Carn Líath, Galloway, Scotland

Gaethine was finally awake.

It was Aed’s fourth, last, and least hopeful attempt of the evening, but it paid off: Gaethine was finally awake.

“Awake, are you?” he asked lightly. “For I was just about to try to get some sleep. Need anything?”

Gaethine gestured at the cluttered table beside his bed. “As you see, I am amply provided for.”

Indeed he was. There was nothing left for Aed to do. At his side Gaethine had new candles, a clean sputum cup, and a covered pot of herbed wine, still steaming. The curtains were closed before the shuttered window, and a cheery fire crackled away on the hearth, throwing off a pleasant heat in spite of the chill draft that still eddied across the floor.

For everything but Aed’s bare feet, the frigid, vinegar-​and-​hyssop atmosphere of the monk’s cell had given way to the sultry air of a sultan’s den, perfumed with apple wood, beeswax, and foreign spices.

Most remarkably, Gaethine had suffered himself to be propped up on a pile of feather pillows and covered with a rug of thick yarn. The new nurse had a way with her patient. Aed hoped she would stay on, despite the indignity of masquerading as a lowly chambermaid.

Aed still held onto the door handle.

Aed still held onto the door handle, uncertain of his welcome. He rubbed the sole of one foot against his leg to warm it. “Feeling better?” he asked.

Gaethine did not bark, but he answered in his most repellent tone. “’Twas only a spasm. You fetched me straight from my nap. I need to clear my lungs whenever I get out of bed.”

Aed hung all his weight from the door and swayed, still balanced on one foot. “Sorry. If I’d known they were coming…”

“Don’t apologize,” Gaethine said. “I would have been just as angry if you hadn’t awoken me.”

“Can’t win, can I?”

“No.” Gaethine pursed his lips and looked Aed up and down. “Are you coming in or not? You look half monkey and half stork.”

'Are you coming in or not?'

Aed laughed and released the door handle, but he gave his foot a last brisk rub before setting it down again.

“Have they gone?” Gaethine asked.

Aed’s relief at his grudgingly teasing welcome sank a little. Gaethine had slept the rest of the afternoon and all through the evening. It made his attack seem more than a mere spasm.

Aed's relief at his grudgingly teasing welcome sank a little.

“They left hours ago,” Aed said. He padded over to the bed. “Wanted to pass the night at Black Craig.”

“So how did it go?”

Aed’s good spirits deflated entirely, and he flopped down onto the edge of the bed. “I’m grateful he didn’t bend me over his knee and spank me.”

“That bad?”

'That bad?'

“Raked me up and down for a good half hour before he would even discuss what’s to do. And do you know what’s to do?”

He twisted around to show his indignant face to Gaethine, but remembered that Gaethine had only seen a quarter hour’s slice of the day’s events.

“Ach, you didn’t see them coming! A dozen horses, all black and brushed to a shine. Man and beast in full rig with banners waving—Colban’s and Old Eochaid’s—and every scrap of metal on them polished like mirrors. You’d have thought they were attending a coronation! And not a—a—”



“Precisely! Everyone who saw them on the road will be talking about it for a week. Which was the whole point. Everyone will be telling how Lord Colban paid a visit to Young Aed, and the very next day Young Aed just happened to order his men out of Three Winds.”

Aed was annoyed to hear his voice sounding more childish the angrier he became. He propped his bare heels on the bed frame and plunked his elbows down on his knees, determined to say no more until he had calmed himself.

“Aed,” Gaethine said, “you’ve been looking for an excuse to withdraw from Three Winds this week past.”

'You've been looking for an excuse to withdraw from Three Winds.'

“I know it!”

“And Colban just gave you one.”

“I know it! God damn him!”

Gaethine sighed.

“The excuse being that I’m an impetuous child! And with Papa Colban out of the country, I had me a little lark. And Colban will go to Aed, and they’ll both shake their gray heads over it and say ‘Boys will be boys.’ Fuck them!”

'Fuck them!'


“Fuck Colban. He’s not my guardian. He’s not my anything.”

“He’s your friend. Which your guardian never was.”

“Fuck you, too. I’m not forgetting it.”

Gaethine sighed again and straightened the blankets over his body. Aed felt a tug beneath his hips and obediently lifted himself off the mattress.

Then—impetuous though it might have been—Aed pulled his frigid feet up onto the blankets and inched himself down onto the sliver of mattress remaining beside Gaethine.

