Another busy fortnight, with lots of edits to work through, but it’s ended with a wealth of rewards for my hard work. Tomorrow is the release of Dreamspinner’s Steamed Up Anthology, which includes my story, ‘The Clockwork Nightingale’s Song’, a tale of an engineer, an inventor, a floating pleasure garden, and a brass nightingale with a broken heart. I’ll be blogging in more detail about the story later this week, and will be on Dreamspinner’s blog with some of the other authors on October 27th to do a live chat about the book – watch this space for details!
The Love Has No Boundaries anthologies are now being released. The Lodestar of Ys is in Volume 4 (the green one) with some very good company. And that’s not all 🙂 You can now order Dreamspinner’s Advent Calendar package, which includes my story Gaudete. If you want the full package, now is the time, as it’s on offer until the end of October, but you can also buy individual stories when they’re released in December. My story is all about the Christmas Market that takes place in the grounds of Aylminster Cathedral. Callum and Jonah meet there as children, when Jonah is a chorister and Callum’s mum runs a market stall. When Jonah comes back to the cathedral as an adult, they meet again.
And now, to reward you for slogging through all that news, have a little look at Sjurd and Celyn and their everyday life, five years after the events of Lodestar.
Disclaimer: This story is written for an adult audience and contains material unsuitable for minors. Please turn back if you’re not old enough to be here.
Sjurd barely looked up at the sound of a ladder rattling down from the sky two stories above him. He had seen the shadow of the incoming ship cross his window a few moments ago, but he didn’t feel the need to go up and greet her, not when the rain was coming hard out of the east, full of sleet. He had lieutenants for that, and a quartermaster who would organize moving the supplies out of the ship’s hold and down into the tower. He had more urgent problems, foremost amongst them how he was going to spread only two companies of soldiers across twenty leagues of border.
“Is it the Gylfinir again this week?” Lieutenant Thordarsson asked, sitting back and rubbing his eyes.
“Aderyn, coming up from the capital. If we abandon the mine at Northorpe, can we reroute patrols to hold the pass?”
“The Ysians won’t like it,” Thordarsson observed. “We’re gradually losing sources of lodestone.” He glanced up wistfully. “From the capital, you say? Think she might have brought our mail?”
“I damn well hope so,” Sjurd muttered. The last mail ship had been diverted after the hounds overran Owston Hold, and he had a fort full of soldiers who hadn’t heard from home for weeks.
“At least we get regular deliveries now,” Thordarsson said cheerfully. “Hurrah for the alliance and the benefits it brings.”
“No quarrel here,” Sjurd said, trying not to think about the benefit of the alliance he missed most. Maybe there would be a letter for him too, and if he was lucky, and wise enough to read it in private this time, it might not make him blush and spit out his wine in front of the entire garrison.
“If we shift miners up here and get as much from the vein as we can before we blow the mine,” Sjurd mused, “can we hold the current line until they’re done?”
“Put a training company at the mine to defend them,” Thordarsson suggested. “Then reroute some of the big freight ships to move the stone. Who’s Aderyn’s captain? Can he advise us?”
“Let’s ask,” Sjurd said, hearing footsteps in the hall outside. He stood up as the door opened, ready to offer his hand to the visiting captain.
It was no doughty sailor who strolled in, however. As Sjurd gaped in dismay, Celyn beamed at him from the doorway, lifting a hand to wave cheerfully.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Sjurd demanded.
“Hello darling,” Celyn replied lightly. “I’m so glad to see you too, and yes, I’ve been well, thank you for asking.” He wandered across the room to press a warm kiss to Sjurd’s cheek and then perch on the edge of his desk, where he nodded to Thordarsson. “Well met, Einarr. How are you?”
“Well enough, your highness,” Thordarsson replied, barely hiding his smile behind his hand. “You?”
“All the better for seeing you both. Your sister sends her regards, and says it wasn’t twins in the end, just one more boy to eat her out of house and home.”
“Still not a daughter?” Thordarsson remarked, shaking his head, and then obviously noticed Sjurd’s glower. “I’ll leave you alone, my princes.” He snagged the map off the table and made a hasty retreat.
Sjurd barely waited for the door to slam behind him before he swung round to snarl at Celyn. “Go home!”
