– 5 –
The Holanian prince stared. He regarded Rei with wary eyes, hand still tight around the hilt of his sword. Rei opened his mouth to speak again but his words were silenced by the clamour of steel. Kio had discarded the blade in a careless toss, closing the space between them in several quick steps.
‘Rei-Hai,’ he breathed, arms clamping around the smaller man. His embrace was warm, tight, and Rei took a moment before he could respond, eventually spreading his hands across the prince’s broad back.
‘I don’t understand,’ Kio said, withdrawing, hands clasping either side of Rei’s face. ‘I thought … I thought you were——’
‘I am well, My Prince.’ Rei’s skin was burning.
‘I can see that. Deities dead, look at you!’ The corners of Kio’s lips curled in a smile as his eyes washed over his friend. His hands lowered to Rei’s shoulders. ‘I thought I’d never see you again.’
Rei nodded in agreement, finding himself both unable to look the prince in the face nor tear his eyes away. Kio’s gaze was fixed firmly upon him and he looked … happy. Genuinely happy. His fingers gave Rei’s shoulder a strong squeeze and his smile deepened.
‘Come,’ Kio said, swiping Rei’s hand. ‘We have to wake Amika. She’d——’
‘K-Kio!’ Rei’s feet remained rooted to the ground as he tried to hold back the excited prince, who had already turned to rush away. Kio’s brow furrowed into concern.
‘What is it?’
I can’t face her.
It wouldn’t be long before word of Tallas’s death reached Holania. He might not have died at Rei’s hand but he was still part of the plot that ended the life of Amika’s betrothed.
He could never look her in the eyes again.
Kio must have seen the torment on his face. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked softly, taking a step closer.
‘I shouldn’t be here,’ Rei said, and then, his voice even smaller, ‘I just … wanted to see you.’
He stared at his feet, suddenly shy and ashamed. It didn’t matter what he wanted. He was a member of the brethren. A tool. A weapon. He didn’t get to have feelings.
Rei turned to leave but Kio grabbed his hand.
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘It’s just us. Come. The gardens aren’t patrolled at night. No one will see you.’
Rei hesitated, but left his hand where it was, warm within Kio’s grip. The prince bent to retrieve his sword and slipped it back into the sheath at his hip.
‘Let’s go,’ he said, and led them into the night.
IT FELT GOOD TO BE HOME. It felt good to be with Kio, listening to him talk and learning everything that had happened since he’d been away. A lot had changed, but also nothing at all. Kio had the same kind wit, the same gentle sensibility Rei remembered.
They strode through the gardens, arms brushing, though Rei barely reached the prince’s shoulder. After circling the grounds twice, they came to sit under the wisteria pergola, staring at the marble statue of the Great King Kiokharen, the first ruler of Holania. Kio looked more like his namesake now, if only because of the same imposing stature and handsome sharp jaw. The stone King’s hands gripped the hilt of his greatsword; Rei’s eyes drifted to the hands in Kio’s lap, finding the finger unbanded.
‘You’re not married,’ Rei said softly. ‘What happened to Moyna?’
Kio had been betrothed to the Lady Berne of Honnah since they were children; he was now past twenty.
‘She’s well,’ Kio said with a nod. ‘Her father, however, is not. She’s been with him almost a year now, helping her family with the estate. Mother wanted our nuptials finalised before she returned home but Chancellor Sorell insisted we wait. With Father the way he is … Well, Sorell speaks the King’s Word.’
The prince shifted on the bench, knee pressing against Rei’s. He rubbed the finger where a ring should have been. Both fell silent then. Rei could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears. His nerve endings danced under his skin.
‘I can’t remember our last conversation,’ Kio said somewhat sheepishly. ‘I know it was the night we snuck out of the city, but I can’t for the life of me remember what we last said.’
‘You called me a reckless fool,’ Rei said quietly, turning his face away.
And we never spoke again.
