Time stretched on, but seemed to move so fast that he couldn’t keep up. Was that sinister laughter all around him, or frantic screams? Xastrian couldn’t tell. His back grew sticky from his own scalding blood that poured out of him. His vision swam, flashes of void and light. He heard someone scream for a healer. Then, he knew not how long, but unimaginable pain flared through skin, muscle and bone as someone battle tended him. His Wingleader’s face, hard with worry and cold fury, flashed through his mind.
Oh… Xastri… That’s over now. You’re not there anymore.
And then everything returned with the sound of Xastrian’s new lover’s voice. Velithor Adonel, Xastrian’s darling hunter, squeezed his hand in a silent show of comfort. Xastrian kissed the back of his lover’s head to show his thanks for bringing him out of his mind’s trap.
Everything seemed to flit through Xastrian’s mind. Now that he sat astride his soul-mount, a giant black dragon named Ta’emir, his soul both felt complete and at peace, washing away those awful memories, but made him feel as if he were forgetting something important. He gazed out over the landscape as that last feeling washed over him. His new mate, Velithor, a competent and kind hunter, sat before him, as eager to see everything he could as an inquisitive puppy. Velithor’s eyes seemed to be everywhere. His head swiveled this way and that, and his exuberance kept Xastrian’s mind from straying too long from him. How was he to keep dark thoughts to his chest when such a bright ball of sunshine as this precious elf exuded was pressed against his chest? Velithor let out whooping sounds with his excitement every time Ta’emir dove from great heights only to swoop back up and climb toward the mountain aerie where the city of Elhrovin resided, marking the capitol of the Dragon Highlands.
Their ride was nearing its end, and Xastrian’s heart hurt that they couldn’t spend more time in the air. He had to know if any headway had been made during his absence with the hunt for his would-be assassin. He needed to show Velithor the splendors of the city, and introduce him to his father and grandfather. He needed to do so many things, but when Velithor turned his white head and grinned, so completely happy that his blue eyes sparkled behind his protective eyewear, Xastrian’s heart melted and all thoughts turned toward his new lover.
It didn’t last long, however. Their dragon ride had been a necessity. Velithor’s soul-mount, a horse named Zia’nal, had been lost, waiting for her rider to emerge from the woods where he no longer resided. Their days in that pocket dimension still weighed heavily on Xastrian’s shoulders, and made this short-lived freedom in the air, a complete joy ride, into a cleansing for his soul. Though now that they were finished, and Zia’nal galloped her way toward the Dragon Highlands, it was time to attend to duty. Xastrian only wondered if Velithor would be up for it. The one thing he knew of Velithor’s personality above all else, was his penchant for crippling anxiety. He only hoped that it could be allayed, or at least dealt with in a humane manner as soon as possible.
As they touched down, Xastrian’s heart ached. While it only lasted a few days, the time he and his new lover spent in that cave both felt like years and moments at once. Years, because he missed flying, missed his material things, the comforts of home that he was used to, and his soul mounts—his beloved dragon, Ta’emir, and his horse, Ralis. Moments because he never wanted that time with Velithor to end. Xastrian wondered what else he would have learned if they were still there. But now, even as that ache settled into his chest, he again remembered his duties. His assassination attempt had to be addressed, Velithor had to be introduced. So many things had to be done. But again his mind spun right back to his lover. What would have happened if they’d not escaped? If they had had to forge a life in that dimensional prison?
Thinking that way will drive you mad, Velithor reminded him. The telepathic thought from his lover anchored Xastrian’s thoughts, and their soul-bond swelled with it. Velithor continued, sounding so gentle that it bought a new wave of love that made Xastrian breathless, Now, you get to teach me about your world. I can always kidnap you back to the forest when you have the time and want. And there will be less stress, because we will not be trapped.
Xastrian snickered. Somehow, being trapped with you does not seem like a bad idea.
Ta’emir lowered to the ground and spread his body as flat as it would go so that the elves could disembark their flight. Xastrian dismounted with ease, and once he was down, Velithor mimicked his dismount, sliding down Ta’emir’s wing. While he was less than graceful, it was leagues better than most first-time fliers.
“You learn quickly,” Xastrian said as he helped Velithor off Ta’emir’s wing. “Most end up on their backsides their first dismount.”
Velithor grinned and went to stroke Ta’emir’s sleek neck. “Even if I did land on my backside, it would be worth it. That was the most amazing experience.”
“You will be able to have such experiences as often as you wish, though please never go alone until you have been properly trained to fly.”
“Oh, I’d never leave without you,” Velithor promised. “Not until I know what I’m doing. While I’m positive Ta’emir would catch me if I ever fell, I’d not want to give him that kind of heart failure.”
Ta’emir snorted and butted his snout to Velithor’s side, making the hunter laugh and stagger. You are wise, young one. I like you.
“I like you, too.” Velithor’s laughter subsided as he stroked Ta’emir’s cheek. “I’ve never seen any being so gorgeous.”
“Oh, please stop inflating that beast’s ego,” Xastrian teased. “If you keep that up, he will no longer fit in his nest.”
Grinning, Velithor looked around the brood hall and tilted his head. “There don’t seem to be that many nests in here.”
“There are other brood halls,” Xastrian explained. “This one is mainly for the top elite and royal mounts. There are also the hatcheries and other quarters for them built into the mountains. As well, a good portion of the dragons roost elsewhere, and only come when, or if, they wish to find a bond mate.”
“I see.” Velithor frowned, his eyes still scanning the brood hall.
“What is it, my heart?”
“Where are Lurir and the cubs?” he asked. “I don’t see them, and their scents are gone.”
“I do not know.” Xastrian pulled Velithor to him and kissed his forehead. “Not to worry. We will find them, even if I have to send out a search party.”
“I forgot all about them when I saw Ta’emir.” His frown deepened and he leaned his forehead into Xastrian’s shoulder. “How could I have been so careless?”
“Lurir is a smart pup,” Xastrian soothed. “I am sure he is taking care of those cubs like they are treasure.”
A soft, shrill whine filtered into the cave and Velithor stiffened. Xastrian felt Lurir over their bond just as Velithor gasped and darted out of the cave. Xastrian struggled to keep up with the swift hunter, but jerked to a stop a few paces behind when he saw the state Lurir was in, the cubs trailing not far behind, being herded by other wolves.
Lurir limped toward them, his hind left leg nearly useless. Flanking him on either side and behind marched three of the resident wolves, each with a fish in their maws. They growled low, but remained by Lurir’s side as if they understood that Xastrian and Velithor were no threat.
As Velithor neared with cautious steps, all four wolves’ ears perked. Lurir whined again. Tails whipped in the wind. Xastrian knew that the hunter spoke to them, though he was not privy to their conversation. Being left out of something that made his lover so emotional nearly broke Xastrian’s heart.
Velithor fell to his knees and held out his hands a few steps from the pup as if giving the other wolves time to acclimate to him. Lurir limped as fast as he could. Lacerations gouged his neck, shredded so much of his coat that little of him remained gray due to so much blood. As hurt as he was, all the pup did was wiggle his backside with the force of his wagging tail and bathe Velithor’s face with kisses, all the while issuing shrill, pained whines as that tail’s thrashing must have been excruciatingly painful.
Velithor’s gentle hands glowed softly as he stroked the wolf. Pride welled in Xastrian’s chest as he watched his lover wield his magic without thought. His hunter took care as he avoided some of the kisses to inspect the wounds and soothe the pup’s pain. With each stroke, the whines became less shrill until they were sounds of pure joy.
“It’s okay, Lurir,” Velithor murmured. “You’ll be all better in a few moments. Sit still! I can’t reach if you’re butt’s wiggling that fast!”
“That dog knows how to get himself into trouble.” Xastrian chuckled.
“Don’t blame it on him.” Velithor sighed as he worked on the wolf’s hip. “We left him alone with hungry cubs.”
