Chapter 17

"So what exactly are we doing, now?" Skip asked skeptically.

"It's just a question of resonances," Kix said cheerfully. "Here, give me your hand."

Skip held out his hand.

"So, I don't get it," he said. "What do you mean by – hey, ouch!" He almost pulled his hand back as Kix cut the ball of his thumb, but Kix held on to his wrist with surprising strength, holding his hand over the silver bowl.

"Easy, easy," Kix soothed, grinning. "It'll heal the first time you and Dante get to nibbling on each other, you know that."

Skip sighed irritably and held still, watching his blood drip into the bowl. When Kix nodded that it was enough, Skip pulled out another of Dante's fancy kerchiefs – at least it was clean – and bandaged the cut a little clumsily.

"So what are you gonna do with that?" Skip said, tying the bandage.

"Create a sort of etheric mask for you," Kix said. He picked up another silver bowl and handed it to Skip. "Right after you give me some of your semen."

Skip nearly dropped the bowl.

"Huh?" he said intelligently, blinking.

"Blood and semen are the two poles of life essence," Kix said patiently. "Go on, will you? Do you want to be able to leave the castle wards, or don't you?"

"Right here?" Skip squeaked.

Kix sighed exaggeratedly.

"Well, go over there in the corner if you like," he said, raising his eyebrows. "Come on, don't tell me that in your world a man full grown doesn't know what to do with his hand. Or has Dante left you drained dry?"

Oh, Jesus Christ. Skip went to the corner, fumbled with the goddamned laces on the goddamned crazy trousers, and wasn't the least bit surprised to find no sign of life whatsoever at the ol' South Pole. Mister Happy was definitely less than ecstatic.

"This isn't going to work," he mumbled embarrassedly. Strangely, although this was far from the first time he'd had this problem – quite the contrary; it had been a long time since he'd really cared much for sex, and since his brother had died he'd hardly ever felt any real desire until Dante – this was the first time that failure had ever really bothered him.

"What, because of me?" Kix said amazedly. "I thought we were like brothers. Didn't you ever touch yourself in bed when your brother was there?"

Skip whirled, staring at Kix, then subsided at the honest surprise in Kix's expression. Of course Kix didn't know anything about Skip and his twin. He was just assuming that Skip and his twin had slept together, and that assumption was probably a fair one for this place where the bulk of the population probably lived in one-room cottages. Naturally nobody expected or got any privacy. And Skip could easily remember a time when his twin's presence would have had him rock hard in no time. So why should Skip get stage fright now? Kix had no way of knowing the turmoil that his presence caused.

"Think about Dante," Kix suggested. He was standing right beside and a little behind Skip now, probably not realizing that only made the problem worse.

"I can't," Skip said desperately. "Not when I'm here with you."

"All right, then, think of me," Kix said, shrugging.

"Wh-what?" Skip choked, trying hard not to tremble. He resolutely didn't turn around.

"You just need some inspiration," Kix said patiently. He stepped behind Skip, wrapping warm arms around his waist and leaning his chin on Skip's shoulder. Skip froze, his heart pounding.

"Shhh, it's all right," Kix said soothingly. "Just close your eyes and relax and I'll tell you a story."

Skip swallowed hard, torn between flight and surrender. He closed his eyes, biting his lip hard enough to taste blood. Perversely the taste was reassuring. In some part of his mind, the taste of blood in his mouth reminded him of Dante, of pleasure, of safety. He relaxed slightly.

"I'll tell you about how Simon made it up to me for his bad temper yesterday," Kix said, chuckling slightly. "Or, rather, how I made him pay for it. Would you like to hear that?"

Skip nodded slightly, relaxing further now that he realized that Kix didn't mean to do anything but talk. All right. Talk he could deal with.

"He gave me a gorgeous new bracelet, white gold set with amethyst, my favorite, and four earrings to match," Kix said. "But Simon knows he can't buy my love or my forgiveness. I told him he'd have to do better than that, that he'd have to prove to me that he'd learned a lesson about being more patient, more considerate of my feelings, just like you said. He said he'd do that, that all I had to do was tell him what I wanted. And I said, 'That's exactly what I'm going to do.'

