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    lomax61
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Although the genre of fantasy, and this sub-genre of political fantasy, is a new one for me here on GA, I have been developing the world of Mulia in which this story takes place (and other stories in this world) for the best part of 20 years, so we are like old friends.

A link to the world map is included here, although I provide many descriptions in the story.

https://www.brianlancasterauthor.com/general-8

Heart of Black Ice - 13. Revelation

Finally, the keep device reveals itself.

After the long and exhausting day, Brathay felt a justifiable frustration when sleep would not come, at least, not the sleep that included Leon in the dreams. Every time he closed his eyes, thick dark blue surrounded him again, icy cold and suffocating, and each time this happened, he gasped awake, sitting up straight from the bed. The third time, he got up and placed a few more logs onto the already lively fire. Nothing seemed to improve the insinuating chill of the room. He had already decided not to record any details of the trek into his journal. If snow fell overnight, he would no doubt have time on his hands the following day to write as much as he wanted. Before heading back to bed, he set a freshly lit candle on a stool next to his bunk to keep him company. Climbing back in fully clothed beneath the covers, he lay on his side studying the seductively dancing flame—until sleep finally took hold.

Furious pounding at his door startled him from deep slumbers. For a few muddled seconds, he sat up and marvelled at how the logs had finally improved the room's warmth. Mornings usually gifted him with an ice cold nose and ears, and equally chilly feet. Not this morning. Still in his daytime clothing, he might have considered himself feverish had he not felt positively refreshed from a night free from dreams. When he placed his socked feet down onto the stone floor, preparing for the usual morning chill, he was met with another shock. The stone slabs felt warm. Not even cool, but lukewarm. How could that be?

Further thumping brought him back to himself. He padded across the room, then unlatched and opened the door. Nokh Sturridge stood there, cap in hand, eyes wide with wonder. Behind him, dazzling white light shone from the corridors around the courtyard, the sight providing a baffling juxtaposition to the darkness in the sky.

"Mr Brathay, sir. You need to come. Lord Leonmarkh has called for you. I know it's early still, but you will want to see this. Never seen anything like it in all my days, I haven't. Come down to the courtyard."

After squeezing his feet into his boots, Brathay stepped outside and up to the parapet. From a quick sideways glance, he noticed the empty stool where Mollik had sat the night before. Bright illumination came from the rows of moonskulls around the loggia, flooding the usually darkened corridors with bleached light. Beyond the keep walls, the sky appeared as dark and unfathomable as ever, although a fierce snow blizzard swirled and battered the land. But not in the keep. Instead of falling and settling on the ground, snowflakes were being rounded up into a powerful vortex of bright orange light and sucked mercilessly into the grating of the courtyard. A handful of soldiers had already risen from their quarters and stood at the balustrade, staring at the phenomenon.

"Is this your doing, Mr Stonearm?" called one.

"Better than a birthday hug is this."

"When are you cooking for us again?"

Brathay raised a hand in greeting but said nothing. His heart racing, he hurried to join the small gathering at the vent, at the knee-high wall built around the periphery. Few of them noticed him, most of them staring at the incongruous sight of thick snow rushing headlong into the grating like water emptying into a sinkhole.

"Late as ever, Mr Stonearm," said Zhorman, which had Bhullard and Haycock looking up and smirking.

"My apologies," said Brathay to Leonmarkh, who simply nodded.

"Thank you for joining us, Mr Stonearm," said Leonmarkh, holding the small black bound notebook out to Brathay. "This is the notebook you requested with the schematics of the keep. Although what good it will do you is beyond me. From what I can tell, the written language is arcane and indecipherable. I am not sure even the oldest of your counsellors back at the institute would find this of any help. But do with it what you must."

"Thank you, your lordship," said Brathay, taking and pocketing the notebook after a moment's hesitation. Why had Leonmarkh bothered? After Brathay had inserted the crystals and nothing had happened, he had wanted to check the notebook to see if any diagram referred to a missing piece. The plain evidence to the contrary stood right in front of them in a flurry of snowflakes and bright orange light.