“They won’t be hungry for long with those enormous fish. Look at them go! You would swear it has been days since they last ate.”
Velithor sat back on his heels and stroked Lurir’s fur as the pup ate his own fish. “Running a wolf ragged will do wonders for your appetite. Isn’t that right, baby?”
Lurir didn’t respond, too into wolfing down his fish to care what the elves spoke about. Lifting his gaze from Lurir, Xastrian regarded the three other wolves and rolled a hand toward them.
“What of the other wolves?” he asked.
“He needs to be with his own,” Velithor said, sadness touching his voice. “This pack has adopted him.”
Something in Xastrian’s heart sank. Was it sadness for Velithor, or his own want to keep Lurir close? He frowned. “Will you be okay with this, Veli?”
“There’s no place for him in a palace. I will see him again.”
At that, Velithor was lost in his own world again, shared only by the animals that surrounded them. Lurir whined and rolled onto his back, exposing his blood-encrusted under side. Velithor sucked in a breath as he rubbed the pup’s belly.
“Such a good boy,” the hunter cooed.
With that praise, Lurir went wild with the kisses until Velithor laughed and hugged the wolf tight against his chest. He buried his face in Lurir’s fur and scrubbed his hands through the thick, matted scruff.
“Go on now, baby,” Velithor murmured. “Go home.”
Xastrian’s breath hitched in a silent sob. He hugged himself, his left arm curling around his side, the right reaching up to cover his heart and grip his shoulder. He felt Velithor’s tears, smelled them as Lurir lapped them off the hunter’s face.
The wolves woofed as they turned in circles and aimed toward the forest. With that single call, Lurir whirled around and raced off after them. He watched for as long as he was able before joining Velithor at his side. With a silent sniffle, he dropped a hand to Velithor’s shoulder and squeezed.
“He’s going home,” Velithor whispered, his voice thick with his sadness. “We’ll see him again. He’ll always know us.”
“I will miss him,” Xastrian admitted, his voice just as thick and watery. He cleared his throat. “I will miss him dearly.”
“Don’t worry.” Velithor turned a bright grin on him. “We still have cubs to deal with.”
“And they definitely cannot enter the palace.” Xastrian groaned as he regarded the two fat puffs of brown fur. “What shall we do with them?”
“Well, we could wander the forest and see if there’s a dam to take them in,” he mused. “Or, we could leave them with Ta’emir as a baby-sitter.”
I think not, Ta’emir scoffed. I would rather skin them to line my nest, and eat their carcasses.
“Aww, but they’re just babies!” Velithor laughed. Seeing his hunter teasing his dragon amused Xastrian to no end. “They’d barely be a mouthful!”
A tasty snack, indeed, Ta’emir mused. Little fleshy morsels with delicious, savory baby fat.
“Oh, now you’re just being obscene.” Velithor smirked, wrinkling his nose. “Ah well, I have no idea what to do with them other than to find and convince a dam.”
“Why not do that while I get things situated here?” Xastrian asked. “There are a few things yet that I must do before I head back to the palace. I should still be here by the time you get back, if you hurry.”
“You say that as if I know exactly where in a strange forest to find a dam,” Velithor said as he glanced at the expanse of trees that loomed not far off. “It could take me days.”
“Or, you could track down the wolf pack and ask them if they know where a dam is,” Xastrian offered. “Or would that just not work?”
Velithor stared at him, his mouth dropped. With a laugh, he launched to his feet and wrapped Xastrian in a bruising hug. “You’re a genius!”
Xastrian preened and hugged his hunter in return. “Oh, I do try.”
Ta’emir snickered. And now his ego matches my own.
The resounding chortle filled Xastrian’s mind and he shook his head. When he glanced at Velithor, amusement flashed in his electric eyes and he leaned in to kiss his hunter’s plush lips.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Velithor said. “Hopefully without hyper cubs. If not, I may be able to convince the alpha to help Lurir care for them until I can find a dam willing.”
Xastrian purred and chased after his lover’s lips for a sweet kiss as Velithor spoke. When he finally calmed down, he swatted Velithor’s bottom and finally claimed those lips in a chaste kiss. “Good luck. I shall see you soon.”
His hunter grinned at him, turned and took off toward the forest, chasing two rambunctious cubs. As Xastrian watched them go, his heart ached. Never before had he had such fond feelings for animals, but those cubs, that wolf had wormed their way into his heart and soul just as much as his hunter had. Would he ever see them again? It was a selfish thought that plagued him, but he turned back around and headed into the brood hall to attend duty. As he made it to the center of the hall, the familiar sound of beating wings met him, and he jogged out of the landing zone to stand near Ta’emir.
As two of the Imperial Elite dragons touched down, Xastrian wandered over to greet them. At first they didn’t seem to notice his presence, until the redhead grasped his superior’s arm and pointed with a relieved, happy shout that warmed Xastrian to the core. He couldn’t remember a time when anyone seemed so happy to see him.
“Eldrake!” Rinoviel’s bright grin reminded Xastrian of the rising sun with its intensity. The young elf stood almost as tall as Velithor, his rust colored hair bound behind him in a simple plait to keep it from tangling during flight. He wasn’t as broad as a warrior yet, but Xastrian doubted his slender frame would last long under Parion’s guidance. His young face, transformed with relief and happiness, held sky blue eyes that sparkled with mirth, a button nose, and delicate features. He was almost exactly the opposite of Parion with his square jaw, scarred face from many battles, brown eyes and close cropped brown hair, and broad, muscular frame.
“Osulanval’lihor, Rinoviel,” Xastrian murmured the formal greeting. “Osulanval’lihor, Parion.”
Both elves bowed low once they were dismounted. When they righted themselves, Rinoviel laughed.
“We were just out hunting for you,” he said with a boyish grin.
Rinoviel was the youngest to earn his way into the Imperial Flight at the tender age of twelve hundred. To see that the Wingleader chose him to patrol showed how much promise the young man had.
Parion grimaced at the boy’s apparent disregard to Xastrian’s title, but smoothed out his expression and nodded to Xastrian. “It is good to see you well, Eldrake. What happened?”
“There is much to tell.” Xastrian exhaled a weary breath. “For now, I wish a report on what has happened since I went missing.” Truthfully, he wanted to hear that his assassin had been captured. Rinoviel had other ideas.
“What is that you’re wearing, Eldrake?” Rinoviel asked.
Barking a surprised laugh, Xastrian looked down at his robes. “Talza hide robes with buckskin and antler accents.”
Both elves’ eyes went so wide that Xastrian laughed again. Parion stared. “Talza? Eldrake…”
“It will be known to you soon, Parion,” Xastrian said. With a dismissive wave, he ended that discussion. “Report.”
“Two dragons down, Eldrake,” Parion said. “Reds from the south led an attack. We still have not been able to find reason for their onslaught. Nesarias and Heriven are in mourning of their lost mounts, and thus off duty.”
“Mother ease their pain,” Xastrian murmured, bowing his head. “Continue.”
“There is nothing else, Eldrake,” Parion said. “The skies are clear now. Though, Skelaer has become aggressive. We believe she will lay soon. Her rider has been put on ground duty during her feral seasons.”
“Good.” He smiled. Truly, it was a blessed event when a dragon lays a new egg, as the dragon always called to him or his father when the time came. But he sobered as the weight of his duty crashed upon his shoulders. “Was there anything left of the two fallen?”
“They have been scaled and entombed,” Parion said quietly. The Wingleader’s dragon nudged him in the back for comfort. “Their scales have been delivered to their riders.”
“You have done well, Wingleader,” Xastrian said, squeezing the elf’s shoulder. “Tend to your beloved and take a moment to compose yourself. Rinoviel, come with me, please.” Xastrian had only the barest idea of what he was about to do, but he trusted his instincts.
With another squeeze of Parion’s shoulder, he released the elf and walked toward Ta’emir. News of his assassin would have to wait. Dragon attacks took precedence, as it threatened more than just himself. It threatened his entire kingdom. He sighed and glanced over. Rinoviel jogged to catch up and turned curious green eyes up at him. “Yes, Eldrake?”
