When all else comes to naught, a steadfast heart is the only thing that stands between hope and despair.
Scions of the most powerful House in Ylandre, Ashrian Mithani and Eiren Sarvan were more than just cousins. Lovers of long standing, theirs was a bond that would have been the envy of all were it not for one glaring flaw—Ashrian’s inability to commit himself wholeheartedly to Eiren. Despite the dismay of some and the derision of others, Eiren bore his inconstancy; displaying a loyalty Ashrian seemed incapable of returning. That is, until Ashrian crossed a line and the transgression proved one Eiren could not forgive.
In the wake of grief and remorse, Ashrian seeks to make amends and win Eiren back. But something stands in his way. Or rather someone. And the irony of it all is that Ashrian can neither hate nor help befriending the Deir who is his rival for the heart of Ylandre’s most beloved physician.
Rikara in the 2992nd year of the Common Age
For a wedding between two members of the gentry, Aloir Sarvan’s was well attended by scions of the highest House in the land, even though it was deemed a big social step down after his first union to a son of a minor clan of House Essendri. Verily, it was only because of his son from said union that the Essendris deigned to grace the occasion of his binding to Dirion Qiraz. Had young Eiren declined to attend, none of his royal-blooded kinsfolk would have shown up. And there would have been no need to hire the most luxurious banquet hall in Rikara.
* * * *
“He’s grown beautiful,” Ashrian Mithani remarked as he and Reijir Arthanna studied their cousin from their corner of the ornately appointed hall.
“Almost as beautiful as Rohyr,” Reijir said.
“True.” It was generally agreed that the Ylandrin sovereign Rohyr Essendri was more physically attractive than the norm even in a House known for the uncommon pulchritude of most of its members. “I wonder if he pulls his nose out of his books long enough to take advantage of his beauty,” Ashrian only half jestingly remarked.
Reijir frowned reprovingly at him. “We’re not all of a piece. Eiren is very serious about pursuing his profession. He doesn’t take his gift for granted. He knows full well born healers are as rare as adamants.”
“I know that!” Ashrian rolled his eyes. “But he needn’t ignore the pleasures of life in the pursuit of knowledge. That would make for a very boring existence.”
“I doubt he ignores them,” Reijir mildly retorted. “He just doesn’t flaunt his conquests the way some folk do.”
“Meaning myself.” Ashrian grinned unrepentantly. “I won’t deny I like the chase. It’s quite exhilarating, especially when one captures one’s quarry.”
“I hardly think the quarry agrees when he’s tossed aside once the hunt is over. Really, Ash, you’re the worst sort of libertine.”
“At least, I don’t pretend otherwise. What they see is what they get, and it isn’t my fault if they choose to take a chance with me.” Ashrian noticed Reijir eyeing Eiren with some concern. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing—yet. But did you mark how Eiren behaves toward his stepbrother?”
Ashrian shook his head and turned to see for himself what his Ilmareni cousin had noticed. Eiren was in conversation with Ilian Qiraz. Or rather, Ilian was talking to him and Eiren was responding with little enthusiasm. Ashrian wondered at his lack of amiability toward his stepfather’s son. He regarded the other Deir as well.
Ilian was fair-haired and pale-eyed whereas Eiren was dark. He was sturdier of frame but an inch or so shorter and more youthful of countenance though he and Eiren were almost the same age. He also seemed of a less serious bent. Ashrian could not recall a moment when Ilian had not smiled or laughed all evening.
“He’s not very friendly with Ilian,” he commented. “I wonder why?”
“Out of caution, no doubt. I don’t think he trusts Ilian very much.”
“Really?” Ashrian scoffed. “You perceived that just from Eiren’s behavior?”
“Nay, lackwit. I also felt his unease,” Reijir said. “You would, too, if you bothered to extend your senses a bit instead of dulling them with drink.”
Ashrian bristled faintly. “I didn’t come to a wedding to spy on other people’s thoughts. I’m here to relax, make merry, and enjoy what company is to be had.”