"I have been explaining to my captains," continued Leonmarkh, "how another aspect of our quest was to investigate a clue left to me by previous Watchmen. I had said nothing in case the venture turned out to be—an expression we use in Braggadach—trying to net and land a lake moon. But they know now that we found three other components to the mechanism. I also explained how I had asked you to install them upon our return, something you did before evening meal last night."

"To absolutely no effect."

"Not then, perhaps. But I think it would be safe to say something is happening now," said Haycock.

"Your lordship," said Khraxwall. "Warm air is rising through the whole of the keep. Only the ice room and the cold storage on the lower floors remain unaffected. As far as I can tell, the hot air also bypasses the kitchens, which is just as well considering the amount of heat the ovens generate. And as you can see, the moonstones Mr Stonearm mentioned—"

"Moonskulls."

“—have been lighting the recesses, the stairwells and the level below the courtyard. Throughout much of the early hours, it would seem. They burst into being between two and three bells this morning. Fairly gave the night watch a fright, by all accounts."

Haycock and Bhullard began laughing, startling Khraxwall, who had clearly not meant the words as a pleasantry. Brathay looked up at the three levels of the keep to see the rows of moonskulls burning brightly on each. In Aulderly, the intensity had tended to diminish throughout the night as the potency of each stone waned. These moonskulls shone fiercely as though they had only just absorbed a day full of sunshine.

"Woke me up," said Ligger, looking sleep-deprived and grumpier than usual. “Thought it was morning, I did. Can't sleep when there's light outside."

"Whereas I will be grateful not to have to stumble my way around the keep at night, to check on the guard," said Zhorman. "Although I can see how bright lights outside sleeping quarters may cause a few grumbles."

While Zhorman had been talking, Brathay had stepped away. He moved over to the nearest corner of the open corridor around the courtyard and located the lever Belynda had mentioned in her letter. With both hands, he pulled the oak bar down and, instantly, the light along that side of the courtyard faded.

When he returned, everyone stared at him. Rather than explain the letter, he decided to go with a more straightforward answer, even if he had to bend the truth.

"We have something similar at Aulderly. There are small wooden levers at the corners of each level. Pull them down to disconnect the line of moonskulls and extinguish the light. Pull them back up to reengage them."

"Thank the blessed Seven," muttered Ligger.

"Your lordship," said Khraxwall, who had been pensive since his last words. "Do we know if these crystals and this—um—assembly is safe to use and, moreover, legal?"

"Aye," added Ligger, grimacing.

"What he means to say, Leonmarkh," said Zhorman, nodding grimly, "is whether we are inadvertently dabbling in the forbidden art."

"The only truthful answer I can give you all is that I have no idea. Only that this is clearly a feature of the original keep design, which has most likely not been used for generations upon generations. But let me say this. Before I came along, I went up to the top of the northwestern tower and studied the seriousness of this storm. Snow is settling fast and freezing, the village already under a blanket of white. I believe we are looking at the beginning of the prolonged frozen stretch we were warned about. And if this device promises warmth and light in the midst of freezing weather and fierce snowstorms, then I am not going to forbid its use."

"Your lordship, if I may say something?" said Mr Sturridge.

"Go ahead.”

"Your lordship, I've heard tell that horses get agitated in the presence of ancient witchery. They have a special sense, see, that us humans do not. I been told they get nervous and nickery and fidgety, and their eyes get a wild look in 'em."

"Your point, Mr Sturridge?”

"I been to the stables this morning, and I never seen my boys and girls looking happier. Admitted, these are mainly Braggadachi breeds and more used to warmer climes, but even so. I warrant if any of 'em could speak, they would be saying thank you. Thank you, your lordship, for lighting a fire beneath the keep and the stables.”

"And I would be joining them," added Bhullard, to a general murmur of assent. “It is as though the keep has finally shown us her beating heart.”

“Her heart of Black Ice,” muttered Brathay, before noticing Leonmarkh staring curiously at him.

Only Bhullard smiled and nodded at him, everyone busy marvelling at the swirling snow mingling and projecting a fierce milky orange light into the dawn sky. Brathay doubted the phenomenon could be natural and wondered if Leonmarkh thought the same thing. And if the crystals were channelling thaumaturgy, was their sole purpose only to provide light and heat?