“No,” Celyn said, mildly but in a tone Sjurd knew all too well after five years of marriage.
“Celyn,” Sjurd choked out. He wouldn’t beg, but he couldn’t cope with this. The only comfort he had, here on the ragged frontier where too many good men died, was that Celyn was safely distant. He couldn’t think like a general if Celyn was here, at the heart of the danger.
“Sjurd,” Celyn said softly and stood up to link his arms around Sjurd’s neck. He looked even less real this close: his fair hair curling softly and cleanly against his collar, his jaw clean-shaven, the lines around his gray eyes put there by smiling. Sjurd felt rough and dirty and ruined in comparison: he hadn’t shaved properly in days, and everything he wore was just faintly grubby, with the dirt that no camp laundry could quite scrub out. He wanted to grab Celyn close, breathe him in, and then knock him over the head and dump him back on board the Aderyn, preferably chained to his bunk until they got back to Holmebury.
“Did you miss me?”
“No,” Sjurd lied, and wasn’t surprised when Celyn kissed him, his mouth warm and tender. Sjurd closed his eyes and sank into the kiss, because he wasn’t strong enough to refuse this, even if he was going to send Celyn straight home again.
“I missed you,” Celyn told him, when their kiss broke.
“Don’t think that’s going to make me less angry,” Sjurd grumbled, but folded his arms tightly around his husband. The part of himself that he locked away every time he left home was opening out in his heart again, and he couldn’t afford it here. On the front line, he existed for one purpose, and that alone. He didn’t know how to be Celyn’s husband here; he couldn’t be happy in the face of death, no matter how much lighter Celyn’s presence made him feel.
“Unfortunately, I’m not here for fun,” Celyn admitted. “My queen has sent me. Probably for the sake of the auditors. I’m not sure Rhiannon trusts you not to just feed them straight to the next misthound that comes along.”
“What auditors?” Sjurd demanded.
“Didn’t you get the dispatch?”
“Last ship got turned back. We haven’t had any letters from home since Aderyn was here last.”
“Ah,” Celyn said, and drew a breath, his shoulders bracing a little. “In that case, I should start by saying that I haven’t brought the entire Ysian treasury council with me.”
“Depends how long it takes them to get the nerve to leave the ship,” Celyn said thoughtfully, and patted Sjurd’s ass. “Also, whilst I have no objection in principle to being taken over your desk, this one looks a little too splintery for comfort.”
“Three delegates, and I insisted that they pick people with some self-defense training and a smidgen of common sense. They want to see life on the border.”
“Fine,” Sjurd muttered. “They can glance over the rail and then go home again.”
“I love your optimism.”
“And King Snorri agreed to this?”
Celyn looked serious for a moment. “You know we’re still facing some opposition about the requisitioning of ships and the disruption to trade. Many of these ships are the most precious and beloved things an island owns, and there’s a lot of unhappiness about putting them at risk. Just scare the spit out of these three so they can go home and explain why it matters so much.”
“Are they easily scared?”
Celyn pursed his lips, thinking, and Sjurd had to rein in the urge to kiss him, plundering that pretty mouth until Celyn was all limp and compliant in his arms (it rarely ended that way, but that was no reason not to keep trying).
“Two of them are steady enough,” Celyn said at last. “Members of two of the big trade families from the central islands. Then there’s Aelwyn. He’s some sort of cousin of mine, if you go back a few generations. He’s…”
“He’s what?” Sjurd prompted eventually.
“I’m trying to think of something nice to say.”
Sjurd waited. And waited. Then, after a long silence, he growled, “Celyn.”
“I’m still thinking.”
“When I finally kill you and dump your body off the side of a ship, no one will blame me.”
Celyn laughed. “No, but you’d be so miserable without me that they’d probably drop you straight after me.”
It was true, but Sjurd wasn’t going to admit it. Swallowing back his smile, he said, “So, how long do you think we have before your guests arrive?”
Celyn quirked his head, as footsteps sounded on the stairs. “No time at all, from the sound of it.”
BY EVENING, the news of their visitors had spread, and every soldier in the tower turned up unusually promptly to gawp at the Ysian delegates. Sjurd couldn’t blame them.
