Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Fifteen: Part One

Notes: Almost to the king! And Rone isn't in the mood to suffer fools lightly. Fun times.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Fifteen, Part One


Chapter Fifteen, Part One

It felt strange to be stepping out into actual sunlight again, although the shadows on the ground were strange here. Imperia was closer to the central sun than Leelinge was, and although the atmosphere was thicker as well, the toplit clouds looming over the skyline felt oppressive. The air was warm, almost hot, and slightly hazy. Cas blinked, disconcerted, and the phage almost blinked with him. Keep it together.

He wrapped his hand more tightly around Rone’s arm. His husband glanced his way with a faint smile, but that was as far as it went. It wasn’t surprising—in moments they were surrounded by red-jacketed retainers and decorated nobility, come to chivvy them into the elaborate hovercraft a dozen meters away and off to the palace.

The man who seemed to be in charge of the entourage was tall, almost as tall as Rone, with lighter skin and darker eyes. He had a face like a salamander—wide, flat, and unemotional. “My prince.” His smile might as well have not even been there. “Welcome back to Obsidian. Congratulations on the success of your mission.”

“Thank you, Lord Freyne.”

“Is this your new spouse?” There was no inflection in the man’s voice when he looked at Cas, but there were oceans of judgement in his eyes. “How charming. Honored to make your acquaintance, Prince-Consort.” He bowed very slightly.

Cas had been paying attention during his lessons, and he knew enough to incline his head back. “And I yours, Lord Freyne,” he replied with perfect composure. He wasn’t going to play the wide-eyed backwater boy here, much as it might fit his profile. It would have been believable for Beren, but Cas felt a need—a determination—to make Rone proud of him. That was also something Beren would have felt, and it would have stiffened his otherwise-overwhelmed spine.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, cousin,” Rone warned as they started to walk toward the hovercraft. He sounded pleasant enough, but Cas could feel the tension in his arm. “Beren hasn’t been confirmed for that title yet. I’d appreciate you not putting words in my brother’s mouth before we’ve even seen him.”

“Forgive me, my prince.” An elegant walkway extended from the craft to the ground. Two guards bowed sharply as Rone led the way inside. “I simply thought that since you had decided to marry again without consulting your brother, it stood to reason you wouldn’t stand on other formalities with him as well.”

Cas wanted to turn around and kick this guy in the teeth himself, but instead he let his jaw drop as they entered the hovercraft. This was…it was…good grief, it was possibly the richest, most sumptuous place Cas had ever been in, and it was barely as big as their living room had been on board the ship. Soft, rich red cloth covered every sitting surface, and the walls were sheathed in white stone and edged in gold. The air smelled like a sweet, smoky perfume, and Cas took one deep, sharp inhale to get it into the back of his nose where the phage could test it for toxins. After a few moments, it relaxed and so did he. Pretty-smelling air. Wow.

Rone, meanwhile, was clearly annoyed and not trying too hard to hide it. “Seeing as my personal life has never been circumscribed by my brother, since I’m not in the direct line for the throne, there’s no reason for him to have been consulted on the matter, although obviously we’ve spoken about it several times. Really, cousin, you must be overtired to make such careless mistakes. Have your children been keeping you up late?”

Lord Freyne’s nostrils flared slightly, a sure sign he was getting angry. “You know that my children are with their mother on the other continent.”

“Are they? Still? I take it you’ve not managed a reconciliation with Phedre, then.” Rone shook his head. “What a shame. Shall we sit?”

The three of them sat, facing opposite each other on long, luxurious couches. Guards filled the rest of the space, as well as a few other uniformed hangers-on and lower level nobles, from the look of their accoutrements. Cas hadn’t been expecting the jewelry. He’d seen the pictures in the vids, and Rone wore his earrings with perfect ease, but the rest…rings, bracelets, studs through the nose and the labrum and even the skin between the fingers…it was so…much.

Military probably isn’t allowed that kind of decoration, he thought absently. Not that most of them could afford it either, most likely.

A woman in a uniform that covered her up to her neck offered drinks in low, round crystal glasses without stems, all bright red. Did they ever give the color scheme a rest? “Pomegranate port,” Rone explained to Cas as he took a glass for himself. “It’s a traditional welcome-home offering. You don’t have to drink it, though.”

“He looks rather young to be drinking anything that doesn’t come through a straw,” Lord Freyne remarked. “How old is your new husband again? Might you have been better off adopting this one too?”

Okay, that was enough of that. Cas took his glass, smiled at Lord Freyne, then tipped the entire thing back down his throat in one long swallow.

It was definitely strong, burning as it went. Cas could tell from the air of anticipation in the room that everyone expected him to start coughing. But he’d been raised on cavern rotgut, and Beren was the same. Even without the phage’s help, it wouldn’t have provoked a reaction.

He lowered the glass and smiled sheepishly at Rone. “I’m sorry, I probably should have sipped that. I must be thirsty. Could I have some water?”

Rone squeezed his free hand as he finished off his own drink. “Of course you can.” A glass appeared in front of Cas before he could blink. “Bring back the bottle of port as well,” Rone told the server.