“You were the dragon handler before you joined the flight,” Xastrian remarked. “You can speak to them all, correct?”
“I would like you to find one for a special elf,” he said. “One who would be willing to train a novice who has not been near a dragon before today.”
“Male or female elf?” Rinoviel asked with a bright grin.
“To be determined.”
“Shy. Hunter. Loves animals and nature.”
“I think I have just the one,” Rinoviel beamed. “Shall I go take care of it now?”
“Actually, I wish you to bring the dragon here,” Xastrian mused. “I would know this dragon before this elf is introduced. Yet, I cannot leave, as I am supposed to meet him here when he returns from an errand.”
“How long will his errand take?” Rinoviel asked with a tilt of his head.
“However long it takes to convince a bear dam to take in two orphaned cubs…”
Rinoviel’s head cocked to the side with such force that his braided ponytail whipped behind him. “What?”
“He is a hunter, as I said,” Xastrian said with a secretive grin. “The cubs were our babies for a while. It is time they found a mother, as I doubt we could raise them in the city without a fuss from the Court.”
“I… okay.” Rinoviel blinked and looked around. “Right, uh… I’ll go get our new best friend, and be right back, then. I think that’s enough weird for me at the moment.”
Chuckling, Xastrian nodded. “Hurry back.”
As Rinoviel ran off, Xastrian turned back to Ta’emir and rubbed between his beloved dragon’s eyes as he called over his shoulder. “Parion, come here, please.”
“Yes, Eldrake.” He jogged over once the two mounts had their snacks of live, bleating sheep. “How may I serve?”
“I need your assistance in a small matter,” Xastrian said, his back turned to the Wingleader. “Send a scout toward the Summerlands. Look for a steed headed this way. She is a striking white, so will be hard to miss. I want you to ensure that nothing unfortunate happens to her. The scout is to protect her at all costs.”
“And if she must be approached?” Parion asked.
“Her name is Zia’nal.” Xastrian pondered a moment. How best to not frighten the poor horse? He frowned for only a second before saying, “Land your mount well away from her, as she is still uncertain of them. According to her rider, she is personable if you call her by name and approach in a friendly manner with a soft voice.”
“It will be done, Eldrake,” Parion promised with a formal bow at the waist. “I shall send Cyn. She is a healing-inclined mage, so she will be better prepared for the mission.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Parion,” Xastrian said as he turned toward the bowed elf. Now for the report he was desperate for. He steeled himself, not sure he could handle the news if it proved to be what he was almost certain it would be. He inhaled a deep breath and asked, “And what of my assassin?”
Parion grimaced, and Xastrian’s heart clenched with fear and dread. He resisted the urge to wipe his suddenly damp palms on the buckskin of his pants. “I don’t think there has been any headway. You’ll have to talk to Garambor about that.” He grimaced again, clearly wanting to give a full report, but if the Crest, or head of the ground military whereas Parion was head of the aerial military, was the one to speak to, Xastrian couldn’t fault him. “I’m sorry, Eldrake.”
Xastrian nodded and took another deep breath to calm his nerves. “Thank you for your candor. You are dismissed.”
“Thank you, Eldrake. Vas’eser.”
With the formal farewell, Xastrian bowed his head in kind and watched the Wingleader jog out of the cave to find his scout. Alone, he leaned heavily against Ta’emir’s face and stroked his shiny black scales, relying on his soul-mount for comfort. I have missed you greatly.
I can only imagine, his dragon said in their mind link. You have yet to speak of what happened.
Xastrian shuddered and reached to tuck his hair behind his ears to get it out of his face. So much. I blasted us into another dimension with a crazy woman with a god complex, a talza, harpies, and a sithak. It snowballed downhill from there.
Mmm, no wonder you were so eager to fly, Ta’emir mused. You seem none the worse for wear. Though, you also seem… different. Calmer. More sure of yourself.
Chuckling, Xastrian leaned his face next to Ta’emir’s large eye. I think I matured in that cave. There was great joy in those few days with the sorrow and terror. I learned much, and can learn so much more.
And what stops you? Ta’emir asked, nuzzling against him.
That is something I have never witnessed you admit before. He really has changed you… for the better, as I have seen thus far.
He saw me at my worst. Xastrian smiled as he remembered all those times he saw pride swell in his hunter’s eyes. He saw me at my worst, and still, he claimed me.
That is how it is meant to be, otherwise I would have dropped you on your head long ago.
With a laugh, Xastrian buried his face in his mount’s scales and dissolved into soft chuckles. He shook his head and sighed when he calmed, patting Ta’emir’s face under his large eye. You are horrible.
Yet, you still adore me. Ta’emir let out a musical laugh.
Xastrian snorted. Much to my chagrin at times.
Grinning, Xastrian patted Ta’emir’s face again. He groaned as just the presence of his soul-mount, his dragon, calmed his heart. Footsteps sounded behind him, but he didn’t turn. They ran for him. Thinking it was Rinoviel returned with the dragon, he remained with Ta’emir, basking in his soul-mount’s presence. Ta’emir would alert him to any danger. He would protect Xastrian with his life. Whoever ran for him must be someone he knew.
That apparently didn’t matter, though. The nearer those steps came, the more his heart clenched with anxiety. His assassin could be anyone. Someone he knew, as he knew nearly everyone within the Dragon Highlands, at least in passing. A warm body pressed against his back and he stiffened. Arms flowed around his middle, gentle and sure. The male purred against his ear and kissed his neck, and instantly Xastrian relaxed.
“That was a rather short trip, Veli,” he murmured against Ta’emir’s neck.
“Veli…?” Disdain filled Asseisal’s voice. “Who is Veli?”
“Gods, Asseisal!” Turning in those arms, Xastrian’s heart sank and he stared into his fiancé’s eyes. “Mother’s breath, I am sorry.”
“This ‘Veli’ holds you as I do?” Asseisal frowned, hurt darkening his eyes. “He kisses you as I do?”
Xastrian’s stomach pitted and he scrubbed a hand over his face. Asseisal held him possessively, and when Xastrian dared to look again, his fiancé frowned deeper. “We are to be married in less than a season, Xastrian. Where have you been that you found someone else to frolic with so soon?”
“I am… so sorry, Asseisal,” Xastrian said. He tried not to shy away from him. They had shared so much over the last few epochs. Arranged political marriage or no, Asseisal never deserved to find out like this. “The wedding is off.”
Asseisal scowled and backed away. “Off? What do you mean, ‘off’?” he demanded.
Frowning, Xastrian straightened his posture as if he were about to go into a violent court session. Though, if he were honest, it might be worse than anything the court could throw at him. “I have bonded with another, Asseisal. I apologize for how sudden this news is, and the unfortunate way you found out, but I cannot marry you. Velithor and I will marry as soon as arrangements are in order.”
His now ex-fiancé’s face neutralized into a blank, unreadable mask. His fingers curled into fists only briefly before relaxing at his sides again. “What happened to you, Xastrian? Where did you go?”
That was a question he could answer. Rubbing his forehead, Xastrian sighed and stared at his ex-lover. “I went to the Summerlands to hole myself up in the forest to practice my magical skills.”
He went on explaining all that had happened, from being trapped in a pocket dimension, to gaining his freedom with the help of Velithor and the sithak. With each sentence, Asseisal’s faceted iolite eyes—eyes that once resembled soft, clear-as-violet water in the spring—darkened to near black to obscure his pupils. The darker those eyes became, the more Xastrian wanted to disappear back into that cave again, and live there forever with his hunter.
“I am sorry, Asseisal,” he said.
“You will be,” Asseisal whispered, then turned around and stormed off.
