(Continuing the weekly serial by Cecilia Tan! Need to start at the beginning? Click here.)
Part 31: Kenet
The next day dawned damp and chill, but the fog burned off by midmorning. From the rise where Roichal’s tent was pitched I could see a large portion of the camp. How many men were here? Thousands, certainly. Finding Jorin was going to be quite a task.
Again I felt no urge to eat. After he had breakfasted himself, though, Roichal taught me to shine his boots and how to oil the leather of his armor. There were many buckles to be shined also, and to be kept from rust. He watched over me for a while, and then left me alone with the tent flaps up to let in light to work by. A soldier sat outside, whistling as he repaired something leather with a long needle. He wasn’t obviously a guard, but I wondered if he were there to keep an eye on me.
Roichal and Marksin came in at midday and Roichal gave me some bread and meat, but still I could not bring myself to eat it. They looked at me curiously and gave me plenty of fresh water. Roichal himself checked me for signs of fever, but I seemed well, just not hungry.
“He’ll eat when he’s ready to,” Marksin said. “Just like a stray cat.”
That made the general chuckle and pat my head affectionately, which felt better than it had any right to.
Then they prepared to make their round of inspections, and I tugged at Roichal’s sleeve, wanting to go along. He put his hands on my shoulders. He was not that much taller than me in truth, but his presence was much more imposing. “I think it’s best you stay here and stay out of trouble.”
I put a hand on my chest and said, “Page.”
He laughed. “Can you ride a horse?”
I nodded emphatically.
He looked me up and down, then called for one of the men. “You’ll ride with me tomorrow, then,” he said, “all right?” And he gave instructions to the man as to what sort of uniform I should be fitted with.
He and Marksin went off, then, and the other soldier, whose name I hadn’t learned, outfitted me in a blue uniform with silver trim, sewing the crest of a thornflower onto the shoulder–Roichal’s crest.
I was wearing it when he returned after the evening meal. He tried again to feed me and again I did not eat. I tried to swallow a little bread, but it only made me feel ill.
He closed all the flaps of the tent as evening came on, and the chill returned. He examined the job I had done with all his buckles and was pleased. Then he took my hands in his and examined them in the lantern light.
“Well, you weren’t a fighter,” he said, his fingers rubbing over my palm. “And if you were a slave it was the kind who works on his back, hm? Will you tell me the mystery of who you are?”
I shook my head and put my hand on my chest again. “Page.”
He sighed. “Yes, I suppose that is what matters now, isn’t it. Very well, my page. Tomorrow I shall teach you a bit more about what a page does for the soldier he serves.” He clucked his tongue. “And no, my boy, I don’t mean like that.”
The next day he kept his promise and I rode with him and Marksin to visit several different companies of soldiers. I was constantly looking for Jorin, but by halfway through the day my heart was no longer leaping each time I saw a windblown shock of shorn black hair. They bade me carry the pouch with various papers and records in it, which Marksin would shuffle through and note things upon at each stop.
Some of the time Roichal would hear a plea from a soldier who needed to return home. Some of the time he would grant leave. Marksin made notes.
Partway through the trip, Marksin commented quietly, but not so quietly that I could not hear, that he noticed a pattern in the general’s grants of leave. “You haven’t let any of the men from southern provinces go.”
“Indeed. The last thing I need is for a man to go home to check that his family is safe from the pestilence, only to have him bring it back here and hand victory to our enemies in one awful blow.”
Marksin merely nodded at this.
I eventually gleaned that some of these companies were only lately rejoining the main army and that they were preparing some sort of mass campaign. I’d no idea that the army was so large. No wonder there were ministers who often complained of how difficult they were to supply and feed.
Speaking of feeding, again I did not eat. Now I felt perhaps slightly lightheaded, but no hunger. Roichal pinched some of my skin as we sat in front of his tent that evening. The next nearest tent was at the bottom of the rise, and although I could see the light from their lanterns, they were far enough I could not hear the men’s voices. Marksin sat with us, as he and Roichal shared some of the whiskey that had come from my father. The two of them were on folding seats of some kind, while I sat crossed-legged on the tramped grass.
“When was the last time you ate?” Marksin asked me. “Something other than a man’s milk, I mean.”
I merely shrugged. The last time… had been that bread and cheese that Jort had given me, and even that had been only a small taste.
Roichal was looking at me curiously then, his back straight. “They say there are Frangi boywhores who can live on nothing but that. I always took it for legend, but…”
Marksin sipped from a tin cup. “But you think this one is playing at it being true?”
“Possibly.” Roichal tapped his chin thoughtfully. “I dislike puzzles I cannot solve.”
