This is pretty spoiler-y for Sacrati. If you haven’t read that yet (and think you might) you should probably skip this. But if you’ve read it already (or know you won’t), hopefully this will give you a little reassurance that things are still Sacrati-licious after we left our fine heroes…
Finnvid was covered in blood, some of it his, and he was thrilled about it. What did that say? Who had he become? A savage, his family would say. And maybe they’d be right.
He strode into the baths, already half-naked, and stripped the rest of the way down without taking his mind away from his battle. Just training, of course, and against a boy several years younger than him. But they’d been matched in size, and thanks to Theos’s tutoring, in skill. Struggling there on the sand of the indoor gymnasium, the encouraging cries of the other men echoing off the wooden roof? For the first time, Finnvid had felt the warrior’s spirit rising up in him. For the first time, he’d found he could lose his rules, his inhibitions and fears and conditioning, without losing his true self. Because his true self, at least under some conditions, was a warrior. A savage.
He arched his back, thrust his face up toward the steamy ceiling, and howled. He heard some of the men in the nearby tubs laughing, others joining into his wild chorus. Both reactions were fine with him.
“You’d better get cleaned up before Theos gets here,” Andros advised from the deep, hot tub where he was soaking. “If he sees you like that, he won’t let you play with the other boys anymore.”
“Let me?” Finnvid scoffed, but he headed directly to the rinsing area all the same. There was no point having a fight about this, not when there was so much else to fight about. And then make up about.
He was rinsed off and soaking next to Andros when Theos arrived. He’d been outdoors, running a band of recruits through winter training exercises, and he was covered from head to toe with only a thin slit in the fur for his eyes to peek out, but Finnvid recognized him immediately. His height, the breadth of his shoulders, the way he moved—and, of course, the way his eyes scanned the room as soon as he entered, restless until they found Finnvid’s. Theos could be a little protective, a little possessive, and Finnvid didn’t mind one bit.
He also didn’t mind having a good view as Theos began removing his layers. Fur, leather, wool, then the thin cotton that clung to his hard muscles, and then even that was gone and Theos was in his full glory, on display for every set of hungry eyes in the baths. Every set of eyes, but only one set of hands.
Theos padded toward him, graceful as a huge cat, then stopped short and squinted. The next few steps were more like strides, and then he crouched beside Finnvid and caught his jaw with the palm of his hand, angling his face into better light.
“He’ll have a nicely blackened eye,” Andros said. “And maybe something across the cheek, there. I like cheek bruises, when they highlight the bone, there? That’s always nice. His nose isn’t broken though, which is too bad, really, because a broken nose can really give a face some interesting—”
“What happened?” Theos demanded, his eyes hot and demanding, locked on Finnvid’s.
“Training happened,” Andros cut in. “Becoming a Torian happened.” He leaned in a little closer and lowered his voice son only the three of them could hear. “And if you don’t want to unman him in front of everyone, you won’t make a fuss until you’re alone.”
“Also, I won,” Finnvid said, and he leaned back stretching his arms along the rim of the tub. “It took a while, but I used that move you showed me, the hip throw and then dropping on top of him? Knocked the air out of him, and while he was gasping, I got his arm locked and it was all over.” He grinned. “You know what that means?”
Theos looked at him cautiously.
“It means victory sex, Theos! Lots and lots of it.”
Theos’s hand shifted on Finnvid’s shin, changing from a controlling hold to a caress. “As you wish,” he murmured.
“You’re not saving your energy for the festival?” Andros asked casually, and just like that, all of Finnvid’s relaxation, his triumph and sense of belong, was gone.
Theos had clearly felt his body tense. He managed to climb into the tub without letting his hand lose contact, and once he was in he snuggled closer and wrapped his arm around Finnvid’s shoulders. “We’re still talking about the festival,” he said.
Andros looked confused. “What is there to talk about?”
Finnvid sighed. Winter was almost over, and he’d adapted to so many of the Torian ways. The nudity, the physicality, loving another man openly and without shame—so why couldn’t he adapt to this one final tradition?