The moment Asseisal turned the corner out of the brood hall, Xastrian fell back against Ta’emir’s face and covered his own with his hands. Gods, how could he have forgotten about Asseisal? How could he have forgotten his fiancé of eight epochs? How could he not remember, even if not those last days in the cave, the moment he touched Elhrovin soil?
With a groan, he slid down his dragon’s face until he sat amid the straw, skins and fabric that made up his soul-mount’s nest, something that would have disgusted him before meeting his hunter. There was no finding his heart now. Nothing could tear it, not with Velithor’s love filling it. But now his heart hid somewhere near his feet… or was it in his gurgling stomach?
That did not go as well as planned, Ta’emir murmured in his mind. Your pain is my pain.
My pain grows. Velithor does not know about Asseisal. I… I forgot completely while we were in the cave, I was so rapt with my hunter.
If he is yours, he will understand if you take the time and courage to explain. Do not set it aside.
Xastrian sagged where he sat and nodded into his hands. I just wish I had told him sooner so this would not be an unpleasant surprise. How could I have been so enthralled that I could not remember my own fiancé?
Think on that later, beloved. Collect yourself now, as another approaches.
Gathering himself up, Xastrian forced himself to recover. Moments after he had his calm façade in place, the beating of wings heralded another dragon come to land. When he looked, Rinoviel grinned at him and slid down the wing of a beautiful dragon with shimmering green hide.
“Sorry I’m late, Eldrake,” he said, his voice bright with a laugh. “Serase took some convincing, but she’s ready for the challenge.”
With a soft sigh, Xastrian stood and strode over to the dragon’s face to rub her bumpy snout. “Is she bonded?”
“No, Eldrake,” Rinoviel said. “She doesn’t wish to bond yet.”
“If anyone can change her mind, it is Velithor.” Xastrian let a gentle smile cross his face as he continued to rub her face with his magic keyed and focused into his hand. “However, no one will force her to try.” He stared into Serase’s large eye and patted her face beside it. “I thank you, Serase, for being my love’s first teacher. Keep him safe, Beauty. He is precious to me.”
Serase shivered and gave a nod so minute that it did not dislodge Xastrian’s glowing hand. His magic pooled there to calm, comfort and spread his love, and she closed her eyes with the joy of it. Grinning, Xastrian stroked fingers over her eyelids and patted her leathery cheek again.
After a beat of silence, Rinoviel cleared his throat and turned wide eyes on Xastrian. “Velithor? Love? I thought you were marrying Asseisal next season.”
Xastrian turned a fond look on the young elf and shook his head. “Asseisal knows now that the wedding is off. I have bonded with this elf. I cannot be with another.”
The look Rinoviel gave Xastrian made the Dragon King wither inside. “That’s not very fair to Asseisal. Breaking a wedding off a relationship that’s lasted that long for an elf you’ve only known a few days? …I hope you know what you’re doing.” The impertinent manner in which Rinoviel spoke rankled, but Xastrian couldn’t fault him overmuch. Not with the guilt that weighed Xastrian down like lead and shackles. He did, however give the boy a warning look that made Rinoviel duck his head.
“Leave that up to me, Rinoviel,” Xastrian chided. “It is my destiny at stake, and my choice.”
“I just don’t understand it, Eldrake.” Rinoviel wrinkled his button nose and stared openly at him, but kept his tone a little more respectful. Just a little. “You loved Asseisal all this time—”
“And I love him still,” Xastrian said, expertly hiding the fact he lied through his teeth. “However, that love has changed, and all must abide by it, including Asseisal, and you.”
Xastrian rubbed the bridge of his nose and fought against a groan as the ghost of an incoming headache threatened his resolve. He should get used to such talk, as Rinoviel wouldn’t be the only one with questions. But he had to head this talk off before he really did get a headache. His voice sounded tired and worn as he murmured, “Enough, Rinoviel. My private affairs are mine alone. If you understand the bond between yourself and your soul-mounts, you should understand the bond between elves just as clearly, as it is greater and all the more unshakable. This discussion is closed.”
Rinoviel’s shoulders sagged and he nodded. “All I’m saying, Eldrake, is the Court may not see it that way.”
“I understand.” Xastrian let out a breath between clenched teeth, knowing that all too well. “That is for me to deal with, though I do appreciate your concern.”
“You have my support in everything, Eldrake,” Rinoviel said loyally. “I’ve not seen you glow like this… ever. Something changed in you, and I like it.”
Chuckling, Xastrian nodded and stroked a hand over Serase’s snout. “I thank you for that, Rinoviel. Your support means much to me.”
“So when will your mate be arriving, do you think?” Rinoviel asked. “You really plan on staying right here until he returns?”
“He will be swift,” Xastrian assured. “His absence gives me time to get acquainted with Serase, and gives you time to fill me in on the Reds.”
“Parion gave you the report.” Rinoviel shifted from foot to foot and frowned. When Xastrian gave him a knowing grin, the younger elf colored and looked down. “Right…”
“What do you know?” Xastrian prodded with a teasing lilt to his voice.
“Come, man. I know you know dragons better than most on the Flight,” Xastrian wheedled. “You know them more intimately than even I.”
That got Rinoviel to open up again. His face contorted with so many emotions before he went off into his report. “They’re pissed,” he said with a shrug. “They’re not attacking randomly. It’s like they’re trying to make or prove a point, but I can’t figure out what that point is. All I know, is that there’s a pattern to it, and the only ones who die are those who try to retaliate. Those who flee are left unharmed.”
“So they are simply giving a show of force?” Xastrian perked a brow at that. A show of force could mean worse things to come. He shuddered and frowned. “Have these displays worsened?”
“I don’t know about worsening.” Rinoviel rubbed the back of his neck and groaned, his shoulders dropping some of their tension. “It only just started the day you left to train. There have been two attacks in all. One was a fly-by that scared the Elite into a panic. The second, the Elite retaliated and there were two casualties. The dragons fell to their deaths, and the Flight saved their riders.”
“How can you see a pattern after only two attacks?” Xastrian asked. “That is a high claim.”
“I have noticed them scouting our perimeter. It borders between caution and aggression. I’ve not gotten close to them out of respect, but they let me observe from a distance without attacking. There’s just… something that doesn’t feel right.”
“I will trust your instincts for now.” Xastrian nodded and squeezed Rinoviel’s shoulder with a sigh. “You can speak to all soul animals. If they allow you to get close enough, would you try communicating with them to get information?”
“My mount won’t allow that, Eldrake,” Rinoviel murmured, hanging his head. “I already tried.”
“Would you allow that, Serase?” Xastrian asked as he peered into the large golden eye. “Would you allow Rinoviel to get close enough for such a mission?”
She stared into Xastrian’s eyes for a long moment. He could almost feel her scanning his soul, delving deep into him, and into the far reaches where he would not even tread within himself. It had him shifting uncomfortably. Finally, she gave a minute nod.
“She says that she will do this after she takes care of your mate,” Rinoviel translated. “She wants to train him before she allows herself to be placed into that kind of danger.”
“I appreciate your loyalty, Serase.” Xastrian smiled into that beautiful eye. “This means much to me. Though, remember this: I do not think Rinoviel would put you into danger unnecessarily. I trust in his instincts. However, I trust in yours as well.”
“She says that it’s better to be safe than dead,” Rinoviel groused.
“She is wise. You should listen to her.”
“But… you just sa—”
“I know what I said, Rinoviel.” He pinned the boy in place with a stare. “I also know that if she is not comfortable taking on that mission yet, I will not force her, and neither will you guilt her into it. Is that clear?”
“I thank you. Now, I have another favor to ask.”
Xastrian grinned. “Velithor will need a friend here, other than myself and Serase. He is personable, but as I said before, he is shy and anxious in new places and around crowds. The more people he can trust here, the more comfortable he will be. Are you up for the challenge? He is not much older than you.”
Rinoviel beamed and nodded. “I’d like that.”
“Good.” Xastrian blew a long, slow breath through his nose. Something eased in his chest. “I will let you be his personal tutor, then, if you are up for it.”
