Sieghard had done a lot of stupid shit in his life. A lot. He suspected he had lived through all of it simply because the Autumn Prince did not want to deal with the headache. When he’d chosen to defect to Illussor with the rest of Scarlet, he had thought himself finally free of his rampant stupidity.
It had certainly seemed so, for a long time. He was a Captain now, and could probably climb higher if he tried. He was doing well. The highest honor of his life had been when the Lord General had called for him, and said that he was to be Dietrich’s right hand until further notice.
Lust had been immediate. Only a dead man would not stir at the sight Dietrich had presented, standing half-naked in that tavern, with nothing to protect himself from a gang of thieves but his wits.
And gods above, those tattoos.
But he’d mastered the lust, the want, the need to shove Dietrich down onto a bed and fuck him senseless. Of all his soldiers, all his officers, Lord General Dieter had chosen him. Sieghard had no intention of ruining that trust.
So he’d been friend, adviser, brother in arms; he’d been someone Dietrich could trust with his life, when so many others would only have used or hurt Dietrich.
His stupidity had returned with a vengeance when he realized that all those things—brother, friend, adviser—had mingled and meshed and blended with the lust, and turned into something new.
In a long line of exceedingly stupid decisions and action, he could not think of one worse than falling in love with the son and heir of Lord General Dieter.
Lord Dieter had obviously agreed, he thought morosely, and looked out again at the world of unbroken white in which he had been trapped for the past four months.
He had done his damnedest to hide his feeling, when he’d been summoned abruptly to a private audience with the Lord General, but he had failed.
“Lord General,” Sieghard greeted, bowing low. He didn’t care how many years he’d worn Scarlet, Lord Dieter was unnerving.
“Captain,” Lord Dieter replied, looking up from the paperwork he was reading. He dismissed the two guards at the door with a look.
Leaving Sieghard one hundred percent alone with Lord Dieter.
He fervently hoped his fear didn’t show, but sincerely doubted he was that fortunate.
“My son has settled in well,” Dieter said. “He has stated loudly and often that you deserve no small portion of the credit for that.”
“It is an honor to serve the Lord General and his esteemed son,” Sieghard replied, honest but guarded. Where was this going?
Dieter looked at him, too-intense green eyes unreadable, as always. Then he tapped a file on his desk, and said,” Your history is colorful, Captain.”
Sieghard winced. “Yes, Lord General.”
“But not without merit,” Lord Dieter replied. “I am of two minds as to where next to assign you, Captain.”
Everything in Sieghard seized up at those words. “Lord General?”
“My son no longer requires a shadow,” Lord Dieter replied. “Do you disagree?”
Sieghard swallowed, then made himself give the honest answer. “No, Lord General. Lord Dietrich probably—probably ceased to need me a long time ago. But I have liked serving.”
Lord Dieter nodded, starting in that unnerving—terrifying—way of his. Finally, just when Sieghard could bear no more, he broke the silence. “You can go north or south, Captain. Is there anything you would like to say in regards to what is to be done with you?”
I’m in love with your son, Sieghard thought miserably. I’d die for him. I’d give anything to stay by his side, in whatever capacity. Let my posting remain unchanged. But all he said aloud was, “No, Lord General. I trust in your judgment, and will obey without question.”
Green eyes regarded him for another long, terrifying moment, before Lord Dieter simply nodded. For a moment, Sieghard had the strangest impression of disappointment—like he’d failed some test. Like Dieter had actually expected him to care whether he went north or south.
But that was stupid. More than likely, Dieter suspected his inappropriate feelings for Dietrich and was cutting the problem off at the head. What better way to be rid of a problem soldier than to send him fary away?
“Very well, Captain,” Dieter said at last, voice taking on ice. “You are going north. There is a serious problem with a band of thieves there; they have been plaguing the natives for the better part of a year. The monks will put you up, your supplies are waiting. Take whatever men you require.” He tossed a leather case at Sieghard. “There are your orders, and the information you will need.”