Theos bent the arm that was around Finnvid’s shoulders and ruffled his hair affectionately. “I’ve not only spoiled him for all other men, but for all women, as well. And he’s not sure he wants to be a father, not until things settle down.”
They were nice excuses. But the first was just Theos’s bravado, and the second? Finnvid actually thought it might be nice to be a father, at least in the hands-off way of the Torians. No extra responsibility beyond a few gifts or attendance at some ceremonies, but the chance to watch someone grow, someone with his blood? He thought that might be nice, really.
It was just the things he’d have to do to become a father that were holding him back, and Theos knew it.
“There’s lots of time,” Theos murmured into his ear, and then took the opportunity for a quick nip of his lobe. “Lots of festivals after this one, if you don’t want to go.”
“But you’ll be swearing the citizenship oath?” Andros asked.
By the sword, for someone who was usually so tactful, Andros was certainly finding some sensitive spots to pick at.
“I don’t think I can,” Finnvid said, and now it was Theos’s body tensing. Finnvid ran his hand down to grip his partner’s thigh under the water. “We may still—we don’t know what’s going on with Elkat. My family is there, and—”
“Your family murdered Sacrati,” Theos hissed. He’d been calmer about this for a while, but as the spring thaw approached and contact with the Elkati became a more immediate possibility, his resentment had begun to grow.
“They did it at the instruction of a Torian,” Finnvid responded. They’d talked it all over so many times his head hurt, but Andros had started it all up again, the rust-stained fool.
“The Torian who gave those instructions is imprisoned and will be sent to the mines as a slave, as will those who helped him. We have dealt with the Torian killers; you expect us to ignore the Elkati who actually loosed the arrows?”
“This is the reeve’s decision, isn’t it?” Andros was clearly trying to make up for introducing the topic. “We can all have opinions, but luckily, we aren’t the ones who have to decide what’s to be done.”
“It’s the reeve’s decision whether to send word to other valleys and place Elkat under our protection, her decision whether to open up trade and travel with them. But it’s my decision as acting warlord whether to send troops to teach them and everyone else what happens to people who murder Sacrati. And it’s my decision as a man whether I open the belly of the shit-stained coward who shot the first arrow.”
“Or the one who ordered the arrows to be shot,” Finnvid said. He was almost trembling and he slid out from under Theos’s arm. “My brother. That’s who you want to kill.”
Theos’s gaze was as strong as his arm had been. “Aye,” he said. “I want to kill him.”
Finnvid surged up and out of the water, but he wasn’t quick enough and Theos caught his ankle. Finnvid didn’t yank himself free; he knew Theos could hold him if he wanted, but also knew Theos would let him go if Finnvid needed him to. So he stood, and he heard Theos say, “I want to. But I know you don’t want me to. So I’m trying to find something else to want; I really am trying.”
Finnvid nodded his understanding, then said, “I’m going to rinse off.”
Theos let him go, and Finnvid stood under the flowing water and tried to clear his head. The snow had been cocooning the valley, keeping them from making any of the really hard decisions. But spring was in the air, the snow would be gone soon, and reality couldn’t be ignored any longer. On the plus side, feeling unable to swear loyalty to the Torian Empire at the festival would keep him from becoming a citizen, which would mean he wouldn’t have to find a way to have sex with a woman he knew he wouldn’t desire. But that was just one huge problem preventing a much smaller problem from arising. Or not arising, as the case would almost certainly be.
He turned his head and saw Theos watching him from the tub, Andros beside him looking chagrined. Theos gave Finnvid one of his frowns, one that Finnvid generally interpreted as apologetic-without-actually-admitting-wrongdoing, and Finnvid nodded his acknowledgement, which was enough to pull Theos out of the tub and across the warm tiles toward the rinsing area.
So tall, so strong—he must surely be invulnerable. But there were scars on his body, far too many of them, telling of times when he’d been hurt. And his fellow Sacrati had been almost as tall, almost as strong, and they’d fallen and died under a hail of arrows in the hall of Finnvid’s family home.
When Theos reached him, Finnvid stepped forward into his warm embrace. “We’ll figure it out,” Theos whispered into his hair, and Finnvid tried his very best to believe it.