"What hour do we have?" Leonmarkh asked eventually.

"After six bells, sir," said Mr Sturridge. "Sun has already woken somewhere behind them thick clouds. Talking of which, time I woke Mrs Sturridge and fed the horses."

"And time I went back to my bunk,” said Ligger, stretching his big arms in the air. Brathay noticed one of the stableboys, Morrent, had rushed over to Nokh Sturridge and whispered excitedly to him.

"There will be no more sleep today, captain," said Zhorman. "Your men will be rising soon, and you need to explain to them what is happening here. Then get them fed and readied for the day. There is still work to be done.”

"Your lordship," said Mr Sturridge. "Morrent, my stableboy, has something he needs to say. Go on, lad. Tell his lordship what you just told me."

"Sorry, sir. I—I was out by the shore this morning afore dawn. Mr Sturridge likes us to gather kelp once a week when the tide's out. Dried seaweed in the feed is good for the horses, see? Contains minerals. Anyway, I was out in the snow, standing in the shallows with my lantern pulling out strands of the weed just as the sun was waking—and that's when I sees it."

"Saw what, boy?" asked Zhorman. "Do not play games with his lordship."

"No, I'm not—I mean. I thought I saw smoke coming out of the north wall of the keep, next to where the wastewater flushes. And what with the beacon accident and all that I got concerned. So I went to check along the rocks below, and I saw all sorts of muck and filth, dead birds and rodents, and other things strewn beneath. Probably been flushed out by the outlet of steaming water—"

"Steaming water?"

"Yes, sir. I didn't get too close, but the water seemed fairly hot, it did. Does it have something to do with this here new machine?"

"Logically," said Mr Khraxwall, nodding thoughtfully. "All of this melting snow has to go somewhere. Do you have any operations advice for us, Mr Stonearm?"

Brathay felt all eyes on him.

"I— No, I do not. This is new to me, too.”

"Then I will do some investigating during the day," finished Khraxwall.

"All in good time, Mr Khraxwall," said Leonmarkh. "I believe we will have more pressing concerns today. I fear the villagers are going to need shelter sooner than we had expected. Can we send a messenger down to Elder Mjaj? With a message from me?"

"Best I send my lad, Myxel, your lordship," said Mr Sturridge. "He knows a short way to the town."

"Good. Let the elder know that our doors are open to them. Tell them we have heating in the keep, although I am sure they will have seen the lights in the night sky even from the village.

"Let me just wake Norla—uh, Mrs Sturridge—and then I'll send the boy," said Mr Sturridge. "Will they be bringing their horses, your lordship, do you think?"

"I have no idea. But I should think so. Do we have the room for them?"

"We will make room, sire."

"Good. And Mr Khraxwall. Can you go with this other stable lad and check what he found while it's still low tide? See if you notice any other changes around the keep? Then come back and report to me?"

"As you wish, your lordship."

"Before I let you go and ready yourselves for the morning, I want another meeting at seven bells. Captains and house managers. We have a lot to prepare."

"In your chamber, your lordship?" asked Brathay.

"Yes, in my chamber," said Leonmarkh, his gaze landing on Brathay, his gaze impassive. "But you are not required to attend, Mr Stonearm. Your day is your own."

Even though Leonmarkh had warned Brathay about the distancing, Brathay could not help the sudden flush of embarrassment warming his face. Neither could he help but notice the sympathetic look from Bhullard or the smile of grim satisfaction on Zhorman's face.

"As you wish, your lordship," replied Brathay, with a quick nod, before backing away.

** ❄︎ **

He headed to the kitchens first to collect a small prepared basket of bread, meat, dried fruits, a clay bottle of hot water with matching clay cups, and a pack of dried tea leaves. Rather than eating in the refectory, he planned to breakfast in the warm comfort of his chamber. Usually, his room would be made up while he breakfasted, but he had little doubt Miss Millflower and her team would be busy with the impending arrivals.

Soldiers already sat at benches in the refectory, their heads bowed, murmuring and eating from clay bowls. He had just picked up a basket when a voice sounded behind him.