“Yes, Lord General.”
Dieter said nothing more until Sieghard had his hand on the door. “You leave immediately, Captain. Select your men and go.”
Punished, Sieghard thought miserably. He was definitely being punished for his inappropriate feelings. Not even a chance to say goodbye…
Closing the door behind him, Sieghard called for a man to pack his personal belongings, and another to hunt down the men he would take with him.
A knock on his bedroom door drew him from his thoughts, and Sieghard reluctantly called, “Enter!”
His Lieutenant slipped inside, and sketched a hasty bow. “Captain.”
“Come in, close the door,” Sieghard said.
Since arriving four months ago, the entire mission had seemed as though it were jinxed. If the Lord General had intended this as a punishment for his temerity, then he’d chosen wisely.
It wasn’t making Sieghard love Dietrich any less, but it was driving home that Lord Dieter would never accept him as a potential son-in-law.
He motioned for his Lieutenant, Petrus, to sit.
The biggest problem with the mission was that the thieves always seemed to be a few steps ahead of them. It had become painfully obvious that someone was feeding the thieves information. Sieghard had fervently hoped to learn the traitor in his midst was a monk, or a towns person.
It had taken him a long time to deduce the identity of the rat, because he had been extra cautious in poking around, but eventually he had been forced to concede defeat. His traitor was his Lieutenant, his right hand.
But his investigation had also led him to believe there was more afoot than anyone had bothered to tell him.
He should simply have the Lieutenant arrested, and everyone else confined to quarters, until he could root out every last trace of the problem—but he and Petrus went a long way back. Hopefully, he would take the chance Sieghard was offering him to come clean and ask for help.
“You haven’t seemed well of late, Lieutenant.”
Petrus shrugged, but Sieghard caught the flash of panic in his eyes. “I’m well enough, Captain. A trifle under the weather, maybe. I grew up in this sort of weather, but I never learned to love it.”
“Mmm,” Sieghard agreed noncommittally. “Our attempted ambush tonight—what went wrong, would you say?”
“The bandits have the luck of the Autumn Prince,” Petrus replied.
“Indeed,” Sieghard said coldly. “I would say it was a good deal more than luck.”
Petrus said nothing.
Sieghard fought disappointment. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me, Lieutenant?”
Petrus looked at him, expression carefully blank—but there were shadows in his eyes. “No, Captain.”
“Fine,” Sieghard replied. “Then you are confined to quarters until further notice.” Standing up, he yanked the door open and signaled the two monks he’d had ready and waiting. “Take him, lock him up. He is to get nothing but two meals a day, and no one is to speak to him. He is to be kept isolated until he can be taken home to face charges.”
“No!” the Lieutenant burst out as the monks dragged him off, while Sieghard resumed his seat. “They’ll die!”
“That’s the idea,” Sieghard said. “We are here to stop the thieves, not help them.”
“You’ll be killing the wrong people!”
Sieghard motioned to the monks. “Let him go. Keep your mouths shut,” he added, before dismissing them and closing the door again. Then he grabbed Petrus and shoved him against the door. “I gave you a a chance to come clean. Tell me why I should give you a second chance and not simply…”
He trailed off, realization hitting him.
He’d been giving Sieghard a chance to be honest. He’d given Sieghard a chance to say I want to stay with Dietrich.
Sieghard had chosen to lie.
That was the real reason he was being punished. Not because he loved Dietrich. Because he hadn’t admitted it.
And now he would never know what might have happened, if he had chosen to be honest.
Shoving the realization aside for the moment, he focused on the matter at hand. “Why did you lie to me? Why did you endanger all of us?”
“Because I had no choice,” Petrus said. “And I didn’t want to put anyone else in danger.”
“Fuck you,” Sieghard replied, and threw him across the room. “Now tell me everything or I’ll beat you black and blue, then leave you here to read scripture for five years.”
