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Tate realised that his hands were shaking as he struggled to eat the small portion of the food Christian had forced on him. He noticed that the prince was watching him and was suddenly and irrationally convinced that Christian knew the truth about Lukas.
His breath hitched and the food dropped from his nerveless fingers.
“Is the meal not to your liking?” Christian asked, frowning at him suspiciously. “You’re not sick are you?”
“I- I think I might be my lord. Perhaps a little.” He tried to make himself look as pathetic as possible, which probably wasn’t too difficult considering how wretched he felt. “Could I be excused? I think I need to lie down.”
He didn’t really expect the prince to comply and was relieved beyond words when Christian captured the arm of a passing servant woman. “I want you to see to it that Lord Tate makes it safely to his room. Attend him. His lordship is not feeling well.” He looked back at Tate and smiled softly. “I’ll be back soon. Will you be alright?”
Bizarrely Tate almost gave into a sudden urge to spit in the prince’s face. He forced the impulse down and stood with a weak smile. “I’ll be fine my lord. I just need to sleep.”
He performed a jerky bow as he walked slowly out of the hall, wanting to appear as sickly as possible. When he was a safe distance away he hurried his pace until he reached the relative safety of his chambers. He curtly dismissed the serving girl when she went to follow him inside. She mumbled some insult before telling him she would be waiting in the prince’s outer chambers if he needed anything.
He didn’t bother answering as he shut the door. He wasn’t really thinking too well and he needed some time alone to reason out what he should do about Lukas.
“Lukas.” He whispered, feeling an odd onslaught of confusion, elation and fear. What in the name of the gods was Lukas doing in the palace dressed as a guard? It seemed impossible that he had been in the city for such a long time. At least a year must have passed since they had last seen one another.
He swallowed dryly as he slowly tried to work through his options. He could stay in his room, quietly panicking and fretting, or he could gather whatever courage he still possessed and go in search of his old friend.
Just go, he told himself, don’t think about it, and just go.
He pulled on a cloak and slipped past the bored maid. He kept his head down and resolutely made his way towards the guard station. He pulled the hood up and hoped to the gods that Christian would not journey back to their rooms and find him gone.
The guard station loomed ahead, a huge and grim stain across the blazing sunset sky. The heads of the men, and even some women, who had been deemed to have sinned against the northern kingdom adorned the tower walls. Tate usually avoided the structure at all costs. As an unbloodied male, one that was so publicly being used in a way that was supposed to sin against the gods, he did not fool himself into thinking that many of the kings soldiers would hesitate to put a blade through his back.
“Tate?” The voice was soft and familiar and utterly compelling.
He hadn’t notice anyone approach at his back, but then his dread filled mind was not working very well. He could feel sweat trickle down his forehead as he forced himself to turn around.
Almost, he couldn’t raise his eyes, almost, he ran. Shame filled him, more blazing than any he had endured before. Not for his own shame, which was a sickening thing to be sure, but for the misery he had caused countless others. For the hurt he had caused a man who had once claimed to love him.
He had changed, Tate noticed, cringingly inwardly when he saw the tired worry lines that marred Lukas’s eyes and mouth. How much of his suffering is my fault? He wondered regretfully. What has loving me cost him?
Tate tried to speak but his throat was raw and refused to work. He swallowed in quick recession. “What are you doing here?” He eventually managed to whisper. He wrapped his arms firmly around his waist, instinctively protecting himself. He thought of Rose and felt a surge of hope. “Have you come to rescue the little one?”
“Yes, I’m here for Rose.” He took a small step towards Tate but halted as the other man stumbled back. “I’ve come for you too.” He said harshly.
Despite himself Tate laughed. The sound was cold and dismissive and it caused Lukas obvious harm to hear it. “You’re utterly insane to think you could take me anywhere. Look what happened last time I defied him. Who will die next because of me? Take Rose and runaway as fast as you possibly can.”
“I can’t leave you.” Lukas whispered fiercely. “And if you think staying here and suffering will change anything that happened in the past you’re wrong! It wasn’t your fault that they came after us Tate. The prince gave the orders, not you.”
