Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Sixteen, Part One

Notes: Here comes the family! This one is on the short side--work + baby + chores = kicking my time management in the ass lately, but some is better than none ;)

Title: Mutable: Chater Sixteen, Part One


Chapter Sixteen, Part One

Leaving the hall of lights was like getting his vision back. The phage had helped, but Cas didn’t want to overuse it, especially not in the king of Imperia’s palace, surrounded by technology he didn’t understand and people he didn’t trust. He blinked and made it seem harder than it actually was, clutched at Rone’s arm for a moment for veracity, and when Rone looked at him curiously, just said, “The light was bright.”

“It gives anyone a headache after the first hour or so,” Rone agreed. “Luckily for me, I don’t have to wallow in it very often. I leave that to my brother.”

“I can hear you mocking me,” King Amiru called behind himself as he led the way through the palace, the hall of lights leading into a smaller but no less ornate passageway. “And I make it a point not to expose myself to that particular tradition for any longer than I have to, no matter how regal it makes me look.” At the end of the hallway was a large door, edged in some sort of machine that Cas didn’t recognize. Amiru walked up and stepped right through it, but Rone held Cas back.

“Is this calibrated to let him enter yet?” Rone asked.

“No, but it will be in a few days. Does it matter? He’s clinging to you like a limpet, it’s not going to activate while he holds onto you. Everyone knows how these devices work.”

“Beren doesn’t.” Rone’s voice was completely even, but there was something about how he held himself that made Cas hold back a shiver. “And I’ll thank you not to put him in situations where he could get himself injured or killed out of ignorance.”

“Then you shouldn’t have brought him to Imperia,” Freyne muttered, but backed off as soon as Rone looked at him.

Rone focused back on Cas, holding tightly to his hand. “This door leads into the royal quarters. It’s equipped with anti-intruder technology that will send a strong electric shock through anyone whose DNA isn’t recognized by it. If we’re touching skin-to-skin, you’ll be all right, but if we weren’t and you tried to step through it could be very unpleasant. If it can’t access DNA to sample as you try to step through it, like if you’re wearing total body armor, same reaction.”

That was actually fascinating, but also terribly inconvenient for Cas. “So I’ll be stuck inside if I’m not with you?” he asked.

“The children can help you through as well, or anyone else the system recognizes. I’ll have your genetic code uploaded to it soon, so it won’t be a problem.” He laced his fingers in between Cas’s. “Now then, let’s step through.”

Oh yes, lets step through the door of death together, that’ll definitely make me feel totally better about it. But again, pride pricked Cas enough that he couldn’t show weakness in front of his husband’s family. He nodded, and they stepped through the door. It buzzed faintly, and he felt a light tingle all over his body, but apart from that—

“Now that you’ve escorted the infant through, shall we get moving?” Freyne seemed half a second away from bypassing the order of rank and leading the way himself.

The last time Cas had wanted to hit someone so badly—just beat on them until they bled, never mind killing them like he’d done enough back home—had been Beren’s final teacher, who had dismissively said to him as he left school that he’d better not try and do anything challenging with his life, because he wasn’t made for greatness like his brother. Beren had been crushed and tried not to show it for three days until Cas had gotten the truth out of him.

He would have been great, if he’d lived. Cas knew it in his heart. Of the two of them, Cas was the failure. Not so failed that he didn’t know seventeen different ways to break Freyne’s nose, though, and four of them would make it look like an accident.

Maybe later.

The royal quarters kept to the red and gold theme, but there was also blue scattered about, and a calmer yellow and even some black here and there. There were children’s toys on the rug ahead of them, and to the right was a bright—but not too bright—room laid out with a long table and plenty of chairs. Five of them were already occupied.

“Not waiting even for the king himself before eating?” Amiru shook his head in mock-seriousness. “What is this family coming to?”

“It’s coming to feel very hungry, thanks to the king running so late,” the woman at the end said tartly. She had golden-brown hair that fell in tight waves around her head, and skin a few shades lighter than Rone’s. This had to be the queen, Tiyana—her ears were strung with rubies, and more red glinted from her nose and lip and high in her cheekbones. “The children were hungry.”

“We were hungry, daddy!” This was a round-cheeked little boy speaking, sitting right next to the queen. On her other side was a younger child, still in a chair that strapped him in. He shrieked as soon as he saw his father.

“Strong words for your old man,” King Amiru said, heading over to kiss his wife before ruffling the hair of each of his children. “Have pity on me, I brought back your Uncle Rone!”

The other guests at the table had turned around now, and as soon as they saw Rone, they both leapt from their chairs and barreled across the floor to him. He had to drop Cas’s hand to catch them both, kneeling down and folding them into his arms. “There you are,” he said, and Cas wasn’t sure if he was speaking more to the children or to himself. “All is well, I’m back with you. Finally.”

Cas was a little surprised Rone could still talk, given the death grip the younger child had around his neck. The older one, the girl, had her head on his shoulder, enfolded and tucked close by his long, strong arm. She looked over his sparkling golden epaulet at Cas, and the blissful happiness on her face melted away into a hard, angry expression.

Oh, damn. Maybe this wouldn’t be as easy as Cas had hoped.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Fifteen, Part Two

Notes: Hail hail, the king is here. Next up we meet the kids. Who do you think is going to be the tougher sell for Cas? *hint--I have a child but no king, so I'm sure you can tell which way I'm leaning*

Title: Mutable: Chapter Fifteen, Part Two


Chapter Fifteen, Part Two

Cas walked out of the hovercraft and into a place he could never have imagined, a place that the few pictures he’d seen in documentaries didn’t do justice to. It was—the light was—the light was everywhere. Everything around them, from the landing pad the hovercraft had finally settled onto, to the high walls of the walkway, to the vast circular room ahead of them, radiated light. Cas felt like he was going to go blind, and had to use the phage to dial back how much of the display it let register in his eyes. He winced for form’s sake, and Rone squeezed his hand.