“You’re a Herun’s son,” Reijir mildly chided him. “It should behoove you to first take stock of your surroundings in any situation before letting down your guard. How easily you forget your lessons when it suits you, cousin.”
Sighing with some exasperation, Ashrian shrugged. “I’m never going to rule a great fief like you do. I don’t have the same obligations as you.”
“You mayn’t be Glanthar’s heir, but you’re still a Mithani and an Essendri and that requires some prudence in all your dealings,” Reijir pointed out. “You wouldn’t care to besmear either name or endanger yourself out of recklessness, now would you?”
“Yes, O great teacher!” Ashrian grumbled. He raised a hand to forestall further lecturing. “So you’re probably right that Eiren doesn’t trust his stepbrother. What does that have to do with us? Do you think Eiren worries that Ilian will wrest our admiration from him? That is a ridiculous notion considering his superior standing and peerless skills. Not to mention that beauty we were talking about earlier. Ilian is handsome enough, but verily Eiren is comely almost beyond compare.” He smirked. “So comely it makes my mouth water just thinking about him in naught but his skin!”
Reijir elbowed him in the side with a little more force than usual. “Don’t take him lightly. He isn’t anything like your previous bed treats.”
“You’re just miffed I lured that last pretty away from you,” Ashrian mocked. “Admit it, Rei, you’re interested in him, too, and don’t want me to poach on your territory.”
His cousin glared at him. “And you’ve never been deterred before so why should I bother to warn you away now?”
Ashrian had the grace to be abashed. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for,” he ruefully said. “Look, I’ll own myself a scoundrel and a dolt for speaking out of turn. Come now, accept my apology. Please, Rei?”
He turned a placating smile on his cousin. Appeased, Reijir lightly punched his cheek. Looking around, Reijr spotted someone across the hall.
“I need to speak to Zykriel,” he said. “Enjoy yourself, Ash. But not so much that you have to be carried home draped over the back of your steed.”
Ashrian watched Reijir head over to their cousin of Losshen. He turned his attention back to Eiren who had managed to disengage from the conversation with his stepbrother and now stood by himself for the moment, his dark gaze roving the chamber. At length, his gaze fell on Ashrian.
Realizing Ashrian must have been regarding him for a time, Eiren blushed and abruptly turned his eyes elsewhere. The color slowly creeping into his cheeks, and the slight abashment in his widened eyes had a most charming effect and one Ashrian was not immune to. He snatched two goblets of wine from a passing attendant’s tray and purposely strolled toward Eiren.
By Veres, if he did not have his cousin wanting for more than mere talk by evening’s end, it would not be for lack of trying.
The sharp, high-pitched cry of a newborn infant pierced the silence. Eiren Sarvan straightened as he gingerly lifted the child in its natal shell out of the womb that had been its shelter for six months. Despite the blood and birthing fluids that covered it, the dark beige shell appeared whole and undamaged, the faint bluish veins that streaked its opaque surface undisturbed by the traumatic procedure the shell had been subjected to. The same could be said for the newborn’s lifeline, the rose-hued birth cord that trailed across the babe’s navel to its berth in the folds of the shell. The cord pulsed with the steady flow of sustenance from shell to child.
Eiren sighed with relief and satisfaction.
It had been a difficult birthing. Ordinarily, the shell detached from the wall of the womb at the onset of the contractions that pushed an infant toward the opened birthing seam. But there was a condition wherein the shell or a part of it remained deeply embedded in the womb wall and had to be surgically separated from it. In the absence of a skilled physician who was also gifted enough to stem the potentially fatal blood loss that accompanied the procedure, a Deir and his child was likely to die in the process. Fortunately, the condition was very rare.
However, that knowledge had been of little consolation to Eiren as he fought to save both father and child. He may have been Ylandre’s most gifted healer in several generations but he never took any outcome for granted. There were many occasions when his considerable skills had not been enough to turn the tide. True, the number of patients he’d lost was miniscule in comparison to the ones he’d saved. But Eiren grieved every loss nonetheless and questioned his ability each time.