There had been a time when Theos was just a soldier. It had been a much simpler time, but there’d been no Finnvid in it, so—maybe it hadn’t been as good as it sometimes seemed, looking back.
“He won’t go home to Elkat,” Theos said now, sitting with Andros in the Sacrati common room after dinner while Finnvid and Xeno practiced knife-throwing in the far corner. “He doesn’t care for women. Well, he likes them fine, but doesn’t want to have sex with them, and that’s what they’d expect in Elkat. All the time, not just at festivals. So he’s really much better off here. And he’s a man here. At home I think he was still a boy.”
“But just because he won’t live with them doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about them,” Andros said.
Theos turned to his old friend. “You don’t want revenge? You weren’t in the room, but you were nearby, and you know what they did to our brothers.”
“I was nearby, and I arranged your escape, and I was helped in that by an Elkati, a man who risked his life to do what he knew was right.” Andros sighed and took a long drink from his mug of ale. “And I’ve heard your stories, yours and Finnvid’s. That Elkati woman who helped him get away? Do you want to see her suffer? Or the soldiers we travelled with? The ones who turned away and let you pass through their camp? Should we go to war with them?”
“So we should just forget all about it?”
Another sigh and another long drink. “What does the reeve say?”
Theos snorted. “You know her. She’s surprised and a little confused that the men have seen fit to elect me to lead them, but she supposes it doesn’t really matter, since men aren’t known for their thinking skills anyway and it’ll be up to her to lead the valley out of this mess.”
“She did not say any of that,” Andros said firmly.
“Not in words, maybe.”
“Poor Theos, so sensitive to unspoken messages. Feelings so easily hurt.”
“You’ve become much more annoying since Finnvid got here. It’s as if there was a jug of contrariness all bottled up inside you, and he came along and uncorked it somehow.”
Andros grinned, then sobered. “You know, I think you’re almost right. I think I am—well, I’m not contrary, but I think I’m more open to different ideas. I’m seeing things from different perspectives. Not just his, but—it’s as if by seeing things through his eyes, I’ve realized how many other sets of eyes there are out there, all with their own ways of seeing.” He took a sip of beer, then said, “And you, my friend, have realized just the same thing. And, yes, it’s annoying. It was much simpler, before. But maybe simpler isn’t always better.”
Theos wanted to argue, but he looked over and saw Finnvid taking his turn at the knife throwing, laughing in triumph when his blade hit the target, albeit nowhere near the center. No, maybe simpler wasn’t always better.
“If you were tricked,” he said slowly. “If one of Finnvid’s people tricked you and made you do something dishonorable. And you killed some of his other people, and he wanted you dead as a result of it.” It was impossible to imagine, but Theos tried. “I wouldn’t let him kill you. I’d—” He stopped and tried to sort through it. “I’d be able to stop him, of course. But if I weren’t? If I were somehow—I don’t know, if I were ill or something—very ill—and that made him stronger than me—I’d have to be very, very ill—”
Andros waved a hand to show he understood how close to death Theos would have to be before Finnvid could overpower him and that Theos should go on with his thought.
“I’d feel torn in two,” Theos finished. “On top of the illness, I’d also—I don’t know. It would be terrible.” He frowned. “But I wouldn’t expect him to just forget what you did! I wouldn’t expect his people to make peace with your people, not when his people could easily—” He grunted in frustration. “It would have to be all of us who were very ill. Some sort of poison, making all of Windthorn weaker than Elkat. Somehow. If that were the case, I wouldn’t expect Elkat to just forget that they’d been planning to take us over, and forget that we murdered some of their best men.” Theos was pretty sure his little thought experiment had gotten muddled along the way. Usually when he tried to do this sort of thing, Finnvid was there to help guide him through it.
“So what would you expect of him?” Andros asked gently. “If you were in Finnvid’s place, what would you expect?”
“I don’t know!”
