By the time dinner came around, Shane was exhausted mentally and physically. Haskar and Dhani seemed to get sadistic pleasure in making Shane take them to every corner of the palace to ask him for in-depth explanations for anything even remotely interesting that they spotted. They had laughed over the Prince’s stammering as he struggled to remember what he’d learned, and poked fun when he couldn’t recall something.
His pride was as worn as his mind and he had to take a reprieve before dinner, sprawled over his bed.
“My Lord?” His door opened slightly, revealing one of the female servants.
Shane dropped his head to the side, “I’ll be out for dinner,” he promised, “Just give me a few minutes.”
“Oh well…” She cleared her throat, “Lord Haskar and Lady Dhani have requested that they dine here in your room. The other serving staff are bringing up the necessary-“
Shane bolted up and turned to face the woman, ready to retort when he saw two familiar figures standing behind her. He had to quickly stand and fix himself, “I wish I’d had a little more notice,” he cleared his throat.
“Well, I can go change,” Dhani said with a smirk, “But Haskar and I agreed that we’d rather not spend the evening fussing over hollow pleasantries. So it’s ok Shane, relax,” she walked over and pressed a kiss to the Prince’s cheek, “I’ll be back shortly,” she turned and exited the room, leaving Shane and Haskar staring at one another.
The Warlord stepped inside and closed the door behind him solidly. “I can make idle conversation with nobles until I’m blue in the face. Doesn’t mean I’m going to like it,” he gruffed, “You and Dhani are easy to be around, though you should loosen up a little, Shane…” The man was pacing closer.
Feeling tense, Shane tried to fix his clothing as he stepped away from the bed to avoid being caged by the man’s size. “Your people have a reputation that makes me uneasy,” the Prince stated honestly.
“Reputations are like rumors. They spread and change, morph into something far from the truth,” the Warlord responded easily, folding his arms over his chest as he watched the blonde tidy his already clean room. “I’m not saying we’re innocent, but you Northerners seem to think that we run around eating the bodies of our enemies.”
Shane raised a brow, “Well I’ve certainly heard stories. The Burning Prince? The Culling of Mages?”
“Truths for us, lies to you.”
“That makes no sense,” Shane huffed.
Haskar shrugged his wide shoulders as he paced closer, and the Prince wondered how the Warlord had moved so far across the room without Shane noticing, “Well then it seems you have more questions for me, Little Prince.”
The smaller just bared his teeth, “I don’t need to be lied to.”
“You mean like you’ve been lying to yourself?” the Warlord mused, “Or rather…like your father has been lying to you.” At Shane’s visible surprise, Haskar reached out to rub his thumb over the Prince’s bruised cheek and he pulled away sharply.
“That’s none of your business!” he barked, feeling his chest tighten at the soft touch he’d been given.
“It’s not?” Haskar asked, taking a few steps closer and crowding Shane against the wall. “There’s fire in your eyes, but I see it being dulled. I see the way your father looks at you with disgust, the damn fool… You are strong.”
He was speaking directly to Shane, his gaze unwavering and far too heavy for the space around them. He felt a shiver run down his spine, “You’re just an outsider, what do you know of any of this?”
“Not much. But I do know the way you do not look at your fiancé. I do know the way you look at me, with appraisal and hunger,” A dark finger curled under Shane’s chin and tipped his head up to look into piercing eyes staring down at him searchingly, “Tell me, Prince…why is there such a bruise on your face?”
“I…” The words caught in Shane’s throat. Suddenly everything was Haskar, the air around him was warm and scented of something spicy and heady, and the voice that rang in his ears was deep and reserved just for him. He didn’t realize he was clutching onto the Warlord’s forearms until they moved down, strong hands wrapping around his hips. “It’s none of your business,” he hissed, trying for angry but all that came out was weak indecision.
When had the situation gotten so far out of hand?
Lips pressed to his, firmly enough to pin the Prince between a wall of stone and a wall of muscle, hands lifting him by his hips easily to bring them to a more even level. Shane couldn’t focus on much save for the burst of flavor on his tongue and the teeth at his lips, silently demanding, commanding him to open…and he did so without thought, his mouth opening to allow the Warlord to claim and dominate him.
The air felt too thin, he wasn’t able to get a full breath, and the wall at his back wasn’t steady enough so he wrapped his legs around Haskar’s hips for stability and felt the man surge forward and grind their bodies together. He felt the heat of the man’s length through both of their pants and his own twitched in response.
He gripped Haskar by the shoulders as if his life were at stake, clinging hard and pulling him ever closer when he tried desperately to make himself push the man away.