Complicating this particular situation had been having to deliver the child outside the more sanitary environs of a hospital operating theater where a physician could rely on the assistance of trained apprentices and a complete array of surgical instruments and medicaments. This was where knowledge and experience counted dearly. His insistence on the room and beddings’ absolute cleanliness and the swiftness with which he had performed the procedure on his patient helped lessen the chances of infection.
Eiren quickly inspected the babe for overall health. The natal shell, a firm, fleshy half sphere just double the circumference of his cupped hands, would provide nourishment for a fortnight or so until the infant was grown enough in size and could suckle on its own. Having fulfilled its purpose, the by then desiccated shell, along with the cord, would come off naturally.
Satisfied that the child was well, he handed the precious bundle to the Deir, who was the neighborhood’s birthing practician. While the practician washed the babe, Eiren turned his attention once more to the birthing parent. Checking to ensure all internal bleeding had ceased and the Deir’s womb was sound, he carefully brought the edges of the gaping seam together to hasten the seam’s closing. He then smeared on a thin layer of medicinal cream to facilitate healing.
“Will they be all right?” the anxious sire asked from where he stood by his spouse’s side, still tightly clasping the latter’s hand.
“They’re both fine,” Eiren assured him as he deftly wrapped several layers of freshly laundered gauze around his patient’s abdomen. “No solids for him for a day or so. I’ll pass by tomorrow to check that the seam is mending well. And just make sure he doesn’t get up for at least a sennight. I don’t want him hemorrhaging because he started moving about too soon. If he must piss or move his bowels, place a basin under him.”
“So messy…” the birthing father protested.
“Better a mess than the funeral pyre,” Eiren tartly pointed out as he removed his bloodied physician’s smock. “Stay in bed else I’ll have you tied to it until you’re healed.”
The Deir weakly chuckled, moaning a little as the movement pulled at his wound. His mate said, “I will see to it, Sarvan-dyhar. Thank you for coming to us at this time of the night.”
Eiren stuffed his smock into his pack and then washed his hands and arms in the basin of water provided for the purpose. He toweled dry, rolled down his sleeves, and pulled on his tunic.
“You mayn’t be as grateful when you see my fee,” he tiredly joked.
“Nay, it will be worth it,” the Deir replied with a small smile. Seeing Eiren’s fatigue, he added, “Would you like something to eat before you go?”
Eiren took off his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’d rather you offered me brandy,” he said with typical bluntness. “The strongest you’ve got.”
* * * *
A half hour later, he was back at his townhouse. While his groom led his mount away, he slowly ascended the stairs to the second level and went to his bedchamber. Used to the odd hours kept by a much sought-after physician and having learned to anticipate his master’s needs, the butler hastened to draw him a hot bath.
Eiren shed his soiled clothing, idly noting stains that had somehow managed to attach themselves to his shirt and breeches despite the protection of his smock. If that large rust-hued blot on his shirtsleeve did not come off in the wash, the garment would become part of the stock of clothing he used when undertaking procedures that entailed contact with sundry body fluids. No matter; it was an old shirt. And he was not much of a dandy in any case—a physician had to be sartorially practical—unlike some of his cousins, who were always decked out in fashionable attire.
He pulled on a thin robe and sat in his reading chair to await the butler’s summons to the bathing room. It was not long in coming and he happily sank into warm, slightly sudsy water fragrant with soothing herbs while the butler gathered his clothes and smock and took them down for laundering in the morning. Too tired to even scrub himself, Eiren leaned back against the rim of the spacious claw foot tub, an indulgence amidst decor and furnishings chosen for being comfortable rather than luxurious or fashionable.
Eiren closed his eyes and let the tiredness ease out of his muscles. Minutes of sheer bliss passed by and he reminded himself not to fall asleep. It would be the height of idiocy to drown in his bath of all places.