"I told Simon to undress me, then himself, and he did," Kix murmured. He didn't move, standing pressed against Skip's back, his arms around Skip's waist, his cheek leaning against Skip's shoulder. "He was very gentle; he's always so gentle with me, especially when he apologizes. We spent a long time kissing and caressing each other. His hands are so big, sometimes I feel swallowed up in him." Kix chuckled. "And sometimes he just swallows me down. But not that time. I wanted to get a little revenge. The good kind of revenge.

"So I pushed him back on the bed and I tied his wrists and ankles to the bedposts with our silk ropes – "

"You what?" Skip choked. He shivered violently. This no longer sounded like his Kix at all, which was at the same time reassuring and disturbing. Toto, we definitely are not in Kansas anymore.

"Oh, yes, we play all sorts of games, Simon and I," Kix chuckled. "Anyway, I tied his wrists and ankles to the bedposts, and I told Simon that if he tried to get loose, or if he came before I did, then he hadn't learned his lesson about patience and my needs yet. And then I got out the bowl of wine and honey I'd hidden in the drawer of my night table, and I drizzled it sloooooooooowly all over him."

Skip gasped, shivering. Involuntarily he started stroking his erection.

Dante, naked, spread over the bed – he couldn't imagine Dante being into bondage; his own mind simply couldn't go there either, but what if he told Dante that if Dante moved, he'd stop? Yeah, that would work – Dante gloriously naked on the soft sheets, gorgeous uncut cock standing up hard and aching with need, Dante moaning with anticipation as Skip drizzled honeyed wine like blood over the pale skin, knowing, dreading, wanting the sweet torture that Skip had planned for him.

"And then I started licking it off – sometimes little flickering brushes of my tongue, sometimes quick little cat licks, sometimes looooooong strokes, slowly licking him clean, my mouth everywhere except where he wanted it most."

Dante's silken skin slick under his mouth, the taste of Dante seasoned with honey and wine, the music of Dante's moans of pleasure as Skip teased him. Dante writhing against the sheets, arching up against Skip's mouth, trying futilely to maneuver Skip's lips and tongue to where he wanted them so badly.

Skip was pumping his erection hard now, lost in the fantasy.

"And finally, when Simon was absolutely mad with need, I started licking him, not enough to let him come, just enough to tease him even more."

Dante begging, wanton and abandoned now, pleading with Skip for release, Skip savoring those pleas as he savored the taste of his lover, moving down now to taste rock-hard fevered flesh with teasing little dabs of his tongue-tip, tracing intricate patterns up Dante's cock, the flavor of wine and honey now mingled with precome.

"And just as Simon thought I was going to let him come, I pulled back, and he'd have screamed if he dared protest. But I didn't care, I only fetched the bowl of scented oil we like to use and poured it all over his cock, and he whimpered as it dripped down onto his balls. And I moved over him, straddling him – "

Skip trembled, trying hard to hold back his climax, barely hearing Kix now. Oh, God, Dante trembling, fighting to hold still as Skip lowered himself, both of them moaning as Skip's body opened to accept that glorious hard flesh, Dante's cock throbbing hotly in Skip's internal embrace, neither of them daring to move lest the slightest friction push them both over the edge, trying to draw out the beautiful sensation but still it was coming, all too soon –

Skip cried out and came, his whole body shaking; in the throes of his pleasure, he barely noticed the slender warm fingers cupping the head of his cock, catching the spurting fluid. Then slowly he regained his breath and awareness, only to see Kix matter-of-factly scraping the semen from his fingers on the inner edge of a bowl. Skip blushed crimson, but that didn't stop Kix from grinning, grabbing Skip's hand, and cleaning his fingers in a similar manner.

"Here you are," Kix said, handing Skip a cloth to finish tidying up. Kix gazed into the bowl. "My, you and Dante were busy this morning, weren't you? I suppose I'm lucky you had anything left."

