A deathly hush fell over the camp an hour after the evening bugle call.
All was quiet.
Except for my tentmate Ghor, whose whistling snores grated on my nerves. The oblivious bastard didn’t even realise his luck. Consumed by envy at his ability to put his head down and drift off, I entertained the idea of snapping his neck. Or suffocating him with a pillow. Or punching his nose into his brain. All of those would take only a moment.
I shifted onto my back and stared into the darkness that veiled the canvas roof. My breath came out in little plumes of grey in front of my face; my nipples stood at attention. Were my toes frostbitten? In contrast to the heat of the southern Empire, the supposedly temperate climate of the Elven Country translated, in reality, to freezing. I pulled the blankets tighter around me.
They said soft beds made soft soldiers. The stiffness of my army-issued bedroll bore testimony to why the Elven forces acquired the reputation of the toughest in the world. The fucking thing dug into my shoulder blades and hips, which had been tender to begin with, courtesy of Cián’s meaty fists. My squad’s hyoshie remained hell-bent on defeating me in combat sparring. Good on him for having goals.
I concentrated on the dull ache and relaxed into it. My father had taught me to embrace pain. With time, not only had I learnt to let it soothe me, but I’d grown to savour it.
Rare were the occasions when I managed to extract more than a wink of shut-eye from the night. More often than not, even if I did doze off, I’d stir shortly afterwards.
Sleep had never come easily to me. Not since the age of seven, when I woke to the news of a battle won and my mother proclaimed its hero. Its dead hero. A week later, a sinewy stranger by the name of Lu Feninghan arrived to claim me as his son. I remember he wore a hooded doublet, and I had to crane my neck to examine the two curved swords strapped to his back.
His intention to take me away to the Empire didn’t sit well with the enraged members of my clan—the powerful Féyes clan. The only thing that restrained them from ripping the man to shreds was the writ in his possession affixed with the Queen’s seal. Not even the fact that my father turned out to be the Grand Master of the Order appeased my relatives; he was still a human. The royal consent permitting me to leave the Elven Country stood in contradiction to the law, which stated that maternal half-breeds belonged with their mothers’ families.
It didn’t take much guessing to figure out which services the head of the Assassin’s Guild must’ve pledged to the Crown in exchange for this departure from the rules. Only my father’s closest enforcers knew how many contract hits it amassed to. Queen Nae’amh dealt harshly with disloyal subjects, no matter how prominent, and those who misstepped couldn't count on second chances. That lesson on the value of blood as currency etched itself in my mind.
Two sleep-inducing techniques had worked for me throughout my teenage years. One involved knocking myself out from exertion. Running did the trick for a while, but wooden dummy training—both with a knife and barehanded—proved superior. Its repetitive relentlessness drained me of energy. The raw burn in my knuckles, forearms and shins calmed me and sent me crashing afterwards.
On the nights when everything else failed, I resorted to my emergency tactic: drinking fortified mead. I’d kept a flagon under my bed ever since I’d turned fourteen.
Given the chronic nature of my sleep-deprivation, I held no expectations of coming across an ultimate remedy. Certainly not at the camp. Until one night, when a fair-haired Highlander, armed with a lopsided smirk and a black glint in his bottomless eyes, sneaked into my bed.
The first time he did so almost cost the idiot a blade to the throat. Who would try to creep up on an assassin? I’d recognised his scent in time to just barely graze his skin. Yet it only halted him for an instant. He murmured in his mountain brogue, “What the hell is it with you and my neck?” Then he’d found his way under my covers and wrapped himself around me.
Just like that.
As if he belonged there.
The disconcerting truth of it was—he did. I knew it deep in my bones.
Otherwise, why would I sleep soundly when by his side, feeling his warm body pressed against mine?
I sighed. I hadn’t had a restful night since Ervyn’s squad had left a fortnight before to practice mounted archery skills on the plains and hills around the camp. I wanted to think these incidents unrelated, but I considered lying to myself a pointless exercise.