Perhaps he was wearier than he thought for he did not sense anything out of the ordinary until it was right in front of him. Or rather in the tub with him.
Eiren gasped when another pair of legs tangled with his and a hand smoothed its way from his chest down to his belly and even lower. He opened his eyes to behold Ashrian Mithani’s handsome face just inches away from his, warm hazel eyes gleaming wickedly, his burnished hair more like copper than mahogany in the candlelight.
“Ash!” he exclaimed, his breath catching when he was expertly groped down yonder. “What in Aisen are you doing here?”
He pushed his cousin’s hand away. But Ashrian only grinned and impishly stroked him with his other hand.
“I just came from a dinner party,” he drawled. “One of Aba’s shipping associates. It got quite boring so I decided to pay you a visit instead.”
Eiren tried to ignore the burgeoning tension in his groin. “A dinner party at this hour? It’s almost midnight.”
“A quarter past the hour actually,” Ashrian corrected. “They brought in the performers from The Minstrel’s Tale. Such a deadly dull play. I simply don’t understand the attraction. At any rate, I feared their performance would never end so I slipped away and hot-footed it here.”
He quickened his strokes until Eiren was all but arching his body into them. Eiren tried to speak but nothing comprehensible escaped his lips. The pleasurable tension grew, and he could do naught but clutch at the tub rim and thrust his shaft into Ashrian’s hand. The tightly wound coil in his belly began to loosen as his body started its ascent into ecstasy. And then it came all undone and, sobbing harshly, Eiren spilled his seed into the warm water.
When he finished spending, he slumped back fighting for breath.
“That was fast,” Ashrian teased, running his knuckles down Eiren’s cheek.
Eiren glared at him. “Damn it! Now I’m really exhausted.” He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.
“But pleasantly so, I warrant.”
“I’ll own the first but I doubt Adda will appreciate the second.”
“Oh, stuff it, Ash.”
Ashrian huskily chuckled. “I intend to.”
Eiren thought he heard the sound of a stopper being eased out of a bottle. Before he had a chance to realize what that portended, he felt the slide of a slick finger into his backside. His eyes snapped open, and he started to protest, but Ashrian covered his lips with his own, thrusting a tongue into his mouth, and effectively silenced him. He groaned as more fingers joined the first, smearing oil inside him and gently reminding his innards of the pleasure to found from the entry of hard flesh into his body.
He did not resist when Ashrian shifted to kneel between his legs and slightly lifted his buttocks. The familiar press of Ashrian’s shaft into him robbed him of coherent thought, as did the repeated thrusts into his core, every plunge striking sparks of pleasure that rapidly flared into a full-fledged conflagration. As always, he was his lover’s to do with as he willed. Coupling with Ashrian was more often than not an exquisite exercise in willing sexual submission.
“How well you fit around me, my sweet.”
Eiren shivered as Ashrian reached out to him with his thoughts. Possible only between the more gifted True Bloods, the touching of minds in the course of copulation triggered not only intense pleasure seldom experienced through physical sensation alone, but also fostered an exquisite intimacy that transcended mere affinity between long-term sexual partners.
“Ash, please…” he raggedly whispered as he was cleaved again and again, the sensation of being sensually pierced reducing him to pleas for mercy. “It’s too much.”
Perversely, Ashrian slowed his movements. “Nay, I want to stay in you as long as possible,” he murmured. “It’s been an interminable while since I last bedded you.” “You’re going to remember how well I fucked you every time you sit down tomorrow.”
Eiren shook his head, not sure whether his cousin’s crude language offended or titillated him. He moaned at a particularly slow withdrawal of Ashrian’s shaft followed by as gradual a reentry deep into him.
“Interminable?” he stuttered as Ashrian reached for his resurgent member and stroked it anew to stiffness. “Just last week, you all but pounded me into the mattress. Thrice!”
Ashrian huskily laughed. “I rest my case.” He suddenly leaned down and kissed Eiren with incendiary possessiveness. Pulling away slightly, he murmured, “Weekly trysts are not enough for me, Ren. Not if I want my fill of your charms. Daily is more to my taste and not just once a day either.”
