First, a quick (*sigh*) weather-related update for those who've been asking: Floodwaters have mostly receded. Repairs are going well, though I think a new species of hyper-intelligent mold in my basement has just discovered fire and the wheel. Irritatingly, utilities decided to shut off a bit over two days ago and have barely done much in the way of coming back on. Even the phone's been out. I'm sneaking on now in a rare moment of up-time and praying that everything stays on for good this time.
Now then, back to a nice fat 1500-word excerpt from Crescendo. Please note this may not match the version you see in the final text (in other words, this is still mid-edit, though it's certainly clean enough for public consumption.) All the, er, fun? Beneath the jump.
Freyrík followed Prince Náliga through the grand front entrance of the castle keep, his face aching with the effort to keep his smile in place. ‘Twas bad enough the Aegis had sent one of his youngest brothers, far removed from the crown, to greet Freyrík, rather than the Crown Prince or even Berendil. True they’d been friends—even occasional lovers—through their academy years, but despite Prince Náliga’s status as a Son of Aegea, he wasn’t Freyrík’s equal and never had been—at least not since he’d been placed into the line of succession eighteen men from the throne.
Worse still, this second-rate welcome party hadn’t even met them at the gate.
Had he underestimated the Aegis’ anger so greatly? Gods pray none here thought him a traitor. His own death might be swift, but Ayden’s . . .
Prince Náliga waved him down the gilt marble entranceway with an abbreviated bow and a smile that looked as pained as Freyrík’s felt. “I trust your journey was not too arduous, Your Highness?”
He ground his teeth and forced his smile wider—a feat as valiant as slaying a darker bear when his only desire was to rage at the man before him, demand his elf be returned this instant or, gods, even fall to his knees and beg. But ‘twould be cross purposes at best, further evidence of betrayal at worst. He could neither afford to pretend ignorance of his misdeeds nor seem overly repentant of them.
Prince Náliga paused, laid a hand on Freyrík’s arm and offered him another hesitant smile. “Your Highness?”
Oh, yes, they were prattling, weren’t they? At least Prince Náliga’s concern seemed true. “’Twas long, Your Highness, but no hardship at all, for I knew your father’s glory awaited me at journey’s end.”
Prince Náliga nodded as if there were no other reply he might comprehend, but said no more. Distancing himself from Freyrík, then? Or simply taciturn as he often was, given his rank?
“And the Aegis Exalted? He is well?”
Another nod. “Indeed.”
“And my brother?”
“Also well, Your Highness.”
He waited for more details, but the prince remained stubbornly silent. “I have gifts for the Aegis . . .”
“Of course,” Prince Náliga said, as if he expected nothing less. “His secretary will be most pleased to receive them at the feast tonight on his Eminence’s behalf.”
Gods befanged! Freyrík froze in the middle of the tapestried corridor, his escorts pulling up short beside him. Was he truly to be slighted from the presence chamber too? Even the lowliest subject at audience was entitled to such courtesy.
Freyrík laid a hand on Prince Náliga’s forearm—an old familiarity, long buried. “Is he truly so angry as that?”
Prince Náliga laid his own hand atop Freyrík’s, worried at his bottom lip for a time. “He loves you as a son, Freyrík. I think ‘twas why your . . . negligence cut so deep.”
Freyrík nodded, feeling the fist round his stomach unclench, if only a little. At least Prince Náliga had not said “betrayal.”
“He seats you at the dais tonight.” Prince Náliga began to walk again, Freyrík’s hand still pressed between the prince’s hand and arm. “You will find his favor again, I doubt it not.”
More corridors, more tapestries. Stained glass windows, opened upon gardens and courtyards, spilled crisp air and sunlight upon the marble floors. They moved toward an outer wing—a newer wing, its walls the bright white of fresh, fine plaster. Was this an insult too? An exile of sorts? Or was he merely being granted the courtesy and comfort of rooms fit for a crown prince, sweet-smelling and draftless?
Mayhap he was overthinking.
No. There is no such thing as overthinking in this place.
Prince Náliga drew him to a stop before two carved oak doors near the end of the long hall. “Here we are, then, Your Highness. I trust you’ll find these rooms to your liking.”
