Antal loves his life and is proud not only to be in charge of a regiment of guards but also to act as a personal protector, bodyguard, to a good friend. Alas, he’s young to carry so much responsibility and has to accept that even the most dedicated person needs time off. He needs something new and different in his life but doesn’t know what…or whom.
Kilan is a Swithin prince — the only one now that his brother is king — but although he’s happier than he’s ever been, he’s always been mischievous. He’d rather do what he likes than what others say is right. He hates the responsibility of duty and is always on the lookout for a little fun…and lately, Antal has certainly started to look like he might be fun!
They believe they have nothing in common aside from a physical attraction, until they realize they both share the weight of responsibility. Maybe they deserve to spend some time in each other’s arms. What Kilan doesn’t realise is that Antal doesn’t know how to be anything but dominant…until it’s too late…and Antal has more experience in many things than the young prince, who may secretly be submissive.
“Are you suggesting I need to have sex?” Even knowing Ryanac as he did, Antal gaped in disbelief. The man couldn’t be serious! Even worse, much to Antal’s chagrin, Kilan had chosen that moment to walk into the room, and he overheard everything. The young prince stopped, gaze flicking left and right.
Kilan. It would have to be Kilan.
Alas, the young prince didn’t have the reserve that his brother, King Markis, did. Sex or the discussion of it wasn’t usually a cause for embarrassment for the Swithin people, so why did Antal feel awkward? Perhaps because he didn’t want others to know he was feeling out of sorts? He didn’t want to have this discussion with Kilan in the room. He knew only too well that the prince looked up to him, and while adoration from anyone made Antal feel uncomfortable, he didn’t want to openly reject the attention. Kilan was also impressionable at such a young age.
Antal almost sniggered. He wasn’t that much older himself, but he’d been out in the world a little more than Kilan had. He felt older, or at least more experienced. He also remembered what it had felt like to be Kilan’s age…experimenting. It came as no surprise that Kilan looked at him occasionally with an interested eye. The Swithin freely took lovers of either sex, and Antal wasn’t being boastful admitting he was handsome. Many men and women looked at him the way Kilan did, but with Kilan things were more…difficult. Antal didn’t want to reject Kilan, sexually or otherwise. He didn’t want to deflate him like that, so he avoided getting close to the prince any more than he had to. Sexual attraction was one thing, but hero worship… He didn’t feel happy with that.
Oddly, he disliked the idea of hurting the prince’s feelings or confusing matters, and with Kilan, things had a way of turning out thorny. Besides, he didn’t want to change how Kilan looked at him; looking up to someone was probably good for Kilan. With Kilan so wild at times, the last thing Antal wanted was to be a bad example for the prince, which was undoubtedly why the thought of Kilan seeing him like this upset him so. As irritating as Kilan could be, he had potential.
Antal struggled to tear his gaze away from those sparkling brown eyes. The king’s eyes glinted with golden flecks, a manifestation of his mystical power. Kilan’s eyes might be the same chocolate brown, but they shone brightly from an entirely different light. If he needed to put a word to it, Antal would have to say mischievousness at the very least.
“You could loosen up a bit,” Kilan said when the silence had spun out long enough.
“This is a private conversation!” Antal snapped. Ironically, many would think Ryanac was the last man to speak to regarding personal matters, but despite the big man’s teasing habits, Antal trusted him. In many ways, Ryanac was almost family, even if that relationship was by shared connections rather than blood. Such associations were…complicated enough, and Ryanac was, primarily, his commanding officer. Kilan’s involvement would confuse things, and Antal felt confused enough already. “No one asked for your opinion.”
“See. That snipe isn’t like you,” Kilan replied, being completely irritating. Unfortunately, he was also right, but that only made Antal long for violence, and that was entirely unlike him, went against his peaceful nature. Feeling this way worried him. Antal sat down, his stomach a tight knot, wound into a ball by sheer frustration.
“What’s wrong?” Kilan asked, apparently in no hurry to leave.