“It’s not even another five minutes to the palace,” Lord Freyne protested. “Surely you can wait to indulge in more.”

“Oh no, the bottle is for you, cousin,” Rone said. “I thought it might be more palatable for you to drink out of something less complicated than a glass. You haven’t even managed a single sip yet, after all.” His smile fell away. “Or do you not want to welcome us home?”

“I came to get you, didn’t I?” He drank nevertheless, setting the glass down immediately and waving off the bottle with an irritated glare. “There were some in court who wanted to let you make your own way over from the military base.”

“Myself included. I would have preferred to settle my people before heading to the palace.”

“Then you shouldn’t have gone and gotten married, should you? You could have had things your own way, otherwise.” Lord Freyne leaned back a bit. “It’s refreshing to see you following your brother’s orders with such alacrity, though. I thought you’d forgotten how.”

“When one is surrounded by enemies on all sides, one tends to forget a lot of things,” Rone mused. “Including how to behave to their prince. Fortunately, those days are over.” He looked implacable. “My latest mission was a success, and now I have my promised half-year of leave from the military. There will be plenty of time to spend with my children, my husband, and of course with my beloved king and his courtiers. I think it’s past time that I renewed my bonds there.”

Lord Freyne looked a bit sick. “I thought you would be going to your country home. Your children would surely prefer—”

“They would prefer to be with me, and to get to know their new parent. And I prefer to remain close to my brother’s side for now. He and I have much to discuss, after all.”

Cas glanced up at his husband, impressed. In a few short sentences he’d made it clear that he knew there was a lot of power-brokering going on under the surface at court, and that he planned to make a mess of some very meticulous schemes. It wouldn’t make Cas’s mission any easier, but it would certainly be interesting to watch.

“We’re here, sire,” the pilot called from the front. A few seconds later the hovercraft set down, as lightly as a drop of water falling into a pond. The side door opened, and bright light flooded in.

Rone kept hold of Cas’s hand as he stood. “Here we are.”

Here they were. One step closer to hunting down Christala. Cas could hardly wait.

“Let’s go pay our respects to the king.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Fourteen, Part Two

Notes: The phage has such a crush. Seriously, I'm embarrassed for it ;)

Title: Mutable: Chapter Fourteen, Part Two


Chapter Fourteen, Part Two

Cas surfaced slowly out of sleep, a change from his usual “blink and I’m awake” sensitivity. He felt…warm, encompassed, and more relaxed than he could remember being for months. For a second he almost fell into panic—relaxation was the enemy, it was bad, something a man wearing another person’s face couldn’t afford—but then he realized that the phage had held his disguise perfectly. In fact, the phage was washing through his limbs like a rising tide, gentle and easy and…happy? That didn’t seem right—the phage couldn’t experience emotions with such specificity. That must mean that it was Cas himself feeling happy, which…good god. How had he forgotten happiness? Beren would have been horrified on his behalf, if Beren hadn’t been the one to carry all his happiness to the grave.

Cas opened his eyes and took stock of his situation. He was in bed—and Rone was next to him. Actually, Rone was both beside and beneath him—Cas’s head and half of his torso were being supported by Rone’s broad chest. One of his husband’s hands rested against his back, holding him close while long fingers stroked slow, soothing circles between his shoulder blades. It was so comforting, so perfect, Cas almost wanted to cry. Beren would have melted if it had been him.

Maybe we were more alike than I thought. He inhaled deeply, let himself stir as though just waking up. Rone’s hand stilled, then gave a gentle squeeze. His neck bent for a moment, then straightened out, as though he’d been about to kiss Cas’s head but thought better of it. “Good morning, Beren.”

“Hey.” He arched a little against Rone’s side, stretching but also testing the waters. His husband didn’t shy away or tense up, but he didn’t pull Cas any closer either. Still, it was a solid start. “How long before we have to start getting ready?”

“We should get a move on, actually. Provided Darven doesn’t kill us all entering the atmosphere—kidding, I’m kidding, honey, don’t stiffen up, I’m sorry—we’ll be on planet in an hour, and at the palace shortly thereafter.”

“An hour?” Cas bolted into a sitting position. Beren would be nervous too, he rationalized. “You should have gotten us up earlier, that isn’t enough time! We have to eat and clean up and get dressed, and—”

“We’ll be all right,” Rone said soothingly. “Remember, I might not be much of a prince but I still am a prince. If I tell them we need extra time, then we’ll get it.”

“Right, and then I’ll be blamed for taking up your time,” Cas muttered. Rone started to laugh. “I will, though!”

“You’re not wrong,” Rone allowed as his chuckles died away. “But I think we can be efficient enough to get things done quickly. And I know I should have gotten us up earlier, but I didn’t want to wake you. You’ve had a rough time on board, and I think you needed the extra sleep.” His thumb rubbed against the blanket where Cas had been just a moment ago. “You seem better for it.”

He felt better, honestly. He was lucky the phage hadn’t completely done away with all evidence of his injuries in the night, it was acting so perky. As it was, he’d have to encourage his limp a little bit to make it seem like the fracture in his ankle was still bothering him. “I am,” Cas decided on at last. “Thank you. But we still need to hurry.”