Oh, the two young merchants were unremarkable enough: Trefor was a sturdy young man of about Celyn’s age, fair-haired and soft-spoken. His father was a wool merchant, he explained, from high Callestr, and he himself had spent three years as his father’s factor in Holmebury, where he had drilled with the guard from time to time. “To impress a local girl, mostly,” he admitted with a wry smile. “Never thought a little skill with a sword would bring me here.” Enid, with her long sun-bright braids and easy smile, attracted more attention and was more forthright in her opinions, but she freely admitted that her main concern was how little the ordinary folk of Ys knew about where their ships were sailing. “My husband’s captain of the Ysguthan,” she said, naming one of the ships on the northernmost supply run. “If he doesn’t come home one day, I want to be able to tell my daughter it was for a worthwhile cause.”
Celyn was ignored for the most part, though a few people smiled to see him, or directed smirks in Sjurd’s direction. He ignored them, because you couldn’t be a soldier without being the butt of someone’s jokes at least once.
The problem, and the main attraction for those eating at the benches below, was Aelwyn ap Arthfael of Ynys Llys. There was no denying that the man was handsome, being weasel-thin and pretty-faced, with pale hair that streamed down his back like a banner. He knew it too, which didn’t endear him to Sjurd, any more than the fact he had chosen to come to the frontier dressed in brightly coloured silk, bound to his wrists by golden ribbons. He was charming enough, chattering merrily to Celyn and the guardsmen around them with a mixture of flattery, careful curiosity, and sly sarcasm. There was an edge to his wit that Sjurd didn’t like, though, and some of the questions made him remind himself firmly that this was an ally, with a right to know about their life.
All the same, he muttered, “Popinjay.”
“One who is close to the throne,” Celyn warned softly.
“He’s not courting Rhiannon, is he?” Sjurd demanded in horror.
“Rhiannon? No,” Celyn said, and then hurriedly changed the subject. “Although there’s a chance there will be an announcement soon. She finally made her mind up, and he’s not a bad choice. Not that I can tell you who he is, not until she makes a formal offer, but…”
Sjurd stopped listening, narrowing his eyes. What was his husband hiding now?
By the end of the next day, he had a clue. Despite assigning his guests to three different lieutenants, Aelwyn kept appearing wherever Sjurd went, often having shaken off his guardian. At first Sjurd endured it, because he was in a particularly good mood (his bed might be a narrow pallet in the corner of his war room, but he and Celyn had slept in worse, and they’d put it to good use). The third time Aelwyn showed up, however, he demanded, “Did you have a question?”
“Just enjoying the scenery, highness,” Aelwyn said airily. “Pretty country, with all the trees and mountains and what not.”
Sjurd cast a skeptical glance at the small window. “You’ll see it better from the roof. If you’ll excuse us, we have work to do.”
Aelwyn ignored him to turn to Celyn. “Perhaps you could point out some landmarks, Celyn?”
“No, he can’t,” Sjurd said shortly. “I need him here.” Celyn knew the shipping routes better than anyone, and they needed to make an informed decision about the mine. He wasn’t going to waste the opportunity that Celyn’s arrival offered, even though he didn’t want him here.
“I’m afraid I don’t know the area,” Celyn said. “You could ask Lieutenant Gunnarsdaughter, if you can remember where you left her.”
“Oh, I may just stay here,” Aelwyn remarked and dropped into one of the chairs. “So many maps. Don’t you get confused?”
He had very thick eyebrows, Sjurd noticed, the sort that would puff out when he hit old age, and there was a certain satisfaction in realizing that the man wasn’t all polished prettiness. Grunting, he turned back to his maps. “If we put another ship on the Holmebury to Belton run, that takes the pressure off the southern loop, doesn’t it?”
“And we could bring the Eigra up here,” Celyn noted. “Or better, switch her with the Ysguthan, which has a bigger hold but is slow, especially on that long loop. She’s moved lodestone before, as well, which means her crew are well suited for it.”
“Taking more of our ships, are you?” Aelwyn commented. “We do have a need for them at home, you know. Our people are suffering.”
“Better suffering than dead,” Celyn snapped, before Sjurd could get the words out. “The Empire would have made it to the coast by now if we weren’t supporting the border.”