“Neither does Finnvid. But between the two of you, you need to get it worked out. The passes won’t be snowed in forever.” Andros looked into his mug as if surprised to find it empty, then half-stood, clearly about to go in search of more ale. But before he stepped away from the table he leaned down and said, “Whatever the solution is, it’s probably going to involve your mother. So you should stop acting like a sulky little boy around her and talk to her like the man you’re supposed to be. She’s in charge of the women, you’re in charge of the men, and you need to work together to figure all this out.” He took a half-step away, then turned back and crouched down. “And while I’m at it—Cerisa, the armor smith? Older, but still in her childbearing years. She shares a bed with Aletia, and Aletia doesn’t like men at all but would like to have a baby. If you got young Finnvid into a place where he felt he could make his oath, then I wonder if you and Cerisa couldn’t help Aletia and Finnvid with a little fertility coupling at the festival.”
“The festival’s in three days,” Theos said in amazement. “You want me to figure out something this complicated, and you want me to do it in three days?”
“You work better under pressure,” Andros said confidently. “And you’ve been mooning about all winter, acting as if spring will never come. But it’s coming. You need to get things figured out. Three days should be plenty of time for Theos the Sacrati. It’s not as if you’re very, very ill.”
And then Andros went off to find more ale, and Theos was left alone at the battered wooden table. Three days. It was impossible.
He looked over and saw Finnvid looking back toward him. They weren’t fighting; fighting would be so much easier. They were tense, somehow, and it was hurting Finnvid, and that was something Theos wouldn’t tolerate.
So. Three days. Impossible. Just the kind of odds Theos liked best.
The morning of the festival dawned bright but icy cold, the sort of day that made it seem winter would last forever. It would have been hard to get out of bed if Theos had still been there to keep Finnvid warm, but Theos had barely been home at all lately, and had apparently risen early again that morning and snuck out before Finnvid woke up.
Theos seemed loving enough when he was with Finnvid, so probably he was just busy. But that didn’t really make Finnvid miss him any less.
He pulled on his tunic and trousers with hopes that Theos might be in the dining hall having breakfast, but there was no sign of him when Finnvid arrived. Porridge with dried fruit, some milk, and then Finnvid was at loose ends. There was no work to do on festival days, no training, and none of the men who used his healing services needed daily care. The city gates would open late morning, as he recalled from his one previous experience with Torian festival days—back when he’d betrayed Theos’s trust and plotted to escape with his men.
He’d resolved to make this festival memorable for more positive reasons, but that would be somewhat difficult if he couldn’t even find Theos. He wandered for a while, exchanging greetings and asking after Theos while trying not to look too anxious about his absence, then finally gave up and went back to the room they shared. If Theos was looking for him, he’d find him there. If he wasn’t? Finnvid wouldn’t worry about that until he had to.
He lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling for a while, and then he must have dozed off. “Hey, lazy,” he heard Theos say, and opened his eyes to find a familiar face close to his. “You’re not even dressed yet.”
“I am,” Finnvid protested. He looked down at himself in doubt, then looked back up with more confidence. “I am.”
“Those are your everyday clothes,” Theos replied. “You need to get dressed up a little nicer for your big meeting, don’t you?”
Theos grinned, the first sign that Finnvid hadn’t completely lost his mind. “With the reeve, and the counsellors, and the iyatis and—come on, Finn. It’s a pretty important group of people. You should at least wear the new clothes I got for you.”
“What new clothes?” Easier to ask about that then whatever else Theos was babbling about.
“Those.” Theos jerked his thumb toward the cabinet that held their clothes and the starched white tunic with rich navy trousers that was hanging on the outside of it.
“Those weren’t there earlier,” Finnvid said.
“Well, they’re there now, and you’re going to be late if you keep lying around. So, get up! Get dressed. Let’s go.”
“Are you drunk?” Finnvid asked, but he swung his legs over the side of the bed, mostly because he was pretty sure Theos would start manhandling him into compliance if he didn’t at least make an effort. “I thought you didn’t like to drink on festival days? To make sure you could please your partner, or something like that?”
“I’m sober, and you’re slow.” And just as anticipated, Theos reached out and started pulling Finnvid’s tunic over his head.
“Why are we meeting all these people, again?” Finnvid asked as he dropped his trousers.
“It’s not ‘we’, it’s you. I’ll be on the other side. I’m one of the people you’re meeting.”
