesriphos bullies were not going to ruin what he had built for himself.
The journey back from Lyvea still hung heavy in his mind. At first, it felt so good to be home again. Now, he exited the lavatory and stood in the center of his room to look around and familiarize himself with his own space again after having been gone so long. Anything to get his mind off those two and into the right mindset to deal with the rest of his duties.
Valis sighed as he leaned against the lavatory door and thudded his forehead against the wood. His bed was just as he’d left it the day he, Tavros, Seza and Zhasina left to rescue the caravan. The comforter Seza and Aenali had made for him still looked pristine, the god silhouette picked out in the ten different colors—one for each body part—vibrant against the white background. The Evaki translation of his father’s song shined in golden embroidery along the bottom edge against a dusk-blue background.
He had missed this. His room. His things. Knowing he would sleep that night in a bed instead of on the hard, uneven ground on a thin bedroll.
Standing idle wasn’t getting him anywhere. Tavros would be with him soon. Aryn was supposed to return for a heart-to-heart. Valis’ indecision plagued him, and he fought with himself about what to do.
His decision was made for him when someone knocked at his door. When Valis opened it, he almost groaned. Aryn stood there with a hopeful grin on his face. His fingers betrayed his nerves as he played with the ends of his hair. In a sudden rush, he bounded through the door and launched himself at Valis, wrapping himself around him so tightly Valis’ breath wheezed out of him. He hugged the boy on instinct, half-dragging him to the sitting area. When he sat down, it didn’t surprise him that Aryn claimed his lap.
After being gone for several months, it amazed Valis to see Aryn had only grown about an inch. But it felt like the boy had lost weight instead of gaining it. Had he been so engrossed in scrying after Valis that he had neglected his basic needs?
“I missed you!” Aryn said. The wide, starry eyes Aryn turned on him warmed Valis, but also made him uncomfortable. Especially with the way Aryn bounced on his lap, practically vibrating, his bright grin never dimming.
“I missed you, too.” He squeezed the boy and shifted him to sit more comfortably on his lap and to still his bouncing. He ran his fingers through Aryn’s long black hair and stared into his dark gray eyes. Aryn still had a boyish face, rounded and soft, where Valis had taken on the harder, lean angles of adulthood. He had to get his mind off these changes in his best friend at all cost. It felt like he was leaving Aryn behind. “Have you spoken to Brother Bachris?”
Aryn nodded. “He’ll be here in a few moments. He had some paperwork to finish.”
Valis nodded and drew in a deep breath, hoping it would give him courage. He didn’t want to upset Aryn, but he and Tavros had to go through this if they wanted to be together. He had to do the right thing. “Aryn, I have to talk to you about something important.”
Aryn’s eyes darkened and he looked up at Valis through his lashes. “What about?”
How was he supposed to break this news to Aryn without breaking him? Sighing, Valis rubbed the corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “I can’t agree to court you.”
Valis shifted in his seat and frowned. “I never loved you that way. I’ve always thought of you as my brother, as my best friend. I have thought about it during the entire journey.” He stared into Aryn’s eyes, gut churning. “There’s no easy way to tell you this…I’m in love with Tavros.”
Aryn blinked. “What?”
“I’m sorry. There’s no easy way to say it,” Valis murmured. “Tav and I have started courting.”
“No…” Aryn scrambled off Valis’ lap and started backing away toward the door.
“NO!” Aryn turned and darted for the door, slamming it on his way out.
Valis flinched and cringed away from the loud bang. Hands clenched down in his lap, he took a deep breath and tried to let it go. Breathing hurt, as if his lungs had seized, as if someone had just kicked him in his chest. He dug his nails into the skin of his palms just for something to focus on other than his shredded heart.
Brother Bachis walked in, took one look at Valis and gasped. He struggled to close the door behind him. The heavy wooden panel hung crookedly on its hinges and he had to shoulder it back into place before he could give Valis his full attention. “What happened?”
Valis answered him through gritted teeth as he struggled to calm himself. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
Brother Bacris lifted a brow at him, but thankfully let it go. He shook himself as if to shake off his questions, took a breath to steady himself, and smirked at Valis as if he had secrets to tell. “I hear tell that not only did you do well in your quest to retrieve Zhasina’s caravan, but you also led the expedition, and brought back with you two Priests of Qos and even a High Priest, plus an entire army that you captured on your own! You have been busy, young man.”