Aelwyn yawned a little. “So you say, but it really doesn’t seem that exciting up here.”
“Exciting,” Sjurd repeated blankly, exchanging an irritated glance with Celyn. “My people aren’t dying for the sake of some excitement.”
“No?” Aelwyn said, drawing the word out.
Celyn stood up hurriedly. “And that would be a good moment for us to leave the room, Aelwyn. How about a tour of the infirmary? I’m sure the medics would be delighted to explain the risks of border duty to you.”
Aelwyn smirked over his shoulder at Sjurd, as Celyn bustled him out. Slowly, Sjurd unclenched his fists and looked across at Lieutenant Thordarsson, who looked back with a similar grimace. Then, with a sigh, he said, “Three months and a tough enough sergeant and we’d make something of him. Young.”
“Very,” Sjurd agreed. “And, unfortunately, both a guest and politically significant.”
“Can’t make him scrub pots until he’s humble, then.”
“No.” Sjurd looked up as hooves sounded outside. “Red patrol coming in.”
He went down to meet them. They dismounted, and boys came running out to take their horses. The air was still crisp, though it was near noon, and the horses’ breath steamed in the air, as if they too were mistbeasts. Sjurd saluted them and dismissed all but their leader, a tall woman with a hawkish air. “Mist sign?”
“None along the route, though we spotted mist over the river when we looked down from the ridge. Hard to tell the colour from that distance. Ogre trails across the path three leagues out, and they were clearly moving at speed. Hoofprints on the mine road two days ago, but they were old.”
“Green patrol picked them up when they were fresh,” Sjurd said. “Took out a party of raiders who were trying to lay traps over the wagon route. Go. Rest.”
“Sir,” she said, and headed into the tower, her steps weary.
“Are you running an army or a nature survey?” Aelwyn asked from the top of the steps, where he had managed to drape himself along the banister to sneer at them.
“Major raids come after misthound incursions,” Sjurd said. “We track mist sign and disturbances. Ogres run from hounds, and cause significant damage if they make it down into the foothills and attack farmsteads.” He glanced up to see Celyn come hurrying out of the tower, looking irritated. Aelwyn was clearly too good at slipping away from his minders. Ignoring the Ysians, he turned to the gate guards, boys on their second tour, too young to throw against the hounds but old enough to be reliable. “Notify me as soon as blue patrol come in. I want that mist mapped.” Each patrol rode roughly the same two-day route, at two hour intervals, along the ridges between here and the mine road, where they met the patrols from the next tower.
He stalked back to his maps, ignoring Aelwyn. On the way he encountered Enid, who actually had been to see the infirmary, and took a moment to reassure her, seeing the fear that sobered her merry face. Trefor, she told him, was in the kitchen.
He didn’t get Celyn back that afternoon, which annoyed him. It annoyed him even more when he finally made it to the mess hall, after collating more elusive hints of mist over the river, to find Aelwyn had stolen his seat and was leaning in close to Celyn, leaving Sjurd to perch at the end of the bench. He wasn’t going to cause a scene in front of his men, so he went to talk to Enid and Trefor instead. They both seemed subdued, and he wondered what they had expected.
“Everyone seems to just accept that they will probably die or get hurt up here,” Trefor said slowly, crumbling his bread into his soup with a distracted frown. “It feels like it’s in the air. I wasn’t expecting…” He trailed off.
“It’s not like the stories,” Enid said. “It’s not all action and glory, is it? Just waiting and checking and always preparing for the worst.” She swallowed. “I want to go back to Ys. I want to hold my little girl.”
“I want you to go,” Sjurd told her. “There’s no place for civilians on the front line.”
“But Prince Celyn comes here?”
“Not if I can find a way to stop him,” Sjurd said, and added sourly, “Which is easier to say than do.”
She patted him on the arm, laughing a little. “Oh, I’ve got one of those too. A good thing they make it worth our while, aye, these husbands of ours?”
Sjurd glanced across to Celyn, who had obviously just said something particularly cutting to Aelwyn, judging by the way he was sitting back and grinning. Looking back at Enid, he smiled wryly. “Good thing for them as well.”
Then he tensed in disbelief as Aelwyn leaned forward, putting his hand on Celyn’s thigh, as he made some rejoinder.