They had often shared a tent, but Gaethine never shared a bedroll, much less a bed. Those who knew him refrained even from making the suggestion.

Aed didn’t know what he had been thinking, nor quite what to expect. But Gaethine obediently wriggled over to make room. Aed had half a feather pillow to himself, and his elbow was nestled in a warm hollow Gaethine had left behind.

Aed had half a feather pillow to himself.

“But I’m not his child,” he said, hastening to return to the conversation. “I’m not anybody’s child. Look at what my so-​called impetuous lark got me.” He lifted a finger. “One, I took Aed and Cathal utterly by surprise, kept them away until Aed came to his senses—Aed, not I!—and showed them I’m not to be trifled with.”

'I'm not to be trifled with.'

He glanced at Gaethine. Gaethine was listening patiently. Aed could feel the warmth of his friend’s bare shoulder through his shirt, and it was some comfort after suffering through that hideous evening without his support.

“Colban himself admitted it was the right thing to do,” Aed added. “I showed Aed, if he wants to tangle with me, he’ll have to come armed with swords, not a birch rod. And my stepfather too. Any man who tries to whip me is going to find himself strangled with his own belt!”

Gaethine lifted his brows, pretending to be impressed. Aed caught himself running on and paused to make a closer study of his friend.

Gaethine’s eyes were pink, but they did not have their drooping look of exhaustion. And his cheeks did not have the hectic flush they often did when he woke. Even the shadows beneath his eyes seemed paler. Aed had received the Saracen doctor’s packet only after they had returned from that disastrous trip to Ramsaa, but he was almost certain the strange medicines were already having some effect.

Gaethine's eyes were pink.

“Don’t pay any attention to my nonsense, Gaeth,” Aed said contritely. “You aren’t minding if I’m ranting a bit before I go to bed?”

“Some men prefer a hot posset to help them sleep, but if that’s what works for you…”

Aed grinned at him. “I’ve no hope you’ll ever take me seriously anyway.”

“None at all.”

Aed wriggled down into three quarters of a pillow and slipped his cold feet beneath the trailing corner of Gaethine’s knitted blanket. “Where was I?”

'Where was I?'

Gaethine held up a finger. “One: Old Aed has learned not to trifle with you.”

“That’s right. And two: look at what else it’s gotten me. Colban bringing Old Eochaid’s son down here with him. With Eochaid’s banner, which all the world could see. A week ago Eochaid wouldn’t piss on me if I were on fire, and because of this standoff over Three Winds, he’s had to get involved. And not only to help Colban rein me in. Do you know what they said? They said if I’m striking westward into the Rhins this spring, Colban and Eochaid will both lend me men and horses. Can you account for that? All I had to do was raise a few devils around here.”

'Can you account for that?'

“I expect they’re hoping to turn your deviltry into safer channels. If you’re striking westward you’re not likely to butt heads with Old Aed.”

“I know it,” Aed said with a petulant frown. “So why does it feel so much like two old grandfathers telling me I may have some pudding if only I eat my vegetables?”

“Because you still see the world in terms of your quest to show everyone just what a big boy you are.”

Aed scowled. “Aye and with that you’ve just trussed me up and snipped the string, haven’t you, lad? I don’t know why I try to convince you that anything I’ve ever done is the least bit clever. You never are believing me.”

'You never are believing me.'

“It’s not me you’re trying to convince,” Gaethine said with maddening patience.

Aed refused to answer that. He rubbed his hand down his face and took advantage of its passage over his mouth to yawn. To his surprise, Gaethine picked up the conversation of his own accord.

“You’re not seeing it through their eyes. They think there’s nothing new under the sun, and along you come. Taking two forts on the Machars last autumn while your stepfather was down with the ague and not watching what you were up to. Slipping in and out of Ramsaa through Earl Eirik’s fingers the way you did, and sneaking Diarmait’s body and widow out, which nobody would have expected from you. And while their heads were a-​reeling from that, you didn’t wait for Old Aed to come to you, you drew a line across the Wilderness and dared him to cross it. And for a week he’s not moved. ‘So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven.’ Our family hasn’t made more than a few cattle raids since Whitehand took the seas and your father died—and they liked it that way. And suddenly we have Young Alexander among us, on the lookout for empires to conquer. The grandfathers, Young Alexander, are scared.”

'The grandfathers, Young Alexander, are scared.'