"Mr Brathay," came the voice of Mrs Sturridge, appearing from a kitchen door. "Mr Sturridge tells me you had quite the adventure yesterday with his lordship. And I'm guessing you're behind this new development out in the courtyard. Not going to affect our kitchen operation, I trust?"

"Not according to Mr Khraxwall. Although, you might want to check with him later."

"I will. And I was going to come and see you anyway. First off, I wanted to thank you for sending Miss Marietta my way. Promised me she'll work alongside me and Millflower if the villagers come to us. Second thing is it's time we gave the soldiers another of your fancy meals. What can you do with wild boar? We prepared two of them they brought back yesterday, and I prefer to use the meat while it's fresh."

"Wild boar? I am sure to have some ideas. Let me get back to you later today."

"Good. Be nice if we could serve up the meal tomorrow night." Mrs Sturridge went over to a bench, picked up a couple of items wrapped in cloth, and placed them in Brathay's basket. "Now, before you go, I have a couple of boiled hen's eggs and a small pot of Marietta's homemade lemon ginger jam she left you. Don't show nobody, or they'll all be asking for some."

Brathay arrived back in his chamber, surprised to see the room had been made up. Perhaps not as thoroughly as usual—understandable considering the circumstances—but visibly tidier and even a fresh bucket brought to him. He wondered absently whether his notebook had been scrutinised and grinned to himself, knowing the snoop would have nothing new to read and nothing to report.

After placing the basket down on his small table, he sprinkled tea leaves into the water. While waiting for the tea to infuse, he set to work. First of all, he pulled out Fullroy's compendium of recipes then the black book Leonmarkh had handed over.

Throwing himself down onto the covers of his bunk, he flicked through his cookbook first. Recipes were laid out under the principal ingredient, which made finding wild boar recipes easy. Within no time, he had found exactly what he wanted. A recipe involving a complex marinade jumped out at him, a hearty fire-roasted recipe of wild boar and one he felt sure the soldiers would relish. With that task out the way, he swung around and sat up on the side of the bed, turned his attention to the ancient black book Leonmark had given him, turning the pages of the tome between thumb and forefinger reverentially.

On one page, the schematics of the keep and the grating finally made sense, even if the written word meant little. Arrows indicated the rotational direction of the pivoted cradle, and smaller arrows below pointing down and curving outward most likely represented the flow of air. Indicators pointing up and down above the grating undoubtedly represented the opposing directions of the orange light and the falling snow. Three leaf-shaped cavities in the device now made perfect sense. As he turned one ancient page, a sheet of thin parchment fell out—similar paper to the message Fleming had received—the paper new and recently written upon. The greeting on the first line addressed Leonmarkh, and Brathay realised the note must be something personal from his family. He began to replace the letter between the pages. But then he wondered whether Leonmarkh had meant him to read the content.

Very carefully, he unfolded the parchment and read the short communication.

My dear brother Leonmarkh,

I must begin with sad news. Jacomine passed from us yesterday. He died in his sleep, thankfully. I have let our sister know. I wish you could be here, but I realise the weather has now imprisoned you in the north. We will hold a ceremony in a week once arrangements have been made.

Brathay stared into the fire. Leonmarkh had mentioned his second eldest brother's ailing health, but this news must have been devastating for him. Brathay imagined him sitting alone in his chamber, reading the words and having nobody to share them with. To have lost both parents and now an older sibling? How could Leonmarkh hold in with so much pain? Had Brathay not been dismissed, he would have found a reason to go to him, to speak openly as they had done during their day at Bear Lake.

Aulderly tried to prepare students to deal with death and grief, something everyone would face at some point in their lives. Privately, Brokerman told Brathay that no words could really prepare someone, that grief tapped into the very being of a person, and each experienced the pain of loss in their own way.

After a few calming breaths, Brathay continued reading the note.

Now, about the riddle you sent to me. Since I last wrote, I noticed unusual lines added to many of the pictograms, thinner than the main strokes. At first, I thought nothing of them, maybe an artful flair of the writer. But, almost by accident, I glanced at them arranged on the tabletop from a different angle. Within each set of two lines, there are two more symbols embedded: Snow. Fire. I am not sure if this means anything to you, but my impression is that someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to conceal these hieroglyphs.

