Exiled by his lover, forced into leadership of resentful men, Peyton held no hope for the future. Then he met the Eight, and one of their enigmatic members, Ice. Before long, he was beginning to see his past life in a whole new light, and to discover who he was beneath the layers of submission that had been forced upon him. Unable to discern whether his newfound fascination with Ice is something real, or a desperate attempt to break free of all that stifled him, Peyton embarks on a passionate affair, praying that it will lead to something clean and good, rather than shatter him forever.
"You knew this was likely to happen. Don't lay the guilt on me." Mayar's tone held grievance as he turned away and strode over to the sideboard, pouring a chalice of wine with swift, aggravated motions.
Peyton stared outward, fingers clenched upon the ornate stone wall of the balcony, hating the sunshine, the beautiful weather, the birds chirping, all mocking his pain.
He did not answer his lover's words, could not.
In part, they were true. He had known all too well what it was to love a prince.
But then the prince had become a king, and now he was to marry in but a month. And a king did not have a captain of the army as his lover. Perhaps, in time, Mayar would find another lover, someone more discreet than Peyton could ever be.
He squeezed his eyes shut at the thought, trying to breathe, trying to move beyond this moment.
His prince would cast him aside. He knew that with chilling certainty. Mayar, who had sworn to him when they were young that they would be at one another's side through all their lives. His prince, who had become a king upon his father's untimely death, and now seemed another person entirely.
Peyton would be the first sacrifice upon the royal altar of duty.
He wished he could feel pity for his lover, perhaps could have, if Mayar had shown the least hint of pain. Instead he seemed more aggravated, as though this were just another obstacle to be overcome before his coronation and subsequent alliance marriage to the princess of their neighboring country, Dunar.
Peyton was the first to agree with the need for the alliance. Their country of Janry was small, and with mounting pressure from their warlike neighbors to the east, they needed Dunar's military connections.
Peyton had fought off enough border intrusions to know the true depth of the threat, and he knew, as Mayar had said, that this had always been a possibility. But he had hoped, prayed, that some divine intervention would stretch their time, that Mayar himself would find a passionate certainty that they could find a path together.
Yet it had come to this.
"I have a task for you. A promotion in part, but a task all the same. I wish to gate you and a division of fifty men to go fight for the Masarian King, Sarin. In our correspondence, it is hinted that if we send help to him, to fight the demons, then he in turn will send some of his own forces when we need them. You will lead them. A general, as you have always wished you could be."
Peyton's breath stopped; for long moments he felt lightheaded, as though consciousness would flee, before his body gulped in air and he fought back the darkness.
"Out of sight, out of mind?" he questioned bitterly, cursing the tears that rose to his eyes. He blinked them away furiously, letting growing anger rise to burn them away.
"We need the distance if this is going to work for either of us." Mayar's voice was harsh. Perhaps there was more emotion there than Peyton had given him credit for, but at the moment, that gave him no comfort.
Not only to be parted from his prince, but now his very world? How much more cruelty could be heaped upon him by the very person who had once loved him?
His head bowed, a single tear landing upon the thirsty stone, immediately absorbed. "As you wish...my king." His tone held all the pained mockery he could muster.
His lover, his beloved prince no longer.
Summer sizzled over the camp, tents moved out of formation and into any available shade.
Too hot even to spar.
Ice lay limply, head on Ink's lap, a woven grass fan in one hand as he tried to cool them both. Others of the Eight lay in similar poses about them, in the welcome shade of the great tree that they had camped under. Their standing with the royals, particularly Gaven, had given them a modicum of status that at least saw to possession of fiercely contested shade.
Weasel lay on his stomach next to them, stretched out on a blanket by Teaser's side, his lover immersed in a book, back propped up by the tree's massive girth.
"Fuck, but it's hot," Weasel muttered, turning his head on his folded arms to regard the brothers. "If the king thinks we are practising in this..."
Teaser turned a page and laid a consoling hand on his lover's back. "Perhaps we'll get sent to the front. The fighting is currently north, on the far border. If he sends us there, maybe it will be cooler."
Weasel opened one eye, obviously checking his lover's honesty. "Cooler?"
Moss grunted from nearby, a sprawled mountain of muscle. "I could go for that. If it is too hot for Ice and Ink, who hail from the southern desert, then it is ridiculous for the rest of us." Even his gentle nature was on edge it seemed, due to the unrelenting sun.