The stately priest hadn’t changed a bit since Valis left. He still had those white curls at his temples that gave a stark contrast to the rest of his chestnut hair and made him look distinguished. He still had a tall, rail thin, bony body, a sweet smile, and kind blue eyes. The best thing was, he still made Valis feel completely at home every time he entered the room.
As one of Avristin’s Patron Priests, he had many duties, but he always seemed to have time and a smile for Valis, and Valis felt he had found a friend in the paternal man even though their meetings were few and far between.
He squeezed Valis’ shoulder as he passed and settled into the chair nearest him with a soft grunt. “The rumors are already flying throughout the monastery of your prowess and leadership skills. I am quite impressed.” He leveled a proud smile upon Valis.
A warm tingle started in Valis and banished his pain and confusion. “Thanks. That means much. But—”
“The information about the Qos adherents you captured came straight from the leader of the mercenary band you brought back with you,” Brother Bachris said with a wink, as if purposely derailing Valis’ objections. “I doubt one who does not know you well would say things just to make you look good. He appeared to be quite surprised to hear you are only nineteen, and said that you commanded the caravan, and even his men, as if you had been leading military forces for decades.”
At the mention of his age, Valis groaned, causing Brother Bachris to lapse into amused silence. “I’m… uh…” Valis cleared his throat and straightened in his seat. “The day Roba entered my mind, my birth anniversary, he told me I’m not actually nineteen, sir. He said I’m twenty-one. I had no idea, and according to Roba, Father misread the documents from my homestead.”
Brother Bachis frowned but waved a hand to dismiss the subject. “I will make note of it and alert Firil. I understand you had no control over this, Valis. Relax, and worry not.” He sighed and combed his fingers through his hair. “I am not angry with you, but perhaps I should read over your documents instead of Brother Tavros or Sister Seza.”
A little bubble of excitement rose in Valis. “I can get them for you now, if you’d like.”
“Yes. That would be good, thank you. And since you are a Valiant now, have you given thought to a possible mate?”
Valis ducked his head with a grin and jogged to his desk, unable, and unwilling to disguise the love that seeped into his voice. “I started courting Tavros on our way back from Lyvea.”
“Splendid! Does this feel like a true pairing?”
Valis wrenched his chest lid up and pressed the corner in the false top to get it to pop out. “I do, sir. It grows daily, and sometimes leaves me… breathless.”
“Have you given a thought to when you wish to be bonded?”
The lid slammed down on his fingers as Valis tipped it up to close the chest, documents in hand, and he let out a string of curses under his breath. When he finished locking it up, he shoved it back under his rack of pants and tucked his bruised hand to his chest. “Not really, sir. Things have been rather harrowing of late, and we didn’t have much time to think on such things.”
“You should discuss this with Tavros sooner rather than later,” Brother Bachris said as Valis closed the door to his closet. “Being named Valiant before you are bound in Ezhav is not only highly irregular, but something that has never been done before, and it gives other potentials false hope.” He gave Valis a rueful smile and squeezed his uninjured hand as Valis handed over the documents. “I hate to put such pressure on you, lad, but this is important to the sanctity of the Order.”
Stomach in knots, Valis nodded. “I understand, sir. I’ll discuss it with him tonight.”
“Good.” Then, Brother Bachris hummed to himself as he gave the documents a brief scan. He mumbled to himself, “It is almost as if these are written in some kind of code…”
It is, Roba said in Valis’ mind.
Valis jerked as he went to seat himself to Brother Bachris’ right. “Roba says it is.”
He expected the Patron Priest to question him about Roba, but he only perked a brow and asked, “Does he have a key to deciphering the code, or must I break it myself?”
Roba mused quietly for a moment before he murmured, Oh, fine. It is actually quite simple. So simple few ever realize it.
Valis sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Before he left to retrieve the caravan several months ago, on Valis’ birth anniversary, his birth father, Roba had committed suicide by shoving all his consciousness, power, and life force into Valis. It made Valis not only more powerful, but also effectively made him a High Priest of Qos based on that power. Now, with Roba in his mind, it was almost impossible to get a quiet moment unless Roba didn’t want to tell him something or was playing games. Please just tell me.
Hold the paper upside down, and hold it before a flame, Roba said. The resulting text can only be read by someone who speaks Arnathian. It works only for the first side of each page, but the resulting Arnathian text reveals more than the Evaki.