“It can be a bit intense at first,” he said apologetically. “But it’s the traditional atmosphere for greeting. The sensors will tone things down once we get into the audience chamber.”

Feeling like you’re standing in the center of a star is the traditional atmosphere for friendliness? What do you do when you hate someone? The complaint was on the tip of his tongue, but Cas bit it back. There was no way he’d let anything but appreciation out of his mouth while Lord Freyne was around, not to mention the who-knew-how-many other Imperians with enhanced hearing or surveillance devices not visible .

“Speaking of getting to the audience chamber,” Lord Freyne said drily. “I suggest your husband save his gawking and get moving. You wouldn’t want to keep the king waiting, after all.”

“When my brother brought Tiyana here for the first time, she spent a full ten minutes standing around with her mouth open. I think he’ll be understanding, given the circumstances.”

“No, it’s all right,” Cas said quickly. He didn’t want to prolong the eyestrain any more than necessary. “Let’s go.”

Rone led the way, just slightly ahead of Cas, almost like he was shielding him. Cas wasn’t sure what he might be shielding him from until he heard the voices beyond the walkway, on the other side of the brilliant, burning light. They were being watched right now, observed like bugs in a glass, or prisoners behind bars. So there were watchers. This was probably prime theater for them.

Rone had to know about this. He probably hadn’t told Cas because he didn’t want to increase his self-consciousness, but it helped to be aware. He stood tall and kept up with his husband all the way down the walkway, until they entered the audience chamber and walked up to the throne in the center of it. Throne—that was what these ridiculously large, ornate chairs were called, wasn’t it? This one was fairly low to the ground, making the king appear to be lounging in it, the way his legs stuck out. Or perhaps he was simply too tall for it? He was a massive man, easily Rone’s height or more, and wider through the chest—or perhaps that was more about disguising the bulk around his waist. He gleamed in shades of red and gold from head to toe, heavy with fine cloth and rubies the size of Cas’s eyeball.

They got to the dais, where Rone stopped and bowed low. Cas bowed with him, and behind him he heard the rest of their entourage do the same. “Greetings from your lowly servants, honored majesty,” Rone said.

“And to you, brother. Welcome back from the darkness into the light.” That seemed to mark the end of the rote responses, because a moment later the king said, “Now get up here and explain what you’re doing married, of all things. I thought I sent you on a damn mission of mercy, not a couple’s retreat.”

Rone laughed, and it sounded genuine, but Cas was immediately on edge. He could hear things in this man’s voice, his tone, see it in the way he lolled about and waved his hand, and it was strange. Dichotomous. Did this bode well or ill?

It didn’t matter—it was time to be introduced.

“You’ve known about Beren for the last week, don’t pretend to be surprised now,” Rone scolded his brother lightly as they ascended the dais to meet with him face to face.

“Knowing is one thing, seeing is another.” King Amiru got to his feet, and—yeah, the man was tall, about an inch taller than Rone. Goodness. “And you wouldn’t even send me a picture of the young man. I had to rely on other sources to get me that intelligence.”

Interesting turn of phrase. Cas made sure to smile shyly when Amiru focused on him.

“Welcome to Imperia, little brother.” Amiru’s tone was friendly and informal—perhaps too informal, given the setting. Was it an open sign of disrespect? Ugh, why were there so many useless social conventions associated with Imperians?

“Thank you, your majesty,” Cas replied, keeping the title in there—it was one thing for the king to call him brother, quite another for him to respond in kind.

“You must be quite something, for Rone to have latched onto you so quickly.”

Like a parasite. Cas fought down a sudden urge to laugh. “He’s been very good to me.”

“Hmm.” Dark eyes roved over Cas like knives, as though they could peel away his secrets along with his skin. “You were attacked back on Leelinge, weren’t you? Some sort of animal?”

What was this all about. Was he delving for more, or just making small talk that his court would find titillating? “I was, but Rone killed it before it could damage me.”

Cas knew he wasn’t imagining it when he saw the king’s breathing pause for a moment, and felt Rone’s matching burst of tension through his arm. What had he said? What was wrong with acknowledging the truth—pretty much the only truth he’d told so far?

“How heroic,” King Amiru said at last. “I look forward to hearing more about this daring from the source itself, but for now we have a family dinner to attend. My children can’t wait to see their uncle again, and of course—” he turned back to his brother “—your own children are anxious to have you back.”

“They’re already in the palace?” Rone’s tension ratcheted higher. “Who’s with them?”

“My wife picked them up this morning, brother, relax.” Amiru clapped Rone’s shoulder. “You worry too much.”

He clearly had a reason to be worried. Cas was determined to run down exactly why, because if childcare was going to be on his list of duties then he was damn well going to be prepared.

“Dinner first, more conversation later. Freyne, you come as well.”

“Delighted, cousin.” His voice was heavily sarcastic, but the king just laughed.

“I’m sure you are.” He looked pleased with himself. “It’s going to be fun having you back, Rone. I can already tell.” He glanced at Cas, then back at Freyne. “Amusements of all sorts are presenting themselves.”

Cas sighed internally. To quote the idiot behind him: Delighted.

Oh well. At least he was about to meet Rone’s children. That charm offensive was more important to him than amusing or impressing a cryptic king. The more invisible he was to Amiru, the better for him.

The more appreciated he was by the children, the better for everyone. And how hard could a child be to win over?

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.”