Take care, Leonmarkh. Your presence here is missed. If there is anything I can do within my power, you know you only need to ask or write.

Your brother,

Charteris

Snow fire. Of course, that made sense now, even if the entire purpose of the device did not.

A sudden rap at his door startled him. He quickly refolded the note and placed the page back into the book. No matter who was there, he felt sure Leonmarkh would not want them to see the keep secrets.

"One moment," he called out.

After a quick look around, he leapt to the large chest beside his bed, opened the lid and pushed the notebook down the side. He had barely closed the top and moved to the door when he bumped into the tall figure of Haycock as he barged his way into the room.

"Mr Haycock. What can I do for you?"

Haycock pushed the door closed behind him with his backside, then placed a hand on each of Brathay's shoulders. Brathay caught the smell of a subtle spicy scent, one he had not noticed before—maybe an oil he used in his long shiny hair—mingling with the dark brown leather ensemble of long jacket, waistcoat and tight breeches the man favoured. He stood a full head taller than Brathay, an imposing stature by any accounts.

"What can you do for me?" he mused, grinning, as his hands massaged Brathay's shoulders and his gaze continued to take in Brathay's room. "Hmm. Let me think. Where should I begin?"

Brathay knew Haycock's kind of routine well and let the man enjoy his moment. In Thiradon, many of his father's soldiers considered themselves spiders, luring lesser insects into their web to do with them as they pleased. Brathay knew better. Most were no more than peacocks, all feathers and no fight.

"If this is a social call, Mr Haycock, should you not have considered bringing me a gift?"

"You bruise me. Am I not gift enough?"

Brathay snorted and turned away from the man. His movement was deliberate. He wanted to see whether Haycock would keep hold of him and pull him back, might want to enforce his claim and only release him when he was the one making the decision. In his favour, Haycock let him go.

"I have made tea. Would you care to join me?"

"You have no ale?"

Brathay stepped away and went to the small table, plucking out the clay cups. When he turned, he noticed Haycock still standing there, his eyes on Brathay's body.

"Sadly, Mrs Sturridge does not stretch to ale in the mornings."

"More is the pity."

"Take a seat," said Brathay, placing the cups down on the small table and indicating the stool there. "Please."

Haycock's timing could not have been better. The tea had been given sufficient time to infuse. Aulderly had a more exciting range of tea from across the empire, and Brathay usually favoured a lighter blend with a hint of aniseed. Even though the black tea from Braggadach had none of the subtleties of others he had sampled, he found the fullness of flavour bracing.

While he poured the tea, he noticed Haycock had chosen to move across the room and perch on the edge of his bunk near his headboard. When Brathay came over and handed Haycock a cup, the captain kept his gaze trained on Brathay's face. Rather than sit beside him, Brathay chose to sit on the stool opposite him where someone had kindly cleared away the old candle.

"Sounds like someone has fallen out of favour with our glorious leader," said Haycock.

"Your meaning?"

"'You are not required, Mr Stonearm'. Do not take his words to heart. Leonmarkh chooses to get close to none of us, not for any length of time. Yesterday, after putting out the beacon fire, each of us briefly told our tale of the day, how successful we had been. Along with my crew, Ligger and I fared far better than any."

"And?"

"And he told us of your little accident. Unimpressed with you completely ignoring his orders. Marching out alone across a thinly frozen lake and falling into the depths. How he had to risk his life to save you. I know him well. I could see the irritation on his face, wondering if you have not become a burden. And I fear his earlier assessment of you—which appeared to be favourable—has diminished entirely. Unless called upon directly, I would suggest you leave the man well alone."

"Do you think I am disheartened by this news?" Brathay met Haycock's gaze without expression.

"Just now, you appeared startled at being dismissed."

"Disappointed, perhaps. I might have been able to provide sound counsel. But even I am not without limits. Trying to grow seeds in barren soil is futile. I have done all I can."

Haycock grinned before sipping at his cup.

"Zhorman feared that Leonmarkh, left alone with you, might succumb to your wiles of seduction, and might bend to your will. Thought you might end up taking his place as Leonmarkh's advisor. Something, until you arrived, he had never considered."