Dumbfounded, Valis relayed Roba’s message. He watched as Brother Bachris’ eyes widened. Then the Patron Priest pushed out of his seat and went to the hearth to light a fire. Once it burned bright, he held one of the pages upside down before the flames and let out a harsh bark of laughter. “This is ingenious! My Arnathian isn’t as good as it should be, but that is easily taken care of. We have several Arnathian natives here who would happily translate. Thank you, Valis.”
“Of course, sir.”
He stared at Valis a moment as he placed the grate in front of the fire and shuffled the pages back into order. “Roba is being docile, then?”
“Yes, sir.” Valis reclined in his seat and frowned. “He has been helpful during our journey, even against Qeraden and the army of Qos adherents, and has even expressed concern for me on several occasions, especially when I seemed to be falling into the darkness of the black magic I wield. He’s helped pull me out several times.”
“And what do your instincts tell you?”
Valis had to think on that. His sire was now a warm weight in his mind. Even his normally barbed words had been duller, and mostly teasing. “I honestly don’t know, sir. But, he’s taught me Urkorian along the journey, a bit of Noldworian, too. He helped us find the caravan when we got lost. When I was injured and unconscious, he did end up in control of my body, but he remained docile, respectful, and even taught Seza how to heal in the field. Then, he relinquished my body when I came back without a fuss.” He frowned and added, “Though I’m unsure if he had a choice in the matter.”
At this, Valis paused and rubbed the back of his neck as he went on more softly. “He’s praised me when I’ve done well. He—” His voice wavered and Valis cleared his throat. “He is almost the father I always wished he could be.”
Roba’s voice came so soft it was almost ghostly, I wish I could have been that father, as well.
Valis wiped away his sudden tears. You could have been.
No. I do not think I could have. Roba sighed. If I had been, you never would have come here. Perhaps I just had a part to play. Perhaps this was all destined. But, I am proud of who and what you have become. You are so much stronger than I ever was.
Brother Bachris pressed a kerchief into Valis’ hand and patted his cheek. “Are you well, son?”
“Yes, sir.” He took a moment to mop up his face and blow his nose. “Roba just said some… sweet and uncharacteristic things.”
The priest went quiet a moment as Valis continued to dry his face. When Valis met his eyes again, Brother Bachris pressed a kiss to his brow which had Valis staring at him in confusion. The older man had shown tenderness before but never affection such as this. “I hope, for your sake, he is sincere, Valis. That he should find the Light in you upon his death gives me great hope for our future.”
Valis hung his head and leaned into Brother Bachris’ arms. “Everyone expects so much from me. I fear failing everyone.”
Brother Bachris cupped his cheek. “It is not expectation so much as it is hope. If you but try, you can fail no one. Everyone has doubts and fears and insecurities. Those we look up to now and those past heroes we honor—the thing that separates them from normal men and women is the fact that they tried. When life knocked them down, they got back up. They never quit, never gave up. If they failed, they came at the problem from another angle and tried again.”
A sigh gusted into Valis’ hair, and Brother Bachris stood, pulling Valis to his feet. “I have seen this greatness in you, Valis. Just because you do not see it in yourself, does not mean you are not capable of great deeds.”
The realization that he didn’t have to be perfect had the knots in Valis’ stomach easing. He sagged against Brother Bachris as weight lifted off his shoulders. The priest held Valis as if he might break, one hand cradling his head and one lightly wrapped about his shoulders as Valis wept silently.
He didn’t hear the door open, but after a few murmured words, Brother Bachris turned Valis around and pressed him into yet another chest with a kiss to his temple. “I believe it is just relief and exhaustion, Brother Tavros. All is well.”
“Thank you, Brother. I’ll take care of him.”
Brother Bachris chuckled. “I know you will, son. I know you will.” He lingered a moment at the door, evidenced by the metallic sound of his hand playing with the handle in a rare show of hesitation. “Should I have lunch sent here for the two of you? Or do you think he will be well enough for the dining hall this afternoon?”
Tavros stroked a hand down Valis’ hair and rocked him side to side. “I think he’ll be all right for lunch in the hall. If I think otherwise later, I’ll fetch our meals myself. Thanks, Brother.”
“Rest, dear boys. I fear there is much excitement ahead of you, and it will be starting very soon.”
