Beraht threw open the bedroom door and rushed inside—then stopped cold not three steps into the room. He stared in disbelief at the bed.
Then started laughing.
“Autumn Prince set your leaf aflame,” Dieter snarled, but the words were slow, even slightly slurred.
Beraht stopped laughing. He yanked off his gloves and threw them to the floor; his cloak went next, followed by his jacket. As dry and snow-free as he could be bothered to get for the moment, he walked over to the bed and just barely sat on the edge of it. He rested a hand on Dieter’s forehead, frowned at the warmth radiating from him that did not seem like Dieter’s usual, perpetual heat. There was a dazed look to his eyes, like a man after a fresh dose of arcen. “Who the fuck drugged you?”
“They put it in my tea, trying to do what was best for me,” Dieter said, the words slower than ever, definitely slurred, as his beautiful eyes slid closed as though keeping them open was simply too difficult. “The very moment I have two functioning arms again…” He trailed off, lips still parted.
His face looked remarkably soft, for Dieter. The barest smudge of stubble, a still-healing cut on his bottom lip, but all the hard edges that were present even in sleep had dulled. Beraht brushed back a lock of overlong hair from Dieter’s cheek. There was more gray in Dieter’s hair; it would not be very long at all before it was gray entirely. Like a wolf with a winter coat—or a wolf made of winter itself, but dressed in Death’s red banner. If ever a description suited Dieter…
Beraht frowned when he saw the bruise on Dieter’s cheek that hair and distraction had hidden until then. Not that it was unusual for Dieter to show up covered in bruises, but this looked like the butt of a knife or something similar had been slammed into his face. Whatever had happened, the fight had been nasty.
Then again, Dieter’s arm was broken. Of course the fight had been nasty. Beraht did not envy whatever had happened to the bandits.
And he was not going to feel anything at all for the bastard healer he was about to kill. Beraht stood, lingered by the bed before rolling his eyes and leaning down to kiss Dieter’s mouth. Playing at noble was turning him into an idiot.
He glanced down at his left hand, the antiqued gold and silver band that still looked strange on his finger. Being married should not feel so strange when he and Dieter had been lovers for years; yet it felt strange nonetheless. One more bit of playacting, pretending to be normal. Some part of him kept waiting for the day he was caught, thrown out onto the streets or strung up by the neck.
Leaving the bedroom, reflexively checking for the knives he knew were there, Beraht strode through the halls to the healers’ ward. Reaching them, he cracked the door open slowly and slipped inside, padding soundlessly across the marble entryway and through the next set of doors that led to the main area of the ward.
Three healers went snow-white when they saw him and without any prompting at all, pointed to a door off to the right and all the way at the back. “The Master Healer did it,” one of them sputtered. “He’s new!”
Beraht ignored them, save to jerk sharply that they should go somewhere else and do it quickly. Reaching the Master Healer’s office, he slowly, carefully, pressed down on the latch and nudged the door open. When no one said anything, he nudged it a little more, going bit by bit until he could stick his head in.
A middle-aged man with gray-threaded blond hair and a thin beard was bent over a book, completely lost to it in that way only a worthless, soft-skinned civilian could be. Beraht slid all the way into the room, never making a sound as he closed the door again and crept around the edge of the large office.
When he was behind the still oblivious healer, he grabbed the man by his hair, jerked him up enough to kick the chair out of the way, then threw him down on the desk and pulled out one of his daggers.
He pressed the edge to the bastard’s neck, hard enough to draw blood. Could feel the man tremble beneath him and took vicious satisfaction in it. “Do you always ignore people when they tell you they do not want to be drugged?”
“All the time,” the man gasped out, anger and fear warring in his shaking voice. “Patients seldom know what’s best for them. What are you here about?”
“Dieter,” Beraht said and drew a fresh cut alongside the first, watching the blood drip down on the pages of the expensive-looking book still lying open on the desk.
The man’s trembling increased. New as he was, he would know exactly who in the palace felt familiar enough with Lord General Dieter to drop all formalities. And while most people adored Beraht as the Breaker, admired him for being crazy enough to make sport of pissing off the Lord General, there were many who were flat out terrified of him and happy to whisper of his dark deeds. “He was in pain, couldn’t even function, and suffering because of stupid pride.”