Petrus smiled briefly at the threat, but then sobered. “The thieves are practically all that is left of a small village that was burned down a year ago, by members of the surrounding village. People here are not as…modern, as people in the city.”
Sieghard snorted at that, because it was a ridiculously polite way of saying that the towns were full of old-fashioned bigots who did not approve of even most of the soldiers because they were Krian. “They burned down a village? Why?”
“Because the inhabitants of that village were Salharan,” Petrus said flatly. “They ran away years ago, and settled here, tried to build new lives. They had a lot of trouble when they first arrived, but eventually things seemed to settle down. But twenty years ago, disaster struck, and a girl was killed in the Salharan village. The Salharans retaliated, viciously, and the entire area nearly destroyed itself. But finally things quieted down again.”
“Until now,” Sieghard said.
Petrus nodded. “A man was killed; it was an accident. No one is willing to believe that, however. So they retaliated against the Salharans who accidentally did the killing. Everything got out of control, and now the village is gone. Only about a dozen men survived.”
Sieghard frowned. “The thieves.”
“Yes,” Petrus said tiredly.
“Salharan refugees who tried to live in peace here, and instead were plagued by backwater natives,” Sieghard summarized grimly. “Of course they would not trust authorities, and of course all the other villages would be lying to us. But how do you fit into all of this?”
Honest to gods terror flashed across Petrus’ face, and he did not reply.
Sieghard fisted a hand in Petrus’ tunic and slammed him into the wall. “Tell me, damn it. I’m tired of being lied to by someone I have called friend all these years.”
“But would you keep calling me friend?” Petrus asked bitterly, sadly, “If you knew that the girl killed twenty years ago was my big sister? She was only fourteen; the bastards raped her, then murdered her. I killed every last one of them, then left.”
“What—” Sieghard let go of him in shock. “You—you’re not Salharan.”
Except now that Petrus had said it, he could see it. Petrus had always been fair, which wasn’t too unusual in Kria, even if it wasn’t exactly common. And he’d always been good at languages; he’d simply claimed to have a good ear, when people noted his skill.
“One hundred percent Salharan,” Petrus said. “We ran away when I was only nine. My sister was thirteen. A year and a half later, she was dead, and I ran away a second time. I joined the Krian Army when I was twelve, and hoped I would never see this wretched place again.”
Sieghard punched him. “You stupid fucking bastard,” he snarled. “You should have told me! I’m your superior, and your gods damned friend! We could have fixed this all months ago, if you had told me!” He scowled as Petrus slowly stood up. “You could have told me.”
Petrus just looked at him, wiping at his bloodied lip. “Tell you? How the fuck was I supposed to say ‘Hey, I’m Salharan. Ran away when I was eight, killed six men was I nine, then ray away again.’ How the fuck does anyone explain that?”
“You seemed to have done just fine right now,” Sieghard said. “You’re a fucking fool.”
“I’m tired of being hated,” Petrus said. “All I wanted was to be accepted.”
Sieghard glared at him. “I’m your friend.”
“You’re the friend of a Krian who doesn’t actually exist,” Petrus said, bitter and angry and tired.
“I’m your friend,” Sieghard repeated, “Even if right now I would like to punch you again.”
Petrus eyed him, cynicism warring with hope.
“So how exactly did you expect all this to end?” Sieghard asked.
“I kept hoping they’d listen to me and just leave,” Petrus said, sighing and sitting down. “I was so angry when we found her—” he broke off, and fell silent, before speaking again. “I was only a kid, gods. But even then, I knew I didn’t want to keep living that life. We left Salhara to get away from living in fear and anger and misery. All I could see was that the nightmare had just gotten worse. So I wanted to leave again, go somewhere else. But my parents were broken by her death, and no one else would speak to me, because they were scared what would happen since I’d killed six men. So I left, tried to start over yet again, even though I was just a child. In Kria, it seemed to work.
“They’re too angry now, though, to leave. They’re irrational.”