The door clicked shut. Tavros said nothing but stood there and rocked as if he had all the time in the world to just hold Valis and wait for his faucets to run dry. The rocking—and Tavros’ quiet love like a warm blanket wrapped about him—calmed Valis. He sighed as he tucked his face into the curve of Tavros’ neck and kissed the skin closest to his lips. “Thanks, Tav.”
“Why were you crying?” To Tavros’ credit, his question came as curiosity rather than pure concern, as if he knew nothing was truly wrong.
“Relief, and Roba being sweet. The two mobbed me, and I was ill prepared.”
“What did Roba say?”
A shiver wound through Valis’ spine, and he tucked closer. “He said he wishes he could have been the father I needed. And he also said he’s proud of me.”
His lover gave Valis a tight hug and rocked them again. “Valis Bakor: Purifier of Souls. The title suits you.”
Though it was said in jest, Valis frowned. “Sovras said I did, but, do you think I somehow purified him? Or do you think it is more that he’s free of Qos’ taint now that he no longer has a body of his own?”
“I think, if anyone could purify his soul, that person would be you. Especially after seeing you purify the black magic inside you in mid-cast.” He pressed a warm kiss to Valis’ shoulder and amended, “Though, why are you asking me, instead of him?”
His sire’s voice came soft and fond, as if he, too, were wrapped in the comfort of Tavros’ arms. You know I hate making uneducated guesses.
Valis chuckled and pressed his face into Tavros’ shoulder. “What should we do until lunch?”
Tavros turned a quirked grin on him. “I have a few ideas…”
“Oh?” While he had a few of his own, Valis tried to feign ignorance. But his libido decided that idea was stupid. “What might those be?”
His lover leaned in, licked his earlobe and gusted hot breath into the sensitive canal in the way he had learned was Valis’ weakness. “Well,” he murmured against his ear, the sensual vibrations of his voice making Valis’ knees go weak, “there is a very plush bed, a warm hearth, and a very spacious bath for when I get you all hot and sticky.”
He pulled back with a wicked grin. “Or we could, of course, keep our clothes on and go see our friends. It’s completely up to you.”
That tease was delicious, then a thought hit him. He wilted. “Before we do anything, I promised Brother Bachris I would speak with you on when we wish to be bonded. He and Brother Thyran both are worried that by naming me Valiant before I bonded, the Sovereign Priest may give other Aspirants false hope.”
Tavros sobered and drew Valis over to the sitting area. “Have you thought about a date?”
Valis groaned and tucked himself against his lover’s side. “Not really. With everything that’s happened since we started courting, I’ve been a little preoccupied.”
That got him a laugh from Tavros. “Is there any day you don’t want it to be?”
“Mmm…” Valis thought on that as he stared off into the tapestry that hung over his table across the room. He nodded after a moment. “I don’t want it on the anniversary of the day I got here.”
“It should be sometime soon, and that day is still far off.”
Valis nodded and sighed. Then, he shrank down. “I want my fathers here.”
Tavros made a sympathetic noise and squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry, Valis.”
“Me, too.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “There were no letters from them. Not one. We’ve been gone over three months. Where are they?”
“I don’t know, love. And my heart hurts for you.”
Valis wanted to hope, but hope was too hard at the moment, even with the thought of their bonding. “I’ll write them a letter this evening before bed and let them know the date once we decide on it. If they are safe and can make it, that’s great. If they can’t, I’ll know they’re there in spirit.” I just hope in spirit doesn’t mean in death…
Do not waste your time worrying on that, Roba murmured. Focus on your lover, on what you have now, and let the rest unfold as it will. Be ready, but do not lose yourself.
Movement against his head signaled Tavros’ nod. Another thought hit Valis, and he leaned away to look Tavros in the eyes. “Is there any date you would like our bonding to occur?”
Tavros gave him a small grin. “I was thinking of doing it the day before the Autumn Festival at the end of the month. I thought it apt that out spiritual bonding night be in the month of Spirituality.”
At the mention of autumn, Valis wilted and hunched down. “Papa wanted to share the autumn colors of Arlvor with me. We didn’t get to do that last year because we arrived in a blizzard. It looks like it won’t be happening this year, either.”
“Oh, Valis…” Tavros hugged him fiercely and let out a deep sigh. “I would magic them back if I could.” A chill swept the room, and he paused to whisper “flame” while glancing at the hearth in Valis’ room. Once the fire flared brighter behind the utilitarian brass screen, he focused his attention on Valis and gave him a small smile. “If they’re not back by the middle of Mobility—next month—maybe we can see if we can join them. By then, we should be full Aesriphos, and possibly be able to take our first assigned Duty.”