“Technically, I think I’ve already met you.”
“Technically, you’ve already met all of them. But this is different.” Theos handed Finnvid the navy trousers and waited impatiently for him to step into them. “This time, you’re meeting them in an official capacity.”
Finnvid squinted at him. “What official capacity?”
“Representative of the Elkat Valley, Empowered to Make Preliminary Decisions About Whatever the Hell You Want.” Theos shoved the tunic toward him.
“Empowered by whom, exactly?”
“By me.” Theos smiled sweetly. “If they don’t like it, I can invade them, crush them, and then empower you again once I’m in charge of the valley. But I think they’ll agree that this way is simpler, and I really would like to keep things simple.”
“Theos—” Finnvid started, but Theos stopped him with a look.
“Finn. Do you trust me?”
Finnvid nodded slowly, and was rewarded with a sweet smile. “Okay. Then trust me. You don’t have to agree to anything that doesn’t seem like a good idea. I just want you to listen.” He frowned. “And I’d really like it if you weren’t shirtless while you were doing it, so, come on! Get dressed!”
Finnvid did as he was told, and allowed himself to be pushed into boots and a coat and then herded out the door. He wasn’t surprised when Andros fell in beside them at the bottom of the stairs.
“That took a long time,” Andros said. “Was he not ready?”
“It was as if he didn’t even know he had an important meeting,” Theos replied.
“Not an auspicious start.” Andros grinned at Finnvid, then leaned a little closer, even as they were striding through the yard, and said, “Relax. He ran it by me first, and as you know, I’m very wise. I wouldn’t agree if it weren’t—well, I was going to say I wouldn’t have agreed if it weren’t a good idea, but that’s not quite true. What I really mean is I wouldn’t have agreed if it weren’t likely to be entertaining.” He smiled and nodded in contentment. “I definitely think this will be interesting, and I can’t ask for more than that.”
“I can,” Finnvid groused, but neither of the Sacrati seemed to hear him. Instead, they just powered on through the snow, and he found himself trotting along with them.
He wasn’t sure just what was happening, but he trusted Theos, and he trusted Andros. And he mostly trusted himself. So he’d just have to go along and see what happened.
The conference room in the city council building was made of cold grey stone, with only a few narrow windows high up in the walls. It was probably designed for defense, but it always made Theos feel claustrophobic. If he were going to face an enemy, he’d prefer to do it on an open plain with plenty of room to manoeuver. But this time he was in the room to face not an enemy, but a friend.
“You’re on that side,” he whispered as he and Finnvid and Andros entered the room. There were already an assortment of Torians clustered around their side of the long wooden table. “Andros will stand with you so you won’t be lonesome.”
“This is all so strange,” Finnvid replied, but he moved to his assigned seat anyway, and it was comforting to have Andros standing behind him. And when he looked across the table he realized that he had met most these people before. Theos, of course, but also the reeve and the soldiers and the Sacrati. Some of the women weren’t completely familiar, but even they looked welcoming. Whatever was going on, he was among friends.
“Thank you for coming, Prince Finnvid,” the reeve said. Finnvid had been more than happy to leave his title behind, but he had a feeling he wasn’t supposed to point that out right then. “We welcome this opportunity to open our discussions on the relationship between Winterthorn and the Elkat Valley. We intend to cover reparations for past aggression as well as establish a framework for future trade and diplomacy.”
Finnvid shot a look toward Theos, who nodded encouragingly. “I—” Finnvid struggled to turn himself back into a young princeling, used to official occasions and flowery speeches. But he’d been in Windthorn too long and the best he could manage was honesty. “I’m uncertain about what we’re doing here, but I appreciate your hospitality, as always, and I absolutely look forward to any opportunity to improve relations between our valleys.”
The reeve nodded her satisfaction, then looked down at the papers on the table in front of her. Even from a distance Finnvid was sure he could recognize Theos’s blocky, awkward script. “For reasons that are not entirely clear to me,” and she shot a quelling look toward her son, who smiled placidly back at her, “a new sense of urgency has come into these discussions in the last few days. And this urgency has brought with it some new ideas and flexibility. So, at this time, we’d like to present our preliminary ideas to you, as a representative of your valley, for your non-binding reactions and insight. Is that structure agreeable?”