“Of course. Just flight training, or anything else?” He studied Xastrian curiously, as if he’d never seen his Eldrake before, or as if he couldn’t believe they were having this particular conversation.
Xastrian laughed softly and patted the young elf’s shoulder. “Your exuberance is refreshing. Teach him anything you find will be helpful, though I would also like you to teach him Elhrohivae, or at the very least, Elhrohi so that he can understand those within our kingdom who show disdain toward common elvish.”
“You know I’ll end up teaching him the bastardized version, yes?”
Covering his face, Xastrian huffed a laugh and shook his head. “That might actually fit his personality better. Though, do try and teach him proper things, as he will be my consort and might need to appear courtly on occasion.”
“Taking the fun out of everything already,” Rinoviel said with a pout and a dramatic sigh. “Fiiiiine.”
“Not to worry, Rinoviel,” Xastrian tapped him under the chin in a rare show of affection for someone other than lover or family, “I will not make him appear courtly often. It simply is not in his nature. He is… a wild spirit. I have a feeling the two of you will get along well.”
Rinoviel snorted and gave him a cocky, lopsided grin. “I can get along with a badger, Eldrake.”
“And that makes you perfect for Velithor, because he loves so freely, Rinoviel. I will need you to… not shelter him, but—”
“I understand, Eldrake,” the boy said in a kinder tone. “I’ll be there for him when you aren’t able, but I won’t smother him. I know how to be a friend. It seems you’ve recently learned that, too.”
Heat flooded Xastrian’s face and he looked down. “Was I that bad?”
“You were very… stiff,” he said, toeing the ground and ducking his head in a boyish display that made Xastrian remember just how young Rinoviel actually was, the youngest member of the Flight. “You seem looser now, and more aware of people’s thoughts and feelings. You’ve never talked to me—to anyone—like this before.”
Frowning, Xastrian took to petting Serase’s face as he studied the floor. Ta’emir… was I really that bad?
You have grown, beloved. Let us simply rejoice in that, and move on.
He closed his eyes and hung his head. Serase butted the side of her face against his leg just enough to nudge him without knocking him flat and lifted her head into his hand. Xastrian obliged by rubbing the thick hide near her eye.
“I… apologize, Rinoviel,” he murmured. “I did not realize…”
“Hey, none of that,” Rinoviel said. “The fact that you remember my name and trust me like this, and that you’ve got that look on your face now, tells me that I at least made an impression, whether you previously showed me or not.”
“You had. I have watched your progress from the first day you began training for the Elite. You impressed me greatly.”
Rinoviel’s chest puffed out with pride at that, and he beamed brighter than the sun. Chuckling, Xastrian shook his head and grinned at the boy. They lapsed into easy chatter while they waited for Velithor. Serase took up residence in the nest nearest Ta’emir, and the elves reclined against Xastrian’s dragon.
It felt good to have personable chatter without having to worry about appearances or protocol. Rinoviel was so full of life and animated in a way that Xastrian ached for not having appreciated it before. It was like he was waking up from a long dream and realizing reality did not have to be perfect and terse.
As the sun made its descent in the sky, Xastrian frowned. It was not yet nightfall, but it was nearing the evening meal.
“Want me to go look for him, Eldrake?” Rinoviel asked, resting his hand on Xastrian’s knee.
Xastrian squeezed his hand and took a deep breath. “Give him a few more moments. Knowing him, he is befriending every animal in the forest.”
“He has that skill?” Rinoviel asked wide-eyed.
“He can speak to any animal, from sentient as our soul-mounts, to the baser varieties like the wolves and bear cubs.”
“Indeed. You should have seen him getting me to love on cubs, a wolf, and a great cat. It was rather comical.”
Rinoviel let out a joyous bark of a laugh. “I’d give up my seat on the Flight to see that!”
“You may not have to, if he has anything to do with it.” Xastrian snorted. “Truly. He attracts animals more efficiently than flowers attract honey bees.”
“I don’t attract animals, Xastri,” Velithor laughed. “I just treat them with respect, and they sometimes agree to follow me when I have a need.”
“Veli!” Xastrian leapt to his feet and jogged toward his lover. “I was worried.”
Velithor caught him around the waist and buried his face in the curve of Xastrian’s neck with a deep purr. “It took some convincing to get the dam to agree. The cubs are safe now, and Lurir is happy in his new pack. The alpha is more personable than I thought he would be.”
“You made friends with the entire pack, didn’t you?” Xastrian teased.
“I… kinda did, yes,” Velithor laughed. “I couldn’t help it! They were all so sweet!”
“You two are adorable,” Rinoviel snickered.
Velithor stiffened in Xastrian’s arms, and when he looked, the elf was scarlet. Rubbing his back, Xastrian kissed the side of his hunter’s head and glanced back at the boy.
“Veli, this is Rinoviel. He will be your flight trainer and guide when I am busy with stuffy court dealings. He was once a dragon handler, and is now one of our top Elite.”
Rinoviel puffed his chest out again and wandered up. “You really are shy. Not to worry, Veli. My sole mission is to keep the blood from burning your face for as long as possible.”
Velithor covered his face and dissolved into boyish snickers. When he sobered, his electric blue eyes twinkled with laughter and he nodded. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Rinoviel reached out and took Velithor’s hand and led him toward the two dragons. “Come on. I want you to meet Serase. She’s a sweetheart, and she’ll be the main one training you. I’m just going to be there for company, mostly. Since you should be able to hear her, from what Eldrake said, she should be able to tell you what to do directly.”
Velithor nodded and grinned at Serase. As if they were already best friends, he went up to the dragon with his hand out, and paused a few feet away. “May I, Serase?”
She studied him a moment, then nodded. The next few moments, Velithor was lost to the world as he conversed with the dragon. Xastrian remained a respectful distance from that conversation, even as he stood next to his mate. By the end of it, Velithor fawned over her, petting her face and neck until the beast purred.
“Is there any animal you will not spoil rotten, my love?” Xastrian teased.
Velithor ducked his head and grinned. “No. I’ve even spoiled cantanths.”
“Cantanths? You…” Rinoviel’s jaw dropped. Xastrian could sympathize, as cantanths were a breed of saber-toothed wolf that stood almost as tall as a horse, were seemingly nothing but fur and muscle, and had canines half as long as an elf’s forearm.
Xastrian reached out and pushed it up with his forefinger. “I told you, did I not?”
The hunter chuckled and flicked his thigh-length white hair behind his shoulder. His blue eyes twinkled as he ducked his head, his amusement winning out over his shyness. The way the flush pinked his high cheekbones made Xastrian stroke a finger over the heated skin until Velithor batted his tickling hand away. “It was for dire circumstances, back when Mother razed the human world. Tree nymphs attacked the humans, and I had a pack of cantanths protecting families until the situation was resolved.”
“That’s amazing!” Rinoviel cried. “Can you teach me to speak to animals like that?”
Velithor ducked his head again and gave Rinoviel a sad smile. “I haven’t found another elf who has my ability, Rin. Sorry. I can try, surely. But, I think it’s a gift instead of something to learn.”
Rinoviel didn’t falter. “That’s okay. Whether I can do it or not, learning how you do it will still be neat!”
That made Velithor relax, and Xastrian’s chest eased. “Right. Well, Veli… the evening meal awaits if you are hungry. Would you like to join us, Rinoviel?”
He grinned and nodded. “When we’re done, I can take you on a tour of Elhrovin! …Unless Eldrake has other plans…”
Xastrian laughed and kissed the side of Velithor’s head as he led them out of the brood hall. “That is up to Veli. If he wishes the tour, I will leave the two of you to it, and catch up on my duties. Otherwise, I am sure I can find something to fill our time with.”