Valis snorted. He had no hope of that. “Didn’t you say we had tons of training to do after we become full Aesriphos?”
He didn’t wait on an answer. Instead, he stared off into the fire while he tried to calm his racing mind. “I have to help translate Roba’s books for the priests if I can’t remove the literary wards. We have to train in the rites of priests.” Another thought hit him, and he wrinkled his nose. “And I’d like to teach at least two Aesriphos how to defend against the power of Qos.”
With a soft grunt, Valis shifted his position so he was no longer slouched and stretched his back. After so long of keeping his spine ramrod straight due to people’s constant regard, slouching for too long actually hurt. “As much as I love and miss my fathers, we need to think about this in a broader sense. Traipsing off after them when we may be needed elsewhere wouldn’t do anyone any favors.”
Tavros nodded, but nudged him with his shoulder. “What do you mean it wouldn’t do anyone any favors?”
“Well…” He sighed and tugged at his uniform shirt, suddenly wishing for the weight of his armor to help him feel stable. “We don’t know where they are anymore. They could still be at the location of their last correspondence, or they could have moved deeper into Aspar or another country altogether. Or they could have been captured and taken elsewhere. We have no way of knowing where they are, which way they went, or if they’re even still alive.”
He glanced over at Tavros, his stomach queasy at the very thought of never seeing his fathers again and frowned. “I told you about that vision. If it was my fathers in that prison, our efforts are better spent taking up their duty, rather than looking for them. If we can get into the main nest, we may find them in the process. But it has to be done according to sanction so we don’t risk anyone’s life unnecessarily.”
Tavros let out a long sigh and kissed Valis’ temple. “I agree.” He didn’t seem happy about it, but instead of going on with that line of conversation, he nudged Valis in the side. “Come on. Let’s meet our friends. It is nearly time.”
Lunch. After all their talking, Valis had almost forgotten about the awful encounter that morning when he and his friends had just returned from their journey. Would he see the two Aesriphos in the dining hall? Would they make a scene?
Only one way to find out. “Let’s go.”
It felt intensely good to be surrounded by his friends again. Seza and Zhasina seemed to feel the same way if their grins and bright eyes were to be believed. The only dark cloud over their midday meal was Aryn, who sat to Valis’ right and sulked as he toyed with the food on his plate. But, Valis couldn’t focus on him right now. He needed to surround himself with good feelings, and avidly listened to Maphias teasing his sister, Seza, and Jedai’s bawdy jokes. Jedai’s sister, Aenali, pretended not to get any of the jokes while bouncing in her seat, trying to get Valis, Tavros, Seza, and Zhasina to tell her everything that happened on their journey to rescue the caravan.
It was perfect.
Surrounded by his makeshift family, Valis’ heart eased, and he ate as if he had never tasted food before, just letting the love that flowed around the table wash over him as he filled his stomach with something that wasn’t hunted in the forest or plains, something that had spices and a wider variety of vegetables than they could forage on their journey.
Just as Valis finished his meal, he glanced up and everything in his stomach curdled. The two Aesriphos from the hallway sat at the table across from his group. The blond one narrowed his piercing green eyes at Valis while his plain partner looked to be chewing rocks instead of tender venison roast, stabbing his food with unnecessary force.
When Valis looked around, every table was filled to capacity, and he wondered if they were forced to take that table, or if the blond one had chosen to sit there just to make Valis uncomfortable. And with the evil looks, Valis felt the second option was the most likely, even if the two had swapped seats with someone already sitting there.
What was their real problem? Why were they so hostile? What had Valis done to them that they felt the need to go out of their way to make Valis’ life miserable? Why had they made a point to single Valis out that morning?
Ugh. He had to forget about them. His friends had waited months to see him again, and Valis had missed them all terribly. To be honest, he had missed everything about the monastery. It was his home, more than the farm Valis had grown up on had ever been.
Instead of letting them further ruin his meal, Valis tore his gaze away and glanced around the room. The dining room was huge with tables strategically placed to seat as many people as possible, ensuring the entire monastery could eat each meal in shifts as their duties allowed. To one side, the buffet line ran along the entire wall. The kitchen lay tucked behind it in a separate room so the cooks could refill the platters of food as they ran low. Along the other walls, Valis gazed at the colorful tapestries that depicted past heroes and representations of the nine gods.