Aed lay back on the pillow, only breathing. There was an odor he was coming to know as the scent of Gaethine—the odor of some Saracen poultice that would linger in a cold room for an hour after Gaethine left it. Here beside him his nose was full of it. It was sharp and pungent, almost eye-​watering. He breathed it deep.

“They know about the horn and the fire,” he said softly.

Gaethine grunted. “That was bound to get out.”

'That was bound to get out.'

“I told him I didn’t know what happened myself. I don’t, you know.” He looked up at the graceful line of Gaethine’s jaw from below. “I don’t understand you at all.”

Gaethine’s mouth twisted in annoyance. “’Twas you as much as I.”

He jerked and shifted his weight, and Aed stiffened, ready to catch himself if he should be pushed off balance. He heard Gaethine’s medallions tinkling as they slipped sideways across his chest, and suddenly Gaethine’s elbow slammed into the pillow beside his head, and Gaethine’s arm was flung over him.

For an instant Gaethine’s chest pressed him down into the mattress, Gaethine’s hair brushed his face, and a tiny silver crucifix trickled along his collarbone and down the side of his throat to fall taut at the end of Gaethine’s long silver chain.

Then all of that heaved itself up and fell back. “Would you mind handing me that cup?”

“Sorry!” Aed scrambled up onto his elbows.

The cup was full almost to the brim, and Aed’s hand was shaky. The flat surface of the wine wobbled between mirror-​bright and blood-​black as he passed it over to Gaethine. He was relieved when Gaethine plucked it neatly from his fingers and took a swallow.

“How is it?”

Gaethine sucked his mustache and stared into the cup. “I believe you’ve all given me up for dead and are only trying to make my last days more pleasant. This cannot be medicine.”

Gaethine saw him wrinkle his nose in disbelief and lifted the cup. “Taste it.”

“You’re fucking with me.”

“Taste it.”

Aed took the cup. His hand was still unsteady, and he felt a lunatic desire to laugh. “If I spew this vile concoction all over you, you’ll have only your own self to blame.”

'I have a towel.'

“I have a towel.”

Aed could not refuse Gaethine in a playful mood—particularly not if he was being playful about his much-​loathed medicine. Aed would have drunk poison for him then.

Fortunately it was only honeyed wine with a few spices… and something the like of which Aed had never tasted in his life. His face screwed itself up reflexively, and he very nearly did spit it out.

Gaethine chuckled and took the cup away from him, leaving him free to claw at his hair with both hands as he swallowed.

“Jesus Christ! Get it out of my mouth!” He stuck out his tongue and panted, but the taste seemed to be seeping into the very fiber of his soul.

Gaethine took another deep swallow and slurped at his mustache. “I felt the same way the first time. But I’ve come to like it. It has a certain sweetness, don’t you think?”

'It has a certain sweetness, don't you think?'

“Gah!” Aed scrubbed his mouth with the back of his arm. “Get me a knife. It may not be too late to save my body if I make swith to cut off my head.”

Gaethine laughed out loud. That almost made up for the taste.

“I was never finding it quite that bad,” he said apologetically. “It helps clear my chest.”

That did make up for the taste.

Gaethine held out the half-​filled cup. He lifted his brows and smiled a close-​lipped smile he probably meant for innocently beguiling, but its softness eased his wracked face into some of its former beauty. Aed’s gaze could find nothing to rest on; sheer veils of grace flickered over Gaethine’s lineaments like colored lights in the northern sky, teasing the eye, evading close study. Aed wished they had been acquainted as boys. Then he might have seen clearly the vanished face he was only glimpsing now.

“Would you mind setting it down for me?” Gaethine asked, startling Aed out of a sort of dream.

Aed took the cup and twisted around to put it back on the table. “Get behind me, Satan!”

Gaethine laughed again.

Aed flopped back onto his elbow, and Gaethine stayed propped up on his, and though they were farther apart now than they had been on their backs, they were facing each other. It was companionable enough a moment that Aed knew Gaethine would never allow it to last.

They were facing each other.

Indeed, almost as he was realizing this, Gaethine seemed to come to the same conclusion. His smile died, and he looked away, and he let his head fall back to rest against the wall behind him.

“I wish you would ask that Highland woman for more of the stuff,” he said. “I’ve been drinking it every night.”