From the corner of his eye, Antal saw Ryanac move his head in a light shake of warning. The gesture was so subtle that only the play of light in Ryanac’s long, loose hair drew his attention to the movement. Antal couldn’t help wondering if he’d had sex that morning; seldom did he see Ryanac with his hair out of a braid. Not wishing to descend into a full-fledged fantasy, he dragged his mind back to his own situation, which right now included Kilan’s unwelcome presence. Ryanac wouldn’t order Kilan to leave, but neither would he spill Antal’s problem without his consent. Antal sighed.
“As I just explained to Ryanac, I’m feeling out of sorts. I don’t know. Restless, I guess.” That was a mild way to describe his predicament. He couldn’t deny that he’d been feeling bad tempered and was quick to snap lately. Ryanac had noticed, of course. That was partly why Antal had decided to seek out the man’s advice. If he didn’t do something to overcome these abnormal emotions soon, Ryanac would have requested a private word anyway.
“Are you ailing?” Kilan asked.
Antal shook his head. “Physically I’m fine. It’s my mood I’m struggling to deal with.”
“Uly hasn’t always been the easiest to look after,” Ryanac said as if suggesting Uly was the one responsible. Antal was Semari, captain to a contingent of guards. He was also Sonndre, personal defender to Uly, the king’s lover. Although to call Uly merely lover was inadequate. As Antal had already contemplated, things were complex. He’d once shared a kiss with Uly, but that was long ago and had little to do with sex and much more to do with affection. A kiss meant many things to the Swithin, not just sex. He’d shared a kiss with Uly and almost died for him. Antal had subsequently accepted the role of Sonndre for the honor it was. He owed both Uly and the men under his charge the best of his ability. Lately he didn’t feel he could give them the best. That was the reason he’d chosen to talk to Ryanac.
Antal couldn’t help it: thinking of Uly caused a small smile to tug at his lips. That smile felt amazingly good. He found it nice to know he could still smile. It felt as if he hadn’t smiled in weeks; he certainly couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed.
“He’s more thoughtful now,” Antal remarked, meaning Uly. If anyone had trouble guarding someone, it was Ryanac trying to look after Markis. The Swithin king controlled an amazing power — legend said the power of a comet — but that control hadn’t always come easy. Even with such a power, the king needed protection. Antal could imagine how tedious it would be to have someone stalking your footsteps, so he could appreciate how even a king might want to skip out to be alone occasionally. Kilan could also access the power but wanted no protector. Antal pitied the man or woman should anyone ever take up that position. Kilan would be the biggest headache of all to watch over. Right now he was unusually quiet. Antal found that worrying.
“I wasn’t saying sex would cure the problem. I just asked when you last had any.” Ryanac’s words broke into his thoughts.
“I think he means with another person,” Kilan added.
Antal glared even though his heart wasn’t in it. At least the remark sounded more like the Kilan he knew. Ryanac and Kilan — the two of them were more than he could take today. Ryanac liked to tease even when he was being understanding, and Kilan never thought before he let words fly out of his mouth, appearing to bypass his brain. He could remain silent when he knew the situation was serious, but Kilan’s wayward mouth — and actions — often led him into trouble.
“Sex isn’t everything,” Antal said, addressing Ryanac and ignoring Kilan. “Sex doesn’t cure everything.” Ryanac pursed his lips as though he might disagree. “Besides,” Antal went on before Ryanac could tease, “it’s a question of priority. I’ve been too busy.”
“True, and I believe therein lies your problem. I know what it’s like when you’re newly in charge of a division of guards. The first year is the hardest. But I’ve always found time for sex.” Coming from anyone else, that remark might have sounded boastful. Ryanac just spoke the truth. “You can ease up, Antal; they respect you now.”
Antal blinked, failing to hide his amazement.
“You don’t need to look so surprised. You don’t need to doubt your ability.”
Hearing Ryanac say so made Antal feel pleased yet defensive. “I don’t. I mean… I didn’t.” He had no choice but to reluctantly accept that Ryanac had hit on precisely how he did feel. “Not until recently. Of late I’m distracted, and that’s not a good thing. I could make a mistake while I’m this preoccupied, and that’s what worries me.”
