"You've got to be kidding."
Dante chuckled slightly.
"Skip, you canna hide here in my rooms forever."
"It's only been one day."
"They want to talk to you."
"No, they want to interrogate me," Skip said irritably. "They want to ask me a million questions that I can't answer, and then blame me for not having the answers."
Dante's eyes sparkled.
"'Tis only dinner, muírnigh, I've never known High Lord Simon to bring out the hot irons before supper."
"Oh, yeah, laugh it up," Skip grimaced. "You're not the one they're looking for an excuse to kill."
Dante sat down beside Skip on the bed, sliding a comforting arm around him, the amusement gone from his eyes.
"'Tis not like that, Skip," he said gently. "They're not wanting to kill you."
"Oh, yeah?" Skip challenged. "What about the blond guy?"
"James is a Sentinel, muírnigh," Dante said patiently. "They're protective and territorial, they're made to be that way. He's a good man. And d'you think you're the only one they thought too dangerous to live?"
Skip bit his lip.
"Aye, me," Dante said quietly. "The halfling, the monster, good at killing and not much else. I had to show I was more useful alive than dead. We'll just have to show them the same of you, eh?"
Skip dropped his eyes.
"Yeah, but what if they decide otherwise? I mean this guy Simon, he could just order you to kill me, couldn't he?"
"Aye, he could," Dante said softly. He smoothed back Skip's hair. "And then I'd lose my place in his court, and most likely my home in this country, for refusing him."
"Muírnigh, we've shared our blood, our souls, our Truenames. What James says is true you could be used to become a danger but so could he, or I, or anyone, and you less likely than some. So aye, I'd refuse. I'd convince the lord otherwise, or I'd take you elsewhere, or I'd die defending you."
He said that so simply, as if it was such an obvious truth, that Skip sat stunned, his mouth gaping. Dante turned and smiled at Skip as if he hadn't just uttered the most shocking words Skip had ever heard.
"So get dressed, muírnigh, and we'll go down to dinner. Besides, Kix will be there, and you'd like to talk to him, eh?"
"I um yeah," Skip stammered, still too astonished for intelligent speech. He did want to talk to Kix, although he'd have preferred a private conversation which, no doubt, the High Lord would never permit. Dante said that Kix had treated his threshold sickness, but since Skip had been unconscious at the time he'd lost that opportunity to talk and also missed his first opportunity to see real magic in action. Well, a dinner conversation was better than none at all, inquisition or not, he supposed.
"Okay, okay, I'll go," he said. Then his eyes involuntarily flickered to the clothes Dante had laid out on the bed. "But, um, do I have to wear that stuff?"
"I asked the Vizier if he could spare some clothes until new ones could be made to your fit," he said. "You could hardly wear the clothes you came in they're soiled and torn, fit only for rags."
"Yeah, but these " Skip protested.
"Aye, the Vizier has ahem individualistic taste in clothing," Dante admitted, stroking the pale blue and rather frilly silks. "But the color will suit you, at least. Never fear, Skip, I'll speak to the seamstresses this afternoon, have something made more suiting your taste."
Skip sighed irritably, but in the face of Dante's patience he could do nothing but put the ridiculous outfit on.
Or try to.
"How the hell does this go?" he said helplessly, when he was hopelessly tangled in the linens.
Dante's face was carefully impassive, but his eyes twinkled, and his voice nearly broke with suppressed laughter.
"Allow me, muírnigh," he said gravely, gently untangling Skip and showing him how to arrange the garments. Skip scowled with wounded dignity and yanked the outer tunic on over the other layers, unappeased by the luxuriant softness of the silk. There were even soft silk slippers to go with it he couldn't decide which looked more ridiculous, those pastel slippers, or his clunky work boots with the frilly outfit. He finally reluctantly settled on the slippers.
"Goddamned harem outfit," he grumbled. "I look like somebody's kept boy."