"Well, I didn't know I was going to be doing this," Skip mumbled, embarrassedly lacing the damned trousers. "If you'd just sent a message and a bowl up earlier, I could have got you a lot more."

Kix giggled.

"I didn't know you were going to make such a fuss about it," he said. "All right, I've got what I need. Let's get started."

"Started?" Skip said, dismayed. He'd hoped they were finished. God, what was Kix going to want from him now? He was afraid to imagine.

"The blood and semen was for the spell," Kix said patiently. "Now I have to cast it, remember? Come on, everything's already prepared."

Kix placed the bowls on a tray, together with several other bowls and flasks, and warily Skip followed him into a small adjoining room. This room was quite plain, empty except for the lamps hung on the wall. On the floor, however, was a chalked circle, and inside it, a design of considerable intricacy composed of words and symbols Skip had never seen before. Four equidistant points had been marked on the circle, two already containing silver bowls similar to the ones now on Kix's tray. Kix dipped a brush in the bowl of Skip's blood and traced a couple of the symbols in the design, then took a fresh brush, dipped it in the semen and traced others; then the silver bowls were placed opposite what Skip presumed were Kix's donations to the spell. Powders from other bowls on the tray were sprinkled around the circle, and a lit candle that smelled strangely medicinal was lit at the center. Finally, Kix reverently opened a heavily padded wooden box and extracted four intricately cut glass or crystal prisms, which he placed on the circle alternating with the bowls.

"Right, that's got it," Kix said, eyeing the design critically. "Come here, and watch where you step. Neither of us would like what would happen if you smear the glyphs."

Skip tiptoed to the place Kix indicated and stood rock still, feeling rather as if he was standing in the middle of a minefield. Kix picked up the last item from the tray – a slender silver chain – and joined Skip inside the circle. He took Skip's left hand in his own, twining the chain around their joined hands.

"Just repeat after me," Kix said, giving Skip a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, it doesn't matter if you don't know what it means. Just be sure you pronounce everything correctly."

Syllable by syllable, Skip repeated what Kix said, trying to mimic even his breathing and intonations. He was trembling violently. Shit! Magic! I'm participating in a fucking spell! What happens if I get it wrong? Do I end up a toad? Do we call up a demon or something?

Then, to Skip's astonishment, it was over, and Kix guided him carefully back out of the circle.

"Well, that should do it," Kix said tiredly. "Come on, let's see if I've done it right." Before they left the room, Kix blew out the candle at the center of the design and scuffed over it with his feet, obliterating several symbols. He then led Skip back out into the workroom and over to the large mirror on one wall.

"Let's see what we've got here," Kix said, standing beside Skip and gazing into the mirror. Skip took a deep breath and looked – then let his breath out with a sigh.

"Didn't work, did it?" he said unhappily. Shit. Do we have to do all that over again?

But Kix was smiling.

"No, it worked perfectly," he said. "Goodness, that was easy. I suppose it's because we're all but twins in reality."

"I don't get it," Skip said cautiously. "I don't look any different."

Kix raised an eyebrow.

"I never said you would," he said. "It's an etheric seeming, not an illusion."

"Try that again in English?" Skip begged.

"Sorry, I keep forgetting you haven't the faintest idea what I'm talking about," Kix said, sighing. "Come on over and sit down. I need a rest."

They sat down at Kix's worktable.

"Remember when Dante was bringing you here?" Kix told him. "He said there was a seeking for you – a very powerful seeking, and he was able to hide you from it."

Skip remembered. He shivered.

"There are basically two sorts of seeking," Kix said. "The simplest is a physical trace. For that, a mage needs something linked physically with the subject – a hair clipping or personal belonging, something of that sort. That's a fairly superficial seeking, easily confused and less reliable over long distances, especially when the subject is among other people.