“I could have left-
“What difference would it have made? They were looking for a reason to be rid of us. The outcome would have gaziantep travesti eventually been the same no matter what you might think.” His face softened suddenly. “I never got a chance to tell you how sorry I am.”
Tate shook his head in astonishment. “What possible thing could have done that could warrant an apology Lukas?”
“Your name,” He said. “I broke your trust and I told Robert your true name. I’m so sorry Tate. I hope you can believe me.”
Tate eyes burned as he felt a sudden and almost violent need to cry. “Gods Lukas, please don’t apologise for that. Not after everything I’ve done to you.”
“But I did!” Tate cried, cutting him off with a quiet wail that caused the older man to stumble back in alarm. “You gave me everything and all I did was take and take. I left you because you made a small mistake when I’ve made so many. For what it’s worth I’m truly and wholly sorry for leaving you as I did. The only thing I can be thankful for is that by doing so the tracker left you and Robert alone.” The thought of the tracker made him almost choke. “Oh gods, he knows! Lukas he knows!”
The tinker stepped towards him with outstretched arms. Tate shrank away. He could not bear to be touched, not even by Lukas. He was about to apologise when he raised his eyes and saw Richard striding quickly towards them. Shock filled him, and though a part of him was thankful it wasn’t Christian his relief quickly faded when he saw the satisfied look on the captain’s repugnant face.
“I have to go.” He said, turning around. He realised abruptly that his only path lay facing Richard. He froze in indecision, stepping back towards the guard tower.
“Don’t you dare move.” Though Richard didn’t yell the words but they were spoken loudly enough to be easily heard. He strolled towards them, affecting an overly nonchalant stride.
Tate turned to Lukas and they exchanged grim expressions. He put some more distance between them and stood facing Richard as innocently as he could. The captain halted a short distance away from him. “I thought you were sick. What are you doing out here?”
Tate tried to affect a sickly expression. “I felt like I needed some air. The walk has helped.”
“So it would seem.” Richard remarked dryly as he gazed wondered over Lukas. “Is there a reason you’re following Lord Tate?”
Lukas’s mouth opened but no words escaped.
“I fainted again.” Tate said hurriedly. “This kind guard was good enough to offer me his assistance.”
Richard’s lips curled as he continued to watch Lukas. He looked back at Tate and smiled knowingly. “I had better see to it that you arrive safely back to your chambers then my lord. I wouldn’t want you to faint again.” He reached out and caught Tate’s arm. He looked Lukas over slowly and with lecherous interest. “And you solider, haven’t you anything better to do than gawk?”
Lukas watched Tate with poorly veiled wanting. Tate inwardly cringed, silently willing him to pretend disinterest. Richard was an observant man but even a child would have been able to see the need in his eyes.
He pretended to trip and Richard instinctively caught him. Tate forced himself not to look at Lukas and could only hope his old friend would not intervene. Richard released an irritated huff as he wrapped an arm around Tate’s waist and pulled him flush against his side. “What’s the matter boy, the prince been riding you too hard?”
Tate dropped his head and pretended not to hear. Richard laughter tickled his ear as the hand wrapped around his waist wormed beneath his shirt. “Come now halfling, don’t be shy.”
“I think I might be sick.” Tate groaned. He heard the captain curse before he was all but picked up and hurried back towards his room.
Tate began to smile before he caught a glimpse of Lukas from behind the curtain of his hair. The tinker was staring at him and didn’t move from his spot until Tate entered the castle and lost sight of him.
“He came.” Milianious said, smiling weakly at Tanis as the young prince handed him the small basket of food he’d smuggled up to try and fatten up the emancipated prophet. The ancient one took it wordlessly and placed it carelessly beside him. “You did well princling.”
“He seemed so sad.” Tanis said, remembering the look of sorrow on Tate’s ethereal face. “He said, he said you were more than a prophet. He seemed to know you.”
“He would know his own kin.” Milianious mused softly. “His blood has been soiled with the seed of a human, and in my weakened state I did not know him for one of my own, but it is as I suspected. Ah, to have him call to me. To feel the sweetness of his purity.” The creature’s sightless eyes turned slowly to Tanis. “I know now why you love him so thoroughly, young prince. I know why his presence calls to you; I know why you lay awake night and day and think of him.” The soothsayer smiled with no small hint of cruelty. “You’re as obsessed with him as his brother, are you not?”