Antal believed Ryanac would still tease despite the fact that he’d confessed his feelings in all seriousness. Ryanac opened his mouth, hesitated, and then closed it again. He cast a glance at Kilan. Alas, that caught Kilan’s interest most effectively.
“He has an idea,” Kilan said. “He’s just not certain he should suggest it in front of me.”
“Maybe you should leave, then.” Much to Antal’s amusement, Kilan actually stood there blinking, gaping in surprise.
“Well, fine.” Kilan failed to keep the injury from his voice or intentionally made it obvious; with Kilan, you could never be certain. He turned smartly on his heel and marched out of the room. Antal turned his attention back to Ryanac.
“I was going to ask rather than suggest,” Ryanac said. “Ignore my teasing. Does this restlessness have a sexual nature at all?”
“No. Why should it?”
“Think before answering so quickly. You’ve not described exactly what you are feeling.”
How could he describe something he didn’t understand? Antal tried to disconnect from his surroundings, tried to examine his feelings. Finally he sighed. “I’m feeling overly aggressive, but I have to say, if sex is a part of whatever’s disrupting my equilibrium, then it’s only a very small part of it.” He let loose a self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t know how to say this without sounding foolish.”
“That’s irrelevant. Just say it.”
Antal took a steadying breath. He stared at the other man, at big, burly, strong Ryanac, his long dark hair streaked with silver. Everything about the man was sturdy, steadfast, reliable, yet wild. Maybe Ryanac would understand. “I’ve always felt at peace with myself, one with my own body. Damn,” Antal snapped. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“It makes more sense than you know. Go on.”
Encouraged, Antal continued. “Lately I feel as if I’m aware of me, of my consciousness as something separate from my flesh. I’ve never felt that way before.”
“Children seldom do.”
Antal frowned. “I’m no child.”
“I wasn’t calling you one.”
Ryanac folded his arms over his chest, the muscles straining. Even as someone not interested in a sexual relationship with Ryanac, and even with sex a vague thing in his mind right now, Antal couldn’t help admiring the pose.
“I meant children live in the moment,” Ryanac continued. “The future is a far-off thing. Life goes by quickly, seems fleeting. It speeds up the older one gets. A child has no concept of these things. They live in the moment and within their bodies. As we get older and perhaps start to suffer illnesses, we become aware that our bodies will fail us one day. We become more aware of our mortality, our consciousness.”
“I’m not that old,” Antal said more defensively than he’d intended. “I’m healthy.”
“You nearly died.”
Antal laughed. “That was some time ago, and if you’re suggesting this is my way of falling apart, then I say that if I were going to suffer a breakdown from the trauma, it would have happened a lot sooner.”
“Not necessarily. Bad experiences can return to haunt us at the most inconvenient time. Uly knows that.”
Antal didn’t know everything about Uly’s past, but he knew enough to understand and even appreciate the inference. He nodded. “Still, I don’t think that’s the reason.”
“Maybe it’s not the sole reason, maybe not even the catalyst. I’d say you are overworked and stressed. As I said, you’ve had a lot to deal with in a short time, yet your men have quickly grown to respect you. It’s an achievement. You came young to your position.”
Antal inclined his head, accepting. He’d certainly done that. He wasn’t the youngest Sonndre Semari in history, but he was close.
“That’s a lot of responsibility.”
“So now you’re saying I feel the weight I carry and can’t cope?”
“Me? I didn’t say a word.”
Antal made a noise, one not quite a growl, but it rumbled through his throat, sounding as disagreeable as he felt. Ryanac grinned at him and then raised a hand when Antal gathered himself and rose to his feet. He wasn’t sure whether he’d been about to stalk out of the room, but he stopped short when Ryanac spoke again.
“Are you denying yourself sex?”
“Not…denying. It hasn’t even…” He’d started to say it hadn’t even arisen,but no doubt Ryanac would use that remark to tease.
“What about all your desires?”
“What are you referring to? What desires?”
“When did you last enjoy a meal instead of shoveling the food down your throat simply for sustenance?”