"You look beautiful," Dante said, although there was still a hint of laughter in his eyes. He smiled and tucked Skip's hair back behind his ear on his left side. "I like to see you wearing the mark of my teeth, even though it's mostly gone."
Skip shivered. Suddenly he didn't mind the outfit so much.
"May I braid your hair, muírnigh?"
Skip nodded, swallowing. Suddenly he wondered whether it might not be a whole lot more fun to just stay here in the tower. And he wouldn't even need the silky clothes.
Dante turned away for a moment, poking through a wooden box on his dressing table. He braided Skip's hair with an ease of long practice, then fastened a clasp at the end of the braid.
"For you, Spencer."
Touched, Skip pulled his braid forward to look, then gasped. The clasp was silver, set with an ice blue sapphire that looked genuine. Of course it's genuine, you idiot. They're not exactly set up for cubic zirconia here, you know?
"Wow," Skip whispered. "I I mean thank you." He glanced at Dante shyly. "Ciarán."
After that he couldn't have refused Dante anything, and he let Dante lead him back downstairs, through the hallways, and to a fair-sized room, this one far warmer than the large hall he'd seen earlier. The large table, long enough to seat about a dozen, seemed small for the ruler of an entire country, and only Simon, Kix, James and Blair were waiting, already seated although there was enough food on the table already to feed a small third-world nation, and servants were still bringing in bowls and platters. When he murmured a question to Dante, the halfling smiled.
"This is the High Lord's private dining room," Dante said. "He never dines in state if he can help it. And I doubt he wants any outsiders to see you yet."
That made sense, but it didn't stop Skip from feeling awkward as Dante half led, half pulled him to the table to join the others. Kix rose to greet them, dodging Simon's restraining hand to come forward and take Skip's hands.
"Welcome, welcome," Kix beamed. "You look so much better!"
"I gather I have you to thank for that," Skip said a little shyly. "Thanks for the help."
Kix shrugged negligently.
"It was nothing," he said. He smiled again. "Gods, you are my very image, aren't you? Especially in my clothes."
"Yeah. Uh." Skip blushed. Kix, more slender and delicate and, well, effeminate, could get away with those outfits; Skip felt like a complete fool. "Thanks for sharing your clothes. I appreciate it." He cleared his throat. "I don't think anybody will have any trouble telling us apart, though," he added, gesturing at the numerous rings gracing both of Kix's ears.
"Well, you have your own ornamentation, don't you?" he grinned. "I've seen skin art before, but rarely of the quality of yours. The dragon around your navel, and that other design on your arm do they have a special meaning?"
"No " Skip chuckled. Now was probably not a good time to mention that he'd gotten both tattoos in prison. "The man who did the dragon he'd done another one on another guy, and I just liked the way it looked. The one on my arm's a raven. I don't know, the design just kind of struck me, and I wanted one." He cleared his throat. "Um, I don't want to keep anybody waiting "
"And I'm sure your stomach doesn't wish to be kept waiting either," Kix said merrily, pulling Skip and Dante toward the table. "Come, join us and welcome." He slid into his own seat.
Simon only nodded brusquely until Kix un-subtly elbowed him; then he said, rather grudgingly, "Welcome to my home and my table."
Skip sat down beside Dante, noticing with amusement that Simon had seated Skip between Dante and James, Blair across from Skip and Kix tucked away down by Simon. Skip ignored the polite insult and concentrated on the delicious smells of the food.
Servants came and went, pouring wine, offering platters. Skip didn't know what some of the dishes were, but he was too hungry to be particular and took a little of everything, glad to see the forks and knives beside his plate. He couldn't remember much he'd ever learned about the Middle Ages and whether he might have to eat with his fingers hell, for all he knew he was supposed to stand on his head and put his face in the plate to eat.
Many of the flavors were strange, some downright disagreeable, but it was still the best food Skip had tasted in a long, long time, and if he'd thought about it, he might have been embarrassed by how high he'd piled his plate.
"So tell us something about your world, Skip," Simon said with deliberate casualness.
"Oh, Simon," Kix said reproachfully. "You promised."