Worry grunted in agreement, from where he lounged in Peace's shadow, his large lover giving extra shade. "Heard some new group is coming today."
Fish groaned. "Not some damned new recruits. I am so fucking tired of training idiots. Can't they send someone with at least a sliver of experience?"
Worry shook his head. "No, some new world is joining in, wanting favors of the king, no doubt. Fifty-one of them."
Ice scoffed wearily, waving a languid hand. "Hardly an army. What favor could they possibly expect?"
"From a small country. Janry or Janra or something. Maybe they are really great fighters." Worry's tone did not hold particular hope.
"Could we be that lucky?" Fish's mockery was caustic.
"Hey, just remember that Sadan and his troops, Graitaan and his draconians, came in the same way." Ink's calm voice stopped their complaining, melding it into thoughtful silence.
Ice shrugged, dismissing the matter. Far too hot to worry before the fact.
"Speak of the devils..." Teaser drawled.
Ice opened one eye, sighing as he beheld one of the king's generals leading a group of men their way.
With muted curses, the Eight rose to their feet, struggling to find even a shred of interest in the newcomers.
Their king would want them to show respect and welcome.
Vlar would kick their asses if they did not.
Best to act the part on both counts.
General Baskar, one of the more pleasant and diplomatic of the army's commanders, smiled as he approached with the strangers in tow.
"Gentlemen. These are the volunteers from Janry." He clapped a hand onto the shoulder of tallest of the men. "This is their commander, General Peyton Ansem. I have told him a lot about you."
Weasel raised a brow and Ice could see him considering whether that piece of information was good or bad. It could easily go either way really.
"I will leave them in your capable hands then. The king will be pleased and I am sure he will personally check in to see that our new recruits are settling in."
Was there a faint threat in those words?
Weasel's other brow rose. Ice grinned, hardly listening to Baskar's prattling as he eyed their new assignments. Testing their skills would be interesting. It was always enlightening to see other worlds and their martial styles.
They always thought they were better than they were, but then the Eight were perpetually prepared to enlighten them.
It was a kindness really.
The body language of the group was interesting already.
There were the soldiers, and standing some distance from them, the General. So...could be the General discouraged fraternization. Certainly his cold, expressionless demeanor would point that way.
Ice tilted his head. The General was tall, taller than any of them, certainly taller than his own troops, showing that his height was not necessarily common on his world.
Ice and Ink had always been on the smaller side because of their southern heritage and the sheer height of the stranger was fascinating.
He eyed the powerful form, squinting. The man would be able to lift him up, hold him there. The sex would be fantastic. He could wrap his legs around that lean waist...
Ink elbowed him.
He shrugged in answer, eyeing his brother with a raised brow.
What? He was sure that Ink had had exactly the same thought. They had frighteningly similar tastes in men, and this tall drink of water was definitely tasty.
Weasel frowned at both of them. Ice sighed. Yeah, diplomatic relations and all that. He had to keep that in mind.
Then again, if the newcomer came to Ice on his own, well, a man could not be blamed for giving an enthusiastic welcome. Would not want to be standoffish.
He smiled at the new General, giving his best rendition of a trustworthy, sexually receptive, warm hearted, hot blooded soldier.
Peyton scanned his surroundings, feeling his lip curl in disgust.
The encampment was a mess, tents in no sort of particular order, men lounging about. Disgraceful. He sent a speaking look to his second in command, Lawton, and the man saluted stiffly, eyes never meeting Peyton's.
"I will get our men settled, sir." His abrupt departure managed to convey both mockery and a portion of fear, an odd and unsettling combination.
Peyton kept his expression neutral, keeping his eyes on "The Eight." What a pretentious name, foolish and ego driven. And these men were to "train" them? He could see no benefit in learning a new fighting style. Their methods were tried and true for their world.
Although, perhaps, this world might hold new challenges.
He eyed the group once more, more thoughtfully this time, with more measure.
They were a diverse group to be sure, with an evident camaraderie that could only be developed from years of closeness, both in battle and friendship. He envied that, having never found a way to emulate it.
He had been the prince's lover - and it had isolated him from others, caused by both envy and suspicion, where his comrades had feared him, feared the backlash if he should betray them to the prince.
Now, with the rank of general hanging about his neck, he was reviled more than ever. The men he led were resentful of their being sent on such a mission, far from their world. Their muttered words and resentful glances were borderline disrespectful to his leadership, and Peyton could not help wondering if Mayar had deliberately sent men that would have been dismissed from the army if they had not been shipped out with him.