Sieghard nodded. “So tell me everything about them, everything you have held back, and let us work out an actual plan. And no more keeping secrets from me, Petrus.”
Petrus looked at him. “As though I am the only one hiding things.”
“What do you mean?” Sieghard asked, honestly puzzled.
“Oh, please, Captain,” Petrus said, snorting in amused exasperation. “No one goes from personal assistant to the Lord General’s son, to being buried in the middle of nowhere hunting bandits, unless he is being punished for something—and for something serious, at that. So were you ever going to tell me why you are being punished?”
Sieghard grimaced. “I wasn’t keeping anything a secret on purpose, and that is a paltry matter, next to your secrets.”
Petrus winced, but did not relent. “So you are being punished—but for what?”
“Because I did have the balls to admit that—” Sieghard broke off, unable to voice it, mostly because it hurt to much. Why hadn’t he simply been honest, and damn the consequences. Admitting his feelings and being told no would have been better than trying to lie, and never knowing for certain that the Lord General would have told him no.
If only he had realized that bit of logic sooner.
Petrus interrupted his thoughts with a laugh. “It would seem I will be winning the bet, then.”
Sieghard glared. “What bet?”
“We were placing bets as to why you’d been banished out here. I said it was because you were in love with Lord Dietrich, and Lord Dieter did not approve.”
“Something like that,” Sieghard said with a grimace. “How the fuck did you know?”
Petrus snorted again. “Because even the blind Duke could see how you felt about Lord Dietrich. So you are being punished for it?”
Scowling, Sieghard replied, “I think I am actually being punished because when he called me to a private audience, and gave me the chance to admit it, I said nothing.”
“There’s a scenario that sounds familiar,” Petrus drawled.
“You are still in trouble,” Seighard retorted. “So don’t be getting too wise, Lieutenant.”
“Yes, Captain,” Petrus replied, sobering. “Thank you.”
“Shut up,” Seighard replied. “Go away for now, while I write home to tell the Lord General of this development.”
Petrus nodded and rose. “What should I do with myself?”
“Come clean to your comrades,” Sieghard advised. “I think we will need to round up those thieves, and keep them safe here, until the Lord General sends words on how I am to handle this situation. I’ve never dealt with a situation quite like this one.”
Wincing at the thought of telling the others the truth, Petrus never the less nodded again. “Thank you, again, Sieg. I’m sorry.”
“Forget it,” Sieghard said. “Only say you will not keep secrets from me anymore.”
“I won’t,” Petrus said. “I hope after this, the Lord General considers you suitably punished. I think he could do much worse for a son in law.”
Sieghard snorted. “I think you are assuming much, especially on the part of Lord Dietrich.”
Petrus burst out laughing, leaning against the door for support. “I will say this much for the two of you, Sieg. Nothing is more blind than love.” With that, he opened the door and left, closing the door quietly behind him.
Making a face, not daring to get his hopes up about anything because he still doubted the Lord General would ever tolerate his suit, Sieghard sat down to write a full report of all that had transpired. He wondered if the Lord General would consider the situation serious enough to require his personal involvement—and what that might mean for Sieghard.
Sieghard sighed and stared out at the soggy landscape. Winter was gone, but Spring was proving to be just as much of a bitch at present. Whatever the Spring Lord’s problem, he was not ready to bring the world back to life. Snow had only given way to rain, rain, and more rain, with no sign it was doing more than causing floods.
He really could not wait to leave these mountains forever.
Unfortunately, he had still received no reply from Lord Dieter, another than acknowledgment that his report had been received. Every day, he waited for a bird or a horseman to bring him word, but it was beginning to seem as though he waited in vain.
It did not help that most of his anxiety stemmed from the way he had tried heavily, in his report, to indicate that he’d realized the real reason he was being punished, and wanted a second chance. Asking the Lord General for such a thing was the definition of stupidity, but Sieghard had to try. He’d not seen Dietrich for six months now, and it was ache that did not ease as the days passed.