"Let me make this quite clear. I serve nobody but the empire and do so under the instruction of Counsellor Brokerman. As soon as this season has played out, I will be gone from this tomb and not once look back. Trust me."

"I do, I do,” said Haycock, grinning. “Calm yourself.”

"But tell me this. Should I be worried about Zhorman?"

"Zhorman? He no longer considers you a threat, if that is your concern. If you asked me to put a colour to the man, I would label him grey. Maybe he leads many of his soldiers to the tavern to enjoy the delights on offer each month, but he never partakes. And if you have ever contemplated getting to his lordship through him, then I tell you now not to bother. Zhorman considers himself Leonmarkh's surrogate father and is the only one of us who truly has his ear. And we have worked together long enough for me to know that Zhorman will never be interested in the likes of you and what you have to offer. Apart from our dear Lord Leonmarkh, all he cares about is back in Khloradich, is his frump of a wife and three of the ugliest children to have ever blessed the empire. And no doubt once this stint is over and we return, he will be adding more runts to the litter."

"You think so highly of him?"

"We work well together, which is enough for me. Aside from that, we are not familiar. Had I the choice, he is not the person I would choose to drink with or whose company I would seek."

"And who would that be? Bhullard?"

Haycock sipped his tea, his eyes smiling and his lips curling at the question.

"Bhullard likes you. And, as you can probably tell, I like Bhullard. She works twice as hard as any of the men and never complains. You saw her against Ligger. She is the kind of person you want by your side in battle, and when it comes to sound judgment, there is none better."

"I see. And are the two of you—intimate?”

Haycock chuckled and gently shook his head before patting the bedding next to him.

"Is rutting the only topic of conversation they teach you at Aulderly? Come and sit over here, next to me."

After a moment of hesitation, Brathay decided to oblige, installing himself to Haycock's right.

"That was not my meaning. On the rare occasions we are together, I notice you and Bhullard laughing at the same things. Many find your good humour infectious.”

"Were she to offer, I would happily pleasure her. But like Ligger and Zhorman, Bhullard beds only women. I, on the other hand, prefer not to limit myself and will seek the company of either gender, wherever I can and with whomsoever is willing to submit to me."

"A man of high principles."

"What good are principles in this frozen wasteland?"

"Fair point. Have you sampled the pleasure-givers at the tavern?"

Haycock's face took on a look of mild disgust.

"Of course I have. But there is something cold and distant—dispassionate—about their lovemaking. Not their techniques, I should add. Their aim is to wring as much pleasure out of a person as possible. But the encounter works one way. I fear they are incapable of achieving climax, except with their own kind. Which, for me, makes the encounter wholly unequal and repulsive.”

Brathay's encounter in the hot springs with Dnan came back to him. From everything he had been told, only the Sjin-Shatir could pleasure their own. He still wondered how he had been able to stimulate Dnan.

“I am surprised Khraxwall allows so many soldiers to go to the tavern together. Last time, the keep was left almost empty.”

“Enough remain. And that old fool has no authority in the matter.”

“Khraxwall? What do you think of him?”

"What is there to tell? He is an old man who should have been retired years ago. Have you seen how he tries to mask his hobble? An old injury which is exacerbated by cold weather, Bhullard says. If that is so, why accept a posting in this frozen hellhole? Rumour is he only volunteered to accompany Leonmarkh because the duke himself petitioned him. Khraxwall is loyal to a fault but clearly inadequate. One thing in his favour is that he does command order and respect from among the house staff."

Haycock quietened next to him. When he felt an arm land across his shoulders, and the hand smooth down his back, Brathay turned his head into the softened features of Haycock.

"The day Ligger wanted to drive his sword into you," said Haycock. “I was ready to jump in and stop him, felt angry at the thought of losing someone with your attraction and intelligence. And then Bhullard preempted me.”

“Maybe I can join you next time you visit the village tavern?"

"I am not sure there will be a next time. Come on, Brathay. Are you not frustrated in this cold, godless place? Why not share some affection beneath the warm covers of your bed?”

Haycock stood then and with both hands flung back the bedcovers. While standing, he reached for his belt and began unbuckling, but stopped suddenly and leant over the bed.