It was simply another painful part of the entire affair, and he felt almost blessedly numb with the enormity of it all.
How he would cope when that numbness wore off did not bear thinking of.
One of the Eight stepped forward, eyes steady, hand outstretched.
"Welcome. I know it might seem a little chaotic here at the moment, but discipline has become secondary to survival. Everyone is seeking shade rather desperately at the moment."
Peyton felt himself flush ever so slightly as he gripped the offered hand. His initial disapproval had been obvious then. He would have to guard his reactions more thoroughly. It was obvious that not much missed this man's scrutiny.
"I am Teaser." The grip on Peyton's hand was neutral, neither squeezing to show dominance, nor slack enough to display indifference. "I lead this merry band of miscreants." He gestured to the closest man, who was watching Peyton with shrewd dark eyes. "This is my partner, Weasel. You will find we don't stand on ceremony here. Real names don't matter much. Most of us have nicknames."
Peyton's brows drew together in silent disapproval. The formality of his home world would never allow such disrespect within the military ranks. Then the term "partner" caught his attention fully. Partner, as in lover? Surely it was not so open here as to allow...
Weasel stepped forward, shook his hand with the same neutrality as Teaser.
"Good to meet you. You will find things somewhat different here. Our king has his own priorities. There is order and rules, far too many rules." He shrugged slim shoulders. "But as long as we do the job and mostly stay out of trouble..." The smile was closer to a smirk.
Peyton straightened, letting his hand drop away from the handshake as quickly as possible, striving to keep his expression bland. Whatever the lax standards of this place, he would not allow his men to follow.
An almost painfully slim man stepped forward, nervously bouncing on his toes as he shook hands. "I'm Worry." He grimaced. "Name suits."
A huge hand came down on Worry's shoulder and Peyton looked up - and up.
"Name's Peace. Worry's partner." The words rumbled like thunder and Peyton swallowed hard as his eyes fixed on the massive biceps that flexed as he offered a ham-like hand.
It swallowed Peyton's hand completely, yet the hold was amazingly gentle. His eyes were a beautiful, soft brown, and there was a twinkle in their depths, perhaps brought about by Peyton's gaping amazement.
Peyton just nodded, making a quick mental note to never, ever, do anything that might upset Worry. He did not want to ever see Peace lose that peaceful countenance. Ever.
The next man was blond and tall, not as tall as Peyton, but then few were. Still, he was close, and his expression was calm, though his brown eyes were sharp, his handshake firm.
A man of blessedly few words. Like Peyton himself.
Another mountain stepped forward, large and imposing, his chocolate skin like nothing Peyton had ever seen before. No one in his world had such coloring. It was beautiful...
He shook off his introspection and offered his hand.
"Moss." The big man's grip was as gentle as Peace's, and he nodded, before stepping back.
Two others took his place, slightly different heights. Almost identical faces. Peyton blinked.
Twins? Certainly brothers if nothing else.
Small in comparison to him, but their bodies were hard with muscle, not bulging strength, but the sign of speed and dexterity. Their skin, so much of it displayed when they wore only a brief loincloth, was a most beautiful golden brown, smooth and completely hairless...
Peyton found himself flushing again, tearing his eyes up to meet two sets of identically amused brown, almost golden eyes.
One of them, with an impressive display of tattoos, spoke first.
"Name's Ink. This is Ice." He jerked his thumb at his brother.
Peyton struggled to regain his equilibrium, shaking Ink's hand, then Ice's. Was it his imagination that Ice let his thumb stroke over Peyton's fingers, holding on just a bit too long?
He cleared his throat uncomfortably and stepped back.
The ways of the men here seemed remarkably open and forthright. Open relationships between men would never be accepted within Janry. He would have to be careful that these loose mannerisms did not infect either him, or his men. He did not want to return home with more taint than he already held.
Things were difficult enough as it was.
Unless Mayar did not intend for them to return at all... That thought was recurring with more frequency and the difficulty of gating here, to this world, did not point to a short stay. They had been ill for a week as it was.
He pushed the images aside. He and Mayar might have their difficulties, but he could not believe his prince - soon his king - could be that cruel and self-centered.
Teaser stepped forward, laying a guiding hand on his shoulder.
"Let's get you and your men settled. Hope you like heat..."