"It's just a friendly question, Dove," Simon said, looking innocent.
"It's all right," Skip said, stifling a sigh. Gentlemen, start your thumbscrews. "I don't really know what to tell you. There's no magic there, or at least nobody really believes in it. There's no " He glanced at Dante. "Everybody's human. I really don't know what else to say."
Blair leaned forward, fascinated.
"How do you get by without magic?"
"We just do." Skip shrugged. "We use machines instead, I guess. Like . . . um . . . " He looked around, then grinned. "Here, I'll show you."
He plucked one of the candles off the table and blew it out, pulled his lighter out of his pocket and lit the candle again, enjoying the gasps that went around the table. Before he could pull his hand back, however, he found his wrist seized in an iron grip, and he froze, his heart pounding.
"What is that?" James hissed, his blue eyes cold and hostile.
Skip swallowed hard, trembling.
"It's just a lighter," he croaked. "It just, um, makes a small flame."
"James, it's all right," Blair said in a soothing tone. "It's not a weapon, there's no harm, let him go. Look at me, James."
Slowly the bruising grip around Skip's wrist eased. Moving slowly he was no fool he carefully put the lighter down on the table and drew his arm back, rubbing his aching wrist.
"It'll work for anybody," he said, hating the way his voice shook. "I I could show you how it works."
Blair came around the table, rubbing James' shoulder soothingly as if to calm a half-wild animal.
"Show me," he said interestedly.
His hands shaking, keeping one eye on the Sentinel, Skip hesitantly extinguished and lit the candle again; then he gladly handed the lighter to Blair and showed him how to do it. The Sentinel relaxed slightly when he saw his lover operate the device.
"See? It's just a handy tool," Blair murmured, returning to slowly caressing James' shoulder. "Not even magical. Dante would have felt if there was any magic about him, remember?"
James took a deep breath, leaning into Blair's strokes and closing his eyes.
"Sorry," he grunted briefly in Skip's general direction. Then he opened his eyes, glancing at Skip suspiciously. "Any other tricks?"
"Uh " Skip thought fast. "Um, just this." He pulled out his Swiss Army knife. "It's just a knife, though."
Dante took it, looked it over, managed to pull out the large blade. He tested it against his thumb and snorted disdainfully.
"Skip, you couldn't cut cold butter with this, muírnigh," he chuckled. "And what would you accomplish with this tiny blade anyway?"
Skip chuckled too. So much for the glory of his gorgeous Swisschamp XLT, 50 features including the whole Cybertool engineering assortment.
"It isn't really much of a knife," he admitted. "Think of it as, um, a tinker's tool kit, only smaller. It's just " He swallowed around the lump in his throat. "Kix I mean, my brother gave it to me for our my birthday, a couple months before he, um, died."
Dante put the knife down on the table at Skip's elbow, calmly meeting James' eyes when the Sentinel growled, "You said he'd have no weapons."
Kix laughed outright, earning a scowl from the Sentinel.
"James, I trim my toenails with a knife more dangerous than that."
Skip said nothing, just toyed with his food and let the others battle it out. His wrist ached (probably sprained, how many times did Daddy wrench it around that way?) and his food was resting far from quietly, and he couldn't stop shaking. Dante quietly slipped the knife into Skip's pocket, patting his thigh reassuringly.
"This was supposed to be a pleasant meal," Blair chided, smacking James gently on the shoulder. "To welcome Skip. Next time maybe Dante and Skip can simply dine with Kix and me and enjoy some civilized conversation."
Skip clenched his hands to stop their trembling. He could feel cold sweat beading on his forehead.
"I still say he should be kept under guard," James growled, glaring at Dante. "By guards. Better yet, in a cell."
Skip froze. A cell. Bars. Dark. Strong filthy men, rank breath, hard hands pawing
Skip pushed himself away from the table and bolted, his entire body shaking, ignoring the startled cries behind him. He made it through the doors and around the corner barely before he collapsed to his knees and vomited up everything he'd eaten, then dry heaved until his throat was raw. He didn't even notice Dante's presence until the taller man gently pulled him back to sit against the strong hard chest and wiped Skip's face tenderly with a cloth.