Aenali broke him out of his musings by pushing on his side. “Scoot back,” she demanded, “I want lap time!”
Valis chuckled and obeyed, picking the child up and setting her comfortably on his lap, then hugged her until she squeaked. When she turned her bright green eyes up at Valis and her chubby cheeks dimpled with her grin, Valis melted and murmured, “I missed you, dollface.”
“I missed you, too!” She squealed softly and wrapped her slender arms around Valis’ neck, tucking her face under his chin. Valis couldn’t help but stuff his nose into her auburn curls and breathe her in. Her warm citrus scent comforted him in a way not even Tavros could. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. For some reason, Aenali made coming home real in a way that everything else had lacked.
“Tell us about your adventures!” Her exuberance was muffled in his neck, and Valis chuckled again. “I want to hear about everything!”
Oh, dear. While Valis told the group about battling the mercenaries in Lyvea, they cleared the table of their dishes, tendered them to the kitchen to be washed, and headed for Valis’ room. It surprised Valis that Aryn tagged along and settled around the low table with their group. Between Valis, Tavros, Seza, and Zhasina, they told the stories about subduing Qeraden, a lesser priest of Qos, befriending Jintas, the mercenary leader, as well as the mercenaries, and all about the grief of Valis losing his horse, Chath, gaining his new mount, Rasera, and went through the highlights of the Battle of Tigak.
Everyone listened with rapt attention, and by the time they were done recounting their adventures, Aenali was starry-eyed. “That was better than any book I read!”
Valis chuckled and cuddled her closer as he leaned against Tavros. What was it about her weight, or the weight of his armor that made him feel somehow safer? More grounded? It was the same when he slept. The heavier his blankets, the more soundly he would sleep, the more comfortable he became. The few times where he and Tavros reversed positions and Tavros slept with his head on Valis’ chest were the times Valis slept the deepest.
Aenali must have sensed his discomfort. She curled up tighter on his lap and looked up at him through her long, thick lashes. “Are you all right, Valis?”
He pressed a kiss into her curls and let out a soft breath. “I don’t know, to be honest. Without my armor, I feel disconnected. It helps when you’re in my lap.”
The young girl stared up at him and grinned. “It’s always been like that. You always relaxed when you held me.”
“This is true.”
“It may be a remnant of your farming days,” Seza said. She sat tucked against Zhasina’s side, looking just as content as Valis felt. “You were used to working every day, always doing something strenuous, right?” When Valis nodded, she smirked. “Extra weight means extra work. The armor represents safety, and Aenali represents comfort and love. So, it’s almost natural, I guess.”
Well, at least now Valis felt less like a freak. He nodded and cuddled his lover and the little girl with a happy sigh. At least, until Seza cleared her throat. “So, when are you and Tavros going to bond? Zhasina and I want our bonding night to be close to yours, but not on the same day. We want to be able to celebrate with you, and you with us.”
Valis ducked his head and sighed. He and Tavros still hadn’t come up with a date. He gave Aryn a quick look, but the younger boy wasn’t looking at them, his eyes resolutely focused on his lap. “I don’t know.”
Seza sighed and squeezed Zhasina to her side. “You boys are hopeless.” She grinned to take the sting out of her words but shook her head. “Zhasina and I are going to be old and gray before you two get on with it.”
Tavros laughed and kissed the side of Valis’ head. “Nah. We have it narrowed down that we want it sometime around the Autumn Festival. I was thinking the day or so before. What do you think, Valis?”
Valis shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t care when we bond, so long as it isn’t on a holiday.”
His lover nodded and grinned. “Then it’s settled. Two days before the Autumn Festival, the twenty-eighth of Spirituality. That will give us one day to celebrate our union, and the day after we can go into the city for the holiday festivities.”
Seza grinned. “Zhasina and I can have ours two days before yours, so we can all go to the Autumn Festival together.”
“I like that idea.” Valis stretched and gave Aenali a squeeze. “We should alert Brother Bachris as soon as possible. And I need to tell Thyran.”
“Speaking of Thyran,” Tavros murmured. “Is he in your head now that we’re back?”
Valis thought about that a moment, then shook his head. “I think he’s giving us privacy now that we’re courting. I think Roba is doing the same thing.”