He quickened his thrusts once more—quick, hard stabs meant to wring as much pleasure as possible from their joining. Eiren surrendered to the rapture fast overtaking him and, wrapping his legs around Ashrian’s waist, allowed his cousin to ride him to their mutual satisfaction.
* * * *
Ashrian’s threat was not empty, and Eiren did indeed remember how well his arse had been used not only each time he sat down but with every step up and down the stairs it seemed. It was most inconvenient considering the number of times he had to ascend to the upper floors of the four-story Rikara Public Hospital. He stroked his bottom with a grimace when he finally returned to his consultation room on the ground floor.
Physician, heal thyself, he thought as he directed a few waves of mental energy toward the source of his discomfort. Of course, the relief was only temporary. For a longer respite, he would need to apply a medicament.
He took a small jar out of the lowermost compartment of his desk and passed through the side door that led into the side chamber that served as his examination room. After locking the door, he loosened his breeches and drew down his drawers. He opened the jar. A fresh, slightly minty odor permeated the air.
Eiren scooped up a generous dollop of the jar’s contents, a loose, translucent cream of bluish hue, and eased it into his rear passage. In a short while, the soreness within began to dissipate. He groaned with relief then silently chided himself.
He should have applied some before he went on his rounds, especially when the ache had become quite bothersome. After all, he’d freely dispensed the concoction to others, especially the more libidinous of his numerous kin. He suddenly chuckled as he recalled how his cousin Rohyr had stocked up on the medicament when he first brought home the beauteous Velarusian sedyr he would make his leman. That Rohyr no longer replenished his supply as often as he used to could only mean Lassen Idana had adapted to his royal lover’s concupiscence and generous endowment. Indeed, Lassen complained of discomfort very rarely nowadays and that was only after a more thorough tumbling by Rohyr than usual.
Remembrance of the cause of his own discomfort suddenly brought a rush of heat into his cheeks. Eiren was sure they were as red as they were warm.
He tied his drawers again and hitched up his breeches a little distractedly. Veres almighty, he and Ashrian had been warming each other’s beds for over a decade now, yet you’d think he was an untried innocent from the way memories of their encounters easily reduced him to blushing embarrassment. How was it that his lover could arouse such feelings in him after all this time?
A knock on the door jarred him out of his musings. He quickly smoothed out his tunic and stepped out of the room. He smiled when he saw who his visitor was.
“When did you get back from Sidona?” he asked Keosqe Deilen, taking his cousin’s hands in a warm grip. He glanced questioningly at the two Deira behind Keosqe.
“Just last night,” Keosqe replied. He gestured to his companions. “Do you remember my good friend, Veare Marante?”
“Of course!” Eiren said, extending his hand in welcome to the Deir. “Though I confess I didn’t recognize you after all these years. How long has it been since Kes introduced us?”
“Almost eight years, I think,” Veare answered. “But you haven’t changed much, Dyhar. You must have discovered the elixir of youth.”
Eiren chuckled. “And here I thought I’d aged from sheer exasperation with some of my patients.” He turned his attention to the lissome lad by Veare’s side. He was darker haired but their features were very similar. “Your brother?” he ventured.
Veare beamed and nodded. “This is Tristen.”
“Tristen has enrolled at the State University for formal medical training,” Keosqe explained after the obligatory exchange of greetings. “He hopes to be a physician like you one day. Indeed, he was so eager to meet you, he all but begged me to bring him here today.”
With an indignant glare at Keosqe, Tristen protested, “I did not beg!”
Eiren had to laugh. Young Tristen apparently did not fawn over Keosqe the way most other youths did. That was unusual considering his fair-haired cousin’s more than comely countenance and splendid form.
“Will you be staying in Rikara until your brother completes his training?” he asked Veare.
“Nay, I must return to Sidona,” the Deir said. “My spouse awaits me. But Kes has kindly offered to take Tristen in. I cannot thank him enough for that.”