"Shhh, mo grá, it's all right, you're right, we should not have come," Dante murmured, stroking Skip's hair, holding Skip's head against his shoulder. "Those are my friends, and I expected ah, no matter, I expected too much. Come, muírnigh, I'll take you back upstairs, and later we'll see about getting out of this place."
"Don't do that." Skip recognized Kix's soft voice even before the slender man knelt beside them.
"I'll not keep him where he's not made welcome, Lord Vizier," Dante said stonily, lifting Skip as easily as he might lift a small child.
"Once you take him outside the castle wards, he'll be easy prey for whoever's seeking him," Kix countered. "And I've told you a thousand times, Dante, titles are for the public, not my friends. Now take him upstairs, and I'll bring him up some ginger tea for his stomach."
Dante's brows lowered.
"I'll not have guards in my rooms."
"I won't bring any."
"I think High Lord Simon would have something to say to that," he said mockingly.
Kix's brown eyes flashed.
"Yes, well, I have a few things to say to Simon, too," he said saucily, tossing his head. "And he doesn't own me. I'll go where I please." Then he amended, "If you'll let me come up, that is."
Dante smiled slightly, softening.
"Aye, and welcome Kix," he said rather awkwardly. "Come, then, when you will I'll leave the door unlocked."
Skip had remained silent throughout this exchange, almost numb, simply lying limp in Dante's arms. When Dante walked up the stairs of the tower, however, after an uneasy glance over his shoulder at the unlocked door, Skip spoke, hoarsely because of his raw throat.
"I thought you locked that to keep me in."
Dante chuckled, shifting Skip in his arms.
"Nay, muírnigh, I keep it locked because I told the High Lord I'd have a place that was mine and mine alone," he said. "I have need of peace and privacy, maybe as great a need as James does. He and Blair have the east tower. Here, let's get you out of these clothes, I fear you spattered them a bit."
"What's a Sentinel?" Skip asked as Dante deposited him on the bed, remembering the word he'd heard used about James.
"Ah, your world has none?" Dante said. He sat down beside Skip and helped him out of the clothes and back into Dante's oversized nightshirt. "Sentinels are born with a Gift not the Mage-Gift, but another. Their senses are razor sharp they can see farther than the best hunting hawk, hear more keenly than the finest watchdog, and so on. But like the Mage-Gift, the Gift of the Sentinels is blessing and curse together. Those sharp senses are hard to manage. Blair's not only his lover, but his Guide, too and High Lord Simon's finest sage, too, learned far beyond his years."
Skip rubbed his wrist.
"Yeah, well, I wish Blair could do something about James' nasty temper," he muttered.
"Let me look." Dante tenderly examined the swelling wrist. "Damn him. I'd slice him open guts to gullet if he were any other . . . "
"Don't worry," Kix said cheerfully, setting a tray on the bedside table. "I believe Blair is more than capable of suitably chastising that lout. Now, let's see . . . ginger tea for your poor stomach, and some of my best lavendar water to bathe your face, and some hot broth can you keep that down? and then I'll tie up your wrist with some arnica "
Skip felt a little alarmed at these proceedings, but glancing at Dante, he saw the dark-haired man only looked amused, so he cuddled down into the soft bed and let Kix bustle around and fuss over him.
God, this feels strange. When we were little, I was the one who took care of Kix, and later Skip grimly forced the conclusion of that thought out of his mind, but he couldn't meet Kix's eyes.
"Muírnigh," Dante said gently, and Skip looked up. "You rest and talk with with Kix. I believe I'll have a wee bit of a chat with the High Lord and his Sentinel." Before a very alarmed Skip could say anything, Dante was gone.