They wanted to know what he thought. That was all. They could have done that without all the ceremony, of course. Finnvid nodded cautiously. “I’m honored to be consulted,” he replied.
The reeve smiled as if she’d expected no less. “We’ll start with the reparations. While we understand the difficult situation your valley was in, and we appreciate the efforts several Elkati, including yourself, have already made toward mitigating the damage, we cannot ignore the death of ten of our finest warriors. These deaths were not in battle but in a cowardly ambush under circumstances in which hospitality should have been expected.”
Finnvid nodded slowly. He didn’t want to speak and agree to his valley’s—his brother’s—guilt, but he couldn’t speak to deny it either.
“Ten Sacrati lives.” The reeve shook her head. “The lives were Sacrati, and so the terms of the settlement came from the Sacrati.” She looked over at the Sacrati iyatis clustered around Theos and Finnvid felt Andros’ hand grip his shoulder. Reassuring him, or bracing him for a blow?
The reeve stretched across the table, and Finnvid leaned over to accept the sheet of paper she offered him. He’d been right, it was Theos’s script.
“For twenty years,” the reeve intoned. “It doesn’t need to be the same Elkati for the entire stretch, but some Elkati must fill these posts for twenty full years from the time of our agreement.”
Finnvid looked down at the list, blinked hard, shot a look toward Theos, then looked down again. They wanted an Elkat to come and teach them about falconry, and he was supposed to bring his birds with him. Two healers, two scientists, two engineers. And three—three teachers, versed in a variety of subjects with which Torians did not tend to be familiar. That was pretty vague, but the intention was clear.
“You want us to teach you?” Finnvid whispered. There were no beheadings, no first born sons to be sacrificed on mountain tops. Just—teaching.
“For free,” Theos said. “The reeve has other things she wants, but she’ll trade for those—she’ll expect very good terms, since your valley knows we could crush you like a sapling under an avalanche, if we so chose—but she’ll trade. But this? These lives? You’ll give us twenty years of these lives in exchange for the lives we’ve lost.”
While Finnvid tried to never think of it, he knew that Torian men did not tend to live into old age. They fell in battle, usually, or in training, or walked into the mountains alone when their bodies began to betray them. Twenty years was much longer than any of the lost Sacrati had been likely to live. But the Elkati weren’t going to be losing their lives, just living a portion of them somewhere other than they’d expected.
“We could ask for volunteers,” he said, although he didn’t know if his brother would go along with that. “Pay them, and compensate their families. Find young men looking for adventure, or—” His gaze found Theos’s again, just as it always seemed to. “Or young women looking for freedom. The women might not be trained, but—”
“That brings us to the second part of our discussions,” the reeve said, her expression somewhat stern. “As a term of our further agreements,” she paused and then added “—the agreements that will prevent Windthorn from invading Elkat and crushing you like a sapling under an avalanche—we will expect free movement of citizens between our valleys. Any of your young men or young women who seek adventure or freedom, are to be allowed to visit Windthorn and work to gain citizenship here, without compromising their Elkati citizenship. Any citizens of either valley, of any age, will be free to travel between the valleys without censure or unnecessary obstacles. Visitors will be expected to earn their own keep, of course, and will have to pay for hospitality in both places with work or wealth.”
Finnvid frowned. That had sounded like—“Are you saying someone could be a citizen of both valleys? Someone could—” He looked at Theos, who was just smug enough to make it clear Finnvid had things right. “Someone could become a citizen of Windthorn without giving up their Elkati citizenship?”
“A citizen of Windthorn,” the reeve said. “Not of the Torian Empire.” She glanced at her son, shook her head in what seemed like amusement and said, “We’re breaking a new trail, here. If the Empress ever heard about it, she might not be impressed, but we’re far enough away that we don’t think it’s a serious risk. So, yes. While becoming a Torian citizen still requires an oath of absolute, undivided loyalty, we’ve decided to allow people to become citizens of Windthorn, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails, while also recognizing that they may have rights and responsibilities elsewhere.” Another look at her son, and then she shook her head and absolutely grinned at Finnvid. “Honestly, we might as well have named this agreement the ‘What Finnvid Wants’ Treaty and been done with it.”