I am, came Roba’s reply. I also think you need this time solely with your friends without my interference.
Aww, thanks, Valis murmured. I really appreciate that.
With the date of their bonding in mind, Valis relaxed further against his lover’s side. Roba was being kind, and he really appreciated the peace. After the tension of their journey, Valis just wanted time to truly decompress before he had to start in on his duties.
He had to formulate a plan. He had to either remove the literary wards from Roba’s books or help the priests transcribe them. Then there was the fact he had to help at least two of the higher ranking Aesriphos learn how to more effectively fight against the dark magic the Qos adherents wielded. Teach them how to use their magic more effectively by intent rather than prayer so their reaction times could be quicker. Valis had no doubt that he and possibly Tavros would be conscripted to train those in the higher grades of war training to fight in the same manner to get them ready for their advancement.
Then there would come the training he and Tavros had to undergo after they bonded—learning the rights and rituals of the Priesthood so they could perform their duties as Aesriphos, take their vows, and start their final training.
Would he have any time to just be with his new mate? Valis turned his head to breathe in Tavros’ scent from his neck, earning him a chuckle and a tighter hug from his lover. “Did you just smell me?”
The entire group laughed.
“That’s the most adorable thing I have ever seen,” Maphias teased. “You two want some time alone?”
Actually, yes, but Valis couldn’t say that. Instead, he just blushed, which made everyone chuckle again. Jedai snorted. “That was a yes.”
“It’s getting near time for us to return to duty, anyway,” Maphias said. “We have lots to do, and some of us need to prepare for tomorrow, so we may as well head out.”
Valis perked up with raised brows, sitting straighter in his seat. “What is there to do tomorrow?”
“Aenali has a test with her preceptor, Jedai and I have tests with the Warmaster. You, Tav, and Seza may have yours postponed since you just returned from a long journey. But you have other duties. So, we’re all going to be pretty busy.”
Nodding, Valis leaned back into Tavros’ side again and groaned. “I also need to see Brother Bachris to see what all I need to start focusing on. Thyran, too. We should head to the temple soon.”
“That can’t wait until tomorrow?” Jedai asked. “You just can’t let yourself rest and relax, can you?”
His tease made Valis grin. “This is important and shouldn’t be put off.”
“Fair enough.” Jedai stood and smirked at where Aenali was almost asleep. He grinned and shook his head. “You guys had all the fun, and all we did was train. Lucky bastards.”
He ran his fingers through his curly mop of red hair, his blue eyes trained on his baby sister. “I’ll take her and get her laid down for a nap. I’ll see you all at dinner.”
Maphias followed Jedai out with a wave before they closed the door. Seza and Zhasina giggled and stood. “We’re going to get some alone time, too,” Zhasina said. “Give you boys some time to do what you need before our duties return to normal. We will see you at dinner. I need to visit with my kinsmen. Come on, Aryn.”
Valis groaned. “I should check on the mercenaries, too.”
“Yes, you should,” Seza said. “They’re loyal to you, and you need to keep that loyalty fresh.”
“I’m aware.” Having their loyalty and friendship was a blessing, and Valis couldn’t let them down. He had a responsibility to them. They had earned the right to sanctuary.
“I’ll see to them as soon as we’re done with Brother Bachris and Thyran.”
Seza nodded and leaned in to kiss his forehead, then Tavros’. “Fair enough. Have a good day, boys.”
Aryn paused in the doorway for one last look before he let Zhasina push him out into the hall. The shattered, almost dead expression in his eyes made Valis uncomfortable. He shook off the feeling and stood. “We should get it all over with so we can truly relax before duty calls.”
His lover smirked at him and stood, adjusting his tunic. “You never could sit still for long.”
“Can’t help it,” Valis groused. “Blame the impatience.”
“Maybe I need to fuck you into the mattress, instead,” Tavros murmured gruffly against his ear. The husky tone to his voice made Valis’ body instantly react until he was hard and aching. A shiver snaked its way down his spine and he completely forgot about Aryn. “Maybe then you’ll be too sated to feel the constant need to move.”
“Maybe. Or maybe that will make us late and force us to do all this tomorrow.” And Gods, could his voice get any darker with his need? He needed to get himself under control if he was to face anyone else today without embarrassing himself. Tavros only grinned at him and drew him to the bed.
“We can make this quick.”
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