Aed looked down at his hands. He found a tied-​off tail of yarn on the wool blanket and began to pick it apart. “I don’t know, Gaeth. I thought she was a Christian woman, but if she’s sending you the Devil’s ear wax to be made into a potion…”

'I don't know, Gaeth.'

In fact the “Highland woman” was neither a Christian nor a woman. Aed could not admit he had sent to Lothere for a cure, so he had invented another miracle-​working healer living far-​off to explain the new medicines.

Now, though, he was in a fix. The very day after he had received the packet, he had sent to Whithorn Abbey to procure more of the ingredients the Saracen had sent as samples. The doctor had helpfully provided their names in several languages, and most of them were abundant and inexpensive. But the monks said they would have no “anise seed” before early summer, and they had never heard of “licorice” by any of its names.

Aed’s customary optimism failed him. He was certain the noxious stuff would prove to be the “licorice.”

“If you have some reason to think it’s unchristian,” Gaethine said warily, “I shan’t want any.”

Aed sighed and let fall the corner of the blanket. “It was a joke. I’ll send for more.”

He yawned. His bulwark of self-​assurance had been breached, and all his fatigue was rushing through the gap.

Gaethine wriggled himself back beneath the blankets and rested his head and shoulders on the pillows. “You’re tired,” he said, looking up at Aed.

“Aye, but it won’t stop me from tossing and turning half the night.”

“Want to rant at me a little more?” he asked gently.

Aed snorted. “I must be fucked, if you’re being kind to me, Gaeth.”

'I must be fucked, if you're being kind to me, Gaeth.'

He regretted his words at once. Nothing made Gaethine bristle like being told he was performing a kindness. Even if he was sometimes kind.

Gaethine drew back. Aed thrust his arm beneath a pillow and scooted down to lie on his side. At some point they had moved closer to the wall, and Aed had an entire pillow to himself now. And he clung to that pillow for dear life, as if an airy sack of feathers would anchor him to the bed if Gaethine attempted to shove him off and tumble him over the side.

“Don’t listen to me, man,” he mumbled into his sack of feathers. “I’m naught but a wee lad who gets cranky when he’s up past his bedtime. Or at least, that’s what Colban thinks.”

Gaethine snorted. “That’s better. Go on.”

Aed laughed wearily. “No more ranting. Ranting can’t save me now.” He sighed and wormed into his pillow. “These last two weeks have been a nightmare. Ever since Eirik walked through that door. I should have listened to you. You were right. I hope you’re happy.”

“Being right gives me no pleasure at all,” Gaethine said with his characteristic asperity, “if it’s being to your peril. But it’s glad I am to hear you admit it. You’ll have learned that my advice can be worth heeding. Perhaps you’ll heed it the next time.”

Aed found the tail of yarn with his free hand and twisted it between his fingers, considering. “I probably won’t, you know.”

“I know.” Gaethine sounded not resigned so much as forgiving.

Aed nestled into his pillow and pulled up the corner of the heavy blanket so he could more easily study his fretful handiwork. He twisted the yarn up like a wick. He untwisted it into frayed strands. His thousand cares crowded at the back of his mind, clamoring for attention, but he was too tired to face them. And he didn’t have to. He was safe here, in this pocket of warmth and spice-​scented air.

After a while he looked up at Gaethine, wondering at his immobility and his silence. Gaethine’s eyes were closed.

Gaethine's eyes were closed.

Aed was stricken. He had been too occupied feeling sorry for himself to consider that he was fatiguing his friend. Gaethine might have had the whole night to himself while the castle slept. Peace in which to read or pray or rest. And then Aed had come in.

Aed whispered, “Are you sleeping?”

Gaethine’s golden eye opened and looked sideways at Aed. “I am praying for you.”

“Ach!” Aed shrank meekly into his pillow. He whispered, “I thank you.”

The eye closed. Gaethine sighed and sank back.

Aed’s fingers returned to twisting his bit of yarn, but his gaze remained on Gaethine’s face. He felt he was at a strange, not-​quite-​stolen liberty to study it, and he would not look away.

He saw that he might have guessed Gaethine wasn’t sleeping. His features were neither lax with repose nor taut with suffering. There was only a fierce gravity, like a mask clapped over the body to hide the soul’s stirrings beneath.

Aed’s hand eased its clenching grip on the pillow beneath his head, and his arm relaxed. If he twisted it, it would almost… He saw his fingers would touch Gaethine’s hair. He twisted his arm, reached out with his fingers, and they did.