Sjurd was on his feet and storming across the room in seconds. He loomed over Aelwyn, and scowled as fiercely as he could, letting his anger show in the tensing of his shoulders.
Aelwyn moved his hand, very fast, and Celyn said mildly, “Oh, there you are. I was just explaining to Aelwyn here how you won your reputation. Something about inhaling ogre brains, wasn’t it?”
Sjurd ignored that. “I have dawn watch tomorrow. Can’t wait up for you.”
“Should I amuse myself for the night, then?” Celyn asked, a smile deepening the corners of his mouth.
“No,” Sjurd said flatly and grabbed Celyn by the elbows. One heave was enough to throw his husband easily over his shoulder (he’d practiced the move over the years), and then all he had to do was smile nastily at Aelwyn and say, “Do enjoy your evening.”
“Goodnight, cousin,” Celyn said cheerfully, and Sjurd could hear the laughter rippling through his voice. As he strode off, he felt Celyn shift a little, and was pretty certain that meant he was waving goodbye. Sjurd rubbed his ankle in approval.
As he left the mess hall, he clearly heard Enid say, “Oh, please. Everyone knows it was a love match. They’ve been caught under every tree on Gwydr.”
“I don’t know,” Celyn remarked as Sjurd carried him down the hall. “I’m sure we’ve missed a few, and there are some spots we’ve used more than once. It all averages out, though, I’m sure. Are you planning to put me down at all?”
“No,” Sjurd growled, feeling quite satisfied with himself.
“You’re making a fool of yourself in front of your people here.”
“My people know me. They already think I’m love-sotted.”
“And are you?” Celyn inquired archly, his hand slipping under Sjurd’s belt. “Seriously, lover, don’t carry me up the stairs. I don’t want you to fall.”
Sjurd snorted his opinion of that, but put his husband down. Celyn, back on his feet, grinned at him brightly and then bestowed a hard kiss against his mouth. “So, I hear you need to get some sleep?”
Celyn backed away along the corridor, wincing. “You’ve been out here too long. It’s going to take weeks before you get your city manners back, isn’t it?”
Sjurd stalked after him, keeping his pace deliberately slow. “And what are you going to do about that?”
“Oh, I thought I’d try teaching you some of the basics again now. We could start with please.” Celyn stopped, letting Sjurd draw close, and then added, leaning in. “Can you say, ‘Please, Celyn.’”
“I’d rather hear ‘Please, Sjurd.’”
“And if you do, will you say thank you?”
“If I do, you’ll be thanking me.”
Celyn shivered, a quick shudder running through his whole body. “I think we need to take this out of the corridor.” His breath was coming fast.
“To bed, then,” Sjurd said, so close that he could feel Celyn’s breath gusting against his lips. He stopped, leaving it to Celyn to step away.
Celyn did, wetting his lips, and he backed all the way up the stairs and into the war room. Sjurd followed him at the same slow pace, fixing his gaze on the pulse in Celyn’s throat and the quick heave of his breathing.
The room was dark, with only the last hint of dusk showing outside the window. There was a moon, shining through the whirling wisps of wind-torn cloud, and the trees were sighing below them like the sea below the islands. Sjurd closed the door behind them slowly, shutting out the light, and turned the lock with a quick clunk. He heard the rasp of a flint, and a flame leapt up in the lantern on the tabletop. It was just enough light, yellow and flickering, that he could glimpse Celyn standing there, his pale eyes full of reflections.
As Sjurd stared, his breath catching in his throat, Celyn stripped off his clothes, letting each layer slide away. The candlelight danced across his pale skin, and Sjurd watched breathlessly as Celyn’s nipples puckered against the cold air and then, as he shook off his braies, his cock rose, flushed and golden in the dim light. Celyn lifted his head and smirked slowly. “Well?”
“Well,” Sjurd growled back, not even knowing what he was saying, and then he moved. In two strides, he had Celyn locked into his arms, their mouths crashing together in a rough and desperate kiss. He felt the pull and sting as Celyn’s hands locked in his hair, and dug his own fingers into the back of Celyn’s thigh, pulling him so close that the jab of Celyn’s erection against his belly hurt. Three more strides, carrying Celyn with him, and they were pressed against the wall, the loose edges of the sleeping pallet crushed under his feet.