Their innocent adventure onto the night plains had taken a turn when a demonspawn had attacked. Rei had led them all to danger, even if he hadn’t known it at the time. It was no small fortune that they’d escaped unharmed and Kio’s harsh rebuke had been justified.
The prince shifted uncomfortably. This was not a fond memory. And Rei was forcing him to relive it.
‘I should go,’ Rei said abruptly, rising to his feet.
Kio stood after him. ‘Go where? It’s late.’
Rei shrugged. He had no chance of reaching the safehouse in Trendon before dawn. He’d be lucky to even make it out of Adria. ‘An inn. A tavern somewhere,’ he said.
‘Stay,’ Kio implored, gripping his shoulders. ‘Don’t leave yet.’
‘Come back to my chambers. You can sleep there, just like old times.’
Like old times.
Like two old friends, close as brothers, talking and laughing late into the night. Rei shrugged out of Kio’s grip once again. He glanced around—a paranoid habit. While it was true no guards patrolled the gardens, the palace itself was a different matter. But Rei had been in the Prince’s rooms countless times before and had never once been discovered. It was the safest place he could go.
‘I’ll see you up there.’
EVEN AS REI CLIMBED, a part of him screamed to turn back. But a tingling in his gut spurred him on, proving the more vocal of the two. He paused on the ledge beneath Kio’s window and willed his breath back under control.
First, he peered inside. What if Kio was already entertaining? But the prince was alone, sliding out of his surcoat by the warm glow of a brazier. Rei’s teeth clamped on his lower lip. The muscles of Kio’s back were thick and defined, the shadows sharp in the fire light. Half-naked, he turned towards the window; Rei habitually shrunk into the darkness.
A knock came to the bed chamber door and bare feet patted to answer it. The handle creaked.
‘I brought the extra quilts you requested, My Prince.’
A boy’s voice—Kio’s retainer?
The boy faltered. ‘There were none in the laundry room, My Prince. Did you spill something on yours? ’
‘No . I’ve had a sore neck of late, that’s all. No matter.’
‘A sore neck, My Prince? Should I call the——’
‘Good night, Callym.’
The door closed. Rei exhaled forcefully and swung himself through the window, heart tight in his chest. Kio was spreading the extra bedding across the chaise lounge opposite the bed. How many nights had Rei spent on that lounge when his father was too drunk to notice him missing?
Just like old times.
‘You needn’t have gone to any trouble,’ Rei said, crestfallen. ‘The floor is fine.’
Kio turned and smiled. ‘The floor may be fine during your travels, Rei-Hai Shaw, but when you come home you sleep in a bed.’ He quickly gestured back towards the chaise. ‘Or lounge, rather.’
Rei moved into the room, his steps awkward and unsure. He didn’t belong here. This wasn’t his life anymore. And Kio was still shirtless.
‘Are you hungry? Shall I have some food brought from the kitchens?’ The prince asked. ‘Wine?’
Rei wasn’t hungry. Nor was he thirsty. But he did feel … strange. It wasn’t unpleasant, it was just——
A goblet was thrust before his face and Kio bid him to take it. Without thinking, Rei sat on the foot of the prince’s bed and his heart lurched as Kio took a seat beside him.
‘To homecomings,’ the prince declared and clinked their cups together. He drank but Rei stared into the liquid and shivered as the deep merlot conjured memories of the masters’ cold crimson gazes.
I’m never free of them, he thought bitterly.
Kio’s brow was furrowed. Rei shrugged, setting his wine down on the floor by his feet.
‘It’s … been so long since I was last here,’ he said and glanced around the room. ‘Everything is just how I remember it, but different at the same time.’
‘I know what you mean.’ Kio angled his body further towards Rei, then raised his hand to curl long fingers around a red lock. ‘You’ve grown your hair out,’ he said. His smile brought heat to Rei’s cheeks. ‘It suits you.’
‘Anything to piss off Geraad,’ Rei murmured, his eyes distant despite his burning flesh.
‘You haven’t been to see him, have you?’