Gaethine flinched. Aed froze. But nothing more happened, and after a while, his heart pounding, he moved his fingers again, barely stroking Gaethine’s coarse curls.

He moved his fingers again.

The first time his finger brushed Gaethine’s cheek, it was accidental. The second time—his heart was pounding—it was meant. Then he brushed the wild hair aside and laid his hand upon it to weight it flat, laying bare the cheek to his gaze and—he was breaking out in a sweat—to the light touch of his fingertips.

There was perhaps a wrinkle between his eyes that had not been there before, but Gaethine did not flinch again. And Aed touched the too-​high, too-​beautiful cheekbone that had always perturbed him. He stroked its pale ridge just below the too-​sunken shadows of the eye. He smoothed the too-​thin, blue-​veined temple back into the hair. He touched the corner of the mouth with his thumb.

Gaethine did not flinch. Was he aware at all? Was he praying? What was prayer like for him? Surely he did not simply repeat words in his head as Aed dutifully did every night—Almighty Father, grant us your heavenly blessing, and whatnot.

Surely the Spirit was with him. Surely the grace of God billowed in veils of light just beneath the flushed surface of his skin. Gaethine would not pray with words.

Aed heaved himself up onto his elbow to look down on him. His hand still lay in a nest of wild hair. His pounding heart showed no signs of slowing down.

Aed heaved himself up onto his elbow to look down on him.

What are you, he wondered in words, O too beautiful for this world? A saint, worker of miracles? A changeling? A demon? A wild man of God?

Aed felt his own breath blowing back off Gaethine’s cheek. His breathing was rapid and unsteady, and Gaethine was bound to feel that, even if he could not feel his heart hammering away. But Gaethine did not move. He was a mask, grave and fierce, shutting out and shutting in. But there was something radiant on the other side.

Aed relaxed his shoulder and hung his head until his breath was one with Gaethine’s cheek. He breathed warm skin and licorice and wine.

He breathed warm skin and licorice and wine.

What are you? he wondered, scattering a last few words to the wind like ashes. And then, like sparks flying upward, an answer came to him that he would be grasping after forever: One of the highest angels, whose faces are all fire.

Aed slid his elbow across the mattress until his cheek had sunk to the level of Gaethine’s. His lips brushed stubble. He trailed them up a cheekbone, brushed them over temple and lashes, and ran them down the silky path of an eyebrow. It twitched beneath his lips, as if the forehead had contracted, but he saw no sign of it when he lifted his head to look.

He rolled onto his hip and planted his other hand on the far side of Gaethine’s shoulder, propping himself up so that he could lean down and press his lips against that smooth brow. How many times had he wanted to do this? Not only to test for the fevers he suspected, but to cool and to soothe. He was certain he could.

He kissed the forehead and the brows.

Eight months of frost-​wracked gentleness melted out of him. He kissed the forehead and the brows, and when he moved on, he laid his hand over them and stroked it back into the hair, as he had so often wanted to do: to comfort, to soothe.

Ever so lightly he kissed the closed eyes, kissing away the redness, the swollen, itchy lids, the sensitivity to light, the rheumy tears.

He kissed the cheeks on their bony heights and in their wasted hollows. He did not kiss the nose—that seemed too silly for Gaethine—but when he crossed from cheek to cheek their noses brushed together, like a meeting of deer, muzzle to muzzle, and he liked that, too.

He ran his lips over the mustache, releasing a dewy mist of licorice. He felt Gaethine’s breath on his face, ponderously slow and heavy.

Then—impetuous, dizzy, breathless—he kissed the lips.

He kissed the lips.

The face was withering away, but the illness had not reached the lips, except to make them pale sometimes, and sometimes red as if stained with fruit. That lower lip must always have been beautiful and full, but as the cheeks shrank beside it, it seemed to grow and bloom.

Aed found it plump and heavy between his lips. It was wreathed in fumes of licorice, but he hadn’t tasted anything besides licorice for the last half hour anyway. It had a certain sweetness after all.

But still Gaethine did not move. A body could not long kiss another body without some hint of being kissed in return. They were lip-​to-​lip and still Gaethine gave no sign he even remembered Aed was in the room.

Aed knew he wasn’t sleeping. He could not believe he was so utterly lost in prayer.