“Not what he wants,” Theos said firmly. “What he needs. And you all had chances to object. If what Finnvid needs just happens to also be what Windthorn needs, in order to grow and get stronger and better, then—” He broke off as if realizing he’d been starting to make a bit of a speech. “You all agreed to it,” he finished, and then he glowered a little.
“So, Finnvid,” the reeve said. “This is the agreement we’ll be presenting to Elkat once the passes are clear.” She looked down at the page in her hand, also clearly written by Theos, and added, “We’ll clean it up a bit before then. But the ideas will be the same. So, do you have a response? Any insight you’d like to share at this time?”
“I—” He struggled for words. “I’m not sure I’m a good Elkati representative any longer. But if they won’t agree to those terms? If they won’t agree, then I don’t want to be an Elkati representative.” He found Theos’s gaze. “You’ve been more than fair, and you’ve—yes, you’re making a new trail, but it’s a good trail, and an exciting trail, and I’m more than proud to walk it with you.” Well, maybe his flowery speech abilities were coming back to him. Maybe he needed fewer words, and more action. “I’d be proud to take the oath of loyalty to Windthorn, based on this agreement. And if Elkat won’t accept these terms, then I would be honor bound to renounce my loyalty to them, not to Windthorn.”
The reeve raised her eyebrows and cast another look at her son. “You are becoming quite a strategist, aren’t you?”
But Theos shook his head. “Not a strategist. Just a Finnvid-expert.” Then he looked at Finnvid and smiled, the warm, honest, beautiful smile that made Finnvid’s belly melt and cock harden. “Because we just so happen to be prepared for an oath of loyalty right now, if you wanted to get that technicality out of the way. There’s a festival to attend, after all.”
Finnvid’s stomach dropped. He’d swear his oath. He’d said he would, and he wouldn’t back down. But the festival. The couplings. That was what was next. And even Andros’s reassuring shoulder squeeze wasn’t enough to make Finnvid comfortable again.
A better man would have taken less pleasure in torturing the man he loved. But while Theos would fight anyone who suggested he wasn’t a good soldier, he really wasn’t too worried about being a good man. So he watched Finnvid squirm as they walked through the market toward the central square, and he kept his smile inside himself so he wouldn’t give anything away.
“The women choose?” Finnvid asked, so miserably that Theos was tempted to relent. “There’s no chance at refusal, without offering grave insult? That’s your barbaric Torian custom?”
Well, that last bit made silence easier. “Exactly,” Theos said as they arrived at the square. “Grave insult. Horribly cruel. Really, really, awful.”
Possibly Theos had overdone that a little, judging by the skeptical squint Finnvid was giving him. “There must be a tradition of some sort,” Finnvid tried. “A way for men who aren’t interested to make it clear they aren’t interested, before the selection occurs? Isn’t there something like that?”
There was, more or less; uninterested men would simply stay away from the festival. But after everything Theos had gone through in the past days, all the wheedling and promises and negotiation and general aggravation in order to make things right for Finnvid, he wasn’t going to deny himself this small bit of—well, this small bit of drama. Theater. He wasn’t an expert, but it was his understanding that theater was an art form, and Elkati liked art, and Finnvid was Elkati, so Finnvid must like theater. Theos was doing him another great service by dragging all this out. Or something along those lines.
“I don’t think it would look good if you celebrated your first night as a citizen of Windthorn by snubbing the women of Windthorn,” Theos said. It was almost the truth. “Besides—children! Don’t you want children?”
“I—I think so? Maybe? But it doesn’t have to be like this, does it? So sudden?”
The bewilderment in Finnvid’s voice would have been enough to weaken Theos’s resolve, but he was rescued just then by the arrival of Cerisa, one of her strong arms wrapped around a woman who could only be Aletia.