“Oh, if you have things to do, Xastri, I don’t want to get in the way.” Velithor frowned, though it was clear he didn’t want to leave Xastrian’s side with the way he pressed close. His lithe body felt glorious against Xastrian’s side, and his arousal spiked as he felt warm, hard muscles flex under the hand Xastrian had wrapped about his lover’s waist. Velithor was covered in a soft sheen of sweat from running, and the clean scent of it, redolent with pine and sunshine, made Xastrian almost desperate to get him indoors to show his hunter just how much he had missed him. It took a valiant effort to redirect his focus from stealing his mate away and ravishing him back to the conversation at hand.
“Nonsense,” he purred, and couldn’t help the way it sounded lusty and dark. Couldn’t help how his voice had taken on a husky tone. Thankfully neither of his companions seemed to notice, though Velithor shivered under his touch. “The choice is yours.”
Velithor shifted from foot to foot. “I’d really like the tour. But I don’t want to leave you…”
“I’ll keep you safe, Veli,” Rinoviel promised. “If you want to go with me, I’ll keep us out of the crowded areas and let Eldrake take you to those himself. He mentioned your anxiety with people, so if something bothers you, just squeeze my hand and we’ll change trajectory.”
Velithor shot an accusatory glance to Xastrian and he withered. “Veli, I cannot be by your side at every given moment. I trust Rinoviel, and I knew right away that you would like him.”
“I also know how to keep things to myself,” Rinoviel said, squeezing Velithor’s shoulder. “It was told to me in private, and he didn’t get into specifics. You can tell me those on your own time if you ever want to.”
Xastrian could have hugged that boy, as Velithor relaxed and leaned further against his side. He flashed Rinoviel a thankful grin, and received a wink in return.
“I take it he’ll be sharing your suite, Eldrake?”
“He will, unless he wishes his own space,” Xastrian replied.
“No…” Velithor murmured. “It’s either with you, or in the forest.”
“Right,” Rinoviel chirped. “Well, then. Then we’ll start the tour off with Eldrake’s suit so you know where it is, and then go from there.”
“You may enter my suite as you need for the tour, Rinoviel,” Xastrian said. “Anything you need will be brought to you if you but ask.”
As they made their way inside Elhrovin’s gates, Velithor grew stiff. His shoulders squared and his spine straightened. Rinoviel pressed in against his other side and reached back to play with his hair.
“Relax, Veli,” Rinoviel murmured. “You stiffen any more and you’ll shatter.”
Xastrian looked up, and Velithor was all eyes. They darted everywhere as if trying to take everything in at once. His breathing came in pants that were too quick. His body trembled. Hugging him tighter, Xastrian stopped and nuzzled into his ear.
“Love, it is alright. We will stop a moment.”
“He’s as pale as his hair, Eldrake.” Rinoviel frowned and rubbed Velithor’s back. “Maybe you should have dinner in your suite instead tonight.”
“I think that is a good idea.” Xastrian pulled his lover against his chest and took over rubbing his back. “Calm yourself, my heart. Breathe. Deep breaths.”
The inner courtyard was enclosed and boasted an acre of night blooming plants that glowed softly. Elves milled about in groups that littered the main entry. When Xastrian actually took the time to look around, he sighed. So many people. The crowd grew large with those milling around to settle their dinners and catch up with friends.
Velithor shook in his arms. “I’m sorry.”
“Do not dare apologize, my heart.” Xastrian kissed his temple and hugged him tighter. “No one is asking you to get used to this place in one evening.” Holding him tight, he looked at Rinoviel who nodded.
“I will part the way.”
As Rinoviel led the way, parting the crowd, Xastrian tucked Velithor to his side and guided him through the throng as swiftly as he could. By the time they reached the back of the city, Velithor’s clothes were soaked and his hair lay plastered to his gaunt face in limp strands. His eyes, larger than a frightened doe’s, never stopped darting from one crowd of elves to the next. All of the color bled out of his face before they were even halfway, and now he was near the color of snow, truly almost the color of his white hair.
“Go grab a healer, Rinoviel,” Xastrian ordered. “Bring them to my suite, and have them bring a tea for anxiety.”
“At your command, Eldrake,” Rinoviel said. He squeezed Velithor’s clammy hand and took off at a run.
The moment he was out of sight, Xastrian leaned down and hooked his arm under Velithor’s knees and lifted him against his chest. Swift strides carried them through the city streets to the royal quarter. As he ascended the flights to his suite, Velithor went limp in his arms.
Xastrian stopped dead. His heart dropped through the floor. “Veli? Veli!”
“What ails you, Xastrian?” a familiar voice called.
“Grandfather…” Xastrian instantly relaxed, thankful that it wasn’t his father. “My mate has fainted.”
He came around into Xastrian’s view and checked Velithor’s pulse. “He is in shock,” he remarked. “Get him to your suite.”
“I have already sent for a healer,” Xastrian said as he walked. Va’asdrian kept pace at his side and nodded. His grandfather’s expression never changed, but he kept glancing down at Velithor’s face. Xastrian hastily explained, “I did not realize his anxiety would be quite this bad.”
“Indeed,” Va’asdrian murmured. He ran an elegant hand across Velithor’s forehead and sighed. “You should have called for a healer long before this, Grandson. He suffers, even in unconsciousness.”
Xastrian nodded with a deep set frown. “I have no excuse.”
He waited as his grandfather opened the door to his suite and headed straight for his bedroom to place Velithor onto the plush bed. Va’asdrian remained at his side, golden hair tied at the nape of his neck with a blue ribbon that matched his ornate robes, keeping the mid-back length from getting in the way, but he said not a word else. Instead, he worked at undressing the hunter with Xastrian’s help, and once he was free, covered the elf up in the downy blankets. He passed his hand over his golden eyes in a negligent show of worry that warmed Xastrian from the crown of his head to his toes.
“I am sorry you had to meet him like this,” Xastrian murmured, stunned that his grandfather would treat his husband so warmly when he’d not even truly met Velithor yet.
“This is your fault, not his,” his grandfather replied in a hushed voice. “I will reserve judgment until I am able to converse with him when he is well.”
He turned an icy stare on Xastrian then and narrowed his eyes. “How long have you kept him a secret from us? Does Asseisal know about this?”
Xastrian’s eyes widened and he took a step back. “I did not keep him a secret. Asseisal knows.”
“You just met this elf?” he accused.
“I—Yes.” Xastrian let out a groaning, tired sigh. The questions had begun, and he didn’t think he would ever be ready to answer them. “We bonded during our imprisonment.”
“Imprisonment?” Va’asdrian’s brows shot toward his hairline. “Explain yourself.”
While Xastrian explained the pocket dimension and his time there, Va’asdrian gathered a bowl of water and a cloth and worked at bathing Velithor’s face and chest. When the tale was done, he stared at his grandson with a deep frown.
“I am sorry, Grandfather,” Xastrian murmured.
“What have you to apologize for?”
“No. You must never apologize for a soul-bond,” he said firmly. “They are precious and rare. If the strength of it is as you say, then all must abide by it.”
“Even father?” he asked, staring into his grandfather’s golden eyes, eyes that Xastrian saw in the mirror every time he looked. He looked so much like his grandfather that it hurt that Va’asdrian couldn’t have been his father with how his actual father had turned angry and contentious since his mother’s death. “Father has pushed me to marry Asseisal for ages.”
His stoic expression softened. “Your father is grooming you to be a ruler, Xastrian. He may see this elf as a boon or a threat.”
“And if he views him as a threat?”
“Then you must be ready for the battle of your life and station, my grandson. Especially if what you say of Asseisal’s reaction is true.”
Va’asdrian shooed Xastrian away and settled on the edge of the bed. He sighed as he took up residence in one of the comfortable chairs near the fire stone hearth to watch as his grandfather fussed over Xastrian’s mate.
“What is his title, Grandson?”
“Velithor Adonel, House Ra’nar, Hunter and Scout for the Netherdark, and friends with Kings Elan and Morough.”