"Hello? What is this?" he said, picking something from between the pillow cushions. Between thumb and forefinger, he brought out a small shiny brooch in the shape of a dragonfly, the design made from blue gems. Only one person wore the decoration. "Brathay Stonearm. Tell me you have not been bedding our chamberlain?"

Brathay stared hard at the brooch, his mind racing before he met Haycock's amused gaze.

"Do you truly think so little of me? The trinket must have fallen off while she was tidying the room. She will be grateful to you for finding and returning it to her."

Haycock had stopped with a hand on his belt and eyed Brathay with suspicion.

"Or have you been stealing from her?" asked Haycock, the note in his voice bordering sinister.

"Really? Do you seriously believe I stole the brooch? As you wish," said Brathay standing, putting down his cup on the stool and moving over towards the door. "Let us call the warden and Miss Millflower right now. Bring them to my room and ask them."

"No," called Haycock, smiling grimly. "There is no need. But I will hold onto this for safekeeping until I see Miss Millflower. And to avoid implicating you, shall I also tell her how I found her keepsake out in the courtyard? Might make things easier all around. No misconceptions, no suspicion or finger-pointing. Because, you know as well as I, there are those who would jump at the opportunity to implicate you."

Brathay’s mind raced to calculate the seriousness of Haycock's threat. If suspicion fell upon him now, Millflower would indeed not defend him. And even if there was not enough proof to have him flogged, he stood the chance of losing the hard-won goodwill of the keep inhabitants. Which would, in essence, render him useless to Leon, make him unable to go anywhere or say anything without suspicion falling upon him.

"And what would you want from me?"

Haycock’s salacious smile provided answer enough. He reached behind his head for the clasp binding his long hair. Thiradon soldiers joked about Braggadachi men and the vain love of their long hair. Bound for battle. Freed for fornication. They reputedly considered their long manes another limb, used to caress the sensitive gooseflesh of their lovers.

Brathay took a deep breath.

And breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the distinctive peal of the seventh hour being struck. Even with the reprieve, Brathay realised he was not out of the woods. Haycock’s face had darkened at being thwarted, as though Brathay himself had somehow instigated the tolling of the bell.

“You should go, Haycock,” said Brathay, adopting a serious tone. “Surely you remember from my public berating how well our dear Lord Leonmarkh takes to tardiness?”

“This is not over.”

“I hope not. But perhaps somewhere more secure in future, or at an hour when I can comfortably bolt the door without fear of us being disturbed.”

“And then you will succumb to me?”

Brathay strode back across the room to stand in front of Haycock, a breath from his face. Reaching down, he took hold of the captain’s belt and began refastening the strap, never taking his eyes from Haycock’s own.

“Is that really what you want? For me to be thrown across a bed and used? You want to have me as inanimate and unresponsive as one of the tavern pleasure-givers you have been complaining about? If we do this, then we meet as equals and I will take as much pleasure as I give. And I will give, Haycock. Trust me.”

Brathay’s ploy appeared to work and he finished off by grabbing a handful of Haycock’s groin and squeezing tightly. Haycock flinched slightly, but an approving smile lifted slowly from the corners of his mouth, Brathay’s words clearly firing mental images in his imagination. Still grinning, Haycock took hold of Brathay’s chin and ran a calloused thumb along his lower lip, before letting go to reach behind himself and fasten his long hair in place.

“Until then,” he said, heading to the door. With one hand on the latch, he stopped and turned, the other hand resting on his pocket. “Do you want to take back the brooch?”

Once again, Brathay sought to make a fast decision based on instinct. Had his offer of future favours been enough to convince Haycock to speak the truth? He had to hope so.

“No. The house staff are invited to the meeting. Please put Millflower out of her distress.”

The moment the door banged closed Brathay collapsed to sitting on the bed.

Thank you for reading.

Any reactions, comments, observations, interpretations, or guesses at what you think is to come, gratefully received.

And if you are feeling particularly generous, go to the Black Ice Bay summary page and click on the Recommend button, so that others may be tempted to read the story.

Copyright © 2021 lomax61; All Rights Reserved.
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That you very much for reading.

Any reactions, comments or observations are very much appreciated.

Let me know what would you think will happen next, or what you like to see happen.

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