And he knew—he knew Gaethine wasn’t paralyzed with horror. He knew why Gaethine’s father had banished him to a monastery when he was fourteen and wanted nothing to do with him today. Gaethine had never said it outright, but he could not resist a fiercely sarcastic comment, especially when it concerned himself. Aed knew. He thought Congal had figured it out too.

Aed knew nothing of such things, but he knew that if ever a girl tried to kiss him against his will, he would be gentleman enough to stop her at once, and not ignore her until she began to doubt she was real.

No, Gaethine was awake and aware, and he was deliberately lying there like an effigy of himself, letting Aed spill his heart out over him. Perhaps he was waiting for the last drop to fall before flinging him off to crash down in a tangle of broken table legs and melted beeswax and licorice wine.

Perhaps this was his idea of suitable punishment for interrupting him in his prayers. Aed found it unforgivably cruel. He was the unhappiest creature alive.

His lips stopped moving, and his rapid breathing became ragged. Would not Gaethine take pity on him? He pressed his knees together to stop his legs from shaking. His guts were twisted in knots. A sob rose from the depths of his lungs, and he let his head fall limp against Gaethine’s neck to choke out, shivering, “Christ, Gaeth!”

'Christ, Gaeth!'

That was the last drop. Nothing happened. Aed wished he had died.

Then one of Gaethine’s hands rose from the blankets and touched the back of Aed’s head. His fingers stroked down the length of his ponytail, stroked back up his spine, then pulled Aed’s head against his neck and turned his face tightly against it.

Aed was devastated with relief. He started shaking like he was falling apart, and the only sound he could make was a miserable hungry mewling, like a famished lamb finally given suck. Now that he had what he wanted, he felt like he was about to die.

Gaethine wrapped both arms around him and gently shushed him.

Gaethine wrapped both arms around him and gently shushed him, with his mustache whiskering him, and his licorice breath whishting in his ear. Aed lay helpless and grateful and let him hold him until the shaking began to subside. He did not think he would stop shivering entirely. He was not sure he wanted to.

When he lifted his head he did not bother opening his eyes. His lips easily found their way to the licorice-​scented center of the world. And when he kissed Gaethine, Gaethine kissed him back.

When he kissed Gaethine, Gaethine kissed him back.

Aed pushed himself onto his elbows. He wanted to ease his weight off of Gaethine’s chest, but also to twine his fingers into those tendrils of hair and hold his head between his hands. Now that Gaethine was moving on his own, Aed wanted to hold him still.

And kiss him. It was only a little strange, and only due to the mustache. Gaethine’s mouth was open now, hot and reeking of wine and licorice, and Aed kissed it until his lips began to tingle from the medicine. He had always been shy about putting his tongue in a girl’s mouth, but it came easily with Gaethine.

It came easily with Gaethine.

Before long his cock was stiff and aching, pressed awkwardly into the rumpled wool blanket he was crushing beneath his body. He rolled over onto one elbow and freed a hand to push a lump of blanket aside. Then he realized he had a free hand.

It was strange—almost a shock, making him falter in a kiss—when he ran his hand down Gaethine’s neck and collarbone and on to find… nothing, no yielding softness. His chest was flat.

Then his palm swept over a tiny, hard bud and he heard a sharp intake of breath. He curled his fingers back up and traced circles around it with his nails. This was something he knew.

Still, he was a little surprised that it worked so well. Gaethine bit his lips together and tightened his grip around the base of Aed’s ponytail before sighing and letting its silky length slip through his hand.

Gaethine bit his lips together and tightened his grip around Aed's ponytail.

Aed had never imagined himself touching Gaethine with anything but soothing gentleness, but now he was in a fever himself. He hungered. His heart raced. If it went on much longer he was going to fuck a hole into that damned blanket.

Aed’s fingers left off circling the nipple, and he slid his hand down through the oily, aromatic residue on Gaethine’s chest, feeling out the ridges of his ribs. A little lower and his hand met the damned blanket. He dragged it down, slowly and roughly, savoring the rasp of the fuzzy wool over the taut skin of Gaethine’s belly.

He dragged it down, slowly and roughly.

Gaethine’s mouth was still open and his breathing was shallow, but he was no longer in a condition to kiss anybody back. Aed no longer needed it. He kissed and kissed, teasing Gaethine’s lips as a distraction while his hand explored his body.