“He is friends with your cousin Elan? Interesting. That may be well into your favor,” Va’asdrian mused. He took care to bathe Velithor’s face and neck over and over again with gentle strokes. He kept his voice in a soft cooing tone. “Elan may be your greatest asset in this battle if it comes to that.”
“I will keep this in mind,” Xastrian murmured. “How is he?”
“He calms,” Va’asdrian said. “It will take time. Just as with a timid animal, soft words and gentle hands will do more than teas and magic.”
“Rinoviel should be here within moments.”
“Rinoviel’s here, Eldrake,” the boy whispered from the doorway. “I’d have knocked but I didn’t want to startle Veli.”
“You are fine.” He adopted a wan smile and beckoned the boy inside. “What of the healer?”
“He sent me with tea, and said that if more is needed to call for him.” As he spoke, he placed a teabag onto the table in front of Xastrian and squeezed his Eldrake’s shoulder. “Is there anything else I can do, Eldrake?”
Va’asdrian turned to regard the boy with a fond look. “Have the evening meal brought out to us, please. Something light for Velithor’s stomach, as it may be upset when he wakes. Hot water for the tea. Will you dine with us?”
Rinoviel glanced over at Xastrian, who nodded. “I’d like that. Though, the fewer faces he sees when he wakes, the better, so I’ll stick to a corner until I’m wanted or needed.”
“Actually, my boy, if he knows your face, it might be more beneficial for you to be near to him when he wakes,” Va’asdrian murmured. “He will not know me, so having two he does know will ease his distress.”
The young elf shifted from foot to foot and glanced over at Xastrian with a strange grin before darting for the door to order their meal. Xastrian snorted and shook his head. “I chose well in him.”
“It appears so.” His grandfather smirked as he resumed Velithor’s care. “His loyalty for you fills the room with joy. His youth is contagious.”
“It is, and it will be good for Veli,” he agreed. “He needs a friend here other than myself.”
“He will have it,” Va’asdrian promised.
“Why do you hover so, Grandfather?” Xastrian asked. “I have not seen you fuss like this since I was young.”
“This elf is a delicate flower.” Va’asdrian stroked a gentling hand over Velithor’s chest. “He has been plucked from his habitat and transported to an unknown place, and a vast vase with no familiarity. Sometimes the touch of a father, whether his own, or a stranger, will calm faster than the love of a mate.”
Velithor stirred. The moment he shifted on the bed, Va’asdrian hummed a soothing song and began stroking the hunter’s hair in slow, easy pets that had Velithor purring. The tension bled out of his face with each pass of the elder elf’s hand.
“Easy, Veli,” Va’asdrian murmured. “You are safe and with friends. It is safe to wake now.”
His eyes fluttered open. They fixed on Va’asdrian with a frown, but he did not fight. “Who are you?”
Va’asdrian smiled and leaned in to press a warm kiss to his forehead. “I am now, and forevermore will be, Va’asdrian Senuvesal, your doting grandfather. I welcome you to our family, Velithor Senuvesal, House Sern, Royal Consort of Elhrovin.”
Velithor’s eyes went wide as he stared up at the retired Dragon King. Before he could say a word, Xastrian rushed to his side and took Velithor’s hand, but Va’asdrian waved a hand to silence him.
“What?” Velithor asked.
“Speak your mind, Grandson,” Va’asdrian intoned. “Relax and know that all is well.”
“Consort?” he squeaked.
“It is a token title,” Va’asdrian assured. “It can and will be whatever you wish it to be. If you wish to never be part of court, that is your will and your right. However if you wish your opinions heard, that is also your will, and your right.”
“Enough of that for now,” Xastrian said gently. “Veli, Rinoviel is fetching us dinner. He will return soon. Is there anything you need?”
Velithor wrinkled his nose and shifted. “A change of clothes. I must have sweat buckets. Everything is sticky.”
“How are you feeling, Grandson?” Va’asdrian asked.
“…Better,” he said. “My heart isn’t trying to beat its way out of my body, and I can breathe.”
Grandfather nodded and petted Velithor’s cheek. “There is tea here for your anxiety. I would like you to drink a cup before you leave this room when you go exploring. It will stave off other such occurrences so that you may suffer less distress.”
He nodded and shifted again. With Va’asdrian’s help, he sat up and Xastrian sat next to him. Wrapping an arm about his hunter, he hugged him tight and was rewarded with a lazy purr. “I didn’t know it was a city. I thought it was just a palace like the Netherdark or the Summerlands…”
“I was wrong for not explaining it to you, and I apologize,” Xastrian said. “There are… also other things I was wrong for not remembering, and not mentioning.”
Frowning, Velithor looked up and touched Xastrian’s cheek. “What is it? You suddenly turned to stone…”
With a shudder, Xastrian forced himself to relax and stared into his lover’s eyes. “I was… so in love with you, Veli, that I forgot about my fiancé here. The situation has been tentatively dealt with, but it will have repercussions.”
“…Perhaps I should go make a cup of that tea now,” Va’asdrian murmured as he practically bolted off the bed.
Xastrian cringed at that tone and grunted at the crack of his grandfather’s knuckles that connected with the back of his skull. Apparently, that was less than tactless, but it was out now. Gathering his thoughts, he took a deep breath and stared into Velithor’s eyes as they darkened.
“Asseisal was to be my husband in less than a season,” he continued. “I have told him that the wedding is off the moment he found me. I… I am so sorry—”
“No,” Velithor growled. “You sought me when you had a lover at home? You lusted after me when you were to be married in less than a season? What will happen later when a more beautiful man comes into your life? Will I be forgotten the same?”
“Xastrian. Leave us,” Va’asdrian demanded. “I will send for you shortly.”
“Now,” he said, his voice low and dangerous. “Leave.”
Xastrian breath hitched and he cringed. “I—Yes, Grandfather.”
As he got up, he went to press a kiss into Velithor’s hair, but his hunter jerked away with a livid frown and shuffled to the middle of the bed. It took a few tries, but Xastrian swallowed his heart back down and squared his shoulders. Suddenly, he was no longer hungry.
Heading out, he closed the door to his bedroom to give his husband and grandfather some privacy, but not before he heard Va’asdrian’s soft voice.
“Calm yourself, Velithor,” he cooed.
“How could he?” Velithor growled. “How could he betray his lover like that? How could he forget?”
The undisguised tears in Velithor’s voice broke Xastrian’s heart and choked him as he rushed out of the common room. Rinoviel brushed past him, but he refused to slow down.
Lifting a hand, Xastrian waved him off and stormed through the Royal Quarter. He had to remain close to his suite so that his grandfather could find him, but remaining inside the suite was not an option at the moment. If he remained, he would break. He did not wish Velithor to see that, not again. He had broken enough back in that cave.
Xastrian looked up at the worried voice of his father and sighed. He truly did not need this right now.
“Xastrian, what has you so pale?” Mivikial asked, and Xastrian wondered if this was false worry.
“I apologize, father,” he said. “You should not see me like this.”
“Better that I see you now in this state, than your fiancé,” Mivikial tutted. “What is wrong? Walk with me.”
To tell him, or to leave his father in the dark for a while? Rubbing his forehead, Xastrian frowned. Better to get everything out in the open now so that the crashing of his entire world would be briefer.
“My husband is distraught,” he admitted. “I forgot to tell him of Asseisal when we bonded.”
Mivikial stopped cold only steps back toward Xastrian’s suite and frowned at him. “Husband?”
Xastrian’s stomach pitted, and he swallowed hard. “Grandfather just welcomed him into the family when we arrived. He is with Velithor now in my chambers.”
His father went stony and straightened his posture to its most regal stature. His eyes narrowed, but he kept his voice low and even. “I see. I would meet this elf. And, what of Asseisal?”
“Asseisal has been dealt with for the time being,” he said, trying to keep his calm. He didn’t need to lose his composure in front of his father. Not when everything was about to topple on him. “It did not go well, but I hope to speak with him at length about it soon. As for Velithor, I would appreciate it if you gave him some time to adjust. He is a shy thing, and he has already fainted from anxiety once this day.”