‘I broke his arm once, you know,’ Kio admitted softly but without shame. ‘Right after you left. I thought he’d killed you and that I’d find your body somewhere unexpected. I was scared to open doors or cupboards. My wardrobe. Anything where a corpse might tumble out to greet me.’ Fingers brushed Rei’s neck and lingered. ‘Glad I was wrong.’
‘Me too,’ Rei whispered, swallowing his rising nerves. His chest thumped. His stomach turned in knots. All his emotion-quelling training had been rendered useless by a single, unconscious touch. He turned his gaze to meet Kio’s.
Within seconds their lips were joined, so fast Rei couldn’t even tell which of them acted first. Kio’s mouth moved against his, hot and hungry, his hand still curled behind Rei’s neck, holding him still and pulling him close.
For a moment, there was no Tower. There was no mission to Cirahk, or Yaian masters enforcing their harsh rules. There was only Kio. And he was perfect.
Get on the bed.
A whisper from years past reached his ears and Rei’s skin grew cold. Kio’s body was pressed against his now, gradually guiding him back onto the mattress. Their lips were still locked and Rei wanted to keep it that way, even as his mind was dragged elsewhere. A hand found its way beneath his clothes. His skin prickled.
‘We won’t hurt you,’ Xenae had said, finger tracing the line of Rei’s jaw. The boy nodded shallowly.
‘Your tattoo is healing well,’ the Yaian purred, running a thumb over the sprawling initiation brand on Rei’s shoulder. ‘Very pleasing.’ He wheeled his chair closer.
‘I’m glad to hear that, Master,’ Rei said. As always, he avoided looking directly in the Yaian’s blood-red eyes. The master’s hands traced Rei’s naked chest, sending a cold shiver through his body, until they came to rest on his knees. He parted his legs and manoeuvred between them.
‘Take off your pants.’
‘Am I rushing you? Kio asked, words wavering. Rei blinked back to the present to find that Kio’s hand had retreated. He hovered above Rei on the bed, propped up on his elbow.
‘No.’ Rei shook his head against the mattress. ‘It’s just … you won’t like what you see.’
‘Impossible.’ Kio gave a warm smile but Rei was not reassured. He turned away, unable to watch the other man’s adoration turn to fear and repulsion as he discarded his shirt. Rei’s body bore scars—many since childhood—but it was the inky sprawl of the Tower’s brand that left him shivering with shame.
Kio was silent. Rei swallowed hard.
‘Did it hurt?’ The prince asked softly. His fingertips ghosted along the pattern. Rei finally turned back towards him.
‘Yes,’ he answered breathily. Kio gave a solemn nod then shifted on the bed. He pressed his lips to Rei’s tattooed shoulder, kisses trailing along his clavicle and up his neck. Rei moaned at the tenderness of it.
They found themselves naked in a tangle of limbs; Rei’s hands dared explore the expanse of Kio’s broad back, and the prince in turn rewarded his touch. Kio made his requests with the subtle movement of his body, with the tilt of his head or gentle guidance of his hand. Rei showed his gratitude through pliability and eagerness.
Kio stroked the side of Rei’s face as he drew a breath, his lips fat and red.
‘You’ve done this before,’ he surmised. Whether relieved or saddened, Rei could not say, but he was thankful it hadn’t been a question. How would he even answer? Instead he just lay there, and turned his face into Kio’s touch.
‘I hope he was good to you,’ Kio whispered, lips drawing close. They settled on Rei’s throat and the smaller man wriggled, feeling the prince’s desire pressed hard against his thigh.
‘He wasn’t.’ Rei moaned as Kio’s teeth caught his earlobe.
Kio smiled against his skin and withdrew. The subtle grin on his lips reached his eyes, never faltering.
‘I won’t hurt you,’ the prince said, expression earnest, as he hitched Rei’s knee over his shoulder.
‘I know,’ Rei nodded.
And for the first time, he truly believed it.
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THE COLLECTOR’S LOST THINGS takes place five years before the events of the upcoming dark fantasy trilogy, GARDENS OF WAR & WASTELAND.
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