All at once, I found myself overwhelmed by a pang of yearning for his lips on mine. Insatiable and impertinent. Insistent. The mere memory of the way he would grip my chin and pull me down to meet his mouth—so rough and entitled—sent blood rushing to my groin. Why did I love the way he took liberties with my body? Why did I allow it? At the end of the day, we both realised I could obliterate him in two strikes if I wanted.
He’d come to see me prior to his departure. I’d wished he’d kissed me then. But he just pressed a hard, slick object into my palm. He’d been gone before I managed to look at it. A blue crystal of some kind, gemlike and pretty, had lain in my opened fist, its colour vaguely familiar. I’d taken to carrying it around in my pocket for reasons I didn’t stew over.
Increasingly loud snores from across the tent interrupted my train of thought. Certain that sleep would continue to elude me, I turned onto my stomach and reached under my cot. Blindly, I felt for the round-bellied bottle I’d placed there. A moment later I sat on the bed cross-legged, downing long swallows of the familiar warmth. Once the initial burning dissipated in my throat, I closed my eyes, stretched my neck and took some long breaths.
The tap, tap, tap outside my tent alerted me to someone’s presence. Two sets of footsteps came from opposite directions. One lighter and quicker; the other—unhurried but purposeful.
I reinserted the stopper into the neck of the flagon and put it away. Silently, I got up and positioned myself by the tent entrance.
“You’d better have a reason to be wandering around after the curfew.” Cián kept his voice low as he addressed the visitor, but I recognised it nonetheless.
“Aye, sir.” My heart jumped at the combination of a mountain lilt and throaty tone. “I do.”
“Care to share?”
The brief pause that followed suggested not so much. I smirked.
“Hyoshie Hélk just finished debriefing my squad. I’m heading out to my tent, sir.”
“And you’re lurking here because…?”
“I stopped to take a leak, sir.”
“Right here?” Suspicion tinted Cián’s response. “Is the concept of a latrine alien to you, Morryés?”
“We rode for hours, sir. My bladder’s bursting.”
“My heart bleeds for you,” the hyoshie sneered.
I found a small gap between the edges of the canvas folds and peeked outside. The light given off by the watch-fires allowed me, just barely, to make out the unfolding events.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t hold it anymore.” Ervyn reached for the ties at his waist and pulled at them, unfazed, with the clear intention of whipping out his cock.
I smothered a snicker.
Cián shook his head with disdain. “Whatever is wrong with you, Morryés, is not a small thing.” He spat on the ground, then turned and walked away, muttering insults about mountain savages that defamed their mothers.
I drew aside one flap of the tent.
Ervyn’s eyes met mine as if he’d known I’d been watching him all along. He winked and grinned. “Ain’t nothing small about that, though.” Grabbing his crotch, he thrust his hips forward, his unfastened trousers loosening all the more.
I fought an urge to roll my eyes but couldn’t help smiling back. I widened the opening of the tent for him.
He didn’t hesitate. Before slipping inside, he cast a sideways glance in the direction where Cián had vanished. “He’s still sniffing around you then, the fucker?”
That caused him to narrow his eyes. He made a grab at the back of my head. “Tey helvêt mu-ehrs es, riénh né bac derrve.” A hint of agitation added an edge to his words.
I hadn’t the first clue what he’d said, although I recognised the word mine and a curse thrown in. Still, his unceremonious touch coupled with his rhotic accent seemed good enough for my cock to tent the front of my trousers. And it only got better when he drew me close and shoved his tongue into my mouth.
For years I couldn’t stand people touching me in any way other than during a fight. Yet there I was, shivering with desire, yielding to his velvety strokes as he—insolent and all-conquering—toyed with me however he willed.
Something raw raced to the surface of my skin and clawed to get out every time he did this.
So I didn’t stab him, punch him or push him away. Instead, I busied myself with sucking on his tongue and producing pathetic whimpers from my throat.