“Yet you leave him alone with your grandfather,” Mivikial said.
“Truthfully, Grandfather sent me away so he could calm Velithor down.”
“You cannot calm your own husband?” Mivikial asked archly, perking a brow.
“I was he who upset him,” Xastrian said. “He became distraught when I told him of Asseisal. I… cannot blame him.”
“You mated with an elf without telling him of your suitor?” his father scoffed. “Truly you have gone mad in the days you were gone.”
That hit Xastrian like a punch to his stomach. Shuddering, he looked back up the walk that led to his suites and sighed. “I had gone mad. I only hope I can mend what I have broken.”
“There is more than a distraught lover who is broken,” Mivikial said. “The Court is in an uproar due to your mysterious absence. And your assassin is still at large. You must make an appearance as soon as you are able to appease the Drakeir. Though, with this new information come to light, I doubt your Wisedrake will see your return as a boon.”
“I will speak to him, father,” Xastrian murmured. “Right now, he needs time to think this through and absorb what I have told him. There is no point in speaking to him further when his mind is clouded by emotion.”
“You are wise there, I think,” Mivikial said. He remained stiff, however, and frowned. “I would still meet your husband before this night is through. If he is as shy as you say, then prepare him for our meeting.”
“I will see him, Xastrian. That is final.” The hardness to Mivikial’s voice sent chills through Xastrian. “I will come to your chambers shortly.”
Xastrian did his best to hide his anxiety with his courtly mask, but feared his father saw through it anyway. Just as he always did. “Yes, father. It will be as you say.”
With a curt nod, Mivikial turned and headed for his own quarters, leaving Xastrian in the walk alone. He stood there and stared after his father until the elf disappeared through his doorway. Moments later, Rinoviel jogged toward him, a deep set frown to his youthful face.
“Eldrake, your grandfather wishes to see you,” he said. “Are you alright?”
“I do not know,” he replied.
Rinoviel cocked his head at that, and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. “Anything I can do?”
“Roll back time until my meeting with Velithor so I can repair what I have broken,” Xastrian said with a frown of self-loathing. “That really is the only thing that would help.”
“Can’t go back, Eldrake,” Rinoviel said with a sympathetic smile and another squeeze of his shoulder. “The only way is forward. Come on. Let’s see what your grandfather has to say. Dinner is waiting for us.”
Nodding, Xastrian allowed the boy to lead him back up the walk. “How is Velithor?”
“He’s calmed a bit,” he said. “Though, he’s still pissed, and rightly so.”
That made Xastrian’s heart clench. He hung his head, unable to meet Rinoviel’s eyes, which had never happened with anyone prior to his stint in the cave. He only looked up when Rinoviel nudged his shoulder with his own. “None of that, Eldrake. You can’t make up for your mental lapse if you’re sulking.”
He gave a rueful smile at that and nodded. “Thank you for your support, Rinoviel.”
“Anytime,” he replied cheerfully. They stopped outside his door, and Rinoviel turned to him, a hand on either shoulder. “Deep breaths. Calm yourself. The more upset you appear, the thicker the tension will be, and neither of you need that right now.”
“Done this before, have you?” Xastrian smirked, but complied. Taking deep breaths, he did his best to center himself.
“No.” Rinoviel massaged Xastrian’s shoulders while he spoke. “It’s common sense, and I like Veli. I don’t want him to refuse you.”
The thought of Velithor refusing him made Xastrian sick. His stomach pitted. Rinoviel must have seen the distress cross his face, as he hugged the Dragon King without ceremony.
“Easy there,” he murmured. Squeezing again, he steadied Xastrian on his feet. “Positive thoughts.”
Another deep breath, and Xastrian nodded. “Let us go before I turn tail and run.”
Rinoviel nodded and led the way inside. Velithor and Va’asdrian were seated in the common room in the plush chairs surrounding the fire stone hearth. They both looked up, and the hardness in Velithor’s eyes dropped Xastrian’s heart through the floor.
Va’asdrian turned a warm smile on Xastrian then, and he stood. “Rinoviel, come with me, please and assist me with dinner preparations.”
With a bounce to his step, Rinoviel complied and followed him into the dining room, leaving Xastrian alone with his husband. Xastrian swallowed and strode through the room.
“Veli…” Xastrian tried not to sigh. Kneeling before him, he hesitated, his hands shaking. Finally, he let them come to rest on his hunter’s knees as he looked up at him. “What can I do to make this right?”
“What you did was wrong, Xastri,” Velithor whispered. “I can’t imagine your fiancé’s hurt.”
“I cannot imagine it, either,” Xastrian said. “But I cannot hope to alleviate it until he has calmed from the news. He found out in an… unfortunate way.”
Velithor’s frown deepened and he narrowed his eyes on Xastrian. “How did he find out?”
It took every ounce of Xastrian’s strength and will not to cringe away from that look and tone. The shame of it made him look down. “He came behind me as I spoke to Ta’emir and hugged me. I thought it was you, and called him by your name.”
The resounding crack startled him. Eyes wide, he looked up just as the pain began to bloom. Raising his hand to his cheek, his mouth dropped open. No one had ever slapped him before. His cheek stung, throbbing over the cheek bone. Tears welled in the eye above it.
“How dare you,” Velithor growled.
Xastrian’s lower lip wobbled, but he firmed it up. His heart thundered in his chest as he simply stared at Velithor and rubbed his pained cheek. The tear in his left eye fell. More welled in both.
“I am sorry,” Xastrian whispered, his voice thick and choked. “Veli… I am so sorry.”
“You should be,” he murmured.
“What can I do? Please… what can I do?” Shaking, Xastrian lowered his face until his forehead rested on Velithor’s knees. Keeping the tears in or blinking them away was impossible. He sniffled and squeezed Velithor’s knees. “I am sorry…”
“Go wash your face and eat,” Velithor demanded. “I’ve already eaten. I want to be alone.”
He flinched as if Velithor had hit him again, but nodded. Without looking up, Xastrian stood and made his way to the dining room off the side of the common room.
The moment he made it inside, Va’asdrian shut the door, led him to the table and tucked him into a chair. The next thing he knew, something cold was placed on his throbbing cheek and he hissed.
“Keep it in place,” Rinoviel said gently. “It’ll take down the swelling and ease the pain.”
The wet cloth was magically chilled. It soon numbed the area enough to where that eye quit watering. He couldn’t open his eyes. If he did, he would start crying.
“Xastrian,” Va’asdrian murmured in that paternal way of his. “Calm yourself and eat.”
Before he could reply, another warmer cloth touched his face. Opening his eyes, he found Rinoviel stood over him, smiling gently as he washed the Dragon King’s face with an almost brotherly reverence. Feeling much like a child, he sniffled and closed his eyes again as the young elf passed the cloth over them.
“No need,” Rinoviel murmured. “You deserved that, though.”
“Yes, you did,” Va’asdrian said softly. “Learn from it.”
“I will, grandfather.”
Once the cloth was removed from his face, Rinoviel pushed his plate before him and a goblet of wine. How he stomached his meal was a mystery, but he ate. Once his belly was full, he got up and turned.
“Do not go back out there yet,” Va’asdrian said. “Give him time.”
“Where would you like me to go?” Xastrian asked.
“Enjoy your wine, grandson,” he said. “When I think he has had the time, I will go care for him. He needs time away from you for a moment.”
“Oh, oh gods,” Xastrian groaned.
“What is the matter?” Va’asdrian asked.
“Father will be in to see him soon, and he was less than pleased,” he replied. Sagging in his chair, Xastrian covered his face with his right hand and shifted the cold compress with the other. “He is going to make this worse…”
“One day, child, I will teach you the complex and arcane art of knowing when to open your mouth, and when to keep it shut,” his grandfather mused. “I will do my best to lessen the blow. Go to your study and collect yourself.” COLLAPSE