“I have never tried to force him.” Tanis snapped indignantly.
“Of course you have not.” The prophet soothed. “I accused you of being as obsessed with him as Christian, I did not say you were sadistic, did I?”
“What have my feelings to do with your race?” Tanis snapped, no longer willing to speak of the similarities between himself and his brother. “Are you saying Tate is a prophet?”
The old one snorted. “He is a child still. Of course he isn’t. Tell me though Tanis, what did you grandfather tell you of my capture when you were a child and he still lived?”
It was Tanis’s time to snort. “He tried to fill my head with all sorts of nonsense when I was small”
“But what of me specifically young prince?”
The prince barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “He called you a dragon Milianious.” He spat out, feeling ridiculous for voicing the old king’s stories out lout. “He said he watched you for years, flying high over his kingdom, killing his livestock and burning his city. He told me that you were huge and beautiful and the colour of polished sliver.” Tanis faltered, overcome by loss in the ancient ones face. His voice turned softer, gentler. “He said he envied you and hated you equally, for you made him look a fool before his people. He claimed to have decided upon a quest to capture you. He planned to keep you chained beneath the tunnels beneath the castle. When he approached a southern necromancer the man told him that dragons could only be captured when they took human form. He ensured my grandfather that almost all dragons walked as humans throughout their lives, and that only the most feral stayed as lizards. My grandfather sent many men to track you; southern men that were known to have dealt with dragons, which he said were much more common in the south. They watched you turn into a man and when you approached the city my grandfather had them drug the ale you brought in an inn. He said he had you brought to this room, where the necromancer had laid spells that would not allow you to transform.” Tanis’s voice caught then. “He said he took your eyes when he discovered you were a prophet, after you foretold his death.”
Silence stretched out between them.
“Well there is your answer.” The ancient one said at last.
Tanis wanted to laugh, to snort of sneer. He could not quite make himself perform the motions. “You’re telling me Tate is a dragon?”
“Of course not.” The prophet scoffed. “His father is human.”
“So what does that make him?” Tanis asked, a little hysterically.
The prophet’s lips turned up into a winsome smile. “He’s a drakling, young prince, which makes him very rare and incredibly valuable.”
“You can’t be serious?”
“Of course I’m serious.” Milianious snapped, anger showing clearly on his normally dreamy face. “His aura sings so loudly it seems inconceivable that I never felt it when Christian first had me track him.” His sightless eyes turned fiercely on Tanis. “Bring him back here, immediately. I need to talk to him.”
“Christian is too busy scheming and plotting to notice the drakling’s absence. Bring him to me tomorrow morning, after the prince has gone to practice with his sword. Send him to me alone this time.”
Almost, Tanis denied him, but how could one ever deny a dragon?
“Shush,” He urged, cradling the child in the arch of his arms. “You need to calm down.”
Roses wide blue eyes stared up at him with shining hope. “But he’s here Tate, he’s truly and honestly here?”
“He’s pretending to be a guard.” Tate whispered. He could not help but smile when her eyes widened in amazement. “He means to smuggle you out, though I’m not sure when he intends to do it. I didn’t get the chance to speak to him for very long.”
She laughed in delight and pressed her face against him arm. “He’s going to save us Tate, he’ll take us back to my ma and pa.”
Tate held his tongue. He couldn’t find it within himself to tell her that he would not be accompanying them on their escape. How could he when it would undoubtedly hurt her? He was even more determined to keep silent on the subject of the child’s lost family.
The door swung open suddenly and they both jumped in fright. Normally they could hear Christian long before he reached their chambers but the prince must have come in alone that night. He watched them from the doorway for a moment before entering the room and sitting silently on the edge of Tate’s bed. Tate wondered if the prince had overheard them. They had been quiet but if Christian had been outside their door the entire time-
The prince reached out his hand. Tate jerked back, dragging Rose close against his side. It was unnecessary. Christian’s hand settled lightly on Tate’s forehead. He rested in there for a moment before offering the halfling an unusually gentle smile. “You don’t seem fevered. I’ve called for the healer to come and see you in the morning, just to be sure.” He lent back, his eyes skimming dismissively over Rose before he captured Tate’s arm and pulled him off the bed.