If he had to beg on his knees, he would. Whatever was necessary, he would do, until the Lord General explicitly told him no.
And even then, Sieghard was far more interested in what Dietrich would say on the matter.
Keeping his silence, he had long realized, was by far the stupidest thing he had ever done in his life.
Sighing again, he shoved his paperwork aside and rose to call for tea.
But he’d barely taken two steps toward the door when it suddenly flew open, and Petrus filled the doorway, a smirk on his face. “Soldiers, Captain. They’ve arrived straight from the coast, with personal orders from the Lord General to handle the matter here.”
“Why did no one send word?” Sieghard demanded, annoyed. “We could have had…” The words trailed off, forgotten, as someone appeared behind Petrus.
He only barely noted Petrus’ snickering, before Petrus departed and Dietrich stepped into the room. “Lord Dietrich.”
Dietrich smiled, and something in Sieghard eased to see it. Everything in him, every part of him, felt better for seeing Dietrich.
He’d come so far, in a couple of years. Long gone was the young man standing half-naked, scared and overwhelmed, in that dingy tavern. In the time since, Dietrich had blossomed into a fierce soldier, a strong leader, as fearsome and intense as the man who had adopted him. He had become all that Lord Dieter had somehow seen he could be, and no one could better fit the role of Lord Dieter’s heir.
But as such, Sieghard recalled miserably, Dietrich could and should do far better than a mere Captain with nothing to his name save what the army gave him.
“Sieg,” Dietrich replied, still smiling in that soft, sweet, almost shy way he still occasionally displayed. He closed the door, then said, “It’s good to see you again.”
Sieghard opened his mouth, hoping something intelligent would fall out—but in the next moment, all he knew was the feel of Dietrich’s tunic in his fingers, the heat of his body and the way his mouth tasted of berries and hops.
Tearing away, Sieghard stepped back, nearly tripping in his haste. He’d—had he really been stupid enough to have just kissed Dietrich?
He really wished he could convince himself he had not, but there was no denying it when Dietrich stood right before him, still leaning against the wall where Sieghard had shoved him, his lips still wet and full from a very thorough kiss.
“But his words were broken off by laughter—pleased laughter. Then Sieghard was yanked forward and treated to a second kiss, this one even more thorough and wonderful and evil than the first had been. He moaned, bracing one hand on the wall, sinking the other into Dietrich’s soft hair, fisting his hand it.
Arms twined around his waist, held tightly, and Sieghard really could not think of a better reason to die—because he had no illusions that Lord Dieter would murder him when he found out about this.
Dietrich laughed softly as they finally pulled apart. “So would it be redundant to say I’ve missed you?”
Sieg smiled, unable to help it even in the face of certain demise. “I’ve missed you too, redundant or not. I—” he hesitated, not certain what to say. “What are you doing here? And why did you not send word?”
“I didn’t know until I saw your surprise that father hadn’t sent word himself. I’ve been on the coast, taking care of smugglers and pirates. I received a letter from father that I was to report here posthaste, to deal with a complicated matter.” He snorted. “Complicated understates it, I feel, but that is my father.”
“He—the Lord General sent you?” Sieghard asked, unable to believe, even if the Lord General would have to be the one to order Dietrich to go somewhere. No one else was high ranking enough to order about the Lord General’s son.
Dietrich burst out laughing. “Who else? I asked him why he was bothering, when his orders were so explicit he may as well be going himself. Then he told me this is where he’d sent you.”
Sieghard stared in surprise. “You didn’t know where I was?”
“He refused to tell me,” Dietrich replied, glowering at his absent father. “All he said was that you were being punished, and I had better go deal with pirates or else. So I told him he was a stupid, stubborn bastard, and went to deal with pirates.”
“Did he tell you why I was being punished?” Seighard asked, not certain he wanted to know the answer.