A rumble washed through him like a physical force and he realized that Haskar was growling, the sensation curling through his whole body and making him arch wantonly into the heat of the man’s flesh and muscle. Every sense Shane was capable of was wholly encompassed by Haskar, and the rest of the world around him was slowly focusing down to that one point.
Their lips broke apart briefly and Shane chased the contact, only for the larger man to pull just out of reach, “Tell me, Little Prince, have you ever kissed a man before?”
Certainly there had been women whom he had kissed in the past, whether for polite display or an attempt to normalize his life and deny that he was different, however this had been the first time he had been able to kiss or be kissed by another man. He couldn’t deny how his body and mind reacted to the idea, and more so to the act itself. Unable to get words past the tightness of his throat, he shook his head.
Haskar chuckled and the sound was distantly grating in Shane’s mind that he was being laughed at. “Perfect,” the Warlord finally murmured, leaning forward to press the word against Shane’s lips, “I will be sure to give you many firsts, Little Prince. Each one better than the last…” His words trailed off and Shane let out a disappointed sound when he felt Haskar pulling back, pushing Shane’s feet gently to the floor.
At his look of indignation the Warlord chuckled again, this time more fully as the haze around them slowly began to dispel, “Such a beautiful look of lust,” he proclaimed proudly, “But compose yourself quickly, we won’t be alone much longer.” With those words, the man turned and walked back towards Shane’s bed, sitting down and crossing his legs to hide the very obvious erection that the Prince caught himself staring at for a moment.
The meaning sank in half a second after the bedroom door opened and two servants entered the room carrying a small hardwood table. Once set in the center of the room, they scurried off to begin gathering chairs and dining utensils. Shane barely managed a passable smile before they were gone.
When his eyes turned back to Haskar he caught the man smirking at him, truly amused by Shane’s predicament, and the look made the Prince bristle before he remembered himself. He gathered a deep breath and straightened his back, fixing a frown and glare on his face.
A moment later the door opened again and Dhani walked in, smiling proudly. She was wearing a much more comfortable looking blouse and skirt, and had her hair pulled back in a loose tie once more. “Well,” she said as she went to take her place at Shane’s side, “At least you two haven’t killed one another.”
Haskar laughed aloud, “And for what reason would I kill the Little Prince?”
The use of the term made Shane seethe, “Stop calling me ‘Little Prince!’” He snapped.
“It’s a term of endearment, Shane,” Haskar pointed out, leaning back on his hands. The Prince couldn’t help but notice the way the man’s skin pulled over his muscles, the memory of just how warm that skin was beneath his hands.
He quickly snapped himself from his thoughts, focusing entirely on the room around him, “It’s belittling. I dislike it.”
The Warlord rolled his eyes, grinning, “Very well,” he sighed, “In any case…”
Dhani chuckled softly, smiling when the servants brought in the last of the chairs for the table. She went to settle down, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask about your new necklace, Shane.”
His hand came up to touch the smooth metal, tracing the contours of the symbols etched into the plates. He was very aware of the eyes on him as he did so, seeing Haskar in his peripheral, “Oh uh, it was a gift.”
“Yes I assumed as much,” Dhani smirked, “Considering it bears the same marking as the caravans outside,” she looked over to the Warlord, “Does it have any sort of meaning?”
The man nodded in assent, “Absolutely. Each plate bears the mark of one of the War Tribes under my command with my own in the center. It’s a sign of power and respect, and when that is worn, no harm will befall him from my people without punishment of death.”
Dhani’s brows rose in show of surprise, “That seems very prestigious to give away. May I ask why it was given to Shane, and not the King or his first son?”
Haskar took a moment to respond, seeming to contemplate his words heavily before speaking, “He reminds me of someone very special. Someone worth giving such a gift,” he said, his gaze once more on the choker, “Furthermore, I trust my judgement of people. I’ve not been wrong yet.”
“Hmm,” Dhani seemed appeased with the answer and Shane cleared his throat when the room grew quiet.
“He gave my brother a tome on their origins. And my elder brother a fine scepter,” Shane pointed out, “Haskar seems quite intent on giving us nice things.”
Dhani let out a thoughtful sound, “Your intentions for peace seem clear. But it’s the motive I’m unsure of. Why now?”
Haskar seemed prepared for this question given the confidence that shone in his eyes, “I only became Warlord about five years prior. I took the title from the previous Warlord in glorious combat, taking his throne and his head,” he stated this with pride, thumping his fist to his chest, “Beneath his rule, the War Tribes had been disjointed and suffered unease in their ranks due to poverty and poor leadership. After claiming the title of Warlord, I have made it my duty to see to the prosperity of each of the tribes under my rule, and return them to a healthy state. However try as I might, the state of the south has been dire since losing its trade connections to the north. I can’t see to the true prosperity of my people without making a drastic change.”