“You’ll sleep with me tonight.” He declared.
Tate barely resisted a scream as he was dragged into the prince’s inner chamber. He waited until he was a safe distance from Rose before he voiced his refusal. “Christian please, I don’t think I can tonight.” He pressed his free arm across his chest. “I just want to sleep.”
“And so you shall.” Christian responded, leaning down to catch Tate’s buttons as he opened his shirt and pulled it from Tate’s trousers. “Jump into bed, I’ll join you shortly.”
Tate didn’t move for a moment, but when Christian showed little interest in joining him he climbed numbly into the bed and lay down. He pretended sleep and when at last Christian came to join him he lay down beside Tate, only touching him briefly across the forehead. “I feared for you.” He whispered, clearly thinking Tate slept. “I could never bear to lose you my beloved.”
He lay down then, entwining his hand in Tate’s hair and quickly falling into a deep sleep.
The halfling stared up at the bed canopy long into the night. Images of Lukas and the short and happy times they spent together kept replaying through his mind. If only, he thought, drifting into sleep at last with the words echoing through his mind.
“You think I care?” Christian demanded tightly. He stood up and began to pace. “The old man has served his purpose and I for one am bored of indulging him. His absence will be of no great loss. Indeed, it will be a boon to this great country of ours when he has gone and I have been appointed in his place.”
“My prince, you speak of treason against the crown.” Richard’s voice was so low Christian could barely hear him. “Think of what it will mean if you are caught. You’ll be executed for sure.”
“Then we had better make sure I’m not caught.” He realised he was gritting his teeth and loosened his jaw with some effort. “I am not willing to let that dithering fool control me anymore. He should have had the decency to die years ago. As it stands he has more than outlived his usefulness.”
Richard’s expression took on an odd light. He looked almost disapproving for a moment before he smothered the expression and gave the Christian an abrupt nod. “What do you suggest then my prince?”
Christian gripped his chin as he considered his next words. Despite his resolve he found it almost difficult to voice out loud what he wanted done. He had already given much thought on how he planned to accomplish the act and had decided on poison. He was no expert but he was sure an elixir existed that would make the old man’s death look natural. He only hesitated because he had heard that poison, however quickly spread, could cause horrible pain. He still held just enough regard for his father that he did not want him to overly suffer. “Poison perhaps.” He said at last, feeling a small swell of shame for a moment before pushing it roughly aside. “Surely there is a poison that can send the old man into a sleep he’ll never wake from?”
The abrupt sound of scuttled feet and indrawn breath caused both men to turn and draw their swords. Panic flared through Christian as realised that they had been discovered. He would be executed for sure, for clearly his father suspected Christian’s betrayal and had sent spies to watch him.
“It’s the halfling.” Richard said softly, his voice a dangerous hiss as he looked questioningly at Christian. When the prince continued to stare uncomprehendingly back at him Richard marched towards the small room that had been officially appointed to Tate and kicked the door open. “Spying were we?” He demanded as he stepped inside. A moment later he hauled a chalk white Tate out by the scruff of his shirt. He marched him before Christian and gave the small man a hard shake. “Tell us what you heard?” He commanded.
It had been a long time since Christian had seen Tate look so frightened. More often than not the half-blood was emotionless. He spoke only when it was required and he almost always did as he was told. Now however he looked terrified. He stared wordlessly at Christian with an expression the prince had only even seen on men with their necks on the chopping block.
“My prince.” Richard said, transferring his grip from Tate’s shirt to his slender throat. “He heard us. You know what we have to do now don’t you?”
Tate tried to scream and Richard slapped his free hand over the half-blood’s mouth to cut off any more noise. The small man thrashed wildly, screaming into Richard’s hand.
“He heard us?” Christian muttered and sudden relief flared through him. It seemed he would not be executed after all. He smiled brightly and pulled Tate from Richard’s unresisting grasp. Tate’s entire body stiffened when Christian touched him and the prince could feel violent tremors running through the small man’s body. “Calm down.” Christian said soothingly as he caressed Tate’s arms slowly. “And tell me exactly what you heard?”
“I didn’t-” He began and then winced when Christian’s hand’s tightened on his biceps.
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