"The more potent sort of seeking is an etheric trace," Kix continued. "It requires the subject's Truename, but what it actually does is homes in on the subject's etheric signature. It's a sort of energy pattern surrounding the person – rather in the same way a person's scent hangs around them, you see? Etheric signatures are very individualistic, and the complication is that they change throughout the person's life. Everything changes it – great traumas, happy events, illness or injury, aging, love, everything. Close kin have some etheric similarities, and lovers do, too. Exposure to a halfling's blood is certainly changing yours as well. That's why an etheric trace requires the Truename, because that's the one component of a person's self that is unchanging. Or normally so, at least," Kix added, grinning.

Skip began to get the idea.

"So this, um, spell, it changes this energy pattern around me so it doesn't look like mine?"

"Better yet," Kix said triumphantly. "It changes it so it looks like mine."

Skip shook his head.


"There were already significant resemblances," Kix told him. "It was easy to simply patch over your etheric field with my own. That way, if some mage gets a look at your field and your face, he'll simply think it's me in disguise. If he saw a strange field and my face, before you know it there would be rumors and speculation from one end of the city to the other."

"But anybody who gets a good look at me will know it's not you," Skip protested.

"I know, so you've got to see that that doesn't happen," Kix agreed. "You'll need to disguise yourself in public, at least enough that you could be either of us. But there's an added bit of protection in it for you. I'm mage enough that nobody would try anything against me – on a magical basis, that is. So nobody should bother you, either. But actually it shouldn't be a factor at all. It would be very strange for a mage to be checking your etheric field in a public place. Really all it's for is to foil a seeking such as you encountered before. Any mage who sent such a seeking should pass right by you, or, in the alternative, sense my etheric signature, say, 'Oh, damn, better not mess with him,' and go on about his business."

Skip shook his head wonderingly.

"Wow, that's really something," he said. Suddenly he felt depressed. God, even in this world, he's the smart one and I'm the ignoramus.

As if he read Skip's thoughts, Kix took Skip's hand, squeezing it sympathetically.

"It's not as impressive as it sounds," he said. "It's an advanced spell, but actually it's much simpler than a pinpoint etheric seeking. Complicated divinations are always easier to foil than cast." He smiled shyly. "Can I see your firestarter again?"

Skip handed it over, smiling as Kix lit a candle, laughing with childish delight.

"Now, this is a marvel," he said. "It's like a spell that anybody can use. And yet there's no magic to it. Something so useful and miraculous, but made from things that at least in your world are common and even cheap. What a gift it must be, to have such a knowledge of how things work together, to be able to put common things together and make something special out of them."

Skip snorted. He knew Kix was only trying to make him feel better about his own ignorance and lack of talents. Kix always was kind of an open book. I guess he's no different even here. But the fact that he knew what Kix was doing didn't change the fact that it did, in fact, cheer him up. He chuckled, toying with some of the objects on the table, suddenly pausing, staring at the blue square in his hand.

"Kix, what is this?" he asked.

"Just ordinary colored glass," Kix said, shrugging, raising one eyebrow at the change in subject. "I require various colors of light in my work. There's a glassmaker in town who produces nearly flawless glass for me, and Blair grinds it into lenses or cuts it into prisms for me."

"Lenses . . . " Skip turned the glass in his hands again, an idea occurring to him. "Kix, can I have some of this blue glass?"

"Oooooh, going to make something wonderful?" Kix asked enthusiastically.

"I don't know about 'wonderful'," Skip chuckled. "I think I'd say . . . handy. But I'll need this glass, some wire, and the use of Blair's tools."

"I think we can manage that," Kix said, smiling. "If James and Blair are out of bed, that is."

They were, and by mid-afternoon Skip had returned to his and Dante's rooms with his prize – plus a couple other treasures he'd picked up. He'd seen Dante briefly at dinner, and the halfling had assured Skip that he'd be finished with his duties long before suppertime.

In fact, Skip had barely enough time to wash up from his labors – he'd gotten satisfyingly grimy in Blair's workshop, a nostalgically familiar feeling – before Dante came up the stairs, sighing wearily as he discarded the dark surcoat he wore on formal occasions.

"I vow, there must be more agreeable tasks for the High Lord's assassin," Dante said irritably. "Standing around looking fierce and grim to intimidate envoys from neighboring kingdoms may be a useful enough pastime, but it lacks in dignity."