“So we do. You take the first shower, I’ll see to the food.”

Th shower was actually a little disconcerting. Cas tried—just briefly—to let Beren’s face settle back into his own while he was under the cloudy spray of water. It refused. The phage was actively keeping Beren’s face up, where before it would have taken the opportunity to rest, however brief. It was being incredibly persistent, as though there were something here that Cas was missing. Was it just looking out for his safety? Or was it being a pain in the ass because Rone liked Beren and the phage liked Rone?

“Don’t get any ideas,” Cas whispered before rinsing out his hair. He’d never heard of a phage jumping ship from one carrier into another willingly—the making of a thrall was something else, and an utter violation of both the infection and the infectee—but his was making a good case for possibly being the first. “He wouldn’t know how to handle you.”

The phage trilled up and down his spine, rather pointedly disagreeing.


Breakfast was waiting for him once he made it to the dining area, but Rone wasn’t. “I’m getting into my damn regalia,” he called out from the bedroom. “This outfit’s harder to keep straight than my formal military uniform. I’ll only be a few more minutes, but don’t wait for me to eat.”

Cas kind of wanted to wait for him, but he dutifully went ahead and started in on his “eggs.” It wasn’t hard to tell they were synthesized, but he kind of liked the regularity of the texture. Next up was a muffin—one of Fillie’s favorites. Would he be seeing her today? Was she planning to—

The door chimed. “Nurse Galway,” the AI announced.

Oh. Right. His seamstress. She of the unexpected skill with and preference for needles. “Please let her in.”

She entered, and Cas went to meet her. She looked as thin and stern as she ever did, staring at him fixedly from under thick, dark eyebrows. She stopped a few feet away from him and held out a uniform, covered in a thin wrapper. “Your costume. Please try it on for me so that I can check the fit.”

Costume? Cas resisted the urge to smile. He had to admire the woman’s expert ability at passive aggression. Well, two could play at that game. “Thank you. As soon as my husband joins us, I’ll go and try it on.” I don’t trust you to be alone in any part of my quarters.

“As you wish.” They stood in complete silence, staring at one another. She was a thin woman, for an Imperian—being as well-fed as a cavern catfish seemed the norm for their people, but perhaps that was because most of who he’d seen were soldiers. The medical staff, interestingly, were all civilians, with only nominal military status. It gave Dr. Weiss and his team a bit more leeway and personal power in times of disruption to keep them outside the command structure, apparently.

Rone came out of the bedroom just before Cas’s eyeballs dried out from their staring game. “Ah, thank you, Nurse Galway,” he said pleasantly. “Beren, let me know if you require any assistance getting into it, all right?”

“Mmmm,” was all he was able to say, because…goodness. Rone in his military uniform was a striking sight. Rone in his civilian regalia was positively sumptuous. Everything about him, from how the deep red and dark blue smart cloth clung to his body to the gems that studded it here and there, as well as the new set of rubies in his ears, transformed him from powerful to inspiring.

“Beren, honey.” Rone gestured toward the bedroom again.

Caught staring, and in front of the nurse, too. How embarrassing. “Sorry,” he murmured, and headed into their room.

He laid the suit out on the bed and just looked at it for a long moment. It seemed like just about the right size, but he wasn’t going to take anything about it for granted. He ran his hands up and down the sides, then the pants and sleeves, checking for anything that might cause him trouble—a loose thread, a wire, a needle or a—

“Ah.” A pin. A tiny pin, more of a prong really, which attached a bejeweled tassel to his right shoulder, from which a red sash would encircle his chest. It was small, but it was startlingly sharp. Meant to be an irritant, or something more?

Cas inspected the prong closely but couldn’t detect any sort of substance on it. Finally, he simply pressed it flat again with the help of the bedside table and resolved to keep an extra layer of cloth between it and him at all times.

Getting into the suit took a few minutes and more than one try, but eventually he emerged, feeling absolutely ridiculous in the weighty finery. “Hi,” he said, waving awkwardly at his husband.

Rone couldn’t seem to take his eyes off him, though. “It fits well,” he said. “Very well. I don’t think we’ll need to make any extra alterations apart from those of rank, Nurse Galway. Thank you for your time and effort on this.”

She inclined her head. “It was my pleasure, sire.”

“You’d best get back to your duties.”

She left without looking at Cas again. Was she confident her strange mission was successful, or did she not even really care? It didn’t matter at the moment. Cas had more immediate things to deal with. “I don’t have shoes to match it,” he said.

“We’ll shine what you have. No one will care.” Rone closed the distance. “We just need to remove this—” he plucked off a long red bar on the right breast “—and move this tassel to the other side. Perfect.” His hands lingered on Cas’s arms. “You look perfect.”

A light violet sheen washed briefly over Rone’s eyes, and Cas stared at him, transfixed, his phage swelling and tugging at every nerve with its desire to connect.

Darven’s voice broke the spell. “Five minutes to docking, Captain.”

“Thank you, Commander Hije.” Rone blinked, and his eyes went back to normal. His grip relaxed. “Ready?”

“As best I can be.”

“It’ll be enough,” Rone promised him.

It better be.