“Since when have I refused you?” Keosqe said, his voice unexpectedly gruff.
“None that I can think of,” Veare admitted. “He’s a true friend. I don’t know what I would have done had he not been there when my parents died.”
Eiren caught Tristen rolling his eyes before looking away in apparent embarrassment. Or was it irritation? He glanced at Keosqe and noted his somewhat strained smile.
“Ah, we have to go,” Veare softly exclaimed. “Let us hurry, Tris. I need to make some purchases before the market closes.” He slightly bowed his head to Eiren. “It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Sarvan-dyhar.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Eiren said. “And I do hope you stay the course,” he addressed Tristen. “Ylandre can never have enough trained physicians. When the time comes and you wish to apprentice yourself, come to me. I seldom accept novices fresh out of university, but for you I will make an exception.”
Tristen’s eyes widened and he blushed in delight while he stammered his thanks. Before he followed his brother out of the room, however, Eiren saw him dart what appeared to be a concerned glance at Keosqe.
“You’re not going with them?” Eiren asked Keosqe.
Keosqe shook his head. “I have two meetings, one after the other.”
“Rather late for business, don’t you think? Can’t they wait until tomorrow morn?”
“If only they could. But anything to do with the Ferrendas can never wait.”
“Ah, so the betrothal of Jubal’s son to that Asmaran prince is proving worrisome.”
A golden eyebrow rose in surprised amusement. “Who have you been talking to, Ren? That isn’t common knowledge.”
“You have your sources, I have mine,” Eiren airily said. Relenting, he grinned and admitted, “Actually, Rohyr asked me for my opinion my last visit to the Citadel.”
Keosqe laughed. “I thought it might be something like that. Well then, I’d best be going.” He made to leave.
“How long have you been in love with Veare?” Eiren softly inquired.
The abrupt question stopped Keosqe in midstride. He stiffened then turned around to face Eiren, his expression, one of chagrin and not a little sadness.
“Am I that obvious?” he quietly said.
Eiren sighed. “Your face changed when he mentioned his spouse, and then your voice broke. And Tristen looked at you rather strangely. Almost pityingly it seemed. He knows, doesn’t he?”
Keosqe nodded. “He saw my heart almost at once whereas Veare doesn’t at all. Has never realized it even when we…” He swallowed then went on. “Veare came to me when their parents perished almost fourteen years ago. He sought comfort for his loss and I gave what I could. The only comfort I could give. I’ve been in love with him since I can remember and I thought, perhaps, in the sharing of our bodies, he might come to see me as a lover as well. But it was not to be. When we ended our affair, he again treated me as his dearest friend, no more, no less.”
“I’m sorry, Kes,” Eiren murmured. “I wish there was some way I could help.”
“But you did,” Keosqe assured him with a small smile. “You permitted me to unburden myself.” He leaned forward and bestowed an affectionate kiss on Eiren’s lips. “I must go. Thank you for listening, Ren.”
Eiren watched him go then sat down at his desk, pondering his cousin’s plight. It was difficult to be embroiled in a one-sided love. He heartily sympathized with anyone who had to suffer through such heartache. An instant later, he grimaced.
Sympathy was easy to come by when one had some experience of another’s problem. Truth be told, Eiren sometimes felt as if he had invested too much of himself in an affair of frustrating ambiguity camouflaged by irresistible passion.
Heartstrings, July 31, 2012
This review is from: Heartstrings (Chronicles of Ylandre) (Kindle Edition)This book pulled every emotion out of me it's not funny. I so totally Ash and Ren were so in love until Ash made a big mistake. Ren left him and when he came back, Ren was married to Fir. When Ash saw Ren, he wanted to tell him that he wanted them to get back together and he wanted to forgive him.Ren introduced his husband Fir to Ash and his twin Dan, I almost dropped my Ipad! When Ash left and went home and almost took his life, I cried myself. This book is so wicked cool I would recommend it over and over again. You won't regret reading it!