"Don't worry," Kix said, gently pressing Skip back to the bed and firmly placing the cup of tea in his hand. "He won't kill them. Although after they've gotten the sharp edge of his tongue for a few minutes, and Blair's they've already had mine, and not in the good way either they might wish he had."
Skip tasted the tea and grimaced, whereupon Kix spooned more honey into the hot liquid.
"But the High Lord " Skip hesitated. "I don't want Dante to get into any trouble because of me."
"Shhh, he won't," Kix soothed, sponging Skip's face with cool scented water. "Simon may bluster and roar, but Dante's his friend, and Simon couldn't do without him anyway."
Skip forced down a little more of the nasty tea.
"Um, Kix?" It seemed so strange to say that name. "What exactly does Dante do?"
Kix put down the bowl of water and began neatly bandaging Skip's wrist.
"All Simon's dirty jobs," Kix said, shrugging. "All the nasty things nobody else will do, or that he can't trust anybody else to do. Getting information, spying, carrying and delivering messages in tight situations, assassinations "
"What!" Skip nearly spit out his tea, more at Kix's calm delivery than the news itself. Skip had been down enough dark alleys in his life to know a hit man when he saw one.
"He's very good," Kix said, firmly pushing the tea back towards Skip's mouth. "Until he begged Simon for your life, I've never known him to care much whether anyone lived or died including himself. We were all shocked, especially when he told us about the blood bond." Kix gently touched Skip's throat.
"I don't know what that means," Skip confessed.
"It means the stronger the bond grows, the more each of you feel what the other does," Kix said, shaking his head. "Beyond that, I don't know. Dante's the only halfling I've ever known, and he's not exactly forthcoming with that sort of thing, hmmm?"
"Kix " Skip hesitated. "What does, um, mur- -- mure ah, shit, he calls me that all the time "
"Muírnigh?" Kix guessed. "Dante's mother was from Eire, and some of her family raised him. I've picked up a bit of the language since he's been here. It means 'beloved.'"
Skip froze, his jaw hanging open. He felt the blood drain from his face.
"What's the matter?" Kix said worriedly.
"Nothing," Skip choked. He swallowed hard. "I just do you mind, um, I'd like to just rest for a while."
"Oh." Kix smiled. "Of course. Rest is what you need most anyway. I'll check on you later, Skip. I hope you feel better soon." He leaned forward, and to Skip's amazement, kissed Skip softly on his forehead. "Sleep well."
Skip closed his eyes when Kix was gone, but sleep was the farthest thing from his mind. He lay there in Dante's bed in Dante's room, clothed in Dante's nightshirt, alive only because of the blood Dante had shared with him. Oh, yeah, and let's not forget that he killed for me too, mustn't forget that one. Not to mention that he's downstairs reading the riot act to the ruler of this fucking country on my behalf.
He heard the door downstairs open and close. Dante's footsteps were soft, almost silent, as if he was accustomed to stealth even in his own living quarters. The bed dipped slightly as Dante sat down on the edge, and reluctantly Skip opened his eyes when Dante stroked his hair back. The dark-haired man smiled.
"Feeling any better, muír- -- "
"Don't call me that," Skip said harshly.
Dante frowned worriedly.
"What's the matter, Skip? Is something "
Skip steeled himself and forced the words out of his mouth.
"Look, don't start getting attached to me," he said flatly. "You don't know me, you don't know anything about me. I'm a fucking stranger you picked up off the street. This isn't my world and I don't belong here. I admit I owe you a lot, but that's all there is to it, okay? If you want to fuck me, fine, I owe you that much at least, go ahead. But otherwise, if you don't mind, I'd just like to be alone for a while." Skip closed his eyes, turning his face away from Dante.
There was a long silence; then Dante's weight lifted from the side of the bed.
"As you wish," Dante said quietly. There was no expression at all in his voice. The almost silent footsteps retreated across the floor and down the stairs, and the sound of the door closing was very, very loud in the silence.
When Dante was gone, Skip rolled into the smallest, tightest ball he could manage and cried until he had no tears left, until despair and exhaustion pulled him down into sleep.