“It wasn’t pride that kept him from taking it, and your stupid prideful assumptions led you to drug a man who does not handle potent substances well. He doesn’t drink, avoids drugs, and now you have damaged his fondness for tea, ruined any trust he had in the healers. Does that sound like a healer who deserves to keep his position?” The man sputtered and Beraht rose just enough to switch hands, pinning him down with the left and flipping the dagger to his right hand. He drew another line of blood. “Does it, healer? Because it sounds to me like you’re an arrogant fool who thinks he knows best no matter what his patients say. A man who does not take no for an answer. I’ve slit throats for far less. Tell me why I shouldn’t slit yours.”
“I don’t—I just—I was trying to help, and I’ve seen a t-thousand soldiers like t-that, who need a respite from pain but won’t take it. I didn’t—”
Beraht let go and turned him over. The man inhaled sharply as his gaze landed on Beraht’s eyes, which would forever glow yellow from years of arcen use and the brutal treatment that meant he’d never be able to use it again. Had forced him to learn to use daggers in lieu of the deadly spells he’d once relied on. “If you ever do something against Dieter’s wishes again, I will ensure you die a slow, painful death, alone and unable to cry for help. Do you understand me?”
“Y-yes, your g-grace.”
Beraht drew a last, long cut down his cheek, then roughly let him go and left the room as quietly as he had entered it.
Outside the ward, Kalan leaned against the wall opposite the doors, arms folded against his chest. “I’m afraid to ask why I was pulled from a meeting and told you were on the warpath in the healer’s ward.”
“Get a new master healer,” Beraht said.
Kalan’s brow quirked at the bloody dagger still held lightly in Beraht’s right hand. “Did you kill the one we just hired?”
“No, but I will if he slips medicine into Dieter’s tea again.”
“I see.” Kalan dropped his folded arms and pushed away from the wall. “I’ll handle it. You could have come to me first.”
“No,” Beraht said. “I couldn’t have.” He pulled out a kerchief to clean the dagger before tucking it away in his jacket again as he strode off.
“You’re lucky Esta isn’t here! She’d kill all of you!” Kalan called after him.
Beraht didn’t bother to deny that.
Back in their bedchamber, Dieter was still fast asleep in the enormous bed. The sun had long ago set, leaving the room in firelight and a few flickering candles.
Servants had filled the bathtub and left food on the table, along with a small green glass bottle with a note about how much to give Dieter at a time. Beraht dumped the contents into the chamber pot and threw the bottle in the garbage bin by the writing desk.
That taken care of, he stripped off his clothes and climbed into the bath for a thorough scrubbing. Matthias and Esta were gone on a tour of the country, but they’d wisely left their children behind. Somehow Beraht always wound up the one who took them riding and fishing and whatever other fool nonsense they insisted on doing.
When he was clean, he climbed out of the tub and roughly dried off, pulled on an old pair of breeches and shirt before turning to the table to finally eat. Only as he sat down did he notice the package sitting at the edge of the tray—a gift wrapped in delicate blue and gray tissue paper. Esta’s familiar handwriting spell out his name on a little slip of paper attached to it by silver ribbon.
Frowning, he picked the package up and sat back in his chair to examine it. The other side of the slip of paper simply said Good Tidings to you on the Festival of Saint Ciel.
Ah. Only Esta would bother to remember the holiday, or think that Beraht might possibly care. The only reason a nameless cared about holidays was the improved chances of stealing things that people forgot in the midst of their celebrating. The occasional citizen who managed to muster humanity enough to throw a nameless a few bits. More often holidays just increased the chances people would seek out nameless to get away with things they’d feel about guilty doing to someone who existed.
He tore open the tissue paper and sighed at what was revealed, stomach knotting in that it always did when he wasn’t certain how to react—how normal people would react. It was a portrait of him and Dieter, a palm-sized version of the idiotic portraits that hung in the gallery.
They definitely had never sat for it. The only thing more ridiculous than the idea of him sitting for a portrait was the idea of Dieter doing it. So Esta had done something sneaky, because Beraht had no memory of anyone following him around either.
Beraht had no idea what to make of it. What did he know about paintings? The artist had certainly captured Dieter’s infuriating smile, the color of his eyes and the smugness in them as he stared at Beraht with a barb poised on his lips just waiting for the best moment to throw it. His hard edges, the heavy fur he wore as casually as the beast he was called after.
Why the artist had drawn them glaring at each other, Beraht didn’t know. He thought portraits were supposed to have people staring back at gawkers. What was he supposed to do with it? Maybe he’d hang it up in Dieter’s office just to raise his hackles.
A low, soft groan came from the bed. Beraht dropped the portrait on the discarded tissue paper and picked up the kettle that Dieter kept in the room for when he did not want to wait for servants to bring him tea. Filling it with water from the pitcher on his tray, Beraht put it on a hook and swung it over the fire.