Shane found himself staring, “So you plan to take your desires further north then?”
“Yes. I can’t hope to rekindle friendships with all of the Northern Kingdoms, but one at a time, I’ll see what I can manage. If I can at least get a few territories to open trade with us, then I can see my people thrive.”
“But many of the Northern Kingdoms vehemently loathe the Southern Tribes. Even if you do get some to consider opening trade routes again, there will be many who refuse on the principle that other Kingdoms may raise an embargo,” Shane pointed out, moving to sit in a chair beside Dhani, “Not to mention there’s the concern for the safety of their traders along the routes. You may be a Warlord, but you’re far from the only Warlord – along with raiders and bandits not associated with a tribe.”
“Shane is right,” Dhani added, “I know my father would be very hesitant to consider this offer given our people’s views on the south. Outdated or not, there has been a lot of animosity since the reign of the Burning Prince.”
Haskar sighed, “Both of you have valid points. However how can we expect to fix our image without someone taking a chance on us? My War Tribes are the northernmost in the Thalisian sands - I could offer escorting of caravans, access to some of our mines…”
“Sadly it isn’t up for Shane and I to decide, Haskar,” Dhani sighed, shaking her head, “But at least you’re making good first steps.” She smiled at the small hint of discontent on the Warlord’s face, silently trying to comfort.
Shane couldn’t help a chuckle, “Though next time try a letter before you show up on someone’s doorstep?”
“Well I had to make a grand entrance,” Haskar pointed out, standing from his place on the bed to take a seat at the table.
More servants came in, setting up their places and bringing in the first course for their meal. Shane relaxed as the air grew lighter between the three of them, “So,” Shane began, “Why is it you asserted yourself as Warlord? I mean, other than the status.”
Haskar straightened up some, “My home Tribe was smaller, settled on the fringes of the territories between the eastern Warlord and the Northern. Because we were in such a grey area of territory, we were plagued by bandits and raiders and unaided by our Warlord or the other tribes. Myself and several of our strongest warriors did everything we could to protect our Tribe, but during a raid our leader was slain. I took it upon myself to personally visit the other tribes to ask for help, but each Tribe I visited was in worse shape than the last, with people starving and warriors ill equipped. I was outraged by what I saw, and went to the Warlord himself to seek change. When he refused, I challenged him to proper combat,” he nodded firmly.
Shane hummed, “But you still need more, I take it?”
“Primarily food. Our Tribes lack properly farmed foods, as our climate doesn’t support much. We have meats, hides, and even metals in bulk however. Wood is also a rarer commodity for us.”
Dhani considered the conversation in silence for a long moment, then shook her head, “You must be a strong man to have defeated your previous Warlord.”
“I believe that I had the Mother’s Will on my side,” He offered confidently.
“The Mother revels in chaos, though,” Shane pointed out with a frown.
“She loves all of our realm,” Haskar returned firmly, “While her original role was in chaos, there are many who believe she now maintains a balance between Chaos and Order.”
Dhani smiled, “The splitting theory. Interesting.” It was not a belief many shared – that the god of Order had abandoned the realm to let it drown in madness.
“Sadly it was this theory that led to the catastrophe you all call the ‘Culling of Mages,’” Haskar turned his eyes on Shane, “The Warlords of the south grew paranoid when our shamans told them that the Goddess of Chaos ruled the heavens. Without Order to balance their power, they sought to exterminate magic-users before their power grew out of hand.”
“It was a bloodbath,” Shane stated.
Haskar sighed, his expression mournful, “Yes. It was. And it was a horrible time in my country’s history. Something few of us are proud of. Because of that, we have no magic-users, and without the magic-users to temper the ground and ease the weather…”
“Your crops and farms died away,” Dhani finished when the man trailed off, “And it cut you off from the natural ley lines within the planet.”
Haskar nodded, “It made our lands even more volatile.”
“Is that something else you plan to change?” Shane ventured to ask.
The man shook his head, “I am no miracle worker, and I am well aware of the fear any mage would have at the idea of coming to the south. Without the other Warlords to stand at my side and pledge for their safety, I wouldn’t dare to try.”
“Admirable,” hummed Dhani as she leaned back, “You’re a wise man with a level head. Besides, mages are in short supply everywhere. The magical bloodlines have thinned so much.”
Haskar nodded, “There is a great Library far to the south. Out of my grasp, though I have considered seeing if I cannot get the prevailing Warlord to allow me the contents of the library that I may give it to the north. Surely that would lend some leeway to improve our image.”
Dhani perked up, “Actually that would be an incredible gift, Haskar!”
Shane felt himself smiling, “The College in Iron City would salivate at the idea. You’d have them in your pocket for sure.”
The Warlord smiled, “Very well then. I will see what I can do.”
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