Skip chuckled.

"You weren't worried about your dignity this morning," he joked.

Dante laughed, his bad mood evaporating.

"Aye, I was more concerned with . . . other matters," he said smoothly, reaching to draw Skip into a warm embrace.

"My 'profane beauty'?" Skip suggested.

"There's nothing undignified in that," Dante grinned.

"I believe your exact words were something like 'Fuck me bowlegged'," Skip mused. "Interspersed with a lot of gasps and moans, of course."

Dante snorted, a faint pink color tingeing his pale cheeks.

"Perhaps I muttered some such comment in the throes of passion," he admitted.

"Muttered? I'd say 'screamed'," Skip said, drawing his tongue up Dante's throat in one long lick, then nipping the sensitive spot right under Dante's ear. "Or maybe 'howled' might be more accurate."

"Nay, I'll never admit to howling," Dante said weakly, even as he tilted his head back to give Skip freer access to the smooth curve of his throat.

"Oh, disputing my recollection, hmmm?" Skip said, giving the sweet spot another nip.

"Aye," Dante said breathlessly. "I demand a rematch."

"Just what I had in mind," Skip agreed. He pulled back slightly. "But first I have a present for you."

"A present?" Dante said, surprised. "How, when you're confined to the palace wards?"

"I didn't buy this," Skip said. "I made it. Here, come sit down." He guided Dante to the edge of the bed, then handed him the small bundle he'd carefully wrapped in soft cloth.

Dante unwrapped the package, examining the contents puzzledly. He gave Skip a confused smile.

"It's . . . lovely, muírnigh," he said hesitantly. "But, er, what is it?"

"Well, to be really accurate, you'd say 'what are they'," Skip corrected. He picked up the device and held it up. "See, these round pieces go in front of your eyes, and these wire bits go over your ears to hold it on your face – hold still." Carefully he put the world's first sunglasses on his lover.

"Ahhh – interesting," Dante said, still puzzled. "Is it some form of ornamentation in your world?"

"I'm afraid these are nothing but functional," Skip said. "Come over to the window and you'll see how it works."

Dante followed Skip to the shuttered window, reflexively raising his hand in front of his eyes as Skip opened the shutters.

"Muírnigh, the sun – "

"I know," Skip said, grinning. "Put your hand down, Dante, just look out."

Slowly Dante lowered his hand; then his eyebrows shot up.

"By all the gods, muírnigh, the light is dimmed! How do you do such a thing?"

"It's nothing complicated," Skip said modestly. "The blue glass just filters out the brighter parts of the light. Kix already had the glass; all I had to do was borrow Blair's workshop, cut the glass into the proper shapes, smooth down the edges and make the frames from strong enough wire. Oh, and pad the nosepiece, and fire the ends of the wire so they wouldn't tear your ears up." He chuckled. "I have to admit that when I bought a cheap pair of sunglasses at the corner drugstore, it never occurred to me how much work went into them."

"They're wonderful." Dante was still staring out the window at the setting sun; now he turned to gaze at Skip. "Thank you very much, muírnigh, for putting such thought and effort into my comfort."

"I'm glad you like them," Skip said shyly, for once utterly pleased with himself. All right, sunglasses were a simple thing – but reinventing them wasn't!

"How ever can I find a way to thank you for such a magnificent gift?" Dante purred, pulling Skip into his arms again.

"Oh, I've got an idea or two," Skip laughed, letting Dante draw him down to the bed. "If you don't mind risking your dignity, that is."

"Dignity be damned," Dante said succinctly, carefully laying his new sunglasses aside on the night table before attacking the laces of Skip's tunic.

"In that case," Skip said, whisking away the cloth covering the bowl on the night table, "I have another present, and a few suggestions to go with it."

Dante raised his head, glancing curiously at the bowl.

"And what have you there, mo grá?"

"Oh . . . " Skip grinned mysteriously. "Just a bowl of honeyed wine . . . "

Email: Shadow