He ate while the water heated, wolfing the food down as quickly as he could without making himself sick. The chilly air started to penetrate the warmth remaining from his bath, but Beraht ignored it.
When the kettle began to emit steam, he pulled it out and set it on the table. A little wooden box, divided into compartments, held a half a dozen different teas. Beraht hadn’t known there were so many kinds of tea in the world, and he suspected Dieter hadn’t either before joining up with Illussor, but he had rapidly developed an obsession.
Picking the one Dieter had to replenish most often, Beraht brewed the tea and poured a cup. He reached the bed just as Dieter opened his eyes. The strain around them, the faint wince that Dieter quickly smothered, was all Beraht needed to know about whether or not the healer’s stupid draught had finally worn off. “I brought you tea. Brewed it myself.”
Dieter’s mouth was set in a flat line, but he took a sip when Beraht lifted the cup to his lips. After a couple more, he finally took the cup away and held it himself.
“So tell me how the mighty Scarlet Wolf got his arm broken, because no one has actually explained that part to me. I think they only recalled me on the fear that you would go berserk or something. Which is still a possibility, I’m sure.”
“Winter’s Tits, I’m too exhausted to put up with you,” Dieter said, closing his eyes and resting back against his pillows. “Go find someone else to mock.”
“What is the point of having a husband if he is not there to endure mockery at my whim?” Beraht asked.
That got Dieter’s eye open again, if only so he could act smug and superior, like buying the rings had been his idea rather than Beraht’s. “You’re in a remarkably good mood. Who’s bleeding?”
“No one,” Beraht replied. “Drink your stars rejected tea.”
Dieter gave that oh-so-wolfish smile of his and instead set the tea on the bedside table. He threaded his fingers through Beraht’s hair and pulled him in for a hard, toothy kiss.
Some of the worry scraping and clawing at the back of Beraht’s mind eased. He drew back only when his back began to ache from the uncomfortable angle. “You’re a little too injured for that sort of nonsense.”
“Nonsense?” Dieter’s pale eyes glittered.
“I will jostle your arm if you try anything,” Beraht said, smirking and hastily moving out of reach. “How long does a broken arm take to heal? Weeks? Months? I haven’t had you at my mercy like this for a long time, Krian.”
Dieter gripped the blankets as if to throw them back.
“Stay where you are!” Beraht snapped, stalking back to the bed and slapping his hand down on the blankets—
And grunting as a hand fisted in his hair and dragged him in, and Dieter’s kiss that time split his bottom lip and left his mouth bruised and aching. Dieter’s fingers slid down to his neck, held him in place, and Beraht didn’t doubt there’d be bruises there too, pale ones that would fade within a day or so, not even enough to really ache. But there all the same.
He drew back just enough to stare into gray-green eyes that always saw far more than Beraht liked. “Get in bed.” Dieter’s voice was rough, but not as rough as he probably wanted, and the tightness around his eyes gave away the pain that must have been driving him half-mad. Stupid, stubborn Krians.
Beraht drew back enough to strip off his clothes and drop them to the floor. He slowly nudged Dieter over enough in the bed so that he could lie alongside Dieter’s good side, though it wasn’t going to be fun for Dieter later to crawl out of bed to piss or whatever else he took it into his head to do.
He settled against Dieter’s good side, enjoying the warmth even if Dieter was still slightly too warm. But if anyone could out stubborn a fever, it was Dieter. And if he didn’t… Well, Beraht knew how to handle ill-tempered, unreasonable wolves better than anyone in Illussor. “Go back to sleep.”
Dieter grunted, no doubt an attempt to say he wasn’t tired, but only a few minutes later his breathing evened out and he settled more heavily against Beraht’s side.
The idiot never had actually managed to tell him what happened. He’d just have to drag it out of Dieter later, or terrorize someone else into giving him the full story.
Reaching out, he snagged the book he’d left on the bedside table several nights ago, when he’d been reading to pointedly ignore Dieter in retaliation for something Beraht couldn’t even remember now. Probably being arrogant and presumptuous. Dieter was very, very good at that.
He flipped the book open to the page he’d marked, a couple of pages into the second chapter.
Only a few pages later the book slipped from his fingers and slid from the bed to land on the floor. Beraht didn’t stir from where his head had slumped against Dieter’s shoulder in sleep, and his right hand had curled with Dieter’s left where it had fallen in Beraht’s lap.
The soft sound of their breathing, perfectly matched, was muffled by the icy wind howling outside and the crackling of the fire.