Cerisa smiled at Theos and then gave a slight bow as she said, “Sacrati.” Her eyes were dancing with warmth and mischief, and even without the larger scheme, Theos would have found her appealing. “I wonder if you and your friend would like to visit our home? We have a fine dinner prepared, and warm beds waiting.”
Theos looked over at Finnvid, who looked green. “Hey,” Theos said gently. “Do you trust me?”
Finnvid, still off-color, managed a nod.
Theos fought to control his expression as he said, “We’d be honored,” and he steered Finnvid back out of the square.
Three times on the walk to Cerisa and Aletia’s home, Theos almost weakened. But, no. Finnvid had just become—no, not Torian, but Windthornian, or whatever the term would be—possibly they were going to have to figure that out—and there should be some sort of initiation ritual to go along with that, surely? To become Sacrati, Theos had spent a winter alone in the mountains, and Finnvid was upset about a little sex?
Still, it was a good thing their destination wasn’t far from the square, or Theos might have weakened. As it was, they walked about a block, climbed the stairs to the second floor of a stone home, and then Finnvid balked on the landing.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Theos. “I just—I can’t—”
“Finnvid,” Theos said quietly, and waited until Finnvid looked at him. “You trust me, right?”
“I do. I trust your intentions, absolutely. And everything you did with the treaty, that was wonderful, I appreciate that, it was beautiful. But this is—I trust you, I do. But do you understand that you and I aren’t the same? That what’s good for you isn’t necessarily good for me? I love you, and—”
“Finnvid,” Theos interrupted again, voice still gentle. “I love you, too. And I know you. I love you and I know you. Let me prove it to you.”
Finnvid was clearly swallowing quite a few objections, but finally he nodded miserably. Theos caught Aletia watching the scene with interest and, he thought, appreciation.
Then Cerisa stepped forward and opened the door to an explosion of children. Theos gripped Finnvid’s hand and led him inside so he could see fifteen or twenty kids, all under ten years old, running and crawling and crying all over the place. There were three harried-looking teenage girls in charge, but they looked pathetically relieved to see adults arriving to share the burdens.
Finnvid looked adorably confused. “It’s—you—we—with children in the house?”
“Well,” Theos said, “Often, yes. In the house. But that’s not what tonight is about.”
Theos wasn’t sure if his satisfaction was enough to make up for his guilt, but it was too late to do anything about it, so he just said, “Finnvid, please allow me to introduce you to Aletia. Aletia, this is Finnvid. Cerisa and I have been talking, and it turns out neither one of you is all that interested in traditional festival night celebrations. But you might both be interested in children. So we thought maybe we’d take tonight as a chance to meet each other and see if you want to spend more time together, or not spend much time but have sex, or not have sex, but—well, honestly, if you don’t have sex at some point this is all pretty much for nothing, but the point is, it can be on any terms you want, or no terms if you don’t want.” Probably Theos should have thought that through before he started talking. “So, anyway, we’re in charge of the kids, tonight, for several women who are off making new babies. If you two are overcome with lust, probably Cerisa and I can handle the little guys for a while, but barring that, we’re all on childcare duty. Together.”
“But—” Finnvid said. “Babies. This is your chance to make more babies.”
Theos grinned. “I have lots of babies, Finn. But only one you.”
“Okay, that part was sweet,” Aletia said, looking at Finnvid. “But, honestly, he didn’t tell you he was setting this up? What a rust stain!”
“Hey, Finn?” Theos said. “Remember our last festival together?” He waited, then said, “Would you say we’re pretty much even?”
Finnvid was silent, but it was pretty clearly because he was just trying to catch up to events. Finally, he smiled. “There were no screaming children at our last festival together.” He stepped a little closer, and the home, the children, everything faded away as Finnvid said, “But it was our first kiss. What do you say you and I forget the rest of it? The tricks and the lies and everything else. How about we call it even, and every festival can just be about us, kissing?”
“And fucking?” Theos suggested hopefully, but then Finnvid was stretching up toward him and their lips met and all thoughts escaped Theos’s brain.
Well, except thoughts of fucking. There was no way kissing Finnvid wouldn’t always lead Theos to thoughts of fucking.
And that was exactly as it should be.