That, for some reason, made Marksin bark, one short bitter laugh. They both drank in silence for a while after that, until Marksin said, “If it’s milk he needs, have you been feeding him, sir? He’s your pet, after all.”
Roichal made a noise. “You sound a bit jealous. Did you want his mouth then, Marksin? His arse wasn’t enough for you?”
Marksin drained his cup and stood as if to leave. “I didn’t. He was crying and you know I cannot abide any hint of…”
“Sit, Marksin, sit,” the general said then, and although his voice was light, it was no less a command. Marksin sat.
“You taught me too well, sir,” Marksin said. “I’ll never be able to… to force anyone.”
“No one expects you to,” Roichal said, shaking his head. “If they do, the Night has sickened their hearts. That is not what we are fighting for, is it?”
“No, sir.” Marksin hung his head now and I could not see his face the way his straight, dark hair hung.
They were both silent for a moment. “Do you have no one?” Roichal asked him in a low voice.
“No, sir,” Marksin answered, now almost a whisper.
I could see the expression on the general’s face was pained. He looked at me. “Page,” he asked softly, “would you be willing to help Field Marshal Marksin?”
“Don’t,” Marksin said, but I was nodding. “Sir, I don’t need…”
Roichal made a skeptical noise. “Page,” he said. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. But I think of the field marshal here quite fondly, and as you can see he has no capacity to ask for himself.”
I nodded again, and slipped my hand into Marksin’s, squeezing it encouragingly. I rubbed my cheek along the back of his hand then. “Kind,” I said. “Very kind.”
Marksin’s shoulders seemed to slump. “Yes, I was kind to you. I… tried, anyway.”
“Go on,” Roichal said. “He’s your type.”
“You don’t know what my type is,” Marksin said, but his resistance was gone.
I pulled him by the hand toward the opening of the tent, wondering if the general was going to follow or if he would leave us alone.
He did not follow. Marksin undid his belt and slipped his trousers down as he sat on the edge of the sleeping pallet. I urged him to at least get one leg free so I could kneel between his legs. For all his protesting, his prick showed itself to be quite eager for attention.
I licked up the already-hard shaft and moaned myself at the flavor of him. The hunger I had not felt in days suddenly seemed to flare to life and I licked all around the head, lapping at the dewy, salty drops oozing up at the tip. Then I took him deep into my mouth, suckling.
His fingers swept through my hair and he groaned, too. “Thunder, but I’ve needed this.”
It didn’t take him long, and once he had spilled deep into my throat and I had licked him clean of every drop, he pulled me up into a kiss. Then he pushed me away, as if that had been too much. I kissed him on the forehead as if to say it was all right, and then I helped him to stand and right his clothes.
His hand reached toward my groin but I pulled away, shaking my head.
“You’re sure? I’d be happy to oblige you,” he said.
I just gestured for him to join the general sitting outside again.
Roichal had poured himself another measure and was sipping it and looking up at the stars. He had moved so that he was sitting on a fallen log. Once upon a time this rise must have been crowned by a tree, but a lightning strike must have brought it down. He beckoned for me to come sit beside him.
“Hungry now?” he asked.
I shook my head.
The two of them looked at each other. Marksin shrugged. “Either it’s a charade and he’ll eventually show the effects of not eating, or you’ll catch him at it, or he really is a prize escaped from the Frangi court, and Night Magic really is as twisted as you’ve always told me.”
“We shall see,” is all Roichal said.
“Good night, sir.” Marksin sketched a brief bow, and then went down the hill in the dark.
I sat there feeling more chilled then than the night warranted. Seroi had truly tried to make me into a whoreslave; this seemed irrefutable proof of it.
Roichal slipped his arm around my shoulders. “And does my Page need anything?” he asked gently.
I shook my head, but leaned into him. He was solid and reassuring and just held me that way without trying to touch me or goad me into touching him. After a while, though, I wondered if maybe he had something in common with his second-in-command, which was that he too would not ask for what he needed. I slipped my hand to his belt buckle and looked up, questioning.
He just shook his head. “No need for that, Page.”
I tugged on his belt somewhat insistently.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. “The truth, now.”
I shook my head. I only wanted to please him.
“Then now is not the time,” he said, removing my hand gently. “Come, let’s to bed. Dawn comes early.”
We got onto the sleeping pallet in our now accustomed position, facing the tent flap with him spooning me, one arm draped over me protectively. One of the positions Jorin had always loved.
I fell asleep wondering where he was. Was he near or far? There was no way I could ask about him without giving myself away. I could only wait and see what fate would bring next.
(Continue reading in chapter 32!)
(Continuing the weekly serial by Cecilia Tan! Need to start at the beginning? Click here.)