A statement, not a question. Such confidence because Farr was a “barbarian province,” uncultured and lacking in finery? Or because Prince Náliga recalled Freyrík’s tastes and had taken care to indulge them?
Hmm. Mayhap he truly was overthinking.
Two pages opened the doors, and as befit Freyrík’s station and status as a guest, Prince Náliga waved him through. He crossed into the drawing room with the same sense of awe and irritation at High Court extravagance he felt each time he came here. The room’s every surface glittered and shone, from the inlaid exotic-wood floors, to the silver- and gold-threaded wall tapestries, to the tiled mosaic ceiling. ‘Twas fit for a king indeed, more precious than even the presence chamber at Castle Farr.
Gods, they could have funded an entire Surge campaign with the contents of this room alone.
“Is there anything more you require, Your Highness?”
Freyrík took another long look round the room, but he already knew he wouldn’t find what he was looking for. He swallowed down his ill composure and gathered about him all the airs of a Crown Prince to say, “Yes. My slave.”
Prince Náliga’s mouth drew into a pucker. “I’m afraid he’s in the baths with the others, being prepared for service as befits you, Your Highness.”
“He befits me well enough, thank you. I would that he be returned to me now.”
The prince’s mouth pinched again, and this time his eyes along with it. He laid a hand upon Freyrík’s back and guided him into the bedroom, where three male elves stood waiting, heads bowed. Freyrík’s chest ached at the sight—not at their beauty, which was stunning, true, but at the gold-and-starfall chains round their necks and ankles and wrists. At their utter subservience. The one in the middle had black hair and green eyes, just like Ayden, and for an instant he actually saw him there, a mute broken creature robbed of all his precious gifts—
He ripped his eyes away and swiped at them with a trembling fist. He could not, could not afford to appear sympathetic to the enemy here.
“I’m afraid your elf is not yet fit to walk these halls, dear prince. But as you can see, I’ve personally arranged for others to serve your needs in the meanwhile. Even a prince in poor grace is still a prince, after all, is he not?”
Prince Náliga chuckled at his own observation, but quickly stifled it when he saw Freyrík’s scowl. He cleared his throat and said, “Yes, well, I recall your fondness for males”—the hand resting between Freyrík’s shoulder blades stroked once, firm and warm—“and believe I have chosen well for you.”
Freyrík bit back choice words and made himself say, “Indeed.” His turned his gaze back to the pliant slaves, but ‘twas all for show. There’d been a time once, in his youth, when he’d availed himself of such pleasures, but now even the fathoming of it sent bile burning up his throat.
“And if Your Highness would care for some . . . company?”
At first Freyrík thought the prince to be offering the services of the slaves, but then Náliga turned to him, hand sliding from his back to his shoulder and squeezing. “I would be most pleased, dear Freyrík, to pass the afternoon in dalliance.”
Fond memories of their academy years nearly brought the word Yes unbidden to his tongue, but ‘twas held fast by love and worry and an absence of desire for any but Ayden. He laid his hand atop Náliga’s where it rested on his shoulder, and gently lifted them both away. “You are a most gracious host, Náliga. But I am weary from my travels, and wish only to rest.”
Náliga smiled, nodded once. If he felt slighted, his face did not show it. “I shall leave you to it, then. The elves will fetch you food and hot bath, assist your groom, unpack your belongings. If by chance you should need something they cannot provide—”
“Merely send one off for assistance, I know. I did pass many a year here in my youth, if you’ll recall.”
Náliga’s sly smile matched the one on Freyrík’s own lips. “Indeed,” he said. He clicked his heel and bowed his head, and Freyrík returned the courtesy. “A good afternoon to you then, dear prince. I shall see you at the feast.”
If ‘twere any mercy among the gods, he would see Ayden at the feast tonight as well. And Berendil, and the Aegis, and all would be forgiven.
He shook his head, sat down on the bed and barely refrained from snapping Stop that to the elf who knelt at his feet to unlace his boots. He should know better than to wish upon seashells. Prince Náliga might think him maligned, but there would be no forgiveness from the Aegis tonight.
And there had been no mercy from the gods for the last three hundred years.