Celyn cried out sharply as Sjurd pressed him against the cold wall. Sjurd caught the cry and softened the kiss enough to make Celyn go boneless again. Then he slid to his knees, bracing his hands on Celyn’s shaking thighs, and swallowed down his cock. He couldn’t cram it all into his mouth, but he managed enough that Celyn let out a shocked gasp above him, shuddering hard. Sjurd sucked hard, and then pulled back slicking his tongue over the head of Celyn’s cock, and then plunged down again, his hands tight against Celyn’s thighs.
It was sloppy and wet and rushed, sucking and slurping and shaking at every noise Celyn let out. He had to reach down in the end, and release his own cock, so he could jerk himself off roughly as he feasted on Celyn. He could taste every drop of musk and salt oozing out of Celyn as his cock jerked and tightened between Sjurd’s lips. He felt the moment when Celyn’s self-control broke and his back arched off the wall as he thrust forward, hard enough to almost choke Sjurd. He kept sucking, his mouth wet and full, and his hands clenching as Celyn wailed his name and came hard, in a hot, choking rush.
Sjurd drank it down, his hand clenching around his own cock. When he couldn’t swallow any more, he pulled back, feeling the last splashes against his face, and that was enough. His own balls tightened and he spilled into his hand, throwing his head back to groan.
When he could see past the stars that filled his eyes, Celyn had slumped down to the pallet, and Sjurd was resting against him, still mostly dressed. He found the energy to paw off his own clothes, and then climbed back into Celyn’s arms, which closed warmly around his back.
“I should make you jealous more often,” Celyn murmured at last.
“Who said I was jealous?” Sjurd muttered. He was feeling entirely satisfied, and more than a little smug.
Celyn snickered against his shoulder. “Oh, so what was that for?”
“I don’t need to be jealous. You’re mine.”
“Agreed,” Celyn said, though Sjurd could hear the mirth that trickled through his voice. “I was about to deal with him tactfully and discreetly, you know.”
“Better this way,” Sjurd declared, gathering Celyn close and groping for a blanket. They, and the bedding, were a sticky mess, but he could live with that. It wasn’t as if he was finished yet. The night was still young.
“Oh, I think he knows better now. Poor Aelwyn.”
Sjurd laughed at that. “Serves him right. What makes him think he can touch you?” Then something Celyn had not quite said earlier came back to him. “Wait. You said it wasn’t Rhiannon he was courting.”
Celyn wriggled uncomfortably and said, in his brightest tone, “Well, it wasn’t.”
“He was chasing after you?”
“Not seriously,” Celyn said. “I mean, I was betrothed by the time I was fourteen. It was nothing, really.”
“What was nothing?”
“It was just a kiss.”
“You let that prattling fool kiss you?”
“We were sixteen,” Celyn protested, and then added reflectively, “And very drunk. It didn’t mean a thing.”
“Does he know that?”
“If he doesn’t, he’s an idiot.”
“That much is obvious.” Sjurd settled them back against the pillows, close enough that he could capture Celyn’s mouth in a quick kiss. “He can’t have you.”
“I don’t want him.”
“Good.” Sjurd swallowed hard. He rarely said this, and almost never said it first. “I love you.”
Celyn propped himself up, frowning down at him worriedly. “And I love you. Really, you have nothing to worry about. I’ll never want anyone but you.”
That was reassuring, but still. “And if I get eaten by the next misthound?”
“I will still never want anyone else.”
He should have wanted Celyn to be happy with someone else. Instead, that soothed all the edges off his nerves, and he smiled up at Celyn. He looked good by candlelight, which cast gold lights into his hair, and made his eyes gleam. “Good. Kiss me.”
Celyn obeyed, for once, his mouth sweet and soft against Sjurd’s, and they sank back against the bedding together, their legs tangling. Sjurd closed his eyes, and trusted Celyn to lead the kiss. They still faced almost certain doom, but here and now, even in the heart of danger, he was loved, and that was enough. Whatever the morning brought, whether it was disaster or more small irritations, he could be strong, because he knew, and would always know, that Celyn loved him.