“I’ve been busy,” Antal said, aware of his disgruntled tone.
“When did you last look at someone with an appreciative eye, entertain a lustful thought?”
Antal waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Didn’t I just say I’ve been busy? You know the schedule I’ve had to keep. There’s no time.”
“Exactly. You need time to relax, or the amount of work you are trying to cope with will eventually affect you detrimentally. More than it already has, I mean. I’m not surprised if you’re feeling rather disconnected from your body. You need to connect your mind to your flesh. You’re not a beast of burden, and you have men who should share your responsibilities.” Ryanac paused, possibly deliberately, but before Antal could think of a protest, he continued, “I was going to mention the old custom of liminality.”
The laugh barked out of Antal’s throat. “That’s for women!”
“Actually no. Not originally. It was once for both sexes.”
Choosing not to argue, Antal changed tack. “It also died out several generations ago. It’s from a time when the Swithin were little better than ignorant barbarians.”
“Yet we keep the grove tended.”
“Because it’s a beautiful place. And because…” For some reason he hesitated to use the name of the figure that lay in the clearing. “The statue is beautiful,” he finally said, choosing his words carefully. “That’s all it is.”
“You’ve been there? You’ve seen it?”
“Well…no. I’ve seen drawings, and I’ve heard people talk.”
“You’ve never had the time to spare, of course.”
“No. I haven’t.” Antal tried to silence the defensive note in his tone, uncertain he managed it. He’d always found something to keep him busy. Growing up, he’d had time for enjoyment as much as any lad, but for recreation he preferred to spend time with the living, not some unmoving, unfeeling representation of life. Now…there simply wasn’t time for such indulgences.
“It’s worth seeing,” Ryanac said. In a quieter voice, he added, “It’s worth touching.”
Antal blinked. He couldn’t deny the underlying warmth in the big man’s voice. For some reason it spoke to something inside Antal, made his stomach and lower things clench. If Ryanac said it was worth seeing and touching, then no doubt that was true. However, he had no time for frivolities.
Ryanac shrugged one of those irritating shrugs of his. “I’m not suggesting you perform such an ancient ritual,” he said in a voice that made Antal wonder if he was suggesting precisely that. “Reading up on the old customs, the state of mind that drove people to believe in it… Now that may enlighten you. It may help you to decipher your feelings, if nothing else. And it will be something aside from work to occupy your thoughts. Take some time off, Antal, even if it’s only for a little research.”
Still grinning, Ryanac walked out of the room, taking the door opposite to the exit Kilan had taken. Antal stood there for a moment, shaking his head. Take some time off. Easier said than done. What was the point? Take a week off, and the week you returned to your duties you just had twice as much work awaiting you and twice the stress. Besides, what use could such an old custom be to him? The ritual was ridiculous, and even if Ryanac hadn’t been suggesting he actually perform it, even reading up on the old ways was so utterly, utterly… Antal ran out of ways to complain. Ryanac just couldn’t be serious. He couldn’t be.
One thing Antal could be certain of: having made his fears known to Ryanac, the man wouldn’t leave him alone. He’d give him time, but eventually the day would arrive when Ryanac would approach him to inquire how he was doing. He couldn’t afford the distraction, not even in a time of peace. His men often made a subdivision of Ryanac’s troop, those who guarded Markis. There would be times when Markis needed to go out into the world on diplomatic duties, and he’d take Uly with him. Antal and his men had to be ready for anything. It didn’t matter if they faced danger or general duties; the men under his command equally deserved someone interested in their lives and their fate. Lately Antal hadn’t felt interested in anything. Not only did he feel disconnected from his body, he felt disconnected from the men and his life. He hadn’t told Ryanac that, but he had enough sense to know he didn’t need to. He cast his thoughts back over their conversation, taking in Ryanac’s expressions and gestures.
“Damn,” Antal whispered softly. If Ryanac told him to read up on the ritual, then he had a reason, and there was no avoiding it. Eventually, one way or another, Ryanac would make certain he read it. He might as well locate a copy and be done with it.