Gaethine was painfully thin, but there was no mistaking his straight-​edged, muscled flank for the curvy waist of a woman. The soft patch of hair below the navel was a sweet surprise. Aed ran his thumb through the hollow above the narrow pelvis and felt goosebumps beneath his hand.

He leaned his weight on Gaethine’s hip, pressing it down into the mattress. Gaethine gasped and turned his face away. “Stop, stop…” he panted.

Aed drew back his hand and lifted his head. He whispered, “Did I hurt you?”

'Did I hurt you?'

Gaethine’s brow briefly contracted, but he turned his head back and looked Aed in the face. “Stop.”

Aed gave him a little smile, half sheepish, half naughty. He whispered, “I don’t want to stop.”

Gaethine replied dully, “You’re young.”

'You're young.'

Aed frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Gaethine closed his eyes. “Forget I said it.”

“No, what? You’re twenty-​fucking-​one years old. Don’t tell me I’m young. I got enough of that today.”

Gaethine smiled. That was enough for Aed. He lowered his head again and sought out those licorice lips, still tingling and slippery. But Gaethine’s lips did not move to meet his.

Gaethine whispered, “Stop.”

Aed whispered, “Gaeth,” and lightly ran his fingers over Gaethine’s brow and down into his hair. He would be gentle this time. It was what he had always wanted to be.

He would be gentle this time.

He lowered his head and delicately took Gaethine’s bottom lip between his two. He pulled it taut and let it go.

Gaethine whispered, “Stop.” Aed whispered nothing and fitted his mouth to Gaethine’s.

Gaethine jerked his head away and said, “Stop!” Aed sucked in his breath and drew back. Gaethine’s yellow eyes were shimmering with fire.

Aed rolled over onto his side and Gaethine shot up beside him, surging out of the blankets that remained trapped beneath Aed’s hip. Aed got his knees beneath him and scrambled up out of the way, pressing his back into the curve of the arch.

Aed got his knees beneath him and scrambled up out of the way.

What a fool he had been. In his short career he had gone too far with girls, been rebuffed, and learned just how hard he could press them the next time. He had learned when “Stop” meant “Stop,” and when it meant “Go on,” or “Slow down,” or “Don’t stop, but I mean to protest so I can still pretend I’m a good girl.”

But Gaethine was not a girl. Gaethine was Gaethine. Gaethine did not like to be touched. He did not like gentleness, or kindness, or affection. Aed had to invent chambermaids and healers from the Highlands only to make him consent to be treated for his illness.

Aed had not felt like such a gowk since he was fifteen or so and still figuring out girls. But no stinging slap from a girl had ever shattered his heart the way Gaethine just had with a word.

Aed knew he ought to go.

Aed knew he ought to go. But he did not want to carry this image up to bed. There could be no crueler sight for him than Gaethine’s back.

There were still muscles on Gaethine’s flanks—he had just run his hand over them—but his back had been ravaged. Aed could see every pair of his ribs, every jagged knob of his spine. His shoulder blades strained at his skin like a pair of ingrown wings. And over it all, a welter of purple streaks: the livid scars of lashings Gaethine had inflicted upon himself, trying to bleed himself dry of his sins.

Aed's thwarted tenderness flooded to the tips of his fingers.

There was only one healthy-​looking spot left on him, and all Aed’s thwarted tenderness flooded to the tips of his fingers, seeking it, like fire kindling at the end of a branch. In the hollow of his back, at the base of his spine, where self-​wielded scourges could not reach, there grew a patch of fine, black hair.

It darkened as it grew downward into a cleft that was only a shadow behind blankets from where Aed sat. But what he saw was of infant fineness, infant delicacy, and it seemed to belie an infant yearning to be touched. Aed reached out and brushed the backs of his fingers up the patch, so lightly he felt no skin, but only warmth and hair.

Gaethine catapulted out of bed. Aed scrambled up onto his knees, expecting a punch to the face.

Aed scrambled up onto his knees.

Instead Gaethine strode for the door. He was quick about it, but Aed had time to notice that in spite of all his strange talents, Gaethine was not possessed of superhuman powers of bodily self-​control, and Aed had had some of the effect on him that he had had on Aed.

But the door was near enough that Aed had no time to feel gratified by the knowledge. What did he mean to do? Was he meaning to throw the door open and fling Aed through it? Or was he seriously meaning to storm out into the corridor quite naked and obviously aroused?

He had meant to do neither. Instead he locked the door.

Instead he locked the door.