Dietrich rolled his eyes. “Because I made the mistake of informing him that I had more than a passing interest in you, and was going to speak to you. He told me he wanted a word with you first, and I really should have known—” He glared again, recalling what had clearly not been a pleasant exchange. “The next thing I knew, you were sent off somewhere and I was sent to deal with pirates.”
Sieghard shook his head, not certain what to say.
“But,” Dietrich said, smile returning, “Here I am now, so I guess he’s done punishing you.”
“Which means…what, exactly?” Sieghard asked cautiously, trying so hard not to get his hopes up, but knowing he was failing miserably.
Dietrich yanked him forward, and kissed him hard. “It means that you and I have acted like skittish boys long enough, and that my father has granted approval in his idiotic way. That means I am hoping, Captain, that you are man enough to be my lover.”
Sieghard made a rough sound and kissed him again, pinning Dietrich against the wall with his body, devouring his mouth, making certain they would both feel the kiss for some time.
“I take it that’s a yes?” Dietrich asked breathlessly when Sieghard finally drew back. When Sieghard only looked at him, Dietrich laughed and nibbled at his bottom lip. “I think we have thieves to deal with, and villagers to punish, Captain. After that, I think I will let you prove that you are up to the task of being intimately aligned with the house of Von Adolwulf.”
“Yes, Lord Dietrich,” Sieghard said, then stole one last kiss before forcing himself to step away and ask, “So are we to do, speaking of the villagers?”
Dietrich pulled a sheaf of papers, folded in half, from the depths of his cloak. “Father’s orders are simple in theory, tricky in execution.”
“Aren’t they always?” Sieghard asked dryly.
Snickering, Dietrich handed over the papers for Seighard to read for himself, then said, “We are to raze the guilty villages, and haul the villagers to the city.”
“What!” Sieghard glared. “Winter’s Tits, why does he want us doing that?”
Dietrich replied, “Because father says the problem is that they obviously are still living in a long dead past. He says take them out of the past, and bring them into the present. They can go home and rebuild their houses when they learn to act like civilized adults.”
Sieghard pinched the bridge of his nose. “I cannot believe—never mind, yes I can. I feel it is for the best he sent you, rather than overseeing this personally.”
“I agree,” Dietrich said, “for reasons practical and personal.”
Shivering at the words, the tone in which they’d been spoken, Sieghard went easily when Dietrich tugged him close again. “I missed you,” he repeated unnecessarily. “I can’t believe—” That he’d never said anything sooner. That he’d been so stupid, again. That he’d never noticed the way Dietrich looked at him. Petrus was right—they’d both been extremely blind.
Dietrich smiled, as though he knew every thought passing through Sieghard’s mind, and shared them. “I missed you, too.”
Sieghard returned the smile, but made himself step away and resist the urge to take another kiss. They did have serious matters to address before they carried personal matters further. Striding to the door, he opened it—then scowled at the group of men clustered outside. “Can I help you with something?” he asked.
Petrus coughed, not looking terribly abashed at having been caught loitering. “You can settle a bet, Captain.”
“Or I can take your heads from your shoulders,” Sieghard retorted. “Get out of my sight before I do so.”
Laughing, Petrus motioned to the other men. “Get along, then, but I think it safe to say I’ve won the bet.”
Grousing and grumbling good naturally, the men wandered off, handing coins over to Petrus.
Shaking his head when they were gone, Seighard asked, “Do I want to know the bet?”
Grinning, Dietrich replied, “No, you really don’t. Be grateful we’ll be back in the city, and they’ll be otherwise occupied, before they have time to bet on who’s on top.”
Sieghard choked, immediately and thoroughly distracted by the imagery invoked
Dietrich smirked, and stepped into the hall. “Shall we go put the men to work, Captain?”
“Yes,” Sieghard replied. “But only because I want to settle that bet.”
Laughing, tossing a promising look over his shoulder, Dietrich led the way back to the main portions of the monastery.
Sieghard followed, determined never to leave Dietrich’s side again.